Sunday, October 30, 2005

The Cervix and the Heart

MaGreen and I attended the first evening of a birthing class. When we walked into the teacher’s home, I suddenly felt nervous, vulnerable in this room full of strangers. The other couples had already settled into chairs. Our teacher, a woman named Lu, is also a midwife in the hospital-based group we’re going to for pre-natal visits and the delivery.

“This class isn’t outcome oriented,” she said with a New York accent, “it’s not if you do this, you get this. No, see, I’m going to help you build up resources that you can call on depending for whatever challenges that come up.” This sounded right to me.

Lu continued with some basics about delivery. She waved her arms around as she talked. She grabbed a brown doll and thrust it through her favorite prop – a fake pelvis. At one point, she rolled her index finger around the tip of her nose, “Normally the cervix is kind of like cartilage.” Then she opened her mouth and pulled at her cheek from both sides, “But when it’s dilated, it’s like aahhh, yeah nice and soft and flexible, aahh.”

Despite Lu’s unabashed use of her own face to explain the cervix, I couldn’t help but let my attention drift. Part of me wonders if I wasn’t able to focus because at some level, even though we have chosen to go with midwives and natural birth, I’m uncomfortable with the rhetoric of natural motherhood and whole mothers.

Lu asked us to talk about our fears. One man, whose wife looked like she might give birth any second, said, "My employers have better give me leave or I'm going to quit."

An expecting father who looks like a lawyer started explaining the Family Medical Leave Act when another expecting father, a guy with a crew cut and a drawl, said with astonishment, "You have to work and make money."

Then this man's wife, a rather shy woman, said, "I'm afraid that I won't be able to breastfeed."

After talking about breastfeeding and lactation consultants, Lu moved on. She asked each person to draw a picture that represented pregnancy. After about ten minutes, we shared our pictures with the group. Four of the first eight people drew big hearts.

The father with the crew cut had drawn his own big heart with his wife and child inside. He said, “Even though I haven’t seen the baby, I feel more love than I could have imagined.” I liked this guy. He was so earnest. But in light of his astonishment at paternal leave, his drawing bothered me. I could just see his wife stuck at home breastfeeding and the second-wave feminist inside of me started shouting, “See! All this talk about natural birth and motherhood is about keeping women out of the workplace!” It’s like the husband’s drawing of his heart, even though it symbolizes love, defined the strict and debilitating gender divisions in our society with the man as breadwinner and woman as caregiver. Heart as prison.

When my turn came, I blabbered as I held up my picture of a multi-headed, multi-armed version of MaGreen. Our baby is floating outside MaGreen and there are lots of miniature people clamoring around. One of MaGreen’s faces has a sardonic expression, another has its tongue sticking out like Kali, and the third one is looking up with a smile. One hand holds a book, another signals “no fear”, another “I give what you need”, and another holds a spinning, serrated discus that can chop off people’s heads. I’m a burning spirit blending into the background. I said that despite seeing the ultrasound, hearing the heartbeat, and feeling the strong kicks, the baby was like a possibility to me and not quite real.

Lu thanked me for describing how many men feel pregnancy is more of an idea than a physical reality. But I felt disappointed in myself. I couldn’t explain how pregnancy feels fraught with tensions; how it forces all my values, relationships, commitments, hopes, and limitations on the table; how it makes the gender inequities in our society personal; and how there are too many hang-ups, fears, and histories for me to think of pregnancy as a big heart.

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