The Indiana legislature claims it wants to protect unborn children and their parents. Last week Governor Mike Pence gave his blessing to a new bill aimed primarily at restricting abortion but also addressing miscarriage, explaining, “I sign this legislation with a prayer that God would continue to bless these precious children, mothers and families.” But knowing what I do about pregnancy and miscarriage, all I can see is increased pain and confusion in store for women who lose pregnancies in Indiana…
Recently, Mark Zuckerberg joyfully announced on Facebook that he and his wife, Priscilla Chan, are expecting a daughter. More solemnly, he added that Chan had experienced three miscarriages before this pregnancy. He shared this personal story as a gesture of support and solidarity with other couples facing similar difficulties. It had meant a lot to him when his friends who had struggled to have children shared their experiences, and now it was his turn.
Zuckerberg’s Facebook post sparked an outpouring of tens of thousands of congratulatory messages, including a remarkable number of miscarriage stories. There is a real hunger for this kind of sharing.
Why are we eager for new ways to commiserate over our experiences of early pregnancy loss? Is this an expression of a long-suppressed need? Or has something about the experience of pregnancy changed?
As a historian, I see many ways in which dramatic, mostly-positive social changes of the past two centuries have had unintended consequences when it comes to early pregnancy loss…
It seems like every day a new health tracking gizmo appears in stores. The fitbit. The Apple Watch. TICKRx. Leaf, a tracker that’s advertised as “for women” because it’s a fitbit copycat shaped like a piece of jewelry. But are any of these really that special? Do any of them really understand what women need?
No! And that’s why I am developing an innovative and unique health tracker, exclusively for the self-aware, self-care-oriented woman.
VULVALUV Wearable Tech Intimates. Soft and sexy, and oh-so-much more…
* My book, The Modern Period: Menstruation in Twentieth-Century America, is on sale for $30 hardcover!
It’s time to write about naked dancing again. I didn’t plan this theme, honest. But the modern dance world keeps pushing me there, with intriguing insights into how we experience our bodies: as women and men, as people of a certain age, and this time, as mothers. Specifically, women who have been pregnant.
Friday night, my husband and I kissed our kids goodnight, gave the sitter some instructions, and hopped in the car to drive a half hour to a different New Jersey suburb. Montclair State University, in the leafy, affluent town of Montclair, has an innovative dance program and a wonderful theater. I anticipated a sophisticated and beautiful performance.
Still, when I go to a concert in the ‘burbs, I expect something tame and mainstream. An artist might claim to “challenge the boundaries,” but they are generally boundaries that were knocked down a few decades ago in nearby New York City, and the artist is tapping at the ancient ruins of walls left partly standing in more conservative quarters.
Not Friday night. Reka Szabo had arrived from Budapest, to show me something I had never seen before. In a piece called Apropos, she chatted with the audience, she “broke the fourth wall,” she dribbled confetti from her pockets as she ran to a fake door at the back of the stage, and repeatedly declined to answer mysterious knocks. She brushed her fake hair while she recited quirky personal ads, until the hair was pulled out and strewn all over the stage, and she appeared bald. (That’s not the new part, yet. I was part of the San Francisco dance scene for quite a while, and I’ve seen a lot of experimental dance theater.)
But then, she walked to the edge of the stage, lifted her shirt and tugged her yoga pants so that we could see her abdomen. A spotlight shone on her belly. And it was the belly of a woman who has been pregnant, the skin that has been stretched taut around a watermelon and then abruptly released.
My friends and I call it the “baby pouch.” After the baby is out, after the pregnancy weight is gone, and the abdominal wall separation has healed, the loose skin remains. A dancer can do as much Pilates as she likes, she can be stronger than ever, with an enviable 6-pack. But the baby pouch is a permanent marker of the incredibly physical labor her body has done, growing a new person.
Szabo placed her hands on her belly in the shape of a heart, pushing the loose skin together and out. And then she performed several minutes of a dance, with just her hands and that loose skin. She made the hand-heart beat, pushing it in and out with incredibly strong and supple abdominal muscles. She made lips that kissed, and lines and whirls that flowed between shapes.
I have to admit, part of me cringed. “Isn’t that going to just make is worse?” I thought. I had accepted my own baby pouch with sad resignation. Two babies had stretched it plenty; I would never deliberately stretch it more.
But at the same time, I felt so proud of her, and myself by extension. She took something most of us try to hide, to pretend never happened, and made a beautiful dance out of it. A dance about love for her daughter, with hearts and kisses. She saw the possibility, and the uniqueness, in her baby pouch. She couldn’t have done that dance until she had carried a baby. It was a defiant choice. Not, “I can dance as well as a young person who hasn’t had babies. I can hide the evidence.” Instead she said, “I can do something you young ones, with your perfect, innocent bodies, cannot do. My love is marked on my body, and I can dance with it. Motherhood has given my body more possibilities.”
I felt it with her. I suddenly saw my body differently. I’ll probably still joke about my “baby pouch,” but I don’t rue it the same way, after that performance. I doubt I’ll emulate her choreography, but now I have a way to see the evidence of my pregnancies as an addition to my body, not a diminishing of it. Not a mark of sacrifice, but a hard-won transformation.
So am I saying exactly the opposite of what I said about Dandelion Dancetheater’s naked piece? After all, I claimed that in that choreography, seeing a variety of nude bodies had showed me that women’s and men’s bodies are not so different after all. But I saw Szabo’s body as marked specifically and irrevocably by motherhood.
This is where the rest of the piece matters. I have highlighted the baby pouch dance, but Szabo contextualized it with many stories and dances about mothering, about creating artistic work, and about being 44 years old. A bit further into the performance, she had taken off all her clothes, and did several minutes of dramatically lit, very intense yoga in the nude. In my eyes, she morphed back and forth between being an incredibly fit 44-year-old dancer-mother and an otherworldly being, writhing somewhere between life and death, awaiting the resurrection that concluded the piece. The loose belly skin meant something one moment, and didn’t the next.
Motherhood is marked on my body. It can matter at one moment, and barely register the next. It is a resource: of experience, of movement quality, of literal physicality. It is mine, to use how I want. We are all movement artists, even if only some of us are professional dancers. My body’s expressive possibilities grow with the years. The pliability and buoyancy of youth are not everything, even for dancers, as Szabo so eloquently demonstrated. For those of us who have borne children, our maternity does not need to be what our bodies are solely or primarily about, but it will always be there for us.
* My book, The Modern Period: Menstruation in Twentieth-Century America, is on sale this month for $30 hardcover, or $19.95 e-book with code HTMP
When I criticized Hobby Lobby for its attempts to evade the Obamacare contraceptive mandate, a friend of mine thoughtfully replied, “Lara, I don’t think the Hobby Lobby case has anything to do with the daily birth control pill — it is only dealing with not wanting to cover drugs and medical devices that actually “end” a pregnancy after an egg has been fertilized.” She wasn’t so ready to vilify Hobby Lobby for standing on its anti-abortion principles, a position which a substantial minority of Americans support.
Like my friend, I am willing to grant that Hobby Lobby may earnestly be trying to avoid funding what it perceives to be “abortions.” But what this discussion shows is that Hobby Lobby, and many people on both sides of the abortion debates, have been misled about how pregnancy works. And this has profound implications for how we think about contraceptives such as the IUD and the morning-after pill…
On Friday, April 4, sportscasters Boomer and Carton apologized for their remarks criticizing baseball player Daniel Murphy’s decision to miss two games to be with his wife after the birth of their child. Boomer and Carton seemed to be shocked to have been taken seriously, and truly sorry that they had caused an annoyance and distraction for Murphy. So how did the apology measure up to my hopes for where this conversation, now started, might proceed? Boomer did most of the talking. It started well: “I was not telling women what to do with their bodies. I would never do that. That’s their decision, that’s their life and they know their bodies better than I do.” Well, actually, he originally said that if he were in Murphy’s situation, he would have demanded a pre-season cesarean. But I’ll call this a reasonable clarification. But then, ““That is my fault for uttering the word ‘C-section’ on this radio station. And it all of a sudden put their lives under a spotlight, and for that I truly apologize.” Well, yes, it is kind of obnoxious to second-guess someone’s family and medical decisions on air. But on the other hand, it would be too bad to go back to censoring the words “c-section.” He then thanked the March of Dimes for reaching out to him to “patiently re-educate” him, and reminded the public that he was a longtime supporter of the organization. But he didn’t explain to his listenership why the March of Dimes had called: the organization has an active campaign to discourage early induction of birth, because it can have long term bad effects on children. It would have been a great moment for Boomer to actually say something useful, but he failed to take it. And then he closed by defending Carton’s remarks about Murphy taking more than a few hours away from baseball. He reiterated that seeing the baby being born is a really important moment, and that Boomer and Carton had themselves been present for their babies’ births. Clearly, this brouhaha did not lead them to rethink their notion of the father’s responsibilities when his baby is born. They still see it as, “baby comes out, I cut the cord, job done.” An apology is a start, but clearly, there are plenty of further conversations to be had.
Yesterday, Momsrising.org and others excoriated sportscasters Boomer Esiason and Craig Carton for obnoxiously opining that baseball player Daniel Murphy should have told his wife to have an elective cesarean section, so that the birth would be done before the season started. Boomer and Carton were annoyed that Murphy missed two games to take 3 days’ paternity leave, to be with his wife after the birth of their child.
As an advocate of evidence-based birth practices, I of course find this suggestion alarming. Cesarean section is major abdominal surgery, and can come with complications. It also increases the chance of problems in future pregnancies and births. And premature birth can cause long-term problems for the child. Pre-term convenience cesareans are clearly a bad idea.
But even more, as a historian, I find this story really striking.
First, the most obvious: Sportscasters casually opining about cesarean sections? Wow. Even a decade ago, this would have been shocking. But in recent years, celebrity pregnancy and birth have become staples of tabloid news, and we casually discuss who has a “baby bump,” who gave birth when, and who is breastfeeding. We used to focus on stars’ sex lives, but now we talk about the aftermath too. Sportscasters discussing cesareans and paternity leave is perhaps a natural next step, giving some public attention to men’s reproductive lives. While I didn’t like what Boomer and Carton had to say, my inclination is to feel that this is probably a positive development.
Second, it is clear from this incident that cesarean section has become as normalized and taken-for-granted in our society as vaginal birth. Murphy’s wife in fact, in the end, gave birth by emergency cesarean. Boomer and Carton, and other commentators, called it a “normal birth,” without complications. They thought Murphy should have spent at most 24 hours with his wife during her recovery. In 1965, the first year statistics on cesareans were compiled, they accounted for 4.5% of births in the United States. Rates began rising in the 1970s, and now stand at about 33% of births. In 1965, a surgical birth would certainly have been treated as “complicated,” by all involved. Now, it’s routine. The fact that surgical births often come with postpartum complications, such as incision infections, and typically come with much longer and tougher recoveries, disappears into the “normalcy” of the practice.
Third, I am struck in various commentaries, such as one by Mike Golic and Mike Greenberg, that the father’s role in birth is typically considered very important, but also very narrow. He is supposed to be there for the birth. It is not always clear whether it’s for his sake, to have the experience of seeing the baby newly-born, or for his wife’s sake. As long as he’s there for that moment, and his wife isn’t hemorrhaging afterwards, his official, ceremonial role is done. Murphy clearly did not experience his wife’s birth this way; he was quoted as saying, “I can only speak from my experience — a father seeing his wife — she was completely finished. I mean, she was done. She had surgery, and she was wiped. Having me there helped a lot, and vice versa, to take some of the load off. … It felt, for us, like the right decision to make.” But even sympathetic commentators from the sports world tended to view the emergence of the infant as the crucial moment, and the rest as optional. For most of Western history, of course, husbands were not welcome at their wives’ births; it has only been in the last 50 years that we have cultivated a new role for them as partners and supporters of their wives. But it appears that at least for some Americans, this new role is defined incredibly narrowly, as a ceremonial moment, kind of like wedding vows. See the baby come out, cut the cord, done. It seems to me that the narrow definition serves busy husbands better than it serves laboring and recovering wives.
While Boomer and Carton’s commentary was obnoxious, and their harsh criticism of Murphy for taking three days’ paternity leave infuriating, I am pleased to see these issues addressed in the hyper-masculine world of professional sports. I just hope Boomer and Carton don’t have the last word.