In a recent, moving story in The Washington Post, a young non-binary pregnant person talks openly about the difficulty that comes with their changing body and the expectations of motherhood and pregnancy.
“Sometimes this pregnant, feminine body felt so wrong—so disconnected from who Braiden was—that they wanted to rip their skin off. Sometimes, in private moments, Braiden would tightly clutch their stomach and breasts, take a deep breath, and think: This is not for me. This is for Owen.”
One of the myths of motherhood is that being pregnant carries with it some innate joy, that the swelling breasts and body bring a happiness other than simply the anticipation of new life. When I was pregnant, people often would say “you’re glowing,” with a knowing and gleeful smile on their faces. “That’s because my body is producing extra blood,” I would say, revealing a fact I’d learned in the pregnancy book my insurance company sent me. The smile would inevitably drop. No one wants to know the truth about motherhood.
There is a disconnect between how our culture wishes to view pregnancy and motherhood, and how it really is. We have a confused idea in our heads of what mothers are, of what they are feeling. Having your body expand while you stay the same inside brings with it a kind of dysphoria. Your face fills out, you crave foods that you may not have before, and at odd times.
For a person who actively and intentionally attempts to control how they are viewed by the outside world, pregnancy wrests control of that image and never quite gives it back. Some body changes are permanent, but that info is accessed only through old midwives tales, experiences relayed over millennia, passed and passed down from all the mothers of the world. All of this is part of the unique, special, totally bats culture of motherhood.
Something about a pregnant body gives strangers and friends alike this weird idea that your belly demands touch. Random subway people would talk to me about the growing baby, ask the sex, if I had names picked out, and after a moment of conversation, a hand would inevitably reach out to touch me.
Saying “I don’t like to be touched” would make the person quickly recoil. Again, I would face a frown. To counteract this, I bought incredibly large, vintage, Dior eyeglasses frames and filled them with my prescription lenses. This made people think I was a bit off, and both the conversation and the touching stopped.
For a person who is pregnant but does not wish to be identified as female, such as a non-binary person or trans person, this disconnect may feel amplified. But in reality, this is a disconnect experienced by all pregnant women. It is disconcerting and odd to become a person who is defined by her body, and who is defined as “her” by her body.
Pronouns don’t care about your pregnancy. Pregnancy doesn’t care about your pronouns. Identity politics has nothing to do with your growing belly, your mammary glands, or the extra blood that gives you that special glow. One doesn’t need to identify as female to be thrust, fully and completely, into the female culture of motherhood once a clump of cells affixes itself to your uterus and demands access to your nutrients.
Clothes don’t fit. Within just a few months of conception, I was miserably closing my black, straight leg jeans with a kilt pin. It was the only thing that would hold. I bought enormous, oversized sweaters in the men’s big and tall department. I didn’t want anyone to know I was pregnant because I didn’t want my condition to hijack every conversation, to make people think of me differently. I didn’t want to be reclassified as Mom. I wasn’t ready. My body, and the baby, didn’t care.
Eventually, I succumbed to the maternity department at Macy’s, only to discover that the clothes were baby bump chic. Everything wanted to emphasize that which I was trying to cover. I ended up shopping in plus size because whoever designs those clothes knows that the women who buy them aren’t trying to advertise their assets.
There’s nothing like being pregnant to link you intimately with your body. For a person who has spent more time in the realm of the mental than the physical, this was a rude awakening. I learned for the first time in my life that I was truly and actually a body, not just a brain with legs.
The culture of motherhood gives women the language for this. These feelings, of not feeling at home in your body, of wanting to have it not change and be weird and take over your whole life—because what happens when you are pregnant is that your body takes over your whole life—are part of the tradition of motherhood.
All that motherhood stuff about cookies and smiles and little pink bows are the marketing version of mom life. That stuff was created to sell Betty Crocker baking mixes, cigarettes, and vacuum cleaners. That a non-binary pregnant person does not feel at one with their pregnant body has less to do with being non-binary and more to do with maternity itself.
If we divorce motherhood from womanhood, we lose the conduits of communication through which we pass this information. We must not give up the transmission of thoughts, ideas, feelings about our bodies and the weird stuff that pregnancy does to them, the conflicting thoughts, the dysphoria, the confusion, and give all that over to the narrative of motherhood that is defined by profit motive and stereotype.
Motherhood is passed down along a long line of mothers. The culture of motherhood is unique to women, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Mothers define it, mothers disseminate the information, mothers hand off the baton of confusion and strangeness that comes with this most distinct aspect of femaleness. Giving in to cultural giving up femaleness because it feels like it doesn’t fit because we think that cultural stereotypes are what define women, negates the culture of motherhood.
In becoming mothers, we become our bodies. Our expressed bodies become irrelevant as we are subsumed into a reality that is beyond our mentality. The pregnant body doesn’t care about your feelings, it is a fact. If we lose the culture of motherhood, all women who are pregnant, experiencing body dysphoria and confusion, will feel like they are doing it alone. Mothers have a history of teaming up, sending messages along that umbilical cord stretched out through the ages. Let’s never give that up.