The Pregnant Body Politic

I’m a grad student in a public administration program and a term we often use is “the body politic”, meaning a collective group of people organized under a governmental authority. I’ve been thinking about this concept in terms of what it means to be a pregnant individual and part of a society since I am currently pregnant with my third child.

Pregnancy is full of complexities, mostly personal in nature. But pregnancy is one of those times when the personal intersects with the public. Not only do you cease to consider yourself merely an individual due to the presence of another, but the community also ceases to see you as an individual. On some level I can understand this; pregnant women quite literally represent the continuation of our society, we are the lifeblood of the body politic. It is no surprise that others have an interest in the welfare of the next generation. But should pregnant women be asked to set aside their privacy and at times, their autonomy, to ease the fears of society? Some would say yes, evidenced by the broad legislation Utah passed last year that would prosecute women for reckless behavior resulting in a miscarriage. As the one being asked to set aside the self for the good of society, it is much harder to willingly comply.

I did not expect to be pregnant. In fact, I was actively trying to prevent myself from becoming so. Perhaps for this reason I am more sensitive to the lack of privacy than I was with my previous two pregnancies. When I first discovered I was pregnant, I worried what people might think…

How could a supposedly educated woman have an “unexpected pregnancy”? She’s had two kids before, doesn’t she know how the process works? That woman can barely manage the two toddlers she has, how’s she going to handle a third?

…Unfortunately, I wasn’t too far off in my fears. I have had people ask variations of these questions multiple times. And of course, the typical intrusions of privacy such as random people touching my stomach or commenting on my size, which apparently is huge since I frequently get asked if I’m having twins, is ever present. Something about the pregnant condition makes people feel entitled to ask questions they have no business asking.

It has been hard for me to deal with the intrusions. I am, by nature, a private person so the visual tell of my condition is already difficult to deal with. But the questions…as if it wasn’t hard enough to personally come to terms with the addition of an unexpected child, the stress of having to respond to other people’s questions and comments is overwhelming and often painful.

I try to be patient and tolerant of the impertinent question, telling myself that in so doing, I am contributing to other’s comfort in society. That by setting aside my self, though momentarily painful, I am providing hope in the future. I realize that in choosing to be a mother, I have a responsibility to love and care for my children in a way that will help them contribute to society. I have willingly made and make the sacrifices that come along with being a mother.

But this should not be a one-sided sacrifice. Society needs to treat its mothers with respect and unfortunately, this is something we fail miserably at. Not only are people given a free pass to say whatever they want to pregnant women but mothers are frequently disadvantaged in every sector of our society. We must stop treating pregnancy like its an alien condition and motherhood as if it is a gift freely given. Our society must begin to recognize in substantive ways the contribution that women, by sacrificing our bodies, privacy and independence, make in keeping our body politic strong. To do otherwise is exploitation.

Mraynes

Mraynes lives in downtown Denver with her husband and four children. She spends her time lobbying at the Colorado Legislature, managing all the things and preparing Gospel Doctrine lessons.

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39 Responses

  1. jks says:

    Excellent post. I agree.
    Half of all children are from unplanned pregnancies. It is a complicated situation to be in, even if you are a wonderful, loving, married mother. Society should do a better job at……something, just not quite sure what.

    • Mraynes says:

      Exactly, what can be done? It’s a complicated issue because people’s intentions aren’t bad, they don’t mean to be rude and in the end, it’s human nature to be nosy. I do think that if our institutions treated pregnancy as normative, if pregnant women and mothers weren’t economically punished then society would be a more hospitable place for women in general. But like you said, what exactly can be done to accomplish this…?

  2. Starfoxy says:

    Our society must begin to recognize in substantive ways the contribution that women, by sacrificing our bodies, privacy and independence, make in keeping our body politic strong. To do otherwise is exploitation.

    That is every well said. It is always so easy to say what other people should be willing to do for the benefit of society. It was actually going through pregnancy and childbirth that radicalized me. Though I’ve been very fortunate in every way I could be as regards pregnancy, just going down that path made me see just how horribly things could go wrong for me.

    • Corktree says:

      I also thought that part was well said. We really need to alter the way we view motherhood as a society at the most basic levels. Not selfish, but a sacrifice. Great post.

      I also like this;
      ” I realize that in choosing to be a mother, I have a responsibility to love and care for my children in a way that will help them contribute to society. I have willingly made and make the sacrifices that come along with being a mother.”

      In some ways I’m glad we were in Mormon country when we got pregnant this last time. It was unplanned and much sooner than we would have planned if it had been, but that is somewhat common out here so I felt in good company – even though I dreaded admitting that it happened unintentionally and feeling like an idiot that didn’t know how to prevent. I can’t imagine what it would have been like if we still lived in New Hampshire. I’m pretty sure my in-laws are THRILLED that we’re *finally* done.

      It may not be what I planned, but I’m sure gonna make the most of it.

      • Mraynes says:

        Thanks, Corktree! I can’t tell you how many times I’ve wished we lived in Utah during this pregnancy. I think this is one of the wonderful things about Mormon culture, our profound respect for the continuation of life. I can’t think of a better time to be a Mormon woman than when one is pregnant. 🙂 Alas, we live in liberal, downtown Denver where having one child is unusual, let alone three. Anyway, its nice to know that other people understand.

      • spunky says:

        I absolutly agree with the sacrifice comment. We are engaged in a surrogacy contract and find it astonding that surrogacy costs are in the ballpark of $100,000 – 150,000… yet the payment to the surrogate mother is only- at best- a taxable $25,000, which is only paid for 10 months’ “employment”. It is a massive sacrifice for our beloved (hopeful) surrogate.

        Not to put a price on motherhood, but find it astounding that the beurocracy (seemingly regulated by men) appears so well-paid whereas the women involved are highly regulated, highly burdened with costs and considered suspiciously criminal for being infertile. Liekwise, the surrogate mother is poorly paid for sacrificing her body. (much like any woman giving birth who is not appeciated or paid for sacrificing her body and time for child bearing)

        The concept of female fertlity is not something to be regulated or directed by males, government or societal pressure. (sorry if this has been said before, I am heavily engaged at the moment and am just poking in for a much-appreciated indulgence)

    • Mraynes says:

      @ Starfoxy: Yes, pregnancy and the first few years of motherhood make women exceptionally vulnerable and society does not recognize this. It’s tricky, though, because the line between protectionism and equal justice under the law can be blurry when it comes to women’s issues.

  3. val says:

    I am a long distance runner. I have run marathons while pregnant (10 weeks-not really a big deal), and I know of lots of runners who run marathons late in pregnancy. There is almost no research on the level of exercise that is safe during pregnancy, but plenty of people have strong opinions. Including my Mom, and if I lived in Utah during a pregnancy, my nosy Mom could call me every day and tell me that running everyday and being a vegetarian is hurting my unborn child, (she does this already) AND then she could use the law to scare me, and if I had a miscarriage, she could even send the police to investigate me.
    I am not familiar with the pregnancy law in Utah, but It seems to contradict the essence of Roe v. Wade– that a women should be in control of her own body.

    • Mraynes says:

      That law is truly scary and puts every pregnant woman at risk. Unfortunately, over the past thirty years, public policy has made pregnant women more vulnerable. I think our society swings back and forth in believing whether women do have control over their bodies, hence the lack of support from public institutions and the unwanted intrusions of citizens into every aspect of pregnant women’s existence.

  4. Margaret says:

    I HATED the rude, intrusive questions people asked during my pregnancy. The worst was that I was in graduate school at the time and my classmates and some professors were appalled that I was pregnant. I had several people ask me if I’d gotten pregnant on purpose. One classmate asked, “So…are you going to keep it?” I think I just stared at him, unable to even form an answer. But my favorite response to rude questions was, “Why do you ask?” I think it reflects back to people how intrusive (and unnecessary) their questions are while maintaining some level of politeness.

    • Mraynes says:

      Margaret, I know exactly what you’re talking about because I get those same questions from professors and fellow students. It bothers me that I am not taken seriously, like somehow my uterus is leeching my brain power. And the questions, well…I think you’re answer back is very good, I might just use it. Thanks for the comment!

  5. TopHat says:

    “I try to be patient and tolerant of the impertinent question, telling myself that in so doing, I am contributing to other’s comfort in society.”

    See, I wasn’t doing that. People would ask and somehow it would get around to the fact that my two pregnancies were unassisted and my births were unassisted so I ended up contributing to people’s assumptions that young mothers are stupid. I couldn’t tell what made me look like a worse mother: acting like, “Oh I just haven’t gotten around to seeing a doctor yet” or “I’ve purposefully, thoughtfully, and prayerfully chosen to do it on my own.”

    And sometimes people just say things to scare you. I had one person tell me, “Oh that baby is going to be over 8 pounds for sure!” because I was big. I responded with, “Of course, my first was 8.5 pounds. I wouldn’t expect any less!” They were shocked I was so comfortable with that- and I’ve got to wonder- why bring that up unless you’re purposely trying to freak out a pregnant woman? Who does that?!

    He ended up being 9.5 pounds, by the way.

    • Mraynes says:

      Interesting, TopHat. I can see that if you choose to do anything out of the mainstream people are even more intrusive and judgmental of your choices. I got that, though I’m sure not as severely when I had my oldest son at a birth center. He was 10.4 pounds. With my daughter, I had a doctor tell me that women die from big babies and he wouldn’t allow me to have a natural birth.

      I think the medical community shares much of the blame behind the way pregnant women are treated in society. They treat us like we’re ignorant and not smart enough to make the decisions that are best for us and our babies. Is it any wonder then, that the rest of society treats us like this also? Thanks for the comment!

  6. Caroline says:

    I always felt self-conscious when I was pregnant, for a number of reasons.
    First, I thought it was a bit weird to be displaying my sexuality so openly. (Obviously, I was a sexually active person if pregnant.) Also, I felt a bit strange because I wondered if my pregnant body was signaling that it had been colonized in some sense. That sounds really, really weird. I obviously have issues. I think it’s too bad that I felt the opposite of magical and powerful when I was pregnant. I wish I did. Instead I felt like this wasn’t truly my body. It was like looking at a stranger in the mirror.

    • Mraynes says:

      It’s interesting that you would bring up the colonizing point, Caroline. I came back from the grocery store yesterday exceptionally frustrated because some random man had said that I was huge considering what my due date was. This was the third man who had said this to me this week! So I asked mr. mraynes why men feel that its appropriate to comment on pregnant women’s bodies when it is never ok to say things about non-pregnant women’s bodies. His theory is that pregnancy visually signals that a woman has been conquered by another man so its okay to ignore the social etiquette between men and women that has been developed over the centuries. Interesting and probably right. I’m with you, though, it takes some of the joy out of pregnancy.

    • Ziff says:

      First, I thought it was a bit weird to be displaying my sexuality so openly. (Obviously, I was a sexually active person if pregnant.)

      Really interesting point, Caroline. I’d never thought of this in exactly these terms, but pregnancy does inevitably advertise this. (This reminds me of a joke I read about some expectant grandparents talking about how they felt when they heard their offspring were going to become parents. Most said they were happy, but one person said she was appalled because then she knew for sure her (grown) child was having sex.) I’m sure this is an old thought, but I suspect this is related to the common habit of blaming women more for having sex than men, particularly when they’re teens.

  7. Jessawhy says:

    MRaynes,
    This is a great post. I’m so sorry to hear that people have been so rude to you while you’ve been pregnant.
    Last week I had a board meeting where we discussed maternity leave for an employee. I was disturbed that some members of the board would only consider granting a paid maternity leave if we called it “short-term disability leave.”
    I was offended that pregnancy is considered a disability. What was worse was that I was the only person on the board who thought we should pay for maternity leave, even though the amount in question was very small. I’m still upset about the way the meeting ended. I was the only mother in the room. A few single men, a single woman (who won’t have children), and a few older men. They were concerned about setting a precedent for paying for maternity/disability leaves, even though we only have a handful of employees.

    I have to admit that I do sometimes find myself asking the same questions that you mention. Perhaps it’s been so long since I’ve been pregnant that I forget how rude the questions are. I am glad you’re reminding me, though.

    I wish you the best in the coming months and hope you think of something witty to tell these people when they comment on your body.

    • Mraynes says:

      Your story is horrible. When I started school I had to call the disability office to make sure my pregnancy isn’t considered a disability. It isn’t which I’m glad about but it also leaves me in a vulnerable position should something go wrong, teachers don’t have to work with me if they don’t want to. Sigh.

      I want to say that I generally don’t care when people talk to me about being pregnant. I think people are interested because pregnancy is cool and I totally agree with them. It’s when the comments cross over into remarks about my body and my abilities as an individual that I start to feel frustrated. I can’t imagine that you would ever make comments like that to somebody you don’t know so I think you’re safe!

  8. Rebecca says:

    Mraynes –

    Your post spurred me to research the topic. I was unaware of the passage of this Utah law earlier in the year. I was amazed to read about the Iowa woman who fell down the stairs in her home and was arrested under suspicion of trying to induce a miscarriage. I’m all for prosecuting abusers who assault pregnant women, but to have the laws turned around to go after women seems to have a real potential for craziness. The idea of pregnant women being prosecuted if a car accident resulted in the loss of her baby, if she was not wearing a seat belt or ran a red light is horrifying.

  9. EmilyCC says:

    Oh, an excellent post, mraynes (with beautiful art, too)! I am often amazed to hear how other countries treat expectant and new mothers compared to the United States with laws, tax breaks, etc. I find it puzzling that this Western society doesn’t see motherhood as a sacrifice for the greater good and often deems a pregnant woman as being selfish. Sigh…

    • Mraynes says:

      It really is startling how America treats pregnant women. Not only do we not get medical benefits or paid maternity leave but members of society feel free to judge you as well. I have professors and fellow students who immediately discount me because obviously I’m focused on domestic matters and and couldn’t possibly know anything about the professional or academic world. I also live in fairly liberal city and so whenever I go out with my two kids I always get looks from people like I must be stupid for having so many children. Once somebody had the nerve to come up to me and tell me I was being irresponsible and selfish for bringing another child into the world because of lack of resources and overpopulation. Seriously!

  10. Rebecca says:

    I like the artwork too. I wish I’d had some really nice photographs taken of myself when I was pregnant. The baby making years are behind me now and the lack of photos is something I regret. I’d say to all you expectant mothers, have someone take some beautiful pictures of your bare belly. See the link below. I love the one of the older sibling embracing the belly, and the woman wrapped in a sheer fabric. Beautiful.

    http://www.susancareyphoto.com/_pregnancy/pregnancy.htm

    • Caroline says:

      If I could look that good semi-naked and pregnant, I’d totally be up for beautiful pictures like this. They are gorgeous.

      • Corktree says:

        Same here. I really tried to get some with this last pregnancy to have some documentation, but the stretch marks (and my bloated face) were just too horrifying. I didn’t think photoshop would be able to handle it – so we settled for some great silhouette shots with the sunset in the background. I liked my shape, but only if you couldn’t see the rest of me 🙂

    • Mraynes says:

      I was thinking that this is the best I’ve every looked pregnant and that I should get some pictures taken but like Caroline and Corktree I’m self-conscious about other parts of my body. Maybe I’ll do like Corktree and have silhouettes taken. I’m sure I’ll be nostalgic for pregnancy in 15 years and it would be a shame not to have any pictures to remember it by because I was concerned about having a little extra fat on my face.

      • Stella says:

        I’d be happy to do some shots for you this weekend if you want to give it a try. I’m a professional, you know, it’s my job to make you look and feel good. let me know!

  11. Jessawhy says:

    Rebecca,
    You reminded me that I took a photo of my belly the day before I delivered, then later took a photo of my flatter belly then superimposed them.

    The image is on my flickr account. http://www.flickr.com/photos/28568542@N08/2672808423/in/set-72157606108251366/

    It was pretty fun to do.

  12. Stella says:

    Wow. There is so much to respond here.

    I’m with Ziff. I thought it interesting that some (like Caroline personally suggested) would have feelings attached to their pregnancy showing that they were sexually active. Are the feelings negative? Do you see it as negative to be sexually active? Less pure? Less virtuous.

    Also, WOW about all the men who comment on your stomach mraynes. I’ve never heard of such a thing, but I’ve never been pregnant either. This astounds me. I think I would probably not mind coming off as a “bitch” and just tell people it is none of their business. I think there is too much of girls feeling they have to be “nice” all the time and allow people to make public comments about them and their bodies. It’s weird. I don’t like it. I’ve never thought about it before–again, because I haven’t ever been pregnant.

    Thanks for this post.

    • Mraynes says:

      mr. mraynes was really mad at me the last time I came home and told him some man commented on my stomach. He thinks that I need to get more aggressive because men will never know its wrong unless I say something. He’s probably right but its hard to be snappy to somebody who is usually trying to be nice.

      As for pregnancy proclaiming my non-virgin status, it’s not that I’m uncomfortable with people knowing I’m not a virgin but rather that it is so conspicuously obvious. I would rather my pregnancy be a private matter and not have to deal with people’s eyes always wandering to my stomach. I don’t love standing out in a crowd and if there’s one thing that people notice it’s a pregnant woman, especially if you are the only pregnant woman on a non-Mormon college campus. 🙂

  13. I highly recommend taking pregnancy pictures, clothed or unclothed. We did a session about two weeks before the birth of our first child, and came home with some we really, really loved. My absolute favorite is mostly just my belly (they have makeup for stretch marks, gals!), our two left be-ringed hands cradling it, with a tiny sliver of thigh and a not-so-tiny section of the underside of my breast (no nip). Another favorite is full body profile (down to the knees), clothed in a simple black matte jersey dress, a chunk of my hair (then as now in a simple bob) artfully arranged to fall across my double chin. 🙂

    Wish I had digital copies I could share.

  14. By the time we got the pictures framed and hung, the baby who had been inside was a toddler (he’s now 10). His first reaction? “Ball!”

  15. MZ says:

    Mraynes
    I am new to the blog I just heard about it today and thought I would check it out. I think the law does leave the door open to setting the stage up for future policy implications. But it does specifically state that (the details of violence against unborn child). c.) “Nothing in this section shall be constructed to permit the prosecution of any women with respect to her unborn child.” I think it’s not really these laws that are the problem. Its the third trimester abortion being illegal (Iowa) women. Abortion being illegal in the third trimester is pretty scary. In any case, I understand the pregnancy thing, I too am on my third child with two babies under 2 1/2 started my Masters in Policy. I wish I could get help from teachers but it’s not going to happen. Being in Utah does not make a difference. 😉 I think it’s the school aspect and being pregnant that people have a difficult time thinking about. Good luck.

    • Mraynes says:

      Welcome, MZ, I’m so glad you found us! I probably should have clarified that the law that was passed in Utah was revised to be less disturbing than the original, proposed bill. But I, like you, am concerned about the policy implications that this and laws like the one in Iowa will have. Right now I’m hoping against hope that the personhood proposition on the ballot in my state doesn’t get passed. If it does, even as a grown woman, I may not have the autonomy to legally get an IUD from my medical provider. The fact that this is even a reality is unbelievable to me! Anyway, it’s good to know that there’s another woman out there crazy enough to attempt grad school with two toddlers and a pregnancy, that makes me feel not quite so insane. 🙂 Thanks, MZ!

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