The bitch of biology
I have four adopted children, all of whom are high-intensity children, but aside from the first year when the youngest was in diapers and very physically clingy, I’ve been able to split childrearing with my husband fairly evenly. Much of this is because we both work flexible jobs and often from home, and he is one of three boys which meant he had more household knowledge than I did, as the youngest daughter in a family with maids.
But now, we are expecting our fifth child (warding fingers at Doris Lessing!) in January next year, and the biological impact of pregnancy has been brutal for me.
I’m high-risk, after eight miscarriages, which meant fourteen injections a week, lots of medication and frequent bedrest in panic. Now it looks like this baby will survive to term, and we’re starting to discuss what will happen when we suddenly have a newborn in the house.
Will I work from home? How long can I take in maternity leave? If I can breastfeed, then I’ll default to the primary carer for at least the first year. How much physically can my husband – and to some extent, the older children, although we’ve made it clear that they have no obligation beyond regular sibling “don’t drop the baby on its head” duties – take over?
But even now, the pregnancy is exhausting. I haven’t gained any weight yet because everything tastes dreadful, and eating is a chore. It took me two hours this morning to finish three pieces of toast and a cup of milo. I’m not hungry at all, and the only sign I have that I’m not getting enough calories is that I have no energy at all. My husband will make me eat a bowl of mashed potatoes, and suddenly I can get up and walk around.
Then there’s days of work lost to medical appointments and bedrest. Bedrest seems wonderful in theory, except in practice I end up lying on the bed staring blankly at the wall, either in pain or panic. A day arrives when I’m alright, and I have three days of work backed up.
I know one of our clients in Cambodia, a young woman with a difficult life, is around the same pregnancy stage as me. There’s fifteen years and so so much difference between us – I can go to an excellent doctor whenever I need to, I can afford different foods, I don’t have the immense financial and living difficulties she has. But what fascinates me is that she can’t work because of her morning sickness, and that this is not minor.
I will somehow muddle through the next six months of miserable pregnancy, and then hopefully the first year of intensive baby parenting.
She has to do that with a tiny fraction of what I have.
I’m finding this so difficult, even with so many resources. To expect a pregnant woman to act like a non-pregnant woman, to expect a parent of an infant to act like a non-parent – is so patently absurd now to me. These are wonderful things to do – someone has to have and raise the next generation, and the state or society needs to make up for what’s lost. Because there is so much lost to the sheer physical and time demands of biology, whether it’s pregnancy or a young infant.
We’ve pushed through a direct cash aid pilot we’ve been discussing so that she, along with four other families, can be the first trial recipients. It won’t be much, I think $24-$30 a month, but that together with free medical care and sponsored prenatal visits and medication, will mean the difference between her baby being born into destitution or working class. And for her – yes, she was daft to get pregnant that young, but I’m fifteen years older and this baby, very much wanted when we realised, was not at all planned or expected. And I’d rather live in a world that recognizes and supports pregnancy, because it is bloody hard, than one that punishes people for being less than perfect.
I have met quite a few women who had easy pregnancies, and don’t see why any special allowances need to be made. To which I say: bell curve, because they shouldn’t be special, they should be the default, and talk to me when your baby has screaming colic for three months straight.
On a related tangent: A friend wrote about Le Guin’s The Ones Who Walked Away From Omelas, a beautiful story but one that to meis obliquely about reproductive rights, especially abortion. I started thinking of great sci-fi/fantasy works that tackled pregnancies and young infant childrearing as part of their worldbuilding. Bujold is the most obvious one, as is Brave New World, and I think Delaney has at times. But for something so critical to shaping society, the vast underpinning of silent sacrifice, usually by women, of productive economic/mental/physical years, it is a ghetto. A pregnancy blackhole.
Why don’t we talk about this more? Because we’re exhausted and vulnerable? Because it’s only a few years total of your life (hah, says the past decade of mine)? Because it can be ignored, I think. It’s a nice feel-good to give up your seat on the train or donate to a maternity clinic in a third world country, but the real fundamental shift in industrial work practices, in shared gender parenting, in tax-subsidies for children that are needed, well screw them over and the people hit hardest are too exhausted and marginalized to do anything about it.
And now I am going to drink some ginger beer and try to work.