Women grow up in a genderized culture of isolation. Sure, we build powerful friendships with other women, we fight together for women’s rights, and access to reproductive health, but for many of us, our relationship with “womanhood” and our bodies is often shrouded in whispers, late-night google searches, and even erasure. We are taught to desperately hide some of the physical markers of womanhood: from the first drops of our periods to the menstrual cramping we are supposed to manage away from the other sex’s suspicion. We teach our daughters to hide a “period kit” in their backpacks in case of an emergency. The blood that leaves our bodies must be carefully collected and disposed of.
This closeted culture extends into our later years as reproductive health becomes a landscape of timid exchanges with medical professionals and even more fraught experiences within our own bodies. All of this leads to an anxiety-ridden dimension to femininity that leaves women stripped of agency, autonomy and power. Our culture demands of us: you are having a baby, and that should happen soon.
My miscarriage happened when I was twenty-nine. I had a blighted ovum, also called an anembryonic pregnancy. There was no embryo when we went in for my first ultrasound. It was late at night, and the doctor seemed unwilling to tell me the news. She told me she wanted another technician to check on a more detailed machine, so I was sent to the emergency department. I waited for two hours for the second technician to concur, “indeed there is no baby.” My husband and I cried together, alone, and in the dark. I had a dilation and curettage procedure a week later. While I was told that the procedure had gone fine, I did not realize that the resident who performed the D & C had scraped my endometrium to a bloody pulp. My uterus was scarred terribly, which caused the sides of my uterus to collapse. I did not have my period for six months, though each month I felt the same horrible cramps of menstruation. I could not have a period, though, because my uterus was clamped like a fist over my cervix. After many appointments with doctors and specialists I was convinced that my body was broken. It wasn’t until I met a reproductive endocrinologist named Abigail that I felt differently. She used the term “cautiously optimistic,” but she also reoriented my thinking. There was no need for dejection or humiliation. “Our bodies are amazing, aren’t they?” she asked me during an appointment. I didn’t quite know, fully, what she meant.
I scheduled a procedure with her in which she would identify the extent of the damage from my D & C. I watched on an ultrasound as she pumped saline into my vagina until my uterus reinflated like a balloon. It just took a little verve from Abigail to reinstate some love for my own body.
We do not experience miscarriage, infertility, or parenthood without anxiety. I think it is bred from the moment we are secretly given our first sanitary pad. (On a side note: why isn’t toilet paper also called “sanitary” paper? They essentially go in the same place. Because we continue to align female genitalia with the same, ancient archetypes of the Virgin Mary. We must be clean and pure, but fertile; engorged with milk, but not blood; curvy in pregnancy, but thin when we are not.)
The markers of womanhood are meant to be discussed behind closed doors. We feel ashamed when we tell family and friends our pregnancies have ended. We cry, often silently, in the dark. And this culture of shame continues even if we manage to carry a baby to term. And then certainly into motherhood.
I remember one of my first mommy-and-me classes several months after I had my son, Henry. We were in a baby yoga class together and the teacher was checking in with each parent about how everything was going. Many mothers expressed tired frustration with their babies’ sleeplessness. Others offered suggestions to help the babies sleep: firmer mattresses, a mattress pad, a foam lining on the mattress, organic sheets, etc. As a first-time mother, I made feverish mental notes. Then a mother raised her hand and added, “Well, my husband is just so happy that I didn’t give up. I’m back to my pre-baby weight, and he’s so proud of me.” A match could have been lit over a puddle of gasoline and no one would have blinked in that room. Mouths were agape, but no one said a word.
I think back now on that comment, and I wish I would have spoken up. Not for myself, necessarily, although I was still thirty-pounds heavier than before I was pregnant (OBVIOUSLY!), but for my son. I want him to know that I grew a placenta with the fat from my blood. I used my marvellous muscles to push him out. And I fed him with my once-perky, now-saggy-from-engorgement breasts.
I wish I had given that mom, and every other parent, a gentle reminder: women are fucking incredible–without any contextualization. Abigail reminded me of this with a little saline water. There’s no bar that’s set for being a woman. We’re not supposed to be or do anything. Whether we’re having the heaviest of periods, straddling the table at the OBGYN’s office for a Pap smear, or on our third round of IVF, we, women, are amazing. In our most profound and beautiful messiness.