Redefining Pregnancy through Expressions of Agency
MA American Studies and Environment & Natural Resources
Liberation rests on the construction of the consciousness, the imaginative apprehension, of oppression, and so of possibility.
– Donna Haraway
A Manifesto for Cyborgs
As I gather my notes on social theory and writings by post-structuralists, feminists, and Marxists, I cannot help but to include journal entries of my own. Not that these entries are profound insights regarding the ways in which people live in their society. They reflect how I live, how I adapt daily to the demands of marriage, family, education, finances, and pregnancy. These seem to be what is real to me. They each reflect opportunities for me to express agency and define my identity. They are the way in which I can understand and apply theory the best.
Sitting down to write this paper involved much more than collecting bits of written ideas. It involved situating at least nine pillows around my sore hips and back, placing an ice pack on my sacroiliac joint, nibbling on saltine crackers and sipping ginger ale to calm morning sickness. Why should I not take this opportunity to write about my process of redefining pregnancy and agency? A difficult pregnancy can certainly feel like a trap for an expecting woman. She suddenly finds herself miserable and seemingly incapable– a tremendous shock for an active, determined, and independent mother such as myself. The past week has been particularly painful, sending me into a depression filled with tears and vomiting. Yet, the timing could not have been better, for the recent collection of theory readings have settled into my brain and whispered notions of possibility into my consciousness.
Sunday afternoon I lay on my bed, exhausted and frustrated by the academic responsibilities I was neglecting. Somewhere in between sleep and consciousness I focused on the collection of pregnancy books that sat on my shelf. Titles such as Your Pregnancy and Birth and Your Pregnancy Week-by-Week stared back at me, trying to convince me that “my” pregnancy was a thing that could be controlled, treated, or managed. Echoes of Tuesday night’s theory discussion argued back.
By envisioning pregnancy as a things, it takes on a passive meaning to create an illusion that a mother could treat these symptoms, deal with the discomfort, and continue on with her other responsibilities in life. But what if pregnancy was a verb? It is something a mother does, rather than possessing. This ideological twist would keep distraught mothers from turning the situation backwards (where the pregnancy owns them) or from pushing “it” to the periphery. This redefinition would also place value on a mother’s ability to respond to the unexpected or unpleasurable aspects of pregnancy , not as a form of either power and/or subjugation, but instead as an expression of agency to define the world around her.
It took these little echoes of theory for me to feel capable of getting up and doing something about my situation. However, I had yet to contend with my preconceived notions of doing. Not only was my act of doing in response to a newly realized partnership with pregnancy, but also with similar “nouns” that could be re-conceived as verbs: family, education, responsibility, and life. It has been my tendency throughout my life to “grin and bear it,” to face all adverse situations with a fierce sense of determination. I have to admit, this approach has gotten me far. But it was time to pay attention to these new perspectives I have obtained and rethink my own sense of agency.
I tried to push forward, to catch up on all the things I needed to do: write a paper on defoliation for range management, write a paper on theory for American Studies, think about a potential thesis committee, organize my desk, spend time with my husband and son, and somehow get my pain and discomfort to subside. It was no wonder that my head felt like it was going to implode.
Perhaps the notion of doing needed to be altered as well. While much of American culture values “doing” as a process of accomplishment, it is not the doing that is valued, but instead the outcome. It is not a matter of doing something as an engaged player, but instead doing as a complacent subject adamant on obtaining more. In my case, this common notion of doing to accomplish was creating a double-bind. As Gregory Bateson suggests, there was an error in the logical typing. By having the determination to push forward and prove that I could overcome pain, stress, and frustration, I was causing damage to myself and my world.
Abandonment did not seem to be an option, even if it would prove to be a better option for myself and my world. It was not conceivable to give up my responsibilities as a student, a mother, or a wife. I could not accept failure as an option. At the same time, I could not make any more changes to my home life to accommodate either my physical complications or my academic responsibilities. It was clear that something had to give.
My first impulse seemed like a hasty and irrational decision, rooted in what Foucault might call hysteria or Bateson may call neurosis. At the same time, withdrawing from a class seemed like an easy way out that could have some serious implications on my education. The idea nagged at me over and over as I tried to synthesize scientific information on the vegetative response of grassland defoliation. I could not conceive that scrapping the paper and removing the demands of that course from my life could actually constitute any sense of doing or accomplishment.
Althusser’s notion of ideological state apparatus was at work in my head. I weighed my options on the possibility of consequence. The fears that the University would remove my full-time status or that my graduate student experience would be jeopardized or protracted stemmed from the expectations I have of myself as a responsible and diligent student, but were also reinforced by the academic bureaucracy I was subject to. What would happen if I dropped this class? A dear friend replied to this frantic question, “What do you mean what would happen?” With wise insight, she suggestion that nothing the bureaucratic academic system could impose upon me would supersede the importance of the health of me and my family.
My expectations of myself and the fear of impending disappointment also came from feminist ideologies and my personal experience regarding pregnancy. For generations women have insisted that pregnancy is not a medical condition, that they have the same rights to continue living their life as they would otherwise. I cherished the idea, and let nothing stand in my way when I was pregnant with my first child. I went duck hunting in sub-zero temperatures, insistent that Cabela’s really should make neoprene chest waders in maternity sizes. I went snow shoeing for the first time when I was five months pregnant. I flew back home alone at seven months. When I was eight months pregnant, I took a field trip to the Wind River Indian Reservation and happily helped stake down a tipi, citing that I certainly was not the first pregnant woman in the history of time to do such a thing. I took 12 credit hours during the summer session, resulting in the three final exams during the week Jackson was born. I believed and demonstrated that while I was pregnant I was not impaired in any way.
The feminist ideologies and my impressive expression of feminine sovereignty back-fired in the earliest months of this pregnancy. It became an emotional challenge to consider that I needed medication to help me keep food in my stomach, that I could not go hunting, that I might not be capable of attending another field trip to the reservation, that I needed physical therapy, or that I could not handle a full load of classes. Everything I knew an an expression of agency was stripped from me and I began to feel like a weak example of feminine sovereignty.
I can attribute overcoming these feelings of inadequacy and depression to the discussions of theory that began at the Cooper House on September 29, 2009, but continued with friends and family. If I can see pregnancy as an action with which I am engaged, the only thing I can do is respond in ways that improve my way of life. In this perspective, “doing” might not be doing more than I am capable of, but instead adjusting the structures of my life to make the duration of pregnancy more enjoyable. Dropping a class, in my old perspective, seemed to constitute failure. But through a new lens, it was an expression of agency that allowed me to “do” more urgent things, like grow, learn, heal, share, love, relax, and most of all- live.