Preg­nancy is more than great ex­pec­ta­tions

CityPress - - Voices - Joonji Mdyogolo voices@city­press.co.za Fol­low me on Twit­ter @joonji

Be­ing preg­nant is like be­ing dropped down the prover­bial rab­bit hole. It’s a world of un­fa­mil­iar phys­i­cal ex­pe­ri­ences. It is also, to my con­tin­u­ing dis­be­lief, a dis­ori­en­tat­ing universe of new terms, such as mu­cus plug, bear­ing down, meco­nium and, most dis­con­cert­ing, tran­si­tion­ing. How is it I know so lit­tle about some­thing so old and com­mon?

So, it was cu­ri­ous to watch Bey­oncé and Adele bring preg­nancy and mother­hood to the world stage at the Gram­mys this year, each pre­sent­ing their own per­sonal def­i­ni­tions and ex­pe­ri­ences.

Bey­oncé’s ver­sion, as per­for­mance art, was of beauty and abun­dance. Glis­ten­ing in gold, brim­ful hips and breasts, she was ethe­real and bib­li­cal. Her iconog­ra­phy, as many have cited, was in­spired by an­cient god­dess tra­di­tions, from Hindu, Yoruba and Western deities. In that vi­sion she was love, fer­til­ity and power united and el­e­vated by the women around her.

If Bey­once’s telling of the story of mother­hood was saintly, then Adele’s was of iso­la­tion. Re­flect­ing more on re­al­ity than the imag­ined, she talked of loss and strug­gle. It was an in­ter­est­ing di­chotomy and a con­ver­sa­tion starter that only be­gins to scratch at the sur­face of the pol­i­tics of preg­nancy and mother­hood. Grow­ing up, preg­nancy was the thing seen, but un­ac­knowl­edged, with women shrouded in over­sized dun­ga­rees and dresses. As the liv­ing mod­els of the Im­mac­u­late Con­cep­tion, they re­flected the ab­surd Chris­tian value of child-bear­ing un­tainted by sex or se­men.

In 1991 Demi Moore pushed preg­nancy from the pri­vate sphere to pub­lic con­sump­tion in a con­tro­ver­sial cover for Van­ity Fair taken by pho­tog­ra­pher An­nie Lei­bovitz. In her now-iconic nude side­pro­file photo while seven-months preg­nant, her full pro­trud­ing belly as the fla­grant sign­post of a woman’s sex­ual en­deav­ors was not gross, but glo­ri­ous. To­day, preg­nancy has be­come a fetish, and mother­hood an in­dus­try in full ef­fect. There are the cradling of bur­geon­ing bel­lies on so­cial me­dia and the fix­a­tion on fer­tilised fe­male celebri­ties every­where.

My per­sonal favourite ex­am­ples of the ab­sur­di­ties of preg­nancy for pub­lic con­sump­tion are the of­ten­com­i­cal ma­ter­nity shoots that have be­come tra­di­tion for us or­di­nary cou­ples. Ev­ery­one knows a friend who has posted one on Face­book – the naked or half-naked par­ents-to-be, with the fa­ther lurk­ing be­hind, awk­wardly cradling some bare body part (breasts or belly) of his beloved, or kneel­ing and kiss­ing her stom­ach or fake sleep­ing on it. “Look what we did. Look at the fruit of our labour of love.”

It feels to me that though the im­age of mother­hood has changed, its op­pres­sion on women has re­mained. When Bey­oncé an­nounced her preg­nancy, the run­ning joke on Twit­ter was how she had won mother­hood by ren­der­ing all ex­pec­tant women ir­rel­e­vant. That, in the con­text of the star’s mam­moth in­flu­ence on our cul­ture, can be taken in jest.

What can be un­set­tling are the un­der­cur­rents in the con­ver­sa­tion among or­di­nary mums and mothers-to-be, like me. Just the dis­cus­sions over a woman’s choice for birthing, nat­u­ral or Cae­sarean, are like walking on a mine­field.

“I’m not a nat­u­ral mother,” one woman said, which was an in­ti­mate ad­mis­sion of her per­ceived de­fi­cien­cies. Some­times this state­ment can be a veiled jab at women who seem to par­ent with ease, an in­sult to the im­age of the “tra­di­tional” mum fig­ure.

I’m most put off by the tone of self-sac­ri­fice that per­me­ates mid­dle class mother­hood. The rea­son chil­dren are learn­ing to speak late, said one priv­i­leged ex­pa­tri­ate re­cently, is be­cause mothers out­source their up­bring­ing to nan­nies and crèches. Where she got her ev­i­dence was not clear. This mother and wife had de­cided to quit her job to be home with her child, a de­ci­sion made pos­si­ble by the ob­vi­ous fact that her hus­band holds a good and lu­cra­tive job that can fund their liveli­hood.

It’s a state­ment I found con­temp­tu­ous be­cause it shames work­ing class mothers, who are the ma­jor­ity in South Africa. “Do­mes­tic work­ers have to leave their chil­dren at home as new­borns to take care of other peo­ple’s chil­dren be­cause they have to work,” I said, ex­plain­ing how for­tu­nate she was to be able to have such a choice.

This woman was not con­cerned about these chil­dren at crèches. What was pal­pa­ble was the re­sent­ment she held at hav­ing sacri­ficed a part of her life – work – to par­ent. So, what she was go­ing to do to sup­press that suf­fo­cat­ing re­sult of mother­hood was cower be­hind the idea of moth­erly self-sac­ri­fice.

TALK TO US Do you think the change in per­cep­tions of be­ing preg­nant in the US has taken root in SA?

SMS us on 35697 us­ing the key­word PREG­NANT and tell us what you think. Please in­clude your name and prov­ince. SMSes cost R1.50

PHOTO: EPA/MIKE NEL­SON

HIGH NOTE Bey­oncé with the stat­uettes she won at the 59th an­nual Grammy Awards cer­e­mony at the Sta­ples Cen­ter in Los An­ge­les on Fe­bru­ary 12

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