Pregnancy is more than great expectations
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.
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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