This article first appeared in HOAX zine #7: Feminisms and Change.
Parenthood has fundamentally and radically changed the way I relate to my body and what my body means to me. The process of becoming a parent made me engage with my body on its terms for the first time in years. It made me think about what my body and what my biological sex means to me, and it led me to question my gender identity. I chose to get pregnant, I wanted to do it. I had a pregnancy free of medical issues and a birth that went well. My kid is awesome. I found pregnancy and I am finding parenthood to be a very affirming Now, at 271, I’ve finally reclaimed my body. It is more than mine again; it’s me. I’m it. We’re the same entity. It’s a respite now, and a comfort. It’s like it was in the good parts of my childhood. I’m glad for the reunion. I feel more whole now, and more connected to the world. The reunion was hard-earned, though, and came unexpected. I am more comfortable now in my body than I have been since the age of twelve because I got pregnant and had a kid.
When I was young, before I hit puberty, I ran wild. I climbed trees. I climbed onto the roofs of houses and jumped off, fearless. I wrestled with boys on my street and beat them because I was strong and wiry. My memory of my childhood is strange – mostly a handful of memories so vivid they feel like flashbacks, seemingly disconnected from each other. There is no clear narrative, but there is a physicality to them that still remains. I feel my childhood more than I remember it: sweat, strain, euphoric bursts of energy. The rush of wind squealing past my ears as I sprinted impossibly fast down the street. The harsh quiet sound of skin on asphalt when I fell off a bike. My childhood, both the best and the worst of it, was lived through my body. I was my body, then.
Puberty changed everything. Breasts and hips came. Suddenly I was chubby and round instead of whip-thin. I moved differently, couldn’t run the same way. And I was looked at. Wrestling with the boys on my street turned tentative and threatening in ways I didn’t fully understand. My parents started monitoring what I did, what I wore. I hadn’t realized until they started discouraging me from cutting my hair short and wearing boy’s clothes that my rowdy rugged tomboyishness from the year or two before had been merely tolerated. It was a profoundly confusing and troubling thing to me. My memories of adolescence are clearer than of childhood, but mostly because they are more cerebral, and they are more cerebral because puberty made my body a site of conflict, and confusion, and danger. There was a lot of not-so-great stuff going on at home, too. I didn’t have the resources or support to grapple with the newfound strangeness of my body, so I retreated from it. I pushed it aside. I made it not really me. I trained myself not to pay attention to what my body wanted. I stopped running wild and grew mouthy and sharp-tongued instead.
For years my body has been an inconvenience more than anything else. I kept thinking of it as this grossly inefficient mechanism. Like, really, I have to eat four times a day? It struck me as a design flaw. I avoided mirrors; all I saw when I looked in them were expectations I knew I wasn’t living up to. Sometimes when I saw a picture of myself I found the contours of my body and face surprising. In a very real sense I had forgotten what I looked like. I barely explored my sexuality. I kept everyone at arm’s length in high school out of fear of a life-derailing pregnancy (they were common where I grew up and I really, really, had to get out of there). But in college it wasn’t all that different. I had tried so hard not to pay attention to my physical wants and preferences that I have spent most of my adult life going through the motions in sex rather than actually enjoying it. I fell into sex and relationships without much thought about what I wanted from them. Mostly I just wanted to impress my partner by making them feel good.
Before I got pregnant, I’d never had much contact with pregnant people or babies. I had gotten to a place where I felt mentally and emotionally ready to be a parent, but I grossly underestimated the physical toll pregnancy takes on you. I spent my adult life working too hard, exhausting myself and depleting myself to the point where I would get one nasty cold after another. I sometimes went twelve hours working straight in grad school without even stopping to eat. I wasn’t denying myself, I was just so disconnected from my bodily needs that I didn’t actually realize I was hungry until I was done with just this one last set of analyses. Getting pregnant threw me for a loop because pregnancy has a physical urgency to it that demands that you listen to your body. The first trimester fatigue was brutal. I missed deadline after deadline. Somewhere around the third or fourth important deadline, the importance of the deadlines lost their sting. For the first time in my life, my body was in charge and I was along for the ride. Everything else had to wait. Pregnancy was absolutely fascinating to me. It was incredibly anxiety producing too, what with the specter of all the thing that could possibly go wrong, but mostly I sat on my couch just feeling it. Feeling tired for no reason, or hungry again, or having to pee but not wanting to haul myself upright. I would count the fetus kicking when they got big enough to feel.
Pregnancy was all-consuming, and it felt like a very private thing: not even my partner knew what it felt like because it wasn’t his body doing all this work. It was mine. It was me.
But the thing about female bodies is they’re never private. There were constant well-meaning but intrusive questions: morning sickness? Weight gain? Can I touch your belly? I hated that everyone loved that I was pregnant. I hated how visible it made me, and I hate the visibility because it was so gendered. The constant chatter of mommyhood viscerally rubbed me the wrong way, and it got worse when we found out I was carrying a female fetus. The moment someone referred to my unborn child as a princess I regretted having told anyone I was even pregnant. Like puberty, it was a moment in life where all I anyone saw of me was the changes my body went through, changes that signaled gendered expectations and roles. It was a strange time, because I was enthralled with myself and the pregnancy but at the same time I was deeply unsettled by how people reacted to my body. The thing is, my old strategy of just pretending my body didn’t exist wasn’t an option. Pregnancy is too demanding. It’s not the sort of thing you can ignore. And beyond that, this time around I really wanted to take of my body. I wanted to indulge it and revel in it and treat it well.
The link between the way my body was objectified and the way that objectification gendered it is incredibly obvious in hindsight, but when you’ve spent your entire adult life ignoring something it takes awhile to learn to pay attention to it. It is clear to me now that the reason it felt profoundly violating when people touched me and cooed and talked about mothers and daughters and the special connections they have was because society inevitably reads a pregnant body as a woman’s body. And the reason that is violating to me is because I am not a woman. When you are that viscerally uncomfortable with the assumptions society makes about you, you have two choices: find a way to convince yourself nothing is going on or tell society to go fuck itself. Being misgendered was ubiquitous. It was so entrenched and so unrelenting that I did not for years realize that it was even happening. In some dark little corner of my mind I convinced myself that if I didn’t have a notable body to gender that I wouldn’t be gendered as a person, so if I ignored my body maybe everyone else would too and I could just be me. But being pregnant made my body inherently important to me. My relationship to my body was no longer something I was willing to sacrifice.
The change wasn’t that I became genderqueer. The change was that the immediacy of my connection to my body made it possible for me to reconsider what gender meant to me. It was important for me to find a way to be visibly pregnant and feel masculine at the same time. These days, now that my kid is out and about in the world, it’s sometimes important for me to be visibly masculine and feel like a particularly tender and feminine parent at the same time. Realizing that my body doesn’t determine my gender has liberated me to like my body. Now that one doesn’t determine the other they’re no longer at war. I am just me.
What’s especially peculiar about all this is that pregnancy does indeed change your body. I have stretch marks now. I went up a whole cup size, and my hips broadened. My waist shrank. I am curvier, more conventionally womanly in appearance than I ever was before. But the comfort in my own skin is paradoxically unshakeable now.
1I’m turning 31 this week, FYI, but on re-reading this every word still rings true.