4.30.2009

Out of Context

Yesterday, while walking back from Qdoba with my big ol' belly, I ran into one of the librarians who said,

"You're not allowed here. You're out of context!"

Sure am I, 'mom.' :)

Lately I've been interviewed a lot for student projects. The most recent one was a project on pregnant bodies in public spaces. The project was based on the assumption that pregnant bodies were 'public property.' This assumption stems from the reaction of the general public to a pregnant woman. Complete strangers will touch your belly, give you unsolicited advice, and generally make sure you are taking care of yourself.

Now, if you look at this reaction from a very political stand point, you would come to the conclusion that the pregnant woman is 'public property.' And while you can argue that every person is a political entity, that isn't how we, as individuals, react to the world around us.

When someone sees a pregnant belly they know that a new, unique individual is growing inside. The urge to touch the belly isn't about controlling the pregnant woman, but about confirming what they already know to be true: a new person is growing in there.

Plus there’s great excitement in the chance of feeling fetal movement from the outside; the confirmation of suspicion. Even so, the vast majority of people will ask before they touch. Some will reach out and let their hand hover until they receive permission and will be disappointed, but not upset if permission is denied. Of the many people who have touched my belly, only three people have not asked permission.

So what about all the advice? Again, the advice isn’t about controlling the pregnant woman. It’s about lending a hand. Much of the unsolicited advice is well meaning. It’s just someone trying to help out. And it isn’t as common or as embarrassing as some stories out there would lead you to believe. When it does happen, all it requires is a smile and a thank you. You’ve done your good deed for the day. The person offering the advice was only trying to be helpful, even if the advice was crazy or contradictory to your doctor's orders.

And all those questions about whether or not you're taking care of yourself! They aren't as common as you would be led to believe. The first thing one person will ask another in a basic greeting is how they're doing, whether that person is having a baby or not. (My friend Sam has the best reply to these sorts of questions: "Fair to partly cloudy." This has led to a wide variety of weather metaphors used at work.)

So have I run into anyone trying to ‘control’ my pregnant body? Thankfully, no. Of course, that can’t be said for everyone. There are women who have to deal with well intentioned comments that they are wasting their youth. Or vicious comments that they are ‘polluting’ the world by giving birth. I have a friend who was physically pushed by someone trying to make a statement about pregnancy. How cowardly is that?

Which beings me back to context. I work at a university. Even as little as five years ago, a baby bump was verboten. The librarian in question had her youngest child during those days and many of the older faculty members are of the opinion that pregnancy is out of context on a university campus. That hasn't stopped the younger members of campus faculty, staff, and students from having children and being proud of their pregnant bodies and children. Even an overcast day threatening torrents of rain will seen couples and their children all over campus and especially at the Alumni Center (because that's where the duckies live!).

Pregnancy and motherhood does something for women, something I wasn’t a part of even with my miscarriage. It makes us part of a larger sorority. It’s a secret club the childless will never be a part of or understand. My pregnancy has highlighted that for a lot of my coworkers, who feel like they are privy to a larger conspiracy of love but can't enter into it on their own. Plenty of them are fine just the way they are, being of an older persuasion. But the younger ones are rethinking their assumptions about everything from marriage to parenthood.

The clarion call of being 'traditional' and opting for marriage and parenthood is seeping back into the culture. And not a moment too soon. It's time that we force the world to make room for us instead of making room for it. On a campus full of context, its a radical step. And that's why we stay in academia long after graduation. We want to be radical. Context, here we come!

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