The pudding club: on pregnancy politics and writing

All sorts of things can happen to you when you’re pregnant; there are stories of women losing hair, teeth, balance. For my part, I lost my words: I was hit with a comprehensive case of writer’s block.

I knew in the pit of my stomach that if I sat down and tried to type, nothing would come. Formerly, I had sent out pitches awkwardly yet enthusiastically, come home from work ready to try and coax words out of the laptop at the kitchen table, and jealously shored up antisocial weekend hours to write. Now I simply tumbled off the bus and onto the sofa to watch My Kitchen Rules each evening, my anxiety for the contestants’ pasta disasters temporarily looming larger than the fears centred on the contents of my womb. (Stop making ravioli, cooking show contestants! It rarely ends well.) Outside of the realm of work, I couldn’t manage anything more complex than a status update.

As someone who had always been healthy and able-bodied, it had never occurred to me that a physical change might affect my thinking, or my ability to convey those thoughts. Nevertheless, the mere notion of writing exhausted me. My faith in the mind-body split, a clean line between my physical and mental selves, was irretrievably shaken.

A few times I wondered whether, instead of attempting to wrestle with matters political with a capital p, I could try to document the strange new experience of carrying another living creature. Maria Tumarkin wrote recently that the ‘kind of personal essay written in English that bugs me the most seems built to elicit a triumphant “me too!” out of the reader’. Pieces on pregnancy seemed prone to fall into this category: morning sickness, amiright ladies? I knew that the personal was political, of course, but this mantra is arguably being stretched; media observers speak of a ‘first person industrial complex’ or ‘personal essay economy’. However, it’s also true that women’s experiences are more likely than men’s to be dismissed as not deserving of serious attention. In her book Who Cooked Adam Smith’s Dinner, Katrine Marçal observed:

Shakespeare’s Prince Hamlet can embody a universal question. To be or not to be, is to be like him. We all learn to relate to him, even women. Hamlet’s utterances are a human experience…To give birth is, however, not a human experience. It’s a female experience. That’s how they’ve taught us to view the world…No one reads books about childbirth in order to understand human existence.

During the first few months of pregnancy, my thoughts seemed to collapse on themselves. The personal was nauseated, the political seemed beyond my grasp and all I wanted to do was sleep. Writing about being knocked up risks banality, true, but in my fog of anxiety and fatigue I clung to the banal with relief.

Pregnancy can be all-absorbing. In all the bustle of scans and appointments and angst about what not to eat, drink or do, it is easy to become single-mindedly focused on the self, as well as a new and growing other. I began to feel at some distance from the wider world, sealed off in my own expanding girth. It was helpful to step back and think more about this strange new state. Certainly, being pregnant carries consequences which are graver than a hobbyist’s temporary inability to thinkpiece.

I was acutely aware of my own luck. This was a planned, wanted baby and I was healthy, financially secure and well cared for. I also knew that such good fortune was unthinkably fragile. A previous pregnancy had ended in miscarriage halfway through the first trimester: an entirely statistically normal, unremarkable event which caused considerable quiet grief.

During this second confinement I worried endlessly about my future offspring’s welfare. There are (as I quickly learned, leafing nervously through the ‘Complicated Pregnancy’ section in What to Expect When You’re Expecting) a myriad of things that can go wrong for both mother and baby; there’s a reason so many women in old novels die in childbirth. In researching ways to prepare for birth, I came across one website that posited that women with particularly large babies did not necessarily need caesarean sections, as nature didn’t give you more than you could deal with. Reflecting that nature callously doled out ectopic pregnancies, placenta praevia, pre-eclampsia and stillbirths (not to mention, say, incurable cancer), I concluded that this reasoning was arrant bullshit. Nature might be many things, but she wasn’t benevolent.

Pregnancy is self-evidently political in that it concerns power: it’s a time when a woman might be denied an abortion, abused by her partner, discriminated against in the workplace, damned as a burden on the welfare state. It’s also political at a more abstract level, though. A pregnant woman nurtures an entity which is totally reliant on her; a state I began to see as preparation for a relationship based on the dependence which is so fundamental a part of the human condition.

Part of this condition, of course, is that we are animals: gestation, birth and breastfeeding are humbling reminders of this. Humans are unusual mammals, though. Not only do we need to care for our elderly, but our young are born with no capacity whatsoever to survive on their own. One evening, as one does, I watched a ridiculously cute online video of a baby pygmy hippopotamus taking his first swim. At only a few weeks’ age, he was able to toddle down to the water’s edge, swim confidently, and walk out again. I reflected that my own baby, at a similar age, would be unable even to roll over. Of course, humans ultimately learn skills, such as abstract reasoning, which are forever denied to Obi the baby hippo. Nevertheless, our infants’ vulnerability is striking – and terrifying.

Human babies’ neediness has wide implications. In his book Why Marx Was Right, Terry Eagleton pronounced that humans ‘are all ‘‘prematurely’’ born’ in that, ‘[f]or a long time after birth they are…in need of a prolonged period of nurturing’. Eagleton noted that some psychoanalysts see this ‘unusually prolonged experience of care’ as the cause of much havoc in later life: ‘If babies could get up and walk away at birth, a good deal of adult misery would be avoided, and not only in the sense that there would be no bawling brats to disturb our sleep’. However, there are also political consequences of this need for care; Eagleton observed that ‘infants very quickly imbibe some notion of what caring for others means…later on, they may be able to identify a whole way of life as callously indifferent to human needs’. When we refer to radical free market policies as ‘inhuman’, this is not all just lefty hyperbole.

I thought about all of this as I lay in my comfortable groove on the sofa. Of course, I knew about the importance of interdependence in an abstract sort of way. I had read the right books about the importance of care work; had long jettisoned my rather nineties feminism-is-all-about-career-progression intuitions; wrote articles which dutifully underlined the need to value the work performed by parents; felt a vast and blurry sense of gratitude and guilt to my own mother and father; understood theoretically that looking after an infant was demanding. However, I knew that I was on the edge of something very new: a time when the abstract would become concrete.

Things were already feeling pretty real: as my constant, silently kicking companion reminded me, I was no longer alone in my own body. As Eula Biss notes in her book On Immunity, ‘[o]ne of our functions, as women, is to be divided’. She writes that pregnancy ‘confounded my personal understanding of the distinction between self and nonself’. Other distinctions were blurring, for this was the strange limbo period that separates non-parenthood from parenthood.

I began to see the fracturing of my mind-body split as preparation for a much bigger change. There would soon be a time when a person containing my genetic material, built within my body, would exist in the world as a vulnerable being apart from me. Human beings are social animals and can never really be self-contained units; already, those I loved drifted about in the world apart from me. Nevertheless, the coming separation felt freighted with significance. Pregnancy, I realised, did not cut me off from the wider world at all but enmeshed me in it more tightly than ever.

Months passed. The moment of division was coming; suddenly it was mere weeks away. I was excited, over-anxious, unable to sleep. I didn’t know what the end of this particular narrative would look like. Perhaps there would be no end. All I could do was wait to see what came next.


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Sarah Burnside

Sarah Burnside lives in Perth and writes about history, politics, policy and culture. She tweets at @saraheburnside

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  1. This is kinda validating. I’m trying to develop as a writer while battling a 17-year chronic illness. It’s a demoralising trip trying to write through the inflammation and brainfog. Makes rewriting and revision so much harder. This morning I’ve been unsure whether I have the ovaries to continue trying to navigate the submission process. It becomes easier after a while to decide to just write for yourself. Putting yourself out there on the line is a vulnerable act at the best of times. It requires a robust body to be able to roll with the rejection punches. This piece reminds me why it’s so damn difficult.

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