It’s barely begun yet but already the gender conditioning of parenthood is unfurling its tentacles, partly towards Babby but initially towards me. Of course the first question EVERYBODY asks (even, surprisingly, very gender-aware and feminist friends) is “Do you know what you’re having yet?”, to which the correct answer is not, apparently, “good news, the tests seem to show it’s human” but the baby’s sex, apparently accompanied by monologue about How This Makes Me Feel. If you chose not to find out, the assumption is that you’re saving is for a “surprise” at birth. Considering almost nobody I’ve ever met seems to consider the possibility of a visibly intersex baby, I do wonder what the “surprise” would be? Horns? A tail? Or, as another parent mentioned to me, the impact of hormones on baby boys giving them unexpectedly gigantic testicles!? I suppose that may surprise a few people. Now, I don’t blame people for asking this question, it’s a pure social nicety like “how was your holiday?” or “doing anything at the weekend?”. We ask these questions to block out embarrassing telepathic thoughts! (RIP Douglas Adams) But the fact that this is the first and superlative social nicety question about every new human should, I think, afford a moment’s pause. What is between a person’s legs tells you incredibly little about them, but in the case of babies it seems sometimes to be all people need or want to know. To me, that is very sad.
While I’ve been relieved that, as yet, nobody’s made any truly crass remarks about my woman-ness, I can sense the potential energy of cissexism waiting to thrust its way into my psyche like a particularly annoying penis. I don’t hate penises or anything, they’re perfectly fine features (one in particular was quite useful in helping form Babby, after all), but since all thrusting metaphors are inevitably phallic, one might as well be blunt, no?
Penises aside – and many excellent pregnancies indeed arise in exactly that kind of scenario – my possession of a womb might deem me a woman in the world’s eyes, but it’s not that which bothers me so much as the world’s puzzling obsession with telling me that I am one every second of the day. I have glumly predicted that clear visible evidence of womb-ownership will make this many times worse. This has very little to do with my personal identity, since I have very little personal investment in Being A Woman. I’m kind of there by default, because there isn’t an option which suits me better. I did identify as genderqueer for some time but it felt like a poor fit, and oddly appropriative, an identity I didn’t do enough to earn. So while I don’t much mind that I count as a cis woman for general social & political purposes, or as female for purely biological ones, I really don’t like the constant feeling of being measured up for a box I never wanted to be in in the first place.
Oh well, you may say, isn’t this just more of the same micro-aggression that every woman or female-presenting person gets? And to that I have to say no, because I have, oddly and with extreme good fortune, never really had to put up with much of this. I know very well that street harassment and snide remarks happen all the time, because I see them happening to other women (friends or strangers) right in front of my eyes! But I can count on the fingers of one slightly polydactylous hand the number of times in my life that I’ve ever had any such aggression directed towards me that I was aware of. Now, I’m quite aware that I could just not be noticing it, because I am fairly obtuse as a rule, but I do think I’m relatively good at people-watching in public and I do notice things my companions often don’t, which suggests it isn’t just that. If I were less brazenly arrogant, I might take it as a universal comment on my attractiveness (because we know for a fact that women deemed ugly are never harassed, hassled, groped, flirted with or anything like that, right? Right?), but I don’t believe it’s anything of the sort, not least because I think I’m of perfectly average attractiveness by most measures (I would totally do my clone/parallel universe self, although that may be more to do with my personal combo of laziness & sluttiness than any sort of objective hotness. But I digress). Others have suggested that I radiate a fierceness which scares people, and I freely admit that’s a very appealing idea, but I must sadly conclude that that’s probably not it either, as people often tend to be pretty aggressive with those they find intimidating, especially if they don’t know why. If anything, my assumption about my situation is that I am usually in the company of others when out & about in public spaces, most often with a man, so I make a poor target, yet even this is an incomplete answer as I often go out on my own for work. But however I’ve managed to create this invisibility cloak for myself, I like living inside it, dammit! I don’t want to be more noticeable, not least because being clocked as a pregnant woman strikes me as a different sort of attention from bog-standard woman-issue attention. I’m not too worried about swearing loudly at arsehole strangers (that’s the most appealing bit!), but it might be difficult not to grab & twist the wrists of intrusively bump-fondling work colleagues, and I don’t want to be mean to the well-meaning people who won’t let me politely refuse to sit in their seats.
This might be a worry over nothing of course, and I might turn out to have been a moderately invisible pregnant person as well, but I’m a great believer in expecting the worst so anything else is a pleasant surprise.
And in one sense, it is already happening: every time I see or hear something directed towards me-as-a-pregnant-person generally, it is so often “as a mother”, “being a mother”, or, most vomit-inducing, “a mummy”. I firmly believe that addressing any pregnant person as “Mummy” is – like addressing a waiter as “garçon” – an offence which should be punishable by death. If you do this, then no matter how kind your intentions, you are a cunt and I hate you with the burning rage of 1000 suns. So yeah, I’m a little to the left on that one. And not just because I don’t want to turn into Manny’s parents (“Moo-ma” & “Moo-pa”) from ‘Black Books’, although that seems like a fine reason to me. Even the pukey-pink & deterministic NHS breastfeeding posters are getting a little unbearable, and I’m sure worse is to come on that score. So that’s why “nature gave [me] boobs”, is it? Really? I HADN’T NOTICED. If it were a claim that “God” had been handing out boobs for child-feeding, people would complain and rightly so, but “Nature” (as much of a quasi-religious concept as any, since it’s an appeal to a higher power here) is just fine because it’s not faith-specific? As a religious (FSVO) person, my primary response to this is to want it all to fuck right off with the post-Catholic natural law arguments1. If you’re going to co-opt my body into your speculative deterministic philosophy, at least be honest about it. Sex & gender determinism is a striking example of the naturalistic fallacy, yet I remain surprised by the number of people who oppose naturalistic fallacies, yet appear to let those ones pass without remark.
So I don’t really know where to start with resisting this stuff. There’s so much of it all and I don’t even hate all of it. For example, it’s really nice when people spot my ‘Baby On Board’ badge & offer me a seat on the bus and I am certainly grateful for the consideration. But as a point in a hierarchy of needs, pregnancy is complicated. I’d like to know how often men carrying or otherwise minding small children get offered seats on transport, compared to women doing the same. I don’t know how much of this is gendered and how much is medicalised. And then I realise that in a world where both are so intrinsically linked, trying to tease them apart is probably a fool’s errand.
In short, being the Vessel Parent is an interesting social experiment, but I don’t actually want to be treated like a vessel. I understand that’s enough of a problem for many women already.
1: The appeal to Nature goes back at least to Thomas Aquinas’ teleological approach to the world; but more recent philosophers including David Hume and Steven Pinker have argued strongly that the sort of naturalistic deductions favoured by Aquinas are invalid.
Pinker talks about the naturalistic fallacy here: http://pinker.wjh.harvard.edu/books/tbs/media_articles/2002_10_30_upi.html