By Lyz Lenz
The first time it happened I was in a grocery store buying California rolls. The cashier ringing me up looked at my obviously pregnant stomach and back to the food and said, “Are you sure you should be eating these?”
I grew up in an Evangelical Fundamentalist home. My sisters and I were taught that being a wife and mother was our ultimate career, that our bodies were dangerous and could lead men to sin, that our virginity was the source of our value. But I had left all of that behind when I went to college and embraced feminism, or so I thought.
In the years between leaving home and becoming pregnant, I graduated from college and got married. I viewed myself as a strong independent woman fully equipped to make her own choices. Yet the moment my belly began to show, people, even strangers, began to demand ownership over me. Like the young cashier, with her blue hair and nose piercing scowling at my food choices.
“Pregnant women shouldn’t eat sushi,” she explained as if I hadn’t been handed sheet after sheet of handouts on how to behave, how to eat, how to conduct myself in society now that I was pregnant. As if I wasn’t a grown-ass woman with a master’s degree.
I crammed a roll into my mouth as I walked out the door and then waved to the cashier.
It happened a lot more after that—people telling me how to sit, how to sleep, how to dress and debating over whether I should or should not be allowed to go to our local 24-hour grocery store at two in the morning for ham.
And then I had a daughter and I saw it even more. People telling me what she should wear, buying her rattles shaped like lipstick, and princess crowns. I read debates about whether babies should be naked in photoshoots (too immodest) and I cringed at glittery onesies that declared her to be a “Diva” or a “Little Heartbreaker.” My brother-in-law asked that I not nurse in front of him because it made him uncomfortable. A friend of mine declared that talking about my nursing made her feel uncomfortable because she didn’t want her children hearing “immodest conversations.”
In her book Of Woman Born published in 1976, poet Adrienne Rich wrote, “The experience of maternity and the experience of sexuality have both been channeled to serve male interests…” It’s a truth I don’t think I would have understood before I was pregnant. I began reading Rich during late night feedings, trying to understand suddenly why the act of pregnancy and motherhood made me feel like my body was no longer mine—as if the world was full of hands touching me, prodding me, pushing me from within and without. I felt I had suddenly become not a person, but just a vessel and it made me angry. And as I read, I changed.
In the tussle over my pregnant body, I understood for the first time what choice and bodily autonomy really meant. I changed my position on abortion, on access to contraception, and even the ways we view the female body. I made a video for work when 12 weeks pregnant and I joked about girls who wear sexy nurse costumes for Halloween: “We don’t need to see all of that,” I said. I would never say that now. The discussion of the appropriateness of a woman’s body as justified by someone else’s gaze is so abhorrent to me because it’s what I felt every time I nursed in public or wore a two-piece post pregnancy. It’s what I feel whenever people criticize me for allowing my toddlers to run naked in our backyard or when family members chastise my daughter for accidentally showing her undies in public
Being a mother made me a feminist because it brought me face to face with ugly truths about society I would have rather not seen before—truths about women, our bodies and how society values us. And they are truths I cannot escape because they face me every time I pull my pants up over my sagging skin or read an article about “mom bods.” For so many years I thought Fundamentalist Christianity was the only thing that wanted to control me; it took becoming a mother to realize that everyone does. As a society, we’d rather do anything than let a woman have possession over herself.
Eating that California roll felt more transgressive than the first time I skipped church or dared to say out loud that I doubted the existence of God. I am not the first woman who’s had a feminist awakening coincide with her pregnancy. Third Wave Feminism co-founder Amy Richardson notes that pregnancy is one of the first times women feel entitled to do things like ask for space and rest. As a result, pregnancy and motherhood can provide an awakening of self and power.
All too often the organizing principles of our lives are based on our own experiences. Patricia Yeager, in an essay titled “My Father’s Penis,” argues that feminism should move beyond the experience and “question our own tropes about the patriarchy and the politics of their effects.” It’s a directive that serves as a warning: when our understandings of the world are limited to ourselves, they are limited. As a result, I hope that while my experience with motherhood was the beginning of my understanding of feminism, it won’t be contained by it.
Lyz’s writing has appeared in the Washington Post, New York Times, New York Magazine, Pacific Standard and more. She lives in Iowa with her two kids and husband and you can find her on the internet @lyzl.