Yesterday I discovered a brilliant essay on The Rumpus: “On Pregnancy and Privacy and Fear” by Aubrey Hirsch. Hirsch values her privacy and is reluctant to let her pregnancy eclipse the other aspects of her identity; she uses silence to try to hang onto her “pre-pregnancy self” as long as possible.
I like that self. I like the way people speak to her, react to her. I don’t want things to change. I have enough friends with babies to know how this works. Once you let people know you’re pregnant, you’re entered into lots of conversations about your belly, your weight, your breasts and how you plan on using them, what medications you’ll take, and why you’re right or wrong about them. I don’t want to have these conversations. I like the kinds of conversations I already have.
I remember when the conversations around me began to change. There were three key questions that I was asked over and over — my answers to which would determine what kind of mother I would be — and how I would be judged. Would I give birth naturally or have a C-section? Would I breast feed or bottle feed? Would I use cloth diapers or disposable? I finally prepared a stock response — “We’ll see!” — which mostly worked to shuck off these pointed, only-one-right-answer questions. But my growing belly could not be shucked off — it was the invitation to all kinds of speculations and interrogations whether I wanted them or not.
But I was pregnant in 2010 and part of 2011, a different political climate than today. Privacy felt more … personal then. But Hirsch writes that
Part of this is political. If I’d gotten pregnant last year or next year I might feel differently. I might be dying for my co-workers to throw me a shower, but as it is now I feel fiercely protective of any scrap of privacy I can hang onto …
The conversations are all around me, the ones about what I can and cannot do with my uterus, my ovaries, which of my basic health care needs should be paid for, whether this or that opinion or act or prescription medication makes me a slut. My congressmen are having these conversations, the news pundits, my president, my friends …
I can’t believe that people are saying these things. That questions about my body, my choices, are even up for public commentary and public debate. I feel powerless, small. I want to tell everyone to stop, even the people that are on my side. I want to shout at them that this is none of their fucking business. It makes me angry. It makes me afraid.
For me, the questions about my body and my choices were asked on a much smaller scale. I was angry, but I was not afraid.
But I do fear the questions won’t stop once the baby is born (naturally or via C-section) or weaned (from breast or bottle) or potty trained (out of cloth or disposable diapers). Especially since Hirsch is a writer. Will she hire a nanny to give herself time to write? Will she forgo writing until her child is in preschool? Will she write about her child? Where will she draw the lines of privacy then?
In 2001 Graywolf Press published a Forum on privacy: The Private I: Privacy in a Public World, edited by Molly Peacock.
The first essay, “Privacy and Private States” by Janna Malamud Smith, lists four different kinds of privacy: solitude, anonymity, reserve and intimacy. The first two are self-explanatory — solitude is the most complete form of privacy, anonymity a more tentative one (it can be revoked — instantly — when one is recognized).
Reserve, Smith writes, is “forbearance, tact, restraint … Our state is private simply because we do not choose to reveal the full extent of what we feel, observe, think, or experience.” And intimacy is a private state because “in it people relax their public front either physically or emotionally or, occasionally, both … Intimate expressions occur in private because revelation makes people feel vulnerable. Imagine an intimate moment, then imagine it observed, and it changes.”
Pregnancy can remain private in solitude. But it cannot remain concealed by anonymity or reserve. It is a series of intimate moments that can’t help but be observed, and therefore changed.
But perhaps the rest of us can practice reserve (forbearance! tact! restraint!) around those who crave privacy — whether they be pregnant women, any women, any men — anyone.