Friday, September 02, 2011

More than one but not quite two

Today my freshman composition students are discussing what it means to be a man or a woman, in preparation for their first major writing assignment. In honor of Inga turning 6 months old today, I decided to do the writing assignment myself. I'm sharing it with my students to give them ideas for their upcoming paper. Inga is coming with me to class today; I hope she will add something tangible to our discussion!

What does it mean to be a woman?
Dr. Rixa Freeze
September 2, 2011


In kindergarten math class, I learned that 1 + 1 = 2. In grade school, I learned to conjugate verbs. I am. She is. You are. In high school biology, I learned about meiosis and mitosis, how our genetic code divides and recombines like great spiral zippers. In college, I learned about the political theory of individualism, about Cartesian dualism, and about feminist theories of the body. Yet none of this prepared me for the seismic shock of becoming a mother and suddenly discovering that I was more than one, but not quite two.

When I was pregnant for the first time, I felt a strange sense of recognition for my expanding body. My belly stretched, my breasts swelled, my skin tightened. I felt, for the first time, entirely myself. This, I thought, is what a woman’s body really is. It was a great discovery, as if I had circumnavigated the globe and split the atom and solved global hunger in the course of an afternoon.

Still, I could not ignore the little being inside of me. It first felt like champagne bubbles, then a school of minnows, then finally, like an actual baby. I could feel head and legs and butt. It hiccuped at predictable times. It kicked and punched, stretched and rolled. (It? She? He?) There was a person inside me, hidden behind skin, muscle, and water. This person was half me and half my husband, completely reliant upon my body but entirely its own self.

We think of birth as the great dividing moment that separates mother-fetus into mother and child. I’ve heard parents and doctors say “You’re on your own now” when they cut the umbilical cord. But I think of my third child’s birth and I can’t point to a definitive moment when I (pregnant woman) became me (mother) and her (baby). When did we become not-one-but-two—was it when her head emerged from my body? Was it when her legs and toes slipped out? Was it when, a few seconds after her birth, she lost her color and I gave her the first breaths of life? Even those breaths were not hers. They were mine, passed from my lungs to hers in the most intimate and urgent embrace either of us had ever known.

So I am not convinced that the act of birth marks the line between one and two. After birth, when our bodies were no longer tied together by umbilical cord and placenta, my babies still relied upon me for survival. My breasts were literally their lifeline. My youngest baby, six months old today, is still only nursing. I cannot leave her for more than a few hours at a time. Her rolls of fat, her dimpled bottom, even her hefty double chin came directly from my body.

We are more than one, but not quite two. I haven’t discovered the calculus to describe where one self ends and another begins. I can only notice when the boundaries of personhood blur: how I can’t stop kissing the soft folds of her neck, how I wake at night moments before she does, how my body turns blood into milk into baby.

32 comments:

  1. What a beautiful composition. Thank you for sharing. I'm sure your students appreciate your enthusiasm and honesty.

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  2. "I felt, for the first time, entirely myself. This, I thought, is what a woman’s body really is." YES!

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  3. I really don't want to start anything, just comment that I've frequently thought about this and can't understand how pro-abortion women can stand by the "my body, my choice" thought because it's really not just their body. It's so much more complicated and gray area than that. I don't think there's a clear answer, but it's definitely not as cut and dry as either side of the debate want it to be, and your writing expresses perfectly why that is. I knew the instant I felt my baby kick me that it was not just my body, it was our body and I had more to think about than my own wants and desires.

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  4. Cassandra, nobody is "pro-abortion." I'm going to leave the rest of it be, so as not to start anything.

    Rixa, this was lovely. I have a nearly six year old and a one year old, and I've been thinking a lot lately about how physical motherhood is, both how much we give to our kids of our own bodies but also how much control we take of their bodies, to clean them and feed them and teach them, slowly, slowly letting them go.

    Lastly, I think I've mentioned before that I was in the Peace Corps, and at one of the in-service trainings we did with our counterparts, we did a thought exercise on the role of gender. We had to finish the sentences, "I'm glad I'm a woman because ..." and "If I were a man, I'd ..." The differences between the answers of the young American women and the older Paraguayan women were illuminating and confounding.

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  5. I would love to have you as a teacher! What a great piece.

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  6. While I appreciate this piece today, as a woman who has given birth and breastfed a baby, to be honest thiss would have completely grossed me out as an 18 year old college freshman... I did NOT want that kind of detail about my professors' personal lives! :)

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  7. As an academic myself, I would be extraordinarily cautious about mentioning my physical body, and particularly my breasts, to students. I'm not saying it's fair or right, but it takes only one student to complain. Your position, as an adjunct, is particularly unprotected. Not sure if it's different in Canada, but in the states, sexual harassment is defined by the individual who feels uncomfortable so even if you and your administrators believe the piece is appropriate, if an 18-year-old freshman feels uncomfortable, then it meets the legal definition of harassment.

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  9. This put into words what I felt from the moment I knew I was pregnant, until now (mother to a beautiful three month old nursling).

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  10. beautiful! I'm newly pregnant as a gestational surrogate for friends of mine so I'm sitting here in a hormone-induced sob fest. :)
    I felt like Mother Earth while pregnant with my daughter. I felt connected to every mother who ever came before me. I feel that I am unusually negative about my body all other times, but as my middle swelled full of life I also felt more like a woman- and more PROUD of my body- than I ever had before.
    Being a pregnant and nourishing a child at your breasts is above and beyond any other task we could ever hope to take on as women.
    <3

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  11. It takes an incredible amount of hubris and downright arrogance to compare your discovery of "yourself" through pregnancy to the eradication of global hunger and the splitting of the atom. Can you even hear yourself? Congratulations, you reproduced. Join pretty much everything else on the planet.

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  12. What a lovely composition. I know I still very much feel physically connected to my daughter 2.5 yrs after her birth. I still don't want to sleep apart from her because that time, sharing breath still feels to needed by both of us.

    I'm not sure there is ever a time when, at least from a mother's perspective, the child is completely separate. The tie lengthens and stretches to invisibility, but it's still there.

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  13. This is beautiful and so true! I miss that feeling of more than 1 but not quite 2.

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  14. so beautiful and so true. my daughter has been SUPER attached from day one and even now at 14 months we still joke that she doesn't know that she and I are two separate beings.

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  15. If your child isn't really their own person, are you still sort of part of your mom? This seems a so silly to me. The miracle of birth is the creation of a new life, not the extension of your own into a satellite being. Though if this is how birth radicals feel, then no wonder there is such a lackadaisical attitude when infants die needlessly because of undertrained midwives and sloppy prenatal care.

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  16. That was totally awesome professor! Reminds me of the Spice Girls song 2 become 1. U R so deep.

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  17. Really lovely Rixa. It put into words some of my own memories of pregnancy and the early days of breastfeeding. It may sound hokey to some, but I remember the profound sense of wonder I felt when I meditated on the fact that I was growing another person ... it's pretty wild when you think about it! Thank you for sharing!

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  18. That was beautiful, Rixa. You've put into words feelings that I have experienced myself several times. I clearly remember the feeling that my body was no longer truly my own when I was pregnant. I have looked in wonder at my babies, realizing that every bit of them have come from me in some way. It's not hubris; it's awe at the miracle that life is. Even though it's happened a few billion times already, it's only happened just that once for my child and myself.

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  19. I'm just jealous that you can take your daughter with you when you're teaching.

    As a graduate student I was forbidden to bring my 9-month-old daughter to a class I was taking. My babysitter had quit without notice and I had no one to help me out, but the prof said it would be "inappropriate and unprofessional" for me to bring my daughter and that I should "find someone to leave her with." I would not be allowed to enter the room if I brought her with me. Unexcused absences were not permitted and if I missed class without a medical excuse, I would not be allowed to pass the course. The course was compulsory . . . and that was the end of my academic career.

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  20. That is beautiful! ~T~

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  21. Rixa, lovely post, as always. I think the beauty of being an attached parent is that the bond does become more elastic and the separation more gradual. It's not just the case of the "fourth trimester," which is very real, as you wrote, in the need of the infant for nourishment from its mother, but also beyond that. I can feel the physical connection to my children even now, when they're in grade school and junior high. The cord has stretched, for sure, and for that reason they can be more independent than most, but the bond is very strong. This is not to say that other kinds of parenting don't achieve a strong bond, only that this is what has worked for me.

    Anonymous (the one who couldn't bring her baby to class) - if you're in the U.S., there was a recent discussion of Title IX provisions that may be relevant to you - or others in your situation - on the Lamaze Science and Sensibility blog (http://www.scienceandsensibility.org/?tag=the-feminist-breeder). It makes me very sad to think of an educational institution impeding women's education and careers.

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  22. what a beautifull text! i love the beginning!!!
    You put exactly the words to things i have often felt: how wonderfull that my milk and only that creates this growing chubby baby!!! it's incredible!!!
    for the chinese the milk is energetically like blood. so it's funny that you say, your bloud becomes milk becomes baby.
    take care,
    joanna

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  23. Quite some time ago I read that fetal cells can remain in a Mother's blood stream for up to 27... or 28 years. This seemed a likely physical/temporal explanation of some of the spiritual connectivity possible and usually existant between willing Mothers and their children.

    I think it's also sad that those who do not yet know the discoveries and joys you have so beautifully described, would think it necessary and/or appropriate to judge and then comment on what they do not understand... and then to do so without owning who they are.... ahwell... I will not sorrow overmuch for those without a face.

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  24. Beautiful Rixa - as always. Although I think it's funny that this post, of all things, brought the crazies out (and obviously someone who dosen't understand metaphor). Cheers to you for totally ignoring the haters.

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  25. Thanks for sharing this.

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  26. Rixa, I want to thank you for articulating so beautifully something that has struck me throughout each of my pregnancies--especially that first one in which I was a graduate student in philosophy, tasked daily with contemplating issues like personhood and identity and being. Pregnancy and parenting complicates these topics in a way I think that no other human experience does. I appreciate the ways in which you kept these complications "in play" throughout this piece.

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  27. Great post! As a mom of two beautiful children-- and as someone who was kidnapped, tortured and raped.. and later aborted the products of that travesty, I have a great understanding of the joy of voluntary motherhood - the beautiful bonds of which you speak. And yet I have an equal understanding of the pain of forced pregnancy, the bondage of pain ,fear and the travesty of emotion that occurs when motherhood is not of choice.

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  28. i love this! after my son was born i kept thinking "1+1=1?!?". more than 1 but not quite 2. and my milk just let down reading about Inga's double chin made from you, as my chunky 3.5 month old sleeps in our room.
    thanks for sharing! i love your blog. your birth stories and videos were so inspiring as i prepared for my home birth this past may.
    bless!

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  29. You know what's funny--my first pregnancy, I felt so "in my skin" in my pregnant body. My next two? Not so much. More ready to get it over with than reveling in the changes. (Probably doesn't help that I was having such troubles sleeping with pregnancy #3.)

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  30. Re: anon who couldn't bring their baby to class--seriously, that sucks. I'm really sorry about that.

    I don't regularly bring Inga--in fact, it will probably be the only time, since Eric watches the kids in the morning while I teach. I brought her specifically for the day we were talking about what it means to be men or women (we'd read several articles dealing with those topics and had an in-class discussion that day). I think it helped to have a live example in front of them when we were talking about these (sometimes abstract) ideas.

    Speaking of children and grad school, there was hostility in my particular department from two of the professors towards people with children. I wasn't pregnant at the time, but was actively trying (they didn't know this) and wow, you wouldn't believe the stuff they said! Honestly grad school is a great time to have kids; your schedule is super flexible and you're not under the intense scrutiny of a tenure-track position.

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  31. As another mother who has given CPR to her child, I can tell you... it doesn't end at birth. Lily was 5 months old the last time I breathed air from my lungs to hers, and it still feels just as sacred.

    Love the writing.

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