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.