On Pregnancy and Privacy and Fear

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My husband, Devan, wants to know when he can stop lying to everyone he cares about. He’s talking about the baby, the fact that we’re having one (if all goes well) in early October. He’s been making excuses for my constant sickness, lying about why I cancelled a trip to Chicago, responding vaguely to invitations. He doesn’t like it. Neither of us does.

I want to hold onto my “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.

Devan is very understanding. It’s a tough line to walk, in terms of what percentage of the vote we each get. Physically, this is happening to me. The chatter will largely be about my decisions, my body. But this is happening to Devan, too. It’s both of ours. I want him to feel like it’s both of ours. He’s kind enough to let me call the shots. When he asks when we can tell people, it’s a question, not a demand.

“Do we have to tell people?” I ask. But I already know the answer.

***

When I instruct people to keep the news off of Facebook they are very understanding. This is, after all, the world we live in now, a world of social media where information spreads at the speed of hundreds of kbits per second. Often they ask, “For how long?” and the tension begins when I say, “Um. Maybe forever?”

My friends and family are sweet and generous. More generous than I am, by far. They want to share their excitement, invite others into it. And they want me to want that, too. After a couple of rounds of back and forth, the conversation always comes to the same place, my debate opponents’ trump card: “You can’t keep this a secret forever.”

They’re right, of course, though I think of it more in terms of “privacy” than “secrecy.” But there is no such thing as a private pregnancy.

***

Part of this is about the wedding, the way I ceased to be “Aubrey” and became “The Bride” as soon as Devan and I shared the news of our engagement. It was like my previous self disappeared and all anyone wanted to know was what my dress looked like and what kind of flowers I would carry and what my new name would be.

At the same time, we were planning a cross-country move to a place we’d never even visited and I’d accepted a prestigious writing fellowship. But it was like none of that was happening. I felt my whole being had been eclipsed by the wedding. It seemed to be the only thing anyone wanted to talk to me about, the only thing about me that was interesting.

To be clear, these people did nothing wrong. They were excited. The problem wasn’t with them; it was with me. I didn’t want to talk about centerpieces and colors. I wanted to go on talking about books and movies, politics and food. I know that a marriage is a big deal, a big step. But the wedding was just supposed to be a fun party. It wasn’t supposed to be my defining characteristic for the better part of a year.

I can feel it happening again, the disappearing. Already excited friends and family have written over “Aubrey” with “Mother-to-Be.” I’ve got a book coming out this year and no one’s asked about it since I told them I was pregnant. Of course it’s silly for me to think I can dictate the topic of every conversation. And again, these people are nothing but generous and kind. Their priorities are different than mine, and I can respect that. But sometimes it hurts.

***

I told a coworker early on, at about nine weeks. He heard I was under the weather and is aware of my complicated medical history. He texted me in the evening, “Let me know if it turns serious.” I consider him a friend and didn’t want him to worry.

By thirteen weeks, he’s putting on the pressure. “When will you tell people?”

I tell him I’ve told a lot of people. But he means people at work. He wants to know when we can celebrate. I tell him I hadn’t planned on making any kind of big announcement.

“Do you want me to announce it?” he asks.

“No,” I tell him. “I’d prefer if you didn’t. People will know when they know,” I say. My belly is already big enough that I’m holding my jeans closed with a hairband.

“Why don’t you want to tell them?” he asks.

It’s a valid question. One I can spend hours answering, but we’re walking to a reading and we’re almost there. “I don’t know,” I say, weakly. “I’m not really in the habit of chatting about my reproductive choices with the people I work with.”

He laughs. “This is different,” he says.

He’s right, of course. It is different. But I have a hard time figuring out why. I like talking to my colleagues, but I’m a private person. I’m not interested in the awkward hugs, the questions about my waistline from the balding Chaucer scholars.

I tell him I’ll think about it.

“Think about it,” he says. “You can’t keep it a secret forever.”

***

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 right is lobbying against my reproductive freedoms in all forms, at all levels, in every way they can. Some days it seems that every news article I read is an attack. I would be lying if I said it wasn’t affecting my self-worth. What’s wrong with me, I wonder, that I can’t be trusted with my own freedom?

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. When they happen, I act as though I am outraged, and I am, but much stronger than my outrage is my complete and utter humiliation.

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.

***

Sometimes I envy Devan. It’s not just when I’m so sick I can barely breathe. Or when I have to sit still for yet another blood draw. Or when my breasts are so sore that removing my bra at night makes me yelp. It’s also because his impending fatherhood is completely invisible. He tells who he wants to know whenever we decide we’re ready to tell them. Unless he says something, the truth is undetectable. My days of this protection are dwindling fast, getting shorter with every pound.

But ironically, Devan loves to share. Maybe because he has the luxury of an option. If our roles could be reversed, he’d be willing, I think. I would be, too. He’d be better at this part than I am.

***

I’ve just moved to Colorado Springs when the “personhood” amendment goes on the ballot. It would, among other things, make abortions felonies, outlaw many common forms of birth control and allow miscarriages to be prosecuted as manslaughter. On voting day, I cry. I tell Devan I think I might be having a panic attack. I tell him that if it passes, we will have to move. That I will have to leave my fellowship. That I can’t live in a place that would do this, where the people think these things, where my autonomy means so little.

“We’ll go,” he says. “If it passes. We’ll go.”

It fails by a wide margin. The petition to get it on the ballot the following year is already being drafted before the final tally is announced.

***

Another part of it is that I’m worried about my career. Not the teaching part, I feel at least somewhat protected there, by the law, by having a supportive partner, by the flexibility of the academic life. I worry about my writing career. I worry about it obsessively, actually. I’ve worked really hard to get where I am and where I am is good. I feel heard, respected. Sometimes I even feel important. When everyone finds out, I wonder if the solicitations will flat-line, if I can still make lewd jokes with my friends on Twitter, if I will be taken less seriously.

I don’t know if these fears are grounded or if they are just in my head, but I think I’m finally ready to find out. I’m trying to see it as an adventure, rather than a handicap, but sometimes the fear gets the better of me.

***

I’m not looking forward to the part where everyone wants to talk to me about my pregnancy, my body, touch me, offer me advice and criticism. It’s not that I’m averse to attention. I’m not—I love attention. But I only want it for things that I have earned.

I have a habit of speaking and interpreting speech in a very literal way. It’s not a great trait for a writer, I suppose. I think this is why the standard response of “congratulations” is hitting my ear so strangely. This pregnancy has prompted more congratulatory notes and phone calls than anything I have ever accomplished, but I don’t feel like it’s something I earned. Getting pregnant (for me) was very easy. It was actually quite fun. There was no hard work involved at all. And yet I am congratulated warmly, as if I’ve been slaving away at this for years. It’s confusing. Maybe it shouldn’t be, but like I said, I tend to hear things as they’re spoken, not always as they’re meant.

What I really want is to do this pregnancy in private. It’s not that I don’t want to talk about it. I do, sometimes. But I want complete control over those conversations: who I talk to about it and when, what direction the dialogue takes. In our society, pregnant women are public property. Non-pregnant women are fast becoming public property, too. I’m not interested in being part of that. It’s making me want to wall myself off completely until I’m not pregnant anymore. Maybe even longer if politics keep moving the direction they are.

***

The baby will have my last name, which is different than my husband’s. People seem confused by this. I don’t mind their confusion. I actually kind of like it. It makes me feel like a pioneer. My name is important to me. My late grandfather could trace our family line back to the 1700s. Why wouldn’t I want to move that forward? How could I possibly let it go? This baby is mine. I want everyone to know.

Also confusing to people who don’t know me is my lack of wedding band. I wear it sometimes, when we’re out to dinner, when we go to someone else’s wedding, when I want to feel Devan’s presence even though he’s far away. But for the most part, I go without it. I don’t wear a lot of jewelry. It just never really stuck.

At my first doctor’s appointment, the student doctor asking me questions looks at my naked left hand, asks, “Was this planned?” I want to ask him if that’s medically relevant, but the power-imbalance of the doctor’s office robs me of my capability for snark. I answer him, but I can’t help thinking I have given him something I did not need to give away.

Because of these choices, I’m ready for the judgment. I know that a big belly and empty ring finger will raise a lot of eyebrows, especially when you look young, as I do. I know that our kid’s teacher will probably assume the kid isn’t biologically related to my husband, with his own last name too tied to his professional accomplishments to abandon. Sometimes it feels like everything will be a fight from this point forward, but I know that it will also be an honor, a privilege, an experience of sheer and near-constant joy.

***

It seems everyone was right. I can’t keep this a secret forever. And there are things I’m excited about, alongside my fear. I’m not naïve enough to think that nothing will change, but I think I can be brave enough to face those changes. I’m ready to grow, and to allow that growth to be visible. Even if it’s awkward. Even if it hurts.

If this baby is a girl, I am hopeful that things will be different when it’s her turn. That she will read this essay in thirty years and laugh and say, “Mom, you were so crazy.” Because she will feel so in control of her life, her choices, her body, that she won’t be able to imagine a time when any small modicum of control had to be flexed, hoarded, treasured.

She will be part of a generation of girls unassaulted by their society. They will walk around generous and uninjured. Or maybe that’s just the dream of this pregnant woman, because we all want better for our kids than we had ourselves.


Aubrey Hirsch is the author of Why We Never Talk About Sugar. Her work has appeared in journals like Third Coast, Hobart, and PANK. You can learn more about her at www.aubreyhirsch.com. More from this author →