When will my uterus not be public domain?
I feel it as soon as I step off the plane- softness. The air like dew kissed velvet, seeping in around the edges of the gangway, carrying me into the evening on a wave of gentle warmth and spicy scent. It’s April and I’m in Virginia of course, the South, Williamsburg to be exact, where the atmosphere is as major a character as the people who inhabit it, as anyone coming back should know.
Spring in the South is a phenomenon; the lush rebirth of flora is almost embarrassing. From the bedraggled grey of winter, the symphony of fresh greens pops out seemingly all at once, on every surface and in every corner. Tulips run riot en masse, dogwoods and cherry blossoms crown the canopies, Azaleas and Rhododendrons blow up in huge swathes crowding through the woods, and the ground erupts in a rainbow under your feet of Pinks, Violets, Gold in a Basket, and Bluebells. Heat seeps into your cold bones, and birdsong makes your heart light. Rebirth indeed, rebirth at its most fecund and celebratory.
I am reminded at every point that flowers are not just a season in the south; they are a life motif. In every home and shop, framed floral drawings marking each month with a lavish bouquet straight from a 17th century lady’s reception room. Floral sofas, floral lampshades upon floral lamps, floral picture frames, floral napkins, floral tablecloths, floral china hanging on floral wallpaper, floral aubussons in delicate pastels covering warm walnut floors, dried florals gracing the floral curtains of the floral formal living rooms. Floral scarves, floral hats, floral umbrellas, floral aprons, floral dresses in every style from every decade.
“I am reminded at every point that flowers are not
just a season in the south; they are a life motif”
I have the sensation that were I to stand still long enough, tendrilly vines and bunches of blooms would encase me in a tower of floral. This insistent motif has always piqued my curiosity, as it is not an erasure of the barriers between indoor and outdoor, as we seek in the West, but a stylization of biology, a tidy and orderly preservation of the riot that threatens to overrun outside. Perhaps it is the genteel war trophy of the colonists; the rampant reproduction of the wilds was overcome and a new order begun, ironically in honor of the “Virgin Queen” Elizabeth I.
I haven’t come to Williamsburg as a tulip tourist however. It is a town and a college and a geography that gave birth to my adulthood years ago. And with all its soft beauty and lovely traditions underpinned by a dark and troublesome history, I can think of no more fitting backdrop to capture in pictures an idea. This idea, this feeling, of looking into the depths of maternity and what our society thinks about it.
Motherhood- that most revered and reviled of subjects. All flowers and butterflies and pastels. Or a cold and dead garden. Motherhood is the highest achievement of woman. Motherhood is a prison. Motherhood is every woman’s dream. Motherhood is a nightmare of loss and despair. Motherhood is natural and easy. Motherhood is the god of carnage released in our bodies. We should all be mothers. We should all defy such patriarchal tropes and expectations. We can do it all, motherhood included. We can’t do it all, and someone always suffers.
Just a few of the thoughts and feelings I have come across in the decades of my childbearing years. I should state here that I am not a mother. I never tried to be, I never wanted to be, thus the root of this exploration. I consider myself extraordinarily fortunate, because to waffle somewhere in the middle of this decision is the most torturous of all. Motherhood seems to me pain and reward on a superhuman scale, and I’m thrilled my non-existent biological clock made me free and clear of the whole thing. But it is not a decision without consequences; my choice frequently makes me an outlier and an outcast in my own gender.
I have a mother. Half my friends are mothers. Several of my friends are not mothers and so dearly wanted to be. Many of my mentors, role models, heroes, and favorite people are mothers. Motherhood frames our very idea of a woman’s life. To wit–in every conversation with every stranger or new acquaintance, I am asked within two minutes some variation of the following: do I have children? When will I have children? Why don’t I want to have children? What the hell is wrong with me that I don’t have children? Is my uterus broken so that I can’t have children? Am I aware that it’s selfish and vain not to have children? I flashback to my high school biology class and the dreaded frog dissection: just a piece of meat – pinned down and flayed open, all the innards prodded and poked, discussed and on display.
Until recently, I have been so busy living a separatist life and warding off inquiries into my uterus, that I haven’t put much thought into how the childless woman fits into the American culture. The gist seems to me this: have the beautiful wedding, have the beautiful pregnancies, have the perfect family, home, and non-intrusive career while still looking like Ivanka, or be pitied as a single/childless woman for having such a hollow and empty existence. Life goals according to Family Circle and old men in bad suits. As a society, we have a rigidly binary approach to women. Married with kids = perfect happiness. Single or married with no kids = weird and sad. Why is it so outside the realm of possibility that other paths are open to women, and those paths are just as valuable to our society as motherhood? Until everyone is fully on board with the idea that women are equal citizens, equal humans, equal members of society regardless of adherence or not to the foursquare family tradition, these ridiculous clichés will continue to hold sway, and hold us back.
Why is it so outside the realm of possibility that other paths are open to women,
and those paths are just as valuable to our society as motherhood?
Getting into the middle years, maternity has transformed even further from these embattled clichés to the living reality of all kinds of mothers and grandmothers, aunts and nieces, sisters and cousins. Abortions and miscarriages, IVF and adoption, step-kids and fostered ones. Unspeakable loss and triumphant lineage. Hidden sacrifice and joyful fulfillment. And none of the above. This is not a flower to be tidily framed into submission. This is not a simple biological process. Yet our culture slaps easy labels on us, and we all casually discuss our inner workings as if they were not directly tied to personhood, status, respect, and our most epic of dreams or worst of nightmares. The roles we choose, the roles we fall into, the roles we are expected to fulfill sometimes end happily ever after, but much is left unsaid, unheard in the grey fog beyond the clichés.
I live in that grey fog outside the American foursquare family dream. I present my brain, my character, my passions and my hopes alone as worthy contributions to creating a better society. My talents and successes are applauded, but would be more impressive had I also brought forth the trophy bundles of joy. If this seems like an outrageous claim from a retro vision of womanhood in a moldy patriarchal society, scroll through the hundreds of current articles illuminating our position as “modern women”. It is still a constant battle to achieve parity and control over our lives and bodies beyond being a babymaker. We still make less money for the same jobs. We still have our bodies legislated. We are still judged by the circumference of our thighs, the clothes we wear, and the hairstyles that adorn us. We are “bitchy,” not strong, and we are still told to stay home where we belong.
Alas, the photo shoot in Virginia fell through. The fuzzy spring sunlight was perfect. The soft blues and grays of the Chesapeake Bay ebbed and flowed invitingly. The glowing maternal heart of Virginia reached its arms out to welcome my return from the rival harsh and foreign lands of the West. But. The photographer, a mother of three seemingly buried by the requirements of her life, could not be counted on. The irony was not lost on me. This idea did finally come to life however; fittingly perhaps in the harder, sharper place that I call home. It is one of my babies, and like other mothers, it cost me much blood, sweat and tears- and finally joy. Ultimately, I cannot escape the expectations of my gender. I cannot force a sea change in all of American society. I can and will keep forging a different path forward, creating a different view of womanhood, and hope that my creative children play their part in bringing a little more light into that grey fog.