This photo is from my book stash, a Mode Illustree from the 1880s, if memory serves. I love it because it seems so candid for a fashion illustration. The woman’s hair is down, which seems a rarity in these old illustrations, and the affection depicted is something universal and warm, one of the best feels motherhood has to offer, really.
But there are many feels in motherhood, and people don’t usually talk much about the not-so-pretty ones outside of Roseanne reruns or feminist discourse about the economics of human labor. Somehow it seems rude to talk about the less than blissful elements without airbrushing them away with platitudes. It is all worth it, of course, but for those of us with a gloomier turn or problems with touch or physical proximity, there is much to keep to ourselves.
I have my first doctor’s appointment in about two weeks, at which point I’ll be nearly 8 weeks, and I have a laundry list of things to tell her. Please don’t worry if I cry every time I get off of the scale, it’s fine, I just get upset. I always get upset after a pelvic exam, please don’t be alarmed. It’s an invasion of body boundaries thing. Rationally, I completely understand the necessity of what you’re doing and I want it to be done, but I can’t help crying at the feeling of being overrun physically. My pulse goes crazy at the doctor. It’s an anxiety thing, I promise. I’ve had an EKG done with my GP over this. Needles sometimes make me pass out. I’m sorry I’m so intense. I don’t want to be this way and am deeply embarrassed by all of the above.
Maybe it would be different if my being felt less defined by its physicality than it does at this moment, but somehow, pregnancy makes me feel reduced to it, caged by its hormonal upswells and digestive tempests, an automaton that can’t help dropping into sleep mode when resources so often deplete. Capsules to take, pressures to measure, fluids to fill. I wonder if it’s similar to the frustrations of aging, when the will is strong but the body takes primacy with pained joints, physical constraints and dangers, easier fatigue. I can sympathize with that kind of frustration.
I have a sister who loves being pregnant and who is master of her domicile in a way that I can only marvel at. Sometimes I wonder if it is possible to be allergic to progesterone and that’s why I fall into an almost immediate depression while my sister beams with excitement and enjoyment of the feeling of bringing another person into the world. I understand her reasoning for her feelings, but those buoyancies and happy forward lookings can’t cut through the fog of whatever it is that descends on me when I’m gestating a kiddo. People admonish me, “Oh, enjoy it. It will be the last time. This is a precious experience.” None of those things are wrong, but there’s also a shit ton of pain involved in this experience, and somehow, no one used this logic to gloom-shame me when my wisdom teeth were extracted, even though that was the last time I’d have that particular experience.
I feel like even writing that sentence is somehow a shameful thing. My great aunties would be appalled that I would compare a miraculous event like bringing another precious life into the world to something like having a tooth pulled. I am being flippant, really, but the fact that a certain range of feelings seems unutterable among polite people is strange to me when it’s a process that also involves me being pantless in front of strangers. I can’t feel excited yet, and I certainly can’t will myself not to be afraid. People act as if it’s a waste that I feel such apprehension. There is some truth there, in the same way that feeling any anxiety is a waste of energy. Anxiety is a deep, dark well of anguish that you fall into and climb out of over and over and over again, and though you know the process is a waste, you can’t brick it over. You know that anguish lies waiting to receive you, and there’s no vigilance or act of will that will stop your fall back in.
The cultural image of mother in our time seems a cheery, breezy thing, laughably neurotic about nesting urges or food cravings or teary-eyed at silly little domestic spats, but on the tv and the ad spread she is dressed in Breton stripes with whitened teeth in a sunny kitchen in a sleek, orderly beige house, yelling through a smile for her kids to come to a healthy, gourmet dinner that she either whipped up in a spasm of uncomplaining efficiency, or better yet, crockpotted on her way out the door to work that morning and plated up on a dish set that perfectly coordinates with her carefully curated decor. She’s heath conscious enough to make her own baby food, but not opinionated enough to be off-putting or difficult. If she breastfeeds, we never see the tension when she has to decide between making people with old school ideas about it feel uncomfortable or having to isolate herself and the baby for half hour chunks of time when everyone else is at the family BBQ enjoying themselves. We certainly never see her snarling obscenities at her breast pump at work, while she sits cross legged on a dirty bathroom floor to reach a power outlet and cringes any time someone tries the door.
Clearly I have nothing in common with this woman, except maybe the occasional Breton stripe. But imagine my surprise and my happiness to find this portrait among the Schlesinger Library portraits of breastfeeding women, alas unnamed:
That expression speaks volumes to my heart, somehow. I’m unclear what cultural images of motherhood were during the Victorian era, though I suspect it must have been seen as a celebrated role if it would be photographed in this way. I know that the seriousness of her expression is probably more about the way people carried themselves in portraiture of the era. But I can’t help but love that look and relate to something in it more than the plasticized expertise or earthy granola joy imagery of contemporary maternity. That expression says I love being a mom but this shit is complicated and I have a lot of feels and I will cut you if I have to.