I write this reflection on the eve of Mother’s Day and the approach of my 29th birthday. As I pen this piece, I realize that I am approaching this from a place of white, cis privilege, so if I feel this way, I cannot begin to imagine the feelings that trans* folks go through when these similar issues are experienced.
When I was twelve, I was in a serious car accident. Due to the impact, a year and a half later, I was in a hospital, having my twisted fallopian tube removed. The things that were said and experienced from that moment have stuck with me, and I desire to share them with you. As a fourteen year old, I remember there being an intense focus on my fertility and birthing chances. It is important here to examine the intersections of race, perceived class and gender identity when looking at womanness and motherhood. I remember my OB/GYN telling me that if I wasn’t married by 28, I should consider freezing my eggs, because my fertility could not be determined from the trauma. She also was concerned about the difficulty of my non-existent pregnancy thanks to the way my body repaired itself after the car accident. As a fourteen year old, I remember thinking, is my destiny motherhood? Who else gets told at fourteen years old that their future pregnancy might be troubling, because pregnancy for me was thought to be inevitable? Not to mention the implied heteronormative relationship that was chosen for me without even asking about my own positionality. A decision was apparently already made for me and I was just supposed to go through the motions.
Another result of the surgery was the 50% chance of getting pregnant. My mother told my fourteen year old self that at least that meant ‘I could have more fun’. Couldn’t I have ‘fun’ without the result ending in a birth? Couldn’t I have control over how my body regulated itself? Why as a fourteen year old was I even asking these questions about WHY people were saying these things? This experience lead me to realize that under this hegemonic, patriarchal structure that our bodies are almost never our own. Even as we create spaces of visibility, those structures are still all-encompassing and omnipresent.
I remember telling and still tell my mother that this thing called motherhood just may not be of interest to me. She told me that motherhood is the key to womanhood, and without being a mother, I would not know the depth and gravity of what it is to be woman. For her, even as I embark on this new journey and privilege of being accepted into a PhD program, she still assumes motherhood will occur after that. In no way am I saying that motherhood is somehow less or different, but is that ALL that defines the experience of being ‘woman’. Who has decided that birthing and motherhood are the determinant of a life experienced? And the determinant of being ‘woman’?
I find that many women who do not have children are told that, “one day, their mind will change”. Like motherhood is this badge of honor of womenness. Or that somehow a childless woman will come into the awakening of the power their body holds — because apparently that is the utmost attainment.
As I take the experience of losing a fallopian tube, I had surgery a few years ago due to a staple that was mistakenly left in my previous repair, and resulted in a twisted small intestine. This surgery left me with the scar that resembles an exclamation point on my stomach. As I tell this story, it is connected to the ways in which the experiences of the body were dictated to me from my mother and society. Whenever people think of scars, it is always negative. The way in which the body heals, if it does not heal “perfectly”, then somehow your body is ‘marked’ or ‘different’ or something that should be hidden, made invisible.
As a child, I remember my mother telling me that my body healed differently and that I should be ashamed of that. My mother had the polio vaccine when it first came out, and the result was a large keloid scar on her arm. I remember that she obsessed about finding shirts and dresses that hid the thing she found so hideous. It disrupted the perfection of her presence. Not only did this scar affect her, but expanded to her own self-image about her entire body, one that was plumper than other women. It was a source of great concern for her. Each shopping experience was fraught with body hating statements and desires to remain invisible because as a fat woman, she felt she had no right to space. It did not help that she had a husband that reminded her that her body was not “perfect”, and that she was fat. As a child, I was put into every sports activity that could be imagined and my body monitored so as to not get fat. When I ate too much candy, my mother would make comments about my weight or my hips. My entire life was to be spent remaining attractive enough so that some man wouldn’t treat me as she was treated. Why must I be the one who caves to the male gaze? Why must I be perfect enough? Why do I have to work within this structure and the male gaze never has to adjust itself?
These verbal and non-verbal communications fed through society, to my mother and then imprinted on me, made me have an uncomfortable relationship with my body. I felt it was never perfect enough, but what the fuck is perfection? Is it the things I see on TV, or is it in my space of visibility? My body and every body is perfection. To counter hegemony, when my mother says self-hating and body-hating statements, I reaffirm them with positives. I remind her that she is perfection, by simply existing, by simply being present. Those same things are said to me and to others going through the experience of simply being human and alive.
When I think about how I used to feel about hiding these many scars I have, it is tiring. The body is an amazing mechanism of self-healing beauty. At a friend’s party there was a sign that read, “BE FREE. Get naked. Love, the Divine Mother”. When I think about ‘womanness,’ don’t fabulous transwomen like Janet Mock’s experience count as much as the next woman? How can we define our own experiences of ‘womanness’? When I think about hiding these scars and this imperfect perfect body, I’ll roll the dice, and have my life be filled with many exclamation points.
Stephanie Baran, Ph.D., UW-Milwaukee