Sunday, February 10, 2013

Womanhood

{This post reflects thoughts that I have pondered for several years now. Many of these sentiments I have already recorded in my personal journal. Recent conversations have led me to want to muse more publicly, despite my understanding that this subject is more intimate than my usual blog staples.}



As my mind turned toward starting a family, I began paying more attention to my body, noticing the changes month-to-month. At the same time, I had friends and family members who discussed their experiences with pregnancy, childbirth, child rearing, loss of pregnancy. Their thoughts were beautiful, poignant and eye-opening.

I have always maintained a strong sense of identity, but my womanhood has not been hugely influential. I grew up with brothers after all. It wasn't until after I was married that womanhood began to mean something to me. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints has a women's organization called "Relief Society" and as part of that society, we are strongly encouraged to participate in what we call "Visiting Teaching." We are paired with a companion and are assigned two or three women in the congregation to visit monthly. We are encouraged to meet with them in their homes, share a thought from the scriptures and the prophets, and make sure that their physical, emotional and spiritual needs are being met. We become genuine friends with these women,  and love them, serve them, and stay mindful of them and sensitive to ways we can help. In this way, we all take care of each other.

In college, my visiting teachers had been duty-driven once-a-month visitors. I had five other roommates to make sure I was doing well and act as much-needed friends. After I was married, I began enjoying the time with my visiting teaching companion and the women we visited. David is a remarkably sympathetic, understanding and loving spouse, but I realized early on that there were things he simply couldn't relate to. My TERROR of pregnancy was one of those things. When I was first married, I felt very keenly how utterly unprepared I was to have a baby. But how could I express to Dave how nervous I became as I waited for my period to come each month? How could he understand how guilty I felt about my great relief at the sight of blood, or how guilty I felt knowing that my reaction to a positive pregnancy test would probably be only terrified, emotional tears? Those were feelings I found myself able to express much more openly with sympathetic "visiting teachees" and my companion. I found that they, too, had experienced the same feelings and had learned how to deal with them and have faith. I found that the hour with them each month - discussing things that were so uniquely female - was essential for my emotional well-being.

I did not become pregnant in the early stages of my marriage and as life progressed, I gradually became more and more emotionally prepared to start a family. In fact, once I decided I was ready, it was hard to wait! My sister-in-law suggested a book (see it here if you like) that had helped her know and understand the changes in her body better. As I started tracking my monthly cycle, I grew in wonder - a woman's body is an amazing thing! The more I understood how my body changed throughout the month, the better I was able to feel, recognize and interpret the signals my body had always given me.

I felt that sense of wonder again and again during my pregnancy. Only days after the positive pregnancy test, I woke up feeling like I had done 100 sit-ups. I wondered how my body could stretch those muscles without me - I've never been able to exercise without moving before!

The first ultrasound highlighted the miracle of growth; it was still early in pregnancy, but we could see her rubbing her forehead with her wrist, moving her chin up and down, flexing her spine, flexing her perfect toes! Again, how did my body know how to create such a perfect, tiny child? I didn't know her - I didn't even know her name - but she was integrally connected to me already. She was sustained by me; we literally shared each other's blood!

As the pregnancy progressed I started to feel those wiggles inside of me. What intimate moments those were.

I continue to marvel now each time I breastfeed my sweet little one. Breastfeeding was one of the very hardest things I've ever learned to do. But to those friends who can't understand why I am still breastfeeding, I wish I could communicate effectively how precious those moments are. No one else in Madelyn's life will ever get to share those close, snuggley moments, sometimes in the middle of the night when the whole world is asleep.

All of these things have made me much more conscious of the awe-inspiring and divine nature I possess as a woman and mother. I feel like Mary, taking these things and pondering them in my heart, learning from them, deriving strength from them.

It is hard for me, now, to see women who haven't recognized that nature in themselves.

The other night, David found himself in a long and messy Facebook dispute about "PMS" - a term I've never used because it seems crass to me somehow. His female friend - with a PhD in a social science discipline - had posted a rant against people who "still" believe that periods change behavior or mood. She called it "junk science." My biologist husband took issue with that...and was aghast to discover that she genuinely doesn't believe in hormonal changes in a woman's body (she had read some study by an anthropologist who suggested that PMS was a social construct only. I assume he was commenting on the pop-cultural prevalence of excuses made by women and men for women because of monthly mood swings and that way that such have become excuses for bad behavior whether or not the woman is actually menstruating.)  Dave was offended by her inattention to biological (rather than sociological) reasoning, but I quickly became saddened by her obvious inattention to the subtle but beautiful workings of her own body. She had apparently never bothered to pay attention, to listen to the shifts in mood and in the responses of her body as the months passed by. Those mood shifts don't need to be excuses for bad behavior, but they are signs of important changes in the preparation for and process of child-bearing, and yes, they are real.

This was made most apparent to me immediately after Madelyn was born. I didn't suffer from postpartum depression, but I felt definite and frightening tugs in that direction. What I felt more than anything was a lingering, underlying feeling of irrational panic...always. It never seemed to go away completely and I couldn't explain it to myself or anyone else. Now, in hindsight, this is the best I can do:

Before a big piano recital, I usually felt some kind of panic because I knew I was unprepared. I would get jittery and start practicing feverishly in my attempts to get ready for the performance. It seems reasonable that I would feel a little - or even a lot - of that kind of panic after having a baby, knowing that I couldn't be fully prepared for what I was undertaking.

But that wasn't it.

My panic didn't have a focus, it just was. It seemed fundamentally separated from my surface activities and attitude. I could be happily holding my gorgeous baby and loving her more than I had ever imagined, but still feel panic simmering in the pit of my stomach. It could become particularly pronounced while reading a book, while walking by my baby's room while she was sleeping, while lying wide-awake but exhausted under the covers at midnight, while standing in Target looking at nursing bras. In fact, my poor, baffled husband had to purchase my nursing bra for me while I fled for the car in unfounded tears! There were also tears at midnight, many times, breakdowns that didn't have much to do with rational concerns (though there were plenty of rational concerns those first few weeks too).

Many women battle dragons after they give birth and those close to me who have experienced it tell me it doesn't end with the first child.

My husband's friend believes that such dragons do not exist and she denies that a woman's body is affected by biological shifts that can influence emotions. When she declares that "women aren't some weak erratic creatures who have no control over their emotions," she also discards those beautiful qualities and experiences that make a thoughtful woman quietly confident in her womanhood. To clarify, I do not believe that women are weak and erratic, but it seems to me that in her efforts to be strong, this highly educated social scientist is steamrolling the exact traits that would otherwise make her powerful.

3 comments:

Dave said...

I sure love my wife. I should also mention that the Lord gave me a tender mercy and the store employee didn't even bat an eye when I came up.

I have enjoyed the FB comments on your post - I wish I could just transport them here so other people reading this could see them too...

Sarah said...

I love this. As a soon-to-be mommy, it really resonated with me. Thanks for sharing Amy!

Becky Sue said...

Wow Amy. What an excellent writer and what an incredible individual you are! I REALLY appreciated reading this. I know I can't fully empathize at the moment with everything you mentioned, but your words helped me nonetheless. I have many of the same fears you did. Hopefully I will someday be strong enough and wise enough to have a good attitude and be grateful for those major changes that come my way.

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