Wednesday, May 15, 2013

more thoughts on motherhood and martyrdom

Something of which I grow weary: the Surprise Pregnancy for fictional characters. Seriously, let's review: a professional woman in her mid-thirties, who has managed to remain un-pregnant for the last twenty years while she focuses on her education and career, suddenly... what? Completely forgets that condoms exist or how they work? Yes, people do stupid and/or drunk things, but the character never wakes up the next morning thinking, "Shit, I just had unprotected sex," or "Shit, the condom broke," and races to the pharmacy. Instead, she has no clue that there was any chance of conception, and six weeks later is stunned when someone else invariably points out that she's pregnant (because she is never aware enough of her own body to know it before a random bystander does). Really? If I missed a period two weeks after unprotected sex I think I might, you know, CONNECT THOSE DOTS, instead of thinking nothing of it until a stranger in the elevator asks me when I'm due. (Which is also not a thing. I work with a ton of women in their thirties, and there's always someone who's pregnant, and you can't tell at six weeks.) 

We needn't even mention abortion, because these characters certainly never do. It's never an option. You're given a woman who has been emphatically uninterested in children, and devoted to a life path without kids, for decades until boom! conception! and she's like, "HOW WRONG I WAS! I CAN'T WAIT TO BE A MOMMY!" The Universal Maternal Instinct, because that's totally real. It lives in the Himalayas with the Yeti. 

I know the purpose of using Surprise Pregnancy as a narrative tool (it shows up in television and films as well as books), and that is a huge part of why it irritates me. It's to "humanize" an overly-successful woman. You create a woman who is educated and independent and professionally successful, and then you're like, "Hmm, we need to bring her down a couple notches, so: Surprise Pregnancy!" Because a pregnancy will derail her career, shake her independence (she frequently ends up with the impregnator even if he was a one-night stand and she has the financial ability to be a single mother), show that she's really just a silly girl who can't control her body, and give her emotions, because everyone knows that mothers are emotional creatures before they are intellectual ones. These female characters are always, always in a position to avoid pregnancy, and for purposes of the story aren't allowed to avoid it. No one's ever raped or anything that dark: it's just, "Tee hee, I forgot how babies are made!"

There's an ugly sense about it that we (the readers / viewers / society) can only forgive even a fictional woman her success if she is also a mother. An accidental mother, preferably; otherwise she's a cold-blooded career-driven shrew planning to take only two weeks' maternity leave (nice work if you can get it and more than most men take for paternity leave). An accidental mother has lost control over her body, and has to make sacrifices because this wasn't how she planned on things going, and that is how a large portion of our society still wants to see women: no bodily autonomy and lots of personal sacrifice. Women are supposed to be martyrs, and being so to their children is just the most obvious way. But we're expected to martyr ourselves to so many other things as well: beauty standards (three minutes on the internet will show you what many people think of women who don't conform to a beauty standard and yet "dare" to consider themselves attractive / wear a bikini / leave the house), niceness-expectations, godforsaken dating "rules" and sexual double standards. 

Really, isn't that enough? Isn't fighting all those things enough? No, because women having bodily autonomy is still unacceptable to millions of people, and unintended pregnancies are the ultimate weapon against non-conforming women in this battle. This is why, even in a stupid mystery novel, the Surprise Pregnancy makes me furious. It reflects a reality in which motherhood isn't seen as a choice that a woman can make (and that she can choose to make at a time in her life when she will be able to provide the best for the child), but as the natural state of things which an uppity woman can only delay for so long; as a punishment for sex which will eventually override any precautions against it; and as the only way to make a woman seem loving, emotional, human. UGH.  

As I pointed out to Berowne the other day, virtually the only thing left to women is permission to laugh hysterically when a man gets punched in the crotch by a dog. (Berowne wanted to deny me this permission simply because it was his crotch, and I invoked feminism.) That's an important aspect of life, but it's small comfort when everything else is trying to martyr you against your will all day long. I hate that I live in a world where, by virtue of my gender, I have to be a saint to be considered human. What makes me human - what makes anyone human - are flaws and quirks and moments of distinctive goofiness. There's a reason Paradiso is unreadable. 

The ways in which women are expected to martyr themselves in order to become mothers are, of course, nothing compared to the martyrdom expected of mothers. I am unequipped to address that, though I have witnessed it and I fully expect to fail miserably at those expectations should I become a mother, mostly because I am lazy. That's my motto, really: Too Lazy For Sainthood. That and: Dog Punching a Man in the Crotch: Never Not Funny.  

1 comment:

  1. I am not ashamed to admit that I used to LOVE when Tziporah jumped on Jesse's crotch. So many laughs.