Yesterday, my part-time neighbor sat on his stoop tying his shoelaces when he yelled out to me, from about 20 yards away so the whole neighborhood could hear, “Do you know if you’re having a boy this time?”
My daughter and I were just walking back from the park; she pushed her baby stroller, which was piled with dolls and stuffed animals, and I awkwardly bent over the low handle to help her. I heard my neighbor’s question, while steering my child’s stroller off his gravel driveway, and I took awhile to process what he was asking. But then I got it. I stood up. I tugged my tee-shirt over my stomach.
“Oh no,” I said, “I’m not pregnant.” The pleasantness of my own voice surprised me.
“But,” said my neighbor, with a disheartened tone, as though what I said was a personal affront to him, “My wife said you are.”
My daughter pushed the stroller past the man’s overgrown laurel hedges and I was glad to chase her down, out of sight from him, before I said my usual quip when mistaken to be pregnant, “This belly is just leftover from the last one…” I had seen his wife on the way to the park; we talked about gardening, she showed my daughter and I some of her latest projects. I realized, while walking up the street, she must have been thinking that whole time about my swollen belly and what lurked inside.
What lurks inside is a sensitive subject, of course. I’ve written plenty about the complications endured after the birth of my daughter: the distension of my abdomen, the bloating due to gallstones, and yes, the weight gain. Several times in the two and a half years since I actually was pregnant, people have outwardly verbalized they thought I was “with child,” and, for the most part, I take their mistake in stride, even though their mistake indicates a weirdly public (and in my neighbor’s case, very loud) acknowledgement of my weight gain and bodily changes, which then brings up for me the whole question of how skinny and perfect does a woman need to be to not be mistaken as pregnant. Still, long before I had a baby, I did my share of adolescent struggling with body image issues – weight, slenderness, hair color and amount, facial and body features, etc. – and after the birth, I struggled again with all the changes my body has gone through. I have made peace with my body, mostly because, as a feminist, I find the reality that almost all Western women have body image issues an outrage and a travesty. The issue of body image is not my greatest struggle when people assume I’m pregnant.
What comes up even stronger for me is the reality that I’m not pregnant. That I won’t ever be again in all likelihood. That while I might look pregnant, my belly is entirely empty of a growing, wonderful life. I’m sad I won’t have another child. I’m sad I won’t experience being pregnant again. I’m sad I won’t have a chance, ever in this life, to birth a child through my body the way I’d always hoped and dreamed. What lurks in that belly is emptiness and bereavement, and when people point my belly out to me, I guess I can be grateful, because usually at some point soon after their mistake, I actually get to feel those feelings in the form of crying or banging on my bed or processing with a friend or my husband or the blank page, all of which is hard to find the time to do when chasing a toddler around.
I do find it odd that every time people have made this mistaken assumption to my face, none of them have apologized. Not one said something to the effect of, “Oh, I’m so sorry,” or “I’m embarrassed,” or otherwise acknowledged that their blurted-out wrongness about another child on the way might have affected me. I also find it odd (read: sexist) that my neighbor asked if I was having a boy, as if my luck might be better the second time around.
I know I’ve said this before, but ultimately, I long for the days when a woman’s body was revered for its fertility and ability to create life, indicated by her large belly, big breasts, and overall plumpness. The days when “zaftig” was a compliment seem ideal to me (that Yiddish word, by the way, means “juicy.” Doesn’t that just sound delicious?) When I fist moved to our little coastal town, there was a women’s boutique along the main road with an overhanging sign, called – I kid you not – “Ample and Alluring.” And while we laughed plenty about that name back then, I kind of miss that sign now.
In some circles, zaftig females are revered, and indeed, people are out there fighting for them. Bear with me now as I take you on a journey of allegory…
One of my husband’s jobs is to fight for marine conservation, which is a controversial issue where we live. When I was only about seven weeks along with our daughter, the whole newness of the pregnancy a secret only for us and immediate family, my husband had to give a talk to a bunch of locals about the importance of new marine protections that were under consideration by the state government. Confident and assured, my husband stood in front of a crowd of about fifty people, most of whom he and I knew and considered friends, and discussed the science behind these proposals. He taught the crowd about what marine scientists call BOFFFs – big, old, fat, fecund females – who are part and parcel of a healthy and thriving ecosystem, in this case a rockfish spawning ground. He showed graphs up on a screen which indicated these BOFFFs produced exponentially higher numbers of healthier fish who could survive greater fluctuations and stresses in their environment. He expounded the importance of creating protections for these BOFFFs so their spawn would then spill out into the rest of the sea to help create yet even more healthy ecosystems. He then told the crowd that there was a BOFFF among us, and pointed to me in the back of the room and said, “my wife, who’s pregnant.” Our crowd of local friends roared with laughter and surprise and joy, as most of them had known us for over a decade and thought we’d never have a kid. I turned bright red, not unlike a healthy rockfish, and felt a mix of emotions, from the shared joy in the room to wanting to kill my husband for telling everyone I was pregnant so early in the game.
Nonetheless, I soon became known around these parts a BOFFF, and a lot of people looked forward to the birth of our daughter. I’m proud of the comparison now, and proud my husband is out there fighting for us. I’m big, old, fat, and fecund. I have a belly that looks fertile to a lot of people. And, though I spawned only one and sometimes am sad about the fact that I won’t spawn another, I produced one heck of a healthy, strong, independent little offspring who I believe will one day strengthen and fortify our murky human sea.