The Totality of Selflessness
Being an intensely cerebral person who has gotten pregnant feels a lot like a balloon: I am air suddenly forced to inhabit specific space. All of my disparate parts and identities rally around a new, rounder and contained physicality, aimed at one purpose. There is a chance I might get stuck on a power line or pop in the heat. I become viscerally aware of the finitude of my existence, and how I will eventually deflate. Do I now serve only the solitary function of marking someone else's birthday?
You do not yet have a name, or a voice, or even color. You are white on black, an image of sound in silence, a presence in the void. I know you are there because you leave me, in alternating episodes, bedridden and vomiting into the toilet, but no one else knows until I tell them. One morning when my breakfast strawberries reemerge, they are still cold from the refrigerator. The wrongness of the sensation disturbs me in a way I can't quite identify.
Roughly halfway through the pregnancy we go to see Brad's family in St. Louis for the solar eclipse. We have been planning this trip longer than we have been planning this pregnancy. Brad's father rents a van and drives us, along with some family friends, down to a farm in St. Clair so that we will be in the path of totality. At regular intervals he likes to ask me, "How's mama doing?" I try not to let it bother me; I know he loves me and he loves his son and he loves his unborn grandchild. And he really does want to know how I'm doing. I ask myself, can mama mean something different depending on who says it? Is a rose verbalized by any other person equally as off-putting?
Pregnancy steals myself from me, the self I had to fight to express in the first place.This is not just feminism. This is fucking survival.
The idea that my parenthood must necessarily reference my sex offends me. I hate thinking of myself as feminine, as a goddess, as pregnant. I want to think of me as myself. Pregnancy steals myself from me, the self I had to fight to express in the first place. This is not just feminism. This is fucking survival. I don't even want to be a mother; I just want to be myself, who happens to have offspring. Maybe what I want is to be a father.
What I mean is: pregnancy makes me all too aware I am defined by my sex in a world where I wanted to be able to ignore my sex. Can we just talk about me and my pregnancy the way men can talk about parenthood? As in, can we ignore it so I can go back to having other ideas and experiences? Can I talk about my body without mentioning my sex? May I also shove my child out of the camera view while I'm on national television without it reflecting on my overall character? Or will I have to put my head in an oven?
Some of the pregnant women on my forum of choice report that their families or friends are advising them to stay inside during the eclipse: that it might cause them to lose the baby. It would be comforting to think that the cosmos could dictate one's life so directly, that the future is there to read in the sky. To know that if I just stay inside and obey the rules I might be a good mother.
I also did not want to be a "Mrs." Wife was difficult, but Mrs. feels effacing. I don't mind if people assume my last name is the same as my husband's (it seems a statistical move) but I grit my teeth when they call me Mrs., even if they get the last name right. My relatives wrote checks on my wedding day made out to Mrs. K—. My mother-in-law had to cash them all and transfer the funds. Still people respond to my e-mails Dear Hillary, even though I have signed the previous e-mail with Hilary, even though the correct spelling is in my e-mail address. People will call you things you are not. One day you will call me "mother," and I will have to tell you, "It's spelled with one L."
I have been pregnant for fourteen weeks (it is really only twelve or so, dearest, but they count from my last period rather than from your conception; even before you exist they will presume things about you, like existence) but I am only now beginning to write about the experience. I feel guilty for the things I say here. I hope you never see this work. I suspect that a mother's personhood is an inherent affront to a child's development. Will you assume I did not love you if I was not a mother in my own mind 100% of the time? Will it hurt you even to hear me ask that question? Sometimes, during this pregnancy, I have forgotten I am pregnant, and it has been freeing. When I went to a bachelorette party in the woods of Colorado all the other women got shirts with cute sayings about drinking or communing with nature, but mine bore the words "Mountain Mama." They hoped that was okay. It only occurred to them to hope it would be okay because my best friend Peter—you will know Peter very well, I am sure, my dearest—asked the bachelorette's honoree if I were getting any favors that weren't pregnancy related. I loved him for that. Peter also sometimes forgets I am pregnant and it makes me feel like myself. My only defense is that none of this means I do not love you. Just because I do not want the title "mother" doesn't mean I don't want my child. I made you on purpose out of my body and the man I love most; of course I want you.
Just because I do not want the title "mother" doesn't mean I don't want my child. I made you on purpose out of my body and the man I love most; of course I want you.
To be pregnant is to be eclipsed by one's own femininity. The uterus swells so large that it even squashes the lungs. When I lie down sometimes bile spurts unexpectedly into my throat because the volume of my stomach's cavity has halved. The basic functions of life are given over to the reproductive organs. Babies' kicks have been known to break ribs.
In an article discussing "the secret sadness of pregnancy," Andrew Solomon declares, "An abrupt transition into selflessness is not immediately appealing to everyone." Is it immediately appealing to anyone? Bueller?
It doesn't help that I am so nauseous and tired that sex takes a backseat. My husband's and my love begins to morph: we are more bonded and less amorous. We are more needful and less lustful. It doesn't help that when he comes, I know he does so directly into the baby's dark habitat. It does not help that my nipples hurt. It does not help that I am rounder, less fit for bikinis and more fit for magazine photos in long sleeves happily eating salad. I do not know which of us is the true victim of the Madonna/whore complex, but it does not matter. I am now barefoot and pregnant; even if I owned clear plastic stripper heels, my feet are too swollen to wear them. It does not help that I do not own any.
One night, near the eclipse, a friend of a friend forgets that I am pregnant, or it does not factor in to his social calculations. He is in the kitchen already when I come downstairs to join the group and when he turns to greet the newcomer I see in his face what I have not seen in a man's face in years. He looks at me and I remember I have good legs. He laughs when I talk wryly about lightning crotch and I remember that I am funny. He notices when I hold the door for everyone. When he says my name to say goodbye, the sound is an intimacy that frightens me. Perhaps it frightens more than me, because when he closes the front door on our friends' goodbyes, my husband grabs me and kisses me passionately. But he has an early flight the next morning, and when we go upstairs he falls asleep quickly. It is only one night in a lifetime of marriage, I tell my pregnant self in the bathroom mirror. By tomorrow it will pass. It is a predictable moment and not an omen.
I was almost named Halley, after Halley's Comet, which appeared in the sky the year I was born. My parents worried that there would be a huge influx of Halleys due to other astronomically-minded parents and they chose Hilary instead. I have never met a Halley. In 1992 Bill Clinton was elected president, and Hillary became First Lady, and ever since I have had to explain that my name only has one L and attempt to smile at people's bad jokes while they shake my hand. I wonder who the girl named Halley might have been. In my secret imaginings I suspect her of embodying the antidotes to my failures: gregarious and laughing, pleasantly performative, undisturbed by the small currents and slights of everyday social interactions, uncritical of others. A rock in a stream. What would her pregnancy be like? Full of laughter and salad.
The astronomer Halley, writing in both English and Latin, spelled his name a variety of different ways. Often he used initials; in Latin works he went by Edmundo or Edmundus, while in English he published works under Edmund Halley twenty-two times and Edmond Halley only three times. The Library of Congress has declared that the official spelling is Edmond, citing that his most important works were published under the spelling Edmond, and most biographers have adhered to the official decision. In 2007, David W. Hughes and Daniel W.E. Green wrote a paper suggesting that perhaps, given the number of times Halley published work under the alternate spelling of Edmund, he probably preferred Edmund; and questioning exactly what the Library of Congress meant by important—did his legal will and testament not count, they wondered? I suspect that Halley most likely had obnoxious editors, or that he went through phases of preference, or that sometimes he was Edmond and other times he was Edmund and that people perhaps do not exist in a steady state throughout their entire lifetimes, no matter the consistency of their bodies or their bodies of work. Most of my own published works have appeared under the name Hilary, but when I had trouble placing my favorite piece, I decided to change my byline to H.B. Gan in the hopes that it would conceal my sex, and the next week the piece was accepted.
According to legend, the solar eclipse of May 28, 585 BC, was predicted by Thales of Miletus, and caused the battling armies of the Medes and the Lydians to lay down their arms and broker a truce.
The first time I saw you on the ultrasound I leaked tears of joy. You did not even have fingers. You looked like a gingerbread cookie. The second time I saw you on the ultrasound was while they were searching my abdomen for signs of an inflamed appendix. You were waving your arms and the technician exclaimed, "Hi, mom!" I prayed to God I would not have to choose between your life and mine, because I was not sure I could choose mine, even though you could not have existed without me. The third time I saw you on the ultrasound I panicked at the realization that you were a completely separate person from me, living in my body; I had never met you. All of your experience is of a dark watery space. You will not even have the privilege of seeing a fuzzy white sonar image of my face before I force you out into the cold sterile air, screaming. You have no understanding of the first thirty-one years of my life. I am a stranger to you. Perhaps I always will be.
The third time I saw you on the ultrasound I panicked at the realization that you were a completely separate person from me, living in my body; I had never met you.
I feel a physical pang in my chest reading about Halley and finding a section devoted to his wife that contains only her name and the date of their marriage and the number of children she bore him. Did she ever look into his telescope? Did she help write his papers? Which way did she spell his name?
Ironically enough, I am very excited to learn your sex, mostly because I hate calling you an "it"— it feels disrespectful. Calling you is easier on the page because I can call you "you." (Most of my life has been easier on the page.) But this is the only time in your life you will be free from the restrictions of whichever sex you may be, or appear to be. If it turns out you are male I must decide whether or not to remove a piece of your genitalia, without your input. If you are male people will try to make you ashamed of your tears, even joyous ones. The world will attempt to castrate you inside and out. If it turns out you are female—well. We all know about that.
Or perhaps the Halley of my imaginings is just my pregnant self: suspicious of change and of blanket statements about what life with a child will be like and of tiny lace socks. Desperately trying to find inspiration among the weeds of nausea and fatigue. A woman who yearns to be the kind of figure academics will muse about, trying to determine which first name she preferred based on publication frequency, but who instead is referred to regularly as nothing more than "mama".
It takes a good hour and a half for the moon to creep across the space that the sun occupies. As the eclipse begins, Brad and I walk up the hill to the dammed-in lake on this farm property that belongs to my in-laws' friends. There are thirty people here for the eclipse, four of them young and slender mothers of young children. This means another four of them are also fathers but on the dock it is the mothers who are watching their offspring play on the tied-up boat while the men talk and drink. We all peer intermittently at the sun through our solar glasses and exclaim at the sight. It's impossible to see the other half of the moon, but the sun has a neat crescent sliced out of it, black against the blue sky and the bright yellow sun. "It looks like the moon!" exclaims one of the children, a girl about six or seven. I peer at the sun again. It does look like the moon: a brighter, sunnier version. What surprises me most is how bright the day remains. Until we are moments away from totality there is no noticeable difference. I would not even know it was happening except that I had been told.
Once an organism has achieved reproductive success, it is no longer necessary—or, perhaps better to say, it has fulfilled its evolutionary function. There is even an extreme line of evolutionary hypothesizing that suggests that our bodies, lives, and sustenance—all of the complexities of human civilization—are merely a vehicle for the individual gene's survival. Some species like Pacific salmon die immediately after copulation, and some organisms like the male praying mantis even donate the body's nutrients merely to the chance of successful reproduction in a bid to boost a genetic line's chances of survival. Others, like humans, take the longer, more involved route of rearing young to help guarantee the offspring's long-term survival. But all we really require of our young is that they live long enough to reproduce, themselves. Our living longer to produce more offspring can mean better genetic competitiveness for our lineage, but there are diminishing returns to high numbers of children in those species that have taken the attentive rearing route.
So for a while, my relevance is intact: at least until my child's puberty, but preferably until emotional maturity, I am still evolutionarily essential. Beyond that, however, all bets are off.
To be honest, I have been expecting to be frightened by the eclipse. How dark will it get? Will it feel unnatural and strange? Noon turning to night sounds like something from a fairy story, an omen of evil. Totality is predicted to last about two-and-a-half minutes. I expect to feel two-and-a-half minutes of terror.
Edmond Halley correctly predicted the London eclipse of 1715 within four minutes and twenty miles, and it is now known as Halley's eclipse.
As the moon glides closer to totality, we all line up on the dike, chairs angled back and faces tilted toward the sky. It is sweltering. My mother-in-law takes a photo and it reminds me of those vintage-styled greeting cards featuring women sunbathing. Someone suggests music and my heart sinks. The host obligingly fires up his dune buggy to turn the radio on, flipping through channels, each song less and less fitting for the occasion, and suddenly there is a clamor of objections. "No music," the party argues. "We just want to watch." My mother-in-law says the music distracted her and she accidentally looked at the sun without her glasses. The host shuts down the dune buggy. I am warmed to know we all feel the solemnity of this moment. We watch in silence as the landscape fades to dusk at one in the afternoon. The temperature drops to pleasantly cool. The evening peepers begin to chirp.
Though I do not truly mind one way or the other, I think I am expecting a female. Maybe I harbor a secret wish for a daughter because I know that one day she could understand the perils of impending motherhood; of a second puberty in which the body, the physical identity, changes again completely; of the mother-specific pressure to sacrifice oneself entirely for the good of another. Perhaps I am scared of a son because I don't know if he will forgive me for my failures as a mother. Perhaps I am scared of a son because I fear he will never have to be less than himself—because he will never be eclipsed.
My motherhood began long before my last period. It began when I noticed that people had stopped moving out of my way on the sidewalk, when I started losing social capital with aging. I did not realize I had earned that capital with my looks and youth; I thought I had attained it with my personhood. I try to turn inward, to appreciate the advantages of being an observer rather than the observed, but half the time I let people walk into me out of sheer stubbornness. I am not even that old, I want to scream. Get the fuck out of my way. I begin to understand shrill forty-something women with severe haircuts. They just want to take up the space they deserve. My friend says that women reclaim some of that social capital with motherhood, but it seems to me that is only by proxy. The same people who give up their seats on the bus for a pregnant lady put their hands on our bellies without permission. I have a right to motherhood, but not to selfhood, not any more.
My motherhood began long before my last period. It began when I noticed that people had stopped moving out of my way on the sidewalk, when I started losing social capital with aging.
One woman has spent all the morning setting up expensive camera equipment so she can take photos of the eclipse. While we await totality, she adjusts her camera and tells us tidbits about the eclipse, advising us to look for Baily's beads—the shining light of the sun allowed through by the craters and mountains of the moon. "The moon isn't a perfect circle," she says. "You'll still be able to see bits of the sun." She is clever and personable and later, driven by my secret belief that creative women who maintain their creativity often have only one or no children, I ask her about her family. She has two kids, a son and a daughter, and an ex-husband she still gets along with. Two of the young mothers milling about are her nieces. She stays out for hours in the heat to finish photographing the eclipse as it wanes. We all give her our email addresses so we can see her photos of the eclipse when she posts them.
Thus, I want to know your sex but I do not want to tell anyone else what it is. If I could know you, be familiar with the facts of your existence, without consciously knowing your sex, I would. I do not want them to tell you that you are pretty or bossy or so well-behaved; I do not want them to buy you pink headbands so everyone will know "what you are." I do not want them to inform you that you'll "be a little heartbreaker" or that "boys will be boys" or that you cannot have a pink tutu if you want it; I do not want them to buy you clothes with trucks all over them so that they can avoid feeling bad for five seconds if they happen to mislabel you before you can even understand speech. I do not want them to avoid saying any of this or whisper about you if you happen to be one of those magical creatures with features of both sexes; if you are one of the lucky ones who can truly choose which team to bat for or whether to even play, who must be person first because you have no singular category to define you. So perhaps I will just tell them your name. "We're having a person," I'll say. "It's spelled with one L."
But when it happens, it is simply very beautiful. We take our solar glasses off and the light is softer, the moon and sun rendered in grey and white rather than harsh black and yellow. All around us it looks as though the sun has just disappeared below the horizon, the trees grey and the shadows gone. Four distinct beams of light burst, diamond-like, from behind the moon. I squeeze my husband's hand and he squeezes back. I feel only reverence. Behind me, Peter is leaking tears and squeezing his own fiancée's hand. For two minutes and forty seconds we are all united in emotion. I imagine the armies of 585 BC dropping their weapons—not in fear, but in awe, knowing that violence and desire are unnecessary in the face of true beauty. If the eclipse is an omen of anything, it is an omen of miracles; of luck; of the best of us; of the best of life.
At the halfway mark we discover that you are female. As we watch you on the ultrasound it becomes obvious that all of the names we have been contemplating are wrong for you. You are not a Catherine or a Sylvia, not when you give us a thumbs-up just before revealing your sex to the technician. "Well, back to the drawing board," says my husband. I pull up a list of girls' names and read them out loud during the drive home. "What about Aurora?" I ask. "We could call her Rory." Brad says, simply, "Yep." We agree it feels right. Later he asks me which of our last names she will have and I want to cry out of joy that he would even ask. We will name you Aurora K—, after the dawn and the northern lights and your wonderful father; and we will call you Rory, but you can call yourself anything you like.
When we return to the house I find that the fourth young and slender mother, a redheaded parent of three, has kept her children indoors, watching TV. "I didn't trust them not to look right at the sun," she said. Involuntarily I put a hand to my belly as if to protect us from her blasphemy. For the first time I see unequivocally that we are a unit, you and I. A mother and child, united against the invisible walls of society. Later Brad and I decide she must have taken them outside during totality, when it was safe to look without glasses. She couldn't have kept them indoors for the whole thing. Could she?
And so perhaps we are on more equal footing than it seems, you and I. They will try to label us both; they will touch us both without permission. They will talk about us as though we are not there, speaking to me about you and to you about me, and they will try to keep us away from real life, the kind that blinds the eye. They will pass laws against us in the other's name. You will need me desperately and I will not be able to, will not want to deny you; chemicals we do not control will flood our brains when we touch and we will feel for each other. I will give you life and you will give me a new life. When they place you in my arms we will eye each other suspiciously: what is this? who are you? But our bodies will wave the white flags of necessity. With any luck we will remember the terms of our truce through the years of our overexposure. There is a dignity in choosing to embrace what one did not choose, and a vitality in battling the choices others try to make for us. I will let you call me mother if you promise to call me mother.
Hilary Gan lives in Los Angeles with her husband and 3.8 million other people. Her work has appeared in various literary magazines, including Jersey Devil Press, After Happy Hour Review, and The Tishman Review. Currently she is at work on a sci-fi novel set in near-future LA. Find more of her stories and essays at hilarygan.com.