Having just finished reading Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts and also being a writer and the mother of a nineteen-month old girl, I couldn’t help but think of what a bizarre and often alienating experience pregnancy and motherhood can be. The Argonauts is the story of Nelson’s relationship with gender-fluid artist Harry Dodge. Throughout the book, she wrangles a myriad of critical and gender theory into the tale of her partnership with Dodge, her mothering of Dodge’s stepson, and her own pregnancy and birth of their son, Iggy. Nelson writes, “How can a book be both a free expression and a negotiation?” yet that is precisely the crux of The Argonauts. Nelson defines queerness and motherhood in her own multidimensional way. She both interrogates what it means to be queer, what it means to be a mother, and how the two overlap.
What exactly is queerness? Queer as a noun can be defined as everything from odd or suspicious to mentally deranged to homosexual. As a verb, to queer means to spoil, ruin, or jeopardize. For Nelson and for myself, motherhood queers her body, adds another element of queerness to her already non-traditional relationship with her partner, and flies in the face of the topics she spent most of her adult life studying.
Nelson discusses the concept of queerness mostly in relation to gender and sexual preference. Yet I would take it a step further and apply it to the gendered body that has now grown and delivered another entirely separate body. She cites Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, among others, to give as many interpretations of queer theory as possible. According to Nelson, Sedgwick “wanted to make way for ‘queer’ to hold all kinds of resistances and fracturings and mismatches that have little or nothing to do with sexual orientation.” For Sedgwick, “Queer is a continuing moment, movement, motive—recurrent, eddying, troublant . . . Keenly, it is relational and strange.” Immediately, I thought or my own experiences in baby making as I came across this passage amongst the tale of Iggy’s conception and Nelson’s pregnancy and delivery. Isn’t motherhood a queering of the body? An alienation of the self from the now-altered body accommodating another developing body inside it? Pregnancy itself is not always cause for women to gush and glow over the impending birth of their child. It can be a frightening and disorienting enterprise. It was for me, and it appears to have been at times for Nelson also.
Nelson discusses another aspect of queer motherhood—the “sodomitical mother” which is a tern popularized by critic Susan Fraiman. Fraiman devoted much time to picking apart Freud’s Wolf Man case, in which a patient of recounts seeing his parents having sex in the doggy-style position. Wolf Man at first thinks his mother is in pain, but sees the look of pleasure on her face and realizes it is not an act of pain but pleasure. Freud edits this scene and eliminates the Wolf Man’s viewing of his mother’s genitals and “proposes that seeing the castrated mother get fucked in this way, and seeing her enjoy it, produces a primal, destabilizing fear.” Fraiman and Nelson, however (Nelson writes about her anal sex with Dodge on multiple occasions in the book) are eater to “return the mother’s pleasure to the scene.” The sodomitical mother, therefore, is one with access to “non-normative, non procreative sexuality.” Yes, even a mother can have access to queer, non heteronormative sex.
Nelson recounts that it took she and Dodge several years and countless inseminations from donors and even a close friend of theirs before Iggy was conceived. I personally had no trouble conceiving. I had been with my partner for only about a month before we got pregnant. We found out Christmas Eve 2014 and we were ecstatic. We had taken at least four pregnancy tests and driven to the nearest Planned Parenthood that icy Iowa City day just to be completely sure. I had to play off why I wasn’t drinking at festivities, which wasn’t hard to do, but I knew it would only be a matter of time before I started showing. I remember going to Motherhood Maternity to get pants with the elastic Spanx-like material in the tummy and posting the first ultrasound photos on Facebook which garnered hundreds of likes. The amounts of attention that my pregnant body and our relationship garnered was both off-putting and not unlike the high one might get from a latte with several espresso shots. Most people seemed generally happy for us, yet, there were many (mostly men with whom I was Facebook acquaintances) who became uncomfortable (the pregnant body is so scary!), just dropped off and stopped interacting completely once my body had been visibly colonized, claimed, and corrupted by my partner.
While there were no problems with my daughter (we were so happy to find out we were having a girl, but the sex didn’t really matter to either of us), her growing body was doing its share of damage to my own. Nobody really wants to talk about the changes that happen during pregnancy, which is why I’m sharing mine and why I commend Nelson for writing about this queering of the body that occurs during gestation. While I was eating healthy, I began pregnancy at a size 6 or 8 and began to put on weight steadily. The sizes kept increasing until I reached 16 at the time of my daughter’s birth. The doctors and the U of Iowa hospital (all free thanks to Medicaid!) monitored my blood pressure because they kept noticing spikes when they took it at each visit and wanted to make sure I didn’t get preeclampsia. It seemed that almost every week I was getting blood drawn or having to pee into a giant orange-juice looking carton with a handle so doctors could run diagnostics on me.
During the end of my fifth month, my partner and I moved from Iowa City to Chicago because he’d found a full-time job that was a drastic change from his part-time adjunct teaching work. We had to pay out the nose for private insurance for myself and the baby and found a gynecologist where these same appointments happened. Constant monitoring of blood pressure and sometimes being hooked up to a machine for hours on end on Saturdays. I just wanted myself and the baby to be healthy, but my weight kept climbing up the scale and it hurt to breath with my belly so big. My stretch marks made me look like I’d been mauled by a bear. There was even a flap of skin that dangled underneath the lowest part of my stomach. Utterly strange and surreal. Queer. By August I was miserable. I was not sleeping because I was being kicked to death by the baby. I could barely roll out of bed, fearing I’d throw my back out, to waddle to the toilet at night. I was up in the middle of the night looking at earrings on Etsy and he would come find me “What are you doing,” he’d ask. I couldn’t sleep, and I would not have anything that resembled normal sleep for at least four months.
I was induced at 37.5 weeks because my blood pressure was spiking and the gynecologist sent me across the street to Northwestern hospital. They looped some sort of catheter inside and around my cervix to dilate me. While I dilated, all night, all day I couldn’t pee, not even like Maggie Nelson did “in a slow-dancing position with Harry.” They didn’t want me walking around because they thought I could have a heart attack from the blood pressure being high. Oh yes, I had blood pressure cuffs on the whole time I was in labor. The nurses had to empty my bladder with a catheter. Once I was dilated, I was given Pitocin and then once the contractions came fast and furious, the doctor broke my water. I was shaking with pain. I broke out into a sweat. They gave me something for pain but all it did was help stop the shaking. I still felt everything. My partner had to leave the room while the anaesthesiologist and crew told me to slump over so they could administer the epidural. That didn’t hurt at all. The rest is a happy blur of me lying in the hospital bed until the middle of the night, when the doctor came in and taught me how to push (how strange to push that hard when you can’t even completely feel what’s going on down there) and then sometime after 4 in the morning, my daughter was born.
“She looks just like you” was the first thing my partner said, and later, regarding the birth and the placenta, “There was so much blood. So much. It was like a Cronenberg film.”
Celestine is a healthy baby. She’s slightly underweight as the first few weeks wear on, and I needed to go out and buy a breast pump and also supplement her feedings with formula. Breastfeeding is supposedly the most beautiful and natural way to bond with your baby. Except when it isn’t. What was wrong with me? Why wasn’t I producing enough milk, I thought as I woke three times a night to “cluster-feed” (as if Celestine is some kind of demon that requires sacrificial blood) my baby. I spent the days my now-husband was at work with the baby on our bed, pumping milk and feeding her while Gilmore Girls played on my laptop. I thought I should watch something about a mother-daughter relationship, however (dis)functional it might be. Rory and Lorelai provided a snappy banter as the machine sucked my breasts and milk trickled into the little bottles I’d then mix with powdered formula.
Maggie Nelson recalls reading a book by Dr. Sears in which there is a sidebar titled “Sexual Feelings While Breastfeeding.” This “attempts to reassure you that such feelings don’t mean you’re a pedophile freak. It says that you’re basically hormonal soup, and because the hormones unleashed by breast-feeding are the same as those unleashed by sex, you could be forgiven for the mix up.” Nelson asks how it can be a mix-up if it’s the same hormones. She says breastfeeding is “romantic, erotic, and consuming . . .I have my baby, and my baby has me. It is a buoyant eros without teleology. Even if I do feel turned on while breast-feeding . . . I don’t feel the need to do anything about it.” Personally, I was never turned on by breastfeeding. I did not rejoice at the site of a nursing room or a family bathroom. I remember trying to breastfeed Celestine at my husband’s school in a bathroom stall when a fire alarm went off and feeling so unnatural and unusual. I loathed my body. I felt out of sorts. I hated the fact that it wasn’t working the way a female body should. I didn’t even know what that meant anymore. Breastfeeding may be a bonding experience, but for me it was a queering of an organ that was getting in the way of my relationship with my daughter.
Nelson quotes Denise Riley’s claim that, “It’s not possible to live twenty-four hours a day soaked in the immediate awareness of one’s sex. Gendered self-consciousness has, mercifully, a flickering nature.” Yet, when it comes to motherhood, this is impossible! Being a parent is a 24/7 job and being a mother means spending all one’s time soaked in the immediate awareness of one’s sex. You are constantly reminded of both the incredible abilities and shortcomings you and your body have. Nelson laments, “But here’s the catch: I cannot hold my baby at the same time as I write.” This is one of my biggest frustrations. Trying to get poems written, trying to put a manuscript together. Celestine takes up every single moment from the second she wakes up till the second we put her to bed. I’m lucky if I get a few hours here or there to read or try to scribble something down in my journal to make a poem from.
Celestine is hilarious, adventurous, and her sense of wonder constantly amazes me. She constantly pushes me to my limits and teaches me new things about myself. Because of her, I discovered a reserve of inner strength I never knew I had. As grotesque and frustrating as motherhood may be, though, despite the fact that it constantly put me at odds with my body, I wouldn’t trade the experience for anything.