The Quotidian Weirdness of Our Common Origin

Friday, May 13, 2016 - 5:30 am

The Quotidian Weirdness of Our Common Origin

First trimester was a hangover without end.
Second trimester was a stint of huge, grateful relief that I no longer felt perpetually exhausted and nauseous. I’ve heard some women call it “the superwoman stage.” Best-case scenario, you work and create and play and plan and have sex like a woman on a mission, or maybe just flooded with some really good hormones. Now I’m solidly in the third, that strange collection of days that feels terrifically liminal and corporeally bizarre.
Take this very moment, for example. I’m lying in bed with my computer perched on my lap, wrestling these words down, and my gray sweatshirt-covered belly just protruded noticeably on the right side, an appendage straining for greater range of motion within this dark, liquid home. It is, to put a fine, poetic point on it, super weird.
Some nights, I lift my shirt up so my belly shows, and John and I sit on the couch and just stare bug-eyed at this most common and still totally mind-blowing thing — a human within a human. The movement is easy to see. The surface of my stomach undulates, like she’s pushing from within a balloon. Sometimes it’s more like a wobble or a thrust. Sometimes it feels like an actual kick, but oftentimes it’s nothing like a kick. It’s a punch or a poke or a wave or a jab. Sometimes it’s just the feeling of weight wedged somewhere — a pressure under a rib or the sensation of a creature straining against gravity. It feels willful in these moments.
Is it a communication? Or just reflex? Does it say something about who she is, who she is going to be, or is just a storm of developmental instincts and environmental conditions?
It’s my second time around and the phenomenon of having a baby move inside of me has gotten no less boggling. In some ways, actually, it feels more boggling now that I know my two-and-a-half-year-old daughter. I look at her as she’s stuffing eggs into her mouth and simultaneously sing-shouting, “We all live in a yellow submarine!” and think, That person was once inside of my belly.
How can this be? Is this really how human beings get born? WTF?

(Amanda Tipton / Flickr / Some Rights Reserved)

It seems to me that this is one of those largely overlooked phenomena within the human experience. Sure, we see pregnant women on the street. We register, cognitively, that their bellies are bulbous because they’ve got a baby growing in there. But how often do we, particularly those who aren’t in the midst of the experience, as I am, stop to consider just how wild that really is? How wild our universal origin really is? No matter how you feel about your mother, no matter what your relationship to her now, you were once inside of her abdomen. Mind sufficiently blown?

The only time I hear something approximating this get discussed is within a highly charged religious and political context. But while the abortion debate rages on, our profoundly weird and wonderful biology marches quietly through the streets of our cities and towns, shows up at our grocery stores and on our buses, and in our workplaces. We offer a pregnant woman a seat, hopefully, but do we take a moment to marvel at what’s happening? What has happened? What will keep happening as long as human beings reproduce?
I’m surprised that experiencing it for so many months, twice over, somehow doesn’t make it any more normal to me. Usually my brain does a pretty good job of integrating foreign experiences, making something that was once novel quotidian. But not this.
I sit next to people, even perfect strangers, and have the impulse to say, “Have you ever felt a baby move inside someone’s belly? Do you want to?” I restrain, the last vestiges of my social decorum apparently not completely ruined by relaxin and residual bliss from that second trimester. With good friends, I don’t hold back. I don’t want to let this strange state go to waste. I want to share my bafflement.
It’s surprisingly hard to find interesting writing about this experience. Mary Wollstonecraft, whose Vindication of the Rights of Women I devoured in political theory class in college, wrote to her husband that her baby, in utero,

“took it into his head to frisk a little at being informed of your remembrance. I begin to love this little creature, and to anticipate his birth as a fresh twist to a knot, which I do not wish to untie.”

This second daughter of mine is doing a lot more slide tackling than “frisking,” as far as I can tell, so that doesn’t quite resonate, as much as I love her language.
Ecologist Sandra Steingraber writes that she imagines her early pregnancy as a “lavender thread caught within a plush red carpet,” in her beautiful memoir, Having Faith. This, too, makes me swoon, but is way too soft for the phenomena of later days, when one can actually see the shape of a stubborn foot against the skin of the abdomen.
I think my sister-in-law, quoting one of her friends on Facebook, actually got it most right: “a turkey doing barrel rolls.” Not exactly romantic, but hell if it isn’t accurate.
I was in the bath with Maya the other night and I told her, “Did you know the baby can hear you?”
She said, “Yeah,” and looked up at me with a face that said, “duh.” Perhaps this human within a human thing only gets weirder as we get older and lose our own memories of being in utero.
“I hear her, too,” Maya added.
“What does she say?” I asked.
“She leaned in close to me and said in a small voice that she usually reserves for baby bunnies, “Maya, get me out!”

(Amanda Tipton / Flickr / Some Rights Reserved)

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is a columnist for On Being. Her column appears every Friday.

Her newest book, The New Better Off: Reinventing the American Dream, explores how people are redefining the American dream (think more fulfillment, community, and fun, less debt, status, and stuff). Courtney is the co-founder of the Solutions Journalism Network and a strategist for the TED Prize. She is also co-founder and partner at Valenti Martin Media and FRESH Speakers Bureau, and editor emeritus at Feministing.com.

Courtney has authored/edited five books, including Do It Anyway: The New Generation of Activists, and Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters: How the Quest for Perfection is Harming Young Women. Her work appears frequently in The New York Times and The Washington Post. Courtney has appeared on the TODAY Show, Good Morning America, MSNBC, and The O’Reilly Factor, and speaks widely at conferences and colleges. She is the recipient of the Elie Wiesel Prize in Ethics and a residency from the Rockefeller Foundation’s Bellagio Centre. She lives with her partner in life and work, John Cary, in Oakland, and their daughters Maya and Stella. Read more about her work at www.courtneyemartin.com.

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