I don’t know quite what I expected.
For the longest time (and I know how lucky we are that for us, that only meant months, not years), we’d been planning for this pregnancy, working as hard as we could emotionally to conceive our miracle, fighting the despair that threatened to overwhelm anything positive about this process. Now, here we were – three or so home pregnancy tests, two blood tests, and a scan that let us see our baby’s heartbeat, a bright, flashing light on a grey and black screen – knocked up. For all of my attempts to visualise it, and to write through the agony of fertility treatments, I realised I hadn’t spent much time thinking about what comes after. I guess it’s partly because when you’re in the throes of fertility treatments, you sort of want to hear about pregnancy, but you’d really rather not spend too much of your time focusing on something that points out the basic, obvious fact: you want this and you do not have it. It’s also because fertility treatments have a way of sending you through the looking glass and firmly down the rabbit hole, so that your world is filled to capacity with numbers and needles and hormones and scans and and and… There is little time to think beyond the positive test you are chasing. So when we found out we were definitively pregnant, neither of us really knew what was coming our way.
I think one of the biggest surprises has been the relentless uncertainty. When we were trying for the baby, it was all about the uncertainty: what will my ovaries do this month; will our respective gametes play nice; will the little embryos make it; will they find my uterus a warm, inviting home and decide to settle in for a few months – and, wait, does that twinge I just felt mean what I think it means; is that nausea I feel? It was like being stuck in a soap opera stuck on a never-ending cliffhanger. But it was par for the course, we knew this. What we didn’t expect was that a positive pregnancy test doesn’t mean a definitive end to the waiting. Because we took our tests so early, we knew we were pregnant far earlier than many people do. I didn’t have to wait for the late period, the nausea, the sore breasts to suspect anything – I knew well before any of all that started. The downside to this is that for women carrying chromosomally abnormal embryos will often have very early miscarriages that are usually interpreted as very late, very heavy periods. When you know as early as women who’ve been going through fertility treatments do, you have a long wait between your positive test and your first viability scan. It’s a gut-churning wait, during which you may have that miscarriage. What’s worse is that there are almost no symptoms, except for cramping which feels a lot like the cramps you experience before a very late, very heavy period – ain’t nature fun! So, the waiting and anxiety continues. In between my blood tests and my scan, I took another three home tests, just to make sure I hadn’t dreamt any of it. Although they were all overwhelmingly positive – bright lines that showed up as soon as the pee hit the stick – I couldn’t shake the worry. And – surprise, surprise – I couldn’t shake it even after the first scan. At this point, 15 weeks in, I’ve had several scans after that first one, and my tiny embryo is now a foetus, complete with wiggling fingers and toes and movements that produce thrilling, joyful, discernible flutters that his mama can feel. But I still worry. I watch my growing belly for any signs of shrinking, having read somewhere that when a baby dies and does not leave your body immediately, they start to regress in size and your belly follows suit. I lie still at night, hoping for those tiny flutters (they usually come during the day when I am working and almost, almost miss them). I obsessively record my symptoms, watching for any major shift in the general physical pall that has been my ‘normal’ since week 6 of the pregnancy. During one particularly bad episode (a tiny fever brought on by really bad rhinitis – fevers are particularly dangerous to babies during early pregnancy, not to mention they make mama feel like shit), I said to my doctor, “The suspense never ends! I suspect it won’t even when the baby comes”. And that’s been one of the truest lessons. Even when you know, you can’t know, you will never know anything for sure ever again. All the tests and scans in the world will not change that, and you will somehow have to make peace with that.
The other major surprise was the way in which our worlds have simultaneously expanded and shrunk. When we first started on this journey, we knew we would be swallowed whole trying to get pregnant. Fertility treatments are not something you enter into ‘part-time’. They pull you in, all take and more take, all for that one, major miraculous give. In the first few weeks of the pregnancy, I felt restored to myself, and my life before. Yes, there was a major physical transformation and expansion happening just beneath my skin, where I stood, before everyone’s very eyes, but gone were the endless doctor’s visits – for those few weeks anyway – the interminable wondering, the physical displacement. For a while in the beginning, when only our immediate family and closest friends knew, I was just Rumbi, returning to the world of those not undergoing fertility treatments. But just as soon as we emerged from that world, triumphantly clutching positive pregnancy tests, we entered the world of expectant parents, complete with its own set of perilously high stakes, never-ending medical interventions, and uncertainties. And just like that, I have retreated from the ‘regular’ world. Around this time, the furore around the public protector’s report exposing the irregularities of the ‘security upgrades’ made to President Jacob Zuma’s homestead in Nkandla roared on furiously, with letters and statements being made by both her and his office. I am ashamed to say, I didn’t engage at all. I hardly know what either camp said to each other, and apart from the ubiquitous (hashtag) ‘pay back the money’ statements made by Julius Malema, I hardly know where any of it stands. And it doesn’t end there. I’ve spent the last three months in a baby-induced haze, unable to engage meaningfully on Palestine, Grace Mugabe’s PhD, climate summits, American elections. The only thing that momentarily brought me out of my stupor was Beyoncé announcing her feminism. But, you’ll notice the distinct lack of blog or social media posts on that or anything else. Over tea with a close friend, I confided that whilst my job does not require that I have an opinion or an explicit philosophy on any of the news issues of the day, I am grateful for the way in which it tethers me to the outside world, the world outside of my body and my home which I am happily filling up with adorable baby gear. Although I am more tired than I have ever been in my entire life (though I am told to hold the phone – new motherhood should top this), I am grateful that for a few hours each day, I can climb out of my skin and focus on the needs and imperatives of an institution bigger than myself. For many reasons, I plan to continue working after the baby is born, but one of the reasons I least expected is this one: work has, and may continue to be, a way to retain my connection to the parts of me that have not yet disappeared into my new identity as mother-in-waiting.
All of which brings me to the last big reveal. I am a feminist. I’ve read Adrienne Rich. I am familiar with the feminist arguments that warn women to be careful when it comes to motherhood: there be dragons. Motherhood has long been understood by feminists as a tool with which to keep women in particular places, and out of others. Post-second wave feminists are more relenting about it. We know what motherhood could be in the hands of the patriarchy, so women are urged to reclaim it from those clutches, tread lightly, and purposefully. Choose motherhood, do not let it be foisted upon you. And so we make our choices. But even when the purposeful, empowered decision to carry that baby is made, the journey that is pregnancy and all it holds for your relationship with your body and your womanhood remains. In the throes of unrelenting morning sickness, insomnia brought on the ten or so nightly bathroom trips, biting headaches, and exhaustion so deep I could feel it in my teeth, you guys, I asked my husband, “Can we share this? You carry the baby sometimes, and I do the other bits”. Because nothing prepared me for the visceral way in which pregnancy pulls you into your physical womanhood. As Naomi Wolf puts it in Misconceptions, it is an incredibly lonely and difficult path. In as much as my husband is here for every step and has listened patiently to and googled my every complaint from my shrinking fingers (it’s a thing – my husband googled it), to my irritated bowel, I have to do the difficult, sometimes painful physical parts of this journey on my own, in my body. And in as much as this is a choice I have made, the fact that this was choice does not mitigate that. And in as much as I wanted this with all of my being and my body, I could never have imagined the extent to which I would be giving over my being and my body to processes I vaguely understand. None of the post-second wave feminism I encountered gave me any preparation for the ambivalence that comes with choosing something, boldly, independently only to enter into a maelstrom in which you have no choice but to sit tight, until the waves of symptoms subside so you can survey what’s left behind. Even as I write that, I feel the (by now) old guilt. We wanted this so much, how can I complain for even one second? Does having complete control over my body for a political point mean more to me than our unborn son? Of course not. But I can still feel the joy of carrying this life that we love so much, and still struggle with what pregnancy and motherhood will mean for my identity as a feminist. And as Naomi Wolf’s very highly recommended book puts it: you can feel all of it at once, the loss of who you were, the grief, the wonder at who you are becoming, and not be a bad woman, mother, feminist, person.
In my fifteenth week of pregnancy, I find it increasingly difficult to lie on back. My stomach’s getting bigger, and I can no longer comfortably rest in that position without feeling my own weight straining my back. Yesterday afternoon, I lay down next to my husband and began to sing to our son. Whilst I was fidgeting with pillows and inwardly complaining about the fact that I can now only lie on one side, I felt it: one of those flutters that might be gas, but can’t be. There he is, I am singing to him, and he moved, as if he can feel the vibrations my voice is making, he can feel this visceral, deep connection even before we’ve met each other. There in the middle of this deeply uncomfortable realisation of yet another limitation on my body, I felt this incredible, indescribable love. So, Naomi Wolf is right. There’s a way to do both all at once and still be okay.