Crystaline Brown is finishing her CHID senior thesis by writing speculative fiction, which focuses on pregnant bodies. One of her favorite things about CHID is the desire to find connections between things that are not obviously connected, explore those connections, and then ask questions.
Narrative 1: Pregnancy is painful
“Women have a higher pain threshold than men.”
“Women have a higher pain threshold than men because they have to give birth.”
“Giving birth is extremely painful.”
“When my cousin had a baby, I could hear her screaming from down the hallway that her asshole was ripping in half.”
“Birth is the most painful thing someone can experience.”
“Epidurals are awesome because they make the pain go away. Who wouldn’t want that?”
I’ve heard people say these things since I was a kid. And then there’s things that I’ve only heard about being said to women whom I have never met, and for some reason seem even more insidious, things like: “The pain of childbirth is women’s punishment for the original sin of Eve eating the apple in the garden of Eden.”
And then there are clichés like “the miracle of childbirth” or “when you have kids of your own someday…” In the back of my mind, even as a child who knew nothing about sex, reproduction, and very little about my own body or the bodies of other people, I knew that in some time and place ahead of me, I would become pregnant, that I would have a baby in my stomach. And that was Normal. Now, as an adult and as someone who has worked in childcare and as a nanny for ten years, I’ve seen and heard a lot of things. And Normal is mythical, like Audre Lorde said.
Years ago, I came upon a video about orgasmic birth and I felt inspired by it. I’ve always been interested in what my body can do. I am very in touch with my body. I am very sensitive. Maybe if I gave birth, I could try orgasmic childbirth. I talked to a handful of people about this and I was met with the same phrases which I mentioned in the first paragraph. Basically, PAIN IS THE ONLY OPTION! And some people have even gotten angry at me for proposing that other sensations, pleasurable sensations, might be involved with the moment of birth.
People tell me since I’m a woman, I can take the pain, that I’m tough. I don’t think my pain threshold is linked to our simplistic biological sex definitions. What people really mean is that if I am female, I have a higher pain threshold than males do. And I think the idea of female as strong is only normatively acceptable in the context of reproduction, otherwise, we are weak. I must have a higher pain threshold because my body must produce and expel something large out of my vagina. My organs and skin, my blood and my breasts, my arms and my legs and ankles, all must shift and rearrange and undulate and swell and pulsate to support this sack full of liquid and another human. My concurrently large stomach will prompt others to become overwhelmed with urges to touch, to caress, to marvel, to recoil, to cry, to be confused. The pregnant body will be simultaneously displayed and invisible. Swollen and in labor, manufacturing life, miraculous and divine, special and feminine, predictable and mysterious, covered up, kept inside, kept away and out, removed from the societal cogs and placed into the liminal space of pregnancy, the early stages of parenthood or motherhood. A space filled with Amazon delivery boxes, feeding supplies, spit up cloths, and gentle walks with nannies while C-section wounds heal. Are they a body or a woman or a person or a mother? Sometimes. Where are the fathers? Sometimes around. Sometimes not.
Narrative 2: What are we missing?
When I was in second grade, everyone in my class got to raise a caterpillar on their desk until they transformed into butterflies. We said the word “chrysalis” so many times during those weeks. Each one of us got a clear, plastic film roll container. We stuck a thumb sized mash of food into the bottom of the film canister and then placed our skinny, black, fuzzy caterpillar inside. We put the tops on. They sat affixed to the edge of our desks for weeks. My caterpillar ate the olive colored mash, it pooped out tiny, round poops, and slowly the poop seemed to cover the food. I worried that my caterpillar was living in filth. There was an extra caterpillar, so one person had two caterpillars in one container. One day in class, we all crowded around her desk to watch as they had begun to fight. I watched the two caterpillars attack each other. One hung from its back feet on the ceiling of the film canister and the other stood atop its tiny mountain of poop and food mash. The one hanging began to bite the other one, it laid down and became still and the other one proceeded to eat it while hanging from the cap of the film canister. I was surprised to see how the blood in the open caterpillar body looked like mine: dark and wet. I thought about this scene for a long time, and I still think about it.
Eventually our caterpillars climbed up and hung from the lids of the film canisters while they built a cocoon around themselves. Shortly after, someone collected the lids with the little hibernating creatures inside, and put them inside a large container. The beautiful blue butterflies slowly revealed themselves and we watched as they carefully unfolded their wings and got used to their new bodies. We sat outside on a beautiful Spring day and opened the container. We watched them fly away to nearby flower beds or into the neighboring woods.
Narrative 3: Awkward and Ignorant
In fifth grade, we had “sex ed”. We watched videos which contained a crude animation of a penis becoming long and hard. I left that session feeling left out and like I should do everything I can to prepare my body for inevitable penetration. We had a quiz later, on which was a question I will never forget: “Is the vagina always wet?” The multiple-choice answers were either yes or no. I chose yes, because mine was always wet, and I remembered reading in our text book that the vagina is always wet for several reasons, basically so that it can be healthy. I was happy to see this question on the quiz. I looked around at my male friends and thought, “This is nice. I hope they learn something about my vagina.”
After this session, they split up the males and females. Myself and other females went into a different classroom while two grey-haired women held up an anatomical model of a female pelvis. It was in two pieces, so we could see the vagina, the anus, and some internal organs, as if we were looking at it from the side. They brought out some tampons and maxi pads. They used a tampon with an applicator to show how to put it in the vagina, using the anatomical model as an example. I felt extremely let down because I had started my period months earlier and all this information would have been helpful beforehand. I didn’t even know I had a vagina until the day I started my period.
Narrative 4: Science is God
When I was in sixth grade, we grew little plants. We had to talk about biology and scientific experiments. We got to name our plants. I loved mine. I named one Ollie. We had to pollinate the plants ourselves. We had to draw diagrams which indicated the names of the parts of flowers and plants. We learned about the stamen, the pistil, and all the other parts. We learned that flowers are either male or female. I was deeply confused by this because none of the flowers had any obvious physical qualities which told me whether they were masculine or feminine. We learned that pollination was essential for reproduction. But the pollination was seemingly random, out of the flowers’ control. A passing cat in a garden might rub against and pollinate plants, but they mostly depend on furry little bees to go from flower to flower and essentially create an interspecies orgy of reproduction for these flowers to survive. The male flowers aren’t shooting anything into the female flowers. The female flowers aren’t doing anything to get the males’ attention. They just get to be flowers and relax and live and die. I’ve always wanted to be a plant.
Narrative 5: This isn’t a narrative at all, these are some questions.
What does all of this have to do with pregnant bodies? I don’t know. How much do you know about biology? How much do you know about the medical industry, what do you know about home births? Who do you trust and why? What do you know about feeding infants? What are parents? How much does it cost to have a baby? What if a surrogate has your baby, then how much does it cost? What is infant formula? Let’s ask some more questions.
By Crystaline Brown