My husband and I are expecting our first child this summer. For us, this is a very personal experience, the joy a culmination of years of trying and disappointment. However, based on the behavior of many strangers I encounter in the street, this is apparently a shared experience. Somehow by carrying a child within it, my belly has become public property.
While everyone dwells on whether men offer me a seat on the subway (both men and women do) or Kim Kardashian being pregnant too (it’s a complete coincidence), the thing most people don’t talk about is just how comfortable strangers will feel asking or telling you the most random, personal things. And certainly no one warned me about the number of people, including strangers, who will touch your stomach. It’s unreal. Strangers, in a city known for being impersonal, light up when they see I’m pregnant. I’ve been approached or touched by more strangers in the past 7 months than in my entire native New Yorker life.
These things actually happened:
1. A stranger in Starbucks glanced at my cup and said, “That better be decaf!”
2. A passing acquaintance of my mother’s, as we were being introduced, reached past my extended hand and rubbed my stomach instead.
3. A store clerk announced to me that I must be having a girl like she did, because I “was spreading all over.” (My vanity demands that I clarify I’d made the unfortunate fashion decision of wearing horizontal stripes that day.)
4. A cab driver asked me if this is my first and when told yes, asked me how long we waited to try. (Am I the only person who hears “had you been having sex?” when people ask about trying to conceive? Just me? Ok, sorry).
5. A woman asked if she could touch my stomach and when I said, “Please don’t” she paused, hurt, then decided I was joking and reached in anyway.
I get it. I really do. There are only two things we all have in common – birth and death - and no one wants to dwell on the latter. And maybe being in a crowded impersonal city, people are looking for interpersonal connections and this gives an excuse. After all, how many things remind us of all we have in common instead of all our differences?
I also get the whole Lion King circle of life, ancient impulse of welcoming the newborn child into the community and the wonder that might inspire in some people. After how long it took us to get to this point, I’m fully aware of just how insane it is that anyone is ever born at all. Seriously, have you ever read up on all the things that have to happen in just the right way at just the right time for an egg to get fertilized? It’s easier to get into space. It’s kind of freaking amazing.
On the other hand, as the person being interrogated or touched, it’s off-putting to say the least. The moment it became obvious that I’m pregnant, I went from an individual worthy of privacy and personal space to a vessel available to whoever lays eyes on me. Not to overanalyze it, but I wonder how much of this is tied to how our society views ownership of women’s bodies overall.
I find it interesting that the most intrusive things have only happened when I’m alone, never when I’m with my husband. When I’m with him, we’re a unit, a family. You’d think we’d get double the questions since there are now two of us – perhaps some comments on his sperm, an ever so gentle fondle of his testicles, a rousing “way to go sport!” for surpassing all those hurdles to get me pregnant. But, no. Surprisingly enough, none of that has ever happened. Go figure.
When I’m with him, I belong to him. Alone, I belong to the community. Alone, I’m not me; I’m the vessel through which a new child will be born and that child, until it is born, belongs to everyone. My value isn’t my individuality, my intellect, my sense of humor, whatever I think makes me who I am. It’s the utility of my uterus and what it holds in it.
It’s the same abstraction and shared ownership of the woman and fetus that lets legislators fervently debate abortion while ignoring women’s and children’s health issues. During pregnancy, a woman no longer exists as herself and the child doesn’t yet fully exist at all. Both are just abstract ideas, open to the interpretation of society. The actual woman or child doesn’t have to get in the way of the theoretical debate because they’re not real people, just objects of the community.
And if that’s taking it too far, I get that there’s also just the plain human element. For example, in my experience, there is no one more intrusively joyous than an older woman. Most people read my discomfort with the contact and eventually adjust. However, older, motherly types could not care less. They will be literally all up in my face checking for how I’m carrying weight, on my stomach checking for gender clues, commenting on my hips (They’re narrow so I’ll apparently be “in some pain baby”), and offering what goes past advice and amounts to orders on how to raise our future child.
Even as I hold my hands protectively over my belly, they will still reach in, placing their hands on mine. While, as an introvert, this is overwhelming for me, in that moment, with the touching of hands, I guess I am indeed a part of a continuum. Hands on hands, mother to mother, generation to generation. I, as an individual, disappear in that equation and become a part of something so much larger than I can really grasp.
Because in the end, despite the intrusion, there’s no denying how well-intentioned people are even as they run roughshod over my personal boundaries. The smiles, the well-wishes, even the admonishments, are small moments that maybe help those people to feel more connected in a crowded city. While my husband and I were just looking to grow our family, we are also growing the community – whatever that may mean in this day and age. And even I have to admit that’s something special. At least, this is what I tell myself each time I have to resist the urge to slap a stranger’s hands away from my body.
And when that doesn’t work, I’ll take my friend’s advice: if you rub my belly, I rub yours.