As soon as I step out into public with Luna and Sienna in tow, other women comment on my body. They tell me I look fabulous, they ask me where my stomach is, they claim I must have the secret all women want. It never occurs to them I didn’t birth the babies because I had a surrogate because I had breast cancer. It’s not even in the frame of reference. It’s like any boundary you might have around asking about others’ bodies disintegrates entirely when there is a little one burping on your shoulder.
When I’m feeling fiery and sassy and annoyed, I respond, “Do you always comment on the bodies of women you’ve never met before?” When I’m just not up for sass and sizzle, I nod and smile. The first is a conversation shut-down. It’s a sparkful boundary, one I am daring them to contest, to cross, to consider. In part, its done to chastise the other person because I am angry, it’s meant to make these weird, gendered ways of relating visible- its meant to be pedagogical. It’s meant to disrupt, to unsettle, to provoke something other than the everyday. The latter is an apathetic failure to say no, and in failing to set any kind of boundary, its an invitation to converse- it’s a willing participation in sustaining the fantasy of womanhood in which pregnancy and childbirth is so central. It’s a hefty sigh because I’m not part of that gendered fantasy, and it’s exhaustion at attempting to ward off awkward inquiry that centralizes my body as object lesson.
Neither feels right. Both feel like I’m telling a lie.
And the other night, it came up in a way that was higher-stakes than the checker in the grocery line, and while I could have made a feminist retort and rationalized it with language like intersectionality and in/visibility and discursive performativity, I didn’t. I just lied.
I was at a dinner for the faculty in the program I’m teaching in. The wine was flowing and stories were being shared of toddlers and families. And I blurted out, I have twins. And then they wanted to know how old. And then they wanted to know how they missed my pregnant belly in the interview. And then I lied about how I camouflaged it. I didn’t want to explain surrogacy. I didn’t want to explain cancer. I didn’t want to explain. And in not explaining, I was complicit in the way that other kinds of families are hard to see, I was complicit in so much. But I can’t always explain. And so sometimes, I lie. And they probably now think I’m a master at camouflaging very pregnant bellies, and that I’m so good at answering academic interview questions that no one even notices my body! That would be incredible… if disembodiment was the goal. It somehow is the goal– to be seen only as a thinker, a thinker without a cumbersome body— and simultaneously, not the goal, because the goal is to dismantle disembodied thought, and to embody theory and theorize embodiment. So whatever, they think I’m a fashion guru (haha) and that I know how to camouflage a super preggo belly. I’m not a guru and I can’t camouflage an enormous belly full of twins, but I didn’t have to explain surrogacy and cancer to people I hardly know. And later on? Whatever, when we are all #besties I’ll just explain, how I couldn’t explain, because it was too much, and I wanted to be both a disembodied thinker and an embodied dismantler of disembodied thought, all at once. Ah, but really. Mostly, these conversations are with strangers who assume. I used to play in a symphony and the conductor would say, “Don’t assume! To assume is to make An ASS out of U and ME.” She was onto something, indeed.
Sure, I need some boundaries around who gets to ask what about my body and the babies in my arms, but mostly, I need boundaries around my family and the way I live my life as a thinker, lover, writer, mother. I need those boundaries because everything is in upheaval: I’ve got a new job, we are settling into a new (old?) place, we have two newborns, and we moved countries. I’m just coming out of a lengthy healing from cancer process, I am trying to adjust to life post-PhD, and we’ve moved into the home I grew up in. My mom is moving into the newly-converted in-law unit, and we painted the kitchen blue and aqua. I don’t know how long we’ll stay, but for awhile at least, we’re here.
It’s lovely to have family and old friends around. And it’s also challenging as fuck. If you’re alive, you came from somewhere. So love ’em or hate ’em, you know what I mean when I say, it’s challenging as fuck.
Plus, I wish everyone could read my mind, or failing that, that I could communicate with sidewalk chalk drawings and glitter dustings. Alas, neither is possible. And so I have to tell people what I want and what I need and sometimes they don’t like it as much as they would like glittery sidewalk chalk. But then I look at my two babies and I think, fuck it. I have to say what I need and what I want, and people might not like it, but I am a mama to these two babies, and I just need whatever I need to be able to do that the best I can. And these babies need a mama who pursues creative projects and writes like a madwoman, because I want them to follow those kinds of passions. And these babies need a mama who surrounds herself with people who inspire her, who make her feel alive and hopeful and full of ideas and possibilities.
So I am trying to tell people what I need and what I don’t need. And I am trying to not feel guilty about it.
I still feel really freaking guilty about it. But at the end of the day, I give zero fucks if I lie to the grocery store clerk, or even to my colleagues, because it makes my life a little easier, and the lies to the colleagues can be rectified later on, and we can laugh about it for decades. It’s a little harder to give zero fucks about the intensive guilt surrounding boundaries with family and those really close friends, but I definitely give the most fucks about the babies. And… maybe sometimes those kind of guilty feelings are good, because they mean we’re doing something for our selves instead of because it’s what seems right or what other people need. So, I still feel guilty about it. But I’m doing it anyway.
Lies and boundaries. Two things I’ve done more since having these beautiful, amazing, hilarious, brilliant, fussy twins.