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  • The Presence of a Uterus

    By Sridala Swami

    Seven years ago, I attended a wedding reception that I will never forget. A few months previously, I had just had a baby and this wedding was one of the first occasions when I was going out with the new arrival. It was quite traumatic for me: all I wanted to do was meet friends and enjoy a few conversations; instead I had to worry about feeds, secluded rooms and diapers.

    There were three of us at a table – my (then) husband and I, and an old college friend who was independently a friend and colleague of the husband. U and G started to talk while I tried to calm a cranky child unused to so many people, or to loud music and noise. The conversation between them was animated and mostly about work. Then, in a natural pause in the conversation, G turned to me and stared blankly for a minute before gathering her scattered wits to say:

    “So.”

    Silence.

    I raised an eyebrow, but it’s unlikely that she saw it in the ill-lit corner of the garden where we were seated.

    “How are things?”

    “Fine,” I said.

    “Good,” she said and turned back to U to talk office gossip.

    That was the sum of our interaction. I could see her struggle to find something to say to me. This despite the fact that we had many friends in common; that we were more or less in the same area of work; that we studied in the same places for nearly four years. That was when I was first struck by the attitude that some people – among them many women – have to those who have just had a child. The general attitude seems to be that if you’ve just become a mother, your brains must be leaking out with the breast milk and no conversation that does not include bodily functions, is possible.

    I, on the other hand, was heartily sick of poop and washing and feeds and sleepless nights and wanted to forget for a few hours that I had ever had a child. In the years that have passed since that evening, I have often wondered why this should have been so. It is not that I have ever regretted having a child. I certainly am not a bad parent. But I also know that I need time that is mine, entirely adult and unattached. I’ve never regretted the times when I’ve left my son to go out on my own, on work or with friends, to party or to watch films, to travel or do things that have no direct relation to child-rearing.

    Is my determination to have some part of my life unfettered by the demands of parenting ‘unnatural’ or ‘unfeminine’? Do I do it to seek the approval of those who are not limited to the narrow business of motherhood and all its concerns? Why do I think talking about motherhood is ‘narrow’ while talking about cinema or poetry is not?

    When I was in college, studying Renaissance literature, I came across this quote while writing a paper for a conference on feminism: “I know I have the body of a weak and feeble woman; but I have the heart of a king, and of a king of England, too;”

    I was struck by the construction of the sentence. It was part of a speech Queen Elizabeth made to her soldiers while urging them to fight against the Spanish Armada. Notice the way in which she assigns definite qualities to genders, but brings them together in her own person while simultaneously equating herself with all England. If she is a woman in some respects, she seems to say, she is a man in other ways, ways that count; that she is willing to rise above the qualities that make her a woman and become like a man – and not just any man but the King of England and therefore the foremost male in all the known world of the time.

    What is unusual is that many decades into the feminist movement, we still feel the need to make these arbitrary and entirely spurious distinctions about what constitutes the ‘feminine’; we still judge in favour of those qualities that we consider are not overtly ‘feminine’.

    Is it more feminine to talk about children? Less feminine to not want to talk of them? Which is better?

    I read a fair number of blogs, among them a few written by ‘mombloggers’. These women – and men – talk about their children, about parenting, schooling, and a thousand other things that they feel strongly about. Recently there has been some unpleasantness as a result. One such attack said, in its own defence, that it was all right to say what was said because the post was only pointing out how the momblog in question ‘obfuscate[d] the absence of a career with the presence of a uterus.’

    It was an astonishing statement. It not only assumed that ‘career’ meant specifically, something that made you get out of the house at a certain time, dressed in a certain way, to go to an ‘office’ and return home several hours later (women working from home while also looking after children clearly do not have a ‘career’. Presumably they are amusing themselves with the jam while their husbands earn the bread and butter); it also assumed that all parenting concerns automatically abdicate the call of the brain (or the heart – another apparently masculine organ) in favour of the uterus; and finally, assumed that these conversations were taking place exclusively among women.

    ‘Uterus’ seems to spell ‘natural’, and therefore nothing that requires effort or the exercise of reason. One is either born with a uterus or not, so there’s no need to make a big deal of what comes out if it; worse, talking about it all seriously is an affront.

    This reminded me so much of G that evening seven years ago, when she had nothing to say to a woman who had just had a child. At that time I met her discomfort with silence, vowing to never inflict my private and necessary absorption with motherhood on anyone else. I even resented the ways in which motherhood suddenly tied me to my gender.

    At that time, it seems now to me, new mothers were a ghetto unto themselves, incomprehensible and separate from the regular world of working women, doomed to silence in the absence of places to talk about the gestalt shift in their lives. Now, it appears that new mothers have not only found a few rooms of their own, they have become articulate and noticeable.

    In the process, if they have once again embraced all the things that were traditionally considered the province of women – absorption with children, their bodies, the looking after of hearth and home, whether to resume a career or not – it is ironic that the call to shut up about these things comes not from other women who have fought long and hard to claim other areas as their own, but from a man who is annoyed by how popular these women are but is not especially seized by any doubts about what the persistent binaries might mean to our understanding of gender.

    ***

    Sridala Swami lives in Hyderabad and writes poetry and fiction. Her poetry has appeared in Nthposition, Kritya, Museindia, Chandrabhaga, The Little Magazine, New Quest and Wasafiri; and in the Talking Poetry anthology 50 Poets 50 Poems edited by Priya Sarukkai Chhabria. Three books for very young children, Phani’s Funny Chappals, What Shall We Do For A Cradle? and Kabadiwala have been published by Pratham. Her first collection of poems, A Reluctant Survivor, was published by The Sahitya Akademi in June 2007. She blogs at http://spaniardintheworks.blogspot.com

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    26 Responses

    1. Fabulous!

      I will be visiting often.

    2. Interesting. A post that requires a longer and more thoughtful response than even I’m willing to put in a comments space. Watch out for posts on 2x3x7.

      For now, let me say that I entirely agree with the gender bits of this post – it’s ridiculous to target ‘mothers’, as though fathers were not involved in parenting at all. The presumption that absorption in parenthood is a female / feminine thing, more ‘natural’ to women, is unfair to both men and women.

      Now if your friend had had nothing to say to both you and your husband, then I would have been on her side. I’m all for ostracizing people who bring few month old babies to social occasions, I just don’t see a reason to be sexist about it.

    3. <>

      This gives me hope! I go through those tortuous “Is it less feminine to not talk about kids?” questions too.

      Sometimes I have nothing to contribute to conversations which revolve around potty training, fussy eating habits etc. I wonder “Is it rude to change the subject and talk about new bookies/movies? Will she be annoyed for putting her identity as a mother aside for a bit?”

    4. i perfectly undertsand what you are talking about!

    5. could anyone have said it better than you dala?!

      I’ve often gone to a party with a SLEEPING child in a carry cot, because as you said, its not always possible to find a trustworthy babysitter… DYING to talk to ppl abt politics, literature, the latest M&A, only to realise that because I have a baby asleep at my feet they think I can talk of nothing else!

    6. Excellent post! I agree 100% with you!

    7. fmfulplease: Thanks. And good luck.

      Falstaff: My reply to you longer post you already know.

      About the absorption with parenthood thing: I haven’t even touched upon the sanctification of motherhood bit in this post. It’s something that both women and men play into and that’s a whole other post, really.

      ggop: Well, sometimes, young mother talk about these things because they need help and have no one to ask because they no longer live in ‘joint families’. But I know what you mean.

      usha: Thanks!

    8. Great post, Sridala. I sympathise with what you’re saying and you bring up some very interesting points on how even feminists sometimes privilege a certain set of qualities over others.

      I have to admit though that sometimes I am not great around women who are mothers. This is because many of the people (and therefore the women also) I have met only want to talk about their babies — I understand they are preoccupied with them — but frankly, not having kids or liking them terribly — I inevitably get bored. As a result, I shudder at the thought of meeting them at all. Why don’t I talk about other things? Well, with some people, one gets the distinct impression that they would be annoyed if you suddenly brought up other things, as if you were negating the importance of their child. Also, I’m not that great with kids and I’m pretty sure they judge me for that because “what kind of a woman are you anyway that you don’t have nurturing feelings??”

      In terms of gender bias, it unfortunately works both ways. I have met enough people, and most of them are parents, who are judgmental about people who are not interested in kids. It’s right up there with hurting small animals, unassailable proof of a cold, cruel heart. And if you’re a woman, heaven help you. Because it’s supposed to come naturally.

    9. TMM: Yes, now if only you could get the other person to see that just like they don’t want to talk about your kid, you you don’t want to talk about your kid either, things would be so much better.

      Aqua: Thanks.

      Anindita: I know what you mean. People generally can’t believe young women who say they (a) don’t want to get married (b) have kids ever, even if they do. They get these looks that spell ‘subhuman!’ and it’s very annoying.

      But next time, just ignore the creature in their hands. Really – plenty of new mothers really don’t want to talk about their kids. They do enough for them already.

    10. SB: Yes, the sanctification of motherhood thing does deserve a post to itself. But it’s inextricably linked to the issues you raise here, I think. After all, the flip side of celebrating women as mothers is making sure they’re seen as being incapable of anything else, no? Otherwise whither patriarchy?

      Forgive me if this seems out of line, but I have to say that in your little scene above, the person who struck me as coming off the worst was your former husband. I see no reason why your friend should be expected to make an effort to include you in the conversation, but I’d expect your husband to do so – after all, it’s his child too. To be honest, that’s where I thought you were going with the anecdote, so I was a little surprised when you turned on your friend instead.

    11. Good post, Sridala – yes, I remember that essential weak link in Elisabeth’s statement – sort of got me riled up ages ago. Yes, its a common bias we face and over the years I’ve figured the only way to find that wonderful balance of ‘me as a person / woman who enjoys everything – babies and mergers and literature and art and conversation etc’ is to just ignore conditioned responses and carry on as if one does indeed live in a humanist world (feminist is a word so cruelly abused by generations that have followed in the wake of women who really worked towards a natural freedom).
      My business partner had a baby 8 months ago and when the baby was 3 months old we were taking her for business meetings when and if an alternative wasn’t possible. . The speed-bump time was about 3 minutes – client would be uncomfortable and kootchie-coo and look at us helplessly while we ignored sleeping babe and after about 3 minutes of this, one of us would begin the business conversation. It worked always. Brought clients straight into ‘serious work’ mode, and in the midst of proposals they even learnt to continue the conversation with me if the young mom needed to go out and burp her baby.
      Women can be mothers and workers and artists and many things at the same time, enjoy each of those and be good at most. But its for women to have the self-assurance that this is really the natural way of life. Not easy – but, hey, what is?

    12. Hi Sridala,

      Touching piece! I guess that attitude is what some career women have when it comes to having babies. They look down upon it. Guess they would never discover the joys of motherhood. I have seen pregnant women being treated callously by other women, while the general supposition was that they would be supportive. This is not so, I don’t understand why.

      Guess the world has changed a lot since the days when women gave birth at home and the neighbouring women attended to the whole process with great joy and participation.

      Keep writing!

      J

    13. Hi Sridala,

      This is an extremely sensitive post, written from the heart, and though the topic and the feelings you describe are a bit alien to me, I can sympathize with you whole-heartedly because from my teenages I have been watching closely, cousins have babies and then struggling to balance two lives i.e. a sorely fractured social life and the fulltime mother’s life.

      I also read my friend Anindita S., making her comments above and have to agree with her too. There are many women who can’t think of saying a word to a woman has had a baby recently. Some of that may be a sort of awe, as sense of impending doom (a large number of young girls are terrified of having a baby) and whatnot.

      This was my first visit here, and I promise to keep returning for more. I got hooked.

      Cheerz!

    14. The problem comes when we believe some subjects are more important than others. Why do we feel superior when we talk about politics or art or sports, and not so when we converse about cooking or motherhood? Is it because, deep within, we women think these are feminine issues and so, not that important?

    15. great post…. i am not sure whether it is about feminine or non feminine…
      Very often when i am with friends with children — i am single with no children — i don’t know what to talk about… and, to be very honest new parents make me uncomfortable… their evangalising zeal on parenthood is too much to handle in a social situation …

    16. At times I wonder if this is just another means to “divide” us as women. Split us into camps – mothers vs non-mothers by choice.

      Admittedly, I am guilty of not understanding why someone wouldn’t like kids. I mean it seems a blanket statement that is almost as unreasonable as saying I don’t like any other particular group of people.

      However, on the flip side of that I am happy that today women have the choice of whether they want to be a mother since it is demanding and you should have a choice as to whether you want to do it or not. I also can respect a woman who says hey this just isn’t for me.

      I have friends (and family) who have chosen not to parent and we have relationships where we relate on many topics. Occasionally, I talk about my kids and they are responsive because we are friends and they care about the things I care about and occasionally, I listen when they talk about subjects they are passionate about (ie pets).

      I once listened to man talk about his hobby of collecting tackle boxes for over an hour. I am not a martyr but I could tell that he enjoyed the subject and I thought it was a small price to pay for someone who may not have anyone else to talk to about his passion. i feel good that I was able to do that for him (and as such I got a little bit out of the conversation too.)

      The key for all of us I think is being open to other people and their lifestyle choices and to bear in mind that each choice is equally valid.

    17. [...] remembers discovering, as a new mother, that even other young women looked down on her. Like her, I can also never understand our attitude to motherhood – it swings wildly from [...]

    18. Falstaff: Precisely. Making something sacred ensures that its scope is limited. And no, not out of line at all – there are some excellent reasons why the man is an ex-husband. What can I say? :-)

      Anita: You know, I have a friend who did this when her baby was born – took her for meetings and people seemed okay with it after a bit. Frankly, I wouldn’t dream of doing it. They might be able to deal with it, but I couldn’t deal with my mind being divided in two places, doing justice to neither.

      But I’m glad work places are flexible enough to accomodate it.

      John: Thanks!

      Max: Not sure it’s awe. I mean, some people just may not have the famed ‘mothering’ instinct and it’s a measure of our conditioning that we expect all women to have it.

      Apropos of which, my mother’s friend, who wailed just as she was going into labour: “I don’t want to have a baby!” Her mother replied with grim satisfaction that she should have thought of this much earlier!

      Trees: Precisely my point. Why the contempt about discussions about motherhood? To each their own and all that.

      Harini: :-)

      fmfulplease: No, no. This wasn’t meant to divide anybody. Just to point out that sometimes there are barriers to understanding each other because we think in categories. What does ‘feminine’ mean, anyway?

    19. That was an excellent post.

      We all see different things in our experiences.

      I feel, with some friends, a distance owing to their having had kids. One thing is for sure. They have changed in some ways; I have changed in others. **Sometimes, that’s all there is to it. Other times, the attitudes are real and unmistakable–resentment (early on, when their child needs care), smugness (they are more “normal” than me).

      I admit to showing emotions of my own. Mine is mostly disappointment in those friends who have entered motherhood without thought…without understanding how big a task it is. Some others I know are in a loveless marriage and have had a child in order to get love. While I feel sorry for them, I also disapprove because I can’t help thinking about how the child will cope…

    20. Hi. This is my first time here and I thought this was an excellent post.

      I felt like this when I was at home for six months after my son was born. But it did get okay once I went back to work…

      I think these kinds of people are mostly uncomfortable with moms who stay at home thinking that just because they choose to stay at home with their kids, that is all they think or talk about which is completely ridiculous.

    21. Just to clarify my comments were directed to the categories not the post so Spacebar I think we are on the same page.

    22. Really liked your article.It started a chain of thoughts.Linking it to my blog,if you don’ mind…

    23. Wonderfully thought-provoking post. Just leaving my trail here to let you know I dropped by, and that you touched me :)

      I must confess, in the presence of a baby I generally go all gooey. And unless I have something specific to say to the new mom, or know her well… I’m just a puddle of goo admiring the baby. MY brains fall out, so I’d have nothing else to say to the new mom!

    24. Avanti, The Radical Ancient: Thanks. It seems to have touch a chord somewhere!

    25. Hello everybody, my name is Damion, and I’m glad to join your conmunity,
      and wish to assit as far as possible.

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