Existential Research Notes, Or Pregnancy in the News

Livia Arndal Woods //

For the better part of the past decade, my scholarship has focused on representations of pregnancy in the Victorian novel. This focus has often resonated with 21st century pregnancy narratives, and I’ve written about that. I’ve written less about the ways in which my scholarship has resonated with my lived experience over the past ten years. Because I am a 35-year-old woman, these have been the years in which many of my close friends have had, struggled to have, or decided not to have children. And in this time, I’ve had children of my own. One is napping in the other room as I type; the other was stillborn. I also had a miscarriage, the kind people sometimes call a “missed miscarriage,” for which I required medical care that women in contemporary America sometimes struggle to access. (Note: refusing to help women who are carrying the necrotizing tissues of dead things inside them is not a life-affirming act. And can we please just keep talking as insistently as possible about how the “U.S. Has The Worst Rate of Maternal Death in the Developed World” and that “black women have a pregnancy-related mortality ratio approximately three times as high as that of white women.”)

Beyond reading the novels, history, literary criticism, and theory that inform my scholarship, I also consume an indiscriminate diet of fertility, infertility, pregnancy, pregnancy loss, birth, postpartum period, and nursing advertisements, news, and media. It’s compulsive; I want to see as much as possible, from weekly “Hello Baby” newsletters trying to sell me the Most Amazing Baby Spoons, to “mommy” memoirs, the new NYTimes Parenting section, CDC reports, and NIH research. I want to rough out the shape of embodied reproductive potential in our media and culture and measure it alongside what I know about pregnancy in the Victorian novel, what I know about pregnancy in my own body, and what I understand about the experiences of other pregnant people. Earlier this week, Emilie Egger published a piece here on the ways that “lived experiences…give researchers a starting point to understand the messengers of the human body…as in an interplay with and generative of dynamic states of being in the world.” In my (humanist) case, lived experience has fleshed out a research question about where and how pregnant bodies are legible in Victorian novels into an existential question about where and how pregnant bodies make meaning in the Anglo-American cultures of modernity, post-modernity, and whatever this strange, bleeding present is. I think I know the answer to the question about Victorian novels (stay tuned for the book, y’all) but all the research in the world won’t answer this bigger question.

So, let’s try two more modest questions that gesture into that impossible one: where and how are the pregnant bodies in the news over the last couple of weeks? And, to anticipate the answer to that first question a bit, how do these accounts of pregnancy resonate with representations of pregnancy in Victorian novels? (Note: the “answer” is that we can’t stop treating – where possible – men as protagonists and women as the villains of their own stories.)

Source #1: June 18, 2019 New York Times Magazine feature, “When You’re Told You’re Too Fat to Get Pregnant,” surveys the (lack of) fertility treatment options available to people with “high” body mass indices. The article weighs the medical (almost) consensus that fertility treatments are less successful and pregnancy outcomes more uncertain in bigger bodies against the experiences of people trying to receive health care and being turned away. There’s grist for any number of mills here, but I want to focus in on just one telling moment in which a doctor who “does not perform I.V.F. on patients with B.M.I.s above 37.5, and…does not prescribe fertility-stimulating medications to patients above 40” talks about the positive feelings he experiences sharing this news with couples trying to conceive and the gratitude the women and their husbands feel for him:

[Dr. Bill] Meyer, of Carolina Conceptions, objects to the idea that weight stigma, not health concern, motivates clinics to require weight loss. “There are tears in these conversations,” he acknowledges. “But most of the time, I feel pretty good after sitting down with these patients. I think we almost overcompensate so we’re not judged as being biased toward weight.” When Meyer’s clinic turns away a patient based on B.M.I., it offers a referral to a local weight-loss program. He estimates that around 60 percent of those women follow through. “The patients who then come back to us [for treatment] are very thankful that they’ve made those changes,” he says. “Or their husband will say, ‘Thank you for talking to her about that.’

I’ll imagine a world in which I agree with Dr. Meyer that fertility treatment should not – even with informed consent – be available to the people seeking his care. Even in such a world, I struggle to believe that these conversations, conversations in which “there are tears” from people trying to conceive are conversations from which everyone walks away “feel[ing] pretty good.” Why does Dr. Meyer feel pretty good? And why on earth would Dr. Meyer, in articulating his reasons for denying care to the newspaper of record reporting on the question of women’s access or lack thereof to fertility treatments choose to mention how thankful husbands are for his willingness to talk to their wives “about that?” I’m thinking, here, of the figure of the husband/doctor that emerges in Victorian fiction. In George Eliot’s 1872 Middlemarch and Sarah Grand’s 1894 The Heavenly Twins, for example, it is through the husband/doctor’s pathologizing perspective that a narration of pregnancy as an embodied condition is made possible. I’m also thinking of the doctor performing the transvaginal probe that diagnosed my miscarriage looking my husband in the eyes and giving him the news.

Source #2:  Today, June 27, 2019, news of an “Alabama Woman Who Lost Pregnancy in Shooting… Charged in Fetus’s Death.” I’m thinking about how Lt. Danny Reid is reported saying “The only true victim in this was the unborn baby…It was the mother of the child who initiated and continued the fight which resulted in the death of her own unborn baby.” I’m thinking about the “several hundred women in the United States who have been prosecuted for their pregnancy outcomes.” I’m thinking about the role of race in these prosecutions. I’m thinking about the 19th century British obsession with infanticide and the period’s concomitant demonization of unwed mothers. About the trial (illustrated here) of Effie Deans in The Heart of Midlothian (1818). About, again and again, Middlemarch and the narrator’s insistence that the misfortune of Rosamond Lydgate’s miscarriage or stillbirth “was attributed entirely to her having persisted in going out on horseback.” About the chapter I wrote on that passage before my own stillbirth and miscarriage. About all the nights in my first pregnancy when I slept on my back rather than on my left side (note: optimal) or even on my right side (note: acceptable). About that sushi that one time. But then, at least there was only one “true victim” – it could have been so much worse.

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