(my) maternal body

A guest post by Kira Petersson Martin

Subjectivities, identities, and space are all concepts that occupy my thoughts lately. I question their connections and boundaries, but mostly I question their relationships to bodies. In my thesis I focus mostly on the maternal body, whose it is, where it fits, how it works and what it does…

All of these questions hinge on notions of subjectivity and identity, space and place. Especially of interest lately is the idea of the spaces bodies take up, and what that says about identity and subjectivity.

Within my own work, “space” has a very specific meaning. I follow Henri Lefebvre’s use of space, where it is seen as a socio-cultural construction, and also draw from Edward Soja’s notion of space. Soja holds that space is political, theorising that it can be divided into First, Second, and Thirdspace, each offering a different look into the power structures of the normalising elements of society. Given this multiplicity of space, one can be both excluded from and included in multiple space at any time, and move from one to another easily.

Traditionally I have applied this to ideologies of motherhood and maternal identity, but here I would like to use space as a way to investigate my relationship with my maternal body, and the physical and conceptual space it occupied.

During the last two months of my pregnancy I was large, nearly twice the size I am now. During that time I’d never questioned the outrageous growth in my body, I never felt fat or unattractive – insecurities that had followed me for most of my life – but rather powerful, maybe even beautiful. To be clear, this is not a universal experience, but it was mine. It wasn’t until the final week of my pregnancy that I experienced any physical dysphoria, and it started with an offhand comment from my then father-in-law. We had just walked into a restaurant when we met him. I hadn’t seen him in a few weeks. The second he laid eyes on me, his eyes popped and his jaw dropped. The only thing he said was, “Good god girl! You’re huge!”

From that point on my relationship with my pregnant body changed. I felt like the pregnancy was dragging, like I wanted to finally have my baby outside of me. I began to think I could literally feel the skin on my belly stretching. It was painful. Looking back on it, the sudden shift in attitude and physical sensation seems odd. Why did a random exclamation from a man I had relatively little to do with affect me so much? What had changed?

In theorising my own pregnancy I have come to understand that, in some ways, I enjoyed taking up more space. While most of my self-image issues had revolved around the fear of taking up too much space, being too large, during pregnancy I had felt like I’d *earned* the extra space I was occupying. It was intimately tied up with my identity, the “me as mother” that I’d been constructing, and was a public display of that motherhood.

This positive subjectivity was only increased by the comments and reactions I received from others. “Look at the baby belly! It’s going to be such a healthy baby!” and “Looks like you’re coming along!” and even “You must feel so powerful!”… In my experience, my large size had been a positive.

The first negative comment I received changed that instantly. Suddenly, I no longer felt I had the right to take up that extra space. I had stolen it from other, more deserving people. I had been greedy, selfish, and gluttonous. These dysphoric emotions manifested in  physical sensations which only served to further my depression. At the time of my pregnancy I bought – hook, line, and sinker – the idea that mothers were meant to be selfless. I felt that I had failed in that regard before my child was even born.

Looking back, it seems like such a ridiculous reaction. Of course, the shift was based in my own subjective space: I had always struggled with body image. It did not represent a new growth in my sense of self, but rather a return to a previous self-hating state. On the contrary, pregnancy had given me my first taste of body satisfaction. It had allowed me to conceive of the ever-expanding my space my body occupied as rightfully mine and socially sanctioned. It had made my size a positive part of my identity.

Other women have had different experiences with pregnancy, childbirth, and child rearing. However, I feel that utilising notions of space, subjectivity, and identity can serve as a useful analytical entry into understanding many women’s experiences of maternity and motherhood.


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