Wednesday, April 15, 2015

What a Girl Wants

When people found out I was pregnant with Jack, I received a broad range of responses.  Most of them were polite-if-reserved congratulations, some were wildly optimistic and supportive, and an unfortunate few were judgmental and cruel.  Some people seemed to feel a pressing need to let me know just how disappointed they were in me, and how very much they disapproved of my choices. This may come as a huge shock to those who offered them, but not a single one of those critical moral sermons was helpful. When I look back at the hard parts of that period in my life(and oh, it was hard), there was never one time when I thought "You know what would be a huge help?  If people were more judgmental."  

Why is it that we feel we have permission to offer moral commentary on the lives of people we see as sinners, when we don't do the same to the people we see as morally upright?  Never once in my entire married life has someone come up to me and said "Hey, I think it's really great that you and Aaron have sex.  Just so you know, you've got my approval." I know the circumstances are different, but I can't help but notice how context-dependent some people's responses have been to my first vs. my third pregnancies.  Without exception, everyone I've told has expressed excitement and support of this pregnancy.  Excitement and support were the exception with Jack.  What it highlights is not that people feel differently about this baby, but that they feel differently about me.  It strikes me as singularly anti pro-life to be kind and gracious to a married pregnant woman, but shaming and critical to an unmarried pregnant girl.  Isn't the baby the same?  (Spoiler alert: yes, the baby is the same.)

I think part of the challenge to practicing compassion is that we like a good old-fashioned conversion story, one with a clear Rescuer and a clear Convert.  We're comfortable with the story of the Wayward Girl who sleeps around, gets pregnant, meets a kindly priest or warm-hearted housewife and is rescued from the clutches of Planned Parenthood and her own ignorance.  The main plot point of that story is one of ignorance or misinformation: she didn't know better.  Now that we've set her straight, she can live a life of virtue and holiness.

What tends to make people uncomfortable is when the pregnant girl doesn't need rescuing, informing or converting.  I was, and still am, a practicing Catholic when I got pregnant with Jack.  Conversion wasn't an option, so the only path left that would ensure I knew I'd done wrong was to shame me.  I think what simply didn't occur to most people was that I was not wildly thrilled to be in my position, but no one asked me how I felt about it.  No one asked me much of anything, I was simply told.  I was told, among other things, that I most certainly had to give the baby up for adoption, that I had humiliated my family, that I clearly didn't have the sense to feel ashamed of myself, and, when I asked for discretion, that I didn't have the right to ask anyone to keep my "dirty little secret." By the way, these were all super helpful things to hear and brought me a sense of hope and encouragement in my darker moments.  

This is a great article that brilliantly illustrates the hierarchy of feelings in a trauma situation.  While not ever pregnancy is traumatic, every pregnancy requires hard work and every pregnant woman deserves support, period.

The whole experience has served as an overwhelming affirmation of my desire to become a doula.  I've experienced a wide array of circumstances and feelings surrounding pregnancy throughout my childbearing years, all of them helpful in cultivating the empathy and non-judgment that make a good doula.  Without my own suffering, I wouldn't understand as deeply the need for compassionate, non-judgmental support. I realize now that judgment has nothing to do with what you want for the other person, and everything to do with what you want for yourself.  If you're not the one who's pregnant, your personal feelings on the matter are neither central to the situation nor helpful to the woman actually experiencing the pregnancy.  Your negative feelings or righteous judgment will not serve her.  Your kindness will.  Be really honest with yourself about what your goal is: to let her know how wrong you think she is, or to help her move toward the best possible outcome?  Responding to her, not demanding that she respond to your feelings, is the only productive path. 

Thankfully, there were more people in my life who offered loving support than criticism, and I am forever grateful for them.  The thing that set them apart from the neutral or non-helpful responses was that they each extended their own version of the question my midwives ask me at each appointment: how can I best support you?

I want to issue an unconditional invitation: if you are pregnant and find yourself in need of support for any reason, please come sit on my couch and have tea with me.  I don't care if you're married, divorced, single, religious, or vegan; I want you to know that you deserve good things, that you are beautiful and loved, and that there is support available to you.  If you come sit on my couch with me I will most likely be in my pajamas, there will be a few dirty dishes in my sink, and my kids will have at least three fights while we're talking, but I will welcome you with open arms, whoever you are.   

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