Sunday, December 9, 2007

Managing My Spoiled Identity

I have begun investigating pregnancy failure through reading. “Motherhood Lost: a feminist account of pregnancy loss in America” by Linda Layne has been a great resource. To name just a few subjects I am particularly drawn to: the umentionable or “culturally sanctioned non-existence” of pregnancy loss, the assumption of the “natural” process of pregnancy and birth, and how societies frame “womanhood” around reproduction (or production).

Layne speaks very directly to this notion of "spoiled identity." This term seems to so clearly sum up what I have been going through in the past year-- attempting, though often failing, to understand who I am if children are not part of my future. When your vision of yourself is so tightly wrapped around this one thing, who are you when that very thing starts to fail?

I would like to summarize some of the text's writing about the “fetal subject,” as I think it helps to frame an explanation of why women have such a profound sense of loss from miscarriage, no matter how early it occurs. The book looks specifically at new reproductive technologies that have developed in the last 25 years and how those technologies impact the construction of fetal personhood. The author summarizes that these technologies, that provide us with visual and aural experiences during pregnancy, have altered the way in which we think about, bond to and experience the embryo/fetus. Specifically, bonds begin earlier and earlier, and the assignment of personhood, by others and ourselves, on the embryo/fetus has shifted. Additionally, with the introduction of in vitro fertilization, social construction of the “baby” may even begin prior to implantation. We gather information about these liminal being throughout pregnancy. Each step takes us closer to, not the self of the embryo/fetus, but the “personhood” we construct – an image, an amniocentesis, hearing the heart, learning the sex. There certainly are unmediated experiences, in particular, movement of the fetus, but I just wanted to raise some of these questions about the fetal subject and our mediated experience. I think they shed light on how and why it is that woman are so deeply impacted by loss. A fetus or embryo represents not just a mere cluster of cells, but the beginnings of a life-long relationship with an individual we have yet to even know. With technology, we have access to detailed information about the progress of our unborn child, earlier and earlier-- making that unborn child "known" or "real" earlier and earlier in its development. {This is not a criticism, just an observation}

The text also acknowledges the interplay of the Judeo-Christian, American narrative of progress and (re)production - "the ethic of meritocracy." If you work hard enough, you can do anything! These normalized, idealized narratives, when applied to other goals are often valuable and even true. But when self-imposed upon the issue of fertility, the author refers to this as the "management of a spoiled identity." In many cases, working hard has nothing to do with carrying a successful pregnancy. So when we think about self, and identity, we must consider that some people are "naturally" incapable of fullfilling the one thing which is socially considered a "natural" characteristic of their gender. In some cases, woman can not give birth. And because of that natural fact, the sound of a fetal heartbeat, the sight of a swollen belly, is a mere reminder of the moment they learned of their own failure, again, through mediation (the absence of a heartbeat) or worse yet, through a catastrophic late term loss.

And last, a quote that speaks directly to the taboo that surround both loss and infertility, summing up why some days, I wish I had never told anyone but my husband of our problems:
“The liminality of women who do not complete wished-for pregnancies and superliminality of the dead embryos/fetuses they bear helps to explain why pregnancy loss is a tabooed subject in our society…. Taboo is defined as a “prohibition put upon certain people, things, or acts which make them untouchable, unmentionable, etc”…. Since the mid-1970’s, American women who experience pregnancy loss have found themselves at the nexus of two set of strong, opposing cultural forces. On the one hand, they are subject the taboo surrounding the dead fetuses, and the interdiction on death and any other unpleasant topic that challenges the myth of perpetual linear progress. On the other hand, women’s experience of pregnancy and pregnancy loss is influenced by the increasing prominence of the fetal subject in the public imagery in the last 25 years."

There is little that brings comfort after a pregnancy loss. It is unmentionable, unacknowledged, un-mourned, misunderstood, misconceived, brushed aside, real to you, but rarely to others. Peggy Orenstein's Essay "Mourning My Miscarriage" really helped me at a time when I could not understand most of what I was going through.


Hekateris said...

So true. So true, in fact, that I named my pregnancy blog The Liminal Universe.

And who doesn't ask themselves, What Am I If I'm Not A Mother? And that's a very different question than What Am I, If Not A Parent?

Frex, I always wanted to be a mother, but as the years passed I realized I might have to be a Parent first, and a Mother second, if that makes any sense? However, I have no doubt that if I adopted, I would definitely be a Mother first, so that's probably just a difference of perception, maybe not such a big difference after all.

As for personhood, well...for myself I'd have to say that up until about 8 weeks, the kid was a bunch of cells, a tremendous amount of potential - but then I felt the same way when seeing those follicles on the screen before transfer. And then, upon hearing and seeing the heartbeat, well, that was that.

I have to say, though, that I am not a fan of the term 'spoiled identity'. Makes us sound like a bunch of wealthy bitches with nothing better to do with our time than have lunch and shop and oh, yeah, while we're at it, let's pick up a baby. I see that she's experienced loss herself, which makes me wonder if she considers herself 'spoiled' as well?


admin said...

Your comments on not liking the "spoiled identity" also seems connected to some other theories the author puts forward. She does speak to this as a largely white, middle-class perspective - which I happen to be. I'll try to dig up the quotes when I get some so I do not mis-represent the authors ideas.

loribeth said...

I read voraciously about pregnancy loss after my daughter was stillborn, and I have read this book. Although it was a little on the academic side, I thought she made some really excellent points. I actually mentioned it in my recent book club review of the Handmaid's Tale on my blog! I also read the Peggy Orenstein essay & her subsequent book, "Waiting for Daisy."

admin said...

Yes, the text was pretty academic... but I am an Academic, so I really related to it. Orenstein is lovely! Her piece, mourning my miscarriage, was hands down the best thing I read during my loss.