Romper

Why Giving Birth Is The Most Feminist Thing I've Ever Done

Courtesy of Elizabeth Broadbent

Years ago a woman in my graduate class stood defiant in front of a group of humanities students. “I’m done with this,” she said. “This is my last semester. I’m going to run an organic farm and have babies.” Mouths gaped. While this didn’t make an impression on the men — my husband barely remembers it — we women stared with a mixture of disbelief and contempt. We had gone to school. We were avowed feminists. We escaped standing at the stove, barefoot and pregnant. And this woman had the gall to throw it all away, to toss the education out the window, to enslave herself to an army of brats. It was, I thought, the most anti-feminist thing I’d ever heard of. And I was wrong. In fact, having a baby is one of the most feminist acts a woman can perform. And three years after that grad school performance, I'd ditch my own Ph.D. program. To have a baby, no less.

Feminism has always emphasized female self-actualization. For most of human history, that meant helping women trapped in the domestic sphere. Expectations were ironclad: Marry. Produce children, preferably as many as possible. Run a house. Feminism sought gender equality, first in voting rights, then in work and education. Today, women don’t find value solely in their marital status, as is their individual right. Going childfree is a fiercely vocal, proud movement. But having a baby is also a feminist act.

I grew up in a household where I was told I could be an astronaut or a scientist. I hated dolls, and no one pushed them on me. School only talked about procreation when the teachers discussed contraception. And once I hit college, feminism, for me, meant freedom from the patriarchy, freedom from societal expectations of gender. I believed then that children were an encumbrance in high education: squalling babies would only hurt my chances for tenure. I believed that real feminists didn't want kids, and I saw myself as a devout feminist. Babies held back my foremothers. They'd hold me back, too. They'd tie me down. No way was I having them.

Three kids later, I realize how wrong that logic was.

Courtesy of Elizabeth Broadbent

In many ways, feminism is a push for freedom, and one of the chief means to freedom is economic power. So in my mind feminism became synonymous with the right to work. I thought that self-actualization lie in the workforce, in a chosen profession. All women, not some of them, needed rescue from the domestic.

When you choose to bring a child into the world, you decide that the workforce is not enough for you. You say that your concept of self-actualization includes a family. You make your own choice, and that’s the real core of feminism. You make your own choice without diminishing anyone else's right to choose. My feminism doesn't require that I shame or insult or belittle women who've made any choices in-line or in contrast to my own.

You can be whatever you want to be, I was told. Astronaut, a physicist, a CEO, the president. Motherhood, I absorbed, was always an option, but at the time I believed it just wasn't enough.

Courtesy of Elizabeth Broadbent

According to Forbes.com, one of the biggest pay gaps in the American economy is between married men and women with children. Daycare options are often subpar, and in a report published on ThinkProgress.com, women still shoulder the majority of childcare. TIME reports that women are still responsible for most of the housework as well. Maternity leave is spotty and wholly inadequate, as are laws protecting pumping during work hours. In general, women have little flextime, other than taking sick days, to care for ailing children, run to doctor’s appointments, or handle school business. Here in America, when you procreate, society conspires against you. So much so that having a baby is one of the most countercultural things you can do.

Before I got pregnant, I didn't think about my own physicality, except as it pertained to sex. When I got pregnant, my awareness of my own body shifted: from something to be used to something to aid in creation. My choices changed my view of feminism. I was making the so-called anti-feminist choice with arms wide open, and those choices felt right.

But it’s a feminist choice, now, to have a baby — and it's one I made proudly. When you choose to bring a child into the world, you decide that the workforce is not enough for you. You say that your concept of self-actualization includes a family. You make your own choice, and that’s the real core of feminism. You make your own choice without diminishing anyone else's right to choose. My feminism doesn't require that I shame or insult or belittle women who've made any choices in-line or in contrast to my own. After we married, it became clear my husband wanted biological children. By then, we had friends with kids; we knew they weren't the life-ending choice people made them out to be. So we decided to try — and it worked. I got pregnant by choice. It coincided nicely with my decision to leave academia. I chose to make a family. I chose to leave school. These choices were mine, not ones forced upon me. And I'm happy with them.

photo by Chris Broadbent

Pregnancy and childbirth celebrate the female body. These things go to the core of our physicality. Society tries to erase all mention of the vagina: it lacks a decent nickname, unlike the penis. Breasts are made for the male gaze, not for satisfying infant hunger. When we talk about birth and breastfeeding, we reclaim the physicality of our bodies from a society that would prefer to suppress it. When we give birth, when we nurse our babies, we get in touch with a deep, nourishing femininity.

I knew, then, that I could be a feminist on a different path. If feminism meant making your own choices, I was making mine.

Before I got pregnant, I didn't think about my own physicality, except as it pertained to sex. When I got pregnant, my awareness of my own body shifted: from something to be used to something to aid in creation. My choices changed my view of feminism. I was making the so-called anti-feminist choice with arms wide open, and those choices felt right. I wasn't forced into them. I knew, then, that I could be a feminist on a different path. If feminism meant making your own choices, I was making mine.

Long before the test ever showed two faint lines signaling a positive, I believed that the "perfect woman," much like the media told me, was skinny with small breasts and a flat stomach. Yet as my body swelled with pregnancy, I ceded the boundaries on what I believed could be — and was — beautiful. My stomach blew up. My breasts swelled. And it was all in preparation to welcome a new life in the world, not to make me more desirable to anyone else. Pregnancy took me far away from society’s expectations on what an ideal body looked like. In creating life, I reclaimed my body from the need to satisfy and adhere to the male gaze. Pregnancy made me feel sexy. My body held new power.

I had spent 10 months making choice after choice that would change my body and my life; choice after choice creating a whole new normal for a world that would soon include my son. My body was the site of those choices. A tangible reminder of all that I had done and would continue to do. Who cared if it didn't hit the mark on what a body should look like. I had already done so much more.
Courtesy of Elizabeth Broadbent

After I gave birth to my son, I realized that pregnancy left behind its own markers. Not only did I have a baby in my arms, he left behind in his wake stretch marks on my body. I had fuller breasts and a fuller stomach. My body was now something else, something radical. It was the body of a mother. This body, however, isn’t the one the media worships. It's not the one we see on TV. But it was authentic. And it was mine. I had spent 10 months making choice after choice that would change my body and my life; choice after choice creating a whole new normal for a world that would soon include my son. My body was the site of those choices. A tangible reminder of all that I had done and would continue to do. Who cared if it didn't hit the mark on what a body should look like. I had already done so much more.

That woman so many years ago in my graduate class made a choice. Though she was encouraged to go to school and to get a tenure-track job, she opted out. She said she wanted to have babies instead. Now, I see her bravery. My narrow version of feminism at the time didn't include her choice. But coming into my own authentic feminism meant that women have the choice to find their own self-actualization. My feminism now celebrates motherhood as a one kind of feminist choice, and having a child as a feminist act. The girl quitting graduate school to have kids is as much of a feminist as the girl who goes on to teach. They choose different paths. But they choose the best path for themselves.