In this issue
Issue #24 August 29, 2013 Aug 29, 2013 Aug 29
Issue #9 January 31, 2013 Jan 31, 2013 Jan 31
Issue #1 October 11, 2012 Oct 11, 2012 Oct 11
From Issue #24 August 29, 2013

Look Within

We can be responsible for machines.

By Lisa Schmeiser Twitter icon 

Reproduction is one of the few commonalities across human cultures. Take that away and you have the Shakers. This underscores two sad truths: without reproduction, your culture doesn’t thrive; and children and nice furniture are fundamentally incompatible.

By its very nature, pregnancy should be one of those universal human experiences, like eating a piece of fruit you’ve just picked or smelling the ozone and petrichor that accompany a good hard rain. Yet speaking as someone who was pregnant in the recent past, I found how much it had changed since my mother bore me. For one, she couldn’t post a belly-shot montage on YouTube.

Back in grad school, where we sat around and pondered vague and important-sounding questions about how technology would disrupt the definitions of society — in my defense, it was the 1990s, and everyone who was anyone was reading the deconstructionists — we read “A Cyborg Manifesto,” by Donna Haraway. The essay is a cri de coeur for the rejection of identity politics, and Haraway uses the metaphor of the cyborg to make the argument for people becoming comfortable playing with questions of personal and social identity.

As I dealt with the technological double whammies of Western prenatal care, with its scans and tests, and the everyday use of what Haraway would probably call a “polymorphous information system” but what we would call “the Internet,” I felt very cyborg indeed.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the technological elements of pregnancy — both the ones introduced through social interactions (Facebook and beyond) and the ones I encountered at the doctor’s office — were the things that left me feeling most alienated, from both myself and my culture at large.

A pregnant pause

We are living through a movement from an organic, industrial society to a polymorphous, information system. — Haraway

Although people like to view pregnancy as a binary state — you either are or you are not — it is also a deeply liminal one. For 40 weeks, you’re suspended between two separate family configurations. Your family isn’t what it used to be, but it’s not what it’s going to be. You’re not who you were, but you’re not what you’re going to be. You’re drifting between borders.

Liminal states can be unsettling, and people cope with the unease in a variety of ways. A lot of my fellow preggos made a determined effort to package their pregnancy for public commodification, as if determining a narrative would somehow eliminate any of the borderlands of ambiguity ringing the daily realization that everything in your life is going to shift and rearrange in unimaginable patterns.

At least, this was my charitable explanation for the explosion of “adorable” staged photos announcing someone’s pregnancy or the gender of their child; for the profusion of nursery makeover posts I saw on Facebook; for the vicious message board brawls I witnessed as grown women stressed over what to pack in their hospital bags. As people chewed over the minutiae of pending parenthood, I would read posts from friends and strangers and wonder why I couldn’t relate.

My pregnancy was a long slog through a no-woman’s land to enter at last into a wholly undiscovered country. No amount of nursery decorating or posting milestones on my Facebook timeline could prepare me for what lay ahead. Pretending I knew what I was getting into would seem to push me away from my real self, whoever she still was.

I coped with my alienation by re-reading a lot of sci-fi that treated the intersection of technology and pregnancy as a horror show — “Bloodchild” by Octavia Butler, The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, and Dr. Pak’s Preschool and Piecework by David Brin. Somehow, reading about pregnancies that turned into nightmares via invasive, dignity-stripping technology made me feel better about my own Facebook-induced agita.

Arranged in order of size

There is nothing about being “female” that naturally binds women. There is not even such a state as “being” female, itself a highly complex category constructed in contested sexual scientific discourses and other social practices. — Haraway

If you are a middle-class pregnant female in North America in the early 21st century, you will likely find yourself at any one of a number of Web sites aimed at expectant parents, all of which offer weekly email newsletters which will tell you what’s going on in your body as the pregnancy progresses.

I signed up for two of these newsletters. And every week, I read that “your baby” — never a fetus, always “your baby” — was the size of a poppy seed, a sesame seed, a peppercorn, a nutmeg. Once I hit the second trimester, we left the spice drawer and moved into the crisper: a Persian cucumber, a mango, a small summer squash, etc.

I unsubscribed from one newsletter the week that I learned I was carrying the equivalent of “two heirloom tomatoes.” I refuse to let any editor think it’s acceptable to draw a direct line between slow food and slow gestation.

Having some stranger email you the goings-on of your innards each week seemed a uniquely 21st-century aspect of Western pregnancy. Every time I opened an email to see which food item I’d be hosting that week, I’d think about my mother, and my grandmothers, and their grandmothers, all of whom had only a web of old wives’ tales to terrify or reassure them through the gestation period.

I cherish these stories as part of a conversation that spans generations, and connects me to my foremothers. I wanted to be able to reach back, link by link, and reassure them, I have heartburn. This kid is going to have a lot of hair.

Still, the specificity of the emails made me worry that my cohort and I would be relentlessly factual in our pregnancies. What would we talk about — how our blood volume had increased by 30 to 50 percent?

Thankfully, no. We talked about the emails. “Are you getting the food comparisons?” was the first thing someone would say. The second was, “What was the food item that made you snap?” For my friend Maria, it was a cheese-covered mango. “Who does that? Why would you cover a mango in cheese? Why not just use a burrito?”

Finding kindred spirits to wax wroth about fetus-as-food comparisons provided one of the few moments where I felt a graceful integration of the cultural aspects of pregnancy and the technological tools that had sprung up to service and supplement the culture.

I need not have worried that I was finally easing into some serenely networked Mother Earth role. There were still plenty of liminal spaces left.

Echoes in the depths

We are all chimeras, theorized and fabricated hybrids of machine and organism; in short, we are cyborgs. — Haraway

Many parts of being pregnant remind you that you aren’t the first to bear a child; you are linked through physical sensation to every mother who came before you. The strongest twinges can knock you into the pleasantly dislocated feeling of being adrift on a river out of time. Oh, your left hip is doing that thing where every step you take causes an exquisite, narrow lance of pain from pelvis to ankle? I bet some poor pioneer woman felt that when she was walking beside the covered wagon.

Still, the pioneer women didn’t have the pressure of feigning maternal feelings at the 12-week fetal scan. Because I was what the doctor’s office charmingly termed “elderly primagravida” — and because I had spent the first month of my pregnancy, before I was aware I was enceinte, marinating in hot tubs, drinking a lot of very good French wine, and eating a lot of mercury-laden shiro maguro — I had an ultrasound so that we could manage everyone’s expectations.

The screen was filled with what looked like a Rorschach test. I squinted as the technician pointed out the blobs that were presumably the fetus’s working kidneys, hummingbird-fast heart, and rapidly developing brain. I feel like I should have been thrilled by this proof that cell division and differentiation were ticking along.

But I was more bowled over by the notion that someone, somewhere had said, “What if we assigned a visual representation to the mathematical distance calculated by the speed of sound and the time of that sound’s echoing return? Wouldn’t that be cool to see off what that sound bounced?” The notion of taking one set of physical measurements to find something new and undiscovered — much like archaeologists are doing down in Honduras with LIDAR — is breathtaking. A weird blob that lives in your torso with bits and pieces occasionally pulsing? Eh.

Going by the prevailing rhetoric on my birth board and among my friends, I was an outlier. The majority of people who gazed upon their little Oort clouds had crossed some cognitive and emotional chasm. Not only were these women carrying babies, they were already calling themselves mothers, and all of their acts and thoughts seemed to be motivated by some gush of motherly love.

Eh, I thought again. There’s always the 21-week scan.

Alas, my 21-week appointment also failed to fill me with the rush of transformative maternal wonder. I had visited my friend and fellow preggo Maria shortly before, and she had had her 20-week ultrasound framed. In it, the silhouette of a snub-nosed baby boy was clearly visible, exciting proof that Maria was carrying an actual human baby. I was looking forward to my own adorable photographic proof.

The visit was a three-fer: genetic counseling, followed by amniocentesis, followed by the blockbuster ultrasound that would, in theory, show us something that looked less like a rough draft of a vertebrate and more like a human being.

I was also looking forward to the genetic counseling, mostly because the phrase “genetic counseling” suggests a tearful session where recessive alleles sob, “I just want one chance to express myself!” while a doctor holds up a warning hand and tells the dominant alleles, “You’ve already had a chance to speak.”

The reality was that a very nice woman got derailed when I asked where the Punnett squares for all the genetic disease alleles were. She wanted us to be relieved and grateful that neither of us was heterozygous dominant for any heartbreaking hereditary conditions, and instead I was openly piqued I couldn’t see the PCR films that would have sequenced our DNA and showed the specific markers on sequenced genes.

I had already opened an entire condiment tray’s worth of emails telling me the average fetus’s probable size for the week. What I wanted was to know what was written in this specific fetus’s genome. We had the technology; why weren’t we using it? I may as well be back with all my relatives, clucking about someone with, “You know she’s having a girl? Girls steal all their mother’s beauty and she’s looked terrible since she started to show.”

My husband defused my snit. “There, there. Soon you’re going to be speared with a harpoon for science.”

Prepare to be boarded

“I’m really looking forward to my amniocentesis procedure” is not a phrase commonly uttered during pregnancy — mostly because nobody says, “I am eagerly anticipating the moment when someone jams a 20-gauge needle into an internal organ” — but I was really looking forward to it.

I’ve always been fascinated by what lies underneath my skin. I was excited to see some of this amniotic fluid, since I didn’t remember my first exposure to it. And I was even more excited by the prospect that we’d find out even more medical markers for our pending child.

My husband has a mild needle aversion, so he did not share my fascination. “Oh, don’t worry,” I reassured him. “The needle’s so big, it has to be wheeled in. The beeping of the forklift will warn you it’s coming.”

Getting amnio really was no big thing. You don’t even feel the needle — there’s a local anesthetic to numb the area — and then there you are, watching it fill with a slightly cloudy golden liquid. “Is that color because baby’s peeing in it,” our technician said. (Years in America had not worn the edges off her Russian accent, nor had it introduced sentence-softening luxuries like articles or subject nouns.)

And off went our baby’s pee — and other liquid substances — to be analyzed for signs of any chromosomal problems that the genetic counseling panel had missed, plus other nightmares like metabolic disorders or neural tube defects. I sourly thought, There goes another data set I’ll never see.

Then we moved on to the ultrasound. I took my husband’s hand in preparation for what surely would be one of the most tender moments of our life together…

…And saw the nightmare crest of a Viking battle helmet. The fetus elected to give us a full frontal shot, so what we saw — grinning skull with outsized cranial cavity and hollow eye sockets; spindly, claw-like appendages; disturbingly sharp ribs — was suitable for framing only if the proud papa were H.R. Giger.

Phil and I both reared back. The technician gave us a look that suggested we were already terrible parents. “Is baby’s spine,” she said. We could see every mace-shaped vertebra floating below that grinning death’s-head noggin. “Is baby’s heart. Looks good. Is baby’s kidneys. Looks good. Baby has toes” — they looked more like velociraptor claws, really — “Baby’s brain.”

“So we see,” we murmured. Part of my brain was hissing that I needed to be grateful for all the good news, that this was infinitely superior to spending an entire pregnancy hoping for the best but knowing nothing. The other part of my brain was musing that sometimes, technology lets us push the “I can do it!” button while completely ignoring the “Should I do it?” button.

“You want to know sex?” the technician asked. I shrugged and pressed the “I can do it!” button.

“No penis. Is girl.”

This was something I could see, as opposed to some third-party pronouncement I was expected to swallow without question. So I was going to have an alien queen. I hoped she wouldn’t ram her spike-like ovipositor down my throat the first time I tried to ground her.

The technician printed out a set of ultrasound prints, suitable for framing and giving to people upon whom you wished permanent psychological damage. We debated for only a moment before concluding that throwing the prints out would not make us bad parents.

When I went online after the Alien Queen reveal, I was saddened but unsurprised to discover that my cohort had all had photogenic ultrasounds: lots of adorably snub-nosed fetuses in profile, waving tiny hands at nothing in particular but captioned with things like, “Baby girl saying hi to her mama!”

The 21-week ultrasound wave seemed to amplify another phenomenon from my expecting pals: they had seen their fetus’s silhouette, and now they apparently had an inside line on their future child’s personal preferences.

“The baby likes listening to John Coltrane — she has her daddy’s musical taste,” boasted one pal who liked to strap a pair of earbuds to her burgeoning belly.

I had seen my fetus’s skeletal system and working organs and been reassured that all her chromosomes were in order. But that data set told me nothing about her musical taste. All the medical data in the world didn’t change a fundamental truth of pregnancy: I was incubating a stranger.

A familiar place

Cyborgs have more to do with regeneration and are suspicious of the reproductive matrix and of most birthing. — Haraway

In the end, I had a scheduled C-section. A combination of data sets — my physiological measurements plus the fetus’s measurements — led my obstetrician to suggest it, and I liked the idea of knowing exactly when this damned liminal state would end.

So one sunny, warm Monday afternoon, I waddled into the admissions area while my husband was parking the car, got prepped for surgery, and killed time reading on my Kindle until it was time for me to go have a baby.

Citing his squeamishness with medical matters, my husband selfishly refused to watch the C-section and give me the play-by-play.

“This is the only opportunity I’m ever going to have to have my innards pulled out in a safe medical setting! I need to know what it looks like!” I pleaded in vain. “I’m only in there because there’s a drape,” he replied.

So I was wheeled into the operating room. The anesthesiologist gave me the lumbar puncture that made me numb from the mid-chest down, two nurses erected the please-don’t-faint drape, and a pregnancy that had been remarkably transparent in terms of raw data ended with a delivery shrouded in mystery.

From my end, it felt like a bunch of people playing rugby, with my gravid form as the ball. I was rocked back and forth. There was a mighty pull, a shift of pressure right around my center of gravity, a high blatting sound, a shift in my brain. That was my baby, and she was crying.

My OB held up the baby, and I lifted my head. She was pink and round and had a lot of hair — the old wives were on to something with the heartburn. My baby was crying, and despite the fact that I was currently strapped to an operating table and gutted like a trout, I tried to get up and get to my daughter.

I said, “My baby needs me. I’m the only one she knows.”

It took minutes to wash, weigh, and swaddle her. I made Phil go hover next to the nurses, saying, “The baby can’t be alone!” because apparently nurses didn’t count as company. Someone somewhere was saying something about there being too much blood, about the bleeding not being under control.

Despite being the only person in the room who was likely to be bleeding, I could not have cared less — all of my attention was focused on listening to my daughter’s furious shrills, and I kept saying, “I have to see her. She needs to be skin-to-skin, it will soothe her.”

In an operating room, as people sloshed through great pools of blood, I rose above on a surging wave of maternal love. The tiny, spectator part of my brain marveled at how easily I fell into one of the biggest myths about motherhood, the one where you instantly love your child. But I did love this baby the minute I saw her as a baby. And I felt like her mother.

Just like that, the liminal stage was over.

We can be responsible for machines; they do not dominate or threaten us. We are responsible for boundaries; we are they. — Haraway

Photos by Michelle K. Martin1.

  1. Michelle K. Martin is a photographer based out of New England who has an affinity for creating colorful and simple compositions. Specializing in food photography, she also enjoys lifestyle and portrait photography. 

Lisa Schmeiser fell into a newsroom by accident in the 1990s, and hasn't been off deadline since. She relishes covering the area where business and technology intersect, but adores swerving into cultural criticism. Her writing has appeared in the Minneapolis City Pages, the San Francisco Chronicle, Slate, Television Without Pity, Investor's Business Daily, Macworld, and TechHive.

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