Phenomenology Online

A Resource for Phenomenological Inquiry

Pregnancy

 

Van der Zalm

 

“She’s expecting, you know!” I hear one of my colleagues say to another as I walk past the copy room. I know that she is not speaking of a parcel, a phone call, or a relative’s visit. She is speaking of expecting a child. Expectancy is the period of time that begins with the diagnosis of a pregnancy, and ends with the birth of a child. How does one experience the expecting that occurs with pregnancy? What kind of waiting is involved?

How does expecting as waiting differ from other forms of waiting? What is the experience of pregnancy, while one waits and expects?

 

Waiting and Expecting

I am expecting a child. Time ceases to be measured by clocks or by calendar pages, as it is for me and as it has been for many others. Time is measured with a month yardstick, beginning with some point zero, the moment of conception, and ending with the moment of birth some nine months hence. My knowledge of human reproduction gives a modern sense to the waiting of expectation. While I feel impatient at times, I know that I cannot hurry up the process. Nature takes its course. Unless a disruption occurs, each week, each month, each doctor’s visit, each landmark of the baby’s growth and development, each pound gained or lost, is an important milestone on the way to birth.

 

Waiting for a child to be born is an expectant waiting. Pregnancy means “before birth,” prae gnas. For the woman who is expecting, the waiting experience itself may turn pregnant-filling up, heavy with-the meaning of birth. Expectation does not just indicate waiting. It is a certain kind of waiting; a waiting for birth. That is why Fujita (1985) says expectation is a subjective aspect of waiting; it is “how we wait” (p. 108). With expectation, there is “a strong inner activeness in spite of outer passiveness; there is a belief in the occurrence of the expected event; and the expected event is sensed to be imminent and clearly imagined” (p. 109).

 

From the perspective of others, my movement towards the birth is measured by my outer appearance, the changes in my body size and shape. From my perspective, the changes that others see occurring on the exterior do not reflect the magnitude of the changes that are occurring on the interior. Pregnant, I am the subject of an inner process of growth and development that is reflected on the outside by a change in body size and shape. As the baby inside me grows and matures, it makes its existence known to others by bulging my belly out into the world, declaring its presence. Along with the baby, I also grow and develop, changing physically as the pregnancy progresses towards its inevitable end, but also transforming inwardly from a woman-without-children to a woman-as-mother. Pregnancy is the time of in-betweenness; it is the time of being with child. Vangie Bergum (1989) calls the time of being with child a primordial relationship, “a mysterious uniona commingling, an entangling, an interlacing” that goes beyond companionship (p. 53). Here the mother and unborn child are still one, “an indissoluble whole, and yet two, a mother and a child” (p. 53). To be with child is to grow at the centre: to harbor a developing child at the core of one’s embodied being.

 

The objective aspect of waiting, says Fujita, “what is waited for” (p. 108) in pregnancy, does not lie ourtside of myself. And yet it belongs to the aspect of waiting in the natural world where one trusts in the process and power of nature, and the elemental external rhythms. There is a gradual unfolding of “natural potentialities” (p. 111), and these rhythms are not within our control. One waits nine months for a baby to be born, trusting that it will come. So I am expecting my baby, but I also wait for my baby’s birth.

 

Touch, Touching, and Being Touched

I reach for my fork and lean towards the table. My plate doesn’t seem so far away but as I lean forward, I feel my abdomen compressed, its heaviness pressing on my thighs. My thighs support its bulk, the skin of myself touching the skin of myself. I look down and see my arms leaning on the table, and an abdomen that touches and just fits below the table-I cannot see my legs or my feet. The table feels too far away to eat, but I can’t maneuver my body any closer, so I eat slowly and carefully. My abdomen presses inward on my stomach. I feel full, but it is not the fullness of eating too much. When I eat too much, my stomach presses outward, aching from being stretched. It infringes upon the space of its fellow organs, nudging the others out of their rightful position for a time. They rumble, grumble, and move aside. Slowly the stomach shrinks back into its rightful position and the ache recedes.

 

Now, with each bite and each swallow, my stomach struggles to expand as if lifting a heavy weight that is pressing down on it. Instead of feeling the fullness of eating too much, I feel the fullness of my body, pressing inward, compressing my organs. I feel my insides as smaller, yet my body is becoming bigger, occupying more space in my world? My clothes, and even my shoes, are larger. I struggle to get into, and out of a car that I enjoyed driving just a few months ago. I attempt to squeeze without success through the empty space between two chairs in a restaurant, between two bookshelves and a person browsing in the library. Inwardly, I sense a lack of space for my insides, yet outwardly I am getting bigger.

 

The baby moves. My hand goes to my rounded belly, my entire hand, palm down, pressing lightly. There is the cloth of my clothing beneath my hand, but my hand doesn’t feel it. There is the skin of my abdomen beneath the cloth, but my hand doesn’t feel it. I touch the cloth and the skin beneath it, but what I feel is the baby. I take the hands of my husband or my sister, but I don’t say: “Here, feel my dress move, or feel my belly move.” Rather, I say: “Feel the baby.” I gently place their hands on my abdomen, palms rounded, flat, as much of their palms to my tummy as possible, skin to skin, so they have a better chance of feeling what I feel from the inside. They touch my belly and they stare at my belly, but they don’t see my belly, and they don’t see me. They look past my belly, past my skin, past their hands, past me. They look intently to see who it is that is touching them. Their eyes are intent, but they “look” with their hands instead of their eyes. Their hands, splayed across my belly, palms down, fingers stretched, create a space large enough to enclose a newborn. When they touch my tummy to feel the baby move, their touch is light, gentle, tentative, afraid to hurt. They touch my skin as if they already touch the skin of a newborn. They speak in hushed whispers, awe in their voices. “Did you feel that?” “Wow!” “What does it feel like to you?”

 

The baby rolls. My hand feels my belly move outward, its contour changing. I sense what my hand feels, but at the same time I sense my abdomen being pushed outward from the inside and my organs compressed inward, making more room for the baby’s gentle roll. The skin of my abdomen tingles as it is stretched. The baby quiets. I wait for more movement, my palm in position. Then I see it at the same time as I feel it-a push from within. The skin of my abdomen, beneath my hand, is pushed outward in one spot. As I sense the touch from within, my hand feels the outward movement of my skin, the pressure against the palm. I lift my palm and use my finger to gently poke and prod the tiny protrusion. For the space of a second, the protrusion is gone, the contour of my belly is symmetrical, and then I see it again and feel the pressure on that spot from the inside. I close my eyes and imagine a tiny foot pushing the walls of its dark world outward.

 

From my baby’s touch from within, I begin to find its being. I distinguish my pregnant self from the self I was before I carried a child inside my body. When the baby touches me, I know that it is there, separate from me, yet enclosed within my body. With each touch, my baby reminds me that I am inhabited, that I carry a child, that I will soon be a mother. Buytendijk (1970) teaches us that touch represents communion in the human sense because the human being who touches or feels a touch finds the felt object as immediately present with herself. My baby kicks me under my ribs, stands on my bladder, erupts at loud noises, sleeps, and then awakens in my morning. During these moments, I forget any other actions in which I am involved. Immediately, I stop, pause, and attend to my baby who, by touching me from the inside, is declaring its presence. Communion means the act of sharing. During pregnancy, my baby and I share the moments of touch.

 

Even before its birth, I touch my baby with care, the word from which caress is derived. My touch is slow, light, gentle in its pressure and stroking repetition, imbued with the irreplaceable quality that Buytendijk calls “etre a deux” (p. 116), when “the being of the self opposite the being of the other are present in one single touch becomes by the caress a being-one-together” (p. 116). Do I touch my unborn baby as I would pat the back of a crying child? Do I touch my baby as I would touch the hand of a neighbor? Through touching, caressing, and receiving that caressing touch, my baby and I are brought together symbiotically, in “etre a deux”. We become a complementary whole.

 

I sit quietly in a rocking chair, looking at nothing. My hands rest lightly on my protruding abdomen, one below and one above, palms to skin, as if holding and supporting its bulk. My hands lightly move back and forth across my belly, delicately stroking. My palms touch the skin of my abdomen, but it is not primarily my own skin that I feel. Through the touching skin of my palms and the touched skin of my abdomen, through the muscles and the uterine wall, I feel the presence and the physicality of the form of my baby. As I feel the rounded contour of my belly, I discover the dimensions of the space my baby inhabits, the position in which it lies, and I begin to construct its form. My belly-skin becomes an examined object, by its very presence and its resistance to the activity and movement of my palms, participating with me in the discovery of itself and of the baby beneath it. My palms touching belly, then, become the “point of departure,” as Buytendijk says, “of an intentional feeling, an affinity, a profound understanding, a being moved, struck emotionally by what is touched, which manifests its presence in its ‘quale’ [how it is], its matter, as an independent existence” (p. 114). Through this point of departure, this discovery of the outside limits of the space which my baby occupies, I form increasing ties to my baby, and “crossing these, a differentiated, ineffable knowledge” (p. 114) of what lies beneath my palms, and within my body. Through touching my abdomen, I begin to find my baby. Nogue says “touch transmits from the flesh to the flesh the pulsation of life — the communication with a foreign destiny” (quoted in Buytendijk, p. 115). It is through touching my baby, and my baby touching me from within, that I sense what changes are taking place within my body, and can clearly imagine the imminent birth of my child.

 

Being Another While Being Myself

Moving to the edge of the rocking chair, I place one hand on the arm of the chair. I struggle to stand. My body heaves heavy, my centre of gravity lowered to my abdomen from where it had seemed to lie months ago. I push my belly out of the chair and upward, dragging the rest of my upper body along. I stand and turn, my tummy first, always first. I see my image in the mirror opposite, my feet spread and my back swayed to support the added weight in my trunk. I walk towards the mirror with slow careful steps, my eyes fixed on my reflection. I feel the weight of the baby in my hip joints, and pressure in my pelvis with each step. Is this me? I turn from side to side, both hands molding the shape of my belly, the space of my baby, my eyes following the movement of my hands. It is me, and yet not me. I see my face, but it is a face that is fleshier in the cheeks, skin darker on the cheekbones. I see a body that protrudes in front, blocking its own movement. Swollen breasts, swollen fingers, swollen ankles. A hard, round, middle has replaced my waist. I strain to supplant the image that I see in the mirror with the image of myself that I know, but that image eludes me. I see me, and I see my baby enclosed within me-together in a single body. It is the baby within me that makes my body, and makes me, what I see reflected now in the mirror. Where does my body end and my baby’s body begin? I cannot see the boundaries of my baby’s body within me. I see only the shape and size of my baby projected in the shape and size of my own body. My pre-pregnant body, my customary body, with its distinct inner and outer boundaries-this is lost to me. I lean over to pick up my shoes, a towel, the newspaper. I am surprised by the grazing of my hard belly on my thigh. I did not anticipate my body touching itself like this. My movements seem to retain the old sense of my body boundaries. I live now, and must move in a heavier, bulkier, pregnant body. But the habits and expectations of my customary body have not deserted me (Young, 1984).

 

Walking into a room, I meet the eyes of others. I see their eyes leave mine and slide down over my body, stopping at my protruding belly. Some shake my hand, some inquire about my baby. Sometimes someone asks “Can I feel your baby?” To them I am me and I am also my baby, two distinct and separate entities. They speak of me and of my baby as separate individuals. But am I not also us, my baby and myself? We are so obviously together, part of each other, part of the same body. Sometimes it feels as if my pre-pregnant self lives in my body, with my baby, and other times I am this pregnant self, which is the combination of my baby and myself.

 

My husband tells me about his day, inquires about mine, shares his thoughts and ideas as he always does. Yet he also speaks to our baby, calls him1 by invented names, asks him what he is doing, and what games he is playing. He accompanies my pregnant self to doctor’s visits, encourages me to eat nutritiously, and ensures that I take my vitamins. So, he talks to me, he talks to my baby, and he talks to my pregnant whole self. Is this not myself in the mode of being a separate other, as well as a complementary whole composed of two parts, each dependent on the other in order to be one?

 

While I am pregnant, everything that is pregnant about the world presents itself to me. When I go shopping, I see pregnant women everywhere. In elevators I enter, I stand next to a pregnant woman. I constantly drift towards the maternity clothes section in the stores. Why do these things, unnoticed until my own pregnancy, present themselves to me in this manner? Why am I innundated with reminders of pregnancy? Will they all disappear when I am no longer pregnant? Bergum uses the words of Van Manen when she speaks of women being “exercised” into motherhood through pregnancy (p. 62). When I notice a pregnant woman, or see a newborn baby, my own pregnancy and my unborn child are brought before me. When I eat the right foods, when I comply with my doctor’s directions, I am practicing the care of my child by caring for my pregnant self: baby and self.

 

The Encounter

However mundane the sensations of pregnancy may be-the hiccoughs, the rolling, the tumbling, the stretching, the startles in reaction to sound-in the end, they seem to prompt questions that are unanswerable. They bring me face-to-face with the experience of a mysterious encounter. What comes to meet me in the encounter is a “striking and disconcerting actuality that strikes at the core” of my being (Bollnow, 1972, p. 306), an actuality that my baby is just as he is, and does not ask whether this is agreeable or disagreeable to me. My unborn baby lives within my body; his contact with me, his touch is independent of my whims and desires. When he moves and touches me from within, I experience the unpredictability of his nature, and the impending otherness in relation to my self. The experience of pregnancy is an encounter with the variable essence of another human life. Through such an encounter, this unborn being steps into relation in my life as one of the aspects of its expansion. Living with a being within one’s body is the experience of constant encounter. It leaves me shaken at the inexorable mystery of life.

 

 

Note

The baby is referred to as a male child in order to distinguish “him” from the female “I” of the author or mother.

 

References

Bergum, V. (1989). Woman to mother: A transformation. Granby MA: Bergin & Harvey.

Bollnow, O. F. (1972). Encounter and education. Educational Forum, 36(3), 303-312.

Buytendijk, F.J.J. (1970). Some aspects of touch. Journal of Phenomenological Psychology, 1(1), 99-124.

Fujita, M. (1985). Modes of waiting. Phenomenology + Pedagogy, 3(2), 107-115. [see Fujita in this TEXTORIUM series]

Young, I. M. (1984). Pregnant embodiment: Subjectivity and alienation. Journal of Medicine and Philosophy, 9, 45-62.