Souffrante and Unpresentable

Alice Neel, "Pregnant Woman," 1971
Alice Neel, “Pregnant Woman,” 1971

“Madame Ratignolle was to the last degree souffrante and unpresentable”— Kate Chopin, The Awakening

At the end of The Awakening, the very pregnant Madame Ratignolle goes into what was then called her “confinement,” a ritualistic period of privacy and restricted movement that both promised to ensure the safe delivery of a baby and hide the embarrassing late-term pregnant body from public view. Like the late-nineteenth-century “rest cure,” this socio-medical practice was rooted in a constellation of misogynist beliefs about women’s bodies and sexuality, and while misogyny certainly is not outdated, this particular manifestation of it seems to be. After all, today women ride the subways, go to work, teach our students, all while impressively pregnant. This is progress, right?

Maybe not. Just about a month away from delivering my second baby, I find myself having fewer and fewer thoughts, less interest in talking to anyone, and a generally reduced capacity as a human being. My body keeps getting bigger while I get smaller. Call it what you will, this is a sort of confinement, if no longer a fully socially expected one. It would be nice to “reclaim” the historically misogynist ritual of confinement as a practice that allows for meditative preparation for birth, but I have to admit that my own experience of self-confining has as much to do with fear and bracing for impact than it does with anything healing or holistic.

My (sparse) thoughts in confinement? That I don’t really want to do this. I’m not really excited about this, the baby moving inside of me is a constant discomfort, nothing to feel mooney over. The second time around is a grind and has been a grind all along, and I already know how awfully things can go in labor and delivery and so am filled with the vague dread of a nineteenth-century heroine. I’m mourning the end of a singular relationship with my first child and having a hard time imagining having enough (time, attention, affection, whatever) for a second. Regret, fear, anxiety, boredom, exhaustion, done-with-itness. These feelings, more than my physical appearance, are what are “unpresentable” in me now, and it occurs that these feelings, rather than the swollen belly, are what the world was really trying to keep confined to the domestic interior by squirreling pregnant women away from the public.

I can see through to the other side, to the pleasures of mammalian love (I anticipate the first scent of the new baby’s head with something akin to a drug addict’s impatience), to having my body back, and to watching two kids be siblings (however they do it). But right now, I need to find a way to sit inside this small hot space and converse with the dread, anger, and worry that I’m also carrying, to be violently alone even while literally occupied by another body. In other words, to confine myself to the unpresentable, because why else do any of this except to get a glimpse of the darkness just before it blazes out?

Sarah Blackwood: Team Bella