Against the Linear Narrative of Pregnancy
The shapes we give our stories matter.
Last week, my baby was the size of a large onion or a Coke can, depending on which app I asked. Not long ago, it was the size of a deck of cards. One week early on, different websites told me that it was the size of a bee, or the size of a raspberry. Soon, presumably, my baby will grow to be the size of larger fruits—a grapefruit, perhaps, or a cantaloupe.
The standard narrative is that my pregnancy will grow larger and larger, my belly more and more tumescent, until one day I—metaphorically, one hopes—pop, followed by what the narrative tells me will be a refractory period of sorts, soft-focused and full of sleeplessness and love.
But as a writer, I can tell you that plot structures matter. The shape of a story matters. And I am not willing to live or narrate my pregnancy from inside the shape of what appears to be a conventional cis male orgasm.
In the novel, We Were Witches, Ariel Gore’s protagonist, also named Ariel, sits in a graduate writing workshop and watches an instructor draw Freytag’s Pyramid on the board, a classic of plot structure. To Ariel, it looks like a penis.
This, by the way, is Freytag’s Pyramid.
From Freytag’s Technique of the Drama, authorized translation from the German, 1894.
Gore’s protagonist writes a note: “I’m gonna put a vagina in the middle of my story, not the head of a penis.” And Gore does, structuring her novel on an inverted pyramid. She writes, “If we invert Freytag’s Pyramid, what belongs at the center of a book? Perhaps not a culminating climax so much as potential space.” She now teaches Gore’s Grotto, an alternative structure for memoir and fiction.
Jane Allison, in Meander, Spiral, Explode: Design and Pattern in Narrative, also confronts the ubiquity of the pyramid shape in story structure:
For centuries there’s been one path through fiction we’re most likely to travel—one we’re actually told to follow—and that’s the dramatic arc: a situation arises, grows tense, reaches a peak, subsides. Teachers bid young writers to follow the arc (or triangle or pyramid). If you ask Google how to structure a story, your face will be hammered with pictures of arcs. And it is an elegant shape, especially when I translate arc to its natural form, a wave. Its rise and fall traces a motion we know in heartbeats, breaking surf, the sun passing overhead. There’s power in a wave, its sense of beginning, midpoint, and end: no wonder we fall into it in stories. But something that swells and tautens until climax, then collapses? Bit masculo-sexual, no? So many other patterns run through nature, tracing other deep motions in life. Why not draw on them, too?
But why do I care so much about the shape of the narrative I tell about my pregnancy? Is it not true that I can expect to get bigger and bigger, culminating in a birth? It’s as true, perhaps, as telling the story of a plant from spring to late summer, turning off the camera as soon as the flower starts to wither. Watch for a whole year, and the story goes from a pattern of growth to a cycle.
Why does any of this matter?
Because stories are how we make meaning from our lives. They’re how we have a sense of who we are and where we’re going. Whether we tell our stories to others in public or just tell them to ourselves in our head on the way to the grocery store—they shape our lives.
As Sophie Strand reminds us, storytelling is an emergency.
Imagine if I were a plant who has only been told the springtime stories of being a plant. If I thought eventually wilting were a failure and not a part of my natural lifecycle?
It’s no secret that I love cycles — if I didn’t love my menstrual cycle so much, I wouldn’t have chosen to have it back, and then I wouldn’t be pregnant right now, trying to claw my way out of this narrative of linear growth and climax.
What other shapes can we give a pregnancy narrative?
As with the example of the plant, one option, of course, is to broaden the lens. One could look at a whole human lifespan, for example, and see a cycle, or even just look a few years out from birth, at various ripples of growth and change that occur for new humans and parents.
One can also look at the narrative of pregnancy as growth and ask, what else? Might my pregnancy also be seen as a process of loss—losing a sense of myself as an individual, losing certain aspects of how my body was before, losing a previous narrative of how I’d expected my life to go?
One reason I don’t trust linear narratives of growth and progress is how easily they invite ideas of hierarchy and “doing it wrong.” In a narrative patterned on a meandering stream, what may appear to be a setback when situated in a linear growth framework is simply a natural and expected bend in the river.
Already I feel I’ve sacrificed too much of my experience of pregnancy to this narrative of linear growth. I’ve fallen into the trap of “When I’m…”
When I’m out of my first trimester.
When I can hear the heartbeat.
When I can feel the baby move.
As though I’m climbing a mountain, always looking ahead for the next checkpoint. (The mountain metaphor, of course, invites images of peril, slippage, exertion. Is this the shape I want to give my story?)
What if, instead, I pattern the story of my pregnancy as a journey down a meandering stream? Will this structure help me be more patient, more present, more gentle with myself? Is this a narrative pattern that will serve me better right now?
In We Were Witches, Gore writes:
Take me back to that graduate writing workshop, but this time with a voice. I have some questions for my instructor. I will raise my hand. I will speak when called on.
Professor, what is the true shape of experience?
What is the shape of successful failure, of vulnerability and humiliation, of inexplicable joy?
What is the shape of a story that maps the cultural tyranny of what it means to be a girl child and a woman mother and a woman intellect and a woman creator in a world built from male paradigms?
Professor, my arc isn’t rising.
Gore’s protagonist is in her early twenties as she sits in this class, being given a plot structure that isn’t her own. In my early twenties, I too was given a narrative not my own—the linear story of a gender transition.
Trans narratives were heavily policed when I transitioned. Even the progressive clinic required me to meet with a therapist, to recount the story of my transness. When did I first feel male? When did I begin to wear men’s clothing? I was expected to unfurl a linear narrative of my own becoming, one with no meanders or doubling back, no second thoughts, no room for grief or acknowledgement of loss—and my ability to access hormone care depended entirely on my ability to convincingly hew to this narrative.
(I was nearly denied hormone care, by the way, because I said I wanted a baby later on. The doctor’s pen hovered over the prescription pad while I declined her suggestion to freeze my eggs, ultimately convincing her it “wasn’t that important to me,” heaving a huge sigh of relief when pen finally touched paper. Those hormones saved my life.)
When I presented my name change paperwork at a faceless government office, the woman behind the counter encouraged me to go home and think it over further. She said I seemed “too sad”—as though grief wouldn’t be a potential part of making such a huge change, such a rupture from a life story one initially imagined for oneself.
I feel, now, nearly fifteen years later, that I was robbed of the ability to narrate my transition to myself in its truth and fullness during the time I was actually transitioning. So much access to medical and legal transition hinged on my ability to tell a simple, uncomplicated linear narrative, and so that is what I did, because it is simply what I had to do. It would take me years to learn to retell my story to myself, to give it a truer shape. To shade it in with grief and doubling-back and fear and also incomprehensibly wild joy.
I want to learn from this. I want to give myself the gift of shaping my pregnancy narrative in the wildest ways, of trying on different shapes until I find the ones that feel most true, most alive. Is my pregnancy a meandering river? A multiple orgasm? A fiddlehead fern?
Today, I’m not sure. But I’ll find my way in.
Does someone else need to read this today? Please send it along!