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Postpartum Thoughts: Ambivalence, Irreversibility, and Leaning Into the Wonky Parts
There appears to be extensive cultural pressure to perform uncomplicated happiness about a vastly complex and challenging set of new circumstances.
If you’re new here, welcome! This is The Menstruant, subtitled, “What does it mean to be a gay man who loves having a uterus?” For the last several months, essays have explored narrative and meaning-making through the lens of my trans pregnancy, essays like I Do Not Wish to Become a Better Me and Seeking New Archetypes might provide some recent backstory.
I’m happy to be back writing in this space for the first time since giving birth to my child in late February. Today’s essay explores irreversibility and the need to make space for ambivalence and other less-than-tidy experiences. I expect to be back with weekly Saturday writing—sometimes essays, sometimes interviews, perhaps occasionally something else entirely.
Postpartum Thoughts: Ambivalence, Irreversibility, and Leaning Into the Wonky Parts
I gave birth eleven weeks ago, which means I now have the culturally fraught experience of living in a postpartum body, even if my postpartum body happens to be that of a man. And my body exists in a particular way in relation to my baby—I wake in the night, I nurse him, I carry him, I feel my chest grow full with milk when we are apart—it’s a very different embodied experience than I’ve ever had before.
Some of the changes to my body are permanent, irreversible. Some of these changes are visible, others are more subtle changes in how it feels to be in my body, and some are not exactly physical, but are the indelible sense-memories of birthing my child.
But this is not, after all, the first irreversible embodied passage my body has made.
When I started on gender-affirming hormone therapy over a decade ago, I signed a consent form that said, “Side effects of hormone therapy are irreversible and can cause death.”
One could say the same about pregnancy, although we usually don’t.
I’m curious about the fact that for both of these irreversible changes—a gender transition and childbirth—there appears to be extensive cultural pressure to perform uncomplicated happiness about a vastly complex and challenging set of new circumstances.
In Against the Linear Narrative of Pregnancy, I wrote about how I was expected to seem happy and confident all the time during my gender transition, which was actually in many ways a sad, scary, and lonely time for me:
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. […]
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.
In the essay You’re Doing Great, Mama, published in MUTHA Magazine, Monica Benevides observes the lack of space for ambivalence in an online support community for new mothers:
After a while, a pattern emerged in the comments of these posts, the ones where mothers wrote that they “just needed to vent,” expressed uncertainty about a decision they’d made, or, sometimes, confessed they weren’t sure they were cut out for motherhood and wondered if they’d made a massive mistake.
“You’re doing great, mama!” someone would write. Frequently, this would be the first thing anyone said to the original poster. Someone else would chime in: “You’re the best mama for your little one,” or, “Remember mama, this too shall pass! It’ll be over before you know it.” […]
It made me uneasy. Although, at first, it felt nice and supportive and all sorts of other good things to see women supporting women, the assurances that sleep regressions, nonstop nursing, and maternal restlessness while bodies healed from delivering babies were, in fact, phases, I began to wonder if everyone really could be doing as great as we were being led to believe.
I am wondering if “doing great” is even a reasonable or desirable experience of a period of one’s life that is inherently characterized by massive upheaval.seeks to explore the science behind the simplistic cultural ideas of new motherhood or parenthood (we all know the one—the idea that once we look into our baby’s eyes, everything immediately melts away, maternal instinct kicks in, and we are subsumed with a deep love like we’ve never experienced before.)
At one point, Conaboy writes,
In a 2005 paper arguing that new motherhood can lead to spiritual awakening, psychologists Aurelie Athan and Lisa Miller wrote that conflicting emotions are “natural and purposeful.” Ambivalence is, in fact, “the defining feature of this transitional process.”
Ambivalence is the defining feature of this transitional process.
This makes perfect sense, doesn’t it?
I wonder about our cultural need to deny the experience of ambivalence around these big, irreversible changes.
It’s easy to look at them separately—the narrative of maternal instinct explains why we don’t make space for other experiences of birth, and the simplistic, “trapped in the wrong body” narrative of trans experience explains why we don’t make space for ambivalence in gender transition.
I think that’s true enough. But there may be more going on here.
When I quit my job as HIV program director at a large community health center network in order to move out of the city and restructure my life—a major decision that felt much more permanent at the time than it ultimately was—colleagues repeatedly wished me well, expressing their confidence that I was “on to something bigger and better.”
I didn’t feel like I was, though. Something different, yes. Something I hoped would be better in some ways, and something I knew could be worse in others—or, perhaps, something that might just plain not work out.
Must we consistently believe that a change is “bigger and better” in order to feel that it was the right thing for us? And if so—is there a time frame or criteria for this determination?
I wonder if the lack of space for ambivalence reflects our culture’s inability to handle grief—these are big changes that inherently come with some amount of mourning of a previous self, but when we strip that away, we are only left with the single, unequivocal story of progress, of a new life that is “bigger and better” than the one we left behind, with any grief or ambivalence swept away as confusion, a phase, something unworthy of focus or inquiry.
This leaves us in a situation of needing to find and trust our own lived experiences and the stories we construct from them, even if we don’t see these narratives reflected around us.
As a writer, I’m always fascinated by the ways in which narrative strategies from literature can be applied to the work of making narratives from our own lives.
I’m captivated by this image that I encountered this week through Austin Kleon’s newsletter. (Kleon’s citation: “Here is a visualization from a syllabus for a writing workshop posted by novelist Luke Geddes. (I found it via Matt Bell, who said it ‘might be most of what you need to know.’”)
“Often the thing that sticks out sticks out precisely because it’s what the story wants to be made of.”
I recall receiving similar writing advice from Ariel Gore, who realized that a talking deer felt jarring in an early draft of her book We Were Witches because it was the only magical realist element—so she went through and added more magical realism throughout—including a memorable scene involving a mermaid.
But these are literary techniques, and the above is literary advice. How can they apply to the project of making meaning from our own lives?
Still, the images in the picture resonate for me. A piece of our experience is sticking out of the “box”—the narrative frame we are given for our experience—and the first impulse is to cut it off, to make the box tidy and cohesive again. The sticking out part looks like it’s a problem. But when it’s explored, when there’s space for it—it doesn’t have to go away in order to make sense, because the context changes.
It seems to me that if something “sticks out” from our experience as it relates to the dominant narrative—if we’re feeling sad, ambivalent, or numb when we’re told we should be feeling happy, or vice versa—there’s probably more of a story there, and it’s probably worthwhile in all its weirdness. It’s a story we should explore on its own merits, not for the sake of fixing or adjusting it to match some other narrative.
Just as I wrote that my birth will become many stories, I’m not willing to reduce my postpartum experience to any particular story right now. My transness has given me a wider “box” for it, in a sense—there aren’t really the same kind of “ideal trans dad” archetypes for me to measure myself against and find myself lacking. Even so, I suspect the story is wilder and weirder than I’m seeing right now.
But I’m happy to be here, exploring.
I’m excited about . . .
Shea in the Catskills’ upcoming book, Tarot as Questions, is now available for pre-order from Cosmic Dog House Press. Shea’s writing and thinking about imagination, culture, desire, and pleasure have been transformative for me, and I’ll be publishing an interview with Shea soon—diving deeper into topics like nonlinearity, storytelling, desire, and creative practice as they relate to this work.
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