You see, Dr. Jiggle, when you know God made you special
It doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks—you can just be yourself.
The weather was unseasonably warm in Pennsylvania during the fall of 2004, the semester I finished course work for my PhD and gave birth to my firstborn. The summer had been mostly mild, and as the days slipped from August into September and I traded lazy nights with my husband at the local drive-in theater for one last round with the textbooks, the weather belied this transition and stayed temperate. I was pleased; it allowed me to keep wearing most of the summer maternity clothes I’d purchased back in late spring, when I was so excited to be pregnant I ignored my still-flat belly and went out and bought an entire collection of empire-waist shirts and belly-banded pants. I was also pleased that the weather would allow me to keep wearing flip-flops—not because of the pregnancy cliche about being too big to tie my shoes, but because, through a series of careful contortions, I kept my toenails polished a bright pink right up to the day of my delivery, and I wanted to show them off. Pretty feet, for some inexplicable reason, had become very important to me as my belly finally swelled into a cute pregnancy bump and the rest of my body, not so cute, swelled right along with it.
I was admiring my toenails and their candy-pink polish when I arrived at class one day, eight months pregnant, only to discover I could no longer slide into the desk/chair combinations furnishing the classroom. I had known the day was coming; over the last month and a half I’d been sitting up straighter and straighter in my seat trying to gain additional clearance between my belly and the desk, and already my unborn daughter could make contact with the desk—through my belly—whenever she kicked. On the day I truly could no longer fit, I dragged my desk out of the line-up and back into a corner—exchanging it for the one desk in the room that allowed for about an inch more space. I could feel some of the guys in the class watching me as I hefted and pulled, and although at first I was simply annoyed that I was starting to sweat, as I struggled with my overlarge belly and the overlarge desk I soon refocused my annoyance on the fact that no one offered to help me, the poor pregnant lady grown too big to sit in her chair. But by then I should have been used to it. The desk that could no longer accommodate my pregnant body was just one more example of me not fitting in to the academy.
I graduated from a Christian high school where, despite my strong Christian faith, I didn’t quite fit in with the rest of the group. I was a liturgical Episcopalian in a largely evangelical non-denominational crowd, and wearing ashes on Ash Wednesday and knowing when the Council of Nicaea took place didn’t win me many friends. From there I went on to attend a small, private liberal arts college where suddenly I went from being perceived as a bit radical and left leaning to being perceived as a hard-core, Bible-thumping conservative. Which was odd, as I hadn’t changed at all; the only thing that had changed was the context in which I lived. I sealed my fate that first year when one of the girls on my hall casually lit up a cigarette while we were talking, and my face must have given away my surprise. “What?” she jokingly asked me. “Have you never seen a teenage girl smoke before?” And I was foolish enough to answer honestly, no, I hadn’t.
After graduation, I took a year off to teach at my old high school, where I was continually in trouble with the administration for offenses like teaching barefoot. So I went to graduate school. If I thought I was at last going to find a community of people like myself, I was sorely disappointed. In retrospect, I should have known: I enrolled in a Master of Fine Arts program in creative writing as a nondrinking, nonsmoking, non-pot-user who spoke readily about her faith and didn’t even like coffee. I was doomed from the word go. I was elated the first week of classes to find another nondrinking, nonsmoking, non-pot-using Christian in my department, but our instant camaraderie somehow fizzled—perhaps I was too liberal?—and by the time I noticed, it was too awkward to ask why.
Additionally, I’m pretty sure I horrified the graduate faculty by keeping up my classical ballet training while working on my MFA. I figured if I hadn’t quit dancing through the body changes of middle school, the pressures of AP exams in high school, or the bemused looks of friends in college when I continually announced “I’m off to dance,” there was no good reason for me to quit in graduate school. I scheduled all of my dance classes first thing each semester, filling in graduate seminars in the spaces left over. It was sometimes a close fit, leaving me running to make it from ballet lessons to seminars, arriving sweaty and disheveled with clothes haphazardly thrown over leotard and tights and hair beginning to come out of its tightly coiled bun. Both professors and peers probably thought I was odd, unconsciously pointing and flexing my pink-tights-clad feet as we read Jack Kerouac and discussed New Journalism. The rumor, as it reached my ears, was that faculty were skeptical about my commitment to the degree in light of my continued pursuit of “extracurriculars.” But even if I had given up my dancing in an attempt to fit in, there was still an awful lot of booze, drugs, caffeine, and nicotine standing in my way.
After completing my MFA, I was recruited for a PhD in education by a professor with whom I’d taken a few classes. It was during the second semester of my PhD studies that I had my life-changing pee-on-a-stick moment and knew I was going to be pregnant in graduate school—the next sequence of steps in my dance of the misfit. But I figured I’d simply continue on as if I wasn’t pregnant; if I could discuss Kenneth Burke’s rhetoric wearing pink tights, I could discuss Burke’s rhetoric behind a swollen, pregnant belly. I wouldn’t fit in, but I’d manage just fine. Somehow. Like Pippi Longstocking, I had great faith in my ability to always come out on top.
What I didn’t count on was a complicated pregnancy. My visions of myself sailing through nine months with no more fuss than the occasional extra bathroom trip never materialized, their gauzy idealism stamped out by the solid reality of unexplained bleeding, preterm contractions, and round after round after round of bed rest. Yet I kept on going to classes, enlisting my husband’s help to drive me to campus and drop me off at the door of my classroom so I wouldn’t have to walk more than a few feet and thus not technically violate my “modified bed rest” restrictions. I now scheduled ever-increasing prenatal appointments around seminars, and carted schoolbooks with me to read in the midwife’s waiting room. When my complications culminated with a pulmonary embolism the week before my daughter was born, I propped my laptop up on the tray next to my hospital bed, connected to the hospital’s wireless network, arranged my various IVs and fetal monitors around the piles of books I had brought to the hospital, and kept right on being a graduate student.
At the time, I never thought to do otherwise. Now, with the seasoned eyes of sixteen months of motherhood, I can look back and realize that my pregnancy marked the end of my romance with the academy. In my studies on gender and education, pre-baby and pre-embolism, one of my professors had often talked about the academy’s “floating head” syndrome;
how people are expected to function as disembodied brains, not connected to bodies or families or any sort of life outside of academic pursuits. This always resonated with me on one level, as I fished my crumpled ballet shoes out from underneath Michel Foucault’s Power/Knowledge, but I don’t think I fully grasped the magnitude of what she was talking about until I experienced the academy not only pregnant, but pregnant with complications.
Looking back, all I can do is shake my head and say, “I should have known.” I should have known, when I called my sympathetic advisor to ask for a restructuring of my graduate assistant duties since I had been placed on bed rest, and he suggested I might be able to do my work lying down. I should have known, when having birthed my baby and gone home to try and scrape my life back together on ungodly levels of anticoagulant, I contacted two of my professors to discuss extensions on my final papers and neither was willing to accommodate me. One of them calculated my final grade based on what I had turned in up until my hospitalization, and gave me a C. My first C. The other professor simply failed me. My first F. I should have known, when juggling a newborn and a slow recovery, somehow I ended up overseeing the duties of not one, but two separate assist – antships. I should have known. I should have known.
Looking back, I want to scream. It’s not about whether or not I could physically perform a task lying down instead of sitting up—it’s about the fact that my every waking moment was spent communing with my unborn baby, willing her to be all right, begging her with every breath to stay inside despite the contractions, outlast my traitorous, bleeding body, be- alive-be-alive-oh-God-please-let-her-be-alive. It’s not about the fact that a late paper was going to mess up the class curve, it’s about the fact that—loath as I was to admit this to family, friends, or even myself—I could have died from the embolism. Many pregnant women, even in this great medically advanced society of ours, do. All I needed to do was Google “maternal death” while trying to work on my finals in the hospital to find out that, according to the Centers for Disease Control, embolisms are one of the primary causes of pregnancy-related deaths for women in this country. So it’s not about the fact that everyone knew I would somehow rise to the challenge and continue my graduate work without interruption, while trying to recover, trying to mother, trying to nurse with bleeding nipples that couldn’t heal because my blood had been thinned to the consistency of water. It’s about the fact that I shouldn’t have had to. I should have been afforded the dignity of being treated as a whole person, not just a floating, disembodied head.
When my daughter was six months old and I had finished (poorly) my assistantship requirements, I took a year’s medical leave from the university. My little family moved to another part of Pennsylvania; I packed away all of my books with brainy titles, learned to play “This Little Piggy,” and started, finally, to heal. Physically, I was able to go off the anticoagulants, and psychologically, with the help of prayer and professional counseling, the nightmares and stomachaches and panic attacks lessened, slowed, and finally stopped. Leaving the university, tearing myself out of the bad romance, left me with emotions I couldn’t sort out at the time. I knew when I ended it that it needed to end, but it wasn’t until time had passed and I had regained perspective that I could see just how badly it had needed to end.
My medical leave is up shortly. I’m sure I could extend it, especially since I’ve become pregnant for a second (and so far complication-free!) time. I’ll have the summer to mull it over. If I finish my comprehensive exams I could take ABD status and then just sit on any further decisions until my PhD time clock runs out, five years from now. But the biggest question for me now is: do I want to go back? Do I really want to reenter that environment that treats people like glorified computers, and despite all assurances to the contrary, consistently treats women worse then men? Is this the legacy I want to pass on to my daughter, that Mama and so many others like her subject their personal lives, biological clocks, medical needs, and emotional health to a system that is unjust at best? Yet it is the very fact of this injustice that pulls me back so strongly. I want to go back, finish my PhD, find a university job, get tenure, and hang a huge sign on my door that says “Nursing Mothers Welcome Here.” I want the entire faculty, staff, and student body to know that my office is stocked with everything from snacks to diapers, and that those who need them can help themselves. I want to cordon off a section of my office and supply it with a professional – grade breast pump, a CD player, and some really comfy chairs, so the women who need a place to pump their milk (because, despite the academy’s refusal to see us, we do exist) have a place to go that’s slightly more welcoming than the bathroom. I want to decorate my office with pictures of my family, Bible verses, and anything else I can think of that will annoy those who will have power over me. I want to be a thorn in the academy’s flesh. Perhaps what I really want is to get fired.
As my daughter climbs up on the couch beside me with one of her two worn-out copies of Pat the Bunny, I know that I have already passed on the best of what the academy gave me. She adores books, so much so that many of hers bear the tell-tale signs of toddler love and the resulting Scotch tape. She will “read” to herself for amazing lengths of time, occasionally exchanging books with me, dragging off one of my old dug-out nerdy books and leaving me to play peek-a-boo with Paul and feel Daddy’s scratchy face. She glances up from what she is “reading,” making serious comments in a language that is half mine and half still her very own. She has grasped this much: we love books. We read them, we discuss them, we love them.
But that is not the only legacy I wish to pass on to her. In church, when her round eyes follow the procession of the cross and her chubby hands flip open the Book of Common Prayer, I feel a longing to bequeath to her all the parts of myself that the academy couldn’t hold, all of the parts that didn’t fit. Men-men! she calls out at the end of the prayers, and then throws her small arms around my neck to pass me the Peace of the Lord. She raises her voice and her hands to sing the Doxology, and when her song of praise vies with the soloist at Communion, I slip from my pew and take her out to the Narthex. I hold her close to my chest and whisper in her soft pink ear, not be quiet, but sing, little one, sing.
Last week my not-quite-walking daughter choreographed her first dance. Holding on to the ottoman for support, she listened intently to the music I was playing and then slowly, deliberately, began to dance. She lifted one arm purposefully over her head, then paused for a moment, thinking. She then dropped almost to the ground in a series of grands plies, augmented by more arm waving. A frenetic stamping of the feet followed, and then a tentative, but proud, lifting of both arms above her head. She finished her choreography with a wild and wonderful shaking of her little backside (she definitely didn’t get that bit from watching me) and then looked to me, expectantly. She probably wondered why I was crying. Something about her was so innocent, so whole. She can have her books, her faith, her dance. She doesn’t need to choose between them in the world she inhabits. She is a whole person, a whole woman, and she fits in to herself just fine. Watching her I realized that, regardless of where I eventually end up with relation to the academy, that is what I want to do: I want to fit in to myself. Nothing more, and nothing less.