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Hands Off The Bump: Body Autonomy in Pregnancy

Pregnant women still find their bodily autonomy violated – not just by medical professionals, not just by relatives but even by strangers in the street.

The opening weekend of December 2021 was the first time I had taken a two-line biological test that had nothing to do with detecting Covid. It confirmed the root of a completely irrational emotional breakdown over a delayed shipment of Biros the day before – a steep rise in hCG associated with the development of a human foetus. 

I was pregnant!

Good news for us, and certainly good news for two very excited sets of would-be grandparents also. I was faintly aware, mostly due to a series of ‘suggested posts’ on Instagram that the forthcoming 37-42 weeks would involve a good number of people, both medically trained and otherwise, taking an unprecedented level of interest in my changing and growing body – and more to the point, it was lauded as something not just likely, but as inevitable. 

Inevitable it was – and it started quickly. I was well prepared for the idea that for a significant chunk of time through 2022 my body would be shared between my own survival needs and that of the child I’d created freely and gladly – I don’t mind sharing as a rule, especially not when it’s my own doing. 

It’s everyone else I had the problem with. 

My mum was the first – grabbing a belly I didn’t even have yet at barely nine weeks pregnant as I walked through her front door, without even saying hello, and exclaiming, “Oooh, my boy in there!” (We didn’t find out the gender until the birth. I had a girl). We do not have the sort of relationship where I would feel comfortable with being excitedly rubbed and jostled in any manner by her – so what had changed there? The pregnancy, and that was it. That was all it took for long-established physical boundaries to be completely tossed aside.

This continued for months, and not just her – also not just family, either. My students at work ranged from the overly involved to the very-politely-pretended-not-to-notice – one of them also leaped at me, hands outstretched, and without telling me her name even was cooing over the bump that no one seems to realise is, in fact, fully attached to my person. My sister, who used to beat me viciously when we were children and doesn’t have my phone number or address saved, wanted photographs taken of her and her children all with hands on my belly sporting the grinning smiles of the acquiesced – which, naturally, they were not. 

The invasion was also not limited to just physical touch. No two sources seemed to agree on whether I had a ‘super tidy little bump, good for you’ (eyeroll) or ‘Oh my God! Are you sure you’ve still got two months to go? You’re massive!’ (stunned silence). A colleague of a certain age / generation merrily proclaimed, “Hello, fatty!” when I walked (okay, waddled) into his office at around 30 weeks. Not even an hour after that, someone else marched into my office while I was eating lunch (which, not that it matters, was entirely salad-based) and chuckled as they said, “Oh, eating for two! Make sure you breastfeed; it’ll help get the weight back off.” One male student caught me completely by surprise when we were alone in a lift and he asked me, “So, will you be having surgery, or going for it vaginally?” 

I can say with some confidence that the word ‘vaginally’ had not been thrown around much in my two plus years employment there – or anywhere else now that I come to think of it. One might commend his knowledge of childbirth techniques but at the same time, I would’ve preferred a simple ‘Congrats’ and pop the AirPods back in. 

These are not the only incidents, nor is this specific to me. The more mums and mums-to-be that I interacted with, it became very clear that this is a common occurrence – as I say, inevitable, apparently, and without taking a very firm stance of batting people away verbally or literally which inexplicably then turns the holy vessel herself into the villain, it simply continues. One friend of mine who was not even pregnant said it happened to her, when a perfect stranger of a man placed his hand on her not-even-protruding stomach at a bus stop and asked how far along she was. Being Canadian and polite to a fault, she said three months to avoid further awkwardness on the part of – well, the stranger touching her body without permission – because God forbid he should be offended. 

Pregnancy can be a time of immense joy and satisfaction, but also can be the culprit of intense vulnerability and insecurity. Not just that, any person recovering from violent trauma or abuse might well find the highly-skilled, medically-trained, absolutely-necessary interference from a midwife or doctor incredibly triggering no matter how well they were prepared for it. Questions are asked and examinations sometimes required beyond the bump-measuring and blood-taking – urine, stools, breasts, vagina, cervix, scars and stitches – everything is seemingly up for grabs during those months by medical professionals who change shift after twelve hours once you’ve just managed to get used to them and remember their name. Throw that on someone who is in no way prepared for the intervention and it can mean a serious mental break – imagine, then, a stranger imposing themselves on a traumatised woman in public asking if they know what they’re having and when whilst rubbing away at her belly, and by every stretch of the imagination, making contact with her child as well. 

Once I was 12 or so hours clear of having a man to whom I had not been properly introduced wrench my child from inside my pelvis, and was now surrounded by kindly women literally milking me like a cow on a post-natal ward, the very idea of body autonomy seemed to be well and truly out of the proverbial window, if not for the fact that I elected for said wrenching and actively encouraged any and all available persons to help me breastfeed (after all, I really needed to lose that salad weight). But inside the confines of the hospital walls, no one so much as offered a hand up from the bed without asking permission first, which entirely begs the question why perfect strangers feel that pregnancy is a Get Out of Jail Free card to randomly touch women at a bus stop, or relatives who hitherto show no interest in a person are suddenly overcome with such domestic joy and familiarity?

The everyday miracle, of course, that is growing a tiny human that will go from learning how to use a spoon to learning how to drive a car in less than two decades. The absolute mind-bending joy of seeing an entirely separate being below the skin, who does not yet breathe air, experiencing the hiccups. The vital organs of a human body rearranging themselves without instruction to accommodate a second (or in some cases, third and fourth and so on) miniature set of those organs – and so on and so forth. The least my body deserves for doing all that is a pat on the back, one might say. 

But as my mother would say to us as children, let’s look with just our eyes – and to add my own wisdom, once we have looked with just our eyes, we’ll keep our opinions about it to ourselves. 

Emma Marns qualified in Sports Journalism in 2014 and also holds an M.Phil in Irish Writing from Trinity College Dublin. She writes articles on sport, pregnancy, modern motherhood and Catholicism in the 21st century.

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