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Childbirth as resistance: Possessive masculinity and the limits of power

By Sonali Pattnaik

When I learnt that I was pregnant, for the second time, I was thirty-five and consumed with fear. In a different circumstance, I would have been elated but my circumstances were mired in surviving instability, anger and hatred. The first pregnancy had led me to an abortion that had caused some form of severe shock to my body, but it was a choice I made that I am grateful for to this day. The fear this time around stemmed from the fact that I wanted a child but was trapped in the same abusive and unstable marriage where in spite of repeated conversations about being ready for a child, my then partner had exhibited extremely volatile, base and problematic emotions about the idea of beginning a family. And ‘abusive’ and ‘violent’ were not facts or words that I recognized wholly at the time, when it came to thinking about the marriage, as partial denial is an intrinsic part of the survival mechanism. I only thought of my situation in terms of survival; I took things a day at a time or even an hour at a time, often picking myself up after being broken. I was certain that I would leave but I was not able to muster the courage to take that final step. My story is such that my body, literally produced courage for me in human form. But that is getting ahead of myself, and I must get there slowly or else all will be lost.

As the strip turned into two lines on the pregnancy test kit, I felt my blood go cold and the world become a blur. I was shaking and all tears and unable to leave the bathroom of the hotel room that my ex-husband and I were in, for a very long time. When I finally emerged from the bathroom and told him, a man who had yelled the most unmentionable expletives when I had told him after a gynecological check-up that the doctor thought we ought to think about having children, was surprisingly calm and reasonable. He allayed my fears and told me that he was sorry that he had given me reason to believe that I would have to go for another abortion, a strange statement given his repeated threatening and threatened responses to the idea. Given that my first instinct was always of nurture and love, and because I desired to be a mother immensely at that point in my life, I believed this and embraced it wholeheartedly.

My relationship with my body changed from that point on. For someone who gave in to bodily indulgences very often and without much thought, I became very conscious of what went into my stomach and even on my skin, what experiences I chose to have, what I read and what I listened to and the amount of time I spent amidst nature and in fresh air. While all this sounds rather bucolic and fragrant, my reality, in spite of my choices, was a stark contrast to the strong nurturing force that took over me. The assurance and good behavior from my partner were short lived and as soon as the vacation ended, the nightmare began in full force. The abusive behavior returned and this time I was responsible for my own body and the being my body was carrying. I tried to remain happy through the entire experience, but my attempts were limited in the face of a drunk individual who often returned home to berate and subvert my physical experience of pregnancy which was marked by love, fear, fatigue, discomfort and immense hope. In spite of my intense background and immersion in feminist theory and praxis, the experience of violence in the face of possible birth was nothing that I was prepared for.

It occurred to me, years later, even though I had an instinctive understanding of this at that point as well, watching him getting drunk and wearing my maternity gown or speaking of “having a little semen inside of me” as he would casually throw a large air conditioner vent case towards me, that much of the rage, violence or perversity of such a situation was in embodied identity. That it was envy of not being able to conceive, nurture and birth that would be rearticulated as hatred and disgust. It was also not a question of reproduction alone, although reproduction as I am arguing here is viewed as a form of possession, but of not being able to ‘possess’ the body that one desires. The violent man is often a possessive man, we know but we have not spent enough time with the term and the idea of ‘possession’, which is configured as desirable in men and a compliment for the victims (the women at the receiving end) within a hetero-patriarchal framework.

Language, as we know in the light of deconstructionist theory, is a slippery field and here it carries the doubleness that seeks totality, even as it reveals its impossibility.[1] For what does it mean to possess a woman for an alpha male, a toxic masculine man, a high-strung purportedly heteronormative man or for any man for that matter? Does he not ultimately desire to be the ‘other’ that he feels defined by, through negation, subjugation and hyper-sexualisation? Is it not evident that the reward-punishment cycle that he initiates and sustains, marked by a self-justifying failure to restrict and colonize the body of a woman, fails to ‘own’ that body’s movement, flows, excesses, desires? Hence, he calls for punishing it by attempting to injure it or rob it of freedom, mirroring his inability to not only control but enter and become the other. After all, the ideas signified by the term ‘possess’ is of penetrating and entering and living inside of, as much as it signals a ‘holding’ of, the other as object.

The trouble (for possessive masculinity/morality) is that the body is also a slippery field, one of doubleness, of multiple valences and is not as easily objectified as is presumed and hence always a site that creates vulnerabilities, threats and resistance. The act of penetrative copulation sustains the illusion of entering a woman’s body and leaving behind a trace in the form of semen and of colonizing and owning by placing an extension of the self via the possibility of new life through a pregnancy and such an illusion contributes to the myth of possession. For it is after all the body that registers the impossibility of total penetration, of going limp after ejaculation and the impossibility of creation through a single fluid alone, given the complexity of conception which is performed through syncretism, splitting, doubling and emergence, reminding us that bodies may come together, but are known and live in difference. In that sense, childbirth, and a child born remind a desire for totality that all desire is located upon and emerges as difference. The idea of a human being produced and created by a body may be deeply threatening and distressing under various circumstances but especially anxiety producing for a masculinity that labours under the illusion of total control and possession and punishes the other for the inevitable failure of the self, ‘failures’ that are elemental to remaining vulnerable and hence human. Thus, it is that an authoritarian masculinity is instantly threatened by the possibility of pregnancy and childbirth as they are located upon the semblance of possessing the body but not without throwing light upon the fact that such a possession is different from those dreamt by the face of singularity.

Feminist philosopher Luce Irigaray, among several others, has argued that the inability to experience childbirth has led patriarchy to obsess over lineage deploying methods such as sexual control of women and naming in order to allay the fears of not knowing. That is, since men cannot directly experience birth, they have no immediate connection with the child and always remain removed from the experience and hence mired in doubt.[2] Even though such an argument is rooted in a problematic experience-as-truth framework, there is no denying its powerful logic. Keeping in abeyance for the time being, the biological essentialism involved, the ineluctable fact of male anxiety over birth cannot be refused. My own experience led me to understand that if patriarchy continues to reify masculinity as rooted in ‘doing’ and ‘taking over’ and aptitude for control, then childbirth may be both a loss of control and a potent field for establishing masculine prowess, for the same contradictory logic that propels proving masculine worth by ‘producing’ lives also rejects that worth by hanging over it the perpetual doubt of paternity. Even when known, because of the ‘lack’ that the inability to grow a baby inside of one’s body, literally passing fluids from one’s own being to the other not as excess but as nurture, as life, an act semen only desires to perform within the same framework, men remain in doubt. Irigaray’s astute observation overturns psychoanalysis’s foundational presumption of ‘lack’ as essentially feminine. In a splendid and eye-opening subversion, what this states is that it is not the lack of a penis that defines femininity but the lack of the capacity for birth that defines masculinity, a generative womb envy.

As I continued further into my pregnancy, I read about other experiences where expecting fathers wrote about the beauty of a woman carrying a child, photoshoots, pampering; my experience remained in sharp contrast. I attended a few of my initial gynaecological sessions by myself and even in later sessions which were meant for couples so that the non-birthing partner could understand early on how to help his birthing partner, know the signs of labour and support her through labour, I was the only one without a partner by my side. And yet, my body was doing magical things, in spite of the growing darkness around me, there was light within. I would celebrate myself, even when such celebration was denied me and violence was justified through verbal vitriol. I would take photographs of myself and go to my favourite cafes to treat myself to an indulgent pizza or delightful ice cream. I would take my most loved dupatta to the neighbourhood tailor to get swaddle cloths made out of it and I would shop for baby and maternity clothes even as I resisted foul talk in the evenings. It did not seem important, although it was shatteringly painful to not be treated with respect, to be with someone (especially one who did not wish to be there) in order to embrace the beauty unfolding within. In retrospect it is hard to imagine that I was leading this cleaved, split existence but I am learning that the need for survival propelled by the fuel of inner resilience is the seedbed of possibility. It can make flowers blossom in a glass cage.

It is this very same bodily weapon, resilience, that would make room for the possibility of raising my baby alone but that would only reveal itself months later. I realized soon that because of patriarchy’s fixation with the womb as a reproduction machine, there is a dearth of literature on the actual changes that a woman’s body and psyche may be experiencing during pregnancy and much of what exists pretends to believe that pregnancy occurs in a socio-political vacuum. We hear of disparaging terms such as ‘pregnancy brain’ or ‘mom brain’ from American popular culture where capitalist patriarchy is only too happy to berate women for the powerful experience of growing a child and birthing and/or raising one. If anything, that brain is probably that much more powerful in the way it is handling both the growth of a human being and making sure the host body is not colonized but rather protected. Further, women work through their pregnancies, irrespective of class and while some have greater privileges than others there is no hiding the fact that the brain is at its human best when continuously handling three entirely different fields of existence. It is this fragmentation of body and self from womb-as-machine or body from self, that justifies treating mothers as incompetent, dumb, powerless machines who must surrender their autonomy the moment they are impregnated, if at all they had them to begin with, now is the time to accept that their roles as reproduction is complete and hence all else must be jettisoned or suspended, even erased. The same cultures, for the same reasons, glorify the beleaguered body of the woman as carrier but no carriage is possible without the self, the brain, the psyche as inextricably connected with the body.

For if it were truly about recognizing the so-called miracle of birth, then there would be greater autonomy for the ‘body-self’ responsible for this miracle, greater awe at that body and greater acknowledgement of its intuitive functions. It is precisely those that are denied to women, at least in my case, middle-class ‘privileged’ women, who appear threatening not just to toxic men seeking to name and dominate but an entire system built upon the contradictory strategies of infantilizing women and placing onus of their own oppression upon them. A mother-in-law who is meant to, through prior experience, support a woman through her pregnancy may easily and coldly remark when asked by a daughter-in-law whether the pants that she is wearing are too tight for the first trimester and if it would do any harm, “I don’t know. I think you girls these days wear clothes that are too tight anyway.” Autonomy over the body is at stake whenever a woman’s body exists within patriarchy. If she has chosen to wear clothes that are deemed unsuitable by a misogynist gaze, then she must be punished when she seeks to alter the choice of clothing for an autonomous and intuitive protective attitude towards her to be born child. The matriarch presents this seeking of help as a question of altered autonomy and power as if to say, when you decided to sexualize your body I had no say, I cannot help when you seek to abide by maternal instincts for a maternal body must be a non-sexual body.

Reading the wearing of ‘tight’ pants as sexualization is part of the same gaze that reads a woman’s role as sexual and maternal subservience, and thus it is that when the daughter-in-law has arrived at this ultimate goal, even if it is via tortuous means, she must be both awarded and punished and agency seen as even less important as she ought to have known always and more so now, that her body was never hers to wear but a vessel for carriage whose materiality is located in a lack that may be inhabited by another. The matriarch within this field of signs, signifies a representation of the ‘other’ that has never shed this mirror image but rather holds it tightly becoming an indispensable and often invisible link in the chain of violence towards woman for she never chooses her body or self over the institution of marriage. She is the ghost of possessive masculinity, remaining the totem of a body that lives for another.

And yet through this drama of anxiety, joy and rejection, my body was busy scripting its narrative of self-love, its resistance and its points of pain and pleasure that would connect to form the figure of freedom. When my child was born, in spite of immense dangers that were casually strewn in our paths, she shone like a beacon of possibility. I drowned in tears and blood and pain from attempting feeding but through it all, the bodily exchanges between me and my daughter created and nourished a corporeal intersubjectivity that granted me courage and clarity like never before. While the ‘glow’ of maternity is glorified in popular culture in patriarchy and a woman whom nobody cares whether she starves of hunger otherwise is plied with nourishing foods when she is pregnant, little is celebrated about the radicalism that is forged when a body cares for another, biological or not. I continue to be amazed at the number of women who, not unlike my own experience, walked out of abusive domestic situations, said no to violence when they witnessed their children, often their daughters suffering it. This ought to throw light on the separation of identity that takes place in women during pregnancy, not between mother and child but rather in risking autonomy because of the inter-twining of bodies and lives and of past/present and future that growing a child inside of one’s body may engender.

Far from fogginess, that patriarchy is quick to suggest affects women during pregnancy, I experienced a sharpness and clarity, once my child was born. This is not unlike a majoritarian or hegemonic power in a ‘political’ scenario where while extermination of the vilified other is desired as a goal, the devious rationale of hegemonic control works towards making ‘use’ of the ‘other’ (whether Dalit, Muslim, homosexual or woman) and keeping them in ‘their place’ via producing their bodies and selves through the discourse of self-hate and self-erasure. Thus, it is that when the other starts to claim power and dignity corporeally, the authoritarian self is quick to try and co-opt it and reduce it to mere function, and so with childbirth and women. A Muslim-hating man recently assured me that the biryani food trucks will never be allowed to be shunted from their place on roadsides and I marveled at what would seem a contradiction, on the one hand seeking the ghettoization of the community and on the other hand assured that the community’s role as provider of non-vegetarian food remain, for the latter without the former is dangerous for hierarchy. Pregnancy outside of its institutional demands and submission is that kind of site of threat. As I left the site of violence with my daughter, I knew that it is the very body that violated all the codes of patriarchal conduct that had created its own song of freedom. This is not to glorify childbirth or motherhood but to read it as a site of resistance and immense possibilities rather than institutional fulfilment, for if women can produce and raise humans on their own, without the institution of marriage and the state, or simply by claiming autonomy in the process, the myth of ‘possession’ would be revealed and patriarchy would be close to destruction. It takes a glance at my daughter’s face to gain razor sharp clarity about what love, freedom and truth mean and how courage can, in this case literally, be bodily.

[1] Derrida, Jacques. 1978. Writing and Difference trans. Alan Bass. London and New York: Routledge.

[2] Irigaray, Luce. 2000. ‘Women on the Market’, from This Sex Which is Not One, trans. C. Porter in K. Oliver (ed), French Feminism Reader. Oxford and New York: Rowman and Littlefield.

Disclaimer: This article is written for academic purposes and for social good regarding women’s rights and gender equality. It draws from the author’s readings, life experiences and knowledge of other women’s experiences of childbirth. It is not a factual report. 

Dr. Sonali Pattnaik is an award-winning feminist poet, scholar, professor and visual artist. She taught in Kirori Mal College, SNDT and Mumbai University. Her recent book on poetry, when the flowers begin to speak, was published by Writers Workshop. Her poems have been published in The Kali project, Through the Looking Glass (2021, 2022). Her poems have appeared in Muse India, FemAsia, The Pine Cone Review, Café Dissensus and The Yugen Quest.


For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.

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