I type this from the second day of my official maternity leave, having made it to the end of term without infans making an early appearance. The presence of infans has, of course, been getting more and more obvious over the last few weeks; I’ve been particularly aware of it while staying at on-campus accommodation during the week to make my life easier, and eating in the attached student dining hall in the evenings, although the British Library offered some equally confused expressions. I’ve been thinking about pregnant bodies in academic spaces since Rachel Moss posted about this issue at the end of February, and while I’ve been very lucky not to have encountered any directly negative responses, I’ve been very aware of getting surprised looks from people around campus as I have been going around my daily business. While these reactions do not explicitly say I should not be in the space of an HE institution, they reveal my presence there is unexpected (surely she should be on leave?), particularly in a student dining hall where many of the students may be seeing me for the first time. (A massive thank you to the catering staff and the hospitality team is in order, as they have been lovely throughout the term and looked after an increasingly pregnant academic with remarkable aplomb.)
Another academic space that I shan’t be occupying, although this is entirely self-selecting, is the upcoming Classical Association conference in Bristol. This is largely a matter of practicality – Bristol and my home are very far apart, and my due date is shortly after the conference ends. While the thought of interrupting a staid paper session with a polite request for an ambulance is fairly entertaining in the abstract, I suspect the reality would be pretty subpar. However, this raises questions about whether I would have felt comfortable attending the conference if it had fallen earlier in the pregnancy. I did actually attend a couple of conferences very early on, before anybody knew about it, let alone before there were any physical giveaways beyond me not drinking alcohol. However, I’ve not attended anything particularly formal since the academic year started, and now that conference season proper is kicking off, practicalities intervene. Yet I wonder about the presence of the pregnant female body at these gatherings, and remember the classics and feminism sandpit in January, when I felt visibly pregnant but was not necessarily registering as such to others. The visibility of the pregnancy seems to relate directly to the social acceptability of being seen in public as pregnant – even in a world where economic factors mean women are working up to as close to their due dates as they can.
I want to turn to Soranus here, who has handed down to us an excellent manual on gynaecology which tells you more than you will ever need to know about pregnancy, giving birth and early infant care in the ancient world. (As Helen King says, it’s a relief to find out that midwives were expected to keep their fingernails short.) I’ve been reading his advice for the pregnant woman through the nine months with interest – in the eighth month, for instance, he recommends that women “must take exercise only in a litter or big sedan chair, unless one desires to walk short of the point of exhaustion”, and suggests that the abdomen should be anointed “all over with a cerate containing oil made up from unripe olives and myrtle, for if the skin is toned up it does not break, but is kept unwrinkled”. Soranus, dispensing stretch mark avoidance before Bio-Oil was ever dreamt up.
In the ninth month, Soranus advises loosening any bandage supporting the bump as this will help towards a quicker labour – now proven as biologically sound advice, as the pressure of the baby’s head on the cervix does indeed increase the hormones which stimulate contractions. (Yes, I was taking notes in my NCT classes. You never stop being an academic.) I should be indulging in more frequent baths and swimming in “sweet warm water” to relax “the parts”; Soranus also recommends a number of topical treatments for loosening the cervix including ingredients like linseed, mallow, sweet olive oil and goose fat. (I am more sceptical of these than the warm baths.) Finally, he suggests the midwife carry out an operation that sounds very much like the modern ‘stretch and sweep‘.
The main job otherwise is to prepare for labour in advance, and Soranus has a long list of things needed – olive oil, warm water, “warm fomentations” to act as pain relief, soft sea sponges, wool, bandages, things to smell, a midwife’s stool, two beds and a ‘proper room’. The things to smell are to revive the woman in labour; Soranus recommends pennyroyal, a clod of earth, barley groats, an apple, a quince, a lemon, a melon and a cucumber. If I put that lot in my hospital bag, at least I’ll have enough to snack on, although the clod of earth might raise some eyebrows. The rest I think I can safely leave to the hospital.
Soranus’ interest in the female body is obviously medicalised, as one would expect from a doctor’s handbook, but it constantly emphasises the need for women to rest and to be calm during pregnancy, and to keep everything as relaxed as possible during birth (all that olive oil). This vision of the relaxed female is, of course, entirely class-based – in order to be attended by a physician like Soranus, the patient and her husband would need the financial wherewithal to pay him, much as those who attend NCT classes, antenatal yoga and hypnobirth training need the disposable income to fund those activities. But it also expects that a woman will not be active in the public sphere – why would she want to be doing anything more strenuous than going out in a sedan chair in the eighth month? What reason would she have for doing so? The pregnant body should be a resting body – and as such, a hidden body. Hence, perhaps, the sense of public ownership that comes attached to the pregnant body in public – Viv Groskop wrote about her experience in 2010, and while I’ve not been on the receiving end of anything half as extreme has she has, there have been a few comments about taking care of myself in my ‘condition’ from total strangers.
So here I am, on maternity leave at last, supposedly to ‘take care of myself’ – by making the pregnant body invisible. It’s convenient this is a time of year when academic bodies tend to become invisible anyway – term ends, we retreat to our studies or libraries and the piles of work we have been putting off until the vacation, and hide until a conference or the demands of exam term draws us out, blinking gently. Except this year, while I benefit from the psychological trigger of a change in the academic season, I’m now in a very different sort of waiting game.
See you on the other side.