My Macho Pregnancy

The last thing tomboy Jennifer Senior expected while expecting? That she'd discover her inner girl.

pregnant belly
(Image credit: Alvaro Heinzen/kycstudio)

For as long as I can remember, I have thought of myself as a tomboy. You might think that pregnancy would have momentarily rid me of this belief about myself. It is, presumably, the peak state of femininity — or at least the peak state of womanhood, the incomparable expression of what separates gals from men. And yet carrying a child did nothing to free me from the conviction that I am more masculine than feminine. Instead, it sharpened it — for the first six months, anyway.

Before I got pregnant, I was analytical and unsentimental and indifferent to shopping; during my first two trimesters, I was analytical and unsentimental and indifferent to shopping (I refused all offers of baby showers, for instance, and never once set foot in Babies "R" Us, which I consider a Hades of chiming plastic and battery-operated kitsch to this very day). Before I got pregnant, I gained weight in my gut, just like a man; when I got pregnant, I ... gained weight in my gut, just like a man. (Now, at least, this trait makes aesthetic sense.) During the first trimester, I was spared the gestational tortures so many pregnant women endure — the relentless nausea, the bloat, the volcanic acne — which somehow suggested to me that I was tougher than the average pregnant dame. In my second trimester, true to stereotype, I hummed with energy, working late at the office and assembling bookshelves at home. I ate a lot. I slept the unanguished, crude mammalian sleep of a man. And like a man, my skin got rougher in patches, drying out around my feet and elbows and knees (which explains the liters of goo marketed to pregnant women). I was also constantly complaining about being too hot, just like my father. And when the women around me started comparing notes about their own pregnancies, I wandered into the next room, bored.

Mark, my partner (I'm also too unsentimental to get married), developed a term for my attitude. He called it "the macho pregnancy."

But I am now in the end stage, the preposterous stage, the stage where the fundamental inelegance of my condition cannot be ignored and machismo is completely out of the question. Being macho requires a certain cool, and it is hard — very hard — to be cool when you're wearing stretch pants. Recently, a dear friend proposed I be towed out to sea to start my own artificial reef. Another began calling me "Goodyear." I've become a hopeless dependent, relying on the kindness of strangers to give up their subway seats, open doors, and in one especially awkward instance, tie my shoes (in end-stage pregnancy, the feet are apparently more elusive than the cervix). My doctor assures me it is normal — depressingly average, even — to have gained 25 pounds on a 5-foot-6 frame by week 36. But these extra pounds have both revealed and weakened every kink in my posture, my core muscle strength, my gait. (About five weeks ago, my hips gave out, driving me to a fabulous physical therapist named Isa, who observed: "Girlfriend, you walk all wrong.")

Worst of all, I've become stupid in these final laps, and intellectual helplessness is far more humiliating than physical helplessness. Words desert me. (Terms I forgot in the last 24 hours: self-awareneonatal, and shelf.) The basic skills of my profession elude me (filling me with the panic of those dreams in which we're asked to do things we cannot — conduct the New York Philharmonic, play professional basketball). My prefrontal cortex, at long last, has been hijacked by hormones. In her best-selling book, The Female Brain, Dr. Louann Brizendine says the brain shrinks by about 8 percent during pregnancy and doesn't return to its full size until six months after the baby is born. The image suggests that our brain loses computational and reasoning power, but that's not what it feels like. What it feels like is a case of brain termites.

I've been told that all of these changes have a higher purpose. They turn your focus from outward to inward, creating a closed world where only you, your baby, and the bond between the two of you matters. And I am beginning to recognize not just the evolutionary value of this design, but how it can be a lovely and liberating thing. Work is losing its sense of urgency. Finding some fine-looking onesies suddenly seems like a matter of top importance, particularly if they feature cars or trucks. The other day, as I was rubbing my belly, I realized I'd unconsciously developed a modest vaudeville routine with my unborn son: He'd kick and I'd rub back, and he'd kick again and I'd rub back again, each of us telling knock-knock jokes from our own sides of the door. Knock knock, knock knock.... And I really do wonder who's there. I have no idea who this person is that I'm carrying.

But in the meantime, there will be four more weeks of pregnancy to get through — weeks during which my hip joints will scrape, my feet will swell, and the real estate currently occupied by my stomach will shrink to a plot so small I'll be forced to eat and drink in separate shifts. I'll spend my days lurching between a fugue state and one of utter disgust, wishing the baby were out, and that reaction will be mirrored in the faces of loved ones and strangers alike, who will look on in a kind of terrified awe, watching as I burst to the breaking point, carrying a 10-pound turkey in a two-quart pan. Never mind that billions of women do this the world over. Pregnancy, in the end, illuminates the double meaning embedded in the word extraordinary, an event both beyond ordinary and exceedingly banal. Something about the sight of a massively pregnant woman both reassures and terrifies, conjuring up pictures of beatific Madonnas and monsters in Bosch paintings, of Venuses and creatures in horror films (The call is coming from inside the house!).

But then, in the end — my son. The very thought of meeting him makes me cry. I hope he'll appreciate tough women. I hope he'll have a feminine streak himself. And I hope, one day, I can thank him for finally introducing me to my inner girl, the one who was clearly there all along but until this moment never managed to rear her head. I secretly hope she sticks around. And I suspect I'll continue to like her.