Last night, I dreamt that I was giving birth.
Childbirth and pregnancy dreams don’t occur often for me, but when they do, they are vivid, intense, and leave a lasting emotional impression long after I’ve woken up. They usually have a negative bent to them. Sometimes I dream that I’m staring at a pregnancy test, and when I see that blue strip indicating “positive,” my dream-self melts into anguish and shock lucid enough to wake me up with a racing heartbeat. Other times I dream about being full-bellied, third-trimester pregnant, but with a baby that belongs to an abusive ex-partner.
Last night was a little different. I was at home, in the throes of labor. I could hear people talking downstairs; people I didn’t know, but I knew they were guests. One of my partners was there, but I was watching him walk out the door of the room. He was leaving me to go take care of the guests. As he left, he turned and said something along the lines of, “If you can help it, keep the noise down. I’ll see ya later.”
My dream-self felt a mix of embarrassment, shame, abandonment, and resentment. The dream faded as I said under my breath, “You know, it’s not like I wanted this to happen to me.”
I don’t like to spend too much time analyzing my dreams, but waking up with this lingering negativity toward pregnancy and childbirth led me to analyze the bigger picture of my life.
Most people who are biologically female have to confront the topic of pregnancy and progeny at some point in their lives. The role of motherhood has been an object of human admiration and focus for millennia -- from statues of fertility goddesses with mid-childbirth grimaces to the ubiquitous iconography of the virgin Mary to the thriving billion-dollar maternity industry.
Women are warned repeatedly, “Nothing will prepare you for motherhood.” There are countless books, magazines, and blogs doling out advice on birthing techniques, breastfeeding, potty-training, nap schedules, sleep deprivation, and rekindling a post-baby sex life with your baby daddy.
It’s patently clear to me that motherhood is no picnic. It seems to me to be a battlefield in a perpetual fight against chaos, illness, personal guilt, and full-blown mental breakdowns. I’ve carefully scanned the social media posts of my friends and family members with children, seeking signs of the divine happiness and love and fulfilment all parents claim to have found even in the midst of their overwhelming exhaustion. I do see the joy in the pictures of first steps, first haircuts, first trips to Disneyland. But there’s also the dark, under-eye circles that can’t be hidden, even by the most flattering of Instagram filters.
Expectations and Social Pressure
For as much as I logically recognize an utter lack of attraction to motherhood within myself, there is still another part of me that resists writing it off entirely. Clearly, my subconscious loves letting it bubble up in my dream space. However, I have a difficult time pinning down exactly what is helping the concept of child-rearing to stick around in my brain.
I’d be beating a dead horse to reiterate the fact that there’s an underlying social pressure pushing women toward having children. Nurturing and homemaking have been the expected feminine domain for centuries, and there has been a well-established history of women being told, implicitly or explicitly, that their primary value lies in their fertility. I had a baby doll shoved into my arms as soon as I could carry one, and I can’t get through conversations with certain family members without wistful references to “someday, when you have a house and kids of your own…”
When I hold up my own reticence toward parenting against the expectations of my family and culture, I don’t feel edgy or rebellious. I don’t feel like a sassy, independent woman who is doing exactly what she wants to do with her reproductive organs. I feel guilty. I feel selfish. I feel like the person who is trying to shirk their duties without anyone else calling them out on it.
Genetics and Memetics
The irony is that I haven’t shirked my duties. At least, genetically speaking. I have donated my eggs to infertile couples a whopping 9 times. If you want a hilarious blast from the past, you can check out my very first blog that acted as a diary of my many donor cycles. I am the biological mother of at least 9 children -- enough to either slowly dominate the earth or make a baseball team with no genetically-inherited sports skills whatsoever. Compared to most women my age, I am the freaking brood mother.
From an evolutionary standpoint, I’m a genius. I managed to pass on my genes several times, all while outsourcing the actual cost and effort of raising offspring and eliminating the physical risks of birth. Even better, I got paid each time I did it. An evolutionary and financial success.
From a social standpoint, it doesn’t matter jack diddly that I have 9 biological kids. Unless I actually put in the time to gestate and raise at least one on my own, my life as a woman is less meaningful. As illogical as this sounds, it actually highlights an often overlooked aspect of human reproduction: not just genes, but memes.
No, I’m not talking about cat pictures or Tiny Trump. In The Selfish Gene, author Richard Dawkins coined the term “meme” to refer to a unit of culture, such as an idea, belief, thought pattern, or behavior. Just as genes are passed from person to person and from generation to generation, so are memes. Many of the defining traits of any given culture -- clothing, food, art, communication patterns, religious beliefs, personal values, work ethic -- are memes that have been replicated time and again for centuries (with some mutation along the way).
When I take a long, hard look at my own desires, I realize that an urge to spread memes is the one thing maintaining my fragile yet persistent attachment to child-rearing. I have 9 children scattered across the globe who are all carrying my genes, but not my memes. I have 9 children, but what if the surrogate parents of those children are horrendously stupid? Or greedy? Or homophobic?
If I’m going to bring a child into the world, it’s because I want to put a quality human being on this planet. Someone intelligent, savvy, independent, willing to question social norms. Someone that I would want to hang out with. Someone with my memes. Is it an unrealistic expectation? Sure. But how many people head into parenting with realistic expectations? How many people hope that their parenting will help their child to grow up to be a middle-of-the-road insurance adjuster?
For quite a while, I struggled with the contradiction inside me: a desire to pass on my memes without having to pass on my genes at the same time. It wasn’t until quite recently, while I was on the Multiamory tour, that I was struck with the sudden realization that I was passing on my memes. But instead of passing them down to my babies, I was passing them to a much, much wider group of people.
With every show we did on the tour, with every podcast episode, with every copy of The Smart Girl’s Guide to Polyamory, I’ve been given opportunities to spread my memes to a vast audience of human beings. I get to share my own ideals of communication, honest relationships, healthy sexuality, and going against the grain.
Some may argue that meme-spreading on the macro level may result in more dilution, more negative mutation, less sticking power than the easier-controlled environment of spreading memes on the micro-level of parent and child. I would argue that in spreading my memes to adults, each with their own established sense of discerning judgment and ability to question and criticize, it creates a better proving ground for ideas. Rather than influencing a single, malleable mind, I get the opportunity to influence several minds, each with the agency to wholeheartedly reject or embrace whatever it is I have to say.
In conclusion, and fully acknowledging that this is going to go over like a lead balloon at my next family reunion:
I’d rather have a book than a baby.