A womb with a view

Thomas Lynch grew up believing in the Immaculate Conception. But as he watched his family grow he hit upon the elemental connection between sex, love and nativity
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The Independent Culture
It was early October, 1958. I was nine, about to be 10. Pope Pius XII was dying in Italy. I was listening to the radio and saying my rosary, staring out of the window into the night sky and wondering about wombs. The prayer observed the circumstances surrounding the birth of Jesus. It was the first among the several stories we were taught by the nuns that had a decidedly sexual subtext. Here's what happened: a young Jewish woman, pledged in troth to a local carpenter, was minding her business, saying her prayers when the Angel of the Lord appeared to her and gave out with the words that named this prayer, to wit: Hail Mary! Then, after the customary pleasantries, she was given to believe that she would soon find herself to be with child. This, she told the angel, was impossible as she and Joseph, good Jews that they were, had kept a cleanly distance in their courtship. Not to worry, says the angel, the Holy Ghost would impregnate her. No less a force than The Power of the Most High would overshadow her and the fruit of this union would be called the Son of God. This is Luke's version of it. Matthew reports a dream of Joseph's, Mary's cuckolded betrothed, who falls asleep much troubled by her apparent changes. An angel appears in his dream and explains that she hasn't been unfaithful - it was the Holy Spirit that filled her womb. "C'est le pigeon, Joseph," as James Joyce retells the French folk tale in his great Ulysses. "It was the dove," the Blessed Virgin tells the carpenter. So there was the Remarkable Conception.

Then, as now, the church seemed to have an inordinate interest in the private lives and private parts of women. The high value placed on virginity was coincidental with an enthusiasm for fertility. That these seemed at cross-purposes was one of several mysteries in my nunnish boyhood and devoutly lapsed adulthood. But I recall clearly watching my mother grow large with the pregnancy that would become my sister Julie Ann, and praying the rosary for the dying pope. Thus began what has become a lifelong interest in the womb. There'd been five of us before Julie Ann and there'd be three more to follow before our folks were through, but it was in the autumn of 1958, a year after the Russians launched Sputniks I and II, that the womb became the wonder of my world.

I'd seen an episode of Playhouse 90 - a mid-century US TV show - while spending the night at a friend's house, that portrayed the plight of unwed mothers. This formed in me a keen curiosity about procreation. At 10 I reckoned that marriage was the cause of pregnancy because folks got married and then had babies. That this seemed the natural order of things testifies to the protected environment in which I was reared. My mother was having babies all the years of my youth. Of nine of us, I was number two. The youngest of my siblings was born when I was 16, by which time I had sorted out the relations between men and women and their babies.

It was after the Playhouse 90 piece that I began asking questions of my mother about how someone got to be a mother without being wed. She spoke to me in her ordinary voice about love and desire, how God gave parents the pleasure of each other's company as a way of making babies, how it involved the dearest and nearest of embraces between my father and her and that someday I would meet someone I would love so much that I would want to hold that way and that I would be a good husband and a good father to my children because I had what she called a good heart. She told me that this embrace, this intercourse, was so very pleasurable that men and women who loved one another, loved to hold each other in just this way as often as they could.

And the pleasure, she told me, was a gift from God given by nature as a kind of compensation for the duties and responsibilities of parenthood that naturally followed. Children were precious and birth was a miracle and she and my father felt blessed to be part of God's plan. She held my face between her hands, she kissed me, she smiled, she returned to the ironing.

Then I asked Sister Jean Therese. I was 12 by now and I was admiring the breasts of the girls in school and trying to figure out a way to get my hands on them and spending a lot of time alone in my room contemplating the mysteries of the universe and some magazines that Jimmy Schroeder and I found stashed in his basement under the stairs.

Sister Jean Therese was very pleased I had asked her about these things and made no secret of the fact that The Facts of Life were better learned from her than from the boys who hung out on the corner. And though I had never seen these fellows, and didn't know exactly which corner she was talking about, I made a mental note to search them out as soon as I was able. She explained to me in sensible detail the biology and physiology of reproduction, sexual attraction, the morality of the calling to married life. She articulated the proper names of parts and processes I'd never heard before. She told me that men must assume responsibility for their behaviour towards women. She said that sex was the most intimate language and that to speak such intimacies to someone we did not love was a little like speaking English to someone who only knew French.

Love, Sister Jean Therese said, was the cipher, the code that made sex make sense.

My father added to my tutelage thus. I'd gotten some glossy girlie mags from those boyos on the corner and made a pact with my brothers, Dan and Pat, to stash them in the attic space behind our bedroom walls. There they were discovered by my father during his weekly patrols. These were the years before children got quality time and their own space. We assumed no right to privacy. He didn't trust our willingness to go to bed at night, our sudden interest in homework, the number of naps we claimed to be taking. He interrogated us as to their ownership. We all sang dumb, feigning wonder and innocence. He said he'd give them to our Uncle Pat who served in the local police department, to have the fingerprints lifted. If we wouldn't face up, he'd get to the bottom of this. These were the days of Elliot Ness and The Untouchables and we brothers knew the long arm of the law could reach us. But we held our ground and worried for a week, then another. Dan got a rash, Pat turned insomniac, I thought maybe I ought to see a priest. When would the damning results come back from the lab? They never did. I only remember my father's forgiveness, weeks later, fishing for blue-gill on Orchard Lake; and his quiet assurance that such curiosities, though normal, were better indulged in other ways. And his insistence that such magazines showed disrespect for our mothers and sisters and would not be tolerated in his house. "Women are not just parts," he told us, "they are someone's daughters or sisters or mothers or wives."

So I owe to my mother and the nuns and my ever-vigilant father my earliest understandings, however biased and beatified they were, of the mysteries of life. They conspired to establish in my psyche indelibly the elemental connections between love and sex and nativity. These connections might be causal or correlated or coincidental. Folks might make love for the pleasure of sex, or have sex as a token of love, or have babies as emblems of love or as a consequence of sex. But these three things, love and sex and parenthood were related. And the people who shared them were likewise related by blood or bliss or love or memory. More years later than I like to admit, the memorable pleasures of my clumsy first couplings were sharpened by the wariness I'd carried since Playhouse 90, that there might be some life-changing consequence of such behaviour. It might leave us lovesick or disillusioned or with child. It might mean everything or nothing at all. But once touched by a lover with such approval, I knew I would never be the same.

Of course, the lessons of my experience, and the culture at large, include the ones that seek to disassociate these pieces of life's puzzle. Sex is frequently and fervently practised absent of love. "Free love" we called in the Sixties as if by saying it we could make it so. And babies are no longer the natural outcome of our couplings. More often babies are reckoned a lapse in planning. Love or reproduction are less often the prime motives. On the contrary. Pleasure is pre-eminent. "If you can't be with the one you love, honey, love the one you're with." This was fairly easy duty. And, though it is true that I was passionately attached to my first sexual partners, and feel nothing but fondness towards them decades since, it was not love - I know it now, having known love since. We can disentangle the imbroglio of meaning and performance and outcomes. We can have love without sex, sex without love and both without babies, which we may acquire lovelessly and sexlessly in a lab. We may, against my father's counsel, think of each other in terms of parts. And I often wonder whether I should count it a curse or a blessing that I came of age when the reproductive choices of the species were expanding, just as its exploration of space was expanding. The personal was becoming politicised. We stared into outer space and reasoned there must be life. We stare into the womb and proclaim it a mystery. People have made it to the moon, but men and women see each others as creatures from different planets.

But just as outer space has been explored, commercialised and politicised by new technologies, so the womb, first among our species' inner spaces, has been exposed, explored and exploited by invasive interests. So-called feminists, so- called Christians, welfare reformers and social scientists have all staked their claim to the uses and abuses of its miracles. Bishops and abortionists - advocates on either side, true believers all - talk and take sides. Of all the existential questions asked of my generation, none has been more divisive that the ones about the womb - whose is it, what's in there, who gets to say what goes on with it. The borders of our reproductive lives have been blurred by a technology and a body politic that seem at odds. The starlit heavens have been easier to sort.

I HAVE a daughter and three sons. I'm in favour of Life, in favour of Choice. Life is not easy. Neither is Choice. My daughter and sons are biologically prepared and equipped for reproduction. Here are their choices as I see them. Each can choose whether or not, with whom and where, when and why to be sexually active. They can choose how much or how little meaning it has, how much or little of themselves to invest. Each can choose what, if any, precaution to take against disease and pregnancy. And should such precautions fail to protect - if they become diseased or impregnated, each has the choice to live with the implications or take their lives. But if they choose to live, the available choices, up till now commensurate, take different directions according to gender lines.

My daughter, finding herself with an unplanned pregnancy, may choose to have the baby with or without the consent or co-operation of the fellow who impregnated her. Or she may choose that a child would be terribly inconvenient and avail herself of what American courts have declared is her constitutionally guaranteed right to a safe and legal medical procedure that terminates her pregnancy, voids her maternity, aborts whatever it is inside her womb. No permission or approval is necessary beyond her willingness to exercise her choice. Whatever discomfort - moral or personal or maternal - she might feel, she has acted within her constitutional rights. A pregnancy which resulted from bilateral consent is legally undone by unilateral choice. Our bodies, our selves, the doctrine goes. If we uphold my daughter's choice we are said to be pro-Choice. If we consider the contents of her womb to have a life of its own and my daughter's choices to end where those interests begin, we are said to be pro-Life. Either way, we get to choose which team we're on, which side we take, which sign to carry in the endless debate.

But if reproductive choice - the choice as to when one is ready, willing and able to parent - is a good thing, wouldn't it be good for my sons as well? And if that choice may be exercised after conception, as it currently is by women, then shouldn't men have the same option: to proclaim, legally and unilaterally, the end of their interest in the tissue or foetus or baby (depending on one's team affiliations) or whatever it is that sex between a man and a woman sometimes produces. As it stands now, paternity, once determined, means fiscal responsibility for 18 years according to law. There is currently, for my sons, no choice in the matter. If they impregnate and the woman chooses to have the child, she has a legal claim against the income of the father. They may, of course refuse to pay, refuse their paternity, in which case they are "dead-beat dads" or some other media-made word for no good. But if their sister can choose, unilaterally, to void her maternity, and abort her parental role as a matter of a constitutionally protected choice, why shouldn't my sons have an equivalent choice - say, within the first two trimesters, to declare their intention not to parent, to void their paternity, whatever the impregnated woman does, notwithstanding? Isn't this precisely the same choice given to women by Roe v Wade and laws elsewhere that uphold this "right"?

But pregnancy and abortion, some several will argue, are women's issues, a woman's body. "It's none of your business," I am sometimes told. "Once men can get pregnant, then you can talk!" Is it really all about wombs, then? Is biology destiny, after all? Of course, the young men of my generation were quite willing to leave this a woman's issue. We had learned from our fathers and our mothers that babies - before, during and after their births - were mostly women's issues. The conventional image of expectant fatherhood involved a handful of cigars, a helpless vigil in a waiting room while the mother was in "labour". Then she would go home to her duties and he would leave home for his - his labour. Hers was to nurture and educate, his was to protect and pay. Father knew best and mother stayed home with the babies. Young men died in wars, young women in childbirth. Old men died first. Old women died later, too often alone.

The division of labour was sane and sensible. The division of power, economic and political, of course, was not. Tied to their children and the home fires, women could not travel light and fast like men who climbed the post-war corporate ladders, owned cars, wrote cheques, ran the country. The oral contraceptive provided the first line of defence against the encumbrances of maternity. Abortion rights became the fail safe. And the first waves of rapidly shifting gender politics that made landfall in the Sixties and Seventies, instructed men of my generation that to question women on such issues would assure a lonely life. To get a little, in the parlance of our youth, we had to get along. Besides, we were only too willing to approve - sex without babies was a delightful concept. Freed from the worry of pregnancy, women could relax and think about pleasure - ours and theirs. Men of my generation were quite pleased to have the dutiful business of reproductive life worked out in a deal struck by earnest, rightfully angry women and lawyerly old men. Women saw it as freedom from the constraints imposed by their wombs, their rightful ownership of their lives and bodies. Men saw it as pretty much none of their business.

Still, if women wanted access to the office and factory, men made their way into birthing rooms and nurseries. Inevitably difficult questions arose.

Is it the species or the gender that reproduces? Aren't pregnancy and parenting human issues? I know they were when my son and daughter were "expected". Their mother was "expecting". So was I. And while a woman's body is certainly involved in her maternity, a man's is involved in his paternity. Women may choose legally to evict the foetus from their wombs because their right to privacy includes dominion over their bodies and the bodies inside of them. But do we not ask men for 18 years of work and toil, their body's "labour", in support of the baby born of their loins? If they refuse, which too many do, we do not call it a privacy issue, we call them scoundrels. The former is optional, the latter is required by current law.

And though I am encouraged and inclined to march in favour of a woman's right to choose a safe, legal, and affordable medical procedure to abort her maternity, where are the women who will march with me to uphold the rights of my sons and their sons in the matter - to choose a safe, legal and affordable legal procedure to terminate, for reasons that range from good to not so good, their paternity? Is choice good for one and all or only one half of the population?

"If they don't want the responsibility, they should keep their pants on!" is what I am told by several women of my acquaintance. Truth told, it sounds like sound advice. But the same advice, tendered to my daughter or to the daughters of my women friends, is regarded as suspect, sexist, patriarchal. "If you don't want the responsibility, you should keep your panties on." "You've made your bed, now lay in it!" "If you're going to dance, you've got to pay the piper."

"You just don't get it," is how it always ends.

Women are right to abhor decisions about their bodies that leave them out. But so are men. The reproductive life of the species is not a woman's issue. It is a human one. It requires the voices of all human beings.

ONE NIGHT before my first child was born, I lay in the bed beside his mother. She was sleeping. It was late November. We lived in a rented cottage beside a small lake. The night was dark, the stars were bright. In the half-light I could see her belly moving - hands or feet or head, I didn't know. But I knew that what occupied her womb was partly me and would change our lives forever. Looking out into the night I spied the dominant winter constellation, Orion, and just to the right, the Pleiades - six of the seven sisters plain to see. To name a few out of the countless stars was a comfort. The woman sleeping, the baby bulging in her, the bright and blinking firmament alive, alive - I felt myself at ease on the edge of a new life, full of hope and wonder and thanks. I remember regretting that I would ever die and knowing that now, as a father, I could.

Thomas Lynch's most recent collection of poems is 'Still Life in Milford' (Norton, 1998). His essay collection, 'The Undertaking - Life Studies from the Dismal Trade', received an American Book Award. He lives and works in Milford, Michigan where he is the funeral director.