To my stranger guest
By Julia Geerlings
She longs to fold to her maternal breast
Part of herself, yet to herself unknown;
To see and to salute the stranger guest,
Fed with her life through many a tedious moon.
After a long day I lay on the couch with a rooibos tea, and switch on the television to find Frankenstein 1931 playing on national TV. I recognize the thunder penetrating the lab instantly. Lightning bolts cast shadows of Victor Frankenstein and his faithful hunchback assistant on the walls. A mummified creature, bound to a stretcher, descends into the laboratory after the scientist engages a lever. “It’s moving…” “It’s alive… It’s ALIVE!” “Now I know what it feels like to be God!”.
I grab a handful of chips, put my feet up, and place my hands on my belly. I take the time to feel you moving inside me. I feel you twisting around my abdomen, kicking in my ribcage and using my bladder as a trampoline. This is my second pregnancy and it still feels surreal. You are inside of me, but you are not me. Your little body feels like a part of me. You are a guest I have not yet laid eyes upon, but I couldn’t be closer to you. I already feel a strong love towards you, my ‘stranger guest’.
As your movements increased over the last few months, and you explored the limits of my internal being, I became estranged from my body: my hips rounded, my breasts grew, my nipples darkened, my hair thickened and my gums grew sore. “Cells fuse, split, and proliferate; volumes grow, tissues stretch, and body fluids change rhythm, speeding up or slowing down. Within the body, growing as a graft, indomitable, there is an other. And no one is present, within that simultaneously dual and alien space, to signify what is going on. ‘It happens, but I’m not there.’ ‘I cannot realize it, but it goes on.’ Motherhood’s impossible syllogism.”
Almost two hundred years after Barbauld’s opening poem above, philosopher and writer Julia Kristeva describes the same haunted feeling. The line of the poem “fed with her life” has an ominous double edge: pregnancy often really meant surrendering your life to a stranger. For Kristeva, the maternal body is the epitome of abjection. The placenta simultaneously connects and separates mother and child. A pregnant woman literally embodies something foreign – an ‘other’ person – as much as she experiences foreign feelings and hormones.
In our literary and philosophical tradition, these topics have only been approached by male philosophers and theorists in an attempt to control, rather than understand the pregnant body. This violent superficiality has only recently been broken by female feminist writers such as Kristeva, who deepened our understanding of motherhood and the experience of pregnancy, and inspired me to rethink the distinction between myself and the other, between my body and mind, as well as the separation between life and death.
On the flatscreen of my living room, the monster lives, the monster kills, the monster dies, following the dark fate of his father, Dr Frankenstein. Our relation too, my stranger, is bound by a flirtatious relation with death. The prints of our ultrasounds, attached to my fridge, feature your tiny skeleton, dancing in the prenatal darkness. These images summon tragic memories of the times of Mary Shelley’s novel, when the risk of death during pregnancy was higher for mother and child. She had suffered the birth and death of an infant, and wrote Frankenstein while being pregnant again. Victor Frankenstein’s failure as a “parent” and the birth of the “creature” by reanimating dead body parts, have been seen as an expression of the anxieties which accompany pregnancy, giving birth, and particularly maternity. Shelley herself ended up losing five of her six children, of which she gave heartbreaking accounts in her diary.
I can’t wait to meet you, my little invisible being. When it’s time you will free yourself from my womb. Then, from inside, we shall waltz one last time together. I will ride the waves of contractions, while you crawl and spin through my pelvis. In the final act, you shall enter the ring of fire while I push you through the birth canal. If everything goes well you will arrive to the world here, at home, next to the couch where I’m laying now. That moment is losing you, like losing a limb and meeting you, my little stranger guest. A part of me that dies, and is reborn as a your mother.
To my stranger guest came together while I observed and contemplated deeply about the drawings by Pieter Slagboom in the exhibition Saturated Manuscript at Bridget Donahue in New York City in 2020.