Creative Nonfiction: What to Expect When You’re Not Expecting

*This piece was written for an essay assignment in which the author was asked to perform an experiment of sorts and the author and her friend decided to conduct a fake pregnancy.*

Gina Moffa is a rising Junior at Loyola University Maryland, and will be studying abroad in Spain this upcoming fall semester. While a Writing & Spanish Major at Loyola, she still finds time to write an Opinions column for her school’s newspaper. She is an editor for Loyola Looks, an online fashion blog as well as copy editor for the The Forum, a nonfiction literary magazine. She aspires to write for a fashion magazine or other publication in the future.

What to Expect When You’re Not Expecting

“We’re expecting.” I’ve often heard this phrase used in association with pregnancy, although I’ve never truly dissected its ambiguous implications. Sure, the couple is expecting a baby, but what, exactly, is expected of a pregnant mother? Physiological changes are the most blatant in their takeover—the body will swell in almost all areas; the stomach will protrude with the distinct curvature of a newly-inflated beach ball; hormones will frantically search for some sort of calming, explanatory assurance. Then comes the baby, pink and fragile, inhaling and exhaling, and all notions of “expectations” are rendered futile, incomparable, simply unmatched when they come face to tiny face with the unfathomable fingertips of reality. All prior predictions and assumptions seem quite laughable.

These are all, of course, my own expectations about pregnancy—real pregnancy, when two people succumb to the greed of their sexual appetite and a sperm and egg, with all odds against them, join in one ethereal, holy instant to consummate the miracle of life. But as I stand in front of my mirror, adjusting the itchy green blanket tucked dishonestly beneath my shirt, I’ve never felt less prepared or validated. I’m trying to convince myself that this is real, that I’m actually pregnant, that I can’t just yank this piece of fabric out from under its hiding place and reveal to the world that, hey, this is all a joke. I’m trying to come to terms with subjecting myself to what most twenty-year-old girls fear yet contemplate with unexplainable fixation—an unexpected pregnancy.

I’ve grappled with this circumstance before, although I simply wet my feet in the salty shoreline and walked away before I found myself fully immersed in the shadowy depths of the experience. I’ve been a week late, bought a pregnancy test, cried myself to sleep as a morally disputable burden choked me until I was numb and raw from mental abuse. I’ve felt the rapid, uncontrollable terror of wondering, What would I do? Luckily, I never had to answer that question. I’ve wished, prayed, begged, pleaded my way out of pregnancy. And here I am, “pregnant,” despite all my efforts and self-monitored promises that I would not become just another statistic.

In conducting this experiment, I expect people to look away and avoid eye contact at all costs, not wanting to appear nosy or inappropriate. I expect to be the subject of intangible pointing and whispers, and although these will most likely slip my sensory awareness they will still be close enough that I feel them orbiting my surroundings. I expect to feel naked, my dirty laundry exposed for the entire world to see and publicly scrutinize. I expect to cling to Justin, my “baby daddy” and security blanket, as though his mere presence can make the unmistakable bump on my stomach disappear. I expect that these expectations will gradually disintegrate as the fake fetus I am carrying begins to dictate my actions and emotions before I have a chance to interject.

It’s hot in the maternity store, yet I cannot tell if it’s due to the actual room temperature or if it’s due to the scrunched up blanket, once a carefully chosen accent to my bed spread, that is posing as my unborn child beneath my free-flowing, baby doll blouse. The blanket sticks to my sweaty abdomen and I decide it must be the latter, although the discomfort may be slightly increased by the close proximity of stretchy pants and loose fitting tops which scream of 9 months of weight-gain and body transformation. The woman behind the counter asks me if I’ve ever shopped here before, and I say that yes, I have. I look at Justin and give him a slight smirk of relief that wordlessly conveys the message We’re believable.

This experiment is turning out to rely on quick improvisation and fabricated ease. Justin, sporting a backwards hat and a t-shirt illustrating a group of comic superheroes, hardly looks older than 18-years-old. I can feel his sharply attuned senses surveying all of the responses that my lack of concentration fails to notice. His focus makes me feel comfortable despite the fact that I am completely vulnerable to the judgment of complete strangers, practically throwing myself at them. Here I am; look away before I catch your gaze.

My family is Catholic, although we can be considered semi-practicing at best. If I were to get pregnant, my mom’s concerns would be routed in practical matters more so than religious or ethical dilemmas. She’s a realist, not prone to avoid difficult situations but to instead address them from an efficient, logical perspective. She’s not blind to the irresponsible tendencies of my generation, either. The week before I left for college, she approached the awkward, sticky topic that I had somehow managed to avoid for 18 years. “If you think you need to go on the pill, let me know. I’m not ready to be a grandmother, Gina.”

And I’m not ready to be a mother. I’m not ready to give up my self-centered, reckless youth. I’m not ready to abandon the hopes and dreams I have been working so diligently towards. I’m not ready to disappoint my family, my friends, myself, and, most importantly, an innocent child.

Justin and I linger around the section of the maternity store lined with pregnancy books, plush stuffed animals, and miniature booties for the newborn infant. I pick up a pair of the minute, sock-like footwear and hold it in the palm of my hand, amazed that anyone could possess a pair of feet small enough to fit into these adorable contraptions. My heart swells in an unexpected way, triggering unexpected emotions and my innate maternal instincts. For an instant, it’s easy to convince myself that this is something I want, that this is something I need.

I look down at my misshapen bump, inevitably falling out of place, and realize that the child I’m carrying will never even get the chance to try them on.

In order to successfully convey that we are a pregnant couple, a certain amount of affection is required. Justin and I hold hands, clarifying all unspoken inquiries about whether or not he is “the father.” I’m so busy focusing on my own self-consciousness and doubts that I have been selfishly neglecting his role in all of this. He moves his hand to the small of my back, protecting and guiding me simultaneously. I’m sure that he is undoubtedly feeling the effects of these unsaid criticisms and stifling his own urges to defend himself from being pegged as “the kid who didn’t wear a condom.” But he resists, combats his own inner demons, and still manages to hold his head high despite the fact that I am looking anywhere—at the floor, at my phone, at the storefront displays—to avoid eye contact with the random passerby.

Although our body language may say otherwise, Justin and I have a purely platonic and somewhat recent relationship. This makes it easier for us to focus on our experiment and leave all the messy, controversial issues aside. I wonder if I would feel differently if we actually were romantically involved, and I’m sure I would. Would I have different needs? Would I be more adept at noticing when his attention simply wandered away from me to peruse the racks at a store? Would I feel inexplicably, irrevocably drawn to him? And would his hand in mine signify some sort of implicit commitment? Or, would he, perhaps, be a little more cautious in his body placement, unsure of what exactly such gestures truly imply?

But for now, we are simply actors assuming our roles in an attempt to make our portrayal authentic. I walk at a slower pace, waddling with my back bent and my stomach pushed forward, imitating the swagger I have seen countless pregnant woman carry. Every now and then I stop to catch my breath and allow my body to rest. I look about six or seven months pregnant, so I can’t exactly be skipping or partaking in any sudden, jolty movements. This takes some training, as it is my natural demeanor to walk at a steady pace and be in constant animation. I know, however, that it is extremely important that the most conspicuous aspect of the experiment be the actual baby bump itself rather than our performances. Because when people see my pregnant stomach, they are most likely to look away almost immediately, leaving the minutiae of our behavior ultimately unnoticed.

I know that this is likely to be the general inclination because I feel it in myself the minute we pass an actual pregnant woman in a candy store. She’s young, although not quite as young as we are. While I have chosen to wear a shirt that accentuates the shape of my budding womb without displaying its firm surface, she wears a tight t-shirt that hugs her stomach like a second layer of skin. Although I don’t allow myself to spend time investigating the matter, it appears that she is alone. I cannot pick out anyone in the store whose interaction with this woman is one of intimacy or endearment.

I’m all at once exponentially more aware of Justin’s presence at my side and am suddenly exceptionally grateful.

I can’t help but feel an acute sense of motherly instincts accumulating within me. Every stroller that passes, every young child that dances back and forth in between the oncoming traffic of consumers and browsers, every helpless baby in the arms of a loving mother draws from me the desire to provide some sort of nurturance. I don’t even have the slightest idea as to what being a mother entails, but some invisible voice within me tells me that I, by some stretch of the imagination, have what it takes. Despite the fact that I don’t even have a younger sibling that would give me some sort of faux-parenting experience, I am irrationally confident in my abilities to successfully take care of a child.

Of course, I could be terribly wrong. I could potentially ruin my child forever, as so many parents often unintentionally do. Mistakes are an unavoidable part of life, but the mistakes made in parenting are so much more detrimental in their consequences. These errors have the ability to generate countless doubts, fears, and insecurities in the children—or worse, unrelenting bitterness and anger. The power of parenting is limitless, and this aspect of reality is petrifying and plagues my fears more than any other doubt or concern. Although I’m young and self-serving at this point in my life, I can come to terms with sacrificing the idyllic picture of my life I so long ago painted. But what I cannot handle is knowing that I contributed to the harm, emotional or physical, of a helpless, innocent baby—my baby.

While strangers can simply walk by, hiding their glances and controlling their reactions as best as possible, sales associates, managers and cashiers are forced to interact with me and my ever-present baby belly. They offer me a standardized greeting and their trained assistance, which I politely decline. Different stores facilitate different ambiences and some are more receptive to expecting mothers than others. The most welcoming are those that carry maternity or children’s clothing. The least welcoming are high-end, exclusive fashion domains from the likes of Burberry and Louis Vuitton. Although I’m too nonchalant to notice, Justin points out that a woman in the Burberry store sporadically jumps out of my way and practically sheds a layer of skin as I walk by her to look at all of the glorious handbags I clearly cannot afford. I find this reaction humorous rather than upsetting; instead of evoking some sort of self-pity and humiliation, I am ashamed on her behalf.

I know what they’re all thinking: You clearly can’t fit into these clothes so what are you doing here? It’s simple really; I’m shoving myself in their faces. I’m forcing them to confront me because in confronting me they are face to face with the unavoidable presence of sex, sin, and impurity in our society. And because I have acknowledged and taken responsibility for my actions, I cannot be denied this one pleasure—seeing them cringe in embarrassment as they take a look at my unholy, shameful stomach, prejudices smeared across their appalled, misinformed faces.

Although we are approaching the conclusion of March and the rapidly approaching beach season should discourage the non-pregnant me from eating junk, I justify buying a cookie after I have already finished eating dinner because it’s a “food craving.” As I order my lone chocolate chip indulgence, the woman behind the counter—perhaps a hair older than me, if that—points at the lump situated in the center of my abdomen. She then points at Justin and (in a tone that I can only assume uses false humor to in order to mask underlying disdain) asks, “Did he do this to you?”

So bold and so inappropriate, yet her little question brings to the surface what all the others have tried so arduously to conceal. I’m taken aback, shocked, stunned, perplexed, amazed, etc. I can hardly muster the words to say that yes, he did this to me, now please tell me how much I owe you for my damn cookie (I am, after all, pregnant and my patience is waning.) She continues to push us even further when Justin shyly places an order, to which she responds “Shame, shame! Bad, bad!” I understand that she sees us as “young and irresponsible,” but does our behavior warrant such treatment—the kind that is usually reserved for a not-yet-house-broken puppy who pees in the house?

I wish I had had the quick mind and audacity to challenge her back, to say that no, he wasn’t the father; the father was actually an anonymous man who happened to find me walking back to my car alone in a secluded area and decided to commit an ultimate evil. How would she have responded to this? Or what if, in our defense, I had told her that Justin and I genuinely loved one another and wanted to have a child together? I assume that she would have felt—simply stated—like a complete asshole.

Everyone that we encounter assumes that Justin and I are in a relationship, even when we do not play up this aspect of the experiment by holding hands or being affectionate in our body language. They see me; I am pregnant. They see him; he is a man. In this bizarre, ethically probing math equation, it is automatically assumed that me + him = baby and baby = couple. We walk into stores and people address us as one, using phrases such as “you two” or “you guys.” When we order our dinner in the food court, the cashier assumes that we are paying together. I tell her that we are paying separately, which I’m sure gives birth to a series of criticisms and confusions on her end, although she doesn’t probe our situation with the outright rudeness of the cookie lady. I’m sure, however, that she is secretly wondering as to why the guy who is “responsible” for my pregnancy can’t even foot the bill for my $8.00 dinner.

This annoys me on several levels. While I’m not naïve enough to assume that most people will be okay with a college student having a baby, I want to believe that the general population has enough political correctness to not make stupid assumptions regarding whether or not I can pay for my food solely because I am pregnant. I want to believe that people will stop assuming that Justin is the “reason” why I am pregnant, and also stop insinuating that by impregnating me he has committed some horrible sin. I want to believe that people can ignore the bump on my stomach and look me in the eyes, addressing me as a person with morals and principles, even if I happen to have compromised them in this difficult, trying decision.

But most importantly, I want people to acknowledge just that; that whether or not they agree with my decision to have a child, I had the strength and courage to withstand this extremely grueling predicament.

The lime green blanket was eventually returned to its designated spot in my bedroom, where it has since continued carrying out its destined vocation. Although the metaphoric baby was easily removed and can easily be forgotten, I do not think it will fade from my memory any time soon. There was something much more significant to this experiment than I initially expected, something which caused me to truly contemplate the harsh realities of what I, at first, considered my worst nightmare.

But now, after having survived the nonchalant glances and painful scrutiny of countless strangers, after having learned that these difficult situations can be alleviated through the support of just one familiar, comforting face, I have learned that pregnancy is something to be treasured. It is a time of reflection, self-awareness, and profound growth for the expectant mother. I look forward to the day when I can wrap my arms around my own magnificent, unimaginable child and feel an odd, contradictory sensation of simultaneous confidence yet relentless worry. And I’m sure I’ll never feel more alive than in that moment, that instant when reality shakes all expectations to their very core, amplifies them beyond recognition and leaves me absolutely speechless.

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