I’m in Labor and Wondering: Why Doesn’t the World Recognize This as Work?

As I type this, I’m in the very early stages of labor. Every 15 minutes or so, I’m noticing a small contraction. I’ve never done this before, and I’m nervous, hopeful, antsy.

I read a book that said I should have a “labor project” for these early stages — these long hours in which there’s not much to do but wait. The book suggested cleaning, baking a “birthday cake,” organizing baby clothes, or putting photos in an album. I’m awkward at those things and they don’t relax me, so I’ve decided to write instead.

Two paragraphs in, I do feel a little calmer. I’m reminded that labor isn’t entirely new to me, after all. Writing is labor, right? In fact, I’ve heard the book-baby comparison more times than I can count over the course of the last few months, as I’ve been co-writing a book at the same time as I’m incubating a fetus.

However, it’s worth thinking about how even writing, as devalued as it is in our society, is recognized as “labor” much more widely and readily than labor labor — labor that leads to birth — is. You generally don’t get paid to have contractions. Public recognition of labor as hard work (as opposed to pain inflicted and endured) is rare. There aren’t unions for laboring people.

I doubt there will be laboring-people unions until patriarchy is uprooted, at which point the movement for economic justice may be structured in forms more radical than unions as we know them, anyway. For now, I think it would be a big step to remember that labor is labor. As it’s intensifying for me right now, I’m realizing physically something I’d previously known only intellectually: This could be some of the most difficult work of my life.

At this point, I’m hearing a chorus of voices responding, “This is nothing! Just you wait until you have your kid!” These voices are not unfamiliar. Throughout my pregnancy, whenever I’ve spoken publicly about the weirdness, wildness, pain and/or wonder of being pregnant, a cis man with children has chimed in with a comment like, “That’s nothing compared to what you haven’t experienced yet — having kids!”

Of course, I know that having a kid is weird, wild, painful and wondrous; that I haven’t experienced it yet; and that it will be a lot of work. But is it necessary to erase the enormously significant experience of pregnancy in order to make that point? (It’s telling that generally, the people doing the erasing are people who haven’t experienced pregnancy — or labor, or birth — directly.)

As it comes to a close for me, I’m realizing that pregnancy has been its own chaotic and incredible job. Carrying around this expanding creature that started as a couple of measly cells and grew nearly 6 billion times to become an almost-human who I still haven’t met — who is crashing into my internal organs, occasionally gets the hiccups, either really likes or really hates it when I eat massive quantities of ice and pudding, and is planning to dramatically exit my body very soon — is fundamentally bizarre and fundamentally labor-intensive. So is the work of growing a whole new organ, the placenta. So are the hyperintense dreams my mind has been working hard to create nearly every night. Again and again, I have dreamed of giving birth to my cat — practicing for giving birth to a human? I’ve also dreamed of less visualizable things: worlds talking to each other, ideas floating in water, pieces of the future humming in the present.

During pregnancy, it has felt inspiring to think of a tiny, tiny piece of the future swimming around in my body. And it has struck me that the future was always in my body, in one way or another, long before I was pregnant. The material of our cells will outlast us all — traveling back into the earth and water and sky — and the thoughts and actions and energy that we put out into the universe using our bodies are what builds the future. Why not use our bodies to dream tangibly?

Maybe that’s how I’d like most to think of pregnancy — as a process of dreaming tangibly. And by that definition, the concept of pregnancy applies to much more than the physical experience of being pregnant with a fetus.

I’m off topic. After all, I wanted this labor project to validate the experience of being pregnant with a fetus — the work of it. However, part of the work of it, at least for me, was being perpetually “off topic.” Never more often than in pregnancy did I run so far into tangent-land, while talking, writing, thinking. I was always getting lost, wandering in spirals even as I was eating breakfast, taking my pills, answering my emails, editing other people’s coherent and logical writing, facilitating conference calls and trying to co-write a book about the prison-industrial complex. Part of me was wading through the unknown, or on the brink of the unknown, trying to begin to know it, or at least to touch it.

I felt I was falling short when it came to my daily tasks. Meanwhile, wise people were telling me that even if I were just sitting still — not editing, not talking, not writing, not organizing — I’d be doing the work of pregnancy, growing a human. But part of me (the internalized patriarchal capitalism part, I guess) rejected that idea that growing another human was work I was performing, even as I agreed with the idea that it was work, on principle. I needed to keep myself on task, to stop getting lost, to stop meandering off into my internal recesses and dreaming about giving birth to my cat. Yet even that meandering — wandering circuitously toward realizations and new truths — is part of the work of pregnancy.

My contractions are starting to feel a little more intense. Why am I still writing? I’ve learned that at some point in labor, the pain — and conversely the oxytocin and endorphins that will help me deal with the pain — will become so intense that I’ll slip into non-language land. Maybe I’m feverishly writing right now because I’m trying to stay on task, to get something “productive” done. (How interesting, considering I’m in the last stages of producing a baby!)

I’m grasping at straws, trying not to lose language, because there’s something else I want to say, about the work of pregnancy and labor and birth: This work is not performed on an equal field, among people with uteruses. A recent article in The New York Times has gotten many people talking about the high maternal death rates among Black women in the US. Of course, Black communities (and others tuned into issues surrounding racial justice and birth) have known about this for a much longer time. Native women in the US also see maternal mortality rates that are more than double those of white women. The reproductive rights of people living in poverty are constantly threatened by critics who wonder whether people who don’t have a lot of money should be having kids in the first place — and by institutional mechanisms like child protective services, which diagnose poverty as “neglect” and use it as a rationale to take children from their homes. Meanwhile, trans and nonbinary people who reproduce are often either ignored or forcibly excluded from conversations and policies regarding reproductive rights — and often denied the health care they need.

As I sit here waiting for the next contraction, I’m thinking of the birth experience I’ve thought about most often and most intensely, aside from my own anticipated one: that of my younger sister. No one thought she should be having a baby, and they told her so. She did not have reproductive freedom, or most other types of freedom: She was locked up in prison.

My pregnant sister was woken up at 4 a.m. on the morning the prison decided she should give birth — she was induced at the prison’s convenience. She was locked in a hospital room, laboring for 26 hours with only a prison guard for “company.” Immediately after the birth, she was shackled to the bedposts. She couldn’t even call us right away to tell us her baby had been born. A little over 24 hours after the birth, the baby — my niece — was taken from my sister’s arms, and my sister was handcuffed and led back to prison. For her, the work of birth was also the work of deep sorrow. That’s true for so many people.

Around the country, the newborn babies of incarcerated people — disproportionately parents of color — are, effectively, kidnapped.

This system not only disregards and discards the work of pregnancy and labor and birth, but also manipulates it at will, attempting to warp something inherently generative into an instrument of oppression.

In prison, the work of birth is twisted into a tool of state-sanctioned torture.

What would happen if we truly acknowledged the labor of labor, of pregnancy, of birth? If such a thing were done, I think it would be impossible to allow anyone to give birth while imprisoned. (I wonder if, actually, this radical re-valuing of humanity would make it less possible to imprison people at all.) If such a thing were done, it could turn the concept of waged labor — of assigning human beings a number that supposedly translates into their worth and determines their capacity to provide for themselves and their loved ones — on its head. If such a thing were done, it couldn’t be reconciled with patriarchy, nor with socially enforced gender as we know it. Those systems would have to crumble, or at least change.

Maybe these things are possible if we all take a cue from the work of pregnancy, which extends far beyond literal pregnancy — the work of dreaming tangibly. Our tangible dreams can out-generate oppression. They can grow new life, new energy, new realities, new freedom. And I’m not just talking about babies.

Speaking of babies, though: My contractions are getting more painful now, and my words are starting to slip away. I think I have to stop my labor project. I think it is distracting me from my labor. Maybe it’s time for me to start the process of having a baby.

Off I go. This won’t be recorded on a timesheet. But it will probably be some of the hardest work I’ve ever completed. And at the end of it, universe willing, there will be a new human.

For now, goodbye words. Hello labor.

Note: This piece was written on April 26, 2018, during the initial hours of a 44-hour labor, after which I did indeed bring a new human into the world.