As a sci-fi geek, I know all about the Mystical Pregnancy trope. This is a plot device in science fiction where a pregnancy is caused or affected by supernatural or alien means, often causing the pregnancy to be accelerated so that it doesn’t take up too much of a season or story arc, and occasionally doing away with the baby through other supernatural means so that the character giving birth can go back to business as usual. I’ve laughed at some of the more ridiculous instances, and I’ve raised an eyebrow at plots where the trope is used to invalidate a character’s personal agency and reproductive rights in uncomfortable, ill-written ways. I’ve thought myself well above that sort of thing, in possession of a lofty, superior perspective.
Until I had my baby.
I began to write this several days after my original expected due date – my baby would have been a few days old. He is nearly two months old, and quite healthy, for which I am thankful. Even so, I am still attempting to process what happened to me (and him) seven weeks ago. In light of the more recent news on maternal deaths in the United States, these reflections leave me even more unnerved as I consider how things could have gone much differently.
I was put on bedrest just after the new year, and amused myself mostly by hunting down all the sitcom pregnancies I could. Determinedly non-mystical in nature, I began picturing myself and my family when my little guy finally made his first appearance – being coached through contractions by my husband, hearing his first cry, the moment the doctor would put my son in my arms. Being a very pregnant lady, I cried through a lot of these viewings.
I did not get the dramatic moment of having my water break, of rushing around trying to get to the hospital, or even timing contractions. Unlike the characters on The Office, How I Met Your Mother, or Bones, I didn’t feel anything. I was told to head straight to Labor & Delivery during a routine checkup, where they observed me for about 24 hours, and then decided to induce.
For the next day and a half, family and friends popped by to see what essentially amounted to my unconscious body strapped to a hospital bed, tangled in so many tubes and wires that I must have looked more like a science experiment than an expectant mother. Whatever medicine they were giving me to keep my blood pressure down and my cervix dilating kept me out of it. What I most remember are the nurses flitting in and out and taking blood and urine and attaching yet another sensor to my bulging belly.
They kept asking me if I was feeling contractions, pointing to spikes on the monitor that showed that technically I was having them, but the most I felt was my baby kicking against the fetal heart monitor. It was like the opposite of Amy Pond’s experience in Doctor Who, the way that she started having contractions but in the midst of a completely different adventure, not knowing that she was pregnant, waking to see herself with a full belly and almost finished with labor. I knew I was pregnant, I could see it, and supposedly I was preparing to deliver, but the most discomfort I felt was the stupid catheter.
Sometime on the third day in the hospital, they abruptly announced that it was time for a C-section. My husband was trying to get the protective surgical gear on while it seemed a flood of people rearranged all my tubing to prepare me for the move to the operating room. There must have been quite a parade down the hallway if there were as many nurses, anesthesiologists, and assistants as it seemed.
They had my husband wait outside while they transferred me to the operating table and hooked up the epidural, but when they sat me up to get everything arranged, I fainted. They brought me around long enough to ascertain that I wasn’t stroking out, and then put me under. Before the 15 minutes they told my husband to wait were up, they wheeled out my son already in his incubator on the way to the NICU.
I was still out of it for a whole 24 hours after the procedure, and didn’t get to see my baby for the first full day of his life. I didn’t get to hold him until the day after that. During his stay in the NICU, I more than once suppressed the thought that I had no way of knowing whether this baby was actually mine. I never spoke aloud that thought, or voiced the fear that I would have trouble connecting emotionally with this baby that had, from my point of view, appeared from nowhere.
Thinking about the pregnancy of Ms. Marvel, one of the worst offenders of the Mystical Pregnancy trope, I don’t feel justified in seeking comfort. Her arc in 1980 featured many of her fellow Avengers scolding her for her feelings of trauma and alienation regarding her fast-growing offspring. I have nothing like her excuses of the full pregnancy experience condensed into a 24 hour period, nor the unexpected and unexplained origins of said pregnancy. If she was shamed for complaining, certainly I would be.
My fears were assuaged as I visited my son and watched his progress day by day. He progressed quickly, according to the nurses and doctors, graduating from CPAP to light therapy, gaining weight and finally moving from an incubator to a bassinet. He had arrived even before the nursery had been finished, before we’d attended a childbirth class, even before the baby shower, so the first two weeks of his life were a scramble to ensure he had a prepared house to come home to – and a car seat to take him there. He came home the day after I’d been able to set up his changing table and cradle, my mother washing his tiny onesies and multitudinous blankets for me while I organized diapers by size and sterilized bottles in the microwave.
I never considered, during that blur, that I was in more danger than my child. And to be honest, I probably wasn’t. My doctor was a cautious woman who asked lots of questions and was sure to warn me, with plenty of explanation, of symptoms I should be on the lookout for. The nursing staff at the hospital were constantly checking and rechecking my vitals and watching me carefully for benchmarks towards complete recovery. I was also lucky enough to deliver early in 2017, with no worries about what would or wouldn’t be covered by my insurance.
Now that I’ve had time to get used to being a mom, and to this tiny human that only communicates by screaming, and now that he’s put on weight and looks less small and fragile, I don’t feel the negative emotional impact as strongly. But now when I see Carla going into the OR for a c-section on Scrubs, there’s a bit of a twinge inside my heart. She gets to be conscious and her husband strokes her forehead as they watch their daughter come into the world. Every news item that talks about expectant mothers or policy that will impact them makes me think gravely about how things could have gone very wrong if I hadn’t had such vigilant care providers.
My own experience was much less Rachel Green, Season 8 and much more Deanna Troi, Season 2. And I found out from my friends and family that they had experiences that aligned with mine. Despite the fact that a lot of Mystical Pregnancies are examples of lazy writing, using pregnancy as body horror or failing to address the long-term psychological and emotional impact the character would experience, there are things about pregnancy and labor that the happy-shiny-four-camera shows skip over. The Mystical Pregnancy could, and probably should, be reclaimed to reflect the real-world experiences, which are frequently confusing and frightening, of actual people that give birth. As the real world starts to get a little scarier for all mothers, on either side of delivery, we deserve a chance to address these life-changing events ourselves.
Top photo: Denna Troi in Star Trek: The Next Generation
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