#WomanCentered: JESSICA L. IMANAKA
#WomanCentered is an independent project by conceptual artist and community organizer, Natasha Marin. Inspired by Women at the Center, a project created with support from the United Nations Foundation Universal Access Project. This series of interviews seeks to tell the inspiring, interconnected stories of women’s reproductive health, rights, and empowerment.
How has having or not having children affected the overall trajectory of your life?
Since I did not have a baby until the ripe, old age of 38, it would probably be best to start by explaining how not having children has affected the overall course of my life. Soon after having gotten pregnant, I found myself speculating about what my life would have been like had it been lived in another era, socio-economic or geographic location.
How would I handle 16 children in poverty, without contemporary medicine, in a network of community relations, or with Maria Theresa’s empire?
Although I could never know these counterfactuals, such speculations have led me to see myself more as a product of larger forces over which I have had little control, and yet from which I remain the beneficiary, for good and ill.
My life trajectory may be a function of the present historical juncture as it intersects with various systems of both liberation and oppression. As the cycles of reproduction, birth, and death become highly technologically mediated, so has the experience of individual freedom been augmented for those with the privilege and power to access such technologies. While this freedom gets propagated under the entitlement to reproductive choice, it also exists under the authority of various power structures.
My own experience, once virtually unknown to history, of marrying and bearing children in the twilight of my reproductive years, presented itself as a possibility only because of my membership in a class of persons with heightened access to economic, educational, and social opportunities.
These opportunities for my perception of liberation have been bought dearly by multiple systems of domination (eg. global neoliberalism brokered by American power-mongering and exceptionalism) that exclude and marginalize some to the benefit of others.
Concurrently, I have come to question whether such an advanced start on childbearing amounts to the liberation I had previously taken it to be.
In my life prior to giving birth, I had imagined that motherhood would require me to sacrifice too much independence, that for which feminism and our maternal ancestors had fought so hard. I wanted to develop as many capacities as I could, cultivate all manner of skills, explore the world, savor unique experiences, to be my own person.
Pregnancy, though joyful, proved difficult for me, as it weighed and slowed me down, plagued me with fears, tapped deeply unconscious beliefs about my inadequacy to give care to my baby. Madly, I dashed to complete numerous career markers, in what has turned out to be a mistaken belief that motherhood would require me to throw away my cherished life works.
What has been surprising me daily since I gazed for the first time on my beloved daughter, Hana Maria, is how much I don’t care about what I am now giving up to be her mom. And I now wonder about whether my previous endeavors served mainly to fill an emptiness crafted by the void of marriage and children. The blessings unfurling from the fruit of my union with my amazing husband: Are these that for which I had truly been longing in all my previous searches?
In releasing many of my previous pastimes and pursuits, another marvelous treasure has emerged: I feel like my brain was built for motherhood. It’s as if I am only now beginning to tap the potentials of my neural circuitry.
Qualifier: The reflections for this interview have been written in the throes of a love-fest under the influence of high levels of oxytocin.
Do you feel pressure to fulfill an idea of womanhood that may/may not correspond to who you actually are? If so, please describe.
Yes. But who is doing the pressuring, and how are they pressuring? And who am I really?
For many years, I had been influenced, if not puppeteered, by a Beauvoir-style feminism that aimed to bolster the existential freedom of women, hitherto constrained by various historically configured structures of immanence.
“One is not born, but rather becomes a woman …”
I did not want to become a woman. I wanted to be a human being.
I did not want to be a man, but I envied a certain freedom men seemed to wield: a freedom not to be bound by a perception that their every action was a product of their maleness. What I craved was a freedom to be rid of sex/gender as categories that would define every dimension of my life. I just wanted to have ideas, to be heard, to accomplish goals, engage in projects, life plans, relationships … not in an asexual way, but neither in a gendered way either … to simply not have sex/gender and their attendant sexuality attached to everything I did. Just as man had been the assumed standard of a human being, where woman was the sexed being, I just wanted to be a human being, too.
It was Luce Irigaray and bell hooks who opened up new pathways of womanhood for me. These two intellectual giants blew apart my illusions of attaining liberation in such disembodied aspirations. In their writings, I finally came to see how much feminist liberation had unwittingly presumed and reinforced certain structures of masculinity, capital, whiteness, etc. Yet realizing these truths in lived experience has tracked an arduous trajectory.
And now, as I interrogate the discourse and rhetoric of contemporary pop-feminisms, I wonder how much of woman’s liberation has been subverted by libertarian strands of liberalism. From the language of independence, individualism, rights, and ownership to the amoralization of many choices all justified under a banner of this prize called FREEDOM, I now frequently find myself alienated from the very liberal society by which I had previously defined the meaning of my life.
What does “this present self” feel as pressure? No more do I struggle primarily against the dumb TV archetypes of insipid, ditsy, frail and fake manifestations of contemporary feminine drag. Nor can I be bothered to analyze the pseudo freedoms propagated by popular women’s magazines like Cosmopolitan and Vogue. With these media portrayals it has become all too easy to critique the lack of awareness of the interlacing factors that condition “free choice”.
What troubles me more profoundly surrounds insufficient public engagement in many U.S. feminisms with a quest for authentic autonomy and liberation. And I don’t mean liberty on steroids or intellectualized. I see authentic autonomy and liberation as emerging primarily against a background of social engagement and solidarity, as freedoms mediated by social selves and commitments to social roles and relationships that transform one from desire maximizing automatons into complex, multivalent human persons. And the economic and legal frameworks governing institutions pertaining to these social conditions matter if autonomy and liberation are not to remain inauthentic in being bound to and by certain classes of persons.
For me, more specifically, I am finding daily such expansions through my roles as a mother and wife, in addition to being a teacher and intellectual. In point of fact, the very freedom toward which I had hoped Beauvoir could guide me did not live outside me until I gave birth.
Let me tell you about my birthing experience and how it continues to impact my life.
I chose a natural birthing process. Hana came into the world after her un-medicated, uncut mother labored for 11 hours. First at home, then on a hospital exam table for several hours awaiting a late midwife, then in a tub until full dilation, then for several hours pushing: during these hours I hit and overcame wall after wall after wall. I drew from Pranayama, Odissi dance, connected with the billions of women who had preceded me in childbirth. Finally, in the last moments, totally weakened and exhausted, I was told by 3 women with an urgency I could not mistake for less than emergency conditions, that it was really important that I push harder now (because babies don’t like it when they spend too much time partially out) … I felt like my baby was going to die. I felt I had no more strength. Nothing left to give. Nothing. It was dwindling away. But then, I summoned, or with those present summoned, from somewhere the strength to let me push hard enough to get my little baby through this last portal.
She came flying out. A girl. Laid on my chest. Screaming, and screaming, and screaming. Let her cry, I said, to my mother, she needs to cry. I kept stroking her soft wet skin and rejoicing in how she had pooped all over my belly. We gazed into each other’s eyes for the first time. The most important being in my life. We have finally met each other.
That whole process was what it was thanks to the team there, both visible and invisible. And not just the midwife, my doula, and the nurses, or my mother … as my husband helped to hold the spiritual container of my labor, lending his quiet, centered, subtle, witnessing support, a support that allowed my empowerment to unfold.
Since giving birth, I finally feel free to stand in my own power. And this power arises from my womanhood.
There have been numerous occasions since Hana’s birth that I have felt the necessity of calling power from that secret well of strength as I hit even more walls in my mothering. And this well seems to grow deeper the more I draw upon it. It is a well called Compassion. It is a compassion expanded by solidarity, by connection, by men as well as women, by relationships.
The power has been unleashed in my career, too …
So, bring on the pressure?
Jessica Ludescher Imanaka is an Associate Professor of Philosophy and Management at Seattle University. She received her PhD in Philosophy from the University of California. She is also a dancer, a partner, and a mother, who wrote this in parts as her daughter napped.
This is the first of a three-part series.