Alma Mater

Alma Mater

By Kory Stamper

fall2007_stamperMy eldest daughter first made herself known to my husband and me in the usual way—with a 11:00 p.m. run to the store for yet another pregnancy test, because the first three were totally, totally wrong, I was just sure of it.

I had to be sure of it—I was twenty-one and finishing my last year of college when I became pregnant. My last year at a women’s college. At a radically and notoriously feminist women’s college where my husband is still, to this day, uncomfortable walking around because the students glare at him for the offense that his XY chromosomal pair brings them.

My visit to the school infirmary gave me a taste of what I was in for as a pregnant student. The doctor just barely kept his tsk-tsking in check as told me he could “arrange things” here at the school, if I preferred.

“You guys deliver babies here?”

His eyebrows kissed his hairline. “Do you mean you’re going to carry the baby to term?”

“That had been my plan, yes.”

“Oh. Well, then, you’ll need a referral. We don’t handle maternal care. It’s not really something that comes up often.” He gave me a significant look and would have waggled a finger at me if he hadn’t been holding my medical chart. I walked the half-mile back to the campus center feeling like Hester Prynne.

After my first prenatal appointment with an off-campus obstetrician, where we determined that, yes, the six pregnancy tests I had taken were in fact all correct, I began alerting my professors and my adviser. My art professor was nonplussed when I asked if I’d be okay using the materials for class. “Sure,” he breezed. “Just don’t lick any of the paints or snort the charcoal.” He then told me to go to the faculty gallery to see his wife’s nude self-portraits done throughout her pregnancy. I didn’t think my stomach was up for it.

After I made my announcement, my dance professor acted as if I was going to split into four pieces immediately. “Well, be careful,” he admonished. “If you need to rest for any reason during class, then rest.” He eyed me skeptically. “Your doctor said the dancing was okay? Really?”

I assured him it was, because the OB had assured me it was. “Nothing like backflips,” she had grunted, “but sure, a regular dance class is fine.” I think I was about seven weeks along when we began our first flying flip-kicks in class.

I was most nervous about telling my adviser, who had taken great pains to work with me on a possible thesis topic (a near impossibility in my interdisciplinary major) and felt I would be a great candidate for grad school. I sat in his subterranean office, hemming and hawing, and finally said, “Well, I have decided not to do the thesis. Or grad school. Because, um, I’m pregnant.”

His face hung open in surprise for a few seconds. I cringed. “That’s great!” he bellowed. “Congratulations! Kids are great! You’ll see—much better than grad school.” He grew avuncular. “You know, kids are really what’s important, none of this stuff.” I floated up the stairs, lightheaded with relief and morning sickness.

*   *   *

Then I called my insurance company. You’d think I would have known better.

Because I was a married student, I had my college’s health insurance plan for independent students. Thirty minutes on hold and a five-minute conversation with my helpful insurance representative told me that the college’s plan didn’t offer maternity care, but the birth itself could be covered under a surgical benefit. The surgical benefit was $2,000 with a $750 deductible; anything over that amount was my responsibility. There was no prenatal coverage. There was no flexibility. Thank you for choosing Acme Collegiate Health.

This news almost literally floored me; I was dizzy when I headed out for class. The plan was mandatory for all students and certainly not cheap (not, at least, for a college student). Wasn’t this very situation—an unexpected medical event—the reason I had been required to buy health insurance? The more I thought about it, the angrier I became. If I had mixed feelings about being pregnant before, I sure as shootin’ was gung-ho on my eventual motherhood now.

Being a resourceful woman, I took the logical next step: I approached the president and trustees of my college, all liberated women. Sisterhood! Solidarity!

A week after sending my cordial letter, asking what the hell was up with the health care I was being offered, I received a nice note from the president’s office explaining that I should take this up with the dean of students. It wasn’t up to the president’s office to handle student health care.

Fair enough; I redirected my note. It was answered with a slightly snippy letter informing me that the college had no control over the benefits offered by the insurance company they contracted with and that, statistically, maternity care is not necessary among the undergraduate population. If I was having medical difficulties, perhaps I should take a leave of absence.

I read the note while researching a paper between classes. I closed my eyes and began to breathe deeply to calm myself. Then I thought, Wait a minute, why should I be calm? I used my centering breath to scream a string of profanities that got me forcibly ejected from the library.

I suppose that during the early years of women’s education, a woman in my delicate state would simply leave campus for the duration of her confinement, after which she’d either become the single-parent outcast of her town or she’d rematriculate later, when family (or a nanny) could watch the kids. That changed in the 1960s, when the introduction of the birth control pill meant more women were joining the work force and starting their families later in life. Though my college archives say nothing on the subject, comments from some of my older professors led me to believe that I was probably the first visibly pregnant undergraduate on campus in modern memory. Irritatingly enough, I just wasn’t going away.

One of the things my alma mater taught me was that women can buck the system. I had sat through class after class encouraging me to push back, rough ’em up, play tough. Liberated women were strong, rabble-rousers, hell on roller skates.

Well, then. Since I didn’t consider a normal pregnancy to be a medical difficulty, and I had a hard time believing that a women’s college was so lacking in women’s health care, I did a very liberated thing: I filed a grievance with the state claiming that my medical coverage was inadequate according to state law. A copy of the grievance wended its way to the college offices, and suddenly my calls and letters went unanswered. The state gave me Medicare/Medicaid. The school administration gave me the cold shoulder.

*   *   *

While my husband couldn’t be more delighted with our baby, my adviser couldn’t be more encouraging, and my older friends couldn’t be more helpful during those months of term papers and indigestion, trouble with my fellow students started brewing when I began to show in the spring. Suddenly every third woman on campus was handing me a leaflet about my reproductive rights, telling me I had a choice, you know, I had the right to choose, and I needed to be, you know, completely and totally informed about my rights. None of my peers seemed to believe that I had already (rather clearly) made a choice. No one seemed to believe that I would choose this bizarre burgeoning protoplasm over grad school, over a job in New York City, over all the “liberated woman” stuff. In their eyes, my early marriage just made me odd; my pregnancy made me stupid. My classmates sneered at me in public and told me I was crazy for wasting my education. And then they and their girlfriends wanted to touch my belly.

Somewhere between the school’s disbelief that pregnancy was a fairly normal occurrence in women of childbearing age, and the constant encouragement of my peers to make an informed choice, I snapped. It began with the T-shirts. I got as far as purchasing fabric paint and some XXXL shirts and sketching out my designs while waiting for art history slides to cue.

Exercising My Right to Choose.

Actively Supporting the Patriarchy.

Another Misogynist Pig in the Oven.

I’m With Over-Educated (with a big arrow pointing from my huge gut up at my smiling face).

Since so many people were treating my pregnancy like a disease, I acted like an invalid. I snuck into my old dorm and claimed the common room between 2 p.m. and 4 p.m. every day for a nap, snoring loudly and obscenely. I took the freight elevator up one flight of stairs. I took up several desks and starting lying on the floor during one of my foreign-language classes.

When my belly button disappeared, I rolled my t-shirt up so everyone could see.

In April, campus tours were taking place and I happened to be leaving an academic building as a group dripping in furs and jewelry headed my way. The student tour leader saw me and, sensing trouble, abruptly steered the group in the opposite direction. I feigned sudden labor, very loudly.

Though most of my classmates were private about their disdain for my situation, others fought my estrogen-fueled fire with fire. About three weeks before finals and one month before I was due, I was the thinly veiled subject of a long letter in the school newspaper about population growth and our duty to protect the planet by adopting children instead of squeezing out our own (assuming that anyone was so deluded as to even want kids). The article finished by noting that the days of women being barefoot and pregnant in the kitchen were over.

I went home that night and told my husband that women being barefoot and pregnant in the kitchen was just so over. He would have to be the pregnant one tonight, baby.

*   *   *

Graduation arrived at last, ninety-five degrees with 180 percent humidity. Many of my fellow graduates lounged around in bikinis and miniskirts before the ceremony. I was blanketed in a long white earth-mama dress and sensible black flats, all topped with a heavy black graduation gown that trailed in the back and was knee-length in the front. I looked like a fat penguin in a funny hat.

Our commencement speaker was Anna Quindlen. Depending on which of the graduates you ask, she either told us that women shouldn’t abandon family for their careers, or told us that women shouldn’t have families so they could have a career. Personally, I don’t remember. I do remember my hugely swollen feet, and sweating a lot, and thinking, “If I had gone on the 5K graduation run this morning, I could be in an air-conditioned hospital room watching cartoons right now.” My name was called, and I waddled up to the stage where I delivered my parting shot: I received my diploma barefoot and pregnant. I would have taken the kitchen stove with me if it weren’t so big.

The school president handed me my diploma, wide-eyed and looking down at my belly (which was invading her personal space). On the way back to my seat, I was heckled by one of my classmates’ parents. “Forget something?” he sneered—whether he was talking about my shoes or my birth control, I can’t say. I smiled broadly and waved my diploma at him. “No, not at all, sir.”

On the plane ride back to their house, my parents sat next to a lovely gentleman who also attended the graduation. They chatted about the ceremony for a bit, and then he said, “Oh, did you see that pregnant girl? My God.”

My parents paused. “Actually,” my father said, with no small amount of irritation, I am sure, “that was our daughter.”

The gentleman stared for a moment, then nodded sympathetically. “Well, it happens in the best of families.”

Once my diploma was in hand and I was out the door, I shrugged off the institutional kerfuffle; it was irritating and frustrating and not particularly pleasant, but it was all water under the bridge. That is, until I started getting the solicitation mail. My alma mater wrote often and, like an enterprising cousin with no tact, asked me for lots of money. I had written the fundraising office twice asking them to remove me from the solicitation list. For a long time I continued to get the sunny pleas for moolah.

Then came the legacy mailing. It informed me that I could start paying my daughter’s tuition by setting up a legacy fund in her name. The principal would go into a general scholarship fund and I would get hefty dividends which I could save for my dear daughter’s education (at my alma mater, of course). After all, my alma mater was not just an education, it was a family tradition.

It was the only mailing I responded to. I sent in a copy of my graduation picture, with the college president goggling at my beach-ball belly, and scrawled underneath of the picture, “No thanks. You couldn’t take care of her the first time she was there.”

*   *   *

In the heat of the controversy, it had been easy to forget that all my fellow graduates who had thought I was out of my gourd were twenty-two themselves and either taking batteries of standardized tests to get into a good grad program or interviewing with big companies where the senior management did not agree that make-up and pantyhose were socially acceptable forms of female denigration.

And if none of those things came into play—even if it wasn’t fear or envy that propelled the criticism, but truly disdain or disgust—is that necessarily a bad thing? We chose a women’s college because we valued women’s minds and women’s voices, and we wanted to be in a place that took all our opinions seriously. In the end, my pregnancy was another discussion point, and that’s what I agreed to when I signed up to go there, a place where the voice of every woman—no matter how crazy, or pregnant—could be heard.

These days, most of my classmates are married or partnered, most have children under three, and most still shake their head at me—though now it tends to be more in understanding and less in consternation. None of us believes that we’re any less feminist for having admitted the necessity of sperm in the propagation of the species. Some of us have even admitted to enjoying the company of the oppressor. If there was tension because of my pregnancy, it’s gone now. The sisterhood is intact and packing a kick-ass diaper bag.

Kory Stamper is an editor with Merriam-Webster, Inc., and she has written for the Chicago Tribune and the Guardian. She blogs at harm·less drudg·ery.

Brain, Child (Fall 2007)

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