Over the course of the past year, the final year of my twenties, many of my closest friends have become mothers. Which is to say, they have come to understand the design of their bodies as evolutionary miracles, capable of withstanding great pressure, change, eruption. The body as engine.
Their entire lives must now revolve around the production and distribution of healthy food. Gone is the independent body, the notion of self communicated through skin. Breasts unfamiliar, swollen, active. Schedules are dictated. Sleep patterns erased. One of my friends described the daily cycle of her life as living to feed.
I have not yet had a child, have not yet felt my belly or breasts swell with blood and the fluid that feeds a growing infant. But lately I feel an insistence rising, a nagging pull on the inside of my throat. Suddenly. There one afternoon and every day since.
Ever since I was twelve years old and first began to bleed, I have resented the enormous unseen power of my body to exert its control over me. My hips swelling sideways. Stabbing pains across my lower abdomen. Waiting for a week, sore and hunched over, for my body to realize that there will be no pregnancy.
I hate the crying, the uncontrollable welling up of tears at every Hallmark card, every small furry animal. Every month, as my unused eggs break apart and leave my body, I sneer at the uselessness of it all. The way that estrogen controls my thoughts. The way I wake in the night, clutching a pillow, having imagined a child in my sleep. The way my biology won’t let me forget that I am a field, that I have a river inside me.
Winter in the Midwest, where I live, is a dormant season, shorn stalks of wheat ankle-high, fields crusted with ice, covered in snow. When I stand in the prairie, the cold bites into my bones. The soil here is among the most fertile in the world, almost black with nutrients, waiting to give, and to grow.
A parent’s job is to protect a child from monsters—under the bed, in the closet, hidden in the darkness of that line of trees—but what about when the monsters are in our food, under our skin? Pests capable of withstanding the chemical poisons. Bacteria evolved past death by antibiotic. The monster is inside the body.
Herbicides, meant to protect plants by eliminating weeds, are gradually destroying plant root structures, causing fungal root diseases, reducing the plants’ abilities to absorb micronutrients from the soil.
Pregnant women are routinely advised not to drink the water in high-agricultural use areas. Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma occurrence rates are highest in the Midwest and Great Plains, where agricultural pesticides are used most frequently.
The occupational group with the highest cancer rate in the United States is farmer.
Our bodies tell us the story, if we are willing to listen. Pesticide residue is detected in body fat, umbilical cords, placentas, breast milk. Pesticides that mangle our genes into damaged shells of themselves, that erect walls around hormone production systems in our bodies, that smother healthy cells, that nourish and encourage tumor growth.
Author, researcher, and cancer survivor Sandra Steingraber writes, upon holding a vial of her own amniotic fluid: “It contains the sap of apples, the juice of oranges, the tea I drank a few hours earlier, and the milk I poured over my cereal that morning.” The food is the land is the body.
My body has always had a softness. The reflection in the mirror reminds me that growing and feeding is the biological purpose of my cellular construction. Slim as I am, small skeletal frame, narrow shoulders, my pale pink skin spreads over an extra layer of tissue. My eyes trace the gradual upward curve of my breasts, the slight round of my lower belly. When a pair of hands grips around my hips, the fingers sink gently into a slight pillow. A place to store food. A reservoir.
When I see myself naked, I see each of these small pockets, each supple gathering of skin, as a potential source of chemical contamination. The place where my baby would drink its first poison.
For a mother, body becomes food. Not simply a food delivery mechanism, but the source of food itself. And then, the meaning of a woman’s own food is changed—she is just the conduit. Every item she consumes becomes a part of her body. Food is the body’s sole purpose.
When we are fed poison, then, what becomes of our purpose? Have we failed?
Has the land failed us when we feed it poison and it feeds the poison back?
My mother gave birth naturally to three girls. She grew us and fed us from her breasts and then, after my youngest sister was born, decided to seal off her fallopian tubes. She hasn’t had the physical ability to bear a child since she was thirty years old.
And still, days after her hysterectomy, with her uterus gone, her cervix gone, her ovaries decimated, her fallopian tubes removed, she lay weeping on the couch, crying, I’m not a woman anymore.
My friend, exhausted from constantly breastfeeding her seven-week-old daughter, said that some nights, she just wants her life back.
I love my body as an independent entity, but I feel it slipping away from me, moving from an organism I control to a vessel waiting to be filled. I am terrified of becoming a slave to the cycle of hormones, the desires of another, the nutritional needs of an infant.
I’m afraid of planting and poison. But I don’t want to live forever in winter.