Historical essay
Precarity and Pregnancy

Precarity and Pregnancy

Livia Arndal Woods

When I wrote a dissertation about literary pregnancy, I had never been pregnant. By the time I submitted a manuscript iteration of that project for publication, I had been pregnant five times (one stillbirth, two miscarriages, two live births). During this timespan, I also applied to over 250 academic positions. I was lucky enough to get a few jobs out of that labor, but not lucky enough to get maternity leave. So, I answered student emails in the hospital between regular monitoring for my dangerously high blood pressure. When my youngest child was born, I did this masked because COVID had come to highlight precarity for us all.

Pregnancy is always precarious. My encounters with that fact shaped Pregnancy in the Victorian Novel, a book that maps the troubling and familiar way that pregnancy in Victorian novels is plotted as individual choice and individual failure. I also read against those plots, placing my own experiences in impossible solidarity with precarity I can only imagine. My experiences and the world I lived in intimately reshaped my readings of pregnancy in Victorian novels. The book that emerged from the revision process assumes that precarity – “the state of being…uncertain”- is an epistemological strength, not a weakness. It is a strength that our vulnerable bodies can help us to foster.

Cover image featuring a drawing of a woman's pregnant belly, the baby visible inside.
Pregnancy in the Victorian Novel is available now from Ohio State University Press.

When narrated in Victorian novels – which is seldom – pregnancy is not, say, the certainty of a growing belly. Rather, a narrated pregnancy in Victorian fiction is usually a moral failure and a legal, social, or familial problem. Pregnancy functions in these plots as a lesson and/or a conflict. This narrative function is most legible in the literature’s miscarriages, stillbirths, deaths in childbirth or post-partum, and infanticides. These losses are not narrated as pain or uncertainty, but as something like choice. The pain and uncertainty of reproduction are hyper-visible to me because of my own experiences; by naming and highlighting this, Pregnancy in the Victorian Novel counters an abiding cultural plot that emphasizes maternal guilt. By reading a fictional past alongside the present and our own embodied experiences in it, we can read for uncertainty better.

And so, revising my manuscript was not only grappling again with key historical and literary contexts, such as doctors in fiction and nineteenth century rates of maternal and infant death. It was also an experience of grappling with the troubled state of reproductive care in America, disproportionate losses of life in communities of color, and – as I made final edits in the summer of 2022 – a loss of access to the reproductive care that makes it possible, among many other things, to save the lives of desperately wanted babies and mitigate suffering. When I read the news about the overturning of Roe v. Wade while preparing a book talk, I thought a lot about the time between knowing my first baby had stopped moving inside of me and the time she was delivered. It was only four days, because I chose to have the labor medically induced. I cannot fathom what weeks or months without that “choice” would have been.

Before the twentieth century, there were fewer medical choices about how to manage the life and death stakes of pregnancy. But anxieties about choice and its attendant guilt are nonetheless hallmarks of depictions of pregnancy in Victorian novels. This is the case, for example, in the narration of Hetty Sorrel’s decision to flee exposure in Adam Bede or Rosamond Lydgate’s stubborn horseback riding in Middlemarch. In Jude the Obscure, Sue Bridehead’s stepchild asks her about her pregnancy: “How ever could you, Mother, be so wicked and cruel as this?” The child assumes that Sue has chosen this pregnancy, that she is in control of it. We know that individual choice has very little power in Hardy’s fiction; social conditions trump all.

Painting of a woman in mid-1800s styles of hair and dress.
George Eliot (1819-1880), author of Middlemarch, at age 30. By Alexandre-Louis-François d’Albert-Durade (1804-1886). (Courtesy Wikimedia)

People should have all kinds of choices about reproduction: medical choices, professional choices, familial choices. But if individual choice suggests individual control, it shouldn’t. Control is impossible in pregnancy, whether in the nineteenth century or our own. The parade of tests that pregnant people with access to medical care receive at regular intervals in contemporary America can make it seem as though things have changed, as though precarity has been replaced with certainty. But it hasn’t, even if one does everything possible to avoid having made a “wicked and cruel” choice. No amount of struggle to be good and informed will erase the precarity of pregnancy, and we must remain attuned to the ever-present uncertainty of death in life.

Pregnancy is not precarious primarily because of poor maternal choices; “good” maternal choices cannot always make it safe. Good social choices – access to affordable health care including but not limited to reproductive care, access to family leave and safe, affordable child care, meaningful training in and against racial bias in assessments of health, risk, and pain – can mitigate precarity. The political will necessary for these choices demands an understanding of precarity as a shared experience rather than an individual choice.

As I drafted this piece, an Ohio grand jury was meeting to decide whether or not to indict a woman who, after being denied medical care over a period of two days for a 21-week pregnancy crisis that endangered her health and life, gave birth to a dead fetus at home. Brittany Watts has been charged with abuse of a corpse for what she did and did not do next. The prosecutor in this case claims that “the issue isn’t how the child died, when the child died. It’s the fact that the baby was put into a toilet, large enough to clog up the toilet, left in that toilet, and she went on her day.” But “going on her day,” in this case, included going back to the hospital to have a D+C to remove placenta still lodged in her body. Perhaps this prosecutor imagines miscarriage and stillbirth as a painless process that ushers out a tiny, perfect thing, clean and clear. Perhaps this prosecutor cannot imagine the uncertainty of passing clots as large as baseballs, small bodies covered in so much blood you can’t really see them, chunks of placenta. Perhaps he can’t imagine what pain and terror do to one’s sense of certainty about what has just happened and what to do next. But I can. I hope you can, too.

Featured image caption: A woman in bed after giving birth. Engraving by J. Wood, 1830. (Courtesy Wellcome Collection)

Livia Arndal Woods is an Associate Professor in the Department of English and Modern Languages at the University of Illinois, Springfield. Her scholarship focuses on Victorian literature and culture, women's and gender studies, and the medical humanities. Her book, Pregnancy in the Victorian Novel, came out last fall with the Ohio State University Press.