Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s silence around her pregnancy is an act of resistance.
Though women in the United States enjoy much more freedom today in expressing their pregnancies than they used to, their behavior is still constrained by social expectations and stereotypes. The cultural mores surrounding pregnancy—for example that pregnant women ought to be health-conscious, self-sacrificing, retiring, and exceedingly careful—are perhaps nowhere more visible than when viewed through pop culture’s coverage of pregnant celebrities, who find themselves surveilled by the mainstream press and tabloids, their motherhood narrative crafted by media onlookers and held up under the microscope of the public eye.
The internationally renowned novelist has refused to write a narrative of pregnancy in the public eye, at all.
Celebrities like rapper M.I.A. and actress Mila Kunis, though, have recently offered performances of pregnancy that disrupt these expectations, and refuse to comply with popular wisdom. As I argued in my study of celebrity pregnancy M.I.A.’s “pregga swagga” on display at the 2009 Grammy awards, asserted the power of women: With it, she refused to perfo rm the wilting, fragile, incommodious feminine associated with late stage pregnancy, charging onto stage to deliver an energetic performance while nine months pregnant. Mila Kunis’ performances of pregnancy—from a fire-and-brimstone skit on the Jimmy Kimmel show, to an unassuming interview she gave to Ellen—all combined to deny the press an easy verdict on maternal style—narratives that often slate into two types: the docile good girl or the bad mom.
Now Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie has taken this disruptive denial of narrative to glorious new heights: the internationally renowned novelist has refused to write a narrative of pregnancy in the public eye, at all. As she told an editor from the Financial Times over lunch at the end of June, “I have some friends who probably don’t know I was pregnant or that I had a baby.”
This is almost unheard of. Pregnancy—for celebrities, for novelists, and for the rest of us—is expected to be a public event.
Pregnancy and birth are unique rites of passage, and, as anthropologist Robbie Davis-Floyd explains, the public nature of so many of our performances associated with pregnancy is an essential part of that passage. We memorialize very particular moments of our pregnancies in very public ways. Fanfare around the recognition of a pregnancy is almost as much a part of the with-child ritual as stretch marks and doctor’s visits. There are creative pregnancy announcements on Facebook and Instagram—a picture of the positive pregnancy test, a photo of a slight “baby bump” of a belly, or a sibling holding a sign. We share ultrasound photos as though they were baby’s “first picture.” Later, birth announcements share details of weight, height, time of birth, gender, and name. We host baby showers for friends, enable baby moons for new families, and celebrate the passage of the first year with parties both modest and over-the-top.
Sure, those of us who are not celebrities will not have these artifacts of pregnancy displayed in People magazine; nor are we at risk of having images of them stolen by paparazzi to be published in gossip rags. But we will share these details with our friends; and many friends would be hurt if we did not. Adichie told her lunch companion, a journalist that she did not know, in the first public acknowledgement since she had become a mother, that she couldn’t drink wine because she was breastfeeding—long after the time had come and gone for baby bump selfies and showers thrown by besties.
Pregnancy—for celebrities, for novelists, and for the rest of us—is expected to be a public event.
Adichie has written powerful novels with strong female characters, and novels that explore and critique American attitudes towards immigrants and people of color. Americanah is a particularly vivid description of what it means to be black in the United States, written by someone who didn’t feel she had learned about race, until living here for a time.
She has also written a book about feminism, offering an expansive and contemporary understanding of the power of such a stance, and arguing that we “should all be” feminists. Part of her statement to the Financial Times explains her refusal to be public with her pregnancy in terms of that feminism. She told journalist David Pilling, “I just feel like we live in an age when women are supposed to perform pregnancy. We don’t expect fathers to perform fatherhood.”
It’s true. A perusal of the popular media will bear out the claim that women, especially women in the public eye, are expected to perform pregnancy and motherhood while men do not have the same demands placed on them to perform their fatherhood. Men are celebrated for their moments of paternal work; women are simply told they are doing as expected—or, where they deviate from expectations, are criticized. In the past forty years, the range of available and acceptable performances of pregnancy has grown apace with our understanding of the range of available and acceptable performances of gender—but women are still absolutely expected, some might say required, to publicly acknowledge their pregnancies.
By refusing to be public in her pregnancy, Adichie clearly understands herself to be making a feminist statement—but there is a bit more to it, I think.
It is notable that the person at the heart of this refusal to present a public narrative of maternity and motherhood is, of all things, a novelist, an author, a narrator-by-trade. And Adichie is about as celebrity as an intellectual novelist can get. She may not be a Kardashian, or Duchess Kate (though she seems to be literary royalty), but she is a MacArthur fellow whose Ted talks have received tens of millions of views, a bestselling author whose words have been sampled in a Beyoncé album, and she lives a highly visible international life studded with the trappings of celebrity. Her refusal to be public with her pregnancy constitutes a refusal to conform to expectations of her role not only of her as a mother, but as a writer and storyteller.
We have a few examples of this in the recent academic literature. Audra Simpson’s fabulous Mohawk Interruptus is one such work: Simpson defies expectations by elegantly refusing to allow her narrative to disclose the very details about her ‘subjects’ that a social scientist would want to read. She troubles both formal and normative conventions, and in doing so crafts a novel role for narrative development and display of identity. Sociolegal scholar Boaventura de Sousa Santos urges us to be attentive to absences and silences, to stories untold and voices that do not speak, as places of resistance in the lives of those who have been marginalized.
But, novelists? They write narratives! And, now, Adichie, recognizing the story that would be written about her as a pregnant woman, refused to give us a plot line to follow. In her refusal, and in her announcement, Adichie-the-novelist has claimed her control of her craft, as well as her body. In choosing to disclose the birth over lunch with a stranger, acknowledging that it is the first time she has spoken publicly about it, Adichie signals that she—mother, woman, author—will craft the story of her pregnancy on her own terms.