A few days shy of the summer solstice, Beyoncé gave birth and thus completed a pop culture ritual that began on 1st February. That was when, as everyone knows, she did what we now call breaking the internet by posting a picture of herself in a burgundy bra and mint green veil, surrounded by a halo of roses and fern leaves, to announce that she was pregnant with twins.
This marked a turn of the wheel for me, too. In between that announcement and her Grammys performance two weeks later as a psychedelic-Shakti-Mother Mary hybrid dripping in gold, it occurred to me that it might be a good idea to just make sure that my period was six days late on account of stress, and not because of that other common menstruation delayer.
I had been trying to finish a first draft of a novel, preparing to stand in as doula for a close friend (a role for which I hold no qualifications), and taking part in my first writing workshop since college (that may not sound like a big deal, but it required all my therapy tools and had me questioning my entire existence basically hourly). I had nothing in the tank, and would not have thought myself capable of taking on more.
Given the fact that my boyfriend and I had decided we wanted a child and had been forgoing any kind of birth control for a few months, I shouldn’t have been surprised. But I had peed on a few plastic sticks over the years, never to plus-sign results. And, at the door of 37, on what felt like my 99th spin at the roulette wheel of love, it seemed improbable that I could even get pregnant without a major medical assist or at least some acupuncture. But surprise soon faded to something else wholly new: I felt as if I had suddenly discovered my true nature as a diva-super star-hustler — and goddess of fertility.
In those charmed days I had the coy, luminous aspect of a starlet in shades, slinking into a luxury resort, location undisclosed. My instinct for privacy and self-care were uncharacteristically sharp. It was an era of extravagantly fabulous maternity photos, and I felt extravagant and fabulous. I held my secret close to my heart, fell in love with my boyfriend in a new way, saw the plan of my life clearly at last, and knew myself to be capable of anything on behalf of the tiny fragment multiplying its cells low in my abdomen. Plus, my tits looked awesome, though the rest of me was unchanged. This lasted about four days.
I would like to tell you that my boyfriend and I had, in preparation for our passage into the realm of parenthood, bought a modest yet sun-drenched two-bedroom with a washer-dryer in a great school district, but that would be a lie.
We didn't even live in the same neighbourhood. I had a roommate, and we had a routine: watch Girls over copious amounts of popcorn and copious amounts of red wine, now replaced with high-end ginger ale. As fatigue crept in, this — mainly the couch — had become my everything. I began experiencing full-body revulsion at smells like onions, garlic, and the male body with which I had started what everyone kept referring to as “this amazing journey.” And so it wasn’t a stretch to see why, after the tragicomic reveal that Lena Dunham’s character had been knocked up by her surf instructor back in episode 1, my roommate smiled and said, “Hannah Horvath is your pregnancy role model!”
“Oh no,” I whimpered, and thought of Britney.
The era of Britney Spears’ marriage to Kevin Federline roughly coincided with my marriage to a tall drink of water who, á la K-Fed, was covered in bad tattoos and hailed from a California cow town. I identified with the whole messy arc of their love story, from the hubris to the exploitation; the buying of her own engagement ring to the bloated face, tears, and self-destruction. Whenever I found a cache of empty beer cans that my husband had hidden behind the couch, I remembered Brit in that terrible purple maternity top she wore for Matt Lauer, fake eyelashes peeling, so desperate for sane attention that she opened up to a ratings-hungry television journalist making a sympathetic face. She was a cautionary tale, seemingly written just for me, of what happens when your cool-guy love affair goes too far. Britney had been the pop culture figure experiencing divorce with me, and now Hannah was to be the one whose pregnancy mirrored mine.
My chagrin at this did not stem from some deep-seated disdain for Girls, a show I have watched faithfully since its premiere. I admired the show’s feminism and realism and verve, but Sex and the City was the big female showcase of my 20s, which is to say I am not that kind of girl. But as I sat watching in Hannah-esque overalls and drinking my fluorescent Jarritos (because I felt too terrible to care about food colouring), I was overcome with the sinking feeling that Hannah’s shambolic path to parenthood — unmarried, jobless, judged by her loved ones and herself as unfit for motherhood — was the cultural story that would haunt me through the months of my waxing belly.
I began fantasy online job hunting for a cushy university teaching gig like the one that delivers Hannah from her dusty Brooklyn rental, but I kept failing to fully imagine my nascent family far away in an idyllic campus setting. I had drifted to compulsively online shopping for a neutral body con dress, like the one Beyoncé paired with gold heels and a pale rose trench in a March maternity style Instagram post, when the news of Serena Williams’ accidental snapchat reveal broke, and I was taken with the notion that everything was going to be okay.
The superstar fertility goddess of this moment is a woman willing to show that a competitive and ambitious spirit and maternal love are not mutually exclusive.
For one thing, my immediate reaction was not a spike of prurient interest, nor the smarmy glee over somebody else’s weird life choices, or any of the other junkie responses I usually associate with a good hit of celebrity gossip. My reaction was just genuine happiness that this terrifying and empowering experience would be part of Serena’s story, too. When her much-hyped 2015 U.S. Open appearance ended in the semifinals, I cried — the only sports event to bring me to tears since childhood. Relating to the gorgeous, dignified Beyoncé would have been too much pressure; relating to lost, scrambling Hannah would have incurred too much self-effacement. But relating to Serena somehow felt right. Aspirational — but a dream worth aspiring to.
Now, I am not a person who believes that the lives of celebrities have anything to do with little old me. I am also aware that Serena’s heroic achievements are as unattainable to a mere mortal like myself as Beyoncé’s. But Serena has never been shy about letting us see her sweat. She never makes the incredibly difficult thing she does look effortless, as Beyoncé can. (This is not a knock against Bey’s cagey perfectionism, which is her right and a part of her gift. But that neutral bodycon dress would have been a mistake on me.)
We have seen Serena angry, jubilant, beleaguered and proud. She has been vocal about an experience common to many women — that it’s not enough to be the best, you actually have to tell people you’re the best, too, lest prejudice obscure your excellence. Like many women, and especially Black women, her displays of anger have been met by a horrified and obsessive public hell-bent on shaming her, while comparable outbursts by male peers are taken as a sign of heart and love of game.
She made power beautiful and adversity visible — necessary images for women going through the physical change of their lives. Pregnancy is a marathon, and the medal ceremony is the even longer, even harder, even less certain challenge of motherhood. If I couldn’t find my power beautiful, if I couldn’t admit and work through difficulty, then I’d have to accept Hannah as my mirror. To attempt flying in parallel with Serena is to love my anger and my ego as much as I love my patience and my humility, and to understand all these things will be crucial in raising a girl of my own.
By the time of Matthew Knowles’ quasi-controversial announcement that the Carter twins had arrived, I had hit the sweet spot of my pregnancy: no longer sick, not yet massive. It is a little counterintuitive to find your confidence expanding at precisely the moment when none of your clothes fit, but so it has been for me. I have acquired a few key maternity pieces, and I love the way they bring attention to — rather than obscure — my changing shape. I have discovered a special glamour in pregnancy, which is that I feel chosen by my unborn child to finally become a woman in full. Back in February, I may have been doubtful of my capacity to care for a baby, but the end of my second trimester brought a new sureness that I am ready.
My living situation may be less than ideal, but as my boyfriend and I purge our college-era furniture and merge our domestic lives, we have discovered a right way for us. Woodsy and academic might have been nice, but we like New York, and the walk-up apartment with the funny plastic chandelier, and the landlady downstairs. In time, we've decided the opinions of some family members regarding our marital status don’t have very much bearing on our deepening closeness or our occasionally messy but ever improving ability to work through differences. I am the product of Northern California hippie chaos, and he grew up among cops and Catholics in New Jersey, but we share a fundamental sameness that makes it easy to have a good time together, and helps us navigate a bad time pretty well, too.
As it turns out, this has been a lucky cultural moment to be with child. Between Beyoncé’s regal glow and Hannah’s realness there is a lot of inspiration to channel feminine divinity and make practical, individualist choices, too. But most heartening of all is the Serena revealed in the recent Vanity Fair profile. From her adorable initial response (that she couldn’t possibly be pregnant, because she was going to triumph at Wimbledon again this year!), to the story of her unplanned, slightly reluctant path to motherhood and then commitment to it paired with images of her bare bump in full Annie Leibovitz glory, it became obvious why the best of all pregnancy role models would be a world-class athlete and fashion icon in one.
The idea that Serena won the Australian Open while pregnant could, I suppose, have made me feel pathetic for eating crackers in bed, but I have taken the opposite lesson. That was hardly the first time she had triumphed despite (or maybe in some spiritual sense because of) a physical limitation or a mental distraction. During this time in my life, I know that things that once came easy will be harder, and I will have to learn new tricks, like frankness and planning ahead, that I have long avoided because they always seemed too difficult. But when I think of Serena, I feel buoyed by a sense of my own capacity to do the tough stuff. Her radiant smile alone inspires me to be my best self. I am grateful that the superstar fertility goddess of this moment is a woman willing to show that a competitive and ambitious spirit and maternal love are not mutually exclusive.
I have been cheering for Serena all along, and somehow it has made it easier to cheer for myself, too. And I plan to keep applauding us both as we enter motherhood, just as emphatically as I will someday (probably implausibly soon) cheer her return to the court.