[Content warning - this post will touch on subjects of bodily autonomy, pregnancy, difficulties with conception, and post-partum depression. ]
Five years ago today, I was hugely pregnant with my second child. She was due on February 19th and, since her father is born on February 14th, everyone told me she would be born on Valentine's Day. People love to say things like this, as anyone who has been 39 weeks pregnant knows. It was another ten days before the baby finally arrived... or before she was evicted by caesarean section. I thought that this would also be the end of a terrible pregnancy and looked forward to moving on to the parts of having a baby that I enjoy - nursing and snuggles.
I was wrong. Since this was my second c-section, I was sent home from the hospital with staples holding my incision together. They should have been removed on Saturday, but my OB GYN's office wasn't open until Monday, so I suffered excruciating pain for an extra two days as my body tried to push the staples out. The OB on call told me I could either wait or go to the ER (a $250 copay). So I waited. Reader, I have scars on either side of my incision from the staples. I have a five inch tall, six inch wide span of skin that still doesn't experience physical sensation. Any negative feelings I ever had about that part of my body? Magnified. The entirety of both of my pregnancies and the years between and after were and are constant reminders of the fact that the female body is less important to our medical system than the body of a fetus or infant. I was poked, prodded, cut open, delved into, squeezed and injected and generally forced to tolerate whatever the medical establishment determined was best for the life growing or soon-to-be growing inside me. Even after birth, my body and my choices are no longer my own. For all that society tells us that pregnancy and birth are a miracle and the most powerful experience a woman can have... I found it to be the most dehumanizing.
I went to an OB-GYN office that consisted of three female doctors and two male doctors. Following a diagnostic ultrasound to "confirm cervical competency" after a cervical cancer procedure I had years earlier (bet you didn't know your cervix could fail tests, huh), one of the male OBs joked that my cervix was longer than average and I'd "be lucky to get a baby out of that." *stares into camera* This is not what you tell a woman who is 4 months pregnant with her first child. This is not compassionate care. And guess who happened to be the doctor on call when I went into labor? Yep. Nothing went according to my birth plan because of him. To the point that the Labor & Delivery nurse took him to task on my behalf. (I loved her, she was a rock star.) The next day, as I was in bed being tortured more, that same OB came in to boast and beam about how he had delivered my baby. Like he was the star of the show and I was just... an incubator. And, of course, I had to see him for my 6 week checkup. My baby was with me, as I wasn't returning to work for another 2 days, and she started crying at one point, hungry or wet or just uncomfortable. That was apparently inconvenient, so he screamed (not an exaggeration) for someone to "come get this damn crying baby." I've never been more angry than I was after this first delivery, but the second wasn't all I had hoped, either.
Nursing also didn't go as well as it had the first time, and I grappled with feeling like a shitty mom to two kids, a bad mother for not having either of my children naturally and for having to supplement with formula the second time around... And a terrible employee for being distracted, depressed, and generally overwhelmed.
What does any of this have to do with romance? Well, as a timeline - consider that I started reading romance heavily in 2011, just after my first daughter was born. I bought a Kindle and was enjoying the freedom of borrowing books from my library at 2:00 AM while nursing the baby. While not especially current, their romance selection had a few thousand books to choose from. And I could afford "free." So I ended up reading romance. By the time child #2 arrived in 2014, I was reading romances by the dozen. It was five years later that I started reviewing for Heroes & Heartbreakers and the rest led me here.
Why Romance? Escape, autonomy, and yes - sex.
Romance gave me an escape from my circumstances. In those early days, I read a lot of paranormal and historical romance. Anything to take me away from my real life. Give me a fancy ball or a fated mate or a marriage of convenience and I was there. At a time when I was dealing with the realities of marriage and early parenthood, romance was a reminder of the first blush of love. A reminder, if you will, of what exactly got me into this mess... without the actual mess.
Romance also reminded me of what it was like to be able to feel things - physically and emotionally. I was exhausted all the time. This was true after both of my children were born, but my baby blues never went away after the second. My post-partum depression manifested as a combination of irritability and distance. I would look at my daughters' faces and wonder if I loved them. I didn't feel connected to them at all, never mind that overpowering rush of love I was supposed to be feeling. I knew something was wrong, but everything felt out of my control. (I broke down sobbing in a routine appointment at the pediatrician and I'm now properly medicated, don't worry.) But even in those terrible days, I could remember what it was like to feel, even if only for the few hours that I was immersed in my book.
A good romance focuses a lot on the heroine, especially on her thoughts, emotions, and physical feelings. Since I didn't have any of these things at the time, I could borrow the heroine's. I never inserted myself into the books, simply because that's not how I read. But I could imagine that someday, I might feel something again. It gave me hope.
And the sex. Erotic romance helped me to reconnect with my body and with the parts of myself that found comfort, connection, and release with sex. While I don't agree that romance novels are porn (there's actual porn for that), well-written erotic scenes do turn me on. I wish Romancelandia didn't have to contend with the term "mommy porn" because honestly? I'm a mom and I like erotic romance and erotica. (The fact that women are shamed for reading something that turns them on is absurd, but that's not the point of this story.) It took us nearly a year to conceive that second child. Women are overwhelmingly burdened with the guilt and frustration around trying to conceive, and I was no exception. After six months, I didn't even want to have sex. It felt like an obligation, plus I had that giant numb patch of skin from my first c-section and I had a small child attached to me all the time. I didn't want to be touched, never mind sexed up. I don't think it's an exaggeration to say that, without romance, my second daughter wouldn't be here. I'm sure I should feel guilty saying that the only thing that convinced me to have sex during those difficult months was getting turned on by something unrelated to myself or my husband... but I don't.
That baby will be five later this month, and I'm still reading romance. It's been there for me when I was depressed and dissociating, when I had morning sickness for six straight months, when I was trying to stay awake after the fourth time the baby woke me to nurse in the middle of the night. It's been there for me when I was disconnected from my body and from my partner, and now that I'm back, now that we're back. It's been there for me when I needed something to take me away from my life, and when I needed something to remind me of the wonderful things I have in my life. Reading romance is good for my mind, my body, and my soul.
Whatever brings you to Love in Panels, thank you for being here. I hope you find a romance that gives you the same joy and comfort that I've found.