It was my first session with my new therapist, and I was intimidated. She looked like a modern-day Grace Kelly, but with long auburn tresses instead of a structured blonde bob. Her name was Catherine (a pseudonym to protect her privacy), and her office was a high-ceilinged, prewar office in a classic Upper West Side brownstone, with an Eames lounge chair in one corner and a plush chenille armchair in another.
“So what brings you here today?” she asked kindly, legal notepad poised on her crossed legs.
I told her that I had just gotten married, and we wanted to have a baby. And I was terrified.
“Why is that?”
I rattled off a list of fears. “What if I’m so sick from morning sickness I have to end the pregnancy? What if I go through my entire pregnancy and the baby is stillborn? What if have a child who turns into a psycho like that Virginia Tech shooter kid?”
“But what makes your mind go to all the worst-case scenarios? Out of all the possibilities?”
“There’s just—so much that can go wrong, isn’t there?” I said, jiggling my leg.
She paused. “But most of the time it doesn’t result in a nightmare. Most of the time it results in a child whom you love.”
Her response sounded so sane that I started weeping.
My anxiety around motherhood began early; as far as I could remember, I had been terrified of childbirth. And, like many women, pressured by society’s thin beauty ideal, I was also fearful of pregnancy itself, of the loss of control it entailed over my body. Though I had friends who craved the experience of expecting, I was the total opposite, harboring body dysmorphic fears about the bulging, distended pregnant belly, the dark phenomenon of the linea nigra, and the cruelly overstretched skin—all to be followed by the trauma of labor. (According to an April 2022 study published in Evolution, Medicine, and Public Health, tokophobia—the fear of pregnancy—has been on the rise since the COVID-19 pandemic, especially among women of color.)
But for me, the fear of motherhood was also inextricably tied to race. Having grown up a child of Chinese immigrant parents on the East Coast, I had always been surrounded by whiteness. I rarely saw myself reflected among my peers or at my LDS church or in the media. As Korean-American actor Greta Lee once said, that absence of representation on screen or in anything you are consuming sends a subliminal message over time that somehow you are defective. And that feeling of defectiveness was amplified everywhere in my own life, thanks to the hegemonic reach of white supremacy: from my mother who would lament how small and narrow our eyes were and how flat our faces; from a white ex-boyfriend who would poke fun at how small my breasts were by asking what my future babies would eat; by another who would patronize me by saying that C-sections were invented for delicate, willowy women like me, who were always suffering from some minor ailment or another.
So it made sense that the perfect storm of shame, defectiveness, and poor body image would converge around a rite of passage as momentous as becoming a mother—the ultimate test of womanhood. I had spent my life assimilating, performing a kind of whiteface; having a child would certainly unmask my racial shame. What kind of child would my infantilized body even make—would she have all ten fingers, some other birth defect? Would the jagged peninsula-like birthmark running down my right cheek also mark her? Would I even be able to conceive?
Perhaps it’s hard to imagine how I could have felt this way. In the last few years, Asian Americans have gained so much ground—Ali Wong courageously put a household face and body to Asian pregnancy and gave it the stamp of her comedic genius; Constance Wu and Henry Golding came off believably as an appealing leading couple on the silver screen in “Crazy Rich Asians,” rather than desexualized and mortifying; and, the fabulously outré “Everything Everywhere All at Once” swept the Academy Awards this past March, winning seven Oscars. But in the early 2010s, when I was on the precipice of a new chapter in my life, there was nothing in the media that reflected me or my experience, and the few Asian American friends I had had yet to become moms themselves.
My weekly sessions with Catherine were grueling emotionally, but also freeing. We established early on that she would not disclose any personal information—whether she was a mom, how old she was, where she was from—so that we could focus on how I responded to her as a foil. Faced with Catherine’s compassionate gaze, her Spartan dialogue, and her total lack of self-disclosure, I was in unknown territory: I had only ever put my best foot forward in the company of white affluence, trying to compensate intellectually or academically or conversationally for what I couldn’t be physically. But now I was a sobbing, crumpled, terrified mess, stranded in that therapy room with no competition to win, no conversation to commandeer, and in short, no life to compare mine to—only a psychoanalytic mirror repeating back to me in questions my own words. I had no choice, then, but to sift through the lifelong feelings of shame and inadequacy and see them finally as what they were—not beliefs that arose from a fundamental defect but fictions I’d adopted through insidious cultural conditioning.
Over the course of several months, my fears began to loosen their chokehold on me. I began to catch my worst-case scenario thoughts as they happened, then let them float off—merely thoughts, not truths. I enumerated the many ways in which my body was a fully healthy, capable body, and gradually I weaned myself off my anxiety medication. But perhaps most importantly, when two of my Asian-American friends had babies, I watched them nurse. Seeing their bodies in this important maternal capacity—not fetishized bodies as objects of a sexual perversion, as straight Western porn has rendered the preference for Asian women—was revelatory. It closed at last the wide chasm I perceived between the archetypal white nursing mother’s body and my own.
Soon, my husband and I were trying. And within a month, amazingly, we were pregnant. I bought myself a ring with a tiny gold heart to celebrate. At eight weeks, I saw a tiny pulsing heartbeat on the monitor, then a hazy white figure, curled like a bean sprout. A girl, I was thrilled to learn. By the time I took a Lamaze class in my third trimester, I had been confronting my fears for so long in therapy that I was able to sit unflinching through the obligatory birthing video, while my fellow moms-to-be winced or looked away.
Our daughter arrived a month early, right on the cusp of full-term, but she was fine. I delivered her without complication (and without a C-section). And when I put her to my breast, she effortlessly latched and nursed.
Incredibly, a few hours after she was born, we discovered that she had a heart-shaped mole on her elbow that matched the shape and size exactly of the heart-shaped ring I’d bought. I had marked her it turned out, but with love—both for her and, at last, for myself, coming into my own skin. I don’t expect to single-handedly change the culture around her, but what I can impress upon her now and always is that, not only can fear be confronted and dismantled, but it can also point us toward what we want and deserve.
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