Blog Template Theology of the Body: Lucy is Enceinte

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Lucy is Enceinte

On Sunday we took a picnic to a nearby lake and parked on the shore, where we could watch the water from the interior cool, protected from the ovenlike environment that is north Texas in August. My little one perched on her daddy's lap, peering with great delight over the steering wheel; we tuned into a favorite NPR program. The topic for the day was that dear old sitcom, "I Love Lucy." In particular, the interviewer discussed the program's iconic depiction of mid twentieth century American marriage and family life.

Of particular interest was the show's depiction of Lucy's modern pregnancy, the first instance of such in the history of American television. The producers and actors had been quite nervous about this; they softened the fact of Lucy's twin-bedded pregnancy by referring to it in French ("inceinte" --that's three syllables); they called in a Catholic priest to consult on the presentation. After all, those were the days in which little girls averted their eyes from pregnant mothers seen in public, as my grandmother tells me.

I was really struck by the language and postures selected by this 1950's sitcom culture in relating the facts of being in a family way. These weren't just the days of sexual scruples and inhibitions; this was a unique time in the modern world, a situation between the dawn of mass communications on the one hand, and on the other, the changes that would come with the distortions of contraception (at the time, still illegal in many parts of the United States) and the legalized crime of abortions.

What most interests me are the smaller changes that have influenced our attitude towards early motherhood and fragile, newly conceived babies since that time. In our times, our mores tend to be shaped by our technologies. Hence in a world where early human life is so easily destroyed and discarded by our machinations, we find ourselves speaking so tentatively about it. We don't say "babies;" rather we say "embryo," or "fetus," or worse, we refer generically to "the pregnancy." We don't announce the fact of a new human life with the ready joy that it deserves; we wait long months until we announce the fact of conception, constrained by sterile medical definitions of "viability."

(I understand that it may be an act of prudence to refrain from early announcement, if the mother fears the chance of miscarriage and would like to protect her privacy. But a most beautiful mother I know has announced all of her ten pregnancies right away- including the seven that she was able to carry to term- as an act of honor and celebration for each little one, in a gesture that I think very much befits the crazy, courageous generosity of motherhood in general)

...and finally, our culture has a funny way of treating the mother- in -waiting like an incubator; she is told patronizingly that for the nine painful, emotional, highly involved months of her baby's gestation, she is merely a "mother to be." Give me a break.

In contrast, the seemingly innocent, constrained culture of the "I Love Lucy" millieu (twin beds, pearls, vacuum cleaners) presents a much, much more robust embrace of little ones, of sexuality, of humanity. In those days, there seemed to be a simpler recognition of the facts of life: a tiny human person was recognized as just that- a tiny human person. He or she was not deemed to be anything else. The baby's mother was also just that- the mother. And the same for the father. Alive and well, a growing, unborn "baby," with "parents" to protect and provide. And so we see in the language of the first scripted announcement of a pregnancy, at the dawn of modern media. You can watch it here. All so blunt, so uninhibited. Lucy is "having a baby." As soon as she knows, she goes to tell her husband. There's no reticence; she tells Ethel about her urgency to announce, and then the announcement is made in celebratory song, at Ricky Ricardo's nightclub. He exclaims to the crowd of unprivate strangers, "I am a father!" He sings, "we're having a baby, my baby and me." No hedging around with fetal viability. No mincing with the idea of prospective "parents to be." No cordoning off the baby's unborn life, lest it interfere with the privacy of others. Lucy is enceinte; that means there is a "baby," and that baby has jubilant "parents." The little one is "expected" by all, only in the sense that anyone "expected" regarding their arrival, already fully exists, and is already acknowledged, invited, rejoiced over.

We've come a long way from the culture of that sitcom, the NPR program continued. In one particular regard, the modern wives and mothers that crazy Lucy anticipated have been liberated into a whole new nexus of desires and opportunities. And yet at the same time, the way we think of ourselves has digressed into a strange agnosticism, such that we have come to speak ambivalently, and so very prudishly, about our very selves, even in the midst of our newly available opportunities. We are women, with nuptial and fecund meaning inscribed in our bodies, not workplace agents with a dibilitating susceptibility to fertility. If and when we become pregnant, we are then and there fully engaged *mothers*; we are not warming ovens with morning sickness. And the little ones conceived within and from us are little *babies*, developing onwards from the moment of their conceptions into the bouncing, teething, triumphant little tots they will become.

...this may all be a study in semantics merely, but I don't really think so. The seemingly prudish and innocent culture of the I Love Lucy era displays a kind of primal freedom that we in our modern "liberation" have lost. Lucy may have had to wear pearls and high heels to do her housework, but she had not been so confused by the modern world as to second guess the facts of life.