Last week, I awoke and noticed that my wedding ring finger had turned bluish and was quite swollen. After 20 minutes of plunging my left hand into ice water and anointing it with oil, I was able to remove my wedding and engagement rings. Thus began my adventure into presumed unwed motherhood.
Let me back up. I'm 27 years old, extremely happily married, and beginning to be noticeably pregnant (thus the swollen fingers). People are curious and talkative when you're pregnant. The person in line behind you at the grocery store, the co-worker who has never spoken to you before, and your great-aunt Mildred all come out of the woodwork with questions, advice, and horror stories about pregnancy and childbirth. Typically, the stranger in the store wants to know when the baby is due (June 11), if it's a boy or a girl (we're not going to find out), and if it's our first (yes) followed by some anecdote about their own or a relative's pregnancy. "When my sister-in-law had her triplets ... ." It's easy enough to answer, listen, nod, and move on.
However, my sudden absence of a wedding ring brought out a whole new attitude I'd never experienced before. In the midst of the busy pre-Christmas shopping rush, I spent a lot of time standing in lines, which gave me the opportunity to have unlimited awkward conversations with strangers. Most have gone like this:
"Oh, you're pregnant! How sweet! When is the baby coming?"
Furtive glance at my left hand.
"Oh ... umm good luck?"
Pitying look. Refusal to make eye contact. Continued sideways glances at my hand and then my belly. End of conversation.
My favorite interaction thus far was with a cashier at a local alternative grocery store. It began the same as all the rest, but instead of the strained silence, I was told, "I hope you sue the bastard for child support." I was torn between the desire to defend myself, the desire to say, "I'm married, but I'll pass your sentiments along to my husband," and the temptation to go for total shock value: "Sperm donor number 24678 won't be supporting us, but my lesbian lover has a great job, thank you." Being the wimp that I am, I just paid for my food and walked away.
Is it still 1954? Do we still assume that unwed mothers should be shipped off to a distant relative's house until the "problem" resolves itself? Is the sight of a pregnant woman without a diamond on her finger that repulsive to people?
I have never felt so disrespected in my life. These nosy strangers actually made me feel ashamed of myself and my baby, as if I had done something horribly wrong by showing myself in public with a round belly and no wedding ring. Does it really make my pregnancy more acceptable if people know that I'm married to the father of my child?
I work with infants and toddlers for a living. I don't have up-to-date statistics for San Luis Obispo County, but I can say that I've met a large population of single mothers in my work. The fact that they're not married doesn't mean they love their children any less. They work very hard and have an incredibly difficult job as the head of a household and a mother. In fact, many women are choosing to remain single even though they're in a committed relationship with the father of their child because, if they were married, they wouldn't qualify for certain insurance plans that are the only way their children can receive the medical care they desperately need. These women should be applauded for their courage and the sacrifices they make for the children they love not ignored, pitied, or belittled in grocery store lines or made to feel like they're somehow second-class citizens because they don't have a husband.
And another thing: Pregnant women swell. That's just biology. In pregnancy, a woman's blood volume doubles, and she's replacing amniotic fluid every three hours day and night. That's a lot of extra fluids! Most every one of us gets to a point at which we cannot wear the jewelry that used to fit our hands. How presumptuous and ignorant it is to assume that if a finger lacks a ring, the woman isn't married. I have often thought that maternity clothing stores could make a killing if they got into the jewelry market buy a larger pair of jeans and get a ring that fits while you're at it. Perhaps I should start a business.
I have been tempted to run out and buy some cheap bling to adorn my ring finger, but instead, for all unwed mothers out there, I think I'll invest in a T-shirt that declares I'm "knocked up" and wear it proudly while showing off my naked, swollen hands.
Yes, Sarah Miller is Editor Ryan Miller's wife and the mother of his baby.