In 2015, a woman at work asked if I was pregnant. To my face. In front of other colleagues. In front of svelte colleagues standing next to me.
A year later, another woman at work got into the elevator with me as I balanced two huge trays of leftover lunch to distribute among the unpaid interns seated downstairs.
“I hate to ask, but are you pregnant?” she asked.
I felt all the blood simultaneously rush to my face and out of my brain. Mortified, I could only eek out, “No, I’m not.”
She didn’t say sorry. She said, “Oh well, you know, I hate to ask,” as if I were in the wrong for confusing her with my body and how I carry weight in my belly. She hated to ask but she just had to. She was entitled to that information when she couldn’t quite figure out my figure.
I wanted to gracefully say, “Well, no one compelled you to ask and that’s the danger of asking rude questions.” I wanted to smash the boxes into the elevator buttons and shove the extra carbs in my face, sandwich after sandwich like Goya’s Saturn Devouring His Son to prove that I didn’t care what she thought, that she didn’t know my life! Instead I got off the elevator without making eye contact when we reached the fifth floor, hoping I didn’t drop anything. I felt so small.
From preschool to college I was actually small in stature. Not just skinny and short but a good foot shorter than my classmates. The well-documented bat/bar mitzvah season of 2000 looks like my friends are generously tolerating someone’s little sister at the parties.
Kids in middle school gossiped that I was anorexic. Some probably thought I was sick. I bundled the waist and binder clipped my Limited Too XXS pants to get them to fit. I couldn’t bear any more humiliation of shopping in the kid’s section of department stores.
No matter how much junk food I put into my body, my preteen and teen size never changed. Half a lifetime ago I ate donut holes and whole milk for breakfast, chips and salsa before field hockey practice in the afternoon and an entire Italian loaf with butter and Coca-Cola for dinner. I remember seeing one of my best friends meticulously log her calories on college-ruled notebook paper during our tenth grade pre-calculus class. It looked ridiculous. My mom always told me how lucky I was that I had a fast metabolism, like my dad. I would never have to worry about my weight.
I started to look like a woman in college. My body filled out and no one mistook me for a high school prospective student. It was a good thing. I finally had boobs, my butt from field hockey, and a mostly flat stomach despite my diet of bread, popcorn, cereal, and cheap champagne. A more confident girl would have finally taken that bod out for a spin from time to time. I could finally get boys’ attention. I could act on my crushes rather than playing them out in my head because I didn’t look like someone’s younger brother anymore!
But I didn’t flaunt my figure in college. Or rather I didn’t flaunt it for the straight man’s gaze. I was fine dressing slutty for a night out on campus with girlfriends and gay friends, sporting my best low-cut going out top, tight flare jeans, and Rainbow flip-flops. But using my body for actual sexual contact was out of the question.
Is this a good time to explain why, friends?
Like any undergrad art history student, I read John Berger’s Ways of Seeing. He writes one of the most basic truths in this seminal text: “Women watch themselves being looked at.” I was well aware.
I grew up in one of those neighborhoods that wasn’t gated but had the same safety bubble effect for young families. Hundreds of upper middle class, mostly white families lived in the preplanned community in one of the dozen or so styles of house. There was a swim and tennis club. The whole neighborhood went to the same elementary school. Neighbors became friends and then family-friends. Parents were hyper involved in their kids’ lives and in their family-friends’ kids’ lives. My family didn’t fit in particularly well with this social scene.
You see my mother is beautiful.
She has high cheekbones, blue-hazel eyes, blond hair, a tiny waist, and a playful demeanor that makes small children flock to her. Despite her claimed insecurities, I’ve associated every pretty blond woman with her from a young age: Julie Andrews in Sound of Music, Meg Ryan pre-plastic surgery, Princess Diana and Natasha Richardson, RIP. I also picked up on my mother’s propensity to flirt with men who weren’t her husband from a young age. She was an outsider among the mothers that ran the PTA and Girl Scout Troop.
And by March 1997 I was nine years old and I had noticed my mother’s drinking. I knew she hid alcohol in the closet with our Christmas presents. I knew she would leave the movie theatre to go to the restaurant next door to get a drink. I knew she spiked her Diet Coke cans. I played dumb: asking her what she was doing after she replaced the handle of vodka in the cabinet over and over and over again.
“You are just like Dad and Nana!” she would say to me, and stomp off to my parents’ bedroom on the first floor of our house. My sister and I used to sit on the top of the stairs, listening to our parents have wall-shaking screaming matches across their bedroom and the kitchen and the living room.
“You never loved me, you treat me like shit!” my mother would say.
“This is bullshit. I’m not doing this,” my dad would say. He would try to walk away. Stay calm. Don’t engage.
“You and your father, and your brother, none of you have any respect for me. After all I do for you. You treat me like garbage. I don’t deserve this, you condescending asshole.”
Allie and I would naively yell, “Please stop and just get along!”
The neighbors definitely heard.
The blue carpet. The sad brown floral bedspread. The ironing board. On this particular March 1997 day, my mother awakened from another “nap” and sat me on the bed. I could tell that she had been crying. She told me that she had an affair with my best friend Cassie’s dad. I asked her what she meant. She bitterly told me that I knew what that meant.
My mother told me through tears how hurt she was. That he made her promises that he would take her away and they could start a new family and adopt kids from Asia. My broken mother confided her disappointment in me, a fourth grader, about no longer being able to start a new life with my best friend’s dad.
No wonder she drank.
“You know that wasn’t her first,” my dad says to me twenty-one years later.
We are at a bar, his old college bar, chatting over beers and chicken sandwiches about how his and my mother’s three-year divorce is still dragging along, three years after I found out about it while sipping champagne with him at my birthday lunch. We are chatting about his regret for not ending the marriage sooner, at least when I was in college. Chatting about the Big Things that shaped our lives that we’ve spent two decades not talking about.
“John, right? Wasn’t he her therapist?”
“John Morris,” my dad said.
My mother finds the most inappropriate relationships within any group. She would flirt with the video checkout clerk in front of my sister and me. She formed bizarre friendships when she worked at United Airlines and would gab about how funny the Canadian pilots were to my sister and me as if she were being coy about which boy on the football team she fancied and who would become her beau. She invited male friends from Alcoholics Anonymous over to our house, making me so uncomfortable that I would hide in my room until they left. I would lock the door.
I asked my mother during her early years of sobriety when I was eleven or twelve if she had slept with him yet, the AA guy. I asked in the middle of the mall parking lot connecting our Saab to JC Penney. She was mad. She was insulted.
“Why would you ask that?” she said.
Why wouldn’t I ask that? I knew how to recognize patterns.
Back to John Morris. Back in Connecticut. Before we moved to D.C., before my dad left his New York consulting job for a new job in D.C. that would allow him to actually see his young family, my mother was sleeping with her therapist. How do I know this? How did I know this before my dad confirmed it for me just weeks ago at his college bar? I was four when we lived in Connecticut and John treated my mother. I remember waiting in his office’s waiting room. Alone. Cool tones decorated the waiting room, and I remember sitting in a chair on the right side of that room. I remember the door to his office in front of me.
Were they having sex in there? Did I know at the time that they were having an affair or did I only put it together in hindsight? After The Incident when I was nine, I would wait for my mom in other therapists’ waiting rooms, and in the Georgetown hospital waiting room during her group outpatient sessions, and in the car outside the church of her AA meetings, and on the front steps of our house hoping she would come home. I remember holding things while I waited. My Beauty and the Beast video game, Number the Stars, Lily’s Crossing, the cordless phone. Did I hold anything in John’s office? A Highlights magazine? A toy? How do I know this?
At least Dad confirms this first affair. My mother told him – well, no. We had just moved to D.C. and he found out by overhearing a conversation between her and Uncle Michael, the most stable and reliable of her siblings. My mother would remind my sister and me that if anything happened to her and Dad, we would live with Uncle Michael. She told reliable Uncle Michael over the phone that she had an affair with her therapist in Connecticut. John Morris. I would have only been five when this reveal happened, newly in D.C. with no family or friends. We were living in a temporary ground-floor apartment in Georgetown while my dad started his new job and looked for a permanent house for us in a good school district. The smell of boxes and crates in liquor stores brings me back to these early Georgetown days when I would go with my mom for another bottle of wine.
“Hey, weren’t you here yesterday?” the clerks would ask.
After my dad overheard the phone call about John, my mother continued the affair. She claimed she and my aunt were going on a retreat, but she would actually go see him. Did she want to run away with him too? Start a new family with John?
My dad and I aren’t sure how I knew so much when I was that young. My dad tells me now over beers at his college haunt that an attorney told him to sue John Morris at the time. He didn’t pursue it.
Is John still a licensed therapist? I have his number. I looked him up. I could ask. Do you remember me, the tiny, shy, curly-haired girl from your waiting room?
I want to know if my dad loved my mom like a husband loves a wife before he found out about John. I want to ask if he was heartbroken when he learned about John, if he saw my mom as his wife up until that point, and then his wife cheated on him and broke his heart even though he had made all these changes to bring his family closer together. He was alone in a new city where they knew no one and he had no support. Dad tells me now that he didn’t care about the second affair with Cassie’s dad. So he must have cared about the first. He must have felt hurt. Not the kids, him. As her husband. Is this true? Am I strong enough to ask? I also want my dad to be free.
My dad’s cousin Susan posted old family movies on YouTube a few years ago. Her dad, Uncle Dale, filmed Christmases and Easters, and decades later she uploaded these silent films and added nostalgic music to the background. These adorable, sweet snippets of my dad as a toddler opening Christmas presents and rolling around on a bed in his footie pajamas drinking a bottle absolutely destroy me. He was just a kid. He looks so sweet and cute.
His family looks happy, and I know they weren’t. I feel so much compassion for him. I hurt for what a happy son expects from his family in those first innocent years compared to what he would live through with each passing year: his own mother’s scary heavy drinking and depression; the criticisms of his father; the wedges between him and his older brother; the death of his mother; the death of his father; his estrangement from his younger brother; the death of his sister. Who took care of him? Who takes care of him now?
Hearing my dad talk about John and Cassie’s dad punch me in a primal place that I don’t like to visit. I want to reach back in time and snuggle that toddler version of my dad when I learn, for a fact, how alone he was through all of this trauma and how he felt like he was the only thing keeping his girls together. I want to protect and comfort him. I'm grateful that he entertains my line of questioning about our past. I'm not sure if he has talked directly with anyone about... all of it.
So when my mom told me in her bedroom that March day in 1997 that she had an affair and that I knew what it meant, I suppose I did. I had been through this five years earlier. But the fallout was not the same. At least for me.
I knew facts about my mom’s affair when I was five and didn’t feel singled out by the neighbors, but by the time I was nine I knew we were being looked at. I knew how my mother was looked at by this neighborhood of gossips. Can you blame them? The boozy pretty housewife slept with Cassie’s dad! My mother went to their house and banged on the door, demanding for him to come out and see her. His wife called my dad.
“I’m going to call the cops,” she said.
“Go ahead,” my dad said.
I didn’t remember my sister being scared that my mom had AIDS when she learned about the affair. She learned days before me when she overheard Mom and Cassie’s mom fighting on the phone. Cassie’s older brother was in my sister’s grade in school. But let’s not go there yet, friends – there is too much to cover where my sister’s and my memories diverge.
My sister didn’t develop the same shame that I did around sex after 1997. To me, sex was something that liars and bad mothers did to ruin their families. My sister didn’t recoil from being kissed or intimately touched as if she would have to confess these moral indiscretions to the whole family, to the whole neighborhood. But I felt people looking at what I did, what we did, and I cared. Walk the line. Sex was something you had to own up to. Why would you do something that would make you feel guilty?
We were raised Catholic, but not that Catholic. My shame originated from knowing that our family was being looked upon badly. From middle school on I took the safe role of confidant and advice giver to friends that were allowed to date, even though I had no romantic experience to draw upon. I used my body to be speedy in sports and tolerate massive amounts of caffeine and sugar to fuel my homework-filled nights to maintain a 4.0 in high school.
A few years ago, I ran into a mom and daughter from my childhood neighborhood. This woman pretended that she didn’t know me. When her daughter reminded her that I grew up in their neighborhood, was in the same grade as her younger sister, she said, “Oh yes. How is Cassie’s family doing?” Adults continued to bully me into my twenties for something my mother did when I was nine. I carried her shame in my body.
Knowing what happens when you are looked at, how attention can make you hate yourself, I would not have sex for longer than I would like to admit. Prolonged virginity carries a shame similar to that of being the neighborhood home wrecker. I asked my therapist permission to have sex with Rob for the first time. I felt like I had to.
I don’t own this body; the people looking at it do. They are the authority.
So pregnant, huh?
I wanted to take control when I first felt things getting away from me weight-wise my senior year of college. Somehow. So I signed up to model for a figure study class.
Stay with me. I was a nude figure study model during my senior year of college for the introductory drawing class because… who cared?
For two hours, I modeled. I posed in angles the students needed for their work: standing with my long curls framing my face, lying down with my arms over my head, sitting with my legs to one side looking over my shoulder as my back muscles tightened. I posed in front of students I recognized – some I had classes with, some I ran in social circles with, some who creeped me out. Some I had crushes on.
No one aside from my doctors had seen me this naked before. But this was fine, because my naked body was for artistic purposes, not sexual. I wanted to prove to myself that my body was fine, that I had a functional body even if I was too scared to have sex with it, even if it was growing a potbelly. I chatted with the students during a break in the two-hour session, sitting naked on a beanbag in the center of the room talking about classes, but I refused to look at any of their sketches because I had a sense that they captured the image of a brave woman that was four months pregnant. It was the first time I tried to really own my body. I didn’t feel confident in it, but I accepted it.
After college I started gaining weight in the way that worries women: was I getting fat? At the time, I didn’t know that I had polycystic ovary syndrome, a hormone imbalance that can make women become insulin resistant, and makes it very difficult to lose weight, especially around your midsection. I thought that I was getting older and that I had to try proper food and exercise at some point if I wanted a change. But I felt young and wild and didn’t care at that moment what happened to my body. I wasn’t trying to seduce anyone, and even if I wasn’t the skinny college freshman anymore, I would still get on that figure study platform in front of a class looking like this. So pass the nachos and I’m never exercising!
I officially started to care about how others saw my body when a woman at Safeway thought I was pregnant. I was I openly weeping for unknown reasons (probably the hormone imbalance) while checking out with a pack of tortellini. She pointed at my stomach and sympathetically nodded, saying “Because of the baby?”
I laughed. I laughed because what else could I do. “No,” I said, not wanting her to feel bad. I got my pasta, took it home, and then smashed a plastic to-go mug with a hammer. I let my rage and shame fly into shards on my carpeted apartment floor.
Thus I began trying to control my body for the first time in my life. I knew I was blessed with my metabolism and genes, so I thought this would be a matter of willpower: exercise regularly, pack my lunch and stop binge drinking every weekend. So easy! But something scary happened when I tried. Nothing happened to my body.
I still had people on the metro offering me seats, nodding at my belly even when I sucked in my stomach. I remained very aware of my posture after spin class. I avoided eye contact with good-intentioned but mistaken passengers. A homeless man once wished my future child and me well as I walked up Wisconsin Avenue in a billowy shirt on a blustery day. My heart races when sweet, curious children are around because I fear they will ask if I have a baby in my tummy.
I’ve made some boring diet and exercise changes with help from my doctor to relieve the symptoms of PCOS, which, oddly enough, mirror a lot of what my newly pregnant friends report: upset stomach, excess fatigue, weight gain, only wanting beige carbohydrates. The funny part about being asked if I am pregnant, though, is that statistically, women with PCOS have more trouble getting pregnant.
“But don’t worry, you will never know if you will have issues getting pregnant until you start trying to get pregnant,” my doctor says in her thick, compassionate Russian accent. She always closes our appointments with “Good seeing you. Be well.” I love her.
The funniest part about my mistaken shape is that I will never try to get pregnant. I know how much pain a mother can cause a child. I would never inflict that upon any little girl. My mother knows I don’t want kids, but she doesn’t know that she’s the reason.
When I was nine, a great schism appeared in my family, right there in the blue carpet below my feet in my mother’s bedroom. That carpet was in the house when we bought it and came with us when we moved a few months after everyone learned about the affair. This conversation, about how my mother’s needs weren’t being met, activated me. I became the source of validation and unconditional love rather than the recipient. She just wanted someone to love her.
She would say this often, before and after the affair. “Oh I want someone to love me,” she said while driving down the parkway or standing in the kitchen or flipping through the TV channels. It was like how a fairytale princess would say it.
“We love you, Mom!” my sister and I would say.
“I don’t mean like that,” my mom would say.
She was deprived of love. But she couldn’t get what she wanted from the men she slept with. Sex didn’t get you anywhere. In fact, it got you the opposite of the love you really craved.
I saw my mom as a lonely woman in the aftermath of this confession, this rupture in the fabric of my dysfunctional family. She was still my mother, yes, but also just a person. A person who didn’t have the answers, one who was lost. A person who needed things outside of her family to live.
Then so did I.
One of my mother’s favorite, inaccurate, hurtful accusations to throw at adult-me when she is calling me disrespectful or selfish is that “I didn’t raise you like this.” I suppose that’s right. I raised myself with my dad. I left your care when I was nine, Mom.
Friends, please try to focus on pregnancy accusations. How would they make you feel? Whose observation is more important: those who see me as pregnant based on their own two eyes or mine as the source, knowing I am not and will never be? Which truth is more plausible? What I know to be true won’t change how people see me and what they think they know about me when they see me. They think they have facts. But I have the truth.
So why do I care? I don’t know, but I do.
Elizabeth Cooper was born in New Haven, Connecticut. In 2009 Cooper earned her Bachelor of Arts in Political Science from Davidson College in Davidson, North Carolina where she learned that every day is a great day to be a Wildcat. Cooper earned her Master of Arts in Writing from Johns Hopkins University in 2018, where she learned it is ok to make mistakes. Cooper works and lives in Washington, D.C. with her husband and their imaginary cat. She has many feelings and friendship castles.