On Balance "Lady Justice" statue: blindfolded woman holding scales

Published on February 1st, 2022 | by Elsa Valmidiano

2

When the Body Speaks

Remember the mornings
when maternal ancestors would awaken
and not want to face
the day of a Spaniard
calling them to their quarters

their bodies a physical resource
to master appetites. Anxiety
must’ve struck their hearts
as they traversed across rice paddies.

The dread that hung
on every footstep
like iron balls
and off they went
with no other option.

Their anxiety morphing
their double helix
to double helix
to me.

How far now
do great-great-great-granddaughters
walk to offices every morning
the weight of their feet
on concrete sidewalks

and the morning wind colliding
against skin and breath
as if it were
the same brown soft skin
and ancestors’ own breath

shuddering
as a white man still claims
our arrival.

***

Imposing office building viewed from the ground, looking up; a barren tree is in the foreground
“Standing before your boss, 2017.”
All photos courtesy of the author unless otherwise identified.

For ten years my husband and I tried for a baby. After several years of trying to conceive naturally and then suffering one miscarriage, we decided to go through six IUI’s—the maximum suggested by our fertility specialist before considering IVF. All six failed while I was working as a litigation assistant at a high-end, high-stakes law firm where I didn’t have time to use the bathroom and had to rush through a very late lunch at 3 PM.

Both the treatment and my work environment pushed my body to its limits. How did one physically and psychologically demanding experience impact the other? And why did both seem like measures of my worth as a woman? If we break, the story is that we are weak and unworthy to compete in a man’s world. But what if this society runs on toxicity masquerading as success? It’s the lie we’re made to believe our entire lives.

Three years of acupuncture treatments, herbal medicines, invasive medical procedures, and fertility drugs yielded no baby in the end.

The Work Environment

As a poet and abortion rights activist, I was naïve about law school and applied at the urging of my practical father, barely got accepted, wanted to drop out the first year, but, again at the urging of my father, miserably pushed myself to a mediocre finish. Upon graduation, nonprofit work was not an option to meet the high cost of living and paying off my loans.

Eight months into my first law firm job, work life was grueling and demoralizing. At 27, long before pregnancy was an immediate desire, I woke up one morning and realized I didn’t have it in me to be a lawyer. Trapped by debt, I reasoned that working as a litigation assistant would keep me financially afloat, put my JD to some use, and give me time to write and do my reproductive rights activism. A litigation assistant position combined the responsibilities of a paralegal, legal secretary, and document reviewer—all in one. It seemed like what the position lacked in prestige, would make up in livability.

As it turned out, I quality-checked and organized tens of thousands of pages of documents for legal discovery and court filings, and researched cases, statutes, and local court rules, while still making sure there was paper in the printer. At four of the six firms throughout my legal career, it was not rare for me to work until midnight or as late as 5 AM, four hours shy of a 24-hour workday. Even a “normal” workday made very little room for lunch breaks and bathroom breaks.

My proven ability to “work in a fast-paced environment” while appearing absolutely Zen in the midst of a fire drill gave the partners the green light to add to my workload. The workload would inevitably become impossible, though I would force it to be possible because that’s what was expected. I reasoned that my experience could never be as bad as that of a full-fledged attorney.

By thirty, I was not only working a demanding litigation assistant position, but I was a poet, an activist for a Filipina women’s organization, a Planned Parenthood volunteer, a post-abortion talkline counselor, and a marathon runner. I was also in a serious relationship with a man who is now my husband. Free time was never free.

Laptop, phone, and pencil on a desk with a black mug that says "Hulstle" in white letters
Photo by Garrhet Sampson on Unsplash

I took two unpaid sabbaticals: one to do reproductive rights work in the Philippines, and the other to work on my writing. For two years, I even cut down to a part-time position to complete an MFA in writing. But I always returned to litigation assistant work to cover my loans and the high cost of living in the Bay Area. It seemed like I was living the “work hard, play hard” mantra, which ultimately proved to be the unhealthiest way for me to live.

I moved from firm to firm, anywhere from boutique to mid-size, climbing the pay scale and hoping for a better work environment. The pay improved but the toxicity didn’t.

At nineteen, while in an abusive relationship, I became pregnant and ultimately chose to terminate. Almost twenty years later, when I wanted to be a mother, I couldn’t get pregnant. Fertility is complex and under-researched. It would be an oversimplification to say that stress prevented me from getting pregnant; after all, it hadn’t when I was nineteen. But it certainly wasn’t helping matters.

The Fertility Journey

My acupuncturist suggested that quitting my job might be the best way to stop the chronic stress and increase my chances of getting pregnant, but how could I quit when my job was paying for the fertility treatment and even the acupuncture itself?

The medical and wellness communities both agree that when levels of the stress hormone cortisol increase, progesterone levels decrease. Progesterone deficiency is one cause of infertility.

By the time my husband and I were ready to start a family, I learned that I had already aged out of my insurance plan’s fertility coverage, which was only available to women under the age of 33. I was never aware there was a cut-off age. If I had known, I am unsure whether my husband and I would’ve felt compelled to meet the age deadline. I had also just started a new job and hadn’t accrued much paid time off. I took one unpaid day for each IUI, but those who have gone through it know that the process requires multiple appointments, ultrasounds, and medications throughout your cycle.

I laugh and cringe when people offhandedly tell me, “Don’t stress. Then it’ll happen.” That’s like telling a passenger in a falling airplane to not crash.

The back of a small brown-skinned child shows a sticker that says "Pass the reproductive health bill!"
Reproductive Health Bill March, Manila, Philippines, 2008

When compounded with the cost of treatment and the other privileges necessary to conceive, the fertility struggle feels like a further politicization of our bodies, of who is and isn’t allowed to have babies. When we talk about reproductive justice, we’re usually talking about the right to avoid or end pregnancy. But federal and state legislation and regulations; corporate and insurance company interests; societal expectations; economic infrastructures; and a white supremacist patriarchal culture can manipulate and minimize our chance at childbearing if not totally take it away from us.

For those who want to be pregnant, financial barriers and working conditions can cause us to put off childbearing until much later, when it’s more difficult to conceive. A woman’s income or lack thereof is tied to her access to abortion. A woman’s income or lack thereof is likewise tied to her access to fertility treatment. It should come as no surprise that Black and Brown women are disproportionately affected when it comes to the accessibility of abortion and fertility treatment. Race and class are inextricably tied together in this country, and Black and Brown women have the most to lose when corporate and legislative limitations curtail our reproductive freedom. While this discussion centers cisgender women, nonbinary individuals and transgender men face an added layer of marginalization in their own efforts to access fertility treatment. Our bodies and our choices, forever tied to the American dollar.

Tobacco terraces in the Philippines
Ancestral Land, Cabugao, Ilocos Sur, 2009

The Intersections Between Work, Stress, and Fertility

Despite western medicine’s statistic that women’s fertility declines rapidly after the age of 35, I chose to rely on my family history. If my mother, grandmother, great-grandmother, and great-great-grandmother could have healthy babies well into their late thirties and forties, then why not me? But ultimately, I couldn’t. I can’t fully know the answer to that question, but the weight of urban societal pressures and chronic stress that women face today is very different from the agrarian lives of my maternal ancestors in the Philippines.

During my time as a litigation assistant, I experienced two episodes of proctalgia fugax, which can be induced by chronic stress. I’ll let you look up what that is and won’t explain it here except all I can say is I experienced it twice, and twice was enough. The pain was so excruciating that fifteen minutes felt like hours.

The first episode occurred while I was at work. I had been sitting at my desk in the middle of a lengthy discovery project when stabbing spasms erupted in a part of my body anyone probably hopes never to think about at work. It’s an understatement to call them spasms. I thought maybe I needed to use the bathroom, but as I sat in the accessible stall—for some reason thinking I needed a lot of room for whatever I was experiencing—the spasms only intensified. I pulled up my pants and immediately crouched into a fetal position in the corner of the stall. If anything, I was glad the bathroom floor of my corporate building was so spick-and-span that it seemed okay to completely crumple onto the bathroom floor in my business slacks and fancy heeled boots. Had my great-great-grandmother ever found herself crouched in a fetal position suffering stabbing spasms, worried about a 5 PM deadline?

I took deep breaths and started to imagine myself calling an ambulance. There were two other stalls in the women’s bathroom, but I was all alone. I could not help crying in pain as I crushed my knees to my chest praying the pain would go away. I imagined the ambulance making their way, stretcher and all, to the twelfth floor, making such a scene that it all dissolved in my head out of shame before anything could materialize.

I took more deep breaths for a few minutes and then rose from the floor, debating whether I should just go home. I washed my hands and looked at myself in the mirror. I knew very well I couldn’t just drop everything. A tsunami of legal discovery had to be served by the end of the day.

I straightened my outfit and slowly walked down the hallway when the pain subsided. I approached my desk cautiously and sat down very gently—in a way where I wasn’t putting complete weight on the area where the stabbing pains had originated. The rest of the day, I made no sudden movements of any kind, and took several deep breaths. No one noticed the physical turmoil I was experiencing. Luckily, I was able to serve my discovery and finished the day without further incident.

When it happened again two days later, waking me in the middle of the night, I lay in bed Googling, trying to figure out what the hell was wrong with me. I didn’t bother waking my husband. What could he have done except stay up with me and worry?

When I told my husband the next day about what had happened at work and in the middle of the night, we both agreed the stress of the job had reached fever pitch, that everything about the work I had been doing for so long was finally and literally ripping my insides apart.

During this same time, I had just gone through my fifth failed IUI.

Brown-skinned woman with a tattoo on her left arm lies on a bare mattress with one arm across her stomach and the other above her head
Photo by Jonathan Borba on Unslplash

The Need to Dismantle White Supremacy in the Workplace

Since I quit my job, I haven’t suffered another episode of proctalgia fugax. My periods are also healthier, even without acupuncture and other medical treatments. If not for infertility, my periods speak to me as a marker for my general health. While working at the firm, I tried to force my uterus to be healthy, but I was in an environment that was actively hostile to the hypothetical baby’s mother. My body would never be safe to house a baby.

I now sleep, eat, and rest well, more than I ever did in my almost twenty-year career. I no longer rush myself to do anything. I currently have long discussions with friends about white supremacy in the workplace regardless of what industry we’re in. We never named it before.

By white supremacy in the workplace, I’m referring to what American grassroots organizer-scholars Tema Okun and Kenneth Jones describe as a culture—one which underpins professionalism today—where “objectivity” is hyper-valued; urgency and quantity are paramount to quality; perfectionism leaves little room for mistakes; and certain styles of dress and speech are centered. In this environment, traditional values from Black and Brown cultures are dismissed.

In an American society that glorifies work but undervalues the worker to the point of physical and mental exhaustion (not to mention the denial of benefits for millions of workers), rest and self-care are downplayed as laziness and self-indulgence. I am also a Brown Asian woman and daughter of immigrants, with high expectations from my own parents to succeed in an industry that remains overwhelmingly white and privileged.

Despite all the praise about my work at all of the law firms I have ever worked at, I never felt supported unless I demanded it, which is emotionally taxing in itself. The responsibility for a livable working environment falls on the worker. And those in authority wonder why the “good ones” always leave.

One story: An attorney, Latina, early thirties, fresh from maternity leave, was not offered a break during a long client meeting to breast-pump. She had to sit for five hours straight, risking mastitis and breast engorgement. When she voiced how she was unable to breast pump or even eat lunch due to the managing partner’s failure to call for a break, she was told, “You should’ve just said something.” As if the meeting were easy to interrupt.

A second story: An attorney, Asian, late twenties, had worked up to the last possible hour during labor at the firm before she rushed herself to the hospital to deliver her baby. She was applauded the next morning for her hard work and determination, with little acknowledgment given to her health, well-being, and even that of her baby.

A Filipina woman with dark hair and a gray hoodie sits at a desk lit by a green-shaded lamp. A typewriter and a stack of books are visible in the background.
Working from Home, 2020

A third story: An attorney, white, late twenties, had arrived at the office one morning and, after an hour, decided she needed to go home. No one at the time knew she was pregnant and was suffering morning sickness. When the partner found out how abruptly she had left to go home even after it was explained she wasn’t feeling well, he was upset she would “just drop everything like that.”

A final story: Me, a litigation assistant, Filipina, late thirties, had just suffered a miscarriage. I took two weeks off to recover. My boss, a white woman, agreed to the weeks off but tried to find out more information about my miscarriage from coworkers and even my husband when I told her I didn’t want to discuss it. When I returned to work, the office manager had resigned for a better work opportunity. My boss wanted me to take on the office manager’s role on top of my litigation assistant responsibilities. I told her she would need to hire an office manager and I wouldn’t do it regardless of her offer of a pay increase. She determined the office manager job could be easily combined with my workload, which she determined was not heavy. I resigned a month later.

A white supremacist work culture conspires against pregnant women, women trying to conceive, and new mothers in an industry that society perceives as prestigious. All the women mentioned above were not law partners. With the exception of one or two men of color in the highest position as partners, the partners of the firms I have worked at were always white men and white women.

I do not come from a family of lawyers. I do not come from money. I come from two hardworking parents who encouraged me to earn the best education so I could have “all the things.” It was a well-meaning lie. It’s such an understatement to say, “We tried to have a baby, but it just didn’t happen.”

Gone now are the days of periods mucky and brown. In fertility speak, you cannot successfully plant in dry, cracked soil and expect anything to grow. All the fertility drugs in the world could not defy what Mother Nature was trying to tell me.

It seems unfair to gauge my life as less stressful without children when an unbearable workload contributed to making it impossible for me to conceive in the first place. One cannot downplay the toxic effects on the body happening in the workplace. Your body will tell you when something is wrong. And you need to listen.

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About the Author

Elsa Valmidiano, an Ilocana-American essayist and poet, is the author of We Are No Longer Babaylan, her award-winning debut essay collection from New Rivers Press. Her work appears in Mud Season Review, Cosmonauts Avenue, Anomaly, Cherry Tree, Canthius, Hairstreak Butterfly Review, among many others. Her work is also widely anthologized. She holds a JD from Syracuse Law and an MFA in Creative Writing from Mills College. While Elsa writes on a variety of topics, her focal points are issues affecting women—from her discussion of worker conditions, fertility, reproductive rights, sexual assault, to just about anything that affects every woman on this planet. For more information, please visit her website at slicingtomatoes.com, where she also curates a directory of Pinay visual artists and their work from the Philippines and Diaspora.



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