The Woman Without a Shadow

by mraynes

cross posted at The Exponent

mr. mraynes and I are opera geeks. I spent the first years of my college career training to be an opera singer; mr. mraynes has spent the majority of his doctoral program immersed in opera scores, learning how to conduct them. Where a lot of couples have a song taken from pop culture, our song was “Liebestod” from Tristan und Isolde. Every major moment in our relationship is connected to an aria or opera. Dating…Cosi Fan Tutte. Falling in love… “Liebestod” . Engagement…Turandot. Marriage… “Morgen” . Birth of Baby Monster… “Song to the Moon” . Birth of Baby Valkyrie…Brunhilde’s Immolation. (Sorry, I couldn’t resist sharing these moments with you.)

And so it should not have surprised me that the first thing mr. mraynes said to me after getting an IUD was, “Ahh, die frau ohne schatten,” meaning ”the woman without a shadow.” Now for those not familiar with the Strauss opera, Die Frau Ohne Schatten is a fairytale of love blessed through the birth of a child. As lovely as this sounds and despite the absolutely breathtaking music, this opera is a feminist’s nightmare. You see, a woman without a shadow is a woman who can’t have children…making her not a real woman and therefore, not human. Throw in a little domestic violence and the belief that women are chattel and you have three hours of anti-woman fun.

At the beginning of the opera we learn that the Emperor of the Southeastern Islands will be turned to stone unless is wife, the daughter of the King of spirits, becomes human and gains a shadow. Of course, it is hard to feel sorry for the Emperor when we learn that he captured the Empress and believes that she is “for my soul and for my eyes and for my hands and for my heart. She is the booty of all booty without end.” Despite being captured and married against her will, the Empress goes in search of a shadow so her husband won’t be petrified. The Empress and her nurse meet a human woman who resents her life as a domestic slave to her husband and doesn’t want to be a mother because she fears children will further enslave her. Long story short, the nurse convinces the woman to sell her shadow to the Empress. When the woman’s husband finds out, he threatens to kill her because without her shadow, without the ability to bear children, she is useless to him. Luckily for the wife, the Empress refuses the shadow, saying she will not save her husband at the expense of another man’s happiness. This act of self-sacrifice allows the Empress to gain her own shadow. The opera ends with the two couples united and fertile, singing the praises of their humanity.

As a feminist, there is so much in this opera that I find objectionable. I resent the belief that my only value as a woman lies in my ability to bear children. This belief can be found around the world in almost every culture. Historically, women have not been allowed to become fully actualized individuals, not allowed to explore the things that would bring them the most happiness. Instead women are forced into a lifestyle they wouldn’t necessarily choose. For women who can’t have children, there is the feeling of failure on top of the overwhelming sorrow that comes along with infertility. Women who are childless, whether by choice or not, are often seen as dangerous and are at increased risk for emotional and physical violence.
Of course, the pendulum can swing too far the other way as well. In cultures where maternity is glorified, female subordination often goes hand in hand. The idea of the angel in the home, while romantic, only serves to infantilize women and take away their ability to be agents unto themselves. A doll’s house existence is no existence.

Second wave feminists worked hard to give women like me the choice to become mothers and also follow our dreams of self-fulfillment. But socialization dies hard. When mr. mraynesreferred to my shadowless status, I felt guilty. I cried while the IUD was being implanted. Even now, when I think about that small piece of plastic floating around in my uterus I have to fight off the urge to reach inside and yank it out. I admit that I have felt like less of a woman knowing that my fertility is compromised. Intellectually I know this is ridiculous and I am ashamed of myself. I have no right to feel this way. I have two babies and though I have chosen to see them as the crowning achievement of my life, I don’t want my choice perverted by some outdated notion that my worth lies exclusively in the fruitfulness of my womb. Getting an IUD was absolutely the right thing to do; it was right for my marriage, for my children, for our current financial and life situation and for my own state of mind.

And yet…I am haunted by my shadow.

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