On Being A Pregnant Carpenter

I’m not sure the jobsite or the lumberyard or the trades can handle me and my body deep in a new conversation.

October 17, 2019

Kate Hubbell
If I Had a Hammer
Katie Tandy

ooey this body.

I think I’ve always had a sisterly sort of relationship with my body. I love her, deeply — she has been there for me and carried me thus far, reliably and devotedly. I believe in her basic capacity and feel grateful that we’ve been able to love one another without a whole lot of effort or friction these last 35 years. But that’s not to say we haven’t had our shit or a sisterly dose of bickering and vanity — that I haven’t wished for a less squishy stomach, more ripe-for-the-mirror muscles (you know, the kind of definition you can admire in your reflection whereas my strength is housed in softness), less underarm jiggle, less underass dimples.

And this isn’t to say I haven’t doubted my body at times and forced her to double down her strength on my doubt. Why do you so quickly assume I can’t bike across the country?! I’ll show you not only that I can, but that I will and that we’ll both love it. She was right.

I’ve had creaky hips that don’t like airplanes since I was 23. I’m a fainter, highly sensitive to poison ivy and oak, with the biggest tonsils the school nurse has ever seen. But overall, I am a some-body that is mostly healthy and privileged to get along pretty darn well with this corporeal side of myself.

And I use her — this body of mine — a lot, for my work. I am a carpenter, a natural builder, a tile setter, a tinkerer, a salvaged wood seamstress. I have worked for general and specialty contractors, I’ve worked for myself, and I am currently piecing together a hybrid of both.

Whichever way you map it, being a tradeswoman remains a path that is still remarkably not well-traveled. But for me, it is labor and it is love.

I love sweating and feeling my muscles engage, I love wielding a power tool with confidence and turning a pile of raw material into something beautiful or useful or both. I love learning new skills that require my body to work in collaboration with some piece of machinery or material — a trifecta of body, material, and machine that serves to unlock the way the physical world is put together.

And I love being a paradigm shifter.

I’ve mostly learned to accept — and sometimes even appreciate — the subtle eyebrow twitch I see when someone asks what I do and I say, I’m a carpenter. I tried saying I was a builder for a while — it felt more inclusive of all of the types of making I do — but it didn’t translate for people. I haven’t been able to tease out whether that is connected to my sex or to people’s discomfort with ambiguous language. I suspect that when a man says he’s a builder, it is a familiar visual and paradigm and is readily accepted.

When I say I’m a builder, people are like — a builder of what?

The body:mind relationship of working in the trades is its own multi-layered eco-system — the lumberyard, the job site, the trucks and terms and systems. It is full of so much physicality — bodies load and unload wood, tools get organized, connected, oiled and fired up — and equally full of so many social and cultural nuances, unique to this particular little world.

Some of these involve men grappling for comfort with my presence, curious what I’m doing there, what I know, who I work for, where I learned it, whether it’s possible that I am actually doing this by choice — and those that have nothing to do with me.

How the electrician relates to the tile-setter, whether everyone eats lunch together or sits alone in their trucks, what languages are being spoken, who is attempting to speak in a language outside their own, what a struggle or success in communication can do for the spirit, who is in charge, who is the ‘labor,’ where alliances are struck, who’s tidy and organized, whose tools are left splayed and dust-covered at the end of the day; whether there is a porta-potty or the shoes off tip-toeing to use a client’s bathroom. Who is schmoozing with the client, who is cowering — is there ice water offered on a hot day?

But to be clear, it is a thing to be a woman in that setting. It is not common, and thus people have a reaction to it. Positive, negative, people are calibrating and adjusting to what they’ve known, how it has been, what was modeled as “normal.” And I accept that. I also want to change it.

I can see where we are within the timeline of patriarchy and there is ample room for change and progress.

I think the jobsite, the lumberyard — the trades in general — need many more women and non-cis men in their folds, more people of color in positions of leadership. I think it’s imperative and we need to push these old systems apart to make new space, different containers, and new paradigms that ensure that the tradespeople who build the structures and spaces we want to live in, are reflective of the world’s diversity.

But with all that said and deeply believed, I’m not sure the jobsite or the lumberyard or the trades can handle a pregnant carpenter. Which is what I have become. Which has me and my body deep in a new conversation. It has me seeking a new relationship with the physicality of my work, re-defining what my current and future self are capable of, and very confused about what I ought to expect or accept from the rest of the world.

Anyone who’s been pregnant or raised a child can surely attest to the sea of contradictory information about what you should and should not be doing that riddles every stage of pre and post-natal development. It is the rabbit hole of all rabbit holes, a spiraling galaxy of information that at best creates more questions than answers and at its worst, can be so heavy with insecurity, contradictions, and potential shaming, it might be the real cause of morning sickness.

With something as faintly charted as being a pregnant carpenter, I’ve found very few real-life models to turn to — and little to no literature or concrete advice on how to gracefully intersect these two worlds — but the incessant self-questioning of each decision still forces one to try to seek out guidance.

I challenge you to find me a relevant google search result for pregnant carpenter.

In my first attempt, Google autocorrects to Pregnant Carpenter Ant. The images aren’t that exciting (this is no seahorse) and the advice given there — the queen prefers moist and rotten wood to establish a new colony” — is terrible from a carpentry perspective.

Google readily auto-populates people’s curiosity about the pregnancy status of these celebrity Carpenters however; Jennifer, Sabrina, Karen, and Sharon. Not one of which feels helpful to my current quandary.

I did find one blog called Pregnant…with power tools, which had a post outlining the noise decibels of various power tools as well as at what stage of pregnancy the baby can begin to hear, which gave me a whole new conundrum to consider (A baby’s ears are mostly developed by about the 20th week of pregnancy, and babies start responding to sounds around 40 decibels between 24 and 28 weeks).

Apparently pregnant people are encouraged to avoid sustained noise levels of 80+ decibels.

But what does that mean practically and where do I personally fall in obeying such suggestions? Some feel instinctively clear — a rock concert rings in at 120–150dB and is not “advised”, but I will admit wouldn’t stop me. A busy street, an orbital sander and a garbage disposal all fall in around 80db — and also fall into my arbitrary if resonant gut-check of yeses. (Well, except the garbage disposal because I compost, duh).

Things over 80db however, pregnant people are advised to “use sparingly.” Circular saw, chop saw and tile saw — 3 tools I use pretty frequently — are all 100+ dB. How spare is sparingly?! Mom blog says only a minute or two — which, combined with the alphabet soup of bloggy acronyms (like DIYSAHM, AKA Do It Yourself Stay At Home Mom) left me feeling like this site, however informative, was geared towards the hobbiest, not the pregnant carpenter who’s trying to make their livelihood in the trades.

What about people who do this for a living and not a pastime? What if to take a job — to make money — I have to be around 100+ decibels of tile sawing for sustained periods of time? Is that irresponsible? Seems like it might be. The Mom blog also said definitely avoid using the table saw because any kickback will aim right at your pregnant belly.

All logical, but as I attempt to break myths around ability and frailty, how many caveats do I need to add to my CV?

Carpenter wants equal opportunity employment but can’t use table saw, any power tools over 100 decibels, may or may not be advised to climb ladders, supposedly should be highly cautious around anything that could be toxic — i.e. paint, stain, sealers, dust, and will need to pee (but where?!) every hour.

Even my most feminist friends are awkwardly trying to make sure I’m avoiding heavy lifting. It seems like human instinct to care for others in this way and it’s probably right. There are in fact studies that validate the myriad ways in which pregnant people are more vulnerable to injury, illness, toxicity… so the fact that our instincts tell us to aid and support the vulnerability of new life and the body that is carrying it makes sense. It’s taking care of one another in a time of increased need.

I support this! And I want to be supported in this way. But one cannot ignore the tangled layers of a deeply ingrained and misguided societal sense of frailty linked to femininity embedded in that same concern.

How different is a building or carpentry jobsite from the generally depressing state of toxicity and noise that surrounds us in so many settings? How different is the trades work I do from the physical work so many women do and have done across the globe since the beginning of time? As far as arduousness and physicality, I have no doubt my work pales in comparison to that of many.

So really it’s the darkness and loneliness of the uncharted trail more than anything else that has me spooked. Initially I thought maybe I was trying to hide my pregnancy at work because of some level of shame of doing something potentially harmful to my unborn child but I’ve realized I think it’s more that in this effort to belong in a world that isn’t really outfitted for me as a woman, I don’t want to validate some man’s belief that I can’t do the same things they can do…even if right now I can’t/shouldn’t/ought not to risk.

In the end, all I’m really looking for is more company at this intersection and a little help in carving out space to figure out how to keep being something, other than just pregnant.

A Coda

I wrote the original portion of this essay about 5 weeks ago. And I think a lot of it came from my own fear place as the reality of my pregnancy began to settle in, and I was simultaneously looking for work gigs.

Since then, I have been trying to just go for it — to hone the right balance of work and self-care, to be semi selective about the jobs I take, but also attempting to put away my fear and just keep doing what I do as long as I feel like I am able.

I am nearly 6 months pregnant and I can’t help but want to revisit how the world — so far — even the world of the trades, has exceeded my expectations in accepting me as I am.

The guy who rang me up at the lumberyard last week ever so gracefully asked, “what’s new and exciting in your world?” which allowed me the space to choose to confirm what seemed to be his suspicion of the baby bump expanding the stretch denim of my overalls.

And when I did choose to tell him his reaction was one of congratulations and simple, inane parenting tips: “start collecting those pet piddle pads now cause they really come in handy when you unexpectedly need a clean surface to change a diaper” and “think of whichever friend has the most 12-year-old sense of humor and run your name selections by them.”

There was no skepticism about how my bellied self was going to fare with the stucco patch or lumber I was buying, just genuine, “oh damn, welcome to the club” words of random wisdom.

And this past week I’ve been tiling again. I gave a heads up to the guy I’m working for about the pregnancy, and he too responded with a simple congratulations, and then just gave me a rundown of what sorts of tasks we’d be tackling the next day and if that all felt doable on my end. No patronizing, no woah woah woah, I’m not sure you belong here then, just an extra little check-in to make sure needs were being met.

I am feeling grateful and somehow humbled. I have set a high standard for myself over the years in not working for misogynists, jerks, or turdmongers (beginning with my father who is none of the above)—so perhaps I shouldn’t be as surprised as I am — but as it’s all unfolded more and more, everything feels ok, which is to say, manageable and full of kindness.

I’m sure there will be moments when it will not feel OK, another two months of uterine expansion might bring with it a very different song to sing and I do feel parched for contact with other pregnant tradesworkers (holler at me if you’re out there!) And I do have to pee with ridiculous frequency — which makes me bashful on site.

But today I am letting myself delight in my own surprise that this slice of humanity I’m orbiting within is ever so quietly helping make the new space I was looking for.

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