We Can’t Run from Our Bodies: A Conversation with Aileen Weintraub

March 28, 2022   •   By Megan Margulies

ALMOST A YEAR AGO, I invited a handful of women writers whom I had never met, but interacted with through a Facebook writer’s group, to meet every few weeks over Zoom and workshop our writing. I invited these specific women because of small connections: their humor, their love of essay or memoir writing. It only took a few workshops to realize a larger common thread in our work — our bodies. And not just the focus on body writing, but the struggle we all faced with its loss of control, its mysteriousness, and the disbelief it often faced. I’ve struggled most of my adult life with the fear of the unpredictability of my body. As a woman, my body’s failings have left invisible scars, doubts, and insecurities. Learning to accept my body, allowing it to fumble and then forgiving it, is something that I work on daily. Finding these women, sharing our experiences and essays every few weeks, was affirming and fueled me to continue with my own body writing. 

One of these women, Aileen Weintraub, had just sold her book, Knocked Down: A High-Risk Memoir (March 2022), about a commitment-phobic Brooklyn girl suddenly faced with a high-risk pregnancy and five months of bed rest in a rickety old Upstate New York farmhouse. Reading Aileen’s book felt like a heart-to-heart with a good friend — at times insightful and at times poking fun at the absurdity of it all. I talked to Aileen, in our own Zoom heart-to-heart, about how she struggled with the forced stillness, the difficulties it presented to her marriage, emotional health, and relationship to her own body.

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MEGAN MARGULIES: At the beginning of the book you introduce yourself as a “commitment-phobic Brooklyn Girl.” As a young adult who was used to running from uncomfortable situations, can you talk to me about the impact of your high-risk pregnancy and orders of bed rest — something you couldn’t run from?

AILEEN WEINTRAUB: Being on bed rest made me feel like I was trapped in a body that wasn’t mine. Knocked Down starts out in Brooklyn, where I’m a free-spirited girl who loves to travel. I have this great city life; going to bars, meeting people. One minute I’m dancing on the famous Hogs & Heifers bar throwing my bra into the crowd, and suddenly, it seems like in the next minute I’m on bed rest in a haunted old farmhouse. There was no escaping my body and my situation. It was very difficult to navigate.

As that young, free-spirited girl, I never thought, “Oh, my body’s something that could betray me.” Often, we don’t think about these things until we’re confronted with it. We often feel invincible or that medical trauma happens to other people. It’s something that we are not prepared for, and that the medical community does not always take seriously. I felt abandoned. I felt lost. I didn’t have enough research to know what was really happening, and I didn’t feel like my doctors were really seeing me.

There’s a scene in the book where I’m talking about how each day of bed rest brings something new — whether it’s gestational diabetes or hip dysplasia where I can barely walk. I’m watching the slow disintegration of my body in real time. And every day I’m adding pills and vitamins, and all these different regimens to keep this baby alive, and to keep myself alive. It gave me pause as I began to understand that this is what people with long-term health issues deal with, and how it’s almost an invisible struggle. It was a moment of awareness and understanding.

You spent most of bed rest alone in your house, struggling with its physical and emotional impact. Did you feel like other people understood your struggle?

A lot of people said to me, “Oh, you’re so lucky. You get to lay around in bed all day for five months.” That was painful to hear. Everyone has this idea that bed rest is going to be fabulous, and you’re going to catch up on all your reading and Netflix. Nobody ends up in bed for five months because they just want to read books. They’re struggling. I was in a new home and a new community, I didn’t know a lot of people. It was very isolating. My husband was trying to keep us afloat financially. I’d lost my career and with it my autonomy.

Because my Brooklyn community was far away, much of my support was over the phone. I had one good friend who used to come visit. She’s fierce and feisty, and she gave me great advice. One of the things she told me was to keep my hand in the pot at all times when it comes to work, and to not depend on anybody. I had another friend who brought me lunch and old episodes of Happy Days. My mother also really came through for me. You can see the evolution of our relationship and how she shows up, not only as a mother, but as one woman to another — understanding what I was going through and being supportive in a way that really made me see her in a different light.

The bed rest was a forced pause for you and brought up some buried grief over the loss of your father. Did the forced pause help you work through unresolved things that you had been avoiding?

My father was my best friend, and I spent a lot of time grieving him in the way that I thought he wanted me to grieve — to get over it as quickly as possible. What I realized while on bed rest, staring at the ceiling with nothing to distract me, is that grief is like a tree. The roots will spread and spread and you can’t contain it, but you can acknowledge it, appreciate it, and nurture that grief because it’s not going to go away. I started drifting into prenatal depression and realized that this was how my father must have felt in his own struggle with depression. All those years he couldn’t get up and he couldn’t function in the way we had expected him to. This left me with a new kind of grief because I never had the opportunity to say to him, I’m so sorry that this is what you’re experiencing. What can I do to help you?

When I was experiencing prenatal depression no one really noticed, and I couldn’t put words to it. So many women struggle with the idea that we’re supposed to be grateful during pregnancy, and that it’s always such a joyous time. It’s not. Sure, there are women who have wonderful and magical experiences, but the reality of being pregnant is that it’s difficult for many women, and it’s important to acknowledge that.

The way in which your bed rest made you reevaluate your expectations of your father and his body is really powerful. We all do this, and I think it’s especially true for women. Do you feel like you had these unrealistic expectations for your own body?

Oh, absolutely. I was born and bred to have kids. I came from a Jewish community that taught me how to be a good mother and a good wife, and I just assumed I was going to pop out babies. I was going to be like Mary Poppins. I was not at all prepared for what hit me. I had shame about my body failing me, and I now know I’m not alone. A lot of women experience shame when it comes to their body. We think: Why are we not able to perform the way society expects us to perform? All of the depression, grief, and doubt piles on, and our bodies just keep absorbing it.

I wrote Knocked Down in part to change the conversation. We have to talk about our grief, our shame, and our bodies much more. We need to make our voices heard. We need to make our health-care needs known. And we need to start advocating for ourselves.

When we get married we say “in sickness and in health,” but it’s not that simple. How did your difficult pregnancy challenge your expectations of marriage?

When you say “in sickness and in health” to a young couple, they’re often not thinking about the sickness part. Or the health part. They’re just saying, “Yeah, we’re getting married, this is great, and we’re going for it.”

So much happened in our lives in a really short amount of time. My husband, Chris, had just lost his father. The day that I found out I had to be on bed rest, we signed the purchasing documents for a power equipment business. We were living in a farmhouse that was in desperate need of renovations and was literally falling down. There’s a scene in the book where we find something incredibly unusual in the foundation that’s essentially, somehow, holding up the house, and it’s almost a metaphor for our marriage — we keep piling on things and of course something at some point has to crack. Chris was working 12-hour days at this new business, and it was a huge learning curve for him. No one expected me to be on bed rest. I was planning to work part-time at the store and contribute financially with my freelance writing. It all just started crumbling away. And so how does a marriage survive that? You’re not working on your marriage in a crisis. You’re just trying to keep your head above water.

My husband supported me the best way he could. He was keeping a roof over our head and working hard. He had a new business and a sick wife, all while grieving his own father’s death. Sometimes he would come home and throw up from stress and then get right back to work.

Your book touches on serious issues, and you write these heart-rending scenes, but then you make me laugh on the next page. Was the humor an intentional balance for the hard stuff in your book?

The book is filled with humorous moments, and that’s done purposefully because I want people to feel like they’re talking to a friend over a glass of wine or a cup of tea, to discuss their issues and laugh. When you’ve been through trauma, it helps to find pockets of happiness and humor. There’s one scene that takes place at my father’s funeral. We are all crying and grieving, the rain is pouring down as we’re shoveling dirt on my father’s coffin, and suddenly my mother shouts that she’s lost her keys. Everybody freezes and looks toward the grave. In retrospect, it was a very funny moment during a very sad time. Life is not linear.

How have the themes of your book dictated what you want to focus on in your writing career moving forward?

Before Knocked Down, I published a book called We Got Game!: 35 Female Athletes Who Changed the World. Even though it’s a middle-grade nonfiction book, it really is a segue to this book because the themes are very similar. Both books are about women, their voices, and making sure we’re heard. I write about equality both on and off the playing field, about being taken seriously, about advocating for ourselves and uplifting other women. That’s the direction that my work is continuing to go.

It was important for me to write Knocked Down because not only did I want to tell my story, I wanted to create space and light for it in the world. And, in doing so, I’m hoping to help others feel that they’re not alone, that they have a story to tell, and their story is worthwhile.

I think a lot of women are blindsided when it comes to their health. Many times, we feel like we’re supposed to just ignore it, buck up, and go on with life like everything is fine. That affects not only our physical bodies but our mental health. I really would like to raise more awareness about how our mental health suffers when we don’t take care of ourselves physically.

So, what’s the other side of the story? For these hardships and/or medical traumas? Did you walk away from your high-risk pregnancy with any nuggets of wisdom?

Life doesn’t throw you curveballs. Life is the curveball. We’re always going to be faced with obstacles. When we get to the other side we’re different people, and we’ve grown. Life is about navigating these moments and working through our trauma and our grief and finding wisdom.

With all our flaws and all our pain we get to know ourselves better, and it really whittles down what’s important in a person’s life; what you can tolerate, what you can’t tolerate, what you’re willing to sacrifice, and what you’re not willing to sacrifice.

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Megan Margulies is a memoirist and freelance writer. She is currently working on a book of essays about learning how to trust her unpredictable body. Visit her website at meganmargulies.com.