Searching for a theme for my 'delicate condition'

Caleb Walsh illustration

The moment I learned I was pregnant, I started thinking about themes. It's not every day that I'm given an opportunity to throw a nine-month party centered around myself (oh, and new life), so I wanted to pick a fun theme that was both timeless and hinted at my complex yet ill-defined feelings about "society." A steampunk theme hit both those targets, with the added bonus that, like motherhood, I had very little idea what it was about or why anyone would do it, especially given the daily onslaught of new and terrible things to worry about.

My husband and I had been trying to get pregnant for what felt like a long time, even though we had some reservations about bringing a child into a world that, in almost every way, was becoming increasingly hostile to human life. Then, suddenly, my body came through. I was "in a delicate condition," as Victorian moms-to-be would have put it. My journey to motherhood had started, and I knew from the moment I saw that pink plus sign on the plastic stick that I was going to do it my way. For me, at this time in my life, in this economy, that meant a steampunk pregnancy.

click to enlarge Chelsea Martin
Chelsea Martin

I started with the obvious: full coverage aviator goggles, an elaborately geared pocket watch I could strap to my Victorian maternity gown (once I found one), and a miniature velvet top hat to wear cocked to one side of my head and dramatically pull off to reveal a tiny loaded pistol.

At first, I got a lot of pushback from the people closest to me.

"I don't think you should buy a custom leather corset with moving gears while you're dealing with morning sickness," my husband said.

"Your pregnancy doesn't need a theme," my friends said.

"Please don't bring bronze surveying equipment with you to prenatal appointments," my midwife said.

"What," my mom said.

I ignored the negativity and forged ahead (slowly, on my antique high-wheel bicycle, with a bike light strapped across my chest with a leather belt). This was about more than fashion, after all. This was about distracting myself from the horrors of the world with elaborate ceaseless cosplaying. I was determined to get through this pregnancy in a style so arbitrary and confusing to me that I couldn't begin to formulate an argument against it. I didn't want to ask myself "why?" in regard to steampunk or motherhood or the condition of the planet or my role in making those conditions better or worse. I just wanted to live in an alternate reality while I built a human, a reality centered around a fictional world built on steam power. It wasn't that complicated.

I crafted a studded expandable maternity bra with clasps above the cups so it can also be used after pregnancy, when nursing.

I bought an old-school gramophone and decorated it with random cogs and antennas to stand by so baby can listen to Spotify's steampunk playlists.

I ordered nonalcoholic absinthe and ornate copper chalices and made mocktails for my baby shower.

As I near the end of pregnancy, the questions ring louder in my head every day: Why are you doing this? What is the point? Are you OK? Are you going to be able to do this? Was this the best choice? What are you hoping to get from this? Where did you put your monocle?

And the answer, every time, is a quiet, shaky, I don't know.

Chelsea Martin is the Spokane-based author of five books, including Caca Dolce: Essays from a Lowbrow Life. Her website is

Norman Rockwell's America @ Northwest Museum of Arts & Culture

Tuesdays-Sundays. Continues through Jan. 12
  • or