Colleen Anne Britton
I looked to the dictionary today to define birth, but the words that I found there were inadequate. Fact of being born, (Fact? Youd think so, wouldnt you?) act of bearing or bringing forth, (But Ive borne so much already and what is to be brought forth for the big event, mother or child? 1). You see, I am pregnant again, (being with child or young fraught, filled or abounding full of meaning full ofpossibilities, involving important issues or results, or momentous. Ah! Thats more like it.). Only twomonths along and already in transition. As my body works through its evolution, I realize my mind hasjust as much preparation to do. My "passages" are brief, but many. Expected, yet surprising. At timespainful, yet always, promising. I wanted this child so much. I longed for the changes she would surelybring. All but one. I was prepared to be patient with all the "turmoil" of another growing child, butunprepared to be patient with the turmoil of a growing mommy. Of course, I shouldnt be surprised. Ihave done this before after all And all my questions seemed similar, but none of the old answers fitanymore. So I searched a big heavy book for words of comfort. Black and white explanations; words that would stabilize the transient me.
I discovered that I couldnt trust the words I found to define what birth is, no less to define me. I searched for synonyms and antonyms, but still, I was afraid. Like before. Like the first time but different. So I thought about the birth of my first child and tried for a while to access a new resource: me.When I recall Cail�ns birth, my memories do not begin at her "arrival", but long before. The long months of a difficult pregnancy, the near universal disapproval at our choice of a homebirth. One month blurred into the next as I staggered through my commute, braced myself for the tenth or eleventh bout of vomiting and returned home to a worried husband who wanted to be as sure of having the baby at home as I was but wasnt-yet. So often I asked myself "What is happening here?" This wasnt pregnancy, this was stress! Pregnancy was a round glowing woman who patted her belly in an orange juice ad ("Has your baby had enough calcium today? ) "Dear God," Id think, "please dont let me lose any more weight today let my baby be o.k. Id part with serious cash to hold down some orange juice Im so hungry." I was constantly sick, so much for the roundness constantly retching, so much for the glow. Superstitious by nature (or perhaps by heritage), I couldnt bring myself to shop for Lilliputian clothing and pastel nursery accessories until the last few days, so all my preparations had to take place within myself. Unable to fit any of the definitions of pregnancy that surrounded me, I focused on coping with all the disapproval. I fought "the world" for my right to birth where I felt safe. (I was actually accused of child abuse by a stranger on a train who asked the usual trap question "Where are you having your baby?" And I always felt compelled to answer It was a daily ritual of accepting thoughtless abuse from strangers, interrupted only if a bout of nausea forced me off the train or focused all my attention into a paper bag.) We still joke that nobody was more surprised than me when I got a baby at the end of it all. My physical body, roused from three trimesters of shock and dismay, rose and ate untroubled the next morning. My mind reeled with the discovery that I was not ill and the baby was the billion-dollar bonus. No, I didnt seem pregnant by the worlds standards. (Or at least not Madison Avenues ) I didnt gain, glow or shop. Inside I gained courage to own my birth, inside I glowed with the realization that a quiet miracle was taking place and my nursery harbored seedlings of new faith that God would care for this baby that overwhelmed my body. It was a lot to cope with. The inner work never matched the outward appearance. My heart was filled with possibilities but my mirror reflected a thin, pale woman. My mind embraced the challenge of birth while my intellect struggled with the belief that my weak body could manage it. My convictions about the safety and beauty of homebirth grew stronger as the questions that surrounded my growing midriff turned from polite concern ("Oh, will a Dr. be there?") to blind panic ("You know it was LUCKY my wife was in a hospital because the monitor told us he was in distress and the cord was wrapped around the babys neck NINE TIMES!" "Good God!" Id answer under my breath, "That would make it roughly the length of your garden hose!" ) I doubt if any real awareness was achieved in the minds of my many detractors during these conversations but I do recall "throwing in the towel" emotionally at some point. Id still do it my way, but seeds of doubt made me wonder if theyd be etching on my gravestone at the end of this adventure, "She did it her way." I knew I was loved, but felt so alone. So alone I asked myself "Whats going on here?" It was in the last hours before my daughter was born, when I began to wonder if anything but pain was taking place that the answer came. As the hours wore on, I came to know that change was taking place. My baby, I was sure, was my baby from the moment of her conception. These months of development for her too were simply change. She continued to change as she made her first public appearance. Still to animated, purple to pink She did it all so easily, with no apparent awareness of her own metamorphosis. My midwife commented on her vitality and lack of stress during labor, "Oh baby, you dont even know its your birthday!"
How gracefully she made her birth change. She required no preparation for the transformations she made all on her own, month by month and moment by moment. No classes or long talks, no confusion or crying jags. She allowed herself only the brief moments of emergence and capture into waiting arms to turn from the "mystery" baby on the inside to our first child on the outside. I did not make my birth change this gracefully. Month by month and moment by moment I oscillated between excitement and awe and ambivalence and fear. I grieved the loss of my figure yet my swollen belly was my only assurance that my thinning body was still on task. I suffered heavily under the weight of others disapproval, yet my stubborn refusal to abandon my homebirth made me proud that I was strong enough to protect my child. I tried to ready myself with exercises and childbirth classes, but to my surprise, none of the birth films explained how a pregnant woman becomes a mother. Numerous texts categorized me as a woman of "optimal" age to bear her first child, but they couldnt have meant me because they didnt describe how young I felt. I was, at best, a child-woman, illicitly stealing a gift meant for someone wiser.
The process itself (that I rarely thought of as pregnancy) was, at once, exciting and terrifying. This body was mine, this child part of me, yet so much of it seemed completely unknown to me; the baby a subtle invader in a weak dwelling. If I overcame my superstitions and spent my evenings and lunch hours shopping for baby things, I could not change my bodys rude responses to my little one. Even if I let family and friends give me a baby shower, I feared my baby would never know that at least my heart knew she was an honored guest. Experienced mothers squandered their precious knowledge, though I imagined at the time that they just hid it from me. When I asked questions about birth, they always responded with answers about birth. Maybe no one realized, I wasnt asking about the baby; I was asking about me. Silently I begged "I know what will happen to the baby, but what will become of me?" After months of introspection I longed for the secrets that only women can tell; for cellular level feedback. But our culture is not set up that way. Maybe I was asking the wrong women; maybe I was too afraid to ask the right questions. Then, finally, labor was upon me; an unexpected visitor after nine months of expectation.
I remember thinking I couldnt possibly be ready. I was still afraid. I thought Id be "ready" when it was "time" and when it was "time" Id be unafraid More importantly, the awaited magic hadnt happened. I was not a "mother," I still felt like me. A day passed and my best efforts produced nothing. My birth team waited; excited and expectant. But I was not expectant anymore. I was becoming sure that the six of us would remain huddled in that dimly lit corner of my bedroom forever. They would croon comforting words into my aching body and counter-pressure every painful spot, but I would never be ready and my baby would never be born. Even my thoughts lingered in half phrases, unprepared (until now) to form the words that would acknowledge my fears. It was there, in that corner, when the passing time had begun to lose its meaning, that I heard someone whisper "Are you ready for your baby to be born?" My heart cried out "No! But how I want her!" No. So simple. It was what I should have said. It was not my heart but my body that responded, "Well, Im ready to have these contractions stop."
"Then tell your baby to come out. Shout until she hears you!"
"I cant yell at my baby."
"Sure you can!"
It was a plan born of mind-reading geniuses. It was also the only plan available. I had to give it a try. I heard a feeble voice (mine) say "Come out baby." The words did not come out as strongly as I had hoped, but they came out. Something real had come out of me. All things were possible again.
Soon after, my reluctant body brought forth my first child and I was born a new mommy. Wrapped up in the euphoria of my sweet ones birth I put off reflection in favor of joyful weeping and the immersion of my senses into the wonder that was my child. It was not until much later that I realized how well I had done. How smart my body was, holding back until all of me was ready; until that unnamed moment only instinct could sense, when all the doorways between mother and child aligned for a perfect passage.
Cailin is two and a half years old now and she is still helping me, each day to unfold as a mother as she unfolds as a child. In seven more months, I will realign the doorways again when my second child enters and my life as a mother of one departs. And again, I am afraid. My baby's arms are buds, but in seven months they will embrace. My arms wont change at all so I wonder how they will move the child of my heart into her own warm crook to be cherished there while I embrace yet another. My babys heart has only just begun to beat. My own has been beating for twenty-six years and I dont know it well enough yet to know how it will encompass both children as well as it does one. My child-woman self is expected to be wiser now. No one pretends to know more than me anymore. I am a mother now, shouldnt I have the answers? It seems funny that it is now that I most want them to know all the secrets I long to uncover. I want someone to explain how I can let the new person I am about to become emerge without losing the old one that has come so far, so faithfully. It is a tug at my heart from the child-woman me that feared and wondered before Cail�ns birth. The longing to be shown what I know must be discovered alone.
I am haunted now by the sudden "discovery" that my family was already perfect. With one child we are still a tight unit, streamlined to fit anywhere. My husband and I can still go anywhere, be anything. We are still young; just beginning the adventure. Now we will be four, and I am wondering if perfection is flexible. I sense that we are on the threshold of an even fuller life, yet I still wonder if our "adventures" will soon be over. My most pressing thoughts are of Cailin. What can she be feeling as we prepare for the new baby? When our birth day comes will she feel thrilled and bonded by her participation as littlest midwife or will she feel betrayed by us as we welcome another? I look at Cail�ns birth pictures often now and as I recall the midwifes gentle words I remember that hiding my feelings only increases my pain. I also see in those old photographs that the faces and hands that filled those hours in my bedroom did more to define me than my dictionary ever could. I realize now that there are no shortcuts. Birth changes are labor, and that work must be done. So I still fear, but now Ive begun to trust as well. This time Ill reach and grow however it seems to suit me at the moment and simply trust like my baby does. I will trust that those last hours, laboring in the quiet of my room, will be enough to birth all the necessary changes, once again.
Im beginning to suspect everything will be fine; that, perhaps, my best adventures are just ahead. But the answers can wait a bit longer now because I have made it my work these days not to rush my story to its conclusion. I began this day in a failed attempt to define birth, but I will end it peacefully, waiting, once again, for birth to define me.
1. The flavor of this expression was taken from Margaret Atwoods "Giving Birth" from Dancing Girls and Other Stories, 1977.
Colleen Anne Britton 2,420 Words
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