Last year, on this day, I went into labor on the first Sunday of Advent. I didn’t realize this at the time; I was skipping church each Sunday in favor of sleeping in late with my skeptical husband, trying to catch up on the sleep that was being robbed each night by back pain and frequent trips to the bathroom. I was still working full time during the week, toddling through each day behind an impossibly huge belly, only vaguely aware that I was about to give birth in the season of The Birth.
Not that I had to attend church to be reminded of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph and all that. I saw them constantly, most often and most depressingly in the forms of bobbing, inflatable lawn ornaments with cartoonish faces – Mary wearing a shapeless blue tarp like a rain poncho, Joseph looming limply over her, and somewhere in there a blow-up Christ child. These were only their nightly forms; in the day the little air pumps would get turned off, presumably to save someone’s power or dignity, and the Holy Family would wilt completely into a pile of plastic on the front lawn.
That wasn’t the only version of the nativity scene around, of course. But one commonality among them was that Mary tended to look remarkably clean and, well, refreshed for someone who just labored in a barn all night. I did not look so serene after giving birth. I looked traumatized, like a shade from the underworld, leaning back against a pillow literally soaked in sweat, my eyelids swollen from being clenched shut for hours, the eyes behind them marbled with burst capillaries.
What were we thinking on that long-ago St. Patrick’s Day, my husband and I? What made us imagine we could do something as reckless as create another human being? There was no divine command; no angel appeared to me in a blaze of terror and light to say this is what you must do. It was just us, Michael and me, feeling frisky and perhaps a little bored and so full of love that we needed to make another body to contain it, to catch what was spilling over.
We had no idea what we were getting into, this business of incarnation. How can anyone? It must be entered blindly. Did Mary know how it would end? The angel told her all the good stuff, son of God, reigning forever and all that, but did his eyes whisper something else, some foreshadowing? With this honor comes the promise of pain.
There is no record of this warning. But perhaps Mary knew it somehow, if only in her marrow. Even the divine Word, becoming flesh, shriveled down to a cluster of unknowing cells to speak only the language of the body. When the Word was in Mary, doubling and unfurling from fish into human, what did he know in that enclosed sea, the tiny god-being, of truth or sin or certainty? Warmth is what he knew, and watery movement in filtered orange light, and the hushed sounds of voices outside.
The word was made flesh, yes, but what about after? Did Mary tear as she split herself open in the stable? Was she alone with him at all, her first and perfect child, before the men trailed in to worship him?
I know one thing. Mary didn’t stare herself in the mirror, perusing her postpartum body with a mixture of horror and fascination like I did. But she must have noticed the metamorphosis, the enveloping of her girl-body into the flesh of a mother: heavy breasts blooming with violet veins, and a soft, spongy belly – perfect for cuddling God. She must have felt the buzzy tightening of her ducts releasing milk, the rawness of her nipples those first few days. And of course she must have bled, like her son one day would, for weeks.
This is her body, broken in birth; how do we remember her?
I kept my eyes closed almost entirely during labor. I labored in darkness, descending deep within myself, trying to burrow under the pain that was radiating to my spine in hot jolts. But at that last moment – at once an epiphany and an annunciation – my mother pulled away the cool cloth covering my eyes and in a rush of water and dazzling light my son spilled into life and onto my stomach, covered in blood and goo, and we touched for the first time, skin against skin, along the length of our newly split bodies.
So much is said about the ripped and tortured and dying body of God, but what about the body he came in? The one like my son’s, tiny and hungry with skin soft as ash, and hands that spring open like little stars, grasping in the air for something, someone.
I am grasping, too, struggling to funnel this moment into language, to find words that can touch its vastness – such flimsy tools, these clusters of letters, but they are all that I have.
We are embodied words, all of us. We are bundles of language and skin, the consummation of some impulse or desire, some word brought to fruition.
What word is it that my son incarnates? Mary said yes. We said: let’s.
Yes, let’s. Let’s give this word a body and welcome him into the world. And look! Here he is now, our word made flesh, warm and wriggling in close for a drink of sweet milk.
This is how Atwood’s story ends, hinting at the transfiguration that has occurred in the life of Jeanie, the woman who just gave birth:
So, starting with that documentary, my perspective on birth began to shift so much that, three years later, I was choosing to pursue an unmedicated birth myself. Even though the scheduled c-section/tummy tuck combo is all the rage with celebrities these days, I wanted to really experience labor. I wanted it to surprise me, coming on whenever my womb and Julian had reached some tacit agreement that “it was time,” and then I wanted to feel my body contracting, my baby descending; I wanted to know fully what it meant to give birth to a human being.