Category: giving birth

Incarnation

mary iconLast 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.

One year ago.

One year ago.

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Ricki Lake Made Me Do It

One of my favorite short stories is “Giving Birth” by Margaret Atwood. For whatever reason, long before I became a mother myself, this story has fascinated me, and I’ve returned to it again and again, writing essays about it in college, in graduate school, even including an analysis of it in my master’s thesis. Perhaps what has captivated me is its portrayal of the sea change that happens to a woman once she gives birth, the inner transformation that occurs, one simultaneously subtle and earthmoving. 

There are moments when I so completely enter this alternate reality of motherhood that I feel like I’ve always been here – and other moments, when I’m struck by the sudden and total shift in my life, that I feel knocked off balance. This happens to me most when I leave the house. The other day I met a friend for coffee at my favorite haunt, a place where I regularly used to spend large chunks of time, writing and grading for hours at a stretch. This was my first time in the coffee shop since having Julian – in fact, it was my first time away from him at all – and it honestly felt bizarre to be there, sitting at my usual table, ordering my usual drink, looking around at the other customers who were all unaware that the world had changed. 

Moments like that, when I run smack into remnants of my old life, reveal to me how much has shifted in my tiny universe – and how much the outside world has stayed relentlessly the same. 

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:

After that the baby is carried in, solid, substantial, packed together like an apple, Jeanie examines her, she is complete, and in the days that follow, Jeanie herself becomes drifted over with new words, her hair slowly darkens, she ceases to be what she was and is replaced, gradually, by someone else. 

Already I can feel that happening to me, the new words layering themselves, a new self emerging, the “someone else” whom I am turning into. Most of the time life moves at such a crawl that we remain blind to its constant change, but there are some experiences, like becoming a parent, that strike like lightning and, in just a flash, we are utterly altered. 

The experience of giving birth was like that for me – so much so that it’s taken me literally weeks to get to place where I feel I can begin to write about it, to attempt to funnel its vastness into words somehow. I have tried, unsuccessfully, to cram all my thoughts and memories about Julian’s birth into one blog post – and that is proving impossible, so instead I’m going to start a series of several reflections on giving birth. I’ll do this thing piecemeal, starting here. 

Ricki Lake Made Me Do It 

I used to be terrified of the idea of giving birth. And it’s no wonder, considering how birth is typically represented on television and film: the screaming woman lying flat on a stretcher, flanked by a pit crew of doctors who are whisking her down the hall in a panic, as if babies just sort of shoot out like torpedoes after five minutes of life-threatening labor. And once they arrive in the room with the fancy medical equipment, then the woman screams some more, and (if it’s a romantic comedy) yells angrily at the inept, doofy husband standing by her who is weirded out to be in the Land of Lady Parts, while the male doctor and his entourage of female nurses efficiently deliver the baby – and if it’s a drama or something historical, then there is only one male doctor and a lot of blood and somebody dies, usually the mother. Whatever the genre, the message is clear: giving birth is a painful, abnormal, dangerous EMERGENCY. 

How can women not be spooked by the idea of labor with representations like that?
This harrowing image of birth was amplified by snippets of birth stories I’d hear from real women. I was particularly disturbed whenever anyone talked about “tearing” during labor, as if she had to somehow split open to let the baby escape, as if giving birth was akin to being disemboweled. 

A big shift happened for me when I watched the documentary The Business of Being Born a few years ago. Along with a wealth of information about the medicalization of childbirth in the US, the film has a bunch of footage of actual births – and they were nothing like what I’d seen on TV. No panic, no sense of emergency, no screaming (not much, anyway), and perhaps most striking, these women seemed in charge of their own labors. They were the furthest things from passive patients; they moved around, changed positions; they seemed to dive calmly into the pain and hard work of labor, rather than struggling against it. Some of the women even delivered the babies themselves, catching them as they slid smoothly out of their bodies. For the first time, it really hit me that giving birth is a natural process that the female body, my own included, is engineered to accomplish. 

After seeing the footage of those live births (and trying not to be distracted by all of Ricki Lake’s crazy hats), my terror about giving birth dissipated and was replaced by gritty anticipation. This heightened once I got pregnant, as it began to dawn on me that the little being growing rapidly inside of me was going to have to come out, one way or another. At that point, when I thought about my impending labor, I had a kind of rush, like something I used to feel before a basketball game, or a big race. I felt like flexing and shaking out my muscles, putting on my game face and saying: Let’s do this. 

That is not to say that I didn’t have any anxiety about the process – I did. Well, one primary fear, really: I didn’t want birth to be something that happened to me. I wanted to be like one of those Zen goddesses from Ricki Lake’s documentary who just seemed to deep-breath babies out of their bodies. I didn’t want to be the screaming woman flat on her back while a slew of medical professionals buzzed around, extracting the baby. (Spoiler: I will save the full birth story for another post, but I would end up being pretty much a mash-up of these two images.) 

Before watching that film, the idea of having an unmedicated birth sounded crazy and, well, a little show-offy to me. The whole “did you do it naturally?” conversation seemed like a maternal pissing contest. I had the simplistic notion that medicated births were smooth, seamless, and relatively painless, while the “natural” births were more difficult, longer, excruciating, and more dangerous. As it turns out, for many women (and I must stress that I am not saying all women), the opposite is true. 

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.

I also wanted to avoid the cascade of unnecessary medical interventions as described in The Business of Being Born. When normal, low-risk birth is pathologized, when it’s seen as something that must be treated, the “treatments” can actually end up interfering with the natural process of birth, resulting in the need for an emergency c-section. In many hospitals across the country, women are routinely put on a drug called Pitocin to speed up their labor, often for the convenience of the doctor and hospital, rather than for the good of the woman. Pitocin, an artificial version of the hormone oxytocin, increases the strength and frequency of contractions, which in turn makes labor FAR more painful for the woman, who will typically and understandably opt for an epidural, which can then slow down labor even more, so dial up the Pitocin … and anyway, this dance of medications goes on until the mother is exhausted and the baby is either born or put into distress from the intensified contractions, at which point a c-section becomes necessary. 

Well, I wanted to avoid getting on that rollercoaster to begin with – I wanted my labor to progress naturally, so I could hopefully avoid getting an epidural. While I wasn’t afraid of the pain of labor, I was totally creeped out by the idea of being paralyzed from the waist down while trying to push a baby out. I know that epidurals are common and safe and many women love them – but this neurotic girl didn’t like the idea of not being able to walk or move or feel. 

So, yes, I’d watched Ricki Lake and I’d read Ina Mae, and I’d drunk the natural childbirth Kool-Aid. I believed what I was hearing, that unmedicated birth can be a richer and often less harrowing experience for many women. And I entered into labor feeling extremely prepared, almost to the point of smugness. I knew what kind of birth I wanted, I’d read all the books, I’d made a detailed birth plan – I was ready.  

And all that preparation, all those breathing exercises, the mantras, the various laboring positions – all that was whisked away once I was thrown fully into the excrutiating pain of back labor, pain so intense that I vomited with every contraction, pain that only ebbed and never quit between contractions. Pain that crescendoed for eleven hours.  

My main motivation for having an unmedicated birth was that I wanted to be fully present; I wanted to see what my body was capable of. Well, I certainly got to experience that last part; I now know the depths of my physical strength and power. But if I’m completely honest with myself, there is a part of me that wonders whether being fully present to the painof a difficult labor actually prevented me from having that ecstatic, triumphant, epiphanous experience that I’d read about and wanted. 

Now, on the other side, and with many weeks insulating me from the fresh memory of how agonizing my labor was, I can say with little hesitation that I am glad I went the “natural” route, and that I will choose to do so again in the future. But I can remember another me, the me immediately after giving birth, who felt traumatized by the intense, excruciating, relentless pain she’d endured, the me who is like a ghost in those first pictures, as pale as her newborn son. She’s looking around in a daze after returning from a place behind words, after having her eyes clenched shut for hours, and, as language slowly returns to her, she’s wondering: what just happened to me…? 

I had a beautiful labor, yes, but beautiful in the way that looming mountains are beautiful, or God is beautiful – a terrible, overpowering, dangerous kind of beauty. A beauty that rattles your bones. I was not one of Ricki Lake’s Zen goddesses. I was more like a crazed warrior, like someone plucked from Greek mythology who descends deep into the horror of the underworld and returns, after hours of torment, with the most precious boon.