Becoming Mother

A book and a blog for first-time mothers

Tag: paradox

Week 38: Paradoxes

Are you ready?!

This is the most likely comment that people will say to me in the next few weeks.

How do I honestly answer this?

Yes. I don’t want to be pregnant anymore.

No. I’m not ready for labor again.

Yes. I’m tired of all the fluid retention.

No. I’m not ready to breastfeed again.

Yes. I want to finally see this baby.

No. I don’t want to do all the night feedings.

Yes. I can’t stand carrying all this weight anymore.

No. The room still isn’t ready yet.

Yes. We’ll never be fully prepared anyway.

***

When I sleep at night on these bitterly cold days, I sweat. I throw the sheets off until I freeze. Then I pull them back over me. Repeat.

I have crazy dreams. Last night, I successfully managed to outsmart, outrun, and hide from a serial killer who had me trapped in an office building, much like the one in Mad Men (which, of course, I’ve been binge-watching lately).

At full term, a woman’s placenta generates as much estrogen as a non-pregnant woman will produce in three years.

Yeah.

Thus the sweating and crazy dreams.

In the weeks to come, the loss of these same hormones will cause me to shake with hot flashes and chills, to weep at the drop of a hat, and to constantly check to make sure the baby is sleeping.

Basically, their loss will make me feel completely undone.

This is the beginning of the ride down into powerlessness. This is when my individual will and desires start to bow their heads to my body’s processes and the needs of this tiny person, now coming forth.

This is when I become a passenger in my own body.

***

Dr. Robbie Davis-Floyd, a cultural anthropologist who specializes in the rituals of birth, points out that pregnancy is both “a state and a becoming.” If you translate the word “pregnancy” from Latin, it would literally read, “the state of being before being born.”

It is a kind of limbo. To be pregnant is to experience the world in flux. To see the world turned upside down and inside out. In her book, Birth as an American Rite of Passage, Davis-Floyd writes that,

“the near-constant inner and outer flux of pregnancy keeps the category systems of pregnant women in a continuous state of upheaval as old ways of thinking change to include new life” (p. 24).

So fluid is this state of being that I oscillate back and forth between wanting to be free of this pregnancy and not wanting it to end.

***

Labor also brings its own set of paradoxes.

In labor, the fastest way to progress is completely counter-intuitive.

You need to relax through the pain.

Try it the next time you burn your hand or stub you foot so hard you scream. Your first instinct is to clench and bear down. Not to breathe calmly through it.

Labor takes you out of the boat and throws you to the mercy of a series of invisible, crashing waves. At first, you might hold your breath through the pain and gasp for air in the breaks. But in time, the waves come at you harder and faster, leaving little to no time to breathe.

And that is when you realize that what you really need to do is stop fighting.

Let the water hold you down, down, down. Until you are still.

Because the more you resist, the longer labor is.

So surrender becomes your savior.

Surrendering to pain. Accepting it. Even though you don’t know when it will end.

That is the smoothest path through labor.

***

As a human being, I loathe this truth, that surrender is necessary in labor. I hate uncertainty and I cling to control. I avoid pain if I can.

But allow me to get spiritual for a moment.

As a Christian, I understand this truth.

Of all the symbols that Christians could have used to represent their most ardent belief, they chose a symbol of execution. Of Death.

Instead of choosing a symbol of humility (the manger) or peace (the dove) or bounty (the fish), Christians chose a symbol of intense pain and sacrifice. A sacrifice so crushing that it would obliterate body and mind, leaving behind only spirit.

They chose a symbol of death because they believed that it was only by dying to their previous lives that they would be able to embrace new life. They believed that before experiencing true humility and peace and bounty, they first needed to give it all up.

Because you can’t truly receive until your hands are empty.

Emptiness first. Then Plenty.

Death first. Then Life.

As a Christian, this is how I understand labor. I see labor as the most authentic expression of what I worship.

I follow a belief that Death comes first. Then Life.

Death to Self. Then, New Life.

***

As I’ve said before, January doesn’t seem like a month that goes well with birth. It stands in contrast to so many other months when we see evidence of life at work. In the United States, nature lovers will tell you that we are currently in Deep Winter, a period of seven weeks before Early Spring begins. In these weeks, we see nature as barren, perhaps even conquered.

But below the surface, the world is shifting and preparing for spring.

light-shining

I think about this as I walk in the mornings now, bundled beneath layers. Even though the winter air bites and stings, the winter light still warms me when the clouds break.

I went to church last Sunday and I was reminded that we are in the season of Epiphany, the time of year when Christians remember that God’s light doesn’t just shine on us. It comes down to light our way. Even though the darkness consumes so many hours of these winter days, the light is still there.

Even though darkness, light.

Even though Death, Life.

Even though pain, progress.

Even though two, one.

Even though being, becoming.

Even though ready, not ready.

What I Used to Believe

cross

I used to think that a spiritual life was carefully lived

Flawless, or close to it

I learned about The Box

I learned how to crawl inside and close The Lid

How to feel comfortable inside it

The Box was for my own good

The Box would keep me safe

But the waters flowed in anyway.

And when I ran out of air, I pushed The Lid off.

***

I thought that was the end

That there would be no room left from someone like me

Someone who hated the Box

Someone who wanted to understand the Lid and the Walls and why the Box has four of them.

***

But then a truth: That to be Christian

is to believe that the sacred can become profane.

And the profane can become sacred.

To believe that life is full of these moments

When the two sides blend seamlessly from one to another

Life does not progress at an even slope, rising ever into our American horizon

No.

Life takes you away and brings you back.

Like a good song, life moves in circles, in waves

Return and repetition

Sometimes, we call them breakdowns or failures

But we are made for this

We are made to

return

relive

perfect

***

So if you’re carrying the cross, thinking there is a finish line

Lay it down, already

If you carry it to prove your struggle to be holy

Lay it down, already

Don’t carry the cross to prove your sacrifice

Carry it because you must

Carry it now because someday you won’t be able to

Carry it for someone else

***

I am belief and despair, strength and weakness.

I am tension and struggle and doubt and hope.

I am happiness and grief, delight and disgust.

I am handshakes and cold shoulders, warm hugs and hot sex.

I am Christian. I am worldly.

I am sacred. I am profane.

I am perfectly unholy.

I am rising above my humanity and succumbing to it.

I am what makes God smile.

I am what makes God cry.

I am all of these now

But I may be none of these tomorrow

But no matter what shape I take

I am always Loved.

Initiation

Remember this clip from An Officer and a Gentleman?

(courtesy MovieClips.com)

Initiation seems to belong to the realm of men, with the exception of a few tough women that fight to be in their ranks. Go G.I. Jane.

But what if I told you that initiations like these happen to far fewer men than they do to women. Mothers in the room, please raise your hand. Look at all of those hands. Mothers everywhere can look at this video and pinpoint a moment in those early weeks of motherhood when they felt like Richard Gere in this clip.

In the first days and weeks of motherhood, you start to feel that everything defies logic. New motherhood forces you to

1) become a living paradox

2) experience counterintuitive physical and emotional reactions

3) occupy your world upside-down.

Cultural anthropologist, Robbie Davis-Floyd (2003) refers to these types of experiences as a  specific technique in rituals, known as “strange-making.” Consider these brief examples—and if you’ve had a baby, mentally check off the ones that you experienced (probably all of them).

A Living Paradox

Motherhood is full of paradoxes that bend and break your previous expectations and prepare you for accepting everything that is coming down the line.

  • In pregnancy, you are single, but double.
  • In labor, you go to a hospital, but you’re not sick.
  • In recovery, you become a source of nourishment, while you are a convalescent.
  • In the postpartum period, you are not “you” anymore, and you don’t know who you are becoming.

Counterintuitive Reactions

Throughout that first year of motherhood, you find yourself occupying all sorts of strange mental, physical, and emotional spaces. In these new and strange situations, you find yourself stretching beyond your previous capacity and behaving in ways that you never expected.

  • You’re so tired that you’re awake again.

I haven’t slept in 26 hours, but I’ve got my second wind.

  • You’re in so much pain that you’re numb.

I missed a dose? I must have gotten used to it.

  • You’re so happy that you’re sad.

(while sobbing) This is so wonderful! I don’t want it to end!

  • You’re so thankful that you’re afraid.

This child is the greatest gift that I’ve ever received. What if something happens to him?

  • You’re so frustrated that you’re laughing.

(while laughing) Can this day possibly get any worse? No way in hell!

Your World Upside Down

Finally, you encounter situations in which the world seems to have been turned upside-down. Incredible new sites, sounds, and experiences become “the new normal” and help reshape what your life is becoming—and in fact, who you are becoming.

  • Before: You never really used your arms for anything, except maybe lugging groceries and bags.
  • After: Your arms are prime real estate—the site of constant cradling and rocking.

 

  • Before: You knew what time it was when you looked at the clock.
  • After: When you wake up, you wonder if “2:00” means 2:00 a.m. or 2:00 p.m.

 

  • Before: You and your partner spend your days working, having conversations, and making future plans.
  • After: You and your partner spend your days changing diapers, learning how to swaddle, and googling information about how to give a newborn a bath.

All of these types of “strange-making” shatter our previous mental categories into pieces. They create a new reality and new norms. And in the wake of all this time, both parents are able to throw their hands into the air and say, “Oh, what-the-hell-ever” or “I give up on things being perfect.” “Nothing makes sense anymore” or “Everything that I thought I knew is completely backward.”

And this—is a wonderful realization.

That’s just the point.

What-the-hell-ever, indeed.

Take a look at Richard Gere again—that is a broken man. That is a man who went into basic training expecting that he needed to “take it like a man,” but was only able to fully prove himself worthy by surrendering and telling the truth: “I got nowhere else to go.”

Reaching this point of surrender is so, so necessary for what comes next—the mapping of a new identity as mother onto your current identity of woman. And over and over again throughout pregnancy, childbirth, and the postpartum period, you experience so many situations that crush all your previous reasoning and logic. And if you are a person that holds strongly to logic and order, this can be especially difficult to accept.

Because the first year of motherhood is full of experiences and emotions that defy all logic—and for good reason. They help you recreate new expectations and new standards for your life. It pulls you in all directions until you are doubled, tripled, and quadrupled. Like the physical stretching of pregnancy, the first year of motherhood stretches your mental and emotional capacity. But growth is hard. It is painful. And with each doubling of yourself, you are prone to self-doubt and a total re-examination of who you are. You may feel that you have totally lost control.

But over time, you begin to accept that, sometimes, what seems paradoxical is really just the tension between who you were and who you are becoming.

Angry, but in love.

Selfish, but sacrificial.

Desperate, but confident.

Afraid, but courageous.

And if you can find comfort in being a fluid self and allowing yourself to be swept away on the winds that have caught your sails, you can stop worrying so much about the irrationality of the whole process. You can stop agonizing about how beaten down you feel every day. Because you understand that all of these emotions can co-exist in the same mind. And so the impossible and illogical not only become possible, but true.

And if you’re on the verge of new motherhood, I guarantee you—you will reach this point of surrender, too. You may completely flip out—as I did (read more about this in my forthcoming book). Or you may have a less dramatic—but equally powerful—moment of clarity, when everything is boiled down into a single truth: as long as we’re all alive, nothing else matters.

Forget the way that you expected this whole experience of new motherhood to be. And embrace what it actually is. Dirty laundry, paper plates, a water bottle that needs to be refilled (again), hair ties, granola bars, and the smell of spit-up from just about everywhere. One unfinished day after another. Uncertainty about what tomorrow will be like. Hell, uncertainty about what the next hour will look like.

Hang tight, future mother. And when you hit your breaking point, remember that this is the tension between who you once were and who you are not quite yet.

 

References

Davis-Floyd, Robbie. (2003). Birth as an American Rite of Passage. (2nd ed.) Berkeley: University of California Press.

 

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