When I was in labour with Olivia, you were there, and I hated you. Don’t take it personally, I hated everyone. I was in pain, and not having fun. I felt sick to my stomach, and shaky, and in pain, and those feelings mixed up together in a hot and cold mess of misery. The nausea shakes and pains came at me in disorderly unpredictable waves, I couldn’t brace myself against them. At that point, I was mad at the world.
For a price, you can employ other people to do most unpleasant things in life. You can pay someone to wash your windows, to scrub your toilet, to clean your stove. Some things you can avoid doing entirely, a favourite technique of mine. This makes sense because according to a quiz I took on the internet I’m an anxious avoidant on the attachment scale. My oven cleaning strategy illustrates this perfectly. Normally, I just don’t clean my oven. Things merely burn off as they crust over and reach a critical mass. Pregnancy and birth don’t work that way. You can’t get a stand-in for the unpleasant parts.
In my case though, the pain brought important lessons. First, I’m really good at birth though no one could say I enjoy it. I know women who do: I shake and vomit on the floor, like I’ve had too much too fast to drink at a party, like I’m having a bad acid trip. The hangover part is missing though. Instead, I get this grand afterglow, the kind of buzz addicts everywhere search for endlessly. The kind of feeling you might expect to have when you’ve died and actually gone to heaven. Complete with angels. One anyway: a plump, pink and juicy freshly squeezed angel baby that plops out of your vagina. It’s ridiculous, hysterical, and also true.
The second lesson was this. I’m getting serious now. When I had Olivia, there was a point where that intense feeling of hating you and everyone else because you all were enjoying your lives and not in pain—so unfair – there was a point where this feeling suddenly gave way and I realized something: I was alone. With my baby yet to be born, I was alone. With a room full of supporters, I was alone. No one could birth the baby for me. The labour was mine and mine alone. It would continue inextricably as death follows life.
The Jesuit priest Henry Nouwen wrote in his book The Wounded Healer that “the painful experience of loneliness is an invitation to transcend our limitations and look beyond the boundaries of our existence”. He wasn’t kidding. My painful experience of loneliness just happened to coincide with the pain of labour, but the transcending bit was exactly the same. This was a gift, filled with promise. I looked at the boundaries of my existence and found the space it enclosed to be empty.
Nouwen writes that we spend our lives trying to fill this emptiness, to meet the right person who will complete us, to have a job that makes us feel powerful and special, to read a book that will have all of the answers. Or we drink, or become addicted, or shop. We are depressed, sad, anxious, unhappy. It is all everyone else’s fault. There I was, in a blue cotton hospital gown that did up the back, in a room full of people, alone with my pain. And like Nouwen said, I too have tried to fill this emptiness.
How many of us really ever come to know the mind of any other? We read of suicides, of murders, of murder-suicides, the neighbours say during interviews on TV “I had no idea”. I think it’s because we keep the worst of ourselves, the empty space we all have– mostly hidden from each other’s view.
There’s a quote that says that having a baby is to forever know what it’s like to have your heart walking outside your body. This is true. But it’s true when we have any meaningful relationship. Real relationships have real meaning only if we put ourselves on the line: we let them have a piece of our heart to carry with them, to do with what they will. We give away a lump of our own myocardium and we risk that others will not value or cherish it. Sometimes they can’t even hang on to it; they let it die for lack of caring. Meaningful life is a willingness to be vulnerable with our true unvarnished secret self, the self that approaches –but can never truly banish—the truth of our isolated existence.
Time has passed since that birth, but I remember it all so clearly and I always will. We had the same due date, you and I. But I went into labour before you, so I came to your birth a few days later with my daughter, the first birth she has ever attended. You sang in labour, like you always did. Each note held, clear and beautiful, moving higher and higher up the scale. You are a true soprano. I imagine you filled your empty space with song. Your son is a musician now and my daughter is studying to be a midwife and I don’t know if that means anything.
What I do know is this. We all get here- one way or the other- from the body of a solitary woman (results may vary). There is always blood. There is almost always pain. There are sometimes drugs; forceps, surgery, prematurity, inductions, stitches. Sometimes, the pain is not understood or comprehensible. Sometimes no one cares. Sometimes it’s really ugly. Sometimes it leaves scars. Sometimes it’s nothing that fabulous or transcendental. Sometimes it’s ordinary, straightforward, routine. But maybe birth could have something valuable to teach you about yourself.
You can listen to my friend Wendy’s heart walking outside her body here:
Or here on youtube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=95i20vcago8