Mothering is not only gathering together; it is also letting go, dropping one’s grasp—accidentally, ideally, but dropping it nevertheless.
“Here I was, enjoying a continuity of being.” The big sphere of my baby’s head was very much like a circle, and when he felt like he was falling, his little arms and legs jerked upwards, like their propulsion could push him back to his starting point. Because I was not a not-good-enough mother, this didn’t happen very often, but I winced every time it did, nevertheless. The difficulty of maternal gathering is that it is always going to fail. To grow—to become a person—the baby must get past his earliest, balloon-like self. He must separate himself into a head and a body, then a head, a body, and arms. The project is not solely separating the baby from his mother; it is separating the baby from himself. Building a version of self that can acknowledge its hands and feet. Its mind, within, and its skin, without.
All mothers die eventually, but it doesn’t follow that motherhood is like dying.
But while birth can lead to being close to death, it seems wrong to think that the crisis of birth is anything like death. All mothers die eventually, but it doesn’t follow that motherhood is like dying, even if one almost dies—or does die— while becoming a mother. What makes the comparison inviting is that the work of laboring is such that the versions of yourself you held dear until labor begin to dissolve. There’s no quality to the thought or feeling while laboring or immediately after giving birth. One just is. No one thinks of Rilke in the recovery room. The child, once born, is human, no more, no less. No one is truly quiet giving birth.
When my son was almost 4 months old, I was walking down the street with him strapped to my chest. He was big—nineteen pounds—and alert. I was walking slowly, in loping, elephantine strides, trying to take as long as possible, and to walk as securely as possible. It had taken me a long time to get this confident—if that’s what you could call it—walking with him, but the thread of fear still lived in me. I was still anxious. Then, all of a sudden, I couldn’t tell if I was real or not. That was how rapidly it happened, and this is what it was like. One moment, walking. The next—am I real?
It’s a strange thing to read about women ending pregnancies when you’re squarely in the middle of one.
This way of looking at the past tricks us into thinking the problem of human life is simpler than it is. It makes grotesque pain seem like the product not of individual or general cruelty, or the difficulty of being housed in a body, but of too little social awareness, of not enough light shone on secret lives.