No One Thinks of Rilke in the Recovery Room

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.

All mothers die eventually, but it doesn’t follow that motherhood is like dying.

Rachel Ossip, untitled (yolk), 2014

This is the second in Claire Jarvis’s writings on early maternity. The first is available here.

The time before I gave birth was a period in which I read and thought a lot about the task before me. But I made a mistake in thinking that birth was the project; childbearing continues after birth. That was my mistake. 

The challenge, as I saw it then, was getting the baby out into the world. A lot of recent writing about motherhood clusters around this point, focusing on, and working through, the story of birth. Of course, birth makes a good climax in a story—one of the best—but perhaps this is also because birth has become secretive, separate from the routine of life. One response to this separation is to intellectualize birth, to insist on the relationship between our thinking selves and our birthing selves. Describing her labor in her book Mutability: Scripts for Infancy, Andrea Brady writes that she was thinking of Rilke in the recovery room. Some writers dig in on the very real animal effects of babydom: In Little Labors, Rivka Galchen’s baby, her “puma,” does this, and Galchen skates along the edge of an impulse to make her new baby into “something more powerfully moving than just another human being,” trying to capture the mind-bending experience of new human life. Another response is to spiritualize birth, to imagine it as a period of introspection, a secular prayer. Maggie Nelson, in The Argonauts, says labor was the “quietest experience of [her] life.”

I find the hunt for descriptions of birth confusing, in part because it seems so willful, so against the grain of the experience, so focused on holding on to the self’s ability to make assessments and judgments about something as confusing, and simultaneously as basic, as reproduction. Part of the challenge in thinking about childbearing is that the desire to analogize is so strong, but finding the other terms in the analogy seems almost impossible, and only categories that tip into spiritualism seem to fit. “What else is like birth?” the writer asks. And the immensity of the experience makes your decision for you: death is like birth. In fact, when approaching a description of the physical act of birth, Nelson interweaves the story of her son’s arrival—with the successful conception that leads her down the path to childbirth—with the story of her partner’s mother dying. She argues for a ligature between birth and death: “If all goes well, the baby will make it out alive, and so will you. Nonetheless, you will have touched death along the way.”

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. 

But perhaps this isn’t fair; each birth is different. And perhaps, as a friend gently suggested to me, the one really strange, literary element of birth is the stories we tell about ourselves after birth, the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves. But that doesn’t quite get at the awkward alliance of theorization and a physical experience that defies theorization as such. During my own labor, I wasn’t able to cohere during the period around birth. It was only afterwards that I was able to make sense of things, that I began to think about what birth was like (how to ground the analogy? How to make the metaphor? What experiences come close?), and to think about who I was after giving birth (was I a person who might once have read Rilke? Was I a person who might once have valued being quiet?). 

For me, the period just after my son’s arrival was one of foggy depletion. I collapsed into a child-like lump and didn’t protest when I was prodded and poked in the hospital bed. This kind of vulnerability, one that structures the self by destroying it, was hard for me to acknowledge. Is this because women are always suspected of having been shattered as a precondition of birth? Or because vulnerability and womanhood are so often, so thoughtlessly, aligned? It is difficult not to give in to the need to put the body back in its place as the servant of the mind. To push past the demands of the body to return more or less to oneself, which is constituted by the intellect, by the interior, by one’s thoughts. But birth and early parenting resist thought. Thinking is not the thing that is done in this state.

Motherhood is impersonal and motherhood is collective in ways that were quite confusing to me at first. Your motherhood is not defined by any aspect of your personality or mind; your being with your child is enough to make you a mother. If being a pregnant woman can be a rude awakening to the ways womanly bodies are wrongly made into public property, motherly bodies are, in fact, only partially your own. You share this body, newly separated into two parts, with your child, constantly lifting up and putting down, feeding and shushing, touching and caressing. I was not prepared for how long I would feel like my baby was a part of me, and how reluctant I would be to accept that he was no longer inside the shell of my body. A particularly difficult and irritating aspect of this experience for me was that although I didn’t feel like my baby was separate from me, he was separate. I had to learn how to let his body experience the world on its own. I had to return from my doubled body into a single one: a discomfiting thing.

Motherhood pulls one outside of oneself, into a state of being that is more body than personality, more body than person. If nothing else (and I know I can only see this now, at a year’s remove), becoming a mother was like becoming an animal, or giving way to the animals living beneath our comfortable, social selves. For me, when I look back on it, giving birth was like becoming an animal giving birth. I am sure I had the same need to be small and far away from people; the same need for darkness; the same misery, the same vulnerability. Admitting a vulnerability like this—a vulnerability that goes beyond the personal slights and bad feelings of criticism or failure, a vulnerability that is total because one is trapped, absorbed by the biology of childbirth, a vulnerability that accepts that the ideas one has of the experience are, by necessity, partial and retrospective—may feel like courting death, if only because they all suggest a personal obliteration. But birth is not death. Women do die in childbirth. Babies do die in childbirth. Many of the women and babies I know who have given birth would have died without blood transfusions, life support, thick tubes full of magnesium warding off eclampsia, paddles starting hearts that don’t start on their own. Death is not the same thing as birth, even if death sometimes attends birth. 

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