An undeniable ending cached in a lauded beginning

I read Elizabeth at Life in Pencil’s post, Birth Plans, Life Plans, with interest yesterday. I think her acknowledgement of the ways that birth plans are an attempt to feel control in a fundamentally uncontrollable situation is wise. She writes that the birth plan “…helps me to battle the ambiguous vagaries of birth and provide an illusion of control, especially in a situation riddled with uncertainty,” demonstrating more wisdom than many pregnant women, some of whom don’t realize that even with the world’s most carefully thought out and articulated birth plan, these vagaries and uncertainties will ultimately rule the day.

Elizabeth’s post, beautifully written as usual, made me think all day. I’ve been writing so much lately about endings and beginnings, and surely the births of my children were the most essential moments of ending and beginning, knit inextricably together, in my life. Of course the beginning part of a birth is obvious, and celebrated. The fact that an undeniable ending is cached within this lauded beginning is less acknowledged but, I believe, equally important.

I wrote about this complex amalgam of emotions, particularly during my actual births, last year. It’s been on my mind, so I repost it here. Thank you, Elizabeth, for the thought-provoking and inspirational post.


I can’t stop thinking about Kelly Diels’ post, Years That Ask and Years That Answer. Stories, Ends, Beginnings, Fire, Moon. I cannot get her voice out of my head, the images and tropes that are some of my own most favorite (years that ask questions, Bertha, Eve, seasons, cycles). I keep hearing, over and over again, this phrase: the flesh poetry of experience.

A secret language traded between intimates of the violence of birth and glory of delivery. The wrenching of asunder and the joy of embrace. A story beaten in the pulse of mundane responsibility and cosmic love. Goddesses and bitches and sisters and women. We know this story. It is the story of generation.

This paragraph makes me think of the births of my two babies. Of the violence and glory of their deliveries. Two of my most cherished life experiences. I still struggle to put into words what those nights were like. They were not just moments of my life that I recall with stunning, crystalline detail. They were also passages from one world to another, and somehow in the passage I was able to glimpse through the seam of this reality to something bigger and more breathtaking. What I saw and sensed changed me forever.

Even seeing the photograph above brings tears to my eyes. It is almost impossible to remember being swollen like that with life, to remember the feeling of feet in my ribs and of seeing the spine as a glowing string of pearls on a flickering ultrasound screen. I look at the picture as tangible proof, but when I search for the correlated sense memories they are weak.

What is more miraculous than the female body’s ability to create and bear life? Seriously, what? We take it for granted, in many ways, and perhaps we have to because otherwise the blinding truth of it would be too much to bear.

Grace’s birth was the story of resistance. It was about my gritting my teeth and stubbornly laying in for the stay. Part of the resistance was that she was posterior, but it was also about my own fears, anxieties, and utter lack of preparation to be a mother. I was in battle against myself, I know that now: I was holding on, not ready to embrace a new life (mine, not hers) and identity. I was not ready to face the end of a phase of my life, the multiple deaths that are contained in birth. The inexorable force of a baby descending the birth canal went to war against my own quite powerful subconscious, and I was in labor for over 36 hours, at 9+ centimeters for 3 hours.

I cried and I screamed and I begged to be put out of my misery: I distinctly recall telling my midwife, completely seriously, that I’d like her to put a bullet in my head and just cut the baby out. The pain was both incendiary and incandescent. It was a crucible through which I had to pass, the heat so extreme that I was rendered molten. It was an animal experience, a raw, passionate, and terrifying introduction to a ferocity I had never imagined I possessed.

I delivered Grace myself. At my midwife’s instruction, I reached down and put my thumbs under her armpits when she was half born and pulled her onto my own chest. I am more grateful than I can express for photographs of this moment. Little did I know I had months of darkness ahead of me before the grace that I had just brought into my life would be made manifest.

Whit’s birth was the story of acceptance and surrender. It was as I imagined birth would be. I labored alone for an hour or two at home, reading Ina May and swaying back and forth with the contractions. It was late at night, Grace slept in her new bedroom next door, and Matt was at work. I labored alone and felt undeniably in the presence of something much larger than myself. I felt a surpassing peace that somehow did not surprise me in the least. I was not afraid of what I imagined was another 24 hours of labor.

After 3 short hours of labor Matt insisted that we go to the hospital. I fought him tooth and nail but finally, after running to crouch on the dining room floor to muffle my screams in the rug (so as not to scare Grace, who was being picked up by my mother), I conceded. Whit was born 40 minutes after I walked in the doors of the hospital. The experience of pushing Whit out was nothing short of transformational. In the moment I was afraid of the intensity and the searing pain, but in retrospect I can see that my entire body reformed itself in those minutes, making itself into a channel for him to come through, a passageway between a murky and unknown place and this brightly-lit world.

The truth is, I don’t often feel an overwhelming sense of this-is-what-I-am-here-for about mothering. But during my two labors there was a keen and irrefutable drumbeat of certainty: this – delivering – is what my body was made to do. There’s no question in my mind that a barn burned down while I labored with Grace. Sometimes I think of the depression that swamped me almost immediately after her arrival as the time it took for me to sort through the ashes, to make sense of this new landscape. And yes, from here I can see that even in those dark days there was a clear moon, that truths were washed clean by icy white light.

6 thoughts on “An undeniable ending cached in a lauded beginning”

  1. Just exquisite, Lindsey. Thank you.

    I wonder if we go through this process at different times in our lives – literal and figurative births, all of them with their own unique stories, propelling us forward into what will be…

  2. My own birth experiences were both each very different. My first, like yours, was long, painful and intense in ways I can only only now begin to describe. I laboured for 30 hours, pushed for 2, and in the end had a c-section. The pain of that to this day is quite unendurable. But after the birth of my second I found a peace, an acceptance that I try to hold on to. These experiences, they are an awaening for us. They tell us much about ourselves as women, and as creators in this world. Beautiful, thought-provoking as always Lindsay.

  3. This is a remarkable story, and an extraordinary piece of writing, Lindsey. You’ve given me much food for thought. The violence and glory of birth, indeed.

    As for the ending of a former self, now, with teenagers, I see how we spiral back to a semblance of a pre-mothering self as our babies grow into adults. We take all the flavors of those emotional and physical experiences, and find ourselves again, differently. It is another beginning. Less violent, certainly. More glorious?

    That, I couldn’t say, as yet.

  4. Birth stories are fascinating to me. It is so true that the baby is not the only one begining a life.

    I am enlightened by the ending story here. It is courageous to talk about the death that cycles through birth. Of course there was a piece of you and me and all women that dies as we give birth. And, BLW brings up, it cycles back as our children age.

    “And it goes round and round and round in a circle game.” Joni Mitchell.

  5. Lindsey,

    First of all, a sincere thanks for the “shout out.” I am so glad that my words spoke to you.

    There’s so much I love about and relate to in this piece. However, what sticks out first and foremost in my mind is the inextricable link between life and death. In every new beginning there is an ending, a death, something people don’t often think about, especially in our culture. When a baby is born, I think the mother is often quickly forgotten, whatever “deaths” she might be feeling quickly ignored or altogether dismissed.

    My pregnancy, though wonderful in so many ways, has been marked by periods of intense loneliness. I feel VERY much between two identities right now — I even changed my name a few months ago after five years of marriage — and there is a real sense of mourning for the life that will simply no longer exist in 10 weeks.

  6. I LOVED this piece, Linds. Oh my gosh. It really was exquisite, and I don’t throw that adjective around.

    I love reading birth stories, and you tell yours in a way that is so true to your voice, to your heart. Thank you for sharing those stories.

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