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35: Becoming Mother

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March 11, 2024


BECOMING MOTHER: Good eggs break and bleed

It just occurred to me when I was making mental note of my most “seminal” years, that the dates that resonate most relate to my fertility or the lack. A woman’s timeline is still very much measured by her stage of procreation—menstruation, virginity loss, pregnancy, menopause. Before this sequence, you’re a child; after, you slump off increasingly hollow-boned toward death. The primacy of the egg in life—as in our politics, sadly—is central.

I’ve written about my menarche (first period) for an anthology called My Little Red Book, and my less-than-ideal coming-of-sex story here, along with the perimenopausal scatter of my current age 50 existence here, so now maybe it’s time to pick the fruit of this: babies. Interspersed with the lyrics of Purity Ring—as promised last week in a mash up on metamorphs—Canadian electronic duo that is anything but chaste with a third album called Womb, among others. A landscape strewn with blood and body parts, and, as this reviewer aptly defines in, “‘Purity Ring’s world is one of witches’ covens, dark mysterious beings, possession and the literal butchery of people. Perhaps incongruously, at heart it has a sense of child-like wonder, of struggling to take in a world that is as amazing as it is terrifying.”

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while you were sleeping
you woke in a sea of dark liquid

_from “Femia”

Decades after that first period came my first pregnancy at the ripe (rotting?) age of 35, which tilted me into the “geriatric pregnancy” zone—or as it known more kindly, “advanced maternal age,” where you’re on the precipice of too-late with the few old eggs left that maybe contain the seeds for Down Syndrome, preeclampsia, gestational diabetes, miscarriage, labor problems, disorders, and/or your own death. Which strikes me as extremely unfair that girls get their periods sooner rather than later now when most couples aren’t even coupling until their 30s. The window to make so many mistakes is so much bigger than it should be and our slow development and longevity merits. Why can’t the best baby-begetting years move farther out the same way our life spans have? To help our minds, maturity, and bank accounts match up?

as the blood pours down your shoulders
as the lake comes up to you
beaming terror like a mirror
from the water how you flew

_from “Vehemence”

Unlike men who factory-produce sperm their whole lives, a female is born with all the eggs she’ll ever have, millions of them, ejected each month of menstruation and rapidly declining through the years until we really taper down to the bruised banana bin at the back of Stop & Shop. I’ll never forget this elegiac passage on eggs that I loved from Woman: An Intimate Geography by Natalie Angier (1999) about egg death through the life of a woman, through this constant phenomenon of apoptosis, and how miraculous it is to be born—a good egg—at all.

    The millions of eggs that we women begin with are cleanly destroyed through an innate cell program called apoptosis. The eggs do not simply die — they commit suicide. Their membranes ruffle up like petticoats whipped by the wind and they explode, releasing their yolky hearts into the bloodstream, thence to be cleaned up by scavenger cells that do that sort of thing. By graciously if melodramatically getting out of the way, the sacrificial eggs leave their sisters plenty of hatching room. I love the word apoptosis, the onomatopoeia of it: a-POP-tosis. The eggs pop apart like poked soap bubbles, a brief flash of taut, refracted light and then, ka-ping! And while my gift grew toward completion inside me, her fresh little eggs popped by the tens of thousands each day. By the time she is born, I thought, her eggs will be the rarest cells in her body.

    [….] For our purposes, let us think not of disease or dysfunction; let us instead praise the dying hordes, and lubricate their departure with tears of gratitude. Yes, it’s wasteful, yes, it seems stupid to make so much and then immediately destroy nearly all of it, but would nature get anywhere if she were stingy? Would we expect to see her flagrant diversity, her blowsy sequins and feather boas, if she weren’t simply and reliably too much? Think of it this way: without the unchosen, there can be no choosing. Unless we break eggs, there can be no soufflé. The eggs that survive the streamlining process could well be the tastiest ones in the nest.

    And so, from an eggy perspective, we may not be such random, sorry creatures after all, such products of contingency or freak odds as many of us glumly decided during our days of adolescent sky-punching (Why me, oh Lord? How did that outrageous accident happen?). The chances of any of us being, rather than not being, may not be so outrageous, considering how much was winnowed out before we ever arrived at the possibility of being. I used to wonder why life works as well as it does, why humans and other animals generally emerge from incubation in such beautiful condition — why there aren’t more developmental horrors. We all know about the high rate of spontaneous miscarriages during the first trimester of pregnancy, and we have all heard that the majority of those miscarriages are blessed expulsions, eliminating embryos with chromosomes too distorted for being. Yet long before that point, when imperfect egg has met bad sperm, came the vast sweeps of the apoptotic broom, the vigorous judgment of no, no, no. Not you, not you, and most definitely not you. Through cell suicide, we at last get to yes — a rare word, but beautiful in its rarity.

    We are all yeses. We are worthy enough, we passed inspection, we survived the great fetal oocyte extinctions. In that sense, at least — call it a mechanospiritual sense — we are meant to be. We are good eggs, every one of us.

So I successfully farmed these good eggs, which with my partner’s help became babies, and these babies biggered to the point where they eventually had to exit the womb, and that’s where the egg of a mother’s being cracks open. Quite literally—getting that first one out in particular was horrific. I was terrified that if I pushed too hard I would just split like a gutted fish and lose all my innards so I held back for hours which only made this labor longer and more painful. Eventually, finally, I relaxed and released; the infant squeezed its way toward the light. The moment where you think you’re actually going to die is warmly known as the Ring of Fire, which I love in a Johnny Cash song but not in my private parts. When the head crowns and a portal to a new universe rips open.

if i could i would let you see through me
hold our skin over the light to hold the heat
flood the halls with ruby insides til we spill

_from “Ruby Insides”

The Lord of the Rings movie had one of these rings of fire in the sky that had me thinking “vagina.” Or, in lieu of a screenshot of that I can’t find, there’s a picture from the Hubble Telescope of a fiery swirl known as a planetary nebula ESO 456-67 shown above.

I got home, somehow, powered by baby-love endorphins surely, but then soon discovered I couldn’t roll over in bed, or get out of it, let alone get to the bathroom or down the Brooklyn apartment stairs, because my pelvis had separated too far (a debilitating condition called Symphysis Pubis Dysfunction) until an expert (just one good woman rather than all the kings’ men), pushed me back together again. Pop!

The fragility of baby, the fragility of me; the ferocity of us both. When pregnant but still undetectable to others in the earliest stages, I enjoyed floating above the treacherous city sidewalks with my inner secret intact. I felt this magical otherness inflating inside the minute I knew I was pregnant, precious cargo in an expanding space. But then that also felt very vulnerable so I wanted to walk with my arms outstretched and body wrapped with padding. As my belly grew visible, I missed that private pre-time we had together as I navigated the touchy types who wanted access, or after birth, the passersby reaching for the baby’s feet, cheeks, hands, head. At least they could look at her now, not me, the visible work of the mother complete. The mess of it—it’s all a bloody mess—in the British vernacular sense and also just real blood. The birthing, with its glazes, including nicely named meconium (fetus poop like tar), the tearing, the burning, the ungodly-pain (which da-ding, you do immediately forget to make way for more babies!), but, wait, you’re not done, let’s give birth again to that giant flop of flesh that fed the baby, the placenta with its intricate underground root system of veins.

you swallowed the sinew
my body passed through
before i began breathing

_from “Sinew”

Tiny baby comes home and I hold, nurse, coo to her soft fuzzy pea head all day and night; then full human-size husband bursts into this odd oasis of senses and temporary stasis and seems like a monster with his comparatively giant head and therein is a new triangle to wrangle forever. No longer a couple. No longer an individual. No longer myself.

As I said last week and prior about this “becoming mother” business, it’s akin to putting oneself in a blender.

NPR has a piece on matrescence, a relatively newish word in the scope of maternal history:

Becoming a mother is a huge, complicated life transition that can rock every fiber of a person’s being. The process even has its own name: matrescence. And while this term may seem relatively new, it was actually coined in the 70’s by medical anthropologist Dana Raphael. “She kicks off a lot of her writings saying that in some cultures we say, ‘a woman has given birth,’ but here we say, ‘a child is born,’” says Aurélie Athan, a reproductive psychologist at Columbia University. “And with that, the emphasis gets shifted on the child.”

A child is born and mom necessarily recedes. My artistic dreams certainly on hold indefinitely for starters, any idea of cave-dwelling that real writing might require. The selfishness of indulgent production: all gone.

the storm is coming
i feel it in my scars

i would fall from
your sweet height to prove
that all i am is meant
to bleed and bloom

_From “Stardew”

You are decidedly not the same, agrees science. “Science Confirms You Are a Different Person After Giving Birth,” says this article in Motherly. In addition to priority shifts and obvious lifestyle changes, there’s your actual material self getting entirely reconstituted:

Scientific American reported in 2006 that almost all female mammals undergo “fundamental changes” during pregnancy and after birth and that pregnancy and lactation hormones may alter the brain, “increasing the size of the neurons in some regions and producing structural changes in others.”

The universe has expanded, while it seemingly contracts, and we get smarter and grow greater beyond any prior self-interest. A mother’s heart ever-opening to take in care and concern for the whole wide world. We have, in this infant, created a future beyond our own mortality into children’s children onto infinity, so we can worry and perform wonders on a grander scale, becoming better active citizens of our community and doing our part to fight things farther afield and seemingly out of our control such as, say, global warming or reproductive rights.

By artist Daniel Popper, Thrive is a 30-foot sculptural installation at a residential building in Florida

Get a little closer, let fold
Cut open my sternum, and pull
My little ribs around you
The rungs of me be under, under you

I’ll cut the soft pockets, let bleed
Over the rocky cliffs that you leave
To peer over and not forget what feet are
Splitting threads of thunder over me

_From “Fineshine”

Krista Mad­sen is the au­thor be­hind word­smith­ery shop,  Sleepy Hol­low, inK., and pro­ducer of the Home|body newslet­ter, which she is sharing reg­u­larly with The Hudson Independent readership. You can  subscribe for free to see all her posts and re­ceive them di­rectly in your in­box.

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