Into the Body…

I wrote this over the weekend and decided on a whim to submit it to Brain, Child magazine. I’ve been mostly off the wagon in terms of submitting work, and figured it’s time to climb back on to see where that wagon might take me. And I wasn’t going to post it here, but after reading Jen Lemen’s post today, I realized that this is, in its way, a love story. I dedicate it to my dear friend Susa.

What is the story only I can tell? Outside, the wind is picking up. It’s February. I am at the AMC Highland Lodge in the White Mountains with an old friend. Twenty years ago, we were fourteen, writing dark poems and brooding about our bodies in my bedroom after school. Now as I write, she sits meditating on the floor beside the bed, where I am tucked in under down and flannel after a day of yoga, snowshoeing, and slowing down. My own breath is steady. I have two daughters. She has been living and working in a meditation center. Our lives, intertwined.

A few hours ago, before dinner, my friend offered to do some bodywork on me. I gladly accepted. As she began, I remembered what she said a medical intuitive once told her, over the phone: that the sensitivity of her fingertips was incredibly special. I sensed this as her hands wandered over me, finding their way to the most tender, held-in parts of my body. I looked up at her face. Her eyes were closed in deep concentration. She looked beautiful.

At one point, she asked me what was coming up for me: “Any sadness?”

“No, not really,” I said, before adding, “It’s more like there’s such a big sadness, a well of sadness, and…”

“And you can’t tap it?”

“Exactly,” I told her. “I feel almost a craving for it.”

She nodded and looked at me with those clear, oceanic eyes, filled with understanding.

Then, without warning, just as the snow had kicked up suddenly as we made our way down Mount Willard earlier in the day, I was crying. Really crying, big crocodile tears, the kind you can’t stop and don’t really want to, even though you can’t breathe. I attempted to explain the tears, how they had to do with pregnancy and childbirth and the places in my body where I’m still carrying those experiences.

I mentioned a friend who has been doing EFT (emotional freedom technique) to help her release the trauma of an emergency c-section four years ago, when her twins were born. I thought of the friend who went into surgery to have two ovarian cysts removed, only to be wheeled out hours later than expected having undergone a full hysterectomy after the surgeon found cancer. Who was I to say my body held some trauma?

“All birth is a kind of trauma,” my friend said, as if reading my mind, my tears.

Her words came as such a validation of the feeling I have carried since giving birth. This wasn’t about “trauma” in a traditional sense. Indeed, wasn’t it the opposite of trauma, to have given birth naturally? Birth is not a violent act; but it does turn your body inside out, and that is a kind of trauma. Oddly though, in our culture, “natural” childbirth is something we have to aspire to, commit to, sometimes fight for and sometimes let go of. It is not a given. When my babies were born – weighing in at 8 lb, 4.5 oz and 7 lb, 15 oz – the nurses treated me like a heroine. And I felt like one.

Labor, pushing, birth. How many times have I relived the experiences in my mind, reviewed them, recalled them? It’s no coincidence that women love sharing their birth stories; we want the blow-by-blow, contraction-by-contraction, decision-by-decision, hairpin-turn accounts. We nod in recognition or awe at each other. But what hit me today was that I had not had the chance to really relive the experiences of childbirth in the body, where they still dwell. In the body where my babies came to be and, in some way, still and will always dwell, even as they grow away from me into their own beautiful selves. When a friend’s daughter died and I tried, futilely, to imagine losing one of mine, I felt my vagina tighten, as if to keep them inside forever.

Childbirth was the most present in my body I have ever been, the most purposeful and powerful and focused. My voice, in a deep, rhythmic low moan, saved and protected me, over and over and over as my labors progressed – the first steadily, the second erratically. Labor was also the most powerless I’ve ever been – in the sense of surrendering to the body, being carried by the breath, giving over to something bigger, greater, and more urgent than me.

As the tears slowed down, I tried to explain how childbirth both marked the beginning of my life, my identity as a mother, and ended my life as just myself; how being a mother contains moments that echo childbirth every single day – of being so purposeful and present, with a recurring choice to resist or surrender to the fact that my life is no longer simply my own. No wonder there is trauma in the body; with birth came a death of the self and the birth of a self, all at once. This fact is only now beginning to sink in and settle into my bones and my soul in a way that it can begin to resurface.

Birth is like time. It’s like water. There’s no stopping the water, no stopping the current, the forward march.

Today, lying on the bed in the safety of my friend’s loving and wise presence, I wanted to draw my knees back. I wanted to push. I wanted to push and scream and relive that place of agony and power and will and surrender and release. I wanted to feel the ecstatic, epic relief of water pouring from me. I wanted to see my daughters, my babies, for the first time. I wanted to bring them to my breast. When Aviva was born and the colostrum – that liquid gold – began to flow, I remember feeling, knowing, that the Universe itself was flowing through my body to nourish her. That’s when I cried, the first time she and I were alone together. Just as I cried today, my body wanting to spend the rest of its life giving birth, over and over and over again, like a surfer addicted to the wave.

My friend asked me if it would be okay to put the blanket over my face. I said it was. I rested for a while in that darkness, that womb, while she completed her work, pressing firmly into the crown of my head as she told me to take my time getting up. When I did emerge for air and tissues, she was there waiting for me.

“Hi,” she said.

“Hi,” I said.

I told her we are done having babies. I told her how I dismiss my grief over this as cliché and unjustifiable. I shared that in a primal sense, I want more babies, but practically speaking, it’s definitely not happening. I started to get in to the details, and she gently brought me back to this: “I would love another baby.” So I went there. I stayed there. I cried some more. I let something out. I let something go.

Now, as she completes her meditation, I complete my writing. She removes the blanket from around her shoulders; I pull mine up around me and snuggle down. The wind is howling; the radiator sounds like it needs a cough drop. The clock ticks steadily. Sleep beckons.

Tonight I will sleep a healing sleep – eleven unbroken hours. Tomorrow, I will eat breakfast with my friend. We will look at each other across the table, knowingly. After breakfast, I will practice yoga for two hours, taking care of this body, finding my way back into this body, breathing into the cricks and crooks and neglected spaces of this body that once held my girls, this body I took such sacred care of for a total of 36 months of pregnancy, childbirth, and breastfeeding.

Then I will drive west and north, back to them. I will be cruising along when suddenly the sky will darken and snow will pour from the sky like dust in the desert. I will pull over, feeling the weight of permanence settle over me like the snow itself, wondering when it will end. I will remember to breathe, to calm my body. The storm will end as suddenly as it began, and I will make it home safely, my daughters’ big blue moon eyes widening as I appear in the doorway.

Mama’s home.

8 thoughts on “Into the Body…

  1. Mika says:

    Beautiful. I remember my mother telling me that even though her births were “easy” and “uneventful” they were still traumatic. Anise’s birth was very traumatic, and I blame the circumstance, but maybe it would have been traumatic even if it went completely differently. I’ll never know. But it doesn’t matter how much worse it could have bee, or how much worse it is for other. We know our own experience, and we feel it the way we feel. Maybe we feel things for others too – share the burden of all mothers who have lost a child…

    You are so brave, and in tune with yourself. I am in awe.

    xo m

    Like

  2. Shelli says:

    This is absolutely beautiful. I hope that magazine accepts it!

    For several weeks after the natural childbirth of my son, I felt very traumatized, but now I look back in awe.

    Like

  3. Anonymous says:

    jena, i don’t know what to say about what you’ve poured out here…let me just stand here in awe for a moment.

    *

    i’d like to say that i can relate to what your are feeling, my daughter’s birth, albeit natural and almost completed at home, was traumatic, but for different reasons. i suspect my ppd has already begun it’s tearing into my soul…

    once in a while i hear the whispers of another baby, and while it’s as comforting as a lover’s sweetnothing, i inevitably stop listening because practically it won’t happen, and emotionally i am terrified of cracking again…

    *

    I love how intimate this is, the relationship between you and your soul-sister is palpable. thank you for sharing all of this with me…

    peace,
    Lil xo

    Like

  4. Chloe says:

    I have never given birth but I often think about it and wonder how it might change me. I was fascinated to hear your birth story and appreciate your honesty and realness.

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  5. denise says:

    Beautiful.

    I had a natural childbirth for both boys, but after the first one – and everything went fine, it just lasted FOREVER – I was in shock. I felt cheated that no one talks about the violence of it, the intensity, the ripping seemingly unending agony. In retrospect I am in awe that my body did that – wow, we are strong. And I was in awe immediately of these little babes in my arms and I’m still in awe of their brilliance now, a few years later.

    But wow.

    You put so much into words. Thank you!

    Like

  6. Jena Strong says:

    Mika – yes, so true: we know our experience. And by doing that, we have empathy and connection with other (all) mothers.

    Shelli – your comment makes me think about the relationship with trauma and awe.

    Bella – it’s a privilege to share this with you.

    Lil – part of the gift my friend gave me was gently holding me in that place of listening, just being with the feeling. I so appreciate your comments here. Thank you for what you share.

    Chloe – part of what I’m “getting” finally is that there’s no knowing, in the mind, how birth (or anything, really) will change me. The body carries so much experience. So glad you’re there.

    Denise – Yesterday, I spoke with a friend who five weeks ago had her first baby. She said in a moment of reeling, she did the I Ching and came up with the word “Shock.” Seemed just right. Your comment here captures the entirety of my words. Thank YOU!

    Like

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