Excerpts from THE MOTHER DANCE | By Harriet Lerner
Conception and Birth:
A Crash Course in Vulnerability
I became pregnant in the old-fashioned way. I never believed that I would really become pregnant because the thought of having an entire person grow inside your body is such a bizarre idea that only lunatics or religious fanatics would take for granted the fact that it might actually happen. And then there is the matter of getting the baby out, which is something no normal person wants to think about.
I was thirty when I became pregnant for the first time. Before this pregnancy, I had not experienced one maternal twinge. When my friends would bring their infants in little carrying baskets to dinner parties, I felt sorry for them (the parents) because the whole thing seemed like so much trouble. “Oh, yes,” I would chirp with false enthusiasm when asked if I would like to hold one of these tiny babies. But I was just being polite or trying to do the normal-appearing thing. I always sat down before allowing anyone to hand me a baby because I’m something of a klutz and I knew that if anyone was going to drop a baby it would be me.
To say that I was not maternal is an understatement of vast proportion. I enjoyed adult company, and my idea of a good time did not include hanging out with babies who were unable to dress themselves, use the toilet, or make interesting conversation. By contrast, my husband, Steve, truly loved babies and never worried about dropping them. We always planned to have children, but not, on my part, out of any heartfelt desire. I just thought that having children was an important life experience I shouldn’t miss out on, any more than I wanted to miss out on live concerts or traveling through Europe. Although I thought having children seemed like the thing to do, I put it off as long as I reasonably could.
As soon as I got the news that I was pregnant, however, I was bursting with self-importance and pride. I wanted to grab strangers in the supermarket and say, “Hey, I may look like a regular person, but I’m. pregnant, you know!”The fact that other women had done this before me didn’t make it feel any less like a miraculous personal achievement.
My confidence inflated even more when I sailed through my first trimester without a flicker of nausea or discomfort. I took credit for the fact that things were moving along so swimmingly, and I concluded that this was a “good sign,” that maybe I was suited to motherhood after all.
But at the beginning of my second trimester I began spotting, then bleeding. My doctor asked if I wanted to consider having an abortion because the baby’s risk of brain damage was significant. Sometimes I wouldn’t bleed at all and I’d be filled with hope, and sometimes I’d really bleed and think that I — or the baby — was dying. I felt panic-stricken, filled with a mixture of terror for our dual survival and of utter humiliation at the prospect of ruining someone’s expensive couch.
I consulted with an expert at the University of Kansas Medical Center, then transferred to the best obstetrician in Topeka, one with outstanding diagnostic skills who did not think my baby would be brain damaged. Basically the whole thing was a gamble. We didn’t know whether enough of the placenta would stay attached, because it had become implanted too low and was shearing off as the pregnancy progressed. There is probably a more medically accurate way to describe what was happening, but this is how I understood my situation at the time. I had a healthy fetus in utero, and I thought that the medical profession, as advanced as it was, should know how to make a placenta stay put. It seemed like a minor technicality that needn’t have life-or-death consequences.
Containing my anxiety was not easy. When I was five months’ pregnant, Steve and I were watching a late-night adventure story about a group of people trapped in the elevator of a high-rise building. The bad guy, lurking above them in the elevator shaft, was severing the steel cables that held the cabin. Panic spread among the occupants as they swung about, their lives now hanging by a thread. What a stupid, boring plot, I thought. Seconds later, I felt as if I couldn’t breathe. I told Steve I was about to faint or I was having a heart attack or I was simply going to die. “Call the doctor at home!” I commanded my frightened husband. “Wake him up!”
“It sounds like you’re hyperventilating, doesn’t it?” the doctor said when I had composed myself enough to describe my symptoms. I should have put my head in a paper bag. Now that it was determined that I would live, I was embarrassed that we had awakened him at midnight — two psychologists failing to recognize the ordinary symptoms of anxiety. The television show must have triggered my terror about what was happening within my own body. The image of people trapped in an elevator with the weakened cords threatening to plunge them to their death stayed with me for a long time.
Having a baby was now almost all I cared about. I wanted this baby with a fierceness I had not known was possible, and I would burst into tears if I found myself in line at the supermarket with a mother and her infant. I’m not sentimental about fetuses, so there was no way I could have anticipated the searing intensity of this bond and the devastation I felt at the prospect of my loss. I desperately, desperately, desperately wanted this baby, but what I got was a crash course in feeling totally vulnerable and helpless. Indeed, having children, even in so-called ordinary circumstances, is a lifelong lesson in feeling out of control. So if you’re one of those total control freaks, I advise you at all costs to avoid making or adopting a baby.
I was told to expect a cesarean section and a premature birth, but as an act of hope, Steve and I took a natural childbirth class at a local hospital. Apart from us, it consisted of normal couples having normal pregnancies. The teacher appeared to be the sort of person who would never herself do anything as messy as giving birth, and she spoke with that false brightness some people reserve for addressing the very old and the very young. The word woman was not in her vocabulary. It was always lady, as in “A lady may notice a bloodstained mucous discharge at the start of labor,” or, in the plural, “You ladies will have your pubic hair shaved when you are admitted to the hospital.”
During every class, I considered approaching her politely to suggest that she try out the word woman — maybe just once or twice — but I never gathered the requisite courage. I still had sporadic bleeding, my nerves were shot, and I had become wildly superstitious, so I was convinced that the entire placenta would shear right off my uterine wall if I upset this teacher with my radical feminist demands.
I did raise my hand in class to ask a couple of questions, actually the same question in two ways: “How do you know when you are going into labor?” and “What do contractions feel like when they first begin?” To each inquiry, the teacher responded, “Some ladies say it feels like menstrual cramps” I paid careful attention to her answer, because I tend to be absentminded. I certainly didn’t want suddenly to find the baby’s head sticking out when I wasn’t paying attention because by then it would be too late for my cesarean section, which I had been told might be necessary to save my baby’s life and my own. Absentmindedness aside, though, I felt terrified in the face of my inability to ensure that the baby — or I — would be okay.
Only much later would I come to understand that I needed to surrender to the fear — that pregnancy and childbirth inevitably teach us about surrendering to forces greater than ourselves. Surrender is not the American way, and most people have negative associations to the very word. To surrender is to lose, to throw our hands up in the air to admit defeat. Instead, our cultural orientation requires us to be in control. Men are supposed to be in charge of other men, women, and nature. Women are supposed to control their children, as if we could. Surrender has connotations of giving up, failing, rather than of giving ourselves over to forces or events larger than we are.
It’s the American way to believe that every problem has a solution and that every obstacle can be overcome. We believe that we’re in charge of our own destiny, that we get what we deserve. When things get rough, we can try harder, make a new plan, think positively, and bootstrap our way to success. Everything that goes wrong can be fixed, if not by us, then surely by the doctor (or therapist, rabbi, priest, or healer). Much of the pain and grief that mothers feel stems from the belief that we should have control over our children, when it is hard enough to have control over ourselves.
Up until the time my pregnancy became prefixed by the word complicated, I assumed that my adult life would go as I planned, that nothing really bad would ever happen to me. Intellectually, I knew this wasn’t so, because bad things happen to everyone, and indeed, some bad things had already happened to me. But I secretly
believed that I could surely get pregnancy right, if I only put my mind to it. In reality, pregnancy is an event largely beyond our control, and there is no one right or wrong way to move through the experience.
Pregnancy and childbirth can be either heartbreaking or exhilarating. The same is true of the process of adoption. Whether these journeys go smoothly or not, there is no other normative experience in our lives, apart from our own birth and death, that puts us through such massive change and transformation in such a relatively brief amount of time. The challenge is to embrace the full experience, and sometimes just to get through it as best we can.
When things go by the book, which statistically speaking they are likely to do, pregnancy is still a lesson in surrender and vulnerability. Your body is inhabited; you live with the realization that childbirth is a wild card; and you know at some level that your life will soon be altered in ways you cannot even begin to imagine. No matter how well you prepare yourself, you are not going to be able to run the show. You’re in the thick of a full catastrophe, and change is the only thing you can count on for sure.
And All of This Leads to ... a Baby!?
With so much anxiety about the pregnancy itself, I had almost forgotten that the end result might be a baby. But on June 5, 1975, I woke up in the middle of the night and noted to my amazement that I was having menstrual cramps. I racked my brain to figure out how for godsake I could possibly be having menstrual cramps when I couldn’t even remember having my last period. But I figured everything was going wrong anyway, so here was just one more bit of weirdness from my entirely untrustworthy body. I considered searching for the Midol but then remembered that pregnant ladies don’t take drugs. So I lay in bed thinking that surely the menstrual cramps would go away, since it was inappropriate for them to be there in the first place.
In the jargon of my profession, I was engaging in “denial,” which, as the saying goes, is not just a river in Egypt. My due date was in August, and going into labor in June was unthinkable. So I fell back asleep with my menstrual cramps, only to be awakened minutes later by something gushing out of me that I took to be blood, which meant I would be dead in a matter of minutes since there was no way to get to the hospital fast enough to save my life.
I pounded Steve awake, and he flew out of bed to switch on the light. We saw, to our most incredible relief, that whatever poured out of me was definitely not blood, because it was colorless. While we were examining the wet sheet, I happened to mention to Steve that I was having menstrual cramps, of all things. He suggested instead that I was in labor, that my water had broken, and, yes, it was early, but it was happening, and that’s why the bed was soaked.
I refused to accept this reality. It was not true because it was not time. Obviously the baby had kicked my bladder and knocked all the pee out of me, because I had recently heard of this very thing happening to some extremely pregnant person while she was grocery shopping. So I crouched on the bed on all fours, put my nose to the wet sheet, and insisted that Steve get down and sniff it with me. I was quite positive that I detected a definite urinelike odor.
Carol Burnett says that comedy is tragedy plus time. If I had been a fly on the wall, I would have observed a scene of great hilarity: the two of us crouched like dogs on our bed, noses to the sheet, coming up for air only long enough to fight with each other about whether we were, or were not, smelling pee. We called the doctor, who said he would meet us at the hospital right away.
Standing under the moon, outside the hospital door, all fear left me. In its place I felt the most ineffable sadness I’ve ever known. I turned to Steve and said, “I am so sorry.” He hugged me and said that he loved me and that nothing was my fault, but I knew it was. I knew I had just committed the biggest screwup in the world. The stakes had never been so high, and I couldn’t even get pregnancy right.
Labor is a well-named, all-consuming experience. When it was determined that I could go ahead with natural childbirth, I was entirely immersed in getting through it. My emotions got put aside, like an athlete competing in a major event. My obstetrician said that a helicopter would be available to fly the baby to the intensive care unit at the medical center in Kansas City, if need be. Everyone was predicting a tiny premature infant of, say, four pounds. I imagined one even smaller because, as I lay on my back and looked down, I didn’t even look pregnant anymore.
There was nothing I could do but have this baby. I was taken over by the pure physicality of the event, and now everything went by the book. Soon I was being wheeled from a small dark room into a large room flooded with sunlight. I remember my body pushing for me, how struck I was with the mammalian nature of it all, and then out slid the most beautiful baby that you could ever imagine seeing in your entire life. The most beautiful big baby.
I didn’t trust my eyes. It occurred to me that maybe he was only the size of a hamster but that, in my psychotic denial, my mind was blowing him up into a normal-sized baby. So I held my breath and waited for someone to speak. And then my doctor said, “He’s big!” and someone else said, “Well, look at this perfect baby boy!” Steve was beside himself with joy, and if I have ever in my life known total happiness it was then.
Matthew Rubin Lerner was twenty inches long and weighed 7 pounds, 4 ounces. He showed some signs of prematurity (three years later, his brother Ben weighed in at 9 pounds, 13 ounces), but he was not nearly as early as we had all calculated. Then he was taken away, and the next thing I heard was that he scored 9 out of 10 on his Apgar test. I didn’t know what this meant, but figuring that it was like getting an A- on his first exam, I was filled with pride that he was already distinguishing himself in some academic sense while still leaving room for improvement.
My first pregnancy taught me the basics about motherhood. I learned that we are not in control of what happens to our children, that this fact needn’t stop us from feeling totally guilty and responsible, that matters of life and death turn on a dime, and that most of what we worry about doesn’t happen (although bad things happen that we fail to anticipate). These are the essential lessons of motherhood that were repeated again and again throughout my child-raising experience, and the universe taught them to me right up front.