I walked the dog twice. At times, she limped. An arctic chill has settled. In the film about Antarctica, a husband and wife are wintering at the large American base. They have the usual conversation about the weather, whether it is cold or not. Of course it is cold, it is Antarctica, the wife says. Typical temperatures range between negative twenty and negative eighty. Yet the conversation persists. What the body can get used to, the husband concludes.
I walked five miles, all told. I am thirty-seven weeks pregnant, which is considered “late pre-term.” A baby born after this point is normal. I wake up and think, maybe today I will give birth. I go on the long walks, and I think, maybe this’ll do it.
I am feeling the feeling of precipice, of uncertainty. I am not a mother, but I am an “imminent mother-to-be” as a co-worker called it. I don’t know anything about raising babies. I imagine calling my husband to tell him that the time is now. “It” is only hours, or days, or weeks away. One month is not very likely.
Last night I thought: What this will be like soon, to not feel feet inside of me, to not feel hiccups. When I first got pregnant, I thought the opposite thing. How could I manage them: the months of movement, the sensation of something foreign from which one can’t escape. I think about talking to the baby: Before, when you were inside of me, you felt this way. Now, on the outside, you feel less so.
It is a strange thing to know someone based only on what they feel like from the inside. You will only know one person in this way, I think. I hesitate to leave that sentence be. Before the pregnancy, I thought that I was certain that I wanted one child. Now, I cannot stop myself from hedging.
In Mindful Birthing, Nancy Bardacke calls for the “don’t know” during pregnancy, a time when one especially wants answers, to know the when and the how and for how long. The truth is one never knows, of course, is the point of the book, but during liminal times such as pregnancy, this lesson is more obvious.
There are other times when the uncertainty makes me nauseous. “I’m ready!” I think, and “I am awake!” It is 5:48 in the evening, or perhaps the morning. I’ve just had tea, or I am getting ready to drink coffee. The anticipation is double-edged. Sometimes, it thrills, and other times it weakens. Adrienne Rich’s Of Woman Born has arrived, a used copy, but I am too afraid to read it. I intended to go to a play tonight, but instead I am at home. I make plans to go to the art museum instead. I make plans to go to the planetarium. I make dinner appointments. As if the planning is a tether to the place where I understand who I am, the place that feels like it is slipping.
I woke up and thought: In America, to give birth, sometimes you need a birth plan. I woke up and thought: If you seek a pleasant peninsula, look about you. I woke up and thought: Is this baby moving? Is today the day I will give birth?
The night before, we met with the doula to go over the pressing things ahead of the labor. In early labor, alternate the active and the restful. In active labor, the main thing will be to go to the end of the rope and stay there. The end of the rope comes often when one is interested in un-medicated labor, as I am. Our doula has a tool kit of skills, she says. She isn’t one for giving false hope. We talk about good communication. We talk about where to park in case of snowstorms; our house sits at the bottom of the street and traps cars.
When she is at the door, we are in this uncertain place together, she equipped for it, while I am not. She will see me in a way that no one else will see me. We know this, but we have not done it.
* * *
After finishing the sentence, I took a shower. The shower was hot, and I worried about whether I was scalding the baby. I had taken many hot showers over the course of the pregnancy, the kind of thing that could have an effect, I thought to myself. I walked downstairs and chopped vegetables, beets and sweet potato, for roasting. My husband came home.
I felt a pop and a gush, the sort of thing that happens in the movies and is actually very uncommon. I spent my pregnancy pointing out instances of such unrealistic portrayals.
I didn’t know at that point that my water had broken, that my son would be born six hours later, that he would come so fast and furious that he would be born in our house. That the EMS guys, whom my husband and the doula had asked to stay outside on our porch while our son was crowning, would ask me to spell my name and the address on the release form, after they’d come in to lend us a scalpel and blankets, to keep my son warm, to cut his cord. The spelling was for the release form. We didn’t want to take a ride in the ambulance; we took our own car. No one else could spell for me because I was the patient. My son was on my chest, placenta still attached, blue and squirmy, and I remember that the EMS guy made the joke about my name, which is long but phonetic and of Russian heritage.
In her recent article “What happens to a woman’s brain when she becomes a mother,” The Atlantic’s Adrienne Lafrance argues that much of what happens neurologically during the initial days and weeks after baby is born is similar to what happens neurologically when we fall in love. The piece is interesting and logical, and I read it as I am awake and learning to breastfeed during the first night or two. My son wakes erratically, and he learns. What strikes me about the article is the image in its introduction. Lafrance quotes the artist Sarah Walker, who once told her that “becoming a mother is like discovering the existence of a strange new room in the house where you already live.”
Our doula said that I may not feel anything at first. That a labor that proceeds so quickly is shocking. The transition between pregnant and not pregnant, blurred. When the doula came to our house, she checked me. She felt the baby’s head an inch from being born. I didn’t believe it, and I believed it at the same time. The pain was full of pressure and burning, the way I’d read the pain should be at the end of labor, not at the beginning.
I remember repeating to myself a sentence from Mindful Birthing. The sentence is: “You and your baby are balanced on the edge of birth.” When the baby crowned I felt that balance, and I felt the ridge. I hadn’t known it then, but the ridge was the place where the plates on the top of his head bowed above his soft spot. I wanted to push him through quickly; maybe I didn’t “want,” I urged. When I look back at the labor, I regret that I did not stay in that liminal space longer. You and your baby are balanced on the edge of birth. The birth took over; it had its own energy.
I did not know the meaning of “shocking” then. I knew it when we returned to the house two days later. I sat down on the couch, the baby in my arms. I sat on the couch, the cheap grey one on which I had had my contractions, opposite the day bed, next to which I gave birth on the floor, and I began to cry. The house shifted. The rooms were the same rooms that had been in the house before. My sister had cleaned the floors and washed the towels. But the birth was in the walls and in the ceiling, and the floorboard stained invisibly, all referring to my son.
The article which quotes the artist Sarah Walker was passed to me later in the morning the day that I gave birth. Said my friend who had sent the article around to the various moms and mom-to-be, “What is extra cool is that Anna on this list gave birth TODAY!”
The border between being pregnant and being no longer pregnant is more permeable than I had predicted. Before my son was born, I longed to be un-pregnant, to have my body to myself.
Three days after a baby is born, when the milk comes in, women experience the largest hormonal shift in a lifetime, second only to the hormone shift that we experience at death. Our doula says this. The baby leaves a mark even when he is out of the body, is what she means to say, I think.
* * *
My mother comes as I am readying to leave the house for the first time. She tells stories about her birth experiences in the Soviet Union, the various things they had asked her to do with her babies. They took the babies away from the mothers, for example, for seven days. She had counted my fingers and toes after I arrived because of Chernobyl, which had occurred around the same time I was born.
I leave the house for the first time as a mother and I get coffee. I see a pregnant woman in the coffee shop. I realize that I no longer have the marker. Strangers won’t ask me when I’m due. I am disappointed. The feeling is roughly that everyone should know what happened, that I just gave birth, this should be obvious from my body, the way that the pregnancy was. I want to tell the strangers: “I gave birth eight days ago! I was pregnant very recently! He came early! He came fast and at home!”
On the street, three young women solicit donations for the children’s hospital. We were just there, I want to say. We made donations to the people who showed us how to install the car seat. We installed it very improperly when we rushed to the hospital after the birth. We carried it in with the base still attached. He was three weeks early, my son. We had to wing it with the car seat after he came in our house, and the floorboards in the living room were bloodied.
I note that the weather is moving, and I return to the house. It is becoming warmer next week, when my son will be two weeks old. He is next to me bundled, his eyes open. He snorts, and the dog sniffs him through the mesh.
Anna Prushinskaya’s fiction appears or is forthcoming in Sonora Review and Redivider, and her essays on The Millions and The Atlantic website, among other places. She is also the Midwest section editor at Joyland Magazine. This essay is part of a work in progress.