The Mother Knot
By Jane Lazarre
Duke University Press Copyright © 1976 Jane Lazarre
All rights reserved.
I was terrified. Had been for two months. During my first labor, four years before, I had been innocent, allaying my fears with the knowledge that birth is a natural process. This time I was wiser. Euphemisms, whether medical or mystical, no longer held any weight with me. My only hope was that, instead of the twenty-four-hour labor I had suffered with my first child, this one would be short.
The nurse wouldn't let James come in with me and the minute he left me my fear increased. The pains were still mild, a real contraction coming only every twenty minutes or so. But in between, anxiety would cramp my stomach, convincing me I was two minutes away from the delivery table. "Relax and it will hurt less," people had told me, suggesting that there was really nothing to be frightened of, as if the source of the pain were my imagination instead of my uterus. But I had determined that it was best to face this night with an uncompromising realism. So until my husband walked through the door again, I paced and wept, not yet in pain, only in fear.
At the beginning of our love affair, seven years before, he had told me how he hated conflict. Coming from a loud-talking, deep-feeling family, most of whom were constantly involved in trying to figure themselves and each other out, he had been the one to withdraw from childhood on. He would run up to his room to escape the suffocating flow of human feeling. Or he would go to the field behind his house and lie down in the grass to clear his head and think of nothing but the reed he chewed in his teeth. Intensity was a burden. If he ever expressed his own, he did it on the football field or in early, passionate sex, but not in talk, not even in remembered dreams. It was as if there had been some agreement made at an uncertain moment in the past, an agreement which designated James as the child who would express the silent controls lacked by everyone else, who would run in a straight line toward the goal while everyone else spilled all over the field.
The family would be listening to the radio, the television and the record player simultaneously in three different rooms, an animated discussion would be taking place in the kitchen, and they all would wait for James's predictable plea for something, anything, to be turned off. While everyone else in the large family found solace and strength in sharing all the details, each and every nuance, of the problems of their individual lives, James developed the need for strict privacy; he kept his business to himself, he would say. And he would inevitably decide to read a magazine during the frequent emotional confrontations.
James loved his family; so much so that when he married he chose someone much more like them than like himself. Perhaps he needed the familiar, open, relentlessly shared feeling to keep him in touch with his own boundaries. Maybe he had grown comfortable playing the quiet role to someone else's intensity. In any case, he did not marry a controlled sort of woman who could be counted on to keep her deepest feelings tucked neatly out of sight; he married me.
Finally the nurse allowed him into the dingy room, paint peeling from the walls, the air conditioner making the sound of several hundred horses galloping down a road full of sloshing water. Just the right atmosphere for concentrated breathing, panting and blowing. I was only up to the first stage of the breathing and already I was losing control. The Lamaze Method. I had sworn never to believe their insidious promises again. James grinned at me when he saw me sitting down seriously on the hospital bed, trying to pant in rhythm to "Mary Had a Little Lamb." I grinned, too, and said, Shit. That had been our attitude throughout the last six weeks. When we could bring ourselves to practice, alone and with our friends who were also expecting their second child, we always ended up laughing after ten minutes and abandoned the effort. We had learned with our first child, we thought, that the entire sect of natural childbirth was a big fat defense mechanism against pain. In one Pacific Island culture, the women beat themselves with sharp sticks during labor, perhaps a more diverting physical exercise than breathing like a dog in heat. But in both cases, the assumption is the same: the more you can manage to think of something else, the more you will be able to endure the horror going on in your uterus.
But I am not the type to endure. Falling short of the revolutionary image passed on to me through my father's dreams, I can only in fantasy withstand the fascist torture while refusing to divulge the names of my comrades. In truth, I am afraid that the moment they even threaten to hurt me, I will tell all.
Movies, so popular in my generation, which depict people suffering all sorts of physical pain upset me for days, creep into my nights and make my insomnia worse. Not that I want to be this way. I want to be brave—an amazon. And when it comes to tolerating mental pain, I am definitely in the race. But my body is weak. Just its ability to go on living is a miracle to me.
When James grinned, I lost the grasp I had on the tail end of the Lamaze illusion. "Might just as well wait for the pain," I said. "Chances are I will still be alive by morning." Remembering the short, fifteen minutes of transition (that terror-filled time of labor when you feel a steel rod pushing apart your insides) which I had experienced with my first child, I felt I could take it.
So for the next three hours I simply lay there and suffered, a little more with each contraction, and pretended to breathe correctly so I wouldn't have an argument with the obstetrician. At least I wasn't spitting forth green vomit into James's arms like the last time. I submitted to the shaving of my perineum, nearly coming in the nurse's palm, tried to drive away the fears of pain and death, and concentrated on my son and my sister whose dependency on me always succeeded in increasing my evident strength and self-restraint. I was convinced I would deliver by 5 A.M. One nurse even bet her tuna-fish sandwich on it. And that it would be a typical second birth—tolerable if not easy.
Therefore, I was totally unprepared for the two hours and fifty-nine minutes of transition during which I screamed continually, begging for them to cut me open or end my life. I must have squeezed the blood out of James's hand as the nurses held my legs apart while I tried to push the baby's head into position. They gave me Pitocin to speed up contractions which, my feminist sisters had warned me, made the pains more intense and less controllable. But who cared. At least they would be over faster. I wanted it to be over. I wanted to be alive. I wanted James to get home to our little boy, Benjamin, who, I was convinced, was suffering a trauma of separation. Then I let them give me Demerol, knowing that any last hope of controlling the contractions would be gone as I drifted in and out of foggy and nauseous slumber, wakened only by the pain in my anus—("Very common to feel the pressure in your anus with the second child, young lady")—or shrieks coming from very far away. In the two or three minutes of consciousness during the contraction I would know those shrieks were my own, but they were eerily beyond my control.
"Don't scream," the gentle nurse warned me, "or you'll take energy away from the pushing." And, Lord knows, I wanted to stop that ridiculous yelling, only I couldn't. My mouth would open as if by itself and the screaming would start.
I hadn't heard that kind of screaming since I had gone crazy as a child and heard my mother, dead from cancer, screaming in my head, breaking my eardrums from the inside.
I could no longer see clearly but I felt James's arm. I wanted him to think me strong, grown up. Like him. Not like my tired, confused self, my inner strength almost broken from the pressures of maternity.
On the delivery table, I had lost the faith that I would live. I was afraid to touch my vagina or my anus—knowing that my hand would return dripping with my own precious blood. "Hemorrhaged on the delivery table," I could hear the doctor say as he emerged from the room. Iron clamps covered most of my forearms. Green leggings hung from my thighs. A white hospital gown covered my breasts and some horrible leather mask was pushing down on my face. Only my vagina was uncovered.
Do you love me now, Jamie?
"Push," the doctor said, and I thought he meant to kill me. My asshole was splitting open, pouring forth blood, I thought, drenching the hospital floor. Down the hall I heard another woman scream and drift off into constant anguish-filled moans.
"Close the door, we can't listen to that," said my doctor.
"Push," James said. So I obeyed, thinking, Good-by, my darling, you don't realize that I'm dying but I am and I will never again return to you, the dark well of pain is opening up for me and this last time I will not find my way out take care of Benjamin my darling boy and know that I want to die now, I don't mind, except for leaving you
at which point my second son was born.
It was pointless to wonder, lying in the recovery room drifting in and out of sleep—last vestige of the various chemicals which had finally helped me reach the delivery table—why I had dared come to this once more after swearing in another hospital four years before that I would never do it again. All I could remember was that at some moment, fully aware of how difficult I found motherhood to be, I had desperately wanted another child. I wanted to be pregnant again, I wanted to give birth again, I even wanted another newborn baby.
When I was fully awake, I asked for my baby. When they brought him to me, his dark eyes opened and his mouth started searching for a wet nipple. I could see his pointy chin, so much like my first baby's in the early weeks of life. The smell of blood and sweat faded as the aroma of a brand-new baby surrounded me. I shed tears all over his little face as I remembered the pain only several hours behind me, and I knew that, incredibly, I would still love him.
After three days, I went home to my apartment. For an hour I rested in the cleanliness and order James had created for my homecoming, and in the silence bestowed by the absence of Benjamin, who was still at his day-care center.
Whether or not this one is a "good baby," I told myself, I am a different person, more comfortable as a mother, knowing that soon he too will leave the house each day with his lunch box under his arm and refuse to let me kiss him whenever I want to.
When my own private form of what the experts call "post-parturn depression" began to take hold of me, I noted that it was exactly the same as the last time: I wanted only to lie still and quiet in a semidark and perfectly, but absolutely, clean room. I wanted someone else to do everything except feed the baby. When not feeding, I wanted James all to myself. And I dreaded the sound of a human voice.
Still, in spite of this exact repetition of my first experience, I believed that I was a different person. This time it would be different.
When Benjamin came home from the day-care center, I wanted to hold him so badly that my hands sweated waiting for him to come up in the elevator. As he came toward me I saw myself, twenty-seven years before, when they brought my sister home and I looked up at my mother and father, omniscient giants that they were, not quite knowing how my life would change but feeling certain that it would never be the same again.
Passing me by, tiptoeing around the woman who had become in a frightening moment the mother of someone else, he walked right over to the carriage to peer at his brother. For the next few weeks he would hate me often for bringing him this thing he had repeatedly asked for, the brother I had grown in my belly for nine exhausting months so that my lovely boy could have a sibling. And once he got over the initial phase of anger there would be something different in his eyes.
In those early days, all the mythical aspects of motherhood hung in the air around us. And once again I tried to piece all of our expectations into the image of a beautiful woman whose being I would then don like a golden gown. I took Benjamin's fantasies, James's embellished childhood memories and my own, the baby's satisfied face when he drank from my breast and the paintings of a thousand ethereal mothers and tried to weave them into the pattern of a strong but gentle amazon whose body I might gracefully inhabit.
Mother, goddess of love, to whom we all can go for protection and unconditional love, perfect human being we have all been taught to believe in, whom poets have compared to the earth itself, who kneels down, arms outstretched, to enclose us and fend off the rains, whom none of us has ever met but who continues to haunt us mercilessly; Mother, I can't find you, let alone be you.
For that heroine whom I expected to rise out of my bed each morning, looking like plain old me but surrounded by the magic of maternity, did not appear. No matter what any of us thought or cherished, consciously or unconsciously, secretly or out loud, I was not that person. I just wanted my mother.
My mother had died when I was seven. For many years I lived primarily to search for her. I would pretend to find her in every new woman I met. I imagined her to be hiding behind walls, on the other side of mirrors, within my favorite photographs of her. But I never quite convinced myself that she had returned to me. For a while I tried secretly being her. But that only made the confusion worse. I ended up, during my teen-age years, holding on to reality by my fingernails, unsure whether I wanted to be her, the price of which was the loss of myself, or to be myself without her.
By the time I reached my early twenties, I had chosen to be myself. I no longer thought about her every moment of my life. I took her picture out of the secret compartment of my wallet.
For about five years I was free. Then I got pregnant and she returned to me, but in a new way. When my first baby was still a tadpole inside me, she came into my dreams. She came as a wise priestess offering love and encouragement. She came as herself, but with a vividness I had not experienced in my conscious life for eighteen years. Her face would be there, looking at me in the darkness, just the way it had been when I had known her. I saw aspects of her features that I had forgotten so long ago, articles of her clothing, the texture of her hair. One night she came as a witch. She seemed to be warning me. She seemed to know something I didn't.
I woke up from my dream and moved my expanding body close to James, flattening my stomach against his back. I knew that I would sleep away the morning. I hoped I wouldn't stare away the afternoon, pretending I had no work to do, rushing for a mystery to read, a movie on television, or a hot-fudge sundae.
I had gone for the pregnancy test as a lark. My friend Carla knew the lab technician at Yale New Haven Hospital so, never having had a pregnancy test before, I decided to try it. I felt certain, however, that my period was two months late only because I had recently stopped taking the pill and gone back to the diaphragm, greasy friend of my teen-age years which did not present the danger of an early death. The doctor had said late periods were common in such cases.
It had never occurred to me to have a child. James had been accepted by this prestigious university, poor boy from North Carolina making unbelievably good. I was anxious to leave New York for a while, and I had great plans for the years ahead of me.
Behind me were five years of full-time jobs in a hectic city. After college, I had spent a year working for the Welfare Department learning the futility of everything I tried to do, crushing any illusions about the romance of poverty. I learned about my complete impotence in the face of the enormous human misery I encountered every day; I grew more and more frightened of the streets lined with jeering, gaping men yelling epithets or sneering sexual invitations. I began to go home on my field days when I was supposed to be visiting clients. Then I would write in my diary—or record books, as I had begun to call them. I wrote in my record books to keep track of my life, I would say. But there was more to it than that.
I had always been periodically confused by the intensity of my feelings. They came, at times, ferociously, each new emotion contradicting in a split second the one which had come before. When I tried to sort it all out quietly, wordlessly, I would find myself sinking in a quicksand of unclear thoughts, my eyes burning, my body sweating, my head aching. Only through writing it all out in my record book did I learn to achieve a sort of calm.
While I was writing, the thoughts kept coming, getting all tangled, unrecognizable, oppressive. I could not grasp them for long enough to hear them. But if I continued to write, a process began, a sort of a translation of the tension into words; and the words created the possibility for clarity to develop. Just keep writing, I had learned. Soon punctuation would appear, sentences became shorter. Things would clear away. And suddenly I would focus on the central point which had been hidden, smothered by the rest. When the central point was visible at last, I was relieved for a moment. I would feel as though I had organized a huge pile of debris, cleaned out an overstuffed closet. Only later, hours perhaps or even days, would I realize that the debris was what had been precious all along. The main point, the thing I had been calling "central," was something I had always known, what I could have said in the first place had I simply been in a different mood. But it was insufficient, insubstantial, ridiculous all by itself. It was and is always the debris which is the treasure, for the debris is all that connects that final point to everything else in my life.
For me, living without writing things down has always been confusing. I never feel as if I understand anything until it is described over and over at great length. Months or years later, after the time which has given me such great sadness or happiness or fear or pleasure is past, I sit down by myself and read over what I have written. Then I think, Oh, so that's what happened. I see now how I felt. (Continues...)
Excerpted from The Mother Knot by Jane Lazarre. Copyright © 1976 Jane Lazarre. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
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