By Sophi Scarnewman, CD (DTI)
When I was young, bearing a child seemed like it would somehow be an amulet against my abundant, persistent bad feelings. In children I saw unspoiled beings, proof that a soul might exist without deep pain, the possibility of an uncomplicated sense of self. I saw children as redemption for humanity, the potential for better in spite of our collective failures at peace amongst ourselves and in stewardship of our planet.
I imagined that to have a child was to somehow have some measure of these qualities myself. I thought that having a child would awaken of my own memories of that state of being and that I might live accordingly. I wouldn’t be so sad, I wouldn’t have secrets. I wouldn’t be so lonely; I would have created a companion of my own flesh, someone who would love me at first abjectly, then ardently, exactly as I was. I knew that a child would need and deserve all that was good within me, and when I imagined being a mother, I felt sure that I had that good deep down and that I would be able to reach it without effort. The good would flow freely from me.
It was a child’s longing to be loved, the traces of a little girl that I held even at 14, that linger still at 24. I thought that giving a child what I felt I lacked would somehow make up for what I was missing. But underneath what I now recognize as unhealthy reasons to become a mother, I remember feeling something more existentially essential, as if motherhood were an inevitability, what someone inclined to the metaphysical would have called destiny. It was the only possible path of my story.
I had a clear vision: a country house, me in a white cotton sundress, sitting barefoot on a porch while four youngsters shrieked and giggled in their high and happy voices, chasing each other, sprawling on the lawn in the sunshine, paying me no mind at all while I watched them and felt love swell, while I planned our dinner and looked forward to the sound of my husband’s key turning in the lock when he came home from work, tired but happy as the kids ran across the house to cling to his legs and tell him stories about their days.
Pregnancy played no part in it, pain was notably absent. I knew it was a rosy view, but it was my only view. It was a daydream, a fantasy that carried me through the darker days, gave a sense of purpose to the pain of missing my secret, faraway lover. It was his daydream too after all, a shared yearning. Sitting in ninth grade history, I’d plan it out in my head: we’d move in together as soon as I turned eighteen, get married after a year or two, plan our first child to be born shortly after my college graduation. There was an abstract notion of an eventual PhD in English, but a career was a pale, limp thing next to the possibility of motherhood. College would be the perfect bridge between Parts 1 and 2 of my life, the culmination of my academic striving and passion, a capstone to complete the edifice of my intellect before moving on to the softer side.
It was nothing like that, of course. And yet it was; I went straight from prep school to my fancy university, and I was only 22 when I got married. But my husband is certainly not the man I loved when I was 14 (or the one I loved after that), and most of the details are different. I took only one literature class in college, opting instead for history and computer science. I lost interest in rural living, which felt like a very small existence indeed for a bright, young me. On the rare occasion that I thought about the children I would someday have, I was quite sure that two would be enough. I would return to work promptly. I had realized I excelled at climbing ladders, and whatever it was that I ended up doing after college, I felt sure of and looked forward to my ascendancy.
I crashed and burned at my job post-grad, not professionally but personally. I decided against misery as a viable life strategy. I could see the end of that story: I am an alcoholic who cheats on her loving husband because she hates herself and hates her much-coveted career and hates that she is who she is and eventually either drinks herself to death or just takes a shortcut off the side of a bridge in the interest of setting her husband free from her and finishing efficiently the job she’s started. I had just enough left of me and enough good around me to refuse to proceed in that fashion.
I found the scraps of my will to live and did everything I could to get away from those possibilities. I learned lots of new things, how to feel my emotions without being overcome by them, the shortcomings of thinking as the sole means of surmounting life’s challenges, ways to love with the patience that the people I love deserve. With help, I figured it out. It was hard because it was new and I wasn’t inherently good at it, but it was also easy because it was a relief.
I think it must have been a matter of moments after realizing that I felt at ease in myself that I suddenly knew with absolute conviction that I wanted a baby. It was different than how I’d felt all those years before, not that country house I wanted but instead that something deeper, ancient, biological. I couldn’t imagine the details of being a mother because I knew enough to know I knew nothing, couldn’t possibly know who my child would be or who I would become, but I was sure that it was what I wanted. I felt the void inside of an empty womb and the tantalizing pull to fill it with life. I could think of little else. My mind felt steady, and more and more I trusted it to stay that way; my body felt youthful, strong, reliable, ready; and mind and body felt more like one entity than ever before. This time, the daydream was imagined embodiments: a round and heavy belly, a slithery newborn body emerging into my own hands as I lifted it to my chest to hold in my arms, the shared gaze of the infant at the breast.
My husband and I kept coming to an impasse, me in tears that took me nowhere and him trapped pointlessly between my yearning and a choice he wasn’t ready to make. I did what I could to find fulfillment while I waited. I took up a new career built on serving birthing people. Not so long after, he had wrapped his mind around the notion, felt like he would be ready not so far in the future, and then we had made a plan and were looking for a house in the suburbs. We landed our perfect house straightaway, and my body was so ready to be pregnant that it happened a month before we meant to start trying.
But here is where the threads come loose because there is no narrative yet. I am sitting in my perfect house in the suburbs, awake in the middle of the night, off kilter and on edge. The pregnancy itself has been easy in that I felt nauseated only briefly and all has been without complications, as normal as a person could hope for. I knew my sense of self would shift at the deepest level, and I can feel that it does. I knew that I would struggle to slow down, and I do. I knew that my plans of diligent prenatal yoga attendance and invariably healthy eating were unrealistic, but I am still disappointed in myself. I knew that I would have a hard time with the changes in my capacity for physical and mental activity, and it is difficult indeed. Yet it all surprises me and flummoxes me constantly.
Being pregnant is sensual, like I thought it would be, and I feel a new and deep sense of power in my female identity and body. But I am failing in new ways at every turn. My knees ache and my feet swell, I am hungry but have no appetite, I am always tired, except when I wake up in the middle of the night. I cry because I cannot keep house the way I feel I ought to be able to with the light work schedule I’m lucky enough to have, so I am coming up short as a mother and as a wife before the baby is even here. I cringe at these thoughts and feelings, which seem to have no place in the life of a 21st-century feminist. I realize the arrogance of excluding these roles and kinds of work from my notions of powerful personhood, but I feel inadequate anyway, like I’ve become exactly that waste of education and intellect people said I would be if I became a young mother. I am embarrassed to be the sort of person who cries because she feels like it’s too hard before the baby is even born when there are people out there raising four kids solo and short on all the resources I have in abundance, partner and time and money chief among them.
When I say that I feel overwhelmed and inadequate because I am falling short of my expectations of myself, my husband tells me that I am doing a great job, and that besides I am busy and working hard at growing our child. I would say the same to anyone else expressing these thoughts and emotions. But all I think is that our baby grows without me trying, that his or her existence is independent of my effort, that I am well-fed, watered, and sheltered and that any improvements in the baby as a result of my increased happiness or fulfillment are just micro-optimizations. I see that what really matters is me being steady and open-hearted when the baby is here, and that these months are the only chance I get at preparing for being the parent I want to be, the kind that I felt so sure when I was 14 that I would be without any effort at all.
Nothing is effortless, especially lately. Eating, getting dressed, driving, sleeping, thinking. Walking the dog, walking in general, buying the groceries, answering emails, doing my job. My mind is mostly a list of things that I want or need to do but have not done and have no inclination to do. I seem to end up in bed in my underwear several times a day, giving up on one thing or another. I am usually tired, hungry, or lonely, often all three. I usually feel guilty about something, often lots of things.
I don’t much care what the narrative turns out to be from the perspective of a writer because of course I care much more about my child’s lifetime happiness as a consequence of the kind of parent I am able to be in these formative years, and of course not ending up hospitalized with postpartum psychosis is more important than whether me keeping it together is a good story. I want to be done with the part of my life that’s all about me and my ups and downs and how I managed to find stability and happiness.
But I think this is the same mistake I made when I was 14, grown deeper in the intervening decade. Having a child will not save me from myself, and couldn’t possibly. Even if it could work, it’s far too much to ask of a little one to be my redemption and second chance, and a wrong thing to ask besides. It isn’t want I believe or what I want, but there it is. But when I set aside that impossibility, I see that my desire for this child is something simple, really. It feels like the most meaningful and joyful and challenging thing I could do with myself. I think I could raise a person who would make the world better for being in it. I delight in my husband almost always and hold myself in high esteem most of the time, and think that our genes and better tendencies are good ones to pass along. I am desperately curious to experience the abject, ardent love that I will feel for our child, much more than the love I hope our child will feel for me. I want to have a child because I want to be a parent.
Everything I’ve been lead to believe about parenting tells me that it’s exhausting and frustrating, often in equal measure with or in excess of its joys. So perhaps the hard parts of carrying and growing this person are simply the reality of parenthood, even if it’s happening at a preconscious level. The baby grows without me having to do a thing to make it, yet I am constantly doing. I have made liters of extra blood. Muscles and skin are stretching. I have created a placenta, an entirely new and complex organ. And yes, the baby makes itself, but has only the raw materials that I provide. The baby’s heart pumps with its own blood, but is is my heart and lungs and blood and kidneys that do the dirty work and heavy lifting. Of course it’s hard. I have no idea how anyone ever has a second child with the first around to care for, let alone the third or fourth or tenth. But here is where I start, which is all I have to go on. I have to trust that the narrative will write itself.
Sophi Scarnewman serves as DTI’s Program Director and practices as a birth doula in the San Francisco Bay Area. She is expecting her first child this November.