During the years of my life right after college, I rode currents of expected norms. I focused on accomplishments — a graduate degree, professional certification, promotions, paychecks, establishing myself as a respected professional. I accumulated material goods I valued. Mired in lists, goals and spreadsheets in my well-ordered life, I was impressive among my peers, socially valued and self-important.
Although God was with me during those years, I didn’t pay too much attention. I did all the right things, paid my taxes, said hello to the neighbors, but I was busy being a solitary being, busy being me.
Despite the frantic pace, however, life was predictable and mundane. It had no verve, no revelations or lightning strikes and, certainly, no adventure.
Then about 10 years ago I heard something. Perhaps I stopped the relentless aspect of my pursuits and allowed some small breath of time to enter my days. It wasn’t intentional, but I started to listen to my physical self. What I heard came in like a torrent, a deafening roar. A biological maelstrom.
I wanted a baby. And with absolutely no idea about what that meant or involved, I stepped into the unknown. I became a mother.
So the journey finds me here, beside the river on a Saturday morning in November. The sky is gray. The Mississippi River is, as usual, brown. The grass is faded and the concrete of the river walk does nothing to complement any of it. But I am here, running beside the river, seeking beauty, sky, wind. I am running to feel the wind, to feel myself breathe.
As I am running my mind fades back to another run in another place. He was from Glasgow. We were both angry, young, defiant — me with nothing to lose, he with dark hair, blue eyes and that bike. Standing in the light of the London street lamp below my window, calling, “C’mon doll, let’s go for a ride.”
A stretch of road on the outskirts of London runs along the Thames. If you hit that road in the early morning hours, it’s empty and there are no limits to how fast you can go.
The minivan pulls up with my husband and our three children. My 40 minutes is up. My run is over.
As I get into the car, three excited voices start calling “Mommy!” They tell me what they ate for breakfast, and my husband starts to list our day. His run, his friend’s wedding, taking the kids to the water park. It’s no longer only my day. I look out the window at the river, its strength and beauty, and I think about how I got here, to this, my amazing life.
The only way out
My mind shifts back to another drive, along the Eisenhower Expressway in Chicago in the early afternoon. I am in labor. As my head leans against the passenger side headrest of the minivan today, I recall my head convulsing backward against the headrest in a car we no longer own; as my feet hit the floor, I am bracing myself as pain begins in my center, radiates and suspends me in a void I could never have imagined or prepared for.
I can’t breathe. I can’t scream. I feel nothing but this pain. When the pain eases, I am panting, and I whimper to my husband, “I can’t do this. I can’t do this. It hurts too much.” The pain comes again, harder, longer, more intense.
My husband tells me I don’t have a choice, the only way out is to finish the job. I know he is trying to be cheerful and supportive, but he’s a man and he will never know, it’s impossible for him to know what I am feeling. I don’t even want him there anymore. I don’t want anybody. I just want to get this baby out of my body, and I want the pain to go away.
As I am lying in triage screaming, my husband is parking the car. The nurses do not come. I am simply a woman of the ages, a woman in labor. This primordial pain of childbirth has been done before, the nurses have heard it all before and are aware of what my body is doing to get rid of this thing inside, but at this point they don’t care.
The pain pulls me in again, slow, forceful, steady. It pulls and holds me where I sense nothing else, and I see only details, my knuckles grasping the bar of the hospital bed, the green line on a monitor screen, the dirt on the floor. I am no longer focused on my child, only on the pain. It is selfish, and it takes me to dark places I don’t want to go.
When I am finally hooked up to the IVs, the medications and the monitors, my doctor arrives and tells me she’s never seen contractions so intense last so long. I can’t feel them anymore because I’m drugged, but I can watch them on a machine. I don’t want to feel them. I am focused on my child’s heartbeat, which quickens when my body convulses.
I am a woman surrounded by nurses and doctors. My husband is beside me, yet I have never been so alone in my life. This is my solitary experience, my journey. Only I can deliver this baby. My muscles will push, my body will tear and my blood will end up on the floor.
When they tell me I can start to push, I am relieved. It’s been a long journey of pregnancy and discovery, and I am ready for it to end. And then it’s over, in a final rush of every strand of DNA in my body, every cell, every ancestor, every person in my chain, reaching back into humanity, we are all connected in the moment of bearing down and delivering this child into the universe
As my daughter is placed in my arms, the solitary aspect of this endurance is over. I now realize, in the moment of her birth, that I will never be alone again. This child will be with me always. When she is no longer in my arms, she will be in my thoughts and in my prayers. And every decision I make, I will consider the heartbeat of my child. In the instant of her birth, my life no longer belongs to me. Although I share my life with her father, I give my life to her. This is my new vocation, parenting a child.
With my gift to my child, I am given another in return: fear. I fear for the frail infant. I fear for her safety, her health. I worry if she will be happy and content with my husband and me as her parents. I fear for my own life, too, my own health and safety. I have a responsibility to protect my own life now, so I can protect this child and she will not suffer loss.
In our first hello, I also realize my strength is not the power of a paycheck or my career, my strength is my ability as a woman to be compassionate, to nurture, protect and to love. The ability to give and to care about the suffering of others, even if it’s just a tissue for a runny nose, is the beauty and the strength of women.
I am also struck by the duality of how I got to this place of giving, giving this child to herself and to humanity. In the process of creating life, I’ve come to understand, women must receive.
We can get an education and make our own money, enjoy the freedom of youth, but we need the father, for without receiving, our bodies can’t make the magic happen. And after that moment of conception, those multiplying cells, the newly created life implants in our womb, the ultimate receiving vessel. The sex act, the womb, it’s all about receiving.
But after the magic, after the nine months of nurturing, we must push the child out of our welcoming womb, naked into the universe. In this duality, this conflict of giving and receiving, I realized my own spiritual birth.
For it wasn’t just my body that was torn by the pain and ripping flesh. The individual I used to be, the woman before that defining moment of my child’s birth, was forever torn away from me. And I was resurrected into something greater. I became a mother.
That gray morning in November has passed, and so, too, the years. I have now been a mother for just over eight of them.
This evening I stood in front of my bathroom mirror. Wondering how I got from stuffing tissue under my camisole to this middle-aged woman I have become.
As I am looking at my naked body, I appreciate what it has given me. Despite my imperfections, I am grateful for the children this body helped create. I realize that is what my body was meant to do, create life. And what I was meant to do was give my life to God, to love, to my children and to humanity.
My youngest child walks into the bathroom. She is having trouble sleeping. She walks over to me, and I kneel down on the floor to speak to her.
“What are those?”
“Those are my breasts, Emma.”
“Where are my breastes?”
I show her, and then she pokes mine. I think about telling her that my breasts are private, but instead I decide curiosity is a good thing, and I let her poke me. “Squishy,” she says.
She asks if she will have “breastes” like mine when she is a mommy. Briefly, I wish for my daughter something better than what I’ve got, but then I remember what they are for, nursing and nurturing an infant child. I want this for my daughter. So I tell her yes, when she is a mommy she will have breasts like mine.
Then she abruptly turns, says good night and walks out the door back to her room.
I step into the shower and let the water wash the day off me. I think about all of my children, and the bond I feel with humanity.
I think about God, who introduced me to the compassion and humility I had minimized in my ordered life before motherhood. I am no longer solitary or self-important. My spiritual transformation.
I think about my body. The pain and endurance of my pregnancies, labor and delivery. I think about squishy breasts, stretch marks, something called spider veins. My physical transformation.
As I am getting into bed, my 3-year old, still awake, walks in. “Mommy, I scared. Can I have a cuddle?”
I help my young child into bed beside me and curl her tightly against my chest as I did when she was an infant. Her hair against my cheek, her body in my arms. “Sing ‘Papa,’ Mommy.”
Hush little baby don’t say a word,
Papa’s going to buy you a mockingbird,
And if that mockingbird don’t sing,
Papa’s’ going to buy you a diamond ring,
I sing it all the way to the end:
And if that dog named Rover won’t bark,
Papa’s going to buy you a horse and cart,
And if that horse and cart falls down,
you’ll still be the sweetest little baby in town.
As the lullaby ends, my daughter’s breathing slows; gently she has gone to sleep.
There are limits now to how fast I can go. There are no more empty roads. My life no longer belongs to me. In that release, I am able to realize God more fully. And I have realized my personal truth: It is in giving that we receive.
And it feels right and good to have given life to others. In this gift of life, I have found my peace. Yet it is fear that seems to bind it all together.
A friend recently wrote to me, “It’s a good feeling, scared, huh?”
Being scared is about having something to lose. I am a mother who has given birth to three children of this universe, and I respond to my friend with a single word.
Maraya Steadman, who lives in a Chicago suburb, is a stay-at-home mother of three children. She can be reached at email@example.com.
Mother and child sculpture: