A different kind of birth

By Andrea Jarrell

My mother was a “miracle baby.” I learned this while folding laundry.

I must have been eleven or twelve, old enough to have my period but still my mother’s girl. Because it was just the two of us—no father, no siblings—we were confidants. On the weekends we did laundry, carrying armloads upstairs from the communal washers and dryers in our Southern California apartment complex.

As we separated my mother’s lacy bras and panties from my days-of-the-week cotton bikinis, some newly stained at the crotch, we talked. “I always envied Grandmommy her pristine underwear,” my mother said, speaking of her mother. Pristine because my grandmother had had a hysterectomy a few years after my mother was born. From twenty-eight on, she’d never had to worry about period stains.

The doctor said it was a miracle my grandmother bore any children at all. He said this before surgically removing any chance of her having more. But after the operation, she became sick. So sick that the hospital broke its own rule by letting my mother—a child, and so not allowed into such solemn places—visit her dying mother. Refusing to leave her miracle baby behind, my grandmother experienced a second miracle and lived.

The births of my own children were personal marvels but, in the grand scheme, nothing extraordinary. Both were easy conceptions and healthy pregnancies. Still, birthing my son was physically the hardest thing I’ve ever done. He came fast, too fast for my midwife to get to the hospital. Too fast to consider an epidural, like I’d had with my daughter. Numbed that first time, I was unprepared for the heaviness between my legs like a two-ton speculum dragging me down to some murky ocean depth as my son’s head pushed its way into the world. “Open your eyes, Andrea,” the doctor said, calling me back to the ocean’s surface, back to that bright room and the present moment.

Like a version of the children’s song, “We’re Going on a Bear Hunt,” I knew then that I could not shut my eyes against that ocean of sensation threatening to drown me. I could not go over it. I could not go under it. I was going to have to swim through it. I’ve understood that ever since.

I understood it when my two-year-old daughter was attacked by our dog, my husband carrying her in his arms to the ER. So much blood; a half an inch closer and her eye would have been lost.

I understood it when my son clung to my leg on the first day of kindergarten, until I pulled his little hands away and waved goodbye to him.

I understood it when my daughter was in high school and I glimpsed the hickey at the top of her breast. She turned to me and said, “Don’t tell Daddy.”

I understood it when the police called in the middle of the night because my son had been caught sneaking out with friends.

And I understood it when, after moving our daughter into her college dorm room, it was time to go. I’d kept it together for three days—during the cross-country flight, the trips to Target for supplies, the making of her bed and stowing of duffle bags she’d use to come home at Christmas. Not wanting her to see me cry—oh how I’d resented my mother’s tears at my own drop off—I turned from her after a final hug and didn’t look back.

Driving to the airport, a sinkhole of grief opened within me—great, keening sobs—oddly familiar. I’d cried like this once before. When my grandmother—only fifty-nine—at last crossed over, leaving my mother and me behind. Missing her would be forever and we would have to live through it.

No! I told myself. How could I equate my child leaving home with death? It’s just the opposite: the life force driving on, leaving behind our time together.

And what of my life force?

On the other side of fifty, every month I wonder if this will be my last period, and I’m secretly relieved when it arrives again like clockwork, keeping me tethered to the self I’ve known so long. After I heard the news that singer Sophie Hawkins gave birth at fifty, I spent the next several days fantasizing about starting all over again.

With my history, I’m prone to believe in miracles.

Would having another baby salve my grief over my children leaving home? Or are such impulses simply vanity, wanting the world to think I’m still young enough to be making babies? Wanting to believe it myself. Forty years of period stains passed, the children of that laundry-folding girl grown and nearly gone, who am I becoming? Part of me wants to hold that woman at bay.

Yet I’ve learned again and again that I can’t go over, under or around, and I can’t turn back. No matter how high or rough the surf, going through every stage is where the living is.

Each month when my period comes, I tread water in that vast ocean a little while longer, waiting for a different kind of birth.

Open your eyes, Andrea. Open your eyes.

Andrea Jarrell’s essays have appeared in The New York Times “Modern Love” column, Narrative Magazine, Brevity Blog, Full Grown People, Brain, Child, The Washington Post and several anthologies, sites and publications. This essay is part of the anthology So Glad They Told Me: Women Get Real About Motherhood. 

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