The vernal equinox is come, and with it cold winds reminding me that winter isn’t finished with us. Yet, the branch buds say “you can’t stop us now,” tulips are making their green ascent, and we are all rowdy with the change, winds be damned. Spring is quickening.
The past few weeks have seen changes inside and out. One night somewhere in my eighteenth week I pressed my fetoscope against my belly and heard, for the first time, the little gallop of a heartbeat. I called my husband into the room. He listened eagerly, with a broad smile. It was a stroke of luck to have found it so early—it was hard to find again for the next week or so—and now at twenty one weeks there it is, available just beneath our fingertips. He’s even found it himself, without my help. Mister midwife.
The other change is the quickening. What a magical word, like changeling, like quicksilver. Quickening refers to the first perception of a baby’s movements. In pre-modern Europe, the quickening was the moment a pregnancy was known, and in a sense it was when the baby was thought of as alive. The word refers to life, to be quick is to live, to move, as in, the “Quick and the Dead,” as in Hamlet, referring to the grave as “for the dead, not for the quick,” as in quicksilver, “living silver.”
Of course, now we have ways of knowing that don’t rely on the perception of fetal movement. We can pee on a little stick to tell us that we’re pregnant. There are machines that look into our bodies and send us back images of the deep, tools that transmit the sound of a tiny heart beating. But quickening is still an important boundary in pregnancy, the border between abstraction and a different kind of realization. It is no longer “a baby,” it is “my baby.” It is no longer an idea of a baby that I must imagine inside my body, it is a small human that, of its own volition, moves. This reality is inside me.
The uncanny, visceral interoception of an otherness within the self is a fracture merging the otherwise irreconcilable dualities generated by quickening: power and surrender, knowledge and ignorance, choice and fate, fullness and emptiness, words and silence. Impressiveness and impressionability. Quickening becomes an interrogation of the moral boundaries between self and other as well as between mind and body, autonomy and responsibility, subjectivity and ethics. With its emphasis on the fetus’s otherness, quickening effects a break between mother and fetus that allows the emergence of the pregnant woman as a thinking and knowing subject separate from the fetus that makes a mother of her.
Quickening is an awareness that I am not myself. My body jealously guards its child and seeks to sweep it into its own subjectivity, like an ovum swept up by fimbriae. Perhaps that’s another reason I don’t want any ultrasound; I don’t want this sliver of myself turned into a fetal patient, a “clinical entity,” a child of technocracy. Not yet. The me/not me that I am these days, the walking graft of life, holds the paradox together. But there are so many blurry lines; I made a blanket for the baby, but at night I wrap myself in it wanting to be babied.
As jealous as I am, the realization of otherness is setting in. I become aware of my different responsibilities, which includes a responsibility to care for myself, to protect myself, because I will be a mother to a child who needs me. I was thinking of a time in Paris, when as teens my sister and I crawled over the lip of the Pont de Bir-Hakeim bridge to sit on a ledge overhanging the Seine. There were so many things I did that could have ended badly, but this one sears me; if I had fallen into the river, who would have cared for my baby?
The early part of pregnancy was, for me, not about motherhood, precisely because it was so abstract. This new phase, this waxing, with its little motions like morse code from another world, is paving motherhood’s path. Maybe this baby is a changeling after all; it started off as me, and became s/he.