My sister and I were talking today about rituals, about what life would be like if ritual were built into it like it is in some cultures. If we had a place to exorcise the regular buildup, marvel a bit, connect, move through time and reorder the disorderly. Western culture looks at time like a straight line, and we’re always moving forward, though we could experience it differently. Maybe, even, it’s more realistic to see time as circles in circles, cycles. Every month or so we women cycle. I’ve written before about it, the ways we cycle in and out of darkness, where the darkness that we typically write off as PMS is actually a place where the things that need to be dealt with insinuate themselves and if we choose, we can work with it.
Pregnancy is like that, too. I was at a yoga class the other night where pregnant women were talking about how weepy they’ve become, how the hormones take them over. (It’s a real thing, this lability. I was there, early on, weeping on the street in San Juan, Puerto Rico, after buying something small in a grocery store that was then double bagged, and trying to do anything to make the world better hit me, it being instantly negated by the onslaught of everyday waste. Needless to say, the futility hit me hard, and that’s not even taking into account the tragedy mounted on tragedy that pregnancy has doubly sensitized me to). I don’t want to be so quick to write it off on hormones or treat deep feelings like they’re heartburn or swollen feet, something to tolerate or laugh at. Just like PMS is an opportunity to see what’s in the darkness, there’s something about pregnancy that demands I clean up my life before becoming a parent.
These first few weeks of my third trimester have been the weeks of confrontation. Primal fears have come up, of abandonment, of change, of instability, of mortality, amplified by the irritability brought on by discomfort and broken sleep. Facing up to them is an opportunity for me to prepare myself for birth and motherhood; I feel like a warrior preparing for battle with myself, like Luke Skywalker in the swamps of Dagobah. “Rites of initiation are those zones of great darkness,” anthropologist Joan Halifax writes, “that make the unclear, the contradictory, the polluted, and the changeable the ground of renewal. They are the occasions of fruitful darkness.” Yes. Fruitful darkness. I think most of us are discouraged from looking into these places. When early on in my pregnancy I expressed a fear of miscarriage, an aunt tried to shush it up, cover it over with the absolute joy she thought I should be feeling. She wanted to rescue me from feeling fear.
How rare it is that women are allowed to go there, to be safe and supported in feeling the doubt and the fear and sadness that can come along with pregnancy, even as pregnancy may bring incredible joy and expectation. We are not so simple that all we feel is joy; it’s normal, especially I imagine with a first child, to have fears around how our lives will change, how our relationships will change, how our bodies are changing and what they will be in a few months or years time. In my experience as a doula and teaching about childbirth, I hear a lot women express fears of birth, and I meet that with information and support. But I suspect that there are fears that run deeper, that women are too worried about expressing in case they are judged, or when they try to express them, people who mean well silence them.
I think it would be strange not to feel everything. I know that birth is hard, but from what I see and have learned, I think of the postpartum as being harder. Again, as much happiness as a new baby can bring, the weeks of three or four hours of sleep a night, a seemingly inconsolable infant, learning how to breastfeed (which typically takes weeks, in a country where overall breastfeeding moms receive so little support), and being expected to maintain a home and even, for so many of us here in America, a job to immediately return to, without the support of wider community in a society that expects us to bounce right up and move on…
It changes, of course. Doesn’t necessarily get easier, but it shifts as mother and baby learn to dance together. The point is, it is normal to have mixed feelings about all of this great transformation and challenge.
Without articulated rites of passage built into my culture to move me through life transitions–into adulthood from childhood, into motherhood, grandmotherhood, etc–I’m building my own. I’m treating these last few weeks the ways I imagine pregnancy and birth and new parenthood have been treated for thousands of years, as a ritual, as a threshold to be crossed that will mark me. The way I care for myself these days is a part of the preparation, doing things for my body like yoga, acupuncture, seeing a chiropractor, and doing things for my heart and soul. In Greek, the word hormone means “messenger.” Estrogen, progesterone, prolactin, the handmaidens of the fruitful darkness, bringing me the good, hard work I need to do to be ready to be fully present and whole for the stranger on his or her way. I welcome this baby, and I’m almost at the point where I welcome the change, too.