The Pregnant Pause

On a summer evening, after a long day of sunshine and blue skies, you watch storm clouds gather in the west. You feel the humidity skyrocket as the air grows more still. On the edges of the storm clouds you see lightening flash, too far away for concern. A bit later you finally hear it, in the far distance, a rumbling of thunder. In that pause before the storm arrives, it seems the whole world is holding its breath, waiting.

Which do you feel: anticipation or dread?

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A dear friend of mine is pregnant, expecting her first child. Last night she texted, with relief, that she has a doctor’s appointment today. She explained her relief this way:

First you find out you’re pregnant at home. You call the doctor’s office, and they say, “ok, we’ll see you in a month”, because they won’t see you until you’re like nine weeks. And then you finally see the baby, and you’re like “Thank God”. Then you get sick, which is actually the most reassuring thing ever because at least you know its in there doing something to make you feel sick. And then you’re waiting four weeks before the next appointment. And while you wait into weeks 10/11/12/13, your sickness gets better which means you can’t tell if anything else is going on. You just have to hope it is. And so I go in tomorrow, and they won’t do a picture but they will do a heart beat and I’ll feel better. And then I’ll wait four more weeks. You can’t feel it move or anything right now, so it’s all just a bunch of hope. Hope that someday at the end it’s a happy human.

After our conversation, it occurred to me that the process she had just described was familiar in some ways, despite the fact that I’ve never been pregnant. A year ago this past week (June 6, 2013) I packed my car and left Cedar Rapids to create a new life. The first month, I was vacationing in New Mexico – enjoying my family and the natural beauty of the area. I alternated between relaxing into the moment and wishing to move time forward more quickly, to jump ahead to the process of settling into my new home in Minnesota. Like my friend waiting for her first pregnancy appointment, I wanted the confirmation of sight – the city, my apartment (rented from a distance) – wanted to know it was real and not still a “someday” dream.

In the process of creating a new life pregnancy-style, there are markers. Your monthly exams, books that compare your growing child to various foods (a peanut, a grape) so you can visualize the growth inside you. A wealth of information, a nearly day-by-day road map of what to expect. My friend will eventually have a sonogram and be told the baby’s gender. She’ll feel the baby’s first kick, feel her body expanding and conforming to the little person inside it. And with all that, there is still the unknown, the waiting that my friend describes.

In the process of creating a new life for oneself, there are no road maps. No handy “What to Expect When You’re Taking a Blind Leap of Faith” books parsing the days for you. No trimesters to mark off on the calendar. But there are check-ups and check-ins along the way, like my friend’s monthly doctor’s visits. Moments that confirm you’re on the right track. Moments that make it clear a course-correction is needed. Moments of extreme joy and of fear and of quiet acceptance. Moments when you can’t wait for what is to come and moments when you dread what may be next.

We all know it takes nine months to give birth to another human – no matter how often we witness it, we are still spellbound by the miracle of it.

How long does it take to give birth to a new self, a new lifestyle? That gestation period is trickier because it is different for each of us who takes on the journey. A year into it, I’m still not sure how far along I am. So far, each set-back has been met with a reprieve. Each moment of despair with one of joy. I didn’t know ahead of time that I’d slip downward on Maslow’s hierarchy to the bottom rungs; didn’t realize how hard that would be or what I’d learn about myself when it happened. I’m finally beginning to trust that my basic needs will be met – now, I’m squarely focused on satisfying the need for belonging and love, setting my sights on “esteem”.

When I decided to transform my life, I thought it would be a relatively smooth transition upward to “self-actualization” – even though I ought to have known better: there are no guarantees of achieving the highest levels of actualization – just the desire to keep climbing in that direction. Life cycles back around to the hard parts even if you don’t take drastic steps toward change, so why not take the chance to create something bigger?

In the midst of change, no matter how long it takes, there will be times when you see the path ahead and times when you can’t. Times when you must move forward with just the hope that someday, at the end, you’re a happy human.

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Whether you waited with anticipation or dread, the storm arrived.

The next day dawned. And it was spectacularly beautiful. Clean, fresh, cool air. Pink skies giving way to cerulean blue.

Which begs the question: if you can choose, why not choose anticipation? The next day dawns no matter what. Why spend your energy dreading it when there is so much more power in anticipating, in looking forward?

 

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Expectancy

December always carries a sense of expectancy, of waiting with bated breath, for something magical or wondrous to occur.

For me, of course, the season of Advent and the Christian celebration of the birth of Jesus is the traditional source of this sense of something about to happen. Some years, however, it is amplified by the anticipated arrival of new life – in 1987 my godson Nile was born on Christmas Eve, and this year my dear friends Sara and Molly are both due any minute.

The stories of my friendships with these three mothers, in some ways, tell the story of my life. Nile’s mom, C., was my comrade throughout graduate school; Sara was my student during the amazing first years of my career in Residence Life; and Molly was my peer, colleague, and collaborator in the time of hectic institutional change at the college. All three of them have impacted the person I am today in ways too numerous to list. And each has approached motherhood and childbirth differently. For someone who has never been a parent, the privilege to wait beside women I love and respect has been a gift.

C. told me the story of Nile’s conception, shared poems she wrote throughout her pregnancy (“I waited like an egg, already feeling the first inner stirrings”), read snippets of “What to Expect When You’re Expecting” aloud as we sat in her trailer home, shivering in the cold of early winter. For C., pregnancy and birth were mystical and sacred processes, albeit natural. When Nile was born, he and I shared an immediate and profound adoration for one another. I learned second-hand the trials and tribulations of breast feeding while a Ph.D. candidate, the anguish of a baby suffering from a difficult to diagnose health problem; eventually, the horrible experience of a baby having surgery and a feeding tube inserted in his stomach. There were many, many moments of inexplicable joy, and some of sorrow, shared between us throughout Nile’s early years. Sadly, C. and I drifted apart, both of us caught up in careers and lives that left very little free time or leisure to visit.

When Sara was a student, we often stayed up late talking on the purple couch in my apartment – or on a midnight run to Perkins (seriously, who thought those were a good idea?). Sara was a student of amazing promise, yet always claimed she wasn’t. She said, often, “I just want to get married and have a passel of kids!” or “I know I’m meant to be a mom.” Sara was a Resident Assistant, probably the best one that ever worked for me. Sara was and is one of the most competent people I’ve ever met. After she graduated, Sara refused to let go of me. She taught me, by example, what it means to be a steadfast and loyal friend. The child we are so happily awaiting this week is number four for Sara – and she was so right – she was meant to be a mom! Pregnancy appears to strengthen Sara’s aura of competence and self-assurance. She has often told me that two days in the hospital are like a mini-resort vacation.

As an only child, Molly worried that being a mom wouldn’t come naturally to her. All of her women friends, including me, tried to reassure her that she would be great. Still, she doubted. Her first child, my goddaughter Kate, is adorable and smart and observant – just like her mom. Molly presents herself as pragmatic and analytical and a realist. And she is all of these. But her hidden trait, the thing you don’t realize until you know her well, is that Molly is all heart. A trait Kate also inherited (for a while, taking Kate out in public was an exercise in empathy – she saw/heard every child in tears wherever we were, and it distressed her terribly. “Baby crying”, she would say, with a tremble in her voice and a furrowed brow.)  “Sister Baby” as Kate calls her, has some pretty spectacular women in her life, eagerly awaiting her appearance.

Me, with Abby (Sara's) and holding Kate (Molly's), June 2013. Photo credit: Mike Beck
Me, with Abby (Sara’s) and holding Kate (Molly’s), June 2013. Photo credit: Mike Beck

Each of these friends has offered me different gifts: tough love, gentle support, unwavering loyalty. The women and mothers they are have been mirrors in which I have been able to view myself clearly, helping me to grow in so many ways. As each has accorded me the honor of being part of her children’s lives, I have had to strive to learn how to be my best self.

Approaching Christmas, we are often told to focus on the “reason for the season”. This year, in particular, I find myself thinking of Mary. Mary’s life and pregnancy, like those of the mothers I know, wasn’t easy. Nor was her childbirth guaranteed to be painless. Yet, she not only accepted but embraced motherhood, opening her life and the life of her child to be shared by us all, through many generations. I am trying not to focus on the material accoutrements of the holiday and, instead, to train my gaze upon a humble birth. I hope to keep my attitude toward this humble birth – toward all humble births – one of wonder, of gratitude and of joy.

Each night a child is born is a holy night
A time for singing
A time for wondering
A time for worshipping

No angels herald their beginnings
No prophets predict their future courses
No wise men see a star to show where to find
The babe that will save humankind

Yet each night a child is born is a holy night
Fathers and mothers—sitting beside their children’s cribs
Feel glory in the sight of new life beginning…

—Sofia Lyon Fahs

(Notes: An excerpt from this poem was used in Nile’s birth announcement. There are many other parents, mothers and fathers, to whom I am grateful for the incredible privilege of sharing their children’s lives – you, too, are in my heart this Advent season!)