Birth, separation, symbiosis.
“No one knows what actually triggers the onset of labor — the moment when at least the mother becomes conscious that her infant might begin to have a life that she cannot predict or even necessarily share.”
The First Cry
As my daughter approached her fifth month of pregnancy, I thought back on my own experiences of childbirth and decided to share what I knew. I found a used copy of the single book that had guided me thirty-five years ago, Grantly Dick-Read’s 1942 Childbirth without Fear, and sent it to her.
In my memory, Dick-Read, a British obstetrician who advocated natural childbirth without drugs, offered insight into why most women feel pain during uterine contractions. He wrote that their fear of childbirth causes their uterine muscles to tense up — so that these muscles tax themselves to the maximum the very first time they are used. He suggested that if pregnant women learned more about the birth process, they would be able to relax those muscles and experience more manageable pain. I had a cooperative doctor, practiced meditation during labor, and successfully experienced a vaginal birth while fully conscious.
Although my daughter and I agreed that she would not know until her labor began how she would cope, and that whatever choice she made, for anesthesia or not, would be the right one, I wanted her to think about her own birth from the perspective of the woman who labored while she rode the contractions to her first breath. I was also trying to bridge the generational separation that had formed between us over the years, as she had grown up and away.
Holding the book in my hand again, I found myself looking for Dr. Dick-Read’s description of the moment of birth itself, since I had no memory of how he had characterized the mother’s response. Curiously, he does not describe the sounds the woman makes except to portray women in advanced labor as grunting and moaning, and he reports that after childbirth, many women apologize for making “awful noise.”
Grunting, moaning, and noise: none of these words seemed adequate to convey what I myself heard the day I gave birth for the first time. Instead of attending to the woman’s triumph and listening to her own vocalizations as she moves from two bodies to one, Dick-Read’s shifts his focus to the baby, writing that the baby’s “first cry remains an indelible memory on the mind of a mother; it is the song which carried her upon its wings to an ecstasy mere man seems quite unable to comprehend.” For Dick-Read, the mother who achieves natural childbirth can meet and hear her just-born in the very instant of the baby’s arrival, and he writes, “No mother and no child should be denied that great mystical association.”
Encountering the limits of Dick-Read’s understanding of the mother’s experience, I would have added that mothers deserve recognition for their own heroic achievement in creating that moment of ecstasy, a point I found myself making to my daughter after she also read the book and as we both agreed that it made some valuable suggestions but also seemed dated.
However, once my daughter moved even closer to delivery, I felt some of that original “mystical association” rekindled in me. She and I discussed many details of the upcoming event, and I discovered that she had already learned from a variety of sources and was able to teach me more than I had known. Near term, as we waited daily for some sign of the baby’s emergence, she surprised me by reporting that doctors cannot predict when labor will begin, even as they continue to watch for cervical softening and early dilation. In fact, she told me, no one knows what actually triggers the onset of labor — or, we might say, the child’s first separation from the mother, the moment when at least the mother becomes conscious that her infant might begin to have a life that she cannot predict or even necessarily share, that what begins as two beings united in one body might become two divided from each other, even irreconcilable.
As a teenager in the 1960s, on the cusp of the countercultural revolution, I read Khalil Gibran’s The Prophet. Now I view some of Gibran’s words as an attempt to explain the mystery of mother-child incompatibility, commonly thought of as the generational divide. Gibran writes that we do not own our children, that although our children come through us, they do not come from us; and that we can love them and take care of them but cannot control their souls: “For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow / Which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.” His speaker — the prophet — utters a koan, a spiritual paradox that seems to contain a profound truth, yet one that keeps slipping away from the mind’s grasp.
The words do not really explain how it happens that my children are not my children. I have reflected on the meaning of this paradox ever since I became a parent, and now remembering both of my childbirths reopened the portal to pondering what it means not to own my children.
The first childbirth, which introduced me to the mystery of motherhood, took place during a blizzard. The hospital in Greenwich, New York, stood at the top of a long hill, and the doctor, who lived at the foot of the hill, assured us that they kept the one-lane, one-way entrance road plowed during the winter.
I had eaten three sloppy-joe sandwiches the night before and awoke around two a.m. to a flood: water breaking. Uncharacteristically unprepared, I had not packed a hospital suitcase, but after calling and hearing the nurse telling us to come right in, I threw a robe and a toothbrush into a paper bag and put a coat on over my maternity nightgown, and the baby’s father and I headed out. We left Bennington, Vermont, in freezing rain, but by the time we crossed the border into New York the rain had become a driving snowstorm and the forty-five-minute drive we had anticipated stretched into one much longer than that.
When we finally arrived at the hospital, we discovered that no one had plowed the hill. By this time, I was having contractions and wanted out of our VW bug. After driving up the snowy incline a short way, we saw lights behind us — the snowplow. The driver motioned for us to pull over so that he could clear the roadway, but because the road was so narrow, he ended up plowing us into a ditch.
Without hesitating, I grabbed my paper bag and started to walk up the hill in thin shoes. The baby’s father paused to take care of the car, then rode up the hill with the plow — but I beat him there. When I reached the top and saw the hospital lights through the falling snow across the nearly empty parking lot, the nurses also saw me and raced out with a wheelchair. If I had made it this far on my own, I remember thinking, why would they expect me to need help now?
The second birth happened even faster than the first, during the height of a New England summer. She held off until her due date, but not a day later. From her behavior in utero, which included a lot of kicking and squirming, I already knew that this baby would get out fast when she had her chance. Not being easily at rest in the womb might indicate a child who would always know her own mind, and perhaps in that way, resolve the enigma of mother-child separation first dramatically experienced during the moment of the infant’s emergence.
My firstborn daughter’s point concerning the unpredictability of labor recalled her own birth and somewhat reframed the riddle of mother-child separation for me. Childbirth — the infant’s first arching toward eventual individuality — must begin at just the moment when the baby and the mother’s womb become incompatible to each other. Like the proverbial last straw, or the instant of metal fatigue when a bridge can no longer support the weight of cars, or whatever it is that we understand as the tipping point, the baby can no longer remain where it has happily lived for about nine months.
Having experienced two pregnancies and given birth to medium-to-large-sized babies, I know that a child in the womb cannot continue to grow indefinitely. Whether it is the baby who initiates birth or whether the overburdened uterus itself triggers rhythms to expel the baby, I cannot say. Did the second child simply find herself too confined to move at all except to swim down and out? In the case of the first, blizzard-marked birth, did my third sloppy joe bring on the balloon’s bursting? Had I stopped at two, would she have had enough room to stay another day?
The differences between my two childbirths and the recent birth of my granddaughter reflect revolutionary advances in maternity care. After my first, my baby slept in a communal nursery, the nurses brought her in for periods of nursing, and the maternity ward was so under-utilized that week that one of the nurses had time to offer me a back rub. Alone in my room but excited throughout my entire body, I rode the endorphins all night long, staying awake to watch the moon rise above the rolling hills of the Green Mountains just east of the hospital; even the shape of the mountain looked like a sleeping child.
After my second, fewer than three years later, “rooming-in” had become the fashion, and although the nurses wrongly assumed I would know what to do with a newborn just entering her first post-birth sleep — when to wake her, and how often — having her right there helped us become acquainted with each other from the beginning.
Young mothers now practice “attachment parenting,” as if we need a concept both to clarify and distance ourselves from the power of the earliest bonding between mother and baby. After my daughter gave birth, the maternity ward offered “rooming-in” with a difference: the nurses, one called a “lactation consultant,” monitored every ounce of intake and output, teaching the new mommy and the momma (for this is a two-mother family) how to encourage a proper latch and how to read the cries of the very new infant. They hardly left anyone alone at all.
When the nurses wheeled me out of the snowstorm and into the room that would become the site of both labor and delivery, I was happy to lie on a hospital bed. My daughter’s birthing room included a large ball and a rocking chair, and she did not get into a bed until it was time to deliver her baby. Although I was able to visualize contractions as uterine muscles doing their work, at both births I and my baby’s father had to endure nurses who kept checking for dilation and the onset of transition — that moment when the baby’s head approaches the opening of the birth canal and the real pushing can begin. My daughter and her spouse had invited a doula into the birth, and the doula’s interpretations of the progress of labor mediated between the pregnant couple and the medical staff.
My second time, I pleaded to the nurses to get the doctor; the baby was coming fast, I kept insisting. Because I had just arrived at the hospital, they did not take me seriously. They finally looked for themselves and then put in an urgent phone call, telling me the whole time: Don’t push; don’t push until the doctor comes. So the lovely baby already knocking on the door that would let her out had to be held back, or so they said, when there was no holding back. All the same, I wonder whether at some level I appreciated being told not to push. I wonder if I knew, the second time, that in the moment of transition, I was already witnessing the imminent end of total one-ness with my child and instead wanted to hold back, to hold onto the moment just an instant longer when my second baby was still part of my own body.
What’s now called mother-child incompatibility, or more generally, parent-child incompatibility, seems at first to describe all of the conflicts that characterize families who are raising children. No one, for example, finds harmony in a household that includes a toddler working out their “terrible twos” or the fourteen-year-old boy or girl struggling with the changes of adolescence.
Yet life with a newborn appears to contradict the notion that a baby exists separately from the mother. The long dependency of the human infant begins in fusion that temporarily denies eventual separation. After a neonate begins to emerge from the sleep that follows birth, the next three months mark the period of what psychologists have called symbiosis, in which infant and mother develop an emotional and psychic merging. Earliest infant life seems to recapitulate time in the womb, as if compensating for the violent rupture of birth itself, only now the mother and child have a shared gaze to confirm that each is present to the other. When her baby seems to recognize her face, the new mother more willingly endures the deprivations of sleep, when she must rise during the night to satisfy the small being who frequently wakes, demanding to be fed.
I have known long moments of such fusion between mother and child: the eye-lock when the newborn slithers out of the birth canal onto the mother’s chest, still connected to the umbilical cord; the way boundaries between bodies melt away during breast-feeding and its aftermath; the blissful sensation that accompanies the smell and feel of the baby’s head. Thus, for the infant with a mother of even average emotional capacity for her new role, the first few months of life produce a sense of attunement between child and mother not unlike an extension of pregnancy itself when the two have shared one body.
When my granddaughter was five weeks old, my daughter expressed the following realization about her milk-drunk baby: “She seems to think of my body as her environment.” Yet even in the first few weeks, separation defines the rhythms of interaction: satiety as the nursing baby falls asleep and unlatches from the breast, floating on the emotional waters of the first intimacy that will become the model and quest for sexual fusion, perhaps the only physical pathway available to adult men and women that connects us back to the first human connection.
My firstborn taught me about separation. She learned to climb well out of my reach to the highest rung of the playground’s jungle gym by the time her sister was born; I would soon not be able to run fast enough to keep up with her, the one who had first taught me about “mystical association.” And yet, had I been able to discuss the idea of a new baby with the toddler, she would perhaps have advised against it. After all, when she was still the only child, she set the pace for her own development.
From the moment her sister was born, someone else’s needs became more immediate. Once we brought our second daughter home, nighttime temporarily became nightmare for the firstborn; when I rose to nurse the infant, the toddler ran up and down the hallway screaming. Did her sister’s arrival signal her own transition out of the lingering remnants of our symbiosis? Did she experience consciously for the first time the trauma of separation from her mother that none of us remember from our own actual births? I know I entered a period of mourning for the end of the first mother-child dyad even as I began to form a second one.
The birth of the second child feels so much like breaking up with the first one, or moving away from a time when mother and child seem to be in an exclusive, attuned relationship to one where they must form some new but outwardly less intense relationship. Maybe the violence of this rupture explains why we experience such grief when, as adolescents, our first boyfriend or girlfriend breaks up with us, especially when we see that person coupled with someone else.
When my sister was born, I have been told that holding a doll in my own arms took the place of being held myself in my mother’s, and that I became a “big girl” who liked helping take care of the baby. But when I witnessed my first daughter’s response to the birth of her sister, I thought I understood the real backstory of my own early life and the heartbreak of being supplanted by someone new.
Because I hear in these words the whining of an older child, I know that I must once have felt grief when I lost my mother to my sister. The change in relationship with my own children took on deeper resonance when I began to realize how much my parents, now in their nineties, had left their young parenthood feelings behind. Mother-child incompatibility means that by the time I had enough experience to recognize it in relationship with my own small children and to want to talk about it, my mother had long forgotten how she must have really felt. Her forgetting increased my sense that incompatibility represents mostly loss.
Everyone has their own story of first love’s ending, or of yielding place to the birth of a younger sibling, and we carry into adolescent and adult intimacy the separateness that follows closeness. The pattern of early mother-child incompatibility repeats itself in those later relationships, even though we may believe we are experiencing love and breaking up for the first time. Fusion ends in separation. Marriage sometimes ends in divorce. Children grow up and leave home. For some of us, the particularly cruel separations of parental abandonment or death make it much harder to reconnect. If you don’t give yourself over entirely to the other, it won’t hurt as much when that one leaves, or you do. Fusion followed by separation may reflect the pattern of human growth early in life, but it also becomes the template for failed intimacy when we think we can avoid losing by rejecting love.
For many years I have cried when my daughters left me — whether to scout camp or to college and beyond — and they apparently have not, or if they have, their tears reflected fear of the unknown, not loss of mother. Somehow they have always known that they live in “the house of tomorrow,” which I cannot visit, because not even they know where I might go to look for them while all the time they remain focused on finding themselves.
The euphoric poem my firstborn wrote when she really, finally left to take her post-college job in a distant state — which involved something about her departure as a floom, zoom in her newly bought used Saturn, suggesting her planetary ascent into adulthood beyond the pull of home’s gravity — did nothing to assuage the heavy grief I carried for months. It was not the first cry, but it was a very deep one.
Until she died, my beloved grandmother asked me every time I visited, “When are you coming home?” After both daughters eventually took permanent jobs in large cities where I do not live, I began to wonder how my parents managed to survive having a daughter who left for college at age sixteen and never really returned, apart from two summers. Did my parents miss me the way I miss my own children?
They have certainly felt my absence over the last two decades. In another life, or another century, I would have been there to help them with doctors’ appointments and shopping. Now my ninety-one-year-old father worries about losing his driver’s license because his license gives them their freedom. They describe their weekly trips to the supermarket, each with a shopping cart because neither can stand for long periods of time without support. They plan their lists according to the store’s layout. It used to be the case, my father has told me, that the cashiers would point them to the express lanes, since they would each have small loads. Now the clerks know that the two of them are together and want to check out in the same lane. Neither one shops with an adult daughter in tow.
While we do not share geography, I inhabit a place that I can believe they would recognize, as they did come to realize that their daughter would never live in their neighborhood. But such may explain the way parent-child incompatibility lasts a lifetime. I can imagine how they felt, but I cannot know it from the inside, as they might actually have experienced their feelings. Did they grieve? Blame themselves, or me? Or, because they are members of the greatest generation, merely suck it up and adjust? They grew up in a world in which their own parents lived within reach, or rather, for their parents, their grown children stayed close by. When I began to understand what it means to have a child settle permanently in a large city many hours’ drive away, knowing that I will not have children, or grandchildren, within easy driving distance, I had already been gone from home for almost forty years.
Incompatibility: the generations pass each other on lines that skew. And yet, we long to stay close to the young ones we have borne.
Anticipating my daughter’s recent childbirth, I prepared to lose her once again to her new role, even if I would be gaining a granddaughter. As my daughter has become a mother, she seems to find herself thinking back as if through her mother’s eyes gazing at her own child. Softness has crept into her voice when we talk on the phone. Can I have lived long enough to become attuned with her in a very deep way once again? Does she, in symbiosis with her own baby, somehow remember our early closeness? When I watch her with her own child, I feel like singing a joyous song.
In transition with my firstborn, as I began to push, my body became a hinge and opened in a way I only experienced one other time. I floated on sea water while tectonic plates moved and clock hands raced. From an immeasurable distance, fully effaced, I heard, as if from the earth’s very core, a loud and primitive cry. Not a moan, a grunt, or an awful noise: I heard an eerie, sliding scale of a cadence that started deep and increased in volume until it hit the highest register, my throat and jaws opening as I felt my body push one last time.
Only then, or just afterward, I felt others slide a slippery baby onto my chest. I do not remember hearing my daughter’s first cry, but only my own. The newborn covered in umbilical fluid blinked wet eyes and looked at me as she lay on my breast. Even while the room still vibrated with sound, I needed the others to convince me that it was I who had uttered the earthy cry.
Marjorie Pryse is the co-author of Writing out of Place, a scholarly book on regionalism in American literature, and the editor of five other books. She has published fiction in Story Quarterly and Mother Jones, and essays in many publications, including Faulkner Journal, American Literature, New England Quarterly, Bennington Review, and The Chronicle of Higher Education.