I gather birth stories like smooth pebbles along the shore. I know some people hate to hear them, hate being forced to listen to “horror stories” from birth and labor and becoming a mother; but I’ve never seen the stories in that light. I gather birth stories like precious stones, made smooth by enough time and space and distance from the actual event, smooth from being turned over in a mother’s warm palms over and over again, formed by the shocking event of birth no matter how many times you’ve been through it, forged in the heat of a brand new human heart beating it’s way through a birth canal and into the light of day. I gather birth stories and mothering stories and stories of grand and brave women because story is what guides us. Stories are true. Stories are the best gifts of all, small round weights that anchor us to each other and steady us in the storm. So I collect them. I hold them in my own hand, touching the strange turns and curves of another woman’s truth, touching in reverence and awe, so glad to be a part of this tribe. So glad to be of those who create, those who cry out, those who mother whether their children come from their womb or from the body of another.
My friend Alyse is due with her third baby any moment now, and last week she invited me to a different kind of a baby shower. It’s called a ‘Blessingway.’ There’s no gift giving and no games, no registry or awkward sitting around. (And by the way, why are men not forced to attend parties with terrible games and stilted conversations? Is this part of the curse? Baby showers, bridal showers and direct-sales parties? Is this our self-inflicted, hummus-soaked punishment for all of time and eternity?)
Alyse had a very strange kind of baby shower, the kind where women actually get to encourage each other and move right past the boring games and dive right into the oldest kind of gift-giving. The gifting that women invented from the moment they spoke across the fire, to each other and their daughters and each other’s daughters:
The gift of story. The gift of encouragement. The gift of love through shared experience.
But since I didn’t get to attend Alyse’s ‘Blessingway,’ I thought I would write to her on here, and share my encouragement in this bigger space, because I love this tribe of women I belong to. Here in my community and over beyond every boundary, beyond every barrier and cultural shift and difference in opinion: a mother is a mother is a mother, and the best we can do for each other is recognize our oneness and celebrate each of our strengths. So.
Any day now you will hold a new child to your breast. You will suffer the pains of contractions, that tightening grip over your body, those insistent rolling waves of change. Your breath will catch. Your eyes will close. Your blood pressure will sway with the heated pressure of your body, all four heart valves straining ever so slightly with the incredible bearing down of motherhood.
Others will guide you through this journey, just like our mothers and their mothers and all the mothers who came first; we carry each other not because it lessens the pain, but because it eases the burden. Those are two very different things, aren’t they? The pain and the burden? We can mask the pain. We have the modern miracle of the epidural, that magic eraser of a needle. But even if the pain is gone, the burden remains.
And that’s why we hold each other up.
That’s why our husbands whisper over us, and our mothers pray, and our tribe gathers round.
The burden is great. The journey is not a sure one. I’ve seen lots of births, cried with relief at the stuttered first wail of many newborns, and never once has a new life arrived with no surprises. Whether in how early or how late it all began, how difficult or easy it all came, how the birth twisted and turned down unknown paths and plans gone awry; delivering a child is a shock. This is your third baby. You’ve done this already. You know the births of your children, of your daughter and your son, you know their stories like you know the smell of their skin. But this baby is his own story. This baby will come on his own time, with his own plan, with his own surprises and disappointments and stunning tear-soaked joy. Yes, yes, yes, he will come! Your son!
And someday soon, as you cradle him to you, leaning into the exquisite folds of his neck and wondering how you ever lived without him in your arms; you will suddenly remember his birth. You will feel the achievement of his arrival, the scars of his growth on your body, the lingering pains of his exit; you will feel and remember, cry and remember, hold him and remember how he felt fluttering inside you. And someday, when you’re watching him play with his siblings, smiling as the sun warms their fair heads while they crouch in the grass counting ants; you will remember his birth and marvel that this boy with skinned knees was ever small enough to sleep in your arms.
Someday his birth will belong to you, and you only. He will grow up, he will take steps away from you in every meaning of the word, and though you will always be his mother, he will not always be your baby. His labor and delivery, those painful minutes that build into hours and evolve into a birthday: that will be his birthday, yes, but also yours. The day you mothered three. The day your family changed. The day you learned again, forever and always, that parenthood is a harrowing experience, one that wrecks you and rebuilds you, through the dark and the agony to the glaring light of midday.
Treasure these days in your heart, my dear friend. Let yourself be wrecked, and as the rebuilding comes, moment by moment of each day with each child, gather the stories like stones. Remember their births. Remember the pain of raising them. Remember the joy of being their mother. Gather the stones and let them anchor you and steady you, and when the time is right; share them. With your sweet girl. With your precious boy. And with this new baby who has yet to come.
We will never be perfect parents. Or even great ones. Some years we will not even be adequate ones. But this is your story. And as their mother, it is their story too. That’s a family. Stories intersecting. Birth stories, bad days at school stories, crying all night stories, laughing in the car stories, when you were my baby stories, wedding toast stories, begging for forgiveness stories, you always meant everything to us stories. I love you stories. Funeral stories.
We carry their past. They carry the future. We carry on together, smooth stones of stories in our pockets.
May this birth be beautiful. May this son be a blessing. May this day be a perfect metaphor of motherhood: a surrender and a victory all in one. The end of your family as is; the beginning of your family anew.
The end of you, again, just like every other day as mother,
and the beginning of you, again, just like every other day as a mother.