with intense eagerness since 2012! a channel of the los angeles review of books

Baby, Boom

On Friday, we will celebrate my son being born and me nearly dying. I assure you that it will be a happy day: my son is a light bringer for sure. But it will also be the first anniversary of my almost-dying. I’m really going back and forth on “that whole thing.” When we cut the birthday cake, let’s say around 4 p.m., where will my mind be? Will it be there, with him, smiling (or more probably looking very serious, slightly confused about the commotion)? Or will it be alone in a recovery room, immobile and shaking with cold as the anesthesia fled? Will my mind be with Ames as he opens a present (I have a first baby doll planned), or will it be back there, maybe at the exact moment they ushered my husband out of the operating room?

This is overwrought. I have this delightful child, and this year has been an absolute flourishing for me, intellectually and emotionally. Every night, Ames and I do “wrestlemania” on the bed before his bath. We have enough childcare, healthcare, and pizza nearly every week.

But I am realizing, in these last few weeks before his first birthday, that every single year, for the rest of my life, I will commemorate and celebrate the day of my almost dying. Every single year, while we sing to him, I will be reminded of something really quite shitty.

I am certainly not alone in this. Birth is often quite shitty! Even the “beautiful experience” ones. I am told that even that kind hurts. Is the idea that I will one day “move past” the hurt? Or just pack it so deep in love for the child that I can barely make out its muffled cry? I’m not sure that’s how it will work.

When I sing him to sleep, I think about death, so the thinking about death during his birthdays should not be particularly remarkable. He is a sweet sleeper and usually very calm as I put him in his crib, so I can watch him drift off. It looks like death, I guess. I think about all the ways that he could die, and also about how he almost killed me. Then I think about how I kind of want to try again, to do it all again, and how maybe that might kill me, too. I think about how, if everything goes right, he will be a part of my death. Emily Rapp writes about mothering a dying son and one of the many things she says is that the problem is never that you can’t imagine (“Oh, I can’t imagine what it’s like for you”), it’s that you can.

Where is the “reproductive futurism” in this? I was thinking the other day about the idea of “reproductive futurism” that Lee Edelman smartly critiques in the book No Future, where he advances a queer politics that rejects politics as such because politics is always about upholding and maintaining social structures for the sake of “the child” (abstractly understood). He is right that the world figures the child as an emblem of futurity. But he is wrong that the child actually is anything to do with futurity. Whoa, man, like totally wrong.

I understand why no one wants to look directly at this, and so this is why we have such impoverished language to talk about childbearing and childrearing, why we talk in bright tones and pastels about it all. Probably when the world was worse, and children died of worms and women died of puerperal fever or with a baby’s shoulder stuck behind their pubic bone like a sheep (warning: riveting but graphic lambing story in that link), there was too much of the looking directly at it. As educated as I am, as committed to being informed and privileged to be powerful in my own body, I had a laughable sense of what “that whole thing” was, because my mind was full of movies and “A Baby Story” and the frightening Park Slope ladies and their judgy baby-wearing. Because, I thought, the worst thing would be to be one of those women with the epidural, hanging out prone in a hospital bed, until the baby plopped out. Or the woman who had to have the scheduled C-section or the stalled-labor C-section. Trust me: that is not the worst thing in the world.

When I sing “Happy Birthday” to Ames, I’ll be thinking about some of the worst things in the world. I am a little bit fascinated by the abyss, in that I can’t look away from it. Childbirth is like a kind of annihilation.

Yet it makes you flourish. Our neighbor is concerned about the formerly beautiful Japanese maple that stands by her front stoop. It seems like it is dying. She consulted an arborist, who provided some suggestions; the other day, making small talk with her, I noted a small bunch of leaves had burst out of it, close to the trunk, and said that must be reassuring. The tree must surely be healing, moving forward, continuing on its journey into the future! She shook her head and said no, actually. Trees often do that, send forth new growth, as they die.


Sarah Blackwood: Team Bella

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    • Hilariously (and like a total MOM), I had to google “B.S.T.L.” The first result was “Balls Stuck to Leg,” which I guess is almost as complimentary as “Bam, said the lady.”

  1. some people who will appreciate this particularly: Sarah Ahrens, Michelle Marie Gerber, Michelle Anderson Colledge, Hester Blum, Shayna Connelly, Barbara Mesle, Kara Hetz, Rebecca Leeney…etc. other people on this list might include: all the people with kids; all the people who will someday die.

  2. love this. My favorite line: “Because, I thought, the worst thing would be to be one of those women with the epidural, hanging out prone in a hospital bed, until the baby plopped out. Or the woman who had to have the scheduled C-section or the stalled-labor C-section. Trust me: that is not the worst thing in the world.

  3. sorry, meant to add that someone recently told me that my induced labor “was bullshit” and “the doctors lied to you.” All I could think was that I really don’t give a shit, especially at this point. He’s here, he’s healthy, and I survived to raise him. I even felt pretty good a couple of days later. It’s all the worries that come later, the hidden (and obvious) dangers and fears and so many decisions that don’t have an obvious answer that scare me.

  4. How is it that Sarah Blackwood always finds a way to render things in words? Complex, real, lived experiences and her feelings about them . . . Maybe I could ask her to find a way to express the way I feel about reading her essay . . . because call I can muster is: Thank. You. (and: I love you)

      • I will talk to you drunk, anytime, anywhere. Baby boy birthdays still strike me as weird because we celebrate another year gone by, truly excited about the future, truly amazed that we survived it, and truly nostalgic of the baby-ness of the year just past. But also surely there must be room for mamas with scars (of whatever type) to have a few moments to do the same–to somehow mark the distance (perhaps temporal, perhaps emotional, whatever we’d need it to be) that we and our bodies have come, or haven’t come. Thank you for helping me (and others, I suspect) create the space to do that. Happy Birth Day, everyone.

  5. NB: I nearly signed up for The Facebooks, just so I could “Like” this. Does anyone write a better blog post? I ask you…

  6. Hi Sarah. I followed your Drunken Bee blog several years ago and then thought to look for you on Twitter (not a stalker, honest) as you crossed my mind and I wondered how you and your family are doing. I am so glad you are all well. I have another perspective as the now-grown child (44) of a mother who nearly didn’t survive my birth. 3 pm on a Friday and everyone in a hurry was almost deadly, but I am here, and very thankfully, she is, too. But every birthday I am saddened a bit, and feel guilty about how I got here. Mom tells me she is not saddened, that she remembers all of it, of course, but that our subsequent years have eased that pain. It’s perhaps had a hand in my own decision to not have children–the fear of how badly it could go. When my sister had a traumatic first birth (everybody was OK afterward), it brought back all of those memories for Mom in a PTSD kind of way that took her a while to recover from. So, I think the abyss is always there in some fashion. You just have to find your way through it.

  7. Certainly when we reproduce we are passing life out of ourselves and into the new creatures that have come. Women in particular do this with the physical body, but men also, when they are involved in parenting; we are exerting ourselves and extending energy into smaller creatures rising hungrily up towards us and then away.


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