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