“You’re a mother now,” the anesthesiologist with the long blonde hair says as I’m wheeled to recovery.
Mother. I am a Mother now?
Five days before I am a mother, Miranda July and Maggie Nelson sit together in a tent at the Frieze Art Fair discussing three meaningful objects in their lives. Nelson begins by presenting a locked box she took from her father’s home after he passed away. She has an educated guess as to what is in the box; she knows that his parents gave him a silver dollar every year on his birthday. Nelson does not open it until her own son coaxes her to, with a matter-of-fact, why doesn’t she just open it up. Thanks to his encouragement and curiosity, Nelson’s educated guess blossoms into confirmation and some sort of closure. July has brought a pair of thin brown socks with rubber white grips on the bottom.
“When I was pregnant, I knew what was going to happen. I was going to grow the baby and when it was time, the baby would come out of my vagina,” she says.
July went in for a check-up to make sure everything was okay but it wasn’t, the doctor needed to get the baby out as soon as possible.
“I think they assumed that I was going to be,” she pauses, “difficult? That they assumed I was going to be one of those women who insisted on a natural, medication free birth at all costs. But when they said my son was in danger…I got up and ran into what I thought, in my head, was the operating room and the nurses had to stop me and said that I needed these first.”
July waves the brown socks in the air.
Before I became a mother, I did not care if I had a child, did not think I would have one. I felt as if I had lived a thousand lives without children and that I could live a thousand more without them and remain content.
So why not give it a try this time, in this life?
Once it is confirmed, I have a panic attack on the toilet. I hyperventilate the news to my partner via Facetime.
“Two lines,” I repeat with exasperated breath, “There are two lines.”
I assumed pregnancy at 31 would be less of a shock than at 20 but it’s just as scary, even when expected. The most bizarre part is that I’m not afraid of having a baby or the idea of raising a child. It is the pregnancy piece that unsettles me, the buried conflicts I have with everyone’s view of a pregnant woman, an expecting mother, a mother to-be.
What do I know about being a mother? Creating another person without their permission?
A year before I am a mother, I am on the phone with my friend in New York. The topic of children comes up and we are quickly on the same page with our thoughts—when you bring more life into the world, you are inevitability bringing more death because the two go hand in hand in the most natural of ways.
I sit in LA traffic and say to myself, “my god, all these people came out of someone’s body, every single one. What the hell am I doing?”
My phone is one of the first to know I am pregnant. After it hears me tell my partner, I type words into search engines and direct messages to confirm it.
Is it normal to lose thirteen pounds in the first trimester?
Can you be allergic to pregnancy?
Is it bad for the zygote if I sleep 12 hours a night? If I don’t get out of bed?
Am I hurting or helping?
Now my social media feed is a bottomless serving of “menu boards” with captions of motherly righteousness and “humor.” Jabs at how lazy men are, how unhelpful, how uninvolved.
I would never have a baby with a person I thought was so inept that they could not care for their own offspring.
I have decided not to post my child’s face before they can talk, or grant me permission. The internet is new and it is vast. There are cheeky sayings and cheesy photos of children in matching outfits with all vendors tagged, their child’s face in their child’s home or at their child’s school. If you didn’t know their child’s name, just scroll down a little further to a nursery photo and read the block letters above their crib. How carelessly we post our children on the internet so that strangers become familiar with their names, schools, surroundings, sonograms. There are smiles in every photo, happiness in a square image. Nobody is as angry as I am. Why am I as angry as I am?
How does a baby fit into a hashtag ad?
If beauty influencers are experts in beauty, are parent influencers experts in parenting?
Normally I am blocking accounts that are trying to sell me tummy relax teas or waist cinchers.
You want to look like this! Everyone does!
Now as I block one public 100k+ follower mom account, another pops up.
This is what a mother is! This is what a mother does!
How many of these exist? If this is the motherhood everyone wants, why do I feel so bothered by it? I feel myself become angry at how many people bring another into the world under complete delusion or selfishness. These accounts have become a trigger for this thought that has been taunting me since the beginning of my pregnancy. Isn’t it supposed to be opposite of selfishness, if selfishness is defined as part of your child’s existence becoming a non-consensual accessory in your social media persona? The algorithm is failing me. My pregnancy has become a time where I am presented with everything that irks me. My anger refuses to accept it. I have never resisted so much in my entire life. How can I be a mother if this is how motherhood is expressed by so many?
Can anger send you into early labor?
What does labor really feel like; is it crampy or sharp?
What is a normal nuchal—backspace—nuchal scan measurement?
Ten months before I am a mother; I am sitting in the art tent of a music festival while my partner live paints in a swarm of dust and EDM. I am making conversation with the organizer of it all, a young woman with a shaved head and an aura of positivity. We talk about possible installations for next year and how early she had to leave for the desert to set up this year. She is away from home for two weeks, the longest she has even been away from her son.
“Wow, you’re a mom?” I say. I am only surprised because we have been for here for three days and I do not know she is a mother until the fourth.
“Yeah, I’m a mom,” she says and pauses. “You know, when he was born, I just kind of did what I needed to do, like okay, here we go. I think I’ve just been doing that for the past two and half years, but I’ve never really said it, it’s never really sunk in until just now.”
“What hasn’t?” I ask.
“That I’m a mother,” she replies.
My midwife says it’s rare for a first time mother to go into labor on her due date. I tell her that my cycle is exact, every month. I am aware of any shifts in my body, I know the exact date I ovulated. I knew I was pregnant, before I knew I was pregnant. She smiles and nods like a mother who knows better.
I think that we give ourselves too much credit for our own births. I think our birth date has little to do with the placement of the stars and moon and much more to do with our mother’s bodies and the way we moved within them.
My hospital cannot confirm the sex at the nuchal scan so we search for a place that will. I feel a strange excitement as we head to receive a definitive diagnosis by the Russian sonographer that comes highly recommended. I just want to solidify that my dreams are true, that this is a girl, that I am having a girl. She asks what we prefer and I’ve already told my partner to say we don’t care, because really we don’t but I’ve also read the Yelp reviews that said the sonographer has often prefaced the “it’s a girl” with an “I’m sorry…” and questioned the fathers if they are okay with this and that she’s reacted in surprise when fathers had said yes, they are fine with it and that in fact, they wanted a little girl. She laughed at them, they were appalled.
I don’t want this reaction from her. I don’t want to give one but she says “he” quickly and then it is a boy.
The fetus is male. I am going to have a son. It is not a girl; it is a boy.
My identity as a woman, the sort of woman I am, the sort of things I know to be true for myself suddenly felt questioned. I had to defend things I wanted, certain things which men never have to defend. Why am I not so eager, willing, able to be broken down to change my last name? My name which perfectly captures my identity, my heritage, which my parents so carefully chose for me. My name that I really happen to like.
Don’t you like your last name? Don’t you want your child to have your last name too?
I have to defend how my desire is not meant to insult those who chose otherwise.
Do what you want! I do not care! You are not me!
My preference is not some defiant act to be different, my preference is inherently who I am.
I’m not trying to make a point; I am just trying to be!
I don’t want to be a vessel for a man. I don’t want to be just Mother. My son will not have to defend his last name when having a child or getting married, if he chooses to do so; he will not understand just how infuriating it is to say, “I don’t want to disappear.”
What is it like to live without anger?
I have contractions for months but I begin true labor on the morning of my due date. I decide it is labor because these contractions bring pain. It begins in my back, like an ache from a kidney infection, and spills onto the tops of my thighs. I drive to pick up my parents from the airport, we go to stores, we go to lunch, we do everyday things and I pause to have contractions then go back to regular life. By nightfall, a strong cramp-like, crumpled paper bursting out of an overstuffed bag feeling in my lower abdomen joins the rest of the pains and the only relief I find is sitting on a folding wooden patio chair I’ve placed directly beneath my shower head.
I wonder if the embryo, making all their organs, and then fetus, hugged and pushed by the uterine walls, feel just as terrible if not more and that’s why we don’t remember being born.
When the labor pains become so close that I cannot sleep between them, I cry in annoyance because I am so, so tired. I decide we should go to the hospital after I throw up my dinner. The nurse decides to admit me and I throw up again while we wait. When we get to the room, I ask for an epidural because I am afraid I will be too tired to push him out if I don’t sleep. They give me the epidural and I remember how much I hate being vulnerable and how vulnerable one feels when they can’t get up and run away, or lift their legs, or help the nurses move them side to side.
I have only slept for an hour when the long beep of the machines begins to bother me, I drift in and out of beep interrupted sleep for another hour before the doctor comes in. She explains that the long beep is my son’s heartbeat pausing. When I contract, it stops. They cannot tell why, they have been listening for an hour and then two and then the doctor suggests an emergency C-section and like in Miranda July’s story, I would like to run into the operating room but this story is mine and I cannot.
All my strength lives within my legs and now my legs are dead weight.
I can no longer feel pain, but can he?
While they cut me open, I lay below the operating lights as bright as four tiny white suns, my insides illuminated by them. The cold air only felt from my waist up; my head attempts to prepare me for what is about to happen. I punch my skull with the words, try to squeeze them into my brain from my ears.
There is going to be a baby, they are going to take a baby out of my body and then we will see the baby and he will be here and we will be parents.
I feel pressure and pushing and then there is crying and I am saying,
“Whoa, I made a baby with my body,” over and over.
“Are you ready to see your baby?” the doctors ask from behind the blue sheet.
They are right next to me, one beneath each armpit, as I lay like Jesus taken down from the cross with my arms spread across one longboard. The doctor under my left armpit asks the question. I don’t respond; it seems rhetorical. There isn’t any preparation to be done now.
Just look, look up and see him.
When I found out he was a boy, I cried hysterically in the parking lot for an hour. I cried so hard that even my partner regretted being male. The first thoughts that showed themselves were the ones that had been haunting my subconscious; the men in my life who I have chosen not to interact with and the men that I want to but cannot avoid at the current moment. The men whose flaws are so grossly evident that it, in my no tolerance, low-empathy pregnant state, actually disgusts me. My only aversions now are these people who I do not want my son to become. The men who don’t seem to know what they are doing or how to express themselves, the men that bumble around life saying things like “nobody knows where we come from anymore, culture is dying” when really, it’s their mother they came from.
I forget to think about the men that want the little girls, that want to raise strong women. The men that helped raise me. My brother who practically is me while still being very much himself. My partner, the only man I ever considered to have a child with. I make a list called Good Son/Bad Son. My partner and I start with celebrities to help lighten the mood. John Legend is a good son. Billy McFarland, bad son. Anthony Bourdain, good son. Martin Shkreli, bad son. Paul Rudd, good son. I add the men I value to the Good Son list. It’s long, I have a lot of close male friends.
When I tell them I am pregnant, they are my favorite reactions. They are respected and they are chill. They say things like “you’re going to be one hell of a father” or “you’re going to be a wonderful mother” or they are “so happy to hear this”, that they, “could never convince their girlfriends to make babies with their bodies.” Then I quickly tell them all what is happening, the weird medical and scientific discoveries I have made about my body. And they listen because it’s also how they came to be.
A baby popped up above the blue curtain and he was crying and his fists were balled and while my partner cried, I thought to myself,
“There it is, I made that baby.”
I cannot feel my feet when they place my son on my chest. I am wearing thin blue socks with rubber grips layered beneath wool socks because when they gave me the epidural, my body wouldn’t stop shaking from the cold, or the numb. As if it were trying to say,
“I’m still here! I’m still here! I know you can’t feel me but I’m still with you.”
They placed him on my chest sideways so I could see him, but I don’t feel as if I am seeing him. I know I was pregnant but it feels as if this baby has been plucked from a tree, looking at him, I feel confused. I am desperately trying to piece together that this is who was growing inside me, and now he is done growing in utero. He has wet brown hair, almond eyes, and resembles baby photos of myself mid-bath. He stares back at me, lips parted, mouth full of pink gums.
“You have no teeth,” is all I can say to him. He seems just as confused as I do, if not more so. He has every right to be.
I feel complete as I am, I am the same person. I have welcomed someone else into my completeness.
My therapist once said in a session, “It always goes back to that question, we didn’t ask to exist, are you happy you do? Are you happy you were born?” And my answer, thanks hugely to my parents, is yes, I am.
But I’ll tell you this, not everyone is. Not everyone is happy they are here.
Three days later, my body is telling me that I am a mother and this is when I decide I don’t think I can do this again. My breasts swell and harden into rocks. I am formula feeding and the doctors have told me how to deal with the swelling but they do not tell me how to cope with this body.
I am reminded of fourth grade when my classmate came into homeroom no longer flat chested; a strangeness followed her. With that strangeness came looks. These eyes, of children oozing with confusion about their own bodies, did not solely express intrigue and desire but also contempt and disgust. More and more girls starting popping up over the months, and I was soon holding my flat chest down during showers and replacing my hands with tight sports bras.
What is it like to be a boy?
Throughout my pregnancy, my small breasts remained small but now they are screaming, “YOU ARE A MOTHER!” And I must silence them with packs of frozen peas and cabbage leaves which curve so perfectly around these heavy breast rocks.
I realize that every story I’ve written which involves a child, is about a son. A son who his mother gives to his father, only to find that he resembles her so much more than she could have imagined he would. A son who is lost in the mental illness of his father, wondering if that will be his fate and where the happy thoughts come from. The mother working through, how to protect her son, her well meaning husband and her emotional well being. I have been working out the arrival of my son for my entire writing career. He has been sitting in my mind and I never knew who that child was until now.
I have been writing him into existence for years and now my body has multiplied that cluster of cells he started out as, slipped the organs it made from the umbilical cord into his growing body. It has given him a spine, a face, hair, arms, legs.
I don’t know how women without partners get through pregnancy. I don’t know how one could go through childbirth and be expected to care for a newborn and heal all alone. I am not lonely in the nighttime, because I am hardly alone. My parents, partner, and little brother all take the baby into their arms and onto their shoulders. I am not plagued by the thought of “my life is forever changed” because that was a welcome thought since the other route seemed to be heading towards an eternal weekend cycle at the bar.
If I don’t need to spend my time with a baby, why not spend all my money on booze?
The thing about being pregnant is that you just can’t relax. You can’t enjoy the benefits of sobriety in the same way you would had you not been growing a person inside of your uterus.
It has taken me nine months to get used to this body in my soberness and now it has changed again within hours.
Two years before I am a mother, I am visiting family back east. My friend from college and I meet in a Brooklyn bar. We drink lots of whiskey and talk about how we don’t want kids.
“Who needs kids?” he says as we clink glasses.
We run in the streets laughing, feeling free in the way that drunk people occasionally believe themselves to be. We go to an art party and talk to strangers, who we will never see again, as if we are old friends.
I want to message him an article on Facebook that reminds me of him, and I realize I have been so busy being pregnant that we haven’t spoken in some time.
At night is the only time I feel the inexplicable sadness that I had been warned about. It does not feel like depression, there is no hopelessness or guilt or lethargy in the sense of neglect. It’s the opposite, it’s the longing for the happiness of morning to return. I try to make sense of it but none of the “rational” reasons apply. I don’t feel a changed woman; I have never been a woman who feared change. How dull life would become without it. No, it is something beyond me that causes this emotion to push through when the moon rises. I tell myself that it is a deep mental healing of labor, the exhausting part of the pain settled into my hips and back and thighs at night and when the sun rose, my son was born. Maybe this is what my mind needs to do to make sense of it all, the chemicals need to rush up and down inside me for a few more months, a Groundhog Day of feelings, until the anesthesiologist’s words will finally settle into me.
I am a mother now.
Melissa Ximena Golebiowski is a writer and editor based in Los Angeles, CA. She is the National Assigning Editor for Literary Hub and is currently at work on a short story collection.
Featured Image Artwork by Jim McKenzie