We took Bradley classes during my first pregnancy (highly recommend, they’re great) because regardless of whether or not your pregnancy is bliss or burden you are aware of something truly horrible: this baby is coming out. I imagine for most women there is an initial euphoria with which a deep and primal dread sidles up beside and waits. Through bump photos and Target registries and baby showers and baby kicks, mild terror makes herself quite comfortable.
The basic idea behind Bradley is that labor is natural, pain is part of the process to be embraced, and you are capable. In other words, “It’s gonna hurt like hell, kid, you can do it” but with soft tones and essential oils.
A good portion of the class was learning to be present with your body and follow its lead. My favorite part of the class was the end where we would turn the lights out and use the pillows we brought to lay on the floor and enter into a meditative relaxation. We focused on breathing and staying in the present moment. It was heavenly. Once we’d learned how to enter that relaxed state, we needed to practice our technique while also experiencing pain. We used ice packs to simulate contractions.
The teacher admitted that it was an absurd comparison to labor, but until I found myself completely racked with pain and confusion, wondering if I might actually die from this thing half our species has been doing for millennia, I had no idea. The contractions shook me and everything I thought I knew about my own body and its capacity. I did not feel ready in the least.
When my mom was diagnosed with terminal cancer I started coming to some sort of terms with losing her (they call that anticipatory grief). Between appointments and charts and tests and prognoses, I did my best to accept the fact that I would probably spend most of my life unable to text or call her, that I’d hold one end of our jokes on my own, be the only one in the family who likes her coffee appropriately strong. I went to California in several-month-chunks to spend time with her and help take care of her as things progressed and each drive down I was more aware of our limited time together.
When it finally happened, all my anticipating felt something like an ice pack. I had no idea how much it would hurt, how dark the world would feel. Losing your mother – and friend – at a young age is supposed to be hard. I understood it as a matter of fact – just like I understood that exiting a human being from your body is supposed to hurt, but there are things that reach beyond our ability to prepare.
So instead, I was as ready as I could be – and it hurt like hell. You can read all the books and take all the classes and wrap your head around the idea, but, mama, you know those meditations don’t mean shit once you’re in it.
And once you’re in it? There’s this saying in grief support that I learned, “The only way out is through.” It applies to everything. When you stub your toe and when your baby has a seizure and when you’re in a fight with your husband about laundry. You can do your best to prepare but eventually, the thing becomes bigger than your theories and best guesses. Life drips off the canvas of your best imagination and you have to deal with the mess.
I can’t count the number of times people have said to me, “I don’t know how you…” about natural birth, about homeschool, about walking with my mom to her death way too early, about having a house full of boys. Many people say they couldn’t and I just tell them that they would. Because whether or not you want to or feel ready to or believe you can get through the Unimaginable, you do. Maybe you do it poorly or try not to do it at all, but you will get through it. And it is available to you, if you want it, to get through it well – that is, to find Good.
Because just as nothing and no one could have prepared me for the suffering of labor, nothing and no one could have prepared me for how much I would love that child either. Nothing and no one could have convinced me that I would be grateful to have felt every bit of her coming, that I could draw direct lines from the pain of her moving through me to the joy of her moving outside of me in the world. Maybe it’s delusional gratitude, but it’s joy nonetheless. The physical pain brought me something Good that I could only hope to be true before.
And just as there was no way to know how isolated and scared I would feel when my mother died, there was also no way to know how significant everything would become, how freely I would be able to laugh and smile and feel alive in direct correlation to my sorrow. The depths of pain matched exactly the depths of joy at having been so loved, having known such a beautiful person, having half her DNA. I am not being hyperbolic when I say that it felt like the universe cracked the moment she died, but it was in that crevice I found solid ground. I landed on something deeper than deep and it was Good – Good in a way I could only hope to be true before.
Once you’ve been there – to the Unimaginable – your canvas stretches. Not only, but you are aware that there is more. They say the Universe is expanding into something and that as far as they can see there are galaxies, but beyond that? They don’t know. They have theories and books and ice-packs, but they don’t know. It is Unimaginable even if we land on a close guess. This awareness can bring us terror or thrill (or some of both), but it can also bring us back. It can remind us that we have been places we couldn’t have understood before and we’re still here.
And now you have new ice packs.