What is the “end of oneself” — what does that phrase even mean? It sounds like a cliff’s edge, or where the paved road turns to grass, or that final bit of rope that has bubbled up and hardened. Beyond the cliff’s edge is air, sky, nothing, a drop off. The road, once smooth and clear, is now nonexistent. The rope is complete and solid with no loose strings. I would argue, however, that the end of oneself, in the childbearing cycle at least, is none of those things. Instead, the cliff’s edge leads to an Indiana Jones; the Last Crusade style bridge you never noticed before. The road gives way to uncharted territory. The rope’s hardened shell breaks apart and becomes frayed in a million ways.
It seems that nothing about motherhood (and life really) is straightforward. We don’t just reach the end of pregnancy, shoot out a baby, and ta-da! Mother. Everything about the natural journey, the health responsibilities, the intensity of contractions, the slow postpartum healing and hormonal ultra-sensitivity to our baby’s cries, etcetera, is designed to galvanize us within our role. Too often we’re wishing this away, doing everything we can to keep ourselves from experiencing the “big ugly” or uncomfortable things of life. The problem with this tactic is that it effectively keeps us from experiencing Life, because Life can be really upsetting and uncomfortable — and within those moments of discomfort lies the lesson or the motivation, almost always.
What if there is only one way to systematically make a “mama bear”? What if the only way for a woman to become a no-holds-barred, truly vicious protector of her offspring is for her to be given no other choice in the very beginning of that earthside relationship? What if the only way we actually learn and integrate how much we can endure and still survive is to meet that beast face to face. To look at our cliff’s edge and realize we either give up and die right now or we take a step forward and try to go on. To go past the end of the pavement and sew the next part of our journey, despite the blood, sweat, and tears. To take the frayed ends of our rope and weave them into the beginnings of a tapestry we can’t even comprehend yet.
Birth, however, is only the beginning. I’m convinced that without these end-of-self experiences, we are unable to reach a certain level of maturity required to nurture a resilient and healthy next generation. If I hadn’t birthed my babies the way I did, I would have nothing to draw from in those moments of exhaustion when caring for a newborn and all that it entails. Nothing to draw from when raising a toddler, a 7-year-old, etc. Nothing from which I can recall and say, “This feels like torture, but I can do this because I did that then, when I also thought I couldn’t go any further.” So then, without this initiation to motherhood, we begin to doubt ourselves, try to find ways out of having to harness the full demands of our role, and are less equipped to handle the challenge if we are unable to pass off the responsibilities. And when things are really hard (as they will be no matter how you birth) but we haven’t reinforced our own abilities through that first rite of passage, we often end up mothering from a place of immaturity, desperation, and dysfunction.
I’ll be honest: part of my intentions with this is to lovingly “trigger” whoever’s reading this. Too often (and I’ve been guilty of it, too) we sugar coat or skirt around the reality of motherhood. People don’t have a problem sharing the joys and the silly moments and the “neverending laundry story.” They don’t have a problem sharing the “I’m crying in the closet because I’m touched out and overwhelmed” parts of motherhood. But so often we’re looking at the result of something, or we’re blaming others for not showing up for us in the way we’d hoped. The community piece is important, yes, and I’ve said it a thousand times in other places. But what if motherhood simply felt like less of a Mount Everest (or Mt. Doom) because we’re hardened right out the gate, like tempered steel, prepared for battle on those rough days — rather than being timid little girls (like Frodo).
Another aspect of this journey that is often overlooked (by me, as well), is the transition at the end of the childbearing year, the 3-4 month postpartum marker. I seem to be blindsided by this hormonal and mental transitional phase every single time I’ve been at that point, where suddenly I feel like I’m the worst parent and everything I try to do outside of mothering is futile, invisible, and unwanted. I acknowledge that this might be my own version of that shift, but nevertheless, it seems to be a common storm that many mothers face. It’s in this transition that I both rely on the recollection of my birth experience and am being pressed to wade through my discomfort, once again.
I think the uniqueness of this 4th-trimester phase is that we have had a taste of our new “normal” life, but we’re still so early in the postpartum/newborn period that we aren’t yet able to fully be ourselves. Our babies still completely rely on us, we’re still not sleeping entirely well, our bodies are still recovering from pregnancy and birth, and going out or doing tasks still require an immense amount of planning and arranging. Meanwhile, that desire to nurture our individuality has returned and we’re ready to bloom as the new “Ari,” or “Sarah,” or “Chaya.”
Every transition begins a new chapter. The hard work of the Autumn harvest prepares us for the Winter hibernation. The stormy end of Winter ushers in the rains and sprouts of Spring. That cliff’s edge gives way to the vast unknown, the trail’s end leads to hidden pathways of adventure. Every knot, every change in color, every unravelling and reworking will eventually become the testament of your journey.
What tale will it tell? Did you courageously charge into Mordor, armored and prepared for the fire? Or were you inclined to lay down in the dirt, overcome with despair? Only you can decide what your story will become.
I hope my words today are a rallying cry. May you be emboldened to find out exactly how fierce and resilient you are.