Nineteen years ago today at 5:54 am, I became a mother for the first time. Intermittent contractions had begun early in the previous morning, so to encourage labor Joe and I took a long walk up and down hills through our urban Cincinnati neighborhood of Walnut Hills. It was unseasonably spring-like for February as we traversed Eden Park and enjoyed the river view. Our physical exertion channeled the excitement and dread we felt at what lay ahead.
Last August, I undertook a similar walk with our firstborn himself en route to an equally significant moment. It took place along Lake Michigan in Chicago on the day I dropped him off for his freshman year at college. Once again, activity served to dissipate nervous tension as we hiked to Grant Park and along the lake shore. The day was hot and sunny, so we ducked into the Field Museum for a cooling respite before trekking all the way back along the lake.
In labor, when a woman’s cervix is fully dilated, often there will be a pause, a period of rest, before she feels an urge to push. It allows her to gather strength for the final surge of effort needed to birth her baby. That’s what this afternoon felt like to me. We were mostly silent, conversing briefly at intervals, savoring the breeze and the sight of waves and boats as we moved closer to the time of separation. Time seemed suspended as the forward momentum of our steps evoked the larger transition about to occur.
Even though he’s been away at college all these months, it’s still rather incomprehensible to me that we will not be together on his birthday. The moment of his birth is etched so permanently in my memory that it feels closer in time than it actually is. As I held him in my arms for the first time, feeling his sturdy back and looking into his dark eyes, I fell in love instantly, no matter the excruciating back labor through the preceding night. Yet despite the joy of greeting our son, that day and at the births of our other two children, I was aware of a certain loss at the ending of pregnancy even as I rejoiced at their arrivals. My still expanded body felt empty. I have recollected this simultaneous joy and loss often over the fall and winter.
I have a hard time with letting go. Perhaps this is the meaning of that infamous passage from Genesis, “In pain you shall bring forth children.” Maybe it refers to the emotional toll of raising children rather than the physical effort of delivering them. Perhaps it’s really saying that, “You will love them so much that you’ll want to keep them close forever, but you must let them live their lives. You’ll give them everything you have — materially, spiritually, emotionally. Then, when they depart, you’ve succeeded.” Ouch! And . . . alleluia!!
To me birthing is a metaphor for the paschal mystery at the center of our lives. In dying we are born to eternal life. Yielding to the end of one stage in life ushers in a new one.
Copyright Peg Conway 2011