Thursday, January 7, 2010

Beauty from Ashes

When and where the journey begins is never left to the pilgrim. One can only hope you’ve left the house wearing sensible shoes. I sometimes wish I could go back to my early days of pregnancy and motherhood and yell for that younger self to grab a pair of galoshes on her way out the door.

I was eighteen the summer after graduating from high school, answering phones for a sports equipment wholesale company, and concealing the fact that I was nearly 4 months pregnant. My new husband and I were playing house in our tiny apartment. I worked as a receptionist while he went to university and worked nights.

My fingers and ankles swelled to unfamiliar shapes. My nose dictated what foods were appealing and what foods would result in the immediate and violent upheaval of the contents of my stomach. I was at the mercy of my overactive olfactory, which had apparently been harboring a nasty grudge for years and was now letting loose in its considerable anger.

At home, I perfected a clumsy saunter on rolling tides of insecurity. I polished facades. I folded tiny baby socks, stocked diapers in drawers, washed linens, and dutifully read pregnancy books. I was appeasing the prickly beast at the base of my throat who listed severely like a sailor on choppy seas and sometimes whispered, sometimes yelled, “YOU DON’T KNOW WHAT YOU’RE DOING.”

Eventually, unable to conceal my belly with loose shirts and strategically placed belts as it grew from cantaloupe to basketball to small Volkswagen, I endured an awkward meeting with my boss during which she berated me for my smoke screen of XL Gap knits and dishonesty. Her anger was raw because she felt she had misplaced her trust in me. She had hired me assuming marriage made me a more level headed, responsible candidate. This pregnancy was clearly an insult to her judgment. I drank in every word of her disappointment and set about my tasks with renewed fervor, apologetically filing papers and answering phones, while she made angry notes in red ink in my file, and the beast inside my throat warbled disapproval.

I chose not to allow his tantrums to derail my semblance of sanity. I was organizing Icons of Balance into neat lines, trying desperately to believe their chants of preparedness and common sense while my mind spun in violent circles about the days and years ahead and threatened to oscillate dangerously off course.

Storm clouds began to build and rumble within me. I was unsure of my abilities as a wife and mother. I was scared that if anyone heard those words in my own voice, it would confirm their suspicions. I would, in fact, be a terrible wife and mother, filling in my dot on the pie charts, just another pregnant teen, thrusting my baby into the pile of statistics burdening the social system. She would lose her name, her identity. She would be 0008659143. Her dreams and beauty and ideas and potential, traded for free inoculations at the health department. Ours would be a tragic but typical tale of teenage pregnancy and the plight of the children involved, worthy of an edgy HBO documentary.

Thunderclaps of fear and worry crashed inside. I wrestled with wanting more for my unborn child. I wanted a future for my husband and for myself, for our intentions to count for something. I wanted to be regarded with dignity, to be allowed to carry myself with grace. But I didn’t regard myself with dignity. I was embarrassed of my burgeoning belly and my eighteen years and ashamed that I was embarrassed. I was fearful of the shame I projected on the still developing baby in my womb, worried that she might feel the redness in my cheeks when someone remarked on the perfect roundness under my sweater. I loved her with every thought and breath and choice in a day, and was terrified that someone might inform me that I had no right to love her this way when I was still so young and unprepared to mother her the way she deserved.

All of this was a secret storm inside; my own, private tempest in a teacup. I thought that I had cleverly disguised it beneath my attention to detail. I had developed a rather industrious set of sea legs and felt that my fears were keenly concealed within my fastidious gait. Until the day I went into labor.

The doctor announced it was time to push. My clever disguise became unhinged, and the tempest was released into the room. I considered refusing to push, perhaps buying myself a few more months of pregnancy to try to wrap my mind around motherhood. But I quickly decided that I didn’t have that sort of power over my body, as it seemed to be expelling the child with or without my willful participation.

Unable to articulate my concerns between contractions, I screamed twice and was admonished to put my energy into helping the baby find her way out.

A few moments later, the doctor laid the diminutive form of my daughter across my chest. Wet, screaming, flailing her spindly arms and legs as if grasping for something to hold onto in the typhoon that was blowing her about in this bright and unpleasantly cold new world. She was scared and, I thought, perhaps a little unsure of my abilities as her mother.

I reached my left arm to cup her tiny body, gathered her flailing arms in my right hand and placed them securely on her chest, and whispered into her wet, dark hair. She quieted as her head lolled over on one side so that her nose was touching my lips. We sat there in our clandestine storm and considered one another.

She was beautiful and whole and held every possibility in her tiny, clenched fist.

She wrapped her hand around my thumb, and I was undone by her flawless, wrinkly knuckles. The grace I had needed all along to believe in my own potential quieted the tempest and flooded me.

The prickly beast in my throat was overthrown. Not by my ability; our fates had never come down to that, but by the promise that entered the room with her.
She was not swaddled in my mistakes. She was free to make her own choices, her own mistakes. She was full of her very own purpose and bringing deeper purpose to me with each perfect breath. She was the most appealing pieces of my husband and of me. She was a result of our decisions but turned over, reinterpreted. She was beauty from ashes.

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I wrote this early in 2008. It was originally published at The Women's Colony and I wanted to make sure it made it to my site.