The Liminal Space Before Giving Birth

Friday, July 22, 2016 - 5:30 am

The Liminal Space Before Giving Birth

You’ve never had such beautiful use of the word “liminal” until now.

You wake in the dark and listen for the whoosh of the BART train. It starts running at 5 a.m., so it helps you guess at the time. That familiar sound has been reassigned as ominous since seeing Fruitvale Station. Oscar Grant was somebody’s baby.
Usually it’s not running yet. Usually it’s 4 a.m. Usually you curl into the warmth of his neck and take a few deliberate smells of him sleeping. He’s wearing the noise cancelling headphones again, which means you were snoring. You’ve been congested for nine months. Can’t wait to breath easy again.

The liminal lives in your body these nights. It is in the sensation of a tiny limb pushing against your right side. It is the shoot of pain through your pelvis that signals the thinning of your cervix. It is the way you have learned to lie there — between awake and asleep, watching the moonlight create stripes on the bedroom wall and listening as the homeless guys go through the recycling bin outside. You tick through all the things that you should have done weeks ago. You realize that they don’t matter as much as you thought.

You’ve never known the world at 4 a.m., at least not like this: sober, mind clear, body a restless vessel. You’ve always been a solid sleeper, someone who uses every last bit of ambition during the day so that night is just eight hours of collapse. Or, in your 20s, 4 a.m. on a Saturday night was diner eggs on 7th Avenue, listening to the guys ridicule one another as the waitress in the improbable sweater dress refilled coffee with a smirk.

There was a sense of eternal becoming then, both thrilling and consistently devastating. This is different. This has a then and a now, a very specific moment on its way that will separate everything before from everything after. You may have made up moments like this in your 20s, projected a lot of significance onto some meeting or party or conversation, but ultimately it always proved to be an unfolding. Water, not fire.

You were slowly etched out of time then. Now, you are transmogrified by it.
You might have predicted that you’d spend this time anticipating, maybe even in fear of the pain, but it’s not like that. At least not for you.

The pain of birth, unlike so many other kinds of pain, is actually made more tolerable by its intensity. You don’t have any energy left with which to devote to suffering on top of the pain. It’s just pain. Full stop. Entirely consuming. Your dear friend, her five-month-old squirming in her lap and offering up elfin little smiles, said she is actually jealous that you’re giving birth soon:

“The only time that I feel absolutely no responsibility for anyone else.”

It’s like that. It fits all of life onto the head of a pin. No room for goals or shame or disappointment. There is just you, a very corporeal you, and this new human, trying (sometimes reluctantly) to become two, to survive, to make history.
You don’t think about the laundry or the diapers or the pumping or the burping. You don’t think about the moment, far into the future, when she’ll surprise you to tears. (The other afternoon, her older sister, just 2.5 years old, said, “How was your week, Momma?” as you drove home from picking her up from childcare. It was only Monday, but you understood.) You don’t think about whether you’re doing it “right.” You don’t think about the presidential election. You don’t think about whether this was the best time to have a kid. It never is. Oh well. You don’t think about the fact that 350,000 other women are also going to give birth on this day. (Though how mind-blowing is that?)

You don’t think. You exist in a space and time without language. You, the consummate moderate, surrender to the extremes. You, the lover of words, realize there are none, really. You let your body take over. You trust it. You wait. Because you have no control, really.

And you realize this is probably more true of the rest of life than you often pretend.

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is a columnist for On Being. Her column appears every Friday.

Her newest book, The New Better Off: Reinventing the American Dream, explores how people are redefining the American dream (think more fulfillment, community, and fun, less debt, status, and stuff). Courtney is the co-founder of the Solutions Journalism Network and a strategist for the TED Prize. She is also co-founder and partner at Valenti Martin Media and FRESH Speakers Bureau, and editor emeritus at Feministing.com.

Courtney has authored/edited five books, including Do It Anyway: The New Generation of Activists, and Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters: How the Quest for Perfection is Harming Young Women. Her work appears frequently in The New York Times and The Washington Post. Courtney has appeared on the TODAY Show, Good Morning America, MSNBC, and The O’Reilly Factor, and speaks widely at conferences and colleges. She is the recipient of the Elie Wiesel Prize in Ethics and a residency from the Rockefeller Foundation’s Bellagio Centre. She lives with her partner in life and work, John Cary, in Oakland, and their daughters Maya and Stella. Read more about her work at www.courtneyemartin.com.

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