It’s spring now — the azaleas and dogwoods in our yard are in bloom; the little songbirds are singing their mating calls; a haze of pollen hangs in the air, swirls in the wind, coats everything in sight with its green-yellow hue; and, on March 22, two days after the vernal equinox, I gave birth to our son, Espen Avery.
I’d wanted to have a natural birth, but after 14 hours in labor (and having been awake for 26 hours because I’d worked the day my labor started) and only dilating to 5 cm, in spite of the intense contractions occurring about 45 seconds apart and coupling, I was too stressed and exhausted to go any longer the way I was. So I had an epidural, which was a beautiful relief — an hour later, I’d dilated to 8 cm and I was finally able to get some rest. Nine hours later (with an hour and a half of pushing time), Espen was born at 4:59 PM.
Change is always a little bittersweet for me, no matter how much I’d looked forward to it, planned for it, even needed it. There’s a feeling of loss — of my old self, my old life — and a cloud of anxiety about the future that I must fight early on in the change process. I felt that way when I started grad school and attended my first residency; I felt it when I started my (now defunct) copy writing job. And, as guilty as it makes me feel, I have felt it now and then as a new mother.
One would think that I would handle change better — even whole-heartedly embrace it — since I grew up in an Army family that relocated every few years throughout my childhood. It’s not so much physical change that bothers me — I love a change of scenery, and the few close attachments I form to people and locations are never enough to keep me stationary. It’s the emotional and mental changes that I find most challenging. I think that’s true for all people — growth is difficult, anxiety-ridden. Transformation is painful. But that doesn’t mean it’s bad. The opposite, in fact. That’s what gets me through those periods of anxiety — the knowledge that they will pass, and that growth-oriented change (which motherhood inevitably is) is always ultimately rewarding.
It seems that an essential part of the human experience — and life in general — is transformation through pain. Religions the world over bear stories of transformation through death (the most dramatic form of pain) — Jesus had to die to absolve mankind of sin and return to Heaven; Odin had to hang himself from the Tree of Life to gain infinite knowledge; Odysseus traveled to the realm of the dead to learn from Tiresias the wisdom he needed to return home; Ushas, the Hindu goddess of dawn, was imprisoned by demons in the cave called Vala and liberated from it by Indra.
In life, childbirth is the most obvious and stark example of painful transformation, but any transformation involves some kind of pain. I don’t know why this is, but it is. And, as with childbirth, it seems that the most effective way to go through the process of transformation is to accept the pain, even embrace it. That’s how I was able to endure the first 14 hours of labor without reprieve — until it became clear that it was going nowhere fast and I desperately needed some rest.
Which brings me to another, seemingly contradictory (but not really) lesson I learned through labor — that there’s no shame in acknowledging and accepting one’s limitations and seeking aid in mediating pain. It’s a different kind of strength that’s required to swallow pride and admit need, but it is certainly a valuable, sometimes necessary strength. I relied on that wisdom a few days later when the baby blues, a different kind of pain, set in and I needed help getting enough sleep, not feeling guilty whenever I wasn’t with the baby, and overall battling the overwhelming feelings of fear and doubt I felt about my ability to handle the stress of raising a newborn. Fortunately, my husband and mom have been here to help, and I just needed the strength to admit when I needed them to do so. And, again, knowing that that pain was part of the process of becoming a new mother was a huge aid in enduring and getting through it.
These lessons came at a symbolically significant time — the passing from harsh, barren, cold winter to life-bearing spring. Spring is a season of new and regained life, of growth and transformations of all kinds. It’s a season of new light, and light is always preceded (and even defined) by darkness. It’s the darkness that makes the light so brilliant.