In which I get a little bit spiritual

Remember when I moved in you
And the holy dove was moving, too
And every breath we drew was Hallelujah?

— Leonard Cohen

I posted a while back about how some love songs have taken on a whole new light now that I’m pregnant; all those romantic words seem to mean something different now. An acquaintance of mine posted a link this morning to Jeff Buckley’s version of “Hallelujah” in honor of the Christmas season, and the song — even Christmas itself — seems to mean something else to me just now.

The stories of the annunciation, Mary’s pregnancy and the birth of Jesus have been favorites of mine for a while, not in a religious context necessarily but as a myth that exists as a very deep part of our culture and shared psyche. Even if you don’t believe in it as part of your spiritual practice, you know the story. I’ve often wondered what it was like for Mary, being told that she would conceive a baby who would become this very important child in the grand scheme of the world, and that she needed to get ready.

In fact, I think in Mary’s shoes I’d be freaked out by that message. At the same time, I wonder if all gestating women couldn’t use the reminder that their child has the potential to be a major player on earth, that their child, as any child, is a miracle of biology, a mystery waiting to happen.

So it feels pretty special to be pregnant at Christmas, to be able to reflect on my own journey in light of this worldwide story about the return of the light and warmth of the sun, about the specialness of birth, to have this life moving inside me.

I’ve quoted Joseph Campbell here before, but another of his quotes is in my mind today:

According to legend, Buddha was born from the right side of his mother. Immediately upon his birth, he stood up and took seven steps, and wherever his feet touched the earth lotuses sprang up. Raising his hand he said: “Worlds above, worlds below, there’s no one in the world like me.”

Finally, Suzuki elaborated. “They tell me that when a baby is born, it cries. What does the baby say when it cries? The baby says ‘Worlds above, worlds below, there’s no one in the world like me!’ All babies are Buddha babies.” So what was the distinguishing characteristic of Queen Maya’s baby? He knew that he was a Buddha baby. According to Joseph Campbell, “The whole thing of Buddha consciousness means getting to know you are it. That takes a lot of work, principally because society keeps telling you that you are not it.”

Our friends Dave and Penny had a baby girl this morning, two days before her due date. Happy congratulations to them — and a good holiday to everyone else.
— Beth

Demon Pregnancies, Pregnancy Demons

By late October I had gotten really sick of reading pregnancy books (despite which I’ve still got a large stack of them left to go) and did a total 180, picking up a couple of Cormac McCarthy books to take my brain completely somewhere else. It wasn’t a bad idea; only one out of the three involved a pregnancy or baby. Then Sara loaned me Stephenie Meyers’ “Breaking Dawn,” the fourth book in her vampire/human romance series, and guess what? The vampire gets the human pregnant — something they didn’t realize could happen — and things get out of control very quickly.

It had all the hallmarks of a demon pregnancy: hyperfast gestation, the mother getting really pale and hollow (and, later on, craving blood), superstrong fetus that was predicted to kill its mother during birth. And, of course, the mom-to-be becomes so protective of her unborn that she won’t let anyone end the pregnancy, despite that the ominous music practically guarantees she won’t survive it.

I was re-watching “Angel,” Joss Whedon’s “Buffy The Vampire Slayer” spinoff, just before and just after I got pregnant. There are two such “demon pregnancies” in that show — both featuring Cordelia. In the first one, she comes to full term in a matter of days, and discovers during a sonogram that she’s having more babies than she would have anticipated (this happens to lots of normal pregnancies, too, though it’s usually not a litter of 7). In the second instance, the gestation is longer but it makes Cordelia evil and then, when the “baby” comes out, it turns out to be a horrible tentacled demon that disguises itself as a wonder-goddess and enslaves the human race.

It’s easy to see how pregnancy could be turned, by changing a few key details, into horror-film fodder. Even the most natural and healthy pregnancy resembles the plot of many such films: Body going through strange and shocking changes, woman suddenly not acting like herself, unseen alien life growing inside the belly, and of course the unavoidably gooey and gory birth.

When I got pregnant, I intentionally avoided reading the “classic” “What To Expect When You’re Expecting,” which many consider overly alarmist (I just found it badly structured). I have, however, been reading a lot of online pregnancy forums and it’s amazing how much women worry during pregnancy. The thing about pregnancy is, there’s a lot of “normal.” Bleeding some during the first trimester is normal; not bleeding is also normal. Some abdominal pain is normal; some means ectopic pregnancy; it’s also within the realm of reason to have no pain. Weeks of nausea — including several bouts of projectile-vomiting a day — is normal; so is feeling just fine in the tummy. So a lot of potentially scary stuff can also mean things are just fine. If you haven’t been through this, trust me; it’s surreal.

Of course, it doesn’t help that if you’re a member of Babycenter, which I am, you get weekly memos and many of them are alarmist, too. “17 Dangerous Infections in Pregnancy,” proclaimed one email. “Get To Know The Signs of Preterm Labor,” said another. Important information, sure, but it seriously makes me want to go back and read more McCarthy novels, ones in which a bunch of Indians get scalped in the Wild West but nobody has a scary pregnancy episode.

It would be easy to say that tales like “Breaking Dawn” and “Angel” are toying with women’s fears, but I think it’s much more about exploring (and exaggerating) them in a healthy and fictional setting so you can sit back and think, “Wow, at least my pregnancy isn’t that bad.” I guess it depends on your fear thresholds, though. I’ve been afraid of or worried about very little, except getting the house ready in time, and I’m one of those weirdos who isn’t really scared of labor or birth. Other mothers and mothers-to-be may want to skip certain genres of fiction until well after their babies are born, just to be on the safe side.

The next escapist-fiction book in my list? It involves zombie children. I’m sure that’ll put my mind at ease. :)

— Beth

Inside the smallest, darkest room

I’m spending a lot of time imagining what it’s like for our baby right now, growing bigger and bigger inside this warm, dark, muscley, whooshing pool. My understanding is that babies this young don’t really have cognition yet, so everything they feel and do, all their responses, are more about instinct and reflex. That, too, is hard to imagine: what would life be like if you were distilled back down to those things?

Apparently, one of the things you would do is wiggle and kick a lot. Our baby grows stronger and stronger every day, and the kicks are now visible from outside although they’re still too intermittent for Devin to be able to spot them. When I’m lying on my side the baby rests side-to-side, head toward the ceiling, feet thumping the bed. During a few parts of the day the baby is head up, dancing a little jig on my cervix. And the rest of the time it’s head-down, letting me know it’s aware of the warm tea I just drank, that the shower water’s too hot, or that there are voices somewhere in the room around us. Often the kicks are strongest during meetings and interviews — times when I need to pay the most attention to the person talking, not the person playing Spider-man in my belly. Of course, what I really want to do in those moments is retreat somewhere and focus in on the mystery of what our child is doing in there, exactly.

Speaking of mysteries, I’m also thinking a lot about the next 17-18 weeks or so — a stretch with no sonograms offering us a window inside, no other chances to learn the baby’s gender or see it sneezing, sucking its thumb, hiccuping, dancing, or making its presidential endorsement. I’m not typically someone who sits well with unknowns, and there are many unknowns before us that sometimes make me uneasy, but somehow I am comfortable with — even thrilled by — this idea that I don’t know who’s in there, not yet, which makes the day we begin to find out all that much more exciting to think about. And yet, in some ways it also feels like a lesson in what’s to come; as close as you can be to someone, there’s always going to be some part of them you never quite fathom. And I suppose with a child it’s a good idea to get used to that even before they show up.

It’s possible that I’m pondering all this darkness and mystery because of the season. Who knows. But I like how this excerpt from Judy Grahn’s poem “Like a Woman in Childbirth Wailing” puts what’s going on in there:

A queen am I
my city is within me

ever and ever did I swell
with its messages
delivering all it ever needed
to know of itself
cell by fleshy cell
and spark by spark
and all entirely in the dark.

I plied on the smallest, starkest loom
inside the smallest, darkest room
knitting fingernail to finger
iris to eyeball to socket
I rarely missed a stitch.
Almost the hardest thing I had to know
was when to call the baby done
and let it go

— Beth

Consciousness

I forgot to include this in the other entry, but I found myself asking the same question several times this week: when does consciousness begin?

(Pretend, for the moment, that we agree on what consciousness is; this blog is not big enough for that topic!)

Arguably some humans never become truly conscious (ha), but learning about the stages of fetal development week by week really makes me wonder. Does it start the moment those cells divide? OK, probably not. How about when the neural tube closes and the brainstem starts to form? Is it when the brain is truly formed? When a fetus begins moving in response to stimuli? When it begins reaching out and exploring its little aquatic lunar-landing module? At what point is a being conscious?

It makes me wish we could remember back that far, so we could say for ourselves, “Yes, that was my first thought. That was when I became conscious and aware of myself in the world.”

Mostly, I’m wondering this because I’m still in awe of the fact that a little bundle of cells, snug in my body, knows what to do — and my body knows what to do — to produce something as complex as a functioning, thinking human being. Maybe I shouldn’t be asking when consciousness begins, but rather: how the heck can I develop a conscious being when doing so, at least at this stage, is an almost completely unconscious process? I guess it’s a good thing I love paradoxes, huh?

— Beth