Tomorrow is your birthday and you’re none the wiser. It doesn’t mean anything to you, and even if it did, we’ve already had your party. Everybody came over and ate cookies and played with Star Wars stuffed animals and lightsabers. You got ten million crayons. You wore Darth Vader pajamas and said “Jediiiii”, to everyone’s chuckles.
I can’t believe it’s been two years since I met you. It feels much more recent, like I just that second held you for the first time, all squishy. But from what I hear from other mothers, that’s never going to change. Mothers whose children are bigger than you are—whose children are driving their own cars—remember those moments like they just happened, and they can describe feelings their bodies will never forget. Decades have passed, but they summon up those memories and all of it is now.
Let’s talk about the night before you were born—this is a story of someone you’ve never met and you won’t. The woman who became your mom: the pre-Andrew person. She was me in a way—she was younger and kind of stupid, but she was me.
I looked different then. I was still married to Daddy, but nobody called him Daddy. I had red hair then because I used to color it. When we went to the hospital, I brought a bag with me full of things I would give you and things I thought I might need. I thought I would wear a Batman shirt when you were born, but instead I put on some plain hospital pajamas. Also, my belly was really big because it still had you in it. It’s weird, I know. The whole thing is weird. We can talk about it or…I don’t know, maybe talking to you about it is Daddy’s job.
A nice nurse (I always say ‘thank you nice nurse’ after we get shots, because nurses are just doing their job to keep us well) taped a bunch of straws to me. Then she went and got me some dinner. I had chicken and pie while sitting up in the bed. The sun didn’t go down for a long time, it seemed—the last day before I met you was a long day, and the daylight seemed to really hang on. I was really concerned about things like, “would they let me have any water,” but they said I could have popsicles so I was fine. It’s funny the things that worried me and the things that didn’t. Maybe because I didn’t have anybody but myself to worry about then.
Pop Pop and Uncle Dan were flying out to Lithuania the next day, and they’d long ago resigned themselves to not being there when you were first born. So they sat there in chairs and we all talked and talked. Every few minutes I would feel pain in my stomach and I would have to stop talking, but it wasn’t too bad. It would get worse the next day, I knew, but I tried not to dwell on that.
Then Pop Pop got up to leave. Before he left, he told everyone to gather around me and we were going to pray. He put his hand on my stomach—on your head—and started praying, but I don’t remember what he said until he got to the end. “I pray that you would bless.this.boy.” He put emphasis on the last three words, and my eyes started to sting with tears. Then he left. He wouldn’t meet you for another month.
After that, Daddy got in the little side bed and I told him we should watch a movie. He’d never seen Finding Nemo. Neither have you, come to think of it. You love Finding Dory, so maybe we should rent it for you sometime.
Finding Nemo is a sad story about how Nemo’s dad loses his wife, then loses Nemo. He gets Nemo back, but it takes a really long time. And he’s scared the whole time. Dory’s there too—you love Dory.
They gave me some medicine to help me sleep because my stomach was starting to hurt, and Daddy kept watching Nemo. Then, when everything was quiet, I started to be scared that I would die.
You and I don’t have to talk about dying for a long, long time. But it’s going to come up. I don’t know much about it, and I don’t want YOU to think about it before it’s time, and hopefully your time won’t come for years and years and years, and you’ll have time to think about it after you’ve buried me. But I’m telling you the truth because I want you to understand what makes women different from men.
When women prepare to have babies, they get scared. Maybe they don’t ALL get scared, but most of them are afraid of what will happen when they have their babies—at least they’re afraid it will hurt or something will go wrong or the doctors will get confused. I wasn’t really afraid of any specific thing, but I got scared that I wouldn’t make it through the birth.
I have a friend who said she was scared that she would have a heart attack—she said she felt like her organs were shifting inside her stomach. I had another friend who said that it hurt so bad, “there’s a moment where you wonder if you’re going to die.”
I’m not brave, Andrew—I have an active imagination and some anxiety problems, and I was facing the biggest day of my life without Lexapro.
The next day would be the dawn of something different. You would come into my life and you would need me; you would fill my hours and my days. You would be cute and sweet and fussy and squishy. I would have to feed you and change your butt. You wouldn’t be able to do ANYTHING for yourself (this was a long time ago, before you were a big boy who eats with a spoon and runs down the hall). I would meet you, even though I felt like I already knew you. I would SEE you sucking on your hand—I’d felt it for months, but I’d SEE it.
And for some reason, I thought that I might die, Drew. Women used to die having babies all the time. I don’t know how they dealt with that fear. Maybe that’s why midwives and doctors who deliver babies are treated with so much respect—they have a life-saving tradition to uphold.
I don’t even remember the thoughts—I remember the feeling, though. And I’ll tell you what I did…I went to sleep.
I knew the next day it would all take place, whatever would happen. And I knew that whatever happened to me, you would be okay. I had no particular reason to fear this turning out badly, and nice nurses watched me all night long. They even rushed in for a moment because your heart slowed down—turns out you were just sleeping really soundly like you do when it rains on Sundays. Everything was fine.
I woke up sick and hurting—I woke up hearing another lady yelling in the room next to mine. She had her baby very fast. I threw up a couple of times, fixed my hair, and put on mascara so I would look nice when I met you. And the rest is a story for another day.
Andrew, I want you to know something—when you look at women, any woman, even the ones who haven’t had babies, I want you to know what it is you’re looking at. They are built and designed to do things you could never do: it’s normal and everyday to them. They pass secrets down to their daughters and granddaughters and daughters-in-law. They put themselves in God’s hands in a way you don’t have to. And they bring life into the world, and they nurture life. Sometimes they bring the life and someone else nurtures it—sometimes it’s the other way around. But they participate in the redemption of the world; their whole body and soul goes into it.
We make jokes about ourselves before babies and ourselves after babies, but they aren’t really jokes. They’re only funny because they’re true. Before I had you, I was thinner. Before I had you, I had more time and more money. Before you were born, I was childless. Before you were born, I wondered what labor would be like. Before you were born, I imagined myself a coward who might one day become a hero. Maybe I’ve watched too many movies.
After you were born, my stomach flopped and my hair got thinner. After you were born, I could suddenly join the ranks of women who told “horror stories” about labor. After you were born, I realized that you were the most important thing in the universe. I’ve never stopped talking about you since that day, to anyone who would listen. After you were born, I realized I was no coward. Because though I was scared of dying, I went ahead and brought you here. Sure, what else was I supposed to do? But I carried you and I got you here and I thanked God for you.
Someone once asked me what my greatest achievement was. I was eighteen when they asked me that, and I figured I’d never get married or have a baby (like I said, I was stupid—I was sitting like 50 feet from the spot where Daddy and I would meet three years later), so the hard things I’d done were few, my achievements fewer. But I remembered this one time I’d felt “stretched”. I’d gone on a missions trip to Mexico, and I’d woken up on day 3 with terrible sunburn, a stomachache, and heavy eyes from a night without sleep. There had been a scorpion spotted in the dormitory and none of us had slept much. All my muscles were sore from walking and using wire-cutters and shoveling cement. My Spanish kept deserting me when I needed it most and I felt stupid. I sat up in bed and I prayed to God… I couldn’t think of anything to say, or to ask for. I just prayed, “Well…here I go.” I didn’t even waste time complaining about how far from home I felt or how tired I was, I just said “here I go” to God, and I got up. I’d asked for this, I’d prayed for it, and it was here. I was just going to handle it. And at 18, that was my greatest achievement. That was maybe my first moment of truly trusting God without argument.
And your foremothers trusted God when they raised their children, Andrew. Women may seem like they’re full of rules, but they’re mostly just saying “here I go” and moving forward. And the moving forward may be something small like changing another diaper, or something hard like dealing with a tantrum. I think in the end, when all is said and done, we’ll realize it was all small things all along—one small thing after another to tackle. One thing to trust God with, then another, then another.
I sound like I’m rambling—I’m having trouble focusing on this because Daddy is playing the mandolin in his room and you’re talking to yourself in your crib. Tonight is a night in late spring, the daylight is hanging on, and I’m sitting here thinking about the lady who went to sleep the night before you were born, hearing Finding Nemo in snatches and feeling you kicking. If I could go back in time and tell her anything, I don’t know what it would be. Maybe I’d tell her that postpartum depression isn’t what she thinks it is. I’d tell her it’s okay to send the baby to the nursery for a couple hours if she wants to sleep later. I’d tell her she wouldn’t die—but she would be reborn. She was never going to be that person she’d been before. She’d be Andrew’s Mom, and maybe that was all she’d ever be. But she would have reason to thank God every year when this day rolls around—your birthday, the anniversary of the bravest thing she would ever do…go back to sleep and say, “here it goes.” The day she was “stretched” so hard she still has marks from it.
I love you and happy birthday,