Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Ch. 17: How I Know My Mother Loves Me

We can never go back. We can go forward. We can find the love our hearts long for, but not until we let go grief about the love we lost long ago, when we were little and had no voice to speak the heart’s longing.—bell hooks


I was kneeling in the dirt when she told me. I was elbow deep in green, exercising my right to choose which plants were pulled as weeds. My flowerbed was overgrown, and the unwanted things were about to outmatch the ones I had so lovingly planted in the spring. It was a slow and gentle process done in stages over days. It took careful hands to identify and pull out the thriving weeds without damaging the fledgling flowers and herbs, which were being trampled by a riot of uninvited guests.

I remember focusing on the sherbet-orange glow of my nasturtiums and the candy-apple blossoms of my impatiens as I dug my fingers in and tugged. The air was warm—it was July—and a soft breeze left my bare thighs and shoulders feeling caressed. I smelled of coconut-scented sunscreen, damp earth, and coffee. Pressed between my left ear and my shoulder was my phone. As I sorted through the growth, both intentional and spontaneous, I listened to my mother. As we talked, I made steady progress with my weeds, shifting now and again to spare my knees, my neck, or my shoulder.

I’m not sure if I can remember what prompted it--we were talking about healing, I think--but my mother began to describe her most recent visit to her craniosacral practitioner. I knew that my mother had been seeing this woman who specialized in correcting the effects of trauma, and that she had benefited greatly from the treatments. It was life-altering care, and I liked hearing about it. A few months earlier, she had told me about re-negotiating her birth in a series of craniosacral treatments. I wasn’t sure exactly how it all happened, but I knew that it had been important to my mother and that its effects had been liberating, curative, and invigorating for her.

In order for you to understand what happened next, you must know what I believed about my own birth--and about my relationship with my mother--up until this day. Put simply, I believed that my mother had always hated me, that I was an unwanted and disappointing child, unwelcome in the world or in her life. I believed she had fought hard to keep me alive only because she was the kind of woman who took responsibility for things. I believed that she felt an obligation to get me to adulthood since she had, in fact, created me. I also knew, in terms of more factual details, that mine was a vaginal birth, that I arrived healthy, but a few weeks premature--narrowly missing the name July Morning by arriving late in June instead of in mid-July--and that, because it was 1972, my father was not allowed into the birthing room when I was delivered.

I had, as an adult, intuited that something went wrong that morning, but I was never clear about what. I simply identified the wrongness as a sad truth: that my mother hadn’t wanted me, and my father wasn’t able to compensate for that rejection. It was a truth that informed every event in my childhood and my adult life, and caused me to form a sense of self that was tragically lacking in self-worth.

A couple of years ago, I wrote an account of my birth. It was based only on my memory of photographs, stories, and details I could easily confirm by looking at my birth certificate. I did not ask either of my parents what that day was like before I wrote this:

At some point, during the winter of 1971, my parents surrendered to their teenaged urges on what must have been a mattress on a dusty floor or a blanket near the woodstove, and nine months later I was forced to leave the cozy comfort of my mother’s womb for the harsh whiteness of a delivery room. I have long suspected that my depression started on the morning of my birth, when I felt for the first time the shock and abandonment, the aching fright and isolation, the exhaustion of being forced out of the only home I’d ever known and into the world.

I suspect there must have been some special words from God before I left and was squished down that birth canal, some whispered promise in a language only babies can hear, in the thump of my mother’s heartbeat and the swish-swish-swish of her body’s fluids through my fingers while I kicked and swam, suspended there and dreaming. Whatever it was that was said to me in that womb, it made me expect love and greatness. It filled me with anticipation about the wonders on the other side, and it fortified me, allowed me to go willingly—three weeks early—through that tight and darkened passageway of muscle and into the light.

To this day, tunnels fill me with an incredible sense of power and optimism. I feel like a Super Bowl quarterback emerging into a stadium full of fans, confident in my ability to play and to win. I feel that sense of promise. I feel my power, my strength and my glory. But it always passes once I’m through the opening and I find myself again, blinking in the light, lost and sore, inside and out.

Each of us, at some point, wonders about the narrative of our birth. Where did I come from, we all want to know, and why am I here? In the question, there is so much more than a curiosity about where babies come from. We want to know our story. We want to know where and when, to whom and why we entered the world the way we did.

Most of us got our answer from whichever grown-up or older child we asked when it occurred to us as children. But we also pieced together our story from the clues we found all around us, the little bits of history that were dropped in conversations, found in photographs, and taught to us with insidious subtlety in other ways. This knowledge, these answers, become part of our personal mythology, absorbed and cemented into our psyches, the foundation upon which all other growth is mounted. What we believe to be true about ourselves, our beginnings, becomes an essential truth for us—even if we’re wrong about the facts. And at the very heart of it all, is the real question: was I wanted?

If you had asked me before--at any age--I would have told you that I wasn’t wanted. That my mother had wanted a baby, but that for some reason she didn’t want me. My childhood was spent gathering evidence of this--there was no shortage of proof--and then I spent my adult life trying to find a way to come to terms with and counteract the damage of that gigantic mother rejection. In my twenties, my longing for mothering triggered in me a desire to bear my own children that was so titanic it dominated all other thoughts. My failure to find anyone willing to love and partner with me to form a family, and my failure to earn enough money to do it alone, sent me to the brink more than once. I was constantly engaged in a wrestling match--always simultaneously trying to find ways to become a parent, and ways to cope with the fact that I probably never would be. Anyone I dated--or probably even met--during the last ten years could attest to the intensity of my desire to mother. I was so desperate to have a healthy mother-daughter relationship, to heal my broken child-heart, that I sought to play the role of mother as though my very life depended on it. And, perhaps, in some ways, it did.

But this summer, something changed. I traveled home to Maine as usual to celebrate my birthday with my family. My niece had just turned one-year-old, my nephew turned eight, and as I played games with, snuggled, and watched over these beautiful children, I felt as usual the unconditional, all-encompassing love they stir in me. But by the end of the weekend—by the end of my 32nd birthday--I realized I didn’t need children of my own. It was an odd liberation. It wasn’t that I had changed my mind about wanting to parent, but somehow, after a decade spent pursuing that holy goal, I just let it go--or, actually, it let go of me. It was as though I’d been trapped in a storm or a fever, and finally it had passed. My life no longer felt as though it depended on creating children. My close friend, Jon, had traveled home to Maine with me, and I shared this revelation with him on the drive back to Northampton, unsure of its source, but glad for its arrival.

It was about two weeks later that I was kneeling in the dirt, pulling weeds and listening to my mother. She was talking about her craniosacral treatment—telling me again how she had renegotiated her own birth earlier that year. And then, she told me, she had decided to re-negotiate mine. I stopped weeding for a second, and leaned back onto my heels. My mother told me, then, something I had never known. My birth, for her, had been a terrible trauma. Not because she didn’t want me--in fact, she said she wanted me very much--but because of what the doctors did to her.

Just as I was about to be born, they strapped her down. My twenty-year-old mother, all alone in that delivery room, giving birth to her first child in a room full of strangers--they strapped her down. My claustrophobic mother, who can’t even ride in elevators because they make her feel panicked and confined, was restrained, terrified, and then anesthetized against her will. She was filled with anger, horror, fright. And the last thing she remembers before I arrived, is screaming, NO!

It was a NO! that came from the core of her being. A mother’s rage, summoned up from all the pain of contractions and all the heat of her swollen body and her urge to protect my swimming self inside her, it screamed through every cell of her body and mine, NO! Her scream went into my umbilical cord, reverberated into my tender aquatic ears. There was the rapid thumping of her heartbeat, and my fetal self, poised to part the curtains and jump on stage with a grand arrival greeted by applause, was instead smacked down in a fat thunder clap of rejection, deafening me with its howling rage, NO! before sending me through that painful chute and out into the cold alone.

I had not imagined my mother’s intense feeling of rejection--she did scream No! that day--but not to me; I had, for all these years, tragically misunderstood it. She was screaming No! on that day to the doctors and the nurses who held her down and denied her everything she wanted in that moment. Because of them she was not able to feel my body passing through her strong cervix and out into the world. And after I was born, she was not able to hold my little self to her chest. They took me away, immediately, refused to let her see me for hours. They wheeled her, dazed, angry, confused, to a room with other new mothers. And they wheeled me tired, disoriented, abandoned to a room with other babies.

They told her to sleep. She felt powerless and alone. For days this went on. I want my baby, she told them. I want my baby. But they told her, no. They let her nurse me, but then they’d take me away. But my mother kept on fighting. She fought with every nurse who entered the room. She fought with every doctor. She mounted a rebellion. She got all the other mothers riled up. We want our babies, they said. We want our babies--now. So they sent my mother home. Three days early. She took her baby girl and she went home.

By then, of course, the damage was done. In those first few minutes and days, I learned that I was not welcome here on earth. It led me down a road to agoraphobia and depression. To suicidal depression and years where I struggled to leave my house because the world seemed like a place where I didn’t belong. When I tried to open my door on the world, all I heard was, No! At the heart of all my pain was my broken-hearted knowledge that my mother did not love me, and because I thought that No was directed at my very existence, I thought she wanted me to die.

My mother did everything she could to win me back when I was little, to protect and to provide for me--but I rejected her. I turned only to my father, only to a man who would always love me, but who almost always let me down when I was little. I clung to him as though my life depended on it. My mother--the reliable one--became the enemy. Neither of us understood why, until now.

My mother, in her unflagging quest for healing, had the courage and the awareness to fix, three decades later, what had gone wrong on that late June day. Just before my 32nd birthday, she and her craniosacral therapist re-negotiated my birth. At the age of 52, she went through it all again--only this time, she wasn’t strapped down to a table. She wasn’t injected with any drugs against her will. She felt her baby pass down through her cervix and out into the world. She felt every contraction, every tear and push. She breathed through the pain, owned it, made it hers. And her daughter was greeted with strength and love, comfort and celebration. Her daughter was welcomed with joy, triumph and grace. And when the birth was through, my mother was given her baby. She opened her gown and pressed me to her warm, bare chest and held me there for a long time, so that I could hear the heartbeat that meant that I was home.

It was this act that caused the stormy fever of my desire to mother to mysteriously pass away. I felt it happen, even before she told me what she’d done. And once I heard the story, once I heard the words out there in the sunshine in my garden, I knew that I would be healed. It was so hard to believe--I had a lifetime of evidence to the contrary--but just as the sun cracks over the horizon and eventually lights up a whole day, I felt a new awareness dawning, a transfusion of warm love which would take the place of that cold and lonely rejection that coursed through my veins since day one. Because I was afraid that when I hung up the phone I would doubt my memory of what she had said, I asked my mother if she would write it down for me, write down that I was wanted and welcome so that I could see it there, and read it to myself over and over again, until I was sure that it was true.

Later that night, I was cooking in the kitchen with my friend Heather when I felt a sort of pressure, a deep and subtle cramping just beneath my belly button, where, I imagine, my umbilical cord had been. I left Heather alone and I laid down and let it come. Curled up in the darkness like a wise young fetus poised for a grand arrival, I let myself feel loved and welcomed by my mother. I let myself begin. There was cramping, then comfort, then joy.
Two days later, a card arrived in the mail.

Naomi--Just a note to remind you that you were welcome and fiercely loved at birth. You are welcome and loved today. In your own depths this experience of these energies waits to be remembered. Love, Mom.

I’m angry with those doctors who terrorized my mother. And I’m sad for all the terrible years of suffering she and I endured, when we didn’t recognize each other as allies, and we didn’t know why. But mostly, I am celebrating what we have now. We set the record straight, my mom and I. It’s so much easier to know her now, and to know myself. It took 32 years, but it might never have happened at all.

I am a treasured daughter. I am a woman who is wanted, who my mother fought for. My mother loves me--I never really knew this before. My mama loves me, I say out loud, when I’m working in my yard or driving in my car. I say it with the pride and certainty of a bragging five-year old: my mama loves me. And I use this knowledge like a sword and a shield--when lovers reject me, when friends disappoint, when I feel all alone--I can come home to something, for the first time ever, and I can fight for myself, channel my mother’s warrior soul, and fight for my right to belong in this world, to be held, to be known--and to be healed.

[draft, chapter 17, The Long-Awaited Time of Joy]

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