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  • Writer's pictureGed

We die a hundred thousand times

Dear divers,

As most of you know, today is Mother's Day. It is also almost exactly twenty-five weeks from the day I gave birth to my child Fern, and almost three years since the due date of the pregnancy I lost in 2021.

Since I've started sleeping in longer stretches again, I've been dreaming more, like I did before I was pregnant. But in all of of my recent dreams, I appear as I did maybe seven or so years ago: a runner's gangly physique, a long tangle of dishwater blonde curly hair – this is not what I look like now. My dream image, my self-image has yet to catch up with the massive changes I've gone through over the past year. My boobs have swollen and drooped under their own weight. My stomach is now striped with stretch marks. I have thrown out most of my clothes, and traded them in for the same three pairs of pants with an elastic waistband, and the same three shirts out of which I can pop a boob at a moment's notice. My hands are coarse and wrinkled from washing and sanitizing them so frequently. My hair has thinned, darkened, and started to pop stray strands of gray.

In her book The Argonauts, Maggie Nelson documents the changes her body goes through during pregnancy, as her partner goes through a gender transition. Both of their transformations are voluntary, desired, even, and in her partner's case a way to bring his physical self in attunement with who he knows himself to be already. But the title still begs the question of what, precisely, makes us who we are: as various hormones surge through Nelson and her partner, and different parts of their bodies swell, shrink, disappear or sprout forth, they both have to navigate how these transformations do or don't change the fundaments of who they understand themselves to be, and how they relate to and love each other.

The image of the Argonaut ship certainly resonates with my experience of pregnancy. I can scarcely think of a part of my body or psyche that hasn't been changed. Giving birth forced a rebirthing of myself, which is to say birthing a child has brought with it one or several deaths – the death of old priorities, values, goals, identity, even neuroses. The moment Fern emerged, crying and wriggling (and peeing!), I tumbled into a new solar system: the center of my self was no longer inside me, it was outside–so fragile and fierce all at once. With this new center, I feel at once far more solid and sure of what's important to me, and also far less clear on how to relate to who I thought I was before.

Author Samantha Hunt once said about motherhood that no one tells you when you become a parent that you make a death: you make your children's deaths. It is both true that this happens, and true that no one tells you. When she was literally just a twinkle in my eye, Fern could not die. As a startlingly coherent and caterwauling mass of blood and tissue and hair and skin, she can. And she will.

Living with this fact has dramatically shifted my perception of reality, and the way I relate to risk, fear, and presence. In Fern's first month, I was bombarded by thoughts of different ways she could die, fixated mostly on how I could prevent them from happening or intervene in the face of danger–many if not most new moms I've talked to have experienced this at least to some degree. What if the bookshelf falls over? What if that car next to us swerves? What if a tree falls in a wind storm, what if because I live in a country without gun control an active shooter grocery store, what if, what if.

As Fern has gotten a bit older, these thoughts have quieted (but not disappeared). This is because I have come to accept the fact that no matter how careful I am, no matter how many contingency plans I have for an emergency, Fern will die some day. And while I may be able to prevent it from happening in certain ways or at certain times, I cannot change the fact that it will happen.

I wrote to a friend that I wished I could live every day with Fern twice, just to make sure I took it all in. But part of me also knows that even that wouldn't be enough. I am a Fern glutton – no amount of time will ever be enough. Shortly after she was born, I calculated the number of years I will have with her, assuming good health for both of us. It's somewhere between fifty and sixty. This feels unacceptable.

I have never been the kind of person who preferred babies over people, and have no desire for Fern to stay a baby forever. BUT, I do feel a kind of pang every time she masters a new skill or outgrows another onesie, because it is a reminder of the inevitability of her path, and the cruel fact that I cannot extend my time with her to infinity.

So instead of fixating on how I might be able to stop time from advancing or making Fern immortal, I have instead tried to carve out more and more space in myself and in my days for daily moments of grief. And I've found that the more space I carve out to mourn Fern's impermanence, the more illuminated and wonderful every moment with her becomes. Every morning I wake up and turn to my right to see her asleep in her bassinet feels like a feat of magic. Every first is also a last, a tiny death and rebirth of Fern and of me. Especially in this first year, when every day brings something new (just a couple days ago we felt the little razor points of her first tooth poking through), this means I am in a state of near-constant grieving and molting. Just as I adjust to one set of capabilities and preferences or routines, we're onto the next. Just about every day, something brings me to tears. I even cried the first time she slept through the night, knowing that the sleep we both gained also meant a loss of ten to twenty tender minutes every night when I could just be there with her, in the calm and quiet of the night.

All this is to say I am very fortunate that parenthood has brought me more fully into my body and myself than I have ever been. It has brought me closer to all the mothers in my life, especially the one who gave birth to me nearly 37 years ago. I know so many people who do not have this experience, or have it alongside months of sleep deprivation, depression, and physical pain. Mother's Day is a weird one, because why do we have different days for two specific genders of parents, and do we think having a day for mothers makes up for the fact that there is such inadequate healthcare and childcare and workplace protections for child-bearers? It definitely doesn't. Nor does it make up for all of the children who have been killed this year and in years past in wars they had no hand in. This day is a flimsy gesture in the face of the mammoth task that is bearing and raising a child in a society that is determined to make it even more dangerous and heartbreaking than it is under the best of circumstances.

I'm still not sure how to square my own little microcosm brimming with love with the acute anguish of the world today. I do believe this kind of love, what I feel for Fern, if everyone could feel it, could power revolutions, and probably already does. I am trying to let its immensity crash down and wash over me, wave after wave after wave of it. Some days it knocks me down, or burns as it sloughs off dead skin cells. Some days I am sure I am screwing everything up, and what the hell ever happened to that cool performance artist in Brooklyn? She's not literally dead, but she's also not the one living my life right now. Actively loving in this way, far more than any experience I've had of being loved, is so gratifying I do not need to know or predict who I am or what I'll become. I am Fern's mom, and I trust in whatever follows.

Till next time,


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