On Birth, Rituals, and Transitions
by Emily Zimmer
The clear demarcation from one chapter ending to another one starting is the type of literary perfection I think real life could benefit from. Book chapters serve as guiding lights, helping me pace myself through the rigorous task of completing an entire novel as the outside world berates me with distractions. Knowing how many pages are left until the end of a chapter can help me stay motivated, focused, and engaged. I will not feel the urge to simply put the book down between pages 91-92 when I know that chapter 5 will wrap up and offer closure (or perhaps a cliff-hanger!) in a mere 12 pages. That’s the type of foresight I crave.
Many have come to believe that processing and debriefing our experiences and transitions are central to moving through life as gracefully as possible. We seek closure and bookends, neat and tidy places from which to end and begin again. Enter the concept of ritual. We use rituals to remind ourselves that emotional existences are preferable and encouraged, but also, as a way to sugar-coat the rawness that comes from crossing into the next part of life.
Funerals are held to formalize the unbearable occasion of losing a loved one, while birthday parties are held with the expectation that we’ll celebrate the passing of time, in the hope that we have what to reflect on, rather than lamenting it all over non-dairy desserts. These rituals all have prescribed norms, settings, and procedures. Have you ever Googled “What food to bring to a Shiva call?” or “What to wear as a wedding guest when you don’t know the bride?” The internet will tell you how to surprise your girlfriend or what to buy your mom for Mother’s Day, but no one can tell you how to feel good in that cocktail dress or how to repair your relationship with your parents. Sometimes it feels like rituals are there to say the things we can’t for ourselves. But sometimes, rituals get tongue-tied too.
As I sit here nearing the 38th week of my first pregnancy, I try to create closure for myself. I’ve had a beautiful pregnancy, one that I sometimes feel terribly guilty about, but mostly boundlessly grateful for. My body has been healthy and my support system is present. From the moment I found out, it all felt surreal. But now, I’m at the end. My body is bloated and I spend all night rolling from one side to the other in between bathroom breaks. My clothes definitely don’t fit. My tummy is striped in a way only genetics can do to you. Despite these physical aches and pains, I am thinking most presently about how this moment, the birth of this life, will mark the end of my current life in its current form, once and for all.
In my late 20’s I know I’m still the butt of society’s jokes about immaturity and privilege. Many have said that at this stage, it made sense that my pregnancy was so easy. My body was “meant to do this,” and my age plays a large role in that. Earlier this year I learned that pregnancies that take place after the age of 35 are referred to as “geriatric,” a word none of us are ready to contemplate. The word “geriatric” communicates that it’s too late, you waited too long, it’s time to retire to that old rocking chair. But in what world were children meant to grow up so quickly and start having their own children? At what point is a woman truly ready to move forward into the “next stage?”
What officially marks the end of childhood? At first, I thought it was moving out, going to college, supporting myself financially, starting therapy unprompted, and choosing a life partner and marrying him. But in the face of carrying a life inside of my body, of growing a human from scratch, nothing compares. The responsibility of bringing new life into the world is truly the start of something new and terrifying. It is the end of all things carefree and thoughtless. It is the most intentional act I have taken part in to date. This is the end of childhood. It is unceremonious, unpredictable, and lacks ritual. From the moment a baby’s body appears on the ultrasound machine, a new childhood is now en route to becoming the center of your life. So now what happens?
“Mom-threatening” is a term I learned from my sister, a new and blooming mother herself. “People love to threaten new mothers,” she said to me one day on Facetime as she kissed the cheeks of her adorable 8-month-old.
“Better sleep now, travel now, see your friends now, enjoy your body now, your relationship now, before it all changes forever,” she said in a mocking tone, mimicking the mothers who had mom-threatened her (and still do). These threats come from resentful places, where mothers feel as if they didn’t have enough time to do the things they wanted to do while they still had the chance, so they pass the burden on to you. They pass you this torch so you can hopefully learn from their “mistakes.”
“Write your book now, go to graduate school now, move up in your career now.” The weight of these threats is relentless. With two weeks until my due date, I wonder how I’m meant to mark this transition, what it means to be a mother instead of whatever I was before that. I fear the consuming status of “motherhood,” how it seems to come before everything else that I will ever accomplish, and how disappointed society will be when they hear that I didn’t manage to become a CEO and a class act before the arrival of my first child.
According to these threats, my life as an individual, as a free person with full control over her time, is about to end, abruptly and ultimately, with no birthday cake or eulogy to honor me. In a way, the days leading up to birth nearly feel like days leading up to death. One last trip to the grocery store, walk around the block, trip to the beach, where my baby is safely nestled inside of my body. No diaper bags or spit up, no crying or sleepless nights. One more late-night outing with friends, one more road trip, one more long Shabbat afternoon nap. And then, it will all be over. My old life, my old identity will disappear with the promise of a vague due date. Where are the rituals for this transition? Somehow a baby shower and a gender reveal party don’t feel right. How will I honor the woman I once was, and where will she go the moment my labor begins?
They say that when a child is born, a mother is too. But what searchable ritual could possibly prepare me for such a thing? How could anyone be truly prepared for the moment their life changes forever? And the truth is that no one is. Not in their 20s, 30s, or 40s. There is no way to explain the utter disbelief I feel when I ponder the possibility of a living human baby swimming laps inside of me. There is no clear end of childhood, no neat and poetic epilogue to give us the closure we so badly need. We think so much about how to transition in a way that won’t leave us ragged and without time to process. But life moves quickly. One day we’re speaking at our high school graduation, the next we’re searching for a new job at a café in NYC. One day we’re up all night drinking, the next we’re up all night caring for a newborn. One day we’re loveless, the next we’ve been married happily for 40 years rocking aimlessly in matching rocking chairs.
Rituals do not need to be clear cut and simple, human beings are far too complicated. In the days leading up to labor, I stroke my belly as often as I can. I trace the battle scars my baby has left for me. I picture his sweet face, her soft cheeks, his tiny lips. I wonder if her childhood will be an extension of mine, how we will enjoy life’s precious secrets together, how our mutual births will bring us both closer and farther from one another. I don’t think anyone is ever ready for their life to drastically change. That’s why we have to take it at our own pace. Slow and steady, even if it means stopping in the middle of the chapter and taking a slow, deep breath.
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