Readings — From the April 2015 issue

In the Pain Cavern

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By Maggie Nelson, from The Argonauts, out next month from Graywolf. Nelson is the author of several books, including Bluets, The Art of Cruelty: A Reckoning, and Jane: A Murder.

The task of the cervix is to stay closed, to make an impenetrable wall protecting the fetus, for approximately forty weeks of a pregnancy. After that, by means of labor, the wall must somehow become an opening. This happens through dilation, which is not a shattering, but an extreme thinning.

This feeling has its ontological merits, but it is not really a good feeling. It’s easy enough to stand on the outside and say, “You just have to let go and let the baby out.” But to let the baby out, you have to be willing to go to pieces.

Thirty-nine weeks. I take a long walk across the campus of Occidental College. It’s a hair too hot, as it always is in Los Angeles. I come home frustrated, taut with baby, anxious for it. Harry, who has also been known as Harriet, has friends over; they are getting ready for a movie shoot, wearing dingy white outfits and hats with skinny white ceramic horns that Harry inexplicably asserts make the cast look like lice. “Don’t let the lice talk to me,” I say, pulling down the shades. I feel feral, a little sad, very full. Backache.

Some pains start. The lice go home. For no good reason we decide to rearrange the bookshelves. We’d been meaning to do it for weeks, and Harry suddenly feels frantic to get it done, to make things right. I keep sitting down to rest amid the books on the floor, arranging them into piles by genre, then by country. More pains. All these beautiful pages.

Harry calls Jessica, the person who will be assisting our birth, says, “Come now.” Tried to sleep, but the night began to cavern. New dim lights in the house, new sounds. Birds chirping in the middle of the night while I labor in the tub. Jessica asks if the birds are real. They are. She rigs our tub with duct tape and a plastic bag so the tub can grow big with water. She has tricks. I keep wondering bleakly why she’s texting through my labor; later I learn she has an app on her iPhone that times the contractions. Night passes quickly, in the time that is no time.

In the morning Harry and Jessica persuade me to go for an hour’s walk, briskly, in the gray day. It’s hard. “The contractions aren’t going to stop if you stop moving,” Jessica keeps telling me. Okay, but how does she know? We walk down to the Rite Aid at York and Figueroa to get castor oil, but when we get there, no one has a wallet. I squint in the gray light. I am going, almost gone. Back to the house for wallets, back to the store, we pace the parking lot, which looks scabrous with trash. I want to be somewhere more beautiful, I think, and also, everything is right. At home I eat the castor oil mixed into chocolate ice cream. I want what’s inside to come out.

I’ve heard that, back in the day, Rita Mae Brown once tried to convince fellow lesbians to abandon their children in order to join the movement. But, generally speaking, even in the most radical-feminist and/or lesbian-separatist circles, there have always been children around (Cherríe Moraga, Audre Lorde, Adrienne Rich, Karen Finley, Pussy Riot . . . the list could go on and on). Yet rather than fade away with the rise of queer parenthood, the tired binary that places “femininity, reproduction, and normativity on one side and masculinity, sexuality, and queer resistance on the other” (Susan Fraiman) has lately reached a kind of apotheosis, often posing as a last, desperate stand against homo- and heteronormativity, both. In his polemic No Future, Lee Edelman argues that “queerness names the side of those not ‘fighting for the children,’ the side outside the consensus by which all politics confirms the absolute value of reproductive futurism.” He continues: “Fuck the social order and the Child in whose name we’re collectively terrorized; fuck Annie; fuck the waif from Les Mis; fuck the poor, innocent kid on the Net; fuck Laws with both capital l’s and with small; fuck the whole network of Symbolic relations and the future that serves as its prop.” Or, to use a queer artist friend’s more succinct slogan, Don’t produce and don’t reproduce.

I know that Edelman is talking about the Child, not children per se, and that my artist friend is likely more concerned with jamming the capitalist status quo than with prohibiting the act of childbirth. And I, too, feel like jamming a stick in someone’s eye every time I hear “protecting the children” used as a rationale for all kinds of nefarious agendas, from arming kindergarten teachers to dropping a nuclear bomb on Iran to gutting social safety nets to extracting and burning through what’s left of the world’s fossil-fuel supply. But why bother fucking this Child when we could be fucking the specific forces that mobilize and crouch behind its image? Reproductive futurism needs no more disciples. But basking in the punk allure of “no future” won’t suffice, either, as if all that’s left for us to do is sit back and watch while the greedy and gratuitously wealthy shred our economy and our climate and our planet, crowing all the while about how lucky the jealous roaches are to get the crumbs that fall from their banquet. Fuck them, I say.

Now I’m sick of these two clowns who aren’t in pain. I say I want to go to the hospital because that’s where they take the babies out. Jessica stalls; she knows it’s not time. I begin to get desperate. I want a change of scenery. I’m not sure I can do this. We’ve spent hours on the red couch with a heating pad, in the tub kneeling on towels, in the bed with me holding Harry’s or Jessica’s hand. I have to think of something that will convince them that it’s time to go to the hospital. “The baby feels low, and I’m having it at the hospital, and that’s where I want to be,” I growl. Finally they say okay.

The car is where the pain turns into a luge. I can’t open my eyes. Have to go inside. Outside there is a lot of traffic, I squint and see Harry doing the best he can. Every bump and turn a nightmare. The pain cavern has a law, its law is black shudder. I begin to count, noticing that each one takes about twenty seconds. I think, Any kind of pain must be bearable for twenty seconds, for nineteen, for thirteen, for six. I stop making sounds. It is horrible.

Hard time parking, no one around, even though every other time we’ve been to the labor wing there has been a bevy of attendants with wheelchairs. I am going to have to walk. I walk as slowly as a person could walk, doubled over, down the hall. Jessica greets some people she knows. Everything around me is normal and inside I am in the pain cavern.

We check in to the labor wing. The nurse is nice. Freckled, heavyset, Irish-seeming. She says five centimeters. People are happy, I am happy. Jessica tells me the hard part is over, she says getting to five centimeters is the hard part. I am nervous but relieved. Jessica asks for room 7. The hospital is blessedly slow, quiet, empty.

Room 7 is lovely, dark. We can see Macy’s from the window. Whitney Houston has just been found dead in a hotel about ten blocks away, the Beverly Hilton. The nurses are talking about it in hushed tones as they come and go. “Was it drugs?” I manage to ask from the pain cavern. “Probably,” they say. In our labor room there is a bathtub, a scale, and a baby warmer. Maybe there will be a baby.

The pain luge continues, the counting, the dedication, the quiet, the panic. I am phobic about the toilet. Jessica keeps wanting me to go pee, but sitting down or squatting is unthinkable. She keeps telling me I can’t stop the contractions by staying immobile, but I think I can. I lie on my side, I squeeze Harry’s or Jessica’s hand. I pee without meaning to in a slow-dancing position with Harry, then in the tub, where strands of dark red mucus have started to float. Incredibly, Harry and Jessica order food and eat it. Someone feeds me a red popsicle, which tastes delicious. I throw it up moments later, fouling my tub’s waters. I throw up when the contraction hits bottom, over and over, tons of yellow bile.

The tub has a jet button that we keep hitting accidentally, which is horrible. Jessica pours water over my body, which feels good.

They measure again: seven. That is good.

Hours later, they measure again. Still seven. Not so good.

We talk. They tell me that the contractions are slowing down, getting less powerful. This could go on for hours. They say maybe five more hours, or more, to get to ten centimeters. I don’t want that. It has been twenty-four hours of labor, maybe a little more. We talk Pitocin. The midwife says I have to be ready to get a lot more uncomfortable than I am now. I am scared. How deep can pain go?

But I want something to change. I want to do the drug. We do it. The IV line keeps getting bent, a small red alarm goes off each time, I am frustrated, the nurse keeps having to redo it. Twenty minutes go by. Then twenty more. They up the dosage once, then again. Turn into the new cavern, a cartoon turn. I grow very quiet and concentrated. Counting, counting. Jessica says, Breathe into the bottom, and I can tell that’s where the baby is.

It’s very dark now. Harry and Jessica have fallen asleep. I am alone with the baby. I try to commit to the idea of letting him out. I still can’t imagine it. But the pain keeps going deeper.

At the bottom, which one can’t quite know is the bottom, one reckons. I’ve heard a lot of women describe this reckoning (it might also be called nine centimeters), at which one starts bargaining hard, as if striking a deal to save your conjoined lives. I don’t know how we’re going to get out of this, baby, but word is that you’ve got to come out, and that I’ve got to let you, and we’ve got to do this together, and we’ve got to do it now.

At twenty-eight weeks, I’d been hospitalized for some bleeding. While discussing a possible placental issue, one doctor quipped, “We don’t want that, because while that would likely be okay for the baby, it might not be okay for you.” By pressing a bit, I figured out she meant that in that particular scenario, the baby would likely live, but I might not.

Now, I loved my hard-won baby-to-be fiercely, but I was in no way ready to bow out of this vale of tears for his survival. Nor do I think those who love me would have looked too kindly on such a decision — a decision that doctors elsewhere on the globe are mandated to make, and that the die-hard antiabortionists are going for here.

Once I was riding in a cab to JFK airport, passing by that amazingly overpacked cemetery along the Brooklyn–Queens Expressway (Calvary?). My cab driver gazed out wistfully at the headstones crammed onto the hill, and said, “Many of those graves are the graves of children.” “Likely so,” I returned, with a measure of fatigued trepidation, the result of years of fielding unwanted monologues from cab drivers about how women should live or behave. “It is a good thing when children die,” he said. “They go straight to Paradise, because they are the innocents.”

During my sleepless night under placental observation, his words came back to me. And I wondered whether, instead of working to fulfill the dream of worldwide enforced childbearing, abortion foes could instead get excited about all the innocent, unborn souls going straight from the abortion table to Paradise, no detour necessary into this den of iniquity, which eventually makes whores (not to mention Social Security recipients) of us all. Would that get them off our backs once and for all?

Never in my life have I felt more pro-choice than when I was pregnant. And never in my life have I understood more thoroughly, and been more excited about, a life that began at conception. Feminists may never make a bumper sticker that says it’s a choice and a child, but of course that’s what it is, and we know it. We’re not idiots; we understand the stakes. Sometimes we choose death. Harry and I sometimes joke that women should get way beyond twenty weeks — maybe even up to two days after birth — to decide if they want to keep the baby. (Joke, okay?)

They tell me the baby is facing a weird way, I have to lie on my left side, with my leg elevated. I don’t want to. They tell me twenty minutes this way. I see a collection of hands holding my leg. It hurts. After twenty minutes, he has turned.

They measure again. Fully effaced, fully dilated. The midwife is ecstatic. Says we’re ready to go. I want to know what will happen next. Just wait, they say.

They think my bladder is too full, that it’s in the way. I can’t stand up to pee in the slow-dancing position anymore. They put in a catheter. It stings. Then the doctor comes in, says he’d like to break my water, says it’s enormously full. Okay, but how? He brandishes what appears to be a bamboo back scratcher. Okay. The waters are broken. It feels tremendously good. I am lying in a warm ocean.

Suddenly, the urge to push. Everyone is thrilled. Push, they say. They teach me. Hold it in, hold in the air, bear down wildly, don’t waste the end of the push. The midwife puts her hand in to see if I need help pushing. She says I am a good pusher, and don’t need any help. I am happy I am a good pusher. I want to try.

On the fourth or so contraction, he starts to come. I don’t know for sure if it’s him, but I can feel the change. I push hard. One push turns into another kind of push — I feel it outside.

Commotion. I am gone but happy, something is happening. The doctor rushes in, I can see him throwing on his gear: a visor, an apron. He seems agitated, but who cares. New lights come on, yellow, directed lights. People around me are moving quickly. My baby is being born.

Everyone is watching intently down there, in a kind of happy panic. Someone asks if I want to feel the baby’s head, and I don’t, I don’t know why. Then a minute later, I do. Here he comes. It feels big, but I feel big enough.

Then suddenly they tell me to stop pushing. I don’t know why. Harry tells me that the doctor is stretching my perineum in circles around the baby’s head, trying to keep the skin from tearing. Hold, they say, don’t push, but puff. Puff puff puff.

Then they say I can push. I push. I feel him come out, all of him, all at once. I also feel the shit come out that had been bedeviling me all through pregnancy and labor. My first feeling is that I could run a thousand miles, I feel amazing, total and complete relief, as though everything that was wrong is now right.

And then, suddenly, Iggy. Here he comes onto me, rising. He is perfect, he is right. I notice he has my mouth, incredible. He is my gentle friend. He is on me, screaming.

Push again, they say a few moments later. You’ve got to be kidding — aren’t I done yet? But this one’s easy; the placenta has no bones. I had always imagined the placenta like a rare fifteen ounce steak. Instead it’s utterly indecent and colossal — a bloody yellow sac filled with purple-black organs, a bag of whale hearts. Harry stretches its hood and photographs its insides, awed by this most mysterious and gory of apartments. I look at the clock, it is 3:45 a.m.

You don’t do labor, I was counseled several times before the baby came. Labor does you.

This sounded good — I like physical experiences that involve surrender. I didn’t know, however, very much about experiences that demand surrender — that run over you like a truck, with no safe word to stop it. I was ready to scream, but labor turned out to be the quietest experience of my life.

If all goes well, the baby will make it out alive, and so will you. Nonetheless, you will have touched death along the way. You will have realized that death will do you too, without fail and without mercy. It will do you even if you don’t believe it will do you, and it will do you in its own way. There’s never been a human that it didn’t.

People say women forget about the pain of labor owing to some kind of God-given amnesia that keeps the species reproducing. But that isn’t quite right — after all, what does it mean for pain to be memorable? You’re either in pain or you’re not. And it isn’t the pain that one forgets. It’s the touching death part.

As the baby might say to its mother, so we might say to death: “I forget you, but you remember me.”

I wonder if I’ll recognize it, when I see it again.

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