Hello and happy March 8th! In honor of International Women’s Day, I decided to share an essay I wrote a few years back. It touches on the only thing all women (all people) are guaranteed to have in common: we all had a mother at some point.
I hope you enjoy BIRTHING RELATIONSHIPS and that you take time out of your busy day and give yourself a little treat to celebrate and honor yourself–the woman you are, the ways that you’ve grown, the work that you do, and the dreams that you have.
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The dining room at my grandma’s, a huge three-floor farmhouse in Hazelton, British Columbia, held three six-foot tables end to end. For years, upward of twenty people had dinner there every day when she was feeding her whole family, plus whatever friends, miscellaneous mill workers, farmhands, or other relations happened to be around. I was always delegated to the kids’ table. This separation wasn’t any form of “children should be seen and not heard.” It was just practical: seat people where they’d have the most enjoyment.
Eventually though, kids grew up and moved away, paid helpers decreased until there were none, and those of us who remained were old enough for adult conversation, so the ages merged. I loved to listen to the seemingly endless stories my mom, aunts, and grandma told as they cleared dishes, downed tea, or rattled dice playing Yahtzee.
By the time I began having my own children, I’d already heard a lot of family dirt, yet the fact that my generation was now at childbearing age opened the door to a whole new host of tales.
“Great Grandma—Grandma Peggy—had fourteen children. Three sets of twins!” The story always started the same way, even though we all knew how many kids she’d had. “When she had the last set of twins, one was born too small. Well, they were both small, but Shirley? You could fit a teacup over her head. Peggy was told her newest daughter would never leave the hospital with her brother. But she did—against medical advice.
“The doctor told her she was taking the baby home to die, but Grandma Peggy was stubborn and she had decided that her little one would not die, at least not without a fight. She bundled Shirley up in layers of flannel and put her in a loaf pan, and you know how old cook stoves had a shelf for rising bread? Well, that’s where she put Shirley. And every three hours or so, she’d take her down, feed her, unwrap her and move her arms and feet, change her . . . then wrap her up again and put her back on the shelf, just like she was punching down dough.” Here we all laugh and wait in anticipation for the last phrase. “And just like a loaf of bread, that little girl rose. She was the healthiest little thing you ever saw. And that doctor? Well, he just didn’t know what to say.”
My grandma’s stories about herself are shorter, inserted into other stories when they fit. She specializes in tales of obsolete medical “wisdom”—like discouraging women from breastfeeding—and marvels at how open and knowledgeable women of today are about their inner workings and body parts.
My mom often retold the story of how, when pregnant with my first brother, she endured intense pelvic pain, not continually, but at intervals. “It feels like the baby is purposefully slamming his head into the bones down there,” she complained to her physician. “Don’t be silly,” he replied. “Newborns and babies in utero aren’t strong enough to intentionally lift their heads.” Finally labour day arrived. A day later, when she could first walk to the nursery alone, my mom paused at the door and witnessed two nurses talking animatedly over a bassinet. “I’ve never seen anything like it. It’s impossible!” said one. “Look, look—he’s doing it again,” said the other. Wondering what all the fuss was about, my mom made her way over. There was my ten-pound-plus baby brother raising his head, turning it side to side, and setting it heavily down—almost slamming it—as he shuffled to get comfortable.
Up until motherhood, I had been an enthralled listener. Now I was able to share my own stories. The group favourite is one about the birth of my son. About my hard, fast labour and how I knew my baby was coming soon, but how my doctor disagreed and argued about the nurse’s estimation of how far I was dilated. “She [the nurse] must have small fingers. There’s no way you’re eight centimetres. It’ll be five or six hours yet,” he said, then left. I panicked, thinking I couldn’t possibly endure another six hours.
The minute the doctor was out of the room, I needed to push. “Are you sure?” the nurse asked. “Can’t you hold it?” No, I couldn’t hold it. I was having a baby!
She paged the doctor a bit frantically. He got the call on his cell phone just as he was pulling out of the hospital’s lot. He circled back in, found a new parking spot, and got upstairs and into his scrubs just in time to see the arrival. Christopher burst forth so quickly that he landed on the tray; the doctor couldn’t even catch him. It was only my fourth push and I’d done a sort of crunch thing and got to see my child come out. It was amazing. Seeing him all pink and wet on the stainless steel tray, I announced, “I had a baby. It’s a boy!” The doctor said, “You did. It is.”
Thinking back on these stories and others shared between us women, I realize many had a common theme, childbirth and childrearing, and I have to wonder why.
I think, the fun and laughter of it all aside, we told our stories because they fostered a feeling of connection to each other, despite our many differences.
Even in a family of two or three children contrasts can be dramatic enough, but my grandma had eleven offspring. In her daughters, daughters-in-laws and granddaughters, almost every type of woman imaginable is represented. Widely varying educations, assorted religions, and completely divergent political views abound. Birthing and childrearing are our only guaranteed common ground, particularly the birthing because parenting is more open to dissenting opinions and partings of ways. But in the act of giving birth, no one can argue the other’s experience; they can only identify with its similarities or learn through its differences. Even my aunt and sister who don’t have children bond through these discussions.
“Well, you all completely affirm my conviction to never have children,” one aunt says, laughing. “Besides, I’ve been born and I could give birth . . . I still have the uterus connection.” She makes jests about too-much-information and shares crazily hilarious (and sometimes horrifying) comments she has received from people who range from sceptical to downright affronted that she doesn’t have any “maternal urges.”
Talking of differing adventures and resting in obvious similarities gives us a foundation for conversation about other things. Not all of us are revel-in-the-pure-bliss-of-motherhood types. Definitely not. Our stories are celebratory, but they are also reflective, sometimes negative. They lead into conversations about what we were led to believe as compared to what we found reality to be . . . and trust me, women through the generations (I’ve had five generations to observe) have been taught widely divergent things.
Through our personal situations, we explored and gave body to an idea that we continue to hope stays true—that our pain was not for nothing. We put our life events into story and the listeners gave credence to (and thus soothed) our frustrations and fears, while applauding that which usually goes by unrecognized. It was obvious and permissible to say that being a mother was (is!) important to us. It doesn’t define us, but it is an integral part of who we are and we have pride associated with it.
Years passed, as they do. My grandma finally moved off the farm. The great majority of my relations scattered across North America like dandelion fluff and put down roots elsewhere. Some family members passed on; new ones joined. But we still get together when we can and when we do, we still tell tales. As I relay my own stories and laugh, rage indignantly or get misty-eyed at the ones others tell, deep joy and a feeling akin to immortality surges through me. My daughter and son are adults now, as quick to speak and share as anyone else. I’m almost irrationally happy when my son says, “Tell the one about Uncle Wilf again—but first, did I really wave to you during the ultrasound?”
Today, my mother has been gone for twenty-three years—she died when she was just 42, three years younger than I am now—my grandmother is 88, and my firstborn has two babies of her own. I’m filled with gratitude and awe and something that’s part hope and part responsibility: that our family stories will live on through me and birth the same connection and pride I feel in coming from a long line of tough, resourceful, funny women.
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Thanks so much for reading and have a lovely day!
P.S. In other Happy International Women’s Day related news, I was thrilled to have my novel BIGGER THINGS selected by Kobo for their huge International Women’s Day sale. It’s regular price is $7.99, but it’s 60% off for the next four days–and my team and I managed to get it price-matched across all vendors. I hope you enjoy it and that you experience new birth and bigger things of your own in coming months.
ENJOY BIGGER THINGS TODAY:
Lifelong friends, dangerous secrets . . .
Jen should be celebrating her 121-pound weight loss, but instead feels lost. Chelsea appears to have it all, but dangerous secrets threaten everything. Kyra is struggling to discover who she is after years of putting up facades. Then crisis hits. Can the friends battle their personal dragons and accept change in order to save their friendship, or do they need to go their separate ways?