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Nestled in Maternal Bliss

On pregnancy.

Marlo Slayback is the national director of student programs at the Intercollegiate Studies Institute. Her writing has appeared in the Spectator, National Review, and other publications.

Motherhood begins abruptly, with a test of the imagination. I discovered this after I became a mother following my wedding in October last year. My child is growing in me, sharing my blood and my body. But I’ve only seen him in black and white, a squirming image on an ultrasound screen. I’ve yet to hold him in my arms or hear anything besides his rapid heartbeat. Still, I have mothered this child since conception.

A lot of this is instinct. My brain is naturally equipped for motherhood, as I learned from reading Michel Odent, a French physician who has contributed significantly to our understanding of the human brain during labor and birth. He distinguishes between the neocortex, the rational part of the brain, and the primitive brain, which controls instincts. Pregnancy revealed my reliance on my primitive brain for maternal intelligence. This was a humbling realization: my body had already created the conditions for a baby to grow, without my conscious knowledge. I was a mother even when I didn’t know it.

But I didn’t seamlessly transition into motherhood. I found it difficult to conceptualize in the first few months, when my outward appearance was indistinguishable from my pre-pregnancy appearance. I was pregnant, but I could still fit into my normal clothing. I was pregnant, but I could still do unobstructed push-ups. Superficially, very little had appeared to change. (Of course, there were still all the concerns that come in the first trimester, when pregnancy complications can arise.) But I was a mother and, seemingly overnight, responsible for the most fragile and innocent human life. 

The early stages required more imagination. I had to visualize my small baby when I could not yet feel him jostle against me like I can now. And I did not have a protruding stomach signifying my nascent "mother" status. But my unborn child required of me the most maternal care within weeks of being conceived, when he was sensitive to the molecular compositions of everything from alcohol to hibiscus, the latter of which I used to regularly consume in my tea, but quit after learning there was inconclusive data about its effect on pregnancies. I was mothering when I was eating for two, and I was mothering when I obsessively checked the ingredients of every product I considered buying, not for my own sake, but for my child’s. Perhaps these are some obsessions only a new mother can have, but I anticipate that pregnancy demands a degree of sacrifice no matter how many times a mother has experienced it.

I often hear from parents and read in parenting literature that once the child is born, it’s time to leave behind the carelessness of your youth, as if the responsibilities of parenthood, and especially motherhood, are kept at bay until the child emerges from the birth canal. Novelty items and cards meant for baby showers are often inscribed with wishes for the “soon-to-be mom,” which is of course well-intentioned and endearing. But I’ve come to know pregnancy not as a prelude to motherhood, but as the defining part. There are few experiences that have instilled more humility in me than the image of my baby during a ten-week sonogram. That tiny, defenseless child, the flesh of my flesh, needs only me for safety and nourishment. I was overawed and humbled by the limits of my imagination. It’s funny to think that I rely on an app on my phone to provide me a visual of how large my baby is every week. At eight weeks, he was a big juicy raspberry. At the time of this writing, he is the size of an eggplant. At forty weeks, the final fruit milestone of pregnancy, he will be the size of a small pumpkin. 

Motherhood is often the first time in many women's lives that we acknowledge the innate wisdom of the species and how it appears to supplant the abstract, rational thought that predominates day-to-day life. And pregnancy is an exercise in introspection and evolution, evolution in the sense that bearing life is a new experience of feminine dignity for many women. The maternal mind accommodates a new sense of sacrifice and purpose. Ina May Gaskin, a famous American midwife often called the “mother of modern midwifery” who has been a boon to my understanding of what natural, non-medical childbirth can be like, also helped me understand the maternal brain as it relates to labor. For example, the laboring mother’s neocortex can be stimulated by simply subjecting her to bright lights and invading her privacy, not uncommon in hospital settings, and which can inhibit labor. The primitive brain releases hormones that can move birth along if the laboring woman feels empowered and comfortable during labor, which can happen simply by being in a familiar environment with people who make her feel as safe and as relaxed as a woman in labor can be.

At the same, I want to engage the rational side of my brain as well. I have to admit though, for me it’s been difficult to find poetry and literature examining the pregnant mother-baby relationship in a form more sophisticated than the “how-to” manuals like What to Expect When You’re Expecting or Bringing Up Bébé. Many of the Anglosphere’s great female authors, such as Virginia Woolf, Emily Dickinson, and Jane Austen, did not have children. But I was comforted by a poem by the nineteenth century poet Anna Laetitia Barbauld, “To a Little Invisible Being Who is Expected Soon to Become Visible,” about Barbauld’s neighbor’s unborn baby:

She longs to fold to her maternal breast
Part of herself, yet to herself unknown;
To see and to salute the stranger guest,
Fed with her life through many a tedious moon.

Although the poem is written about someone else’s child, Barbauld expresses the anticipation of pregnancy: to meet the baby you can not see or touch, and that is more intimately known to you than any other person, but is simultaneously unknown. 

I learned through my midwife that it’s not uncommon for pregnant women not to immediately feel attached to their unborn child during pregnancy. It’s hard to feel connected with a corporeal being you haven’t yet seen in color, or held with your own arms, even when it’s your own child. This element of pregnancy, when you’re in the first few months of motherhood, can be distressing. My primitive brain is supporting this child, seemingly without conscious activation, and I’ve sacrificed for this child already, because he is my own. I am his home, my primitive brain and my rational brain tell me, in so many words. And it’s from here that motherhood flows, from the care and sacrifice that are the essence of love, from the time that my child is the size of a blueberry that I have yet to see, to the time that he is tangible, nestled in maternal bliss.