Divine Ability: Recollections of My Life as a Woman
I knew I was going to leave my son’s father when he left me alone in the delivery room to go eat a sandwich. It was the last straw in a line of selfish bad things he had done and I’d had it. Of course I wouldn’t leave him for another year after that, but that’s not the point. At the time I retaliated by getting an epidural. This was something he had wanted to Talk About. We were supposed to be having a Natural Birth, like the yoga book suggested. It went on about bonding and feeling your baby enter the world and how you can’t bond with your baby if half of you is numb. Thirteen hours of terrible thrashing and then the sandwich thing and I was done. There was a form the anesthesiologist made me sign and by that point I couldn’t see so I drew a squiggle. Inject me. Make it stop. To hell with the divine feminine.
The pain started in my lower back, like period cramps, and went from a squeezing little ache to a bone-splintering wallop in a matter of hours. I thrashed around from side to side before curling up on one side of the bed, holding onto the sides for support. My son’s father was there, helpless and stressed, wishing I would just deal with it. As far as he was concerned, women had been doing this since the beginning of time. As far as he was concerned, my body was built for this, was equipped to deal with this.
I wasn’t special.
After I consented they wouldn’t let him back in the room, only after it happened. He came back and was mad. He was mad that he couldn’t see what was going on with me for a while. That there was some experience I was having he wasn’t privy to. It killed him. Do you know what that felt like, he said, for me?
We were done.
My favorite memory from PHIL836, Advanced Metaphysics: a greasy haired kid named Cruz who went around barefoot asking Professor Kraut – professor because I can’t diagnose you so don’t you dare call me doctor – whether or not we exist. Something like that, the meaning of that. To which, Professor Kraut: Whether we exist or not, we’ve still got shit to do.
The philosophy degree was worth it.
In a culture of writing by writers writing things they don’t know, I am writing this for you. I am writing from experience.
A few months after I delivered, my OB/GYN told me I was the worst case of postpartum depression she’s seen in thirty years. Even then I was proud of it. I always try to be the best at anything I do, and even the worst thing is the best thing when you’re the best at being the worst at it. My postpartum depression was a prizewinner. It deserved a write up in the Times. Luckily it had not crossed over into postpartum psychosis, which does happen and can be dangerous. I was proud of my depression for knowing its limits. This internal trust my mind and I have in each other. We roughhouse a bit but try not to push each other too far.
Diane di Prima had five children. Toni Morrison had two. Mary Shelley had four. One of them lived.
I read things like this, and memorize facts, to try to convince myself this is not impossible.
I read an article by a nihilist philosopher that worst fears confirms what I’ve been worried about this whole time: that giving birth to someone does them a disservice. Given the total horror of the world, how can we, barring selfishness, logically inflict it upon the ones we’re supposed to love most?
When people ask about getting pregnant I always make it sound like a complete surprise, but the truth is that if I didn’t keep the baby I wasn’t going to make it. If I didn’t put the unclaimed love somewhere, I was going to die.
di Prima, in Recollections of My Life as a Woman: What I do remember are the words in my mind: That if I didn’t have a baby I was going to get sick.
I don’t tell anyone this because it sounds irresponsible.
The person I trust the most with my writing is a more serious writer than I am because he thinks about what’s going to happen with and to his writing in relation to every step he takes, whereas me, I chuck apples at the wall of life and sit down to write when my arms get tired. He writes so seriously he doesn’t know what to do with himself in the times he is not writing. I have several ideas. They sound dumb when I share them.
Writing comes from a place of crisis, of keeping your head above water. Maybe that’s why it feels like I’ve never done it before now.
I find that and other things in my journals. There are entries I wrote to make sure I’m still alive, in handwriting more illegible than it’s ever been at my most drunk. I read what I had to say about my son’s father and how I rationalized his drinking and his disappearing and how I tried to get underneath all this by understanding What It Was Like For Him. As if understanding something makes it not the case somehow.
To the person I trust the most I say: How could you let me feel like this.
But beyond my parsing and explaining, did I will this into being? In service of my art, on purpose, did I go into the deep on purpose, to access something inaccessible any other way?
New Year’s Eve, 2017: Love, success, magic. Here’s to my delusional entitlement.
I have to believe that is what I did. Otherwise it just feels too desperate. Too human. Too sad.
Part of me hoped they would tell me I had just peed my pants and send me home, but one of the doctors – a male doctor, and thus not personally invested in my terror – said You’re going to have a baby today! I didn’t know what to make of it. It still had not fully occurred to me that the nine months of breath shortness and insomniac paranoia would culminate in a baby. Some part of me was thinking I would be rewarded with a glass of champagne and a nap. My son’s father started to cry. I reached for my in-labor copy of Chelsea Girls but I kept reading the first sentence over and over. I still can’t tell you what it said.
di Prima, on giving birth: You just holler and push the damned thing out.
Later I learned that Pitocin contractions are much worse than natural ones. They’re more intense and come in closer waves, giving no time to recover.
The yoga book was full of terrible lies.
After he came, I wanted to be left alone. I didn’t want the visitors and the flowers. Or the baby. Not right then, anyway. My mother told me the treatment she got after having me: they took me away and put me in the nursery, and they let her sleep for a day and brought her ice cream sundaes and only brought me to her for feedings. Now they have guidelines about bonding and attachment and the baby is just in your room with you and you can’t rest or think and you start off on that foot and never get a break. I hadn’t eaten in over 24 hours. My stitches hurt. I was bleeding. My social media was having a field day. His father was having the time of his life. And I wanted to die.
This is just something that happens to women.
Whatever seems important, picture yourself without it. What do you want most? Stop wanting it. Imagine a life without love, without magic. Providing only for the basics, what do you do? Do you still throw your energy toward them? Never being published, do you still write? If you really want to get married, cozy up to being alone. Afraid to die, strap the reaper to your shoulders. The best writing demands to be met halfway and like that life demands to be challenged. Swing opposite. There is time for everything, as much time as there ever was. My son was the first child I’d ever held.
I learned there is a war between breastfeeding and formula. That there are countless blogs and magazines dedicated to the idea that formula is the milk of the devil and must never, under any circumstances, be fed to your sweet angel. So off you go to the breast pump. But then what if, horror of horrors, something happens and you become forced to give the baby formula? Then they say, Don’t worry about it. After they spent all this time telling you to worry about it. After you’ve already made yourself sick.
Four months in I ended up with mastitis. No warning, not even a telltale lump to massage out like all the forums said I’d have. Just fever, chills, and a milk supply that got sliced in half and barely recovered. I took my antibiotics, shivered in bed and called a friend to bring me blue Gatorade because the sleeping man next to me wouldn’t.
This is just something that happens to women.
And then it happened again a month later, in both breasts this time, and I dried up. The freezer stash I’d saved to be able to go away for my book party was gone in a week. What had I done wrong? I wanted to be perfect so bad. I wanted the natural birth and the breastfeeding for two years like the thing recommends and the birdsong all’s right with the world that I could not, and would not, ever be able to attract. I wanted to avoid the sins I had been judging so many women for. I wanted to be perfect so bad. I wanted to do right by this little raw soul I had coaxed out of his infinite hiding place into the harsh light of the world with promises of minimal hardship, and I hadn’t thought it through, I was a single mother who’d made $28 last month in royalties and I hadn’t thought it through.
I drank the horrible fenugreek tea. I took pills that made me smell like maple syrup. I ate cookies with brewer’s yeast, drank non-alcoholic beer because I read it helps improve milk supply, ate oatmeal every day, drank gallons of water. It never came back. My mother said not to worry about it. She only breastfed my brother for about five weeks and he still went to MIT and is a genius.
The forums said I needed to be pumping or feeding every two hours. I had been notoriously bad at getting up at night to pump. When I set alarms I slept through them, and sometimes I didn’t get up on purpose. Fuck you, I thought. To the time, to my son’s father, bliss-deep into his eleven hours. Fuck you, whoever came up with this insane breast-draining schedule. Fuck me, too. What was wrong with me? Didn’t I know how this would go? Millions of women would kill to be me. Funny to think of it that way: millions of women would kill to give life. But they would. And they have. Read the news. It’s a bloodbath.
The one thing that sometimes kept me going through those three a.m. sessions was the assurance that death was out there in the ether and would come take me in its arms sooner or later into sweet sweet sleep. I wish I could tell you I am exaggerating but I am not. My son’s father says, Millions of people do this every day by themselves. So fucking what. Millions of people leave the house every day by themselves. It’s still hell for an agoraphobe.
It’s strange to see movies where the protagonist has an opportunity to talk to her younger self and the two selves look at themselves like what happened and try to make sense of it all but I see these movies and I don’t have to talk to my younger self because I’m still her. It’s good because I don’t feel like I’ve lost anything. I’m just building more parts onto myself like coral.
I look up the ages when children form memories and hope that my son doesn’t remember some things, how I’d cry sometimes feeding him, soak his face with my tears. Though some people insist they remember being born.
I take my son to the playground and look at all the other mothers and families and how they all make it look so easy and how I remember ballerinas make it look easy too, and my mother saying, that’s the trick. Bones fractured, feet bloody, hours in the studio, lightness and grace and a thing of final beauty. I think about the photographs left over, everyone happy and smiling, hearts whole, warm, teeth brushed.
Every time I’m working on a book I reach for Jack Kerouac and indeed I always reach for Jack Kerouac and have reached for him since we met in high school – introduced by graying tall boy with pocket copy of Howl, who ended up in the army – and being fourteen I wasn’t exactly aware of how Jack operated but I could see the fireworks and beyond that I was on the search for IT too, and on and on through the years every time something new in him surfaced it surfaced in me, except now my hands are tied in a particular way and I need the help of someone who is not so limited.
di Prima: No man could ever “have” a child, they simply did not know how, did not know what it meant.
And then: There should be no quarrel between these two aims: to have a baby and to be a poet.
The shortsightedness of men has to do with this lack of divine ability.
Jack delivered me thus far, from the world of flux unto the shores of stay awake and hold steady, but I got burned out on his burning, the nightsweats and ineffectual rushing. There was only so far we could go together until I needed a stronger guide. Someone who knew what they were doing even when they didn’t. I reached for Diane.
Whether we exist or not, we’ve still got shit to do.
It is difficult to push my son in his stroller and hold a coffee but I do it anyway, and make sure it is temperate in case it spills on him. I hold coffee with a vengeance. To everyone watching he’s an annoying baby or an adorable baby or a whatever baby but to me he is the shining pearl of eternity and unfragmented love and I can’t believe other people don’t see it. It paralyzes me sometimes, that other people don’t see it.
I sit at the bar on an afternoon I don’t have him and I count the leaves on the table, drinking a beer and counting the hours and minutes until I have to go home and turn it on again, zipfile these notes I’m writing on the novel I’m writing and leave it off right there and be able to turn that on again later too, as time has a leash on it now, I have x number of minutes to sit here and be this before I have to go home and be something else, and learning to be in these different modes of being is an exercise in elasticity I am grateful for, but some days I’m impatient and upset about it anyway.
In multiplanar existence, constant interruption is the challenge to stay elastic, to not look at it as a magic bubble that can be burst anytime but a constant source of magic that I sit down away from every now and then. Always be working, and don’t be so precious. I forget who gave me this advice. It might’ve been me. Sometimes I feel jealous of the writing schedule of the person I trust the most, but then I remember what I would not give to be him.
The little orb moon reflection at the window beyond that the shades of sunrise, burnt orange at the bottom a cantaloupe then something like seafoam yellow and a baby blue like the color of the dress I’m wearing in the picture I found from ninth grade homecoming, blue and airy with three boys at my side, one of them a successful lawyer now one off the grid somewhere not wearing a tie and one lost to drugs, and beyond that a deeper blue, deeper, and these are notes I’m writing when I can when he sleeps and everything on a timeline is finished and I sit there and crazily push a thousand, two thousand sketches of myself out of myself with the intention of one day being able to finish this book.
Windblown World are what they titled the journals of Jack Kerouac, and I read installments of it in between reading Diane and think about both of them together on my desk, their thick glossy histories stolen from libraries, and in fact they’d slept together once too, in a threesome with Allen Ginsberg all three after their own pleasure. I think about Diane and her expectance of nothing but the pure experience, a titan exchange, and I think about Joyce Johnson too, how she’d made a career of trying to puzzle out someone she wasn’t built like and couldn’t get inside of, and how it tore her up. I suppose that’s as far as some people get in creating, because of, in service of. That’s one way to spend a life.
Some days: I can’t believe I did this, one and done, not a breeder, impossible pain.
Other days: why not? Why not play life? It’s a gamble and I’m not bad at it either. I can write another book. I can have another child. I can have another four. What’s the point of writing if you aren’t living with every spark you’ve got?
What’s the rush? I feel the hand of time on my back the small skeleton I’d carried in the small of my back back where only a loving stranger can put their hand that way, This Way, the way I am now thinking about it –
He’s crying for me now but I haven’t gotten the sun yet so I give him another minute so I can finish this thought.
Mila Jaroniec is the author of Plastic Vodka Bottle Sleepover (Split Lip Press, 2016). Her work has appeared in Playboy, Hobart, PANK, Lenny, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, Joyland, and Teen Vogue, among others. She earned her MFA from The New School and teaches fiction at Catapult.