This post originally appeared in a slightly different form in August 2006, a couple of weeks after my third child was born.
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An item at the Minnesota State Fair: There's a new, expanded "Miracle of Birth Center." This is the barn full of hugely pregnant and/or lactating livestock, also incubating poultry eggs. It's always packed full of people hoping they'll be there at the very moment that some lamb or piglet or calf will emerge from its mother. Just in case you aren't that lucky, there are televisions suspended from the ceiling everywhere, endlessly replaying videos of "pre-recorded live births." (Live in the sense of being filmed while it was actually happening, as opposed to watching a video of a video? Or live in the sense that the animal being born isn't already dead?)
Watching people struggle through the hot, crowded barn, jostling their strollers around each other and lifting small children up to see the baby aminals, I was really, really, really glad that I am no longer pregnant. Getting a glance at the animals themselves: I was even more glad that I am not, say, a sow. You think a hospital bed is a bad place to give birth? Try a farrowing pen.
This "miracle of birth" thing is hard to wrap my mind around. Many of the people at the fair (not, I admit, myself) are farming families. I doubt that a litter of piglets really seems like a "miracle" to a family who's raised pigs for four or five generations. What do the farm families think of the city kids, four years old and still pushed around in their strollers, being lifted up by Dad to ooh and aah at the miracle of chickens hatching just as chickens have hatched ever since there were, well, chickens? Couldn't they have called it "The perfectly ordinary natural everyday event of birth?"
And yet... A familiar sensation got my attention. "I need to nurse the baby," I shouted at Mark over the din, and pointing; "I'll be out there." I pushed my way out into a light drizzle and found a spot on a wet picnic bench. I dug down into my raincoat and extracted a red and bunched-up baby girl from the sling and tickled her ear to wake her up. She made a face and immediately began to root, searching with wide-open mouth and her squeezed-shut eyes. Her latch is much smoother now, and I had no trouble getting her started.
I'm about to engage in a maternal cliche, here, so bear with me.
It does seem miraculous when it's a little person. And yet it is ordinary. (For those of us who conceive and birth without much trouble or fanfare, anyway.) I marvel at her eyes, simply at how they are put together, their pure white moistness, their dark blue irises, their inky pupils, their smooth orbits, the folded fleshiness of their lids and creases, their nearly invisible lashes. This grew in my body, all by itself? This perfection? And not just eyes but all the other parts. Her tiny breasts exuded a few drops of milk last week: a common postnatal event, a hormonal residue of her time in the womb with me. But in twenty or thirty years, maybe less, maybe more, perhaps she will make milk again, for someone else. Her powers are dormant, but their promise is already here.
This meta-miracle, this miracle that is even more miraculous because it happens every day --- its awe and wonder comes because we humans are really some kind of amphibian, neither angels nor beasts, fully at home neither in the world or in the spirit. How absurd it seems that a little soul could come to life within my body and be forced forth in blood and water. How bizarre.
Even though it is completely normal, it never fails to surprise us. I used to think that the surprise came from our cultural tendency to keep birth hidden away in hospitals, controlled by drugs and machines, and all that. But I've never given birth in a hospital, three times [five by now!] I've done it at home; and my surprise at the incongruity hasn't lessened, but has increased. The more I see it and feel it and live it, the more of a surprise it is. All of which convinces me more and more that this failure to comprehend, this mystery, is not cultural, but something inherent in our nature. We are more than beasts, and that is why it seems strange that we are born like them.
[That full term baby girl, seven and a half years ago, much chubbier than her youngest brother:]