Under the Skin: Lessons in Transformation
When I discovered I was pregnant, I was knee-deep in research for a book on an adventure-loving woman who, 300 years ago, at the age of 52, sailed to South America from Amsterdam to study insects. My desk lay buried under notes on Maria Sibylla Merian and her pioneering investigations of metamorphosis, the change of caterpillar to butterfly. Stacks of books detailed how she and her peers, at the dawn of science, explored questions of development and transformation. How does a creature gain new parts, either a human embryo growing lungs or a caterpillar sprouting wings? They wrangled with the enigma of self divided. Larva and moth. Mother and child: Were they one, or two?
Suddenly, the mysteries probed in these seventeenth-century treatises were unfolding under my skin. Within weeks, my hair developed a luster beyond the magic of the most expensive conditioners. Insomnia, a clean, hard light bulb of wakefulness, switched on reliably at 3 a.m. A three-mile run had been part of my routine for years, but now I was limping back, gasping, after a few blocks. A trip to the ob/gyn not long after revealed that I was breathing not just for two, but for three. Twins.
And those were just the obvious changes. At the start, the embryo is only the smallest packet of cells hitchhiking in the uterus. In the intervening months, though, the placenta pumps out its own hormones, ordering the mother’s body not to cast off the uterine lining. Only a thin cell barrier separates mother’s blood from fetus’s, and oxygen and nutrients slide across it. Near the end, the belly dimples and its occupant kicks at stimulus the mother doesn’t even feel. How to parse out these threads of interdependency?
Lying awake in the dark, feeling for the twins’ heartbeats, I was afraid not so much about altered blood vessels and shortness of breath, but a loss of psychological oxygen. In this sea of new swells and fluids, was there still room for some flinty core of self? I had always worried that a career as a writer, with its low pay and non-existent health insurance plan, would be expendable once I got married and had kids, an artsy affectation easy to shuck off in the face of family life. As I fretted over this in high school, wondering if I shouldn’t take physics instead of more English, my sister, ever the pragmatist, said “Kim, right now, nobody wants to marry you.”
But, eventually, someone did. The concerns flared up again as I tried to lull myself back to sleep night after night, imagining both forward in time to when the children would emerge, and backward to see Merian and her world. Her history was obscure except for flashes provided by a letter, a sketch, a recorded conversation. The uterus, like history, was unknown except for the skeleton view provided by the ultrasound and the ripples as an arm or a leg skimmed under the surface. I found myself glad that the fetuses were not alone in all that darkness.
During the day, I lugged my belly to the library. Waddling through the stacks, I saw all the more clearly the obstacles Merian faced, married with two children, a woman loaded with domestic tasks, financial responsibilities, and a desire to pursue this strange fascination with insects. At age 13, she painted a watercolor of a silkworm: its eggs, caterpillar, pupa, cocoon, and moth, and it launched her on a journey that would last for more than 50 years. Others looked at the insects at each separate stage, dissecting them under a microscope, but she wanted to know how they moved from shape to shape. Over the course of her career, she wrote and illustrated five books — one about flowers, three about European insects, and one about insects in Surinam. She painted watercolors and taught classes and captured and sold reptile specimens. My original research questions had to do with Merian’s notions of metamorphosis, her role in her scientific community. Now, as I sat at the table, breathing hard after the short flight of stairs, I was more curious about how she’d found time and energy to paint.
The economy of seventeenth-century Germany relied on women. Household industries depended on them to sell vegetables, keep accounts, tend livestock, and run a weaver’s loom. A printer’s daughter, like Merian, would have engraved book plates and mixed watercolors. Three hundred years ago, as today, women sought to balance childcare with earning money, though Merian was perhaps unique in the way she let her own interests dictate her labor.
But she made it work. When her daughters, Dorothea and Johanna, were young, she experimented in the kitchen, counting maggots that hatched on larks waiting to be cooked for dinner. A wasp’s nest “large as a man’s head” found in a Nuremberg attic was ripe for investigation. When she moved back to Frankfurt to care for her recently widowed mother, a sloe branch swathed in a velvety communal caterpillar nest proved too tempting. She broke it off and set it up in a room in her house so she could watch it change hour by hour. Even her father’s gravesite offered insects for her collection. She plumbed the habitats of daily life.
And when the time was ripe, and her daughters grown, she moved beyond these domestic investigations, to go where no one had gone before. The South American rain forest threw tight webs of vines and dense thickets in her path, and she hacked her way through them.
The twins were born in February, the umbilical cord cut. At times, looking at my newborn son, with his round green eyes and my daughter with her little Irish mouth, both traits from my husband, I couldn’t imagine we shared any genes at all, much the less that my breathing had once fed their blood. As they turned in sleep, responding to dreams without language, they seemed inhabitants of a different world.
My body shrunk to roughly its original contours. But with the flesh no longer divided, the mind split, busying itself with a new set of baby anxieties even as the book deadline grew closer. My husband, Jay, and I adjusted to life in the infantocracy, setting the alarm for nighttime feedings, drawing up and scrapping schedules, making endless rules to limit the chaos. The most important was this: If both children are crying, no adults can cry. Hard to follow, but vital.
Finally, I had to get back to it, and when the twins were four months old, we all went to Europe to retrace Merian’s steps — her childhood in Frankfurt, her young married life in Nuremburg, her middle age career move to the Netherlands.
Sleep-deprived already, none of us were braced for the jetlag that hit in our first few days in Amsterdam. My mother’s cousin lent us her attic room, complete with two bassinettes. As rain rattled down on the skylight, the twins squirmed and babbled as if it were noon. At some point, Jay and I gave up urging them to sleep and just let them play on the bed, trying to hold onto enough consciousness to keep them from tumbling to the floor. The next night was no easier and Jay, cradling Ben, trying to soothe him, said “Here I am, holding my son, with my wife, in Amsterdam. I can see myself looking back on this moment, thinking I wouldn’t trade it for anything. But right now, it stinks.” And Ben arched and whined in rebellion, and the hours slid on toward morning.
Afternoons, groggily, we toured as a family, and I picked up my sole word of Dutch: tweeling or “twin.” Passersby repeated it as we monopolized the sidewalk with the double stroller. When we all visited the Rijksmuseum, it became apparent that my son found the sound of the language hilarious. As the guard cooed at him, his ringing laugh drowned out the tour guide’s interpretation of the Vermeers. My daughter, who liked bare feet no matter what the weather, left a trail of kicked-off socks through the city.
Mornings, I set off on my own. At the university’s biology archives, I pored over original Merian watercolors. In one, a cut hawthorn branch stretched across the parchment. Amid the creamy white blossoms and blood red berries, insects crowded the page. The browntail, the goldtail, the tussock moth, spread their wings over the twig crawling with caterpillars. Eggs, pupae, and cocoons nestled in every available cranny. It was messy and animated, alive as a heartbeat. This close, sketch marks showed underneath the paint, all the necessary adjustments and revisions.
The collection also had a rare copy of her last insect book, a record of her research in the northern Netherlands and Amsterdam, a project she labored over until right before she died. This final volume of worms on hazelnuts, grey moths and their eggs, notes on a nest of ants, showed the markings of two different, though related, authors. As Merian grew sick, her younger daughter took over, engraving the plates using her mother’s watercolors as models, arranging details of publication. Merian’s notes of a green and white caterpillar eating rose leaves, turning into a pupa, and then hatching into a fluttering brown and white moth, were brought to life by Dorothea’s artistry, her insects larger than Merian’s, her pressure on the engraving tool more firm, the emphasis on grays rather than black and white. The two lines, that of the mother and the daughter, blended on the page. Two hands merged back into one.
Back on the balcony of the Amsterdam apartment, I lifted my daughter to touch the geranium in the window box, petals all the more red for being slicked with rain. Across the courtyard, a woman bent to her tiny garden, every inch of soil in this land-poor country bursting with flowers. My girl was so slight, her bones felt hollow like a bird’s. A butterfly landed on a leaf, and she reached for it with fingers barely able to do her bidding. I blocked her hand to save the insect, and she squawked in protest. So light, so full of will.
We were both tender in our new forms. Pregnancy and motherhood bring weakness, stillness, a disorienting loss of control. To shift so dramatically, in the middle of life, seems like a liability. My daughter wriggled; the butterfly lingered; and Merian came to mind. Her biography is a model of how to work within constraints, to grasp a vision tightly, refusing to let go in the face of jarring events. But her watercolors chart more than this: not just the strain of weathering all these changes, but the joy. More than a map for survival, they are a tribute to transformation.
She captured all the caterpillar gains by its different guises: its mouth is shaped to eat leaves when leaves are plentiful; its mouth disappears when it tucks itself away in a chrysalis; its mouth turns to a long proboscis to suck nectar when it lives the flitting life of a butterfly. The ability to alter, to move from singular to plural and back, is the insect’s greatest strength. It has the flexibility to creep and hide at certain times; to become liquid and immobile; then eventually, like the one that launched itself off the balcony into a gray, Netherlands sky, to soar off on gaudy wings.