Every week I buckle my children into their car seats and take them to our local YMCA, where the offerings for the five-and-under set range from swimming to cooking to gymnastics to art. We’ve tried them all. In the catalogs these classes fall under the “Preschool Enrichment” category, but we just call them “fun.”
Today while my daughter smears peanut butter on celery and apples, my son runs around a full-sized gymnasium replete with a colorful panoply of child-sized equipment. And while our toddlers run and jump and swing and slide and take turns — ostensibly — in the bouncy castle, the mothers drift toward each other, and start to talk.
I’ve spent this past session going from that vague is-she-pregnant stage, through the visibly pregnant stage, and now into that painful, obvious, people-wince-when-they-see-me stage. As such, I’ve heard an awful lot of birth stories over the past few weeks and months; my swelling belly is the spark that ignites that conversation over and over again.
It never ceases to amaze me how women — mothers — tell their birth stories. The mamas of the toddler gymnastics class are virtual strangers to me. I don’t know any of their names, yet I’ve heard their stories, stories about one of the most intimate and private events of their lives, and they’ve heard mine. It’s a ritual, this telling of birth stories, one with established rules and conventions just like any other tradition. It’s a rite of passage — if you have a birth story to tell, you belong to the group, even if you have nothing else in common. It’s a litmus test of sorts, a form of initiation: this is my birth story. This is how I became a mother.
Academics with lettered degrees after their names study these tellings of birth stories: why we are compelled to tell them, what the rules are for the ritual. And they study how those with different stories — adoptive mothers, foster mothers — become initiated into mother-groups through their own different narratives. I find all this fascinating. I’m captivated by the thought that when we tell our birth stories, we are participating in something ancient, something far beyond ourselves. As I watch the mothers telling their stories while gathered around the trampoline, holding their toddlers’ hands as they bounce, it isn’t hard to imagine a different scenario: perhaps instead of a trampoline the women are gathered around a stone well, their hands taking turns holding a rope worn smooth from years of being raised and lowered into the watery depths. Perhaps they are clad in the first-century garb we associate with being from the time of Christ, their children dressed in dusty robes instead of Baby Gap. But the stories, the stories the women are telling, haven’t changed. The vocabulary has changed — no epidurals in first-century Israel — but the tales remain the same. They tell of birthing at home, in a hospital, in a stable; welcoming our babies into the world in a birthing pool, a warming bed, a manger.
Why do we tell stories? Perhaps having a definable beginning, middle, and end helps us make sense of events, gives us a familiar rubric for understanding our lives. We know, instinctively, that stories are powerful. I think of this every time I hear someone say “It’s just a story,” as if we can negate that power that narrative holds over us.
Reading the Gospels I’m reminded again that Jesus knew the power of story; when he walked on this earth and spoke to his followers he gave them not lists or rules or regulations, he gave them stories. The entire Gospel message is given to us in stories: about mustard seeds, about grains of wheat, about pearls and coins and lamps. My understanding of my faith is rooted in these stories.
I think about stories as I wait for my baby to make an appearance, about my own participation in this ancient ritual. Even as I’m waiting I’m already crafting the story, planning a narrative arc from what I know of the rising action: the false alarms I didn’t have with my other two children, the surprise as my due date — a date never before reached — grows closer and closer.
When the baby is born the story fully takes life, as I fill in details, images, moments. My husband’s voice crying, “It’s a boy!” as his hand tightens around mine. My toddler son wanting to see, touch, kiss every inch of his new baby brother. My daughter’s eyes round and her lips trembling as she hears the baby crying for the first time; “Mama,” she says, “he’s breaking my heart.” My newborn son’s eyes drifting in murky blueness before coming to lock on my face, my hands cradling his head as I talk to him, staring into his wide-open eyes and telling him about Lacan and the theory of the gaze. My own voice laughing as I apologize to my hours-old baby, for setting his tiny feet so soon on the path toward nerdishness. My lips against his cheek, so soft, still smelling of the salty sweetness of my womb as I begin to tell him stories: the story of his birth, the story of creation, the story of our faith.
And so it begins, this crafting of his place in the story, his storyline inexplicably twined with my own tiny space in the timeless narrative of birthing women. In the beginning, I tell him. Once upon a time.