Tomorrow Grace will turn six. Six years ago today I was waiting for my life to begin, although the life I was waiting for and the life I got turned out to be two entirely different things. Six years ago today I was watching my sister weed the garden and repaint an old family rocking chair for the baby’s room. I was napping and peeling beets and swimming in a clear and quiet pond until dark.
At four the next morning I hoisted myself out of bed and made my slow way to the kitchen for a bowl of cereal. I went to the bathroom first, and when I wiped there was blood. I pulled up my underwear and washed my hands, and before I got to the kitchen I felt the first contraction. I thought of the teacher in our childbirth class telling us that we will experience hundreds of contractions before the baby is finally born. The entirely of labor stretched out in front of me and I had no reason to think that I couldn’t bear it well. This was my secret: I was not afraid of what I had to do to get the baby out. I was not afraid of the pain; I was not afraid of the work. I was not going to have an epidural. I had not admitted any of this to anyone for fear of appearing simple and foolish and arrogant. But I knew that it was all true. I took a bowl off the shelf, filled it with cheerios, and opened the refrigerator for the milk. I sat at the counter and ate my cereal in the dark kitchen and for a little while only the baby and I knew that she was going to be born today.
Ten hours later I closed my eyes against an altogether unexpected pain that wasn’t a feeling so much as a sound echoing inside my body, as though a machine was breaking apart between my legs, and with one last rending push I felt something slide away from me and then I felt her in my arms. It was like holding the inside of my body. Hers was flesh that had never been held before; she was a creature that had never been seen. In that moment my claim on her was solitary and private and without question. Had anything — anyone — else ever been mine?
An hour later I was still bleeding. Hemorrhaging. My secret prediction came true: I had been a birthing rock star. I arrived at the hospital 9 centimeters dilated with a bulging bag of waters. I stripped, climbed into a birthing tub, and 30 minutes later I began to push. Five pushes and the baby was out. When she was 10 minutes old I stood up, got out of the tub, and climbed up on the bed to deliver the placenta, which I did with one push, while holding Grace. And now, one hour later, it seemed that I couldn’t quit.
“It’s time to stop bleeding, ” the midwife told me. She pushed on my abdomen and frowned. “If you do that one more time, you’ll need an IV.” I assumed “that” was the warm gush I felt between my legs when she pushed down. What the midwife was trying to tell me was that it was time to stop. The baby was here, the baby was out. She no longer needed me to breathe for her; she no longer needed my heart and my lungs. She had her own, and they were working beautifully. You are you again, the midwife was trying to say, and you need to stop bleeding.
My body had wanted nothing but what this baby wanted for the last ten hours, the last ten months. My uterus had been devoted to this baby from the instant those cells tucked themselves in and began to grow. It was vigilant. It was devoted. It didn’t know quite what to do without her.
I was bleeding and Grace was perfect. She was pink and wrinkled, she was wrapped in a soft white blanket, she was wide-eyed and batting at my nipple with her small tongue. Fix the bleeding already, I wanted to say. Just fix it.
Of course the midwife fixed it. An IV of pitocin and the bleeding slowed. Something sterile and synthetic commanded my uterus to clench, and so it did.
When the bleeding slowed to a benign trickle the nurse helped me slowly rise from the bed and walk to the shower. Chris held Grace then, and my sister took a picture of them. In the picture Chris isn’t wearing a shirt and her sunglasses are holding her hair back from her face. She is looking down at Grace, but you can see the edge of her face in the picture, you can see the uncommon flush in her cheeks and the softness around her eyes that — until then — had belonged only to me. The picture is a rare and beautiful treasure, and for a long time looking at it made me lose my breath.
I found a copy of that photo last night. I was looking through a box of pictures from Grace’s first year, hoping to find one from her birth that I could put out on the dining room table with her presents. I looked closely at the photo and for the first time I saw blood. Blood on the white hospital blanket, blood on Grace’s tiny arm, blood on Chris’s fingers. My blood. It was invisible to me for a long time, although it is not invisible anymore. I was bleeding and Grace was not. For six years I have been her mother and this is the very hardest thing I have had to learn: my child is radiant and healthy and safe and that is not enough. I have a body too, and it must be tended to for to its own sake. Not because I am someone’s mother, not because I need to stay alive for someone else. I was bleeding and Grace was not, and that blood might not have mattered to me on the day she was born but tomorrow she will be six years old and it matters to me now.