The Pain of Passing Beauty

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by Liz Gandolfo

harried mother As I write this post, I am 38+ weeks pregnant with my fourth child and am eagerly awaiting my scheduled C-section next week. I must confess that I have reached my breaking point, both physically and emotionally. As a mostly stay-at-home mother to children aged five-and-a-half, four, and two, I spend nearly every waking moment on my aching, swollen feet—prepping and cleaning up after meals and snacks, dressing and undressing small bodies, wiping bottoms, supervising teeth-brushing, cleaning up toys, doing laundry, getting kids in and out of the car (harder than it sounds), food shopping, “nesting” for the new baby’s arrival, and more. This is an awful lot to ask of a body that is already doing the 24/7 work of gestation! To be fair, my pregnancies all have been relatively “easy,” and this fourth one has actually been better than the last two, during which I experienced relentless insomnia and excruciating sciatic nerve pain respectively (both of these have returned this time around, just more sporadically and much later in the pregnancy). But my body is persevering through these final weeks in a way that I didn’t expect it to—its caring labors are necessary for the well-being of my children and somehow it just keeps coming through for me and for them. In all honesty, I am kind of impressed by my own strength and endurance. But I am also pretty miserable: physically exhausted, extremely uncomfortable, unable to sleep, and enormously slow and awkward. The physical strain has taken its toll psychologically and my nerves are pretty much shot; my patience and usual sunny disposition are gone. The scheduled date of my baby’s arrival is circled on the calendar like it is the second coming of Christ. There is a reason why the birth of a baby is referred to as “delivery.” This child’s delivery into the world will mark my own deliverance from the physical (and emotional) trials of pregnancy.

Clearly, I am ready for this pregnancy to be over. And I am comforted by the fact that that it will be my last; of this my husband and I are 1000% sure. Strangely, though, I am facing the end of this pregnancy, and the end of my childbearing years, with a mixture of profound relief and nostalgic grief. While four pregnancies have taken a physical and psychological toll on me, the process of creating and nurturing a new life inside my own body has been one of if not the most meaningful and transformative experiences of my life. To feel the first flutters of a fetal kick, and even to groan in pain at the discomfort of little toes (or knees, or a butt?) underneath my ribcage, are experiences of relationality and interdependence that have been utterly amazing and spiritually empowering for me. Having babies has been such a huge part of who I am for the past six years now. Knowing with 1000% certainty that I will never experience this particular kind of embodied creativity and intimacy with another human being again has begun to sink in as the date of my deliverance approaches. There is a strange tug of regret at knowing that, in the moments before my C-section, I will feel the movement of a child within me for the last time. I suspect that each of the “last moments” with this new baby in the weeks and months ahead will be accompanied by a great deal of mixed emotions. I know that moving on to the next phase of familial and professional life is the right thing for me, my husband, and our family. But it will be hard to let go of each little phase of this baby’s life, knowing that it will be the last time . . . for everything. Clinical psychologist Daphne de Marneffe articulates this paradoxical experience of fulfilment and regret beautifully as she reflects back on the time when she was leaving her own childbearing years behind: “I could not have been more full; life could not have been more sweet. And at the same time, there was also that ache, at ‘the rustling of the grains of sand as they slid lightly away,’ that ache of beauty and longing and time and the unbearable fragility and surpassing preciousness of this moment.”[1]

prengancyDespite my profound relief at never having to endure the trials of pregnancy again, and despite the demands and sweetness of caring for the children that I do have, there is a certain quality of grief to what I am experiencing in this process of moving on to the next phase of life. This grief is by no means tragic, and there is no comparing it to the depth of sorrow experienced in situations of trauma and loss. With a slightly different focus on coping with the process of change in the lives of children as they grow and develop towards adolescence and adulthood, Bonnie Miller-McLemore refers to the kind of grief that I am experiencing as “mundane grief.” Caring for children and helplessly witnessing their flight into the world requires spiritual practices of what Miller-McLemore calls “blessing and letting go.”[2] I already foresee the necessity of blessing and letting go of my children (kindergarten looms large on my horizon for this year), but I can see that I will also need to bless and let go of this particular stage in my own life. While there is much to be celebrated in moving on from pregnancy and the rigors of caring for babies and small children, these experiences have also been incredibly transformative and fulfilling. The beauty of these years has not come without its anxieties and frustrations, but it has been beautiful. And, however transformative, fulfilling and beautiful the future will be, it is still painful to witness the passing of this particular beauty. Alfred North Whitehead calls this phenomenon “perishing.” On a mundane, day to day level, we often experience the passing of beauty as rather painful, even when the beauty involved negativity and even when what replaces a particular beauty is also beautiful. The co-existence of two goods is often impossible—e.g., my own physical/psychological/professional well-being and the prospect of more children. Some forms of beauty and goodness must pass away in order to make way for new possibilities. This is not only my experience of motherhood, it is life.

I have already warned my husband that there will be many tears in the days and months ahead. I can’t even bear the thought of the last time I will nurse this final baby. But there is a luxurious quality to the mundane grief that I am experiencing. I will mourn the passing of this beautiful time because it has been so beautiful. What a blessing that has been and continues to be. So I will do my best to bless the beauty, and to bless my own sorrow, and even to savor the sorrow as I let it go and move forward with my family into new forms of possibility, freedom, and grace.

 

[1] Daphne de Marneffe, Maternal Desire: On Children, Love, and the Inner Life (New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2004), 313.

[2] Bonnie Miller-McLemore, In the Midst of Chaos: Care of Children as a Spiritual Practice (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2006), 176 ff.

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2 thoughts on “The Pain of Passing Beauty

    Sara said:
    April 18, 2014 at 2:32 pm

    I was in the same place almost exactly 5 years ago. It is a very very hard thing knowing it will be your last. I had a very difficult time dealing with my final pregnancy. It’s confusing to become a new kind of mother figure, not just one that is carrying precious cargo. I wish you lots of strength Liz.

    eogandolfo responded:
    April 19, 2014 at 12:11 am

    Thanks for the feedback and the warm wishes, Sara. It is strangely hard, but also an opportunity to become that new kind of mother.

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