By Alicia Rebecca Myers
I could tell you how a stranded Robert Bartlett walked 700 across an iced-over Chukchi Sea, how Robert Burke traversed the latitude of Australia but died from exhaustion after turning back from a mountain called Hopeless. I could hold court on malaria and capsize. I could list disappearances.
I mitigated anxiety by reading about explorers on Wikipedia. Their failed attempts at discovery, their terrific demises. This wasn’t an exercise in schandenfreude. I took no pleasure in frostbite, in swells. I called up extreme scenarios the way a surgeon might review dark particulars before entering the operating room. I received the past as a safeguard, as if empathy could preclude the unknown. I lingered longest on those who logged the most distance.
There were very few female deaths to parse because there are very few female explorers. I reinterpreted phrases. Phrases like “New Land of the Codfish,” which suddenly described my pregnant body.
In my mid-twenties, I backpacked for three weeks, solo, through Eastern Europe. I had been managing a student travel agency on the Upper West Side while enrolled in an MFA program. New York City felt invasive, and I suddenly wanted not to talk. The halfway point of my trip was Budapest. After spending a bleak afternoon in the bowels of the Terror Museum, where I learned about Hungarian victims of the communist regime and contemplated gulag torture, I signed up for a pub crawl, desperate to be around people again. I worked hard to get my forints worth of Soproni and do justice to this particular pub crawl’s injunction to “make a transcendental bond through drinking.” I made that bond with Kyler, a curly-haired Canadian who dressed like a lumberjack. Kyler was handsome and non-threatening (important after a day touring the Terror Museum), and he had interesting things to say about politics and art and pilsners. I invited him back to my boatel. “THAT’S A HOTEL ON WATER,” I kept shouting, because I thought it lent me an air of sophistication.
Kyler and I stayed up all night, mutually transfixed in the kind of heady rapture that only comes from getting to share your best self with a stranger you’ll never see again. His attentiveness was like his burly frame: it filled the room. I felt like I was back in 1987, sitting across from the roll of unopened paper towels I’d positioned on the dresser so that the Brawny man’s gaze never left mine – except that Kyler had his own questions: Who’s your favorite poet? What have you learned so far by traveling alone? Would you rather be trapped for a day on a deserted mountain or a crowded subway car? I answered honestly: Bishop, it’s lonelier being alone, crowded subway car. Then Kyler asked the question that up until then no man had ever asked me directly: Do you want kids?
The topic of kids had come up before in my handful of serious relationships, but somehow never seriously. I’d discussed children plenty of times with my classmates, drunk in a bar, in the context of how our parents had messed us up and in doing so, had given us something to write about. But up until that morning in Budapest, baroque light filtering through my dank boatel porthole, I’d never had a man look me in the eye and ask if I wanted kids. I was experienced enough to know that Kyler wasn’t asking if I wanted kids with him. Still, I surprised myself with my answer, words I’d never spoken aloud. I felt like I was admitting I didn’t believe in God.
“No,” I said, reaching for my crumpled dress.
Later, we staggered above deck and drank coffee in view of Margaret Island, an island named after a childless 13th century female saint.
I met my husband Dan a few days before my thirtieth birthday. I didn’t believe in a biological clock since I had never heard mine ticking. My last relationship, with an opera singer, had lasted only a month. Alex had liked that I was a writer, a woman unconventional and messy, a woman whose kitchen table was an industrial spool she’d dug out of a neighbor’s trash. He had liked that when one of us couldn’t find something I’d ask, “Well, did you check the spool?” and we’d shine a flashlight down into its hollow wooden center. I broke up with him because I lost interest.
Dan and I emailed and talked by phone for weeks before we met in person. I was his boss. I had been hired as head of Human Resources for a small academic summer camp start-up in Brooklyn, and Dan, a poet living in Iowa, had been instated as director of our newest program. Actually, I’d picked Dan out of a catalogue long before the company had hired me. My roommate and Dan had taught at a camp together. One time, I’d found a brochure for that camp lying open on our couch and pointed to a picture of a lanky Jewish guy in a longshoreman’s cap. Dan was frowning, towering over an amusement park sign in the shape of a gopher that read, Must be no taller than me to ride this ride. I told my roommate: “I’m in love with this guy.”
I started spending less time directing Human Resources and more time wooing Dan. I secured him a slapdash staff and a total of six campers, but mostly devoted my energy to drafting witty, frank emails. The first time Dan and I spoke by phone, I had the distinct sensation of opening up, like I’d been preserved in a jar all these years, boiled and sealed. The unlidded feeling wasn’t sexual. More of a prescient joy. It was late April. Boats whizzed by on the Hudson fifteen stories below. I knew, in a way I’d never known before, that we would mean something permanent to each other.
Dan arrived a month later in New York for director training. He called me the minute he landed and showed up outside my Lorimer apartment at 2:00 am. I met him, barefoot, under a street light. It was both familiar and exhilarating. We slept together immediately. We were inseparable.
A tornado tore through Brooklyn that August, the strongest ever on record to hit the city. I watched from the grated window of my first-floor apartment as pitas from the bread factory across the street floated by like life preservers. Dan would be returning to Iowa to teach in just a few days. There was no longer a distinction between my heart and the weather. My sadness was tied to the solipsistic notion that I had begat high winds and destruction. I waded to my office in DUMBO (Down Under Manhattan Bridge Overpass) to discover everything intact but my desk: the ceiling above had caved in, lath and plaster piled high around my drenched computer and waterlogged files. I felt like nothing could survive in the wake of Dan’s leaving, least of all me.
Dan got on a plane. I got fired, downsized by a storm. I would fall into a fitful sleep by counting down the distance between us. Mile 997, mile 998, mile 999. I started assisting Sharon Olds, spent hours formatting her manuscript One Secret Thing, poems about the drawn-out death of her mother. In ghosting over her lines with my fingers I was internalizing some greater message of loss. I began to connect the ache of missing Dan to the forfeiture of a future family. Dan and I mailed a stuffed penguin back and forth along with missives full of love and longing. I grew practiced at typing the word “mother.” Something inside of me was shifting, had shifted.
Five years later, we were married. Two years after that, I was pregnant with Miles.
Towards the end of my first trimester, I heard a story on NPR about Louis Armstrong, how as a street performer he would tuck pennies into his mouth to prevent other musicians from stealing from him. My earliest sign of pregnancy had always been a metallic taste in the back of my throat. I wanted to stash our son inside me forever, keep him out of circulation. I imagined safeguarding him, my own private treasure, settling for a life of ghostly kicks to avoid a grisly, protracted birth scene. Or even worse, loss.
I began swimming three times a week at the start of my second trimester because of something I’d read about the movements in freestyle creating a streamlined birth canal, a luge tube the baby could simply slide down. I conceived of myself as a smooth centaur. No one knew I was carrying a child when I was in the pool. My hindquarters were hidden. Whenever I eased into the water, acclimating to the chill, I thought of Peter Artedi, the naturalist credited with fathering Fish Science. I had learned of him accidentally, a detour in my cataloging the bad luck of explorers. He drowned in an Amsterdam canal after a night of drinking. He had spent his whole life studying aquatic depths, the minutiae of structure, but no amount of studying could have prepared him for what it felt like to go under that way.
We moved across town on my thirty-seventh birthday, also the beginning of my third trimester. Our 600 square foot one-bedroom wouldn’t have accommodated our expanding family. The Georgia heat was indefensible, and I was far too big to be of any real help. I offered to scrub the baseboards of the old house, but mostly I just sat and ran a cloth over the same spot, my hair in a do-rag, pretending to be a Victorian washerwoman. I cursed at Dan in a trussed up cockney accent and called him my costermonger, I word I’d only just learned from a BBC drama. It means someone who sells fruits and vegetables in the market, but I was using it to refer to a husband who was making me pack and unpack all of our worldly belongings when I was being sucker-punched from the inside.
And then: just as we’d finished unwrapping the bubble tape from all our breakables, just as we’d mopped the floor with organic baby-friendly cleaner, Dan got the call that he was one of three final candidates being considered for a tenure-track teaching job in upstate New York. The college was requesting he fly up for an interview that week. I was suddenly faced with the prospect of moving again, this time 2000 miles, at 37 weeks pregnant. I looked to our two cats. We would have to do the trip by car, for their sake and for mine. I was too pregnant to fly. The cats sniffed at the familiar couch like it was a stranger.
While Dan was away interviewing, I spent every afternoon underwater. I was in the locker room, massaging mango-scented stretch mark cream into my expanding belly, when he called to let me know he was offered the job. I watched as my naked reflection in the mirror answered the phone, watched as my mouth gaped at the shock of the news. I was starring in an avant-garde theater production with no costuming budget.
That night, we discussed the pros and cons, as adults do, doodling half-lists on a napkin. Cons: leaving our support system of friends, my parents nearby in North Carolina, and a trusted team of midwives. Pros: greater financial security, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. I agreed to move to a strange town in the country, sight unseen, under one condition: a visit to Hershey Park. We joked that this concession sounded more like a concession stand, as in candy, as in sweet.
It was late July in the South when we embarked on the long journey north. At a rest stop along I-95, I attempted some light yoga on the grass and decided it would be easier to give up and live there, next to a picnic table, walking distance from not one but two vending machines. On my back with my arms outstretched at odd angles, I looked like a broken sundial, measuring distance, not time.
At Hershey Park, I slogged from one chocolate room to another. Crowds parted. I cradled a mountain of Krackel bars in my arms, then abruptly decided to buy none.
Our half-domesticated feral cat, Girlfriend, got out of her carrier back at the Residence Inn. She bolted into a bathroom cabinet and hid behind sink pipes. Dan wrapped his left hand in a towel and attempted to dislodge her, yanking blindly, his face angled towards me in dread. The cat hissed and thrashed against metal. When Dan produced her, he was bleeding profusely, claw marks up to his sleeve. In my mind he was Hugh Glass, the 19th century American fur trapper who was mauled by a bear, left for dead, but then regained consciousness. For six weeks, Glass crawled 200 miles solo across Missouri until he reached the Cheyenne River and built a makeshift raft to safety. Dan assured me he could still drive.
A waitress at Denny’s mistakenly wrote paincakes on our check. I repeated, “I will consume rather than be consumed by contractions. I will consume rather than be consumed by fear.”
A week later, we met our New York midwife for the first time. After she listened to me recount our recent upheaval, how our furniture still hadn’t arrived and I was sleeping on an air mattress that stayed deflated on my side, she handed me two pamphlets. One on placenta encapsulation. The other on postpartum depression.
As my due date loomed, I devoted my final weeks to reading about Ina May Gaskin and homebirthing. I practiced mindfulness by chewing raisins, one at a time, very, very slowly, trying to visualize harvest conditions. I tackled pain tolerance by submerging my fingers in bowls of ice. I took a Lamaze class with Dan to perfect rhythmic breathing and a hypnobirthing session to learn traditional Chinese acupuncture techniques: mainly how to massage my butt joint. I became an acolyte of the theory that language instills in us our real fear of childbirth, that by merely reframing pain as pressure we can transcend the horror of contractions until they become expansions.
Like an explorer, I filled my hospital bag with essentials: an eye mask, a tennis ball for butt joint massage, a green cotton halter I’d ordered from a company called Pretty Pushers. Their tagline is “a stylish alternative to unisex gowns.” They promise that “you won’t have to show your backside.” I made a pushing playlist and instructed Dan that it was his duty to see that Miles was born to Sondheim’s “Being Alive.” I wrote NO EPIDURAL NO PITOCIN in all caps on my birth plan. In those final weeks, I informed anyone who didn’t ask that I was going to labor on the shores of Lake Cayuga, about five miles from our house, regardless of the time of day, until I could no longer talk through contractions. But first I would cook up a protein-heavy meal. Maybe make organic oatmeal in the crock pot. Once I was full, and comfortably dilated, we would drive the speed limit to the birthing center, where I would ease into a whirlpool and deliver our son in water, under soft lighting, my wrists smelling faintly of lavender oil.
Because pregnancy requires the ultimate relinquishing of control, because I had suffered three early miscarriages, it made sense, this need to wrangle my labor into the Platonic ideal of labor.
Miles was nine days late. I spent the morning of my labor watching a Woody Allen movie at the closest theater, a thirty minute drive. The August heat was so oppressive that once inside I removed my shirt. The only other patron was a woman who must have been in her nineties. I had the distinct thought that she would probably die before the baby came.
On my way home I stopped at the grocery store. There was nothing I needed. I paced the baby aisle, stumbling like a rabid dog, cradling my belly like a basket. On the way out, I copped two cookies from the “Free For Kids ONLY” bin. I stuffed them in my mouth, laughed as a chunk fell to the floor. Miles triggered the automatic door well before I passed through it.
That night, I accompanied Dan to a campus cook-out on the boathouse lawn. He was due to start teaching in four days. There was a lavish, homey food spread: hotdogs and hamburgers, coleslaw and baked beans, all kept warm in chafing trays. The coleslaw was clumpy and tasted of blue cheese. I swallowed five hot dogs, hardly chewing them. I was a championship eater and my only competition was myself. I rested my sticky hands on my stomach. A faculty member introduced herself. “Any hour now!” she said, poking my shoulder. I returned for a sixth hot dog. I filled a cup with ice and kept my pinky submerged in it while making small talk, only I thought of it as big talk, I was so huge.
I went into labor suddenly, at 2am, with contractions lasting sixty seconds and spaced five minutes apart. There was no time to soak oats or wade out. When we arrived at the birthing center (forty minutes away), a cheerful attendant informed us that due to a “baby storm,” there was only one room available: the one without the whirlpool tub. I managed to dress myself in my stylish and modest green gown, only to rip it off moments later and sit in the shower, defeated and splayed, while Dan hosed down my exposed backside.
It turned out I didn’t want to be touched. At all. I needed the opposite of touching. I refused everything I’d prepped so hard for. My midwife and the team of nurses referred to me as The Silent Laborer. Through a fog of hurt this sounded like a cancelled Jennifer Love Hewitt drama.
For over ten hours, I labored naturally to full dilation in a state of pre-language. I was a mime in an ashram, freed from the burden of words, pain still undeniably pain. My water had to be broken with a crochet hook. Our 9 pound 4 ounce son wouldn’t descend. Ten centimeters dilated and still not progressing, I begged for an epidural. Begged. My midwife calmly referred back to the all-caps portion of my birth plan. I denied having ever written it.
I labored for a total of twenty-two hours. For weeks after, my husband would bear the remnants of thick blisters on his hands from where he had held up my legs for traction. After four hours of pushing, I didn’t care what music welcomed Miles into the world. The last hour of fire and crowning was beyond comprehension. According to Dan, Miles made his midnight appearance to Whitney Houston’s “Saving All My Love For You,” a song celebrating infidelity from the point of view of a mistress.
As painful as labor was in the moment, its end would usher in an analgesic forgetting. In the immediate aftermath of birth, as soon as my squalling son had been placed on my chest and had listed successfully onto my right nipple, I felt capable of anything: eating the entire three-tiered pastrami sandwich I demanded my father-in-law bring to me in the delivery room, for example, or walking unassisted into the recovery suite.
At 4:00 am, guided by endorphins, I rose out of my adjustable bed to unpack and correct some bad birthing center feng shui by moving a lamp and draping a receiving blanket over a tray table. I must do it all, I thought to myself, and I wasn’t even sure what it was.
I had the bravado of an explorer, one with the unfounded confidence and determination to press on – westward! – regardless of poor conditions. I was thinking specifically of Henry Hudson, who, after spending the winter of 1611 cooped up with a starving crew stuck in ice, still insisted on setting sail for the Northwest Passage as soon as the ice cleared. Like Hudson, I also wanted to keep going. I was at the helm of my own Discovery, deluded in spirit, unable to acknowledge a torn perineum and a low iron count.
But Henry Hudson’s men mutinied against him. They put Hudson, a few loyal crew members, and his son in an open boat, then set a course for England. A journal indicates that Hudson oared feverishly to keep up with the ship, whose sails were unfurled to garner maximum speed. He couldn’t. This was me: repentant of my boundless stamina, claustrophobic in the wake of the world, alone in strange waters with my son. I kept sounding out his name to the clock on the wall. It felt apt. Miles. How far I was from the person I had been.
It was as if I had trained months for a marathon, all that pre-dawn incline running with silly miniature water bottles velcroed to my middle, only to be handed a server apron at the finish line and told I was expected to show up for my restaurant double shift. I’d treated labor like a one-off, like a task accomplished. We had the glut of paraphernalia, the Ergo and the bouncy swing and the snot sucker and the diaper cream, all crammed into a nursery with its magical attention to detail. The mason jar with the electric candle on the windowsill. The stenciled grinning menagerie. I remembered only a few days before, raking my hands against the walls of this room like it was Narnia, a remarkable land I had stumbled into by accident. A land I could leave.
There was mesh underwear and clots the size of a teether. Curled up in our bathtub, I placed a desperate call to my septuagenarian mother, crying, asking her to administer an enema. My nipples were raw and chaffed. I hadn’t slept in 96 hours. I hadn’t realized the kind of tired I would be, nauseous tired, how tomorrow would be replaced by a never-ending today punctuated by mere pockets of sleep. Without that recalibration, the gift of closure disappears. Years of yoga hadn’t prepared me to live in the moment this way. I Googled “longest a person can survive without sleep,” only to discover I would be dead in seven days, like the Chinese man who couldn’t stop watching a soccer tournament.
If depression is a rendering of the self invisible, then what I experienced was acute visibility. Seeing that my son’s eyes were my eyes, that his lips were my lips, allowed me to feel unprecedented self-compassion. I connected immediately with Miles. I reconnected with myself more slowly.
I had never dressed a baby, or nibbled on tiny toes, or put a newborn down for a nap, or lowered an infant into a car seat. I had changed exactly one diaper – I’m not even sure if it counts if your college friend did most of the changing while you offered at the last minute to “stick the sticky tabs,” like you were a gymnast attempting a tough landing. Caring for our son is exhausting, but rewarding, physical, like planting by the moon, using your hands, sweating, nothing like the cerebral life I’ve cultivated, nothing like it at all.
My love for Miles is an unfamiliar love, a contradictory love. It simultaneously multiplies and tethers me. I anticipate his waking a split-second before he wakes. I startle and touch Dan’s face in bed next to me, expecting anything warm to be him, a vulnerable bundle of need. When I nurse, I am being drawn down into the earth, stabilized, but also released of some weight that has held me back my whole life. Sometimes at night I play a sinister game of questioning. Would you die for your son by train? By axe? By wheel? By sandstorm? By stonefish? The answer is yes. Always, unflinchingly, yes.
Miles and Dan and I live in unmapped wilderness, in a geothermal house, with a view of a lake, in a small rural upstate town. If, as Khalil Gibran writes, pain is the breaking of the shell that encloses your understanding, then joy is a walling-off. A family of ten deer comes to feed in our yard every dusk. I count them out loud to our son. One deer for each centimeter I was dilated, a distant memory of pain, of distance itself.
Author’s Note: I wrote this essay when Miles was still a newborn. He’s now a rambunctious 15-month-old with a mullet and a penchant for dragging large objects across the room. My writing process has changed so much since becoming a mom. I finish more because I’ve had to jettison perfectionism. I hope this serves as encouragement for other women who are considering a family but are afraid that children will compromise their creativity.
Alicia Rebecca Myers is a poet and essayist who holds an MFA from NYU, where she was a Goldwater Writing Fellow. Her work has appeared most recently in or is forthcoming from Best New Poets 2015, The Rumpus, The American Literary Review, Gulf Coast, jubilat, The Carolina Quarterly, The Fairy Tale Review, and The Southern Poetry Anthology: Georgia. She has also had a poem featured in an NPR Radiolab podcast in conjunction with the NYC based performance series Emotive Fruition. In February of 2014, she was awarded a residency at the Kimmel Harding Nelson Center in Nebraska City. Her chapbook, My Seaborgium, will be released by Brain Mill Press in 2016. She teaches at Wells College. You can find her online at aliciarebeccamyers.com.