By Donna Maccherone
Contractions of the womb are nothing compared with contractions of the heart, and the labor that comes post partum lasts much longer.
I will give away the Beanie Babies, the Ninja Turtles, the plastic pails and shovels still smelling of sand crabs and the sea. Out with old report cards and “I Showed Up” trophies. I’m decluttering. That’s the fashionable phrase, but what I’m actually doing is trying to empty the nest. I should be at least a bit wistful. I’m not. I’ve got a deep well of memories, but not enough storage. I want space.
What I am keeping is the tee shirt, men’s size medium, with the iron-on letters: BREATHE. Bright green, all caps, flocked, like old-school kindergarten flannel board letters. This is the shirt my husband wore in the delivery room when our daughter was born in 1986 and again in 1989 when our son came along.
The one-word command blazoned on the shirt was to remind me through the contracting and the pushing and the pain to do what would establish a rhythm for the contracting and the pushing, and ultimately assuage the pain. Did I breathe? Was there a rhythm? A lot of pain or a little? I honestly don’t remember. I mostly remember anticipating some great discomfort and not being happy about it. Twice.
The huff-and-puff strategy, intended to alleviate both mental and physical unease, was proffered during childbirth classes, which my husband and I dutifully attended together, but where he was much more engaged than I was. I just wanted it to be over, but first I wanted an epidural. I had an inkling that pain would eclipse any transcendence, regardless of how hard I panted. Maybe that was my problem. We were to breathe easily and calmly, drawing in awareness and blowing out pain. In with awareness… out with pain. In … out. Just like that. If only it could be that easy.
When I pulled the BREATHE shirt from the box of dusty mementoes, which included a hazy ultrasound photo that looked exactly like no one and nothing, I recalled the childbirth class in vivid detail: couples sitting cross-legged on the carpeted floor of the hospital conference room, the pear-shaped women wobbling slightly; birthing coaches, spines aligned, breathing like practiced yogis. Of course the partners were better than the pregnant women, their diaphragms weren’t distended up into their throats by the bowling balls just under their rib cages. Nonetheless, we with the bloated bellies and swollen feet tried to maintain a modicum of dignity until one hyperventilated and had to be escorted out. “Exactly what not to do,” chirped the labor and delivery nurse in the teddy bear printed smock. “Don’t let your nerves get the better of you. Just breathe.”
What the inordinately cheerful nurse failed to say was that the word would become our mantra after the babies came into the world. As they screamed through endless bouts of colic and we wanted to scream right back at them but instead we thought, “Breathe.” When they blithely let go of our hands to get on the school bus and we knew what they were embarking on (life away from us) would often be anything but carefree. We smiled and waved and took that deep breath. On those days they came home crying over messing up, fouling out, failing a test, or losing a friend and we said to them and to ourselves, “Just breathe.”
Driving home from the pediatrician, the teacher conference, the counselor’s office with a scary diagnosis, questionable report, or trouble ahead. Breathe … breathe … just breathe.
Years later, they called home and we heard regret or remorse or simple uncertainty in their voices. Perhaps we couldn’t tell them what to do, but we hoped they were drawing in awareness and blowing out the pain. The respiratory pause wouldn’t always make everything all right, but it could steady the nerves and allow time for some perspective.
Decades ago as I awaited motherhood, I feared the pain and doubted the transcendence. No matter. I got both. Even though—for all the classes and books (which only my husband read and then reiterated every chapter and verse to me when I least wanted to hear a word of it) and prenatal vitamins—I couldn’t be guaranteed fortitude for what lay ahead. Contractions of the womb are nothing compared with contractions of the heart, and the labor that comes post partum lasts much longer. Most of the time there’s not much a parent can do except breathe. Whether we do it with our eyes closed or open, sitting palms up in the lotus position or gripping the steering wheel with knuckles gone white, if we’re lucky, the transcendent moment follows exhalation. I know. My husband has the shirt to prove it. We’re hanging on to that. Everything else is going to Goodwill.
Donna Maccherone is a mother, teacher, and writer who is still looking for some breathing room.