Words by Melissa Ressler
I hesitated when the triage nurse asked me to rate my pain from 1 to 10. She caught me between contractions, which had progressed over sixteen hours while we hosted a cookout for my husband’s birthday. It was not in our birth plan to sit around with forty friends and eat hot dogs throughout early labor, but I couldn’t have planned a more honest start to the one step at a time aspect of having our first child.
As I stammered, unable to assign a number to my contractions, the nurse tried to help narrow it down. “Zero is no pain. Ten is the worst pain you can possibly imagine. Like getting your limbs cut off with no anesthesia.” “Good God. I’m like a four.” A few hours later I screamed through an unexpectedly unmedicated delivery. The last number I told Nurse Paula was a six.
In retrospect, I was not a six.
I didn't know how bad it might get and wanted to leave something to grow into. Even when my body was splitting open without anesthesia, my limbs were all attached, after all. Later, I shushed my husband when there was an air of boasting as he told a friend I didn’t have an epidural. I wasn’t courageous; it was ignorance, and the only option.
Mothers carry on when we don’t know what’s coming.
I skimmed blogs, read books, and talked to women who had transformed into parents. Yet a stranger’s birth story wasn’t able to explain the pain of labor, or birth, or becoming engorged with milk. No one adequately described how nipples suckled between hard gums would crack again, every two hours, for weeks. A book cannot be written about the love that is woven between a mother and her child.
After ten weeks of living in that love another unmedicated transition took place; I went back to work.
The heat of that August morning lay heavy on my bare arms as I looped my daughter’s carseat around the crook in my elbow and carried her up four concrete steps to another woman’s front door. We were ushered into a dimly lit, white-walled living room. A sheepskin rug over the dark wood floors absorbed my footsteps. I adjusted my armor and buried the tears deep inside of me as I unbuckled her for one last snuggle before maternity leave was resolutely over.
I carried her in my phone to the cinder block first aid room, watching her grow through video clips as I pumped her sustenance three times a day. I texted my husband to pick me up at 4:00PM sharp on the afternoons when the duration of a twenty-five minute walk home was unacceptable and I needed her in my arms immediately. If she took her first steps while I was at work her babysitter was kind enough to keep it a secret, but I still wondered.
I often didn’t realize the challenge each element was until we were past it. I was leaving space for mothering to get tough, not recognizing the strength building as we carried on one ignorant step at a time. Eventually we carried on long enough to want another child.
The second time I knew what was coming. I knew what it would be like to watch my belly expand and have my organs rearranged. I knew what transition and having a six-pound twelve-ounce baby trapped in your vagina felt like. I knew I’d be calling the midwife for prescription hemorrhoid cream and keeping witch hazel pads in the refrigerator.
I had tricks for relief the second time - like asking for an epidural before my pain got to a “six” and keeping a stash of dark chocolate in the pumping room at work. But you can’t trick emotions. Having another love woven into your being increases your strength at the cost of heightening your vulnerability.
Many assume that second time mothers have it together; that being well-informed they are good to go. We don’t often recognize the courage it takes to enter that space again, this time fully aware. The creation of a life - and all that goes into it - is no less magical when the curtain has been pulled back, but the second time you are the magician’s assistant rather than a member of the audience. For me, it took a different type of courage to step onto that stage again and say yes - over and over - to experiences that cut me in half and built me into a new person.
Parenting is full of courage. We show up when we don’t know if we can. We sing one more song when we would rather sleep. We hem and haw over whether this fever merits a visit to the pediatrician and refuse to leave the well-child check without having every concern addressed. We use our courage to let them fall and to pick them up; to make them finish and allow them to quit. We talk about death and justice and calculus and a million other topics we don’t feel qualified to espouse. And we do it, again and again.
I don’t know where that courage comes from. It just builds as we carry on, one step at a time, even when we know what’s coming.
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Melissa Ressler is a writer, mother, wife, neighbor and executive director in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.