Ambushed by Babies
From the Foreword by Mary Hayes Grieco
I am writing the silly, sorry, and sacred tales of my reproductive adventures, which have brought me great fulfillment as well as great curtailment of my freedom at times, and they have fueled my quest for a new understanding of what freedom really is. Throughout my life, from childhood to adulthood, I’ve been ambushed by babies – babies that weren’t planned or that weren’t prevented from coming to a household that was already bursting with more than it could handle.
I have been pregnant seven times, yet I raised only two children. Strangely, I had three daughters, twelve years apart. I lost my first daughter to a traumatic closed adoption when I was eighteen, and I dealt with the emotional aftermath of that sad adventure for decades. Later, I had three miscarriages, and even though one of them almost took me out of here in a river of blood, each of these babies healed me in some way, because something new was being birthed at that time – something my soul wanted me to have more than a living baby. (When a woman conceives, something new is always born.) I had an abortion once, something I really struggled about, but in that experience too, something was born: a renewed relationship with God, who loves me unconditionally and does not judge me – a God who wants the best for me, and for everyone.
When I was 30, my second daughter came along in a “granola” home birth with a lay midwife, and drumming, and comfrey tea simmering on the stove, and a galvanizing vision of the Goddess that kicked my stalled-out labor into full gear and brought ‘er home. And oh yes, the amazing post-partum carp soup. The daughter who emerged from that birth carries the subtle sheen of the Goddess upon her, like an invisible kiss mark on her forehead. Throughout her days, people have turned to look at her as she walks by, and wonder something about the grace of this woman, and each of her many friends feel so blessed and supported in her wise company. When I had my third daughter, at age 42, I required a high-tech hospital birth to top off the Pregnancy from Hell with The Birth from Hell, because I was too damn old for this, and she weighed 11 lbs! I was SO pissed off during that time. I whined piteously throughout that pregnancy and birth, but I’m not seriously complaining about it now – in another century, that baby and I would both have died, and instead, I’m still here and I’m strong as anything, and this sweet young lady, age 22, lives and forges her own woman’s way in this world.
I was born in 1954, and I grew up Irish Catholic in the 1950s and 1960s at a time when many oldest daughters were ambushed by their mother’s many new babies, and we had to leave childhood behind to become Mommy Number Two before we were even ten years old. My mom had 9 babies in 14 years, while her husband was drinking, and you never saw such a fraught and wonderful household. Unless of course, you are another person who grew up in a household like that – and obviously there are a lot of us — and you guys will know just what I am talking about. It was a time. Fortunately, as an adult I can honestly say that each of my siblings is a unique treasure, and I wouldn’t send anyone back, even if I could. All good, in the end.
So many elements of that time and that way that we grew up have passed away in the succeeding decades, for good or ill. For me it’s important now to honor the particular fecundity of my Irish Catholic culture, and to be honest about the gift and the debacle of growing up with so many children, and under the daily influence of a Church that has carried so much light and so much darkness throughout the centuries. A church that even today owes its life to the wellsprings of the spirits of its women, who nourish it with their faith and service, and yet it cannot embrace our authority to lead a ceremony or govern our own reproductive lives. This church installed in us Catholics the mandate that a woman must welcome any child who comes along, whether or not we ourselves are drowning in the bitterness of poverty or our frustration with a partner who is absent through drink or another crippling addiction. And it seems to not care if we actually had a few other plans for what we want to do with our lives besides have another child to care for, for twenty years. Even if we leave the Catholic Church, as I have, it remains a powerful influence in our psyche, forever: our faith, our roots, our Source, our nemesis, our big life question. Thankfully, even though with some fear and trembling, I chose to leave the church of my ancestors a while ago, I was so glad that Jesus and Mother Mary and the Holy Spirit came along with me into my own self-wrought spirituality. I am daily blessed in their good company.
Gentle reader, as they say, be advised — there’s a lot of blood in this book. And some mention of lady parts, and some tiny fetuses and some big baby heads coming out, and a grown daughter courting some terrible trouble. You’ll have this sort of thing, in a memoir that features the experiences of pregnancy, birth, and mothering. There is also a lover’s ecstasy, and a new mother’s exhaustion, and a Reluctant Grandmother of identical twins, and nearby there are some faithful mighty companions. There is a pilgrimage to the lost home of my soul, Ireland, to help my sister give birth to her surprise baby over there, and a visit to a magical cave. There is a gift from the skies in the form of forty acres in Wisconsin bequeathed to me so I can write in peace. In this book we find it necessary to turn God the Father into The Goddess, so that an independent girl baby is willing to come out, and together we will find mercy in the glint of reflected light of my dad’s glasses the night in 1972 he found out his teenaged girl was pregnant.
Reader, be with me. Please be with me in these stories in which I have babies I want or I don’t want, and I lose them, and I have them again — for I was too alone in some of these stories. I was questing, as we all are, for some freedom and for some fulfillment, and I had some painful bumps along the way, as we all do. As women, the question of both our freedom and our fulfillment is inextricably connected with our reproductive journey – the choices we make about whether or not to have children, and the need for vigilance or surrender as we find ourselves in the vicinity of an ambush by a baby who wants to come here. How many times has a woman muttered the anguished prayer, Please God, send me a baby – my heart is aching for a child. I won’t feel fulfilled in this life if I’m not a mother. Or the other anguished prayer, Please God, send my period soon. I can’t be pregnant right now! It will wreck everything I’m building – I can’t stand to lose my freedom! Very few women pray, serenely, Whatever you say, God. Baby, no baby – whatever. Thy Will be done. Most of us want to have a deciding vote on the matter, because pregnancy, birth, and motherhood are each a big fekkin’ deal for us. If a baby comes to us, it asks everything of us – our body, our heart, our work pathways, our finances, our daily life schedule –- that baby asks so much more than we knew it could, and even the most caring and sensitive men have no inkling of understanding about the demands of pregnancy, birth, and mothering. They can’t, by virtue of biology – and that’s just the way it is. That’s why women need to be the leaders of our own reproductive decisions.
Yes, we women would definitely prefer to be able to command and control our fertility in such a way that we will not be deprived of a baby we long for, and also not be ambushed by a baby we’re not ready for. But the truth is that our personal fertility is ultimately not that easy to control. Our fertility is part of the Is-ness of the Universe, and the powerful forces of creation itself, which is flowing and being and throbbing throughout this Great Mystery we call life, and it is scarcely governable by a mere human being. We can endure a sequence of procedures in a fertility clinic, and practically stand on our heads there in a plea for a successfully implanted embryo, and still somehow we are unable to get pregnant or to carry our fetus to full term. We can also be very careful with our birth control except for that one time when we couldn’t stop ourselves to take precautions, and then we find ourselves in an ambush by a baby. Even in this kinda/sorta enlightened age, almost half of pregnancies today are unplanned, and this statistic hasn’t changed much over time. Some of those babies will be born, some will be terminated, and a fourth of them will leave us in a miscarriage to grieve alone, because nobody understands the depth of loss in a miscarriage but another woman who’s had one.
Hopefully, from now and into the future, if you are someone who is staring at a little pink stripe on your home pregnancy kit, you will have a choice about whether to go forth and try to grow and raise that baby, or send it along on its way and be more careful next time – which is okay because you can’t actually kill a soul. In these seminal moments of truth, pardon the pun, we do have a choice about what attitude we will assume: we can reject the idea that we are a victim of biology, and choose instead the stance of a heroine in her own story, the heroine about to wrestle with her specific questions about freedom and fulfillment, and her understanding of her own dharma and her karma, as she embarks on a “reproductive adventure.” We can choose to discover what actually wants to be born in our lives.
I am going to share some intimate things with you in this book: stories of birth and loss, pain and soulful love, miscarriage and abortion, and yes, something pretty awful about sexual abuse — and I’m trusting you to trust me that my intention in doing so is not exhibitionistic, but rather a desire to open doors to conversations about the Sacred. So many women have struggled with abuse, and with the vagaries of planned and unplanned children, and for too many of us our pain is a private burden colored with shame. There is pain in some of my stories, but I don’t want to get too heavy about all of this. The pain is not the main point, and in my writing as well as in my daily life, I promise you a generous measure of humor throughout, to help the story retain some balance. I believe that sharing our stories with each other helps to heal our pain. Maybe hearing my story will encourage you to tell yours, and some of your pain will heal. I want my book to open up a space for new conversations between women about our fertility and our choices – and new ways we can support each other to make the choices that will foster the fullest expression of who we mean to be in this life.
I have been living a fertile life, and I really wish to be one of those people you meet who says, stoutly “I have no regrets!” I admire that, because I myself am rather regret-prone, and I’m trying to change that. I am wooing the elusive state of contentment with the way everything has played out for me. You might suspect that in this memoir with all of its baby losses, that I am still processing, as they say, but mostly, things are pretty sorted out. I just want to tell you some good stories. I want to gather all those silly, sorry, and candlelit sacred moments from my reproductive years, and weave them together as a whole tapestry of goodness, despite the stresses and losses along the way. I want to turn a freshly-showered face toward my crone years, and get with the business of being a free-hearted old lady. So … maybe this will help. No, actually, it has helped, quite a lot! Revisiting my reproductive adventures brought back to me many moments of deep mammalian satisfaction, as well as a glow of gratitude for the crystal clear goodness of the pure-hearted children who were entrusted to my care. That has been absolutely delicious for me, and I hope you’ll be fed by it too.
Now, in my 64th year, I am courting some new freedom for the next phase of my life. I suspect it will have something to do with having my true voice, and shamelessly sharing my insights and my stories with anyone who wants to hear them. I think it’s about being self-accepting enough to tell my emotional truths about mothering, without censorship, It was difficult, I resented toddlers, I felt like I was in prison, and I have never been so honored in my life as I was in certain moments with my children … I hope to speak in coming times with the sparkle of my soul present in my voice, and with no great concern about what people think of me or what critical things they might say.
I have been somewhat obsessed with this concept of freedom all of my life, and it has looked like different things in different decades. You too? (Remember playing outside with fleet running feet on a summer night studded with fireflies on grass that was fragrant as forever? Or dancing with all of your heart with your eyes closed? Or settling into the deep spaces of the best cup of coffee on a quiet morning?) Freedom is found amid the details of the best and worst stories of our lives and in the spaces in between the stories. It is mythic and essential, restorative and the source of re-creation. We crave freedom like we need oxygen, and that’s why it compels our rhetoric and the necessity for the birth of new nations. I think it’s a fairly universal human preoccupation.
Most importantly, for me, in a life strewn with stress, trauma, and disappointments, freedom has come to me in the experience of forgiveness, in the new space inside and the neutral quietude in everything, after I have let go of the pain of a difficult story. Half my lifetime ago, forgiveness became my path for living and learning and teaching and serving, and I am in my 30th year of teaching forgiveness workshops and working with individuals who are seeking the healing relief of forgiveness. I’m in this work for the long haul, because of the incomparable human beauty that shines forth when someone has let go of the stagnant energy in a bad old story. I remain inspired in my life as a midwife of forgiveness because of my love for human beauty – I’m here to say that freedom looks really good on everyone.
In this sharing of my stories in this book, I am suggesting a few ideas to all of us: 1) that every time a woman conceives, something new is born (not always an actual baby.) 2) every woman is a fertile woman, in that she is “capable of bearing or producing abundantly” and 3) every woman is a mother, whether she has physical babies or not. I want to point out that the ability to bear children is only one facet of what it means to be a fertile woman, or a mother of something worthy. Because fertility is a spiritual force in our lives that comes from beyond us and through us, and it can bring forth all manner of wondrous fruit! Sometimes this fruit is a child, or a handful of children. In the end, what we are really talking about here is that each one of us is in the position of “co-creating with our Creator,” if we can only be awake to that.. What is ours to do next? What does our Creator want to bring into this world through me, here and now? Who or what is nearby me that needs some nurturing? Have I been placed here close by so I can subtly mother them into greater health and fullness?
Let us love our children passionately, if we have them, and let us love the fertile void where they are not if we don’t. Let us embrace and mother our work, relationships, spiritual adventures, political projects, art, traveling, dreams, hidden disasters, health concerns, and community obligations. All of this comes to us with organic vigor from a mysterious Source that wants to express Itself creatively through us – we are fertile women! Let us live like diligent gardeners on the edge of the wild rainforest, and let us tell our stories around the fire as our ancestors did. Let us celebrate God’s mind-boggling fertility!
Finally, I want to simply say that In this life, I was ambushed by babies, and because of this I have been stressed and blessed, and my life has been thickly populated with people and events, with difficulties and with crazy good fortune … hence, plenty of subject matter for a storyteller. I love God so much, and God is the best Storyteller of all, and so I thank Her for the stories she gave me to live, and I want to share them with you. —Mary Hayes Grieco, 2019