Monday, November 18, 2013

Babyhood, Motherhood, and the Fragility of Human Existence

Mary Cassatt, The Boating Party [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Did you read Ariel Levy's sad sad story in The New Yorker? If you didn't go here and read it. It's in front of the pay wall. Just out there waiting for you.

If you did, then you know the basic elements. As a reporter long committed to travel and adventure, Levy decides, after a long period of indecision, that she wants to have a child. She gets pregnant quickly and easily, and five or so months in, something goes terrible wrong. During a trip to Mongolia, alone in the bathroom of a hotel, Levy suddenly gives birth to a tiny human being who can't possibly live, and who dies soon after.

The later diagnosis is placental abruption. It's rare. It's not caused by anything in particular. It's just one of those things that sometimes happens.

Levy is crushed by her experience, and she can't put it out of her mind. She can't stop looking at her one cell phone photo of the baby, taken in the moments before they were both taken to the hospital, when they were together and both alive. She can't stop talking about what happened: to friends, strangers, horrified retail clerks.

And in the few days after I read her story, I couldn't put it out of my mind either. I kept thinking about Levy's description of being alone with the baby in the bathroom while he was alive, how he looked so perfect, like a very very small person, how she tried to convey to him a feeling of maternal warmth, a sense of things being OK because Mama is here, in the short time before he died.

At first, I obsessed about the incredible fragility and vulnerability of humans as shown through the short life of the baby. You sort of know how contingent things are, and how much has to go right in so many ways, in order for us to survive and be OK. But it's easy to just sort of forget. And then you read a story like that and you remember, WHAM.

Survival for us is not really a default thing, like Oh, As Long As Nothing Bad Happens It'll All Be OK. Many many things have to work properly for us to even come into existence. But how can this be? We humans are so awesome and special. How can our very existence also be subject to the whims of nature? I can't put the two things together in my mind and keep them there at the same time.

After a while, I started obsessing about the incredible fragility and vulnerability of humans as shown through the experience of Ariel Levy. The whole reproductive business, it is not a go-it-alone kind of activity. I'm struck by the fact that even though I have no children, I was able to identify immediately with her narrative. The state of being responsible for some tiny helpless creature is one that never seems that far away to me, even though it's never been my reality.

Maybe this is just one of those things about Growing Up Female. Think how mind-bending it is when you're a kid and someone explains to you that you're going to get your period every month, and what that is is the raw material that would make it possible for a new person to start growing, material that gets made anew and flushed out once a month, and that's just a thing that's going to be part of your life for years and years and years.

Jeez Louise. Among other things, if you get a bit careless with the birth control, drop the ball on the folic acid -- BAM! You've fucked up someone else's life. I still sort of can't wrap my mind around this either.

The freakout of the tiny being who needs you is obviously somewhere deep in my subconscious, because every couple of years or so I have a dream in which I have a baby, and in these dreams either 1) I am failing in some dramatic way and it's an insane nightmare or 2) the baby is born with the ability to talk and immediately starts criticizing me for Doing It Wrong. Yikes.

And I think this has had an impact on how I see people and their interrelationships: that is, I see them as fragile, interdependent, and mostly in great need of help and nurturing from other people.

Sometimes in my life as a philosopher I encounter people who see persons as independent individuals, navigating the world on their own terms.

I know and they know that there are humans for whom this can't possibly be true, because they're small, helpless, fragile and vulnerable. But I guess the difference between us is that what they see as the exception, I see as a pretty big part of what is going on.

They look at human life and see competence and independence  punctuated with moments of need.

Whereas to me, it's like, those times you manage to get it all together and you feel briefly like you're on top of the world and ready to take on all comers? Unless you're high on drugs, those moments are short, fleeting and maybe even illusory.

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