Here in my hospital room, I am surrounded by empty rooms. Somewhere down the hall, though, a woman is screaming for her life. It is not a sound that can be replicated without the actual feeling of imminent destruction. I know because I was that woman once.
I asked Google what motherhood sounds like. The first few results offered hours of white noise, the sounds an unborn baby hears while in the womb. Babies tend to sleep well with this noise because it feels like home. You, too, may sleep better listening to the soothing gurgles of air bubbles and the distant ebb and flow of vital fluids. These ocean waves and this babbling brook combine into a great cloud of restful security.
The sounds I have made as a mother are quite natural, but they wouldn’t put a baby to sleep. Motherhood has brought sounds out of me I never thought myself capable of.
Before I was a mother, I was a nurse in a pediatric intensive care unit. I saw and heard raw, unrestrained grief bursting from mothers who had just learned of their child’s death.
“He can’t be dead! I just talked to him two hours ago!!”
“My baby! My baby!”
“Please someone do something!!”
It was my job to do something. Or to be one of the people who stopped doing anything and just disappeared.
I didn’t know the effect these experiences were having on me until I happened to watch an episode of ER (start at minute 35) while (sort of) babysitting my nephew. As the doctors declared the boy dead despite their efforts to resuscitate, I saw the dramatized parents collapsing with grief into each others’ arms, and suddenly a howl of pain filled the little apartment I was in. Until my nephew asked, “An’Elissa, why are you crying?” I didn’t know the sound was coming from me.
I can only imagine that suddenly faced with my child’s death, I would make a sound that filled the whole world. A sound that completed the crashing into pieces of my world.
Before I was a mother, I was first a wife. And when I became a wife who had decided with her husband to try for a baby (and you know what sounds that entails, which reminds me of a humorous blog by my friend), I recall another unexpected sound. The muffled sobs as I sat down in the bathroom and read the monthly news that I was not pregnant.
It wasn’t some tragedy. We had only been trying for three months. But during those 12-16 days of hoping that it had “worked,” dreams of a child grew. Discovering that this child never existed brought unexpected grief and more sounds I had not planned to make in the mothering realm.
The sounds of a successful conception became fairly routine: agonizing over smells and intense, stabbing hunger. Mournfully eating something that tasted all wrong. Suddenly running to heave all my stomach contents into the toilet. Crying because becoming a mother was torture.
Some sounds of motherhood I alone could hear.
I remember the first time I screamed “Shut up!” at my eldest child. She was maybe 18 months old. I didn’t know then that I was letting a thousand critical voices scrutinize my every move as a mother. It was them I screamed at, but how was my daughter to know? I wish that sound never came from me again, but regrettably it has. A number of times.
Fortunately, the sound of an apology is never far behind, but I have sobbed many times behind closed doors as I torture myself with the echoing memory produced by those sounds.
My first two children were born to a mother enjoying epidural anesthesia. I was determined to bring my third child into the world with complete awareness of how it felt.
I learned from our midwife instructor to do a “low moan” as I breathed out during contractions. As the pains became more frequent and more intense, I wanted to cry out, but I found that a higher-pitched sound set me toward a loss of control. I stuck with the sound I had learned, and my body completed its preparation to give a baby to the world.
Nothing can prepare a woman for the sensation of a train exploding from her bottom. I thought I was about to be destroyed. The whole world went black as I squeezed my eyes shut and screamed as if I were being torn to pieces.
And then I was greeted by a sound that had never been made before. The sound of my daughter’s first cry. The sound of success and completion and relief.
The sounds of motherhood may not always soothe babies to sleep or comfort the child in need, but all of these sounds are part of growing. When a child is born, so is a mother. She needs to grow, and sometimes growing sounds a lot like failure and pain and loss. I have been told many times that I will miss the sounds of children someday. Now I know that I will also miss the accompanying sounds of their mother.
[The title comes from a sweet Mother’s Day song, My Mother Dear. I hope my children believe every word of the sweet Mother’s Day songs, even if those songs rarely represent the typical mother.]