Gendered Pain: A Free Write on Birth, Partnership and the Woman’s Body


There’s nothing sexy about pain.  There’s nothing even remotely redeeming, glorified, cute, or remarkable about pain.

I came into this realization quite quickly Sunday morning when I was dressing Isaiah for mass. I began lowering him to the floor, felt a horribly familiar pop! in my lower back and I immediately recognized that telling radiating heat that spread throughout my lumbar region as I fell on one knee. Isaiah screamed in my ear as he harmlessly wobbled back from me so he peer into my face to see what was wrong.  All he could see was my face going paler by the second and my breath quicken in short spurts and outbursts, trying to control the pain.

No.  No.  No.  No.  No.  No.  No.

Not again.  Not again.  Not again.  NOT AGAIN.

I just got back to the gym this week.  I just started getting back on the treadmill, back in the zumba studio, back for my first swim in the pool.  I just …

I just got over my back injury from last month.

Remembering my phone was in the inner pocket of my purse, I slowly walked to my purse on the ground and gently leaned forward.  I reached and immediately fell and screamed in pain.

I somehow got my phone, I don’t remember how.  (A friend told me that when her back went out, she blacked out from the pain.)  I remember feeling calmed by the smooth surface of my phone, thanking God it was charged and relieved that Nick was only 5 minutes into his day, ahead of me, and on his way to work.  I whispered frantically to Isaiah that everything was fine and threw him a toy as I winced in pain.  He hobbled away, whimpering at the site of his mother in such disarray and distraction.

I burst into tears and could barely get the words out to Nick, “My back…w-w-went ou-ou-out a-a-a-gain…”

It was at that moment that I retreated from the world, the pain was overwhelming, almost blinding.

A co-worker told me later she saw Nick walking on the street when he was talking to me, all dressed up for work, briefcase in hand, but in an unusual walking speed, “a near run” she told me.  So she stopped and offered him a ride to wherever he was rushing to.  “Home,” he said, “Leese threw her back out again.”

It’s hormones, my chiropractor told me yesterday.  All the hormones and chemicals that loosen the pelvis and back, readying the body to deliver a baby, are still in your body and, likely, the lumbar region isn’t as tight as it was before and isn’t as strong.  Doing household chores and lifting things can sprain, strain, and injure the lower back, says the doc.

All of this from hormones?  Still?  It’s been 14 months.

Hormones and chemicals can linger in your body, doc says.

A number of friends – all who have given birth in the past two years – have confided of their recent and surprising chronic lower back pain, some so severe that it prevents mobility.  Few have found comfort.  All have tried natural healing, gym trainers, chiropractors, physical therapists. This strange community of back pain mothers comforts me.

I toss two pills of Alleve in my mouth and tried to smile at Isaiah in the kitchen.  He put his chubby arms up for me to carry him and starts grabbing my clothes for leverage, like trying to climb a tree.  Nick immediately scooped him up and tries to cheer him up with a jolly, overly boisterous voice.  The shriek out of Isaiah’s mouth was one I could interpret instantly, “What’s the matter with you?  Why won’t you pick me up?”  He’s taken away from me and, out of nowhere, I have an image of him being taken away from me the moment he was born when all I wanted to do was hold him.  I shake my head, and gently stir the boiling orzo.

Is this what birthing mothers deal with, I asked my head as I stare at the back of Nick’s body.  His is so strong, so solid.  Simply clad in jeans and a white tshirt, Nick’s body looked beautiful to me; his wide and capable back seemed fearless.  His stride was fluid, like a complicated piece of piano music keyed effortlessly.  I look down at my body.  A staccato mess of surgeries, stretch marks, and my skin’s opinion of the pregnancy weight gain and loss.   I see my scarred belly from three surgeries with another scheduled in the summer to fix an umbilical hernia.  My inner eye sees an exhausted and red lumbar region, a weakened lower back throbbing with stubborn stiffness.  It strikes me, with almost a pin needle acuteness, that Nick’s body hadn’t changed at all since we had Isaiah.  Nick’s body remained intact, with no incisions, no stretches, no torn anything.

I pause in that realization.

His tongue had never mistaken water for metallic liquid.  His nose never became so sensitive as to be able to detect the cleaning fluid on the floor of a grocer.  His heart ventricles never widened to allow more blood flow.  His calves and feet never swelled with unbearable water retention.  His chest never billowed with heart burn.  His mind never clouded with postpartum depression.  His nipples never cracked with pain so deep that his shoulders shuddered.  His skin never broke out in rashes.  He never vomited from anesthesia or used his foreman to protect a 6 inch abdominal incision against a winter chill.  He never had a catheter put in at the same time as a suppository while compressors pumped blood away from his legs.  He never had an abrasion in the back of his eye because the surgeons forgot to completely close and protect his eyes before surgery.  He never had to take pills to stop, prompt, or control a menstrual cycle.  He never felt a flutter of life in his belly or feel the hiccup of a new being inside his womb.

Because he doesn’t have a womb.

Nick did and does everything a parent could possibly do.  He transformed his emotions, his life, his commitments, and reformed his schedule to accommodate me and every little thing I needed throughout my pregnancy and birthing experience.  He respects anything I tell him or request.  Nick continuously and gladly lays in a metaphorical railroad track for me and our son.  If that’s what needs to happen, that’s what I will do, he says.

But in the confines of my bed, nursing this near paralysis, when I hear Isaiah’s laughter and Nick’s efforts to keep him occupied, I realize, with ringing clarity something that I could not have known or respected prior to going through it myself: our bodies are entirely different and our needs are entirely different.  My body endured all of this and my body cried differently than his. I knew this beforehand, but I never really Knew It beforehand.  Maybe my body never really cried until I became a mother.

So this difference between Nick and I exists.  It exists as sharp as a paring knife, as real as our love.  That difference – that my body changed while his did not – initially sprouted a rocketing resentment against anything him, society, and anyone else that didn’t Get It.  It = women’s bodies are a terrain that only we ourselves can travel.  It is not for anyone to lay laws upon.  It is not to be conquered, violated, disposed, or mishandled.  Along with the resentment, I also noticed a widening reverence for my body.  From which new life travels, the woman’s body is the canal to existence.  It is from our very bones, the calcium of our teeth, the marrow of our own breath that the woman’s body offers and sustains a new being.  The woman’s body is the epitome of automated self-sacrifice.  It is the ground zero of renewal — if the environment agrees that her life is valuable and the time to recover is respected.  We women, we give birth.  And we are also born into a new identity and a new body.

Give.  Birth.

Give.

Birth.

Are there two more powerful and daunting words in the English language?

But we women are also prone to set back and injury because of what our spines uphold.  Our bellies swell with life and our spines pull back to hold us up and in shape. Sometimes, though, the spine gives way and loses its strength.

Pain, whether it’s the lower back or elbow, or migraine, or menstrual, is a debilitating state of existence.  Not because of the physical pain itself.  It’s debilitating because chronic or severe pain draws our minds inward, incapable of fully giving of ourselves to anything or anyone else.  In pain, I become unlike myself.  I don’t unravel.  I do the opposite, I am mummified.  Most people, but especially me, are social beings.  I feel endorphins from conversation, laughter, and intellectual exchange.  However, in the confines of a bed and four walls, my spirit goes down.  My intellect goes dim and my emotions begin to go dark.  Swathed and cast in my own stillness and short breaths, pain dictates my freedom.  I no longer care about anything.  All that matters is finding a pain-free, mobile existence.  Which is why when I check all my social media outlets – email, Facebook, Twitter, newsfeeds, and listserves – I shake my head that the world is celebrating Mardi Gras and International Women’s Day.  I wish I had the energy to care.  I find all kinds of interesting stuff to read, but before my mind digests in the information, my back spasms again and I nearly drop my laptop in shock.

Pain draws us inward.

So for me, today, the one day (unfortunately) that calls women from all over the world to stand together, I lie in bed, with my eyes closed, waiting for relief.  Luckily, for me, I am certain of two things:

patience and writing can be worked on in bed

and

I do and can stand up for women’s rights and gender justice on a daily basis.  But right now, regaining my spiritual and psychological composure after a back injury and remembering the awesome capacity of a woman’s body seems like my fight for today.

Tomorrow it may be something else.

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