INSIDE THE MOTHER'S WOMB WE SEE NOTHING, we hear nothing, we are, in a way, nothing. Or we are something, but only barely.
We come to be something a lot like how it was written in the Book of Genesis. From the formless void, over the surface of the deep, we’re created. And we come accompanied by the rising tempo of Aaron Copland's Appalachian Spring. That’s how I imagine it. The orchestral suite being performed somewhere off in the background while in the foreground we gestate to its clarinets and bassoons and flutes and violins, to the clang of its cymbals and the booming thump-thump of its timpanis.
It’s all incredible, because it is. It’s our life.
And we begin our life as a glob of cells, cells that are fusing together one after the other second by second, minute by minute, hour by hour, inexorably on a path towards becoming a multicellular organism that knows itself as a self-aware being.
But at first we’re very quiet about it all. We don’t attract to ourselves a lot of attention. Because in the beginning we’re an embryo and we’re infinitesimally tiny. That will change soon enough. One day we’ll grow to become a fetus supported by a placenta, attached to our mother by an umbilical cord. And many months after that we’ll enter the world through our mother’s vaginal canal and unfurl as a person with a given name, a consciousness, and a family to be a part of. But not yet, not yet. We’ve only started to take shape. And nothing about us at this moment would give a person the faintest idea that within nine short months we’ll transform from this glob of cells to become a baby with a pair of eyes and ears, a nose, a mouth, two arms, two hands, ten fingers, two legs, and two feet.
We’re still so small. Our mother might not even know that deep within her we exist at all, that we are. Because in the early days of life we are, as my dad would always say, a twinkling in our mother’s eye. She’d have to look through a microscope to see the darkening object inside of her ovaries that, someday, will be her daughter or her son. But that is us, hanging suspended in her ovarian fluids waiting for the moment when we will be pushed upwards and out through her fallopian tubes and drained into her uterus. In three days this will happen. And in a little less than four weeks we’ll have attained a shape which resembles a living creature. Because in the past four weeks we’ll have done it. The egg that contains us will have been fertilized by our father’s sperm, the cells will have divided themselves, left the ovaries, traveled through the fallopian tubes, and found a resting place on the uterus’ wall.
At four weeks we’ll appear to be something more, because we are. We’ve become a fetus. A thing that seems impossible for us to comprehend as being ourselves when we look at those images that show what a fetus looks like early in the pregnancy. For how could that thing have ever been us when we look as we do now? In there we're an unsightly creature. We’re not at all human then. We’re an organism still, our bodies suffused with a dark redness brimming with the nutrient-rich blood that our mother is pumping and pumping and pumping into us, giving us life. And when you look at the the images that show this stage in our development it’s as if we glow. A soft reddish light surrounded on all sides by an inky blackness. That’s us. That’s us in our mother’s womb.
Four weeks after that we’ve come closer to resembling a human. That or a misshapen whale, because that’s what I used to think when as a kid I looked up at the laminated poster on the wall of my doctor’s office that showed step-by-step what a fetus looks like as it’s formed inside the womb. This is us at the eight week mark. We’re still a long way off.
We look translucent, almost see-through, veiny, with two black circles, on what looks like a head, that one day will become eyes through which the world will see us and know us and through which we will return the world’s gaze and take part in it. The umbilical cord that ties us to our mother has changed too. Whereas before the umbilical cord was nearly the width of our bodies it now appears spindly and its hold on us looks increasingly tenuous. Because over the last weeks it’s been stretched and pulled as it’s been forced to deliver larger and larger quantities of sustenance into our bodies. But it is strong, and equipped to withstand these added pressures. And we’re not as quiet as we used to be, either. We’re causing quite a stir in there. Our blood vessels are being formed, and they’re starting to pulsate. And we seem to have become much more fragile. As if a single push from the outside might destroy us. But, if everything goes according to plan, we will go on and we’ll grow and continue to develop and get closer and closer to the point at which we’ll become an infant child. But we’re still an it, a fetus. We haven’t yet taken on personhood. We’re just a parent’s hopes and dreams. Because while we’re being formed they are out there every day hoping that we’ll stay healthy, and that there won’t be any complications or sudden scares, and that everything will progress smoothly.
We know none of this.
Inside we float on as if in outer space, our fingers curled into a fist, our head doubled down, our bodies tethered to our mother by a strand that’s supplying us with oxygen and nourishment and keeping us binded to her body as an extension of it rather than as a thing set apart.
Because we are still of her, a growth of our mother’s body. This is at the twelve week mark. Now the fetus is about two inches long and, as if out of nowhere, has sprouted hands and stubby little fingers. And it begins to dawn on everyone that calling it a fetus sounds less and less right. It almost sounds like an insult. It’s a baby now. A full-fledged baby. The black circles have emerged as eyes, though hidden from view by eyelids pressed shut. Its head is recognizable. Its genitalia is now evident too.
We’re chugging along, having gestated now for sixteen weeks. We can open our eyes and blink. Our fingers and toes have fingerprints on them.
The changing of ourselves from human-like to human being is speeding up. At twenty weeks we weigh in at about ten ounces and we’re moving enough to cause our mother to feel it, a phenomenon that the doctors call a “quickening.”
Now is the time that our parents call into a doctor’s office and make an appointment for an ultrasound. Because we’ve arrived at that moment. They drive into a parking lot, sign their names on a clipboard handed to them by a receptionist, and five minutes later a nurse comes out to direct them to a room at the end of a hallway. The doctor walks in fifteen minutes later, apologizes for being late, exchanges pleasantries, and asks that our mother climb up onto the examination table. He turns to flip off the lights and switch on the ultrasound machine. A monotonous hum fills the room as the machine whirs to life, and he smears goo over our mother’s outstretched stomach, running a transducer probe over the goo so that a live image of the baby can be transmitted to a computer monitor situated near our mother’s head. She lies reclined on an examination table that’s sheathed in white tissue paper while her partner stands beside her, holding her hand tight, keeping nervously quiet.
Then the live image shows up on the monitor and he starts pointing at it and saying look there’s our baby doesn’t it look wonderful? The doctor stands by with an impassive look on his face on the other side of the table, a stethoscope hanging from his neck, moving the probe around the stomach to show our parents different parts of the baby. He reassures them by saying mmmm yes the baby does look healthy, its heartbeat seems to be good. But our parents ask the doctor, well is it a boy or a girl? Because they can’t wait, they aren’t able to be like their friends who don’t want to know the baby’s sex until it's born. They want to know. The doctor pauses, smiles, and tells them. It’s a girl! It’s a boy! Either one, it doesn’t matter to them. And for some reason just knowing this makes them so happy, somehow it makes the baby that much more real, and they exhale a sigh of relief at finally knowing.
They begin to cry and put their arms around each other, hugging and choking back tears and blowing their noses with tissues from a tissue box left out on a side table.
But, there’s still many more months for us to go before we’ll get to join this outside world full of emotions and fulfilled dreams. At twenty-four weeks we hiccup. At twenty-eight weeks we can’t keep still. We’re constantly changing position. It seems we’re getting to that point where we’ve been inside our mother’s womb long enough and are eager to get out.
Time, now, is rushing by faster and faster. We’re getting heavier and heavier. Many of us will be born prematurely. The rest of us will remain inside.
At thirty-six weeks the word that springs to mind is cramped. We’re curled in on ourselves in a way that looks quite painful. Obviously we can’t stay inside our mother’s womb for too much longer. Finally, sometime between thirty-eight and forty-two weeks we will be born. And now we’re in our mother’s arms, wailing uncontrollably and clutching our tiny hands at nothing. The nurses will have wiped off the blood and fluids from our naked bodies, dried us, swaddled us, and handed us gently back to our mothers. Now we lie on our backs in her arms. Our mothers’ cheeks blotchy from the exertion of giving birth to us; her hair tangled and matted with sweat, her body still trembling from it all. But she’s beaming and she’s singing soft lullabies to us in a shaky voice. And after awhile we grow tired, our cries begin to lessen, we start yawning, and at the end of it we fall into a deep sleep.
Sam Jackson writes every so often, but mostly he reads and runs Rantoul. He lives in Allston, Ma.
"Mother and Child" by Laura Donworth