Ten years ago when Easter came I was nine months pregnant with my second child and so, for me, the coming of Easter did not mark the end of Lent. My cravings — red wine, Brie, smoked salmon, and the ability to sleep on my stomach (or soundly, in any position) — went unfulfilled. That Lent I joked that there was nothing left for me to give up. I said that I had given up my body for Lent, or that I’d given up sleep and comfort. Pregnancy was my mortification of the flesh, I joked, except that I wasn’t really joking.
My pregnancies were hard. From the moment that I peed on a stick in the bathroom at Target one January night after a day of snowboarding spent falling and weeping, to that October morning when I held my first-born to my breast, my body torn and bleeding, both of us stunned at our sudden separateness, I walked in a 40-week valley of the shadow of the anxiety of death and the uncertainty of life.
Also, I puked a lot. Pregnancy was beautiful, life renewing itself, a miracle, and I felt tied to and trapped in my own body, a wet and oozing bundle of ache and sweat, of itch and acne, of nausea and vomit. There was no magnificence, no halo, no heavenly visitor, no unearthly light. There were only mortifications: dashing off to the church bathrooms, retching, as the elderly church ladies clucked and compared memories; running to my own bathroom, only to puke on the floor; taking a walk and puking so hard in a parking lot that I wet my own pants, unstoppably and thoroughly.
Then, finally, the culminating mortification of labor and delivery: the involuntary grunts, the unavoidable urges to poop and to yell, to shriek and squat. It’s an animal process and it unfolds almost on its own; you watch it move through you, like a tornado through the plains. It is almost unbearably lonely. Like death, like the inwardness of a troubling thought in the dead of night, it is a country we travel through alone, alone, alone. Let this cup pass, I wanted to say. Take it away, I thought.
Two and a half years later, I stayed pregnant a whole month after Lent had given way to Easter morning. I knew, this time, what lay on the other side of all the mortification, all the excreta and agony. When the pains began, we drove through the Scottish countryside where we lived then, and the grassy hills were dotted white and gray with newborns: lambs, calves, goats, their mothers serene beside them, content with the success of an obligation fulfilled. I mused, between pains, about what it felt like for an animal to give birth, though of course I knew. I felt the anticipation of the serenity that they now enjoyed. The Scottish countryside was springing to life, and I was sharing in it too.
Easter came late for me that year, but it came. After that long Lent of pregnancy’s dark nights — depression, self denial, doubt, pain — it brought something new: my little Graeme, whose name means “gray home,” a plain image that speaks to me of the utter loveliness of a place to belong when the sky is foreboding.
I think of resurrection now as a birth story. In many cultures there has been the tacit understanding, born, no doubt, of thousands of years of pre-modern medicine — that to give life is to kiss death. Giving birth could be the death of you, which is why Jewish tradition, among others, calls for ritual purification for women who have given birth. You are not dirty, but you have touched death.
I’m years past giving birth now, but Lent still puts me in mind of pregnancy — the giving up of some bodily delight for the sake of another, the darkness giving way to light. Dar a luz — to give birth in Spanish is, literally, to give light. And so I try to think of all pain and struggle not as punishment, but as the birth pangs of something new — the Lenten mortifications marking the dawn of some Easter joy.