1. the process of becoming smaller.
a shortening of the muscles occurring at intervals before and during childbirth.
Scout, as we know him, had his first contraction in a corner table at Wendy’s.
Two Frosties, two singles (one, no onions). Large fry. Extra ketchup.
Could you ever adopt? a boyfriend asks me. He’s just returned from Kenya on a film project. His heart is heavy.
I’d never really thought of it, I say, pouring extra salt on my half of the fries.
Think about it, he says.
We wipe our hands on stiff napkins, crinkle our wrappers. He clears our tray, holds the door. We leave, both steeped in separate thoughts.
Years later, I marry the boy from the Wendy’s date. A second contraction comes soon after.
Have you thought more about the adoption thing? Ken asks while we stroll the dog around a sunny L.A. neighborhood. I mean, someday?
I eye a rocking chair in the thrift store window, then peer at my reflection. Not really, I say.
I don’t want to rush you, but we should start setting money aside if it’s in the plan. It could take years to save enough.
Bernie barks at the store owner. We walk on.
Time stirs. We buy a house. We change jobs. We pack a U-Haul, drive across the country. We change jobs. We bury two grandparents, an aunt. We bury a father.
Contractions, the process of becoming smaller.
Pregnancy, the process of becoming bigger.
I eat spinach, take prenatal pills. I sign up for a breastfeeding class, ask my midwife questions about “e” words I don’t know: effacement, encapsulation, episiotomy.
I birth our baby at home, laboring in my office. I practice deep breathing between tax records and spare Sharpies. I watch the lines of my Stendig calendar blur into oblivion.
Our daughter Bee arrives.
Scout’s third contraction comes in a darkened nursery after a sleepless night. There is rocking and shushing and swaddling and nursing. The colic drops have been offered, the diaper changed. There’s nothing left to do but wait for sleep to find her.
When it does, Bee’s head falls heavy on my chest in final surrender.
I become a mother.
I’m ready, I tell Ken over sushi take-out. Let’s do it.
The adoption? he asks with a hopeful smile.
I slide a framed illustration across the kitchen counter, a future family portrait. We both look older, wiser. Bee is a young kid. There is a baby in my arms.
The adoption, I say.
The rest of Scout’s contractions come in waves over the next three years: the budgeting, the research, the rerouting from international to domestic, the switching of agencies, the finger-printing, the medical testing, the resubmitting of paperwork, the signatures in ink.
I practice deep breathing between tax records and spare Sharpies. I watch the lines of my Stendig calendar blur into oblivion.
Our son arrives.
Contractions, the process of becoming smaller.
The process of shushing your doubts and anxieties. The process of making room – of filling your handbag with diapers, of filling your day with around-the-clock feedings, of filling your mind with endless “What if?” scenarios and incredulous fears.
The process of shoving a few pieces out of your heart and home and body so there’s enough space for another.
Our final contraction, then.
We are in a Midwestern courthouse. My parents and Ken’s mother are here. My sister has come bearing smiles and hope and three boisterous little boys; her husband arrives on his lunch break.
We put our keys, wallets, phones in a bowl and watch them slide down a conveyor belt. We walk through metal detectors before venturing up to the 17th floor of a building older than our ages combined.
Are you ready? the attorney asks.
Ready, we say.
Ken and I hold up our right hands. We swear an oath to tell the truth. We state Scout’s birth date, confirm his mother’s wishes, confirm our own.
We answer big questions with small answers, and we sum up a history of expectant love in Yes, sir and No.
It is the shortest birth I have witnessed.
The judge leans into his microphone, adjusts his readers. The court is in full support of this adoption; may we not stand in your way. Congratulations. He rises, offers us handshakes, a tissue.
My hands are full with paperwork as we exit the oak room, maneuvering Scout’s car seat past the juror box. Legally, we’ve become greater. We entered the courthouse as a family of three, and we’re leaving together as four.
But I know a contraction when I feel it: the familiar tightening and expanding, the holding of the breath, the other-worldly exhale. Messy and layered, fueled by pain and bliss. There was grief and there was joy. Tears and sweat. Agony and love. Hope upon hope upon hope.
The process of becoming smaller.
This is where we become mothers. At Wendy’s tables and on dog walks. Seated at our kitchen counters and courtrooms. Laboring in offices between tax records and spare Sharpies. We become mothers not when we pee on a stick or hear the heartbeat or learn how to properly install a car seat for that first white-knuckled trip home from the hospital.
We become mothers with every contraction between, when we make the conscious decision to become smaller so another can become greater.
Mothers do this. Fathers do this. Biological mothers do this. Adoptive mothers do this. Mothers in developing countries do this. Step-parents do this. Firemen do this. Children do this. And on and on and on.
We have all had our fair share of contractions.
Mothering is not Cheerios and nursery rhymes and banana puree; it is answering big questions with small answers. It is shifting your very self to account for the weight of a baby, or a burden, or a project, or a joy.
It is the longest birth I have ever witnessed. It is the smallest magic I have ever encountered.
Messy and layered, fueled by pain and bliss. There is grief and there is joy. Tears and sweat. Agony and love. Hope upon hope upon hope.
The birth story of a mother.