Of Births & Birthdays

I turn 28 tomorrow. Here's what I'm thinking about.

I’ve been thinking a lot about birth lately.

About a year and a half ago I was feeling almost constantly angry. Politics, the pandemic, online school, online church, a small apartment, cold weather—I guess they all sort of collided inside me in a way that I didn’t like. I felt like I was mentally lashing out at people as a default and it was scaring me.

I prayed for help. A few weeks later I found the Birth Hour podcast, a show where women come on and tell their birth stories. Each episode is about an hour and is an unfiltered presentation of their experience conceiving, carrying, and delivering a child. I have no idea how I found out about the Birth Hour, but I remember the first time I listened to an episode. Our car was in the shop, and I had forgotten that I had told a friend I would come visit her at a care center that was a long walk away from where I lived. Somewhat grouchily, I walked all the way there and back while listening to the Birth Hour. Now, 18 months later, I’ve listened to hundreds of stories and have felt absolutely healed by them. It’s not that I’m never angry. It’s just that anger seems like it has a less comfortable home in my head when I’m thinking about these fresh lives and the mothers that gave them life. I like to think of this as an answer to my prayer. I’m not pregnant, I have no children, I stayed far away from science classes in college—there’s nothing about me that makes me seem like a candidate for Birth Hour aficionado. But that’s why I worship God. God is for me the creator of unexpected connections and unexpected joy that then work to create change in the patterns and make-up of my body and brain.

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My first birthday away from my family was my freshman year of college at BYU. Birthdays are important in our family and so my mom had sent a box of birthday supplies to my best friend and roommate so that she would have candles and a cake mix and decorations. I remember wearing a striped shirt and my roommate’s tan skirt and just standing barefoot out on the quasi-roof deck of those old Heritage Hall buildings. I felt grown-up and also small. One of my roommates made brownies that stuck to the pan so much that you had to hammer them out. I remember laughing about that a lot. A new friend from Helaman Halls brought ice cream from the creamery and a bunch of boys helped me blow out the candles. The Provo air was refreshing, and I felt alive and on the edge of so many things. Friendships and relationships and adventures and knowledge and really my whole life. That standing on the edge of so many things made it a precipice birthday in the best way.

Tomorrow is my 28th birthday. For the first time in 10 years, I’ll be celebrating at home with my family. I was supposed to be celebrating in the middle of a month-long road trip across the country, but when my husband experienced a medical emergency, we ended up at my parents’ house for a couple of weeks instead. In some ways, it’s another precipice birthday. I just graduated from law school, I’m about to move to LA with Alex, and my job starts in October. Our future family, future careers, new cities to love, a fresh slate of friends, adventures—it all lies ahead of us. But it’s different to turn 28 than it is to turn 19.

It feels like this: While my husband was in a room on the third floor of the hospital last week, my best friend was giving birth to her second child just a floor below. We met  when my family moved to Virginia when I was almost 9 years old (so about 10 years before that Provo birthday and now we’re about 10 years after that Provo birthday, if you’re trying to measure my life in 10-year birthday increments). She already has one adorable toddler and it just so happened that the day after my husband was admitted to the third floor of this hospital in Virginia, she was induced on the second floor. I got to come down and chat with her before contractions got intense and then later, upstairs, I watched the clock thinking of her doing all that labor right below us. In the middle of the hospital monotony and gloom, I watched the clock waiting for a new child like I’ve never really waited before. Grief and pain are more familiar to me now than when I was 18, but when I was 18, I wouldn’t have watched the clock with such joy for the birth of a new baby.

This simultaneous joy (new baby) and anxiety (Alex’s medical emergency) in the hospital reminds me of a passage from Wendell Berry’s exquisite novel Hannah Coulter. This passage is a mother’s (Hannah Coulter) description of her daughter’s (Margaret) wedding. This daughter has already lost a father (Virgil) and grandfather (Mr. Feltner). 

I never shed a tear that day, but all day long I saw Margaret as her father and her grandfather saw her. I loved her that day with my love but also with theirs. When I turned with the rest of the crowd to look and saw Nathan bringing her down the aisle…I saw her as Virgil and Mr. Feltner saw her, and I thought I would perish with the knowledge of loss and of having.

Births and birthdays are moments where you can just about perish with the knowledge of loss and of having.

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I always tried to avoid telling people where I was born.

I’m the oldest of seven kids and each of them have a great birth location. Adam: Long Island, New York. Josh and Zach: Madison, Wisconsin. Megan: San Diego, California. Megan and Ella: Leesburg, Virginia. But I was born in Provo, Utah. In fact, though I was born in Utah, I didn’t even make it to my first birthday before we had left for New York. I wouldn’t live in Utah again until I was a few weeks shy of 19 and just starting my freshman year of college, celebrating that first precipice birthday in Provo’s early evening air.

Anyways, growing up, I liked to disassociate myself with Utah as much as possible. It seemed weird and far away. Kids at church would make fun of it and kids at school would squint their eyes as if they didn’t quite know where it was. The most important step in creating this disassociation was to avoid explaining where I had been born. The second most important step in creating this disassociation was to allow that yes, my mom was from Salt Lake City, but my dad was from Virginia!

But what I never explained was that my dad was actually also born in Utah, just like me and just like my mom. He was adopted and eventually raised in Virginia. His birth story is complex and filled with a lot of pain for him and for us. But a few years ago, my brother called through the White Pages of towns in the Adirondack region in New York state, because he heard some of my dad’s birth family might be there. He found my dad’s half-uncle Kenny. Alex and I went to visit Kenny and his family a month and a half ago, before we left Boston and after a visit to Alex’s grandparents in a town not too far away. It was an achingly beautiful trip up through the Adirondacks, through Lake Placid. They live on Lake Clear. Alex’s Nana had sent us off with fresh peaches and I took them out of the car as a peace offering as I stood face to face with the very first biological relatives I had ever met on my biological grandfather’s side of the family. We didn’t have long with them, but it felt like a sacred experience. I hugged Kenny, looked at pictures of the family of redheads I guess they all were, heard about a love of skiing and climbing from that grandfather, rifled through an old trunk of my great-grandmother’s travel finds (she joined the Peace Corps in the 1970s after her kids were grown and her husband had been unfaithful and served in Afghanistan), and left with several small mementos to bring to my dad.

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Who was on the floor above the room where my biological grandmother gave birth to my dad? To whom did she tell her birth story? Does she feel more of the knowledge of loss in that moment, or the knowledge of having? Did it feel like a birthday?

I hope the Utah air shimmered that night—for her and for him and for us—just as it did for me as I, barefoot, blew out nineteen candles on that pan of burned brownies baked from a mix my mom shipped through the mail.