Liminal: The State of Betwixt and Between

I was texting with a friend the other day about the state of being almost. Almost done but not quite. She compared it to being at mile 20 of a marathon. You’ve completed so much already and there’s only six miles left. But after 20 aching, limping, unending miles, those last 6 miles might as well be 100 for as far away as the finish line feels.

I use a lot of sports metaphors in my midwifery practice. During IUD insertions I tell women we’re rounding third base after measuring the uterus and there’s just one more step between them and solid birth control for 5-10 years. I tell women who are facing down transition, that state right before pushing their babies into the world, that we’re almost at the top of the mountain. I often use the marathon metaphor to describe pregnancy. I have never run a marathon, but I did bike from Seattle to San Francisco after completing midwifery school. Pregnancy feels about as close to the most physically and mentally demanding thing that I have done short of that nearly 1,000 mile bike ride.

Everything I have experienced in this pregnancy has been absolutely normal, and I feel so incredibly lucky to not have faced significant complications that many women I care for face. My job and ability to support my family has not been threatened by my pregnancy, no matter how much I have whined and complained about the nausea, hip pain, back pain, exhaustion, difficulty sleeping.

I have changed a lot of how I talk to the folks I care for over the past 9 months. I didn’t anticipate my own pregnancy changing my practice so much, but, just like pregnancy, you can’t know it until you’re in it. I feel more deeply, listen more closely, reassure more thoroughly, offer more hugs and grounding touches.

I haven’t written much throughout my pregnancy, and not because I haven’t had anything to say. It’s that there’s too much to say, and I cannot write about it in a public forum. Those who are closest to me know that through much of the spring I carried the weight of bearing witness to incredible traumas in my professional life, which severely impacted my ability to feel deeply the emotions of my own pregnancy, bond with our soon-to-be-born little one, and helped me to recognize that I was suffering from prenatal depression myself.

After a lot of talking with my partner, finding a great counselor, reconnecting with good friends from both within the midwifery world and without, and lots of tears, I am finally starting to feel ready to enter my own birth space while having released and processed the trauma I have seen these past few months.

Up until this week, I used to lightheartedly remind women at the 36 week mark that they should be physically and emotionally prepared to be pregnant for another month at least, possibly closer to 6 weeks. After a full night of crampy on-and-off-not-doing-anything-but-being-annoying contractions, and knowing that I myself, possibly am facing down that much more time of pregnancy, it no longer seems like something I could say lightheartedly. It’s actually possibly the worst thing that I could have been telling women all this time, at least, it feels like it to me.

I feel almost blank. A tabula rasa, only knowing what has lead me to this point and not knowing what lies beyond as I entering this time in between; not yet a parent and not quite not a parent. In anthropology, we refer to this time as being in a liminal state. In my pre-midwifery life, I studied anthropology and was a student of ritual, rites, and was especially interested in the process of social transformation.

Rituals all around the world generally involve three steps: first, separation, then liminality, and finally reintegration. In the separation stage, the initiate, or person undergoing the ritual is in some way separated or made different from his or her peers. The liminal state represents transition, and finally, the initiate is reintegrated into their society or social circle with their new status.

Liminality is a state that is marked by a lack of structure, and often thought of as a powerful or even dangerous time in a person’s life and always temporary. It is a state that is, as the anthropologist Turner described it in the 1960s, as “betwixt and between.”

There are a few other times in my life I have stood in a state of liminality: those first shaky breaths prior to beginning my first reading of the Torah at my Bat Mitzvah, standing under the chuppah at my wedding, and now I feel I have entered yet another intense state of liminality before the birth of our first child.

Bringing a baby into the world is one of the largest rites of passage that we experience as human beings, yet in our modern world, there is little ritual associated with not only the birth of a baby, but also with the birth of the mother. There is little space made for women and families not only to prepare physically, but also mentally for this new journey in life. There are many jokes made about “hormonal” pregnant women who will cry and laugh and act “crazy” at the end of their pregnancies. What I believe we are experiencing is the intense emotional and physical separation from our peers while we enter this liminal, dangerous, and unstructured time at the end of pregnancy but before parenthood. This is what I feel I must now convey to women. That they are feeling on the edge because they are. That this is normal, and that this stage of liminality is essential to their preparation for the next part of this journey.

When we rode our bikes out of the door of our too-tiny apartment and clamored onto the ferry to take us across the water to begin our bicycle journey three years ago, we had no idea what the journey would be like. I imagined that it would be hard, but I couldn’t anticipate the deep fear I felt of failure, the intense physical experience of climbing upwards and upwards, mile after mile, hoping we were strong enough to make it all the way down the coast. Half the time I wished we had never hatched up this insane plan to begin with.

But then the day came, warm and bright as we packed up camp for the last time. We serenely pedaled along the lagoons of Point Reyes Station, entered Marin county, and climbed the steep ramp to the Golden Gate Bridge. The wind made it impossible to hear our whoops and hollers of joy and I had never felt so triumphant.

The best metaphor I can think of for this pregnancy has been that bike trip, as strange as it sounds. At night I would lie of my sleeping bag, stare up at the orange interior of the tent that I had gotten to know all too well and picture what it would feel like to cross that bridge. It is what kept me pedaling through rain and dampness that didn’t go away for days. It’s what kept me pedaling after I had a breakdown on the side of a busy Oregon highway, declaring that I just couldn’t do it anymore.

Now, as I lie awake at night, little feet adorably jamming themselves into my ribs, I picture what this new little life will look like. Will they have my hazel eyes and olive skin? Will they have the bright blue eyes of my partner, his laugh and wide smile? What will it feel like to pull this baby onto my chest, triumphant, at the end of one incredible journey, my liminality ending, and integration into the world of motherhood beginning?

Just like all the women who have stood at this place before me, I don’t know what lies ahead, but having intimately watched the strength of birthing women for years, I can only trust in my body and this little body inside me to know what to do when we pedal up to the bridge.

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