All for Alice, pt. 2 (addendum): Pain made syntonic

In psychology we sometimes make a distinction between “ego-syntonic” and “ego-dystonic” mental states. “Ego-syntonic” states are those we ourselves endorse, those we see as congruent with our identity and values; whereas “ego-dystonic” states are those we disapprove of, those that stand in conflict with the rest of ourselves. This distinction typically gets applied to thoughts and feeling states, but it could in principle also describe one’s relationship to physical sensations, such as tension or pain.

Even though I’ve helped many of my therapy clients accept and even proudly embrace certain forms of temporary pain for the sake of their long-term growth and thriving, I must admit that this has never been one of my strong suits. In fact I’ve always been a bit of a wuss about pain and physical discomfort. Indeed, I once found myself unreasonably thinking that it would be completely reasonable to kill myself if the nausea of a bout of standard food poisoning didn’t pass. Even when in labor with Alice, not only did I aggressively insist on an epidural for the relief of my contractions immediately upon arriving at the hospital, but I even got into a tiff with the nursing staff when they unceremoniously turned off my epidural for the final “pushing” stage.

And yet: when it came to pushing—through the most intense, burning pain I’ve ever experienced and the most mammoth, Herculean effort I’ve ever exerted—there was no hesitation or inner struggle. The doctor and nurses seemed almost a little horrified at my military efficiency as I squeezed out little Alice in a matter of minutes. “You could have fooled us about this being your first,” they mused. But I barely heard them at that point, because the brand new human whom Matt and I had created was now scrunching up her tomato-red face and squirming in my arms.  

The sheer proximity of my goal, and the causal immediacy of how I had to reach it, had changed my relationship to the pain. There was no failing to grasp the mechanism by which every push, every burning and heaving and tearing sensation, brought me physically closer to meeting my child. 

Much has been said and written about the drama of that unrepeatable moment. But what I have found delightfully surprising is that, for me, the same basic pattern survived into the more mundane stages of postpartum recovery and newborn care. The residual aches and discomforts of healing from childbirth; the sleepless delirium; the project of trying to get Alice to drink from my breasts rather than chomp on them uselessly and painfully; the hours of double pumping to extract nourishment from my chafed and battered nipples in the meantime; the pangs of tearful angst over whether I’m doing any of this right; never have I embraced so much pain and discomfort with such profound, unconflicted eagerness.

This would be no less true, I believe, even if I were to suffer a bout of postpartum depression or anxiety, which cannot yet be ruled out. This eagerness runs deeper than any particular feeling or mood state; it flows as a constant current underneath them, giving them context and purpose. Yet it is fueled and maintained entirely by particular experiences: the experience of watching Alice get confused by her own hiccups, catching Matt’s eye as he sees it too, and erupting in a simultaneous bout of laughter as we both plant comforting kisses on her squishy little forehead; the experience of seeing her stubborn determination as she battles her own wriggly fingers for possession of my boob; the experience of sitting together, Matt and I, as we resolve our parenting disagreements and are swept up in a wave of mutual understanding and love. 

Even the painful experiences flow like tributaries into that current of serene, joyful eagerness—because they flow from my dedication to the care and nurturance of Alice.


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