Postpartum Caterpillar Mush
I have this flashbulb memory from early childhood: I’m standing in a patch of sand at the outermost edge of my elementary school grounds. It’s recess on a crisp Autumn afternoon in suburban New Jersey. Two caterpillars inch across my palm. They’re thin and black with spots and fuzzy spikes meant to ward off would-be predators. I turn my hand so they have room to roam.
As an adult, I recently learned that caterpillars turn to mush in the cocoon before they metamorphose into butterflies. They release an enzyme that liquifies most of their body, so that the “free-floating proteins” (i.e. caterpillar guts) can re-form into a winged insect.
I suspect most new mothers know this exact feeling. At nearly three weeks postpartum, I am caterpillar mush. Confined to the cocoon of my apartment, the guts of my pre-baby self ooze from the bed to the bassinet and back again. There’s a lot of napping. And sobbing. There isn’t a lot of showering. My organs have yet to figure out what to do with the extra space inside my body. The physical memory of labor has barely receded.
Meanwhile, my sense of self is AWOL, popping in every now and again with a thought about work, current events, my relationships, my passions…before dissipating in the midst of the next feeding cycle. Am I producing enough? Isn’t she the best thing ever? Is she breathing okay? Am I? And these are the coherent thoughts. Mostly my brain feels formless, uncontainable, a soupy jumble.
But there’s hope. In the process of becoming caterpillar mush, some crucial cells remain intact. Scientists call these groups of cells “imaginal discs.” They contain the instructions to become parts of a mature butterfly. And they were there all along, dormant in caterpillar form.
“Imaginal” evokes a sense of possibility, a future yet to emerge, worth the gooey dissolution. It’s related to the word “imago,” which means both “an insect in its final mature form,” and “an idealized image of another person or the self.”
Could the same thinking apply to humans during our most physical and emotional transformations? I wonder what imaginal discs are floating around in my caterpillar mush. How will they re-form me in these months and years after giving birth, and will I too have wings?