Motherhood and the Moon: On Liminal States of Change and Uncertainty
Rebecca Boyle Finds Solace in Lunar Metaphysics
The Sun sets. The Moon sets. But they are not gone. This is from a poem a friend once sent me by the Islamic poet Jalal al-Din Rumi, but I see it as a truth, one that I grasp more tightly than ever. The Moon is not gone. It may be someplace where we cannot see it, but we are never without it. And its influence on us does not end just because it is no longer visible.
“Moon go home?” my two-and-a-half-year-old asked the other night, when she went outside to look for it, not understanding that it would rise after her bedtime. She adores the Moon, this child who modern medicine said could not exist. She loves the nights when it does appear in her nighttime sky, first as a crescent and then half-lit and then as a full Moon. Lately it has also been, for me, a tool for teaching both her and her older sister about the impermanence of life, the consistency of change, and the mystery of death.
I am certain that I am not alone in this. The Moon and its nightly evolution probably helped early humans to understand these concepts, and to hold at the same time the competing ideas of grief and joy, loss and growth. We watch as the Moon changes and grows from a crescent to a glittering full disk. Then we watch it diminish and decline until it gradually disappears. We learn to trust that, over time, it will come again in glory.
The historian of religion Mircea Eliade writes of a “metaphysics of the Moon,” shared by all living things, in his book The Sacred and the Profane. All living things grow, become, wane, and die. “We must not forget that what the Moon reveals to religious man is not only that death is indissolubly linked with life,” Eliade writes, “but also, and above all, that death is not final, that it is always followed by new birth.”
I generally think of myself as lacking time for metaphysical questions, in part because I traffic in the purely physical ones: I know the cosmos is expanding, that millions of suns host untold millions more planets, that life exists on this one because plants can knit sunlight into sugar. And yet I have my own personal metaphysics of the Moon.
It has guided me throughout my life, especially during my most difficult transitions: when I first became a mother, then when I was infertile, then, later, when I became a mother again, and now, newly bereaved. My mother died very suddenly recently, and though I can’t quite write about her yet, the Moon has been with me through my grief now, too. Through the Moon, I have found it easier to understand that transformation, rather than the end result, is what counts. The Moon changes with every spin of the Earth, and so do we. Becoming is the thing.
When I was a child, the Moon filled my mind. It had such beauty and such authority and power. As I got older, my awe softened into inspiration. I remember sitting on the floor of my elementary school library, transfixed by a recording of the Apollo 11 transcripts. Those astronauts were there. I thought I would be an astronaut, too, until I learned many astronauts came from the military. Instead, I studied literature and history in college.
As a young adult, I thought I had outgrown my childish fascination with the Moon. Sometimes it would surprise me, revealing itself from behind the leaves of a tree. Seeing it would bring me back to myself, or remind me to look out for myself. I might go weeks without a glimpse, and then I would greet it again and be surprised at how much it had changed, how much time had passed.Becoming a mother is not a switch from strength to strength, the way our culture and our trad-wife TikTok feeds would have us believe. It is an act of becoming.
When I had my first child, the Moon became a trusted companion. I would sometimes ask it to guide me, the way my own mother prayed to the saints. Hours after my older daughter was born, the Moon was waning toward last quarter, blazing bright in my hospital room window. I had no idea what time it was or even what day it was—I couldn’t move from my bed—but the Moon helped orient me. I was still on Earth; my baby was alive; it must be about 3 am.
During some dark moments of early motherhood, when many people struggle along a spectrum of postpartum difficulty, I learned a wonderful word: matrescence. The process of becoming a mother. Like adolescence and senescence, the biological processes of puberty and aging, it is a state of being that is defined by change. It is to unfold. It is to evolve. It is to undergo.
To experience matrescence is to excise part of your heart and hold its tender flesh up to the world. It is a noun that should be a verb. Becoming a mother is not a switch from strength to strength, the way our culture and our trad-wife TikTok feeds would have us believe. It is an act of becoming, cultivating, flourishing, erasing, creating, rebuilding. What the Moon does every cycle.
In the four years I spent trying to conceive again, I came to rely on my personal lunar metaphysics more than ever. My older daughter would look for the Moon in her bathroom window, ask to read “Moon books,” and I would take note of the phase of its cycle and that of my own.
In retrospect, I didn’t admit this, even to myself. I glanced at it, noticed its phase, noted the weeks passing, and then at the appropriate time, I took my temperature. I waited, and the cycle repeated. After a while like this, I took pills along with my temperature readings, but the cycle repeated. Then, doctors gave me a shot to inject at home, and my husband and I went to the clinic.
But these cycles also came again. Ultimately, I was told the only option was many more injections, every day, which were accompanied by numerous blood draws and ultrasound scans. I readied the vials and syringes and steadied my arm, purpled with failed vein insertions, so I could inject myself. Then I waited and wondered again.
In the middle of all this, I began to write a book about the Moon. I tried to tell its story and I realized this was really a way of telling our own story. I started to more fully consider what the Moon had meant to me, and tried to convey this, hoping that others would see it the way I do. I wrote a draft of my book and I kept watching the Moon change, and waiting for myself to do the same.
The Turkish novelist Elif Shafak, who like Rumi is devoted to Sufism, wrote a lovely memoir of motherhood, postpartum depression, and the literary life called Black Milk. In one chapter she writes of Sophia Andreevna Bers, the wife of Leo Tolstoy. Sophia bore either thirteen or nineteen children, depending on the source, five of whom died during childhood. She was either pregnant or breast-feeding for most of her youth; a “moon woman,” in Shafak’s coinage.
“Her body changed every minute of the day, every week, and every month, filling out, rounding up to fullness, and then slimming down only to fill out again,” Shafak writes.
For many years, I longed for this. I wanted to see the change and the growing fullness in me and to feel what it represented. Instead, I was left always in the waning phase, always diminished. I was never becoming something; I was only failing to do so. I decided to stop the injections and the blood draws and the tests and to stop putting myself through the hope and loss every month. But still, I tracked the Moon’s cycles and my own.
Then one day in October 2020, I met my mom for coffee. We walked outside, because it was still the pandemic. It was the new Moon. The coffee was bitter in my throat in a way it had not been in years, since I was pregnant with my daughter. I took a test when I got home. It was instantly positive. I had seen this before, so I did not allow myself to feel happiness; instead, I began pre-grieving, preparing for the inevitable, which I expected in just a few days, when the Moon came back around again. I told my mom, because I wanted her to be able to support me through the next loss.
But the white strips kept having pink lines on them. And then I heard the heartbeat, and then I felt kicking, and then I learned it was a girl, and then in June of 2021 a different team of doctors—much gentler on my spirit than the ones who said she was not possible—pulled her out of me. The Moon was at first quarter, becoming full. This child’s middle name, in Turkish, means “the halo of light surrounding a full Moon.”Be assured that not-knowing, being able to live in a liminal state of change and uncertainty, is a form of knowing.
I worked through edits on my book while she was wrapped close to me. I was calmed by the smell of her tiny head and the rise and fall of her chest against mine. Whole chapters were revised and rewritten as she slept. I also restructured our entire family around her, as a mother does. I continued noticing the Moon and how it changed as my baby grew.
At some point, looking at another chapter rewrite while she took a nap, I felt something like comfort in the constancy of change. The change was the point. Becoming was the thing. Nothing stays the same, which means everything is temporary, forever, world without end.
I know this is the case because of the Moon. It orbits the Earth, so its appearance changes every night. But it is not gone. I also turn to physics, which the Moon has helped us understand. The uncertainty principle of quantum mechanics, for instance, holds that there is a limit to what we can know about a particle’s existence. The second law of thermodynamics says that disorder is more probable; things fall apart.
Put another way, you can be certain of uncertainty and chaos. You might find some comfort in this, as I do. Be assured that not-knowing, being able to live in a liminal state of change and uncertainty, is a form of knowing.
Rumi helps with this concept. In the Masnavi, sometimes called the Persian Quran, he notes that things are revealed by their opposites. Renewal requires both life and death.
“Life is like a stream: it arrives new and fresh (every instant), while it appears constant in material form,” he writes. “The world is renewed every moment but, in seeing its continuance, we are unaware of its being renewed.”
In this way, I find comfort in the Moon’s inconstant state. Things come and they go with every spin of the Earth. They echo each other, like moonlight on water. Somehow, I returned to wholeness, and my daughter is here. The Moon sets, but it is not gone.
“Your hand opens and closes and opens and closes,” my guide Rumi says in another poem. “If it were always a fist or always stretched open, you would be paralyzed.” The tension is the same for death and life; for doubt and faith; for grief and joy; for darkness and light; for the thin crescent, for the glorious full Moon. They cannot be without each other, because they echo each other, because they are part of each other. They change from one into the other, again and again, in every phase of our lives. None of them is gone, and we can be certain their influence on us does not end, even when they are someplace else, invisible to our waking minds.
Our Moon: How Earth’s Celestial Companion Transformed the Planet, Guided Evolution, and Made Us Who We Are by Rebecca Boyle is available now via Random House.