Self-Awareness Is [essay] by Susanne Paola Antonetta

Self-awareness is, I realize, beyond the reach of newborns. At birth I had or possessed, and could partly see (a concept that itself hadn’t been conceivable in the dark waters of before) a certain something that I figured out quickly had a different relationship to me than anything else in the world. Preverbal, I could not have named it as my body or my mind or me, just that this thing had a special status compared to anything else, whether that anything was my mother’s hands or the blankets in the crib or the milk and mushy cereal I ate (my mother fed both me and my brother pablum from birth on, saying later that it weighed down our stomachs and helped us sleep). That something had no clear divide from my eyes and head, where thoughts and dreams—pictorial as those were—and sensations seemed to arise, and to provide an echo to what my hands and feet and eyes did.

And this body-thing formed a dual field of operations: if I put a hand in my mouth I felt it both in the mouth and in the hand, unlike with other hands, and if I had the pablum spooned in my mouth it stayed as a sensation, only moving downward—weighing down my stomach—unlike the pablum I flung away from myself, which entered a foreign universe.


Image of 1930s Switchboard Operator

[Refer: This essay put the editors in mind of Kelley White’s poem “First Birth (After Sharon Olds).”]

Susanne Antonetta Paola has published nonfiction, A Mind Apart: Travels in a Neurodiverse World and Body Toxic, and poetry, most recently  The Lives of Saints. Grants and awards include a New York Times Notable Book, an American Book Award, Ken Johnson/Nami award, best book of the year listings by Spirituality and HealthScience and Spirit,, and Library Journal, a Pushcart, a finalist for poetry’s Lenore Marshall Award, and grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and other agencies. Her new book, Make Me a Mother, is a memoir and study of adoption. Her novella, “Stolen Moments,” is currently out from Shebooks. She has coauthored the nonfiction writing handbook and textbook Tell It Slant: Creating, Refining and Publishing Creative Nonfiction, with Brenda Miller. Susanne Antonetta Paola is deeply involved with VIDA, the feminist, grassroots organization representing women in the literary arts. Her website is

Image by LB1860