By Cynthia Trenshaw
The constellation Orion was huge in the cold December sky. The Great Hunter looked down on the English moorlands and the little town of Totnes, overseeing the birth of my grandson who, four days later, would be named Orion Reed. Beneath the dark moon and the crisp canopy of stars, the house was warm, moist, and dim.
The living room was prepared to hold Katheryn’s labor and to receive the child’s birth: candlelight and warmth of fire, the dampness of the birthing pool (a hexagonal wood construction holding warm water to ease the pain of labor), the smell of incense, music, pillows and rugs everywhere. One set of curtains shut out the rest of the world, including the stars. Now was a time for inward focus, away from any but the eyes chosen to witness, to assist, and to bless this night. Another heavy curtain gave access to the kitchen: raspberry tea, homeopathic remedies, herbed water, Daverick’s hidden stash of chocolate.
After Katheryn was sure she was in labor, the energy in the house had changed perceptibly. Our feelings of excitement, fear, tension, and joy were intensified as we each wondered how we would respond through the experience. Daverick began to make bread, and the scent of whole wheat and walnuts permeated the kitchen. We were glad for its sustenance as well as its scent; it was all any of us ate throughout the long night.
Around 6:00 p.m. Satya, the midwife, arrived. Her sparkling eyes and delicious smile said that, while this event was serious, it needn’t be somber. Satya had not wanted to be the primary midwife, responsible for record keeping and attention to all the details and decisions; as Katheryn’s friend, she far preferred to be in the supportive secondary role, focusing only on coaching the birth. But there was no other midwife available at the time, so she bowed to necessity.
Katheryn was already working hard, breathing, feeling the pain. I could read in her face that she’d begun to comprehend how intense this could be. Her look called up memories of the trapped feeling of laboring to birth my own children. But how different this was going to be–at home, not giving over the process or the power to strangers with stainless steel tools in hard fluorescent white rooms. This was going to be dark and mysterious, warm and firelit – and risky? I needed to consciously quiet my fearful heart.
Katheryn got into the pool after a couple of hours, kneeling for contractions, rotating her hips to help with the labor. Daverick encouraged her from outside the pool. When he got into the pool with her, I realized that the birthing might be even more intimate than the sexual union that had created this child in the first place. How privileged I was to have been invited to witness it! There was an awesome fullness of gender during the birth: the exerting male energy of Katheryn in labor (after the female receptiveness in conception) and the holding female energy of Daverick (after the exerting male ejaculation of conception).
Sally, an acupuncturist, arrived shortly before 10:00 p.m. She was experienced in birthing and could have served as Katheryn’s second midwife. But because this was to be a water birth, there needed to be an attending midwife with at least three water-birth experiences under her belt; that midwife was Marjorie, who arrived around 10:30. Now the entire cast was assembled.
At about midnight a vaginal exam revealed that Katheryn had not dilated nearly as far as all her work would have indicated–a great disappointment. Her cervix was swollen, and she began to overheat. Marjorie suggested that she get out of the tub and lie on her side for a while. I was relieved to see Katheryn able to rest between contractions; being on all fours in the water doesn’t allow for collapse in between, and even leaning on the sides of the pool between contractions can’t be very restful.
Sally placed several acupuncture needles, by the sacrum and in the feet and hands, and Katheryn experienced some relief. I hovered at the edges of the birthing, not sure just where I fit in. I wanted to be right at the center with Katheryn. I felt jealous of the others, but knew that they had the primary roles. So I contented myself with prayerfully holding the space for everyone else. I brought tea, massaged shoulders, and encouraged each person individually. The few times I was able to take a turn coaching Katheryn’s breathing were wonderful. Marjorie would say, “Not in your throat. Take your breath down to your cervix.” It was clear that breathing into the cervix was much more effective than the natural response of panting or crying out. We all breathed and labored with Katheryn; but this was hers alone to do and to feel.
One advantage of being at the perimeter of the action was that I had a mystical perspective I might not otherwise have had. I became deeply aware of the dark interior of Katheryn’s laboring body, inside the candle-dim dark of home, inside the starry dark of night. Womb within womb within womb.
Then came disappointment when the dilation was stalled for hours, anger that so much discomfort was so unproductive, anguish that there was more pain to come, fear that something might be wrong, apprehension that it might involve going to hospital. And there was the reassuring voice of Satya, stitching it all together, affirming the reality, making it all okay just the way it was. Just keep breathing, breathe down into your cervix, breathe in, blow out, blow, blow.
Daverick was constant in his attention and support. He was totally with Katheryn, not losing his composure, not letting fear get in the way. He held and massaged her sacrum almost continuously. He helped her breathe, helped her move, gave her his energy. It was almost as if he were in a dance with her, supporting and shadowing her every movement and need. I admired the alert patience of Satya and Sally and Marjorie, just letting it all happen, confident that Katheryn and the baby could do this thing they were destined to do together.
I was surprised by my own body’s response, remembering, finding deep places that probably never had healed from my own laboring. After all, what was there to heal, besides the episiotomy? Once that stopped hurting, it was time to get on with things, wasn’t it? In the 1960s there was no thought given to the healing of trauma, to expressing the flood of emotions, to being nurtured emotionally and physically. And so those deep, scarred places twinged inside me as I watched my girlchild struggling to give birth. Katheryn was getting ketotic, trembling, exhausted by the pain and the effort–and still she was dilated only 8cm.
Satya decided it was time to break the membrane. Katheryn squatted on the futon. The little plastic tool was inserted up her vagina, the membrane was nicked, and a huge amount of amniotic fluid flooded around her feet. The midwives cleaned up and eased Katheryn back on her side. Now she was in unbearable pain, and agreed to breathe some nitrous oxide. “I’d probably agree to an epidural if someone offered it to me right now,” she said with an exhausted grimace. She knew her midwives would not betray her birth plan: no drugs.
Katheryn’s whole pregnancy had been a focused growing of a healthy baby inside her healthy body. Everything–from the foods she ate (or refrained from) and the ways she exercised, through active-birthing yoga, to breast and perineal massage–was intended for the health and well-being of herself and her baby. (How different from my own pregnancies, when taking prenatal vitamins and resting sometimes were the epitome of being prepared!)
Now everyone waited reverently, watching Katheryn, admiring her fierce courage, wishing for the end of the ordeal. With each pain, breathe in and blow, breathe in and blow. I massaged her trembling legs. When she began to need to push, the energy in the room shifted. Katheryn squatted on the futon with Daverick sitting in the window seat behind her, supporting her arms on his legs. Two more fierce contractions, then three, and four.
“Katheryn, I can feel the head! Reach down and feel your baby’s head.” She struggled to obey Satya, pulling herself back from her world of pain just long enough to touch the emerging crown. Then there was another massive contraction. Katheryn screamed. And with arms and legs flailing and a lusty cry, at 6:16 a.m. her baby was born. “Daverick, what is your baby?” Satya prompted, for he’d been so caught up in the birth that he’d forgotten to look and announce the sex of the child. “It’s a boy!” he said, his voice catching with emotion.
Katheryn picked up the slippery, warm miracle. She cried, a combination of joy and exhaustion and exhilaration and new pain, for the abrupt emergence of her baby had torn her labia in three places. She held the baby close to her until the cord stopped pulsing. Then Daverick cut the cord, fully releasing his son into this new life. About ten minutes later the placenta was birthed, and Satya held it up. She described how it had been inside Katheryn, where it had attached to the uterus, how it had worked.
Opting not to further traumatize Katheryn, the midwives decided against stitching the labial tears. It seemed to be a tough call. The birthing sheets and towels were rolled up and clean sheets were spread on the futon. We opened a bottle of organic champagne at about 8:00 a.m., though everyone was too tired to be much interested in drinking. Sally went home to her family, and Satya and Marjorie sat at the kitchen table finishing their notes.
Daverick and Katheryn were closed away behind the curtain, being a family of three for the first time. With firelight dwindling, dawn arriving, new candles lit, and silence pervading, the constellation Orion descended over the horizon, pleased to have kept watch as a new soul-his namesake–began to unfold.
Cynthia Trenshaw is a nationally certified hospital chaplain and a nationally certified massage therapist. For the past five years she has worked among homeless people on the streets of San Francisco. She recently moved to Whidbey Island, in Puget Sound, and is writing her first book, a memoir. Katheryn Trenshaw is a fine artist and author of the forthcoming book Breaking the Silence: Creativity and Healing. Daverick Leggett practices traditional Chinese medicine and teaches Shiatsu and Qi Gong; his most recent book is Recipes for Self-Healing.