Mama Was a Midwife

By Audrey Khuner
Issue 144 – September/October 2007

For the children in our family, there was never any question of where babies came from. My mother never had to buy The Miracle of Life, the goofy cartoon book all my friends were reading. While most parents were waiting until their daughters or sons entered puberty to bring up the old birds-and-bees talk, at age three I was lecturing cashiers at the local supermarket about how the egg can survive in the fallopian tube for about 24 hours while awaiting insemination.

The first birth I can vividly recall was my little sister’s. Eliza arrived in this world as the rest of us had, in a rush of blood and water. I played the traditional role of the big sister at a hippy homebirth, wielding a small pair of dull scissors to saw through the purple, veiny umbilical cord. Any details of the experience that my three-year-old consciousness may have forgotten have since been permanently etched in my brain through countless viewings of the home movie. Mom still enjoys projecting it, life-size, on our living-room wall every time guests come over for dinner. While I couldn’t convince her to stop showing the film altogether, I’ve at least gotten her to wait until the meal has been served. After watching her cervix dilate, guests’ appetites seemed to disappear.

Eliza is now a college graduate, but Mom still insists on getting out the old 8 mm projector and pointing out the exact moment my sister took her first breath. Luckily, there was no movie camera at my own birth. However, that doesn’t stop Mom from telling people about how I was breech and entered this world backward. “And Audrey’s butt was so BIG . . .”

In Mom’s world, everything relates to pregnancy and labor. When I fell off my bunk bed and had to get stitches, she said, “That needle doesn’t hurt as much as labor.”

When I complained about flunking a math test: “Hey, at least you’re not pregnant.”

When I had a hard time memorizing the state capitals: ?You think that’s tough, try “delivering twins.”

I witnessed my last live birth when I was 12. My sister Katie arrived at 1 a.m. on Friday the 13th. This time it was Eliza who continued the tradition of sisterly cord-cutting. I remember every detail of that ten-hour labor, from Eliza and me urging Mom to give birth before Friday the 13th to avoid bad luck, to Katie’s conical, purple head as she shrieked in horror at her new surroundings. Mom likes to say that Katie screamed when she was born and hasn’t shut up since.

Katie grew up like her sisters, spouting facts about human reproduction as soon as she could speak. My friends thought it was cute when she explained in detail how Charlie, our golden retriever, had one penis and two testicles that he would someday use to make baby Charlies. We didn’t have the heart to tell her that Charlie’s balls had been taken years before by our neighborhood vet.

I was 15 the first time I brought a boy home after school. I was a freshman, and Rodney Roberts was a chipmunk-faced senior. His hair was as greasy as his pimply skin, and he skateboarded to and from school every day, wearing a leather motorcycle jacket and carrying a briefcase. I thought he was pretty much the coolest thing about high school since open-campus lunch. I was desperate to impress him and warned my family ahead of time, requesting that they be on their best behavior for his visit. Mom promised to keep the homebirth movie on the shelf, and Charlie locked in the backyard, to avoid triggering Katie’s Penis Soliloquy.

Dinner went surprisingly well. Not once did Mom bring up childbirth or my butt. Katie, three years old, managed to keep up her end of the conversation about Barney the Dinosaur and the Muppets of Sesame Street—all anatomically ambiguous characters, thank goodness. Rodney looked as if he was actually having a good time.

After helping out with the dishes, we went to join Katie, who was quietly coloring on the floor. When she was two-and-a-half she’d finally grown some hair, and now, with her big, blue eyes and blonde curls, she looked angelic. (She’d lost the purple conehead look shortly after birth.) Rodney picked up a crayon and started coloring with her. I silently rejoiced that he was comfortable with children, an important attribute in someone who, I believed at the time, was my future husband.

“That’s a neat picture, Katie. What’s that green thing?” Yes, Rodney would be a great dad . . .

“It’s a tree,” Katie happily explained. “And how about that purple thing over there?” We could raise three or four kids together . . .

Katie pointed to the cluster of purple scribbles. “That’s Audrey’s vagina!” Three girls and a boy, maybe a puppy, and—WHAT did she just say?!”

“Excuse me?” Rodney could not have looked more surprised had I taken off my pants and shown him myself.

“It’s Audrey’s vagina!”

I was horrified. “It—it doesn’t really look like that!” I stammered. I pulled the drawing away from my baby sister, who smiled innocently, her giant blue eyes unblinking.

Rodney looked at us, then started to laugh.

“She doesn’t—I don’t—it doesn’t—” I glared at Katie, who had happily begun to draw again, humming the Barney theme song.

My hopes of becoming Mrs. Audrey Roberts were shattered. Who would marry a girl whose sister was a three-year-old erotica artist? Worse, who would date a girl with a scribbly purple crotch?

Rodney and I stopped seeing each other a few weeks after that, but it had little to do with the crayon incident, and more do to with my discovery that Rodney was already dating Delia Steinman. At 15, that three-week relationship was the longest I’d ever had. Which is why I’ll always remember Rodney fondly, though I never did give him the chance to compare Katie’s illustration to the real thing.

My parents never saw anything wrong with Katie’s artwork. In fact, they found the whole story hilarious, and displayed her drawing proudly on the fridge for the next month. That November, I didn’t bring a single friend home.

My brother, Tyler, was born a few weeks later, but no one in our family was there to watch the birth or cut the cord. My parents flew out to Georgia to adopt him and returned with the last of us four siblings and the first boy. Together, we watched him grow and learn, and all shared equally in the pride and joy when, at 13 months, he uttered his first word: “Sperm.”

Audrey Khuner grew up in Berkeley, California, and currently works in New York City as a copywriter. She is a big sister of three, though as yet a mother of none. When the time comes, she plans on having all her babies at home.

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