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Reckoning with Birth
By Nancy Linnon
I always imagined birthing him in the middle of the night, a velvet midnight-blue kind of experience. Instead, he started into the world at 5:30 a.m., just as the sun drained the light from the moon, and I remember mostly pale shades: the beige interior of my car speeding to the Birth Center; the light peach on the birthing room wall; the egg white tile on the Jacuzzi tub; the ivory lace that hung over a set of French Doors opposite the bed. He is a fire sign, but I think of air on the day he was born.
Early on a Wednesday morning, 10 days before Jacob’s due date, I wake and head toward the bathroom as I have two or three times a night for nine months. This time, though, when I stand up from the toilet, liquid continues trickling down my thighs, pooling on the worn linoleum floor. I wake my husband, Jesse, I shower, and I pay careful attention to the cramps in my lower pelvic area.
“Do you think maybe I just have the flu or something?” I yell to Jesse on the other side of the shower curtain. “The cramps don’t feel the way they said they would.”
In another three hours, I will be seven centimeters dilated, and one hour after that, I’ll be ready to push. But now, in the nascent moments of impending parenthood, I take my time. As I dry off, I suggest taking a walk before calling the midwife. The moon is almost full. I wear black leggings and my “labor shirt”—a white T-shirt that my best friends decorated with encouraging phrases: Just Breathe and Have Him Quickly. I believe we have plenty of time for this stroll, but a couple of blocks away, the cramps begin to slow me down every few minutes. Still, I don’t call them labor pains. We return home and Jesse makes me fried eggs and toast and I clean my plate.
During the previous month, Jesse and I have attended Saturday morning childbirth classes. We’ve learned about the stages of labor, gathered tips on how to make it through without medication, and toured the Women’s Birthing and Health Center in Tucson, AZ where we plan to birth our boy with the help of midwives. In one of the classes, we watch a movie of different women in the throes of natural childbirth: one woman screams unabashedly; another rocks silently through much of her dilating; a third sits big-bellied on a stool in the shower, hoping the cascading water would hurry her labor. Immediately after the baby is born, each woman is shown gazing tearfully back and forth between her partner and the baby. Watching them, I am tearful, too, imagining washes of color and transformation.
It is my first baby, but I feel calm. The day before, I write in my journal to my baby: “I’m ready for you now.” Perhaps ‘ready’ is too confident a word. What I mean is that I’ve done all the preparation work I can think of—not just buying the crib and diapers but discovering a new-found confidence in myself.
The pregnancy was not planned. In late April, I went to the drugstore wanting to buy tampons, but purchased a pregnancy test instead. At home, the two pink lines appeared almost immediately and I paced the house with my hands over my ears, peeking periodically at the stick balanced on the bathroom sink, hoping I would see the two lines join miraculously into one solid not-pregnant mark. Jesse and I were not married, and at 35, I was still unsure I wanted children. In these modern days of “trying” to have a child, my surprise pregnancy left me feeling irresponsible and unworthy. Even at the dawn of the new millennium, being my age, unmarried, and pregnant felt illegitimate. Was I allowed to want a child I did not plan?
And yet, after the initial shock, I realized that not planning the pregnancy did not mean it wasn’t the right thing to come into my life. In fact, as the pregnancy progressed, I felt stronger and more capable than I ever had. The words “fierce with reality” kept going through my mind. I had run across the phrase some years before in a book by Florida Scott-Maxwell and decided to look it up again: “You need only claim the events of your life to make yourself yours,” Scott-Maxwell wrote in her book The Measure of My Days. “When you truly possess all you have been and done…you are fierce with reality.”
Pregnancy provided tangible reassurance of some essential capability I possessed—not just to carry a baby, but to create and persevere—and the self-doubt that had plagued most of my life shriveled. I, like many other women, felt intimately aware of the sacred. One morning, I awakened to a churning energy in the center of my belly, as if Jacob’s spirit had ignited within me as my conscious mind slept. I’d never experienced such an arresting moment.
Seconds after finishing my “in-labor” breakfast, I am laying on our bed, the pain coming in faster waves, and Jesse’s calling the midwife. She asks me how far apart the contractions are and I glance at the piece of paper where Jesse has tried to track time, but I can’t seem to do the math that will yield the appropriate answer.
“I’ll meet you at the Birth Center in about an hour,” she says calmly.
Inside, I know how fast this labor is going to go, and I’m angry that she appears so nonchalant, yet I don’t insist that we need to be at the Birth Center now. Already I have let go of my own reins.
By the time we arrive, I am six centimeters dilated. My husband chats with the midwife about the nature of the contractions, while I am crawling into bed. Even through the pain, I note how lovely the bedspread is—a maroon and green floral print that might be called “English Garden” in a catalogue. Such a lovely place to have a baby, I think, before another contraction prompts from me the low steady hum that will become my laboring mantra.
“Well, I don’t need to check you,” the midwife says, turning toward me. “It’s clear you’re in hard labor.”
I try to remember how many centimeters dilated means “hard labor” but my mind can only focus on breathing through the pain.
“She’s going a lot faster than I thought she would,” I hear her say to Jesse, and I smile. My intuition has been right. I am opening fast and wide for this child.
“The tub,” I blurt out, after another contraction passes.
I have always imagined birthing my baby into water. Once, I watched a video on water birth in the Birth Center’s tiny conference room. I sat enraptured by the large woman in the larger tub pushing a blue baby into the depths of warm water. I only panicked for a second, right after he slid from between her legs: Get him to the surface, give him air, let him breathe. I was surprised by my reaction, by the way I leaned forward over my large belly and felt my mouth parch, even though I knew that he was fine, that babies breathed fluid in utero.
Now, as I rip off my labor shirt (my leggings having been shed long before), I remember the end of the film, how the mother reached underneath the water and lifted the baby gently to her breast. I step into the warm bath the midwife has drawn. I want the water to cushion my baby’s entry into the world, to provide a gentle gateway. Jesse slips in behind me, and I relax for a moment into his arms.
But it’s not like the woman in the video. The contractions come and I can’t get grounded. I try to push my feet into the bottom of the tub, to steady myself by grabbing hold of the sides, but I feel untethered and frightened. In my effort to be natural, I find myself feeling completely unnatural—a land animal drowning. But even pain can’t dislodge preconceived notions sometimes, and so it is in the water, holding onto a bar that swings out from the wall over the tub, that I feel like I should push.
Karen, the midwife on duty who will see me through this birth, is sitting at a desk a few feet away, filling in what I assume is my chart. I want her to look at me, to kneel down next to the tub and cheer me on. It’s not that Jesse doesn’t know what to do: He prompts me to breathe and encourages my progress. When we considered hiring a doula for the birth or including one of my girlfriends, I said it wasn’t necessary. Then, I was still feeling “fierce,” possessing all the intuition and creativity I needed. Now, it is as if the labor pains are felling a flimsy façade. Karen is the only one who knows what to do. I become fixated on having her look at me, needing her to tell me that I’m doing well, that she’s proud of me.
“Jesse, get Karen over here,” I interrupt his attempts at gentle support.
“Jesse, get Karen over here,” I repeat, starting to cry.
I feel like a child whose dive into the pool won’t exist unless Mom watches. The “uninhibited-ness” some women report about labor is conspicuously absent from my experience. Instead, I am thinking thoughts, feeling feelings I believe long ago resolved: someone “in authority” knows more than I do about my own experience, and the someone who knows more might abandon me.
“I think I need to push,” I say hanging over the side of the tub, lifting my head to look at Karen, as she ambles over toward the tub.
“OK,” she says. “Let me check you.”
She finds I’m fully dilated and tells me to go ahead.
“But I don’t know how,” I say, my voice fading, my being overcome with helplessness.
“Just bear down,” Karen says.
I do the best impression I can of what I think she means—with all the appropriate grunts and moans—for an hour. Meanwhile, she leaves the room, returning only to resume her place at the desk. She is not indifferent. Tall with long blond hair that hangs below her waist, she believes that a woman knows how to birth her own baby; interference in the process is usually unnecessary. I’ve always believed the same thing, touted it during my entire pregnancy. But now, instead of being encouraged by her faith in me, I feel abandoned.
The pain is unyielding.
“Nothing’s happening,” I say.
She checks her watch, stands, and walks over to the tub, pulling on a latex glove. She dips her hand into the water and then inside me and pronounces that Jacob is face up; his nose, I imagine, caught on my pubic bone.
“You can’t have this baby in water,” she says.
The next two hours are vivid, perhaps because they will later reveal so much to me about myself. I sit on the toilet and push. I sit on the birthing stool and push. I drape myself over a big exercise ball and push. Michele, my mother-in-law and the only person we’ve invited to the birth, pulls my arms straight in front of me as I get down on my knees and lean over my enormous belly. I still feel as if I’m only doing an imitation of pushing. Karen says it is taking so long because of Jacob’s position, but I know it is because I lack some fundamental ability to push. And I am more devastated by that than by the unrelenting pain.
Finally, I return to the bed, the English Garden bedspread having long ago been removed, and lay flat on my back, the position that I’ve learned from my birthing classes is the worst position of all for trying to deliver a baby.
“Try to sit up,” Karen says. But I am too tired. My perineum burns. I’d once been scared of tearing, but now I just want Jacob to claw his way out. I do not want medication; I just want this baby to expel himself.
Michele wedges herself behind my right side, propping me up, and Jesse gets behind me on the other side. I’ve been pushing for over two hours and have lost all faith that I am capable of this “woman’s” job. It is not just exhaustion that is hindering my pushing; it’s a deep familiar sense of disappointment—in myself.
In the middle of the dramatic monotony of pushing and making no progress, Karen slips out of the room. Before I can feel completely forsaken, however, she walks back in with another midwife and nurse in tow.
“Nancy, I’m Sharon,” the new midwife says clearly, succinctly, pleasantly. “We need to see this baby, so I want you to get mad at the pain and push that baby out.”
It is the first time anyone has spoken louder and more forcefully than my groans and chants. The nurse slips an oxygen mask over my face, but instead of feeling panicked, I feel relieved. A tough, focused energy replaces the quiet undirected atmosphere of the past few hours.
“It’s about power,” Sharon continues. “Reach inside yourself, gather your power, and push this baby out.”
Her words wipe clean the exhaustion that has fogged my mind. At some primal level of my being, it all suddenly makes sense. Anger. Power. Words I’ve rarely had a positive relationship with. I have opened for creation, but I cower from pushing it through, into the world, for me to claim. I hadn’t understood Florida Scott-Maxwell’s words at all.
Finally, after three hours of pushing, Jacob is lying on top of my belly while Jesse cuts the umbilical cord. Karen and the nurse are rubbing him with beige and blue striped blankets. Near the very end, Jacob turned and slid from between my legs face down. I don’t feel I had anything to do with it and am too tired to lift my head to look at him, so I just keep my arms around his little body, my hand instinctively patting his back.
“You’re OK, You’re OK,” I chant in a tone similar to my labor hums. He is screaming at a decibel much louder than my voice, with an energy much stronger than mine.
I am crying, but it is not with the joy I saw in the childbirth videos. I feel as if I’ve touched my deepest flaw, discovered the hollow behind a fake setting. Being open and receptive is not going to be enough in life. As long as Jacob was inside of me, I carried a feeling of personal authority, a belief in myself I’d rarely known. Birthing him has revealed the self-doubt again, the familiar feelings of helplessness, my dependence on those I perceive to “know” more than I do. Everything I believed for the previous nine months is called into question, like the surveyor who finds a crack in the foundation of a house he thought was finished.
Jacob is furious. He gasps for air between screams. The cord, which was wrapped double around his neck, has not done visible damage, but he has clearly felt the threat of death. He has come into the world—as perhaps we all do—knowing that birth is inextricably tied to its opposite.
Jesse takes him from my skin, and without sitting up, I follow Karen’s instructions to scoot down towards the edge of the bed. She lights a large lamp and begins to stitch the superficial tears around my perineum. I hear Jacob screaming somewhere above my head. I feel behind me for Jesse, thinking I should be concerned about my baby’s cry. But in truth, lying on the bed this way feels comfortable and roomy and I am grateful to simply look up at the ceiling.
“Tell me about the birth,” I say to Karen.
Perhaps it is not a strange request: pain, I’m sure, clouds many women’s memory. But it is not really memory I crave. As is often the case when someone experiences trauma, I need to relive the event over and over again, as if the retelling will allow my psyche to catch up to the physical reality. Later that night, I will call friends on the phone and repeat the story of Jacob’s birth numerous times. In playgroups during the first year of his life, I’ll hear women repeat their birthing stories in minute detail. And when Jacob has finally learned to walk—and fall—I’ll watch in wonderment as he immediately wants to re-enact any accident he has. I hit my head here, he’ll indicate pointing to the floor with one hand, holding his head with the other. Is it so I can more fully understand his pain? Is it so he can verify his experience, or heal himself with my affirming nod of the head?
Karen says it was a fast labor for a first baby, and I’m pleased.
“If he hadn’t been face up, you would have delivered this baby at 11 and had a five hour labor. Amazing.”
I will recite that line to myself over and over in the months to come, as if it is evidence of some success I forgot to feel.
When Karen finishes, she helps me sit up against the oak headboard and Jesse hands me our baby. I put him to my breast, remembering that the books said breastfeeding immediately is best.
I stay in that upright position for the next six hours, Jacob feeding on and off the entire time. Friends visit; I eat chicken and mashed potatoes from Boston Market. We chat. We gaze at Jacob. As long as I remain on that bed, the flaws inside of me can be contained. When I finally get up to walk, however, I see how my blood has turned the cream sheets pink, and I can’t imagine the bed ever being covered in anything as groomed as an “English Garden.”
Around 8:00 p.m., Kacy, the new nurse on duty comes in to “help me up.” She warns I might be dizzy or feel a rush of blood down my thighs, but physically I’m fine.
“You recover fast,” she says, following my slow but steady feet to the bathroom. “Most need to stand a while before walking.”
Having a high threshold of pain has always been valued in my family, even bragged about, and I step up my pace, intent on feeling proud of myself.
I sit on the toilet and Kacy instructs me on how to spray warm water over the stitches.
“It will sting at first,” she says. I never wince.
When I come back into the bedroom, Michele and Jesse are already dressing Jacob in the blue zip-up suit my mother has bought for his “coming home.” It is way too big for him, his feet stopping short of where his knees should be. We snap pictures, him lying on the bed where I once lay. Kacy picks him up and hands him to me to hold while Michele pulls a cap over his tiny head.
One of the other nurses retrieves the car seat and Kacy shows us how to safely buckle the straps over the baby. Lifting the contraption with Jacob inside, Jesse strides toward the door as if carrying a basket of apples.
I leave the Birth Center exactly 12 hours after arriving, the maximum time allowed, and am surprised to see our car exactly where we left it. It seems strange that the last body inside that vehicle was mine, that the first body inside again will be mine, as if I am the same.
I climb in the back seat with Jacob, and Jesse walks around to the driver’s side. We back out of the parking lot and I wave to Kacy as she watches another new family start off into the world.
As we wind our way from the Birth Center onto the main street, the car is silent—even Jacob has quieted. We enter our new life together in the darkness that I had imagined birthing him into. I look at him, bundled in blue, and catch his features only as the passing streetlights allow. I catch glimpses of myself in the same way—intermittently, going in and out of shadow. There are so many parts of myself that I will need to raise along with Jacob, fallibilities that I will have to accept if I am ever to truly accept him. I wonder how it will all be possible.
When we make the right turn onto Grant Road, I say to him: “Well, you’re stuck with us now.”
And it is true. I know it is no accident that this child is here now, in our care. There is a reason—a reason that will include not only his growth but my own. I just hope mine won’t be too hard on him.
Nancy Linnon is a freelance writer, editor, and teacher. Her work has appeared in Creative Nonfiction, Yoga International, Brevity: A Journal of Concise Literary Nonfiction and is forthcoming in Los Angeles Review and the anthology A Land Full of Stories: Women Write About the Southwest. Her essay “Hair” was a finalist in the National League of American Pen Women contest (San Francisco branch). She recently received her M.F.A. from Antioch University and lives in Tucson, AZ with her husband, Jesse Vladimirov, and their son, Jake.
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