Creating this space was Jessica’s idea. Although both of us tend to mark time in our lives by writing, my writing tends to be more fragmented and half-formed. Jessica is far more accomplished at polishing and publishing than I am, so it comes as no surprise that by the time I finally trucked my patoot into our shared blog project, she had already populated it with a variety of thoughtful posts. All of which means that my first visit here was as a reader, not an author. The bonus of being late to the party is that she’s already started the conversation, which makes it easy to jump in with something to say, though sometimes the words needed to sketch out this new reality for someone else feel frustratingly elusive.
I suppose it’s worth starting with the birth of the hobbit, Samwise. (Our babe is so dubbed on this blog thanks to his small stature, big feet, love of the outdoors, general good nature, and his voracious appetite. Think breakfast, second breakfast, elevensies, brunch, luncheon, afternoon tea, dinner, supper…the list goes on. More on that in another post, I’m sure.) One of Jessica’s first posts really resonated with me: her reflections on what it meant and means to have a low intervention birth, free of pain medications. Like Jessica (and my mother and my sister-in-law and a handful of my friends), I guess I, too, “went all frontier woman” for my birth. If, that is, you discount the fact that I birthed in a hospital after 9 months of awesome prenatal care, regular chiropractic, and a very opportune visit to an acupressure specialist. Not exactly a rough scenario, in many ways. But, realistically, what many people are interested in is the epidural or lack thereof. There was no epidural. There was, however, more than a week of near-total sleeplessness, thanks to an extended prodromal labor and the intensity of the days-long, post-birth adrenaline rush. There was a shopping stint at the local food co-op when contractions were two minutes apart, prompting the deli manager to check on me as I stood, silently swaying, at the end of the hot food bar next to the veggie korma. There was an emergency response team frantically searching the ground floor of the hospital for me at one point. There was also a lot of blood. And as I lay in bed hours after the birth, wide-eyed and trying to calm my racing heart, I told my husband, “I want to do that again.”
Birth is predictable, in the sense that some steps have to happen for a natural vaginal birth to take place. You gotta grow that baby. The cervix has to dilate and efface, the uterus has to forcefully and progressively contract, the pelvic bones need to move and the ligaments stretch, and that baby has to work its way out from the snug safety of the womb to take its first breath in the wide expanse of the world. However, births are far from predictable. Variables such as the mother’s and baby’s health, their physiology and proportions, the baby’s positioning, the stressfulness of the environment, the support the mother has as she labors, and how prepared and informed the mother and support people are about the process of labor—all these things matter profoundly in determining outcomes and the path that will be taken. Some women or babies need and benefit greatly from the interventions offered in hospitals. However, most healthy, prepared, and well-supported women can give birth with minimal intervention. I was lucky to be one of those women. I’d had an uncomplicated pregnancy, great prenatal care, a lot of birth education, wonderful doulas, a well-positioned and healthy baby, and as the descendent of Norwegian immigrants, I had the bonus of being a larger-than-average woman who gave birth to a perfectly average-sized babe.
While pregnant, I read a heartbreaking and thoughtful post on why the healthy baby isn’t the only thing that matters about the birth experience. It’s such a common thing to say when a woman has a particularly difficult birth experience that results in a lot of pain, in unplanned surgery, or in scars—literal or metaphorical—she will wear for the rest of her life: “You have a healthy baby, though. That’s the only thing that matters.”
A healthy baby is an amazing gift, and most moms who have babies born with health problems would be more than willing to bear their babies’ burdens themselves if it could but make their babies well. But, even so, it’s dispassionate and short-sighted to tell a mother struggling to make peace with a difficult birth that a healthy baby is the only thing that matters. The mom matters. Her experience matters. Her feelings about the birth, about what her experience does to her and for her, matter. The birth isn’t just the beginning of her child’s story; it is one of the most powerful and intimate chapters in her own story, and it colors the first few days (or weeks or months) of her developing relationship with her child. How amazing to begin with your child feeling that his entrance into the world was one of the most beautiful experiences of your life. It’s what I wish for every woman who chooses to have a child. It’s what my birth experience with Samwise was, even without painkillers, which may surprise some people. In fact, considering the particulars of the birth, part of why it was so intensely positive for me was because I had a team of people who cared about me and trusted in me, but I had nothing blocking or confusing the physical sensations of birth.
Birth is incredibly intense. I remember feeling nearly overwhelmed by the powerful surges rocking my body, remember feeling like surely my bones were creaking as they moved to create space for the baby’s path. But with the trust I had in my body’s capacity for birth, with my husband holding tight to my hand, with the hands of one doula stroking my back through contractions and the hands of the other repeatedly offering a bottomless glass of ice water and murmuring words of encouragement as I labored, the strain and stretch of my body felt strong and productive rather than something painful that I wanted to escape. In many ways, it reminded me of the summer I rode my bicycle, alone and laden with gear, along the Pacific coast from Canada to Mexico: the burning intensity of the climb up seemingly endless peaks in northern California, the protesting joints and muscles the day I rode a hundred miles before sundown, the swell of emotion experienced when teetering on the nonexistent shoulder of a narrow, winding road wrapped around a sheer cliff that tumbled to the ocean, the feeling that surely, my body wouldn’t be able to keep on doing this, even as I knew it already was. With nothing to numb me from what I was feeling, I was startled to feel and instinctively identify details of the birth that I treasure. I knew, for example, when his ears and nose emerged because I felt them as tiny pops, each one like a miracle. The only true pain I felt−that is, pain that felt simply like pain, not like intense effort−was a white-hot, ripping sensation just after those three beautiful pops. It felt as though someone had grabbed hold of my son and was tearing him from my body rather than letting him come on his own time. It lasted only a second before vanishing. It turned out that one of his hands, snuggled securely and stubbornly next to his cheek, was more than my body had bargained for, and my labia had torn from the pressure just as he made his exit. Despite the initial hurt, however, it healed both quickly and comfortably in the weeks postpartum, thanks to the resiliency of the tissue and my doctor’s skill with needle and thread.
My labor started on a Monday afternoon and ended on a Thursday evening. It was a lot of hard work. That’s pretty much the nutshell version of my experience with labor: an all-consuming physical effort with a few mercurial seconds of pain. It has left me with my most treasured memories and a lot of wishes for my own child. The healthy baby matters, yes. But a healthy birth experience also matters. For the mother. For her partner. For the new family.
If my son should choose to have a child of his own someday, I hope he and his partner have as much laughter and joy and hope in the birth story they write together as his father and I have in his. I hope his partner is amazed by the power of her body, by how strong and resilient she is. I hope they find the most beautiful people, familiar faces and strangers, meeting them with open hands when they most need them. I hope my son and his partner discover new depths to the trust they have in each other as they navigate through the birth, an experience impossible to know and a path impossible to chart in advance. I hope my son knows, as his father does, what it is to lie awake in the dark and be the force pushing back against the contractions rocking his partner’s body as he lends his strength to her hips. I hope his partner knows the unshakeable stillness that follows a powerful contraction and that, in that stillness, she discovers that she is still herself even then, smiling and laughing and asking that white Christmas lights be hung to welcome the baby. I hope they both know what it is to hold their healthy baby for the first time and marvel that anything could ever feel so brilliantly alive. I hope that after the birth, when they are lying awake in the dark listening to the racing of their hearts and the soft breath of their babe, the words on both their lips are, “I want to do that again.”