The receptionist overscheduled her children. Though she was originally from the sticks, she had gone whole-hog into suburban kid development. She complained about the extracurriculars, fund-raising, fellow parents. Though I was prepared to work throughout my pregnancy as agreed, I couldn’t help but notice how different I seemed from most people who worked in the building, and not just with my physical changes.
Emails would land in my inbox from Corporate: Flu shot “services” were “now available” on campus. I squinted at the screen. “The flu shot is the best way to protect yourself from the seasonal flu,” intoned The Company. Oh! How nice to know the local HR gals happened to obtain advanced degrees in medicine since I last entered the workforce. Corporations-cum-pharma-dispensaries. Fan-freaking-tastic! My work manager sponsored a flu-shot carpool as a team-building activity; would I like to come? I politely — through gritting teeth — declined. (At the time, no one had asked me for my opinions on health, either, to be fair.)
On the entire floor where I worked, only one woman didn’t bat an eyelash when I answered that I would be having my birth at a birthing center. She had a caring way about her and enjoyed swapping stories. In her family, they had five boys. We talked about the vagaries of statistics and the benefits of having a rowdy crew in the family to help protect the ladies. Also, the Director in the neighboring office was widely traveled and had the right attitude: perpetually amused and ready to roast stupidity, but falling just short of jaded. That was nice.
Other days, however, were trying. The customer service fellow who took my leave of absence call had never heard of anyone having a baby at a birthing center, much less at home. So now, in addition to putting in long hours (yes, to prove a point: preggy-barfer I may be, but preggy-slacker I am not), I was taking time out of my workday to educate and suggest intake improvements to leave-of-absence managers. I felt guilty. Formerly a freelancer/contractor, I now had “a good thing” going, work-wise (everyone told me), yet my windowed office seemed more and more like a mahogany prison stalked by shady executive sales VPs as wardens.
Growing up, health and medicine had never been abiding interests of mine. It took individuals demonstrating their ignorance, over. And over. And over. And it took obstacles magically appearing in my way, arising like Nazgûl from Mordor, to lead me to real knowledge.
Then there was the exhaustion, three solid months of it: after an hour-drive home, I was literally hitting the pillow as soon as I walked through the door. First trimester nausea is no joke, and this time it was coupled with an exhaustion I’d never felt before. But I had made a commitment to work. What I had not made a commitment to, unfortunately, was eye makeup remover. After a few rounds of this routine, I woke up one morning to find two obnoxious styes growing on my eye — an outgrowth, it would seem, of that noble commitment, and nasty and pus-laden to boot. So this was not going to be the Vanity Fair pregnancy. Fair enough.
(Apparently, I’m too old for that sh!t anyway. Approving the leave of absence, the insurance medical manager had put in her notes that the medical leave could start a bit early due in part to “the advanced age of the mother.” ‘K, thanx. I left the office with my mid-thirties self and doubled-up on supplements and organic foods. Thank you, Trader Joe’s!)
Thursdays, fortunately, were a reprieve. Our birthing classes took place those evenings at the birth center, led by several midwives, including my own. The classes were mandatory. At first I bristled at that, as I had already delivered two children. But those two children were delivered via midwives in a hospital setting. My new midwives wanted to prepare us all for delivering at their birth center, including nutrition and supplement education as well as dealing with the perceptions of friends and family. Anyway, now I looked forward to the classes. They always ended with a relaxation exercise, where all of us pregnant ladies practiced relaxing every single part of our bodies. Amid a fairly stressful life, I was surprised. I found myself getting excited and happy about having this baby!
The next day, the clash between that gentle, nurtured existence and office existence never ceased to jar me. Concrete parking garage, then emails, small talk, meetings — the corporate drone and buzz: Are we “going forward” at a “high-level” and “managing expectations?” In a position that would be strengthened by personal interaction, I was further stressed to find myself now completely awash with contempt. Keeping up with the Joneses. Vaccinations smilingly unquestioned. Public school or bust. And when it’s time to welcome your new child into this world, where to? Oh right, Hospital A or Hospital B. A snapshot of urban/suburban corporate America. Then, post-delivery — as one female bragged — reporting back to work in as little as two weeks.
Made it out of work — yesssss. Got my “hall pass” from gatekeeper Aetna. Score! Now I could simply “nest” as they call it, and wait a few days for this baby.
Though I had been continually reminded by my midwife and others that normal pregnancies — despite the cesarean-happy ObGyn wards at hospitals — can go as long as 42 weeks and beyond, most of us have been conditioned in this day and age to feel nervous about things not being “on time.” And worry I did, as the days ticked off: week 40…week 41…now week 42…whaaaa? This was pushing the limits of even my granola-crunchiness. We did another ultrasound, and baby passed with flying colors; big little guy, to be sure, but no complications seen.
And we were used to having big babies — my first, where I struggled through gestational diabetes, 9 lbs 8 oz. My second, when I had a solid exercise regimen, much easier and complication-free at 9 lbs 3 oz.
Each had been natural delivery, and labor number three would be no exception (I hoped!).
I took another walk around the birthing center, which resembled a sweet country cottage (but not too cloying), and picked the birthing room with a view, flanked by a ginormous bathtub. I went back home to continue the waiting game.
A few nights later, like a noob, I approached the toddler gate badly in the middle of the night, and fell plum down onto the hardwood floor of my house. Scary as all get-out, even though I had landed on the side of my rear end and managed to brace myself with my arms to cushion the blow. When my husband didn’t respond with the velocity that I thought the grand tumble occasioned, we found ourselves in the middle of an obnoxious argument, right there in the darkened living room.
Now, I understand it — we were both working, looking after children, and majorly stressed. But in the moment, it sucked, real bad. I went to bed in tears, only to wake up a few hours later with an internal thump that felt like a mini sonic-boom in my pelvis.
All at once, I felt the dread that I had been pushing aside, the fear of labor and of childbirth itself. (I wasn’t supposed to have any such fear, by the way: I was educated, experienced in this childbirth thing, and had received natural-birth knowledge even beyond everything I’d researched over the years. How dumb would I have to be to feel fear, right? At least that’s what I told myself.)
I called my husband, who had just made it into work, and let him know he would have to turn around and come back. As more intense contractions started, I looked down and straight-up spoke through the womb, apologizing to my son for not being as strong as I wanted to be, for being a bit lost, for having conflicting emotions. Though I felt slightly cheesy and new-agey, I knew I had to put words to the waves of emotion I had been feeling for weeks and weeks.
It was now dawning on me: of course labor had “taken this long” to begin. I always postpone, put things off, when I am struggling inside. That’s my style, that’s my default rudimentary way of coping. And in the larger sense, when we are not living in a way that’s true to ourselves, when we are holding back taboo feelings, and not taking opportunities to be vulnerable along the way, how can something like labor not be delayed? Baby’s like, “hold the fark on, I’m not coming out of here into your crazy repressed world, lady, no way.”
I don’t know what you’ve heard about water births, but they are awesome. If you’re going to go through the wild sensations of childbirth, how could anyone not want to be surrounded by a warm expanse of water?
I had also put together an awesome Labor Playlist, but once I was at the birth center in that fantastic bathtub and everything got started in earnest, I noticed I had absolutely no interest in hearing that which I had so carefully curated. Luckily I had plenty primed myself with it in the days preceding. (Never underestimate what a heaping helping of Saint Vitus riffs can do for you and your progeny.)
In the gentle protection of the birth room, stillness is what speaks.
I was ready to go, but still fighting the contractions a little. My midwife and her apprentice were like a well-oiled machine of angels. Midwife would coach me on how to breathe and give me ideas on how to move, and then I would try different things, and ask her if something that was occurring to me sounded OK to her, and so on. Apprentice would reach in the water and brace me in the most incredibly relieving way. It was like night and day from being stuck in a hospital bed.
I wish I could report that I was über-earth-mama and didn’t experience the bodily flows of labor as pain, but for the most part, I did in fact experience it as teeth-gnashing pain. Incredibly, however, there were several “waves” in which I experienced it more as sensation, and as I was pushing and groaning from deep inside, I actually smiled. Crazy! Guess these granola-earth-mamas aren’t such unicorns after all, eh?
Did I mention that our other children were in the birthing room too? Yep, I wanted them there. I knew it would do something for us, help us somehow. They weren’t scared at all; in fact, they helped out. As midwives counted, they would count too.
My daughter, all of three years old, came over to the bathtub, touched my arm, looked at me and said, “You can do it.” My heart melted. It was then I felt the reality of what I had been saying for quite some time — the advantages of natural settings and a natural labor simply cannot be overstated.
Moments like this are also part of why I’m glad we weren’t big on the whole camcord-the-birth approach: in the third hour, baby’s head was starting to come out, so they asked me to feel him—yikes, there he was! — and it was then my bewilderment began. I was actually doing this? This was going to happen (again)? Baby was going to be here? Keanu Reeves “whoa” time.
Because of the position of the baby, the midwives were in agreement that we ought to get me up onto the bed. This involved bridging the distance between bathtub and bed. This is one of those moments where six feet seem like six miles. It would have to be done between contractions, so on your mark, 3, 2, 1, now GO! But CAREFULLY! Sure, no pressure, right? My husband told me later he positively cringed as he saw baby’s head halfway out of me, and me precariously positioned between two midwives helping me out of the tub. Good times! After an interminable few seconds, I managed to get myself onto the bed. For some confused reason, my mind assumed that I was going to have to go through dozens more contractions, and uh-oh, I no longer had the warm soothing embrace of the water all around me…and bam, I got super scared again.
But it was not to last. My midwife asked me to push strong as I could ever push, and wouldn’t you know, I did — and all of a sudden I felt the outward rush of baby.
A split-second later, I felt baby being placed on my chest. There was fluid, body, movement — and something that looked like a purplish rope out of the corner of my eye. Just…utter bewilderment. I had experienced more of childbirth than I ever had before in those controlled hospital settings. The bed was a mess, looked like fresh war zone. My previous two pregnancies had included pain-relieving measures during the last hour. In contrast…this was over? We had done it? I had done it? What thaaaa…? Surely I had been in for another long interminable period of pushing, of struggle! No? No more struggle?
I had lost so much blood it was starting to concern the midwives. They let me know that if I lost much more, we would have to go to the hospital. They coached me on delivering the placenta — some more pushing. We left the umbilical attached for as long as possible, then my husband cut it. While they discussed the different contingencies, I focused on my breathing, the room, the sweet new life that was on my chest. Baby started to nurse. I knew I would be ok. I knew I wouldn’t be going to the hospital. It was an inward knowing, a centeredness. I wasn’t taking it for granted, though. I followed every instruction these trusted ladies offered, and agreed to an IV to keep my fluids up while I rested on the bed. It was a sunny, bright day outside.
Once I started feeling better, I could field questions. “Are you circumcising the baby?” asked my midwife. Geez louise! We know labor is hard on the looks department and all, but really — do I suddenly look like a freak who likes to torture helpless infants and leave them mutilated? She was trained to ask this question even though she knew my husband and I, and had interviewed us well enough to know our answer.
“Nooooo,” I intoned, and finished with a grin. She smiled in understanding.
Next, it was time to weigh him — and folks, I really expected a single-digit number. But yes, our son was born at just at 12 lbs. A nice round number, no doubt courtesy of my nice towering Nordic-Teutonic husband, who rounds out at 6 foot 3. In retrospect, it’s surprising I didn’t pass out completely! Even with that large a baby, I had suffered no perineal or other tears, and, after making sure placenta was out and I was recovering slowly, the midwives found no issues with mom or baby. Don’t get me wrong — I felt like I had gotten hit by a Mack truck, but that was no different than the times before.
All the midwives ended their day’s work knowing just how much I loved them, leaked earnestly through mama-hiccups and tears. They are lucky ladies. They get to see little miracles almost every day.
Baby arrived during late morning; we all went home with him as a family late afternoon. For me, there were no overriding feelings other than bewilderment. Pure bewilderment. That didn’t wear off for a few days.
I think I know why.
We have been so conditioned. Modern liberal individualism has been heavy on techne, light on sophia and physis, and it has plagued us with the interventions of traditions that are truly alien. Just recently in the 20th century, previous generations mutilated their infant boys at a high rate. Sitcoms continue to show the crap glamour of the hospital-complex, with AMA doctors as our highest caste. Fear-porn of pregnant women hooked up to machines and begging for pain relief under fluorescent lights, brought to you by H0lly-w0uld, Inc. It’s gross. Just gross, there is no other term for it.
It is astonishing to learn, to slowly learn, to orient ourselves another way.
Breathing is another area that illuminates how we function as a society: I was 18 years old before anyone ever informed me to pay attention to my breathing. To learn about it, that it can help me, to work with it and to join with others to study different ways of deepening it. Breathing well is critical in labor. And even though I advocated for natural modalities in birth, deep down I scarcely felt I could go through something THAT HUGE unscathed by the machine. Yet the midwives knew I could do it. They have a body of knowledge that goes beyond practical training.
Now, I don’t speak in the following way when I’m asked to give talks; they probably wouldn’t invite me to return if I did, so consider this a bonus:
Die-hard proponents of hospital births for healthy women, with all the junk that that brings — anesthesia, vaccines, and circumcisions — are straight-up dumb, and don’t trust the native intelligence inherent in pregnant women’s bodies, in their bodies, and ultimately in all of our bodies. I know, because I used to distrust it, too.
What the f!ck was wrong with me?
“When once it throws out everything that has been put in there by your filthy culture, this body will function in an extraordinarily intelligent way. It can take care of everything.”