The birth story of my second child had its beginnings in many places – in the birth stories I heard from my dad who was a natural birth advocate and family doctor in the 70s and 80s, in my mom’s telling of her three births, in my doula work, and the coaching and guidance I have given to women to help them understand, observe and love their bodies’ power.
This story also originated in the abuse I endured during my son’s birth two and a half years ago. That experience shook my belief that others would view me as a full person and treat me as if I were a person. I was yelled at and my body was manhandled and injured as if it were nothing more than an ordinary and disposable object. All of a sudden I understood how many ways our society treats women as not fully human – in feeding rape culture and domestic violence, in denying women basic health care, in perpetuating the pay gap and female poverty and then blaming it on women themselves – but I also understood that other groups are also systematically denied humanity. Children, mentally ill people, people of different colors and religions, trans people, anyone with a bit of gender nonconformity – the list goes on. I suddenly had a small glimpse into the kind of treatment these people face every day.
I couldn’t help but see the issue everywhere I went and it made me want to act. I wanted to make an impact for other people, but I also I knew I wanted a second child and would have to confront this in a very personal way, possibly before I could do any work for others. I started blogging every week of my pregnancy, and I determined to see it through although I did not know what kind of birth I might end up with. I strongly considered that unassisted birth might be the only way I could protect myself.
As you can read in the posts I wrote over the last 40 weeks, I thought hard about what was important for my safety, and I thought about what might be more important than safety. I did birth art and meditation, and wrote affirmations. I interviewed nearly every midwife in the area, and grilled a hospital OB on informed consent. Eventually I came to trust my midwife and her assistant on a level I have trusted few people in my life – my rock climbing partner, my wrestling coach, and my high school English teacher come to mind. And after all that, I gave birth, and wrote this story.
I had been having Braxton Hicks for over a week, and occasionally one or two felt a little crampy, but none of them felt real. One night I felt a few that were more crampy, and thought I might go into labor that night – but I got in bed, fell asleep and woke up in the morning like normal – as I’d been doing all week.
That morning I felt weird, almost hazy, and the Braxton Hicks continued. This was a little unusual since they usually happened at night, but I had been getting signs of impending labor for so long, I ignored them. I did feel distracted, and asked my boss if I could take the morning off because I was feeling “weird.” I texted with him and decided to accompany my husband and son to the morning playgroup.
When we got to playgroup I started chatting with someone, but soon realized I could not concentrate on anything she was saying. I arched my back, eyes glazed over. I said, I don’t know how long I’ll last here! And I laughed a little. Two contractions later I did not laugh and I said we have to GO NOW. Our friends said they’d watch our son until the end of playgroup and we said we’d send a neighbor to pick him up.
As we left I burst into tears. I felt like a supernatural force was gluing me to where my son was and I couldn’t believe I was considering leaving him, at the same time as I knew I had to get home. All I wanted to do was hold him and not let him out of my sight. I felt despair, down to the bottom of my being, at leaving him there. I wanted him with me, wanted to protect him, I felt afraid of what was about to happen, and the memory of trauma rushed through me as I feared for my life and his. But somehow I tore myself away and tottered down the block, crying and holding on to my husband. In the car I started moaning and thanked God it was only a 10 minute drive home. I told myself to trust our friends, our neighbors, and the wonderful people who had promised to watch my son while I labored.
Once we got home I made a beeline for the bath, stripping as I went. My husband had a list of tasks: call the neighbor to pick up our son, call the midwife’s assistant, call the midwife, turn the heater on, turn up the hot water, make a fire, etc… He only managed to make the calls. Even then I was in denial, unsure if we should ask the midwives to come yet.
By this time I was lying on my side in the bath between contractions, moaning and growling, doing horse lips, anything I could. He pressed on my back but the counterpressure wasn’t as helpful as it had been during my first labor. It seemed like nothing eased the sensation for longer than one or two contractions. Pouring water on my back helped for exactly two contractions; counterpressure helped for another one; horse lips helped for about three; changing positions helped for another one; a gloriously passionate kiss got me through two more; more hot water helped; and they just kept coming.
I got out, thinking that peeing might be a good idea, but I couldn’t pee. I saw some bloody show and flashed back to a birth I’d done as a doula where the woman arrived at the hospital and saw bloody show, and thought she was in early labor but was actually in transition. I couldn’t be there yet, I thought as I watched my arms and legs shake uncontrollably.
I got back in the bath. My husband did whatever he could, he answered the phone and the midwife said she was on her way, he poured water on me, he did everything. He made noise and stopped when I told him to, turned the water on, turned it off when I told him to. He was a hero but I was barely conscious of him. Then all of a sudden I reared up out of the water kneeling – “it’s pushing!” Something inside me bore down, it wasn’t even me, and I took shuddering breaths to try to slow it down.
The pain bloomed through my back again and again, I caught my breath and tried to ease the pressure of the beast that made me grunt and hold my breath. I tried to breathe instead of grunt, relax instead of squeeze. But something was squeezing ME. The bearing down happened at the top of the contraction, and my muscles worked hard, hard. The midwives might not make it, I thought. I put my hand over my vagina, and it felt perfectly normal – I thought, ok, so maybe it won’t happen for a while. There’s nothing inside there!
Then a monster wave rushed over me and I chanted “surrender, surrender, surrender,” over and over. In the darkness deep inside my body, a sliver of a sphere began to emerge, like the light of a planet coming into view from dark, lightless space. It was a sliver, a half moon, deep inside, I barely felt it with my hand, my perception of it was extrasensory. It was otherwordly. It was a thing not myself.
It came pushing down, pushing itself forward like a sprout growing up through the dirt or the sun coming over the horizon. It burned fire through my bones as it spread them apart, and I surrendered, surrendered, surrendered. It had a purpose and a direction. It began to flow into my hand, round and slippery and textured, like the earth coming into being. It’s going to come out I thought, I don’t want it to come out. And it suddenly filled my existence, pushing my bones apart and filling my entire hand, as time stopped.
Time held still and I floated there for an eternity, the unknown consciousness paused on its path towards the world, as my fingers explored, slowly under water, all the way around the enormous circle that my vagina had become and the texture of this slippery sphere. I felt my smooth, stretched tissue with wonder. It’s not going to tear, I thought. Is it? No, it won’t. I breathed in slowly and it slid out with a sucking sound.
The midwife and her assistant walked in. I looked over my shoulder to see her beautiful smile, and I said “I love you!” She sat beside the bath and I feared her gloved hands. “Don’t touch me!” I said. She didn’t. “And don’t touch my baby” I added. She breathed and sat. The assistant smiled at me. “I love you too” I said to her.
The midwife asked, “Can I touch your leg here, so this muscle will relax?” I said “Ok, you can do that” and she stroked my leg with the gentlest touch. An arm came slithering out. “Don’t touch my baby!” I said. “I’m not touching it, it’s coming out,” she said. “Relax this muscle, right here,” she said. I felt the other arm come out, so soft, so slowly. More of the body came slithering out in a slow motion tumble, silky, velvety. I felt a pull. “Don’t touch my baby!” “It will fall, can I help guide it so it doesn’t touch the water?” “Yes, that is ok,” I said, and the whole body came out, round-limbed, and the little foot was the last part I felt inside myself as it slipped through.
“I want my baby! Give me my baby!” I said and it was handed like a warm gray animal through my legs, my eyes half open. This is how life begins.
My healing from my first birth has been a constant process since the day my son was born. Many pieces of me had to be put back together. I wasn’t counting on my second birth to heal that experience, change my feelings about my first birth, or have anything to do with it – I thought the two experiences would remain separate. But this second birth has healed pieces of me I didn’t realize were still broken.
It is like for the last few years, I have been looking at the world through a cracked glass, and I became so accustomed to it that I stopped noticing the crack. And now the crack is gone and everything is so gloriously whole in a way that I had forgotten it could be.
The way I inhabit my body has been healed. Sadly, as a result of the abuse I came to view my body as something that others with power and authority could gain access to at any time, for any reason. I walked with fear in my body, especially in cities. I felt that there was no way I could ensure protection, I felt anybody could be a threat. In a way, my body wasn’t mine anymore. I knew in my mind that it was strong, but in my heart I felt it was fragile.
And now I know why it was so important for me that the midwives did make it to the last two minutes of the birth. I am also certain that this healing is not a result of circumstance, the relatively smooth labor or luck. Even if I had had a complicated pregnancy and birth, my midwife still would have upheld my autonomy as she did. And that was the key that unlocked the sacredness of my body and the fighting spirit to know that while living is dangerous, I am still a person worthy of respect. It unlocked a sense of my body as MINE and allowed me to reclaim it, and to reclaim completely my ability to say yes and to say no.
Even though I know to the depths of my being that I can always say yes or no, having someone else demonstrate that she values this as much as I do gives it more meaning in the wider world.