(a.k.a. a very long post)
The mystery of birth, she calls to us like a crone lifting the thin veil between awake and dreamtime.
At some very precise moment during labor and birth (or sometime thereafter) we come to the realization that we have both control and a lack of it during birth. Like the push and pull of two magnets, one sway can send us feeling drawn into our power and then another finds us being pushed away. The symphony of our body, our baby, our brain, and our heart is masterful, at points unknown.
As a birth worker called to bear witness to Birth’s mystery, I’ve had to come to that same place of surrender. What is my role? How could I have impacted the birth experience? Does my mere presence ever impede the process? Could my role have changed the outcome? When do I know how to step back, then step back in, and then perhaps perform this tap-dance seamlessly throughout labor? What word did I whisper that may have struck a perfect chord with her or may have caused her to wince at its dis-concordance?
There are isolated moments that stick out in my mind always. A snapshot of Spirit’s inner workings. A pause in the thickness of hormones and labor and sweat. I come back to them now, always, and my senses are enlivened.
Broadway show tunes drifting in the background while she floated in the tub, as her husband talked of how he took her to see Phantom of the Opera on one of their first dates. His grin. Hearing this song and loving the perfect way the lyrics fit the mood of her birth.
The random break out in mini-dance between me and the midwife as a funky beat came on the radio. Noticing her tattered, perfect jeans.
The tiny panic in her voice as she squatted on the slate floor and grabbed the side of the tub and clenched her eyes closed and groaned “I can’t find the right spot”, as she pushed her baby through her birth canal. Knowing well that intensity of a body filling your own. Her baby’s head crowning not too many minutes later as he said, nervously to the midwife, “Don’t drop the baby!”. The midwife’s kind laughter and reassurance that, by golly, she would not let that happen.
Her flushed cheeks and hair falling into her face as she clutched her baby to her breast and smiled, wider than the sea, up at us repeating breathlessly with hints of a giggle “My baby girl, my baby girl, ohhhhh, my baby girl!”. Her eyes scanned the room, as if to say “Did you see that? I did it!” and all I could do was nod at her with tears in mine. She did it. In about four hours flat. With a grace and sweetness that makes you want to clap your hands all giddy-like.
They are cherubic, Mom and baby. This mama is a kind and gentle spirit, a woman I could serve day in and day out with love. I think she is capable of so much more than she can ever imagine. But, then again, who am I to think she doesn’t know her capabilities?
Making her a plate of food, and of course, including M&M’s. Those being the first bites she grabbed.
The family of three (two more kiddos sleeping soundly with grandparents) soaking in the tub as baby nursed and slept, body partial submerged in the warm water.
An entry under the “baby moon”. A name sake realized. A midwife proud.
A long text message confession in the evening from her: “She’ll come when she comes. I am moving on…I was able to go through a whole bunch of acceptance stages that I usually put off to the last minute; and now I feel really great!”. My long response.
After that big release, her phone call just five hours later telling me her water broke.
The way the moon’s rays shone silvery through the clouds on the drive to her birth. I watched it and saw the clouds part slowly. Soon, there was an opening and smack dab in between the clouds was the almost full moon peeking out, ready to be born. I envisioned her baby coming that smoothly. It was early Easter morning.
Her rocking on the birth ball in her candle-lit kitchen just minutes after I arrived and saying “I don’t want to be touched” as I rubbed her knee gently. Knowing she was sinking into labor land and feeling grateful for the moon. Just 15 minutes later, and she was ready to head to the hospital.
An hour long wait while she was in Triage, wringing my hands wondering if she was as far along as she had hoped. My “Everything OK?” text message and receiving one back saying “She is good, contractions 2 – 3 minutes apart, she wants you to text her some good thought stuff”. Wondering why the hell the staff hadn’t called me back yet, but sending three encouragement text messages back. Laughing at, and loving, this virtual “text-doulaing”. Hearing later how much they had helped her through the intensity and led her to relax and release tension (who knew?).
Walking into the L&D room finally to see her on hands on knees on the bed, a nurse telling me “She’s pushing!”. My client, her own soft gown pulled up to her chest, turning to me overwhelmed and saying “My body is pushing and they say not to push. How do I not push?”. My whisper into her ears “The Doctor is right here, don’t fight your body, just go with it” and hearing her bear down beautifully. The letting go is the most powerful part. The way the rational brain is shoved aside by the primal body.
Less than an hour later, watching a room of nurses wide-eyed and smiling, while she squatted nude on top of the bed, bracing herself with the squat bar, as colostrum leaked from her breasts. The respectful hush of the room. Me wondering why the hell they wouldn’t close the door. Her powerful and controlled tigress moans as her baby’s head dangled from her body and her thighs shook. The Oxytocin rush immediately after her baby emerged when she sat back, and in the moments the Dr. still had the baby, her weary but firm demand of “Give me my baby!!”.
Hearing her later recall “Pushing felt good”.
6:00 am: Quietly arriving in her home to see her relaxing in the birth tub, amid a darkened room full of well-loved books and fairies. Seeing her work through intense contractions by patting her belly and saying “Shhhhhhhhhhh” to her baby. Humbled, through and through, by her resilience.
Many hours later, hearing her snore through contractions on her water bed in the only true rest she got in over 24 hours.
Holding her hand as the tears and fears streamed down her cheeks, reassuring her that she would be a fierce mother, though her instincts were telling her to run away. Allowing her and her man a few hours of space to do this, connect, continue their work. Sneaking in an hour long nap at a midwife’s haven and eating a Krispy Kreme donut before returning.
Helping her into her clothes before leaving for the hospital – 16 hours after I arrived – as she broke down again, begging to stay home to birth her baby. Reminding her that I couldn’t do that, I don’t have the skills, I am so very sorry, you will be safe and protected in the hospital, you can do this.
3cm, 90% effaced, Oh please let her still see the light at the end of the tunnel.
The midwife’s kind face, soft words, tender touch. The mama’s shoulder’s softening, brow unclenching, breath more steady. The looped music of Enya, Gaelic, tribal drums, David Bowie.
Her and him alone in the bathroom in the wee hours as she attempted relief in the warm tub. Her loud cries and sobs and screams and own words that cut her heart to bits. The sound of defeat, though I knew there was no such thing. The knowledge that I could not save her, though ever fiber in my being wanted to find a way.
The strong rhythm of baby’s heartbeat through the craziness and power of it all.
4-5cm. The decision. Tears. Relief. More tears. Taking away pain doesn’t take away PAIN. Emotions. Fears. Plans. Hopes. Dreams. Instinct. Pain.
Noticing her husband is getting ready to leave us, pass out, as the epidural is inserted. Grab a stool just in time as the nurse asks him to sit down with his head between his knees.
5:00am: Finally, hearing her snore as she rested in bed. Making a pallet on the hospital room floor. Awakening twice to the beeping of the unhooked blood pressure cuff. Silencing the alarm. Dreams.
Too much meds, she can’t breathe easily. Scared. Asks for epidural to be adjusted. Adjusted down. Later, too much pain, please bump it up a few notches. She is sensitive to narcotics so it may take time to finagling to get it right. We understand. Anesthesiologist doesn’t. Tension increases and an emotional fight ensures. I place a firm, loving hand on 6 foot+ tall Dad’s shoulder as he clenches his fists and breathes fire. Midwife and nurse get permission fro anesthesiologist (who refuses to come back in to do his job and adjust meds) to adjust epidural. “Thank you, nurse”, she says through streams of unstoppable sobs and tears “He wouldn’t do it for me. He was treating me like a piece of dirt. You saved me from having to hunt him down and do something to him”. Nurse takes offense, “You aren’t allowed to threaten the staff, I am going to have to report you”. More tears of disbelief, discouragement, despair. As if, with an epidural in place, she was actually going to get out of that bed. “No one is listening to me”. Rubbing her numb legs, holding her hand, telling her I’m getting her midwife to come help her.
Time to push. Finally! “Way to go, mama, you did it!”. Still some pain but “Yes, I can do it”, a phrase heard for the first time as she grunts and breathes. She is back!
Pitocin drip turned on.
Hearing the eerie sound of baby’s heart rate in the 200’s. Watchful eyes. No words yet.
10 minutes later, eyebrows raising higher. Temperature spiking. Midwife concerned. Pitocin drip turned off. Tylenol dosed. Baby’s rate not coming down. O2 administered. Still high. She tries not to push to see if baby gets less stressed. “Don’t lie, Leigh, how is she?”, her voice creaks as it slices the air like a sword. My own heart skips a beat, I can’t be dishonest, but I can’t scare her. “They are monitoring it…it’s high, just sending good breaths to your baby”.
“Talk to her! Please!”, as she guides his hand to her belly. Tears in his eyes, strong and quiet “It’s okay, little one. You are doing good. It’s ok” as he eyes the monitor, baby’s line out of the “safe zone”.
In the room. Out of the room. Left alone for a few minutes. “Please don’t do this to me. It’s my worst nightmare. Let me have a chance! Oh God, it’s all my fault! No no no”.
In the room again. “We need to do a C-section”, said kindly, with dignity and a solemn face. I cannot rescue her. I want to, but I cannot. She does not need rescuing. Repeating this.
In her face immediately, tears springing from both of our faces, woman to woman for one moment, flashbacks, and then words: “This is big. You can process it however you need to. No right or wrong. You are still fierce, this is your baby’s birth day. You are so strong. You’ve done everything you could. She needs you”.
“Leigh, I know you, of all people, know how this feels. You understand”, she says firmly. The sobs from body memory come. And I know it’s okay, it feels acceptable, it feels healing and right and natural. Selfishly, I want to give her the promise of what I had, the full circle of a second birth. But I know this is her first and only. This is her birth, the event will initiate her from maiden to mother. This is her full circle.
Lavender oil dotted on her chest. A kiss on her forehead. A hug to the midwife and a knowing, slow nod. “You OK?”, the midwife asks. “Me? Oh, yes, yes…you know….”
An empty room. Memories. Water still rippling in the tub. A birth plan shredded, because it had to be. Baby needs her, baby needs her.
Passing Dad in the hall before he meets up with her in the OR for the birth. Hands on his shoulder. “I know….”, as we hug and his large chest heaves and heaves and heaves. He can no longer be strong. Memories. Jason’s face, holding it all back.
Her being wheeled back into the recovery room as I waited. “She has the chubbiest cheeks. I can’t wait to see her again”, she says in a sleep-med induced state. My heart simultaneously breaking and bursting.
Her tired eyes staring into mine. Her soft voice “I did everything I could”. Tears. Tears. Tears.
Healthy, beautiful, dark hair, 8 lbs. Head and body slightly oblique, thick meconium. Healthy.
Knowing she really did all she could, for a hell of a long time. Her greatest strength was in opening, in a million ways, to birth her baby. Including opening her body, her belly, her uterus to a knife and a hope and the breath of her baby.
The phone call and calm message from her husband at 5:45 am.
Early morning on her due date, walking into her spacious home. The light pouring through the windows. A midwife curled on her couch, smiling and at ease. A hug and kiss to her cheek. “Have you heard about the news? About the baby?”, she asks. In a split second I wonder if baby was born before I got here and I give a confused look. “The baby. MY baby”, she coos as she rubs her belly. Drawn in breath of excitement, another hug and kiss to her cheek. “Number 10. What a blessing”.
In the birth tub, I kneel and smile at her. Her dreamy, heavy eyelids open and reveal ocean eyes. I notice her dimple and her perfect smile. “You are beautiful”, I say. She breathes silently and steadily through contractions. She is ancient, timeless, a didgeridoo, a harp, a gong, soft chimes.
Her mother meditating in the backyard, in lotus position.
Her head nodding and throat purring as I softly massage her neck, shoulders, and back. “What a gift she gives”, my mind says as I think about her graciously allowing me in her most holy birth space. I feel unworthy and utterly okay with it.
Her husband’s wide, eager eyes and soothing spirit. His hug that draws me in, the unspoken words. No need to speak them. Her drinking carrot, apple, and beet juice because she knows her body needs nourishment. Gulping it down, then ack ack ack’ing with her tongue at the aftertaste. This makes us giggle in sympathy. She doesn’t complain.
Softly spoken, as if treading on sacred ground “I am so tired. I don’t want to do this anymore”. There is, wisely, no real weight to her words. She lets the water float them away. An acknowledgement “Your body will provide. Just take a little rest now”. The stillness of her mouth during contractions, as she leans her head against the soft sides of the tub. Her smooth brow. Her delicate hands and simple, clean, clear fingernails . I imagine them caressing her baby soon. I imagine them as mother’s hands.
Her mother, husband, midwife, and I applying counter pressure to her hips and lower back. I snap a photo of hands upon her body. Powerful. We do it alone and yet with others, this birth thing.
Hours later, we offer to leave her and her husband alone for a bit to give them space. She opens her eyes, looks up at us sadly and says “But it hurts when you don’t push on me”. We stay.
The blood from my womb, the tiny seed in her belly, and the mama birthing her baby. It strikes me as poignant, three women in various stages of reproduction and life.
Later, we do leave. Hearing her long, progressive, controlled, awesome moans all the way into the kitchen. The sound of the power of her body, the sound of her baby descending. Upon our return, seeing her husband in the pool with her, supporting her hips and back and encouraging her with confidence.
Noticing the small reflection of her breasts just above the water line, of her husband, and of the side of my face in the blue-clear sides of the pool. Trying to figure out a way to snap a photo of this, but not wanting to disturb the peace.
Emerging from the pool, about 7 hours later, to change positions. “I’m so tired and I want to lay down but I don’t want to lay down and have the contractions slow down”. The battle of the rational mind vs. the primal mind again. She begin to moan her way through contractions, still keeping a steady pace with her breath. Calm and focused. Art in motion. Energy channeled.
Watching her, in a Zen-like series of moments, standing nude by the bed, slowing and rhythmically spiraling and rocking her hips and she holds her belly. Feet firm on the ground, tiny body and strong legs supporting a succulent belly. Her eyes flutter close and she is calm as a dawning morning. It appears she feels no pain, no discomfort. I see her connecting deeply with her baby. She seems blissfully unaware of us in the room. I want to leave her alone but also want to capture this moment of her larger-than-life beauty on video. I resist the urge to do either.
Her remarks that she keeps visualizing the birth goddess statue from “The Timeless Way” video and it reminds her to open. Yes, she is doing this the timeless way. More grunts emit from her. We all pump our arms and silently mouth a “Yeah!”.
On the toilet, we hear a splash. Her water breaks. And then the familiar “Uhhhhgggggghhh” grunt. Yes, yes, yes. That bag was bulging and now baby’s gonna fly down the canal, I think.
Her energy and voice shift intensity, and she can barely catch her breath at times. Sitting on a birth stool, she grasps the front handles with her hands and points her toes with contractions. He sits behind her on the tub, supporting her back. Excitement builds. We see her yoni bulging.
“Feel your baby!”, the midwife suggests. “Noooo”, she breathes, so caught up in the intensity of her work. She is urged to feel again. A hand reaches down to her center, her face lights up, choking back tears and laughter “Oooohhhh, my baby!” We all have a catch in our throat as tears well. His eyes are a bit red and he smiles through the salty tears.
Switching positions so he can see baby emerge, I press on her lower back and grab a video and still camera. Not being able to see baby, I rely on the midwife’s cues. Dad is nodding his head excitedly as he sees baby coming down and out.
Suddenly hearing “That’s baby’s head”, I switch the camera on, slip off my position on the tub, and begin filming. Sure enough, baby’s head has crowned and is emerging.
Squatting and leaning over, videotaping baby’s head from behind and under the birth stool as her head is fully emerged, waiting for mama to catch a few breaths. The closest I’ve ever got a video camera to a baby’s head; a first peek. Amazing. The room is quiet and soft and still. Baby’s head slowly rotates and she pushes.
Midwife guides Dad’s hands down around his baby. Out she slips into his waiting hands. Baby is brought to her chest and her smile is a million miles wide. An uncanny peacefulness still blankets the room; so hushed and beautiful and perfect. “I did it! We did it! Oh my gosh, I can’t believe it did it”, she sweetly chimes as she strokes her baby girl’s fresh, blood-covered body. I love when they say this. It gets me in the heart and gut every.single.time. It is one of the many treats I am lucky to experience. I cherish this, the mother-speak.
Stepping away, not too long after we’ve cozied them all up in bed. Giving them room and time to get to know one another in this realm. Hugging the midwife. Thanking her.
Coming back into the room before I leave and kissing mama on the forehead. I am so proud of her.
I still don’t know the stats (weight and length) on baby. I know her name. A goddess. Siduri.
I am so proud of them all. All mysterious, all answered to her call. All dove into birth to do what had to be done. Every woman does. I know this and feel this in my bones, even in my dreams.
In the end, there is a large part of me that tries to capture it all with embellished words. But in the end, there is also a large part of me that says “Screw it”. Sometimes, the precise words are fleeting and don’t really matter.
Sometimes it’s just a tough, angering, compelling, painful, smooth, uncontrollable, loud, messy, sweet, gentle, insufferable, awful, hard, breathable, ridiculous, peaceful, nervous, damn scary, intensely profound ride that ends exactly the way/as far from the way that you thought it would.
And every moment of it matters.
And I’m just a mere mortal.