Around ten pm on November 28 I took a few last pictures in the mirror, standing to the side: “For posterity.” As I laid in bed afterward, I told the baby that he could come that night – that I was ready for him, and so was my body. He responded with a few of his throbbing kicks and jolts. In my bones I felt a heavy peacefulness settle over me, and as I fell asleep I focused my mind on the visual cues I’ve been meditating on throughout pregnancy: a wide circle fashioned out of water; a flower coming into bloom; an endless crashing of waves.
Around midnight I woke up suddenly and completely. My water broke as soon as I stood up – though initially I was skeptical that it was just that, despite the amount. I’d already told myself it wasn’t likely my water would break at home – it doesn’t happen nearly as often as they make it out to be in the movies, believe it or not, replete with elated screams and shots of the dad running out the door with a pair of shoes tied around his head in confusion. But the heavy feeling in my bones – an imperturbable, preternatural sense of “knowing” – was far more certain that any lingering questions I had about just what the fluid was indicating.
The breaking of the membranes was accompanied by contractions. After timing them for awhile I went downstairs to make myself something to eat, sensing that I only had a brief window of time to get something in my stomach before things became too intense. The cats followed me down, screaming and leaping around as usual; I fixed them their breakfast (saying it like that makes it sound as though I made them crumpets and jam) and then got myself some toast topped with peanut butter. Mid-way through the toast I had a contraction that got my attention – it was markedly more intense – and finishing the food wasn’t enjoyable, but I knew I’d need the stamina so I forced it down.
After that I phoned my doula Mary to let her know what was happening. We both agreed to go ahead with the plan that I labor at home for as long as I felt comfortable doing so, and after that to notify the midwives and hospital. We hung up, and I felt a mixture of reassured and excited: so this was really it.
I drew a bath for myself and got a glass of wine. The warm water was such a welcome relief; I hadn’t quite registered just how painful the waves (i.e., the contractions: semantics mean a great deal to me, so throughout labor I referred to the contractions in my mind as “waves”: hearing the very word contraction elicits a bodily response in me, making me more prone to tense up) were becoming.
By this point, time as I’ve ever known it was beginning to cease, and I entered a very instinctual place mentally. I had the presence of mind to ask K to put Audrey Assad’s Fortunate Fall album on, and in between waves I could still talk with him somewhat casually. But eventually the waves progressed to the point that I couldn’t speak through them, nor could I focus my eyes on anything in particular: it was like the eyes of my body had been replaced by a deeper set of eyes, as odd as that sounds; and my visual way of understanding and apprehending data was replaced entirely by some other mechanism. My focus went entirely to the waves as they came over my body. They were so all-consuming that distracting myself from them wasn’t even an option. I began to tell myself with each wave, “This is one contraction I will never have to have again,” “Each wave brings my son closer to me,” “I’m ready to meet you, my son.” I reminded myself again and again that I could trust my body and trust the process – that in this moment, I was more connected with the natural flow of things than possibly ever before. I kept my jaw slack and my mouth in a circle, and found that making low mantra-like sounds – “oh, oh, oh” or “sh, sh, sh” helped me move through each time.
There were moments when the pain was so great that I wasn’t able to keep my voice low and steady. At one point, after getting out of the tub, I went into the closet to grab something to wear, and a wave came over me that made me fall to the ground. I don’t remember feeling panicked at this; more just surprised at the force of the experience, surprised at just how pervasive it was – like every cell of my body was being engaged in it. I let myself cry out in pain, figuring that expressing that now was better than suppressing it or pretending – even with myself – that it was less painful than it truly was.
I’ve been trying to find words to describe what the pain of labor is like, and have been finding that, as with the topic of time, it is decidedly difficult to describe. Perhaps that has something to do with its relationship to time, on a cosmic scale. (My inner Jimminy is berating me, now, saying that if I were to try to probe too much into that line of thought I’d undoubtedly end up sounding like a total roob.) But take that for what you will.
The best I can describe it is to say that the pain of labor is the most focused, all-consuming, overwhelming, terrible, progressive, creative, sensational, and personal pain I’ve experienced. It was “being done unto me.”
I went into the bedroom after getting dressed and climbed into bed, thinking maybe I could find a position to labor in comfortably (by this point my thoughts, as I mentioned earlier, were becoming less clear). As soon as a wave began, I dropped onto the floor and turned so I could cling to the side of the bed; with my arms outstretched in front of me across the mattress and my head bowed, I moaned through until it passed. K came in then, sat on the bed and gripped my hands as the next wave came on; I found that having a resisting force to pull against helped me relax throughout my body, even as it was being racked by the contraction. (In Australian birthing centers, it’s common for birth-rooms to be equipped with thick ropes hung from the ceiling: this allows women to support themselves and work with an opposing force while bearing down in the squatting position – which, from a gravitational stand-point, makes a great deal of sense when pushing out a baby.)
I have no idea how long this part of the process lasted. Eventually I knew we shouldn’t stay at home any more, and I told K it was time to head out. On the way out the door I forgot my toothbrush, but I did remember to pour some food for the cats (who were, once again, leaping about and screaming excitedly. I tell you, they knew something was happening).
The drive to the hospital was a bit tortuous. K drove as fast as he could while I writhed in the passenger seat. The contractions were very strong at this point, and I couldn’t force myself to relax through them because of how uncomfortable the car was (sitting at a 90 degree angle during labor isn’t jolly fun). I couldn’t bear to be touched and felt like my body was being torched from the inside-out with each wave that came: I was sweating profusely beneath my puffy and fleece, but in too much pain to get them off. Each contraction was accompanied with a wall of intense nausea, and I wondered if I would vomit. I thought, at the time, that maybe it was the wine that was making me feel nauseated – ridiculous thing to wonder, given the context of the situation; but I didn’t realize then as I do now that I was in active labor. Additionally I felt the urge to bear down, which alarmed me: I knew what I was feeling was my son, pressuring against my body, on his way into the world.
The drive felt neither short nor long. It just was, and being secondary to the event of labor, I hardly registered it.
After a quick check-in I was wheeled into a tiny room where they took my blood pressure and checked how far dilated I was. What a relief to hear I was already at 7 centimeters! Had it been less than that – say, something totally depressing like 2 centimeters – I’m not sure if my spirit would have stayed strong. The pain was great and the waves were unrelenting at this point – maybe 30-60 seconds apart – and in between each one, my body convulsed and shook involuntarily. “It’s hormones,” they told me, “Very natural part of the labor process.” Needless to say, I’d been in labor for only a few hours and was already feeling exhausted, both from the mental effort of relaxing through each onslaught and from the physical demand of forcing a human through my body.
Jen, my other doula, came in shortly thereafter. Her joyful demeanor and familiar face helped calm me into a rhythm, although I couldn’t speak much at the time. The nurse took my blood pressure several times, as she was alarmed at how high it was; Jen told me later that her first assessment upon coming in was that my contractions were very intense indeed, and she wondered what kind of night lay ahead.
Soon enough it was time to go to the birth room. It was dimly lit and everyone spoke in soft, confident tones – except for one brusque nurse who, by the end of her shift, had seared herself forever in my memory as a mortal enemy (not really. But kind of). She was just trying to do her job, which required her to make constant check-ups on my and the baby’s vitals – but her manner in doing these tasks was harsh. I could feel my body tense up a great deal whenever she was near – my focus would weaken, I’d go rigid with irritation, and the pains would become less embraceable. We were all relieved when she went off-duty and took her grump elsewhere.
The emotional setting in which a woman labors makes an enormous difference on how things go down. Each person present gives off certain emotional “vibes” (no, I am not a chakra advocate) that consciously or subconsciously affect the woman’s ability to relax. Giving birth is a tremendously vulnerable experience – maybe the most – and, while it has the potential to be perhaps the most empowering event in a woman’s life, it also has the potential to be deeply traumatizing, depending on a number of factors. Some of those factors, medically speaking, are outside of the mother’s and birth team’s control – but others, such as the emotional and psychological climate of the room, can be planned for in advance. This was a huge part of the reason why I knew I wanted a doula. Even before I was married, let alone engaged, I asked my cousin Mary to be present at my first birth: not only is she an intimate friend who knows me well, but she’s also a mother and experienced birth-coach. She knows my history, my joys, my struggles, and my hopes. We share values and beliefs regarding life, death, birth, and most things in between. And – perhaps most crucial of all – she is also a woman, and has an understanding that goes beyond words and procedure. I was lucky to have Mary’s sister-in-law Jen present during my labor, as well – Mary suggested she come in case she (Mary) got tired out during my labor as a result of being nine months pregnant herself. Fortunately my labor didn’t go very long, so they were both able to be present throughout the duration.
After getting positioned on the narrow bed and laboring for a little while, Jen drew a bath for me. It was a relief to step in – especially that first moment of lowering down into the warm water. I was comforted being in a smaller space with two trusted women. We put my birth playlist on and, in between waves, they discussed how things were progressing. Sometimes my mind cleared enough during the brief pauses between contractions for me to enter in to the conversation: mostly I just listened or went inward, gathering up strength for the next wave.
The one song I can clearly remember hearing was “How Can I Keep From Singing” – in particular, this line: My life goes on in endless song above earth’s lamentation. I hear the sweet, though far-off hymn that hails a new creation. Through all the tumult and the strife, I hear its music ringing. It finds an echo in my soul: how can I keep from singing? In that one moment I felt total peace, a peace beyond understanding. A wave was gripping my body and I surrendered to it completely. I sang the words aloud as I swayed back and forth with the sensation of the contraction: a slow build, a peak, a falling away. I thought of everything I’ve been trying to surrender in my life this past year – so many enormous, painful things – and I let my body express that surrender, because that is what it wanted to do – it’s what it needed to do. “Don’t be afraid to go into that pain,” Jen would say, quietly. If my eyebrows began to knit at the start of a wave, she would reach out and touch her fingers to my head, saying, “let your face relax.” Often being given just a simple instruction – such as relaxing my facial muscles – buoyed my spirits enough to face the wave with the right mixture of determination and acceptance. Relax my face – I can do that. Relax my body. I can do that. Bear this boy. I can do that. Don’t fight my body. I can do that.
When I was a child, I came up with a coping mechanism for physical pain. I found that, if I thought of it with an attitude of curiosity and openness, it didn’t cause me mental anguish. It just “was”: it was a sensation to experience, a sensation that would eventually fade. This probably sounds odd, especially when you consider it occuring in a child – I remember describing this mental process to my mother, and she definitely looked bewildered – but it’s served me well through life. While I was walking the Camino, during the most physically taxing moments I would envision the pain as “someone” I could “invite in for tea” – basically, I assessed that, even though I was in great pain, I wasn’t in any danger; and I didn’t need to be afraid of the feeling. I could rework my thoughts regarding the pain such that, in a sense, I had a certain agency in the matter – I was choosing it.
Don’t mistake me: I’m not a fan of pain. I don’t go looking for it. If one of my arteries were severed in some unfortunate event, I wouldn’t be calmly saying to the sensations coursing through my brain and body, “Care for a cup of Red Rose, imminent death? Come in for a visit! Tell me about yourself!” But I have found that it pays off to be objective – as objective as possible, any way – about what kind of pain I’m experiencing in my body. This step of assessing pain and the danger it presents – or lack thereof – has prevented a lot of unnecessary suffering.
There’s a difference between pain and suffering. The difference is the presence of anguish – that is, mental, spiritual, and emotional distress. Childbirth, for as painful as it is, is a natural process. It is innate to my physiognomy. Maintaining the perspective that the pains of childbearing are ultimately creative, not destructive (barring medical emergencies and other health complications that can occur when things don’t go as they ought) was one of the biggest pieces in achieving a satisfying labor.
After awhile in the tub, the urge to bear down became very strong. Under the midwife’s direction I changed positions so that I was more directly aligned with the contractions: I leaned forward with my arms resting on the edge of the tub. Mercy – the pain was great. But I felt safe and loved.
As intense as labor was at this point, the room was filled with peace. Looking back now, it reminds me of a time I was hiking in the Adirondacks. I was standing on the bank of a wide, tumultuous river. The water was moving with incredible speed and ferocity. It looked dangerous, mighty, and much more powerful than I. Yet it was exactly as it should be, and in that, it possessed some kind of restfulness. As I watched it flow by, I felt a tinge of sadness, almost like envy but without the weightiness: how I wished to know my part in all of it, to move with that same confidence and serenity, unafraid of the gifts God has given – unafraid of letting his power crash its way through my life.
I have often felt that way when I’m in nature. I’ve never seen a tree going through an existential crisis – It must be nice to be so rooted, physically and metaphysically. But God became man, not a tree; so I’d rather take the tension.
Mary and Jen sat on either side of the bathtub, and the midwife, Sarah, sat at the head of the tub, unobtrusively keeping an eye on my face and body language as I breathed through the waves. All three of them abided with me as I worked to bring my son into the world. It was one of the most reverent experiences of my life – an experience of sisterhood and community unlike any other.
“I want to push,” I declared at one point. I was afraid Sarah would tell me to wait, but she seemed confident I was at that point. She checked my dilation and said it was a go: “Push whenever you want to.” I felt a rush of adrenaline at those words, hardly believing that things had progressed to this point. To think that my little boy would be in my arms so soon – that I was almost there…
The pushing took about two hours. My sense of time was totally nonexistent through this portion of labor: each time I looked at the clock I was shocked to see how much time had passed. With every wave I pushed as hard as I could. My whole body was soaked in sweat from the effort, and I could feel my hair curling around my face as heat radiated from my body. My lips and throat were as dry as the Gobi desert, but Jen stood by my side and offered me little sips of water and gatorade after each contraction had passed. The smallest gestures of love can be acts of great magnitude, depending on how you look at it.
There were moments during this phase when the weariness I felt went beyond the limits of my brain. I would look to Mary and simply say, “I am so tired. I am so, so tired.” It was a mercy that my sense of time was nonexistent: I wasn’t able to consider the thought of not continuing. I was totally in the moment, and when the moment found me exhausted and spent, I simply remarked on it. Mary’s response was unwaveringly the same message of confidence and love: “You are tired. You’re working really hard and you’re doing a wonderful job. You’re so strong, Alanna. Soon you’ll see your son.” Other times, if I had a moment of fear, I would look to Mary and she would simply look back with complete understanding. As helpful as the midwife’s instructions were – her style was more task-oriented and challenging – the most helpful thing of all was that look of silent compassion from Mary or Jen.
It seemed that nothing was happening – that all I’d been doing was pushing with little to no progress. I had a moment of wondering if my child was anywhere even close to making his way out of my body, and felt frustrated and confused because the sensation of needing to bear down was so intense and immediate. Was there even a baby to be had? If so, why wasn’t he moving? “Tell it to me straight,” I said, finally, “Is he actually getting any closer to coming out or am I just about to have a huge shit?” I was half-joking, and meant to make them laugh; but I was also serious and a bit desperate. They did indeed laugh and said, “Feel.” I reached down and felt something that was definitely not me. “That’s your son’s head. He has a thick head of hair, by the way.” Something about feeling my child for the first time, and learning about a distinct feature of his – a thick head of dark hair – brought me a feeling of deep elation and courage. My resolve was strengthened again, and I went back to pushing with greater determination.
But still, he wasn’t able to move past the pubic bone – things were just too tight. I won’t go into details regarding the methods they tried to get him through, but let’s just say it was by far the most excruciating part. Finally, when his little heart was slowing from the effort and the contractions had begun to wear off (I was pushing out of sheer grit for the final forty-five minutes or so) the midwife informed me they were going to proceed with an episiotomy. For those unfamiliar with the term, this means they get some scissors and, um, use them. Frankly I was relieved when she finally said this, because I’d figured it would come to that point anyway, based on my genes and physique. I was so bruised by this point that I actually didn’t feel anything except for a popping sensation, almost like when you’ve fastened a button just a tad too loose and the fabric suddenly becomes un-done and your shirt flies open. Within moments after that, with a couple more pushes, my son was set free.
I don’t know how to describe the feeling of a baby leaving your body. It is unlike anything else. The physical sensation is tied intimately with the psychological reaction – relief, disbelief, wonder, elation, complete & utter accomplishment. It almost felt like a water balloon bursting – a water balloon filled with a small person.
“He’s here! He’s here! Here is your son!”
“Your beautiful boy!”
I heard his first cry – a watery, determined, bewildered cry. They laid him on my chest and covered us with warm blankets. I held him and kissed him, comforted him – “It’s done now; you’ve made it. You’re here with mama.”
It was 7:41 am on Nov. 29.
(PS: I’ve noticed an alarming amount of vitriol and dogmatism surrounding the topic of childbirth. In particular, there seems to be a trend that encourages people to perceive “shaming” when there isn’t any: for example, I’ve read a handful of blogs from women who chose to get epidurals and who insist that every other woman is judging them unfairly because of it. In my experience, I’ve never actually come across any woman giving her account of natural labor at the expense or belittlement of women who have chosen differently, whether for medical or personal reasons. The wonder of carrying a little burgeoning life inside one’s body is astounding: and it’s something every mother has experienced. The wonder of meeting your child for the first time is also a shared experience, regardless of what steps were taken during labor to achieve that first sweet encounter. That is the thing that ought to be celebrated and rejoiced in: the bringing forth of new life, the start of a new chapter. Why do we waste our time and our hearts on something as petty as who’s “more badass” as a woman? This is apples and oranges, here. It just doesn’t matter. Let’s just build one another up, and bite our tongues unless we have good things to say, things that will really help one another.)
How Can I Keep From Singing