Thoughts on birth... by Andrea
Don’t we overplay most major events in life? Don’t we overuse words like “excellent”, “amazing” and “excruciating”? Use “never” and “always” out of context?
So why, for certain major life events, like marriage, birth and death, does it seem that we underplay them? Marriage, modeled after some Disney version, is for another blog, on another day. So, for now, is death.
But birth is current for me, and Rosie’s arrival has me wondering why, apart from humorous musings of people like Carol Burnett (to paraphrase: ‘It’s like this: take your upper lip, pull it out as far as it will go, now lift it up and pull it over the back of your head.”), no one says anything, really, about it. Other moms smile a secret, knowing smile, now that you are part of the club. The nurses at the pre-natal classes show drawings, with the mom’s face getting progressively… well, squiggly. I have never felt “squiggly”, so this didn’t mean much to me. The baby books say things like “How you might be feeling: anxious, in pain, worried about the baby.”
But no one said:
You will go inside, deeper than ever before, and a fog will descend on the outside world.
Time, as you now think of it, will change. Contractions will last for eternity, yet the hours will go by like minutes.
At times, you will not just be in your body: you will be your body.
The word “excruciating” will, at last, mean something to you.
You will have to reach for strength in places where you have never looked for it. There is no way to practice this.
And no one said:
If you are lucky, there will be a moment where heaven opens up and pours its light down on your child. You might even hear a moment of angel music.
Memories of a birth...
From the first birth, by caesarian section, I only knew a bit about the contraction part. Before I went under the epidural that time, I got up to move and had one brief and, to me, terrifying glimpse of immense pressure. Wow, I remember thinking. If that’s what’s in store, I’m just as well to go for the anaesthetic.
And yet, after, as I reveled in my healthy boy, I had regrets. There was such a slim chance we’d get pregnant in the first place, and now I had missed the opportunity for this supposedly life-changing event of a “proper” birth. Had I wimped out too soon? Had I done something wrong?
I was able to push these thoughts away and delight in my blessings. But when the miracle of pregnancy happened a second time, I felt that this – a non-anaesthetized delivery - would be part of the lesson. My life often seems to me to be a series of lessons missed, lessons repeated, and I felt this would be one. Or rather, I really, really wanted it to be one, and so it was.
So I dug through files and friends to find you again, Jacquie. My rational mind (what an Anishnabe friend would call “monkey mind”) said things like: You won’t need a doula this time. You’ve basically been through this before. You and Mike and some nurses can handle it. It will probably be another C-section anyway.
My instinct, which I am continually trying to listen to with more open ears, said, call Jacquie. So I did.
Several months later, as I entered the chute into labour about a week early, I found myself panicking, despite weeks of pre-natal yoga meditations and some conscious effort to prepare myself for the event this time around. Last time, I had avoided thinking about my fears, and the pain. This time, I try to welcome those thoughts, especially when Jacquie asks me, is there anything on your mind this time? Pain, I hear myself say. Yeah, she replies, it’s there. You just have to go through it.
But as the early contractions drew me into the cave, I had an initial fleeting panic. I’m not ready yet. I had other plans this week. This baby can’t really be coming now. And then the panic was replaced by the simple thought that, at any point, we could call Jacquie. So we did, and it was off to the hospital.
At first, I was as I say “in the cave”. You can stand up and move around in the cave, you can talk to other people. As dilation progressed – way, way too slowly for my liking – I was still able to respond to her suggestions. Gently rubbing my back; let’s shake those hips, dance that baby down; why not try the shower? In the moment, all movement seemed ridiculous to contemplate, and yet once encouraged, there was always new relief.
And there was her anticipation and reassurance. In the cave, you don’t try to stop your body, or, as my g.p.friends put it, ‘smooth muscle has the power of veto’. With every new turn, Jacquie is there. You’re safe. You’ll feel pain here, and here – it’s safe to feel that pain, go with that pain. (I had a yoga teacher once who tried to get us to meditate through itches, to get us not to lift a finger to scratch at a nose or cheek. “Go into the itch instead”, he would say. “Become the itch”.) So it is with the pain, except that I have no power to do anything but go into it, to become it, or to try to resist it, which doesn’t work. Let go, says Jacquie. Unclench your hands and see what happens. Not believing but trusting anyway, I let go my hands, which have been clinging to Mike’s, and feel myself drop. I’m dropping out of the cave. It’s time to push.
In the state of pushing, I am in a tunnel. I’m not just watching – I’m there. It’s brown in there, and as I push further and further I go through large, flat bubble-like things which are light brown. They are the pain. The tunnel, I now believe, is the birth canal.
The first time I push, I do so naively. The pain is quite something, and I’m just wondering how I’m going to manage it (assuming I’m not one of those moms who later says, almost blithely, well, it was intense, but he was out in 2 pushes), when I hear Jacquie again. She’s farther away now – no one can come into the tunnel with me, there isn’t room for one thing – but I hear her say: push through the pain; there is another side at the end – a place you can push off from. Some people say that it actually feels good there.
Again, I don’t really believe it, but since I’m going to have to push anyway, I go as far as I can. Descent, pain, pain, and – there it is! A push-off place! Now, the descent into the push is like wading through a gooey swamp, and at the end is dry land, terra firma, where I can gather my strength and really step off, back up towards the light, the room, breath, and water. It doesn’t exactly make me look forward to the pushes, but it gives me something to reach for, that will provide some relief and also sense that I am doing something, that we are going somewhere.
I wonder if I can put into words the incredible bonding I now feel to this woman, who can issue directions I don’t believe and have me follow them anyway, only to discover they are true. No, I don’t think I can put it into words.
I am pushing in series of 3-4 pushes per contraction. The tunnel looks the same each time, it feels the same each time and this is odd to me in the moment: why am I not feeling – or “seeing” - forwards progression? Why, indeed, is this kidlet seeming to move, and then slip back? I am tired and tiring faster still, I want to quit, I am not proud, I can’t do this, I feel free to tell anyone who will listen. And, there is Jacquie again, bringing Mike in with her – they are my pit stop crew as I come around the circuit and wait for the next contraction; they whiz around me getting water, moving blankets, getting cool cloths, and always, always, cheering me on, with an energy that only later strikes me as incredible, given that they do not have the adrenaline of labour, and have not had any sleep.
But even the pit stop crew can’t give me muscle power I don’t have. My legs and arms are starting to shake. I find myself mentally ready to push harder but physically, I am just giving out. Even my uterus must be getting tired – the contractions are coming less frequently now (how can that be? I wonder fleetingly) and seem less intense. And my will to descend again and again into the tunnel is waning. Unbidden, I am hearing the voices of women saying “just two pushes.. two pushes… two pushes”. I am starting to feel resentful – where are my two pushes? I’m working hard here! Where the heck is this baby? At one point I reach down to touch the head – I saw this in a pre-natal video, and always thought it must surely be one of the most inspiring things a mother-to-be can do. But as I touch it, all I can think is – great: now where’s the rest of her?
I am spent, but no one seems to be rushing to get me out of this. And now, without knowing where the energy comes from, I try to drown out the womens’ voices. I reach, and what I come up with is what the pre-natal yoga instructor said, as she had us pump our arms to banish our fears. We would pump, in and out, out and in, eyes closed, well past the muscle-burning point, and as we huffed and puffed and squinched our faces up, she would say, calmly, Keep going. You can do this. You will need all your strength and more. You can do this.
So I say, weakly, barely whispering: I can do this.
I can’t imagine anyone will hear me, but Jacquie does, she picks up the line and throws me an end and then pulls, hard: that’s right Andrea. You can do this. You can do this. I allow myself to be pulled along, and we go through some more contractions.
And at last, it is time for the baby to be born. The doctor will help, there will be an episiotomy: OK Andrea, one more push, and you’ve got a baby. Suddenly, the tunnel widens, I can sit up in it, and there is a doorway coming closer and closer. At the last minute, Jacquie calls into the tunnel “Andrea! Open your eyes NOW!
And I do, and there is the light of heaven and the moment of angel music, and my daughter, and my tears and laughter and joy all filling the room, as she, and I, emerge into the daylight, into the world.
Jacquie Munro, founder of the "Slow Birth" movement, is an experienced doula and childbirth educator and is well-known for her individualized, intuitive approach to supporting families in the childbearing year and beyond. Since 1987, she has provided support at over one thousand births, at home and in hospital, and taught thousands of expectant parents. At home, Jacquie lives only a bike ride away from four generations of her family. You can usually find her at the park or beach, playing beside her twin grandsons who call her "Deecy".