Transformation Through Birth
In the spring of 2006 I traveled to Egypt with my husband on a visit to see my brother and his wife, who were living in Cairo at the time. Shortly after arriving, I began feeling sick. I brushed it off assuming that I had a touch of the “Curse of the Pharaoh” that western tourists sometimes encounter while traveling in the Eastern Sahara. We spent the ten longest days of my life taking in the stressful magic that is Egypt. On the last day, after getting stranded in the Sahara desert, being scammed by several locals, watching feral cats spray the festering mounds of garbage in the street, having way too much to drink and vomiting out the window of a bus traveling 70 m.p.h though the Sahara, and getting hit by a car I announced that I would not be leaving my brother’s apartment again until it was time to go to the airport. Everyone was quietly wondering why I was being so incredibly cranky. I was the worst travel partner ever.
After being home for two weeks and still feeling sick and cranky, my husband decided that it was time to bring home a pregnancy test. There it was, two pink lines taunting me with their undeniable reality, clouding my brain with the impending doom of responsiblity. I took that little stick back out of the trash about ten times that day, each time hoping that I was mistaken the last time I looked at it. This most certainly wasn’t the plan.
I spent a few days pretending that it wasn’t real and trying to sleep as much as possible. After that I was ready to accept that, yet again, life showed me that I don’t get to plan and control everything that happens. I resolved myself to be in tune with this baby and do my best to give this child the best possible life that we could manage. I knew that my husband would be an incredible father and I knew that we could do it together because we are such an excellent team.
My maternal instincts kicked in and one of the first commitments that I made to myself was to do my very best to have a healthy pregnancy and a natural birth, as long as there were no complications. I found an incredible Doula who helped me prepare myself. She gave me tons of advice as well as reading assignments that empowered me to have confidence in my abilities as a mammal to care for myself. I stayed healthy during my pregnancy and I was able to feel strong and ready on the day I went into labor.
Two days before Thanksgiving I woke up feeling pressure in my lower abdomen and back. I decided that, although she wasn’t due until Thanksgiving Day, I was having her that day. From the knowledge gained through my work with my Doula, I knew that I needed to stay physically active in order to have limber hips and muscles. My first task was heading to a mall with a one mile circular path through the center. I spent three hours doing two laps. When I came home I went to the basement and hauled out all of the Christmas decorations. I put up the tree and trimmed the house and then made cookies in the kitchen.
After a hot bath and my first glass of red wine since I found out I was pregnant, I was ready for bed. Just as we were preparing to go to sleep I felt an intense sensation in my stomach. I leapt out of bed and my water broke. Within an instant, my contractions were a minute apart and I was screaming at the top of my lungs. I had never felt such a blindingly excruciating pain in my life. I took a hot shower and braided my hair into two tidy French braids in the calm moments in between my searing contractions that put me on the floor.
My husband called our parents and our Doula to let them know that the show was on. We headed to the opposite side of the city to reach the hospital that we had chosen for our birth. I had contemplated a home birth but settled on a hospital birth due to potential complications presented to me by my OBGYN. He was very supportive of me during my pregnancy and understood my desire for a natural birth. I was pleased by this as I heard many horror stories about the pressure put on women by their surgery-oriented OBGYN’s.
We arrived to a near-empty birthing center and my labor was in full force, I was seven centimeters dialated and my contractions were a minute apart and intense. The interesting part is that I never felt a desire to ask for drugs even though it hurt like nothing else I have ever felt. My brain was producing plenty of mind-altering chemicals on its own. It was the least sober I have ever felt and in that moment I knew how amazing and perfect our bodies really are.
My need during labor was to walk around. I spent some time on the toilet and some time in the bath, but I really needed to move. I rolled on a yoga ball with my face in the bed and paced around the room, leaving a trail of blood clots and yellow slime everywhere I went. Giving birth isn’t nearly as beautiful as people describe it to be. I made a mess and I didn’t care.
One of the nurses was very bothered by my need to pace. She repeatedly ordered me to lay down in the bed; the absolute worst position a person could possibly be in to have a healthy natural birth. My husband ordered her out of the room with an f-bomb or two in the mix. She didn’t come back again until I was pushing.
While pushing, I did choose to be on the bed. I had them prop up the head of the bed and I turned around backwards and pushed. Apparently I was squeezing the top of the mattress quite hard because my IV popped out of my hand and blood started to splatter across the wall and pillow. My favorite nurse stepped in and attempted to re-insert it while I was pushing. She became frustrated with me and ordered me to “hold still”. I just growled.
Eventually I laid on my right side and my husband stared intently into my eyes while holding my leg in the air. Our daughter arrived five hours and forty-five minutes after my labor started. She was so lovely and perfect. My husband was the first to hold her. When the doctor handed her to him he made the most heart-wrenching and beautiful sound I have ever heard. He let out this gentle whimper as though his heart were broken by the immensity of his love for her. I knew everything would be okay.
While I was resistant to the modern medical interventions that come along with the majority of births in the United States, I found myself grateful for the interventions that came after her birth. I struggled to deliver the placenta. It took almost an hour and required Pitocin in order to come out. My daughter also became quite sick with Jaundice and was incubated for four days. She needed to be put under lights almost right away in order to avoid brain damage. I am glad that we had the help we needed right there.
After giving birth, I became more aware of how unusual it is to be an American woman who gave birth without drugs. I’m so glad that I did. It was an incredibly empowering and spiritually fortifying experience. As I have learned more about birth around the world I see that our modern beliefs and behaviors regarding birth are in the minority, even among developed countries.
According to Parents.com most women in other countries give birth at home attended by midwives. There are many other motherhood friendly practices around the world. Holland has an established practice called “kraamhulp” in which the insurance company pays for a nurse to attend the family at home for seven days. The nurse’s duties include cooking, cleaning, arranging for visitors, and teaching the parents how to care for the baby. In Germany, women stop working six weeks before their due date and it is illegal for them to work for eight weeks after the birth. All of this time comes with a full salary. In Japan the custom is for women to stay in bed with their babies for twenty-one days.
While there are many reasons why I love being an American, I do think we have a long way to go when it comes to prioritizing children and families. This is particularly true when in comes to our painfully high infant mortality rates, intrusive and expensive medical system, and our anti-family labor practices. I feel so blessed to have had all of the options that I needed available to me. I am also pleased that I trusted myself and my natural abilities as a woman. My birth was a powerful experience that changed me.