Warning: This is a long post. On the recent occasion of my son’s third birthday I finally wrote his birth story.
The birth of my youngest son came with a fair bit of drama. I could begin the story with “It was a dark and stormy night,” but that wouldn’t do justice to the winds that shook our house and downed trees and power lines the night of February 25, 2010. One unofficial record logged winds in excess of 90 mph.
The rain poured down all day while I felt intermittent sensations in my pelvis, and drove down even harder during evening rush hour when David uncharacteristically phoned for a ride home, suddenly sick with stomach flu and too ill to cycle, and into the night rain pummeled the little Cape we had just bought and leaked through the skylight and seeped into the basement where at 40 weeks pregnant and with regular contractions I frantically mopped up puddles and said “oh shit” to the cat not because the house that had drained most of our savings was imperfect but because it finally dawned on me that I was in labor.
I want to record Leo’s birth story as a gift to my son. One day he might be curious about his origins and this story will give him some clue, a starting point to tease out the narrative threads of his life. Naturally, this is also my story, and it is followed by so much disappointment, fear and seemingly unending grief that I have turned away from it.
When I was in college, I took a creative writing workshop with the poet Olga Broumas. On the first day, Olga explained in her soft and serious manner that we write poetry with the soul, and invited the twelve eager undergrads staring at her with mouths agape at the mention of the word “soul” in the halls of a rigorous academic institution to leave our egos at the door. She gave us exercises like writing poems backwards, generating lists of words we adore, and once she assigned us the challenge of writing about a relationship with someone we loved. The difficulty was that we had to write about the good stuff. “Bracket the relationship,” she said. “Write about the love, and not the pain and disappointment or anger that come later.” I was nineteen years old. That was the only way I had ever understood a relationship. I ended up writing about Sophie, my best friend from high school, with whom I had just traveled cross country putting over 12,000 miles on my sister’s car as we meandered up the Pacific coast and crisscrossed through the strange and beautiful moonscape deserts of the southwest.
Why does Olga’s assignment come to mind more than 20 years later as I attempt to write Leo’s birth story? It’s the brackets. It’s the guidance to stay with the love and not delve into the difficulty, which of course would come later, exactly 32 days later, when I received the call confirming that the bleeding polyp in my rectum was in fact cancer.
A diagnosis cleaves one’s life in two: time will always be marked by before and after I heard those two words strung together in the simplest phrasing: It’s cancer. Not even three words. A contraction. It’s cancer.
Is it possible to simply decide to step back in time? To tell this story from the other shore, the life of innocence that existed before the lens of cancer changed all of my perceptions? Can I write this story without robbing my second born of the full attention and gratitude that he deserves? Write about the love, not the heartache….
It was a dark and stormy winter’s night. I tucked Toby into his new big-boy bed, said an early goodnight to my mother-in-law, who was recovering from her bout with the intestinal bug making its rounds through the house, and checked on David who never gets sick but had gone down hard since coming home and dragging himself upstairs. I found him shivering under the down duvet, curled in a little ball, moaning. He barely had the strength to tell me that he felt awful, which was quite apparent. I piled a few more blankets on him, kissed his clamy forehead, and turned out the light.
The house was quiet, but I was restless. It was the damned wind. Wind always made me feel agitated. I wandered downstairs to the basement to check on our neglected cat, whose perch, food, and water are kept away from the main living quarters out of deference to David’s severely allergic family. That’s when I noticed the water. Puddles of it were amassing at the edge of the bulkhead door.
I grabbed every towel I could find among the mountains of unpacked boxes and stuffed them near the door in a lame attempt to staunch the flow of water. In my mind, and under my breath, I was cursing David for being sick at a time when I needed him. I wrung out towel after heavy towel of cold water, squatting awkwardly over my enormous belly. “Great, just great,” I muttered. My belly answered back with strong, low contractions that were getting uncomfortable enough to finally capture my full attention. “Oh shit,” I said to the fat fluffy cat who was watching me with feline detached interest from his perch in the corner. “I’m in labor. During a flood. With a sick husband and a midwife about to fly out of town. Great, just great.”
I marched my self-righteous, over-achieving Aries self into the playroom and began tidying up, well, frantically throwing toys is a more accurate description. Nothing satisfies me more when I’m all hot and bothered than throwing toy cars into large heaps: ting, clang, pop. How many cars does a two-and-a-half year old need anyway? I had imagined using the playroom for some aspect of my labor and I needed the environment to feel orderly and peaceful. Although I knew Toby would complain that I broke his train set, I had to dissemble his wooden railway since it took over the entire floor. Bridges came down. Tunnels disappeared. Curves and straightaways gone in minutes. Thwack! Thwack! I closed the lid of the Thomas the Train box and with arms down and butt up, pushed the heavy container against the carpet and into a corner of the playroom. By now, I had worked up a good sweat.
Days earlier I had met in the cheerful orange-yellow playroom (Benjamin Moore calls the color August Morning) with Sara and Halé to talk about the birth. The sun shone through the two half-windows warming the walls to golden tones that indeed looked more like late summer than late winter. We curled up on the full mattress on the floor beneath the tapestry of Ganesha, the Hindu elephant god known for removing obstacles, and sipped steaming mugs of kukicha tea. This small circle was in lieu of a blessing way, and all I had energy for after moving house three weeks earlier and caring for a toddler who was so heavy I had to ask strangers to lift him in and out of the shopping cart at Whole Foods.
Halé, dear friend, colleague, and surrogate grandmother to my children, was in Turkey during Toby’s birth two-and-a-half years ago. But Sara had been with me through the 24 hours of back labor at home, the passing of meconium, hospital transport, fetal distress, and midnight emergency caesarean. It felt as though lifetimes had passed since Toby’s birth—the immediacy of his ever-changing needs made potty training and the battles to get dressed much more pressing realities than resolving my feelings about the difficult birth.
Days from giving birth for my second and final time, sitting with my friends in what should have been a joyous moment, the unhealed wound of Toby’s birth ripped open anew, and the feelings of regret and failure and unresolved trauma tumbled out of me like pieces of broken glass.
I let it all out. The feeling that I would fail again. The fear that I was too scared or weak to endure natural, unmedicated labor. The secret truth that after so many hours of exhausting labor, I was secretly relieved to go to the hospital and have someone else take control. I didn’t care how my words sounded, or what my friends who had each birthed babies at home might think of me. I just let the raw anguish surface, being more honest with myself than I had ever been in my life. Something deep inside told me that I had to be utterly honest, or else these unconscious fears could take over and create a situation I really didn’t want to play out. My practice of radical honesty, as I’ve come to call it, began that day, and has served as a reliable guide ever since.
Unlike Toby’s birth, I wanted little fluff and fanfare for this baby’s labor. No giant birthing spa. No candles. No music. I would not invite a dozen friends. But I did hire a birth doula and made David upgrade our hot water heater to a 50-gallon tank so I could take long, hot showers if necessary. And, after much thought, I invited my mother-in-law Linda to be present when it was time for the baby to be born since she is so devoted to her grandchildren. Halé and Sara were also on call.
The decision around how to birth Leo took many months of research and appointments with my home birth midwife, hospital midwives, and O.Bs. I knew I wanted to attempt a vaginal birth after caesarean (VBAC). My home birth midwife, Miriam, supported me implicitly in having both a VBAC as well as birthing at home (HBAC). The hospital presented a different version. The O.B. made it clear: under no uncertain circumstances would she support a home birth for a woman who had previously had a caesarean. The hospital midwives were only somewhat more amenable: they wholeheartedly supported VBACs, but with the risk of uterine rupture they felt I belonged in the hospital, just in case. (The midwives were so intent on convincing me of a hospital birth that they dismissed every one of my concerns about rectal bleeding, which started in my second trimester. Not a single note went into my chart. Finally, Miriam was the one who urged me to consult my primary care physician.)
I called Mitch, Sara’s husband who is an OB/GYN and an extremely fair-minded advocate for women and natural birth. He laid it out: the risk for uterine rupture is low but real; it happens without warning, and if it does there isn’t a lot of time to get the baby out. “And if it were Sara?” I asked pointedly. He paused for a moment, “I’d probably respect her wishes.”
David would back up any decision I made. I knew in my heart of hearts that the man who cried watching home birth preparation videos hoped for the peaceful, natural birth we didn’t experience the first time, and that he would support my decision no matter what.
I toured the labor and delivery unit of the hospital. Since I am so visually imaginative, I though that seeing the physical space would help me make up my mind. It did. They explained how they would insert an i.v. line when I was admitted, and there was that caveat again, just in case. I would also be on continuous fetal monitoring, just in case, and I couldn’t eat or drink anything. Why? Just in case. The hospital was already prepping the OR before I went into labor! They didn’t seem to have much faith in my body. But did I? Shortly after visiting the unit, I had a dream. I was in labor, strapped to a bed, paralyzed, utterly powerless, writhing in pain. I posed the question to myself: Where will I feel most afraid? Then I rephrased it: Where will I feel the safest? I called Miriam and asked if she was available for a home birth in February.
At 9pm the evening of February 25, the evening my labor started, Miriam in fact did not know if she would be available. She was scheduled to fly to a midwifery conference in Arizona, but her first plane had mechanical problems and the next flight was canceled because of the weather. “I think I’m in labor,” I told her. “Oh?” she asked with calm interest. We had communicated earlier that day and I was playing it cool, not wanting to get my expectations up since Toby had been a full two weeks late followed by a long, complicated labor. “I’m having regular contractions and I think I lost my mucus plug a little while ago.” Miriam told me to call if anything changed. Her next flight was scheduled for early morning, but her partner was on call to attend the birth if she was unavailable. I had known all along that Miriam had plans to attend the conference and might miss the birth, and while I had accepted this possibility in theory, the onset of contractions and the uncertainty of planes taking off left me feeling vulnerable and, well, just a bit abandoned.
The house in order and tucked in for the night, I went upstairs to my bedroom. David was still in fetal position, moaning softly, telling me how he couldn’t get comfortable, telling me he had never been so sick. Another contraction tightened my lower uterus into a taught drum. “I’m in labor,” I announced.
He sat up. “Really? Are you sure?” How come men always ask if you’re sure when you say you’re in labor?
“I started feeling sensations at the gym this morning, and they’ve been picking up the last hour.” I sighed. It had been a long day. I was tired. I didn’t really feel like having a baby. What I felt like doing was going to sleep.
“What do we do? Did you call Miriam? How about the doula? Ohhhh…” he trailed off with a groan of pain and curled back up, clutching his torso.
“That bad, hunh?” I wanted to feel sympathetic for David, suffering as he was in the purgatory between vomiting and diarrhea, but to be honest I was a bit miffed that he was robbing me of my thunder. How many times would I be in labor, after all? This was kind of a big moment and David was—how shall I say it?— he was just flat out useless. Again, I felt irrationally abandoned.
I climbed into bed next to my sick, sweaty husband, and for the next three hours we held hands while we lay awake, listening to the wind, each of us breathing our way through contractions. It was actually sweet. Since becoming parents we rarely had time alone together. It was kind of like a date night.
Sometime after 3 am, David drifted off to some version of sleep, and I was alone with my contractions. I used hypnobirthing techniques to count the waves of tightening and release, sending the discomfort up and out of me like a balloon. A red balloon. With a long string. Carried by a breeze through fluffy white clouds. It helped to see it. After sending hundreds of red balloons into the clouds, I began to feel lonely and sad. Then two realizations dawned on me: the first was the stillness. The house no longer shook. The wind had completely died down and the rain had tapered to a soothing patter against the windows. The second thought, which I should have had much, much earlier, was that I had hired a doula. I didn’t have to be alone with my contractions and fears in the middle of the night!
Erin answered on the second ring, sounding remarkably alert. How long have you been feeling contractions? How intense are they? How close together? Can you try to sleep? I feared she would just triage over the phone and tell me to call in the morning. There was a break in her questions. “Do you want me to come over now?” I nodded my head in the darkness. “Please,” I whispered.
Everything changed when Erin arrived. She lovingly and firmly guided me deeper into labor. The hypnobirthing had been soothing, and kept me relaxed and above the gathering waves of contractions, but it was time to let go and explore deeper waters. In the warm cocoon of the playroom, illuminated by a string of little lantern lights, Erin and I spent the last hours of night encouraging my body to open.
As the room brightened with the first light of dawn, Erin called Miriam with an update. She handed the phone to me, but another intense contraction started and I knew if I didn’t keep to my very specific pattern of counting that I would lose my rhythm. I had let the last of the red balloons float away long ago and as the work of labor intensified I instead clung to my breath to guide me through the sensations that rippled across my abdomen, wrapped around to my back and penetrated low in my cervix. Breath and toning and counting and Erin’s strong massage therapist hands on my back were the lifelines that kept me flowing through labor. I could hear Miriam say, “Oh that sounds great!” as she listened to my deep “oms.”
Erin hung up and smiled. “I have news I think you’ll really like. Miriam cancelled her trip. She’ll be here in an hour.” Oh, the sweet, sweet relief that coursed through me. I loved and trusted Miriam, and I couldn’t imagine anybody else guiding me through this most intimate of journeys. Knowing she would be with me gave my body further permission to let go.
From our cozy womb in the playroom, I listened to the sounds of the house waking up, and eventually waddled upstairs to the kitchen where Toby was playing with his cars, waiting for breakfast while David was in the bathroom tending to his tender tummy. Between getting the cereal boxes from the cabinet and slicing the banana and pouring the milk, I held onto the kitchen counter and breathed, squatted, and “omed” my way through the contractions that were coming with greater frequency and intensity. Erin fixed herself a cup of strong black tea while managing to always keep those crucial hands on my lower back.
My mother-in-law emerged from the guest room to find me in the middle of an “om.” She did a double take. “You’re in labor!” she exclaimed. I nodded my head mid-om, unable to speak. Toby sat at the counter slurping down his cereal, blissfully unaware of the unusual morning circumstances. Linda told him that his mama was going to have the baby soon and that when he came home from school he would meet his baby brother. I hoped she was right. I hoped the labor would be over that soon.
Erin, always attentive to the changes in my body, suggested I try the shower. My back ached with every contraction and the thought of hot water pounding on my lower back seemed extremely appealing. While undressing, a particularly powerful contraction took me by surprise. I launched myself at the bathroom vanity for support, and unconsciously rose up on tiptoes to try and escape the overwhelmingly powerful feeling of being pried open from within. For the first time since labor started I thought: “I want out! Just get me out of this body.” Erin recognized the signs of a woman overwhelmed by labor. “Shira, come back into your body.” She locked eyes with mine. “Don’t fight against the sensations.” To tell you the absolute truth, that was the worst of it. Of course the labor had many, many uncomfortable sensations, but I never suffered because my mind was almost always at peace.
I used every delicious drop of hot water in our brand new 50-gallon tank. It turned out that I was in transition, the most difficult part of labor between 8 and 10 centimeters, but I didn’t know I was so close to full dilation because nobody was checking my progress. I wasn’t on anybody’s clock. The contractions came closer and lasted longer, and my toning picked up volume. David poked his head in the bathroom to see how I was doing, and to tell me that he was taking Toby to school. “No, you’re not!” I yelled, thinking he must be the most foolish husband in the world to even consider leaving now. “Okay,” he said meekly, “I’ll ask my mom to do it.”
Miriam arrived just as I stepped out of the shower. She had a huge smile on her face, and wrapped me in a big, big hug. I was so glad to see her and her many bags of official-looking equipment. “This is really happening,” I said to myself. Up until then I hadn’t fully grasped that I was going to have a baby, soon, and at home, through my vagina. I said as much to Erin. She looked at me intently. “Yes, you can do this. You are doing it.” And for the second time in twelve hours I said, “Oh shit.”
I convinced Miriam to check my cervix, though she didn’t feel the need. After listening to the watery swoosh, swoosh of the baby’s rapid heartbeat with the Doppler, Miriam checked my progress. I steeled myself to hear that I was only 5 centimeters but to my surprise, delight, and unbelievably sweet relief I was 10 centimeters and fully effaced. “You can try pushing any time,” she grinned.
And that’s when another realization dawned on me: like the storm earlier that night, my contractions had also died down. I felt calm. I felt….nothing. “Is this normal?” I asked slightly panicked. Miriam laughed, and reassured me that sometimes nature gives mothers a break between the opening phase and pushing phase of labor.
We used this natural pause to prepare my bedroom for the birth. Miriam instructed David my Yankee husband who keeps the thermostat at 65 to turn the heat up high, and to set out all of the supplies we had so dutifully gathered from Miriam’s list. Meanwhile, Miriam spread out a waterproof red-and-white checked picnic tablecloth on top of our new white carpet, and on top of that she placed the birthing stool – a padded U-shaped stool that would allow me to squat without tiring my legs. That’s because I was about to have a baby. From between my legs. In my bedroom. Right.
We tried a few positions to see if we could get things moving again: on the bed, side-lying with one leg up, on all fours, even sitting on the toilet. It was kind of like going through the Karma Sutra (minus the last position). Finally, I opted for the stool. David, tired and still pale green though at least not groaning any more, sat behind me and supported my back. When the contractions began again, I imagined breathing the baby gently down and out, as I had learned in my hpnobirthing classes. Between contractions, I sipped water and chatted. When the contractions started again, some fierce demanding woman took over. I yelled at David: “Put your hands here. No, there. No, here. Higher. Lower. Don’t touch me so hard. More pressure.” The sweet man just tried to comply.
At some point, Sara showed up and relieved David of his position, since he had already fatigued of his duties and my relentless commands. Then Halé appeared. Finally, Linda stood in the corner of the room palpably bubbling with excitement. Miriam gave me periodic reports from down below: “I can see the head. Ooh, this one has a lot of hair, too. You sure do make babies with lots of hair,” she said remembering Toby’s cap of thick black hair. “Reach down and touch your baby.” I reached my hand down and felt the hard skull of my baby between my legs. My hand instinctively wanted to recoil at the foreign feel of something so hard, so strange, so alien emerging from my body. Then Miriam handed me a mirror, and I could see the little tufts of hair through the stretched membranes that still held him in his own little bubble.
I had been pushing for an hour, the baby sliding down, then slipping back up, sliding down then slipping back up, when Miriam told me with the matter-of-fact authority of her 35 years of midwifery that while hypnobirthing is very beautiful, I would have to actually push this baby out. “Push,” she said again, “right into your bottom. Just like you’re having a bowel movement.”
I got the message. On the next contraction I let my animal out: low, deep tones escaped while I bore down with all of my muscles and intention. I had always sensed there was a wild, ancient, powerful woman inside of me who knows the ways of the earth and the rhythms of the heavens. Sweat flowed down my chest and onto my belly. I begged for sips of water. The room was hot and I was becoming feral. In front of my husband, mother-in-law, mentor, best friend…I just went for it. The scene behind my closed eyes was not a pale yellow bedroom in suburban Boston but the dark forest floor dank with decaying leaves and sweet pine.
When I finally gave myself full permission to release into the potency of birth, the wonder of blood and bones and the native intelligence and miraculousness of the female body to form this incomprehensibly complex new being inside my own, I tapped into the deep vein of power that runs like a current through all life. I became life force. It was the most satisfying, exhilarating feeling I had ever known. The thought that went through my mind at the time was much simpler: “This is actually fun!”
Then Sharon Olds’ poem about childbirth came to mind, the one in which she equates labor to sex, and I had always figured that she linked it to sexuality because that’s just what she does, but then there was my son’s head between my legs and this sensation of simultaneous wild abandon and deepest union and I understood that she wasn’t speaking metaphor but exacting truth: “that moment when the juiced bluish sphere of the baby is sliding between the two worlds, wet, like sex, it is sex, it is my life opening back and back….”
When the next contraction climbed in intensity I knew I would rise up to meet its force, and with one deep, final, long push, Leo’s head cleared the bones of my vagina and with it the rest of his body shot out of me all at once, giving meaning to the designation “baby catcher,” which is what my midwife became when she literally caught him in her hands. Behind him rushed the now- broken waters of the amniotic sac, drenching my water-loving boy in his first warm bath. Oh, how stunning this small dark creature with thick sensual lips and a head full of slicked hair that emerged from my womb.
I can’t remember what happened next or in what order, but I think my mother-in-law repeated “Oh my God” over and over again. Leo must have cried then calmed. Sara and Halé might have laughed, and beamed love from their eyes into my heart as they do. David cried, didn’t he? He cut the cord so its precious blood could be banked. Then someone helped me onto the bed, where I took off my sweat-soaked shirt to welcome Leo’s tiny naked body on my own, skin to skin under the warm blankets. I probably thought to myself: We did it! No, I’m sure I thought that, because up until Miriam had declared me fully dilated I still wondered if fear would sabotage the labor and send me in an ambulance to the O.R.
I could trust the goodness of my body, after all. The evidence was nursing at my breast, sleepy from his long journey, and disoriented by so new and strange and shining a world. Leo, my fierce little lion who decided to enter this lifetime during the most turbulent of storms. It was late morning by the time everyone went home and I had the chance to snuggle under the covers with my new little love and finally sleep. The sun shone so brightly through the window, I had to shield my eyes from the light.
I started this story with brackets, challenging myself to look at the event of Leo’s birth and only that event as though we could ever isolate any moment from the continuum of experience. But the thing about stories—their absolute magic and alchemical power—is that we can step into them at any time and change them, as well as be changed by them. I see now that it’s not a matter of remaining faithful to time but to truth. And the truth is that during these last three years of cancer, surgeries, chemotherapy, decisions, alternative treatments, extended time apart from family, more diagnoses, more fear, more decisions, Leo’s birth has been a deep well of strength that I return to drink from often.
The labor was an initiation through water and fire and earth and wind. I learned to trust myself, to listen to the strong voice of authority within regardless of other opinions. To trust that my body is capable of more than I ever give it credit, and so the dream of perfect healing is a real possibility that exists in the imprint of my cells. And when I feel frightened by unfavorable test results or the icy chill runs through my veins awake at night in bed and I think “cancer, shit, how will I get out?” I remember the woman who birthed her baby at home and was not undone by her power but remade by it.
And so I say thank you to my precious boy, my golden-eyed, golden-haired Leo Ezra, Ariel Eden, Lion of God, who arrived on the storm and continues to guide me through it.