It had already been a long day. 10 days past my first due date, and 4 days past the second, that morning I had made peace with the idea that labor would not be starting soon, probably not for another 3 days or so. Keeping with the theme of balance that had been pervasive throughout the last nine months, I assumed that of course everything would culminate on the Autumnal Equinox, when light and dark sat across from each other on the scales and everything took a deep breath before the slow plunge down the stairs towards winter. It was Thursday, and the first day of Fall would be on the following Tuesday.
I called my best friend Heidi, to see if she would be up for a jaunt to the east bay. There is a hike I have a particular fondness for, in Sibley Park. The dry brown hills interspersed with forest remind me of home, and scattered here and there along the way are labyrinths. Although I had visited the labyrinths at Grace Cathedral earlier in the week, I was craving a meditative experience outside of all the nesting I had been doing for weeks, going in circles in my own home. Heidi, as always, was up for adventure, so we set out in the early afternoon.
Indian summer was in full swing here, and especially so in the east bay. In other words, it was HOT. There were a lot of flies. Particularly around my head. Fully ripe at 9 mos. plus, I probably smelled like some kind of ethereal fermenting fruit. Or maybe it was the really interesting BO I’d been having due to the hormones. Whatever it was, lugging my bowling ball of a stomach up and down hills with a buzzing entourage got old pretty quickly. Plus Leo (my Chow Chow) was with us and he was overheating and stubborn. The labyrinths were blocked off due to some kind of park construction, and twice large work vehicles passed us on the narrow dirt road. We decided to head back towards the car.
On the final stretch downhill, we were stopped in our tracks by a very small being with a very large presence. Looking up at us, arms raised in reverence, was one of the biggest praying mantises I had ever seen. Unlike most I’ve come upon, this one was brown, identical to the dried grass of the hills. We all paused in respectful greeting, and then Leo decided to sniff its butt like it was the smallest Chihuahua he’d ever seen. Pissed off, the mantis reared up on its hind legs, and charged. We stepped out of the way, and with a quick glance back, it ran off the road, into the grass. I marveled at what felt like an auspicious meeting. I wasn’t sure what it meant, but in my love for insects, the mantis holds a prominent place in my heart, and I consider an encounter with one very well met.
That evening at home, after mopping the kitchen floor by scooting a rag around with my feet, I decided to turn the activity down a little bit and ran a bath. Jeff had gotten home around the same time, and was catching up on a bit of work at his computer. I put a few drops of “stress relief” essential oil blend into the water, and stepped in to relax, with a “people” magazine for a good dose of brain rot. As I contemplated Beyounce’s fashion faux pas (apparently, motocross jeans need to be tight, not baggy), I experienced what felt like a miniature sonic boom at the base of my pelvis. It wasn’t a movement from Fern, nor was it one of the Braxton Hicks contractions that I had been having continuously for two days. As I look back on it now, I can best describe it as my own tiny version of the big bang. I felt my cervix expand and my uterus draw up, in what was unmistakably my first real contraction. The next second I felt fluid gush out. I sat there frozen, until it dawned on me that this was either my mucous plug, or my water, but whatever it was, something was on the move. I stood up as more fluid dribbled out. Not even bothering with a towel, I went and stood in the doorway of our bedroom, dripping. Jeff looked over at me bemused and I said breathlessly, “I think my water just broke”.
As anyone who has been through labor knows, first time birthers are told repeatedly, “When labor starts, you probably still have a long way to go. Especially if it’s your first time. So eat a good meal, settle in and relax.” We turned down the lights; I started my birthing playlist on itunes, sat on the bouncy ball, called Heidi and my mom, and prepared to wait. Jeff started dinner. The contractions came on regularly every five minutes. Heidi arrived, and she and I called out to Jeff in the kitchen every time a new one started. We laughed as he used the timer on his iphone to track them. He and I would eye gaze through each one, as he sat on the bed and I rocked back and forth on the ball. The connection felt beautiful and tender and the contact made the mild intensity completely bearable. One of my favorite songs by “Iron and Wine” came on…. “Naked as We Came”, and Jeff and I both teared up. Early labor typically can last for hours, and I thought, “Ok, this is totally doable, I think I’ve got the hang of this.” Then the contractions started coming steadily every four minutes, lasting over a minute. This is the rhythm at which we had been told to go the birth center. But it had only been twenty minutes! We called the midwife, who of course assumed that it was nowhere near time for us to leave.
Jeff brought in a bowl of ravioli with tomatoes from my garden. One sniff of the steamy bowl, and I have never been so disgusted and appalled at putting something in my mouth. He made me toaster waffles with earth balance margarine and agave nectar instead. Those were the best waffles I’ve ever had. Then the contractions started happening every 3 minutes. I kept saying, “Don’t you think we should go in? I mean, they’re lasting for longer than a minute and are less than three minutes apart? I mean, isn’t that what they told us?” (Hello? Anyone? Bueller? Bueller? Ok, just ignore the crazy lady in labor. I probably wouldn’t have listened to me either.) Jeff called the midwife again who suggested I get in the tub to see if things would slow down. I was surprised. “She wants me to slow down? Don’t we want to make sure labor doesn’t stall?” The idea was that this was probably a false fast start, and getting in the tub would show us where we were really at. Then my water broke for honest, as an unreal amount of fluid rushed out in a huge puddle all over our bedroom floor. I stood there looking down saying “Oh! Oh! Oh my gosh! Oh!”
While in the beginning of early labor (as in those first, long twenty minutes) it felt imperative to lock eyes with Jeff. Each contraction brought an increasing deeper connection between us and I was flooded with love. Once I got in the tub, I managed one more idyllic gazing session. After that, each contraction was so increasingly intense, that trying to maintain contact felt like an added challenge I couldn’t manage. My focus became deeply inward. Spans of time became unclear to me at this point, but it felt like I was in the tub for only a short time before the rushes were even closer, two minutes apart. Even though the warm water felt good, things were definitely NOT slowing down. I started to feel like I was going to vomit with each surge and asked Jeff to get a bucket just in time. At this point, I imagined I was about to become a typical Hollywood movie character, shrieking at my partner, “WE HAVE TO LEAVE FOR THE BIRTH CENTER NOW!!!!” In reality, I just became more forceful about calling the midwife AGAIN. I was in transition, and I knew it. I didn’t care if it was ludicrous to think we should leave so soon after labor had started. The signs were clear. I had puked, I was afraid about the trip to the center, the contractions were long, fast and close together, and I was having those telltale thoughts…”I don’t think I can do this” and “I don’t want to do this anymore”.
It’s not like the rushes were painful, there was discomfort and pain involved, but it was more that the sensations were intense and disorienting, hard to mentally navigate, hard to find a place to ground within each one. I found my own small spherical core, centered far within, and held on to that in the midst of the storm. With each surge, I concentrated on openness. I imagined wildflowers and lotuses and roses in full bloom. I visualized my cervix opening. Instead of gritting my teeth, I kept my face loose and my mouth in an “O” shape. I tried to say “Yes” to each contraction, rather than the resisting “No” or “Stop” that was definitely in the mix. I remembered the importance of rhythm, and moaned my way through each one with “Haaaa Haaaa Haaaa Haaaa.” I caught myself trying to rise out of the pain, pushing up and away from my pelvis, my shoulders rising. So as counter-intuitive as it felt, I tried to drop down, to lower into each sensation that felt like I was splitting from tailbone to pelvis.
Jeff called the midwife again, even though he was still erring on the side of caution. To his surprise, and my relief, she said, “Well, it sounds like things are progressing quickly. Why don’t you come in.” It had been only two hours since labor had begun.
Getting out of the tub and walking down the hall, trying to put on clothes and then walking down the steps to the car felt like an almost insurmountable journey. The ride to the center was ridiculous. I was kneeling in the back seat, facing out the rear window, holding on to the edge of the hatchback, as Jeff careened through the city blocks and the increasing pressure and urge to bear down made it clear that I was ready to push. With each rush I was no longer moaning, I was ROARING, deep and primal. We arrived just as my two midwives were. They ushered me through the door and I made a beeline for the bathroom, where my lay midwife Laura took my blood pressure as I peed and gagged and contracted. They whipped the exam room into shape and checked my dilation. The nurse midwife pronounced me 8 cm. (10cm is considered fully dilated…. most women show up at the hospital or birth center at 4 or 5). Jeff and Heidi looked at each other in astonishment and Jeff silently mouthed, “WTF?” There was the briefest of pauses, and then another flurry of activity, since all the lights weren’t even on yet and the labor room wasn’t ready.
So fast were the contractions, that I had to stop halfway to the room in the hall, hanging on the Jeff around the shoulders, roaring, pushing. Once in the room, I climbed on the bed on all fours, while the midwives filled the birthing tub. I had been really attracted to the beauty of delivering my daughter into water. But suddenly, I really just wanted to squat, and I asked for the birthing stool. Somewhat curtly, the nurse midwife said, “I thought you wanted the tub?” I asked if I couldn’t just sit on the stool while the tub filled. “You should pick one position or the other, because once you get into one, it may be hard to move from one to another.” I held onto my idea, rather than listen to my body, and decided to wait for the tub.
I got into water that was decidedly cold. It “couldn’t be too hot”. I wanted to lean forward, on my knees, over the edge of tub and hold Jeff’s hands. But after 3 contractions of this position, the midwife said I needed to lean back, to open my pelvis. I leaned back, spread eagled with my audience surrounding, any sense of personal modesty completely gone. And then the “longest” part of labor began. I pushed and roared and began to feel a sense of futility. Things had stopped moving, I could tell. I began to be scared. How long was I going to have to push? This hurt. I looked across at Jeff at one point, who seemed sadly far away on the opposite side of the pool, and thought to myself, “Man, am I glad he doesn’t want to have any more kids, because I am never doing this again. I think we should schedule that vasectomy.” I was still roaring with every surge, and the midwife said, “Don’t release the energy with your voice. Keep it inside and use it to PUSH.” I whimpered at losing what felt like my only outlet of relief and silently pushed and pushed and thought I was going to push my ass inside out. Let’s be clear about this. Pushing is no different than the other kind of pushing you have to do when you are going number two. I don’t know why they don’t tell you that. It’s like having to take the biggest shit of your life, but relief never comes. Graphic, but true.
Finally, the midwife asked, “Mary, does it feel like you are losing steam?” I mumbled yes. “I think the water is slowing you down. I think you should get out and use the birthing stool.” Thinking I was still stuck in the pushing phase, I felt dismayed at what seemed to be the addition of more pain, without the buoyancy of water. I stumbled out of the tub and straddled the stool. Heidi sat behind me, and I leaned into her, holding her hands. The midwife and Jeff sat on the floor in front of me, and I had one foot on each of their laps. The midwife urged me to push during each contraction, even when the urge wasn’t there, and even in the midst of it all, I felt annoyed. In less than 10 minutes, she said, “She’s crowning. We can see the top of her head.” I looked at Jeff in disbelief. Really? “Yes, really. I can see hair!” And then I felt the ring of fire. I had been warned, but I was still surprised and alarmed. In the only moment of panic I had felt, I looked wild and wide-eyed at Jeff and the midwife and said, “It burns! It burns!” “It’s supposed to burn.” I thought I couldn’t take the pressure, I just knew there was no way she was going to fit through, and even though we had worked so hard to make sure I didn’t tear, in that moment I didn’t care if I split in half, I just wanted her OUT. And then suddenly she was. Just like that. Sunny side up, eyes open and with an unmistakable expression of “What the Fuck?!?” There she was. Roxanna Elfea Fern. Jeff caught her and put her on my belly and after the cord stopped pulsing, cut it (I couldn’t watch).
Everything after that is a blur. The umbilical cord was short, so when they put Fern on my tummy, it tugged the placenta, and it detached quickly. I birthed the placenta just six minutes after Fern. I lost a lot of blood with this and they thought I might be hemorrhaging, so they jabbed me in the leg with a shot of pitocin. Fern had passed some meconium, and was having a hard time taking a deep breath, so the interns worked on her with rubbing her back and sucking her out with a bulb syringe. I began to shake uncontrollably, and felt alarmingly cold. I was so disoriented…was I ok? I lay down on the bed and they wrapped me in a blanket as Jeff gazed into my face and said, “You’re ok. You’re fine. You were amazing. You are so beautiful So beautiful.” The midwife checked my perineum…I had three tiny tears, small enough to forgo any stitches. They tucked me into bed with lots of blankets, we tried to get Fern to latch and then we all zonked out for a much needed rest. The entire experience felt like that bumper sticker I often see on the back of muscle cars, “Get in, sit down, shut up and hold on.” After 4 hours and 53 minutes, the journey of the last 9 mos. was finally complete.
A few days after the birth, I looked up the meaning of Praying Mantis in a book I had read a few years ago. Mantis is the oldest symbol of God, the manifestation of God come to earth, “The voice of the infinite in the small”. The Mantis “shows the way” and in Arabic culture, “points the way to Mecca.” A few days after this discovery, I happened across an article by Jeanine Parvati Baker about instinctive childbirth. In it she speaks to how the labor process is like walking a labyrinth, where, as the path winds in and out, it is farthest away from the center just before one arrives there. In mythology, the center is inhabited by the Minotaur, a bull headed “monster” and symbolically the woman in labor must face her own Minotaur at the center of her journey, with whatever face it takes, be it her fear, her passion, her power, or a combination. Once the Minotaur is met, there is a second journey, out of the labyrinth, that the new mother must also navigate post partum. It is this journey that Fern and Jeff and I are now walking, sometimes with joy and love for our new daughter, sometimes with confusion about what we all need, and sometimes with sadness for an old life suddenly left behind. But overall, we are walking hand in hand with God, however we perceive it to be, and seeing it always in the eyes of the new life we hold in our arms.