One year ago today my labor started. It was a Monday evening. I was in the bathtub reading a book, my belly high out of the water, feeling you kick and squirm. Any moment now. The tabby cat sat on the edge of the tub. My belly was tightening and relaxing, tightening and relaxing. I read my book, a magical story about a snow child in the Alaskan winter. You kicked. Your daddy entered the bathroom, kissed me, touched my hair, dripped water on my belly. "I think it's starting," I said.
I knew the moment you were conceived. I felt it. A tiny lightening strike deep inside. There was nothing else it could be. We didn't mean to make a baby, but our love was big and powerful from the very beginning. It was cosmic and unstoppable. We talked about you. We said, "If we do bring a baby back from Thailand, would that be so bad?" The moon was new; we were learning to scuba dive, spending the days underwater or in a boat, napping in the afternoon, then in the evening walking to an open air restaurant called Fishy's, drinking Thai beer and smoking, eating curry or noodles, then falling into bed and falling in love all over again. It's no wonder we made you. We couldn't help it.
I slept lightly Monday night, curled around you, aware of the work of my body. Tightening, relaxing, rhythmic as the tide. I awoke early in the morning and showered, anointing the curves of my gravid belly, knowing this could be the last shower before you arrive. At the end of pregnancy, every moment is poignant: the last shower before the baby, the last night alone in our bed, the last uninterrupted cup of coffee.
Jake was still sleeping. I sent a text message to our homebirth midwife, Kristen. "Contractions all night with some vomiting. Getting more uncomfortable now. Maybe today's the day!" It was a grey day in April. We spent time contentedly preparing and working: filling the birth tub in the living room, slow dancing in the kitchen, cleaning house, napping, taking long walks while a spring rain sprinkled down. In the afternoon, we had to stop walking each time the pressure built to sway together, my arms around Jake's neck, breathing deep sighing breaths, mouth and lips loose, urging you down and out.
After dark, labor intensified. The deep pressure became sharp, tugging pains. We watched mindless shows on Netflix while I labored on the futon on my knees, hugging the birth ball. I wanted to get in the tub. I wanted to climb out of my skin. I couldn't meet these pains eye-to-eye anymore; I didn't want to go through with this. I tried to get away from the tearing, stabbing pains. But the only way out is through. You and I on this journey together.
Jake called Kristen to update her. She said to get in the tub and she would drive to our house to help.
Late in my pregnancy, my mother sent me a package with three handmade tea light holders in colored glass, and a note, "Dear Kate and Jake, please light these on the day of Avi's birth, to guide the way, and shine love and comfort on the three of you. Much love, Mom and Dad." I got in the tub. Jake lit the candles. In the water I could breathe through the pains again. Jake put some slow jams on the stereo. We thought we would meet you before dawn.
When Kristen arrived she set up her midwife things in preparation of the birth. She asked how we're doing. I opened my eyes and looked at her. "This is hard," I said. She and Jake moved the futon cushion to the living room floor, near the tub, so we could lie down there after you were born. She listened to your heart, a reassuring baboom, baboom, baboom, like galloping hoofbeats. She checked my opening. "We are still early in the process," she said gently. She encouraged me to get out of the tub and walk up and down the stairs. "You want me to get out?" This lady is crazy. In the water I could squat and sway, riding the waves like a boat, and get through each one. I had to be brave. I had to welcome these strong bizaare sensations and allow myself to open.
Reluctantly, I stepped out of the tub and walked up and down the stairs, around the living room, through the kitchen, up and down the stairs again. I had to stop and lean over something every few minutes: the dining room table, the kitchen counter, Jake. Rocking, breathing, swaying my hips like a salsa dancer. The deep sharp pains felt like the fabric I was made of was fraying and pulling apart.
Kristen suggested a shower to help manage the pain. We went to the upstairs bathroom. I labored standing while she sprayed my lower back with the shower nozzle. She gave me bitter herbal tinctures to drink to help my labor along. I shot it back like whiskey, and immediately my body responded with longer, stronger contractions. She encouraged me to drink more of the bitter herbs and labor intensified. It was the middle of the night. I was tired of standing and wanted to get out of the shower. "Let's stay until the hot water runs out," Kristen said. She knew there was nowhere to go but here. She tried to make me more comfortable; she brought the birth ball and a folded towel for my knees. I kneeled and labored, my chest on the ball, my face in my hands, until the hot water on my back turned cold and the contractions trailed off.
Kristen told us to get some rest and she would go home and to the same. She tucked me in bed. From upstairs, I heard Kristen and Jake talking in low tones. I felt completely alone. The sensations were still sharp and tearing. It was a struggle to lie still and breathe when all I wanted was to escape from this beast with the gripping claws. No way out but through. Breathe. I imagined eternal things like oceans, the moon, our ancestors. Jake joined me in bed, stroked my back. His strong hands always bring comfort. He talked me through, softly, until he fell asleep and eventually, I did too.
The sun rose to a beautiful spring day. The air was fresh and breezy after yesterday's rain. My belly was still large with baby, but the ripping pains changed to big aching pressure all around my back, belly, thighs, and hips. I tried to eat something. I threw up. Jake and I walked in the neighborhood, enjoying the energy of the wind. I was softening, opening, yielding. I imagined the baby moving down and out.
Kristen arrived at midday. She made a smoothie for me to sip, gave me more herbal medicine to augment my labor, and the three of us walked outside. We admired the neighbors' roses, the buds on the trees and all the flowers in bloom. We walked, stopping every few minutes as the waves of labor rolled through me. Kristen rubbed my back as I hugged Jake, bent my knees, swayed back and forth, moaned, opened, yielded. Later, Jake napped while Kristen and I labored on the futon on the floor of the living room. The afternoon sun filtered through the windows, filling the room with golden light. Bob Marley and old soul played softly on the stereo. It was a good day for a nap. Kristen gave me more herbs to drink. I slept in child's pose, my hips on my heels and my shoulders and head resting on the birth ball. Contractions woke me every five or six minutes. They made me hot, so I dropped the robe from my shoulders, rolled forward on the ball, swayed and breathed, until I could sit back on my heels, pull the robe up on my shoulders, and fall asleep again. Kristen gave me the bitter herbs until we reached the dose limit, and then my contractions spaced out again.
Kristen went home. Jake and I tried to rest. We expected my labor to pick up after dark, but it didn't. The pains remained frequent enough that I couldn't rest well, but not frequent enough to move the baby out. We walked the stairs, kissed, caressed my breasts, encouraged the baby to come. I stood, leaning over the heavy dining room table, eyes closed, blowing through soft lips, shifting from side to side like a horse in a barn.
Jake went to bed. I lay on the futon in the dark living room, hoping for sleep. The sensations changed again, became pelvic pressure like a planet coming through my hips. I climbed the stairs to the bathroom and sat on the toilet. I was cold. I turned on the space heater. A contraction made me hot. I threw the robe off my shoulders and turned the heater away from my legs. I breathed. I fell asleep, my arm on the sink and my head on my arm, my big belly in my lap and my fuzzy purple robe around my waist.
I woke up, cold, in pain. Pulled my robe up, adjusted the heater. Fell asleep again. My consciousness bobbed up and down like a bouy on a swelling ocean. I dragged myself downstairs to the futon, beneath the warm quilt my mother made. Slept. Awoke to the burrowing pressure and climbed the staris to the bathroom like Atlas carrying the celestial sphere. It occured to me: Atlas was a woman. Fell asleep again, sitting upright on the toilet. Dreamt I should try to sleep lying down.
All night long, up, down the stairs. Standing, sitting, lying. Too hot, too cold. This will never end. I was on the futon on hands and knees when I felt a small pop! A bubble bursting. My waters? Nothing came out. The night was a tired soldier marching on. I was too weary to stand, too sleepy to sit on the toilet, in too much pain to lie down. Trying to rest in the dark. Wasn't I keeping Jake awake? Up the stairs, down the stairs.
Morning. I must've slept, in the early hours.
Kristen came. The room was bright with dappled sunshine, the wind tossing the branches of the Japanese maple outside. It was Thursday. I was only halfway open.
We listened to your heartbeat. Still strong, but tiring, just like Mama. Kristen thought my contractions weren't coming quickly enough to get you out, and I agreed that I needed help. We made the decision quickly to go to the hospital.
I felt dizzy and off balance as we zoomed along the freeway on the way to the hospital. I sat sideways in the front seat, on my haunches like a dog, breathing and moaning. I imagined the future. What if I labor for hours and hours more, and push and push, and wind up with a cesarean anyway? Maybe they should just cut the baby out. Or I could get an epidural. Then I could rest. I could get pitocin and no epidural. Maybe then the baby will come tonight. If I give birth to my baby, the pain will go away. If they cut it out, there will be pain for weeks. I feared a forceps delivery, mutilation, and powerlessness.
We arrived at the hospital. The nurses showed us to a room. I resisted getting in the bed. Don't they know how painful it is to lie down? I lay down. A lot of people gathered in the room: Jake, Kristen, a few nurses, a doctor. They hooked up the fetal heart monitor, some IV fluid, and sent a swab to the lab to see if my water had broken. Your heartbeat was reassuring. Between contractions, we talked about the options. The doctor was a short-haired, no-nonsense woman, very supportive of low-intervention birth. She recommended a pitocin drip to enhance labor and an epidural for pain management. She said, "My priorities are your and your baby's safety, and you getting your vaginal birth." I wished she'd suggested a cesarean.
The nurse started the pitocin infusion. The swab came back from the lab positive for amniotic fluid--that tiny pop in the middle of the night was my water opening a tiny bit. The doctor opened my bag of water completely and fluid rushed out. As the pitocin took effect, the contractions became longer, stronger, and more frequent. I focused on the work of my body. Everything else became fuzzy, muted, unimportant. Down, baby, out, open, soften, yield. I took long showers or labored sitting on the toilet. Sometimes I had to lie down. "This bed is terrible," I said. Someone rubbed my back. I didn't even hear the woman screaming in the next room as she delivered her baby.
The sunlight dimmed. We labored on. This baby will never be born. Deep in the fourth night, in the warm soft light of the labor room, the sensations changed again. I wanted to push. I gave a little push. It felt good. The pain went away. It must be time. I asked the nurse to check me. Only six centimeters.
I stood in the labor room, halfway between the bathroom and the bed, naked except for the IV line in my arm and the fetal monitor strapped to my belly. I was done struggling. I knew I couldn't resist the commands to push long enough to open completely. "Is it time for an epidural?" I said.
It happened quickly. I got the pain medicine. It felt like coming down after a night of hard partying. The room came into sharp focus. I said, "This is the most comfortable bed!"
I slept, but not well. I was still having pains in one spot on the right side, deep in my hip. I turned from side to side, clumsily. My legs were so heavy. But at least I slept.
Morning. Shift change at the hospital. My epidural was wearing off and I was struggling to breathe through frequent and very painful contractions, after all those hours on pitocin. It seemed so unfair. Why was I in pain when I had given in and gotten the epidural? I was still so tired. Shouldn't I have at least slept well? Why was I still in labor on Friday? Would this never be over? I cried. The pain was so consuming I forgot there would be a baby at the end. Kristen said encouraging words, but all I heard was, "Open blahblahblah soften blahblah allow your baby to enter the world blah." The hospital's midwife arrived. She saw my tears and offered to come back later. I stopped crying. "No, come in," I said. "I want to talk about getting this baby out." She checked my cervix with her sterile-gloved hand. Completely open.
A blush of hope and relief rose up. Today was the day! Your head was still high in my pelvis, and I was still tired, so we decided I would labor down for two hours, then push. I asked for another dose of pain medicine. The anesthesiologist came and must've given me a heavy dose, because the pain completely lifted and I slept a restorative, quiet, blissful sleep.
After two hours, the nurse shook me awake. "Time to push!" She began setting up the room, changing it from a labor to a delivery room: turning on the baby warmer and bringing it closer, the bottom third of the bed folded away and stirrups sprang out of nowhere. The epidural was a heavy blanket smothering all sensation. Jake watched the monitor where he could see the waves build and wane. I tried to breathe while pushing, at first. It felt strange not to, after so many days focused on my breath. "Hold your breath," said the nurse. "Push." Trying to birth with my half-numb body felt so awkward. The nurse suggested that, instead of holding the backs of my thighs in a horizontal squatting position, I hold my ankles, feet together and knees wide, in a butterfly pose. That felt better. The epidural was wearing off and I regained some sensation and movement in my legs. I could feel the contractions begin and end, but no pain. Jake was on my right holding my hand. We got into a rhythm. I felt a contraction begin, I pulled on my feet and pushed. Jake counted down from ten, then I lay back, took another big breath, pushed again. And a third time with each contraction.
"Can you see him yet?" I asked. "Not yet," said the nurse. "But he's right there, you can each down and touch him." I felt my labia, and right there inside, something warm, silky, wet, and squishy. It was you. The nurse set up a mirror. With the next contractions I could watch you emerge. The midwife put on her protective blue gown and goggles. Jake and I stared at each other with silly smiles. It was time. This midwife wasn't leaving to take a nap; she was puling on her gloves. The room was full of people gathering to create a safe arrival for you, but I was barely aware of them. Your daddy and I were working hard, counting, pushing, holding my legs in butterfly pose. In the mirror I saw the top of your head coming. The next push I saw your face, all crinkled and purple. The midwife helped Jake ease you out to your shoulders, and then I felt your strong body slip out in a rush, into your daddy's loving hands and onto my chest. You whimpered and then cried. I held you, touched your wet skin. A beautiful boy, all reddish-pink with curly peach fuzz on your head. You only cried for a minute, then we looked at each other with such love and curiosity. You were born at 11:33am at Alta Bates hospital in Berkeley, California, on Friday the thirteenth day of April, in the Chinese year of the water dragon. Welcome, little one. We are so glad you're here.