Her contractions started at about midnight. She called at 5:45 am. By 7:00 when I went to her, my friend was laboring beautifully, and quickly. We arrived at the hospital by 8:30, and she was already six centimeters dilated. She was majestic, she was calm, she was powerful, she was unmedicated; she was amazing.
At 11:24 am my friend pushed her beautiful baby girl out into the world, reaching down and pulling her out with her own two hands. I love it that baby never stopped touching her mama from the minute she entered this life. It will be a pattern - that connectedness that she will have to her mother. Though I usually don’t cry at births anymore, I cried when that baby came.
Two years ago, just one day short of the exact same date, this same mama welcomed her first baby into her family, only that birth had been fraught with stress and fear. It had been one of my most helpless feeling births as a doula. When we had arrived, they dragged mama off to do her check-in, but decided then to check her cervix without informing the father and I. With no support in the room, the terrified young woman screamed so loud it echoed down the hall. Not knowing it was my client, I thought to myself “that poor woman needs a doula.” I was heartbroken when I learned it was her. I felt like I had really let her down.
She had already been unsure of herself, and in a culture where natural childbirth is seen as uneducated, antiquated, “selfish” or hippy, she had been flooded by input from the outside that she was idealistic for wanting a natural birth. The message was clear, “You’ll never be able to do it. It’s too hard. You are too weak. Don’t set your heart on it, you will only be disappointed.” That first moment in the hospital set the general tone for the rest of the birth, and sadly the young mother was so depleted by the time she was 8 centimeters that she asked for medication, even though it was not what she really had wanted or planned for. She lamented it later, but we all do what we can in the moment to survive.
But this time, with this second birth, there was a confidence that comes with experience. She knew it would be hard, but she believed that she could do it. She was prepared, and though she was a little worried, she was committed to feeling her baby leave her body, and to welcoming it into the world without drugs in her system; to being fully present in this most amazing moment. What had seemed impossible in her mind the first time was completely possible this time.
I get a lot of criticism for promoting natural, unmedicated childbirth. I am seen as judgmental when I mention it in a crowd of women who love their epidurals. They joke about wanting to be hooked up by their eighth month of pregnancy. Women who would never consider drinking a caffeinated soda during pregnancy sign up ahead of time for a catheter to be punched into the durra of their spinal column. They are thrilled at the prospect of checking out from their body while their baby experiences the sensations of birth alone.
They see no value in the pain of labor. I do.
I believe that God, in his supreme wisdom, gave women birth. It is a sad to me that so many women miss it. It is an opportunity to experience a moment in time that cannot be had when the body is disconnected from the heart and mind by numbness. After a woman births in this way, I always see a change in her. There is a new understanding in her of her ability - of her capacity to do wherever is necessary for her child. There is the subtle goodbye to pregnancy as she feels her baby leave her body and enter the world, which echoes back to her as her baby grows to child, then on into maturity.
There is more, though. There is the father who is needed, who stands beside her and gives comfort with his hands, who endures hours of standing in one position so that she can lean on him over and over again. She will never forget his strength. It is imprinted on her to return to him again and again in her trials, to lean on him and receive his strength and encouragement. There is the husband who, watching his wife, his love, be overcome by a power that comes from deep within her with each contraction, is awestruck by the bravery of this woman to whom he has committed his life. The stereotypes of “frail woman” melt away as he sees her both vulnerable and powerful at once. He is witness to what she has been willing to do for their child, and he will never doubt her courage and strength. He becomes proud of her in a way that is unique and sacred.
It is no accident that of all God’s creations, humans labor the longest. In fact, most mammals labor for under two hours. The higher the level of intelligence in the creature, the longer it labors. In fact, dolphins and elephants actually receive help by others of their group as they labor. And the more dependent for survival the infant, the longer it takes for it to be born. In animal studies, cows and sheep given epidurals give birth and then get up and walk away, abandoning their babies. We as humans realize we shouldn’t, and are present enough to bond with our children and even with adopted children, but that does not discredit the fact that the act of truly experiencing birth creates a bond unlike any other. In the case of humans, it creates a family, and the bonds of that family are strengthened through the trial and journey that comes about through the intensity of unencumbered birth.
I went to see the new mama today, two-day-old babe in her arms. There are new worries this day, worries of not enough milk, of sleepy baby who doesn’t want to wake up to nurse, of not knowing how to recognize a problem. New days bring new fears, new challenges. But there was also the quiet confidence that comes to one who has endured. That mama knows that she has everything within her to care for her child, and that she is good enough.
When I asked her about how she felt about her birth, she simply smiled and said, “I can’t wait to do that again.”
(Photo from family archives, Tessa at 5 days old. I will replace it as soon as I have a picture of the new baby.)