The Spaces of Birth

March 21, 2013 § 4 Comments

Birthing our son at home was not a political statement. Our motivation was never to prove a point, fight the system, or join a movement. It came down to gut. On one hand, at the 41-week mark, my hospital-based providers cornered me and pressured me to schedule an induction even though the baby showed no signs of distress, and basically made me panic until I was hysterical and my whole body closed against them. My home-attending midwife, on the other hand, gave me an overwhelming sense of peace from the very first meeting. When she came through our door, I immediately knew she would be the one to accompany me as I faced the fragile boundary between life and death. That with her, I could do it.

bigbrother

While research validates the safety of a planned home birth for low-risk pregnancies – and in fact its ability to prevent complications – no crystal ball could guarantee that our baby would absolutely not require medical intervention. So even as I grew to love my home-attending midwife, I decided it was wise to avoid cutting ties with my hospital-based providers. Because that is what choosing to birth outside of the hospital in the U.S today will do: cut you off from the system with no easy re-entry. As it turns out, that practice was perfectly capable of cutting itself.

Emmanuel was born on a Sunday night, and Jesse called the practice the next morning to say we wouldn’t be coming in for the 8 a.m. induction the doctor and midwife had scheduled against my will. Their hub of rage abruptly entered our home as I opened the letter of patient dismissal that arrived in a matter of days. They quickly did everything in their power to discredit the doula who supported me – who I had hired to support me, who always did her job with the utmost integrity and more diplomacy than anyone else could muster in the same situation. It got unprofessional. It got ugly.

Since then I’ve begun to understand the political climate that exists in the U.S. around a woman’s basic right to birth as she feels best, as it has been done since the beginning of mankind: with the continuous and unrelenting support of strong, wise women in the space of her choosing. Competent midwives who practice outside of a hospital are being jailed and outlawed. Today. And while her work is not explicitly illegal, the exceptional midwife who attended our birth could be arrested at any time for practicing medicine without a license in a state where the opportunity for licensure does not exist.

No other experience will parallel Emmanuel’s birth. Immediately afterwards, I felt it was something we could never ask for again. At first I interpreted that to mean we would never have more children. Now that I’m pregnant with our daughter, I feel that a home birth in particular – with the total oversight of a woman who I respect beyond words – is what we won’t ask for again.

It seems that each birth is meant to take its own shape. Just as I could never envision a hospital birth for our son, I can’t quite visualize a birth in the house where we live now. With a three-year-old running around, the idea of packing a bag and traveling a little ways to a birthing space sounds appealing. And after finding a hospital-based practice that is genuinely supportive of natural birth, I can visualize birthing in their space, almost – bringing with me the doula who is my guide, a steadfast husband, spirit-filled sister, and the strength from all I’ve been taught.

A friend who is now training to be a midwife had a similar experience. She birthed her first son at home about a year before me, and her no-nonsense approach was inspiring: She wanted to birth at home, and she did. For her second child, she (tried) to go to the hospital for financial reasons – tried, because her daughter was born in the car on the drive over. Clearly she didn’t need any help for delivery, but sometimes there are more complicated considerations.

Like money. While a hospital birth costs about $29,000 more than a home birth, it generally costs the woman herself $1,500 less to birth in the hospital. Do I feel good about perpetuating a system that is fundamentally broken? Not as a whole. But when I tour the hospital and hear them stating kangaroo care, breastfeeding, and no separation of mom and baby as their standard protocol, I want to support them. When I meet a midwife who herself birthed two children at home and has made it her life’s work to help others have a healthy birth, with no intervention if desired – I want to support her. When I see a practice actively working to assist underserved women with the same respect and integrity as those with more resources at hand, I want to support it. And when I realize that our society’s approach to birth will not change unless people fight for healthy, natural births within the system itself, I want to try.

tomatoes

Still, there are compromises. Sometimes I feel like an anonymous cow on a huge farm – the kind of farm that lets you munch on a patch of grass now on then, but a factory nonetheless – rather than a beloved pet in a secluded pasture with wildflowers in full bloom. It’s like the difference between a random vet coming in to nod his head and fill out the chart when the calf is born, and the farmer who knows the cow’s every marking and cry, waiting patiently on the periphery of its natural environment to gently stroke the calf’s soft bloody fur upon arrival.

But peace is, after all, a mindset. So for the birth of our second child, we will again enter personally uncharted territory. This time with the love and strength of those who sacrificed more than we ever knew to show us that birth is beautiful, birth is sacred, and birth is something that women are designed to do. My first midwife’s birthing presence is with me forever. There is no going back, no separation. Of course there’s a big part of me that mourns the loss of her physical presence this time around, a huge part, but I feel blessed that she’ll always be there.

A Man Learns to Eat

December 1, 2011 § 1 Comment

I think you truly love food.

You sneak sticks of butter to your little kitchen just to unwrap them, smell them, and shake them around in pots.

You are not even two.

You throw whole winter squash on the floor and stir them around with a spoon, stopping every once in a while to give them kisses or say hello.

The first time you saw a bumpy buttercup squash you said, “Eat!” Why was I surprised you could tell it was food?

You immediately repeat the name of new food you love and never have to be reminded again. “Tortilla!” was your first three-syllable word.

Once you grew two pairs of molars, you began sopping up syrupy balsamic with arugula and spicy greens.

You know the difference between the blender and food processor, and can point to the one that is best for certain kinds of soup. You run away with the hand mixer and make it go “zzzzzz.”

Of course you love cookies and cake and ice cream, but especially fruit. Peaches from grandma. Raspberries, too. Fresh cranberry relish. Once I caught you sitting at the kitchen table, poised to dig into the 2-lb. honey jar and truly believing you held the whole world on one long metal spoon.

Your dad learned early on that once you grew tired of scrambled eggs, a little roasted garlic and herbs would earn your respect once again. I suppose a 1-year-old with garlic breath is not all that strange?

Here are some things you’re especially passionate about eating in large volume: Black rice. Polenta. Rice pudding. Pumpkin soup. Yogurt. Cheese. Squash, of course.

You love wild salmon, but dismiss whitefish that is too dry or too bland. You immediately screamed when you saw charred beef tenderloin, but gobbled up ground lamb at the Indian buffet in between saying “baa!”. Mostly, you think chicken is boring unless it has mustard, caramelized onions or fig.

You go gaga over blueberry samples at the co-op and find the cheese and cracker department all on your own, but you pass on premade sandwiches with unidentifiable parts from another store.

You show off what you’ve been cooking right away when I get home. Some nights you’re intently stirring a pot in the air with papa; other times you’re mixing garlic heads and wooden blocks around in a bowl on the floor.

How did you grow this little food sense, and why?

Your dad and I aren’t inclined to worry, but it’s fascinating to think of how much your world would have changed under someone else’s roof. You could have spoken more languages, had a different laugh and maybe learned to dance and sing your way into the world. There is no best way to raise every child. You just have to trust that what feels right was meant to be.

I suppose parenting is about learning to value your life as it is. Who you are now – not who you hope to be – is what your children absorb.

Well, we love good food, too. That is why it’s so fun to watch you dig into your plate with a discerning gusto: turnips and tomatoes grown with care, the shepherd’s pie you’re sure you helped Dad prepare, your first bite of braised oxtail or continuous slurp of strawberry milk.

Our tastes may change, but we will always love discovering new ingredients with you, new dishes, new stories of how it all comes together. Flavors that form a sort of portal to something greater, and if you pay attention, a path to living mindfully and sharing with others along the way.

Yes, your budding food sense is the perfect fit for who we are today – and who we want to become. There is so much to learn.

How about some nourishment for the road?

On The Wonderful, Marvelous Night You Were Born

November 7, 2011 § 4 Comments

To Linda, my shepherd; to Jessica, my guide; to Kathryn, my protector; and to Jesse, my love through the power of birth.

 

On The Wonderful, Marvelous Night You Were Born

Dear Emmanuel Bay,

Tonight you are 15 months old. I have just put you to sleep before a summer storm rushes through.

After the race to shut windows and secure the door, our world takes a breath.

A neighbor drags his fence from where it had had fallen the street.

A large branch rests across the front stairs.

The warm air is so energized and clear that it pulls the wandering mind into another time.

I am writing about this storm and thinking about your birth. About how all I could do was stay grounded and supple while an awesome, destructive generation swept through us both. And how long it has taken to find any words.

Our doula said she usually chronicles the events of a birth, but wasn’t sure what to write down after yours.

“A very unusual labor pattern,” our midwife repeated as she sat on the pink loveseat, or maybe cross-legged on the shag rug by the fig, as I moaned up and down the long, carpetless hall.

You see, the first time I gazed into your eyes, I promised I’d never take you—and how you came to be—for granted. And there are a million ways it could have all been so different.

First Rumble

People birth the way they live life, Linda our midwife said. It makes sense, then, that you were born on a dark winter evening. That in order to reach inside myself, I had to first build a cocoon woven by family, our birth team, the comfort of home.

I guess, or so I thought, there is usually more of a start, middle and end. More of a “Put those bags in the car!” exclamation from a woman clearly in labor, who then makes a series of progressively closer and closer moans until the bright room of cheering faces yells, “Push!”

For most of my early labor, I felt alone.

Something moved to push me apart and I rocked on the couch, pushed back. Tried to imagine meeting you, being that open. A day went by. I did not sleep at night. Rocking, pushing. Maybe, I realize now, avoiding.

Yes, there was so much work to be done.

When we began labor, you were still high in my pelvis. My cervix had not really effaced or dilated. More importantly, at 42 weeks, we had three days until the forced induction at the hospital. And that, I knew, we were both fighting with our core.

Saturday

I called our doula Jessica, wanting to hear, “It’s time!” Instead, she sent a list of ways to induce labor, sounding too calm to be reaching for her overnight bag anytime soon.

Your dad tried to sleep, but stayed near and in tune.

Things got more uncomfortable until I couldn’t keep food down or relax. Contractions became something I dreaded, but accepted, every 15 minutes or so. We stayed in this labor pattern for two days and two nights. It wasn’t a bright winter day with a blanket of snow. It was wet. It was grey. When we walked around the block, there was mostly pavement with dirty patches of ice. Mostly quiet, with the occasional college student passing by, car door opening to break the silence.

Slowly, I wanted more people nearby. I wished them closer.

I called your Aunt Kathryn and said, “Now would be a good time to come if you want to be here.” I meant, “Please come,” and she did.

“Would you like me to stop over?” asked Jessica on the second day, and of course, the answer was yes. Even if the official labor clock wasn’t officially ticking in her mind, I needed to know it was winding up.

When she came she encouraged me to walk. Usually I’m all about walking, strolling, or hiking. At that moment, it was the last thing I wanted to do. Maybe I knew each step would bring me closer to more pain. She took me to the chiropractor, who amazingly opened his office just to see us. I don’t think you would have come out as easily, if at all on your own, without that visit.

After that, Jessica and Jesse sat. Waited. I feared my labor signs weren’t impressive enough. We called Linda, and finally, she said, “Would you like me to come for an exam?” Of course I would.

She came up the stairs as she did on prenatal visits, one light bag in hand, but completely focused in a new way. After the exam, she said things were good. But you were still high. I was not dilated nearly enough. Linda and Jessica went back to their cars, out into the dark night, and again, we were alone.

That night felt the same as the last, but we were more exhausted. Your dad slept, told me to try to rest, but I could not. Contractions were still too close together to rest, but not strong enough to change course. Long, dull pain, that was all. Why ISN’T this labor? I got mad. How much longer could I keep this up? I didn’t know. I couldn’t eat, sleep, or relax. I knew we couldn’t take another night of this.

My birth team knew, too. I found out later how much they knew this, indeed. While I stayed in myself, in the rushes, they were contemplating logistics. What if we have to transfer her to the hospital; who would be on call? How would they react?

Setting the Stage

Having the courage to birth you at home did not come immediately to me. People who I loved, who loved you already, implied that I would jeopardize your very being.

I had been seeing a group of nurse midwives at the hospital for prenatal care. But when I learned about the option to birth at home, something felt right. It felt inevitable. Turns out, a scene from The Business of Being Born had never really left my mind: The doula knocks and a gorgeous, radiant woman answers the door with a huge smile. Is this really labor? The woman is completely in control. The lights are low, and she gracefully gets into the birthing pool, still aware of her older son nearby and calmly drawing him in. Whatever was happening, it was joyous, unfrantic, intimate and dignified. It was a revelation—and in stark contrast to the panting woman being pushed under fluorescent that was depicted everywhere else. It was what I wanted for you.

The first time I called Linda, her response was far from a hard sell. “Why do you want to birth at home? You can have a beautiful natural birth in the hospital,” she said. Then she referred me to another midwife. But I knew I wanted her, and luckily, graciously, she accepted. Then it was my turn: Was I ready to walk this road? Birth off the grid, assume full responsibility for my decision with no regret, no matter what happened?

I asked about mortality, transfers to the hospital, the sadness Linda has had to have seen. “Birth is as safe as life,” she said. Of course. She related her stories and every one felt like truth. Never did I doubt that I could trust her. Hospitals have the hubris to think they always do no harm. Deaths are never discussed, accounted for or examined as patients would assume. The technology and the pomp tell us all the same story: the hospital is the safest place to be. What if there’s an emergency?

What if you can better equip yourself to avoid an emergency altogether? What if we own up to the fact that our maternal outcomes lag behind less-developed countries with far fewer resources, and are getting worse? That modern-day obstetrics was built around the study of the deceased, by men who disregarded the women who essentially kept the human race alive? That the modern business of birth is still nurtured by those roots?

I’ll never forget what your Great Grandpa Cy said one night not long before he passed. At age 94, he was through with small talk in this life. I had been crying. It had been a particularly trying day, and I didn’t know if I had to strength to decide what I felt was right, when others assumed it was wrong.

Grandpa just looked over at me. “You OK?” I could only manage a nod without crying again. “Just trust your instinct.” And so I did.

Sunday

On that day, your birth day, we were moving ahead. Linda examined me again, and she said, “Good,” in her low soothing voice. Jessica called in a substitute to teach her class, and I couldn’t have been more thrilled. Linda brought up the rest of her tools from the car. Kathryn kept filling the birthing pool with warm water. This would be the day you were born.

I squeezed your dad’s hand, pushed myself to the corners of the rooms, to the bathroom, doors closed. On the periphery, always alone, yet suspended and safe in the cocoon woven by these powerful women. Never having witnessed a birth, or even knowing what birthing looked like before I become pregnant, these women’s energy connected me to a feeling as natural as the beginning of time.

Now I was alone, but energized. It was time.

Another nightfall, and I knew this labor could not, we could not, go on. Yet I was still not willing to accept the pain. “Walking is good. Stairs are good,” said Jessica. I thought not moving sounded even better. “Sit on the stool,” said Linda. I resisted. “What if I gave you an exam during the contraction?” she asked.

Of course, now it seems obvious that I was resisting, but I thought I was being a champ until I sat on that stool and Linda assessed what was going on. “You’re getting less dilated with every contraction,” she said.

So that was it. The message was finally clear. I either opened up, or went to the hospital. I either followed my intuition for our best birth, or entered into a questionable, uncontrollable ending.

We were all in the bedroom, and maybe I said, “Just give us some time,” or more likely they read the look on my face since I wasn’t really speaking at that point. What I remember is just your dad and me on the bed, and I squeezed his hand, looked into his eyes, and we kissed. For too long I hadn’t acknowledged or embraced what had been supporting me all along.

The energy that gets the baby in will get the baby out, Jessica had said. And so it was with you.

I held your dad, and I finally didn’t feel alone at all. There was one magical, powerful moment of release, a final contraction, and things moved quickly from there. Suddenly I was in the hall saying, “I feel pushy!”—one of the two things I remember clearly communicating during labor. “That’s GOOD,” said Linda, relief in her voice.

Her presence began circling closer. The cocoon thickened. I went right for the water, which miraculously, thanks to Kathryn, was warm. Jessica lit the candles. Never before had I felt such calm, centered support, and never had I needed it so much. At these times, you don’t think. You become a vulnerable, raw, intuitive animal. The body takes over with its own rhythm. I remember there being no sound, but I’m sure I was grunting. There were no inhibitions. I would be open, cut up, give my life for this baby, and nothing else mattered.

“One more push and he’s out?” was the final thing I clearly remember saying. “Not quite,” said Linda. I kept squeezing your dad’s hand, squeezing and pushing with everything I had. The spirit that had created this new soul was calling it out, making a vessel of my body, and I couldn’t have felt closer to life.

It was warm, dark, and loving in our kitchen. “Reach down and feel his head” was a moment I will never forget. I felt your soft crown, surprisingly curly hair, and I let out a little yelp. You were perfect. You were here.

Such profound peace. Such profound relief. I don’t remember pushing after that. If our vessel was plunging before, it was now drifting on a calm moonlit sea.

I closed my eyes as you moved gently out of me and into your dad’s hands, and then you were placed on my chest.

There was a true knot in your umbilical cord. Maybe you had needed our long, slow labor. I like to think that if there was something you were asking, you were heard.

Looking back, I want more than anything to have been able to embrace you with strong arms, my full mind, and make you feel safe. I had imagined how I would scrutinize every detail of your new face and body, and then confidently lift you up to my breast to be nourished.

Instead, I was physically weak and could barely support you in my arms. But still, you gazed unwaveringly back at me. It wasn’t a look. It was a meeting of souls, a locking in. And that was enough. I did not think of you, for a moment, in that instant, as a baby.

You were so healthy with glowing rosy skin. Tiny bubbles coming out of your mouth. Long, healthy limbs. You even smelled like cake. Linda seemed completely in love with you, too, as if you were the first, most magnificent creature she had ever seen. That is her infinite gift. I could not have been happier, or more assured. So we slept on one big bed, we three, and fell into a sound sleep. When we awoke, it was a beautiful, bright winter day.

Emergence

During your birth I thought I was doing all the work, but soon enough, I could see how much was done for me. For that, I will be forever grateful. People who loved you already were circling around our tightly woven world, wondering about your well-being and losing sleep. Kathryn would open the back door to find Coke for your sleepless dad, Ensure for mom, and lasagna for the entire crew left by Grandma. In return, Kathryn would relay messages of “she’s doing fine” or “not yet, but soon.” Meals skipped, plans suspended, professional practices put on the line. I can’t express how lucky we were that, for those first tender moments, everything in our world called out your name and focused on welcoming you in. No other to-dos, errands or distractions. Time stood still as we took in the marvelous, wonderful you, protecting the sweet scent of new life that had permeated our home.


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