"Labor is like running a marathon with a spear stuck through your belly," explained my friend Emily, a fundraising executive and mother of a teen. I was five months pregnant, beginning to imagine what lay predictably around the bend. So far, I didn't like what I heard.
"It took the doctor an hour to stitch me up," my friend Lisa, a teacher, recalled, who, granted, shortly after her son’s birth fled her abusive marriage. "I ripped like a seat cushion!"
My Catholic book-loving friend Sandra likened the births of her three and six year-olds to "shitting a watermelon."
I was shocked and sad, really, to discover that my friends, who adore their children and love motherhood’s gifts and wisdoms, were decidedly not fans of childbirth.
One night, floating in my husband's arms in a hot candle-lit bath, I put aside the horror stories. I told him I thought my labor would be like the marathon I've always dreamed of running: a physically and psychologically challenging test of endurance. I would train for it months ahead, learning to listen to my body's needs, interpret its weaknesses and fears. Race day would arrive and I would push myself farther than I ever imagined, past moments of certain failure and incredible agony, and yet I would listen and breathe and my legs would carry me to the finish line -- our baby would slip from my body and into our arms.
Yet I also sensed that labor was not merely a physical act of my body but a spiritual journey I would take in delivering our son to the world. I added to my labor fantasy the notion of a pilgrimage which would entail surrendering my own comfort to a higher purpose, meditating, relaxing, and finding a place within that, dream-like, is where my soul resides.
"I'm just telling you this because if I had known how painful it was -- well I probably wouldn't have done anything differently, but at least I would have known," explained Sandra. "They don't tell you about the puking," Lisa warned. "Take the drugs," Emily suggested, "Don't be a martyr!"
I had thought becoming a mother would be like joining a sisterhood with a lineage stretching back to before we even knew to walk on two feet or cover our breasts. Instead, I was approaching this wonder with virtually no guidance. My mother had been "knocked out" when I was born and knew nothing of breastfeeding. I was a lonely, foolish optimist. It reminded me of when I was eighteen and all my friends had "done it" while I was still hanging onto the notion that when I gave myself to a boy it would be for love. I wasn’t all wrong then, so maybe I wasn’t now. A virgin of birth, I smiled politely and silently continued to imagine childbirth my own way.
Not all my friends said labor sucked. Mary Ann, birthing at home, walked to the 7-11 while she was in labor because it was July and she just had to have a cherry Slushee. As Tamara balanced her little girl in her arms, she recalled for me the shower stall in the delivery room, rolling with fog from an endless supply of hot water. It sounded as beautiful as Japan.
Weeks passed and my belly grew to an unimaginable size and our son's crazy kicks settled into an impatient rearrangement of limbs. I swam laps in my seahorse swim suit, feeling like a sleek member of the German Olympic team -- until I waddled to the changing room. On my due date, a Monday, I didn’t go to work. I spent the day cutting squares of cloth -- a heavy striped work shirt I bought at a French flea market, a cheery floral-and-fruit pattern from a favorite worn-out sun dress, a bold African print of animals I’d gotten in New York. I worked on my hands and knees, cutting against the smooth wood floor, pushing in the cloudy stuffing, then finally tying the tufts that would hold my son's blanket together. As I worked, the baby swayed above the earth, defying gravity, immoveable.
Tuesday, I danced to Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett, Otis Redding. Nothing.
Wednesday I had a new job: to get this baby out. I went to a massage therapist and doula who rubbed a fragile spot behind my ankle bone and pronounced: "It will be very soon."
Not soon enough. Friday I went for a long walk, slowly, like a Chinese grandmother who wants to identify all the plants by touch, at a small wild park. With my gay friend Len, who mercifully knew nothing about childbirth, I walked up and down the paths. It was late February, spring in Austin. The trees wore swollen buds on their fingers. Some were already flowering, the peppermint peach trees, pink and white, and the redbud, a tree I remember from when I was a girl, its tiny purple-pink flowers premeditating heart-shaped leaves. We marched up the steps to the bridge and down the other side, over and over.
That night we went out for dinner at El Sol y la Luna, a place I chose as much for its elemental name as for its healthy Salvadoran fare. My long-awaited journey began unexpectedly as I walked back from the bathroom decorated with dozens of smiling moons, and felt a trickling. My marathon began in earnest Saturday morning with emails to friends -- "It’s happening" -- between contractions. It stretched through the whole weekend, through a tornado watch, nipple stimulation, stair-climbing, pitocin drip, epidural prick and three-and-a-half hours of pushing. But it ended just the way I imagined, with Cope’s birth at four minutes after noon on Sunday -- the time, I thought as someone recorded the hour, when church lets out.
Five years have passed. In addition to surviving babyhood, the terrible twos and thirty-six months of breastfeeding, I have completed my first triathlon. By coincidence, my midwife was also doing this all-women race. As the sun and hills melted my head and legs, I remembered what else she and I had finished together. After the race, I took to bed feeling more or less like I’d just given birth but without the ice pack between my legs.
The pilgrimage is still unfolding before me. I walk the halls of kindergarten, stopping serenely to decipher the mysteries of the Fall Carnival plastered on the walls.
Amazing, endless, awesome childbirth. I wouldn’t be the mother I am without it.
I was inspired this month by
a friend and co-worker who gave birth to baby Luke on September 18th. As
Cacki’s due date approached and her curiosity and anxiety peaked, we
moms at work spent increasing amounts of each day talking about labor,
veering somewhere between its wonders and realities. Now that the baby
has arrived, we will certainly get more work done -- but it will hardly
be as important.