The rust colored haze of Waldo Canyon forest fires and near 100-degree temperatures made July an unnerving month for all of Colorado Springs, but at nine months pregnant, I felt particularly plagued: huge and hot and housebound, unable to open a window or take a walk for fear of smoke inhalation. My husband Idris and I had moved to the Springs two months prior; a post-doctoral fellowship for him, a baby for me. With no friends or family, I baked away in our air-condition-less rental home, dust and dog hair floating in the sunlight, fire trucks wailing in the moonlight. My sheets, my hair, everything smelled like barbeque.
“We’re gonna have a baby,” Idris said, caressing my belly.
“Maybe I can hold out,” I thought. “With the evacuations, it’s just so inconvenient.”
On the couch later that month, I sucked spoonfuls of peanut butter and binge-watched Lost in the pre-dawn hours, cringing between contractions. I’d been having “practice” contractions for days, often ten minutes apart, so instead of waking Idris or calling Jan, my midwife, I winced my way through season six, grateful for the drop in temperature, the first in weeks.
It wasn’t until 5AM – rain slapping down outside, a flock of cranes overhead, my body slow burning with pain – that I allowed myself a quick e-mail: “Sorry to bother you, Jan. Challenging contractions every five minutes or so.” Her response: “Sounds great!”
Now, Jan and I didn’t exactly have a rapport. I’d hired her a few weeks back from an ad in the free local newspaper. She was goofy, a mother of six in teddy bear scrubs whose eyes sometimes crossed in googly fun, but who was I to be picky? Sounds great! I stared at the screen before closing my laptop. No need to pester Jan with questions.
So Wednesday was Wednesday. I spoke with my agent about a book project; I spoke with our landlord about the oven; I spoke with my mom about not driving up from Albuquerque because, you know, this sort of thing could take days. I ate breakfast and lunch and even sent Idris to Chipotle to pick up dinner. That evening, with contractions clocking in at three minutes apart, I finally called Jan and Christie, the near stranger who would serve as my doula.
That’s when things get fuzzy.
I remember a bustle of bodies and business to-dos, like inflating the birth pool and heating the crockpot and where did we put that tarp? And did we remember the hose adapter? Chux, chux, where were the chux? I remember Chupa, our dog, darting from room to room in hopes of a free hand to pet her. I remember a wide-eyed Idris composing and then immediately deleting a long text message to my mom, cautioning her about driving at night. Mostly I remember retreating to the bedroom in an effort to stay out of everyone’s way.
My Mindful Birthing class didn’t address the chaos of homebirth: the confusion, the claustrophobia, the clutter. The living and dining rooms were so littered with birth supplies and paperwork and totes and purses that the obsessive-compulsive in me panicked at a glance. Where was the silence and privacy I’d craved? My whole reason for homebirth was simplicity. No mammoth machines or sterilized spotlights. I’d imagined a soft breeze, lilies and rainstorm, candles and chanting. Instead it was me in my robe and glasses, sneaking into the bathroom between contractions to scrub the toilet for our labor-assistant guests.
When I could stomach the clutter, I’d pad around the main space moaning my meow of a moan.
“Don’t be afraid to make noise from here,” Christie told me, tattoo sleeves pointing to her gut.
“Okay,” I said.
“Don’t feel like you have to talk during your contractions,” Christie told me. “Okay,” I said. And then, “Sorry.”
Jan interrupted to measure me for the first time since her arrival. I was nine centimeters dilated. Her eyes went googly.
“Watch out for the quiet ones,” Christie said under her breath.
Suddenly it was time for the pool. The pool! Where was the fever, the chills, the naps between contractions? Where was the gushing oh-my-god-the-baby’s-here amniotic fluid? Where was the poop? Everything I’d read said bowel movement meant baby time and I hadn’t pooped all day. I sure as hell wasn’t going to give birth in an inflatable puddle of stool. The pool? Pregnancy was one thing, but I couldn’t hold a baby, much less change a diaper, much less mother. I hadn’t asked anyone how to do it. I wasn’t ready for the pool.
I got into the pool.
Everyone gathered around: Idris, Jan, Christie, Chupa. Smiling. Watching. Waiting. But the whole chicken-in-the-pot routine wasn’t working on me. Willpower and warm water downsized my contractions to a minor annoyance, the sort that prevented me from another bite of peanut butter toast. Still, I didn’t want to disappoint everyone.
For two hours, they watched and I buoyed, wondering if I should offer my toast to the group. They checked their cell phones and I buoyed, wondering if Jan had other clients in real labor. They discussed Chupa’s charm and affability, and I raised a wrinkled hand.
“Shouldn’t I be doing something?” I asked.
“You’re doing everything you’re supposed to be doing,” they said.
“Every woman labors in her own time,” they said.
Then Christie added, “Of course, if you feel the need to hunker down during a contraction, go ahead and do it.”
Hunker down? “What does that mean?” I asked.
“You know, if you feel the need to poop, go with it,” Christie said. “Rectal pressure is a good sign.”
I got out of the pool.
What followed was a compilation of old school birthing poses. Inspired by my newfound need to push, I tried everything from standing to sitting to squatting to lying down. All the while Jan recited her appalling mantra, “Millimeter by millimeter, this baby’s coming out.” The baby was trapped under my cervical lip, then caught in the cradle of my pelvic bone, then lodged in at the shoulders.
Flat on the mattress with my knees to my ears, I sobbed, “I can’t do this!”
“Yes, you can,” Jan said. “You’re doing it now.”
As motivation, she suggested I glance into her hand mirror to see the baby’s crown. I shook my head left to right: No way.
“Don’t you want to see the progress you’ve made?” Jan asked.
“There’s so much hair, you’ve got to take a look!” Christie said.
“Felicia, you really should see this,” Idris said.
Had I the lung capacity, I would’ve shouted, “Don’t you get that the head belongs to a baby?” I wanted relief from the pain, not a reflection of things to come.
Eventually my fear of a prolonged labor trumped my fear of the baby, so I bullied myself into giving birth. Silently, forcefully, I repeated, “You’re a strong woman.” With each push, “You’re a strong woman.” The fire of it all was unbearable. Not a transcendental thrill like the Ricki Lake movies say, not an oceanic rush like the Ina May books say. And don’t even get me started on the whole orgasmic birth business.
And then Jan told me to stand up on the bed and push once more, and I did, and it was hot, so hot, the fiercest rupture I’d ever felt, solace and release, baby and umbilical.
“A boy,” my husband whispered.
But he wasn’t a boy, not to me, not yet. He was an anchor, nine pounds heavy on my chest, slick and long and loud. We were attached still. The umbilical cord stretched tight, an agonizing ache that Jan could’ve remedied had I just spoken up. But I couldn’t bring myself to ask for help. Why couldn’t I ask for help? Not when I was 13 and blooming hives from physics homework, not when I was 23 and vomiting, alone in my studio apartment, for three whole days, and not now, at 30, at my most powerful. My body had just created a body, and still I denied myself a voice.
Instead I lay there, bloody and exhausted, throbbing with pain, petrified by my silence, by the ashen feeling inside. I thought of the fire. The damage. The thousands of Colorado acres that looked like the moon. Was that me, cratered and grey? This was supposed to be the big payoff, the oxytocin rush that would bond me to my baby forever. Even after Idris cut the umbilical, I couldn’t hold my baby like the new moms on Facebook. I couldn’t fake happy. Where was the love, that quintessential love, that primal gift? No love meant dark things, bad things, that I was damaged, that I had failed.
I passed out. Massive blood loss.
Later my mom would tell me that she arrived well before the birth, but chose to linger outside my bedroom window rather than interrupt the labor. That and the front door was locked.
“I could hear you in pain,” my mom said, “and all I kept thinking was, ‘You’re a strong woman. You’re a strong woman. You can do this.’”
Looking back, I like to think that it was my mom’s voice I heard in my head during that last hour of pushing. She was a window’s width away, and then suddenly beside me, her daughter a mama now, moored by breast to a hungry boy. When I saw her, my breath ballooned, quick hot air. There was nothing wrong with my oxytocin supply. It simply misfired; the purity of affection toward my mom in her pink capris and matching tank top stunned me.
She gave birth to me, I thought.
And Idris’ mom gave birth to him.
And Jan’s mom gave birth to her.
And Christie’s mom gave birth to her.
And Chupa’s mom gave birth to her.
It was magic. Every body I encountered suddenly signified motherhood. A whole corporal constellation illuminated before me, radiant and vast. Women, I thought, we’re everything. It meant that I wasn’t alone in this, not even after my mom left back to Albuquerque, left me with a newborn to hold and change and mother. Me on the wooden rocking chair, raw and exhausted, nursing again and again, the house silent and dark, Idris at work or else asleep. “You’re a strong woman,” I’d repeat, a frantic mantra. “You’re not alone.” Because no matter how invisible, how mute I made myself, I counted: I am of my mother’s body, my son is of my body. We are celestial beings.
It took time to absorb my power. Years. It was yield and push, yield and push. Breathe in, fear out, millimeter by millimeter. And with that power came love, first for my son – oh, the fierce fragility of it, terrifying and total – and then for myself – a sharpening of the senses, of the tongue: I am here, hear me.
Felicia Rose Chavez is a digital storyteller whose work features regularly on National Public Radio. She holds an M.F.A. in creative nonfiction from the University of Iowa. Former Program Director to Young Chicago Authors and founder of GirlSpeak, a literary webzine for young women, Felicia teaches creative writing and new media as a Riley Scholar-in-Residence at Colorado College. Find her at www.feliciarosechavez.com.