New Year, New Blog

Happy 2016! I am happy to back to blogging on a new site after a long postpartum hiatus. I will no longer be updating this WordPress site. Sadly, my subscriptions won’t carry over so you’ll have to sign up on the new site if you’d like updates.

I have a new blog post up. It starts like this:

“The first year of my baby boy’s life has already come and gone. There is nothing quite like that year carefully measured in months and milestones: first smiles, first crawls, first teeth, first time sleeping longer than three hours. This year of unpredictable schedules, of near-constant sleep deprivation, of alarming bodily indignities — it’s like getting lost in a thick haze, where days are barely distinguishable from one another. I hardly have known the day of the week, sometime not even the season.”

Read the rest here.

I hope to see you over at my new site or on facebook/twitter. Thanks for reading!

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Birth Story, Part Two

It was around 4 PM when they started, the achy pains that swept across my abdomen, down my thighs and around to my lower back.

I am not someone who welcomes pain. I don’t push my body to do CrossFit or regularly run long distances. In high school, I was on the cross-country team but was notorious for starting out really fast then getting winded and pained halfway through the race. But, with every 30 second contraction, I found myself smiling. There was ample time in between to send a few text messages (I am having some contractions, mom!), to throw my toothbrush into the bag I had packed for the birth center. After so many days of anxious waiting, I hardly dared to let myself believe this was finally it.

If you’ve never been in labor, imagine that you are running hill intervals. You start at a slow jog, then kick up the intensity as you sprint up the hill – your legs and abdomen cramping underneath you, your breath shallow – until, at last, you crest the top, and plod down the hill to the other side. Now picture yourself doing those intervals once every 10 minutes for a few hours, then every 7 minutes for a couple more, and so on. Imagine that the hills get gradually higher and longer while your rest time in between gets shorter. Imagine not knowing if you have one more hour of hill intervals or 10 more hours until you can finally stop. No, wait. Not stop. Until you can PUSH A HUMAN out of a very small hole in your body. It’s crazy.

When the contractions started, Josh ran out to get pizza while I puttered around at home. I remember thinking: I better get some calories in now, I might have another 54 hours (the length of my first labor) ahead of me. When he got back, we ate pizza right out of the box, grinning like fools, daring to hope we would have our baby soon.

A few days earlier, we brought home a $10 live Christmas tree from Menards. It was lopsided and spray-painted green. We propped it up in the corner of our kitchen, though it still crashed over onto the kitchen table a few times. As the hours of early labor went on into the evening, I laid down on the couch with the overhead lights off, staring at the crooked strand of twinkly lights on our tree. It was calming, watching the soft glow. Josh lit candles. The contractions were becoming more intense, but there was plenty of time to recover in between.

But they kept coming and, at around 9 PM, we called Melanie. She said she would come over in an hour.

Labor. Looking back now, it’s hard for me to really remember it. I know that it got more painful, that I needed Josh and Melanie to rub my legs and lower back during contractions. I took a bath. I tried to rest by lying on the couch upstairs. I sat on the birthing ball; Melanie gave me a foot massage.

The contractions hurt, they did. But they weren’t getting any closer together, still just 5 to 7 minutes apart. Because my first labor was so painfully long, I began to anticipate hours and hours ahead. I was anxious and tired. At 2 AM, Melanie suggested that we go to the birth center. “Maybe,” she said, “once you’re in the place where you know you will give birth, your labor will pick up.”

We piled into our car and drove the 10 minutes to the birth center. It was 2:30 AM, so there were hardly any cars on the road. The 35-W bridge took us over the Mississippi river; I remember looking out over to the historic Stone Arch Bridge, the old flour mill ruins cast in an orange haze from the street lights. I had one, maybe two, contractions in the car. Melanie leaned over the seat to help massage my legs while I concentrated on my breathing.

Josh drove into the alley behind the birth center. Martha, one of the midwives, was waiting for us at the back door, her arms wrapped around herself for warmth. It was a clear, cold, snow-muffled December night. There was no one else at the birth center.

We entered the birthing suite: a large room with a king-sized bed, a couch, a rocking chair, and a giant water-birth tub. I had decided earlier not to have my cervix checked to see how dilated I was during labor; I was afraid that if I wasn’t making much progress I would be easily discouraged. (Women who have vaginal births must dilate to 10 centimeters before they can push the baby down and out. In my first birth, I was stuck at 6 centimeters for 9 hours.)

I got into the birthing tub for a while, then moved into the shower. Melanie and Josh took turns feeding me small bites of cheese, frozen blueberries, spoonfuls of yogurt. I sat on a stool in the shower for what felt like hours. Melanie encouraged me to relax my face and shoulders, to groan downward — deep, low, out. Still, I was getting tired. My contractions were about a minute long and only 5 minutes apart.

I was sitting in the shower, naked, exhausted. I turned to Melanie and said, “I can’t do this anymore. I just want it to stop, it’s not working. Just take me to the hospital now.”

Melanie looked at me closely, her brown eyes locking with mine. “I know,” she said, carefully. “It’s really fucking hard. It fucking hurts. But you just need to get through the next contraction.”

I closed my eyes as I felt another contraction slowly coming on, I motioned to Melanie to rub my legs, I breathed down and low and deep.

I got back into the birthing tub; the water felt wonderful on my tired body. At one point I turned to Melanie, “My contractions don’t hurt as much in here. Maybe they’re not working?”

She encouraged me that it was okay if they were less painful, that I was doing great, that my contractions were doing the job they were supposed to do. All I needed to do was keep eating, keep resting in between contractions. I gradually started feeling stronger, fortified by the small bites of food and small sips of coconut water and gatorade that Josh and Melanie kept offering me.

The hours blur together now in my memory. I was in a trance-like state, my mind entirely present to the moment. I didn’t make eye contact with anyone; I felt entirely folded inward. We had sounds of ocean waves playing on our ipod; crash, crash, crash.

After a particularly hard contraction, I vomited all over the bed. It was one of the most encouraging moments of my entire labor. Finally, I thought, I must be really working hard. I must be getting closer. I was desperate for any sign that my labor was productive.

Martha, the midwife, had mostly left us to ourselves. (“You guys are such a great team!”) But after we had been at the birth center for 4 hours, she asked if she could check my cervix to see how things were going. She promised not to tell me how dilated I was. I agreed, and after the exam, she couldn’t stop herself from smiling widely.

“Stina,” she said. “You are so close. Your bag of waters is bulging, it should break during your next few contractions. After that happens, you can get back in the birth tub. You will be pushing this baby out soon.”

I didn’t really believe her at first. I was still having contractions at only 5 minutes apart, and I had it fixed in my mind that they needed to be coming every 1 or 2 minutes before I was fully dilated. But then I had a super painful contraction, one that wretched down my back, and I was forced back in the animal present of breathing down, low, out. After a few more like that, I felt a popping, then a rush of fluid. My water had broken.

Josh and Melanie helped me get up, supporting my arms as I climbed into the birth tub. After a few more contractions, there was a pause in my labor. Martha had alerted the labor nurse and midwife intern that we were close to pushing, so two more women joined us in the room wearing scrubs and long gloves.

Suddenly, I had an overwhelming urge to push. And by overwhelming, I mean absolutely uncontrollable. I would feel the beginnings of a contraction, then a crazy powerful rush of energy down, down, down. Josh climbed into the tub with me, he straddled my back and supported me as I pushed.

I distinctly remember thinking, in between pushes, I am having a baby right now. I am pushing a live human out of my body.

In the same pattern as before, I would push for a minute, then rest for 4 or 5 more.

“I can see the head! Reach down, you can feel it.”

I pushed again and felt a huge burning move downward, and then back upwards inside. With each push, I bellowed a loud, terrifying yell. I couldn’t have stopped it if I wanted to.

“That’s good, just like that.”

A few pushes later, and my son’s head was born into the water. I waited like that for a few minutes: my son’s head outside and under the water, the rest of his body still inside. He kept moving his head back and forth; apparently, babies have the instinct to move their heads to help navigate their way through the birth canal. It was the strangest sensation of my life.

One more giant push, and he was out. Born into water. Dark purple and mewling and slippery on my chest. I held his sweet head against my collarbone, barely seeing more than his sticky hair; Josh held me from behind, reaching around my body to touch his head.

My son, he was here, born at 8:43 AM. I had just finished the longest, hardest endurance race of my life.

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//

This is Part Two of my birth story. Click here for Part One.

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Birth Story, Part One

It feels strange to return to this space after my son was born four months ago. It feels strange because I had a beautiful birth this time, a birth so unexpected and different than my first one. I think about what I wrote about God as a laboring mother and find it difficult to connect those essays to my latest experience, which was astoundingly good.

A writer-friend remarked to me once that I like to write about failure. That struck me as devastatingly true — I do tend to frame stories by my mislaid expectations and the crashing disappointment of real-life-living. Even the title of this blog, “What Life Does,” refers to a quote that reflects that sense of disillusionment.

But I don’t want to be a person who always frames her life in terms of failure. In writing out this birth story, I am taking a small step in exploring the positive in my life.

40 weeks pregnant.

//

I was overdue. I was approaching the deadline, 40 weeks plus 14 days. Instead of needing to produce a paper or article, I needed to give birth. By December 4th. Otherwise I would become a “high risk” pregnancy because there is greater chance that the placenta may atrophy once you pass 42 weeks. And, if you’re high risk, you can’t deliver at a birth center, you have to deliver at a hospital.

I had my daughter at a hospital three years prior and the birth hadn’t gone the way I had hoped. Somehow, I had it fixed in my mind that giving birth in the hospital again would mean re-experiencing the same birth I had the first time. I wanted a different birth. I wanted to deliver at the birth center.

It was December 3rd and I wasn’t in labor. I woke up in the morning feeling angry. Contractions still hadn’t started. I had been doing all the things people tell women who are waiting for their babies to come: have sex, take castor oil, climb stairs, eat spicy food, acupuncture. The midwives at the birth center told me that, if December 3rd came around and I still wasn’t in labor, I could go into the birth center to have my water broken manually. Something about a knitting-needle hook that would be inserted into my cervix. A friend of mine had delivered at the same birth center and had the procedure done to help jumpstart labor; her daughter was born 10 hours later.

I was desperate to have a different birth. I wanted to deliver at the birth center.

I called my doula, my friend Melanie, a friend who I have known for years. Our families have lived together and we’ve seen each other at our best and at our worst. We’ve had fights over unloading the dishwasher and cried together during house meetings and watched each other parent our babies. We’ve talked about our family issues, about old hurts and ways to move beyond them. She has influenced me so much in the way she mothers. She knows how to grow beautiful plants and run a greenhouse, the little seedlings bending toward her careful knowledge and light. I trust Melanie in the way you can trust someone who has known you, who you’ve watched caretake vulnerable things: small children, small plants. The way she nourishes life, gives it the light of her attention, the water of her diligence. And she knows a lot about maternal medicine, having doula-ed countless births.

So I called Melanie, and she didn’t give me advice straight out, but I could sense she didn’t agree with the breaking your water strategy. If your water breaks, you have 24 hours before the risk of infection rises and before medical professionals will hook you up to Pitocin to jumpstart labor. Choosing to break my water could open up my birth to the possibility that I would need more interventions later.

Still, not breaking my water would mean that I would be delivering at the hospital, it would mean that my dreams of a birth center birth would go unrealized. And I wasn’t ready to let that go.

Melanie came with Josh and I to the birth center to discuss the procedure with the midwives. I remember being in one of the birthing suites, seated on a couch, and sobbing as I finally chose not to get my water broken to induce labor. I was letting it go, I thought I was deciding to have a hospital birth. It felt like giving up, it felt like history repeating itself.

The hospital was across the street from the birth center, so we walked over icy sidewalks to visit the brand new Mother Baby Center. It’s a new wing of the hospital, done up in rainbow hued glass and futuristic couches. It looked fine, it was all fine, but I longed for the soothing green walls of the birth center, the tasteful art, the giant water-birth Jacuzzi-style tubs. I know, in retrospect, it may sound selfish and privileged to be whining about where I give birth – a top-notch hospital is among the better places (or so I imagine) to have a baby. Yet, I’d been picturing myself delivering in another place for months; I had all my prenatal appointments at the birth center. Switching to an unfamiliar hospital at the very last minute made me tense.

After touring the hospital, Josh and I tried to decide what to do next. My three-year-old daughter was staying at her grandparents for the day. Should he go back to work? Should I take a nap? Try something else to get labor started?

Melanie suggested we visit an herbalist midwife friend of hers. I wasn’t sold on the idea, but I was desperate. There was still a slim chance that I could go into labor that very day and be able to deliver at the birth center.

So we went. Her office was in her home, the upstairs of a duplex, beaming with light, with hanging plants and warm neutral wall hangings. There were bookcases lined with Ina May Gaskin’s books and several copies of Birthing from Within. She asked us a few questions, she scoffed at the birth center’s rigid two week post-due-date time frame (your gestational length is perfectly normal! There is no real reason NOT to keep waiting, besides for insurance). If you were my patient, she said, we wouldn’t be trying anything to get labor started. We would just trust that it would start in the next few days. And then I felt guilty for not having chosen a home-birth in the first place.

She had me stick out my tongue and she listened to my pulse. She pulled out black eyedroppers full of herbal tinctures and placed a few drip-drops on my wrists. She gave me a few brown bottles of “strong uterine herbs” that are supposed to jumpstart labor. I felt foolish when I wrote the check for $50 – we were barely making our monthly budget – and wondered if this would work.

We went home, I took the herbs, I took a nap. I felt utterly depleted, my tears and decision to deliver at the hospital feeling like giving up on my hopes for a beautiful birth. But when I woke up an hour later, I was having a contraction. And then another. And then another.

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Overdue

It’s the first Sunday in Advent and I couldn’t bear going to church this morning with my ten-days-overdue belly. Of course everyone understands that babies don’t follow any kind of schedule (at least mine don’t – inside or outside the womb, for that matter); of course, normal gestational length can vary by as much as six weeks. Still, when you pass that magical date that you’ve been spouting out to curious well-wishers for the past few months, everyone starts getting antsy. It’s enough to make me want to hide forever. Hide from questions and small talk, hide from hope that he will be here soon.

I know there are many parallels to entering the season of Advent with being “overdue” with child — but frankly they make me grouchy, even if they are apt. Yes, waiting for this birth reflects the greater waiting we are doing for Jesus’ birth, for the Kingdom to come, for peace to reign on earth. But in the actual calendar season of Advent, I know Christmas is coming on December 25. It will come on time. I already know that story; I can make plans.

This physical knowing I will give birth but not knowing when? This is different. With Advent, I can intellectualize its meaning. I can check out emotionally and passively move through the season until Christmas morning. I can even skip ahead to joy by playing Christmas music early and setting up our tree. But there is no sneaking in snuggles with my baby before labor; this is a wait in utter darkness.

Up until this weekend, I have felt okay waiting. I’m not physically uncomfortable or roiling in pain. Sure, it has been wearying — the not knowing, the wondering if I should do a big grocery shop or make play-dates for my toddler, the pressure to be doing things to go into labor (primrose oil, walking, doing stairs, eating spicy food, castor oil, acupuncture, squats and lunges to name a few). I have known that, no matter what I try, there is always the underlying reality that nothing that I “do” will push me into labor until my body is ready.

But the past two mornings I woke up at 4 AM with panic so thick in my throat that I thought I would choke. Somehow I had it in my mind that the baby would come this weekend; that the baby would be born before December 1. Instead of waking to labor pains or to the rush of my water breaking, I blinked awake to hope unmet and stomach acid. Nothing was happening.

I’ve been surprised by the anger that I have felt at having my hopes misplaced.

The unease I feel now is more of an agitated readiness, a frantic desire to meet this being who is sharing my body, to endure and be done with labor, to finally have the anticipation put to rest. It’s a thirst to move forward, not remain stuck here in limbo, in wondering.

For so many days now, I’ve been on top of everything house related – all the dishes done immediately, the toys always picked up, the manic check-things-off-the-list mentality driving me forward, lest we go into labor. Ask my husband; he will tell you about how we dusted the tops of every kitchen cabinet this morning.

I had been so hopeful that my baby would be born by today. Every Braxton Hicks contraction pain has stirred anticipation — is this it? But nothing real has happened, nothing tangible. I feel despondent, uncertain whether to keep preparing or sink into hopeless grief.

December is nearly here; my baby is not. And, though the parallels make me grouchy, I wonder if this is exactly what Advent is supposed to feel like: an angry anticipation for the thing we most long for, a discontent with the ways of this world, a bitter hope teetering on despair for wrongs to be righted, a desperation for light to overcome all this darkness.

It’s this restless hope that is forcing me to pace the hallways of my apartment building, to do circuits of stairs wherever I can find them. It’s forcing me into a more active wait, not a passive one. It’s forcing me to try small things to get labor started, though I have no ultimate control in this process.

I keep going through the motions, though the oil in my lamp is burning low. Draw your flame a little closer, wait with me.

***

Image via Flickr’s Creative Commons can be found here

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Due Date: A Few Thoughts

“Time is of utmost importance to Americans. Time is something to be on, kept, filled, saved, lost, wasted and even killed. Americans tend to be more concerned with getting things done on time than they are with interpersonal relationships. Americans stop discussions abruptly in order to make appointments on time and to be productive.”

– 13 Commonly Held American Values, by L. Robert Kohls

//

Last night I was checking my email when a new message popped into my inbox.

Notification: Stina’s Due Date @ Thu Nov 20, 2014.

Thank you, Google Calendar; I am well aware that my 40 weeks of pregnancy are up. I’ve received texts and phone calls from friends and family over the past few days.

“How are you feeling?” or “Thinking of you!” they read.

“I’m feeling good!” or “Thanks, xoxo!” I respond.

But really, what is there to say? I am waiting to go through one of the most defining experiences of my adult life. I am waiting to add a new member to my family, something I may never do again. I am waiting for life to emerge from my very body, to hold my wet newborn son to my chest, to watch him take his first breaths.

There is no other time like it, this waiting for a baby to rip through your pelvis. When else do you have a notification pop up on your email – “it’s your due date!!” – like it’s high school graduation or your wedding, but instead of going ahead and putting on your cap and gown or wedding dress, you sit down on the couch and take a deep sigh. It’s here! So hurry up and wait. You wonder if you should make plans for the days ahead, fielding the curiosity and excitement and anticipation of everyone around you. You imagine them thinking: When will your body get it together?

The waiting. There is so much waiting. I want it to be here, to be on the other side of birth, to know that we made it through. I want it, even though seasoned parents of more than one child say, “Get your sleep!” or “You don’t know how good you have it!” or, my favorite, “It’s two on two now – you’ll never get a break!”

Even if it is as tiring and achy and emotional as I imagine parenting a newborn and toddler in wintertime will be, at least I will be in it. It will be there and I can take the next step, even if it’s crying into my bathrobe.

//

I wonder if all my discomfort with waiting has something to do with being steeped in a productivity-and-deadlines obsessed culture. We Americans like to be in control of our time, we’re not used to sitting around and awaiting an unknown fate.

In the three years since my last birth, I forgot what it felt like to be waiting for a newborn. When I’d watch acquaintances approaching their own due dates, I couldn’t remember what to say, how to empathize, or what ways to support them.

“How are you feeling?” I’d ask, forgetting that they’d likely fielded that question several times already that day.

I’d wonder about them in subsequent days, curious if they were in labor yet. But life would go on, I would make my toddler lunch or get the mail, until I’d absent-mindedly check Facebook. “Oh!” I’d exclaim. “They had their baby!” And I’d marvel that my friend had been sweating and pushing and undergoing one of the most intense experiences of their life while I had been eating a sandwich.

(Does it ever feel strange that so many things, so many experiences can co-exist at the same time? Right now, someone is being born. Someone is dying. Someone is getting married. Someone is having sex for the first time. It’s mind-blowing to me, the plurality of human experience.)

It’s hard to be the one waiting; it’s hard to encourage the one waiting. We struggle with trust, with open-ended and uncertain answers. But with every “how are you feeling?” or “happy due date” message that I receive, I am reminded that I am not waiting alone. I have a web of interpersonal relationships that surround me, eager to welcome this new baby into the world.

When I went into labor the first time, my friends and family lit candles for me, to remind them to pray, to acknowledge the struggle for new life that was happening while they went about normal routines. I take comfort in that image of tiny flames, of small lights of hope. All I can do is take it moment by moment, trusting that my baby will come when he is ready. In the meantime, I will keep fielding those wonderful texts, phone calls and conversations about all that is to come. Each one reminds me that we’re in this together.

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Expecting Newborns, Winter

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The weather is changing here in Minnesota, no – it’s punching, it’s swinging. On Sunday evening I read the forecast: an estimated six to eight inches of snow would fall by Monday evening. Just like that, fall to winter.

I’m not ready, I thought. For the cold, for the darkness at 4:30 PM, for freezing hands on freezing car steering wheels.

My unborn baby boy is due in seven days. I feel like a ticking time bomb, knowing I will give birth anytime. It could be tonight. It could be after Thanksgiving.

But I’m not ready, I keep thinking to myself. I have awesome pregnancies. I don’t have awesome labors. But even once that part is over, once he is here, I will have two kids to manage in wintertime. Minnesota wintertime. Two little bodies to bundle into snowsuits and strap into car seats and drive through blizzards.

I couldn’t sleep on Sunday night. That anticipation, the cusp of major change kept my eyes open as I stared at shadows in our dark bedroom. My mind was awake, running ragged. Please sleep, I told myself. Instead, I kept thinking: will I be able to handle it? Will I be okay? The sleep deprivation, the nursing and diaper-changing whilst my toddler jumps on and off the couch, the putting on and taking off so many pairs of tiny mittens?

My mind scanned the mental to-do list. We still haven’t decided on a name; we still need to put away the air-conditioner that is sitting in our living room; we still need to pack a bag for the birth center. I need to write thank you notes from my baby shower. We have to sell our car.

I got out of bed and pulled out bags of last year’s scarves and hats to sort. I traded sandals for heavy winter boots on the closet shoe-rack. I pulled out my winter coat and put my hands in the pockets, uncovering remnants of life from six months prior: a granola bar wrapper, the set of dice I used for math games in my job as a tutor, a cheap pair of stretchy gloves. I tried to remember what I was doing in April when the last snows were here. Before the glory days of spring, summer and fall, back when I was putting my hands in coat pockets. I know winter had dragged on and on; that I was thankful when the snow began to melt and I put this coat in storage.

Anticipating a second newborn feels like that seasonal cycle; it feels like going back to winter you barely remember. I know it was hard the first time, really hard, especially those first 18 months. I know there were days when I felt like I was drowning in the needs of my needy infant, unable to detangle myself from my role as mother long enough to take a shower. But then it got easier. My daughter started sleeping at night, we had only one nap a day to worry about, and life got into a rhythm. I felt more confident. I started going to writing classes. I worked part-time.

Those were the spring, summer and fall days of life with my daughter, my one and only darling child. We were chums, just the two of us. We had easy days out on the playground or meeting friends or visiting the children’s museum. I had some flexibility in my schedule to pursue other interests.

But now it’s approaching wintertime of parenting again: time to pull out the baby clothes, install the infant car seat, and dig out the bibs and bottles.

//

I actually like winter. I was born and raised here in Minnesota; I know how to layer long underwear and what brands of winter boots to buy. Some of the most magical moments of my life have been spent cross-country skiing through evergreen forests, their heavy limbs bending with snow. My sisters and I could tell you painful stories of our family’s epic winter trips to the North Woods: long treks on wooden skis in below-zero wind-chill and having our parents wipe our bottoms with snow balls after we pooped behind trees (true story). But we could also tell you about the muffled quiet of the cold and the brilliance of the blue sky and the steam from the sauna. I have so many good memories, so much love for this season. I’m a northern girl at heart.

But last winter nearly broke me. Last winter was a long string of subzero days, going on and on like pearls on a rope-length necklace. Just when you thought it would be warm enough to pull your toddler in the sled, 30 below zero winds would force you inside for another cabin feverish afternoon. The cold kept coming, the winds numbing our faces so our cheek muscles couldn’t flex enough to smile.

//

I like babies. I remember hazy fragments from my daughter’s newborn days: the way she stretched her arms and arched her back in a milk-drunk stupor, the way she lumped on my chest like a warm potato. We have so few pictures of her from that stage; we were naïve to think they would stretch on and on and on. That we would always remember how she smelled or how she cooed. We were too fogged in by sleeplessness, too overwhelmed by new parenthood.

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My family of three took a walk around Como Lake on Saturday, before the snowfall. It was only 4:30 PM, but the sun was already dipping low and the Narnia-esqe street lamps were glowing. We wrapped up our toddler in a scarf, stuffed her hands in mittens.

“Look back,” my husband said. “Look at the sky.”

I turned. The sky was lit, alive, all oranges-pinks-reds with streaks of dark blue. It was moving, it was different each moment; it cast a pink-red sheen on the lapping lake water.

We kept walking, the sunset behind us, but we sped up to reach the curve that would place us in front of the colors all over again. We paused to marvel, and then started talking about baby names, about how we don’t have one that we can agree on, about how this name honors that side of the family but that name has a significant meaning.

And then I remembered to look up at the sky and it was gone. A few faint edgings of pink-purple laced the darkness, but the moving cosmic colors were gone.

//

When we started talking about when her baby brother would be born, I told my two-year-old: “When the snow flies.” On Monday we woke to a steady slow snowfall, the ground already layered in white. She raced to the window. Ready or not, it was here.

“Mama, it snowed! Let’s go outside!” she said. After sending her downstairs to where my husband was already making breakfast, I flopped back on the pregnancy body pillow, a thin white snake that supports my oversize belly. Of all the things about parenting, waking up to a chatty toddler ranks among my least favorite.

Later, after I had my cup of coffee and some oatmeal with chopped bananas, she asked me: “Mama, is my baby brother going to pop out now?”

I smiled to myself. Pop out, if only. I walked over to the window and looked at the transformed apartment courtyard, the way everything seemed closer together between stretches of white snow. It’s finally here, I thought. The acidity in my stomach was gone.

It was 20 degrees and we had errands to run. We got on our boots and our coats and our hats and our mittens. I grabbed my green winter jacket, the one with poufy ribs reminiscent of Michelin man. I tugged on the zipper, thankful that I could get it up and over my 9-months-pregnant belly.

I held my daughter’s hand as we walked across the parking lot and got into our car. I scraped the windshield. We drove through the icy streets, following long lines of snowplows and trucks. Despite the memory of last winter’s sub-zero weeks and lingering snowstorms, I found myself marveling the slow-moving snowflakes drifting by. How beautiful, I thought. And, somehow, I remembered how to steer in the snow.

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When The Waves Overwhelm You

Florida Memory

“You’re still at six centimeters,” the nurse midwife said after checking my cervix for dilation.

I turned to my husband with wild eyes.

“We’re still at six centimeters,” I repeated.

Despite the medical interventions I already had undergone – the synthetic Pitocin pumping into my blood stream through an IV, the manual breaking of my bag of waters – I wasn’t even one centimeter closer to delivering my baby than I had been nine hours earlier.

I closed my eyes, absorbing the news. My breathing grew shallow; I could feel the panic in my throat like a hard knob. The past nine hours of contractions didn’t “do” anything.

//

Some women experience textbook labors where everything progresses in timely, ordered stages. Pre-labor, active labor, transition, pushing. But many women I have talked with describe how unpredictable their labor was, how unprepared they were for the slow, hard work it is, unaware of how labor can stall and stop all together, for hours or even days.

In almost every birth story, there comes a time when the excitement of meeting the new baby has vanished, when the overwhelming, pounding, spiting, relentless contractions crash down like waves. That is the moment when the mother needs her doula to encourage, uplift, and bolster her. Look in my eyes, the doula might say. You can do this; your body was made to do this.

Some women turn inward and zone-out, they find a place deep within themselves. There is a sense of letting go, of first kicking to swim to the surface and then floating, letting the waves do the work, but staying above the water, not allowing the waves to drown you in their all-powerful, relentless movement.

Other women get lost under the surf, they panic, and they lose all control. Maybe they don’t have a supportive medical team, maybe they are beyond exhausted, maybe they hear discouraging news about their labor’s progress and they can’t see any other way forward.

//

“I just need to get through this!” I said, crying between contractions. “I need this to be over.”

We were entering our third night of labor, our eyes bloodshot and our limbs heavy, as though filled with sand. My husband squeezed my hand as the midwife explained that I might need an epidural to help my cervix relax. Extreme fatigue can cause women to tense their muscles and prevent dilation, rendering hours and hours of contractions as ineffective.

This wasn’t in the birth plan; this wasn’t how I wanted it to go. I had high hopes for an unmedicated birth.

“Yes,” I said. “Do it.”

After waiting for an excruciatingly long time for the anesthesiologist, I had a needle inserted into my spine. My body relaxed. The contractions continued, but I couldn’t feel them. And in just 30 minutes, I had dilated from 6 to 10 centimeters. I was able to vaginally birth a 9 pound 11 ounces healthy baby girl.

//

Does God ever feel that discouragement, that exhaustion? Does God feel the pain of a non-progressing labor? Does God ever look around wildly for rest, for pain relief, for a break in the relentless, ineffectual pain? Does God ever look at the world – with its vast inequalities, its senseless suffering – and wonder if these labor contractions are really working to bring God’s kingdom?

I think about the moment in the garden, the moment when Jesus knows true fear, when he sweats blood and asks God, “Please, Lord, take this cup from me. Don’t lead me through the pain of crucifixion, the agony of nails in palms and soles, the terror of broken bones.”

Jesus asked even though he knew his death would mean the redemption of the world; he knew that all sin and sorrow would be washed away. He knew all these things, yet it didn’t stop him from asking God to take away the cup. Was some part of him afraid that resurrection wouldn’t come? Like a laboring mother, who fears her own death or the death or her child?

I relate to Jesus in the garden. In my own labor, I lost sight of the baby to be born and just wanted it over. I thought I couldn’t go on. It’s amazing to think of God in the same position, God who knows what important work God is doing through labor, but loses sight of the end goal.

It’s cathartic because reflecting on labor is a mixed experience for many women. Lots of us assumed we would be strong and have beautiful natural births. But labor is not something you can learn about from textbooks, it’s not something you control by writing a perfect birth plan. The expectations don’t often reflect the true experience of one’s birth.

In my case, I wasn’t “strong” in the way I thought I would be strong. But Jesus isn’t “strong” in the way I imagine God should be strong – he asks God for another way. He hits a wall of fear. He understands how hard it is to surrender, to trust God to make a way through.

//

It is now November, the month my baby should be arriving, and I am still aiming for un-medicated birth. I picked a freestanding birth center to deliver my child, one where I will be in a supportive environment and won’t have access to pain relief during my labor. My midwife has assured me that second labors are often easier: the mother knows what to expect and her body has muscle memories to propel the baby down more quickly.

Indeed, I know more this time. I know God as a struggling, birthing woman. I know a God who asked for the pain to stop, who sweated blood in the garden. I know that, even if I hit that wall of exhaustion and muscle fatigue, and even if all the support of my midwife and doula fail to propel me to have to birth I hope for, and even if I have to be transferred to the hospital across the street for pain relief or an emergency C-section – I know that God understands. I hope this knowledge will enable me to have more grace for myself, however the birth proceeds.

And, once I have my newborn son in my arms for the first time, I know how quickly I will forget my labor, how I will forgive the hours of contractions and pushing and pain. This is what I imagine heaven will be like: a relief at finally seeing the new creation, an immediate release of all sorrows that preceded it.

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This is the final post in a series about the image of God as a laboring mother found in Isaiah 42:14. Read the first post here and second post here.

Images via Flickr’s Creative Commons can be found here and here.

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Filed under Faith, God is a Laboring Mother, Motherhood