Tag Archives: Birth

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.

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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.

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Image via Flickr’s Creative Commons can be found here

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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.

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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.

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“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.

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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.

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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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Birth Plans

Ask yourself: Will this satisfy
a woman satisfied to bear a child?
Will this disturb the sleep
of a woman near to giving birth?
— Wendell Berry, from the poem The Mad Farmer’s Liberation Front

Pregnant Profile

When I took childbirth classes the first time I was pregnant, the instructor – an impossibly peppy woman named Missy – encouraged us to write a birth plan. A birth plan is a set of hopes, preferences, and goals for birth that are typically shared with the labor and delivery staff. Missy assured us that writing a birth plan would help us prepare for all the big and small decisions we might encounter during our hospital stay.

It has been three years since I wrote that birth plan. I finally reread it for the first time last week, smiling and cringing to myself all the way through. No to pain medication and immodest hospital gowns. Yes to dimmed lights, water-birth, and my own nightgown. Oh, and if possible, we want my husband to catch the baby.

These were all good aspirations, all good goals for birth. And they seemed reasonable enough. After all, I read only positive birth stories, about how labors progressed quickly, how laboring mothers overcame their fears with support of their doulas and midwives, how women’s bodies are built for labor. The books I read encouraged me to shut down negative conversations about birth before they had the power to instill fear or doubt.

Intellectually, I knew that things could go wrong. I had friends who experienced dangerous complications and emergency C-sections despite their plans for a natural birth. Still, I chose to write a birth plan for myself that assumed the best, that only skimmed the possibility that I might need medical interventions.

But there is a problem with only hearing positive birth stories. There is a danger in writing exquisite birth plans that do not take into account potential complications that may arise. The laboring mother is left completely unprepared if things veer off course.

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I wonder if reading your birth plan after the fact is a little how the disciples felt when they realized that Jesus was the Messiah.

Jesus, this rabbi scorned by the religious elite? Jesus, born in a barn? This was the long awaited Savior of Israel?

I wonder if they looked back on their Hebrew Bible, on the predictions and prophesies about the coming Messiah with a hint of embarrassment, or distance, or wonder at how far off they had been.

You see, the Messiah was supposed to overthrow the Roman occupation of Israel, the Messiah was supposed to restore honor and dignity to the Jewish people. The Messiah wasn’t supposed to be crucified like a common criminal. He wasn’t supposed to be whipped or have a crown of thorns crushed upon his head. No, the kingdom was supposed to come with trumpets and fanfare. The kingdom was supposed to come through military triumph.

But instead here is Jesus, this strange teacher with his strange teachings about “turning the other cheek” and “losing your life so you can find it.” Jesus, the Messiah who didn’t expel the Romans or restore the temple. Jesus, the Messiah who suffered and died.

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When I imagine God as a laboring mother, I wonder if she had expectations for how her birth should go. I wonder if she felt thrown off by how labor was actually progressing (or not progressing), I wonder if she felt weak while enduring incredible pain at waiting for the Kingdom to finally come.

Do I trust a God in labor, who feels painful contractions, who wonders if she can make it through? I’d rather imagine a God who is strong, steadfast, a pillar, a rock. But God as a woman in labor feels wild, it feels scary, it feels out of control.

Maybe that’s part of why I’ve never heard a sermon about God as a laboring mother. It’s not an image that makes us feel confident. It makes us wonder if God knows what God is doing in this supposed big plan for the world.

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“Alright class,” Missy said, clapping her hands in excitement. “I want you to take the index cards in your folder and write “healthy baby” on one card and “healthy mom” on the other card. Now, take the remaining stack of six and write one hope for your birth on each card.”

Women in flowing maternity shirts and yoga pants turned to face their uncomfortable-looking husbands, taking out pens, placing the cards awkwardly on their knees or backs of the thick childbirth prep folders to begin writing. I sipped my ever-present bottle of water while we wrote out our hopes like the good students we were: no pain medication, quick labor, vaginal birth, no interventions, and so on.

“Now, I want you to look at your cards and pick two cards to throw out,” Missy said. “Sometimes labor doesn’t go the way you want it to, so imagine you have no choice in the matter.”

My husband and I looked at each other. We debated the cards we had, deciding we could give up the short hospital stay and labor under eight hours.

When the murmuring from the room died down, Missy spoke again. “Now, I want you to pick two more.”

We looked through our stack of cards again, weighing inducement and episiotomies against each other. Missy spoke again. “Now pick two more cards to throw out.” At the end of the exercise, we had two cards left in our hands: “healthy baby” and “healthy mom.”

“Birth can be different than what you imagine or expect,” Missy said. “And I don’t think you will have to throw out your entire stack of cards. But, if at the end of the day you have a healthy baby and a healthy mom, then that’s all that really matters.”

Later, in the car, my husband and I had a heated conversation about some of the choices we elevated differently. Somehow Missy’s words about the most important thing, the healthy mom and healthy baby, were lost on me.

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God is a laboring mother, the book of Isaiah tells us. God has many hopes for the world God created; God wants the Kingdom to come, to wipe every tear from every eye.

When I look at the terrible beautiful world around me, it helps me to imagine that God feels pain at how this labor is going, it helps to know that God expects more for humanity than war, disease, and poverty. When I rub up against the inequality in the public schools where I tutor, when I hear a story about burned villages, when I read about another shooting in my city, I know this isn’t what God wants for this world.

It’s not what I expect, it’s not what I hope. But I have to remind myself that, despite this confusing labor, God will birth a healthy baby in the end. Though it comes in ways I don’t understand, God is bringing new life into the world.

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This is the second post in a series about the image of God as a laboring mother found in Isaiah 42:14. To read the first post in the series, click here.

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God is a Laboring Mother

Birth

Moments after my first child was born.

I am seven months pregnant and it only recently occurred to me that I will have to push this baby out.

The details of my first labor are murky in my mind, like sludge at the bottom of an undisturbed pond. I haven’t stirred around in the muck since my daughter’s birth, but I know some of what it contains: fear of pain, lack of confidence in my body’s ability to progress through the stages of labor, an overall feeling of dread.

My first labor was nothing like I had expected. I had pumped myself up with natural birth literature: I was ready to enter labor like a woman warrior; a strong mama who knew her body was built for this. But at the end of my 54-hour labor, I felt broken down by the whole process. Wildly out of control. Weak.

When I finally held my newborn daughter in my arms, I felt like a failure for not meeting my own expectations. Those thoughts eventually flitted down to the bottoms as I rejoiced in a healthy, squishy baby girl. Praise God, we made it through.

But now I am facing down another birth and it’s time to dip back into the pond. There is a lot of mud I have to deal with, a lot of rocks. Because whether I like it or not, this baby has got to come out.

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When people ask me why I am a Christian, one of the first answers I give is, “Because of the incarnation.” For those of you who are unfamiliar, the incarnation is the belief that God became a human in the form of Jesus and, thus, knows the ins and outs of being a person. It means God understands what it’s like to walk this earth, to feel hunger, to experience physical pain, to have mixed emotions. It makes God relatable to me in a way that the omniscient, omnipresent God somewhere in the sky can never be.

Jesus was a baby, a toddler and a teenager, a budding rabbi. He loved his friends, he partied with them and he wept with them. I pray to God knowing that he lived in skin just like mine, he yawned and had muscle cramps and drooled in his sleep.

But there is one point where the incarnation fails me: Jesus was a man. Sure, he was a marginalized man – from Nazareth, born to peasants, takes up wandering, is homeless – but still, Jesus will never fully understand my experiences as a woman. Most Biblical scholars would agree that God is neither male nor female, that God transcends gender. And there are depictions of God as female in the Bible: God is a mother hen gathering her chicks, God is a nursing mother, God is a nurturer.

Yet, when a friend recently shared a Bible verse with me, the one where God is compared to a laboring mother, I struggled. (“But now, like a woman in childbirth, I cry out, I gasp and pant.” Isaiah 42:14)

Imagine though I tried, I fought this idea. God? Moaning and clenching and relaxing? Breathing as pain soars, as muscles seize, as fears rise? God, birthing a live, screaming baby?

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As I stare down my third trimester of pregnancy, I know I need to get back into the pond and sift through the mud and rocks in the muck: the feelings of failure from my first birth, the fear, the dread.

Over the next few weeks, I will share reflections on God as a laboring mother in hopes of preparing for my second birth. I invite you to imagine with me, to embrace this image of God sweating in labor, to let yourself feel a little uncomfortable.

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