Because last week Faye turned one, here’s her birth story. Or is it my birth story? I guess it’s the story of her birth and my birthing. Like most birth stories, there’s a little bit of nitty gritty. A little bit of oversharing. A little bit of naval gazing. I’ve tried and failed at not making it too long. If this isn’t your bag, understood entirely. (Can I interest you in a cocktail instead? How about a table to put it on?) In case it is your bag, here’s the story.
The day before Faye was born I stood in line at the bathroom at Brooklyn Bridge Park for thirty minutes. I was still two weeks away from Faye’s due date, though of course we didn’t know then that it was Faye. We were waiting on a baby, particulars unknown.
That day I had to shift on my swollen feet to stay comfortable. It was Memorial Day weekend—when I’d normally have high-tailed it to my mom and dad’s house on the Connecticut shoreline—but I’d thought that maybe it’d be wiser to stick closer to home, just in case. Standing in the sun that day I was that special brand of fidgety that only a woman carrying an extra fourth of her body weight around can be and I’d started to feel a low ache, from somewhere deep in my belly. It was almost imperceptible—something that I might not have even noticed if I’d been doing anything more exciting than watching the line for the women’s room inch along dusty gravel.
In the early evening, James and I took another walk around the neighborhood—gawking at the roses that weren’t quite in bloom. We stopped along the promenade and James took a photo of me silhouetted against the wrought iron fence. I love looking at that picture. There was so much wrapped into that round belly that we couldn’t anticipate. Though truth be told, I was anticipating plenty. Earlier in the week, I’d met my mom and dad in the city for cupcakes. In a rare moment when I was the only child alone with both parents, I took advantage of their undivided attention and asked them to tell me about the day I was born. It wasn’t the first time that I’d heard the story, but I wanted to know more. My mom had delivered four babies naturally—including one sister who was breech, two who were premature twins, and a semi-reluctant-two-weeks-late-heavyweight; me—but that had been in the eighties. I was afraid that I wouldn’t have the same chance. And while I never doubted for a minute my decision to plan for a natural birth, I wondered if I’d made a mistake in not planning to give birth at home.
But as my mom and dad talked, I felt my confidence creep back in. They’d practiced the same Bradley Method technique that James and I had spent the last few months learning. I scarfed a chocolate cupcake and soaked in their stories.
I woke up with a start at 3:30 am on the morning of May 26. Cramping in my belly jolted me awake and made it impossible to stay in bed. I felt an urgent need to ease my body into water, so I drew a warm bath and muttered something about lavender oil as James got himself out of bed. And then I asked for Enya. I’m not sure what possessed me, but I decided that I wanted to hear her on repeat. Mildly mortifying and one hundred percent effective for getting myself into the zone. “Who can know where the road goes / Where the day flows / Only time.”
Feeling finished with the bath nearly as soon as I lowered myself into it, I toweled myself off and put on a pair of clean pajama pants and a t-shirt that couldn’t cover by half the full moon of my belly. And then I nested. I picked all of the pillows off our bed and brought them onto the couch. Our apartment slowly filled with light as my contractions got more and more intense. I clung on to James for support. Like we’d practiced in class, I hung from his shoulders and did my best to let my body relax during contractions. I smushed my cheeks into his chest and breathed into the pain. I circled the apartment while James timed my contractions (which were coming faster and faster) and made miso soup and lit candles and generally watched and waited for my signals that I was ready for help.
At around 5:00 am we called our midwives to let them know that we were confident that labor was underway. According to plan, they let us know to call back once contractions were closer together or if my water had broken. I wish I could report what happened next, but time passed in a blur punctuated by contractions that made me see double. And then my water broke, a modest gush smack on the middle of the apartment floor. I gasped. James giggled. I tried to breathe through the next contraction which came practically on top of the one before that. Even though it felt like hardly any time had elapsed since our last call, James called the midwives again.
This next bit is a tip: do not ask a laboring woman to recall an Uber password. While James dutifully started a new account, I waited for a break in my contractions to bolt down the four flights to the street. We’d been given the go ahead to make our way to the birthing center and I was concerned only about not having a contraction on the stairs and not at all about the fact that my bare belly wasn’t covered. On the sidewalk, I had two contractions while waiting for the car. Neighbors walking their dogs did their best to pretend they didn’t notice.
Finally, a driver who was most certainly sent courtesy of divine intervention pulled up in front of our building and got us from Brooklyn Heights to midtown Manhattan in record time, offering water and blessings and cautiously running red lights along the way.
When we made it to the birthing center at around 7:30 am, I was 8 centimeters dilated. I huffed my way down the quiet hallway, flinging my flip flops off my feet as I marched. Because I’m boring myself, we’ll skip over the details of brief monitoring upon arrival and the too-sweet coconut water James handed me, and get right to the pushing that I did for the next two hours. I pushed until I thought my eyes might literally come out of my head, and then I pushed some more. I roared and shrieked and then worked on remembering to breath again, James coaching me all the while. In moments when I felt too exhausted to continue, I thought of my mom and those four babies, myself included. And then I thought of every other child who has ever been born. Every birth looks different, but they all take effort. And I repeated over and over and over again—outloud—that I could do it.
There are more details of the labor (in my back), and the baby (turned sideways), and warm wash cloths (helpful) and an encouraging husband (crucial), and a cooing midwife (a Godsend) but at the end of two hours, there was a final change in my own position, 30-seconds or so of the most intense firey burning I’ve ever felt on this green earth, and finally, our sweet girl, caught by her papa as she wriggled herself into the world at 9:59 am.
James put her on my chest in all of her sticky wonder. I held her underneath my chin and tried my very best to keep my eyes open to see her, but my eyelids were swollen nearly shut from the effort of pushing. It was whole minutes before we checked to see if she was a tiny girl or boy. Mostly I soaked in how she felt: the tiny, incredible weight of her.
I kept Faye on my chest while the midwife stitched tears I’d had in labor. In those initial hours I felt exhilarated—a heady mix of endorphins and adreneline coursing through my veins. More than anything, I felt powerful. Dare I say, superpowerful.
We called my parents who packed themselves into their car toting white irises for Faye and pajamas for me. My older sister and her two guys headed our way bearing bagels and cream cheese. We called family in further flung places. We decided to stay the night in the center, all three of us together in big bed. I was sore and swollen—much more than I’d expected—and the sheets were clean and the white irises comforting. The next day Faye got her first bath and we made our way home, Faye tucked into a borrowed carseat. My sister came over and my brother-in-law cooked for us while we got our bearings.
For me, those first few days at home were incredibly tender—especially after all of those endorphins wore off. I had had those tears that needing stitching and then more swelling than I ever anticipated. I couldn’t sit—or even stand—comfortably for weeks after Faye was born. I’ve written before that I hadn’t even considered my own recovery. For me the weeks after giving birth were incredibly joyful and incredibly uncomfortable. I wanted so badly to be up and mobile, but I was recovering. Every mother’s recovery is different. And it’s understandable that this part sometimes gets left out of birth stories. The focus, understandably and rightfully, is on the tiny miracle. The quiet snorts. The curl of fingers and toes. The improbable bleats and sighs. There’s so much to celebrate in a baby, but there’s also so much to celebrate in a birth. So much to revere and to be gentle with. Because no matter the particulars of how a baby ends up making its way into the world, there’s a woman who’s done hard work to make it happen. It might be strange for me to say it—it might sound proud or self-congratulatory—but I’m not sure that it’s said enough. I think the most feminist thing any of us can do is to raise our glasses to the mamas. I’m considering this my little toast to mothers everywhere: to the miraculous mess of giving birth.
A note about natural childbirth:
People will tell you that you can’t ever really prepare for childbirth. A lot of people told me to expect the unexpected. To plan for a natural childbirth but to get comfortable with the idea that that might not be possible. That’s a really good impulse. It’s probably a good idea to cultivate a healthy perspective on a whole range of possibilities. But I think it’s worth saying that in many cases, natural childbirth is possible in the first place because of the preparation. Taking a class isn’t, of course, a guarantee that you’ll have a natural childbirth. And this is absolutely not an indictment of medicated childbirth. I know intimately the range of turns that a birth might take and no one should be made to feel badly for not having the birth that they might have imagined, or for needing medical intervention, or for deciding that they just want medical intervention. But if a natural childbirth is something that you do want, I like to think of the preparation as stacking the odds in your favor. Yes: there’s so much in a birth that’s beyond your control. But also: we’re built for this.
For all that James and I didn’t know on the evening before Faye was born, there was a lot that we did. We’d done due diligence. We’d spent weeks crossing the East River to take a Bradley Method class to prepare for a natural childbirth. We’d watched and rewatched The Business of Being Born and pored over stories in Ina May Gaskin‘s books, and we’d been mentally psyching ourselves up for the hard work we knew lay somewhere between rightthisminute and three weeks from now.
The birth stories, I’m convinced, are what got me through a natural childbirth. Buoyed by the positive stories of natural childbirth that I’d done my best to fill my head with, I honestly felt like I could do anything. As I repeated over and over and over again to myself that my mom had done the same thing, I litereally didn’t have the chance to think about anything else.