I’ve packed my survival kit — water and Trader Joes’ version of Swedish Fish — and parked my car by an open field on a sunny day. Apparently this is my idea of a survival kit – what I need to survive writing out Elden’s and my’s birth story.
Because I was very intentional with the type of birth stories I read during pregnancy, let me start by being very intentional with you, the reader. If I was pregnant today — one, I would need to be put on 24 hour watch because Lord Jesus, I cannot — and two, I would not read this birth story. It is not one of positive, spiritual awakenings, soft, pliable vaginas, and erethreal emergence. So if you need that – and I get it, I needed it too – stop reading. Right now.
Our birth ended with a very healthy baby boy and an exhausted, warrior woman who now everyone called ‘Mama’. And that is the truth, and yet it is not the full truth. But because it is the end truth, and the truth the world needs me to focus on, I have struggled to write out our story’s fullness.
The world tells me “but you are both healthy” as if to put a bandaid on our nerves.
But bandaids do nothing for nerves.
And for the past eleven months, every time I have tried to take a deep belly breath, the ones we learned in birthing class, my nerves have winced in remembering. My body still writhing with trauma. Defeat. Disappointment. And what feels like, betrayal.
My body and I have been at war long before we were asked to warrior together in birth. My body has always been not quite right. By society and family standards. Too skinny. Too small. Too nose-y. Too flat-chested. Too sensitive. Too feely. And too easily felt.
As a young girl, and now a woman, my body and I have been at war, but birth? Birth was when we would warrior, together. Maybe for the first time.
Prior to pregnancy, I had learned to befriend my body. My god, we had come so far. I befriended her as my own, and allowed her to feel pleasure as intensely as she felt pain. Our son was conceived during a strikingly beautiful time of friendship and profoundly deep love. Between my body and I; my husband and I. Our son was conceived in pleasure and delight; our son was conceived in light.
During pregnancy, we prepared for intensity, and we hoped for kindness. I even prayed. We took classes. I read birth affirmations regularly and listened to relaxation CDs. Although I never spoke it aloud, more than anything, I had prepared for redemption — some sort of resurrection of all the places in my body that had been laying dead, to be raised as my son was birthed through them.
It was March 14 – the day before Elden’s due date – 3 o’clock in the morning. I woke up to pee for the eighteenth billionth time and blood greeted me. I knew that labor could start immediately or still be days out. Plus, no one has their baby on their due date. For us, regular contractions started immediately. Our plan was to labor at home for as long as I could and then head to the hospital where the mighty medicine awaited. I don’t remember much between the hours of 3 am and being admitted to the hospital after noon. I remember having contractions in the car and the parking lot of the hospital’s birth center – each time wondering how we don’t see women in labor in public more.
We went to the hospital twice. Once at 10:30 am, only to be told I was like 1.5 cm dilated and could walk around there a bit more before being checked again. We opted to go back home. Again after noon, I was at a 4. I was admitted and within an hour or so had the sweet relief of an epidural. I felt proud. Proud that I labored for 13 and a half hours prior to getting medicine. And it wasn’t a pride in the bullshit sense – the sense that society tells us women how we are to labor and what we can and can’t do/have/inject into our spine during labor. God, society likes to control a woman’s body. Even other women like to control our bodies when it comes to birth.
It was a different pride. A pride that I had allowed myself to feel and allowed myself to surrender. A pride that I had listened to my self. A pride that my body and I were being kind to one another.
I texted a few people, telling them Elden was going to be here soon. Heads up, “soon” is real fucking relative during childbirth.
Sometime later my water broke. Again, pride. My body is doing what it is supposed to be doing.
It was after midnight that I was given the okay to start pushing. It was after midnight that all hell broke loose. Hell always breaks loose in the night. My epidural was only effective to a certain point of my body, and as Elden approached that point, I felt everything. We — my body and I — kept warrioring. This was it. And yet, this wasn’t it. This was not the kindness we prepared for. We prepared to work together, not war together. And yet here we were. Thrust into deep breaths, strong surges and drowning in waves of pain and pleas for help. I needed help.
Almost four hours pass. I had been pushing every minute or so for four hours. The doctor tells me we are getting to a point where we might need to explore other options and that I could do three more sets of pushes. I managed one more push. Not set, just push. And then my body gave in and there would be no willing her to do more.
Each one feeling more like defeat, and somehow closer to victory. I was listening to her. And she knew.
The doctor came up around to the top of the bed to look me in the eye. She said something about a c-section. They asked Casey if we needed time to talk. He made direct eye contact with what remained of my gutted self. We didn’t talk, we didn’t need to. He said “let’s do it.”
A clipboard was brought in – I needed to sign a release. I could not write my name. And would not be able to write anything for three days. A squiggly line, a line of incomparable exhaustion, was all that identified my consent to violence.
The operating room was bright and I no longer recognized any of my nurses. They milled about hurriedly and I locked eyes with the one male in the room. No, not my husband. The anesthesiologist. He gave me some of that manna from heaven and for the first time in hours I felt relief.
My husband entered, locking eyes with me, and simultaneously bursting into tears. He had been my steadfast presence – a calm witness to the war that was waged within me. The tears represented the toll the last 30 hours had taken.
Tears often represent the toll.
I laid on the operating table, arms stretched out to my side, as if to tell me our birth would not be redemptive, nothing would be resurrected. Our birth would be more closely mirror crucification. I would be cut open. Laid bare. Hands would enter me through a man made hole.
“Oh, Noelle…” her southern voice was comforting as my family has southern roots and the kind ones still have southern accents, “you could have pushed for a week but he was never going to come that way”, the doctor explains as she jostles my body and births my son.
Do I even get to claim that I birthed my own son? The ache of this question haunts me most.*
I hear him cry and Elden emerges in the hands of a stranger. I cry, too, as if to let him know it is okay to cry. That it will always be okay to cry. Elden was 8 lbs 11 ounces, 22.5 inches long, and had a 15.75 inch head circumference. She was right. There was no way in all the worlds of hormones that stretch vaginas and pelvic bones that expand was my body ever going to accompany almost 16 inches of a head.
This is what my body, in defeat, knew.
Two weeks later the doctor tells me Elden and I would have died in labor, had it not been for c-sections. We were set out to be that statistic. A mama’s small frame. A baby’s head size. The same statistic that people have written articles on the effect we are having on evolution.
Thank you, scientists, for letting me know that evolution would kill me off, but medicine has kept me here. And that maybe the keeping me here isn’t positive for the rest of the population. Evolutionally speaking.
To that I say, fuck you.
Eleven months later I am still grappling. With trauma. Defeat. Disappointment. And what feels like, betrayal. My body did not do what it is supposed to do. Again.
And yet. There is new life.
Our birth looked more like a crucifix.
And yet. There is new life.
Our birth was almost everything we did not hope for. Even pray for.
And yet. There is new life.
The kindness of new life greets me multiple times a day. And I trace my fingers all over his beauty every time he’s held.
The kindest of violence greets me multiple times a day. And I trace my fingers on it’s evidence every time I shower.
*The definition of birth: the emergence of a baby or other young from the body of its mother; the start of life as a physically separate being.
Indeed, I birthed my son.
Birth taught me breath.
Birthing taught me breathing.
Breathing comes with new life.
Will I let that be enough?