the gentle hospital birth of aspen

On the night before you were born, it was warmer than it ought to have been, another southern summer evening caught in autumn, ripe with humidity and the hum of crickets. I was on the phone, complaining to my mother about how I hadn’t had you yet. You hadn’t even been in my womb for forty weeks, but I was uncomfortable and tired, and for almost fourteen days, you had been sending me signs from within that you were ready. The doctors were concerned about my blood pressure (another story entirely - I assure you, it’s a boring one) and they penciled my name onto the induction schedule for the following day. You would be born on September 27th. That, I knew.

“No, the contractions stopped, just like they always do,” I told my mother, and she said something about the induction being best for the baby, which made me mad, even if it was true. I wanted you to come when you were ready - not with force, or with intervention.

I hung up the phone and walked quietly to the bathroom. Your dad was already asleep - you have that in common, you know. Sleeping long and loud and endlessly. I sat down on the toilet, thinking sour thoughts about staying pregnant forever, when - pop! There was the feeling of pressure, and then release, and a rush of water tumbled from between my legs.

I sat there with my knees stuck together (as if it would help to ease the gushing) and yelled for your dad from the bathroom, much like I had the time a little pink line told me that you were coming.

I had heard that once your water breaks, the contractions come on strong and raw, but that didn’t happen right away. We moved carefully and quickly about the apartment, packing bags, stepping on eggshells, waiting for the moment when it all became real. I was already 5 centimeters dilated, after all. Even the doctors had been claiming “any day now!” and "when she comes, it'll be fast!" for two weeks.

We called the photographer, Jessica, and our doula, Jennifer, filled Bjorn’s bowl with food, clicked off all the lights, and left for the hospital. 

My contractions had picked up a bit. Little, gnawing things in the pit of my belly. Timable, but not severe. As we rolled through the gates of Fort Hood and flashed our military ID’s, I was sure that I was dilated to a ten already. Silent labor, they called it. You would be born in the car, or the parking lot, or the waiting room. My God, wouldn’t that have been a good story?

But in triage, at eight or nine, strapped down to the bed with blood flowing from one arm and a pressure cuff squeezing down on the other, I was told by the midwife that I was dilated to a six. There was still a layer of membrane holding the rest of my waters around you, so the doctor would rupture it completely once we were admitted into our delivery room.

“THINGS WILL GET SERIOUS PRETTY QUICKLY AFTER THAT,” THE MIDWIFE SAID WITH A SMILE. AND DEAR LORD ABOVE, SHE WAS RIGHT.

The delivery room was beautiful - much lovelier than I had imagined - and once we were settled, the doctor reached in with a little hook and - pop! - a flood this time, all over my feet and the table and the floor and my hospital gown.

“That’s what it feels like to break your water,” the doctor laughed. I waddled to the bathroom to clean up. Standing over the sink, I was overcome by a contraction so raw and hard, like a train hitting me from the inside out, that I was sure I was going to die, right there on the tile.

I REMEMBER YELLING, “SHIT IS GETTING REAL, REAL FAST!” CONTRACTIONS WERE COMING LIKE CLOCKWORK NOW - EVERY THREE MINUTES AND FOR ONE MINUTE EACH.

I was in the bathroom, gripping at the ceramic lip of the sink. And then I was on the birthing ball, rocking through the waves as they snuck up from my back and bit me on the belly. And then I was in bed, my legs wrapped around your dad’s waist, trying not to move, trying not to breathe. I wanted to fold into myself. To become so very small that I would maybe disappear. I wouldn’t have minded.

Between the waves, I remember feeling the most absolute and consuming sense of peace that I’ve ever experienced. More relaxed than a summer afternoon on the lake. Better than meditation. Better than sex. All the very best things in the world were cradled between those contractions.

But then they got longer. And harder. And closer together. I was struggling to progress - the midwife checked my cervix and announced, “seven centimeters,” and the world seemed a much darker place after hearing that number.

TWO CONTRACTIONS ABSOLUTELY WRECKED ME, ONE RIGHT AFTER THE OTHER, AND I LOOKED UP FROM THE PILLOW AND TOLD YOUR DAD, “I DON’T THINK I CAN DO THIS.” AND I MEANT IT.

I had wanted you to come into the world “naturally.” Born screaming, without the aid of pain medication, or medical intervention. It was important that I stay alert and myself during your birth, because I wanted to see you and know you and feel your heart on mine. There was something honorable about it. Brave. I wanted to hold my chin up and tell the world, “Yes, by God, a drug-free birth! I did it!”

But those two contractions.

Tearing through organ and flesh like fire and leaving me crippled and dying on the floor. I wondered, for the first time, why I was allowing the experience to be about pain, when it could be about birth. Why I was forcing myself to adhere to the definition of bravery that others had definied. Why I wasn’t defining the word myself.

To me, bravery was releasing my expectations. Bravery came in the form of a needle threaded into my spine and filled with something cold. Bravery was numbing the pain, so that I could stay alert and myself during your birth. 

BECAUSE I WANTED TO SEE YOU AND KNOW YOU AND FEEL YOUR HEART ON MINE.

It didn’t take long for the epidural to work. My legs were like noodles and my uterus numb, and I was so instantly grateful for the decision. The four of us, Jennifer, Jessica, your father and I, sat together for two hours more, talking about the smell of birth (something ripe and foul and sweet, all at once) and how terrifying it is to poop post-partum. We laughed and sucked ice chips and waited for my body to relax its way to completion.

At five o’clock on the day you were born, it was still dark and damp beyond the hospital room window, but I could sense that you were near. There was a pulling between my legs. A widening. The urge to push you into the world.

“I think it’s time,” I told the nurse, and she checked and confirmed - ten centimeters dilated. It was time to push.

Now, although I numbed the pain of labor, the hour and a half that I spent pushing you into the world was as wild and incredible as ever. In the beginning, I imagined that I wouldn’t fancy anyone telling me when it was time to push. But even though I could feel the tightening of the contractions and sense when you were moving down, I savored the cheers and the coaching from the hospital staff (the number of which had nearly tripled since I was admitted - everyone couldn’t wait to see your sweet face!) I braced myself in the bed and grabbed at the skin on my thighs and pushed as if the entire world was resting inside of my belly. And if I’m being honest, it was. You were the world, you were everything, and I lost myself in the act of bringing your body earthside.

There was no pain. Only a fiery intensity. And exhaustion. And pressure. And it was the most difficult and the most wonderful thing I have ever done.

At six thirty, on the day you were born, Jonsi was playing from the speaker in the corner, the song Grow Till Tall, and I remember knowing that you were here. I saw your dad pull your head from somewhere below, grab hold of your slippery shoulders, and lift you into the light of the room. I cried out and so did you. I reached for you, and you were so warm and sticky and soft, all purple skinned and covered in white. 

Someone asked me what I thought - Jennifer, I think - and I sobbed “I love her,” because it was the only thing I felt. That, and your heart on mine. You were eight pounds exactly, born at six thirty exactly, on September 27th - just as you had intended.

The sky turned pink in the hospital window, and your dad and I couldn’t sleep, tired as we were, because we wanted to kiss your feet and watch your face and marvel at how much you had changed already, just in a few hours. We were new souls, too, your dad and I. Exploding from old skin and growing fast into something strange, and smoldering, and beautiful. It was a wild night, a powerful morning, a painful beginning, a happy end.
 

IT WAS ALL AS IT SHOULD HAVE BEEN, MY LOVE, ON THE DAY YOU WERE BORN.