Yesterday, my dear friend gave birth to her baby. When we heard the news that she'd gone into labor we lit a candle and, when it went out the next day, we lit another one which we'd keep lit until well after the baby was born. Each time I saw the flickering flame, as I went about my daily tasks or got up to go pee in the dark, I was suddenly reminded again of what was going on for her, at this very moment, imagining her in the throes of the wildest, most intense ride of her life.
Today, I’m feeling immensely grateful. Grateful for the birth of her baby. Grateful that my husband is taking the week off, and letting me have a stretch of three mornings to go write. And grateful that on Friday we will take off for our first camping trip of the year, to Mt. Rainier, and that the weather is actually forecast to be sunny!
Yesterday, my online birth story workshop also ended, and next Monday, my “letter writing” workshop at the Hugo House will begin. In between the two, I have this wonderful week ahead of me that, despite the usual childcare duties, chores, and sleep deprivation, still feels like a vacation. A good part of this sense of pleasure I think comes from having completed the birth story workshop—a goal that started out as an idea, that I dreamed of long ago, then planned and advertised for, made a reality, dove into, and accomplished on my own. My daily work of motherhood on the other hand is also deeply satisfying and challenging, but it isn’t a job that one ever “finishes” and is thus allowed that sense of satisfaction that comes from something that has a clear beginning and end.
The birth story workshop was deeply satisfying in so many ways. I love the process of helping other people find the time to write, delve into their memories, let go of expectations, find their voices, confront their sorrows and joys, and go deep into their interior landscape. And I especially loved doing this within the context of writing about the births of our children—such a profound experience that so many of us women go through, and yet that the world at large so rarely gets the opportunity to hear about in detail.
Prior to being pregnant and preparing to give birth myself, I don’t think I’d ever heard a birth story told in person. Perhaps I remember a crazy video of a birth shown in a high school science class (or am I imagining this?), and perhaps I’d read some brief account here or there (right?), but to actually hear what it felt like, what it looks like, how many hours or days it could span, and all the variables of what could happen? Nope. Not a clue. How about you?
Why is it that we don’t collectively hear or know more about childbirth and labor? Well, for one thing, once the baby comes, parents are usually so overwhelmed and deeply immersed in the intense care of a newborn and the desperate hope to catch up on their sleep, that there isn’t exactly time to sit down and tell everybody about the crazy ride they have just been on. And yet, no matter what happens in a labor, no matter if it lasts four hours or four days, it is nothing less than profound. Think about it. Birth. All of our metaphors for talking about the journey that a person, a country, or a culture go through can be framed through the lens of birth and death. All of us are born—again and again and again—as we go through different cycles in our lives, different lessons, journeys, travels, jobs, tragedies, accomplishments. These are the stories we live for, the stories we look towards for all of our hope and inspiration. And all of this movement, all of these lessons and cycles and metaphors stem from the actual physical process of a mother giving birth.
When you strip life to its core, we are left with the image of a newborn baby, naked and screaming and thrust into this new life through her mother’s birth canal. Covered with bodily fluids, connected the darkness of the womb through the lingering pulse to the umbilical cord, so dependent on the care of others to survive, and yet nevertheless out here for the first time in the world, in the light, taking in your first breaths on your own.
It’s crazy really to think about birth. What happens, how it happens. The countdown of days, then hours, as the mother’s uterus starts to contract, as the baby signals to mother it’s readiness to be born. It’s crazy, really. Crazy beautiful and intense. There is nothing else like it, this journey that mothers prepare for, this need for her to let go into the experience—to let go of fear, expectations, inhibitions, life as you know it. To know that everything you’ve just done to prepare for the birth is both enough, and also could never possibly be enough to prepare you for the unknown journey of this labor—what it will feel like, how long it will last, how you will respond, how you will know yourself—or not know yourself, not even identify with a sense of “self”—in the act of giving birth.
My dear, dear friend of many years, perhaps many lifetimes, just gave birth yesterday. I still have not heard the details, but I thought of her throughout the day and night each time I looked up and saw the candle we’d lit: burning, a constant reminder that while we were going through the daily acts of our lives, she was in the throes of sweating, breathing, and pushing—of what will probably be the single most intense act of her life. Unless you count her own birth—or her own death. Neither of which most of us are able to remember and put into words.
Giving birth to our babies, though? We do have the capability to translate and preserve these stories. For ourselves, for our loved ones. And as much as giving birth is an “out of mind” experience, as much as we seem to forget so much of it in its aftermath, there is still so much of the experience that we can convey-- for ourselves, and for others. To help us touch upon the mystery that is life, the mysteries embodied within nature and our internal cycles, the mysteries embodied within this act of a new life coming into the world.
Who are you, who will you be, little one? Why is it you, chosen, for this couple, and not another? Why is it you, only you, that is meant to be the one to radically alter your mother’s lives? How is it that birth happens all around us, every day, and yet there is only this one small window, when the memory of labor is still fresh and the sense of your unfathomable newness to this world still so breathtaking. Before long, at least on the surface, all the human rituals that we attach to babies seem to take precedence, or at least this is what we see and talk about: the cute outfits and photos posted on Facebook, then the endless conversations about feeding, burping, and sleep.
When you reach a certain age—mid-thirties for our generation—all kinds of people in your immediate world (tidily represented by Facebook) who had held off until now start to pop out babies. First, you hear the announcement, usually when they are about 3+ months (with a lesser risk of miscarriage), or else with the first cute belly shots, when they really start to show.
Then, depending on the person, you are reminded of their pregnancy through weekly updates on their changing sleep, eating, or energy patterns. We get updates about finding out the sex, about going on a “babymoon”, pictures of the new nursery, and then finally those last posts when entering the final stretch of days left at the job, the Braxton Hicks contractions, and a mounting sense of anticipation, anxiety, and excitement.
Then: silence. Then: the first trickle of news, the baby is here! The name, the length, the weight. Then: the first photos. A giant wave of congratulations. The biggest news that one could possibly share. The greatest achievement to reflexively ‘like’. What’s not to like? A new being is here. No one has died in the process. Another fleeting reminder of the miracle of life. Something we’ve all gone through: the birth canal—or at least the transition from darkness and womb to air and light.
Then: silence. Mom and Dad (or Mom and Mom, or Mom and whomever she has) are exhausted. Learning. Overwhelmed. Busy. Swept up in a vortex of sleepless nights, breastfeeding, diapering and swaddling. On the sharpest learning curve of their lives. If they are lucky, they are brought meals, cared for by family, ushered into a cocoon of safety and soft voices, all for the love of the baby. If they are lucky, they are able to sleep a bit, to rest, to cry, to stare with wide open gaping mouths of sputtering love. If they are lucky, they have people around them to help them, to care for them as they are newborns themselves. If they are lucky, these same people make sure to give them their precious alone time, time to nap together as a new family of three, time to stare with mouths open agape, time to cry.
No matter the birthing experience, it is a proper response to cry. No matter vaginal or cesarean, no matter long or short, no matter tearing or no tearing, no matter boy or girl, healthy or not healthy—no matter the experience, there is no more appropriate response to the entrance of a new life into the world than to cry.
Oh, dear God, dear Universe, dear Allah, dear Nature, dear pagan gods of the underworld, dear unfathomable Unknown: a baby has been born.
Oh, dear mother, dear father, dear heartbeat, dear blood line, dear family and friends and all of my relations: you have helped give birth to a baby.
My dearest friend has just given birth. And soon, in a matter of days, my sister will give birth too. Just recently she asked if I could be available as a back-up support person, in case her husband needs help, or in case she wants me there at her labor. My heart leapt. Yes, of course! I will be there, if I can be. I had figured she was okay with just her husband being there, and also she’d probably assumed it’d be hard for me to commit to being there because of my responsibility for my son. I went ahead and scheduled a camping trip for the few days leading up to her due date, figuring it’d better to schedule it before the due date than after (as it is more likely that she’ll be late than early for first-time births). But now, I’m hoping more than ever that the baby won’t come early and that I’ll be able to be there for my sister and her husband. And, although I don’t assume this, that I might even get to witness the birth if she wants me there. This possibility feels akin to being offered the opportunity to go on a spiritual retreat of unknown proportions, for which you must commit to dropping everything in a minute, quite possibly emerging ragged and exhausted, but from which you can be absolutely sure you will emerge profoundly moved and changed.
Even if I only get to rush in with flowers and tears after the drama has unfolded behind closed doors, I am incredibly excited for my sister to give birth to her first baby, Cedar’s cousin, my niece.
I feel poised on the cusp of so much new life right now—with one baby just arrived, and another on its way. Also, with one workshop just completed, another on its way. And in between, this stretch of days left open to enjoy and revel in life, summer, nature, family, writing, home, my own incredible good fortune.
I love you, my sisters. I love you, my babies. I love you, my students, my teachers, my friends. I love you, my life.
Thank you for the never-ending, unfolding reminder that this, this act of creation, is what it’s all about.