Last week I was listening to an NPR segment about women and feminism. I resisted the urge to change the channel. Why is it that I consider myself to be a decently empowered, outspoken woman, but react so negatively to "feminists?" A lot of us do. I think that it mostly comes from our suspicion of activists of all kinds - the people who are speaking out and acting out do tend to be the people on the fringes in some sense - people who are less embracing of a status quo that the rest of us are more inclined to subscribe to. And feminism tends to get grouped in with a lot of specific issues that make people uncomfortable - abortion, public breastfeeding, working moms - things that I believe people have a right to have varied perspectives on regardless of their general views of "feminism."
But what I liked about this segment on feminism was that it didn't cover a lot of those familiar topics, or have a negative, frustrated tone. Rather, it talked about the experience of women trying new things that pushed their own notions of gender barriers, and talked about women becoming moms. It immediately reminded me of my post a while back about feeling like a handywoman, and how I had simply projected helplessness onto myself until I one day figured out that I could do it. And how good and empowering that felt, and how it reached into other aspects of my life. It was a singular experience and a great one, but looking back I see that I haven't had a boundary-pushing experience like that for a while, and it's something that women (and, well, everyone) should try to do somewhat regularly. I feel like I really need to learn how to change a tire on a car just for the sake of empowerment, especially after a woman on the radio segment discussed at length the impact it had on her life.
Listening to the stories about becoming moms, and how some women never loved their children's earliest months or years, was a particularly timely one for me. Sitting there, nine months pregnant, remembering how unimpressed I was with the capacities of a newborn the first time around forced me to confront my expectations for this second time. Fortunately, I feel empowered enough now in my strengths as a mom to not feel too badly about my lack of enthusiasm for newborns - give me a toddler any day, or anyone with some basic communication skills, and I'm sold. But I still hold newborns like they're going to break in my arms and have no idea what to really do with them.
All of this, however, mostly made me think about my impending birth experience. Birth round two. Birth round one was mostly a success just in the sense that it didn't end up as the complete disaster that it started as. So many things had gone wrong along the way that the fact that I made it out unscathed, with a relatively healthy son, was amazing. But the notion of going through all of that again was frightening. My body simply was not made to do this, almost as further evidence against my young-baby-rearing skills. I approached the end of pregnancy with constant doubt, and left an envelope of my computer passwords in my underwear drawer just in case it killed me this time around. Fear is my companion.
So when I went into normal, natural labor on a quiet Saturday morning after a full night's sleep, I couldn't believe it. I swear there wasn't emotional space then for any fear or doubts - just total amazement. Even during contractions I felt actual gratitude, and had a nearly out-of-body experience of watching myself act out the laboring as if I was just showing off what I imagined labor to look like. I mean, it couldn't have followed the ideal birth script we had talked through with our doula any more precisely. It was empowering beyond belief, and a perfect reminder that we change and grow as people all the time, not destined to always relive our past experiences or perceived failures. Still, I may already have gotten a bit bored on day one with the newborn. And I may still be picking up my new son with the caution and helplessness of a teenage boy (sorry, stereotypes!). But I'm carrying a new sense of belief in my ability to learn and grow, so I can't help but feel a little eager to test drive some newfound confidence.
If you'd like to read the details of my birth story (none too gory I don't think), read on. I won't be offended if you don't! I only post it because I yearn so much to hear the stories of others and wish that the usual facebook updates of date/weight/name also included delivery/craziest part/best part/biggest surprise/etc. I just happen to think birth, like breastfeeding and pregnancy, is really weird and fascinating. If you feel the same way, read on. (or skip to photos at end)
Birth of Benjamin
On Friday night, January 4, I was in a complaining mood. I just wasn't hungry for dinner, those vaguely annoying but nonproductive contractions were back, and I felt restless. I spent the evening doing all sorts of tasks around the house - sorting through Christmas decorations, cleaning out the shoe drawer, and washing lots of dishes. By the time I went to bed I was tired but still vaguely out-of-sorts. Fortunately I had a good night's sleep, with just a few interruptions (James kept wanting a tissue, and every so often a contraction woke me). But at 6:30am I realized I had been waking every 10 minutes for a while from contractions, which had become just uncomfortable enough that I really needed to move my body as they came. I really wasn't sure if I was in labor, but decided that since I was up anyway I might as well take a shower.
A few times during the relatively short shower I felt the very steady rise and fall of contractions, and by the time I was getting out I was pretty sure it was "go" time. James and Bill were still cutely sleeping as I rounded up the last-minute items on my birth bag list. At that point I almost wished I had an audience because I felt like I must have been an amusing sight - efficiently folding clothes, sorting make-up, even applying eye-liner between brief periods of moaning and rocking on all fours. I knew right away that my best laboring position was to be totally grounded, and since I had felt so sure of that even before labor, it was surprisingly easy to just get into a rhythm. A tugging feeling would alert me each time, I'd drop everything I was doing and hit the floor, and loudly moan my way through the comfortingly predictable rise and fall.
In my idealized dreams birth always seemed like a marathon to me - the way that runners know their course, know their rhythm, and pace themselves, and, while "painful," they push on without suffering. I couldn't believe how exactly like that it was in reality - each surge felt like a hill that I was climbing, but it was so easy to pace myself, knowing that by the time I was halfway through and reaching the peak, I was already on my way down the other side. And between each one it was as if absolutely nothing was happening. Even when I was close to the end the breaks between each one were shockingly clear and comfortable and predictable, never a moment where it felt endless or overwhelming.
Desiree, our doula, arrived quickly. I was so grateful for her presence that I recall actually moaning her name through multiple contractions ("Desireeeeeeeeee!" Highly moanable). At one point she held my head to her own belly and I remember physically melting into her, so grateful and comforted. But she was anxious about how quickly things were happening. Minutes before she walked in my water had broken in the middle of an intense contraction on the living room floor, with a surprisingly painful jolt and pop (but bearably brief.) Desiree had told me a story before, on multiple occasions, of how she had arrived at a client's house and then demanded that the client check to see if there was a head coming. When she asked me to do the same, I knew things were happening fast. I really knew it when my sister said she was 10 minutes away to help watch James and Desiree said to just throw our toddler in the the car with us. Finally I yelled at Bill to just start knocking on neighbors' doors, and sure enough, the father-of-three across the street who opened the door barely blinked as our toddler was thrust into his arms, and waved us on. James was as psyched to be visiting the neighbors as he was to get to watch Curious George episodes all morning on the iPad while mommy groaned on the bathroom floor. I had been worried that my very loud style of laboring would freak him out, but James was completely unfazed.
Desiree and Bill rushed me down the front steps between contractions, and just as another one was coming, Desiree reached for the door to the backseat only to discover that her car was locked and her keys were momentarily missing. At that moment my sister had just pulled up, and at that same moment I dropped to the sidewalk and moaned my way loudly through a contraction, wondering even during it how absurd and frightening I must look to any neighbors walking by! Moments later I was in the car and we were speeding to St. Luke's. I was surprisingly comfortable lying in the backseat, not even cursing the bumpy streets of San Francisco. Desiree yelled at me when she heard a more guttural quality of my moans to not dare push yet! Even amidst the chaos I was still aware of the landscape passing by, noticing the tops of the buildings and trying to place which streets we were on. I was even aware of which intersection we were about to pass, at Cesar Chavez and Guerrero, which has a notoriously long light. I prepared for a long stop and took it as a good sign that we breezed right through. Bill later informed me that we completely ran that red light!
When we pulled up to the ER entrance a wheelchair was waiting, and I felt like a movie character as people cleared out of my way and we literally careened down the hallways towards the elevators. Even between contractions which felt more like pushes, I still had to inform everyone that these are the slowest elevators on earth and we'd be waiting forever. Somehow, though, the doors opened instantly and up we went to floor three, where the first face I saw was my favorite St. Luke's doctor, Laura Norrell. In between moans I gave her a huge smile and told her how happy I was to see her, and she smiled back even bigger with, "Girl, this is a beautiful sight to see!" She had been at birth round one and knew how much I had wanted this natural labor, so she was completely with me in sharing the joy of the moment. I was pretty pissed, though, that she had just finished her shift!
But I felt so happy to be at the hospital, to know that things were all going perfectly. I couldn't believe how I could go through these intense waves but still have a completely conscious other mind that was able to scream with joy when they declared me completely dilated and ready to push. I was able to have halfway normal conversation between guttural moans in which I grabbed the bed rails and yelled. But even as I yelled I was aware of how crazy it seemed, because despite the scene I was making there was still not a single second when I felt like I couldn't do it, or felt overwhelmed by pain, or felt anything emotionally other than "everything is perfect right now." When they started to get me dressed to wheel me to delivery Bill claims I yelled something like "who cares! just go!" As they raced me down the hall I saw that Dr. Norrell was still at the nurse's station and managed to yell to her jokingly, "I see Dr. Norrell over there just SCREWING AROUND!"
By the time they rolled me onto the table I was ready to push. It must have been barely a minute before I insisted on being on all fours, yelling with all of my might, bearing down and gasping in shock at feeling something moving through my body. It was surreal, and in a moment that I'll never be able to accurately remember, something like a flash of pain/release of energy/whole-body-muscle-recruitment, Ben's head was out. I screamed in a high-pitched voice as I recruited one more push to get his shoulders and body out, and I swear as soon as it was over I was already celebrating. It was done. Instantly. No tears, just me muttering something like, "I did it. I did it."
They put Ben right under me, he was in perfect shape and didn't need to be rushed off anywhere, and I was afraid to move an inch. So I just hovered over him and breathed deeply and enjoyed the moment. I didn't feel "done" yet - my last labor had ended with my placenta never being delivered and me being wheeled into an OR for a surgeon to do the job - not an emergency but stressful and long. So all I could think at this point was that that would be happening again. They let me rest for about 20 minutes before suggesting that I sit upright, and in a moment of embarrassing delight, the placenta came right out and I knew I was DONE. I think this may have been the point where I started asking for some kind of award or crown.
Since then we've been trying to collect everyone's perspective on the event. Bill says that things happened so fast he could barely keep up - he remembers washing his hands as he walked into the delivery room, thinking that it would be a while still, but then turning around and having to be ready to make the catch. When my sister and I asked him for his real no-holds-barred impression of watching the birth, he says that honestly it reminded him of watching a cow give birth at the State Fair, just the whole animalistic experience. He also noted that the staff at St. Luke's seemed to be totally happy about how easy I was making their job, as most of the nurses just stood around watching and waiting as I did the work. He also described my scream as I delivered Ben sounding like "someone having their body torn in half," which I told him I guess I should just remind him about frequently throughout our marriage.
yes, my sister brought my tiara!