Published on September 12th, 2013 | by S. Lynn Alderman41
S. LYNN ALDERMAN’S Ugliest, Beautiful Moment (Or, Fuck Ina May)
Six years ago, I set a goal for myself. And, technically, I achieved it. I had a baby and didn’t use any medicinal pain relief while she was born. And you know what I have to say about it? Fuck Ina May, that’s what.
I learned of Ina May Gaskin’s famous guide to natural childbirth while sharing homemade kale chips with a friend during a ConsciousMama moon retreat. Just kidding, that is completely untrue. I don’t know how I heard of it, but I bought a faded copy with dog-eared pages and told myself that lots of women had read it and had wonderful, peaceful birth experiences. I told myself that their good juju would magically pass to me as I gazed at the photos that they had also seen, of beautiful hairy women blissfully pushing out their babies, surrounded by other beautiful hairy women with half-smiles on their beatific faces. Picture those beautiful hairy women, having what Ina May calls something like orgasmic birth sensations. And picture me, sitting and nodding “Yes, yes, that’s what I want” in unison with all the Earthmother badasses before me, though a space-time breach created by cosmic female power and….hormones, probably.
I’m not going down into the basement to find that book to tell you in accurate detail what the deal is with the midwifery center Ina May founded in Tennessee forty years ago or about her practices, because the even the sight of the cover makes me sick. I think it explains how much better it is for the baby and for the mother for birthing to be a natural, supported experience. It definitely makes all sorts of great suggestions about preparing yourself mentally, emotionally and physically and basically leaves you feeling completely empowered. It is a Go-To guide for folks who want to birth at home and really makes it seem, well, right.
And I was all for that. All of it. I am suspicious of and tend to reject many aspects of Western medicine in general and specifically hate dealing with the lady-parts doctors. A home birth sounded great to me, but at the time we were living in a tiny apartment in San Francisco’s Mission District. Seriously tiny, as in 392 square feet. I’d try to imagine having the baby there, in our bedroom with the bed taking up almost the entire room. Or in the combination 12-foot by 12-foot living room/dining room/closet. The kitchen, the biggest room, felt out of the question. I know that people push babies out in even tinier dirt-floored huts all over the world, but it just seemed overwhelming and just too…messy. I kept imagining trying to clean up afterwards. Now that I think about it, I could have probably gotten someone else to scrub the placenta out of the indoor-outdoor carpet and make it into vitamins to enrich my breastmilk or whatever.
Anyhow, in between going to all kinds of educational classes, getting acupuncture, exercising and working as a mental health clinician in a residential program for teens, I started researching birthing centers. For some reason, even in such a high-density-alternative-practices area, I kept hearing that the birthing centers really weren’t so great. So, Luke, then my “registered domestic partner” – something I think is only available in San Francisco to hetero couples – and I decided to find a doula, a trained birth assistant, to be with me at the hospital.
We went to a great doula meet-and-greet at the natural baby store and education center down the street and we both knew as soon as we saw Della that she was the one. She was older, long graying hair, soft and smiling, but strong-looking, too. The idea of finding a wise, older woman was so appealing. To stand in for my mom or my grandmother, or whoever is supposed to guide you through life. Teach you how to handle all the hard things about being a woman, including childbirth.
Part of me was relieved at the plan of being in a hospital, honestly. Luke would have gone along with whatever I wanted, but I know he was secretly glad, too. I was 36 when I became pregnant and, though I hadn’t had any complications, I was aware – since people love to tell you every second of the day – that potential problems increase with age. And my mom had a serious bleeding problem when I was born, so I thought it might be good to have some emergency services handy. I wrote a birth plan. Della had worked at the hospital many times and everything seemed to be in order. Until I went into labor.
I started having pains on a Wednesday. Early labor, but still stop-me-in-my-tracks labor. I went to see my acupuncturist, who looked at my tongue and said, “Yep.” But it was kind of stop-and-start and, when it hadn’t progressed much by Friday, she did some things to try to help get things going.
It was so exciting. We had declined being told whether the baby was a boy or girl and we couldn’t wait to find out. I felt strong and ready. Scared, sure, but mostly excited. I’d always been good with pain. Several bizarre-and-questionable broken bone incidents had proven that, I thought. So, I wasn’t too worried.
Saturday afternoon, it was on. It was time to use the methods the acupuncturist had shown us to help me manage. One was Luke grasping this point in the arch of my foot while I visualized sending the labor pains through my body and into the ground. She demonstrated on Friday while I was having a contraction and it really worked. But on Saturday afternoon, Luke kept stroking my calf while he was doing it. Now, look. I get it. It is really great that he was all ready and willing to help. Sweet. I loved him for it. I still do. But let me tell you something. I hate soft stroking or light scratching or anything like that. In my best moments, it makes me feel annoyed, like a mosquito in my ear or a long hair falling down the back of my shirt. In labor, it felt like an assault. I’d say after the contraction was over, “That foot part really helped, but please don’t tickle my leg.” “Okay! Yeah!” he’d say. Then he’d do it again. And I would ask him not to again. And he’d say okay again. “I don’t know why I keep doing that!” Then he’d do it again. It was weird. He was nervous. It is a joke between us now. But it wasn’t funny then. He was so nervous that he couldn’t help time the contractions. It started to erode my confidence. I started to feel panicky.
But then we called Della. Once she came to the apartment, things started moving a lot more quickly. I’ve read that labor can be delayed and even stop if the mother feels the situation is not safe. I didn’t exactly feel unsafe, but I felt a hell of a lot better when Della got there.
Then things get blurry. I remember rocking back and forth, moaning, eyes closed, leaning forward, holding the back of the couch. At 10pm or so, Della said it was time to go to the hospital.
That ride to the hospital was awful. I was trying to sit on the C-shaped breastfeeding pillow with no pressure on my vagina because I swear, it felt like that baby was trying to shoot out of there inside of a burning comet, like Superman coming to Kansas. We had to go in through the emergency room because it was after hours. All those people with bandaged hands and faces and looking tired and crazy and me leaning on the security guard’s lectern, moaning. Loud. Really loud, I think. I declined a wheelchair. No one was going to get me to sit down again, ever.
They set us up in a room and said words and I nodded, the way you do when you don’t speak the language, but can tell people are being really helpful. There were lots of curtains that could be pulled to close off different areas. A couch. A bed. It was cold in there, which helped me figure out where my skin was. I checked my bag to make sure I still had with me the cross and dogtags my father wore during seven tours in Vietnam. I saw my iPod, and the idea of listening to the chant tracks I brought sounded utterly ridiculous. I stood by the bed, leaning on it, blinking, lowing like a farm animal. They put some kind of monitor on me to check the baby and left it on there, so I was tethered to something, which they said they would disconnect in just a minute, a request I remembered was specified in my birth plan. Della must have made sure they saw it. Or maybe I did.
The nurse attending the room when I first got there was in a really foul mood. They measured my progress and I was at 5 or 6 centimeters. “Halfway!” Della said, triumphant. I was exasperated. Only halfway? But that nurse seemed angry that I was so far along. Or maybe that I wouldn’t get into the bed. Whatever it was, she handled me roughly and spent most of the time sitting in a chair with stinkface. Luke left to move the car out of the emergency room spaces and while he was gone, I felt a balloon pop between my legs and suddenly I was standing in wet stuff. That nurse didn’t move a muscle. I was really afraid I was going to slip and asked for some towels. Della took care of it. And when Luke came back – so upset he had missed my water break – he and Della started talking about the nurse and it seemed like they were in a big, ugly argument, even though I could see that they were just quietly talking. Eventually Della had her replaced and a really nice nurse came in and I instantly forgot all about the old meanie.
I got so tired standing there by the bed, but didn’t want to move. Della and Nice Nurse suggested I get into the shower or tub to ease the pain. Getting wet was the most disgusting thing I could think of. I said no.
At one point, I heard my mom in the hall. “Keep. Her. Out.” I said, as her voice echoed into the room, in disbelief: “Is she in much pain?” Good grief. I looked at Luke, trying to use telepathy to tell him what to do. It worked! He directed her to the waiting room and made her stay there. My hero.
They tell me I didn’t say much. That I was polite. Quiet for the most part.
But inside my head, I could not believe what was happening. How painful it was. How terrifying. I felt helpless. And degraded and humiliated by there being witnesses. And at the same time, I felt so, so alone. I remember at one point saying, completely out of my mind, “I don’t understand why no one is doing anything to help me! Please help me!” Della reminded me that what I was feeling was the baby coming. That I was doing just what I was supposed to, having the baby, right then.
After leaning over the bed until about 2am on Sunday, I got into a semi-squat-type pushing position on top of it. I was completely over the whole thing, exhausted. Like when you’ve asked all the drunks at the bar to leave nicely a bunch of times and they are totally ignoring you until you finally have to get salty. I called Nice Nurse over. “Are you going to deliver this baby?” “No, when it is time, we will call the doctor in.” “Well, I am telling you it is time.” Nice as she was, she didn’t take me seriously. But then I started pushing and Della’s eyes got big and she said “Good!” and they started frantically paging the doctor. About 15 seconds later, someone asked me if I wanted a mirror to see the baby crown. “GODDAMN YOU FUCKING PEOPLE!” I wanted to shout. Instead, I just said no. I could see Luke dancing around at my feet, his hands over his mouth “I can see the head! It’s bulging out! I can see it!” He wasn’t sure beforehand if he was going to hang out down at the “action end,” but there he was.
In not too many pushes, really, I finally got that baby out. And let me tell you what. I didn’t care if it was a human baby, a gorilla or a Cracker Jack prize. I just wanted that thing OUT of me. There was a hush. “Sunnyside up!” the doctor said. Instead of face down, like in 90-something percent of births, the baby was face up, with a bruised eye and forehead from pressing through my pelvis the wrong way. And then Luke said, “It’s a…girl!”
Was I flooded with love and amazement and whatever, cue swell of music? Yes! Did I gaze at that darling girl’s face for the next 12 hours, unable to sleep? Yes. Is she still, joy of joys, my precious, funny, hilarious Phee? Yes, she is. Yes. Yes. Yes. Sunnyside up was a telling beginning for her.
I am grateful that she and I were well and healthy. It is no small thing to have a baby, however routine it seems, since some woman somewhere does it every five seconds. It is an amazing thing, truly.
But here is why I am mad. I also felt completely flimflammed. For all my preparing, I wasn’t prepared at all. And I felt ashamed about it. I felt that I let my daughter down by being scared. And afterward, I didn’t want to talk about the birth. I hid my books and avoided telling the story. I didn’t want to think about ever having a baby again. I didn’t forget the pain like they say. I felt like a failure as a mother and as a woman. It didn’t matter that I knew it didn’t make sense to feel that way, it wasn’t logical. In the months to follow, in the safety of our darkened bedroom, tiny girl on my chest, I’d whisper to Luke, “Can you tell me the story of what happened? What happened? Was it really crazy? It was so crazy.”
It isn’t really Ina May’s fault. I think she is inspiring, really, and important, in many ways. But that dream of a peaceful, powerful birth felt shattered by the bloody reality of it all and I need someone to blame. So I pick Ina May. I bet she’d understand.
The real solution, I guess, isn’t to denigrate what I decided Ina May stands for. Personally, I believe that peaceful labor means you have to be comfortable with vulnerability, with needing help, with uncertainty and, well, I’m working on those things. I also know that sexual trauma can often be re-experienced during labor and, well, I can check that box, too.
But I think something has been lost to women everywhere these days between the “Hook me up with the epidural before I feel a single thing!” camp and the “I shall silently channel my female ancestors and squat down over a pile of sacred leaves” team. I think we are lacking the active cultivation of support between women and a closeness with the reality of life’s ugliest beautiful moments. I now feel more kinship with my grandmother, whose voice lowers, then rises two octaves remembering birthing her five, four of them at home, when she says “Ohhhhh, that pain!” I wish I had held her experience closer instead of thinking that I was going to be above it, to chant it away. That would have been better for me, and more in keeping with how I want to be in life, really. I wish I’d invited my whole broken self into the room.
So I’d like to offer an invitation to any woman who wants to join a new team to take into birthing rooms or forest glens or wherever. A team called “That shit is totally crazy and you don’t have to ‘handle it’ because the baby is coming no matter what and I’ll be there to hold your hand quietly or to let you scream and that’s okay. However you get through it is a victory and I am so proud of you, sister.” Maybe something shorter.