Published on June 8th, 2016 | by Jade Sanchez-Ventura1
Sling City: Jade Sanchez-Ventura Tells THE STORY OF A BIRTH
“Whether or not you have or want children, please don’t ignore the reality it is still permissible, in 21st-century America, to tell a grown woman to shut up, lie back, and not question what’s done to her body.”
-Cristen Pascucci, founder of Birth Monopoly and vice-president of Improving Birth
“To change the way we approach birth, we must begin to change the stories we tell about birth.”
My vitals first.
I am 34 years old, was 33 when I gave birth. I conceived on purpose. I am married to a man. I was raised by my mother and by my grandmother. My father I’ve loved with that particular passion reserved for absent parents. I live in Brooklyn, where I’ve lived for most of my life. I think most people think I’m white, though sometimes someone spots my multiracial providence. I don’t speak Spanish all that well though I desperately wish I did. I am educated, with a prestigious degree, and come from educated family on both my maternal and paternal lines. We’re scholarship people: broke and smart. I live in an apartment owned by my mother-in-law. She lives downstairs and leaves muffins on the stairs. I can be radical in my politics and thinking, but am not an activist. Large crowds scare me so I lurk around the edges of protests and leave early. My most radical act is my teaching.
And then pregnancy initiated me into the secret society with its hidden trove of information. Women of all ages found me on the subway, in the grocery store, and most especially, in the gym locker room and slipped me their stories. These were heartbreaking, terrifying, comforting, but mostly there was the question: Why didn’t I know this before?
My writing has always been my attempt to tell what it feels like to live in my particular body. Since my first positive pee test, that writing has become my second most radical act. I’ve been telling my pregnancy and parenting for the last two years. Last month, I was sent Elisa Albert’s piece, Confessions of a Radical Doula. I can’t stop reading it. She writes the bone-shaking beauty of women laboring, as well as the disrespect and disregard and yes, cruelty, they routinely encounter in delivery rooms. There is the problem of the denial of basic legal rights to laboring women in hospitals (informed consent; the right to refuse care), but there is also the de facto conception of what birth is. The otherwise very smart, seventeen year old girl who said to me when I was in my second trimester, apropos of nothing, “So I guess you’re going to have a c-section.” Albert writes that while we fight the necessary legal battles, we must also change the narrative around birth. We have to see the peace that is there too. We have to see the power. And the best way to do this, she writes, is to tell our birth stories.
And so. Here is mine.
I delivered at home, in Brooklyn, attended by a homebirth midwife who has delivered nearly 1,800 babies, by my doula who is also a dear friend, herself seven months pregnant at the time, and by my husband. I can’t tell you whether I was early or late because I didn’t have a due date. I had a due month. My period, always wonky, jumped around that summer and so there was no way to be sure if it was July or August when sperm met egg. I could have dated it with an internal sonogram, but that’s a euphemism for a large dildo-like object, wrapped in a condom, lubed up, and pressed up and into my vagina by a stranger. I declined. We charted my pregnancy by the baby’s movement and growth, and knew to expect him around the end of April. I was sure I would have a May baby, but as it was my waters broke on Tuesday April 28th, and my boy was born on Thursday April 30th.
I was in labor for 45 hours; there were faint traces of meconium in my amniotic fluid; and my baby was breathing a bit too rapidly when he was born. Meconium is the baby’s first poop. It’s a sticky substance, and can be a risk if found your amniotic fluid when, if, your water breaks. (Many women go into labor without their water breaking.) The fear is of the baby inhaling it while in utero, which can cause anywhere from minor to severe breathing problems.
Had my baby and I been treated according to standard hospital practices, my labor would likely have been terrifying, a crisis to be solved, my body and baby handled by technicians who I’d never laid eyes on before, ignoring my questions and needs.
As it was, though there were moments of fear, when I closed my eyes through all those timeless hours, I saw a gilded net stretched taut just beneath me, keeping me and my baby safe. And when I opened them I saw my home, saw the roofs out the window, saw my love, saw my friend, and saw the expert eyes and hands of the midwife.
She began coming to our house at twelve weeks. Because I’m a teacher she was willing to do our checkups in the evenings. I’d lie on the couch, B. would sit by my legs, the cat would perch nearby. Using her hands, she took the measure and position of the baby—in the later months, taking my hand and showing me: this is the knee, this is the butt, way down here is the head. Then she pressed a Doppler, a microphone essentially, to the outside of my belly, and we all listened to the slow sloshing of my pulse and the rapid patter of the heartbeat. Every time we heard it she grinned. She took my blood pressure. We handled any of the medical issues of the month; the glucose test, etc. And then we’d talk. For over an hour. And all this covered by my not-so-snazzy insurance.
By the time I went into labor, our midwife knew our house. She knew our cat. She knew my belly; the size and shape of it. She knew my baby’s heartbeat, his patterns, his habits, his movements. She knew I didn’t drink, or eat peanut butter. She knew about our squabbles with our in-laws. She knew B.’s school plans. She knew my mother’s birth story. She knew I was terrified of delivering in a hospital, but told me, “If we need to go, we’re going to go and you’ll be fine.”
And I believed her.
For our parts, my husband and I had spent fifteen hours in a birth class with four other couples. We’d practiced massage techniques and positions. We had a medicine ball inflated and ready. A birthing tub in a box. I had flipped through a book called Active Birth, which talked about breathing and stretching and movement. B. had flipped through a book called The Birth Partner. I had swum and done yoga and worked and oiled my skin. I began my maternity leave six weeks before I went into labor. My husband was finishing grad school and would be home for me for months after the baby arrived. I was as prepared as I could be and also not remotely ready.
My water broke in a huge, Hollywood gush on a Tuesday evening. The second B. touched a knife to the frosting of a red velvet cake it burst out of me, soaked my dress, pooled on the chair and ran down our slanted wooden floor.
“Oh shit!” I said.
As taught, we examined my underwear for meconium. I was wearing a yellow thong and could not tell what color the flecks were. I was instructed via the phone to put on a pad, wait, examine it, call back.
“Are those green?”
“I can’t tell. Maybe brown.”
We were instructed to send a photo. We did. Yes, there was meconium. It was faint. We were fine for now, we’d track the baby, and see. For now, go to bed, go to bed, go to bed.
I started to clean. B. found me in our room, standing naked with an armful of laundry.
“What are you doing? Go to bed!”
I suppose I fell asleep because I was woken by a tectonic pain. I didn’t want to wake B. yet, but soon I was on my hands and knees rocking forward and back, and my long slow breathing woke him.
And then it began and it did come in waves and in between there was stillness.
I threw up a few times.
Sometime in the middle of the night, the doula arrived. And then the midwife.
My cervix did exactly what it was supposed to: thinned and softened and opened. He moved and he moved; fractions of millimeters at a time. My uterus squeezed and released. Squeezed and released. Cups with bendy straws were held in front of my face and I obediently sipped and then buckets were held for me to spit up into. I paced and sensed B. trailing behind me. I pressed my forehead against a wall and he pressed into my lower back. We paced some more.
The babe’s heartbeat steady and sure.
I did not feel closer to God or the universe or a higher power, as I thought I would. I did not feel that the curtain between life and death had thinned and that I was in the land between. I did not transcend my body. It was the opposite. I was only my body. I was held in it, caught in it, could not imagine a land beyond it. I stared at my belly and tried to imagine where he was inside me. Had he left my uterus? Was he in the pelvic tunnel? Where was he? I wanted to know exactly.
I lay on my side half conscious while the contractions pulsed through me. I dozed through them somehow. A cold washcloth was pressed to my forehead. Someone massaged my foot, my hand. I smelled the clean scent of earl grey. The day began again. I listened to the movies we played with my eyes closed; Blue Crush and The NeverEnding Story.
“Do you want to go outside? Walk around?”
They call it posterior labor, or back labor, the baby flipped so that its weight, its back doesn’t press into the front of my body but into my back. It’s slower than standard labor and more deliberate. A baby born in this position is called “sunny side up,” though I think when he came out he was on his side.
I gave up on pants. And then underwear. I wore only a shirt. I crouched and bore down and pooped little dark curlicues in front of everyone. I puked and I puked. I sat backwards in a chair while B. or our midwife or our doula pressed into my back. I sat on the toilet and contracted there; peeing and pooping and spitting up. My feet were swollen and I hated the sight of my fat toes beneath the horizon line of my belly. I stared at my belly wondering where the baby was inside me. I wondered if a c-section would be so bad.
They put me in a hot shower and I laughed at how good it felt.
I floated in the warm birth tub.
I asked B. to put on Paul Simon’s Graceland, which I hadn’t listened to in years, but with the first notes of the album, I said, “Oh no. Turn it off.”
I tried to open my sphincters by singing. B. and I were alone upstairs and I relaxed my throat and I don’t sing really ever and we circled the floor and these noises came from me and B. trailed me and I heard that he was crying and he said something like, “So beautiful.” He told me later that as we drifted through the rooms, he was listening to these incredible sounds coming from me, nothing ever like them before, and at the same time seeing the objects in our home, most of them given or made by people we loved, and he was overcome by the love and the beauty and the depth of our life.
And the baby’s heartbeat was sure and steady. And my body kept on doing what it was supposed to. Just very, very slowly.
I didn’t feel mythic or beautiful. I was sweat and piss and skin and hair.
I did what they told me to do, when they told me to do it. At least I tried. I believed what they told me. I gave myself completely to their care. I abandoned myself, my baby, to them, and that was the net that held me. This is what kept fear or doubt at bay. I was moving my baby through me. He knew what to do. B. and our doula and our midwife; they knew what to do. My body knew what to do. I knew nothing.
The only conscious decision I made in the whole thing, my only exertion of will came at three in the morning, after what we called “the big sleep” when the midwife went home for awhile and the rest of us slept for about three hours. I went alone to the bathroom and decided that it was time to start pushing. And I squatted and began the long, slow pushing.
The last morning, the game-changing visit from the acupuncturist. My energy up, my contractions stronger and closer together, the babe in my pelvis; I felt the weight of him there; something to push into. Finally, she said, “Would you like to feel him?” And there was his head; rock hard and covered with hair. I cried. He was so close. He was in fact going to arrive. But still, it would take hours more to move him out of me.
I lay on my back on my bed. B. by one leg, our doula by the other, the midwife next to us on the couch. When a contraction came, I said, “Ok” and B. took one leg, and our doula the other, and then the midwife put her finger just inside me to show me where to push into, and I grabbed my thighs and lifted my head and grunted and pushed and then it was done, and we waited again for the next contraction.
I paced. I crouched. I stared at my belly.
I hated the smell of my own body, and finally they asked if I wanted to shower again, just to, you know, actually shower. I did and it was lovely and I came out and was given fresh clothes and I stood at the wall, contracting, and B. stood behind me and held a lime Froze Fruit bar to my lips.
We moved to the couch upstairs and somehow there I could really push. The midwife, “Do you want to see?”
Yes, but mistake! All that pain and just the barest oval of his damp, dark hair. It’s too small a hole, I thought. And, This is going to hurt.
Finally she said, “One more push like that and we’re going down to the tub.”
The push did more than she thought it would.
“Okay, we have to move now.”
To his great frustration, I wouldn’t let B. get in front of me on the stairs because I could not pause. I felt the baby as if his head was already out of my body. B. helped me into the tub and I draped my body over the side. I think I shouted, “What do I do?”
And she said push, and I did and the pain was everything, mind scrambling, there was nothing to grab on to, there was no thought, it was a flash that lit my brain up and left not a single shadow to duck into. And then there was one more, and my mind skittered like a bead of water on a stove, and again, there was nowhere to go, but then it was done. And they handed him to me. And he was tremendous. Huge and solid and real.
A quieter sweetness than I expected.
I held him to my chest, his eyes the barest of slits and, as we’d been warned in class, his skin was still tinged with the blue of his water world. The midwife draped a towel over him, and kept pouring the warm water over him, and she moved around us, rubbing his arms and legs, his body. He began to howl. She was not still. His breathing came fast and quick. She suctioned his nose and airways.
“Is he Ok?”
“He’s fine, but if his breathing doesn’t slow we’ll have to go to the hospital.”
The hospital. After all this. But I was not scared. If we had to go, we would go. I watched as his skin turned cream and pink. She put the umbilical cord in my hand. I felt it pulsing; we were still connected; the boy breathing in both worlds—oxygen from blood, and oxygen from air. The afternoon light in our room with the yellow ceiling. The water in the birth tub turned murky and I felt like I was sitting in the primordial swamp of all creation. My boy my boy my boy. B. beside us. Our boy.
My vagina stung. Some amount of time later the baby was wrapped and dried and handed to B., and I was helped into the shower. Blood ran down my leg; all the blood of the uterine wall that had held him in, now sloughing out of me.
“Is he OK?”
“Will we have to go to the hospital?”
I had a small tear at the top of my labia.
His breathing continued to calm.
I lay in my bed while she gave me two quick stitches. The boy was weighed and measured and tended to. His breathing steadied. We could stay.
The rest is the simple miracle of it. The women cared for the babe and for me and cleaned the rooms and I held the boy and we called my mother, but I can’t remember the words. It was dark then. The bed with fresh sheets and the women left us with kisses and promises of return the next day. The cat re-emerged but she was frightened and had scratched a bare spot into her chin. We went downstairs briefly, to B.’s mother’s apartment to show her the boy. She had waited there through her worry, resisting her urge to knock on the door.
I ate a little chicken and hummus and salad because B. couldn’t handle it if I went any longer without eating, but I was not hungry. The house was silent. We lay the boy between us on the bed and stared at him; the adoration that has been repeated for millennia. We eased into sleep. I woke up at dawn and father and son were asleep beside me. Finally I was hungry. I walked up to the kitchen and fried two eggs and ate them with toast and butter and watched the sky lighten outside of the window. I felt scrubbed clean and more awake than I had ever been. And everything else was scrubbed clean too; brighter and fresher and lighter than any day had ever been. I went back to bed and the next time we woke it was into the first morning to include the boy.
The next afternoon I dressed, and wrapped him to me and we walked, slowly, to the park. It was hard to take deep breaths because, it had been explained, my diaphragm was stretched and with nothing to hold it up it was sagging inside of me. I felt empty inside, as if my organs were stray socks thrown into a big empty drawer. I drank a sweet, very hot, coffee with lots of steamed milk. The sun was out and every leaf, branch and flower were outlined in golden halos. The world was vivid and glowing. I could sit gently, and rise to standing with B.’s help. We stopped at the pharmacy to buy a baby nail clipper. The cashier was a grandfather.
“He was born yesterday.”
He looked at me, and then at B., shook his head, “Women are incredible.”
Before I went into labor, I could not imagine how this thing was supposed to be done. In my last weeks, my uncertainty peaked into moments of panic. And so, I reached out to mothers I knew for help: How had they done it? This simple request brought forward the most beautiful emails I had ever read, sent to an email chain of women who did not all know each other. They told of homebirths and hospital births, and one who nearly delivered in the backseat of a car. They were hilarious, heartbreaking, gory. They were a balm to me and I read them over and over.
I would like to begin an immense chain of stories. One birth story after another. A chain. Better, a cord. Imagine every new mother grabbing hold of it, hauling herself forward, hand after hand, until her own labor, her own story, the writing of her own story, the sharing of it. Imagine every new father reading it. Imagine every teenager reading it. Imagine it. Even the heartbreak and the cruel and the cavalier. The epidural that was a godsend. The epidural that didn’t work. The doctor who was gentle and patient. The nurse who was too rough. Imagine it being known. Why are we women asked to keep the stories of our bodies quiet? Who does it serve? Not us, I am sure. And I hate it. And I’ve had enough. So, let’s not. Let’s tell.
This essay has been adapted from the birth story first told at The Secret Pregnancy.
Follow MUTHA to read more from Jade Sanchez-Ventura in an ongoing column, Sling City, where she writes about her experiences in the first year and beyond as a working writer with a new baby in New York City.