Friday, October 3, 2008
The Rose (my birth story)
In 4th grade our teacher invited us to describe in words our fantasy life as adults. My future tumbled out in shades of blue and slate grey, except for a bright red pick up truck. I was an author/illustrator who kept house on the tippy top of a mountain. 10 children and for each child—a dog. Of course, that was fair. No husband, no other grown ups, only me.
On the 4th day after my son, Manuel, was born on the kitchen floor, I hit the wall. Every muscle in my body throbbed with memory and exhaustion. My bones gritted against each other, my eyes dry with aloneness. I had been doing so well, healing so quickly, loving so deeply, appreciating the profoundness of each foggy hour. My friend, Luis, came to bring sacred beads to the baby and to lay healing hands on me. He spoke about a struggle between the male and female energies inside, about the appropriateness of relinquishing control and about the courage to rest and melt into the warm smell of the earth. And of course, birth leads me again into the darkest cave. My old story of fierce survival, of reckless fleeing and diligent mistrust just won’t cut it. I am broken down again, knealing on a mirror, cool rain on my back. The word ‘survivor’ splinters around me, my own heart as soft as Manuel’s skin draped over my chest.
Saturday night we did what everyone had told us to do. That thing we would lose immediately after bringing our baby into the world. We went to the movies. A kooky, yet poignant Czech film with lots of popcorn and blackberry soda. On the way home, I told Eric I needed to ritualize our connection. Somehow, in a dance, a song. We shared our fears about breaking the strong rope of friendship during labor and held each other close. As we crawled into bed, yawning, I told him, “I am ready to do this.” Half an hour later my contractions started at regular 15 minute intervals.
Early labor was a celebration. We cuddled, showered, took a long walk down 24th street and stopped to eat pupusas at Alba’s restaurant. We made it to an event dedicated to birth down at the Brava Theater. So funny, gliding into the lobby, arm in arm and pronounce, “We are in labor!” I breathed through each mild contraction, surprised at the calmness and ease washing over me. We even rented a movie to watch that night, ran into some friends on the street and then got into the birth tub to relax. Contractions picked up in frequency and around 10 pm, my sister, Jamie and best friend, Jesse arrived. We ate soup and Jesse led us in a round of ‘Freight Train’ on the guitar. I moaned low tones and rippled my spine through the pain. By 2am, the waves were approaching every 4 minutes and our midwife, Maria arrived. The next 38 hours belong to a different landscape. The precise time of and duration of each passage are unknown to me. This is the story of my body learning to open. And along with my body, my awareness, my familiar framework and my heart.
At a certain moment in my late 20’s, my memory disclosed to me the knowledge that I was sexually abused as a child. I was already aware of incidents of rape and sexual abuse as a teenager and on into adulthood, but uncovering that key piece pulled the rug out from under me. I crumbled. A small circle of intimate ones gathered around me as my primary support, and eventually I sought the coaching of a somatic therapist who also identified as a survivor. For over 3 years my healing road has unfolded, guiding me through dark tunnels, blinding explosions, agonizing confrontations and empowering breakthroughs. I have been incredibly fortunate to have shared resources and guidance with dedicated healers, activists, movers, and thinkers who are committed to understanding, challenging, and preventing sexual abuse and the injustices in our world which allow sexual abuse to be so prevalent. I came to believe profoundly in slow change, in people’s ability to self-determine their own healing, and in humanity’s potential to build bridges and stand in solidarity. All of this, outside of the confines of government, police, prisons, and other institutions created to destroy our creative problem-solving skills and our potential to shine. I believed in all of these things, but had never put them so into practice as I did in those 66 hours birthing my son.
My first dream directly related to pregnancy rocked me out of slumber with a roaring laugh. I was incubating a tiny dragon. A baby dragon, writhing and igniting my uterine walls with his precious fiery breath. I adored him and after that dream, our growing child would be nicknamed Dragoncito, baby dragon.
When Maria arrived, I was laboring hard, using low growling sounds, bracing myself on tables to rock and grind my body together with each contraction. She checked my vitals – normal. Baby dragon’s vitals – perfect. And my dilation – only 2 centimeters. I was disappointed but convinced that the task at hand was doable. My body could do this. Afterwards, I learned that an average progression of dilation for first time moms is one centimeter every 1 to 2 hours. My cervix opened one centimeter every 5 to 7 hours. There were moments when I hated this. I was angry, frustrated, disbelieving. Why? Why wouldn’t my body open? Maria reminded me to seek strength and energy in the tools I had available: hot water, sips of soup and juice, the sound of Jesse’s voice and guitar, my pre-made mixes on the stereo, pillows, the solid grounding presence of my sister, the love and trust and reassurance of my partner Eric, the traditions and wisdom of midwifery, the comfort of my own familiar surroundings. Reminders also of the incredible privilege to be free to birth in my own home. No prison walls, no bureaucrats barking in an incomrehensible language, no enforced hospital policies due to dependence on state money. My low back and pelvis ached, and each contraction brought lightning pain radiating from my sacrum. I imagined rabid dogs tearing apart my hip bones. My only relief was having strong hands apply pressure on either side of the sacrum. Literally undermining these furious dogs. “SQUEEZE…HARDER!” I, too, growled and snapped, furious to win over the pain. Eric squeezed and pushed, laboring as hard as me for those last two days. Maria left for another birth and Jesse washed all of the towels we had. Nancy, another midwife, came and sat with us for some period of time. Her presence was reassuring and yet my dilation did not speed up. Maria returned just as my contractions were back to three minutes apart.
My first moment of doubt hit in the middle of the night. My eyes glazed over and I begged Maria to talk to me. “What are my options? What if I can’t do it here at home?” She laid beside me in bed, our hands in a power lock. She laid out all possibilities, calmly, respectfully, with no judgment. And at the end, she urged me to rest. I remember vividly my own disbelief- How could I rest? Shouldn’t I keep trudging forward? What if I actually PROLONGED labor even more by resting? Maria reminded me of the importance of rest, to start with a renewed source of energy before making pivotal decisións. I agreed to try.
That night I lay with Eric in bed for six hours, sleeping in between contractions, waking every ten minutes to face the pain. For the first while, Jesse sang from the corner of the bedroom, his timeless melodies touched my soul and helped me sink into the mattress, sink into the truth of the present moment. Eric woke for each contraction, there with me, an unflinching embrace, a steady crutch. So many images penetrated my half sleep. A dance performance by Kara Davis, two steps forward and one step back. A flock of birds in a cloudy sky over Cesar Chavez and Mission streets. May Day 2006, marching with my sisters in struggle to support immigrant rights. Those visions I have had since childhood of mythical beasts. The rain on my stiff body as I walked away from Eric in Washington Heights one year earlier. The images flooded my head, blood crowded my ears, but my body rested. “Trust Birth”. I remembered reading that phrase.
At 5 a.m. I called the birth team together. Trust Birth. I can do this. We can do this. The rest had served me, and I was ready to plow onward, no matter how slowly my cervix was opening. Another day of labor. I felt truly like a warrior, my voice pronouncing louder and louder my conviction. I no longer cared about worrying the neighbors. Our apartment had been transformed into a sauna. I roamed half-dressed and dripping. Finally, I entered the transition phase of labor. Vomiting, shaking, my eyes glazed over. Jesse played a drum and I locked eyes with Jamie from the birth tub. No words at all. Two hours later I was pronounced fully dilated. I wanted to be done. It had to be over soon. I needed it to be over. And still my body was not ready. Maria assessed the situation and told me I was too exhausted to push. With my energy level so low, I could not get my baby out. And again she asked that I rest.
But this time, it was different, a different kind of rest. She led me into the bathroom and shut the door. I got on the toilet and she faced me from the edge of the tub. She told me to go inside, to find the deepest place in my heart. A place with no sound, no words, a place only I can reach. She told me to retreat there and let my body and voice be completely still. Again I was incredulous. Not fight the contractions? Not attack the pain head on? Not use my strong voice and body and community to help me through this final passage? The fight… Somewhere I had read, tagged on a bathroom wall: “Being a fighter doesn’t mean always fighting”. But for me it did. My art, my activism, the drive to make ends meet, to live fully. Even in my own healing, I surged forward with fierce velocity. Of course I had been reminded on other occasions by friends, lovers, co-workers, to slow down, sleep late, take a break. But never when the stakes were this high, and never to such an extreme abandonment of all my coping mechanisms. Leave everything behind and go inward. In such a depleted state, I knew I had to try. The first contraction came and I dove inward. I tasted the pain in its most raw form. No buffers, no distractions. In four breaths the contraction was gone. Tears trickeled down my face, the tears of knowing my own heart. Deep in that place, I found a survival more potent than “the fight”. There was softness, there was beauty. I imagined my heart as a rose. With each contraction I slipped into the soft spiral of petals and silence. Four deep breaths and then nothingness, pure rest.
We transferred to the bed and I lay in this meditation. I am told I lay there for close to two hours. During this expanse of self-discovery, I collected the tools I had been missing, the tools that allowed me to deliver my baby safely and lovingly on my kitchen floor. During those hours, I found strength beyond “the fight”. I found that my power source has its roots way deeper than the labels of feminist, survivor, anti-capitalist. I found the belief that my body is not broken, that it is the perfect body to birth my baby. I found confidence that I can walk alone, that I have already survived, and now I am thriving. By letting go of my old crutches, I emerged as a mother. I saw Manuel’s body inside of me and knew that the love I felt for him was a thousand times greater than my need to scream during a contraction. I found the softness that would bond me to my son forever. A softness so rich that it melted away my need to “be done”.
And with those new tools, I was ready. I pushed my baby out in one hour. I felt my body split open and I alone pushed him out into the world. Manuel’s heart beat remained constant and serene for the entire duration of labor. All sixty six hours. His first act of love and patience. His skin against mine was a flood of warm light. Eric and I held him with complete sureness in our ability to be his parents. And now I watch him sleep. Another act of love and patience, letting me write this story during his afternoon naps. I hear Eric’s voice in the next room and smile at my ability to grow and change. I look back at Dragoncito. Maybe he will teach me about naps someday…
To Maria Iorillo, Sue Baelen, Nancy Myrick, Meredith Broome and Jane Austin for your wisdom and presence
To Jaime and Jesse, who have always been there with soup, humor and open arms
To the Grandparents Camp, all four of you, for your support and love
To Manuel’s godparents Roberto and Sparlha for your blessings
To Manuel’s tios y tias Larissa, Fiona, Lidia, Gina, Carmen, Eduardo, Beatriz, Yeni, Alicia, Mona, Carey, Alba, Luis and Maria Claudia for creating such a beautiful community
To our building-mates for weathering the noise with joy and to the other parents in the homebirth class for sharing in this wild ride
To our friends and family all over the world (y en la Mission!!) who lit candles and sent messages of strength and music
To the folks at Generation Five, Critical Resistance and Creative Interventions who help us see a brighter road
To my mom, Grandma Netty, who not only helped type this story, but held my hand into this world of motherhood
To Eric, Cantarito, for your friendship, honesty and everyday magic
and thanks to Dragoncito, for choosing us as your parents.