People’s reactions to learning that I was planning on having a natural birth varied. A lot of people thought it courageous (read naive) to choose to endure that kind of pain. I had heard the horror stories about the intense pain, seen the women on television blaming their husbands as they screamed in agony. It did not look like a lot of fun. I was admittedly anxious about the pain.
I was intentionally choosing the more difficult path. Why? There were several complex and inter-related reasons. One was that I wanted to be fully present for every second of Maya’s birth. I wanted to feel all of it. I did not want any barriers the first second that I met my daughter and I worried that any drug to help with pain would have the side effect of impacting my awareness, my perceptions. The second was that the alternatives scared me more, notably the big ass needle they insert into your spine if you choose an epidural.
The most influential reason, however, was that I had long ago made a commitment to myself to use my life to answer the question that most plagued me: Who was I really, when it came down to it? What was I made of? The period of time in my life where I explored this answer most deeply was when I spent four months living in the wilderness and learning about the traditional practices of the first peoples of the area surrounding the Canadian Rocky Mountains. It was a pilot program called “Guiding Spirit” which was offered once during my undergraduate degree. When I read the pamphlet describing it, I couldn’t believe it. It was like someone had constructed a course based on exactly what I had wanted to learn. It was described as a program to create “renaissance youth workers” able to use wilderness skills, experiential education, and aboriginal traditional practices to help at risk youth.
I spent four months of the summer of 2000 living in a tent with a group of people I likely would never have met. There were people from all over Canada, Innu from Labrador, First Nations from Western and Eastern Canada, Metis, and non-aboriginal people like me. One of the premises of Guiding Spirit was that you cannot teach something you have not learned yourself. Asking people to change meant asking them to face their own fears. Therefore there were several opportunities for us to face our own deepest fears; to learn profound lessons about ourselves. The invitations were there, but it was up to each person to decide whether or not they would accept it.
The purpose of exposing us to wilderness adventures was that the wilderness offers unique opportunities for self-discovery and change. It is very difficult to hold on to one’s masks and shields in the wild. Stripped of all of your defenses, you are faced with the reality of who you really are. Once “naked”, Guiding Spirit utilized traditional healing practices like the sweat lodge, and modern practices like mindfulness meditation and yoga, to help us rebuild and reclaim our preferred selves.
Over the first two months, we had been doing progressively longer and more difficult hikes in the wilderness. They were often brutal. As I took step after step, hiking up these ridiculously high mountains, I started to notice some unpleasant things about myself. When the hikes got difficult, the thoughts rolling around in my head became incredibly whiny and vile. “I hate this, this is so stupid! Why did I sign up for this? I wish I was home. I can’t do this. It’s too hard. Why doesn’t anybody care? I bet no one would even notice if I just stopped. No one likes me. I’m fat. I’m disgusting. No one loves me. I hate this.” I didn’t like the person that was reflected in those thoughts. She was filled with fear and despair. It disturbed me that this was a part of who I was.
During one meditation session those same thoughts intruded in on my focus. The thoughts became more and more bizarre and alarming. I started to wonder if this really was me. If it was, did that mean that I was crazy? Unstable? Or worse, a terrible human being? It was right at this moment that one of our guides said “Remember, your thoughts are not your self. Your thoughts are not your self.”
“My thoughts are not me? Oh thank GOD!” I thought with relief. From that point on, I became more aware that I was separate from my thoughts and my emotions, including my fears, anxieties, depression. They were not me. Knowing this was crucial because it allowed me just enough separation from my thoughts and feelings to be able to decide whether or not to claim them as my own. I was able to look at my fear of the pain of birth with a degree of detachment. I observed my anxiety and fear with curiosity, but did not let them decide for me.
There was one particular time in Guiding Spirit that was pivotal to my decision to have a natural birth. We had completed two of the four months and were about to embark on two very challenging wilderness trips that would last many weeks. To mark the passage from the first phase to the next, we were to do a “solo”, which is a version of a traditional vision quest, where young men and women would go alone into the wilderness for four days as a rite of passage into adulthood. Our solo would last three.
We could choose how challenging we wanted the solo to be. I decided that I would make mine relatively easy. I would sacrifice food, and once that was decided, I gave it no more thought. As the solo was approaching the other guide sat down with us. His demeanor was serious. I sat up taller and paid attention to what he was saying. He said that he had heard that many of us were treating the solo as a kind of camping trip. I have never forgotten his next words. “I know that some of you are here to learn deep lessons about who you are, what you are meant to do in this world. But if you want to learn those lessons, you will have to challenge yourself. You will have to push yourself beyond where you are comfortable going. It is your choice, but you cannot learn the lessons you are here to learn without facing your deepest fears. ” His challenge to us was both gentle and stern.
“Damn him!” I thought. He was right. And worse, he saw right through me. I was the one who had said most vocally that I wanted to learn who I really was at the core. What was I made of? I was obsessed with movies where the main character faced a pivotal moment where being a hero could mean certain death. Would they retreat and save themselves or take a stand knowing it may mean their death? Which was I? How would I know this if I had never faced my own fears? The solo was an opportunity to find out. Only then would I discover the profound lessons I had committed to learning.
And so it was with childbirth. It scared me. No matter how many people you talk to, you cannot know what it will be like. But what I did know is that I had faced my fears before and prevailed. Women all over the world since the beginning of time had given birth and survived. I had their collective wisdom and courage to rely on. I knew that the contractions were temporary; a few minutes at most. Then there would be relief: a small, delicious break. I felt confident that I could withstand any pain for those few minutes.
I also knew that it was the fear of pain that was the real enemy. Fear would speak to me and try to chip away at my resolve, just as it did during my most difficult times in the wilderness. “You can’t do this, it’s too hard. It’s too painful. You won’t be able to bear it.” I would need to prepare for this. I learned that there would be a time that I would be vulnerable to give in to that voice. Importantly, when I reached the point that I wanted to give up, it also signified that the end of the labour was near, and the pushing would begin. I knew that it was at that moment where I would need Dave and our doula’s support the most. I knew I would likely not be strong enough.
Our birth plan was as few medical interventions as possible. When it got to the point that I was ready to give up, Dave and our doula were instructed to take over for me, no matter how much I pleaded, to support my commitment to the plan I had made when my resolve was strong. I may hate them at that moment, but that I would thank them later, just as Ulysses instructed his crew to tie him to the mast of his boat, over his protests, to help him withstand the sirens’ call, whose song was so seductive that it lured sailors to their deaths. In my mind, the offer of drugs to ease my pain was the sirens’ call.
The contractions started at about 9:00 p.m. the night before Good Friday. They were completely erratic. Twenty minutes apart, then five, then fifteen. Dave was certain they were Braxton Hicks (false contractions). I was not so sure.
At 10:00 p.m. he was ready for bed. As he was getting under the covers he said, “Just wake me up if they get stronger. I’m sure it’s a false alarm.” I gave him “the look”; the “are you fucking joking?” look. He quickly got out from under the covers. We phoned our doula at about 11:00 p.m. She suggested taking a bath. If the contractions stopped, it was likely pre-labour. If they didn’t, we were in for a long night. I had a bath and the contractions became more regular. I realized that this was really happening. Holy shit!
I followed the instructions of my 1970’s natural birth book and lay down on our bed, in as comforting a position as I could. I focused all of my energy on relaxing every muscle in my body, to allow my body to do its work. Dave rubbed my back and my legs and murmured gentle words of encouragement, just as we had practiced. He was perfect. I settled into my body and focused on my breathing, and on being as relaxed as I could. At 2:00 a.m. our doula arrived. Within an hour the contractions were only a few minutes apart. We decided we should go to the hospital. The book had warned us not to go to the hospital if I was still relatively calm and relaxed, which I was, as that was a sign that I was not yet at the next stage. But the contractions were so close we ignored the book and left for the hospital.
When we arrived we had to wait for the labour room to be ready. We told the nurse we were having a natural birth. She responded by saying that she was required to inform us that an epidural was an available option. She explained it in detail, and then asked if I wanted an intravenous. I did not. The books I had read suggested that this first of many possible hospital interventions had the potential for a domino effect, leading to more and more interventions, with the end result an increase in the chance of needing a caesarean section.
When they checked me I had dilated only three centimeters, and my contractions had slowed right down. I was sure I had been further along. The damn book was right! My labour, which had gone so swimmingly at home, slowed right down in the hospital, which I was told happened often.
When we finally got our room, Dave and I settled into the work of getting me through the contractions, which was a kind of pain I had never experienced before and can’t even begin to describe. Not unbearable, but definitely unpleasant. As the intensity increased, I started to rely on Dave more and more to help me get through them. As I felt them coming on I would face him, put my arms around him and lean on him. He held me weight and together we would rock from side to side, our weight shifting from one foot to the other, until they subsided. It would have looked like romantic slow dancing if you ignored my groans. As they got more severe I would almost throw him from side to side and was quite irate if he wasn’t rocking “properly”.
Dave was amazing. I could not have done this without him. I completely depended on him to get me through this and he did not let me down. Our doula was also incredible. She was our “birth coach” and she was masterful at coaching Dave, helping him to be a support to me. Everyone was so encouraging. I think Dave and I both needed those messages “You’re doing great. You can do this. We’re so proud of you.” I felt like Dave and I were children starting our first day of school, half excited and half terrified. Our doula and all of the medical staff were our parents, telling us how great we were doing.
There came a point where the nurse assigned to us wanted to hurry us along. It had been hours and I had only dilated to 6 centimetres. I didn’t want to be “sped up” just for the sake of it, but I was getting tired. I allowed them to break my water and then we waited to see if that would help. It didn’t. The nurse said she had an effective and natural way to get me fully dilated. I agreed, but was completely unprepared for it. She had me lie on my side with my legs curled up. When the contraction came she squeezed me into a foetal position. While I had, until then, maintained composure, at that point I lost all decorum. Dave said that my screams sounded like I was being tortured. I was a panicked animal clawing at the rails of the bed, trying to grab on to Dave’s hand, trying to escape that pain. There was no escape. This was when I was ready to give up. I was spent. I said “I can’t do this anymore.” The nurse asked if I wanted anything for the pain. My wonderful Dave, just as we had planned, immediately said (quite forcefully I might add) “No we talked about this. She doesn’t want anything.” “Damn,” I thought, “I taught him too well!” But I was proud of him. He was my rock. I could count on him.
As much as I hated this nurse and her sadistic torture methods, it did work. After the third contraction, accompanied with my blood curdling screams, I felt a compulsion to push. I was fully dilated and ready to go. By this time I had been in labour for about 14 hours and was exhausted. I closed my eyes and rested.
All of a sudden our room was filled with doctors and nurses, all scurrying around, preparing for the actual birth. The contractions were totally different now – there was an undeniable need to push. The doctor checked me and discovered that Maya’s head was not facing up. Without any warning, he reached up and shifted her. Another blood curdling scream, but it was over in seconds. The nurse, ignoring my screams, looked at him in awe, telling me “He is just SO good. A magician!”
They put a mirror by my feet so that I could see Maya’s head crown. After one push I could see her head. I couldn’t believe it. I had closed my eyes for the final, huge push, the doctors and nurses screaming at me “You can do it just one more! Don’t stop now you can do it!” I didn’t get to see her, but felt her slither out of my body as her head and shoulders were finally freed. I did, unfortunately, look at the mirror after that, which I do not recommend, particularly if the sight of blood makes you queasy. “Can someone please move that mirror? You are going to traumatize me!” The doctors were amazed that this was my first birth, as she was born in a half an hour after the first push.
I could still feel the weight in my belly, while they took Maya to wrap her up. When the placenta was delivered I finally felt relief. It was glorious. A belly with nothing in it but intestines again! Praise the Lord! Then they put Maya on my chest. I was so stunned that she was actually born that I didn’t even notice that they had wrapped her. I had wanted us to bond skin on skin. Dave was weeping uncontrollably. Maya, on the other hand, didn’t make a sound. I had thought that babies normally cry when they are born, but Maya was curiously silent. She lay on my chest, calmly looking up at us. I had expected her to look rather alien like, after being squished through the birth canal, but to me she looked relatively un-squashed; a beautiful little baby. I was so in awe that I completely forgot to count her little fingers and toes.
The nurses took her to weigh her. She was 6 lbs and 9 ounces and 18 inches long. Our doula had to remind us to take photos. Dave tried to focus the camera through his tears. When they brought her back to me our doula tried to get her to breast feed, but Maya wasn’t interested. She just looked up at us and us at her. We were all mesmerized. When we got into the room we would be in for the night, we tried to breast feed again. This time she latched on with no problem and started nursing. I couldn’t believe that I had this perfect little baby in my arms, and it was my own body that was providing her with sustenance. It was surreal. The love I felt for her was beyond words. I was so grateful. I thanked the universe, and the mystery that is our world, for this tiny miracle; this perfect little baby. I was her mother.
It was then that Dave and I realized how utterly exhausted we were; and, more importantly, that our lives were magnificently, and forever, changed.
Our first family photo minutes after Maya’s birth