When I found out I was pregnant with River, I knew I had to do some serious quiet thinking. The scars from Juniper’s birth were still very much healing, in both the physical and emotional realms. She and I were a mere nine months in to this journey together, and I was still trying to navigate and make sense of it all. I became a babbling apologetic brook when faced with the question, “How was the birth?”
I cried a lot. There was a heaviness or headiness about it all that I just couldn’t shake. I felt like I had let Blaise down, and his own coming to terms with it was painful because it mirrored all the insecurities I felt: disappointment, confusion and betrayal. Our mutual trauma had actually divided us, and we became islands sinking under sleep deprivation, hormones and newborn needs.
I admit I was naïve in my initial approaches to birth. I was eager to learn but deep down inside clung to a great shining otherness that things could be different. I had heard the unicorn stories: whispers of painlessness and even ecstasy. But I didn’t seek those stories and women and experiences out. I was hoping it would just happen for me. I wanted an outcome that I was unwilling to practice for.
It was Fear that I was holding hands with. In my mind it sounded like I was the captain: I repeated always that my body knew what to do. And it does. And it did. But I used that mantra to desperately repel discomfort and the unknown rather than embrace it. I didn’t really believe what I was saying.
I had chosen mindlessness over mindfulness.
Compounding all of this was Aven’s (my stepson’s) birth story: a quick and easy three-hour home birth. That was it. That was all I got. Blaise couldn’t really remember the process, and time had washed the memories in rose. This was both confusing and intimidating. It also fell right in line with Fear, who was gleefully whispering See! Keep your head down and your expectations ridiculously high. But don’t do your homework. Let’s go Beginner’s Luck! If she can do it, you better be able to.
I watched one live birthing video and sobbed from the uncontrollable beauty and violence of it all. I read my books: the indubitable Ina May and Birthing From Within. I pushed all of those terribly practical techniques aside, though, “for another time.” I reasoned (lied) that their effectiveness would be lost so early on. Another time never came. I just couldn’t look at it all straight on, and in the end this hurt me.
Deferred acceptance is not acceptance at all.
Blaise and I did complete one of the books’ recommendations, which is to create Birth Art. We were on our babymoon at a shabby bed and breakfast in Lanark on the coldest night of the year. We set our intention and got to work. His creation was so pure it shook me and shakes me still: full of beautiful billowing feminine-creative-power circles (not to mention premonitions of both babies and their journeys).
Mine: thick black lines sticky with this constant concern over perception. No representations of me or Blaise or the baby. A geometric vagina.
It felt manufactured and superficial, even silly. I wasn’t really visualizing the labour and birth. I had decided to skip the nitty gritty of it all because I was scared to death of the intensity, the pain and the unknown.
But I did it. I met the intensity, the pain and the unknown despite Fear. I labored for twelve hours in my home with our midwives. I was then transferred into the care of the local hospital and Juniper was born by caesarean. I was told that I had longer-than-usual pelvic spines that had prevented the baby from moving down the canal. I was sent home two days later, stunned and stoned but grateful.
As I came back down to earth I was smacked in the face with a sense of utter failure. Failure as a partner, failure as a woman and failure as a mother. When people would ask about the birth, I would commit us to this sense of defeat by beginning with “We tried.” We tried to have the baby naturally at home. It destroyed me voicing it out loud over and over again, and yet I didn’t even think to change the language I was using. This was my punishment. I was a weak woman, unable to do as she had been intended.
I simmered in this self-hatred for months, all the while nurturing this beautiful little girl. I was still not accepting things. Like it or not, this was our story, and I had been telling it all wrong. This tortured rumination at last turned into critical questioning: Why was I so apologetic about how things went down? Had I set myself up for this all along?
I started to pull on the threads.
And good thing too, because I was now pregnant with a second.
I started by thinking about what I had been told about birth. Since our culture has severed children from indigenous, intuitive and elder wisdom, I had picked most things up from television and movies. Most of the adults around me had done the same, too. And so I believed that birth was extremely painful, that it “never happens the way you want it to” and that the birthing vagina is gross. Each of these is a pretty crushing point from which to begin what should be a journey of personal and cosmic empowerment.
This watershed moment of having identified these beliefs led to a terrifying radar for them, and they are everywhere. In every movie and television show I consumed the mere topic of birth was accompanied by intense grimaces or a man acting “grossed out.”
I also noticed insidious tendencies in my family to ridicule and mock women who chose natural birth. Their favourite and preferred punchline was when, indeed, an epidural was chosen in the end. This seemed to confirm all of the beliefs above, and proof is pleasing.
No wonder I hadn’t been able to visualize the birth! If giving birth naturally was stupid, then surely preparing for it was even stupider still. I had been denied the tools I so desperately needed from the people I loved. I had been told lies about my body. I had been approaching my womanhood and genitalia from an outside gaze perspective for far too long.
So I got to work trying to work back on the conditioning. I am still working. I won’t lie: I did still fret over whether I would be shaved for the delivery. I could neither see nor reach my pubic hair but this remained something to fret about.
I hadn’t totally banished Fear, either. The night I went into labour I started to watch a graphic barbecue competition show. Apparently I was attempting to stave off the process through value abuse (I’m a vegetarian).
River joined us that morning. And despite all of the unexpected changes and pandemic protocols, I felt in control the whole time. I chose an epidural to manage posterior back labour. I felt strong. I had reclaimed the dignities to which I had been denied. I pushed that baby out.
I guess my pelvic spines aren’t too long, now are they?
Emma-Leigh Welsh is a high school teacher and mother of two (soon to be three!). She lives in Aylmer, Quebec.