PART 1: MELODRAMA
Noah was born just after 9:00 am on December 12, 1969. It had recently snowed: a crisp, thin, white layer sparkled outside the living room window. I woke up just after 7:00 in the morning with a slight twinge in my lower back, the kind of ache anyone who has ever had menstrual cramps would recognize immediately.
Wearing my old yellow flannel nightgown, I padded barefoot into the kitchen. My father, flying out the door to get to the train on time, was quickly peeling his morning banana. My mother, preparing to leave for work, was less pressed for time. She was still at home by 8:00, when the dull back-ache turned into breath-shortening, wavelike belly cramps. The cramps were regular and evenly spaced, delicately knotted macramé that wrapped around the melon my belly had become. That melon, I knew, was the sinew and spirit of another human being who had come one night under a vast and deep dark velvet desert sky while I imagined that all the stars had journeyed down to earth.
Over and through the knottings, I breathed shallowly, as I’d been taught by the Lamaze instructor. Panting as evenly as possible, I worked at undoing each knot, trying to maintain a sense of calm. Panic imperils consciousness, I told myself. Consciousness is required to overcome the pain caused by tension.
I huffed away, squatting on my hands and knees in the center of my mother’s carved maple bed as she, poised carefully on the edge, scrutinized the round face of the clock-radio and monitored the passage of time between contractions. The knots were 10 minutes apart. “I think it has to be every 5 minutes,” my mother offered. “I’d feel much better,” she added, “if you’d let me take you to the hospital.”
“Don’t be silly, Mom,” I said. “you go to work. This is supposed to take eight hours.” Why “supposed to”? And why “eight hours”? I wondered. (Perhaps I was associating labor with “work” and assuming that one is supposed to put in an eight-hour work-day. Or perhaps I was recalling my most recent visit with my ob-gyn, who had suggested an appointment the following week. When I mentioned that I was having a baby this weekend, he waved his hand airily and said, “First babies are always late. Make an appointment.”)
“Would you like me to wait with you?” Mom asked. I waved her off, reminding her that my friend Nancy had said she’d come stay with me if I needed help. Reluctantly (Did she know? Did we both know?) my gentle-hearted mother left the house.
Within a few moments of her departure, the silent house filled with knotted waves, forming an obstinate bulge in the air around me. A presence, no longer internal, took up the energy in the room and surrounded my body with an invisible casing. I phoned my OB’s office. His answering service informed me that he was not yet there, was not available. Not there? Too bad for him, I thought, and ended the conversation without leaving a message. I decided to try him again in a few minutes and, in the meantime, prepare for a trip to the hospital, where I knew I was ultimately expected. I padded off to my room, found the dress my friend Agnese had given me – a durable, once-bright-yellow denim tent, now faded to a pale winter sunbeam – and carried it down the cellar stairs to the ironing board. As I turned on the iron, a viselike bolt gripped my belly, and suddenly I was unable to concentrate on steaming out the wrinkles. Somehow having the presence of mind to turn off the iron, I climbed the stairs to the kitchen and telephoned Nancy, who had just had a baby of her own.
“I think you’d better come over here,” I said.
“When?” she wanted to know.
“Oh, I guess in a couple of hours,” I replied, laughing.
I went into the living room and held up the afghan that my father’s older sister Rose had crocheted. As I leaned over to spread it out on the carpeted floor, a gush of very warm fluid slopped out of my vagina. I fell to my knees, thinking, Ooooh, it will take hours more and the baby will dry up in there with no water. It was my first moment of panicky fear.
The vaginal pressure was enormous: an almost unbearable weight pressed against my labia from the inside out. I had been told to expect a “dogging pain,” but was unprepared for the sensation of sexual ecstasy, the voluptuous feeling of penetration. Don’t push, I told myself, don’t push.
I trekked back to the kitchen to call Nancy again and, without even thinking about it, stuck the middle finger of my right hand up my rectum. As I did, I knew absolutely that what my finger was tracing could only be the skull of a baby. Oh, the baby is coming, I thought.
Quickly, I dialed the number. “Nancy, come now,” I begged, feeling an immense distance separating us. Would she believe me? Would she come right away? No, I realized, she would not come right away. In a flash, I saw that no matter when she came, it would be too late.
Hanging up the phone, I felt a single band of tension clamp around me. “Madre de Dios!” I screamed aloud. Not being Catholic did not seem to matter at that moment. “Mother of God,” I pleaded silently, “what does it mean, this bearing down that I cannot help?”
I shuffled over to my blanket on the living room carpet. Crouched on my knees on the little afghan, I caught the infant, who rushed from my vagina into the small world between my legs, in the midst of an extraordinary orgasm from the inside out. The child was a boy, and he seemed to cry out as I caught him, “I am here!”
I lifted him to my face, I touched his face with my tongue, aware that I was tasting both him and myself at the same time. The still-attached umbilical cord – a sinewy, dark-magenta rope – curled from his navel and disappeared under the hem of my flannel nightgown. The placenta is still inside me, I thought. We are still one. Pulling my nightgown aside with one hand, I put him to my breast.
It was shortly after 9:00 am, and Nancy had not yet come. With the ponderousness of the umbilical cord uppermost in my mind, I stood up and went off to the kitchen. Fearing, in some utterly primitive way, the presence of the afterbirth still inside me, I phoned Jacqueline, the Algerian-born Frenchwoman who lived in the house behind ours. Within moments, she burst through the back door, her eyes widening with shock when she saw me standing in the middle of the kitchen with a minutes-old infant in my arms.
“Get a knife,” I commanded sharply, pointing to the kitchen utensils that sat in a holder beside the gas stove. “Sterilize a knife.”
Jacqueline picked out a kitchen knife, and as she reached out to turn on the burner, the knife fell abruptly from her hand. When it clattered to the floor, she recovered her self-control and took command, ordering me off to the living room. I obeyed instantly, and from the other room, I was able to hear her speaking on the phone. Her English, normally excellent, vanished in her excitation, but it quickly surfaced again as she reported an emergency to the operator.
Suddenly, Nancy arrived – followed by a host of others. The first policeman to burst through the front door turned away instantly at the sight of a woman in a faded flannel nightgown, sitting in the middle of the room and cradling a naked newborn in her arms. In a matter of moments, Nancy and Jacqueline were hovering over the woman; two men in blue were standing guard at the front door; and two others, who had summoned an ambulance, were waiting for it to arrive. It came. Mother and child were wrapped in one blanket and carried by stretcher out of the house.
The obstetrician, alerted by the ambulance driver, was waiting just inside the emergency room door. Obviously frustrated and concerned, he began to pour out what appeared to be a multitude of pent-up admonishments: “You should have called me! You could have died…”
From the emergency room table, with Noah still at my breast, I waved my hand airily. “You should congratulate me,” I retorted. “I did a good job.”
PART II : HIGH COMEDY
Jacob was born at 3:20 am on July 29, 1981. His father and I had spent the previous day hoisting slab lumber from a nearby mill into the back of our old truck, unloading it at home – a very small house we had built ourselves – and setting to work on a privy fence to separate our backyard from the adjacent parksite. Gordon had sunk the posts, and I had nailed the boards up on the crosspieces.
Stopping to enjoy the breezes coming off the lake, we decided to finish leveling off the post the next day. Then we barbecued supper for Noah, his two visiting friends, and ourselves. With the stone barbecue pit I’d made now fully enclosed within the new fence, everything felt fine.
We settled in around 10:00. Gordon and I slept, as usual, in the big bedroom. The children camped out on the front porch in their sleeping bags. Sometime after midnight, I woke up restless and decided to slip into Noah’s room and curl up on my side by myself. After a while, I woke up again, this time with amniotic fluid gushing out all over my legs. It was a strange sensation – as hot as urine, but as sudden and uncontrollable as the floosh of menstrual blood.
I was upright in a flash. Where are the contractions? I wondered. I headed for the living room and turned on the light to check the time: just after 3:00 am. Then I padded into the bedroom and turned on the overhead light to wake Gordon. He came awake instantly and pulled his clothes on. Remembering the importance of evacuating before giving birth, I proceeded to the bathroom, but as I sat on the toilet, one protracted contraction tightened around my abdomen. I had perfect recall of that viselike knot, only this time I knew what it meant. Well, that’s it, I thought. Too late to evacuate.
Emerging from the bathroom, I reached mentally past the contraction, which had already moved outside me. Gordon, sitting at our old oak dining room table, was madly trying to read the copy of Spiritual Midwifery I had borrowed a few months earlier. “You don’t have time for that,” I told him.
Then I noticed that he had already set a big pot of water to boil on the stove. “Should I wake the kids?” he asked. Making a quick decision for privacy, I replied, “No, let them sleep.” He nodded, and I went back to the bedroom.
While squatting on the bed, I tried to decide what to do. The hospital, a brand new 12-bed building, was less than five minutes away on foot. But I had no time to walk there…or ride there. In fact, I had no time to go there at all. Of that I was quite sure. Then again, there was Eva, the Swedish-trained nurse-midwife whose help I would have liked. But at a party the week before, I had asked her if she would come to the house if I had no time to get to the hospital. Exchanging glances with the head nurse, who was also at the party, Eva seemed to imply that the idea was preposterous. How could anyone not have time to go to a hospital? their glances seemed to say. These back-to-the-land mothers…always trying to have their babies at home!
From my solitary place on the low, wide bed, I swore at the entire medical establishment. I clenched my jaw and deliberately tightened the floor of my pelvis, holding the baby back. Returning to the task at hand, I reasoned: If Eva was not on duty and could not come or, worse yet, was on duty but would not come, I’d be alone again. Gordon would be there, but although he had once been an LPN, he was clearly not prepared for the immediate assignment. I saw no choice; if I wanted someone with me, I’d have to ask Gordon to wake Elly. Elly was our next-door neighbor and an RN. She also kept a sterile kit at home.
I called Gordon, and he came to the bedroom. But when he saw me squatting on my hands and knees, with my naked rump in the air, he turned on his heels, muttering, “Wash my hands…” and rushed off to the bathroom. “Call Elly!” I cried after him.
Even though I was still on my hands and knees, my hearing suddenly became very acute. I could hear Gordon on the phone in the next room: “Glenn? This is Gord. Could you ask Elly to come over. I think the baby’s coming.”
You think the baby’s coming? I echoed to myself. And suddenly, I laughed. I could not help it – the man’s hesitation struck me as funny. I laughed at the ridiculousness of it all. Suddenly, I was looking down a tunnel the long way around, as if a telescope inside me – that was somehow outside me – was turned backwards.
As I laughed, the baby’s head popped out. I tightened my pelvic floor muscles and, turning my head, noticed Gordon at the doorway. Imagining how ludicrous I must have looked, reared up on my haunches with a baby’s head sticking out of me, I laughed again. This time, the baby simply fell out into Gordon’s out-stretched hands.
“A boy!” he said. The baby who we knew for sure would be a girl did not even mewl. Gordon lay him in my arms. “Hello, darling,” I whispered to him just as Elly came into the room. It was 3:15 am.
Elly, having brought her sterile kit, helped Gordon cut the umbilical cord. While he took the now-freed baby to the kitchen sink for a bath, Elly sat comfortably next to me on the bed. Holding a white enamel dishpan, she patiently awaited the expulsion of the placenta. When it emerged, she inspected it carefully, plopped it into the pan, and carried the pan – with its luminous, bloody contents – to the kitchen to show Gordon.
In an instant, the washed and freshly swaddled baby was back in bed, and the bed was remade around us. Literally tucked in, I marveled at the tiny newborn in my arms, the precious fruit of our labors. Leaning back in the clean pillows and savoring the fresh sheets, I looked up gratefully. “This is very civilized,” I said appreciatively.
Elly, late-come midwife of the manor, smiled generously. Gord beamed appreciatively. The sky over the lake was just starting to pale.
Note from Laura: After reading this story, I asked Claire (as she likes to be called) why she felt the doctor was so nasty towards her after the birth of her first child. This was her reply:
I had talked with the family OB when I was about 6 months pregnant with Noah, because I’d heard a story about a woman who’d given birth at Drop City (a commune in Colorado in the late ’60’s) in a circle of people, drumming – the baby was said to have shot out of her across the circle of people…Also I’d seen a film about Eskimo or Inuit people, in which a woman sent her mother out of the shelter when she was about to give birth because (in the film anyway, I haven’t checked this out with my Inuit friends) women were supposed to be alone with their infants at the moment of birth – and this woman did it, clearly, on her knees to gain the assistance of gravity. The family OB muttered darkly something about “primitive” (do you think he had seen the film?) so I chose another OB. I don’t know exactly why he bawled me out, he never did explain and I never bothered to ask. Maybe he was up tight because he had not recognized that another of his patients was carrying twins until he had her on the delivery table…(she happened to be in the bed next to me)…
There is another piece of this story, however: my mother, at the age of 45, had given birth to my kid sister in the car (the front seat, I believe) on the way to that same hospital. One of the docs who was on duty in the ER when Noah and I were brought in was a family friend, Ben Kurshan, the MD who’d been out playing golf when my sister was born. What I was told was that when he heard about or saw the gurney with Noah and me on it, he went immediately to a phone, called another family friend and said, “Beverly, the Weintraubs did it again!”
This story originally appeared in Mothering Magazine.