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16 February 2007

Witness to Birth
by Tera Schreiber

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I had the good fortune of seeing a live human being plunge into the world recently—for the first time. Being a mother of two lively little children, one would think that I would feel very experienced with childbirth.  But the fact is that I didn’t actually see either of my kids born.

I marveled at photos of my first daughter’s birth days after she was born, but I saw none of it while it was happening.  I couldn’t see beyond a few inches in front of my face the entire labor.  My vision was compromised because my focus was internal.  My body needed all of its resources to focus like a laser beam on opening and pushing my baby out.  When offered a mirror to see the crowning of her head, I declined it vigorously.  Since eight pounds ten ounces of baby arrived with an arm up by her ear after only six hours of labor, it’s no wonder that I couldn’t be bothered to be an observer— I was working too hard.  

My labor with my second daughter gave me even less time for observation.  She burst forth from my body in a series of five pushes over five minutes.  Because I was on my knees leaning on the edge of the tub, I couldn’t have seen her arrive if I had wanted to.  The shock of her warp speed birth, combined with the logistical issue of having her emerge outside of my vision, made it impossible for me to observe her birth.  In addition, the intensity of the experience likely marred my observation skills, as I was still processing the fact of her birth for hours after she was born. And because her emergence was so rapid, I have no photos to document those precious few moments.

So, when I had the chance to attend a friend’s birth, it was a true luxury.  How lucky to both be there to welcome a baby into the world and actually be able to see the magic in action!

To say that the actual emergence of a baby from a woman’s body is amazing is a wild understatement. It’s like saying that the Egyptian pyramids are pretty cool or that the Grand Canyon is really big.

Ann Keppler, Seattle author and parenting consultant, once told me it’s like a ship in a bottle—it’s pretty difficult to imagine how that big, complicated ship can get out of such a small space. Truly, it seems impossible that an entire baby—a completely formed human being— can emerge from a woman’s vagina. Yet, when that little head starts to part the fleshy region that usually seems so private, and when you can see black hair poking through from the inside of a woman’s body, you suddenly have proof that there is indeed a baby in there and, yes, she is coming out.

And once you see that a baby is coming, you start to realize that the mother’s body will open to allow it. Skin stretches, the head bulges against the perineum. The baby is like a little surfer riding an amazing wave that pushes her forth and then sucks her back, slowly making progress toward shore. When it seems the skin has stretched to an obscene extent, it stretches more and then gives way, presenting a head in what seems like a surprise gift.

At this point, the most remarkable thing occurs. It’s hard even to imagine. A baby is half in and half out of her mother. She is no longer hiding within the secret fortress of the womb. But either she or her mother, or perhaps both, are not quite ready to completely separate. So, there is a time where this baby is truly in a middle zone—a surreal space between this world and the one she has been enjoying since conception.

Then, as if by magic, the baby slithers out. She is covered in blood and waxy white vernix, a little purple, still tight and awkward, like a plush toy that has just been removed from a too small box and hasn’t been used yet. Moments later, stimulated by the warm touch and voice of her mother, the baby is pink and smooth and round and as perfect as anyone can imagine. Born with innate survival skills, her little suckling mouth seeks a nipple.

Perhaps the most magical thing of all is the aftermath of the birth. The mother, who experienced an athletic labor that spanned more than twenty-four hours, who had been climbing stairs on her hands and knees during the depth of her contractions, who had been dancing and rocking and kneeling and stretching and lunging and doing anything she was asked to do—showing herself to be a very compliant woman (which surprised me because I was grouchy and resistant during labor) with immense physical strength (which did not surprise me!)—was suddenly invigorated and basking in the sun of her baby girl. One would have expected the mother to have been dog tired and groaning in pain because she had no mediation during her labor. One would have thought she would just collapse after working so hard for so long. Yet, she walked on slightly wobbly legs into the birthing room – because this baby was born in the stairs in the lobby of the birth center! – and settled herself into bed. And she held her baby like the precious treasure she is. Like the moon, the mother bounced the light of a shiny new human being right back at her daughter.

While the mother was a rock star, she had a partner with her every step of her pregnancy and birth. Despite his fatigue and worry from being the side of his laboring wife for more than 24 hours, the father wore the look of bewildered love, admiration and pride that I recognized in my own husband. And I appreciated my own husband’s back seat role in the births of my children a little more after watching this father. A laboring woman’s partner follows her around, offering support, love, encouragement. Her partner sometimes works hard to meet the physical needs of the woman and her labor. And she appreciates it. But on some level, her partner is helpless because without direct experience, one just cannot imagine opening a body to that extent to welcome and then expel another being. Her partner can’t feel her pain and know if it’s the strong pain of a healthy labor or if it’s the worrisome pain of obstacles to a positive outcome. Her partner can’t get into her mind and know if she is really too tired to go on or if she has the strength of a team of oxen ready to do whatever it takes to birth her baby. Her partner just hears her whimper…or howl….and has to trust her instincts. You would think that the mother would be the one most anxious to see the work of labor come to an end, but I wonder if it might be the partner who is most relieved by the birth’s punctuation of labor.

And with that punctuation mark, another story begins. Parents get the opportunity to meet their baby face to face. I recall the bliss of the first moments with my children. But I also remember the strangeness of meeting for the first time. In some ways that first meeting is as awkward as a junior high school dance. How does she like to be held? She doesn’t even know yet. Exactly how will we make space in our life for this new person? She probably wonders how she will fill that space. During those first moments, parents and child begin to truly understand the gravity of their connection. It’s a little strange to meet someone for the first time and know at that very moment you will be inextricably linked for life. Certainly it’s a much bigger deal than getting a tattoo, which prior to motherhood was the thing that took me the most courage and strength.

Of course, we parents don’t understand, while on the precipice of this profound beginning of the parenting journey, what a tiny speck of the story it is. Profound, oh yes, but only the first dot on the long chart of anxieties, treasures, sleepless nights, and dirty laundry. I suppose this relentless and amazing work of birth must be Nature’s way of preparing us for the rest of the journey.

Tera Schreiber is a mother and freelance writer from Seattle. While she wishes for a career in childbirth, she is not sure she is ready to commit to the hours. In the meantime, she will just have to enjoy watching her kids play midwife.

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