Three years ago I was curled up in fetal position on my bed. I was in the throes of labor but to an outsider I probably just looked like I had food poisoning. Over the years I’ve learned that I have an unnaturally high pain tolerance. Coupled with an acquired “never show any signs of weakness” trait that I’d picked up somewhere, a stranger who happened to walk by my laboring form would most likely say something about never eating fish where you can’t smell the sea.
The funny thing about labor pains is that for many women, while the memory of exactly what the pain feels like eventually fades, the memory of our response to the feelings remain etched into our consciousness. Books describe contractions as “very strong menstrual cramps” but that’s absolute crap. Most of us have had very strong menstrual cramps without thinking “Dying wouldn’t be so bad.”
If you’ve studied the stages of labor you are familiar with the period known as Transition. While transition is usually the shortest part of labor, it is often the most intense. It’s when the most docile of women start cursing out nurses and the strongest begin to projectile vomit. With my most recent baby, I threw up in a plastic kidney-shaped container and got the shakes. Lovely.
Transition marks the end of the “let’s get this uterus open!” contractions and the start of the “let’s get this baby out!” ones. What makes this time so tricky is that while it signals the home stretch, the tired, anxious woman who may have been laboring beautifully and gracefully, visualizing each contraction as a wave, breathing, counting, eating ice, smiling, imaging her baby, singing show tunes…it’s often a breaking point. Fight or flight sets in. This is the time you’ll hear the birth warrior say things like, “I can’t do this anymore.” It’s common for women to have thoughts of running away from it all, as if a 40+ week pregnant woman 10 centimeters dilated lady would even make it to the door. And then what? Get in a cab to the nearest Starbucks for a muffin leaving the pain behind in the hospital bed?
“Ah, that was close,” she’d say as she sipped a caramel macchiato, bare bum exposed by the hospital gown.
Lamaze, back massages, soothing music….none of the aforementioned pain managements methods are more effective when it comes to keeping one’s sails up during transition than knowing you’re in it. Being able to recognize the signs contextualizes the pain. All of the knowledge in the world won’t necessarily make a woman say, “Ah yes, this is transition. I’m OK now. Come forth, little one,” but when a woman’s support team understands where she is, they can help her remember.
Woman in labor: “Someone please get my shoes. I’m getting out of here.”
Nurse: “You’re ok.”
Woman in labor: “I’m going to die.”
Midwife: “No you’re not. Your baby is almost here.”
Woman in labor: “I am going to cut you.”
Husband: “You don’t mean that…”
Back to my apartment in Montreal. I’d known that I was going to be alone when I gave birth to my second born. I’d dreamed it months earlier and had made my peace. But now, as the formerly manageable contractions, or inner death grips, as they should be named, had taken hold of me, I began to doubt if I’d come out of this in one piece.
In the first dream I’d had, I was having my baby under an orange tree in our backyard. The sun’s light was soft on the grass- the scene was beautiful. It was a far cry from where I was now on a Queen bed in an upper duplex. The second dream was a little more true to life. I was in labor, alone in a room but at the foot of left corner of the bed was God. The form looked like my mom, but I was aware that it was God.
So as I lay trying not to move as contraction after contraction fell on me like wet cement I remembered the second dream. In the dream, I wasn’t lying down curled up, I was in a more upright position. Something said, not in a voice, but in that whisper-like insta-communication we all get sometimes, “You’re not going to have your baby like that.”
Any woman who has had a baby knows how difficult it can be to manipulate one’s body during a contraction and it took every bit of mind-over-matter strength to pull my myself up. I still don’t know how I did it. Within 10 seconds, my baby was out. She let out one semi-annoyed cry as if to say, “Wow that was long” in the same tone that you’d criticize a bus driver for taking a turn too hard.
Three babies deep and I’ve never been able to recognize the signs of transition until the dust settles. It’s only then that I see the signs.
Last week as I sat in days of unending torrential mind rain I kept hearing people say, “Keep going.” They’d pat my brow with a cloth and offer me sips of cool water. For a moment I’d believe them but it would only take another contraction for me to start slipping. “Something is trying to be born,” they’d say to me when all I could smell, see, and taste was a slow and painful descent.
I received an email from a former boss. He runs an empire within the natural baby sphere. I’m not sure, but I think he’s of Eastern European descent- he embodies a no-nonsense, fearless approach to life and it’s amplified by a sharp business sense. He’s also crunchy, not an a stereotypical tie-dye-wearing sense, but in an “of course unschooling makes sense, look at the studies” way. Visualize a cross between Richard Branson and Bear Grylls. He and his wife are the kind of people whose life you look at, the result of living from a place of passionate conviction, and think “I need to do that.”
When he’s not excelling at everything, he’s having fun. His emails always end with something like, “Gotta go, on a plane to Russia” or “I’ll call in twenty minutes, have to do this Iron Man triathlon really quick.”
I always want to ask him, “Are you scared of anything?” I imagine the answer would be. “Scared? What’s the point?” and then he’d turn and hang glide off of a mountain.
He’d gotten wind of what was going on and I shared how I was feeling in a long string of verbal diarrhea.
Bunmi – I know the situation seems and feels super shitty right now, but you have to FOCUS –
Focus on who you really are – a beautiful, creative, gifted woman! Mom to 3 beautiful kids. Wife to a loving husband!
You have an unlimited potential and that’s where your focus needs to be. That’s it! Everything else is trivial.
This whole situation is just a background noise. And you are taking that background noise way too seriously. I am not saying that it should not be dealt with, just take it lightly on a personal level. Don’t let it touch your life and your talents. your creativity, your kids and your husband are really the only big and important things here.
Take your kids out and go run out in the woods and get your real energy back!
I read it and thought, “Woods? Ew.” A dark room seemed much more fitting for my current state but knew he was right. I knew it on a cerebral level but on an emotional one, I was still churning.
I read emails from blogger friends, Facebook messages from readers, tweets and blog posts and could feel the support but was frustrated because it didn’t seem to be helping. Why wasn’t it saving me? Why didn’t I feel better?
I promised my friend Glennon that I’d take a yoga class. Everyone always says it’s important for mothers to take care of themselves. “Put on your mask first” they say, referencing the airline attendant speech about what to do should cabin pressure change. First of all, when the crap hits the fan 30,000 feet no mother is going to put on her oxygen mask first. She’ll put on her kids’ first and they’ll both pass out as she fumbles because that’s just our animal instinct.
The session started at 10am and I didn’t get into my car until 9:45 because what’s a full day without a little self-sabotage. When I arrived it was 10:01 but I could see through the studio window that people were still milling about. I hadn’t missed it. Too bad.
I was welcomed warmly and asked a few questions about my yoga background.
“I’ve done it before,” I dryly assured the teacher as if she was a druggie asking if I knew how use the paraphernalia. “Just give it to me, ” I’d yell grabbing the dirty syringe out of her hand, jumpy with the anticipation of future sedation.
“Oh I remember you! Prenatal yoga! Did you have the baby?”
What kind of question is that? Did I still look pregnant? Maybe I should say “No, it died” so that she’d never ask that question again. I could be a hero for the postpartum among us. But that was a little too morbid. Even for me.
Walking into the room I felt like I’d entered a temple. I’m not sure how yogis do it, it can’t be a simple matter of dimming the lights. I’ve been in many dimly lit rooms. It felt like being inside of one of those Himalayan sea salt lamps. I guess that’s what happen when you dedicate a place to calmness although I’ve heard they do Zumba there a few times a week.
Finding the farthest corner of the dark room I unrolled the provided mat and waited.
The first few poses were a piece of cake. Unfortunately the spot I’d chosen for the sake of invisibility turned out to be a mistake as it didn’t allow for a full range of motion. Each time she called for a large sweeping arm motion my nails audibly scraped against the wall. How are these people supposed to achieve transcendence when I keep causing disturbances? I was forced to inch closer to the woman next to me, not too close, but close enough to violate the efficacy of my personal bubble. I was uncomfortable.
With each movement, each pose melting into the next one, my inner chatter grew more and more distant and my awareness took the elevator from my mind into my body. “Going dooown,” I could almost hear the attendant’s voice.
Child’s pose. This seated, head down, arms outstretched forward position always incites within me an internal struggle. The entire room looks like its frozen in a state of religious devotion. For a devout rebel with an exacerbated sense of “I don’t think so” that can only be developed through being the adult child of a minister, I find this worshipy pose unsettling. At the same time, I can’t deny that it is also the most physically comfortable. It’s a place of rest with an almost massage-like stretch in the back and I’m always a little sad to leave it.
Yoga, like birth, is one of those experiences that create physical sensations that are hard to describe. One of the poses, Pigeon pose, was particularly uncomfortable. I may have been doing something wrong but it felt as if my foot was going to explode. A thigh cramp followed shortly and I was forced to abandon it. I sat on my mat fully expecting the teacher to say something along the lines of, “Hey you in the back ruining the splendor that is the glorious practice of yoga, what are you doing?”
Sixty minutes passed quickly and we were soon in the “cool down” portion of the class. Easy, fluid poses. We were instructed to stand straight up, arms relaxed to the side.
“There is always a certain amount of pressure on top of us,” the teacher said, “The key is to learn to carry the weight elegantly.”
I spent the rest of the day stealing moments to reflect on what the past several days had been like.
No matter how well a woman prepares for childbirth and how expansive and knowledgeable her support team is, there is a bridge on which she will have to walk alone. People can coach from the other side, tell her everything’s fine. They can even stand under the bridge and tell her she’s almost done and is doing great. But as far as putting one foot in front of the other goes and making the trip across what oftentimes looks like a rickety, haphazardly designed wood and rope death trap, she has to make the decision to cross it by herself.
Watching those birth shows you can always tell when the mother surrenders to transition whether she’s on a surgery table or half-submerged in a birthing pool. Her wide darting eyes shrink and grow focused. Once she realizes that the only way out is through, everything changes. You can practically see her abandon her head and tune into her body to enter the moment. Every bit of energy devotes itself to completion; life is coming, burning its way through her and there is no escaping or containing it. No one can do it for her, all they can do as she stands on the bridge is remind her that she’s on it and hope that she believes them.