Yael’s Birth Story Baby Ella, born August 9, 2007
Yael’s birthing narrative invites the reader to fully join her in her very real, and gripping journey of labour and Ella’s birth. Her account concludes with the wisdom gained: “A lifetime of Surrendering ahead...”
In the early hours of August 8th, I woke to feel fluid pooling between my legs. My knowledge of waters breaking (gathered from sensationalist television soaps) was of a Tsunami Rupture. This little trickle did not qualify. On my return from the bathroom downstairs, however, I noticed I had left little glimmering silver coins of water on each step. I woke my husband. We consulted the Google Oracle: Can amniotic fluid leak gently when waters break? The answer unusual for Google - was conclusive. He nodded. I nodded. We called the cab.
Driving along the streets of Montreal at dawn, I watched the empty sidewalks and the trees with a hand on my belly feeling the little girl living there slide and move beneath my skin. My move to this city has been a privileged and a tough one. The loneliness of immigration despite a loving husband is a strange sadness that sets in and freezes, as you realize it will be years - deep gaps in linear time - before you see loved ones again. Little girl inside me shifted suddenly as the Jewish General Hospital appeared to my right from the cab window. Was it today we would finally meet her? I had tried to do the right things during pregnancy - banishing beloved sushi and a good glass of wine. I had sat - hand on belly - in meditation, trying to connect with her. But her presence over the nine months had remained like the secrets of the heart: resonating constantly but revealing nothing.
Prenatal yoga had been a surprising source of joy to me in the five weeks leading up to my due date. I was skeptical about the good it would do me initially when my husband suggested it. Yoga has always been hard for me… because I am hard on myself. The competitor in me - the ego - is ever present and doing battle, particularly during a challenging asana, when I would find myself subtly looking around to see how inferior I was for not cracking it or superior for doing what others were struggling with. Prior to my pregnancy, I had still despite best efforts - found myself wishing for certain women’s bodies in class, and shamed by my more voluptuous form. Yoga despite my best efforts had always put me outside of myself.
Prenatal Yoga, however, had gently unwrapped me. For the first time I found myself turning inwards during positions, instead of towards the room and others. Week after week the hour and a half class with Clearlight had me walking out of the studio with an extraordinary peace. My husband remarked one night as I walked towards him: “You look like you just made love. You are so in your skin”. He was right. In many ways, being pregnant was the first time I felt at home in my own body despite my swollen ankles, aching feet and huge belly. There was something about being large that suddenly asked of me a profound Surrender. And I saw it in the faces of the women around me in these classes. Instead of the grim determination I was used to witnessing in fellow over-achievers during yoga… here I saw a gentle helplessness, a sense of humour in each woman’s eyes - about the utter absurdity of trying to exert control. Here it was: The great hoax of trying to manipulate life - exposed. Our powerlessness was self-evident and this simple truth was beautiful on every woman in the room.
Clearlight would ask us how we were feeling this day, in this moment. “Elated”, “cranky-as-hell”, “sore feet” would be the unashamedly un-profound replies… and we would all laugh and nod. Somehow my armour had no place here. I could see each woman’s vulnerability and she could see mine. Instead of the usual subtle politicking of power that a discipline can trigger, Clearlight would ask: Can you meet yourself as you are - in this moment? Her words were with me as I climbed out of the cab at the entrance to the Hospital.
We checked in and the resident on call confirmed that indeed the trickle between my legs was amniotic fluid and not incontinence. My husband and I laughed with relief. We were dreading being turned away with our large suitcase and faces full of expectation. The uterus had torn; my spirit and mind were open but my cervix was resolutely shut tight. The sacred fluid that floats baby in an infection free world was, however, no longer sealed. The doctor confirmed - I would have to be induced.
A gel was applied to a slip of fabric which was rolled and inserted into my vagina. I felt a quickening… It was suddenly real. The little person floating in the dark waters of my womb was just hours from being in my arms. It seemed simple. Naively, my husband and I began to whisper excitedly that it would not be long now. We had no idea of the journey that lay ahead.
Across from us in the triage, behind a curtain that occasionally peeled open a gap; I caught glimpses of a Hassidic man dipping back and forward in prayer, as his wife glowing with perspiration and eyes closed breathed through a contraction. Beside me, close enough to touch but with a drape between us - a woman was moaning gently with pain. Everywhere, the first waves of birth seemed to be touching the shores of this room.
As my contractions took hold of me, I was moved to a room I would share with another woman. I never saw her but I heard her children and husband whispering with excitement - and I smelt the take out food the father returned with, which made me gag. The monitor was attached to my belly, and the numbers began to flicker on the small screen. A roll of paper sprang to life on the machine - etching out the heart beats of our baby girl. I was delighted to listen to her little life pulsing but the nurse looked concerned. With each contraction the fetal heartbeat would drop away. She smiled, reassuring me it was not unusual but that they would have to keep an eye on this. The pain began to grow in intensity, and I plugged my ears with my ipod to listen to some Chakra Chanting that my husband had ordered online. Using my Ocean Breath, I closed my eyes and remembered Clearlight telling us that this breath would see us through the beginnings of contractions but may not meet the intensity of active labour. With the pain already outstripping the worst cramps I have ever had, I wondered how it could get much worse than this. I was so young in that moment looking back.
As night fell, Welby’s parents who had visited and sat quietly beside the bed for some time, got up to leave. Welby’s mother spread her hands over me and prayed. Prayer is not my language to my deities but I closed my eyes and absorbed the spirit she was sending me. I felt her love for her first grand daughter and the matriarchal energy of a woman who had given birth to three children of her own. She knew what lay ahead. When I opened my eyes they were gone and Welby was watching me gently from the chair he had been sitting vigil in since the early hours of the morning.
“Can I meet myself as I am in this moment?” I reminded myself of the question. The pain was growing unbearable as they induced me for the third time - but my cervix refused to open an inch. I began to vocalize with each contraction but pressed my mouth into the pillow to muffle the sound. I was self-conscious of the family across from me scheduled for a c-section and chatting happily. By the time I was moved to my own room I would not have cared though. The pain was coming fast and furious. What followed was the longest night of my life.
I was starting to spin out of control. Like a child who just wanted the pain to go away I began to rage against the assault on my womb. Somehow, the misogynistic theory that women are forever punished with labour pains for Eve’s failing to resist biting the apple roared into my brain. I bit back! My sense of victim-hood only flourishes under such poisonous pedagogy. I know my propensity for taking refuge in victim identity. This was not going to get me through the night. How can this pain be punitive? I thought. My beautiful little unborn girl already with a womb of her own and sacred ability to give birth one day was trying to make her way into the world. Down a tight, frightening passage, she had to find her way - and I had to be her guide. I realized I was already a mother. She needed me. This was no time to indulge. Welby was humming gently and I realized he was trying to remind me, without saying: Remember the vocalizing you learnt.
As each wave crashed onto me, my nervous system in its icy grip, I opened my mouth and let whatever sound that germinated - out. “Surrender” I thought. “Welcome it! Invite the pain in”. I know that I am still way too young in my spiritual journey to have truly embraced this that night. There was still too much attachment to simply wanting the pain to go away. But each sound I let out of my mouth started to feel like a warrior meeting the experience, rather than a child screaming for it to stop.
I found my way into the shower, and still vocalizing to the Chakra chants now playing on the cd, I sat on the shower floor rocking and moaning. With each contraction I shifted onto all fours beneath the warm water’s spray, and bellowed with the pain. I recalled Clearlight saying that some woman moo like cows.
I for the record - am some woman. The sounds coming out of me were unmistakably, absurdly bovine! I managed a small laugh. I circled on my knees in the shower endlessly. Pain is the loneliest place in the world. No matter how loving and soft my husband Welby’s presence was, I knew he could not accompany me where I had to go. He was beside me like a navigator but I knew it was now up to me and this little woman inside to get her through her voyage. I stayed beneath the shower for hours sending sounds down the corridor that reminded me of the dogs along the street I grew up on in South Africa that would bay in unison at the full moon.
Somewhere towards midnight, Welby helped me into the Jacuzzi that they have in the ward. Although it could not move the mountains of pain I was climbing it made them bearable. For the next two hours, he sprang up from the chair as I would start to moan, and hold the hot faucet of water from the handheld shower over my lower back. I was turning circles in the bath on all fours like a dog. A “Mooing Dog” I thought, and once again - almost laughed. I saw myself from above in my frantic water dance. No matter how philosophical we may get… we are mammals in the end. The way we are born, the way we birth, the way we die. As I felt the exhaustion overwhelm me between contractions I asked Welby to go and tell the nurse that “YES…I would like the epidural please!”. I had struggled with this decision wanting to see how far my body could go without the wonder drug. I had wanted to please my husband with a natural birth though he never asked this of me. But it had become clear to me that having walked the fire of hours of intense pain already, with a cervix still closed and no end in sight my stamina was fading. I doubted I would have the energy when the time came, to push my baby girl out. I felt self-judgment descend, but suddenly a memory from the prenatal yoga classes floated back as I recalled one of the women who had made us laugh, shrugging with a wry smile, and saying without a scrap of atonement: “What can I tell you? DRUGZ ROCK!” Once the thought had landed, I began to allow for the possibility that someone was going to come and magically take away the pain. Too good to be true - the news came back from the nurses, however, that I could not have the epidural until I was at least 3 centimetres dilated. I was still not even a half finger tip open. My body would not surrender the little lady up yet. It would still be hours. There was nowhere to go… but inwards. I found myself drawn back into the past.
My father died almost five years ago, on an extraordinarily bright night. The full moon had hung like a crooked copper ball, blazing in the African sky. I loved my father deeply. He died like he lived bravely, surrounded by his three daughters and his wife. Never once, through his savage battle with an unbeatable cancer did I hear him ask: Why me? Why all this pain? My father who had grown up in an orphanage - seemed always to understand that pain is part of the glorious deal we cut in return for the choice to be truly present in our own lives. His death was close to me over the next five hours until day broke. His death was life affirming to me through that night. With my torso draped over the bed, sitting on the medicine ball, I fell asleep for the moments between contractions rudely awakened by the cycles of pain. With each new impact, I would find Welby behind me, quietly rubbing my back. Each hour was an eternity that I dragged myself through on the rope of vocalizing the pain. I cannot imagine the chaos I would have spiraled in without this precious tool. I can honestly say that my husband thoughts of my unborn daughter and this vocalizing technique… are what got me through the night.
As the sun rose over Montreal, the anesthetist was suddenly in the room. I had finally reached 2 and half centimeters 32 hours after my contractions began. Like a post-modern Angel of Mercy, he was chewing gum, while mixing his magic potions and whistling a jaunty tune. I was not to move, even if having a contraction, while the needle was going in he instructed. “You are F***king kidding me” I whispered through the pain. Welby who knows how I can rage against instructions - took my hands and looked deeply into my eyes. I felt calm and silent. And suddenly my pelvis disappeared. I lay back in the epidural’s merciful embrace. “That be white man’s medicine!” I heard my resolutely herbal husband whistle in awe, making me laugh. I dozed for an hour, swimming in and out of the room bathed in golden morning light. I dreamt I saw my father smiling at me from the corner of the room. He was whispering not to me but his grand daughter, with whom in the dark water’s of life’s periphery - he had been hanging out. I woke suddenly excited. With the pain gone - I could focus again on the idea of pushing my daughter out. I was now desperate to have her in my arms.
But with each contraction I saw the doctor’s eyes flicker towards the monitor and grow increasingly concerned. That tiny drum beat of life in my unborn child’s chest was struggling. The problem detected at the start of my labour had not resolved. With each contraction, the pulse of her heart was deteriorating fast but I was still only 3 centimetres dilated. Suddenly… there were fifteen people in the room. I saw my husband floating somewhere near the back of the group of students and nurses, as the doctor announced that there was no time to lose. A C-Section was urgently needed. My little girl would not tolerate the possible hours of waiting ahead. They had to get her out.
I thought of her slipping back from whence she came before I could know her. She was so close, we were one body still but even right at the gateway of my body, her transition was still achingly fragile, from the shadows into this life. I felt the enormity of the possibility of losing her. No one needed to be told to proceed. They were already wheeling my out … though not before I sat up and asked them to stop and let me kiss the mezuzah on the door. I was speaking to my deities after all.
I lay on the surgery table waiting for them to begin. “We already have” the nurse told me with a smile. Just relax. She will be out in no time”.
My husband was behind my head and we looked into each other’s eyes. How much I loved this man. Suddenly we heard a little creature take her first breath and cry.
The anesthetist brought her around the sheet behind which the top half of my body lay and put her cheek on mine. She was quiet now.
Somewhere in me an ancient circle closed.
I was struck blind.
Such love cannot be imagined.
I had to live it to know.
This tiny little woman and I had laboured together (like my mother had once done for me) through the night.
“Nobody” as the poet ee cummings wrote “not even the rain has such small hands”.
Her silence as she nestled on my cheek for a few brief moments was a truth I will always hold. I felt my tears trawling backwards over my face towards the floor, as my husband and I smiled…
A lifetime of Surrendering ahead