Annie Rae was born in the Clover Room tub at ALMA Midwifery Center in Portland, Oregon, on September 12, 2017, while it was still light in the sky. The day we brought her home, I read a writer friend's social media post about reading "What to Expect When You're Expecting," and they summed up the section on labor and delivery as "Birth: your worst nightmare." I thought the exact same thing when I read "What to Expect." But, having just experienced it, I immediately texted them, "Not your worst nightmare. Just really hard," along with a picture of Annie, one hour old in my arms, bright-eyed, with long, raven hair on her soft little cone head.
It was really hard, but for me labor was a transformative experience. The midwives have this wonderful, low-pitched, affirming "mmmmmm-hmmmmmm," that we learned in birth class they actually practice in midwifery school. It's the best response, in fact probably the only response, to anything a woman says during a contraction, but I've already started to use it in other situations. Someone complaining? Mmmmmm-hmmmmmm Don't know what to say in an awkward situation? Mmmmmm-hmmmmmm. Jokes aside, simply affirming what someone is going through, without categorizing or judging, without even involving language at all- which is by nature messy, is a wonderful way to meet someone where they are.
I read "What to Expect," and I also read "Ina May Gaskin’s Guide to Childbirth.” Gaskin writes about how women's bodies have been observed responding to spoken affirmations or fears during labor. At one point, the head midwife at my birth said, "Choose love." I don't even remember the context- time and space get very weird when you are in labor, but I do remember how she repeated softly, almost to herself, "Choose love," and then added, "That's what I try to do every day." It became the single most important point of my labor. The way she made it personal, adding that it is part of her daily practice, made it real for me. I leaned into this statement, and it took me away from the pain. It sounds crazy, but at some points I was even able to enjoy the intensity of contractions. I began to view them as a force for good. I started saying random things out loud that came into my head- I couldn’t stop saying, “I trust you Annie.” The farther I could get away from fear, and the more I could trust the process, and my baby, the better it went. Later on, my husband would reflect on our labor and say, "labor really is just about staying away from the dark side, isn’t it?" When it comes down to it, what in life isn't about staying away from the dark side?
When I was 9 months pregnant, I asked friends to tell me good stories. I was tired of hearing negative birth stories and about the sleep deprivation that follows. As a society, we really do like our campfire tales, don’t we? My friend Rene Perez, who is also a writer and an educator, (please find his fabulous books HERE) sent the following about his experience with his newborn, which he has given me permission to share:
My older daughter was a light sleeper, very hard to put down. For the first 6 months, my wife and I split nights doing feeding/walking/rocking. She (my daughter) used rubber Soothie pacifiers, but only very rarely. Usually, I ended up with the handle end of it in my mouth.
One night, she just wouldn't go to bed. She also wouldn't even let me sit to rock her. She just cried and cried and screamed if I sat. She wouldn't take the pacifier, so it was in my mouth, and I chewed an angry hole through it.
I can't describe exactly why the thought came to mind, but the thought flashed in my head because of biting through the damn thing that everyone who is alive was a baby, and not all of them had someone to stay up calming and soothing and loving. The school I teach at serves a girls' home, and I thought of a couple students in particular who are wards of the state, and for some damn reason the idea that, of course everyone was a baby once and everyone always at some point no longer is really set me at ease.
I honestly don't remember how much longer it took for her to fall asleep. I don't remember the actuality of any of those sleepless nights. But I remember the realization….
I love what Rene wrote so much. I’ve thought of it often when up with Annie at night, and it makes me aware of how privileged I feel to get to be the person that takes care of baby Annie. The thing is, birth is not your worst nightmare, although I know that there are labors and births that are traumatic. But for the most part, it’s not labor that’s actually terrifying, and it’s not the sleep deprivation or the diapers, it’s the realization that the work of faith is never done. As soon as I got through labor, the thing I’d been focusing on and mentally preparing for for 9 months, I realized that a whole new world had unfolded where I had to choose love or fear, every day, while caring for and worrying about my newborn. I shared my anxieties with another mom friend, who said wisely, “welcome to parenthood.” If you do not have children, please know that I think “welcome to life,” would have been just as appropriate.
In Howard Zinn's essay, "The Optimism of Uncertainty,” he says "An optimist isn't necessarily a blithe, slightly sappy whistler in the dark of our time. To be hopeful in bad times is not just foolishly romantic. It is based on the fact that human history is a history not only of cruelty but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, kindness. What we choose to emphasize in this complex history will determine our lives. If we see only the worst, it destroys our capacity to do something.”
Yes, we live in scary times. And yes, life in itself as a sentient being is scary- the fact is, we will say goodbye to almost everyone we love in this lifetime. And we don’t get to know when or how that will happen. And of course, any kind of darkness calls for campfire tales, because maybe if we speak aloud the worst of what can happen we can somehow thwart it. And then, once we’ve preemptively scared ourselves to prepare for the worst, we can choose the smallest acts of faith. Call it optimism, if the word faith scares you. It might be caring for an animal we love, knowing that we will be without them after awhile. It might be taking good care of ourselves, greeting our own faces in the mirror as warmly as we’d greet a friend. It might be a hum in your throat that you offer to a friend in pain, a genuine, resounding mmmmmm-hmmmmmm that slows down the world for a moment. Don’t you want to try it, just now, where ever you are?