Birth Story the Light and the Dark

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I had my daughter October 10, 2018. The experience of labour was traumatic and enormous. Friends who had recently been through it encouraged me to write it down before the memories fled, and they were right, it’s fading already. So here’s this, submitted flaws and all and with awe and gratitude for my mother and grandmothers.

 

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Where do you start a birth story? I want to go back far enough; the years ticking into my late 30s with the chances dwindling for my body, and every social screen seems to stream with joyful fertility. And the men I let in my life somehow less and less fit to be parents: the addict, the weirdly cruel, the straight up conman. The rising fury at myself for getting conned, for wasting time. The years it took to make a reasonable living, and the haunting vast majority who don’t. The daily terror of a whole world gone mad selling our only, original mother down the oily jaws of profits for a sociopathic few. How to be a mother here? Even if I could?

 

Then suddenly luck changes – such a good man. Such a plot twist. The best possible person to believe in things with, to camp across the country pregnant with, to move to the woods together. To imagine that the dream of family, our own small sprouted world, a flare of hope in the dark, could be real. To make big plans. And we tried and got pregnant, another shot of crazy luck making things realer than before.

 

We made a birth plan with my sister Megan, my doula, and with our doctor. It was a dream for me to have Megan be my doula and we couldn’t believe our luck when her work allowed her to be in Montreal for a few weeks to be with us. My baby sister! We would have hired a doula though, even if Megan couldn’t have done it, the evidence on the positive impact of doulas is pretty convincing. Researchers found that people who have continuous support during childbirth experience a 25% decrease in the risk of Cesarean and the largest effect was seen with a doula – a 39% decrease. (Evidence on: Doulas)

 

We worked on our birth plan for a while, using some of the information from Expecting Better, and some input from my family doctor and from Megan. The first point across the top of our plan in bold was: “Our #1 Goal is healthy baby, healthy mom. Please advise us of any recommended interventions for the health of mom or baby.”  Second point: “We are aiming for a low intervention pregnancy.”

 

I wanted the full hippie, earth mother, goddess birth, in the heart of a great hospital, just in case.

 

At 41 weeks, one full week past due date, at 10am, October 9th, we had an ultrasound appointment. The plan was to check on the amniotic fluid levels to see if we could keep waiting for baby May to come on her own.

 

Thing was, by bedtime the night before this appointment the contractions had started, and become pretty regular. They stayed between 5-20 minutes apart all night, and that morning before leaving they ramped up to every 3 minutes. We skipped the ultrasound and went straight to intake. On examination they determined I was 3cm dilated, that the outer membrane was broken and that there was meconium in the liquid. The meconium is a baby’s first poo and generally it comes after birth, if it comes before it can enter their mouth or lungs and cause complications. When they took her heart rate it was a little too slow, but it picked up when I drank some juice. We learned later that these were both signs May was already in some distress. But both are common enough, and no one seemed to be freaking out. They did decide to admit us immediately. We waited as they prepared our room, as Megan arrived, and the tide of contractions kept coming.

 

The next 12 hours were intense but beautiful. We stood outside for a while, riding contractions in the sun. I took off my shoes and dug feet in the grass, and my grandmother’s favourite bird, a cardinal, watched us in the strangely hot October sun. Later the nurses told us it wasn’t safe to go that far.

 

 

Megan led us in swaying walks up and down the hallways. Megan and Marc improvised a dance routine. The intensity of the pain grew but we moaned and hummed together and held hands. I thought we were doing it! I thought it was happening just like it was supposed to. But after 12 hours in the hospital we were only at 3cm dilated still. And there was the concern with her heart rate. Too regular and slow, but then fine, but then too slow again.

 

It was 24hrs now since contractions had started for me at home the night before and the doctor was worried about my energy for the next stages, and the baby’s. She had let us delay several times but now we needed to choose: either break the inner membrane with the knitting needle shaped hook, or start a low level of pitocin – a chemical that triggers contractions – which might be enough to prompt the body to dilate and break the inner waters on its own.

 

The doctor said frankly she normally would recommend breaking the membrane but these days she was increasingly convinced that a low level pitocin was a more ‘natural’ option.

 

I was already blurry. I couldn’t remember the recommendations from the books I’d read about this decision point. And I didn’t remember that starting the pitocin meant being on an IV drip from now on, and on permanent heart and contraction monitoring, both combining to mean that I couldn’t move much anymore. The pain and intensity of the contractions would augment chemically from here on out, with the amount of pitocin jumping every 30 min, and the dancing, the hot baths, the rolling on my side were pretty much off the table.

 

I also didn’t know how much more painful it is to get an IV than a blood sample taken. Especially if the nurse is out of practice and she misses again and again into the bone of your wrist.

 

I sobbed at this point for the first time in my labour. I hated this choice, and having made it the jabbing in my wrists was pain on top of the pain I had planned for. Both hands aching, and things feeling like they’re slipping out of reach. I wrestled with feeling like a failure, and feeling like I was way out into the waters beyond where I like to imagine I live with some kind of control.

 

I felt like a failure for needing medical intervention, crazy but true. So guilty I was almost apologizing to the doctor 10 hours later, telling her how long I’d tried without taking any pain relief, when she told me: you don’t need to justify this to me, I took the epidural after my third contraction. I’d like to say more about what I felt this guilt but I don’t really understand it myself. I know it affected me enough that I stayed on the pitocin without epidural for 6 hrs. Increasing amounts pumping into me every 30 minutes making my contractions stronger and stronger. For the last 2 hours I was at a point of constant contraction, I couldn’t see, and I thought I would die, or should die, or might like to.

 

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Only then did I ask for the epidural, and sobbed again.

 

When the anesthesiologist came he spoke with my sister about her work in Uganda and Burkina Faso and Haiti, and told her he was going to Rwanda the next week to repair fistulas. Marc whispered to me: he’s a good person, this is a good idea, you’re going to be ok. The doctor asked my sister if she knew a Jack Someone. I couldn’t follow the conversation but Jack was my grandfather’s name so I held onto it like a talisman. I’d had chronic back pain for 10 years, I’d watched a video of an epidural during a birthing class and had a panic attack… but this was a good idea. I was going to be ok. 

 

As the waves of the epidural started to come, the anesthesiologist asked me, what was your pain level at when you asked for the epidural? I said a 10, it’s been a ten for 2hrs. And he looked at me so kindly and so sad. No one in that time had asked me what pain level I was at. I had lived with chronic pain, I have a high pain threshold, I seemed coherent, no one thought to ask.

 

For the next 2hrs I lay in the dark and shook violently. Marc covered me with blankets, and then with all my sweaters. Slowly the shaking calmed and the medicine in my spine took the pain away as the IV pumped the contractions ever higher beyond the fog. I curled into the afghan my Great Grandmother Evelyn May had made me and heard her beautiful wild laugh, and saw my grandparent ghosts: fierce warrior grandma Maj, her husband Jack, gentle Grandpa Alvin standing in the shadows. Megan and Marc tried to get some sleep.

 

Later, when the epidural had brought me some rest and a blissful fuzz, my mother came to see me. She’d been sitting outside the room with my sister, Brianna, and my Grandma. She cried and said she was happy I’d finally taken the epidural. She told me she didn’t know what to do but be there. She said her mother had cried in the waiting room remembering when Mom had had me, and Grandma hadn’t come. Grandma didn’t know why she hadn’t come to be there for my mom when she lived through a labour much like mine – the best predictor of what your labour will be like is your mom’s with you – except that no one had ever came for her. Grandma was by herself for all three children and she was a tiny lady and very much afraid. Her husband didn’t even come in the room.  Why was this normal? How did we get so broken from each other? Why did we leave each other alone?

 

After almost a day of the baby’s heart in distress and meconium in her system and pitocin pumping her little house at ever more shattering levels, and my system at constant contraction, it was time to push. My sister held one foot of mine and Marc the other, and all the beautiful strong women of the LaSalle hospital team surrounded me and I curled and brought every muscle in my entire body to its absolute utmost and pictured my daughter inside me choosing this moment. And we were amazing. We were a perfect team, I was a power, I would show them, and they were cheering, again and again I did it and they cheered. And then a little quiet. The smallest look on their faces to show, this isn’t working. The little baby is trying to crossover and getting pulled backwards. I am fighting the rip tide of all of life and death and everything I have isn’t enough. This goes on for ninety minutes. Push again. One More. You’re amazing. Try again.

 

The doctor says, I want to make a cut, this is too long and too much distress. This has been my late night fear for months. There is no time to choose. It’s the right choice and she says I’m going to cut and you’re going to push her out on the next contraction. I feel the cut, vertical, episiotomy, and the wave comes. I have to see the ripping in my mind’s eye and choose it. And she comes.

 

They had hoped to clean the meconium from her mouth when she is just part way out, she is all the way out and the umbilical cord is around her neck.

 

I think the relief of her coming out will be followed by the joy of her on me but they take her to the side and tell me about the cord on her neck. I see the specialist over her. She doesn’t make much noise. They show her to me briefly, she is white blue and quiet. I expect them to place her on me, this is the end of the movie, I hold her joyfully, this is the light at the end but instead, she’s gone. She leaves with Marc and the specialists and I can’t hear or see clearly after that. It’s just loss and void. Emptiness and terror and a flat line. They ask me to push out the placenta. The young doctor learns a new sewing technique on me. I just keep asking when she’ll be back. They keep saying we’ll get you stitched up and ready to be moved and you can go to her. This does not compute. I can’t go to her, I am split open, she has to be ok and come lie here with me. She and Marc are gone.

 

I think for not the first time that if she doesn’t make it I will never be able to look at or talk to anyone I’ve ever known ever again. I will have to leave and be alone forever. Later I tell Marc this and he says he had the same thought: that if he lost us he would walk into the woods with an axe and never come back.

 

People lose children and find a way to face the day, and those are the bravest, rawest, most beautiful people, balanced between worlds forever I think. That world with the outline of a child in it that they can almost see and this one. Both must exist for them, and they are here with us, they make toast and work in the garden. I can’t imagine the strength of their hearts.

 

I wait for news of May in the blur of the aftermath of the utmost effort, the most intense pressure on and in my body and my terrified nervous system. My sister Megan is leaning over me, but I can’t see her clearly. I’m full of a glowing rage and sorrow. I have been aware the whole of these hours of all the pain and joy of the mothers and children Megan carries with her from her time in rural Uganda, Haiti, Panama, Burkina. I am full of incoherent fury at the whole imbalanced world. Megan told me once of women on the floor, no one with them from their families, waiting to give birth in Uganda, dying from complications that we could have healed here as a matter of course. I see them like spirits with her now, so gentle with me and in such enormous judgement of the broken world system, and I am sobbing and sobbing in fear for May and at all the loss and injustice of everything. Everything is layers of loss and hope. A blur, not grey but the most painfully brilliant light and dark.

 

Marc comes back holding May high like a torch. The specialist behind him pumps her fists in the air and says ‘Elle est Championne!’ And I am holding her and crying, crying harder than I ever have as though now, officially, I’ve been broken all the way and turned inside out completely and here is my inside breathing and looking at me.

 

 

I write this holding her. May Marigold at 5 days, 11 days, 21 days old. I look less beat up now, and she is growing. And she is every platitude accurately and none of them are adequate: a miracle, the love of my life, my sudden purpose. She grunts and squeaks like a perfect mammal. She lies on my belly like she’s listening to the sounds of her hometown, and I cry missing her and so happy I get to see her face now.

 

I had a week of highs and lows after she was born.  I needed to cry and tell this story more than once. I’m not sorry if it seems overdramatic, though I struggle with feeling allowed to take up space with this story when so many are so much worse. Good luck and bad – a predictor of life as a mother. Labour has happened to women for hundreds of millions of generations and I walked around near them and had no idea how every ancient story about a descent into hell was a retelling of this journey.

 

Monica Sjöo in Great Cosmic Mother (who I wrote about in Episode 4 of the Missing Witches podcast and thought about a lot during labour) writes that Woman is the original shaman. That each mother faces Death to bring life back from the other side. This is the most common terrifying miracle. I needed to get my version on paper and into the river with the rest of them to be able to move on the to the next stage of human that comes after, whatever that is. I needed to sleep holding her in the sun. I needed to sleep as my mother and grandmother took turns holding her and talked, and as Megan rocked her back to sleep, and as Brianna made me strong tea, and Marc made meal after meal, and cried looking into her sweet face and whispered: you are my family.

 

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Thanks to Amy Torok for editing help on this. <3

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Trees Cocooned in Webs

Make For The Unknown Middle

I took a couple vacation days from my job, and headed to Toronto last week with Marc in a big truck to help set up his booth alongside all the other artisans at the massive One Of A Kind Sale.

I had a lot of dreams over the last few days on the road.

These ones fit together in my mind.

I had a dream that I was walking with my parents along a long, high wall of window glass which curved gently; we were walking inside a large glassed-in circle. There was dense jungle on the outside of the circle and on the inside. Our path was narrow and we looked through the glass like looking at animals in a zoo.

Outside the glass, dense and lovely, stitched between the leaves and vines and trees, were thick spider webs. High and white with intricate, elaborate layers. We admired them as we walked along the path, but we also chatted companionably.

I told them about van life: people were buying big old vans like Marc’s and converting them into mini, mobile living spaces, leaving conventional city life behind. My parents were astounded.

As I spoke I could see a vision in the middle of the circle of glass and jungle. It appeared as though at a great distance.

An artisan I know in waking life – who uses fire to shape glass, and runs a shared studio space here in Montreal – was standing looking wise and wild, wearing a tall, blue, leather crown that also wrapped below her chin and covered her neck and chest. Very regal and medieval. She was looking out at a fleet of vans roaring across a desert, she was directing their departure and she was staring right through me.

I looked away from her.

Suddenly, in front of me on the trail was a thicket of spider webs. No longer on the other side of the glass, white, puffy spiders moved slowly through the web close enough to touch.

We turned to rush away, but I realized we were only going to go around the circle and end up back where we were.

Unless, I guess, we headed toward the unknown in the middle.

In another dream, I am moving with ease and speed up alongside a tumbling river waterfall in another forest.

I notice that it doesn’t feel quite like I am walking, or flying.

The movement is more swift and strong and swinging. I am ahead of my friends, I see a cave and duck inside. Inside the cave a young man and woman are setting up a kind of office, there are laptops and tables and they are talking about getting a shower installed. They don’t notice me.

In the next scene I am heading into the same cave sometime later. It is full of people and huge screens mounted on the wall and buzzing with equipment, and again no one notices or minds me. I’m insignificant somehow. As they are talking I see logos flashing by on a screen for thousands of different websites and apps, and I see one I know, and I ask if they are working on that one. They answer as though someone else in the room has asked: yes, they run that one and all the others, processing billions of requests per second. The air is thick with violence and secrecy. I exit and know I have to warn my friends.

I fly through the branches along the river again and as I do I realize: I’m not human.

 

Last one.

I am an orphan. I am staying with a wealthy family, beautiful mother, distant father, and their hard-eyed teenage children. It is very dark outside and we are standing around a kitchen island in their cottage in the woods. I look in the fridge and it’s empty. I look on the shelves and they are full of white cookies covered in thick pink icing, looking dry and bad for you, and wrapped in tons of plastic. I say we will need more food for the winter, but a hard-eyed teenager laughs and says they will be spending the winter in Parma, in Italy. I am suddenly furious at how spoiled they are, and jealous that I’ll be alone when I should be in Parma. The mother tells me she is glad to see I have feelings. I wake up shaking with tears in my eyes, confused about why a childish dream like this would get to me.

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Later I look up Parma. This stuff jumps out:

An almost independent commune was created around 1140; a treaty between Parma and Piacenza of 1149 is the earliest document of a comune headed by consuls.

and…

At their heart, communes were sworn allegiances of mutual defense. When a commune was formed, all participating members gathered and swore an oath in a public ceremony, promising to defend each other in times of trouble, and to maintain the peace within the city proper.

I want to gather in the town square, but this time with animals and spiders, and artists and trees, to swear an allegiance of mutual defence.

I want to leave the circular path trapped in glass, leave the plastic-wrapped sweets, leave the bunker, in order to follow the river.

I want to gather my people, and make for the unknown middle.

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A Dream of Christmas

Holidays And Losing The Sheets

Dream Machine

Dream Machine

In my dream last night I remember being given a beautiful old mechanical box.

I was told it was a recording box, and that I was being invited, or requested, to document a religious holiday. The festivities were going to be elaborate and complex and beautiful. But I knew by looking at the box that in essence these holidays were the same as the holidays I improvised for myself. When I realized this I was relieved.

Apparently talking in my sleep last night I said: “Oh good, leg room!”

And then something about sheets.

It makes sense that legroom and sheets would come up in dreams, of course.

The age-old battle for the covers continues every night, in every shared bed, everywhere.

But I feel like my brain has been giving the tangle of sheets more than the usual significance lately.

Photo by Robin Vet

Dream Machine Deux.

A couple weeks ago I dreamt I was driving a beautiful black convertible car.

I don’t care about cars in real life but in my dream I knew this baby was gorgeous. And I was driving it pretty well, which is nice because I don’t have a license, and my dreams don’t all go this way.

I was doing good, but I couldn’t get it to go very fast, and this became a real problem on a steep hill. So I pulled over to where the owner was standing by the side of the road. She was beautiful in a way that matched the car, and she slid into the passenger seat, and I felt inadequate and told her I was struggling. She said it happened to her too, all the time, and it was just because of the sheets wrapped around my feet.

I looked down and saw the sheets all wrapped around my feet between me and the gas pedal.

I was profoundly reassured.

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Putting the two dreams together, I wonder if the comforting things that I have chosen to wrap around me – but which slow me down – are other people’s beliefs.

I certainly do take increasing delight in improvising my own traditions and holidays. And I think doing so gives us power in a culture that has been choked and sold by capitalist patriarchy. You cannot drown me in the debt or environmental disasters of mass consumerism if I don’t believe in you and, as best I can each day, do not participate.

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Christmas and Solstice are coming, so my wish for all of us is to find our own ways to be joyfully sustaining to each other.

And to promise each other the return of the light.

A Dream of Christmas

A Dream of Patriarchy

Maybe also though, it’s my own beliefs that are tangled around my feet.

Beliefs about my own inadequacy to face a fast and dangerous world. Or to claim and use consumption’s power tools like cars and recording boxes in ways that are meaningful to me.

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Either way, I’m glad to hear that my sleeping-self has good things to say these days about the leg room.

Let’s kick the sheets off.

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The secret is doughnuts.

Dreams of Matching Sweetness

The secret is doughnuts.

The secret is doughnuts.

This morning before opening his eyes Marc said “the secret to couscous is doughnuts.” I guess he’s started remembering his dreams. He told me that in the dream a friend was cooking dinner “on a frying pan you could walk out on.” There was a fire in the middle of the huge pan and they stood near it surrounded by food cooking in waist-high piles, like laundry piles. And the chef explained that the secret to getting the couscous soft and fluffy was to use doughnuts.

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In my dream a crone stood in the dark holding a glass, the contents of which was separated into the dark on top and the light on the bottom. And she said the secret was to use jam to keep them apart. Then I looked down at her feet and there were large metal buckets there, and as I looked at them the containers grew bigger.

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My last post made Marc sad. I didn’t mean too, I didn’t really think about how it feels to read that your love is lonely. I didn’t even really think of the loneliness in that way. Because I am in love with this life. Especially these days which are filled with new love and so much bounty and friendship and music; fuel for an epic burning up of old rotten stuff from the past and for a bright new future. Far from sad, recently I feel able to say truer things, and I feel fat with words, and with daily pleasures like making egg-in-a-hole for breakfast while listening to records.

Men and women who have always known they are the parenting kind will know this other kind of feeling that exists quietly below though. A feeling inside that is a bit like having an alien in you, something that rolls around with the moon each month and feels things of it’s own volition, and knows that the possibility of a certain kind of creation is counting down.

Making an altar to that feeling as I thought about in that last post meant for me witnessing and releasing my attachment to what will happen. Celebrating and honouring the alien, as well as the possibility of becoming the crone.

In fact, making an altar to yourself and to your loneliness is honouring all the types of woman that are laughing and haunting in the shadows beyond the old Virgin, Mother, Crone crew.

Maybe we will hatch a little life of our own, maybe we won’t.

But we will definitely keep hatching astonishing new moments.

The containers we fill with delight and kindness and sorrow and life can, and will, keep getting bigger.

And I think the Crone and the Chef are right: the secret to being sustained, and to seeing the light and dark clearly, is all in the doughnuts and jam.

The secret is all in the sweetness.

The secret is jam.

The secret is jam.

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Nuestra Señora de Soledad The statue of Our Lady of Solitude, Patroness of Oaxaca

An Altar To Loneliness

Nuestra Señora de Soledad The statue of Our Lady of Solitude, Patroness of Oaxaca

I am sitting in Vices & Versa, the best noisy beer bar in Little Italy, or in Montreal if you ask me. It’s me and several middle-aged men lined up alone at the bar, while all the tables behind us sound like celebrating. My friend just left – all giddy and red faced – his girlfriend’s due date was Saturday. They might have a baby tonight.

The note from my dreams last night reads: “an altar to loneliness” and I don’t remember this dream but I can relate to this feeling. If I’m being honest, I am jealous and angry and totally enamoured with every pregnant person and every expectant partner. I am 37 and not there yet, so maybe it’s too late. If I’m being dramatic then My Womb Is An Altar To Loneliness.

My therapist once asked me if I had an altar. I was startled and delighted, like No! But Yes! Perfect idea. Great work, therapy. She suggested making an area in my home clean and beautiful and full of personal symbols of my own health and Self and triumphs.

I was great at altars when I was a teenager. I had a table covered in candles dripping dramatically in my Mom’s basement, images in heavy metal frames, icons, incense, selected rocks, and an important sculpture of a frog. I liked to lie on the floor near it with the lights turned out listening to Billie Holiday’s Lady in Satin. Because Billie knew everything.

“If I’m going to sing like someone else, then I don’t need to sing at all.” – Billie Holiday

“If I’m going to sing like someone else, then I don’t need to sing at all.” – Billie Holiday

I have gotten good at altars again, following the advice of a thoroughly respectable therapist. There is something to the idea of making spaces in my house that look like the inside of my heart or my unconscious or my hopes. There is something empowering in making up my own symbols: pine trees, rose petals, selected rocks,  a sculpture of an ear, a small wooden doll.

And admittedly, there is something to the idea of an Altar to Loneliness.

An altar puts the loneliness on the outside where I can sit with it, companionably.

I look at it and it looks back into me. Together we make something that wasn’t there before.

I try to write about my dreams every day. It’s a different kind of fertility, and for now it’s enough.

Or at least, it’s what I’m doing.

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PS – I didn’t know until now, searching for images that look like my dreams, that this dream echoed a line from a poem I had never read, Sherman Alexie’s The Facebook Sonnet.

Sounds about right though.

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