“That’s it, mama. Good. Just like that. That one is done. Let that one go. Rest in between”, I say softly.
She’s been laboring for hours. When her birthing time began this morning, she was antsy with excitement when she called to let me know. She’s been preparing for this day for months. She read all of the childbirth books, the baby care books, made lists of names and things to buy. She had taken weeks of classes, and for the last several days was well past the point of taking in even one more word. She had become a weeping ball of baby and impatience. Now the time had come, and “ready” didn’t even begin to cover how she felt. She was chatty and bubbling as she talked through the contractions that she described as “really strong”. I thought to myself that if she was still able to talk, she had no idea yet what “really strong” would look like. That moment had yet to come, though it surely would.
The mood has shifted now. There’s no more chatter – only intervals of hard work and of rest. The daylight has passed, leaving the room dark and quiet. The intensity that she feels in her body is breathtaking, consuming all of the energy she has. I hear the subtle shift in her breath that signals that the next wave is beginning. She’s hot and trembling, and nauseous and exhausted. This isn’t fun anymore.
“You can do this. You already are”, I whisper. “Your body knows how. Your baby knows how. All is well. Everything here is exactly right.”
The word “labor” means work. The work of labor is to open. It’s the opening of a mother’s body, her flesh and her bones, to make room for the baby to pass through. It’s the opening of her heart, to love this new human being deeply and unconditionally. It’s the opening of her relationship with her partner, to love one another in this new territory of parenthood. It’s the opening of her life. It’s the wide-open stretching of all that she is, to become born anew in the next step of her life journey.
As I hear her moaning grow deeper, I know before she does that the moment of meltdown is now drawing near. It always does – in hundreds of births before, I’ve seen that every birth has one. We are closing in on the time when she will reach the edge of her very being, and will need to call upon every resource that she has. It’s the moment of “I can’t do this anymore! That’s it, I quit! I’m done, no more!” Sometimes it’s loud and tear-filled, sometimes the words are spoken only in a whisper, and sometimes, it happens silently in her head. I don’t know what form it may take – I know only that it will happen. As part of her labor, it must.
This phase of the last few hours of pregnancy is a time of in-between. It is neither here nor there – on the verge of bringing forth life, a mother is at once her old self and her new self. One foot is in the only world she has ever known, and the other is in a new uncharted territory. Standing at the edge of a new life – it is a moment both welcome and terrifying.
The medical, clinical, scientific terms for this window of time are easy enough to learn – transition, contractions, oxytocin. Websites are full of advice that says, “The good news is that if you’ve made it this far (without medication), you can be coached through this stage with constant reminders that you’ve done a good job and your baby is coming soon.” The messages are always that what is happening in this moment is temporary and insignificant, so don’t wimp out. Lighten up, honey, you’re just having a baby.
What’s missing from our language, our culture, and our scientific understanding is reverence. To give birth, whether birth happens at home in a tub or in an operating room surrounded by beeping machinery and medical personnel, a woman must journey to this place between the worlds. This meltdown is the work of her soul as she approaches the place where the veil between-here-and-there has grown thin, to reach through and bring back with her the new soul that she has invited into her life.
When we allow the reality that the heart of this holy moment is spiritual as much as physiological, we create room for awe and wonder. Whether or not those who surround her recognize it, to be present with a woman in this time is to stand on sacred ground. This uncertain phase of in-between is a necessary event, essential to the rebirth of a woman as she becomes Mother. It is an ancient understanding that the midwives once knew, now forgotten and shrouded in the quantifiable measurements of thinning and dilation.
This is the transition of modern civilized woman into primal birth goddess. Logic, ration, and reason melt away. The intellectual medical vocabulary of hormones and timing and measurement become useless and without meaning. There’s no thinking, no pretense – just the genuine, undiluted energy of a woman giving birth. It is raw and powerful. Though profoundly beautiful, it is intense and sometimes unlovely.
My hands press her hips, stroke her back, smooth her hair, as she chants “I can’t, I can’t”. She can do it, of course, just as her mother and sisters and a thousand grandmothers before her have done. This is the sacred struggle of every laboring woman, standing toe-to-toe with her own fears as she battles through her resistance. It is the time when every thought she carries that no longer serves her, every story she’s heard that has undermined her belief in herself, every fear she’s never voiced is released. They are shed through her tears, her sounds, her fluids, and her blood. She quivers and shakes with the energy and the effort of letting go; of sweet surrender to the life force larger than herself. This round, weeping woman is battling her own monsters as she undergoes the alchemy of complete transformation.
She has reached the magic threshold where she makes the inevitable choice, as women throughout time have done, to take just one more step into the mystery. She becomes all elements embodied; the pure channel for a new soul to emerge from the waters of her belly, through the ring of fire, arriving on Earth to take her first breath. She returns from the brink, victorious, with her wet, squalling newborn daughter naked on her skin, and her newly-born mother-self rising up as never before.
I watch her face, moments before twisted in pain, become alight with joy and ecstasy as she falls in love with her tiny baby girl. “You’re here, oh look, you’re here! You’re so beautiful! I love you! We did it!” It hasn’t been easy, but it has been worth it. It always is. She knows, now, down to her bones, in a way that can never be taken from her, the story of her own courage and strength. She is not a “poor thing” – she is a mighty warrior.
I am grateful today for her safe passage as she joins the sisterhood of women who have traveled this rite into motherhood. I am grateful to be part of the sisterhood of women for whom holding space for this time of in-between is their life work, just as it was for my great-aunt midwife before me, and countless hundreds before her. I am grateful, always, for the opportunity to offer love and affirmation in the face of such vulnerability, for the gift this birth has given me to witness a woman reaching the end of all that she thinks she knows, and to see her through to the other side. I return home knowing that I have, once again, been witness to a miracle.
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