Anna’s Story

December 16, 2010

I was two days past my due date.

I’d been whispering to my engorged stomach for weeks, “Not yet, honey, not yet,” as I frantically tried to wrap up the last loose ends for work and get the nursery finished.  (The ‘nursery,’ which was just a bassinet in the corner of our Tokyo studio apartment and a drawer of tiny folded things in our big joint chest of drawers.)  Finally I ticked the last thing off my list.  I patted my belly and said, “Okay, kid, any time now.”  24 hours later, I was in full labor.

I had wanted all along to have my baby at home.  We had a nice,  deep Japanese-style tub, and I intended to give birth there.  I have a deep fear of doctors and hospitals and knew that I couldn’t trust myself to labor and give birth safely in a medical environment.  I had a strong sense that things would go best if I stayed at home.  I turned out to be right, because my labor went so fast that I was in transition in the car ride.  My scandalized partner and mother convinced me that 21 floors up in an earthquake-prone country was not a good place to be having a baby, and so we compromised by agreeing on a birth house run by midwives.

It was the night of a big World Cup soccer match, and I felt crampy and nauseated but pretty sure that the painful aches I was feeling couldn’t be labor.  I had an absolute horror of being the woman who goes into the midwives ‘in labor’ only to be sent home chastened.  So I got in the bath, intending to go to bed after I’d eased my sore muscles.  I wanted the lights off, and Ryan (my partner and the father of our child) brought me some candles.  Instead of easing off, the pain was intensifying, and seemed to ebb and flow.  I had to lumber out of the tub every few minutes to go vomit, and other things.  My body seemed determined to empty itself out in every way possible, and I found that the only really comfortable position was on my hands and knees in the water with the shower pounding on my back.  Nonetheless, I was certain that this couldn’t be labor.

“Don’t call anyone yet!” I told Ryan.  “It’s probably just false labor!”

Luckily, he ignored me and called the birth house.  My midwives chirped over the phone at him that it would probably be twelve hours at least for a first labor, especially since I had done unforgiveable things in Japanese midwife-lore like eat fresh fruit and walk around with bare ankles in the middle of June.  (I was also guilty of using the computer and reading too many books, and they were sure that I had chilled my uterus terribly with these forbidden activities and would probably have a long, hard labor.)

Still, I couldn’t really talk to him and I didn’t want to get out of the bath, and so he wisely called my mother at 1am and told her she should probably get started on her hour-long drive.  In lieu of a formal doula, my mother was prepped with essential oils, massage oils, and all sorts of goodies to help ease and entertain what we all assumed would be the typically tedious first five hours.  In my tub, I was unaware of everything.  It was dark, the room was small and confined, and I was making these low moaning sounds that were infinitely comforting.  I felt like my hips were being pushed apart.  I could even hear a sort of a gentle creaking sound.  I was pretty sure it must be my imagination.  After a while, I felt like things were moving lower.  I felt like my ass must be five feet wide, so pushed-apart did my hip joints feel.  I even felt these waves of feeling like I really needed to push.

That scared the crap out of me and jolted me out of my dreamy haze.  I must be hallucinating.  I was only an hour or so in; I couldn’t be feeling an urge to push.  I suddenly distrusted my own sense of what was happening.  I got out of the tub, trying to shake an old story I carried about myself—that I was a drama queen, that I always made more of everything than was strictly necessary.   Urges to push after an hour?!?  Come on.  And yet as I left the darkness of the bathroom, I felt unutterably sad.

About the time that I staggered out into the room and tried to lie down on our bed, my mother walked through the door, and the lights and sound and hard surface of the mattress were so unbearable, so awful, that I felt like I was being attacked.  And suddenly the pains were also unbearable.  I panicked.
I later found out that Ryan had been quietly panicking for quite a while, and that when my mother walked in and saw (having had three children of her own) how far along I was, that she came pretty near panicking too.  I was oblivious though, and cursed them mightily as they made impossible, irrational demands, like requesting that I put on underwear and yoga pants.  I looked at them like they had asked me to tap dance for them.  Were they crazy?  I just wanted to get back into that dark room with the water again, only now I couldn’t even stand.

The journey down the hallway with its bright overhead lights, the elevator, and the hallway, and especially the car ride, was nightmarish.  Everything felt wrong.  I felt like I was being tortured, and the pain was so sharp and so gutting that I felt like I was losing myself.  The midwives led me in, examined me, and then told me to my utter devastation that I was only three centimeters dilated.  They wanted me to get up and walk some stairs.  But I couldn’t bear to be vertical.  Standing and sitting were excruciating.  I wanted to be on all fours, swaying.  I wanted to get in the birthing pool that was sitting there, full and tantalizing.  No, they said, you’re not far enough along.  I wanted to cry; how could it hurt this much at three centimeters?  I was turning out to be such a wuss!

They left me alone for a few minutes and I swayed back and forth on my hands and knees for a little bit and found my rhythm again.  They told me I really needed to get up and moving, and I was suddenly so pissed, so insanely furious, that I staggered out of the room and to the bathroom.  They came after me, holding my underwear for me to step into, but that was the last thing on my mind.  I locked myself in the bathroom in a fury.  I will just have my baby in here, I thought.  And then, sitting on the toilet, I had a convulsive feeling—not an urge to push—but simply that my body had taken over and it was pushing whether I liked it or not.  At that moment my mom stuck her head in.

Luckily, I had been unsuccessful in my attempt to lock the door.  “Mom, I have to push,” I said.  May there be jewels in her crown, for she didn’t remind me that they had just checked me five minutes before and I’d only been at three centimeters.  She led me back to the room and insisted that they examine me again.  They rolled their eyes but complied.  Then a sudden surprised midwife flurry erupted.  I was at a full ten centimeters.  It was impossible, but it was true.  They let me into the tub and tried to help me slow things down.  My mom kept wiping my face with a cold cloth and giving me water through a straw and spritzing me down with peppermint-scented water.  It was a lifeline, somehow–it was so unfathomable at that point that anything could feel good.  And my body had distinct preferences—she offered rose, grapefruit, and peppermint, and the first two smelled revolting to me even though normally I love them.

I kept saying, “I can feel my bones creaking apart!” and they would say, “Don’t push, don’t hold your breath, you need to let things get soft.”  Ryan was in the water with me and it was hot, and I was clutching the side of the tub with my hands and my mom was on the other side, wiping my face and telling me not that I could do it, but that I was doing it.  They were all going, HAAA, HAAA, HAAA, and I was mewling these pathetic little high-pitched Hawawahaawaa sounds.

It hurt so incredibly much.  I went to a very dark place.  I felt like I was going somewhere I’d never be able to come back from.  I thought I might die.  I don’t know how to explain it; I wasn’t afraid, but I was in so much pain and it was like I came to a point where I thought if I kept going, then I must surely die.  But I kept going anyway.  The world around me got fuzzy, and I kept talking to my baby in my mind and telling her it was all right, and saying oh-oh-opening to myself.

Then they told me to reach down, and I could feel the little hard roundness of her head with the amniotic sac ballooned out around it.  June Carter Cash’s song Ring Of Fire, sung by Johnny, took on a whole new significance.  I heard Ryan say, “I can see her face.”  A few more pushes, and something floated clumsily up between my legs.  It took me a second to realize that it was my baby.  They unlooped the cord from around her neck, and I picked her up and cradled her to my chest.  She was very still, and yet I wasn’t afraid.  We climbed out of the tub and she suckled even before I meant her to—I felt something pinch, hard, and I looked down and while I was adjusting myself on the towel she had grabbed hold of my nipple.  I was the most present I had ever been, gazing into my daughter’s new face, and another part of me was watching the scene with total surprise: look!  we’re back here in the physical body!  Hunh!!!

One of my first questions was, “Did I tear?”  And lo, verily, I sing the song of waterbirth and midwives: five hours of really hard labor, and as intense and fast as it was, I had no episiotomy and I didn’t tear.  Oh, and I didn’t break my tailbone, either, the way my mom did when I came hard and fast many moons ago.

Later, my baby was wide, wide awake, gazing at us with the huge blue eyes that looked old and wise and full of the world.  Everyone got to hold her within the hour, Ryan of course, and my mom and dad and sister, and then we went across the hall to our little tatami-mat room and lay down on the futon together.  They brought me a bit of the placenta, washed and de-blooded, sliced like sashimi and served with a bit of soy sauce, and I ate it like the good mammal that I am, for the oxytocin and iron and to complete the cycle.  Then they bundled up the rest of the placenta so that we could take it up to our cabin by the ocean and plant a tree over it, so that my daughter will have literal roots somewhere.  As well as wings.

Four years later, my hackles still rise when people talk about my “easy labor.”  Fast?  Yes.  Good, uncomplicated, and smooth?  Yes.  Easy?  Oh hell no.

I got to be in water when I gave birth, and I was surrounded by women who moaned in the darkness with me.  It was what I wanted.  But a part of me was sad that I hadn’t pushed harder to give birth at home.  I wish I had advocated more for myself, campaigned for my intuitive sense that I needed to stay in my own apartment.  But I didn’t know that I was having a true sense of what I needed; I thought it must just be “naïve pregnant-woman longings.”  I can hardly even believe that I’m typing that phrase now, but at the time, I felt so lost—at one moment so fiercely convinced of my healthy body and pregnancy and my ability to give birth perfectly, at another moment so easily swayed by dire warnings and fears.

And even without the dire warnings, the labor itself of birth was more dark, more intense and transformative, than I could have imagined.  I would wake for months afterward and feel my body shudder and shake with the memory.  I would weep—tears of happiness and also tears of bewilderment—because I felt so lonely, and what I believe now is that what I was craving was a witness.  I wanted someone to see what I had done, what it had been like for me, acknowledge the abyss I had gazed into, and bear witness.

What I didn’t yet know that I could become my own most powerful witness.  That would come later.

Back then, it was just me and my baby.  We loved each other beyond words, beyond all telling.   But we didn’t speak each other’s language, and life has always been lived for me in words.

So here I am now, writing, telling, bearing witness.

Here is what I see: magnificence.

Anna Kunnecke

Founder, The Birth Story Project

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