My midwife Carol had long white hair with black streaks. She wore dangling earrings with glittery stones and a toe ring. Appointments were held at her house, where walking down the driveway was a therapeutic experience. Her husband had created an amazing garden and filled it with everything that could possibly grow in the Pacific Northwest. The apple trees had branches that looked like twisted umbrella wires. The largest kale plants that I had ever seen were growing in a tidy row next to zucchinis. The front door opened directly into her kitchen, where there were often fresh eggs for sale on her maple kitchen table. My family made its way to the living room at the back of the house. It felt like an old-fashioned parlor. Often, appointments could be held in this room because there would be plenty of space for children to play, but she also had a small office with an examining table.
My first appointment was a strange experience. I felt out of place sitting on a piece of furniture that I was used to seeing at the doctor’s office. My focus was also scattered because I could hear my husband Tim in Carol’s living room with our three other children scrambling through plastic toys and listening to conversations about how to dress up Mr. and Mrs. Potato head.
“What made you decide to go with a home birth after three hospital births?” Carol asked.
“I hated my last hospital experience,” I said.
“I see,” she said. Tim knocked on the door and handed me my third child Dominic who pulled at my cotton gown in search of a breast. Joel and Ellianna stood at Tim’s side staring at the room in a similar way to my own first impressions of the place. Their eyes both stopped at me in a gown on the examining table.
“You can stay for this part if you want,” Carol said to Tim. Besides, Tim was going to have to take Dominic back when he was done breastfeeding.
“We almost called you when my wife was in labor during our last birth because our hospital experience was so poor,” Tim said.
“You could have,” Carol mentioned, “my only requirement for birth is prenatal care.”
“Marion,” Tim asked, “do you want to share why?” I glared at him.
“I think my last birth got messed up because a nurse made me uncomfortable during a cervical check.”
“Sadly, that is a common story,” Carol said.
“I don’t want this experience to get in the way of this current pregnancy and birth,” I said. I did not know how to talk about what had happened during my last delivery. I had not felt comfortable stating a formal complaint, but a finger inside of you during labor should not have felt like rape.
A moist droplet fell off my eyelid and ran down my cheek. Carol handed me a box of tissues. Tim’s eyes met mine.
“Marion, she is a perfect fit,” Tim said. He smiled at me. I nodded. Carol gave me a hug.
When I was pregnant with my first baby at twenty-three years old, my pelvis was not much bigger than it had been in middle school. My husband Tim was a whole foot taller than me with a broader bone structure and imagining our baby coming out of me seemed impossible. In size two jeans, I needed a belt to prevent the fabric from slipping down my hips slowly throughout the day. I had read about women who had a pelvis too small for the baby’s head in pregnancy magazines, but my doctor assured me that babies usually grew to the right size if I practiced a healthy lifestyle.
I had an old version of What to Expect When You Are Expecting that recommended a woman in labor to drink a small glass of red wine to figure out if she was experiencing working contractions or Braxton Hicks. Experience, books, and stories newly pregnant friends told me were my guide for pregnancy until Tim’s extended family came to town for his college graduation when I was seven months pregnant. We had afternoon tea in our living room and I listened carefully to see if the birth patterns in his family might transfer to me.
Tim’s entrance to the world was a great one.
“I didn’t understand what pushing would feel like,” his mom said, “The midwife felt like the birth was taking too long and she wanted me to go to the hospital.”
“We threw a mattress in the back of the station wagon,” Tim’s grandmother said.
“During that car ride, I had to push.”
I sat at the edge of our futon thinking about the urge to push.
“Everyone told me to hold it and when I finally got to the hospital, Timothy came out in one push,” Tim’s mom said, “The doctor was stunned.”
I listened to both of Tim’s grandmothers talk about how quickly their babies were born. I’m not sure if this was comforting, because, after that, I began to fear giving birth in the car on the way to the hospital even though we only lived ten minutes away.
I’d been aware of my body and how it had changed into the frame of a woman, but growing a baby was different. I had seen women gain anywhere from fifteen to forty pounds in one pregnancy and some shrank back to the way they had always looked and others complained about never being the same again. There were fears of too many stretch marks, sharp side cramps that were actually round ligaments accommodating my bump, and my center of gravity had shifted so much that in my eighth month that I misjudged the distance between my car and the one in front of me at a traffic light. I tapped the bumper and pulled over to the edge of the `road where the woman driving the other car inspected things. We were going so slowly that there was no evidence of my mistake.
Prenatal appointments with Carol were about one hour long. When I had worked with a family practice doctor or an OB these appointments were about fifteen minutes because all that happened were simple measurements of my baby and a brief conversation about my pregnancy so far.
Carol spent time getting to know me and the members of my family. The first few appointments were about my fears from my third birth.
“I asked my doctor to make sure the nurse who made me uncomfortable stay away from my room,” I told Carol, “but it was a busy day and they didn’t have enough rooms or enough staff.”
“I’m sorry to hear this,” she said, “You could file a complaint with the hospital.”
“I know,” I said, “but it was a travel nurse.”
“You should still say something.”
I had not planned to talk to anyone besides Tim about the nurse. We had talked about how she had big fingers and maybe she did not have much practice in finding a laboring woman’s cervix. Carol wanted me to express my feelings because things like this could factor into my future labor.
Carol earned my trust. The more we talked, I learned a few things about her. She had a photo in her office with herself pregnant with her seventh child. We talked about her births and the few she had in hospitals. I connected to her stories. She comforted me through mine.
When Tim and I sat in our first birthing class surrounded by couples of varying ages there were high school teens and people who may have been forty. I looked at all the different sized bellies, and then down at my tiny bump. I was seven months along with my first child and people were just beginning to notice that I was pregnant.
Our birth instructor handed out massage tools and said, “Have you all thought about what you want to do with your placentas?”
I looked at Tim and whispered, “Don’t they just go in the trash?”
“I planted mine in the earth with an apple tree,” the instructor said.
Tim rubbed my back with the wooden massage tool. People in the room seemed to be interested in the benefits of placentas. There were conversations about recipes and capsules. I had barely been able to watch the birth video and the placenta did not look like food. I was not used to people being so comfortable with their bodies because I wanted mine as hidden as possible and I wanted to forget thinking about what was going to come out of me.
All the examples I had seen of birth were of women exposed either in the middle of a hospital room surrounded by a doctor and nurses or a group of supportive birth attendants. I told myself that I wanted a hospital birth because I did not have my family medical history and I was afraid of something going wrong.
I assumed that all women had epidurals because nobody had told me otherwise and I was more afraid of a massive needle in my back than the birth. When my mother-in-law found out about my fears, she sent me books about The Bradley Method in hopes that I would plan for natural childbirth. Images of naked women squatting and catching their own babies were featured throughout the book. Partners stood proudly behind them. Reading about The Bradley Method inspired me to think about the process through a new lens. I read about issues beyond my own comfort during labor. Would my baby actually be fine if I had an epidural? I became aware of other unwanted interventions might happen in a hospital like being forced into an unnecessary c-section.
Tim and I talked about our different birth plans one night when I could not sleep.
“Baby should come into the world in a darker room,” Tim said. I knew he was hoping I would want a home birth.
“I don’t feel safe having my baby in our duplex,” I said. I could picture the whole thing. Our neighbor’s kid would be playing nearby. Our window might have been open just enough to let in some cool air because we did not have air conditioning and it would be August. I would be on our bed hoping the birth would not ruin our mattress or force us to pay our landlord money if we ruined the new carpets. What if I could not handle the pain of a baby charging through me?
“Maybe for the next baby,” I said.
“I want you to feel safe,” he said.
He reached for my hand, but I could tell he was a little disappointed. I wanted the clean hospital room, the support of the staff to help me figure out what my body was doing during labor, and food brought to me when it was all over.
By my fourth baby, I thought I knew everything any pregnant woman could about pregnancy and when it came to the basic week by week calendar, I was a pro. I knew the sizes of a baby at different stages in each trimester and all the symptoms that followed a pregnancy from morning sickness to things that might indicate preeclampsia.
I looked forward to my prenatal appointments. Carol whispered to my baby when she measured my belly and I felt like I could almost see my baby responding to her voice. Viewing growing life inside of me this way changed how I wanted to care for myself during pregnancy.
Emotional health was important, but diet also mattered. There were supposed to be fewer complications if a woman ate a nutritious diet. Eating healthy was not a new concept because I already liked to do that, but I learned about how to support that diet a little more. All clients were told to drink a tea of nettle leaf, alfalfa, raspberry leaf, and oat straw. Each of these ingredients were supposed to lead to a healthy pregnancy, birth, and great breastmilk production. On top of this healthy drink, there was a list of vitamins beyond just the basic prenatal. I took calcium, fish oil, vitamin C, and a probiotic. Her website provided dietary plans that included eating plenty of protein and lots of vegetables.
It was my fourth baby, but this was the first time the idea of growing life from the inside profoundly impacted me. The pregnancy was important, instead of being treated like a disease with many different symptoms. My new knowledge of my own womanhood was missing from my upbringing and the pregnancy books I had read. Carol let me in on a secret transfer of birth knowledge from several generations of women.
Marion Ruybalid is a mother of eight mix-raced children (3 girls and 5 boys). She was adopted from Dhaka, Bangladesh by British parents when she was five months old. She has an MFA in creative writing from UCR Palm Desert and her work has appeared in Mutha, PANK, Portrait of an Adoption-ChicagoNow, BLUNTmoms, and The Manifestation.
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