Wendell Berry, from “Her First Calf”
Needle-sharp stars in a black-ice sky. Snow crunching underfoot, clinging to branches that glow grey in the half-moonlight. It’s a night for walking in Robert Frost’s woods, dark and deep, but we won’t be. Like the speaker, I too have miles to go. Tonight, precisely 36 miles, down the dark freeway to the hospital.
As Timmy drives I watch the green mile markers pass, listen to Sufjan Stevens sing lighthearted Christmas songs into the night. I breathe through each contraction, trying not to worry about their frequency or length. I remind myself, again and again, that this is the design. I’m made for this. It’s supposed to be like this. Don’t worry. At the end of this, our daughter will be born,
Will be born. Such a passive phrase, as if babies materialize magically and quietly into hospitals, delivered like extra gauze or meals on trays. But to state it otherwise–where I’ll deliver my daughter–seems just as wrong. I’m no Moses of childbirth; it will take many people to deliver this one small person into the world, not just me.
A long time ago, I remember watching a TV movie in which a woman gives birth alone, in a cabin in Alaska, sometime in the early half of the last century. Why she was alone escapes me now, but as we drive I think about that fictional woman, who labored in solitude in a wild place, who bit down on a leather strap at the height of the pain and pushed her baby out and then caught him herself. He lived, she lived, they all lived happily ever after.
Unassisted, we’d call the birth now, and we’d idealize it as evidence that women are fiercely powerful, that we can prevail over even the toughest moment that biology hands us without an ounce of help from anyone. We’re just that strong.
Maybe some earlier version of me would have found the Alaska movie awe-provoking, for certainly there’s truth to the notion that childbirth is both marvelous and ancient, old as humanity and just as common. Yet while I love a good girl-power moment as much as anyone, that’s not my story. I can identify with her pain, but I don’t envy her solitude. Not even a little bit. Because apart from our baby girl herself, emerging wet and wailing at the end of it all, what I’ll remember most about her delivery has little to do with me. I was very much not alone, and it’s those who surrounded me that I’ll remember forever.
Their hands. My husband’s, gently untangling my forehead with each contraction. My mother’s, resting on my head, the way it must have a thousand other sleepless nights. A dear friend, Emily’s, busy doing whatever needs to be done, waving a fan or massaging a foot, or taking the beautiful photos she’d later make into an album for us. My daughter’s, wrapping her fingers firmly around one of mine.
Their voices. Timmy’s reminding me to relax, reminding me that he loves me, reminding me I’m safe. Mom’s telling me she’s proud of me. Dad’s choked with tears as Luci opens her eyes for the first time. Luci’s giving the reassuring wail to announce her arrival into the world.
Hands and voices surrounding us, this tiny girl and me. And through the sharp, sweet joy of afterwards, with bright sunlight pouring over the mountains through the windows, I’ll remember those things the most. Not the pain, which has already melted into a dull ache of distant memory. Not the power or triumph of my body doing exactly what it was made to do. Just the sweetly humbling realization that at every step it was their hands, their voices, that brought us through the night, delivering Luciana, our little light, into the dawn.