A Father tells the story of the third child’s birth.
It had been a long day at the office, and even as I started putting the children to bed I was still making arrangements for the next days’ work. I was not expecting a baby that night. Though I no longer lived in the area, I had been given an opportunity to return to southwest Mississippi for 10-14 days to help the newspaper I used to work for adequately cover the Mississippi River’s flooding. My wife, S., was nearing her due date, but we had decided to go ahead and take the opportunity because I would be able to make more money in those 10 days than I would in two months working at the two jobs I currently have. Both of my employers said they understood, and we packed for Mississippi. We didn’t expect the baby to come before we were back home because our last child was born two weeks after her estimated due date, and even that was the result of a natural induction. My brief time back in the office had been satisfying – Oh God, how I miss having a full time job – but tiring, and after fighting our six-year-old into submission (he didn’t want to sleep in that bed), I nodded off into a warm cocoon of sleep. And then something started poking holes in my cocoon. It was S. “I think my water has broken,” she said. Internally I groaned, and for a moment tried to force myself to believe it was a false alarm. It’s not going to happen tonight. We’re in Mississippi. We’re in a borrowed corporate apartment. Don’t overreact. And then I woke up for real. Broken water is not a phantom contraction – even if it was just a leak, it was something on which we would have to keep an eye. Time to gear up for a long night.
I got up, and at S.’s behest, went to the store to get some items to help manage the leak and some herbal supplements that would help stave off infection while we waited. I got back, and she remembered something else, so I made a second late-night run to the store. The lady at the checkout gave me a look like she thought I had some kind of fetish she couldn’t understand. Her eyes and angry, jerky hand motions seemed so accusatory — “Why are you making two trips into the store at midnight, especially to buy herbal supplements and Depends? Are you up to shenanigans? You young people these days, with your beards and your rap music and your vitamin C and adult diapers, you think you can do anything.” I was probably making her miss her cigarette break or something. While I was doing all of this, S. was calling our midwife, D., and our parents to make arrangements for the next day. She was having some light contractions here and there, and – if our last experience was any indication – all of this would be over by noon. I got back to the apartment and with an efficiency that impressed me – probably only me – I was able to gather everything up, load the kids into the car and get us on the way back home. D. was also on her way from Baton Rouge to meet us in the middle.
The drive across the river and back to Cenla was a long one, but the thought that I would crash the car and kill my child before it was even born was more than enough motivator to stay awake. The long highway home ran out sometime after 2 a.m., and as I loaded the children into their bed the six-year-old woke up just long enough to reproach me – “Why did you make me sleep in that bed if we were just going to come home?” I answered him honestly when I told him that I didn’t know. We left the front door unlocked so that D. could come in and sleep on the couch while we waited, and we crawled into bed, hoping to get a few hours sleep before the show got on the road. Suddenly, it was 6 a.m. and the kids were awake. Damn. D. was still asleep downstairs, but that wasn’t destined to last long, and I got up and started some coffee. Aside from the obvious intrusion of the midwife, it was a fairly normal morning routine – breakfast and all – and soon even D. had left just to get out of our hair while we waited. By mid-morning my mother had driven down to pick up the older children for the day. After they were gone we did some perfunctory house work and decided to go walking at the mall to help speed S.’s contractions, which at that point weren’t very exciting. Walking around the mall she had a few curse-worthy contractions, but other than being intense they were too well-spaced to get our hopes up. Eventually, we decided to go to E.’s house – E. is a friend who was also working as D.’s assistant for the birth – just to catch our breath and have someone else to whom we could talk. D. was already at E.’s house, and while we were there she asked some questions and did some minor midwife-y things, and eventually advised us to just go home and get some rest. We went to the closest Blockbuster kiosk and rented “The Green Hornet,” and then went home.
That afternoon we did a few things in preparation for the birth – we made the bed with two layers of sheets and a protective medical layer between them, and I inflated the birth pool – but mostly we nodded in and out of the movie, which wasn’t that great. I was starting to really feel the night before, and S. was too, except her feelings were compounded with an occasional contraction. Still, though, the contractions weren’t picking up and we were both starting to feel frustrated because this was already well longer than the labor she had for either of our two older children, and it really wasn’t much more advanced than it had been the night before. We decided to go walking again. Back at the mall a second time, we walked and talked, and – maybe because we didn’t have any children with us – it felt kind of like a date, the anticipation like the final weeks before you are to get married. It was a strangely intimate time waiting for our baby, strolling past middle-class teenagers trying their hardest to work up some kind of inner anger at Hot Topic while their mothers turned up their noses at the perfume store operated by a middle-eastern woman wearing a full head cover. Eventually, we called D., and she met us at the food court, where we had the best food court Chinese I have ever eaten. Still, no significant progress, so we walked around with D. briefly before heading home to discuss our options – at this point, a hospital would have been pressing us hard for a C-section, because an 18-hour labor with no significant progress is usually considered reason enough to slice a woman open. At the apartment, D. gave us a few options for what could speed up the labor, but the one we chose – black and blue Cohosh – is the only one I remember. We had two options to choose from the Cohosh, and we chose to use the gentler one, which would encourage any labor that was already happening rather than force it hard the same way Pitocin would. It was starting to get dark, and we wanted to get this thing moving before the kids got back; my parents would have kept them longer, but they had to get on the road at 5 the next morning to attend my brother’s graduation in Fayetteville, Ark. Still, the evening wore on, and while things started to move a little faster, it wasn’t much faster. E. came over. My parents apologetically dropped the kids off. D. filled the birth tub. No baby.
The children presented a new set of problems: they needed attention, because – after all – they are children. For the older one I used my favorite move out of the I’m-gonna-be-a-crappy-parent-today handbook, letting Netflix do the babysitting for me, but the younger one wanted to come in our bedroom to nurse and play, especially in the birth tub. D. tried to tell us it was a bad idea to let her in there because of infection risks, but eventually, when D. was out of the room, we relented so she would see it was not as fun as she thought. She thought it was exactly as fun as she thought. This was when E. showed her true mettle. She was able to take the little one downstairs and keep her occupied enough that S. and I didn’t have to worry about her. D. followed them down and S. and I were able to have a little while to ourselves. While S. labored in the birth tub, I sat on the bed, holding her hand and praying. After a while I lit a couple of beeswax candles in front of the icons of our patrons, and I found a prayer for a woman about to give birth in an online Orthodox prayer book. I started to lose track of time. Eventually, the child downstairs needed a parent, so I took her outside and walked around the block a couple of times while telling her a long, rambling story about a princess who had been kidnapped by a dragon. I tried to make it very boring, but it didn’t work. Finally, I sat down on the stoop and watched the late night traffic on the freeway until she fell asleep. It was after midnight, which meant S. had been in labor for more than 24 hours. I was really starting to feel like those three-and-a-half hours of sleep I had gotten weren’t worth the time they had taken. After laying the little one on the couch, I went back upstairs to join the birth cadre.
Things finally started to pick up, but just when it seemed like the contractions were becoming regular I heard crying from the ground floor, and I went back down and laid down on the couch with the two-year-old until she was really asleep. It took everything I had in me to resist the creeping clutches of the sandman. Back upstairs again, I crawled back onto the bed so I could be next to S. while she labored in the tub. E. lit some incense, and we turned out the lights, leaving only the candle light. I started praying again –what else could I do? – and when I couldn’t think of anything to say, I would alternate between the Trisagion prayers and the angelic salutation. D. knelt at the foot of the bed, her head resting on her folded hands, and E. sat in the doorway, her head bowed in either contemplation or sleep. In the natural birth/homebirth world, you will hear a lot of hippy nonsense, but that night I experienced something that made me realize that one natural birth assertions – that birth is a religious experience – was not. For just a moment, as I surveyed that scene, while my wife grimaced at some inner pain, I felt like I was at that pregnant pause in history when the Spirit hovered over the formless void that would become earth. We were participating in creation. But birth, even as a spiritual experience, is a great rebuke against gnostic dualism, because it is very, very physical, and because of that physical discomfort, S. decided to get out of the tub and move to the wingback chair we have in our room.
By this point the contractions were intense and pelvic, and I would apply counter-pressure to S.’s back whenever she had one. The pressure itself was not enough, and soon S. asked us to use a heating pad as well. The contractions were still far enough apart that we could fall asleep between them, and this is when I started to have what I consider to be the Gethsemane experience of that night – not as Christ, but as one of the apostles. I would start to nod off to sleep so violently that I would forget to swallow or even breathe, only to be jarred awake by the sound of S. shifting forward in the chair because she was in need of pressure. Somehow, some way, I was always able to wake up immediately and place my hands where they needed to go – and if I didn’t, S. was sure to let me know – but nonetheless I could hear a distant voice asking, “What, could ye not watch with me for one hour?” I began to wonder if we were going to have to transfer to the hospital, but D. – who has attended far more births than I have – was calm, and so was I. After an eternity of this, things really started to pick up, and with the increased contractions I was able to shake myself awake. Now, S. was moving around more, going back and forth to the bathroom and finding fewer and fewer comfortable positions with which to situate herself when she was in the bedroom. Following her back into the room after one of those exits and re-entries, I could tell something was different. The room suddenly smelled of woman and blood and freshly-turned earth, like life and fear and anticipation. The end was near. The beginning was here. S. had left herself behind and had entered a plane of existence onto which the rest of us could not tread, a world of burning pain and animal instinct, where words became screams and moans meant that her insides were turning themselves inside out. She ran to the bathroom one last time, but getting off the toilet reached down and checked herself, and – with a wolf cry – told me to get our oldest, who had asked if he could be there for the birth. I woke him, and he was instantly awake, sure he was needed in some way. We placed him on the bed, and he watched while S. leaned against the chair and rocked back and forth, bending up and down, doing a kind of instinctual, primal dance that she later said she could not explain. The child downstairs awoke and found her way up, and E. held her in the doorway.
The baby began to crown, and very quickly it was birthed to just below the nose. Even in the moment, I found myself trying to analyze the face. It was very purple. S. began to beg with us to just reach in and rip it out. She was desperate, but D. told her we weren’t going to do that, but after a moment she reached in and began to turn the baby. I thought surely she would break it, but – of course – she did not, and after only a moment, followed by a rush of blood and water that soaked my arms up to the elbows, it was finished. My son was born. In that moment, S. was transformed, cooing at the baby rather than groaning from her very being. Truly, “A woman when she is in travail hath sorrow, because her hour is come: but as soon as she is delivered of the child, she remembereth no more the anguish, for joy that a man is born into the world.” Creation, for a moment, echoed. It was good.
Nine days after the baby was born, on the Sunday of the Samaritan Woman, our priest made the trek up I-49 to see us and to pray the short naming service with us. D. was able to attend as well. We named him after me and his maternal grandfather, and his baptismal name will be “John,” after the apostle Christ loved. May he live up to it. Now, nearly seven weeks later, I am still sometimes prone to wonder at this fat little baby, given to us when we were not asking, just as we made a transition into another phase of our lives. But I am thankful for things that are given even when they are not asked for, because some gifts are always good.