Everything is gestation and then birthing.Rainer Maria Rilke
I was 41 years, five months and 26 days old when I gave birth to my daughter.
When I decided, after two decades of being childless by choice, that I was going to see if I could be with child by choice, I was old enough to know that I needed to be in charge of making sure my needs were met. So I interviewed and hired a doula.
I knew – knew – x couldn’t be what I needed in the labor room, even if I made all kinds of excuses for that.
I was afraid I’d refuse a c-section past the point of reason if I needed one. If a doula told me it was the right thing, I’d know I better just suck it up and go with it.
The practical reason? So I wouldn’t stubbornly argue with the doctor worried that they were rushing me along.
The bone-deep-in-denial-about-the-ways-x-was-incapable-of-truly-supporting-someone-when-they-really-needed-it reason, though? To not be lonely and scared in that room.
The woman who wouldn’t admit the real reason is the one wrote the check. She paid for it fully so that x couldn’t argue about it.
I wanted desperately to go through labor without drugs. Not because I think it makes me tougher. Or anyone else weaker.
Because I wanted to be there, fully, for each moment. No matter how painful.
And I wanted the only thing clouding my brain when I took my first look at the little human who had been floating inside me for so long – I wanted the only thing adjusting my focus to be my own body’s chemicals of love and joy and exhaustion.
I knew abstaining from drugs decreased my odds of an ‘unnecessary’ c-section, so there was that.
But really it was because I had always wanted to experience pregnancy and as I faced down birth, I was intimidated and scared and unsure. I wanted to face it as fully as my body would allow and try my best to get through the hard stuff in order to have the crystalline moment I wanted.
Christmas morning that year, before we had to drive three hours back home to get x’s son to his mother, my sister-in-law let us pick her up from her home, as her husband and three kids lounged with their Christmas haul, and we trekked about a mile away to get some photos of my giant belly.
X and his son were there. It was cold and damp outside. My feet crunched over dewy leaves still all over the ground from fall, held down with the weight of weeks of valley freezes and thaws, dew hardened over them over and over until they were like a new kind of ground.
I was in the black slip on vans that I hated by then but were all I could fit my feet into for the last two months of pregnancy. We stopped for photos and I even, somehow, sat on one of x’s sweatshirts on the ground and leaned back for an angle my sister-in-law wanted to try and get and I still managed to stand back up somehow. With x’s help, I’m sure. A hand offered in a documented moment when he could relish the role of doting father and partner.
These would be the only real belly photos I had barring one taken at the Oakland Art Museum a couple of months prior and my baby shower photos. These would be the last pictures of my child before I knew her out in the world.
Two days later I started labor but still worked for two more full days telling myself it was Braxton Hicks because I wasn’t due for another ten days and the contractions were erratic and unpredictable.
On day three of that, I went home from work in the middle of the day and then back to help close up, because I was not sleeping at that point and had hoped for a nap but still needed to train my replacement.
That night, I planned on sleeping the deep, deep sleep of exhaustion. By 8:00 I was pacing the whole house with contractions only five minutes apart. X was lounging in bed watching the movie we had started together.
Near midnight, we did the obligatory too-early trip to the hospital, despite my doula telling us she’d check in with us in the morning when x had called her a few hours earlier to tell her what was happening.
They gave me a small shot of morphine so I could at least lay in bed and then they let me go back home. I spent the next four or five hours awake, but not pacing or writhing. I listened to x snoring beside me and pushed down the wish that he would hold me or rub my back.
I labored at home until noon the next day, with the doula’s help, and then when I got to the hospital, I was in full push mode within an hour.
My sister-in law drove three hours to take photos for me. My father made the same drive so he could be there to meet my daughter right when she took in her first breath. There was x. And the doula. And a nurse or two at any given point. A small crowd circled around me.
I was in an exhaustion haze and I was afraid and electrified with excitement.
I remember x on his phone a lot. I remember flipping him off as a joke when he said he understood the pain because he had stubbed his toe before. His knack for breaking the tension with the perfect joke delivery was always in his tool box and he did his best soft-shoe for us all when he wasn’t scrolling on his phone.
I remember being so physically uncomfortable and not knowing what to do with that feeling. I knew it would get worse before it got better.
This is real. This is happening.
The mantra I took from my doula for labor was the only way out is through.
I had said that hundreds of times already in the previous four hours alone.
I remember pushing and thinking each push had to be the last one. And it seemed my doctor was saying exactly that each time she said ok, one more but she wasn’t.
I actually pushed my torso up to look at her over the canopy my skirt made across my knees and said, how many more, really, do you think? I can’t keep thinking each one’s the last. What am I looking at realistically? Ten pushes? Ten minutes?
Probably twenty more minutes, she said.
I thought: The. Actual. Fuck. Did she just say?!
I sighed and collapsed my body back against the labor bed.
I think it was the very next push where I had the movie scene worthy fuuuuuuuuuuuuuck as I pushed instead of just grunting.
And then I just kept going. I literally felt like my body was on fire somewhere near where my legs met my torso. As though I was splitting in half, roughly, like an axed tree trunk.
I will not make it out of this whole, I felt, in that visceral way we know pain when we can’t see through to when it will end.
On one of the last pushes, I leaned back at the end of the push and said out loud, I don’t know if I can do this.
I meant it. Even though I knew I most likely would.
My dad moved closer from where he was beside me, kindly removed from seeing the whole show, and touched my knee and said you’re tough. I know you can do this.
My doula reminded me to breathe.
I thought the only way out is through.
Literally, for my daughter. No turning back.
The only fucking way out is motherfucking through this pain.
And when I felt the mostly indescribable feeling of the pressure of my daughter in the birth canal half-releasing, and then fully releasing as I pushed her all the way out – as the doctor cradled her up to my chest and placed her there, her bare skin on my bare skin, blood still pumping between us – as I looked into her open eyes and she looked back at me, I couldn’t feel a single nerve in my physical body and time truly did morph.
It didn’t really stop – it rippled, it curled in on itself, like a thin drizzle of honey spinning itself in ribbons and spirals as gravity pulls it down and down.
And none of the other stuff mattered. All the sobbing and screaming and railing to the sky I’d done in those last four months of pregnancy when I really started to understand that something was very not right about x. That something was very not right about this new version of family we were about to become. All the fear and sobs and all the shadows of him walking out of the room, indifferent, as I cried. All the words left hanging in the air as he walked out instead of talking to me.
The what have I done bringing a child into this lifes and the holy fuck what will this child’s life bes evaporated.
The tears I poured over those months as I kept trying to get him to understand things I now know he was never capable of understanding. The things he was not even able to really care about. The nights I slept alone as he cussed and walked out of the bedroom to sleep downstairs because fuck this bullshit and I don’t need your drama.
All those worries gone. For a few months.
I was in a cloud of amazement and love. She was perfect. I loved her perfectly.
And we made her.
When I found myself collapsed on the laundry room floor just over a year later, spinning spinning spinning from months of uncovering lie after lie after lie, I unearthed that old labor mantra.
When I felt, literally, unmoored. Afloat. Groundless. Swallowed up by sensation and a lack of gravity.
My grounding when I was triggered involved saying, out loud, through counted breaths: the only way out is through.
The actual physical pain of the betrayals, the cogs burning in my brain as I tried to see clear but couldn’t, the screams into bath towels in the bathroom after getting my daughter to sleep…. I have to go through or there is no out.
The fists pounded against the steering wheel as I sat in my car, in my giant bathrobe, at ten pm, baby monitor propped on the dash so I could hear her if she needed me while x slept upstairs peacefully.
Through. Out. Only way.
Breathe in through the nose. Breathe out through the mouth. Only way out. Through.
I have to feel it, I told myself. I have to get through it. For that child, I have to find the place to get through the betrayal.
The only way out is through.
Since facing the brutal truth of the relationship I was in for so many years, I’ve longed many, many times to be able to erase x from that birthing room. It now feels sour to have had him there for my most vulnerable and most powerful moments. It feels like I stripped myself down and said here, take a knife to this, too.
Nowhere was my trust for him – or for who I thought he was – more present than in that room in those time-slowed moments of fear and love and pain.
There is no more sacred moment than the one in which I held my daughter on my chest as we were still connected and I wish I could tell that mama to lock him out, to shut the door, to banish him to the father waiting rooms of yore.
I wish and I wish and I wish.
As I hit eighteen months free, I thought of one of the photos of me that Christmas morning. My body so heavy. My feet so large. My heart so swollen from crying more than any happily pregnant woman should.
As I hit the one and half years free mark, I am struck by how much healing I’ve done and how, literally, laborious a lot of it has been. I start to see that I have birthed myself since leaving that lie my life had become.
As I have relapses of nightmares and insomnia. As I get closer to court and start to ruminate again at 3am, at 3pm, at any damn time – I feel the wax and wane of contractions. The tightening and the releasing.
I have carried this weight like a leaden belly and had to portion off parts of it to use as shields and pace the hallway of my brain to find a way to bear this process long enough to not repeat it. Long enough to be the right kind of mother.
There is no skipping the hard stuff, there is only pretending to and then ending up not fully present, stitches and an anesthesia haze between me and my daughter.
I’m tough. I can do this.
I shouldn’t have to, but, well, you know.
Should is a lying junior high bitch who promises you undying loyalty and then shuns you from the cool kids table in the cafeteria while cackling and smirking.
I saw a comment on something posted by a close friend who is just now starting to realize he was in an emotionally abusive relationship and the person commenting said, full of love and good intention, sometimes you must focus on you and understanding you, and not fret about what’s broken in somebody else.
One of the versions of move on that we all hear that comes with the very best of intentions and the most misguided good nature.
Moving on from something like this is a long, heavy task. It involves archeological digs to unearth the trust we used to have in our own judgment.
We wish we were dealing with normal heartache, normal grief. That shit is hard enough. And yet we long for it.
Taking care of ourselves means understanding, deep in our cells, that what we went through was abuse and was a mindfuck beyond normal betrayal. We have to learn the language we were trapped in before we can leave it behind.
I am. But it’s slow. And it aches like a mass of muscle pushing a whole human into existence.
It hurts like a body splitting open to reveal something miraculous and alive.
Elephants carry their babies forever. Or so it must feel like to them. This fact gets used to give perspective to women in week four million of pregnancy who don’t know if they can carry the load one more day, let alone the twenty or thirty left until their due date.
Elephants carry that life, sometimes for two years, as it grows and grows and we can’t really know their discomfort, the pains of creating and nurturing a life for that long, but we know it’s there.
Like people don’t feel your pain as your hips begin to shift and open up, the ache of bone and ligament and muscle repositioning to make way for this new life to thrive.
But you do. Every single time.
The way every bone in our body separates a little further from the ones around it – hormones loosening our skeletons to get ready for the moment when we have to give that final push, when we have to stretch ourselves so far beyond what even feels possible.
I look at that woman in that photo: swollen and puffy and feeling so old and so scared and so hopeful and so in love with something that was about to fully collapse, something that was about to almost swallow her whole.
I want to tell her this: someday soon, but after what will feel like six painful lifetimes, you will realize that what you had to do to birth her and what you had to do to birth yourself after getting clear were two different things but not so different as you might think.
Not the same.
But: equally doable.
You may not be able to read a scientific explanation of what is happening inside and why it hurts. But you can breathe and study and let the fears wash through you knowing that someday they will not be sensation but just memory.
So you do the pushing even when it feels like too much. Especially when it feels like you can’t bear it anymore.
You try that old mantra again but it’s not quite right and you see that for the first time.
You have to shake it up and reorder it.
Jumble the letters up and let your brain finally fall into the confusion of trying to decipher the nonsensical. Give in to the it won’t ever make real sense of what you were in for so many years.
Believe, finally, that you could not have made sense where none exists and rewrite the sentence.
Make refrigerator poetry of that old mantra and set yourself free from the suffocating womb of what you wanted it all to be… breathe air and open your eyes and touch your skin and remember that it’s still soft and living and regenerating every day. Even your crow’s feet are made anew with new skin every day.
The only way, my dear – the only way.
Push into the pain and pause when you need to regroup.
The only way through is out.
The only way through.