I was nine years old when I watched my mother give birth. My mother's boyfriend, my younger sister, the midwife, and a family friend were also present as Gabriel was born in my bedroom and in my bed. It is strange to think of it now, my intensely private, dark-eyed mother lying on her back with her two small children looking at that slimy cranium popping out of her body, between her legs. My mother is a very guarded woman who often becomes defensive when asked simple, personal questions about photographs, childhood stories or nearly anything that involves her. So why share this intimate experience where she is at her most raw and exposed? Sweat, semiotic fluid, pain, nakedness—it doesn't get any more personal.
Years later, when I finally asked my mother why she wanted my sister Trista and me to be involved, she shook her head, amused and perplexed by her own hubris. "I was radical, that's all. I was radical."
Not quite hippies, and not quite religious devotees, my parents were part of the 1970s generation of "New Age seekers." In addition to exploring eastern religions, they experimented with astrology, psychics, tarot readers and crystals. They burned sage, drank ginseng tea and read Carlos Castaneda. My father joined Robert Bly's men's movement where he drummed and danced in the woods. And feeling that traditional education stifled creativity and mechanized the mind, my parents enrolled me in the Minnesota Waldorf School. Standard medical practices were held equally suspect as they turned to homeopathy, Rolfing and acupuncture—and neither did they believe in modern obstetrics.
The New Age culture has great respect for ancient and native traditions, and it feels that earlier peoples were more connected to the earth and to their natural born instincts. (My mother even used a form of Mayan astrological birth control, a kind of cosmic rhythm method. It worked extremely well all but three times.) At some point during my parents' sociological studies they came to believe that women in earlier times, especially those of tribal, forest dwelling types, used to wander into a deep wood to give birth alone like the animals. So when my mother became pregnant with me, she asked herself, "Am I so different now, so fragile and removed from my instincts that I need doctors, nurses and technology to do what women have been doing for thousands of years?"
For that reason, my mother's first attempt at homebirth was with me while my parents were still married. My father was to act as midwife although he had absolutely no experience or outside guidance. Home at the time meant a one-bedroom apartment in an eight-plex, in downtown Minneapolis, 1975. They didn't warn the neighbors above or below about the labor cries. (I still can't believe that no one called the police). I doubt they even knew their neighbors' names. My father was a walking wire man, skinny and alien, hippy-fashioned, intelligent and highly reclusive. Put him and his pretty, quiet, flower shirt-wearing, New Age wife in a tiny apartment, then add twenty hours of labor sounds, and no one even knocked on the door.
My grandparents on both sides had pleaded with them to deliver at a hospital, warned them of all the dangers, cried from worry, and spoke of shame and social norms. But my parents were true believers dedicated to their evolving, hybrid belief system. After twenty hours of labor, however, my mother lost her nerve and asked to be brought to the Department of Obstetrics at the local hospital where I was soon born without complication. The county even paid the bill because my parents were poor. What began as something radical and non-conformist ended in something typical: white lights, white sheets, white doctors—antiseptics and painkillers.
In most cultures, a small hive of women including family, friends, and the midwife would assist in the last stages of the pregnancy and the birth. A few days before Gabriel was born, my mother brought in a family friend, who had recently given birth at home. Elizabeth watched over Trista and me, and helped with cooking and cleaning. She had ruffled black hair, floating feet, and an uncomplicated face. And with an almost religious zeal for the homebirth movement, she became flushed and invigorated every time she told Trista and me how "wonderful" and "amazing" it was that we had the opportunity to see the live birth of our baby brother or sister. All the attention encouraged a small crush for Elizabeth to grow in my tangerine-sized heart. I felt important, proud and brave. Homebirth in itself was fairly rebellious at the time, but no one had heard of a mother's small son witnessing her birth, in any culture. It was as if we were on the edge of a bold new idea, a revival or perhaps a revolution—both bringing back and breaking traditions.
Infected by the ambient enthusiasm, I wanted to participate in everything related to Gabriel's birth. So, on hearing an uproar of shouts and laughter from Trista's bedroom the day before Gabriel was born, I galloped in to find my sister on the bed and Elizabeth standing in the center of the room with her right breast escaping from her blouse. Her arms were flailing around like wet rags while her wild, free breast shot milk onto the walls, the ceiling and Trista. Elizabeth finally grabbed a clean shirt from her overnight bag to smother the flood as lines of wet milk began to dry and darken on the golden ivy wallpaper. Trista wiped the sprinklings from her hair. I was feeling acutely shy as my eyes bounced to my feet, walls, feet, breast, Trista, feet, breast, smiling uncomplicated face, feet. This is when I learned that nursing mothers lactate even while away from her nursing child, who was at home with Elizabeth's husband being fed bottles of pumped breast milk.
For many in the New Age community, goddess worship was not uncommon, but when I say "worship" I mean it in the loosest terms. Whether it was called Gaia, Mother Earth, Mother Nature, or the Anima, one could say there was a general reverence for "the feminine," which was very much alive in our family during the pregnancy. There was a pervading feeling in my mother's community that everything emanates from an intuitive, feminine spirituality: budding, growing, balanced and whole. Michael, my mother's boyfriend, was a like-minded participant. He even bumbled around with a watermelon strapped to his belly to get a sense of how it felt to be pregnant.
Physical empathy for pregnant mothers was an idea that some matriarchal cultures also adopted, though they took it a good deal further. In what is called a couvade, the father would co-sympathetically put himself through various rituals and trials that were meant to either represent or mysteriously aid the events of the birth and pregnancy. The man would endure dietary changes, confinement, recovery, and self-inflicted wounds in order to endure similar pain or magically transfer the mother's pain to himself. In certain Native American tribes of South America, for instance, the father would fast for long periods of time before his family put gashes into his skin with a shark tooth and rubbed pepper and tobacco juice into the wounds. He could not yell out in pain. After the birth, his blood would then be rubbed in the face of the child so that s/he would become brave like his or her father.
I don't know what this tradition would look like in the U.S., but I can imagine the commercialism. New Age entrepreneurs could put together special couvade kits and sell them at Mind Body Spirit stores and alternative medicine clinics for $59.99, including:
- Plastic Bed Sheet
- 100% Cotton Top Sheet
- Sterilized Razor Blade with Depth Guard
- Extra Absorbent Wipe Cloths
- Pure Pepper Juice
- Organic Loose Leaf Tobacco Juice (Optional)
- Rubbing Alcohol
- Doctor Prescribed Internal Antibiotic (If Needed)
- Easy-to-Use Instruction Manual
It isn't surprising that Michael didn't take up this ancient ritual, but he was very committed to the birth and to being a father. During the last weeks, Michael was continuously staring at my mother, feeling her belly, and laughing in his pleasant way. Michael had a lovely, warm voice that came from the back of his throat like a honey-toned frog. He was fun, a little depressive, and very kind. A carpenter by trade, he liked to spend most of his time getting stoned, tinkering with electronics and goofing around the house. I liked Michael, but it was clear where his affections were placed and this made me jealous. I wanted him to feel about me as he obviously felt about his own son. This favoritism was quite unintentional, however, as he seemed a puppy who had chosen his best friend. Michael was and is a dedicated father to Gabriel.
Perhaps my mother's decision to include Trista and me in the many facets of motherhood was reckless and too extreme. Throughout the history of childbirth, it was unheard of for the mother to include her own children—especially boys—in the birth of a sibling. It would have been considered immodest and improper, probably psychologically and sexually damaging. I don't feel damaged, but I see how I could have been disturbed by it. There was my half-naked mother moaning in pain. What am I doing here? I wondered as my body-sense sunk into mud and my pores opened like rain. Is that my mom's vagina?
I can't imagine putting a child in this position. It defies emotional instinct. But my mother was living her philosophies. Questions had to be asked and tested. Who decides what is proper? How many traditions are accidents of habit and circumstance? How many are like an old vacant wasps' nest that is left undisturbed because we fear living things inside with stingers?
Bringing her fourth-grader and kindergartener into the birthing room was a touch fanatical, but my mother wasn't alone in her protest against convention. Given the nature of the women's movement within the New Age community, and my mother's commitment to alternative philosophies, including Trista and me seemed a natural furtherance of her belief system. The thought went: childbirth is beautiful and sublime; it's a woman's gift and should not be taboo. It should not be performed by male doctors who impose their scientific techniques and research on a natural female rite, which women had been doing on their own for thousands of years. Resistance against a "soulless science" was rising in the culture of the times. Science was deconstruction, a reduction of the human experience to molecules and body parts: arm, leg, eyeball and uterus. Medicated and mute, women had suffered too long the humiliations of modern medicine. Besides, wasn't science responsible for Agent Orange, napalm, and nuclear bombs? Sure, she liked her turntable and her electric, Champion vegetable juicer, but my mother wanted very little to do with modern science and so it was birth at home.
My 1950s style grandparents didn't understand any of these bizarre changes and beliefs. Having been raised a small town, conservative, Lutheran girl, why had she stopped going to church and instead attended meditation retreats and EST seminars? She stopped eating meat, went to Vietnam War protests, and she had three children with three different men. Despite my uncle John's warnings about eternal damnation, my mother was unafraid of divorce or having children out of wedlock. I was the first child—divorce. Trista was the second—abandonment. Gabriel was the third—separation. The devil was the fourth—hellfire.
When deciding to have birth at home, I believe that my mother wanted something that would symbolize and further her philosophies, while also creating something unique and beautiful for her family. There was a division of fathers in our little clan, and by including everyone, I imagine that my mother was trying to bring us all together.
During those nine months we felt like a regular family, perhaps for the first time. We rallied around the pregnancy, and were affectionately bound to its phases. The four of us began spending more time together, most of it in Michael and my mother's bedroom, which took the space of the entire upper floor. It had a low ceiling, a mulchy carpet, and beige, stucco walls. Heavy snowfalls held us inside, warm and isolated. An antique floor lamp in the corner spread a lazy, golden light across the ceiling and throughout the room. If it was light outside, the old draw-shade, discolored by dust and sun, was let down over the single window behind the bed.
We watched movies like Fantasia and Blazing Saddles and talked about the baby. If he kicked, we would all touch her belly. Sometimes I would run down the street to the Fast Stop to pick up a couple of Mickey's Fruit Pies, which my mother often craved and requested despite her super-healthy, honey-sweetened, olive oil, vegetarian lifestyle.
We all absorbed ourselves in the pregnancy. Michael read parenting books; Trista and I asked questions; and my mother, contrary to her usual irritation and habitual yelling, seemed content.
I began to enjoy not being shouted at all the time; we all did. There was always an existential fear behind her yelling, the kind of fear that persists today in her conspiracy theories. My mother felt overwhelmed by unhappiness and frustration born mostly of money problems, but also of being a single mother, dealing with the various fathers of her children and cold war politics. My father told me that when they were married, my mother would frequently get constipated and her remedy was reading the Minneapolis Star as she sat on the toilet. Apparently, news headlines caused such anxiety that they loosened her bowels. It's a good thing her home office, where she reads her conspiracy websites, is next to the bathroom.
My mother is polite and elegant, but she can also be cold and cutting in her logic. I played high school basketball for one season and, although I am a natural athlete, I didn't understand team basketball and crowds practically paralyzed me with nervousness. Accordingly, I rode the bench. When I asked my mother if she was going to attend one of my games, she sneered, "Well are you going to play this time? What's the point?" Biting comments like this one would linger in my ears like a ball-bearing circling around the inside of a metal bowl until it lost momentum and settled uneasily at the base of my mind. My intelligence, personality and behavior were all subject to her metallic shriek. But her harshness has mellowed over time.
During Gabriel's incubation period, we felt like a real family, the kind that talked with one another, had a daily rhythm, and didn't impatiently scatter to separate rooms after dinner. It was one of the happiest times of my childhood. Unfortunately this new family scarcely outlived the pregnancy itself. Within two years my mother left Michael, and sent me to live with my father. Now I rarely see my sister and my brother is completely alien to me politically, philosophically and socially. Gabriel is a libertarian, conspiracy theorist, who thinks global warming is a scheme by scientists to get grant money. He believes the World Health Organization is on an active, secret crusade to sterilize third world countries through malaria vaccinations. And to protect himself against the government, he's begun stockpiling weapons (legally). According to him, there is a super-secret government prison under the streets of Minneapolis where they detain dissidents, permanently, and literally make them slaves. I am a liberal. Trista doesn't vote or care. And despite dating mostly anarchists during her twenties, there isn't a single political or philosophical image among the personally symbolic tattoos that cover her body. We three are as different as our fathers.
When the water broke, the midwife was called and everything turned silent and solemn. The midwife was an obstetrics nurse at a local hospital by day. She was warm, friendly and very well organized as she quickly took control of the situation. My bedroom was on the main level and closest to the bathroom, and so became the delivery room. The single bed was pushed away from the wall, the footboard was removed, a plastic cover was laid down, and an old, white cotton sheet was laid over the plastic. Everything else in the room—books, He-Man sword, dirty clothes, and stuffed animals—was shoved into the closet. Having lost my bedroom, I unhappily agreed to sleep with my sister until after the birth. Trista had a big, brass frame-bed that was given to her by my great-grandmother Elsie after she went to the nursing home.
It wasn't easy to fall asleep that night, but I got a little rest before Elizabeth came in around two a.m. to wake us. "It's time," she said, while looking at us with her slightly crazed eyes. Trista and I snapped awake and rushed down the hall.
My mother was lying on the bed propped up with three or four pillows; her feet were spread apart and planted on the bed with knees bent. The room smelled salty. Her face was flush and sweaty, and she was breathing deeply. Looking over at us she managed a smile. Not knowing what to do, or where to go, I just stood there stupidly overwhelmed by everything I felt and saw.
The midwife was at the foot of the bed bustling around. Michael was against the opposite wall holding my mother's hand and looking anxious. Sweat covered his forehead, and his brown mustache was clumped with moisture. He glanced at us, but did not seem to see.
There was a contraction and I watched my mother's face contort with pain. Her left hand gripped Michael's, and her right hand clutched and tore at the sheets. It scared me to see her like that. Her teeth were clenched, lips parted and stretched, and her cheeks swelled beneath her eyes. While the midwife spoke encouragements, Trista and I remained perfectly rigid until the contraction abated at which point the whole room seemed to quietly exhale. My mother relaxed with an expression that looked almost like intoxication as Trista and I glanced at each other nervously.
There really is no way to prepare nine- and six-year-old children for a scene like this. We had watched videos of live births, and been told what to expect, but it wasn't even close. It felt like my mind had been smashed on a stone and let float down a river. But Trista's presence comforted me a little. And believing that I had to be strong for her made me strong for myself.
The midwife placed me behind her and to the right. I felt awkward looking between my mother's legs. I was, to be honest, extremely uncomfortable. But I didn't judge the situation; I didn't hold any prejudices of what was prudent or shameful or completely untraditional. I feel more uncomfortable thinking about it now than I was seeing it then.
As I allowed my initial unease to subside, I looked around the room. To my left was the tray of medical implements. It held a pair of stainless-steel scissors, and matching pincers that looked like delicate pliers; it also had a clean stack of towels, and a white pan with a blue rim that was filled with warm water.
Trista had flattened herself against the wall, looking traumatized. Elizabeth escorted her from the room and she didn't come back until the very end.
I watched the midwife do her job. Her grey hair was in a bun and held fast by hairpins, and she had put on a white apron. Her movements were quick and efficient, and her hands seemed self-moving.
I stood in that same spot for about twenty minutes, watching. Everybody said that I seemed very into it and I was. I could see my mother's face just past her knee as Michael was looking down her body while dabbing the sweat from her forehead with a red, paisley bandana. The windows were steamed up and I could feel the cool wet from the glass.
When the midwife announced that she could see the head, I looked and saw a light brown spot with thin brown hair poking through a pear shaped opening between my mother's legs. Everything suddenly became more intense. My mother's screaming became louder and more prolonged, almost violent. The contractions became more frequent, and her body constricted and flushed.
I was kept back but had full view of Gabriel's head as it pushed through. His face was turned upward at first then turned sideways as it came out. Oddly, his hand was on his face as if he were sleeping, but that didn't cause any problems. His eyes were tightly shut, his slightly blue lips parted; maybe he took a breath. When his gooey wet head bullied its way through, the midwife caught it.
Trista was brought back in just as his body began making its way out. An upper shoulder scrunched up and pushed through; then the second came. My mother was screaming and huffing through her teeth, her back was arched. He came easier now. There was a pause; a few deep shaking breaths; then, in an instant, he just slid out.
Michael was mute. Trista stared. And the midwife cradled Gabriel's little body as his clumsy arms and legs jerkily moved about unaccustomed to the open air.
The midwife asked Michael if he wanted to cut the umbilical cord. He nodded his head, not speaking. Clamping the cord near the bellybutton with the pincers, she told him where to cut. He raised the scissors and placed the jaws over the cord. "Here?" he asked, more with his eyes than with his voice. "Right there," she said. Michael gently applied pressure; I could see the rubbery quality of the umbilical cord give beneath the blades without cutting. "Go ahead," she told him. He was cutting flesh! Then finally he held his breath and... snip. "Good job," the midwife said.
She wrapped my new brother in a blanket and handed him to me. Since he was born in my bedroom, I was the first to hold him. His red face was peering out of the pink blanket, eyes still shut. I thought of nothing, and felt nothing except the sensation of his small, cocooned body. The midwife took him and handed him to my mother. After she held him for a while, exhausted, she passed him to Michael, then produced the placenta.
Why did my mother want us to see Gabriel's birth? I have never received a straight answer, because my mother is so defensive about it. I think she feels that she psychologically wounded Trista. She mentioned how "freaked out" Trista looked. Truly anxious, she even ventured a personal question to me, asking me if I felt okay with it. I assured her I was and that I viewed it as a positive experience. But I don't believe that childbirth is miraculous or spiritual. Elizabeth called it "wonderful" and "beautiful." I've heard it called "transcendent." It was exciting and intense, but it was also bloody, wet and disgusting. I was pretty horrified by the afterbirth. Maybe it would be magical for me if a slimy creature grew in my body and came out saying my name, but when I hear words like magical and transcendent, I start thinking New Age propaganda. Perhaps I am jaded, but I've seen too many New Agers manipulate themselves and others in their quest for personal transformation to take anything straight.
Why, then, my mother's insistence? Was she a "radical" believer, a feminist rebel facing down the establishment? As reserved and secretive as she is, she would unquestionably need to carry some kind of banner, to feel the thousands behind her, in order to expose herself with such intimacy and boldness. On the other hand, rebirth is a common theme in the New Age community.
By this point, my mother had her own business running a Waldorf preschool from her home. She had a stable live-in boyfriend and she owned a house. Was this a symbolic personal transformation sanctifying her new life, new family, and new baby? Michael had a dream about the archangel Gabriel. Was it a sign? This would be a spiritual transformation for the whole family and the baby was the Word. And yet this sounds a little too dreamy for my mother. Aside from the crystals, UFOs, conspiracy theories, Sikhs... well maybe she's not so practical and down-to-earth, but the rebirth angle seems not quite her. Not deeply her, but maybe it fed the flower in her mind, the unfurling thought of a beautiful family without strife. In other words, mother love-hormones made her mad. Isn't life just so beautiful, mysterious, amazing? Feel him kick! Put your hand right here... did you feel that? Were we just ornaments to her beautiful experience? I would ask, but she would never tell.
Later in the morning, we all had that strung-out adrenaline feeling and sleep fatigue. There was a short discussion over orange juice about what to do with the afterbirth. Elizabeth suggested grinding up the placenta in a blender with orange juice and drinking it. I imagine she had done this because that is what some animals do. They eat the afterbirth and lick up the blood. If it is natural, it must be good. Many traditions have gathered around the placenta in different indigenous cultures. A Jicarilla Apache custom was to place it on top of a spruce tree so that the child would grow to be tall like the tree. In Haiti, they used to bury it beneath the birth bed (if they had dirt floors) and add salt to avoid the "evil eye." My own placenta probably ended up in an orange bag with other biological waste.
Although my parents weren't necessarily familiar with these other traditions, there seemed to be an "intuitive" understanding, a kind of common sense spiritualization of major events. They appropriate, modify and combine different traditions until settling on something that "feels right." Ultimately, Michael buried Gabriel's placenta in our backyard as the neighbor's four basset hounds bayed and howled.
Title graphic: "New Arrival" Copyright © The Summerset Review, Inc. 2010.