I am sitting in a cafe in Davis, California. One of my babies sleeps beside me, the other is kicking soccer balls on a field on the other side of town. My husband is across the Pacific Ocean, following our dream of learning another land. We are a family with a blueprint for wandering inscribed on the soles of our feet. Languages are embedded there, waiting to be spoken. Sometimes the blueprint has created safe passage. Other times we have been tossed about, scraped raw by the sand.
Twenty-nine years old, jobless, pregnant, sprawled across pillows on the floor of my midwife’s houseboat, I felt it was important to tell my midwife about my dreams of flight, of soaring. I always landed, I told her. Sometimes with a thud, my limbs jerking as I awoke, or gracefully on two feet. Then I’d rise up, dragging my wings, and walk slowly into wakefulness.
My soon to be husband and I looked around the room at six other pregnant couples sitting on a circle of cushions, taking turns asking questions and voicing fears, like rolling dice onto the middle of the floor. We were six, five, nine and a half months pregnant and counting. One woman on the verge of labor moaned softly. Someone’s husband dreamt of the death of the family cat. A couple argued over the wife’s sugar consumption, struggling to control the uncontrollable.
Our midwife didn’t run her practice conventionally. Instead of meeting her clients individually once or twice a month, she met all of us every Sunday evening in her houseboat. When she asked how we had arrived at our decision to have a homebirth, neither of us knew what to say. How to explain, that like a dowser searching for deep waters, we are guided by intuition luck, science, and words spoken between us in our sleep? That we paid attention to the story beneath the surface, and allowed it to shape our lives? That our practice of balancing attention and surrender, like sitting on a surfboard watching the swell, enabled us to choose how to give birth to our first child?
I don’t believe in debating whether life is defined by fate or free will. What I know is that life often feels like a circle, though at the midwife’s, sitting in the circle of pregnancy, it sometimes felt more linear, a different kind of conveyor belt that moved us along and dropped us into the unknown in pairs. One week we’d arrive on her houseboat and two pairs of shoes would be missing by the door. Then, with no questions asked, we’d take our seat amongst a group of six couples instead of the seven that had been there the week before. Next time, there would be five, then four, until someone new arrived and took their own place in the circle.
The first two hours of our Sunday evenings were spent “checking in” or listening to a birth story. Afterwards, we opened our backpacks and shared our snacks, like breaking bread on a scuffed softwood floor, to consecrate what each person was experiencing, from housing issues to gestational diabetes, with Challah or trail mix. By then the sun was setting.
Outside, the night herons perched on the moorings peered into the water waiting attentively for the right moment to dive. Inside, we took turns climbing onto a nest of pillows, raising our shirts just enough for the midwife to put her ear to our bellies and hear the rhythm of our growing children. She listened to the heartbeat with her naked ear, and translated for us its language. “Que preciosa,” she told Dylan and me, “sleeping with a hand by the face.”
I noticed warm liquid running down my leg on a Wednesday night. We put the rubber sheet on the foam mattress just in case, but remembered the woman who didn’t go into labor for three days after her water broke. Dylan immediately went to sleep because he knew that if I went into labor, he’d have a lot of work to do.
I couldn’t sleep. At first, I lay in bed worrying about the neighbors, and listening to the rats scuttling across our roof and between the walls. I worried that a crowd of relatives would form outside the door waiting to flood our studio apartment. I worried that the car wouldn’t start if I had to be transported to the hospital, or that the dog would be freaked out by the birth.
The pain of early labor was familiar, like coming off seven hits of acid acutely aware of your partner next to you snoring away. I tried to remember what we had learned in our childbirth class, but even then, I could never keep the different stages of labor straight, how long contractions were supposed to be, or what was supposed to happen when.
I woke Dylan after I had expelled what seemed like a small port-a-potty of fluids from my body, and could no longer keep myself warm. He brought out what we thought was a heater left by the previous tenants only to find out it was a humidifier. He turned on the stove and made himself breakfast as I felt the fear cramping my muscles and doubted my ability to withstand the pain.
Our midwife came at 9:30 a.m. Dylan helped her open the collapsible birth tub and move a few things around so it could fit at the foot of the bed next to the kitchen sink. We didn’t have a way to fill it, so Dylan went out and borrowed the neighbor’s garden hose, duct taped it to the sink, and began the two-hour process of slowly filling the one hundred and fifty-gallon tub. I was only three centimeters dilated. “You still have a ways to go,” our midwife said. “These are your last moments to be together as just a couple.”
She gave us a list of signs that would indicate I’d progressed and should give her a call. I didn’t want her to leave. I was afraid. I didn’t know what to do with my contractions and she told me how to let them take my body off the ground, then run with my breath and out my toes like water draining.
I call it a possession akin to pain, but not quite pain. I didn’t feel pain, I was pain, a sensation that kept me hungry for eyes. My husband’s eyes were like birds; they were the only things offering air. I wasn’t flying and I wasn’t falling. I was expanding past the walls–a vast space filled with stars and the sound of water constantly running. This expansion was simultaneously constricting and my eyes would roll into the back of my head from the splitting while I gasped for air and roared like a bull. Dylan said I looked as if I were seeing spirits. Then my eyes would close and I’d fall into a deep sleep.
These contractions came in sets, like waves, no longer than thirty seconds. A couple of short ones, then a lull that I’d sleep through while Dylan ran around trying to expedite the process of filling the birth tub. We were working so hard. It took so much effort for me not to explode, to find what I needed in his face, to allow my body to do what it needed to do, that there was no room for fear. In this stage of active labor, the concept of “pain” couldn’t enter my consciousness because there was no room for consciousness. It was all being.
We can’t really say when it began because we were just there, and everything was just there, as it always is. So when something began to poke out of me, then recede, and then bulge, with the rhythm of my expanding body, we didn’t take notice. I thought I was pooping on the bed, and hoping the tub would fill so I could get in the water and wash it all away. Then, finally, the tub did fill and I went to use the bathroom before getting in. I began to squat over the toilet when I was overcome by another contraction and I grabbed onto Dylan’s shoulders for support. All of a sudden there was this squishy thing sticking out of me and I could feel it with my hand and see it in the mirror. I thought it was my liver or my spleen or part of my large intestine.
Dylan said to get into the birth tub and I suggested he give the midwife’s assistant a call. As he got on the phone, I stepped into the tub. It was 11:30 in the morning, two hours after the midwife had visited. He was on the phone with her assistant and though I don’t remember letting out this primal guttural roar, the assistant remembered the sound days later and the thought, “That sounds like a woman in active labor,” that came with it.
On my knees in the water, I watched a gray object shoot out of me. It soared through the air with its arms spread out like a superhero and its back towards the star-less sky. My very first thought was, “flying squirrel.” Like Rocky in Rocky and Bullwinkle she soared, then twisted underwater to face me. Without thinking, I scooped her up, water spilling out around her in drops and I put her purple body on my chest. My husband hung up on the assistant and climbed into the tub just as our daughter let out a cry like a call to arms.
The midwife’s assistant later told us that she ran with the phone in her hand to the midwife yelling “The baby’s been born. The baby’s been born.” And they got into her car and sped through every red light, rolled through every stop sign, while calmly leaving messages on our answering machine instructing us to keep the baby warm, check the cord, and clear her passageways of mucous.
We held each other in the tub, rose with her still attached to me, and climbed onto the bed, covering ourselves with blankets. The midwife arrived ten minutes later. Seven months pregnant herself, she ran down the driveway, leapt over our front neighbor’s giant Mastiff, and entered our home incredulously, laughing and asking us why we hadn’t called her directly.
“The thought never crossed our minds.”
Our daughter Sora’s birth was similar to Naima’s–unassisted, beneath the water, at home. Except this time, I knew what to do with the pain. This time, it was an invitation rather than a possession. By the light of a single candle while my husband wept at the sight and every part of my body undulated, I felt God. I understood that to go with God, one must die many times. God is in the contractions, and I welcomed the pain of opening. I explained this to Dylan as I danced. The words were a bridge between my body and his. The pain was God, my mind was movement. I moved until God was the sun behind the clouds, and I felt the baby’s presence.
“The baby is coming,” I told him. But with those words, I became afraid. “How do I know it’s ok to push? What if I hurt myself.”
“It’s okay,” he said. “Your body knows what to do.”
I pushed the head to crowning, then peeled off my socks and climbed into the birth tub. I had to push some more, and that scared me too, so different than with Naima. I changed my position so that my back was to Dylan, and the baby swam out in his direction. Dylan passed her back to me and I scooped up her limp body, placid with faith in her mother, lids closed, without an independent life of her own. I was staring down at darkness. I bounced, coaxing life, rubbing the chest of death. We were not used to seeing a being so relaxed, and in that moment, where time does a funny thing, the cry of her voice was a miracle.
The next morning, Naima woke up to find us collapsed in a heap on the floor. “Oh, my sister’s here,” she said sleepily, as if finding a new life in her living room were the most natural thing in the world.
“Unassisted” is an excerpt from an essay that appears in One Big Happy Family: 18 writers talk about polyamory, open adoption, mixed marriage, house husbandry, single motherhood, and other realities of truly modern love, edited by Rebecca Walker (Riverhead Books, 2009).