As I write, I keep being reminded of the e.e. cummings poem that begins,
since feeling is first
who pays attention
to the syntax of things
will never wholly kiss you
Somehow it resonates with me when I think of trying to capture my birth experience. There were so many words unspoken during my labor because feeling was always first (and last, and everything in between), and yet there are so many words here. I fear that no matter how hard I try, they will never kiss you. Here I am, trying anyway.
After the somewhat jarring experience of being manually dilated, I continued to contract and continued to use the breast pump, but things still hadn’t really picked up. Everyone was a little concerned about how much effort it took to make even the tiniest bit of progress and K. told me that she had arranged with P., the acupuncturist, to come over and do some more treatment on me to build more momentum. Even with how weak and tired I was, I remember thinking clearly how grateful I was to K. for doing so much, especially because she had to take my stuck back into consideration. She couldn’t ask me to take a walk or get into physically challenging positions, so we had limited resources to work with, but that didn’t stop her from trying to do everything she could think of for us.
I don’t know how it happened, but somehow we were lucky to find ourselves surrounded by the most giving, beautiful humans during pregnancy and birth. From Auntie Erika who took such wonderful care of us when my back went out in California and who is always just there when I need her, despite being so far away; to the chiropractor and acupuncturist we saw in LA who really tried to help us, making time in their schedules and lowering their rates so that even though we still couldn’t really “afford” their treatments, the gesture was enough; to your Nana’abu who drove us every single day back and forth from Dr. A, the chiropractor, happy to do it; to Dr. A and Carol and Jodi who saw me every single day and spent more time with me than could have ever been asked of them, the three of them becoming a part of my family; to my mom and sisters who rallied around me the whole way and for whose kindness and love there will never be enough words; to K. and the team she brought in to care for us so much better than I ever thought possible; to your daddy who did everything, everything, everything for me and for you. From the big things they did, to every tiny, miniscule gesture, I will be forever grateful. They helped bring you to me, asking nothing in return.
So P. came over. The house was quiet, with everyone having gone home to rest. C. went to have dinner with her husband and kids, Robina and Tahira went over to Robina’s and my mom stayed downstairs. K. was elsewhere, too, though I’m not sure where. I didn’t actually know anyone’s whereabouts until conversations I had over the next several days. All I knew during that time was lying on my left side on my green couch, facing Patrick who sat on the yoga ball, his chin resting on the back of the couch, his kind eyes staring into mine, and his hand always where I needed it, P. on the other side of me placing needles, then stimulating needles, pressing into pain relief pressure points every time I contracted, over and over and over again. And, of course, you in my belly dancing away the whole time. P. kept giggling every time you kicked, which you did so often, she was shocked. You kept me grounded in the understanding that we were going through this together and feeling those little legs bopping around really reminded me that I was working for something real. (By the way, you still kick like crazy.)
Again, I’m not sure exactly how the rest of the night went. It was late at this point – maybe around 10pm? Later? P. left after staying with us for a few hours. She showed Patrick how to hit some pain-relief pressure points, though no one could quite access them the way she could and I preferred to just tough it out physically on my own for the rest of labor. Despite this independent streak, I never, ever wanted to be alone. And it was at this point in the night that I started to feel a bit alone. I continued to labor on the couch, contraction upon contraction, my loving, sweet Patrick at my feet falling asleep as I grunted and moaned in pain, and I began to get angry. “Why is he sleeping? How is he sleeping?” I thought, perturbed. “I don’t get to sleep! He shouldn’t get to sleep either!” I know that I was being childish, but in that moment my frustration took over.
I’m not sure when, but at some point I looked at K. and said, “I know I can do this, I can deal with the pain, but I’m just so tired.” I sincerely wanted to give up. I was done. I was ready to quit, hand in my resignation, drop the mic, walk away. It is impossible to describe here how tired I was. I don’t understand how I was able to live through the next 7 hours of labor, how I was able to not only stay awake but to push for 5 hours and finally bring a baby – you – into the world. And I’m not saying “I don’t understand how” as exaggeration or hyperbole (both of which I am excellent at, by the way), but I am stating as fact that I cannot at all comprehend how my physical body was able to do what it did and finish labor in that state.
K., upon seeing how exhausted Patrick was, suggested that he get in bed and try to rest a little. It was then that she also asked if I would like to try getting in the tub for a while. I said yes, and so they prepared to fill the tub and get everything ready. My mom was still downstairs and came up to see if we needed anything, so she and C. worked together to fill the tub after Patrick hooked it up to the shower line. I went into the bedroom with Patrick to see if laboring in bed would provide any relief that the couch didn’t. What would ensue was my least favorite part of labor. First, my contractions reached a fever pitch of pain. They were unrelenting and unbelievably painful. Deep, deep within me something was twisting and churning. It was unbearable and I thought I might die, and might be okay with that (except that I, like all other women who birth babies, did bear it, as it turns out). In the midst of my contracting, I began to become irate and irrationally angry at everyone. Patrick was sleeping with his head on the opposite end of the bed and I would look at him quizzically in the mere seconds between contractions, wondering how it was that I could be doing all this work and he could be resting. K. would come to sit at my feet, trying to help me relieve my pain and offer support and encouragement. I told her over and over “I can’t do it. I don’t want to do it. I want this to be done. Make it be done. I’m done,” and she would respond, “Just get through this one. Just make it through this one,” which was all fine and good, but I wasn’t buying it. I knew that after this one, there would just be another and another and another, and I told her so. She looked at me, her face saying “yes, that’s true, and I know it’s hard,” and her voice saying, “Just focus on this one.” I wanted to scream and punch and kick and get out of this situation. I was angry. In the throes of all of my pain and anger, I was able to discern that something had gone awry with the tub – apparently the water had turned cold because we had used up all the hot, and so the tub’s temperature was much too cool for me to get in it. This added to my frustration tenfold in that moment, because all I had wanted to do was get in the tub. I didn’t want to be on the bed anymore. Unfortunately, I knew I didn’t have it in me to move anywhere else until the tub was ready, so I was stuck. Then I began to hear my mom and C. having a conversation outside in the living room while they waited for the water to heat up again and I was distracted and irritated by the sound of their voices, trying to whisper, having a conversation while I was dying. Didn’t they know I was dying?!?!? Why were they talking?!?! I didn’t want to be angry at them, I thought in the moment, I was happy they were there for me and filling the tub, but still, I couldn’t control my feelings of resentment. K. saw that I was getting distracted and went to the door to ask them to lower their voices.
K. took the opportunity of my momentary distractedness to suggest that I take some castor oil to ensure that my contractions would progress further and further. I didn’t want to do it, again. I thought, “aren’t we far enough in labor that I don’t have to have castor oil? Aren’t I getting close?” I kept needing someone to tell me how much more of this I had to deal with, which, of course, no one could. They didn’t know how much more either. I asked K. to explain the process to me again, and she said she would put some castor oil in some juice or ice cream and I would take it, and then in around two hours I would shit my brains out, basically. She said that it meant I wouldn’t have a water birth, though I could go into the tub for a couple of hours while we were waiting for the castor oil to kick in. I was momentarily heartbroken at the idea of not having a water birth, because though I hadn’t had my heart set on it prior to actually being in labor, (in fact, I had always assumed I would have you out of water), at that moment I felt a very strong sense that you would be born in water. And so after the initial feeling of heartbreak at K. telling me you wouldn’t be born in the tub, I dismissed the statement, because somehow I knew you would anyway.
I did what I did every time K. suggested I do something I didn’t want to do: I asked her, “do I have to?” And she said she would really like me to try. If labor continued to progress, great, but if it didn’t, then we would have wasted another two hours and I would be that much more exhausted. So I relented one last time to something I absolutely did not want to do, before my body truly took over. K. asked if I wanted the oil in ice cream or juice, and I requested apple juice. (I would unknowingly drink a whole half-gallon of apple juice during labor, and another in the days after.) She warned me that it would be somewhat chunky and unpleasant, as the oil would congeal in the cold substance, but that was the least of my worries. I didn’t want to experience the effects of the castor oil, who cared what it tasted like. K. left and came back with a jam jar of apple juice and castor oil with a fork in it and stirred it up like scrambled eggs and handed it to me. I was feeling nauseated so I hesitated and didn’t immediately take it. It was clear that the oil had separated in that moment of hesitation, so K. took the jar back and stirred the mixture up again. This time, I shot it quickly, like it was tequila and I was twenty years old on spring break. K. had looked away for a split second, and when she looked back her eyes were wide – “Wow, you just took that like a champ, holy cow!” she said. Or something like it. “Well, what else was I supposed to do?” I thought.
Within minutes I began to have unbelievably strong contractions. Patrick began to stir, sensing the rising intensity of my contractions. I was furious at this point in labor, particularly after having taken the castor oil, and the fury was rising and rising.
Until my water broke.
It felt like a heavy balloon popping suddenly and as though gallons of water poured out of me. K. and C. went to get towels and I thought I had probably soaked the bed and was worried about it – of course, being who I am, in the throes of labor I was still thinking about keeping things clean (just moments earlier I had noticed that the castor oil was really, well, oily, and I idly hoped that I wouldn’t get oil on my hands or the sheets.). As it turned out, it was much less water than I thought, and a towel did the trick of drying me and the bed off. The feeling of my water breaking brought me a momentary sense of relief and I was able to take a clear, calm breath. Patrick was still in and out of sleep, how, I don’t know. I may or may not have kicked him to wake him once or twice during a particularly painful moment.
The moment of relief from my water breaking was fleeting, and I was in intense pain again. I hated being on the bed because I had nothing to push against with my legs or grab onto with my hands. I felt unmoored, lost in the sea of my mattress, lying slightly skewed to the left, awkward and uncomfortable. I started to shake and needed to throw up. Someone got me the big pink bowl and I held it to my side between contractions. During one of my contractions K. checked your heartbeat (she did this constantly, but only a few times stand out distinctly in my memory). I remember for the first time feeling really uncomfortable having the Doppler on me while I contracted – it felt distracting and took my attention away from getting through the pain. As K. listened, the heartbeat sounded strange and was slower than it should have been. One would have expected some worry to creep into my consciousness at that kind of news, but I somehow wasn’t worried at all. I don’t know if it was ignorance, distraction, or faith, but I wasn’t worried about you for even one moment of the whole labor. K. removed the Doppler and waited a moment to check it again and this time it was perfect. She told me that the first time she had caught my pulse, not yours, and that’s why it was slower. “The baby sounds amazing,” K. said again. My amazing girl.
Maybe the water had heated back up at this point, because K. had left the room and it was just me and a slumbering Patrick at my feet. I felt a powerful urge to vomit and I began sweating and shaking profusely. I wanted to wake Patrick so that he might help me through, but I couldn’t manage to. It took everything within me not to vomit. I didn’t want to have to re-take the castor oil. It was a horrible few minutes, taking me to a new level of discomfort that I was trying to control, to breath through. I have successfully breathed through the urge to vomit before, but I really didn’t think I could keep myself from it now. Eventually, though, the urge subsided. My contractions, however, did not; they continued to build in intensity. I began to think to myself that I should have let myself vomit, because I knew that nothing was stopping or slowing my labor at this point – I knew we were heading toward the finish line. And I didn’t want to deal with the mess of castor oil or trying to get out of the tub to poop while I was wanting to push, or accidentally pooping (and not like normal labor pooping) in the tub. I just didn’t want to think about making a mess. The thought sent shudders through me. “I really, really, should have let myself puke,” I thought. It felt like a missed opportunity – like my body was saying, “Nah, you don’t need that stuff.”
At that point K. came back in and I reported to her that I really thought I would vomit but breathed through it. She was happy, because she said she would have had to give me the castor oil again, as I suspected she would. She then told me the tub was finally ready for me. I don’t know at all how I made it out of my tall, tall bed, across the living room and into the tub, but somehow I did. I noticed my mom wasn’t around anymore, and remember wanting her – and Robina, and Tahira – to come back. But I couldn’t articulate it anymore. After I birthed you, I spoke to your daddy about many things I thought I had said and expressed during the labor, and he told me that I hadn’t actually said or expressed any of those things. He told me that there were often moments where someone would ask me a question and I would just stare at them, not answering. In my mind, I had answered every question I had been asked, but in retrospect I realize that perhaps I was answering in my mind only, and my brain wasn’t sending the signal to my mouth. The desire to have my family back around me during these moments was one of those thoughts that I didn’t get to express, and one of the only regrettable moments of labor in retrospect. I really didn’t want to be alone. I wanted to feel all of that fierce and loving energy around me now. I needed it.
As I said, I somehow made it into the birth tub. I stepped into the warm water and immediately felt a sense of relief. Being submerged in water felt better than not, and, for that moment, it was enough. My contractions continued to come strongly and again I felt the desire to press up against something with my arms and legs. I found myself in all sorts of contorted positions, trying to get leverage with both my arms and legs at the same time, which was not easy in a large tub. I couldn’t do so by stretching all the way out, so I stretched myself at an angle. This meant that I wasn’t holding onto the handles correctly, but once I found the leverage I was looking for, it didn’t matter that it was uncomfortable or awkward. There I was, floating on my back, arms out of water, head under water with each contraction, hips turned to the right and legs pushing at a 90-degree angle against the left wall of the pool. Robina would try to describe my position a few hours later to Tahira, who would say it sounded like I was a butterfly. I love that image because I like to think of that time in the tub as an emerging, not only for you, but for myself, both of us coming out of a cocoon and being born anew.
Patrick was still trying to rest in the bedroom when I first got in the tub, and I felt the lack of him there, but was comforted by the serenity that had taken over the environment. Everything was calm and safe, despite my body feeling like it was being ripped apart and my mind feeling like I couldn’t withstand any more. After contracting for some time, K. asked if she could check me again. She said she would try to stretch me again if she could, and again asked if that was okay. I said yes, and at this point I was ready – no longer fearful and stressed out as I was the first time. She checked your heartbeat first, during a contraction again. I hadn’t realized that the Doppler could work under water and thought it was cool that it did. Again, K. said you were amazing. My heart rejoiced every time she said it. She then put on a glove and got ready to check me. Again she didn’t tell me how dilated I was and she continued to help stretch me as I contracted. I would later learn that she was able to help bring me to between 7 and 8cm. I have to stress again how glad I was that I didn’t know where I was in terms of numbers, because I don’t know how I could have gone on feeling so disheartened by my slow progress. Feelings of doubt had already crept in and I began to say things like, “I can’t do this anymore” and, more accurately, “I don’t want to do this anymore.” I also started to ask how much further I had to go, how much longer it would take, how many more contractions I had to live through. I was frustrated by the lack of knowledge we all had. Birthing you took so much trust; trust I didn’t know I had the capacity for.
There was a moment when C. and I were alone in the room together, I in the tub feeling raw and unable to continue, she on the outside leaning over, and she told me that I might want to try pushing. She said that if my cervix was fully dilated, then I might feel some relief in it, and if it wasn’t fully dilated yet, that I would feel a great pressure and pain, like I was pushing into something that wasn’t open – which it wasn’t. But I began pushing anyway. With every contraction, I decided that I would push my way through my idiot of a cervix. I felt immense pressure and resistance, which I presume was against the lip of my cervix since there were those 2 stubborn centimeters I had yet to contend with.
I pushed like this for the next 4 hours.
I pushed like our lives depended on it. I pushed so hard my voice became hoarse. I pushed so hard I broke hundreds of capillaries in my face. I pushed so hard that I thought my body would explode from the force.
Those four hours felt like one long moment, stretched out towards infinity. I would look up at the same corner of the crenulated tin ceiling repeatedly, my eyes playing tricks on me, making the ceiling appear so close I could reach out and press my hand against it. I spoke to the ceiling in my mind, spoke to myself, to God, all without words. I was pure feeling and anything I wanted to say, I said through my body.
I cried out over and over, loudly and with total abandon. K. reminded me to keep my tone low and deep. Then, later, she told me not to vocalize at all, but rather to hold my breath as I pushed, focusing my energy on bringing you down, down, down. When I released each push, I let out one gutteral, primal yell, part exhaustion, part ferocity. I heard those yells as they punctuated the complete silence, echoing and reverberating deep within me. When I had a moment to, I wondered if the neighbors heard me. I was sure they could.
K. asked me to try to make my pushes work harder for me. She told me to hold each one for longer as I held my breath, and that as I did so, she would continue to stretch me. Each push then came in a set of three. I would take a deep breath as I began to contract, hold it, and begin to push as hard as I could for as long as I could. Then I would take a sharp, quick breath and again push as hard as I could for as long as I could. Finally I would take one last quick breath and push again – this last time I could usually only push for a second or two before releasing. Every time I contracted I told myself, “make it to three.” And I did, every time. K. told me I was an incredible pusher. She told me that I was a natural. I was too tired to really register a feeling of pride in that, but deep down I did. Her saying that made me feel strong.
Before going into labor I had told K. and Patrick that I felt like I would be a good pusher. K. had been describing the reality that pushing during labor is like “taking the biggest shit of your life.” She said that women often have a hard time because they don’t “push into their bottoms” because they think they should be pushing out of their vaginas. (It’s counterintuitive, yes.) As she said all this, a feeling of confidence came over me. Pushing seemed like a part of labor that would be really active; that required active, energetic work, rather than pain management. “That’s the part I’ll be good at,” I thought. And I think I said so, as well. “I can do that,” I said, “I’m great at taking a shit.” We all laughed.
I didn’t have a chance while I was pushing to worry about the castor oil I had taken, and luckily, it didn’t make an appearance. I just pushed and pushed and pushed for those suspended hours, floating away (literally as well as figuratively) after each push. K. went to get Patrick soon after I started pushing, telling him that I was getting close. I didn’t see him come into the room, but I did feel his presence, his hands on my shoulders as he sat on the yoga ball behind me. He tried to hold my hand, but I was glued tightly to the handles of the tub, so he just stayed there, his hand on top of mine for the whole time. With every push, I would press as hard as I could with my legs against the side of the tub and with my arms against the handles. Several times I worried that I would break the tub because of how hard I was pressing against the handles. “Wouldn’t that be just great,” I thought to myself. “I’ll break the tub and flood the house and then this baby will be stuck in me for even longer!”
K. continued to help me dilate while I pushed, and there was a clear shift from the first time she stretched my cervix on the couch: I no longer felt like this passive entity experiencing all of this external pain; I now wanted K. to help me. We became this unified team during pushing, and we were working as one. I have never, never been anywhere close to as exhausted as I was during this time, and there were times when it felt like I would be working like this forever. K. encouraged me through those doubtful moments by casually saying things like my having an “awesome pelvis” and that my baby would have no problem coming down through it. Her complete lack of worry or frustration helped me quell my worry and frustration. That kind of eternal patience was such a gift throughout my whole labor.
C. tried to get me to drink every so often, which I mostly refused because I was too busy. When I did want to drink, I only wanted apple juice because it was cold when everything else wasn’t. I was boiling in the tub. I felt so warm I thought my skin was melting off. Drops of sweat rolled into my swollen eyes at an increasing rate. My hair, plastered to my head, was becoming cumbersome, too. All I wanted was a cool breeze on my face and to shave my head. I asked for a cold washcloth, and C. got one for me. She placed it on my forehead. Upon contact, it immediately lost all its coolness. It started sliding down my face in a deluge of sweat and half-covered my eyes. I couldn’t articulate anything, so I let go of the tub handle for a moment, grabbed the washcloth off of my forehead, aggressively wiped my whole face with it, as though acting out my anger at the beads of sweat, and then tossed it aside. Getting rid of all the sweat was a momentary relief, but it didn’t last long. Anything that was above water just seemed to get in the way of what I was trying to do. The sweat and heat and swollen face were all trying to distract me, I thought. “Just get out of my way!” I wanted to tell them, “I’m busy here and can’t tend to your needs right now!”
My whole body was in my vagina. I felt your head descending, and K. did, too. “You’re making such good progress,” she would say. I asked “how much longer?” but no one could tell me. “Not too long, now,” was all they could say. Because, after 42 hours of labor, when you showed signs of transition two nights ago and then were found to be only 2cm dilated over half a day after that, all bets are off. There are patterns to labor, some predictability, but really, there are no guarantees. And I didn’t really get that before my own labor. Actually, I need to rephrase for emphasis: I really didn’t get that before my own labor.
K. was texting with Robina and asked me if she should have everyone come back. This may have been one of those times that I didn’t really answer but thought I did. Regardless, somehow everyone made it back. They didn’t come into the pushing room, but stayed in the bedroom instead, and waited for me to be ready. I thought, “They should come in if they want,” but couldn’t say so. I did know that I didn’t want anyone to leave. I know this because there was a point at which K. and C. had to fill the tub with more hot water so that it would be a good temperature for you to emerge into. My first thought was, “Oh no! Not more hot! I need more cold!” But then, when K. left the room, I didn’t care about what for anymore – I just desperately didn’t want her gone. I thought I would have a panic attack. “Don’t leave!” I wanted to yell, and every moment she was gone was stressful. I didn’t want to have any contractions without her. “I need you here!” I thought. I found that I couldn’t say anything, though, and even if I could have, I told myself K. had to leave to get the water, and I shouldn’t interrupt that work. I don’t know how I rationalized with myself at this point in labor, but somehow I did.
I was really beginning to feel you now, feel my pushing working – and that felt incredible. For four hours already, I had been pushing, pushing, pushing as hard as I could and feeling devastatingly exhausted. Before each contraction and push I truly felt that there was no possible way my being could exist through another round. I thought that surely my body would implode, be sucked into a black hole, a vortex, and never be heard from again. Or, perhaps I would push so hard my body would explode, like bits of confetti from those champagne-shaped party poppers my mom hands out on New Years Eve. My guts would float down through the air and land lightly around the room like those strings of colored paper. But no, I definitely wouldn’t survive.
And then suddenly there had been this shift – I could feel you. I could feel this heaviness, like a ten-thousand-pound cantaloupe, and it was you! I’m not trying to be silly when I say it felt like a ten-thousand-pound cantaloupe, because that really is the most apt way I can think to describe it. It’s that particular kind of heaviness that meets your palm when you hold a cantaloupe testing it for ripeness – a full, satisfying weight in your hand – and then add to that all the pressure and force of the pushing. (Your dad has always joked that I have a cantaloupe head, and apparently he didn’t know how right he was. You apparently have a cantaloupe head, too!)
It didn’t hurt when I began to feel you, or no more than pushing had already. I actually dealt with the pain of pushing much better than I dealt with the endless pain of my endless contractions. I think the reason is what I was saying earlier, really – that pushing is this active work. There is an endgame there – you push to get your baby out. Contracting may be getting your body ready to get your baby out, but it feels like this pain that is happening to you.
I had felt like the contractions were acting upon me, like I was being flopped around by a tide at the beach. When that happens, I always just feel like I’m drowning. But in pushing I felt in control. There was something I was doing; I was the force to be reckoned with. It was like I was kicking every contraction’s ass. Like, “You wanna mess with me, contraction? I’m going to push the shit out of you. Just watch me!” and then I did. Pushing marked this shift from being acted upon, to acting, and though it hurt – so much – I preferred it. I felt strong, and tough, and full of determination. Or at least my body did. I felt strong in my body. I didn’t think I was, though. What I thought I was, was tired, spent, and ready to give up as I had been for hours. “This is pathetic,” I would think.
And then, after all those hours, we really were nearing the end. As K. felt for you, through my bleary, half-closed eyes I could see her smile to herself. “You’re so close, Saadia,” she said. “Your baby is right there.” I continued to push. K. continued to check me, and you with the Doppler, and continued to smile to herself. “Is it really smiling time?” I would think to myself, fleetingly. Patrick held onto my arms because I refused to release the handle of the tub from my hand, my right wrist becoming so sore and tired from being twisted into a position from which I could hold onto the handle of the tub that I had to start shaking it out between contractions. I would feel the burn from that work in my arms and legs for days. K. suddenly got an even more enthusiastic look on her face and said “Your baby has a lot of hair!” and told Patrick to reach down and feel you. He did, and it was the first time I had seen his face in four hours. He knelt down and put his hand in the pool to feel the top of your head. He smiled, teary-eyed, and looked at me. Our baby! His excitement was palpable. It transferred to me, and I felt energized by it. “I’m making our family happen,” I thought. K. had asked if I wanted to reach down and feel you, but I had spoken a fast and firm no at the time. After seeing your dad feel you, though, I decided I wanted to, too. So quietly, and without saying so, I reached down and felt your head. My first thought was, “That doesn’t seem like very much hair!” and I didn’t have time for a true second thought, because I wanted to see you so badly I couldn’t contain myself. Push, push, push. “You’re so close,” K. said. “The head is almost ready to come out.” She told Patrick that she would call him over when your head was making its way out so that he could see, but it seemed like it would still be a little while yet so he went back to his perch behind me. He confirmed for me later that everyone thought it would still take some time, because they were shocked when it didn’t.
There was one push where I really felt you about to come out, and it hurt worse than the other pushes. Really, it felt like your head was stuck half-in and half-out of my vagina, which maybe it was, and it hurt. K. called your dad over to see, saying something like, “Look, you can begin to see the head emerging.” On the next push I thought, “I really don’t want it to feel like that again. I have to get her out on this one.” There was a moment of pause, and then, on the next push, I pushed as hard as I could for as long as I could with my first breath. Somehow I felt your head come out. I saw K. quickly put her hands into the water to turn your shoulders. I held my breath and pushed again, and I could feel your body start to come out, too. And then, with my third breath, at 4:22am on Thursday, May 29th, you were out.
I couldn’t process anything in that moment. My body released and went limp and my eyes rolled back into my head as I tried to catch my breath in that eternal second after you were born.
Somehow, somehow, I held you in my arms. You felt skinny but long as I put you on my chest. Everything blurred around me and was silent. I remember nothing of the way the room looked, nothing of what anyone said, just the feeling of your tiny, wet body against mine. Nothing existed except the way you felt in my hands. There were no thoughts in my head, I had no body to speak of – everything, everything that I was, everything that I had – was in those hands as I held your body for the first time. I was all feeling. The entire universe, every atom of it, was distilled into those two palms.
And then suddenly, time began again.
I discovered my eyes.
I looked at you and you didn’t seem real. I had thought hard about what the first thing I wanted to say to you was, I love you, or Bismillah al-rahman al-rahim, and those would come later, but in that moment it was enough to say what I wanted to say through my arms as I held you against me. I knew you would know what love was by feel, as I did. It didn’t matter what I said. I looked at you and you were so smooth and so amazing and so here. I looked at your dad and we cried. His eyes were wide, still in shock at what we had just done (he would later tell me that he had come over just expecting to see your head and then wait a while through the process of you emerging, but then was shocked when all of you appeared in one big push. He would say that several times – “You just pushed her out!”). I looked at K. and she was already working, checking you with such calm and care, noticing that you hadn’t cried out or made any sound and giving you one quick breath, at which you called out as if to say, “I’m here, I’m here, I just didn’t want to make a fuss!” and then quieted down again. We saw you had blue feet. “They’ll pink up,” K. said.
I looked at Patrick again, a question in my mind as well as his. Were you Kiran? I tried to feel for if you were a boy or a girl, but your umbilical cord got in the way, and so for a moment I thought you might be a boy. I found myself surprised by that possibility, and unbelieving. I picked you up so that your dad and I could both see, and what we saw was that you were not actually a little boy, but our little Kiran. While I was pregnant, I never wanted to guess whether you were a boy or a girl, because I hate guessing things that are unknowable. Maybe it’s just that I hate being wrong. But in my heart, you were always a girl. I had felt your spirit fluttering around me for years before you came to us, and that’s just what you felt like. True, if you hadn’t been a girl, I might have found some other explanation for my senses, but somehow I knew my feeling wasn’t wrong, despite what the “Gypsy fortune teller” told me New Orleans that time.
Your dad and I looked at each other for a long time, trying to let it sink in, everything still so surreal. You were our Kiran, and we were a new kind of family from the one we had been before. We looked at you, looked at each other. Your dad kissed me, we both cried. The room was vibrating with love and life. I momentarily forgot how tired I was.
I looked for my family, and they appeared, slowly, tentatively. “Where were you?” I wanted to say, but all I could do was look and be so, so happy they were there, gathered around me, tears in their eyes as well as mine. I had done it. It was almost done. And here everyone was, holding me, kissing me, talking to me, proof that I wasn’t dead.
I held you up so everyone could see if you were a boy or a girl, and when they saw your were a girl, they laughed. Of course, another girl in this family of girls. But you were my girl. My little baby, my precious one. I laughed, too, and looked at you. I was so tired, and you were so perfect.
My other senses started coming back to me. The exhaustion started to return. My eyes were swollen and I realized that I could barely open them, though my voice was less hoarse than I had expected it to be. There was so much to process, so much to think about, that I don’t know how the rest of the early morning went. I remember beginning to notice a warm orange glow coming into the room right after I pushed you out, remember feeling the world start to come alive again from its suspended state. Remember someone telling me that you came out with a nuchal arm, meaning that your whole left arm was up over your face when you emerged. (You still sleep like this.) It didn’t occur to me to be shocked that you came out that way, or to consider whether or not it had made it harder for you to come out, because pushing just felt as hard as it had to be to bring you here.
I held you on my chest and asked K. about delivering the placenta. She told me I could try to push a bit if I was ready to get it out, which I was, so I did. It emerged easily and I think I said, “Oh, that’s it?” Either K. or C. scooped it up and put it into the pink bowl. K. then showed it to me and Patrick. It was so small! It was round and symmetrical and compact. I didn’t know what I had been expecting, some giant meteor or something, but I was surprised at what I saw. And a little grossed out, to be honest. K. showed us the underside of the placenta, with the “tree of life” on it, and I thought it was beautiful and strange.
We waited for quite some time and then your daddy cut your umbilical cord. I didn’t want to think too much about this moment because I wasn’t ready for us to be two yet. I suppose we already were, but you and I were such a team, such a pair, so one, for so long, that I wasn’t ready yet to process our separation. It meant a lot to me that your dad was the one to cut the cord, though, because when I think back on it, it feels less like our separation, and more like the addition of your dad into the relationship that we had. He would finally get to know you as I had known you. (Well, minus the birthing you. That will be just ours, little one.)
It was time to let you really meet your dad, so Patrick took his shirt off and picked you up. I thought, “How warm she’ll be on his furry chest! What mammals we really are!” and it made me smile to think of you all cozy and snuggled up. I stayed in the tub while you and your daddy took a little walk.
I was alone with K. for the first time, and I looked at her. I didn’t know what to say, and I started crying. How could I ever explain to her how much I had needed her; how I had kept thinking, “She’s still here after all of these hours? She hasn’t left me?” and upon the realization that she wasn’t going to leave me, the massive relief I had felt; the enormous blessing of having someone so extraordinary by my side. “I couldn’t have done this without you,” I said in my tears. “I love you,” she said in hers. “I love you so much,” I said back, and we hugged for a long time.
Reality continued to creep back in fragments. The growing light, the red water in the pool, my exhaustion, the heaviness in my limbs, the pain everywhere. K. said I needed to try to pee and that she wouldn’t leave until I had done so. She said I should try in the pool because it might be easier and burn less. I sat for quite some time trying to pee, getting distracted from trying to pee from chatting with C. or K. or anyone who happened to come into the room. I was in a daze but already trying to process my experience. I hadn’t really spoken in so long and I was ready to. I would continue to talk a lot about my labor over the coming weeks because talking with others is my best way of processing something, and there was so, so much to process. There still is, even this many weeks later as I write it all out.
I couldn’t manage to pee in the tub, so I got out, a little disappointed because I didn’t want to deal with any more pain. Eventually I did pee, on the toilet, but I’m not really sure when that happened in the span of the morning. I made it out of the tub, dried off by one of Robina’s red laboring towels, and got back to my green couch, which had been covered with a sheet of plastic and some towels. K. had to check me one last time to see if I had torn, which, to my sadness, I had. When she cleaned off the tear, I was in a lot of pain. The burning was intense, and I had not only torn my perineum, but also had abrasions elsewhere. I was disappointed in myself, thinking I could have prevented this somehow, wondering why it had to be this way. K. asked if I wanted her to stitch me up, and I begged her not to. Then I asked, “Do I have to?” and she said, “Not at all.” I asked her what the pros and cons were; if there were any benefits to one or the other and she explained that my tear was straight and uncomplicated and would heal fine on its own. So I opted to not have the stitches. I just couldn’t take any more.
Someone placed you back on my chest so you could nurse a while. I was in a bit of a fog at this point, my adrenaline starting to wear off a bit, and my sleepiness coming back to me, making my heavy lids even heavier. My head was still burning up and felt massively swollen, so I asked for anther cold washcloth. My mom asked me what I wanted to eat. I had decided ahead of time that I wanted an American cheese omelet with an English muffin and a bowl of chocolate ice cream, and I was so excited to eat just that. Tahira said, “I told you so!” and my mom responded with, “Well, I just wanted to make sure she hadn’t changed her mind!” I smiled at the way my family was all around me, the fact that everything was normal, the same as it always was, but that you were here with us now. Tahira brought me the washcloth and held it over my forehead and eyes while you laid on my chest. It took you a little while to find your way to my nipple, and I was in no rush because I could barely move. My soreness was bone-deep. You eventually made it, but you were so tired that you fell asleep. As a side-note, that’s still your favorite way to fall asleep.
It was time for your exam. K. started by giving you your Vitamin K shot, which I still wasn’t sure I wanted you to have. I knew I didn’t want you feeling any pain so close to the beginning of your life, but your dad and I had agreed to do the shot, so he held you close while it happened. I made a joke about how if you were going to be traumatized by it, at least you would associate it with your daddy. You only protested a little bit, though, and were calm.
Your exam took place on the living room rug, everyone standing or sitting in a circle around you, I, eating my omelet on the couch. I love that this is how you started your life in this world – surrounded by all of these beautiful, strong women, and your sensitive, patient father. This is what it means to have a family – they will put a washcloth on your head, make you an omelet, and hold your hand at 5am after a 3-day labor, smiling and loving on you the whole time.
And even further than that, the beginning of your life sent branches of love up 22nd street to my father, your Nana’abu who had been praying for basically three months straight (I would later find a prayer written on a slip of paper that he had asked Robina and my mom to secretly hide under my pillow – which was actually placed in a crevice of the green couch, of course). And even further than that, to California, to my best, my oldest friend, your Auntie Erika, who would be up all night waiting for word on your arrival, sending love so strong across each one of those 2,500 miles that I could feel it the whole time (one of the first things I would say after birth being, “Someone text Erika! Send her pictures! Tell her I love her!”).
We had all we needed, and more.
K. measured you and weighed you and you were dozy and peaceful through all of it. You were 22 inches long and weighed 9lbs 6oz. You were huge! We all joked, wondering where I had kept you in my tiny belly, K. saying that she would never try to guess the weight of a Khalid-sister baby again (she historically underestimates, but maybe that’s just to save us some fear). I sincerely couldn’t believe what a big baby I had grown! To the end, I truly thought you would be a tiny little bean.
I only remember bits and pieces from the rest of the morning. Mom calling dad and letting him know I was doing well and that you were our little Kiran (when he came over later that day he would say, “That was really difficult for me for all those hours,” totally sincerely, as though he had experienced labor alongside me. “You will understand now that you’re a parent,” he would add when I teased him.). Mom telling me how amazing I was and how proud she was of me, me thinking, “Mama, you taught me that strength.” Robina and Tahira helping me get into bed, Robina showing me how to nurse (how I had and would continue to rely on her to help me through the transition of having a baby; how she will never really know what a source of strength she was for me). Tahira, smiling at me, laughing at every silly joke, ever this calm, supportive presence, bringing such peace with her. Patrick, so tender with the both of us, always so expressive in his face and body, if not in his words, holding us in his arms and making us such a home there.
These are some of the many inexpressible moments surrounding your incredible birth. I can describe them, but never truly capture how they felt. That story is written into my bones and there it will stay until the end of my days.
Robina and Tahira stayed with us the longest, settling us in, sitting with us on the bed as we prepared for rest. After they slipped out, your father and I set our heads against our pillows, you in between us, so peaceful, and just watched you. We were saturated with joy, with love, with awe. We breathed deeply the scent of our new family, this incredible thing we had made.
I would think about your name in the coming hours. The fact that it means ray of light; how, when we chose it, I didn’t know how its meaning would play out. Your father and I both loved it as soon as we thought of it, agreed on it immediately and without discussion, but didn’t know why. It was only after birthing you that it felt right, that it became true. I labored with you through the rays of the setting sun, through the rays of the rising sun, and finally, you appeared early in the morning, with the first light. You illuminated my being in the moment of your emergence the way sunlight does through clouds when you wake too early, hours before the rest of the world, hours before your neighbors, eyes bleary and full of sand, seeing those rays and feeling the transcendence that is possible by simply being alive for moments like this. You were the light at the end of a long tunnel – a long labor, and a long pregnancy, spent inside, immobilized, the two of us talking and waiting for what felt like eternity to finally meet each other. I would look at your face in the coming days and weeks (and I will continue to do so for all your years) and see you as that light. When I would, two days later, look upon the still-standing birth tub in the other room and burst into tears at the memory of the labor and the pushing, when I would, for days and days afterwards, pause before moving, or sitting, for fear of provoking contractions, when I would remember all the tiny traumas of such a long, exhausting, emotional journey, I would look into your small, beautiful face and see that light there. That light brings me back every time.
Your daddy picked your middle name out a few days later. He chose Sunehri, meaning golden. When he proposed it to me, I cried. My sonhi Sunehri, my precious thing.
Later in the day, after Robina would bring us bagels and lox (for some reason it’s all I wanted to eat that day), continuing to take so much care of us (your dad and I would comment on this often after your birth – how well-loved we were by your Auntie, how imperative she was to our survival in those weeks), we would read your birth day poem.
Let me explain: I have always loved the Sufi poet Rumi. Years ago, your Nonna bought me a book called A Year with Rumi. I would often, on particularly significant days, turn to the volume to teach me lessons or grant me perspective on what I was experiencing. Of course, I looked at everyone’s birthdays and found meaning there, as well. Rumi always knew just what to say to help me understand the world, my life, what it is to be human. So, on your birth day, May 29th, I turned to my Rumi book and took a look. This is what was written there:
THE HEALING PRESENCE // Rumi
I go to the one who can cure me and say,
I have a hundred things wrong. Can you combine them to one?
I thought you were dead. I was, but I caught your fragrance
again, and came back to life.
Gently, his hand on my chest.
Which tribe are you from? This tribe.
He begins to treat my illness.
If I am angry and aggressive, he gives me wine.
I quit fighting. I take off my clothes.
I lie down. I sing in the circle of singers.
I roar and break cups, even big jars.
Some people worship golden calves.
I am the mangy calf who worships love.
The healing presence has called me from the hole I hid in.
My soul, if I am agile or stumbling, confused
or in my true being, it is all you.
Sometimes the sleek arrow.
Other times a worn leather thumbguard.
You bring me where everything circles.
Now you put the lid back on the wine vat, pure quiet.
I wept and wept. Yes, you were my healing presence; you were the one who could cure me! The poem was a conversation between us. I caught your fragrance and came back to life. We asked each other, Which tribe are you from? We both answered, This tribe. The tribe of our hearts. Only you could help me quit fighting the process. That was my labor, your birth: I laid down, I sang in the circle of singers, I roared and broke cups – I worshipped love.
You called me from the hole I hid in, my little ray of light, my Kiran, my daughter. My soul, it is you. You bring me where everything circles. It circles around you, my ray of light, my daughter, my love. It is pure quiet. There is only that. Only us.