It does not matter how slowly you go as long as you do not stop. – Confucius
You’re here, you beautiful thing, you. A sister for Kiri, another daughter for Patrick and me, a person: a tiny, complete, perfect person.
Your journey here was not the one I would have chosen, but I have to believe that it’s the one I needed. The one you needed.
You took over two days to arrive, and your birth was much like your sister’s birth. I know you’ll get tired of being compared, as sisters do, so let me just say that I don’t just see your birth in relation to Kiri’s birth, despite the fact that the similarities are there. That’s part of this story, yes, but it isn’t the whole thing by any means.
On Sunday morning, December 4, I woke up from a late sleep. It was the weekend, so your father let me sleep in while he took your sister downstairs to make pancakes and have their usual weekend morning together. I took my time getting up; opening the curtains, stretching, looking at my phone to see what was going on in the world.
When I got out of bed, I saw the laundry basket full of folded clothes sitting untouched and waiting to be put away, so I set about putting everyone’s clothes in their places, and the feeling of accomplishment when I got to the bottom of the basket was stronger than usual. I busied myself with tidying up a few other stray things around the upstairs and then brushed my teeth and went downstairs.
Kiri was at the table eating who knows what round of pancakes, and your dad was in the kitchen, alternating between doing dishes and flipping pancakes at the stove. Kiri’s face lit up when she saw me, and I went over and gave her a kiss. Then I went into the kitchen and began to chat with your dad. He stood at the sink, awash in the late fall sunlight that was streaming through the tiny, creaky kitchen window as I went to the fridge to get something out. I can see him standing there, still. (And not only because that’s where he’s actually standing at this very moment.)
As I came out of the fridge, mid-sentence with your father, and turned to the stove, metal spatula in hand, ready to flip the batch of pancakes bubbling around their edges in the skillet so that your dad wouldn’t have to, I was overcome with the feeling of warm and wet. It wasn’t a huge burst, but a slight pressure release and then a large stream down the sides of my legs. “Patrick, I think my water just broke,” I said to your father, whose hands were wet and in the sink. “Are you sure?” he said, “Maybe it’s just pee?” “Nope,” I responded, pretty sure this isn’t pee.” I quickly texted Kristen, “I think my water just broke” and then the same to my mom and sisters.
I was reticent to call our midwives, thinking maybe, somehow, this was just a false alarm and nothing at all out of the ordinary was happening. It occurs to me in this moment how many times I experienced this level of self-doubt and hesitation throughout my whole labor. I wonder now what difficult feelings remained from Kiri’s birth that I hadn’t fully understood or dealt with; feelings of distrust for myself and my body. I know I feel those things sometimes anyway, and have for my whole life, and also know that the need for validation is very, very strong in me, but I don’t think I realized until now how bound up those feelings were in my experiences of giving birth. It makes sense – labor and birth are all about the person doing the work. Others can help and support, but when it comes down to it, it’s you and your body, and no one else. Not trusting yourself makes the work all the more difficult. I was looking for signs externally, when what I needed to be doing was listening to myself, and to you.
Kristen of course called me after just a moment, and asked me to describe the situation. Gush of water, clear, mucousy, no blood, no smell. “It sounds like your water broke, yes.” But I had already known that, already been sure of it, hadn’t I?
“Shit,” I thought. “Shit. Shit, shit, shit, shit, shit.”
This was exactly what I didn’t want to happen. My mind began to race. First, this is how it started with Kiri. Slow leak before labor actually starts: premature rupture of membranes. Second, unlike with Kiri, this time I was GBS positive, which meant that there was a ticking clock on this labor. If I labored for as long as I did with Kiri, I would have to get antibiotics, effectively killing all of our gut flora and crippling our gut health and immunity and a million other things. PROM was the one “normal” labor deviation I had been praying against. I was devastated already, and labor had begun not ten minutes ago. I was welling up with tears when I looked at Patrick. “This is not how it’s supposed to happen,” I said. And then, I saw the excitement on his face, just beneath his sympathy. So I shoved down my anxiety. “We have 24 hours to make this baby come!” I said, and I let myself get excited. I’m going to meet my baby today. I’m going to see my baby’s face. Today!
I texted a bit more with my family, letting everyone know where we were at: water broken and leaking, but no active labor yet, and set about getting a few last things done before you joined us. First on the agenda was having breakfast. Tahira and Patrick Over had made scones, as they always do on Sunday mornings, and they offered to bring them over and have them with cream and jam and eggs and veggie sausage and coffee: a feast to celebrate your impending arrival! But first I had to change out of my wet clothes. I put on the nightgown your dad brought back for me from a trip to Mexico, and tied the string of birth beads from my due date clubs past and present around my neck. Both comforted me.
Pove and Tahira played with Kiri while Patrick made the eggs and sausage, but after only a few minutes, the feeling of excitement turned into a feeling of panic. I began to feel caged in and restless. Busy with nervous energy, I hurried around the apartment picking things up and cleaning somewhat manically. Everything was moving in slow motion, except my mind, which raced from one thought to the next.
Pove and Kiri and I sat down at the table first, Patrick placing the pan of eggs down in front of us before bringing over the rest of our meal. Kiri finished her plate before the rest of us had even had any, and then insisted on having more “big eggs,” as opposed to the presumably paltry “little eggs” we had already given her. Pove responded by giving her his entire serving, which she proceeded to eat immediately. I was worried he wouldn’t have enough to eat, but he tried to reassure me. He could probably sense my anxiety building.
I can’t remember eating my delicious breakfast, preoccupied as I was, though I do remember with some embarrassment how snippy I was becoming. I just couldn’t settle myself. I wonder if these were just normal in-labor feelings or if I was reacting to the feeling of things being backwards again and fears that history would repeat itself. Small things began to feel oppressive – Kiri’s train tracks laid out all over the dining room floor, the surplus of dirty dishes from making breakfast: I needed clean and calm and order before the chaos. I tried to be upbeat and happy, but my anxiousness got the better of me.
I had a to-do list populating in my head. First, I wanted to make sure I had backed up all of the photos on both my phone and my new camera so they would be ready for capturing all the moments of the labor and birth and first days. Patrick Over went home and Tahira asked if she could do anything to help, so she stayed to play with Kiri while Patrick and I got things ready. I sat on the floor with my computer and external harddrive laid out in front of me and got to work backing up my photos. I was overcome with a bizarrely specific urge to listen to Ludacris’ “Roll Out” and Patrick put it on as I sat there dancing and bouncing. I had told Tahira, whom I had charged with making me a birthing playlist, that I wanted to groove in early labor, and apparently the grooving had commenced. I probably could have listened to that song 50 times in a row that afternoon. Perhaps I was subconsciously trying to send you – and my cervix – a message?
Earlier, Kristen had asked what I wanted to do that day – if I wanted acupuncture, or to try castor oil, or the breast pump – to try to get labor started. My answer was a resounding “nothing,” as it was when I was in labor with Kiri, also, but I knew that wasn’t really going to be an option, or rather, not one I thought I could advocate for. I wished that bouncing to Ludacris would be enough to get me to active labor, but I agreed to start with acupuncture.
Unfortunately, after calling every acupuncture place in the neighborhood, I learned that no one could see me. I was in tears. I felt like I was floundering – who would help me? Why were we all alone? Finally, Chloe, Kristen’s Birth Assistant came through with a friend who said she could do a home visit later that evening. I worried about how much it would cost to have her come, and when Patrick reluctantly told me how much she had quoted him, I began to panic. “Saadia, it’s fine. It’s really fine. This is what we need to do so please stop worrying about it,” he reassured me. But I wasn’t in the mindset to be reassured about anything. The stress was bubbling and I couldn’t stop its coming. Kristen had also insisted I take a nap while I could, so I decided to heed her advice and try to quiet my busy mind. I headed upstairs to rest in the waning autumn afternoon.
I woke up to the sound of the geese flying overhead, feeling warm and full and contented. The last strands of light, diffuse and dusty, peeked out from the sides of the curtain. The rest had done its job to revive me. I lay there for a while, listening to the sound and rubbing my feet together under the blanket, feeling the roundness of my middle that would soon, I knew, be leaving. It was time to face the next phase of labor, one that I desperately hoped would be a straight line to meeting you.
We still had some time before the acupuncturist was to come over, so I told Patrick that I really wanted to put the ornaments on the Christmas tree we had brought home a few days earlier. Once it turned December and you hadn’t yet joined us, we realized we should get the tree or risk not having one at all. We turned down the lights and put on our Christmas tree music – Sufjan Stevens’ “Put the Lights on the Tree” is a favorite of ours; something we listen to every year. Another tradition of ours happens to be that I don’t actually put any ornaments up. Rather, I like to unpack the box of ornaments, opening tins filled with tiny wooden figures, and that “Weebox” shoebox from when I was a toddler that holds the 1980s Del Monte plush fruit ornaments from Aunt Lena in it, and unwrapping C3PO’s glass head and our glittery owls and all the other delicate treasures therein. And I watch Patrick – and now Patrick and Kiri (and soon Patrick and Kiri and you!) put them all up, sometimes in silly places, and it brings me such joy. So that’s what we did. And we ordered Dao Palate, because apparently Chinese is what I crave whilst in labor, and waited for the acupuncturist to arrive.
When she got to us, we decided that it would be a good time for Kiri and Patrick to bake your birthday cake. She introduced herself and checked my tongue, and after Kiri whirled around and around by means of welcoming our guest, began to place the needles. The room was dim and I laid on the couch and waited for the contractions to come. I closed my eyes and let my mind float. Patrick and Kiri were in the kitchen baking, and the only thing that registered with my senses was the sound of their voices chatting while they worked. I couldn’t make out what they were saying, but the sound – the back and forth and the tinkling of the fork against the glass bowl – the sound of home – it made me feel such love and peace that I thought my heart would burst. I had taken a magnifying glass up to their voices and everything else had melted away. Only my ears remained. I was happy. So happy that I didn’t notice that I wasn’t having any contractions.
After a little more than an hour, the acupuncturist packed her things and got ready to leave. “I can come back anytime before midnight; I’m not too far away,” she told us, but I knew I wouldn’t be calling her again. Somehow I knew the acupuncture wasn’t going to work, as it hadn’t really worked in my labor with Kiri, either. I began to develop the understanding that both of my babies were only going to come when they were ready, and that was a time that couldn’t be decided or rushed by any of us, much as we tried.
Thinking back on it now, I wonder if I rejected interventions because somewhere, deep down, I knew they wouldn’t work; that my girls would come in their own time and that none of our attempts to coax them out would come to any fruition. Could I have known, intrinsically, that they were pointless? What else could the reason have been for my firm and consistent desire to reject every intervention that was suggested to me during both labors. Castor oil? No thank you! Nipple stimulation? God, please no. Acupuncture? Ugh, do I have to? Every conversation with Kristen went that way. Was it knowledge on my part, or laziness, or what? We’ll never know, I suppose, and I also suppose it doesn’t matter, unless I ultimately take it to mean that my body knows itself and I don’t need to do anything that doesn’t feel right or necessary. Although I don’t know that I’ve learned that lesson, still, after everything.
After acupuncture, we ate dinner. Kiri ate leftovers and Patrick and I munched on some of our takeout. Kiri wanted to eat the brown rice that came with our order, and we picked out the soybeans the restaurant had mixed into the rice so that she could.
When Kiri was finished, Patrick and I left our takeout and took her upstairs for our bedtime routine. We washed up and put on snowman pajamas and read a bedtime story on the floor. I couldn’t stop feeling the bigness of the moment – that this would be the last bedtime we did on our own; the last bedtime while Kiri was still my baby. My only baby. I held her close and let her go. It was time to get in bed. We crawled under the covers and hugged each other until she fell asleep.
At some point I got in touch with Kristen. She suggested Patrick and I go take a walk to see if I could get my contractions going again, so we called Tahira and Patrick Over to see if they could come over and listen for Kiri through the monitor while we were out. Then I very glamorously put on a Depends because my water was still leaking, and got dressed. We bundled up and set out into the chilly night to find our way to some contractions. I imagined myself walking down 22nd street and suddenly stopping, with my arm on your dad’s shoulder, exclaiming, “It’s time!” and starting to push you out. Of course that didn’t happen, but it was a nice thought at the time.
The walk did jump start some contractions, and though they weren’t nearly enough to bring you much closer to us, it was nice to get some fresh air. We walked up 21st street, around 22nd and 23rd in several loops and then back home. We stopped at mom and dad’s house to say hello after our first loop. They came to the door and we chatted on the stoop. Mom recalled taking a walk in early labor when she was pregnant with me; recounted the memory of having to stop every few minutes to lean on dad while she had a contraction. I had been doing that with your father, too. It’s funny to think of how many women for how many thousands of years have had to stop in the midst of something they were doing and find something – someone – to lean on while they contracted during labor. It occurred to me what a universal experience that must be. And also how lucky to have someone, rather than just something, to lean on.
I felt a little giddy then; Patrick and I laughing while we walked and talked, the only ones out on the street, except for some Christmas blow-ups who kept us company as we strolled, neon Mary and Joseph waiting for baby Jesus to join their nativity as we waited for you to join us. Despite a whole day having gone by, I wasn’t worried then; wasn’t desperate or lost or scared. You were coming to me, I knew, in your own time.
As we walked, I texted a bit with Kristen, who wanted to stop by for a visit to listen to how you were sounding and check in with my progress. We got back to the house at the very moment she was getting out of her car and we hugged and went inside. Tahira and Patrick were hanging out on the couch and we were relieved to learn that Kiri hadn’t woken while we were out. We sat down and Kristen turned on the doppler to listen to you, but it didn’t want to cooperate. The battery had died. She didn’t have another 9V battery, so Patrick took the one out of the carbon monoxide detector and we used that, which made me anxious. “What if there’s a carbon monoxide leak while we sleep?!” I thought, and then swallowed that fear down. When we finally listened, you, of course, sounded wonderful and snug and happy, and we laughed as we chatted, as we always do when Kristen visits. Throughout the visit I wondered if Patrick Over felt awkward being there and told him he could go if he wanted. As it turned out, I was just misreading his giddiness at the fact that I was in labor. His and Tahira’s excitement rubbed off on me and between that and the walk, I felt energized. That night, I was ready to be in it for the long game. “What’s next?” I thought.
Kristen recommended that I take castor oil before bed and then get some sleep. We didn’t have any castor oil, of course, and after discussing where we would get some and whether Patrick should bike or not, we settled on Kristen driving with Patrick to Neergaard and then bringing him back. I was glad he wouldn’t be gone long, because I didn’t want him gone at all. In the meantime, Tahira and Patrick and I chatted, and I pointed out that the chocolate peanut butter bomb cake that Patrick had bought me looked like Darth Vader (it did). When Patrick got back, with a new 9V battery and the castor oil, we figured we should try to sleep, so we bid farewell-for-now to Tahira and Pove. Then Patrick and I hunkered down on the couch to finish our takeout and cake and watch a little TV before bed. Sitting there next to Patrick, I didn’t want to fall asleep. I didn’t want the night to end. It’s not that I didn’t want labor to come, but I just wanted to live, suspended in that moment in time, for just a little bit longer. Watching TV with my beloved, on my last day being pregnant, listening to the sound of my daughter breathing in her bed through the baby monitor; it was all too perfect.
When I had Kiri, I couldn’t possibly have known how my life was about to change. I didn’t know that I was about to shed everything I had been like snakeskin, and without any choice or understanding of how raw and real it would all be. But this time was different. I knew that nothing would ever be the same. Yes, I would be Saadia, whatever essential being that exists within my soul, but I would be, ever so suddenly, new. In an unknown foreign land where the landmarks would be the same, but I wouldn’t be.
So I wished to stay. I was so profoundly excited to see your face, but I was also utterly terrified, standing there on the precipice of the rest of my life. I wanted to linger just a moment longer.
And then the moment ended. The credits rolled and it was time for us to go to bed. Castor oil down the hatch, arms around each other and under the blankets, eyes closed and poised for what was to come.
At 2am it came. In waves, in heaves. I leaned over the toilet and vomited over and over, every bit of everything inside me. I hated every moment, but I endured it with resolve. “This is part of how I will meet my precious baby.” And then another hurl.
Then the contractions began and it was time to wake Patrick.
They came intense and fast and built and built. Patrick timed them on his phone. 2 to 3 minutes apart and lasting 30 second to 1.5 minutes each. I sat on the toilet for hours like this. Just as I had with Kiri. This had to be it, right? But with Kiri this wasn’t it, was it? Patrick texted Kristen to let her know what was happening, but I didn’t think she should come yet. It was 6am. I was 3 hours into intensely contracting, but I was flooded with doubt. I continued to contract on the toilet. Labor was painful and intense and didn’t know how much more I could take. Which, of course, if just a turn of phrase, because I knew from past experience that I might not have any choice but to take very, very much more.
After the sun rose, things began to slow. I began to feel the inevitability of another long, long labor, but didn’t feel any of the energy or resolve I had the night before.
I left the bathroom and laid in bed in the front room for a while, still contracting regularly, but not as closely as I had been. Kristen and Patrick texted, and eventually Kristen made the decision to come over. It was around 11am.
I don’t know where Kiri was that morning as I contracted. I feel sad that I wasn’t able to connect with her then – or perhaps I was, but my recollection of it has slipped away. I know she was with my mother, and I know at some point she went over to play with Josie, which undoubtedly brought her joy, but one of the downsides of such a long labor was missing her. Everything for us was about to change and we weren’t together before it happened.
The sun was high in the sky at this point, and it flooded the front room. I closed my eyes against it. How had I made it so long and yet there was still no baby? My contractions were back and I felt Kristen and Patrick watching as I laid there moaning.
Kristen knelt next to me to check the baby’s heartrate. In the space between contractions, I locked eyes with her. “Is this real, Kristen?” “Yes, it’s real,” she replied, “You’re in labor. This is it.” And I began to cry. And cry, and cry. Could it really be real? So much doubt coursed through me. Ultimately, of course it was real, but I wasn’t on the track that Kristen thought I was on.
After another while of contracting, I decided to go back to my position on the toilet. I remember everything gleaming white, reflecting the sun that came through the tiny frosted window, Kristen’s hair glowing, Patrick’s hand on mine glowing too. My vision blurred with the rush of each new contraction. I would close my eyes tightly, fireworks in an eyelid-black-sky taking over, and then open them to the blinding white of porcelain tile.
Somehow I heard that Chloe was on her way over, and so I began to give in to the idea that I would be having you soon. Sooner than I thought. I cried again while sitting on the toilet, tears of relief that I would be meeting you, despite the doubt that had gripped me only moments before. Patrick began filling the birth pool, water splashing my leg when he removed the showerhead to hook up the hose. It was jarring to remember the feeling of water on my skin while being in such a suspended state for so long already. Life is the same, I thought, and it’s still going on all around me.
I managed to ask Kristen how much longer she thought I would be, and she said “I think you’ll have a baby in your arms by this evening.” I texted my sisters and mom and Erika on a group text. My excitement had returned. I was tired and tired of contracting, but full with the thought of meeting you. They responded with enthusiasm, but Robina also texted that it was dangerous for a midwife to make any sort of guess on timing. I knew that was true, but I also needed to believe that what Kristen had told me was true; that I would have a baby in my arms in a matter of hours; that I wouldn’t be trapped in the limbo of long labor for another day; that history wouldn’t repeat itself and burn me.
Then the question of antibiotics arose again and my excitement was replaced by worry. At this point we had passed the 24 hour mark for my water being broken, and the idea that I would have to take the antibiotics was becoming less of an idea and more of an inevitability. I felt immense anxiety about it. I resolutely did not want to take them. In retrospect, it occurs to me that perhaps I would have been much calmer and more accepting of a long labor if I hadn’t been worried about the antibiotics. I might have just ridden the wave of a repeat long labor – perhaps even laughed about the cosmic joke of my slow, slow cervix. I have to wonder how things would have been different if I hadn’t had that shadow looming over me the whole time.
And I know people take antibiotics during labor all the time, but somehow it had become a fixation of mine, and in my twisted mind I thought that if I had to take them it meant that I had failed you somehow. I needed to protect you from this intrusion, this assault on your system, and if I didn’t, I would be doing you, my precious child, a grave injustice for which I would never forgive myself. The antibiotics became a symbol for me of how I couldn’t take care of you when it was all I wanted to do.
I realize now, in writing this, that maybe this is actually a lesson about letting go of control; a lesson about cultivating resilience. You’re only 6 weeks old as I write this, and I still haven’t learned that lesson, so I can’t say for sure what it will all come to mean when I really parse it all, or when my life organically unfolds to teach me what I’m meant to learn, but a small voice inside me, as I peer down at your fuzzy little head and listen to your tiny snore, whispers that the meaning isn’t about me failing, but about what I do with myself after I believe I have failed. And I haven’t figured that out yet. I still worry – and maybe I always will – about how I can make it up to you. How I can make up all of my flaws to become the mother that you deserve to have, from whose body you might take health and strength, in whose arms you might feel support and comfort, with whose heart you might learn love. And I try. And I try.
As it goes, my contractions tapered off again. Kristen recommended your dad and I go for another walk, so we did. I hoped it would clear my mind of worry.
We stepped out into another chilly, perfectly clear day, walked near Greenwood Cemetery, and peered through the chainlink fence at the Con Ed substation, the constant hum of machinery underwriting the city sounds. We took a selfie. “I’ll want to remember this part,” I thought. I was drained and depleted, but Patrick still managed to make me laugh. I don’t remember what we said, but I remember how it felt; how it always feels when your dad and I are tasked only with being together. Those are the best moments, of course; when we are free of everything else and can remember how it feels to be us two, soul mates from the first – and to the last.
The brief respite from the frustrations of labor came to an end when we got back to the house and the reality of not being in active labor came back to us. Kristen suggested I take a shower and try some nipple stimulation to get my rhythm back. I asked her, hesitantly, what to do, and she showed me. I got undressed and stepped into the blinding white of the bathtub, glad that I had given it a good scrub just a few days prior. I let the water pour over me, felt the heat run over my hair and down my face and belly. I tried the nipple stimulation, but for whatever reason, I couldn’t get any contractions going. I let it go. I crouched down and let the water beat against the top of my head. “Baby, where are you?” I thought.
Kristen stuck her head in the shower to see how everything was going. “It’s not,” I replied, and she said she was bringing me more castor oil. She mixed it with apple cider and I downed it in a gulp. She commented with surprise at how well I took it and I reminded her that she had the very same reaction when I took castor oil during labor with Kiri. The smell and taste of the castor oil and the feel of the old bathtub under my feet transported me to my childhood. Suddenly I was 5 years old trying on my aunties’ old Revlon lipsticks. Whenever they were done with a color, or had one that turned out not to be the right shade, they would pass it on to me, knowing that I loved dressing up and playing pretend. I would take it from them, peering down with reverence at the bright green and gold tube in my tiny palm, and then return downstairs to stand up on the edge of the bathtub so that I could see my reflection in the medicine cabinet mirror and carefully apply a shock of pink or red to my lips. I loved how I looked. So bold, so grown, so capable. Peering down at my pruny toes, I wished to muster those feelings now. Instead, I just felt tired and dejected.
I turned off the water and wrapped a towel around my weary self. Kristen helped my step out and put my clothes back on. She told me that my whole family had come over and was downstairs hanging out. The thought of seeing them, rejoining the reality of the non-contracting, lifted my spirits. So I hobbled down to join them.
Upon seeing everyone sitting in the living room, my mood immediately lightened. Perhaps not perceptibly to anyone else, as I couldn’t seem to emerge from the cloak of exhaustion and mounting despair, but internally, my heart jumped to see my sisters, my dearest friend, my mother, and most of all, Kiri. The TV was on and Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood was playing. I think I may have asked someone to lower the volume after a contraction, because the sound was grating. I sat on the floor and chatted about nothing in particular. The day felt brighter, the sun felt stronger as I sat there. Upstairs had seemed so hazy to me, but now things seemed crisper, clearer. Erika had to leave to feed Baby Remy only a few minutes after I got downstairs, and I was sad to have to say goodbye, not knowing what would come. It felt good to know I had so much love around me, so many people rooting for me and there to support me, but it was tinged with guilt that I wasn’t in active labor yet, that things were taking so long, that I wasn’t able to connect with them.
When Daniel Tiger ended, I remember the theme song feeling overpowering and wishing for it to be over. Everyone had been laughing and even singing the words, and I remember smiling along, but itching for it to be off. As an aside, I don’t think I’ve watched Daniel Tiger with Kiri since then.
Kristen had brought down the birth stool and thought that while I visited with my people I could sit and bring on some contractions. Kiri, however, had different plans. She immediately co-opted the stool for her own purposes, climbing and swinging from it, not letting me on. She spread out her records from her Fisher Price record player along its seat, arranging them carefully, replacing them if they slid off.
I laid on the floor and my mother asked if there was anything she could do. I described a massage the acupuncturist did on me and had recommended that I try later in labor. It involved rubbing the outside of my calf methodically. So, my mother massaged along the line the acupuncturist suggested, and my contractions came, though still not as strongly nor as consistently as before. Kiri continued her games, happy to have so much family around her, interrupting my mother’s massaging to climb or chat, not noticing that anything was different or that I was contracting. We must have something in us, innately, that tells us that labor is normal and natural. Kiri delightedly helped Kristen check your heartrate, as she did at every appointment we had at home, knowing just how to turn on the doppler and where to put the wand.
After some time, Kristen said she wanted to try the rebozo with me. She wrapped a long scarf around my belly while I was on all fours and jiggled me until I contracted. It did bring on some contractions, but was thinking too much. I felt really stuck inside my own head, and I told Kristen so. I was so self-conscious, so frustrated, so afraid of what was already happening, and not happening. The birth mix Tahira had made me played in the background Kiri and my mom sang and danced and I smiled, wishing I could enjoy the moment with you in my arms. After a few more minutes, we decided to head back upstairs to rest.
I got into bed in the front room and lying down felt amazing. Somehow evening had come yet again, and the light cast a warm glow in the room. I was exhausted and easily fell asleep for what felt like hours. I luxuriated in the feeling of being in bed just long enough to begin to panic that I was able to. “I shouldn’t be able to sleep right now!” I said to myself. “I should be actively contracting, I should be getting this baby out, I don’t want the antibiotics – what am I doing sleeping?!?!” I sat up abruptly and realized that I had to use the bathroom. The castor oil had begun to kick in. I went to the toilet.
Chloe had been giving me tinctures and homeopathic treatments for a while and continued to as my contractions began to kick in. I knelt next to the bed and contracted. Kristen asked me if I would like anyone to come join us upstairs and I said yes, though we decided that perhaps not all at once. Robina came up first and joined us, sitting on the bed and chatting with me in between contractions. I wondered what Kiri would eat for dinner and learned that my mother had made daal again, just as she had when I was in labor with Kiri. This thought warmed me: not all repetitions are painful and unwanted; some are welcome and sweet. I urged Patrick to go eat while he could. Kristen reminded me that I should also consider eating. “Does anything sound good?” she asked. I remembered I had some leftover pizza in the fridge and requested that. She went downstairs to heat it up. When she returned, she had Kiri’s gluten free pizza with vegan cheese and when I mentioned it, she quickly went to get the other pizza and I felt bad for not having specified earlier.
In the meantime, realizing I was ravenous, I ate most of Kiri’s pizza anyway and drank some red raspberry leaf iced tea. I had been drinking it every day of my third trimester, and the making of it had become somewhat of a ritual. The measuring of herbs: red raspberry leaf, nettle leaf, dandelion root, rosehips; the boiling of water in the kettle; the overnight steeping; the straining and bottling in the morning, trying not to let any wayward leaves remain in the final mixture; remembering to sweeten it all with a bit of honey before I put it in the fridge, lest the honey stiffen up and refuse to budge off the spoon (something that was increasingly difficult for me to remember in those last weeks of pregnancy); it felt like the one bit of effort I could manage towards the end; taking just a few minutes in the silence of our tiny kitchen late at night, nourishing myself for you. At some point Erika came up and joined us. She sat on the floor next to me and I was so grateful for her quiet presence by my side. When I looked at her in between contractions, her face said she understood and loved me.
I don’t know where anyone was or when they came or went, but I do have moments crystallized in my mind and carry them with me when I think of labor: Tahira reading Vera B. Williams books quietly and lovingly to Kiri on the couch, and then much later, floating as if in air, taking photos as I pushed you out; my mother, quiety focused, massaging my leg to help bring on contractions, then dancing wildly with Kiri, both of them throwing their heads back and laughing; Robina and I laughing and choosing music to listen to, and then her putting my hair up into a ponytail when I said I was hot, gathering the thick strands tenderly from the sides of my head; Erika’s quiet presence next to me while I contracted, and locking eyes with her in the moment in between one and the next; Kristen’s seriousness and focus as she checked your heartrate, and her unwavering reassurance, and then the smirk that crosses her face when she feels my babies crowning; all of the moments with your father – him holding me up, kneeling with me, sitting on the edge of the tub next to me on the toilet, always looking at me with those sympathetic eyes and incredulous eyebrows; and Kiri, my sweet Kiri, your adoring big sister, smiling and playing on and around me, her hair in a flurry about her head, and the way she hugged me and asked to swim in the birth tub and asked if you would (something she asked every day leading up to your birth) and gave me a big kiss before dashing off for her sleepover with nonna hours before you entered our world. These were the best moments.
With so much being so hard during my labor, I try to remember those small blessings that carried me toward the enormous blessing of you.
It’s starting to come together for me, as I knew it would; the story of how you came into my life and what you’ve made of me since. The writing of it has led me down the pathways of my own mind in ways I never would have thought to otherwise go. As I get to know you, day by day, I realize that you are holding up a mirror to my self. You are a muse, little one. Not that you are not also completely your own, but your way of peering so deeply, your alertness, your tenderness; it brings something out of me. Or, rather, you are leading me out of something, something I haven’t quite been able to grasp yet. You are my education, so to speak.
During this evening of laboring, music became my comfort and my fuel. Tahira’s playlist, followed by Robina’s DJing, granted me access to the rhythm of my contractions; allowed me to follow them and let them go deeper and deeper, moving through my whole being. I leaned my head against the bed while kneeling beside it. I needed to be close to the ground. Needed the weight of gravity and the feel of solid ground beneath my limbs. I needed to feel tethered to something and press into it with all my might.
After a contraction subsided, I raised my head and, laughing self-consciously, asked to listen to The Pixies’ “Hey.” It isn’t warm and fuzzy at all, but its desperate pleas felt right. With Frank Black’s first “Hey!” I knew it was the song I needed. I sang along.
Been trying to meet you
Must be a devil between us
Or whores in my head
Whores at my door
Whores in my bed
Where have you been?
If you go, i will surely die
‘Uh’ said the man to the lady
‘Uh’ said the lady to the man she adored
And the whores like a choir
Go ‘uh’ all night
And Mary ain’t you tired of this?
That the mother makes when the baby breaks
I sank into the music. The funky, staccato rhythm spoke to me. And yes, yes, I was tired of this. And yes, yes, where have you been, baby? I was chained to labor, and when the song ended, I was still chained. There was no baby in my arms yet, there was no transition, no pushing; I was still there, endlessly contracting.
Many contractions later Beyonce’s All Night came on, which I had somehow never heard, and which Tahira had presciently thought to put on my birth mix. It was the perfect pairing with – and contrast to – the way Hey had resonated with me. Again, I know it’s a song about lovers, but it was so right it almost knocked the wind from my lungs. Just the chorus, the repeat of all night long over and over and over again – but in a tender, chosen way – filled me with a sense of purpose. I knew we would be doing this all night long. And even though the kind of all-night-sweet-love was different from Beyonce’s original intention, I breathed my intention into her words. I was in this for the long haul, I told myself again.
When I heard the chorus, I thought the words were: I’m gonna kiss up and rub up and fill up on you all night, not “feel up” – and I still think of it that way, because after you were born and to this very day, all I want to do is kiss up and rub up and fill up on you. Fill up my lungs with the scent of your tiny self and fill up my heart to bursting with the feeling of loving you and fill up my soul with the sacred purpose of being your mother. I want to fill up on you. I want to fill up on you and your big sister, every day until the end of time.
And then I heard the quiet, almost reverent bridge:
They say true love’s the greatest weapon
To win the war caused by pain, pain
But every diamond has imperfections
But my love’s too pure to watch it chip away
Oh nothing real can be threatened
True love breathes salvation back into me
With every tear came redemption
And my torturer became my remedy
I didn’t know the words before and I didn’t remember them after – except for the refrain of all night, all night, which ultimately became a source of strength and resolve for me, even in the days after you were born, I would sing those words over and over in my head – but those words hit me in the gut. This was the work I was doing. Right there, in those words. This felt like war in a way I hadn’t expected it to, and ultimately, I had to know, love would be my salvation, and you would be my redemption and my remedy.
I put the song on repeat, carried my phone to the bathroom so I could contract in there alone for a bit, and cried.
The song that played after was perfect, as well – Si Tu Mueres Manana by Kanaku y el Tigre. Patrick poked his head into the bathroom. I washed my hands at the sink. “This song is really perfect,” I said. “Yeah, I like it,” he responded. It was wistful and desperately hopeful and persistent. The music matched my hard work – it made me feel like it was okay to feel defeated and at the brink of giving up, made it okay that I was drowning, and then gave me a reviving breath all at once. I could die tomorrow – but I want to stay, I want to live.
I went back to the bedroom. My work was just beginning. I would need to call on all of my strength, every last tiny fragment of it, to pull me through.
When I got back to the bedroom, Patrick and I embraced. I leaned against him and let him hold me up. I fell deeply into his support, swayed side to side, relished this touch, realizing how much I needed it and needed more. I was too exhausted to articulate the need for more, but that moment of feeling weak and letting someone else’s strength carry me has led me to I realizing how much more of that I need, still.
I was back on the floor, then, first on all fours and then in a sustained deep squat. I heard my mother from just beyond the open doorway say, “Wow, Saad, amazing. Look at you!” “Yeah, I can’t do that and I’m not pregnant,” someone else chimed in. I felt strong for a moment, but I wondered if it was enough; if I was enough.
Time passed. Kristen did a vaginal exam on me and tried to stretch my cervix. I was making progress, but we were getting closer and closer to needing the antibiotics. She said she would try to stretch me more with the next contraction, but something in me closed down and I didn’t have another contraction for a full twenty minutes. My body kept sending me messages to trust its power, to accept the process, to surrender everything I thought I could control through sheer willpower and LET. IT. BE. But I was still fighting.
Kristen then brought up using the breast pump again and I finally relented. Patrick went to get the pump but then upon opening it up we realized that we had none of the parts necessary to making it function. No tubing, no flanges, nothing. Was this yet another sign from the universe? From my body? From you? If so, we still didn’t listen. Robina ran across the street to get her pump that we could borrow parts from. Once we started using it, I got some rhythm back, but I could tell my contractions were weaker than before. Half-hearted is the best way I can describe them.
Kiri had to go to sleep and there was some discussion of what the plan was. Ultimately we decided that my mom would go to sleep with her. Kiri came into the room to say goodnight around 10pm – we hoped that a very late bedtime and no nap that day would make it easier for someone other than us to put her to sleep. I looked at her and looked at her and looked at her. I knew it’d be the last time I saw her before she was a sister and I was a mother to two. I tried to relish everything about the moment, savoring her laugh and smile and her energy. Tried to let it fill me up and give me strength. She leaned over into the tub, splashing the water with her hand. She had been staring at it, empty, for days. “Can I swim?” she asked, as she had been. “No, my love,” I responded. “Will the baby swim?” she asked. “I hope so!” I said. She smiled and hugged me around the neck. “Goodnight, sweet love,” I told her, holding her tightly. And then she was out the door like a flash.
Kristen said we should try to rest, then, too, and I allowed myself to give into that need. For one hour I laid in bed in the dark, next to Patrick, shut my eyes, and let rest wash over me and contractions come as they pleased. They were intermittent, but came frequently enough to not let me fall deeply into sleep, though the darkness and quiet were welcome.
When I fully awoke I could feel a shift in the kind of contractions I was having, although I couldn’t articulate anything anymore. We started the breast pump again, but after just a few minutes of using it, it became clear that I didn’t need it. My body had committed, had turned some kind of corner. The intervention became superfluous and it was clear.
We were alone then, just Patrick, Kristen and I, and I was bone tired, contracting endlessly. One contraction after another.
They just kept coming, and yet where were you?
Just after midnight Kristen did another vaginal exam and said that it was time to do the antibiotics. I had known it would happen, but it didn’t stop my heart from sinking like the wreckage of some massive ship. She said that sometimes mothers who are GBS positive begin to have an internal warmth that she can perceive when she’s doing an exam, and it was too risky to keep waiting, then. I had that warmth. I cried. I complained. I moaned. I kept crying, ever so quietly, while Kristen set up the IV. There I was, sitting on the floor, feeling small and helpless and alone. Everything was happening to me and there wasn’t a damn thing I could seem to do about it. I was defeated. It’s hard to explain how defeated I felt in that moment. Everything that I had been working towards: avoiding the antibiotics, avoiding the interventions, letting things progress uncomplicatedly and gracefully – none of it was coming to fruition. I felt like every bit of hope and fight drained out of me. I went limp. I felt so disconnected from everything I was doing. Kristen told me that whatever I did, I couldn’t move my arm or the IV could fall out. I exited my body and my consciousness closed its eyes. Everything was dark and bleak. I gave up.
All I had wanted was to give in, but instead, I gave up. I tumbled down, down, down, and let darkness envelop me.
Then I vomited. Violently. And cried more.
I’m feeling nausea and despair as I write these words. I was lost. I was utterly, hopelessly lost. I didn’t know where you were and I didn’t know where I was. We felt worlds apart and I didn’t know how I would ever reach you. The disconnect was deep and wide.
At some point I vaguely heard Kiri wake up from sleep. Heard her and my mom get up and go downstairs. I would later learn that she had woken for water, as she does every night, and my mom couldn’t find her water bottle so they went downstairs. She was apparently filled with excited energy, buzzing as she does when her nonna and aunties and family are around.
She needed water at the very same time I did.
I asked about the tub. The water was cold from being filled up so early in the day and so Patrick and Kristen and Tahira made a relay of pots of water and kettles and attempted to warm the water sufficiently. I had wanted to labor in the tub again – I wanted to push there, wanted to meet you there. But I had some sense that the warming wasn’t working. In a haze, I made my way over to the tub and climbed in anyway.
Everything went quiet. It was just us, and the lukewarm water; my body and my cursing it.
I begged the contractions not to come. Held the handles of the tub. Let everything be silent and let my pain wash over me and over me and over me when it came. Stretched my legs out in between each one, listened to the sound of the water shifting and nothing else. I moaned and pleaded. No, no, no, not another one. I implored anyone – Patrick, Kristen, god, you – let it stop. Let it be over. Let me go.
I turned to Patrick: make it stop. He looked back with such pain. He would stop it if he could, but he couldn’t.
I turned to Kristen: make it stop. She looked back with sympathy. She would stop it if she could, but she couldn’t.
I said over and over, no, no, no. I looked at Patrick again. I’m done, I’m done. I’m not doing this anymore. I insisted, I was irate. I AM DONE. Kristen came close to me and said, “Saadia, do you want to go to the hospital?” I looked up at her, ashamed, and weakly uttered “no.” She said, “Okay, I just needed to know. Now you complain all you want.”
The contractions were slower now. Not unproductive, but there was more space between each one and the lasted longer; stretched out for an eternity. I thought I could use the power of my mind to make them stop, but then the first tiny laps of the next contraction would begin to come and I would curl my toes, feeling it begin to wash over me and then pull me under so that I couldn’t breathe. Then I would resurface and beg to be saved.
I was so alone and everything was so dark.
Time moved forward though I was suspended there.
I had fallen down a well and couldn’t pull myself out.
Kristen suggested I get out of the tub. I didn’t want to move. I didn’t want to do a thing. But things were happening, whether I wanted to do them or not.
I was caught in the moment between water and solid ground and I couldn’t make myself move. I was waiting for someone to rescue me, pull me out, but no one could. Only I could do that. One deliberate action at a time. So, finally, I stood. Without grace, without confidence, moaning and crying the whole way, I stood up. Lifted one leg over the side of the pool and then the other, and crumpled to the floor. It had taken all my strength to make that choice and I had nothing left.
I stayed there, on my arms and knees, contracting and crying. Kristen had set up the birth stool and my goal was to get there. It was three feet away but it felt like another galaxy. Every movement took minutes and every minute lasted an hour. I crawled an inch at a time, head hanging down between my shoulders. I told myself I couldn’t do it. Couldn’t, wouldn’t move.
And then I moved. Ever so slightly at a time. I reached out and my left hand finally met the smooth, solid wood of the birth stool. It felt like one hand freed from quicksand. I didn’t know it then, but I was going to crawl out of the quicksand, take it in reverse. I had made my way in, and just when I was about to let my last remaining bit of myself sink down, that one hand reaching out towards life saved me. I didn’t know it, but I was going to survive.
I crawled up to sitting on the birth stool. Tears streaked my face. With every contraction I bore down, hands gripping my thighs. Kristen held back my cervix as I did. I didn’t want to, I wasn’t trying to, but I did. My body was doing what it was meant to do. I was fully dilated, finally pushing. You were ready, you were coming. Time was hovering nearby, still suspended, waiting for a cue to come back to me. I pushed and Kristen told me you were there. She told me I would feel a burning and I did, but it didn’t hurt. I pushed. Kristen told me to slow down and breathe you out. Short pushes, breathing with each one. And then, at 4:03am on December 6, you were free.
In her birth notes, Kristen writes: “Baby with eyes open looking around and then received by Saadia with spontaneous cry.” And that’s exactly how you were. I took you into my arms and saw your bright eyes and heard your loud, strong cry. I was stunned. How had this happened? Where had you come from? Where had you been? How had we found our way back to each other? I was lost, my baby, but you found me. I was in disbelief as I held you.
I tried to take my shirt off, wanting to hold you against me immediately. You were crying so, so loudly. You announced yourself with such vigor. Finally, finally, finally. Alhamdulilah. And then we learned you were a girl. Of course you were. My second daughter. How lucky I was to get to say those words. I always told your father that he would be the father to two girls. And so he came to be.
I don’t know how I made it onto the bed, but there I went. I held you tightly. I cried again. This time from relief. From true, deep love. My god, you had found me. You had actually found me.
It is impossible to articulate what the moment felt like, or what it meant. I was so weak. I was so hopeless. I was defeated, demoralized, desperate. And then there you were. Just like that, like it was always meant to be. You were there, reminding me what love is – and reminding me that love could always feel new, could be a baptism of the soul, could remake me.
Your love redrew the map of my heart.
You’re sleeping next to me now, your face so perfectly rosy and the scent of your head intoxicating me with its sweetness and I can’t believe just how lucky I am.
Your labor broke me, and that’s hard to accept and it’s probably hard to hear. But your labor also put me back together. It grew me up. It stretched me into who I am meant to be; who I’d been waiting to become.
We laid there together. Our family started to enter the room, surrounding us. You kept crying. You were eager to nurse and found your way easily. I was delighted by the strength of your latch. You drank and were calm. And then, after nearly an hour, your father cut our umbilical cord and you were your own. He held you and I watched, in a daze. Kristen and Robina weighed and measured you. Everything was blurry. You were all I could see.
My mother made me breakfast: a cheese omelet and a bowl of chocolate ice cream, just like my first meal after Kiri was born. Your dad and I passed the bowl of ice cream between us, back and forth, like teenagers in love sharing a milkshake. It was delicious and cool against my tongue as sunlight began to find its way into the room and bring us back to life.
Everyone packed up to leave and we said our goodbyes. It was nearly 7am and I had moved so far beyond exhaustion that I have no vocabulary through which to convey my state. “Kiri will be up soon,” your father and I noted. Was there any possibility that we would get a bit of sleep? As if on cue, we heard a rustling from the back room. “Sleep can wait; let’s introduce our girls,” we decided.
Kiri walked into the room tentatively, her hair mussed and wild, as usual, her face still full of sleep. “Come and meet your baby!” I said. She climbed onto the bed and began to take in what she saw before her. Someone new was there! She was delighted. Her face beamed. She touched you, cautiously at first, and then with more decisiveness. She kissed you. I beheld the moment with a quiet, full heart.
Later, after we convinced Kiri to come back to bed with us, we would lay down, she and I on either side of you, watching as you slept, so tiny and peaceful and beautiful, and she would look at me and ask, “mama, is she real or pretend?” I thought to myself how I, too, had wondered if you were real or only pretend mere hours ago. Wondered if I would ever really meet you or if I was in some kind of dream state. But then you came to us. You were real. You are real. A miracle.
When, after your birth, I went to my copy of A Year with Rumi, as I always do when I have a day of significance, I noticed something. Alone, your birth-day poem didn’t speak to me as strongly as I had hoped it would. But when I read the poems from all 3 days of my labor – December 4, 5, and 6 – and then read the poem from the day after – December 7 – something beautiful emerged. Here they are all together:
December 4: Jars of Springwater
Jars of springwater are not enough anymore.
Take us down to the river.
The face of peace, the sun itself.
No more the slippery, cloudlike moon.
Give us one clear morning after another,
and the one whose work remains unfinished,
who is our work as we diminish,
idle, though occupied, empty, and open.
December 5: Your Face
You may be planning departure,
as a human soul leaves the world
taking almost all its sweetness with it.
You saddle your horse. You must be going.
Remember that you have friends here
as faithful as the grass and the sky.
Have I failed you? Possibly you are angry.
But remember our nights of conversation,
the well work, yellow roses by the ocean,
the longing, the archangel Gabriel
saying, So be it.
Shams Tabriz, your face
is what every religion tries to remember.
December 6: Listening I
What is the deep listening?
Sama is a greeting from the secret ones
inside the heart, a letter.
The branches of your intelligence
grow new leaves in the wind of this listening.
The body reaches a peace.
Rooster sound comes,
reminding you of your love for dawn.
The reed flute and the singer’s lips.
The knack of how spirit breathes into us
becomes as simple and ordinary
as eating and drinking.
The dead rise with the pleasure of listening.
If someone cannot hear a trumpet melody,
sprinkle dirt on him and declare him dead.
December 7: Listening II
Listen, and feel the beauty of your separation,
the unsayable absence.
There is a moon inside every human being.
Learn to be companions with it.
Give more of your life to this listening.
As brightness is to time,
so you are to the one who talks
to the deep ear in your chest.
I should sell my tongue and buy a thousand ears
when that one steps near and begins to speak.
The poems trace the arc of my labor. Days of waiting, caught between realms, waiting for your departure from one and arrival in the next, and me, trying to remember that I was doing it all for you.
And then, after those long days filled with the noise of self-doubt, in those early, early morning hours before you arrived, everything was silent. The day of your arrival, was about listening. Deeply and with intention.
Listening – this is what called me home to you. You were the greeting there within my heart, beneath my ribs, deep within. I had to quiet myself to find you. I had to listen.
Once I listened, I found a place of peace. The peace came in the midst of pain and in the form of resolve and commitment. My body remembered: a new sun was rising, I knew this work and would do it.
And then, suddenly, in the instant of your arrival, spirit breathed life back into my body. And it was loud. And it was as if the sound had always been there.
I had died over the course of the night. I was hopeless, in despair; dead. And then I heard your voice. You called me back. I heard your melody. I was alive again.
And after you were born I continued to listen. Listening to the life that you breathed into me and into our family.
There is so much there.
Everything about this labor was about whittling down. Closing out the noise within my being, quieting the voices within me questioning my faith, asking me to doubt, telling me to give up. This labor was about finding my essential self, my essential voice – not the voices of questioning and doubt and fear – but the small voice of my soul. And it was messy and imperfect and frightening. And I am yet so far from uncovering that voice and quieting the others, but I am listening for it now. I have my ear tuned to it. And it is all because of you. You pulled me down, deep into the water. I thought I was drowning, but we were panning for gold.
Thank you, my wise one. Your birth awoke something in me. We are here together, and I am listening. I am ready.