I was at a birth on Friday for a woman here in Boston, separated from her family back in the Middle East. It was a long birth–I saw again how an epidural can lengthen labor, but not having slept the night before, she appreciated the rest. The epidural did however made it incredibly difficult for her to push, and the midwives were frustrated. She’d been given pitocin to “move things along,” and when they turned the epidural down to help her know when and how to push, the intensity of her contractions were quite a shock. Ah, contractions. Surges. Rushes. Whatever you want to call them, I can only guess at what they feel like. I know women who describe them as “nothing worse than a menstrual cramp” and others who would use very different language.
There’s a quote I like describing contractions from poet Lia Purpura in her memoir of pregnancy, Increase. “The sensation of attenuation, the ropy ligaments, smooth as taut skeins of silk, winching a great weight closer and closer to the edge.” I like this quote because it is beautiful, and because it describes the movement towards an edge which I’ve come to understand, in my own way, to be a sort of no-turning-back submission to what the body needs, what the moment needs, what the child needs. I read it as a threshold moment that separates all she has been as a woman from what she will come to be in addition to who she is; a mother to this new human. While the physical sensation is part of that edge, I think of it also as an emotional threshold. I could be wrong, and ascribing things I’ve not experienced to the experience of others. Not having walked this road, that’s all I can do, aside from witness and listen and digest, which I do a great deal of. At the same time, the quote doesn’t do much to tell us, those of us who don’t know, how it will feel.
She pushed for three hours, towards the end with a vacuum, and her little baby came tumbling into the world late that night. Oh God, that moment when a woman has believed so fervently that she could not do it, that it would kill her, that it was impossible, and then there she is, tumbling! This little baby loudly crying out, the unmistakable sound of newborn human sucking in great lungfuls of air for the very first time, and the look on mama’s face, a beautiful kind of surprise, tears, could it be true? Could it be true? Yes. Yes. Yes. She saw her daughter and knew that it was true, and done, and beginning.
This is where it became strange and magical for me. Mama was too exhausted to hold her daughter right away, and her two cousins took turns and then put the baby down. Mama asked me “do you know the Fatiha?” This is the opening chapter of the Qur’an, a requisite verse for each prayer we Muslims make. I said yes. She said “recite it to her.” And I went over to the baby in her warmer, squalling and red, and leaned in to quietly whisper the verse in her ear. She went silent listening to my voice. Her dark gray eyes were wide and searching. A wave of connection built and crested inside of me, and I loved this child.
The first hour after a birth is important for a new person; looking at them and being close to them is important. It actually opens up neurological pathways in a child’s brain. It was important to me that the baby not sit alone or that her mother not sit alone, even if she was just resting. I picked her up and stood next to mama, who gazed at her baby then shut her eyes, opening them every few minutes to see again “could it be true?” Yes. Yes.
And I looked into this girl’s other-world eyes which roamed the room, roamed my face, her mother’s face, seeing in this entirely alien way for the first time. Yes. I held her for almost half an hour. Then her mother was ready to breastfeed, and it was late, so I took my leave and drove home on a cloud. That baby. I was so in love with her, having had some time to be with her, the honor of it being my voice to carry the Fatiha to her for the first time, the honor of being one of the first people to welcome her and hold her and croon to her and to pray that she grow up to be blessed and blessed and blessed.