*BEST of mamazine.com* Why We Land
by Sasha Hom
My husband and I are not really people who plan. We hardly even discuss; it's more like, we just end up doing. Perhaps that's what happened at the birth, the silent agreements took over. Some might say, "That's great. You're spontaneous, free spirited," when they mean compulsive, irresponsible. But, we don't try to ignore the particulars, the signs in bold that say, "One Way Only," "Don't Step on the Grass," "Objects in Mirror are Closer Than They Appear." We just accept that they're there and pay attention to the more exciting things going on around us.
We did not plan on getting pregnant just yet (he also says he never planned on getting engaged to me either, that he just couldn't stop himself from asking). We had been together less than a year before we found ourselves having regular unprotected sex every few nights, as if we were trying. That's when we said to each other, out loud, "We should talk about this."
So, sitting on the couch in our 600 square foot studio "apartment," we planned. We even went so far as to draw a time line: work until June (it was still December), get pregnant in July, backpack the Appalachian Trail throughout the first trimester, find a place to live in December, give birth in April. There. We were safe. We had planned. I laid back and admired the mushroom that had sprung up from the carpet two feet across from us, orange and dappled. I felt a goldfish flop inside my belly and suddenly, I really wanted some Ben & Jerry's Cherry. And I never liked cherry.
We were clear on wanting a home birth. At least he was. I had said that I wanted to wait and see where we were living (we seemed to be moving every four months). If the hospital was nicer than our home, then I'd rather go to the hospital. But we found a midwife in Berkeley whom we adored (we were living in Sebastopol). Shortly thereafter, we moved out of that studio, never went on our backpacking trip, and did a longer stint of pregnant couch surfing than we had planned before settling into an even smaller one-room cottage, mushroom-less and tiled.
Have you ever looked for an apartment specifically to give birth in? You look at apartments with a new eye. Is there a closet to squat in? How thin are the walls? Are the carpets new or white? We thought about subletting or renting a room in a house. I tried responding to some of the ads on Craigslist: quiet couple with an aging pit bull looking to rent a room in your house/sublet your apartment to give birth in. Unemployed with excellent references. We clean up nicely. Nobody responded.
But no matter if we were commuting from Sebastopol to Berkeley, house sitting spoilt Pomeranians in Piedmont, or "crashing" at someone's house after their dinner party, the one thing that remained constant was our weekly meetings with our midwife.
Unlike traditional midwifery care, where a midwife meets with just you once or twice a month, our midwife met all of her clients simultaneously once a week in her north Berkeley flat. Regardless if they were ready to pop, still trying, or six months along, as we were, we all sat on her living room floor and "checked in."
We'd talk about how our week went, which led to discussions about ultra sounds, complaints about husbands or wives trying to control our sugar intake, examinations of our own birth experiences, mother issues, and deep-seated fears about pain. Then, one by one, and in the same room, we'd climb onto a nest of pillows and our midwife would put her ear to our naked bellies and listen to the baby's heartbeat.
Choosing to experience pregnancy in this way—with other women who understood the wonders and challenges of inhabiting a rapidly expanding body, who'd one by one, unannounced, drop out of the group returning five weeks later to share their stories, their traumas, their newborns; and with a midwife who kept her home open to it all—we found ourselves so close to life, so close to death.
I don't know the story of my own birth—how much I weighed, how long the labor, if my mother cried when she saw me? Did she even take a look? Or did she just thrust me out of her womb, gathering my floppy body in her palms, the umbilical chord coiled in the crook of her arm with its placenta, an expired anchor, and heave me into the air like a featherless bird?
I was adopted by a Chinese American family in Berkeley. My parents were in their early thirties. My mother had been pregnant before. She was four months pregnant when she married my father and after the wedding, they took a trip to Mexico and she had an abortion. She was carrying twins. The doctor aborted one of the babies but the other one continued to grow. In her seventh month, she had to have an operation on one of her ovaries. After that, the doctor could not hear the baby's heartbeat as he probed my mother's stretch-marked belly with his cold stethoscope. In her ninth month, she went into labor and delivered a stillborn. Eight years later, they adopted me.
Sprawled out on pillows on the floor of my midwife's houseboat, I told her how I dream of flying and I dream of falling, and in these dreams I always land. Sometimes with a thud and a jerk; occasionally I will land gracefully on two feet; or on all fours staring at the ground beneath my hands; and I will rise up and walk away slowly. They say that if you are dreaming you are falling and you don't wake up before you hit the ground, then in real life, you have died. But I've fallen time and time again, and I'm still alive.
Shunryu Suzuki talks about visiting Yosemite and looking up at its lofty falls, imagining each drop of water as it falls through the air and likening it to our individual lives. Originally, we are a part of the whole river, which we return to after the fall. But, he says when "we are separated by birth from this oneness, as the water falling from the waterfall is separated by the wind and rocks, then we have feeling...[we] have fear. Whether it is separated into drops or not, water is water. Our life and death are the same thing."
I went into labor a week later. My water broke in the nighttime. At first, the pain of labor was familiar, like laying in bed all night coming down off seven hits of acid acutely aware of your partner next to you snoring away. That was early labor. Active labor was thunderous.
Our midwife visited us at 9:30 the next morning, and I was only three centimeters dilated. "You have a ways to go," she said. "Enjoy this last time to work together as a couple." Then she left us with a list of signs to look for indicating that I'd progressed and should give her a call. But like I said, my husband I were never very good with signs.
The contractions came in sets like waves and never got to be longer than thirty seconds. A couple short ones, then a lull that I'd sleep through while my husband ran around trying to fill the birth tub: stealing the neighbor's hose and duct taping it to the kitchen sink; I vaguely remember seeing him standing in the doorway of the bathroom with the detachable shower head in his hand aiming water into the tub.
I had no breath. My eyes rolled into the back of my head. I was splitting in two, gasping for air, my body swelling out to the walls of our studio cottage—a vast dark space filled with stars. I didn't feel pain. I was pain. Spirits were strangling me and when they loosened their grip, I'd roar like a bull. Then I'd open my eyes, see my husband's face, and instantly fall asleep.
I needed his eyes. It was the only thing that kept me anchored. We were so busy searching each other's faces to see what was necessary that neither of us remember the bulging, the receding, the seeping. We can't really say when it began because we were just there. We were always there. Then I was squatting over the toilet to pee and there was this thing sticking out of me. I thought I was losing my liver.
At 11:30, according to the time on our midwife's cell phone, our daughter was born. My husband called. The birth tub had just finished filling and I stepped into it. I got on my knees. A gray object shot out of me. I thought, "flying squirrel." Like a superhero she soared, then twisted underwater to face me. I scooped her up, water spilling out around her in drops and I plopped her on my chest. She cried. My husband hung up on the midwife and sat with us at the bottom of the falls.
Sasha Hom is a retired dog walker, Mills alum, and mother of one. She is an adoptee from South Korea who was gracefully raised by a superbly malfunctioning Chinese American family in Berkeley. She has been published in A Ghost at Heart's Edge: Stories and Poems of Adoption; InvAsian:: Growing up Asian and Female in the United States; Echoes upon Echoes: New Korean American Writings. She is currently finishing a novel and planning to travel the continent and live on the road full-time with her husband and daughter.
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