“We have been raised to fear the yes within ourselves, our deepest cravings. But, once recognized, those which do not enhance our future lose their power and can be altered.”– Audre Lorde, “Uses of the Erotic”
When I was a kid, my mom told me I’d never survive childbirth because I wasn’t strong like her (I know, it’s messed up– this is part of what I wanted to heal and confront through my own labor and birthing experience). This refrain, along with the stories I’d heard of birthing (which were unilaterally horrifying to my young ears), got in my bones and made labor and delivery sound like a torture one endured in order to birth a human…which was not something I ever wanted to experience.
The first time it ever occurred to me that birth could be different- that it could be sacred and empowering-was in a Women’s Studies course at UMD with Dr. Beth Bartlett when we watched a video of feminists talking about motherhood and Maternalist Feminist Ethics in the vein of Sara Ruddick (this is a stream of feminism that takes seriously the experience of motherhood as a source for feminist thought and critique of patriarchy). Starhawk, a native feminist activist, spoke of birthing as this primal, sacred experience that connected her with the mothers and the earth. I remember being shocked by her naming of birthing in such a radically different manner…and I internalized a wondering about if this kind of birthing was truly possible.
Fast forward- in asking Sarah Auna to be our doula and taking the steps I did to birth at a Methodist Hospital with the midwives, I did so because I was seeking a labor that was on my terms and could be a source of embodied healing instead of trauma- not that my birth would be easy or pain free, but that I would feel my agency and ability to survive and persist even when and as I would feel my body being broken open. Midwife activists such as May Gaskin (thanks for the recommendation of my lovely neighbor, Franny) write and speak about the primal experience of labor and sex are closely related…and both can either be sources of violence against the self and one’s body resulting in PTSD OR they can be freeing and otherworldly…the major differences that makes for either trauma or ecstasy are related not to the act itself but to the presence of consent, agency, environment, and relationship.
I wanted my laboring to be marked by healing and otherworldly beauty of a vigorous consent to my own birthing process– where I could get more into my body and discover the beauty and healing and power therein. And I got that…that is true of my story. These pictures tell part of that narrative.
On January 1st, I took the first picture around 11:30pm. My water broke around 12:30am and I started contracting right away. By 3am we were at the hospital. By 4:30 I was in the water. The labor itself: This lights were dim as I entered the water (environment and aesthetics matter) and we had our LED candle lit. The candle was from a feminist circle gathering of my friends that happened weeks before the due date– my friend Caroline led us in a ritual where I held one candle and my friends lit theirs from mine, reminding me that this circle surrounds and carries me. And that night in the tub, in the candlelight I called on that circle as the contractions came and I remembered that I am not alone. Together with my cloud of witnesses both living and those who have gone before, I released into the pain and my terror. The experience that night in the water of labor I met myself in a new way. I entered a catacomb where all went quiet and something mystical and holy opened up. It was a decent into the darkness and subterranean earth to re-find and re-birth myself and bring back to the surface a new life (Josie) with me.
As the contractions intensified, I felt as if my back and body was going to explode into a million pieces and I could feel my resistance to letting go and surrendering to the contractions in fear that I couldn’t and wouldn’t be able to withstand this breaking apart of myself. And right when I reached the edge of my limit to press in further, our doula arrived (she had to wait for me to come back with a negative COVID test). With her at my front and Andy at my back we moved into the next phase- Sarah my spiritual midwife, inviting me deeper into release, my terror, and my own power…and Andy at my back literally holding my back and pushing at it with each contraction to make me stronger and able to withstand while telling me if his love of and pride in me.
And bit by bit I sank in deeper.
And I (to quote the Chicks) “opened my mouth and heard myself” and out came primal grunts of power and persistence as I realized I was doing it and I would and could emerge from this sacred and harrowing journey of labor and delivery with a new self rooted more in her power. Between contractions I would reflect on the ways in which dominant Christian theologies are and have been bereft of the power and imagery of birthing bodies. I thought of Genesis anew as I was in the water birthing new life and thought of the Spirit who hovered over the waters and birthed the world. I thought of the grave and resurrection and the call from John 3 to be born again and what power the Easter narrative has if we would rethink of the grave as a womb. I thought more of my conversations with Stephanie Spencer of 40 Orchards and her opening up for me the images of midwifing and birthing in Exodus as the Israelites go from slavery through the narrow place into the land flowing with milk and honey.
And I thought of the waters of baptism and how our theologies of baptism might be opened up and depended by refusing to just understand baptism as being done in the name of the father but in the name of the one who bears and labors with and midwives and births us all. And then I’d sink in further as I realized that the pain wasn’t meant to kill me but to bring me more deeply into my power and freedom from the lies that tell me and so many that they are small and weak- teaching them to fear the power and possibility of themselves (here I am invoking Audre Lorde’s “Uses of the Erotic”- and a piece I wrote in conversation with her).
Deeper and deeper I went into the water and into myself- to the palace where words and rationality lost its hold as something more primal and intuitive and gutteral spoke. External thought faded away and all that remained was the next breath, the next contraction. Our doula and the midwife the nurse and Andy all stayed at the water’s edge, holding and coaching me as I went further in- tethering me to the world above as I went deeper and the water filled my ears so that their voices above garbled in their instructions. Finally, I had to leave the water (on account of my risk factors)- I crawled from the tub into the bed after they first saw Josie’s head emerging. And that journey from water to bed felt like the first human crawling onto dry land; it was painful and seemed impossible but as the morning light dawned I made this journey, hazy and carrying with me the laboring from the overnight hours.
With each subsequent contraction Sarah would invite me to make just a bit more space for Josie to move down toward Josie’s own entrance into the world…and would then tell me what good work I was doing in creating more space for Josie as Josie would magically take up and fill that space. With each contraction I was sure I had no more space to give, but as I labored to make it, suddenly the space was there and felt spacious.
The midwife Sara and Sarah our doula (yes three Sara(h)s brought Josie into the world) didn’t force or press or shame me to move faster but affirmed my power at making the space as I went (how like life and growth this paradigm ought to be!) and in the process I was not ripped apart but my flesh expanded and made room until Josie emerged fully.
In the span of one moment there was another being in the world and I felt my own body release as I came back to myself-shaking with adrenaline, I realized I had done it- I birthed a human. I fought like hell and emerged and brought Josie with me into this world.
Now Josie is here and this sacred primal power is made more manifest in the world through love and this little human now amongst us.
I’ve heard it said that people look at their kids after birth and think they’ve never known love until that moment- while I respect this experience, it doesn’t ring true for me. When I looked at Josie I felt deep love and gratitude towards myself and those who carried me, as I knew the terror had been excised from my bones. I felt the wonder of the humbling truth that this new human had been entrusted to my and our care to help make more space for Josie’s continual emergence in the world as her/them-self. And as I looked over at Andy I realized I had never loved him more because love is showing up, being a tether when our love must go into the waters, and holding and supporting the most vulnerable places in the one you love so that they might find and create their own power and healing. And now Josie is here and as the carousel (seen in the pictures that I wore around my neck- a gift to Janet Hagberg that she lent me for the birth) reminds: in this carousel journey of life, the center still and always holds us in love and truly, truly I know in my bones that THIS is the truth of the word and life on the carousel. For no matter what terrors our bones know, the center holds and truly I can bear witness to a deeper truth and knowing that (as Janet always reminds me): “All shall be well, and all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well.” (Julian of Norwich)
Here’s then to our collective healing, rebirth, and discovery of our embodied power and capacity to face the terrors and emerge reborn. Welcome to the world, Josephine. We love you and can’t wait to see who you will be and become.