I’d worked as a doula in Chicago for a few years before my own passage through pregnancy and labor and, more than once, I witnessed a mother’s post-birth oxytocin rush. One experience in particular has always stood out: A mother, quaking with residual adrenaline, a pale blue hospital gown loosened over her sweaty shoulder. Her eyes were wet at the sight of an actual miracle: the perfect wrinkly child in her arms, cord still attached within her. Her sense of amazement was palpable to everyone in the room.
She gazed into her child’s eyes and murmured softly, “Joseph.”
With that one magical utterance, each of them became infinitely more.
I knew I had just witnessed one of nature’s most precarious moments unfold optimally, and it is a memory I will continue to cherish until it fades away with old age.
My own pregnancy had been a miracle for me and my husband, Mike. We’d tried for three years to carry a baby to term and had lost four pregnancies in the first trimester. We were just beginning to accept the possibility that parenthood was not in the cards for us when I became pregnant with our son, John. On a bracing cold Sunday morning in 2014, after nine smooth, joyful months, I gave birth to our son.
I’d labored hard at home in an inflatable birthing pool that Megan, my doula-friend, had set up in the tiny kitchen of our 500-square-foot Logan Square apartment. In planning for John’s birth, I’d imagined that I would become reliant on Mike’s and Megan’s physical comfort during labor. I envisioned how they would hold me; how we would sway peacefully through the contractions.
Instead, I withdrew inward into a familiar dark abyss of disempowered suffering, and I refused to be touched. Between each contraction I would sink comfortably into dark oblivion, only to be disturbed back into consciousness by the sensation of a soundless bell ringing in reverse as a new contraction crept into me. A ruthless pain grasped at each end of my insides and wrung me out for several minutes until it would relent, and I would vanish calmly into oblivion again.
Finally, I could withstand no more. The plan had always been to labor at home until I was ready to push, and now, whether I was ready to push or not, I was done with the pain. I looked into Megan’s eyes and told her, “I need the epidural. We’re going to the hospital, now.”
Mike and Megan managed to get me dressed. I only remember that I was wearing fuzzy black socks. Clutching a photograph of my recently-deceased grandmother, I crawled into the back of the car, and although Mike assured me he was going the speed limit, I watched through the rear-window as we warped across Chicago and I screamed, begging my grandma to somehow give me strength.
Looking back, I should have known I was minutes away from delivering my son. At the nurse’s station, poised to sign the stack of waivers, I dropped the pen to squat and gave a primordial scream. After the contraction ended, I stood up, scribbled on the dotted line, and I was quickly whisked away into one of the rooms.
I remember the sound of water gushing into the bath tub; they planned to have me continue to labor in water since it was my only comfort. Instead, I cast my clothes off and sat on the toilet. A gloved hand appeared before me, a little plastic stick of honey was thrust into my mouth, and I slurped it up. I became a hummingbird, pausing at a flower to drink nectar before flitting on to the next thing. Suddenly a cannon of amniotic fluid erupted beneath me. I marveled at how the silvery waters managed to hit even the bathroom walls.
There was no time for an epidural, or even IV fluids. All at once, I was on the bed, a hot-white spotlight shone above. There was a flurry of activity, but the voices around me were calm and soft.
Suddenly, I no longer felt that I was at the mercy of pain, and I was in command.
“How long will this take?” I asked the midwife.
“It’s up to you.” She said, sitting on the edge of the bed.
I realize now that she was inviting me to take my time, though in my altered state of mind, I thought she was challenging me.
“Can I have a mirror? I’m a very visual person,” I explained, eliciting a chuckle from Mike, who must have realized then that my ability to take control was intact.
A nurse wheeled in a full-length mirror, allowing me to watch as I mustered up every ounce of strength within my body to push. In complete acceptance of what was about to happen to me, I mentally and physically willed every muscle in my body to unite in strength and purpose. As I pushed, I surrendered to the ring of fire and I could feel my flesh tear and give way. In the mirror I saw my son’s head emerge, followed immediately by his shoulders and body.
I did it, I thought, as I reached down and grabbed John, placing him on my chest.
For me, there was no oxytocin rush. No moment of magic and becoming.
Just a little boy who I had always known, and a love that had always existed.