Chris & Elisa Marchand, Peoria, Illinois, 2013
This is reposted with permission from Chris Marchand’s blog PostConsumer Reports.
These thoughts, which have since been revised, were written after the birth of our second child Micah Joseph with some additions after the birth of our third child Isaac Mathieu, born on July 14, 2013. (Note: words related to birth and sex and human anatomy are used which might make some uncomfortable. The author assumes his readers understand such things and acknowledge their part in life.)
The Birth Story: Section I: Behold All Things Are New
Never have I felt more powerless. And never have I felt of less use.
We just had a baby. Or my wife Elisa did, in our home, without medication, completely naturally, in the water, and I got to be there and see the whole thing.
We have been on a tremendous journey. My wife has been down to the depths of despair in her womanhood. She’s been questioning God and not understanding why so much bad stuff happens to her. Why couldn’t we have had Elliot (our first born) naturally? Why was she forced into a c-section? Why did I get cancer?–I’m sure there are other whys. Even in the last few weeks she has done a lot of questioning. She had a lot of pre-labor like she had with Elliot, which essentially messes with you emotionally, mentally, and physically all at the same time. So she would start having contractions but they would not go anywhere and would eventually fizzle out. Then she would have to go to work the next day, like everything was normal. She began to give up hope, thinking that her body would never go into labor, and I know all along she was thinking about the worst case scenario of having to go to the hospital and have another c-section, again having her dreams shattered. She was really starting to believe that she was not able to give birth, as if her body was not even capable of it.
It’s amazing how our scales adjust to our own circumstances–our own subjective experiences–and not to the experience of others. We have a friend who we just heard went through her second miscarriage. She’s gotten pregnant twice and miscarried twice. Is her despair deeper than Elisa’s or did they both endure the same amount of despair but adjusted to their individual experiences? Is their grief quantifiable? Because I’m thinking, as paranoid as Elisa was about going into birth, still we got pregnant each time on basically the first try (actually, with the second pregnancy we were not even trying) and she carried the babies for nine months with basically no health problems. Thus her lot was pretty good. So where does that put our baby-less friend? Surely her lot is worse than my wife’s. Even so, despite having two miscarriages, she has not carried two babies to full term and had all the plans she made for the first baby dashed upon the rocks of medical intervention. Pain and despair are hard to measure compared to the volume of a liquid or the profits and losses of a company.
But anyway, Elisa had no idea what was going on with her body until she woke me up at 5 a.m. on Wednesday morning and told me she thought she was in labor; that if this was not labor she does not know what is. I only half believed her. There had been so many false starts, I did not know what to believe. If this was not the real thing, I certainly was not happy being woken up at 5 a.m., especially when Goober (i.e., Son #1) needs as much sleep as he can get and risks being woken up with us rambling about the house. But I did get up (after she came back 25 minutes later to remind me it was go-time) and I held Elliot for an hour while we waited for her mom to come get him.
Elisa stood at the sink or sat on the toilet and took each contraction as they came. I knew she could do it. I knew she was strong. And four hours later (9:22 a.m.) we had a new life in our lives–Micah Joseph Marchand, a boy, 7 lbs. 8 ou. 20.5 inches tall.
But the facts will never convey what this day actually meant. This was a victory. This was redemption. Vindication. This was a making new of all things. This was the day my wife got back her womanhood. She overcame. She rode the tidal wave of each of those contractions all on her own strength until that baby came. She endured until the end and showed people that this can be done and that it can be safe; that hospitals are not necessary and “safer”, and that a woman can do this on her own without all the drugs and gadgets that modern medicine can offer her (bing!). This was a new day for Elisa and it was a new day for us as a family.
After she finally got me out of bed Elisa called her doula and then her midwife. While we waited I got the pool ready, turned on the music, and lit some candles (I’m very important!). Malory (our doula, or female slave/servant) got there in about an hour, but we had to wait significantly longer for our midwife to arrive (for very practical reasons). Our midwife’s assistant got there much sooner and started taking down notes of what Elisa was going through and gently but forcefully telling her not to push too hard too soon; that we needed to wait until the midwife got here.
All of this was happening in our home. Elisa woke up in the middle of the night with contractions in our home. She laid on the couch and paced around the living room until 5 in our home. She sat on the toilet seat and threw up in our home. She got into the pool in which she was to labor for the next 3 or so hours in our home. She brought our son into this world in our home. No crazy car rides to the hospital. No hysterical running trying to find everything we needed for our hospital stay. No worrying about parking and making sure our doctor was going to be there. No getting an IV put in. No making sure we had a room. No water breaking in the car, ruining the seat. No nurses constantly in and out. No machines beeping. No stale hospital recycled air. No heart rate monitor with its perpetual printout making us constantly worried about baby’s condition. No weird people we have never met hovering around us asking us the same questions over and over again, poking, prodding. We were at home and we were safe. We were in the hands of professionals, but it was in our own home.
There was a time when the midwife (after she had arrived) looked at her assistant and made a circle with her forefinger and thumb, about the size of a quarter. She had been putting a small circular mirror underneath Elisa–who was kneeling in the 2.5-3 foot deep kiddie pool–during each contraction. I did not know what this circular signal meant. Surely her cervix was more dilated than that? On the next contraction our midwife said, “I”m seeing a little bit of black,” and I looked down at the mirror on the bottom of the pool and saw black too. This was my baby’s head. We were that close. I did not realize this was going to happen so quickly. Now I knew that three weeks of pre-labor and of not knowing what her body was doing meant for a relatively quick real-labor. Her body was rehearsing hard for the actual performance.
This was exactly what happened with Son #1 (Elliot Christopher), but that time she was denied the experience of letting her body go through actual labor. Our midwife thought he was getting too big and that we should induce. Now we know if we had only waited, her body would have eventually kick-started into gear and Elliot–although 1.5 pounds bigger and likely resulting in significantly more tearing–would have come out the old fashioned way.
The Birth Story: Section II: A Man’s Role
Little by little Micah descended down, the opening in my wife’s vagina getting bigger, more and more black hair showing through. It was in these moments that I began to feel very very useless, as if I had hardly any role to play in this event at all. Backing up a few hours to when our doula Malory arrived, I was so relieved. Not only was she an experienced doula/birth assistant, but she was also a woman who had given birth to two children of her own. Emphasis on the woman. Having given birth before was important, but in my mind it was even more important that she was a woman, and I, being not a woman, had infinitely less connection with Elisa, and was thus infinitely less useful, simply for my non-woman-ness. Malory immediately seemed to know what to do, which, admittedly was not much, but her not much was so much more than my not much, because she was in tune with Elisa and could read what she was going through.
Sometimes Malory would look at me as if to say, “I’m here to do whatever you need me to do, but I don’t want to overstep your bounds as the father/husband/labor coach.” I wish I could have non-verbally insinuated with bulging eyes, “Look, I have no idea what to do. I’m afraid that if I touch my wife or say the wrong thing to her that she will literally jump out of that pool and pin me to the ground. On the other hand, if I do nothing I’m afraid that either she won’t have the courage to go through with this or afterwards she will say that I failed her somehow during the birth. So, I really feel conflicted here. Why don’t you just take over and do everything, and I’ll just sit here quietly for moral support.” I am not that good at verbal communication though, especially when I am scared and in a situation I have never been in before.
As her labor progressed I would interject words of encouragement at certain points, but the words felt forced, as if it were my sole duty to encourage this baby into being born, but encouraging someone when you are in your own state of panic is not usually effective. Afterwards, Elisa told me she was glad I did not talk very much; that she knew if I tried to say too much I would only trip over my words, get nervous, and thus make things more stressful for her. She said that it helped her the most knowing that I was sitting there next to her, being silently supportive, being her rock. She did not like it when I would get up to refurbish the pool with hot water–this would stress her out considerably and make her feel unsupported in the void, as if my silent inanimate presence in the room with her was invisibly giving her strength. I was her Aaron and Joshua holding up her arms on the mountain while the Israelites fought, except that I was not touching or holding her; my very presence was all that was required. I was relieved that she had said this, knowing that I had actually fulfilled my duties as her husband by essentially sitting there and doing nothing. (Actually, there was a few times during the birth that our midwife told Elisa the cervix or birth canal or whatever was like a flower that needed to relax and just come open so the baby could come out. I could never have used imagery like this and actually be sincere with Elisa. And I know Elisa would never have taken something like that seriously if it was coming out of my mouth. But when the midwife said it, it made sense and I think it truly helped her in those moments.)
So, as the ratio of men to women in the room became 4 to 1 (Elisa, doula, midwife, assistant, and me) I soon began to feel like an outsider, as if I was a guest that was merely allowed to be there and not as a key member of the group. I began to grow keenly aware of a somewhat clichéd phenomenon known as women’s intuition. Let me just say that the women’s intuition in the room was palpable. I felt like I was sitting in on a sacred moment that women have been sharing with each other for centuries, a transcendent female moment where I was fortunate to even be allowed in the room. I felt truly useless, and I mean that in the most positive way possible. This is the way things should be. Women should help other women bring babies into the world. Not middle-age men in white lab coats. I felt like there was nothing I could do, I could only be there and observe. It was these women–including my wife–who were going to bring this baby into the world. I was of no practical use and that was a good thing. There was a part of me that wanted to shirk responsibility, to not get too involved so I don’t mess things up so I’m not held responsible if things go wrong. But the rest of me knew something greater–that I really should not get involved–that it was not my place anyway.
But see, this is not how it should have happened. I was a certified birth coach and I had the laminated card in my wallet to prove it. If a woman went in to labor on an airplane and someone shouted “Is anyone on the plane a birth coach?” I could have with confidence and resolve stepped up and delivered that baby. I had been through Bradley Method labor training, I had gone through numerous mock-labor reenactments, I had read numerous times the stages of labor and birth, and I had the script ready in my head of all the things I needed to say to Elisa during and in-between each of her contractions. But none of this mattered during actual labor when the women stepped into the room and I became a wet-nosed novice; my clinical head-knowledge of little use amid centuries of instinct and tradition and connection between women. I have seen videos where other fathers played a much more pivotal role in the birth of their children, talking to and touching and being present with their wives to a far greater level than myself. I would have done this as well if it were what my wife needed and what she wanted, but that role simply was not required of me; she was fine on her own and with her women.
The minutes went by and Elisa’s contractions began to get more spaced out. In fact, right before our midwife made the circle signal with her forefinger and thumb is when I noticed that Elisa was not having as many contractions. Less contractions however, meant more pushing and more of an urgency to get the baby out–at least as far as Elisa was concerned. A few times she panted, “I don’t think I can do this much longer,” and other times she asked simply “How much longer do I have to do this?” It was at one of these kicking against the goads moments, when we could see about 3-4 inches of baby’s head reflected in the mirror, that our midwife said, “It’s minutes not hours until you see baby. Minutes, not hours.” Later, Elisa admitted this helped her through the final stretch.
Months before the birth we knew we had selected the right people to be a part of this event. Elisa knew before me, after one of the first meetings we had with our midwife. I knew later, after meeting our midwife’s assistant and finding out she would be attending the birth. I began to feel like these were people we could be comfortable with; that we were safe in their hands. These are intangible feelings. How can one know how the situation will actually happen the day of? Elisa had many misgivings about her midwife leading up to Elliot’s (# 1’s) birth. We should have known as soon as she suggested we induce the birth that she was bad news, that she was leading us down a path we should not go. But we felt helpless and were scared and did not know what to do except follow her (there was one other eleventh hour option we could have went with, but decided not to). Elisa’s first pregnancy certainly did not culminate with an epidural laden, c-section nightmare after 34 hours of labor, to be followed by a burst open incision, breast feeding troubles, weeks of thrush, a colicky, sleepless baby, and postpartum depression just because she was induced, but I know we could have avoided a lot of it if our midwife had lead us down another path. The present people however, with us for birth #2 were different; we knew somehow they would lead us home safely. The same could very much be said for our doula–a woman who is intrinsically laid back but actively sensitive to the needs of others.
This sense of security culminated for me right after our midwife arrived that morning and she very quietly told Elisa, “God will give you strength to get through this.” A statement such as this already has the potential to be painfully clichéd; a sentimental nothing whispered to appease but not really help the suffering; a platitude that is the stuff of $2.50 greeting cards. But in the right hands it can be a statement of power, a life giving statement that sees someone through to the very end of a very great achievement. I began to cry and to know that I was in the midst of greatness. A great event and a great group of women. This woman (our midwife) was going to help Elisa become whole again. God had brought her into our lives for this purpose.
But still, Elisa had to do the pushing on her own. “You’re going to have to give me more than that,” the midwife said after the baby had crowned, his head was out, and he was still stuck in Elisa at the shoulders. At this point Elisa very desperately wanted this to be over–in fact I think she thought it was over. So in a state of utter fatigue and yet complete ferocity she gave one last push, emanating a huge guttural growl. It was all she had left. She was mad! She wanted this baby out and out it plopped into the water. Our midwife was right there and caught him. Since Elisa was on her knees and had essentially hiked our new baby through her legs like a football, we had to help her flip over so she could sit down and hold him since the umbilical cord was still attaching her to baby. Once flipped over she quickly grabbed him and they put towels on him to keep him warm. It all happened so quickly that we still did not know what sex he was. Elisa just held him and cried–transformed. I cried too. I could describe it as beautiful but it’s not enough so I’ll just leave it at that.
The Birth Story: Section III: And so the woman bleeds between her legs
There is another story to tell about birth, one that under-girds, precedes and lingers on after the narrative of the birth day. It is the story of what drives us together and compels towards the journey of bringing a human life into the world.
Every month when she is of age the woman has pain and bleeds, until she does not, all so she can prepare for the biggest pain and the biggest bleeding of her life. But the pain and the bleeding is not the end. When a couple has sex for the first time they share a confused kind of pleasure and the woman (if it is her first time) bleeds this time too and usually has pain, despite the pleasure. They have sex to experience the pleasure but within the act itself they cannot escape the pain, for the pleasure within sex is also not the end. And so it is with giving birth. There is much pain and much bleeding and oddly enough–when the woman is fully present within and without herself during birth–much pleasure. A complete full mixture. They are completely intertwined. Endorphins and hormones rush in to replace the pain and an inimitable desire to connect with her child washes away the anxious chaos of the previous moments. The ensuing days will be filled with more bleeding, a lingering fatigue, and lots of aching, but every time she looks at her new child the joy rushes back in. The surprising pleasure of giving birth gives the mother strength to endure the coming seasons of motherhood which will again supply her with many pains as her children age, again all mingled with many pleasures.
We were young once, my wife and I. Drawn together through insatiable attraction. Desire and curiosity, social convention and design. I think it can be said with some evident truth, that anyone who has birthed a baby out of her body is no longer young despite age or outward signs of maturity. The man is different for he has to endure many trials of fatherhood before his young-ness is refined away, but the the mother herself sheds her girlhood right there in the hurried moments when she bears down and through her own body passes a new life into being. A few years have passed since our first child was born so now I, along with my wife, are no longer young; the weight of our adulthood is firmly resting upon us, despite the fact that there is much more to come and that we still look very young to a significant portion of the population.
It began in a state of self-centered innocence, in the simplicity of wanting to be together, to know each other. And so the woman let the man in, knowing, yet not fully realizing that the man’s burst of pleasure in all likelihood will lead to her drawn out pain. After we lose ourselves in the ecstasy of sex comes the unforeseen responsibility of becoming parents. We cannot escape this despite the conveniences of our interventions; it is our lot.
And so I stood there in my own home, now at the birth of my third child (Isaac Mathieu) behind my wife holding back my two older children who wanted to get a closer look and be next to mommy, stood there as she half-squatted over a liquid absorbent medical pad while a thick stream a blood streaked down her leg. Stood there knowing I had done this to her because I had wanted something from her all those months ago, something that only she could give, but also knowing that she wanted this too, that she embraced the pain and embraced the bleeding, embraced the new life ahead. This was her life and her life was our life together. She knew the consequences, understood the cost, and knew what she would have to endure. And this was more than acceptable to her, the pain was more preferable than not going through with it at all. She bled for me, for our baby, for herself, and for our family. And out of the blood came new life.
If we could but realize this truism, if only they were the first and primary lessons we learned when starting school. That everything worthwhile in life will bring you difficulty, that the most important things and most pleasurable things are the same things that will bring us the most pain. Surely there is a way to make such a lesson palatable to children. How odd that the most pertinent truism for maturing humanity is the one that is least talked about. Surely we idolize our pleasure too much, neglecting how God has put us in bodies that are capable of knowing pain just as much as pleasure. We are so caught up in experiencing the next pleasure that we live in denial of our true natures, causing us to resent God when made to face our default state: embodied creatures who must endure pain in order to know pleasure.
I am proud to be the father of my children, but even more so I think I am proud to be the husband of this strong woman, my wife, who in her strength, with prolonged determined courage gave our children life. And so may it be for all our children and for all our mothers who in love embrace the pain and pleasure that comes with the journey of motherhood.
Thank you for sharing your Birth Story.