There are people, probably a very small minority of people, who love birth stories. Like, really love them. I happen to be one of those people. After giving birth to Fiona, I have a high tolerance for minutes-long descriptions of contractions, details about birthing positions, decisions about pain meds, crude things said, wild sounds made. The whole birthing thing is so bizarre, so out-there, so unlike any experience I’ve ever had, that I listen to the details of other women’s stories with laughter and wonder. Because let’s not forget what birthing is: It’s squeezing one human through another human.
Put that way, birthing is as strange and as seemingly impossible as an Escher sketch, the endless stairways defying geometry and gravity as they wrap around the walls.
Despite my love for these stories, I’m under no illusions that many would want to hear my own. But I got a request. At first, I thought, well where would I post such a thing? Star In Her Eye is about “mothering a special girl,” as the subtitle plainly reads, and that girl is Fiona. But as I look back on Petra’s birth story, I see Fiona all over it. And now that I mother two girls, Petra will be all over Fiona’s stories too. Might as well accept the blurring of lines.
So I offer it to you: Petra’s birth story. Petra says hello from her current spot on my boob. (Please, don’t feel obligated to read on unless you’re into birth stories. Otherwise, you’ll be furrowing your brow, wondering why in the hell I’ve put you through a piece that mentions cervical dilation.)
It begins at the end, on June 1st, at 2 A.M., with me staring up at the ceiling in my hospital bed, and Justin sleeping to my right, and newly birthed and super-chill Petra sleeping to my left. But I couldn’t sleep. I was giddy with the thoughts: I’d done it! Birthed another human! A big-fat Holy Shit! was in order.
On May 31st, at 9 A.M., already Petra’s birth started as Fiona’s did. My water broke. I knew from experience that when your water breaks early and not much else is happening, the soon-to-be birthing pregnant momma is put in the precarious spot between her white-coat-wearing medical advisers, who will want to induce her, and her crunchy, natural-birthing advocates, who say it’s not necessary, who say “Just let nature take its course.”
I was really hoping to avoid this position. In the face of authority, I’m a scaredy, “say yes” kind of person. But in the face of drugs, I’ve been trained well by Nancy Reagan; I “just say no.” This is in no way a judgment on other women’s drug choices. Particularly after Fiona’s natural birth, I fully understand a woman’s desire to numb her entire lower half just to avoid the earthquake-style experience of “transition,” a laughably calm word to describe the agony of those last contractions. But I wanted as natural a birth as possible, and I knew from Fiona that my body was capable of eventually birthing a person, even if things looked snail-slow at first.
By noon, I was having those textbookish light, early contractions whenever I walked around, which I was doing a lot now because, despite being full-term, I was nowhere near packed. (Apparently my version of “nesting,” which is supposed to describe the high level of domestic productivity women experience in the last days of pregnancy, is not channeled toward bathroom grout or cupboard organizing but toward writing projects. So the house was a mess as usual and we were all unpacked.) I carted Fiona from room to room, and she helped me choose her clothes by grabbing random stuff from her drawer and throwing it on the ground giddily.
At 1:30, I called the midwife. I’d been putting this off. I knew it would begin the pressure to hook me up to an IV and pump me full of Pitocin–a drug that’s supposed to make labor even more painful than it already is naturally–but it was time to fess up to my broken amniotic sac. Sure enough, they wanted to see me stat.
By 3:00, I was lying on a table at the midwife’s office, my belly strapped with two bands, one baby blue, one baby pink, as a monitor resembling a lie-detector was scratching out two wavering lines on an endless sheet of paper. One line was my baby’s heartbeat. The other represented my contractions, looking like a pencil drawing of even waves. I still wasn’t really in pain.
“You’re banging ‘em out, momma,” the midwife said when she walked through the door. “Baby’s fine.”
I was only one centimeter dilated and “pretty thick,” two details I knew meant I had a long (long, long) way to go. So the midwife gave me the official hospital policy: Check yourself in and get induced. Then, she gave me her personal response to that policy, which was off the record and will remain so, because she rocks. Suffice it to say, we went home.
Listen: Fiona’s Ohio midwives were not nearly so supportive. “Pitocin or a C-section,” they said again and again. Those were my options for a broken bag of water and almost no contractions. They said this on a Monday, and we declined and went home. We went back on a Tuesday, and they gave me the same options. Pitocin or a C-section. We left them again. Up until that point, I’d spent 30 hours with broken water and no significant contractions to show for it. But when Justin called just two hours later to report that I was clearly in the throes of labor, the midwife actually yelled at the nurse he was speaking to. “There’s no way she’s in active labor!” she shouted. “I JUST talked to them!” She grabbed the phone from the nurse and yelled at my husband. She said she couldn’t help us determine whether or not we should come in. We came in anyway—because my husband has good instincts—and I arrived fully dilated. I’d gone from zero to ten in a handful of hours. Fiona’s midwife was suddenly so sweet she was dripping syrup instead of sweat. Fiona was born an hour later.
I mention the contrast between the midwives because they underscore a theme here: though these births began the same, they would not be the same. Much about Fiona’s birth was stressful, and everything after was even more stressful as she brought with her 4-pound, 12-ounce body not just her wide, curious onyx eyes but also a frightening shroud of concern around her—those eyes were just wide-set enough for me, for all of us, to sense something. But Petra’s birth would be different. Petra’s birth would somehow heal some of the rawness still present from Fiona’s, even from the very onset, with a supportive midwife. It’s an emotional tension I’m still sorting through. And I’m not sure how I feel about that—one child’s birth easing the residual trauma of another’s. But whatever. I’ll take it.
3:30 P.M., I was still in nothing I’d call pain, and Justin had loads of work to do before his paternity leave. Fiona was with our friend, so I was finally alone and could now listen to a bunch of “Hypnobabies” tracks, which are supposed to prepare you for an “easy, natural birthing,” a phrase that drew naïve approval from me in preparation for Fiona’s birth and wry, sarcastic laughter from me in preparation for Petra’s. Still, they’re some calming tracks, with their synthesizer chords and breathing prompts, so I listened.
A 6:27 PM, I sent a note to someone, reporting that things were still early. Later, I would laugh about this. By 6:30, I was eyeing the door, hoping Justin would walk through any minute. He did. By 6:45, I needed all my concentration to get through each contraction. I think we left for the hospital at 7. It was three minutes away.
After moaning through a few contractions at the hospital registration desk, and after garnering the curious gaze of several people waiting in the ER, and after riding up to the women’s and children’s ward in a wheelchair, and after shaking my head at the nurse’s request for a urine sample—no way I could manage the logistics of a collection cup when my contractions were hitting hard and every two minutes—the nurse checked me. Four hours ago, I was one centimeter. Now, she couldn’t tell. She had to check again.
“I can’t find it,” she said of my cervix, and I waited for a number. A number that would tell me how far I’d come, how much farther I’d have to go. Five, I thought, and maybe I’d get an epidural. Seven or eight, and I’d probably have to stick this out unmedicated til the end. Ten would mean I was done, but my pain level hadn’t quite sent me to the moon yet, as it did with Fiona, so I thought I still had plenty of agony to go. And then the nurse said, “You’re fully.”
Fully? It wasn’t a number. “What?” I asked. Contractions and their aftershocks are like tunnels—it’s hard to hear through them.
“You’re fully,” she said, looking at me seriously. We both knew what this meant.
With Fiona, I pushed her out in a tub. But with Petra, there wasn’t time. Water was running in the birthing tub, and I remained on the bed, on all fours.
I screamed a lot. Not moaned, as I’d been doing. Screamed. Yowled. Shrieked. Howled. Oh, you know, it hurt a lot. Blah blah blah. Supposedly, I said, “I can’t do this.” But I did. “Listen to your body,” the midwife said, and I did. With the force of three contractions, I pushed her out. At 7:41, it was done.
And here is the wonderful thing: the thoughts that I’d feared I would have, I did not have. I thought I’d worry about her face. Need to see her eyes. Need to know and fear to know whether her eyes showed any indication. Not that she might have 4p-, which odds I knew were crazy-rare, but that she might have something. (I wrote an essay about my fears in this Salon article.)
Immediately after her birth, I did not think this. At my most base, in my most primal, my first thought as I pushed my daughter out onto a hospital bed of paper and bloodied sheets, was:
Someone hold her. Justin, hold her. Someone pick her up and love her.
Because I was busy on my hands and knees, gasping from the pain, I directed Justin to do just this. Hold her.
So there it is: love takes over sometimes. Love eclipses fear sometimes. Even, or maybe especially, in our most primal emotional places. There is love. A selfless, container-less outpouring from us. Pick up my baby. Love her.
Then I got on my back, and they moved her up to me, and only later would I obsess: was her size okay? Did her eyes look alright? Any clubbed feet? All ten fingers, ten toes? The next day, the doctor would confirm what I already knew. She was fine. And he’d say the two words aloud—Wolf-Hirschhorn—the ones that cast a shadow over my entire pregnancy. And that would be a relief: to hear someone say it aloud. To have someone name my deepest fear and blow it like smoke right out of room 363. The doctor would say, “You don’t have to worry about Wolf-Hirschhorn, or anything else for that matter. Lightning hasn’t struck twice here.”
And that would be beyond wonderful to hear. But the best part was that very first second of her life. When it came time to meet my daughter, I’d forgotten my biggest fear. I’d just wanted her to feel love.
Birthing is a strange thing—a door, yes, but also an earthquake. A death of one kind, and obviously a birth of something else. But not just a birth of a person. The process of birthing strips you down. Turns something animal in you, tunes you into a version of you that you otherwise never have to tune into. I think Petra’s birth probably healed something in me that opened up raw and wounded at Fiona’s birth. That wound was made from doctors’ and nurses’ voices who’d asked if I’d done drugs while pregnant, who’d asked if I’d smoked, who’d told me I was bad soil. Either that or my daughter was a bad seed. It is infinitely better to welcome a life into a world that also welcomes, unequivocally, that life. It re-breaks my heart a little bit, remembering that Fiona did not receive that welcome, not from the medical community, and it therefore became harder for me to unequivocally welcome her. Her presence filled the room with fear. Yeah, this re-breaks my heart a little.
Which was probably why my first instinct at Petra’s birth was not as I’d expected—to check that my second daughter was “normal.” Instead I checked that she was loved. How far I’ve come in two years. How much Fiona has taught me.
One last note, on Petra’s name. It’s not a name I ever expected to give my daughter, not after years of trying on names for fun. But somehow it got tossed out onto the metaphorical table covered in all our naming possibilities (Among Justin’s favorites, Scholastica [I know, right!]. Among mine, Elinor), and Petra stuck. Yep. That was it.
Why was it it? I asked Justin again and again. I’d never even considered Petra before I was pregnant with her. But we both agreed. This child’s name was Petra. In some way, we obliged to it more than we chose it.
It’s the feminine form of Peter, meaning rock or stone, and it’s an ancient city in Jordan. That’s about all I knew. Then, our first day back from the hospital, I googled “May 31”. What happened in history on the day of Petra’s birth? Among some useful Wiki details—Walt Whitman was born, and so was Brooke Shields—it’s the feast day for Saint Petronilla. Also known as Petranella. Little is known for sure about this first century saint, but it’s believed that she knew Saint Peter, the original disciple of Jesus, so she’s a pretty old saint. About as old as they come. Justin happens to be the rector of a church named Saint Peter’s. But none of this is the totally impressive part.
The totally impressive part? Saint Petranella is the saint invoked against fevers. Fevers are the very things that give us the most fear in parenting Fiona, because fevers can mean seizures for Fiona. Grand mal seizures.
I don’t pretend to know much about saints, or to fully believe in their powers, but the whole thing is just too wild to dismiss as coincidence. Petra, born a week and a half early, on the feast day of the saint with virtually the same name. To boot, on the feast of the saint who guards against the very thing that’s most a threat to her big sister. Methinks something special is going on here.
Fiona turns two today. Petra turns one week. Happy Birthday, my girls!