When I got pregnant with my first child, I didn’t believe in God, I considered Buddhism to be a matter for monks in saffron robes, and I thought of meditation as a beautiful pose. I was a secular woman, following the path of reason. As far as I knew then, birth was a pain-fraught needle’s eye that I would have to negotiate on my way from pregnancy to motherhood.
I was thirty-four when my belly began rounding. I loved the way my body was mysteriously creating new shapes and forms, teaching me new rhythms and flows. My appetite for sensuous pleasures—food and drink, sun on my back, swimming in silky lake water, sex—became insatiable.
Sometimes, the images of birth that I had gathered in childhood floated into my thoughts—pictures of sterile hospital rooms with harsh light and gleaming equipment; doctors hidden under scrubs and surgical masks; birthing women lying prone, their feet up in the air like basted turkeys on a serving platter, while chain-smoking fathers paced hospital corridors. In my mind, these images were blood-red, chrome and flesh-colored, with a soundtrack of moans, stifled screams and barked orders. Pain, jagged and sharp, seemed to be the common denominator of childbearing. I remembered how I held my breath and squeezed my knees together when I overheard the words cut and tear.
I pushed these frightening images away. They just didn’t make sense now. It seemed impossible that something as pleasurable as pregnancy would lead to pain. I deflected all the well-intentioned suggestions from my midwife, my yoga teacher, my friends who had birthed children. I would not allow the specter of pain to haunt my imaginings.
Halfway through my pregnancy, I made up my mind to have a home birth. My decision emerged unbidden, from that subconscious place which issues the most surprising directions. Once made, the decision was inaccessible to reason. When friends, relatives and health workers warned me about risks, I shrugged because I knew I couldn’t win a rational argument. I understood the risks—umbilical cord wrapped around the baby’s neck, ruptured placenta—but I never doubted that home birth was right for me. I wanted to experience life directly, intimately, without mediators or palliatives. And I didn’t want to be part of a birthing procedure scripted by male health professionals enamored with technology and pharmaceuticals. I had never used the word faith before, but something had shifted; now when skeptics warned me that I was endangering my baby, faith was my refuge.
One morning, when I stepped outside to get the newspaper, I noticed that the front steps to our house were covered by a thick layer of city dust. I fetched a broom and began sweeping, rhythmically and with great care, my arms extended far to brush past my huge belly. The midwife had told me that babies announce their arrival by triggering unfamiliar acts of housekeeping. She called it the nesting instinct. I had laughed this old wives’ tale away. Only a few hours into labor, however, I found myself wanting to be wrapped in a quilt of such reverent women’s tales.
Later that afternoon, my husband took me to Ocean Beach. Gazing toward the horizon, I noticed that my vision had changed. The warm air seemed to shimmer. Waves approached and receded like luminous inhales and exhales. People walking along the beach had an iridescent aura, the colors of their clothing pulsed. City noises receded and I felt cocooned in stillness, like the calm that precedes a hurricane. “Let’s go home,” Armin urged, after observing me for a while. I felt grateful when he clasped my hand and led me back to the car. A couple of hours later, in evening darkness, my waters broke.
At first, the pain only teased me. Fluttering in my abdomen, it seemed to be warming me up for a match. This isn’t so bad, I thought and wondered, arrogantly, what all those mothers had been complaining about. Before long, pain seized me like a wild animal: claws tearing, hooves trampling inside my belly.
Wasn’t pain a symptom of something dreadfully wrong? But I had done everything right! I hissed at my husband, the midwife, my two friends when they asked what they could do for me. Standing up, I swept the flowers and the candles off the dresser so I could lean my elbows on the surface. This was no time for frills!
“Don’t touch me!” I yelled at my husband. I was live-wired into some cosmic pain circuit; my skin felt electric. Cresting a particularly strong wave, I panicked that my body would be ripped apart by its force. “No!” I screamed. “Yes, say yes,” my friend coached, a glowing expression on her face. I wanted to bite her. I would not give in! I would gather all my skills and my strength and fight my way through this.
My head was full of expletives. Who the hell decided that babies have to be birthed in pain? Who ordered that women be punished like this? Eve’s punishment. For hours I tried to banish the pain, to bear it with clenched teeth. But it was so much stronger than I was, and it seemed to have all the time in the world. Nothing I had learned in my life had prepared me for this. What good was my Ph.D., my analytical ability? Thankfully, excruciating torment was followed by moments of utter stillness; the absence of pain, which I had always taken for granted, was its own wondrous sensation, like cool water quenching my thirst. These interludes allowed me to catch my breath, remember who I was. Hours passed. Night dissolved into morning light, and at one point I noticed the glare of high noon through the window of the adjoining room. By the afternoon of the following day, I ran out of resources. I curled up on my bed, defeated. Retreating into the shadow of my small self, I began to cry.
“Christine, don’t you want the baby?” the midwife spoke sternly, almost desperately. She’s worried, I thought. She’s afraid I’ve given up. I realized it was all up to me. “The baby?” I whimpered. “I don’t know.” Actually, I had forgotten all about the little stowaway who was journeying with me. Panic seized me then, a wave of red heat in my spine, because I realized that the work of birthing, once begun, must be finished. There was no return, the baby had to come out. “Can’t someone else do this for me?” I moaned. I knew that if I had been in a hospital, I would have welcomed physicians and nurses taking over with epidurals, monitors, IVs and surgeons’ knives.
“Let’s walk a bit,” Armin urged. He pulled me up to standing and took my arm. Step, step—we moved around the room and down the hallway. I leaned against a wall when the contractions took over. When we returned to the bedroom, I was back on track.
Another swell gathered in my abdomen, cresting then crashing. That’s when I heard a voice in my head. “Millions of women have done this. It is the way it has always been. Your body knows how to do it.” This was the YES, and it became a refrain, a rhythm that soothed and focused me. My body knows how to do this. Contractions make the baby come.
When I let my body take the lead, I left everyone in the room behind and entered another dimension where clocks, words, ideas did not matter. All thoughts of being good and looking good vanished. Like a whirling dervish, I yelled, grimaced, raised arms and pounded my feet. I danced the pain. Life was my partner. I could no longer distinguish doing from being done to; my individual task was merged with universal purpose. Miraculously, I felt entirely free when I surrendered to the work I absolutely had to do. My energy for pushing was boundless.
I saw myself in an endless chain of laboring women extending infinitely into the past, reaching beyond me into the future. Feeling part of something so much larger than my own little life made my fear dissipate. I understood: the pain had introduced me to my animal self, which followed the eternal imprint without asking questions. The contractions anchored me in my body so I could learn its lessons and share its connection to universal rhythms.
When the baby came out, the tempest calmed at once. A tiny ageless face, genderless to me for just an instant, gazed at me silently. Girl. My daughter would be the next link in that chain of women I had seen. Her intense eyes searched mine. So this is what you look like, they seemed to be saying. For a moment, we were alone in the world. Then the presence of the others in the room registered, their voices and movements. I heard Armin say my name, and I realized that I was sitting on my bed in my ordinary bedroom, a baby in my arms.
The next morning Armin told me how hard it had been for him to see me hurting. “I wanted to help you and there was nothing I could do,” he said. “But in the end,” I explained, “there was no pain. I was soaring. I’d like to do it again.”
I had gone into labor believing that, since I had done things right, I would be exempt from pain. But it grabbed me and slammed me, again and again, against the hard wall of my beliefs. I feared its wildness and was afraid that it would tear me apart; it seemed without limits. For hours, I had tried to run away from it. And then, a portal opened and I stepped through. Only the yes. I was standing in the field beyond right and wrong, beyond good and bad.
My ordinary daily life called me back quickly from this state of grace. The work of mothering—nursing, diapering, soothing the baby—swept me along. But I remembered the glorious feeling, and I sought out ways to cultivate it: martial arts practice and meditation. At a recent ten-day silent vipassana meditation retreat I mused how I had come full circle. Consumed with the aching and throbbing of sitting still for so many hours, I drew on the teaching of my woman’s body. The Burmese master Goenka had said no need for a mantra, but I had one to work with the pain: home birth. That’s my personal shorthand. Surrender to pain, I remind myself. Say yes.