Yesterday I achieved a Life Goal …
Yes, my friends, I watched a HUMAN BABY BORN!
Is it bizarre that at the ripe old age of 61 I’ve never actually managed to see another human being enter the world?
I’ve never had kids of my own – and that decision has been a difficult one. It was one of the primary reasons I lost a long-term lover, and several other partners considered that stance a serious relationship issue too. But I just could not do it. Although I love kids, it seemed to me that I’d have to give up too much of my freedom and my artistic time to become a full-time parent.
Only occasionally do I feel sad about not having kids, but increasingly over the years I felt a deep lack in my life at never witnessing a human birth – an experience I always thought should be a common occurrence shared by community.
Back in the late Fifties and early Sixties, I helped my Collie named “Lassie” (of course) give birth – twice. Once she had 9 pups and then 11. I stayed by her side vigilantly, helping her break open the little sacks that housed each tiny puppy – and, sadly, carrying outside and burying the 11th – the even-smaller still-born pup, the runt – in my back yard. Life juxiposed with death. Birthing the pups, burying the tiniest in my backyard in the rose garden – it was an amazingly intimate experience that I’ll never forget.
Although I value those memories, I’ve continued to feel that not being present at the birth of a human baby made me not fully human. It’s not that I have to actually be a mother to feel like part of the human family, but I felt a deep need to be part of the Cycle of Life by bearing witness to a human birth.
Sadly, in antiseptic North America, birth is treated as a “medical condition” appropriate for a hospital room, not a social or shared cultural experience – an “emergency” kept separate and hidden – only to be shared by doctors, nurses, midwives and a maximum of three, usually family members.
Over the past 20 years I’ve asked my gynecologists, dualas, friends and friends of friends, even very pregnant total strangers – to help me find someone willing to share the intimate experience of birth – but it just never worked out. Most people already had their maximum of three.
Some people advised me to become a midwife or duala to satisfy the desire – but although the idea did intrigue me, and I did look into it because I love kids and I posses many of the qualities required, it seemed absurd and just “wrong” that I had to become a professional just see a human baby born.
But yesterday, finally, my friend and sister childcare worker at the Park Slope Food Coop, “V” graciously allowed me to be present with her and her partner “C” for the labor and delivery of their beautiful baby girl.
I’ve never liked hospitals and I hate it when people describe accidents or anything that involves emergencies and painful medical conditions. When hearing these stories I feel a surge of adrenalin through my body, along with empathic pain directly in the area described in the story so overwhelming that when someone is about to tell one of these stories, I plead with them not to share or at least allow me time to exit the room before they begin recounting the event – so obviously I was a bit concerned that seeing the blood and painful writhing of a friend would be too much.
But I’ve sought out the opportunity to see a birth for years … and now, finally it happened!
Tentatively named “L,” the tiny baby girl came into the world at 7 pounds, 14 ounces after a painful and exhausting night-long ordeal. Up all night with “V” at St. Luke’s Roosevelt hospital with a nurse and midwife in attendance, and “C” exhausted and asleep, I gave what I had to offer: loving massage, gentle words, and my full, steady calm attention – which helped ease “V’s” pain and nerves – and made me feel useful and not at all an “outsider” to the process.
In 1989 I was alone with my mother in her hospital room when she passed away from a brain tumor. I was the only one by her bedside. I sat next to my mother as she breathed in a soft breath, a few short gasps – and then a long, slow exhale. That long breath created a wet bubble. When the bubble burst, my mom stopped breathing – she was dead.
The woman who brought me into the world had left it. For weeks afterwards I said to myself over and over: “I am a motherless child” – feeling a painful loneliness different and deeper than anything I’d experienced before. But still, I continued to feel privileged to have been present at the moment of my mom’s death – to share her holy moment of transition.
Tuesday night into Wednesday I spent hours standing by “V’s” side, waiting for life to emerge, as she trembled and moaned in agony, trying mightily to ride the wave of each contraction with the help of her practiced full even breaths and the midwife’s coaching.
Stroking her damp forehead, rubbing her feet and back, I felt incredibly intimate with someone who really, when I thought about it, I barely know – as I only spent 2 hours and 45 minutes with once a month supervising other people’s kids.
But there I was: there by “V” side, with “C” looking on. As the baby was about to come, the midwife instructed each of us to hold onto one foot and leg, and we became like human stirrups, giving her a place to push with all of her might, breathing in and holding her breath and pushing, pushing pushing.
And we watched – “V” watched in the mirror as she pushed, and we all saw it: the crown of her tiny baby’s head emerge from her birth canal; the wet, bloody, hairy head, followed by a plop of mushy perfectly formed little baby-body oozing out, still connected via a thick flat white and blood-red umbilical cord … I was astounded, awed – intimately connected – and, surprisingly, the blood didn’t bother me at all.
All I could do say over and over was …
“Oh my G-d! … Oh, my G-d … Oh my God!
The sight, the magnitude of standing just inches from this little life bursting out into the world welled up in my chest. I could literally feel my heart swell, my chest expand with joy and awe – and my tears well up and pour out of my eyes.
I felt so privileged and “right” being there. There she was, covered in a sort of white dust and blood, little “L” came into the world, beautiful – perfect, precious, sweet.
I could not take my eyes off everything. I couldn’t get close enough. I waited eagerly for the midwife to tug on the umbilical cord and pull out the bloody placenta, and I watched carefully as the mom got sewed up with a hook-shaped needle … surprisingly, not a squeamish minute passed.
Now, a day later, I still feel a sense of completeness, connectedness. Knowing death, knowing birth – more a part of the cycle of life – and eternally grateful.
Away all night from my “Z” – my 15 week-old Great Dane puppy – I’d hired a wonderful dog walker, Stacey Ragan – a talented artist who I know from our shared jewelry making businesses . Her first time walking little “Z” – Stacey entered my foul-smelling apartment facing diarrhea soaked bedding – and bravely and graciously dealt with the awful mess.
Stacey voluntarily stayed with “Z” an extra long time knowing I was attending a birth ‘till soon before I returned from the hospital. Clearly those fresh-frozen marrow bones I bought “Z” to hold her through a long night were NOT a good idea!
Yesterday, just home from the hospital, I did poop-covered laundry, washed my floors and tolerated “Z’s” dirty puppy dog shit-stained feet as she jumped up to greet me. I was doubly exhausted after that long sleepless night – but there was no alternative but to do what had to be done – that’s just how it is when you’re a “mother.”
As I was cleaning the shitty floor, I thought back to the aged years of my previous Harlequin Dane “Zuli” who lasted 12 years before I had to put her down – an amazing feat for a Dane. In those last years she was extremely weak and lost bowel control. Once my ex-girlfriend Elizabeth cleaned Zuli up without waking me – a generous gesture that proved her devotion.
Over those last years, I spent hours cleaning Zuli’s emaciated shit-stained body and carrying her down the front stairs to see if she’d go in the street. As difficult as those times were, they bonded us – there was much love and a silent understanding. I felt total commitment to do anything to care for Zuli – and surprisingly, even though it was difficult, the experience made my life richer and gave it more meaning.
Thinking about Zuli reminded me about a trip I took back in the 90’s, with my then-lover Beth. We were traveling from Washington DC where we lived to New York City – and I had a horrible intestinal attack. We couldn’t get to a bathroom in time and when we finally arrived at a gas station, I was literally covered in shit. Beth came into the little cold dirty bathroom with me and calmly cleaned me up with those rough paper towels that come out of the dispenser – literally whipping the shit off of my shaking body – maintaining her sense of humor throughout, despite my embarrassment and horror.
Yes, “Shit Happens.” And blood, and mucus, and death. Sometimes the memories are painful and ugly and smelly.
And the birth of beautiful little baby girls happen too – right there in the middle of a big mess.
Today, through it all, because of it all, I feel thankful for the LIFE that surrounds me, for the beauty of “L’s” tiny full lips, and glazed-over eyes, for her 10 tiny perfect fingers and 10 tiny perfect toes. For my new puppy, “Z.” For Life in all its raw, smelly, bloody, stinky glory – for all of its beauty and newness, its puppy and baby-ness.
I’m feeling grateful for the sweetness and the mess that bonds us, the “shit” and the gory-glory that tests us and proves our devotion – for what makes us human.
I feel grateful for birth and, yes, even death – for all that brings us closer together – grateful for all the ever-so-intimate experiences that make life so darn, well …
Judith Z. Miller
aka Artist Soul Speaks