The Lavender Room

Birthing my baby was a labor of love. A spectacularly painful, utterly preposterous 43-hour labor of love.  

“Don’t believe a pregnant woman is psychologically fragile and should be protected from the realities of labor and birth.”

Photo courtesy Daniel Lobo/Flickr

This essay was adapted from Labor Day: True Birth Stories by Today’s Best Women Writers.

In a little red cottage on a pond in the Berkshire Mountains of western Massachusetts one Saturday morning in August I woke alone in my bed and felt a queasy swoop of something flitter through my gut. I’m pregnant! I thought, sitting up with a start.

PREGNANTPREGNANTPREGNANT! A joyous, silent shout repeated in my head.

As I walked into the bathroom and ripped open a pregnancy test—I kept a stash of them on hand during that time—another, more reasonable voice said, No, no, NO. Don’t get your hopes up. That queasy feeling is just the two margaritas you drank last night with Donna!

For once in my life that other, more reasonable voice was wrong.

* * *

My husband was out of town, but he’d be home that evening. I’d be picking him up at the Albany airport, but I wouldn’t tell him about being pregnant there. I also wouldn’t tell him on the drive home. The news was too momentous, too beautiful to be delivered in an airport or an automobile. I would lead him into our little red cottage on the pond where I’d open a bottle of non-alcoholic sparkling something and say the words I’d been wanting to say to him for a year.

That day, as I readied for his arrival, I bought fantastic things at the farmer’s market. I wandered the stalls with the word pregnant, pregnant, pregnant chirping like a secret bird only I could hear. At home, I set out the organic cheeses and ridiculously expensive handmade crackers and dark chocolates I’d purchased that day, arranging them artfully on a platter. I drove to Albany while playing out the evening in my mind. How I would ask my husband all about his trip so as to distract him from inquiring about me. How once we got home I would finally say, “Guess what?”

When I got to the airport he was there already, his flight having arrived early. I came upon him as he was yanking his suitcase from the rotating belt in the baggage claim area.

“I’m PREGNANT!” I shrieked crazily the minute his eyes met mine. People turned and looked at us in alarm.

I’ve always been terrible at keeping secrets.

* * *

Being pregnant meant making a lot of decisions. My husband and I decided I’d see a midwife not a doctor. We decided I’d have a drug-free, low-tech, not-in-the-hospital-unless-it-was-actually-medically-necessary birth. We decided I’d have an ultrasound but not an amniocentesis. We decided we’d take a labor and birth class together but under no circumstances would I refer to my husband as my “coach,” no matter what the official class literature instructed us to do. We decided we didn’t want to know the gender of the baby, but we found out by accident anyway: a boy.

In a bar called Limey’s, we decided his name would be Carver.

* * *

The thing I couldn’t picture all through my pregnancy was his face. I tried to but I could never land on anything. It seemed like the greatest mystery I’d ever encountered, one that grew as he did inside of me. He kicked and squirmed. He got the hiccups and I felt them at the top of my crotch (at which point I learned for the first time ever that my crotch had a top). I was viscerally connected to this being inside of me and yet when I tried to picture him I could not.

He’s going to be a big baby! people said jovially to me when they saw my enormous belly and that’s all I could imagine. Not a face. Not my son’s face. Just the face of a big anonymous baby that happened to belong to me.

His anonymity compounded my fear that I wouldn’t love him. I worried about the fact that I didn’t burst into tears when we’d had the ultrasound and I’d first seen the image of him on the screen or when I heard his heartbeat at my meetings with the midwife. I felt awfully fond of him. I did everything for him. I protected his well being at every turn. But there was still a distance between us. I didn’t know him. All through my pregnancy my burning question was this: How could I love someone I didn’t know?

* * *

His birth began on a Tuesday morning. We were living in Portland, Ore., by then, having moved there when I was five months pregnant. I called my husband and got immediately into the shower and by the time I got out he was there with bags of groceries that I’d instructed him to buy—snacks for labor and ingredients for baking. All through my pregnancy I’d read tales of people baking things in the early stages of labor while also watching videos. They made blueberry muffins while watching Sleepless in Seattle. They made a carrot cake while watching The Last Picture Show. So I had the same cozy idea about my own early stages of labor. That I would do what I called putzing around.

It didn’t go like that. It went like someone was operating a jackhammer in the lower half of my body every five minutes for hours on end. I had to wander the house and lean on things and process the pain with moans and ghastly facial expressions. In between one of these contractions my husband implored me to eat a bowl of chocolate pudding. I ate it, grateful for the small, temporary pleasure it afforded me.

Then I had a contraction and puked it all up.

What Not To Believe

1.    Don’t believe labor doesn’t hurt more than anything you’ve ever felt.

2.    Don’t believe you might have an orgasm while pushing a head out of your who-ha.

3.    Don’t believe you can’t withstand enormous amounts of pain.

4.    Don’t believe suffering is abnormal or permanent.

5.    Don’t believe your body should cooperate with some plan that a medical association made because it protects them from law suits and makes it easier for them to run the show—the show being your body.

6.    Don’t believe you shouldn’t educate yourself beyond what whomever you’ve hired to help you with your birth tells you.

7.    Don’t believe a pregnant woman is psychologically fragile and should be protected from the realities of labor and birth.

8.    Don’t believe you can’t do this. It’s a rough business, but you can.

* * *

The thing I feared most was the drive to the birth center, a place called Andaluz, which was 30 minutes from our house. As we drove, I breathed in and I breathed out while listening to a Krishna Das CD. I chanted om nama shivaya along with him, not knowing what it meant, only knowing it helped me. It was Tuesday around dinnertime. I’d been in labor seven hours by then. The pain had become so spectacular I figured it had to be time to go to the birth center. I looked at my husband and said excitedly, “Our baby’s going to be born tonight!”

Andaluz was on the second floor of a brick building of the sort that is always described as nondescript. It housed dental offices and insurance firms and mortgage brokerages and psychotherapy practices. Out of respect for the regular, non-laboring non-chocolate-pudding-puking people, I tried not to bellow and howl and moan like a madwoman as I passed by the doors of these businesses. I tried to walk upright across the vast gray carpet and to refrain from murmuring fuckfuckfuck while gripping the banister of the stairs as another contraction came on.

I did not succeed.

There were three birth rooms in Andaluz, each with a peaceful-sounding name, a name that suggested that things like massage or Reiki might be going on inside. I chose the one called Lavender. There was a queen-sized bed covered in a pretty quilt and throw pillows in pastel colors and a door that opened up into a bathroom with a birthing tub at its center. I insisted on getting into the tub immediately, though the warm water only fleetingly blunted my pain. Every time I had a contraction I thought, you have got to be fucking kidding me! It seemed preposterous that this was the way birth got done. I felt solidly and profoundly connected to all the female mammals of the world. Not just the women who’d birthed, but the cats and the bears and the lemurs too.

I howled and moaned and mooed like a cow as I contracted every 2/3/4/5 minutes. I walked up and down the carpeted stairs of the now-empty nondescript office building that housed the birth center. I did squats and lunges and sat on an inflated ball and languished in the tub and vomited every time I so much as took a sip of water. I laughed with my husband and tried to concentrate on the candles he lit for me and I stared at the framed photograph of my dead mother he propped next to them, trying to channel her to make me strong.

Author and her baby.
Cheryl Strayed and her baby.

Courtesy Cheryl Strayed

When I had a contraction my entire body would be instantly flooded with sweat, the heat unbearable. Then, as soon as the contraction ended, I’d be freezing cold, shivering violently until the next round began again. My husband and two women friends who’d joined us a few hours after we’d arrived at the birth center were what I came to think of as my contraction pit crew. They were the ones who pulled my robe off and put it back on according to my body temperature. They tried to convince me to sip the water I’d later retch up. Every 15 minutes a midwife or one of her apprentices would crouch down and listen to the baby’s heartbeat through a stethoscope and assure me that everything was okay, but otherwise the four of us were left alone, doing our circuit of stairs, ball, robe, no robe, bathtub, lunge, howl.

By morning I was standing near a window in the Lavender Room watching the sun rise and feeling like a survivor, if only of the night. My pit crew was asleep on the bed behind me—they’d taken to dozing off in the brief minutes between my contractions—and so it seemed in this moment, I was alone. As I gazed out the window, I prayed to be out of this misery, to muster up the courage to do whatever I had to do, for the baby to be born soon. I felt entirely at the mercy of the birth, as if I’d lost any sense of who I was outside of this. As if there was no me outside of this.

As I had these thoughts, a crow flew up and perched on the narrow brick ledge outside the window. He was only a few inches away from me. Startled, we looked at each other. After a few moments, he tapped his beak several times against the glass as if trying to tell me something—tap tap tap.  And then he turned and flew away.

I took it as a good omen. My son would be born today.

* * *

It went on. And on and on and on. All through the day and deep into the night. I laughed. I cried. I despaired. I pondered the possibility of going to a hospital and getting a C-section or at least an epidural. I resolved to stick it out so long as my baby was okay. I remembered to feel grateful. I told dirty jokes. I swore. I surrendered. I begged the spirit of my mother to come to me and help and she did. I refused to do another lunge or to get into the tub. I was ravaged and exhausted. I was blown away and forever altered. Aware of physical capacities and spiritual realms I hadn’t known existed before. I went to the deepest place within me and found there was a place deeper still. I drifted off to sleep on the bed in the Lavender Room, and woke every few minutes with a roar. I pushed so long and hard I didn’t know what I was pushing anymore—my baby’s body or mine. We merged most profoundly in the panting moment that he ripped my flesh open as I forced him into the world.

At 4:07 in the dark of morning, 43 hours after my first contraction, my son was born. He was dark and gigantic. Just shy of eleven pounds. His eyes were ancient, going to me and to his father and then back again. He looked at me like he knew everything already. Like he loved me from the start.

Excerpted and adapted from Labor Day: True Birth Stories by Today’s Best Women Writers, edited by Eleanor Henderson and Anna Solomon, to be published in April 2014 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. Copyright © 2014 by Eleanor Henderson and Anna Solomon. All rights reserved.