“Were you in labor at this time five years ago?” my husband asked tonight as we were cleaning up the kitchen after our early Passover dinner.
“No, not yet. I didn’t go into labor until 4am.”
April 14, 2009 – 4am
I’m awakened by a puddle of warm liquid gathered around me. Although unlike anything experienced in normal life, it’s familiar, as it’s exactly how I was awakened by the onset of Everest’s labor, and at the exact same time: 4am at 37 weeks. My body seems to gestate babies like clockwork. I get out of bed slowly so as not to wake up my sleeping four year old and husband and walk downstairs. My entire body is trembling, shaking with the terrifying and exhilarating awareness that I’m about to enter the fire of labor and be initiated into the dark and magnificent forest of childbirth. My second son has begun his descent, and I, too, have begun the next stage of my birth as a mother of two.
I sit on the couch downstairs huddled in a warm blanket and call my midwife. She’s the second midwife as my primary midwife is out of town. We knew there was a chance that she would miss the labor but banked on the unlikely chance that my body would deliver at 37 weeks. My body and baby had other plans. Janelle answers the phone (midwives are angels in disguise) and calms me through my chatter. I didn’t know why I was so scared. It didn’t matter why. I breathed and warmed and took great comfort in her voice. She said she would stop by in a few hours and encouraged me to go back to bed.
No sleep, of course. The beginning of a life with another baby. The end of our life as a threesome. I cried. I smiled. I gazed at Everest and drank in his small, smooth beauty, relishing these last moments as a mother of just one child. How could I possibly love another as I love my firstborn? It’s a question every mother asks as she contemplates another baby. The heart expands. I didn’t know it then, but I know it now. At the time I could only drink my own salty tears as I breathed into our ending.
I curl into the wall and call my mother. It’s 5am.
“I’m in labor,” I whisper. “Get on a plane.” She squeals with delight. The umbilical cord is never fully cut between mother and daughter. She will walk me through this. She will stand on the bricks beside her daughter as I scream those gutteral, primal screams. “Bring that sound down into your pelvis,” Janelle will say as I’m pushing my baby into the world. My mother’s face, full of love and concern and deepest faith that I can do this. She gets on a plane and within a few hours she’s at the front door.
Everest wakes up and I tell him his baby brother is on the way. What clash of emotions coursed through his little body at that moment? I’ll never know, but can only guess it was a confusing cocktail of excitement, ambivalence, jealousy, grief, joy, and an instinctual desire to protect. “I’ll start taping off the balcony,” he announced. We all had a labor project prepared to keep us occupied during the long, early hours of labor, and his was to string long strands of tape along the railings of the balcony so that his baby brother couldn’t fall through. Amidst all of their arguing, Everest still protects his little brother with a fierceness I’ve only seen amongst siblings.
We spend the day walking in our yard, eating, talking. I call my Carrie and we talk through the contractions as I walk barefoot around our flower beds and through the green grass, freshly awakened from winter’s frozen slumber. It’s a beautiful spring day. Each time a contraction arrives I stop talking and breathe. She’s been there. She knows. She breathes with me, this soul-sister who has seen me through every dark night and celebrated every glory. Everest is busy building Legos. My mom is close by. My husband is a kiss away.
My husband. How different this birth was than the first, when the entire world stopped for the forty-two hours of that labor and for three months afterward as he took paid time off from work. Our life was another story back then. And now, as Asher descends down, down, down toward the birth canal, my husband needed to work. And it was okay. My mother is here. I have a son who needs me. Our dear neighbor friend is close by to attend to Everest when I can no longer focus on him. The village is here.
The hours unfold. I become more and more tired. I don’t have the full reservoir that I had when my firstborn arrived. I’m starting on empty after four and a half years of sleep-deprived motherhood. Midwife Janelle returns around 5pm and sits on the edge of my bed. I cry. I tell her I don’t know how to be a mother of two. I tell her how scared I am. She does what any good midwife would do: she listens. She validates. She holds me. I cry it all out. She leaves. At 7:30pm, labor really begins.
Pain. They say you forget but I’ve never forgotten the pain of labor. Searing, unbearable, soul-breaking, skin-tearing, burning, please make this stop, I can’t do this, pain. I scream. I get into the birth tub. It doesn’t help. I’m crouched down low. I’m a wild woman in the African plains. I’m alone, birthing my baby. I’m not alone. These priestess-women around me. My warrior-husband at my head. I absolutely cannot do this. But I do. I push like I’m going to die. The fire. And in ten minutes my baby… “My baby… my baby… my baby…” is all I can say as they place my little brown beautiful Asher on my chest. And I cry.
“This is your last day of being four,” I tell him as he’s falling asleep. He doesn’t say a word. He’s thinking about his presents and his birthday cake and the special movie he’ll watch. Unlike his big brother who grieves at every birthday (like his mother did for so many years), Asher takes it in stride. Jungian analyst Marion Woodman says that we walk through transitions the same way that we were born, and I think how true this seems for my kids. Everest endured 42 hours of labor with 3 1/2 hours of pushing and he struggles through every transition. Asher came though in 18 hours after 10 minutes of pushing and he seems to be able to roll with the changes of life with more ease. Just different. The gifts and challenges manifest in different ways.
So tomorrow we turn five. I say “we” because, as every mother knows, a child’s birthday is also our own. Tomorrow will be entirely about him, but tonight, just as I always do before every transition, I take time to process my own feelings: to remember, to cry, to breathe into the story, to offer the deepest gratitude for this miracle that sleeps a few feet away from me as I write and for the privilege of being his mother.
Happy Birthday, little one.