It has been a hot minute. I unintentially abandoned my personal blog while I was in grad school (partially because of the writing workload for school, and partially because I worked, moved four times, had a crisis of faith, got a dog, got married, got pregnant, and had a baby all while in school during the pandemic). For obvious reasons, I come back to this blog a different writer and person. I’m not sure how that will shape what posts I leave up or what writing footprint I want to leave for myself on the wide, wide web. Some of my other posts are no longer a reflection of who I am, but they are the record of who I was. I am torn between preserving the evidence of every iteration of myself as proof of my growth, and not wanting my current self to be misrepresented by the writings of my former selves.
Either way, that’s not the point of this post and it is a problem for future Sierra to sort out.
The reason for this post is to share my experience with giving birth. As I rapidly approach Clementine’s first birthday, I find myself finally ready to share a bit of what my birth experience was like. I wrote a piece about it for my graduate thesis which is a collection of essays that I wrote on identity and religious trauma.
I want to clarify that the following essay is obviously only a reflection of my own experience and I do not speak for all women or birthing people about what childbirth feels like, how it shapes you, or the perceived correlation between religion and birthing identity. This is my story.
CW: Graphic descriptions of birth and postpartum anxiety and depression
I have always known I wanted to be a mom. Even when I stopped being a Christian and I began to dismantle and reject the message that procreating was my sole reason for existing, my desire to be a mother never wavered. I did, however, become annoyed with how often the line, “Be fruitful and multiply” had been flung at me in my formative years as proof of my duty: a direct command from God to Eve in Genesis 1:28 and therefore meant for me also. I had been told that her original sin was mine; her role as the corruptor of the good in man, as the temptress, and as the ruiner of paradise were all my inheritance. So too, was her responsibility to bear children.
Even as I started to distance myself from that theology and the people who preached it, I remained certain that motherhood was an important part of my future. Nothing is more fulfilling to me than watching a brand-new human being discover themselves and the world around them for the first time. Have you ever seen a baby realize they have toes? Or taste a new food for the first time? Have you ever watched a little kid try to figure out how to tie their shoes? Or wonder what the stars are made of? Watching someone else discover the good in life gives me renewed hope to live for myself. I wanted more than anything to have kids and share the magic of the world with them and watch them become their own person. I have always wanted that. I knew it was a romanticized ideal in a lot of ways that lacked nuance, but it guided me and my passion for becoming a mother.
As a kid I said I wanted fifty-six children, but I whittled that number down as I got older and gained a better grasp on reality. By high school I said I wanted ten children, by college I said four, and by the time I got married I had settled on two. But that absurd number “fifty-six” came back to me and rattled in my head, loud and hysterical, as I flailed on the delivery table, wild-eyed and inconsolable during the birth of my first and–after the experience that I had, perhaps only–child.
“I know it hurts, but try to make your contraction productive,” my midwife coached, “Push through the pain.”
“I can’t!” I wailed, thrashing my feet, embarrassed at my own petulance, but unable to regain any kind of composure.
I have always been someone who laughs through pain. Who downplays it, who stays in control. But I wasn’t in control anymore. I couldn’t laugh. I couldn’t even cry. I looked at my husband’s drawn face – I was scaring him – I still couldn’t stop. All I could do was grit my teeth and moan and scream and thrash and beg. I wanted to rip the IV out of my arm. I wanted to get off the bed. I felt a frantic need to pace, to rock, to scream. The epidural I had received was preventing me from getting up and moving around, but halfway through pushing, it stopped preventing me from feeling the pain. I was totally derailed by it. If only it had been a sharp, stabbing, or stinging pain, I would have been able to handle it. Instead, it was a huge, hollow, untraceable pain. I could no better describe it than I could escape it. I felt like the fibers of my existence were being ripped slowly apart. I was a million tiny elastic bands being pulled to the snapping point. I could hear them popping in my head, the strands of myself bursting and unraveling under the pressure. I felt like there was a black hole inside of me, pulling me in on myself like a dying star. I was turning inside out with pain, and I was sure that I would cease to exist.
I whimpered pathetically when the contraction released me. There was no relief, the terror I felt in anticipation of the next wave was as horrifying to endure as the pain itself.
The midwife reassured me that the anesthesiologist was on his way. He was going to give me more medicine to reign the pain back in. It felt like an eternity before we heard the knock and Todd–the only man involved in my entire birthing process and an oozing boil of a human being– came bustling into the room. Earlier in the day his face had been a mask of composure and condescension when I told him I was in pain. He explained to me the difference between pain and pressure. The epidural couldn’t remove the sensation of pressure, it wasn’t even able to make labor painless.
“You aren’t going to feel nothing,” he said in a slow voice, like he was talking to a particularly stupid toddler or a skittish horse, “Epidurals are designed to make labor tolerable, not painless.”
Now his face blanched when I turned my panicked eyes to him and begged him to give me medicine. A scream I didn’t have control over tore out of me as he hurried to inject something into the epidural port. My internal rage took pleasure in his discomfort at my wailing. I wanted to ask him if it looked like he had given me the right dose to tolerate labor. I wanted to be nasty, but all I could manage to say out loud was the word “please” over and over. Please make this stop.
I marveled at all the women before me who had had no choice but to endure this pain for millennia. I thought of my friend who was choosing to have a natural birth because she wanted to feel the pain, to be connected to her child and connected to the spirits of those women who had come before her. I laughed when she told me.
“Good for you,” I had said, “I couldn’t do it. I want pain medicine.”
Female oppression still exists in the United States. I had personally experienced it for all the years that I was a member of the Evangelical Church. I had been beaten over the head with a well-fed sense of inferiority as the ideology of complementarianism was hurled at me from the pulpit and reinforced by every man I knew. I was told that men were made for protecting and providing and women were made for submission and procreation. As far as I was concerned, the ways that I had been systematically forced to shrink, devalue, and limit myself were more than enough suffering to connect me to my foremothers. I didn’t need to experience one of the worst pains known to humankind, I wanted an epidural.
And yet, here I was, feeling it, and begging a man who had belittled me hours before to make it go away. I didn’t care. There is no dignity in suffering. My one and only goal was to obtain relief. Even though childbirth hasn’t been known to drive people insane, I could feel the pillars of my rational mind crumbling. As pieces of myself fell away, I began to fantasize about release in any form. Death wouldn’t be so bad. If I walked into a void and didn’t look back, at least the pain would stop.
When the medicine kicked in, my body melted into a quivering pile of desperate relief. The absence of pain was euphoric, but I was too tired to move.
“Do you need a little break before we keep pushing?” The midwife asked.
I nodded, teary eyed. I had already been pushing for nearly two hours and was nowhere near delivering. I wanted to quit. I wanted to sleep. I wanted to exist in any moment of time except for this one.
For twenty minutes the midwife sat there and charted, my husband, Bryce, gingerly held my head, and I entered into a paper-thin version of consciousness. I didn’t exist in my body but hovered slightly above it. I desperately wished for my sister, a labor and delivery nurse and my dearest companion, and resented that she had not been able to be with me. She had ended her travel contract on the west coast to support me while I gave birth, but Covid restrictions had clamped back down so that I was only allowed to have one support person. She would have given Todd a piece of her mind. She would have put me and Bryce at ease. She would have known what to say to make me feel like I could keep pushing. When my break was up, I wanted to cry.
The rest of my delivery feels hazy and disjointed in my memory. My midwife was not forthcoming about the potential danger I was in, she hadn’t told me about my mild preeclampsia or her suspicions about why pushing was taking so long, and I felt disoriented by my lack of understanding about what was happening to me. I only knew that giving birth was cleaving some part of my spirit. I felt altered by it. Motherhood didn’t dawn slowly in blushing shades of pink and orange like a summer sunset in my heart. It ripped through me, feral, painful, deadly, and riddled with fear. In my third hour of pushing, when I was so tired that I felt myself drifting in and out of consciousness, my daughter’s head finally began to crown. The midwife and nurse were cheering and encouraging me “Push, push, push” they said, their tone invigorated by my long-awaited progress. This was just a regular night at work for them.
I closed my eyes to push. When I opened them again, everything was different.
Bryce was no longer standing at my side. He had been pushed back to the edge of the room by a group of nurses that I had never seen before. Where did they all come from? When had they gotten here? They were suddenly surrounding my bed: a sea of strange and worried faces. They told me to push again and as I bore down, a searing pain shot through my vagina. My daughter’s head was most of the way through, but it felt like I was being stretched open and burned away by a speculum made of molten metal. My push wavered and cracked into the beginnings of a scream.
“No!” The midwife yelled at me, “Get it together, you have to push!”
There was no encouragement in her voice this time, only tightly cinched panic. My heart squeezed in fear and confusion, but I swallowed my scream and doubled down.
“I need someone on the bed,” she barked.
“Got it!” said a random nurse as she hopped up onto the edge of my hospital bed. She planted her feet and stood over me, pushing down on my pelvis from above me.
It was at this moment that I realized with crystal clarity that something was wrong. I have only ever seen three babies born, so I would hardly consider myself an expert on what a “normal” delivery is supposed to look like. But I felt certain that all these people in here, the midwife sounding scared, and this woman on top of me pushing down on me with all of her weight didn’t add up to “normal.” This was going badly. I pushed with a strength reserve that I hadn’t been able to tap into before I got scared. No one would tell me what the stakes were, but the animal in me knew danger was lurking and it became frantic with the need to survive. Suddenly I felt a big, sliding, wet plop followed by the most sublime relief as my daughter burst out of me and they dumped her onto my stomach.
There she was. Clementine Celeste. Slimy and new and looking like an angry turnip with her scrunched, reddish-purple face. There I was, gutted and empty and in shock. We made eye contact for only a brief second, but it was the most sacred moment of my life. The first time I looked into her eyes I encountered the divine. Not God, per se, and certainly not God in a male form. This was an act of worship that could only be offered to a divine mother, who or whatever she may be. And then someone whisked Clementine away. Something was wrong. They wouldn’t tell me what, but they were checking, poking, prodding, and scrubbing her. I didn’t get to do skin-to-skin and her dad didn’t get to cut the cord. Instead, the midwife began consulting with a doctor about the best way to sew up my second-degree tear.
“I’d just cut that away; it can’t be salvaged. Right, yes, there. And then stitch the rest up,” the doctor said, peering over my midwife’s shoulder and scrutinizing the wreckage between my legs.
I only barely heard them. I was craning my neck, desperate to catch a glimpse of Clementine as they examined her. It wouldn’t be until later that I found out that her shoulder had gotten stuck on my pubic bone during delivery. They are supposed to resolve emergencies like that in 60 seconds before there is a risk of brain damage.
It had taken them 63.
After nearly an hour, it was determined that she was a healthy ten pounds and one ounce, wrapped up, and laid back in my arms.
“I’m going to try to catch a few hours of sleep before my next delivery,” my midwife said as she heaved herself up from the stool where she had been sitting while she stitched me up, “But I’ll check in on you before I leave in the morning.”
One by one, the horde of nurses that had come to my rescue trickled out of the room until only my nurse remained. Before she could leave us to rest, she had to help me relearn how to use the bathroom. I climbed shakily out of the bed for the first time in seventeen hours, my bare ass exposed by the slit in my gown, and onto what looked like a hand truck. My epidural hadn’t totally worn off yet, so I was a fall risk and not allowed to walk. After the sheer number of people who had seen me naked in the last two days, any sense of modesty I had once possessed had already been torn to shreds. I was not embarrassed to be wheeled to the toilet or bashful to pee under the supervision of this stranger; I was only nervous about the physical pain that I knew that it was going to cause me to do so.
My belly was still distended by my misplaced organs and enlarged uterus to such an enormous size that I couldn’t see between my legs at all. I reached down to rinse with the peri bottle in lieu of wiping–something that would still be much too painful to do for several weeks– and I was surprised when my fingers brushed against my vulva about three inches further out than I expected. It startled me so much that I flinched.
“Woah,” I said to my nurse through a nervous laugh, gesturing to my crotch, “That is not where I was expecting that to be!”
“A lot of women feel that way,” she said.
Immediately I felt a little betrayed that no one had warned me. I had gone into this with no idea how swollen it would be or how dramatically an intimate part of my body would be changed by this experience. I knew the swelling would go down, but I wasn’t prepared for the jagged, plumb-colored stretch marks that would pucker and ripple the skin on my mons pubis as a result: stripes that matched the ones on my stomach, hips, back, and thighs. And the stretch marks were only one of the many permanent changes to my body.
I began to realize that if I truly rejected the idea that giving birth fulfilled my life’s purpose, then I would have to dedicate a portion of myself to grieving the body I used to have. Some days, it would be a larger portion than I felt like I could spare and still manage to function. I would have to spend time getting to know and learning to love the fatter, lumpier, stretched out stranger that now existed where my body used to be. But if it was my purpose to give birth, then I could view these unwelcome changes as sacrificing my vanity and my comfort in the name of honoring God’s design. My stretch marks would be holy. I have always understood that very conservative Evangelical men liked the narrative that women were designed to give birth because it helped them maintain patriarchal power. I never understood why the women went along with it. Was it because they were oppressed and conditioned into agreeing with it? Or now, I wondered, was it because it was an easier route out of self-loathing? Believing in divine purpose is the fastest way to feel whole again in a body that nature has brutalized and distorted.
After my nurse wheeled me back to my bed, Bryce, Clementine, and I were left alone. He and I spent those first few hours marveling at her perfection, updating our anxious families who couldn’t visit the hospital because of Covid, and laughing at her hiccups. Listening to them fostered an untamable joy in us. Just the day before we had only been able to feel those hiccups through the skin of my stomach, and now here they were, high-pitched and delightful, like a cartoon mouse drunk on champagne. It was the best thing we had ever heard. But by 3 a.m. the adrenaline had finally worn off and Bryce passed out. His body was squished, and his long legs were contorted to fit onto the stiff little hospital couch in the corner of my room. I stayed awake, my bed in a seated position, beginning the first of many through-the-night vigils.
I only slept a combined total of two hours and thirty minutes the first two nights after Clementine was born. That first night I just sat in the hospital bed and held her, memorizing every line of her face. I didn’t know how to set her down. I had never set her down before. Nine months is a long time to hold someone only to let them go. That first perfect night was one filled with wonder. I couldn’t sleep, not when I had a front-row seat to observe a miracle.
The second night I was afraid to sleep. Clementine had choked on some mucusy spit-up earlier in the day. She stopped breathing for the longest and most horrifying ten seconds of my life as I called for the nurse in a panic. I kept trying to lay her down and sleep, but every gurgle and coo from her crib launched me to my feet. I have always been an anxious person, but giving birth unlocked new levels of terror I didn’t know how to face or handle. After we took her home from the hospital, things didn’t get any better.
For the first four months of her life, I felt crippled by a fear of her dying that was so real, so raw, so all-consuming, that I would slip into moments of grieving her even though she was still alive. That grief was always circling at the edge of my vision like a migraine aura closing in. It was a sadness so big that even brushing the edges of it felt life-ruining. The only way I could drag myself back out of the grief was by holding her and watching her chest move up and down in tiny steady breaths; it was the physical reminder I needed to reassure me that she wasn’t dead. But for how long?
In my secret heart of hearts, I almost wished she would die, not because I wanted her dead but because I was so tired of living with the acidic anticipatory fear of losing her. It was eating away at every part of me. I barely slept. I struggled to do normal tasks. Her death seemed inevitable for no particular reason other than the fact that I was sure it was coming. I had somehow gotten it in my head that she wouldn’t live into the new year. Waiting for her to die was as exhausting as the fear that it would be my fault when she did. I hoped that it would be SIDS that got her. But what if it was me? What if I rolled onto her in my sleep? What if I fell down the stairs while holding her and crushed her? What if I got into a car wreck with her in the back seat? What if I didn’t feed her enough? What if I fed her too much and she choked again? What if she ran a high fever and I didn’t do enough to tend it and it killed her? What if I spilled hot coffee on her and she died of burn complications? What if I got distracted while bathing her and let her drown? What if I accidentally elbowed her in the soft spot on her head? What if I ran the dryer during a nap, caused a fire, and she died of smoke inhalation before I could figure out a safe way out of our second story bedroom window? What if there were other deadly scenarios that I hadn’t even thought to be worried about and one of those killed her? I wouldn’t be able to live with the guilt of her death if it was my fault. The fear of hurting her was debilitating. How do you move through life when you carry the burden of protecting someone who is as fragile as a soap bubble? I knew it was going to pop and there was nothing I could do to stop it, so I just waited for the day that her life would end and mine along with it. I never set her down if I could help it. And I waited.
I wish I had a clear understanding of what eventually changed in me. Was it passing the arbitrary deadline of the new year? Was it my postpartum hormones finally balancing back out and returning to some semblance of normal? Was it just a matter of successfully getting through life one day at a time, week-in and week-out that finally put my jangling nerves at ease?
Whatever happened, the knife-sharp certainty that she would die faded into a much duller and more generalized worry. It could still happen; I still sometimes brush up against that all-consuming grief at the thought of losing her. It is potent and hellish, but I have learned not to let myself sink as far into the toxic bog of “what-ifs.” I still worry. Sometimes through the night. But every day it gets a little easier to imagine her growing up. And it gets a little easier to sit in the precious moments of her discovering the world without thinking of them as the memories I will cling to when she’s gone.
I also still sometimes think about my fifty-six hypothetical children, and the comedy of wanting to give birth to an army when I could barely handle one. I think about all the years that I was coached to make motherhood my whole purpose and personality. I have committed myself to fighting my negative postpartum body-image and to resisting the desire to fall back on some sort of biblical crutch. I want to retain the identity that I worked so hard to create for myself outside of the Evangelical Church. But I worry that if you ask any of my friends, they will tell you that I have been consumed by motherhood already. I talk about feedings and diaper changes and nap schedules and daycare options exhaustively. Clementine is the only thing that is new in my life most days. I often go whole weeks without leaving the apartment for anything besides walking my dog or bringing in the grocery delivery off of my front porch. I am left to wonder how I am supposed to have purpose outside of the one thing that consumes every minute of my waking thoughts and I realize that the Evangelical trap is emotional as well as physical. I can see how it would be easy to believe that your purpose in life is having babies because if you don’t, then you have to spend every minute at war, trying to reconcile two incompatible halves of yourself. Motherhood and personhood do not do a good job of sharing space and trying to juggle two different identities is exhausting and the root of much guilt.
I have always wanted to be a mother. But I am finding that there is an upheaval to giving birth that I hadn’t anticipated. It brings out my inner joy, but also my inner terror. It has let loose my strongest emotions and they have run amuck in my life since the day that test came back with two pink lines. I am still living my dream, getting to revel in wonder and discovery with Clementine, but I have been forced to acknowledge the nuance of parenthood that I had previously been avoiding. I am realizing it would be easier to claim that I was fulfilling God’s purpose for me than to continue to try to carve out space for myself to exist authentically within the havoc that I have wreaked on my own mind, body, and spirit. I didn’t just give birth to my daughter, but to a whole new version of myself and my life with her, and it is messy.
If you made it all the way through, thank you for reading and letting me share this bruised and tender part of my heart.
Until next time,