When I was fifteen years old, I attempted to read Of Mice and Men while sitting in the hallway of a hospital, but I was too nervous to absorb the words. My mom was in labor, and my sister and I were waiting to be called into the delivery room. Prior to that day, my only exposure to childbirth was what I had seen on TV or in the movies. Those cinematic depictions always involved a lot of yelling, frenetic energy, and intense pain followed by the arrival of a cleanly washed and freshly swaddled newborn. I thought I knew what I was in for.
As my mom’s labor progressed, my dad came out to get us and when we entered her hospital room, I was immediately struck by how quiet and peaceful that room felt. My mom wasn’t screaming or writhing around in pain. Instead, she was breathing and getting through the current wave of contractions. As that wave subsided, she turned and smiled at my sister and me. The contractions became more frequent and painful, but my mom continued to remain calm and incredibly focused.
At one point, I remember feeling scared because she was clearly struggling. Through gritted teeth, she announced that she didn’t think she could do this anymore. I didn’t know what this meant. Would they have to operate? Was there a problem? But before I could ask questions or even reach over to encourage her, she had shifted her position and refocused her gaze into one of determined ferocity, which resulted in the crowning of the baby’s head. And within minutes, I watched in awe as my beautiful baby sister entered the world coated in blood and vernix.
It opened my eyes to the beauty and strength of childbirth. I have my mother to thank for that.
It took us awhile to get pregnant with my son, and when it finally happened I quickly shifted from the agonizing rollercoaster ride of infertility to actively preparing for a natural childbirth experience. I read every childbirth book I could find. My husband and I attended Bradley Method classes, and I diligently practiced breathing and stretching exercises. I ate well. I modified my yoga practice. I did all the “right things.”
But sudden pre-term labor led to bed rest, and round ligament pain turned out to be a life-threatening blood clot. On a chilly December morning, I woke up to discover that my left leg was purple, cold, and swollen like a misshapen eggplant. I could barely squeeze into a stretchy pair of maternity pants. My sister drove me to the hospital where my husband was a young resident in training. Within a few hours, I was medevacked to a larger hospital where the doctor brusquely declared I was in active labor. “You will be having this baby tonight,” he said, “but we will probably not be able to save both of you. You need to make some decisions.” He then turned and left the room.
Breathe in, breathe out.
Despite the glaring fluorescent hospital lights, the beeping machines, and the tiny room crowded with nurses; despite my frightened husband tightly gripping my hand, I was plunged into a dark and lonely place. Wanting this baby. Wanting to live. Wanting to be anywhere but here.
In between gut-wrenching sobs, I was experiencing contractions. I was shaking and petrified to move for fear of dislodging the clot or making labor progress further towards delivery. I couldn’t trust my body. I had been doing all the right things, and yet this still was happening. And now I was being slammed into the grisly grey wall of mortality. The nurses kept telling me to breathe – Breathe in, breathe out – but I couldn’t seem to catch my breath. Everything was moving too quickly.
As day turned into night, my anxiety sky rocketed. I had a flashback to my junior year of college when I awoke to discover that a girl in my dorm had died unexpectedly in the middle of the night from a blood clot. Could that happen to me? I couldn’t erase the doctor’s words from my head: “You will be having this baby tonight.”
I was exhausted, and yet I was too scared to sleep. Adrenaline, contractions, desperate prayers, and pleading with my husband to save our baby twisted themselves into a tornado that tore me apart over and over again.
Breathe in, breathe out.
When morning came, I was finally able to breathe a bit easier. My labor hadn’t progressed, which was an enormous relief. Someone turned on the TV and I was eventually able to nod off to sleep.
The next two weeks in the hospital were punctuated by blood draws and injections of blood thinners. My arms, legs, and belly were covered with bruises, but I was slowly able to get up and walk more each day. Throughout all the trauma and stress, our baby continued to grow and move. He was weathering the big and little storms of this pregnancy. Early on, we decided to name him Noah, and now that name seemed to be even more fitting.
My pregnancy was now officially labeled a high risk. I was allowed to go home, but the remaining months were shaped by daily visits to the local hospital for blood draws and monitoring. In addition to returning to my Bradley Method breathing exercises, I started meeting with a therapist. I was struggling with anxiety and working hard to trust my body and myself again. I wrapped myself up in the cheery yellow robe my sister had sewn for me and watched Christmas movies because they always had happy endings. I spent a lot of time rubbing my belly and talking to Noah, reassuring him and myself that everything would be ok.
Breathe in, Breathe out.
A day before my scheduled induction date, I suddenly went into labor. On the drive to the hospital, I was battling my anxiety, imagining all the possible worst-case scenarios: dislodging the clot that was still there, having a complication with the baby, bleeding out because of the high dose of blood thinners still in my body, and needing pain medications but not being able to take them because of my current medications.
I dreaded the thought of returning to the hospital where I had felt scared and overwhelmed during my previous stay. I tried to combat these thoughts with the visualization exercises I had been practicing with my therapist. I tried to remember the breathing techniques from my Bradley classes. Nothing seemed to work, and the rising panic grew more intense with each contraction.
Breathe in, Breathe out.
When we entered our assigned birthing room, I requested that they keep the lights dim and asked them to fill up the large tub with water. The fears were still clinging to me, but my focus shifted to the intense contractions that were starting to make me gasp. I entered the warm water, and transitioned to a deeper place within myself. It was similar to my previous hospital experience, but instead of being dark and scary, this was a space of surprising strength and focused calm.
There was something powerful about being fully immersed in warm water and darkness. I was finally able to breathe – deep, focused, calming breaths that came from a place I didn’t know I had within me. Anchored to my breath in a way I had never experienced before, my body was doing exactly what it needed to do. My mind was fully engaged on laboring. My worries had no space here. Diving down into the surreal peace like I had I seen my own mother do during her labor, I was able to go deeper with each inhalation.
Breathe in, breathe out.
A few hours later, Noah was born healthy and without complications. Our doctor started to sing “Happy Birthday,” and with tears streaming down his face, he handed Noah to me for the first time. Holding his tiny body tight to mine, I was overcome with crazy, heart-piercing joy and love. All the years of wanting a baby of our own, all the months of scary ups and downs, melted into the background and were replaced with pure elation. He was here. He was really here. And I was, too.
Words and image by Lucia Saperstein.