PHOENIX RISING: A BIRTH STORY

As he emerged into the world, red and dazzling like a phoenix, something deep inside of me changed forever. The time was 4:43 in the morning, and for a brief moment the room went still, and I felt myself overcome with a joy and release I’ve never felt before. I’m not afraid to admit I wept. This is my version of our birth story.

For starters, Hollywood gets it wrong. Yet, to be fair, Hollywood is about the imaginary. If only births were as simple and came as quickly as they do on film. Water breaks. Woman has baby in ten minutes in elevator. But then again, such is to cheapen the experience of birth, which is an incredible and challenging universal that, as a man, I can only experience from the sidelines. And women do this everyday. I did my best to be present for my wife Meg’s pregnancy. I attended prenatal classes, met with our doula, read the baby book daily, played my favourite records for baby in utero, and happily gave my wife all the prostaglandins she needed. Despite my best efforts, the experience could never be fully mine. I could only feel our baby move by placing my hand on my wife’s round belly. My body stayed roughly the same, give or take a few sympathy pounds from our nightly chocolate treat and movie. Ultimately, I was there for support. Don’t get me wrong; I loved my baby before I ever met him. Even though I’ve only known him in the flesh for a week it feels like he has always been part of my life.

When we got pregnant ten months ago some people thought we were crazy. They didn’t quite say this, but their facial expressions, and the question, “was it planned?,” speaks volumes. I was (and still am) in the writing stages of my PhD; we were (and still are) living in a 725sqft apartment in downtown Toronto; and while we don’t have loan sharks after us, we’re not as financially secure as some people say you should be when you plan to have a family. We simply knew it was time. The very same month we decided to try, we got pregnant. Sometimes things happen faster than you can plan. Sometimes you don’t even have time to turn the Barry White, or Al Green, record over.

When Meg told me she was pregnant I almost didn’t believe her. Rather than embrace her like a normal human being, I ran to throw her favourite happy record on: Rick James’s “Give It To Me Baby.” Of course, I then came running back and embraced her. I guess I’m always trying to soundtrack life’s special moments. In hindsight, I should have just hugged her, and then put the record on. After that we had a secret to keep, not quite understanding at that point how much things would one day change. Once we had a due date, it was go time to finish a draft of my thesis.

Working as hard as I could—my own version of academic labour—I managed to finish a full draft three days before our due date of March 27th. I sort of assumed that the moment I sent the thesis to my committee Meg would go into spontaneous labour. Once again, when it comes to babies, or life in general, you can’t always plan how you want things to happen. Up until this point, Meg’s labour had been fantastic, and in my opinion, she was as sexy as ever.

Meg at 7 months.
Meg at 7 months.

We were still doing well, but as the due date passed and time went on, our resolve to organically wait was certainly tested. Our baby decided to arrive 20 days late—or, according to his schedule, right on time. This was our first lesson in parenthood: patience. We could have induced labour, but Meg remained adamant that a natural labour at home was what she wanted. In fact, I admired her resolve and trust in her body. Not that we didn’t try to kick start things. To get things moving we tried everything: Meg ate pineapple; we went out for spicy Ethiopian, Mexican, Indian, and Meg even ate a whole bowl of banana peppers while lunching with a friend; Meg went to acupuncture; we went for long walks, including a 10 km walk that involved stopping at six different indie coffee shops; Meg mixed various homeopathies; and she desperately drank castor oil after the two week mark. And, of course we had plenty of sex. Meg’s mom even texted the awkward message: I heard doing sex helps with contractions... Contractions did start. But then they would stop. At some point, with the advice of our midwife we decided, somewhat reluctantly, to go in for an induction—19 days past Meg’s initial due date. From the medical community’s perspective, this is dangerously late, even mad behavior. From a midwifery perspective, in Amish communities, and traditionally and organically speaking, sometimes babies need a little extra time. According to one 2004 American study cited in Midwifery Today, written by Gail Hart, more than 90% of hypothetically “late” babies born at 43 weeks show no signs of post-maturity. And while I don’t buy it, Jackie Chan claims to have spent 12 months in the womb, being nicknamed Pao-Pao, meaning Cannonball, by his mom. Fortunately, Meg was already 4cm dilated when we arrived at the hospital and so no induction was necessary. Maybe the lunar eclipse from the night before got things moving. Of course, in what had been a warm April, it was atypically snowing. Two hours after our arrival Meg was 6cm and the doctor broke her water. Because the water had a thin layer of meconium (mēkōnion: literally, “poppy juice”) and because she was GBS positive (also fairly common in pregnancy) we no longer had the option of a home birth. Fortunately our care was transferred back to our wonderful midwife, and we prepared for the fact that our baby was coming—likely today.

The first eight hours of active labour was somewhat what it might have been like at home. We kept the lighting low and let things progress naturally, played our baby playlist (that moved between Crosby, Stills, and Nash, Miles Davis, Abdullah Ibrahim, Nick DrakeAlexi Murdoch, and even Justin Timberlake). At times we danced a little, at others we were overcome by the heaviness of the situation. Occasionally, we fell into the fold of the moment and transcended the physical space of the hospital. We were in this together and nothing could take that away.

Sharing a moment. Photo taken Amélie Delage.
Sharing a moment. Photo taken by Amélie Delage.

The first eight hours of labour were relatively smooth. Given Meg went into active labour the morning of April 15th, we were sure our baby was coming that day. At this point we didn’t know the sex—some things in life are better as mysteries—but I was excited my child might share a birthday with Leonardo Da Vinci, Bessie Smith, and Jackie Robinson Day. Of course, every day has its share of tragedies, the 15th being the day the Titanic sunk and the day Lincoln died. But our baby, or the creator, depending on how you want to frame it, had other plans. Unfortunately, much of the tranquility of the birth changed when the baby’s heart rate dropped after a considerable contraction. This led hospital staff to enter the room in a flurry and attach a fetal heart monitor to the head of our baby. A few hours after this experience Meg went from 8cm dilated down to 6cm. The mind and body truly are connected. Shortly after this incident Meg’s mom arrived at the hospital. We switched spots for 30 minutes, and given we live (literally) across the street from the hospital, I had time to scurry home. I fed the cats, and took a shot of tequila.

When I returned we reset the mood. We keep the music tranquil, focused on deep breathing and prepared again to enter into the experience we had prepared for over the last ten months. It certainly is challenging to maintain peace when you have an IV in your hand to administer antibiotics for the GBS, a monitor wrapped around your belly to measure contractions, and a monitor attached to the baby’s head to observe heart rate. Meg remained resolved that she would, under no circumstances, have an epidural. I don’t think I could be so strong. Earlier on, before the baby had a monitor attached to him, our midwife let Meg disconnect and enjoy a nice soak in the Jacuzzi in our room. It relieved a lot of tension, and I’m quite certain a doctor would not have allowed this. Twelve hours into the birth (11 pm) and things significantly slowed down. At this point we were getting mentally and physically exhausted and so we began Oxytocin (hooked up by IV) at the lowest possible level. This was the one and only time the midwife asked Meg if she wanted an epidural. Meg, the powerful and resolved woman that she is, refused. Within half an hour we were back up and running.

I’ve done some exigent and incredible things in my life. I wrote and defended my Master’s Thesis. I recently wrote a 400-page PhD thesis. I’ve gone scuba diving. I’ve slept outside on the ground in freezing temperatures. I’ve done volunteer work in the poorest communities in Mexico. I’ve backpacked throughout Southeast Asia and Europe. I once killed a spider far beyond the size of my comfort level. They all pale in comparison to the endurance test of giving birth. In many ways, raising a child, I’m learning, is an extension of that larger birth experience. As midnight struck Meg began to enter the transition phase, the intense period between 8cm-10cm that prepares enough space for the baby to begin its descent. So, I guess we were having an April 16th baby.

I can live with that. By this date in 1912 the Titanic was on the front page of every newspaper. It is said that on April 16th, in 1178 BC, a solar eclipse marked the return of Odysseus, the legendary King of Ithaca, to his kingdom after the Trojan War. In 1935, Babe Ruth played his first National League game for the Boston Braves and hit a homerun. In 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.—a hero of mine—penned his Letter from Birmingham Jail while incarcerated in Birmingham, Alabama for protesting against segregation. In that letter he wrote the inspirational words: “Oppressed people cannot remain oppressed forever. The yearning for freedom eventually manifests itself, and that is what has happened to the American Negro. Something within has reminded him of his birthright of freedom, and something without has reminded him that it can be gained […] the United States Negro is moving with a sense of great urgency toward the promised land of racial justice.” I like the idea that my baby would enter the world on the day that one of twentieth century’s greatest activists imagined a more just society for all people. April 16th is the birthday of Charlie Chaplin (1889): that master of comedic timing, and arguably the single most important and universal icon in cinema’s history. April 16th also marks the passing of the Ralph Ellison, the author of Invisible Man, my favourite novel. Of course, the achievements and tragedies that befall a given date don’t interest me as much as what will become my child’s milestones. Who knows what Wikipedia might say about him one day?

After that needed historical reprieve, I return to the birth. The last 4.5 hours of birth were challenging and exhausting beyond what I had imagined. As the Oxytocin increased so did the power of the contractions and their frequency. If you’ve met Meg, you know she is one of the sweetest people on the planet. I’ve never heard her use such foul language and then pick up a peaceful conversation shortly after a contraction. Additionally, I might have broke down and collapsed if our doula wasn’t there to provide needed support. I can’t stress the value of a doula enough. She provided important techniques for massage, breathing, and she not only helped Meg, but she also kept me calm a great deal. As things intensified, Meg needed the music off, and she—how to put this nicely?—demanded that we not touch her. But like all things in life, eventually you reach a summit point and begin your gradual descent back down.

The final hour of the transition stage was incredibly intense, especially in the hospital with such high levels of administered Oxytocin and no pain medication. No one wants to watch the person they care about most suffer. I’m sure Meg doesn’t quite think of the experience as suffering, as suffering and pain is a matter of perspective. In Buddhism, Buddha said “Human life is suffering,” and in Christianity, Jesus suffered and died on the cross in order to save humankind. The point being, with suffering can come great understanding, even transcendence. By the time the pushing stage came, Meg had been in active labour for 17 hours. By this time, I was physically drained, yet alert, and I could only imagine how Meg was feeling. With every contraction I focused on making deep chant-like breaths to help Meg with her breathing. I repeated one of our mantras: “surrender.” After about 20 minutes of pushing, I could see the head of my baby. I shouted, “I can see the head!”

By this point, Meg was so strained and fatigued she couldn’t quite push the baby out, at least not quickly enough for the midwife’s comfort. The baby’s heart rate was dropping a little more with every push, although recovering just fine. It was at this point that the midwives recommend the doctors come in and give the baby some final help with suction. I never heard Meg so happily accept an intervention. Everything after this point happened so fast. I had been looking forward to catching my baby, but at that moment I just wanted my wife to be ok, and for our baby to be safe. Sometimes in life we need a little help. It’s hard for us determined types to admit. As the Beatles once said, “I get by with a little help from my friends.” Of course, the word Meg called the doctor while he used the vacuum along with an episiotomy was not friend. I held her hand and told her she could do this and that she was the strongest person I knew. These words are true. And then it happened. The room froze. The doctors, residents, nurses, midwives disappeared. It was only Meg and myself as our beautiful baby boy was lifted into the air. “It’s a boy,” someone said. I cried. I can only assume every man cries when he sees his child for the first time. Meg told me to go over to him as the pediatricians cleared his lungs and checked him over. They told me he was long at 22 inches, but more importantly: he was healthy. He weighed 8.08 pounds — the universal number of bass in hip-hop thanks to the low-frequency sounds of Roland’s early drum machine: The Roland TR-808 Rhythm Composer. On lower notes—the subtonic—our baby arrived. After a few minutes he was given to me and I brought him over to Meg who held our baby close against her breast.

Baby, newly earthside, first 5 minutes.
Baby, newly earthside, first 5 minutes.

I then took the baby and did skin to skin as Meg delivered what the midwife called a beautiful looking placenta. The body really is amazing. If we had a yard, we would have buried the placenta and planted a tree on top. Some people eat the placenta, what is called placentophagy, but that’s even too much for urban hippies like us. Instead it ended up in a bin with other placentas that sustained babies in utero. After the midwife stitched Meg’s incision, I gave the baby back to her. There are few miracles in life. Birth might be one. Or perhaps I am conflating the natural with the mysterious, or maybe the mysterious is always natural, and the natural mysterious. The baby took right to breastfeeding. We did this. I’ll never look at another woman who has given birth the same. Birth without fear is possible, even 20 days late in a hospital setting with cascading (in our case, likely necessary) interventions. It wasn’t the orgasmic birth we had hoped for, but it was our birth: our story.

The total hospital experience wasn’t quite over. Although the baby was born at 4:43 am, we didn’t leave the hospital until that evening at 9:30 pm. Since the baby was “late,” his blood levels were monitored, and because Meg had a large episiotomy she needed to spend the day in the hospital bed. None of that mattered too much since we had a beautiful baby boy. We named him Phoenix: a perfect name for a baby born of a yogini mother and a literati father. Further, the phoenix, a symbol of rebirth, felt like an appropriate name after a long birthing experience. Moreover, it is fitting he was born so close to Easter, which is filled with the symbolism of resurrection and new life arising from suffering. In Greek mythology, a phoenix (φοίνιξ, phóinīx) is a bird associated with the sun that is cyclically regenerated or reborn. What renews one’s life and purpose more than new life? Phoenix has certainly renewed our lives and will continue to do so for the rest of our days, hopefully being reborn through his own children one day. Family lineages are really about rebirth. Phoenix will continue to challenge, surprise, and inspire us as we discover our footing as parents. Every day we make new decisions, improvise, and do what we believe best for our family. We’re all new here. From the ashes, we rise.

Holding my baby, day 2.
Holding my baby, day 2.
Birth announcement, taken on day 2.
Birth announcement, taken on day 2.

All pictures and text copyright of Paul Watkins.

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