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Birth Story

By Mia You
Pablo Picasso, "Mother and Child."

Pablo Picasso, “Mother and Child.”

Utrecht, the Netherlands

***

After my son was born, everyone told me to write it all down. It can be cathartic, my midwife said, the one named after Hadewijch of Brabant, who was my favorite writer from the medieval women class I took in college with two very pregnant professors. Every week I watched them grow and grow and grow, maybe it was just one who was pregnant, but such was my alarm that now they both were, and I thought, Oh god, what if you go into labor in class? Oh god, what will we do? And I channeled my alarm into a paper on the mystic’s visions of birthing the Word. Or maybe I was being supremely opportunistic. Or maybe I was setting myself up for what would happen a decade later—how I would marry a medievalist, a Dutchman from Brabant, and how I would have a midwife named Hadewijch who, as she cut out the stitches from my perineum, would tell me to write about my son’s birth so I could “sort out my feelings.”

***

I’m not very good with linearity. Actually in life I’m pretty good with it, but not in writing. Writing doesn’t help me sort out anything. It makes everything seem so much crazier than it really was. Like how my midwife told me to write down my birth story, and within seconds I’m writing about a medieval mystic who had erotic visions about a six-winged manifestation of God. The problem with writing is that it can go anywhere, touch anything, make everything be about something, whereas in life, you wake up, you brush your teeth, you eat breakfast, you do some work, you take care of the kids, you eat dinner, you brush your teeth and then the next day and then the next day. You go forward. And you keep going forward. And there are times that all you want is to get away from where you are.

***

Women always talk about how long their labors were, and although I’ve been through it twice now, I’m never sure what they really mean. When exactly does labor begin? It is when you feel the first contraction? But how do you know which was the first when you’ve been feeling contractions for weeks? Is it when you enter the hospital? But what if you had to be induced, like I was the first time, and spent a whole day in the hospital just pacing up and down the stairs, reading Proust, and even escaped to a café next to a park to get a roast beef sandwich for lunch? And does labor end when the baby arrives? What if, as in my second labor, the placenta takes longer to come out than the baby? Does that time, of feeling more contractions, having doctors and midwives and nurses fly around me and continuously check the clock, and finally having a midwife extract the placenta from inside with her gloved hand, not count as part of my labor? What about the contractions I felt for weeks, months, every time I nursed, after that? What about the contractions I still feel now?

***

While Hadewijch extolled the virtues of writing, of sorting out my feelings, and snipped, she probably saw me smirk or make an embarrassed smile, and either she thought I was an asshole while looking at my asshole or decided this was just another one of those miscommunicated, untranslatable moments and left it at that. Did I ever tell Hadewijch that I was a writer and a student of literature? That I would never write down feelings in a journal, but rather my favorite Wittgenstein quotes and imitations of Oulipo in a Moleskin notebook? Had she forgotten, or had it never registered? Was writing what Hadewijch recommended to every woman who wept hourly after birthing her child? Or did she prescribe this specifically to me, prodding me to remember the person I once might have been, recalling a solace she assumed I had misplaced?

***

I’m trying to think of when my birth story begins. I know it should be something like: Because my son was already two weeks past his due date (like a library book or a credit card bill), and because the emergency ultrasound showed I (he?) was running low on amniotic fluid, it was determined that I (he?) should be induced, so the midwives I had been seeing throughout my pregnancy, whom I called the “sorceresses” because they would wave their arms over my belly and announce, “He is 43cm long and 3.5kg!” turned me (him?) over to the obstetricians at the local hospital. I had never wanted to see the midwives to begin with, being Korean-American had always preferred the idea of real doctors, but being in The Netherlands hadn’t been given much choice and by the time of my labor had become attached to Hadewijch and her band of merry sorceresses and felt some alarm when, arriving at the hospital on June 30, 2010, at 7 a.m. (beginning of labor?) a young blonde male doctor asked me to lie my enormously swollen body down on a flat bed, lift my knees up and let him insert a large medicated cotton swab into my (his?) vagina to wear down my (his?) cervix.

***

I am terrible at this. I’m trying to think of when my birth story begins. I know I can’t say it was June 30, 2010, at 7 a.m. because that won’t explain how I felt during the next day and half I was in the hospital and why I wept hourly, daily, for nearly a year afterward. I’m trying to think of when my birth story begins, and even though this isn’t fair to my son and isn’t part of his story, I know it has something to do with when my sadness begins. It has something to do with how I was in The Netherlands and many of my friends didn’t know I was pregnant until I was in my third trimester. How I saw over Facebook my acquaintances having baby showers and their friends and family sending their good wishes and excitement while I spent most of my days alone with my dog, lying on the sofa, watching Law and Order: SVU. How I almost bought a nursing device called My Breast Friend because Mariska Hargitay recommended it on a website and she was the closest thing I had to a confidante. How I had always had gay men for best friends and a brother who was eight years younger, but suddenly I fully understood why everyone should have and be a sister, why every woman needs to learn to love other women. How even before my son was born, I sometimes found myself weeping in Hadewijch’s office and how she always knew when to pretend it wasn’t happening and when to hand me a tissue. How when I called my mother to tell her I was pregnant, she was silent for ten minutes and then suddenly clicked off the phone. How I didn’t hear from her again for more than two years. How my son’s father and I travelled to Korea when I was 5 months pregnant, and I called her almost daily and even had dinner across the street from my parents’ high-rise apartment building in Seoul. How we stayed in traditional houses made from wood, in the middle of winter, sleeping on mats spread on heated floors. How I had never stayed in houses like that before. How my mother wouldn’t talk to me, wouldn’t see me. How my father simply followed her example. How I couldn’t really explain why whenever people asked, except to say that maybe he is lazy and it didn’t matter enough. How I realized that a mother’s love was conditional. How saying a mother’s love was unconditional was another way of conditioning love. How a decade earlier my mother had warned me, before even meeting my son’s father, that I would have to choose between him and her. How the month before I got pregnant my grandmother, my mother’s mother, died of lung cancer. How the last time I had been in Korea I sat with my grandmother as she went through chemo and she told me, “Whatever happens, you have to listen to your mother. You have to put your mother first.” How I lied to her and said I would. How my grandmother had been Buddhist. How I found out I was pregnant on the 49th day after her death. How I didn’t know if my pregnancy was her blessing or her curse. How when my newborn son looked at me I wondered if he looked at me with love or with judgment. How I still wonder that sometimes. How most of the times I wept the person I most wanted to see was my own mother. How the decision to have a child became the decision to be alone.

***

I’m terrible at this. I’m trying to think of when my birth story begins. I know I can’t say it was June 30, 2012, at 7 a.m. because even 12 hours later, after the pacing, Proust and roast beef sandwich, the doctors were convinced I wasn’t going to go into labor, the cotton swab dangling out of me all day had failed, and made plans to try again the next morning. They told me I had to stay overnight in the “triage” room with the other inducement-failed women, which turned out to be just one woman who had three kids at home and was openly pissed off about being in the hospital. They told my husband he couldn’t stay, for the sake of the other inducement-failed women (woman) sharing the triage room, and should come back the next morning. I told them I thought I was in labor. The doctors told me I wasn’t. I told them that my contractions were becoming painful and frequent. I told my husband in secret that I regretted eating the roast beef sandwich. The other inducement-failed women (woman) told me, “If you think this hurts, wait until you’re really in labor.” The doctors told me they would give me a morphine shot to control the pain so I could sleep and that we would try again the next morning. They told me if I needed to use the bathroom in the middle of the night I should call for the nurse, because I would be drugged on morphine and could fall down. They made my husband leave at midnight. They turned out the lights.

***

At 2 a.m. I woke up in pain. The world around me was smeared with ash and heavy. It’s not how I know the world so I have to resort to metaphor. I think Hadewijch intended for this to be when my birth story begins. I called for the nurse, a bald man in a pink shirt called Harold. “What what what,” Harold said. Or rather, “Wat wat wat,” as Harold didn’t speak English. I told him I was in pain. He told me in Dutch I was fine. I told him I was in pain. He told me in Dutch to go back to sleep. I told him I was in pain. He told me in Dutch he would give me a heated pad to put on my back. He told me in Dutch to take the heated pad and go to sleep. I told him I wanted my husband. He told me in Dutch that was impossible. I told him I was in pain. He told me in Dutch that wouldn’t be fair to the woman in the triage room with me, I needed to stop asking for my husband. He turned out the lights.

***

I called for the nurse again, a bald man in a pink shirt called Harold. “Wat wil je nu weer?” Harold said. I told him I had to go to the bathroom. He told me in Dutch the bathroom was just outside my door. The other inducement-failed women (woman) got up from their (her) bed and began pacing impatiently. I told him I needed his help. He told me in Dutch that the bathroom was just outside my door, and here was my bed, and did I see how close they were and that I could do it myself? He left again. The world was still smeared with ash. I was in the bathroom. I saw blood all over my underwear. I regretted eating the roast beef sandwich. In the dull heavy world I found myself in, I told myself I should feel panic. But I didn’t feel panic. I told myself I needed to feel panic. I told myself I was drugged and alone but there was blood in my underwear and it doesn’t matter if you don’t care if you live or die and are alone but you have this baby in you and this baby is not alone and you need to get your act together now. So I yelled:

***

WHY WON’T YOU HELP ME

WHY WON’T YOU HELP ME

WHY WON’T YOU HELP ME

WHY WON’T YOU HELP ME

***

—a bald man in a pink shirt called Harold—the jagged lines going up and down a screen—a young blonde doctor, this time a woman, telling me I did “good work” putting myself into labor—my son’s heartbeats monitored as I’m (we’re) fed Pitocin through an I.V. needle—the nurse, a new one, feeding me (us) apple juice through a straw—my husband again—the bed going up and down as I (we) accidentally hit the controls every time I (we) have a contraction—a series of young blonde doctors appearing between my (our) legs and feeling inside me (us)—the hospital staff asking for my (our) insurance information and realizing that my (our) wallet had been stolen—the jagged lines getting closer and closer together—the persistent regret of the roast beef sandwich—a burst of liquid as I (we) squat on a stool—the bed going up and down—the nurse, a brown-haired woman whose name I’ve (we’ve) now forgotten, stroking my (our) hair—a young blonde midwife named Iris suddenly appearing and telling me (us) to push—pushing and pushing and pushing and feeling like nothing is happening and then within seconds—a baby slides out of me (us) and I think—Oh, you are here. I brought you here. I did this—

***

I did this.

I did this.

I did        .

***

After my son was born, everyone told me to write it all down. Instead I went home and cancelled my credit cards. I ate the Korean seaweed soup my husband made for me because my mother hadn’t. I got annoyed at our Dutch neighbors who came over immediately to stare at our baby. I smiled at Hadewijch when she returned for my postpartum care and told me she knew Harold and that he wasn’t a bad guy. Then I smirked (or made an embarrassed smile) at her as she told me writing would help sort out my feelings. I knew I wouldn’t write. I wouldn’t read. I wouldn’t even watch Law and Order: SVU. I would lie on our sofa for months, nursing and staring out the window. I would miss my mother. I would weep hourly, daily. I would do whatever I could not to have feelings at all. I would wonder if my newborn son looked at me with love or with judgment. Everyone would ask me how long my labor was, and I would answer that I honestly didn’t know. Everyone would tell me that I seemed to be doing really well and that they could tell my son really loved me.

***

This is part of my birth story.

 

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Posted in Featured Blogger on Thursday, October 1st, 2015 by Mia You.