breath, a birth story

at last, the story of how Reuben Kael emerged in this world;
While pregnant I read much on the importance of breath during the birthing process. Then at our prenatal classes the instructor demonstrated three kinds of breathing that are helpful during the stages of labor - she had us practising on each other, blowing away tissues, feeling our lungs fill and expand under our hands... All of them seemed familiar, at some point in life I knew I had panted fast, breathed deep and slow, grunted with force and concentration. I remembered too how my own mum recalled giving birth, how she always mentioned the importance of breathing; that it enabled and grounded her through the rushes of labor. She birthed four children naturally. So I guess it seemed completely normal, inherent to me - the thought of being able to give birth to my child without need of pain relief or intervention - that I could breathe my way through it.

Thursday February 2nd started like any other, rousing myself from broken sleep - caressing a round tummy. It was a crisp winter's day, 2 or 3 degrees celsius, clear and blue-skied. That morning mum and I went into Paris by train for my check-up with Muriel my sage-femme. I was 40 weeks and we expected baby to begin his or her journey downwards and out at any time. I remember feeling overwhelmed with the desire to make ready our home, so after the appointment we walked around picking up last minutes things for the home, baskets for nappies, wholesome food supplies. We were harassed by an old gypsy woman on the train, we ate baguettes, we came home exhausted and satisfied. I captured these photos that would have been my 40-weeks letter to dearest little'un. It is strange to look back at these photos and see that woman, myself, so heavy with anticipation, so full with child. To look back and see how my body was already preparing for the birth of my baby even if at that moment I didn't know how soon it would begin.

That afternoon we lazed in bed watching Downtown Abbey and drinking tea. Then at about 7pm I felt a cramp in my lower abdomen. It went away, then 15 minutes later I felt it again. I wasn't sure if they were real contractions so I didn't tell Alex or mum yet. I got up and prepared dinner; salad with sardines and potatoes, an avocado dip and rice crackers. When I felt the cramps coming again more frequently and a little stronger I told mum, excitement laced my words. The three of us decided to play a medieval-themed board game "carcassonne" - the contractions continued and seemed to be getting closer together. I noticed how they started mildly and grew to a climax and tapered off again. I sat cross-legged and breathed deeply. At 8.30pm Mum and I began to time them - 45 seconds long and 6 minutes apart - and after 2 hours of timing them we rang Muriel. She asked me how I was feeling and recommended taking  a warm bath. I ran a hot bath and made a bowl of oatmeal, plain yoghurt and honey as I was feeling hungry (and just generally like eating in the bath). So there I was soaking in the bath with my oats...  the heat was soothing but after about 20 minutes the contractions began to increase in intensity and come more frequently - every 3 minutes - I felt like getting out of the water and calling Muriel again. Mum went to pack her bag and Alex spoke to our midwife. They agreed I should come into the clinic. I remember kneeling beside our bed and circling my hips around in the air to steady myself. And telling myself quietly to breathe. 

A good friend drove us to the clinic. He is a cab driver and incredibly savvy on the labyrinthine Paris roads. The car-trip seemed to go quite quickly - the contractions were increasing in intensity and I remember closing my eyes and repeating pslams that just randomly came to mind. "The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want"..."Who is God, except our Lord?"... "I will praise you for I am fearfully and wonderfully made". Alex and mum both held onto my hands. I squeezed them every time a contraction started. 

We arrived at the clinic just after midnight. There was no fanfare awaiting us. We made our own way to the delivery suite quickly and quietly. I remember how still, how quiet the place seemed. Once in the room, Muriel examined me and said I was 4cm dilated. I knew I still had a fair way to go. She told me she had to go away for a time to be with another mother going in for an emergency caesarean. So we settled ourselves in the room; dimming the lights; laying out towels; starting the birth play-list from Alex's laptop. Sigur Ros, Iron & Wine, the Frames, Calexico, Sufjan Stevens, Taize chants. The contractions began to move into my lower back, and it was intensely painful - though bearable. I bounced for a time on a gym ball while the baby's heartbeat was monitored. Alex held me and began to kiss my neck. It felt so nice. Tingly. Mum and Alex began heating towels and washcloths to press on my back - they were so welcome, I kept asking for more. We decided to run a bath, a nurse came in with some essential oils to go in the water. I got in and the intensity of the contractions increased but the water was soothing.

 I felt myself moving into a kind of daze, I remember writhing in the water in the climax of each contraction and pushing my heels into the end of the bathtub. Each time a contraction started I imagined a wave breaking against the shore. I remember hearing Muriel return to my side, and say "don't be scared of the pain" and Alex reminding me to breathe. To breathe deeply. He inhaled and exhaled beside me. His arms about my shoulders. Suddenly I wanted to push. Muriel asked me to get out of the bath and onto the bed - she examined me and I was fully dilated. I could start pushing. It was 2.30am. With my three companions, in a dimly lit room, folk music blurred in the background. I lay on my side and let myself push; my waters broke in a dramatic gush.

I pushed for as long as I could in the side position but my legs began to cramp and I was straining my throat with deep grunts and throwing my head back a bit. Every pore in my body felt strained and wired. Baby's head was visible but not yet out. Muriel recommended I try standing up for a while. I got up off the bed and felt my legs shaking, the contractions and desire to push come on so strongly I immediately got down on the floor. On my knees - I lent into Alex with my arms around his neck, my head burrowed in his chest. Mum was behind me taking pressure off my lower back with her hands. Muriel was lying on the floor beside me, calling my name, urging me to push a little mightier, a little longer than the last. I breathed, I groaned and burned.

Then baby arrived. 

Alex exclaimed he was a boy, a baby boy. The cord was wrapped round his neck twice but Muriel skilfully unwound him in what seemed like a half-second and he was in my arms - pink, squishy and so alive, so full of life. I remember the sound of his lungs taking in his first breath and then that lusty cry. I thought it was the best sound I had ever heard. That first, healthy cry of declaration.

I thought I would cry too, but I didn't. I just smiled. Smiled and beheld my son. Reuben Kael, my first born. At 3.25am on Friday, February 3rd, in the middle of Paris.

breath is
a conscious inhale of everything about us -
my heart 
a metronome, 
beats slow and steady
as you make your descent,
I squeeze hands,
I stroke belly,
writhe my toes,
or clutching arms
I push,
and sigh,
then you -
I hear your lungs expand
for the first time in history
we breathe the same air,
everything about us
holding you at my breast,
your cry loud and lusty
and my soul says
the best sound in the world
the sound of you.
hours upon hours of
studying the contours of your body,
skin so soft,
when I breathe you in,
my tiny child
and love.