Nisa walked away from her village alone one night, leaned against a tree and gave birth without crying out in pain. I learned about Nisa's life and the !Kung tribe from Africa's Kalahari desert as a freshman at NYU in a class called Cultural Anthropology. Nisa’s story seemed remarkable to me. Up until then, I had few narratives of childbirth. Most were from television where women screamed at the top of their lungs on a hospital bed with doctors, nurses, bright lights and sterile instruments all around them.
And then there was the story my mother told about my own birth. She’d been put to sleep and drugged so heavily, that when she woke, she was afraid to hold me.
Nisa’s birthing experience had a great impact on me. I figured if she could do it, I could do it. And so when I found myself pregnant just one year later, I decided unequivocally, to have what was referred to then, and now, in America as a natural childbirth. (As if childbirth wasn’t inherently natural.)
My husband and I took classes with one of the authors of The Birthing Book by Catherine Keith and Debra Sperling.
I can’t remember if it was Catherine or Debra who taught the class but I do remember she was amazing. I studied her book diligently; and nightly, my husband and I practiced:
Cleansing Breath. Slow Chest Breathing. Shallow Chest Breathing. Modified Slow Chest Breathing. Combined Pattern Breathing. Shallow Accelerated- Decelerated Chest Breathing. Rhythmic Pattern Breathing. Advanced Rhythmic Pattern Breathing.
I breathed. He timed. We both took it seriously.
I was more than prepared on the night I went into labor. It was 1984 and at the time, epidurals were given routinely. The general thinking was you’d be crazy not to get one. Nurse after nurse, attended to me throughout the night and each one warned that since this was a first baby, the labor would be long and intense. They strongly recommended I take the epidural. Over and over again, I declined, reminding myself that if Nisa could do it, I could do it.
I was cautioned that I couldn’t change my mind and get an epidural once my labor passed a certain point (around 7 centimeters) because doctors worried a woman wouldn’t be able to feel enough to push when the time came.
Through each contraction, I breathed and as the contractions got stronger, I changed my breathing to match the pain. My husband was a great coach, supportive and encouraging.
At seven centimeters, panic kicked in. Incredibly in touch with what was happening, I knew I was entering the transition phase. The pain was excruciating and soon enough an epidural wouldn’t be an option.
My body quivered and I lost it, forgetting about Nisa, and all that I’d wanted. I begged for an epidural.
My husband, resolute, cupped my shoulders, his face close to mine, “Stay focused,” he said. “You can do this. Breathe!”
I can’t say I wasn’t a bit resentful at the moment thinking: that’s easy for you to say but I did get it together, and succeeded in having a natural childbirth.
(My children love to tease me about this. They are amazed that I delivered naturally; mostly because they think it is an unnecessary and ridiculous thing to do; but also because I carry on so much when I stub a toe or get a bruise. For some reason, I handle major surgery and natural childbirth better than I do a paper cut.)
And so my son, Jack, was born. That was thirty years ago today. (Happy Birthday, Jack!) It is shocking to me since I still feel like I’m thirty years old; and I can’t help but wonder (okay I’m a cliché) where the time has gone.
Jack was the kind of child who when someone hit him, wouldn’t hit back. He was gentle and good-natured.
When he was around ten, he went to Oakhurst Day Camp, known for their amazing swim program. Jack excelled at swimming and was offered the opportunity to become an Oakhurst Swimmer. This was a really big deal, an accolade, he wanted.
On the morning of the swim test, we got up early so Jack could take the test in the camp pool before the other campers arrived. He wanted eggs for breakfast. Then he wanted more. I told him I didn’t think it was a good idea to eat such a big breakfast before a rigorous swim, and that I was worried he’d get cramps.
Being the kind of mother who can’t deny a child food, I acquiesced. I did warn him, however, that if he got cramps it wouldn’t be my fault. (Although since I was the adult in the relationship, it technically was my fault.)
Thirty minutes later, the swim counselor in her navy one-piece bathing suit, a whistle dangling from her neck, clicked a stopwatch and told Jack to begin. He treaded water and did laps. A few minutes into the test, he swam to the side of the pool where I stood, his eyelashes wet, his big brown eyes, dejected. “I have a cramp,” he said.
I told you seemed like the wrong thing to say. So I didn’t.
“Okay,” I said instead, “you’ll try again next week.”
“I don’t want to,” he said.
“What do you mean you don’t want to? You really wanted that award. What happened?”
“I just don’t want to,” he said.
So I was left trying to figure out how to proceed. Did he really not care about the award? Was he scared he’d fail? Did he really have cramps? And, maybe most importantly, what was my motivation in this? Did he want to be an Oakhurst swimmer or did I want him to be one?
And those questions seemed relevant because disinterest in the award was different than doubting if he could get it. But either way, my intuition told me that he’d started something and he needed to finish it. Quitting seemed wrong. I’m a pretty easy-going parent in general, and don’t make my kids do much of anything, but this felt important because he’d wanted it; and I didn’t want him to give up on himself.
It took some convincing, but Jack went back the following week and completed the swim test successfully becoming an Oakhurst Swimmer. This felt like a win on so many levels.
I started this post with the story of Jack’s birth and what stands out to me in these two narratives (me delivering naturally and Jack completing his swim test) is that sometimes we get afraid, and we doubt ourselves, and what we are capable of.
There’s a difference between being pushed into something you don’t want to do and being nudged gently into something you do want to do. It’s important that we learn to motivate ourselves; but it certainly doesn’t hurt to have someone at your side, cheering you on, reminding you that you can do it.