⪧ We left our life in New York City to make a new one in Provence ⪦

March 21, 2013

Colette. One year.

The end of a pregnancy makes you feel like you smell bad. People offer you their seat in the metro, but they are frightened by your body. They scoot away - they avoid eye contact, especially in the city. You are no longer regarded as a woman; you become the thing you are carrying. At work, it was: "What are you still doing here?", even though I took almost a full month off before my delivery. In yoga classes, the spaces next to me were the last remaining unoccupied zones. I was a brewing peril.

Part of the alienation is self-imposed. I was so hyper-focused on what I was becoming, the unstoppable brunt of the thing inside of me, I was hard to relate to. I was dominated by it, particularly since Miss Colette stayed on days after her due date passed. I wore down the days of waiting by waiting and I couldn't do otherwise. After false labor on two different nights the waiting grew thick with uncertainty and insecurity.

And then it began. I heard pause in her voice when we called the midwife to let her know I had progressed to the point of coming to the hospital. She said she didn't have space for me where I had enrolled to have a natural delivery – in the birthing center of the hospital. Xavier and I seriously shrank what those words would mean for us. I ended up laboring in the chaos of triage a total of 8 hours because there wasn’t room in the birthing center. At some point, my midwife appeared. She was otherwise like a chimera about whose existence I increasingly had doubts. Her voice was soothing, but the narrative belied the tone:

“Triage has a policy. 2 hours maximum. You are way past that. There is still not room for you in the birthing center. I want you to have that experience. [Heavy pause]. You could go to Lincoln Center – there are nice public bathrooms there. Or you could go to a hotel for a few hours. You have to leave though, or else we will have to admit you to a standard birthing room and the birthing center is out.”

“Lincoln Center?!” cried Xavier, the Frenchman. Total outrage. “A hotel?! Barbarism.”

I was halfway dilated. The trip to the hotel felt like I was being quartered. The trip back was an impossibility. Finally a room had opened up in the birthing center, but the midwife was still astray (she helped birth 3 other babies that shift). At 9 centimeters – hours later, vomiting port colored blood, I ended up with an epidural and in it, found my cognizance again. The room went from being totally blurred to a blinding clarity. The rest of the story is too recognizable – struggling with three doctors, each a specialist in something – vacuum, forceps, cesarean sections – to insist (and hear Xavier repeatedly insist) on them letting me try to push without any intervention. The contractions that had ripped through me were suddenly invisible. Now I needed them to know when to push. I searched Xavier, the midwife and the three doctors’ eyes fiercely to understand when. With all of my force that seemed to evaporate into the numbness of my body, I pushed. 15 minutes passed and then her head appeared, soon her eyes – closed like a listless doll, her hair – curly and white with wax, and then her little body slithered out.

I wasn't remade by her until we went home. Then, it was all her.

It was painful when people visited the first couple of weeks – even my dear friends. They brought with them a wonted world, of which I was no longer a part. That world felt injurious. I was so tender – we were so tender. Words felt like they made dents in my skin. I would close the door behind them and travel back to the land of Colette – my baby, fold myself inside and wish for nothing else, completely fulfilled by simply nuzzling my nose softly against her neck. She seemed to me the most tragic being. Just looking at her made my stomach fall. A walk outside felt treacherous and made my mind race with all the clouds of menace in the world.

About a month after Colette was born a blessed friend came over to do a ‘body talk’ session with me. She hovered her hands above the injured parts of my body – not the literally affected parts, but those emotional portals to the soul – my abdomen, my eyes, my skull, my sternum, my mouth, my hands. She forced me to revisit each of the biting elements of the birth experience. My head and body throbbed. She traced circles above my line of sight to follow and work through the memories ocularly. I cowered in the face of the trauma I still felt after the birth and I asked myself, why? I had been so insistent on a natural birth, on the power of my body to birth a baby, on my strength. The trauma stemmed from my perception of failure and the magnitude of how little control I felt. It is only now, one year after the birth, I can think about it without crying.

I have a new range of view. Now I see babies everywhere. On the orange and yellow squared seats of the A train: babies. They are wrinkled, wearing mustaches and glasses, converse all-stars – they are long-haired and sweaty, but they are all babies. I stare up at skyscrapers and am in awe of their ballast; I stand open-mouthed that babies have built it all.

I think for me, the act of birth and the pain I experienced was the dawn of a new form of emotional intelligence, one where history is now a story of babies and the empathy I feel makes me an altered human. Colette’s birth was my entryway to the oldest and most epic of love stories.

This is the story I didn't want to tell for a year. Lying on that table was precisely the less-than-ideal circumstance that I described when struggling to find the right care provider for the birth (when I went back and read my writing, I cringed at its prescience). So, I am still not sure what to do with it and am dumbfounded when considering what kind of care choices I might make the next time around. Where I was convinced and assertive (and full of hubris) about the question of birth before it happened, I am left stunned and unsure.

I’ve thought a lot about why people want to have children since Colette was born. Yes, I wanted a baby before she came – but I didn’t even know what a baby was. I read this paper recently: “What Mary can’t expect when she is expecting” – on decision theory and choosing parenthood. It describes what happens to a person when they become a parent brilliantly: Mary is in a black and white room and it is only when she leaves and is exposed to red can she “know” what the color is. Her epistemic position is transformed. So motherhood or fatherhood is: completely transformative.

Most importantly: Happy birthday, Miss Baby.

She is - to me - love incarnated in the most bewitching form.

(Shell shocked with 1-day old Colette)


Mels said...

Happy Birthday Colette. I hope you have a great day. I love and miss you and wish I could be there to celabrate with you. hope to see you soon.
thanks for sharing Emilie.

Happy Birthday to Grace, Joyce, Andrew, Caitlyn, Stephen.

Love and miss you all.

D1Warbler said...


We don't have much in common, but we have this -- a traumatic first birth experience. Mine was 42 hours of hell, as I had a kink in my cervix and so every time I had a contraction it would tighten instead of opening; and so the doctor had to open it manually during contractions.

I told Jim after that birth that I never wanted to have another baby as long as I lived. (As you know, I had five others, so the memory eventually faded enough for that to happen.)

I also thought I knew what the birth experience would be like. I didn't. AND -- even after those five other births, I still only know that it is always different -- with each child -- maybe because all children are different; and my easiest delivery was my last and also the most "natural" delivery as it was the only one in which they didn't administer pitocin. (Hate that stuff!)

However, you have found what I found, that the baby makes up for all the pain and distress, regardless of how long it takes to dampen the memories of a brutal birthing experience.

Colette is amazing. As are you. As am I. As are all of us.

Cristina and Richard said...

I felt I was with you as I was reading your story. I also wanted a natural birth and after a long struggle had a C-section. Although no birth story is the same, yours and your feelings in the aftermath are both aspects I can recognize in hindsight. Pregnancy and Motherhood are complicated, unique, even traumatic at times. It's honest and healing to acknowledge it. Thank you for sharing this.

Amy said...

Emilie, happy birthday to darling Colette! This post was hard for me to read. It literally brought tears. The things you said and experienced hit so close to home. Every time someone starts to talk about the "perfect" birth it tugs at my heart because none of mine were what I expected them to be. Not one. I've struggled with lots of emotions surrounding those experiences. Today I am profoundly grateful for my children, for healthy pregnancies, for a strong body that carried those babies (even if my body didn't do exactly what I wanted it to do during labor), and for how much love is a part of my life because of them. I think that's how life with children is, chaos and lots of love.

Jill said...

That was beautiful Emilie. I can't believe Colette is already a year old. You've done a beautiful job of savoring all the moments along the way.

I wish you would have been able to have the birth experience you wanted (I wish mine would have been different as well), but the bottom line is, you brought a beautiful human into this world, and you're right, you will never be the same again. Period.

She really is the the sweetest thing.

Quiana said...

What a wonderfully honest post. I'm particuraly interested in the healing session - I hadn't hear of that before. With a now 2 1/2 year old daughter I still find myself thinking this: "I’ve thought a lot about why people want to have children since Colette was born" especially now as we're getting lost of outside pressure for #2. Still not quite ready . . .

Emilie said...

Thanks to all for these rich and thoughtful comments.

Marnie said...

Happy birthday to beautiful Colette! I hope this next year brings your family even greater happiness : )

That trauma you feel over her manner of arrival will fade over time. I grieved over my 'failure' to birth naturally (after 5 distressing days of labour!) for years - haunted by what (stupid) people told me that could imply for my children, psychologically - until I realised that "The Perfect Birth" is a pretty rare thing. I need not have worried. My daughters were, and are, healthy and strong. They cope with problems and tackle life head on. So it's all good.

While my two attempts at natural birth both ended in caesarians due to complications not dissimilar to those you experienced, such experiences have existed throughout history for women, but now we survive them whereas many of our sisters did not. I was very aware of that during the whole process for some reason and although the medical staff annoyed me at times, I was thankful they were there to at least ensure our survival.

Anyway, that raw openness you described - that tender, heart open to the world thing that comes upon us at the onset of motherhood - actually comes coupled with unimaginable courage and fierceness, although we don't actually realise it fully until we have to.

Anonymous said...

Thanks Emily for what it took one year for you to think and to write about this first birth experience.
I thought I was the only one to have felt all what you describe - after a "difficult" birth. And this feeling of being raw in your flesh, of capting all the negative waves around, all the threats for your baby.
Sorry for my bad english. Yolaine

Jordan said...

Emilie: thanks so much for writing and sharing this. It's really beautiful and honest and brave, and I've shared it with a lot of people over the past few days, all of whom are in agreement about what an amazing piece of writing this is.

I went back and forth about whether I should comment or not, because it's so hard for me to see your personal experience as separate from the larger political issues surrounding the way birth (and women's health in general) is treated in this county. I didn't want to get up on a soapbox for fear of moving the focus away from your incredible personal experience towards a political conversation, or to come across as anything but respectful, supportive, and in total awe of your (and all mothers') birth experience-- that experience is yours and yours alone.

But your writing has really stuck with me, and so I am compelled to comment after all... plus the personal IS the political, right? I just feel completely infuriated and so ANGRY that you were subjected to this, and by what your experience represents on a larger scale. Radical as this sounds, I believe the way birth is (mis)handled in this country is nothing short of violence against women. And not enough people are talking about it. To completely remove all choice and power and control from women, and turn an experience that our bodies are perfectly equipped to handle into a medical procedure is ridiculous and dangerous. Too often women are told their experience doesn't matter because it results in a healthy baby, but that rhetoric needs to change. It's not enough and all too often it's not true. The US has one of the highest infant mortality rates of any developed country, and the maternal mortality rate has more than doubled over the past few decades.

Hospitals are great when a life needs to be saved; but I strongly believe they are the worst place for birth (or death for that matter, the experience on the other side of life's spectrum). I wish there was a happy medium: someplace safe and empowering, with the option of medical support for those who want that, and also financially feasible. Ideally a birthing center should be that, but, as your story so clearly demonstrates, that system is broken too. I realize that alternatives, like home birth, seem completely crazy to many people. There are deeply ingrained cultural understandings around womanhood, motherhood, and birth that are so, so hard see past, making a more radical approach to birth outside of many people's comfort zones.

But something has got to change. No matter where an individual is at in terms of her relationship to birth, we need to push for education, advocacy, accessibility to quality care, and choice in care. And I see your writing as part of that movement. You're amazing. And Colette's amazing-- we've got to fix this mess for her and the next generation.

Gina said...

Emilie, once again your writing is so beautiful and so moving. I am not a mother and never will be, but this brought tears to my eyes. I couldn't agree more with Xavier about the barbarism of making you leave the hospital and the shocking suggestion of a public bathroom at Lincoln Center!?!? Simply horrifying. Not having experienced childbirth, I don't have any advice to give except that the older I get, the more I realize how very little is actually under my control. You did what it took to bring your gorgeous little girl into the world, and the world is a better place for it. Happy birthday sweet Colette.

Xtreme English said...

Happy birthday, Colette! And thank you, Emilie, for telling us the story of your experience. I felt furious when I read it. I mean, they really DID tell you to go to Lincoln Center because it has big bathrooms? Who can make this up? I'm sending my grandson's wife a link so she can read it, too. And a friend's daughter, Zannie, who is a midwife. Knowing Zannie, I find it hard to believe in the callous treatment you received. But what a fabulous child you and Xavier have produced! And what stars I think you are as parents!!

Xtreme English said...

P.S. This is what Zannie's mom had to say. She's administrator of a big retirement home with all options for care.

"I always worry when women insist on a certain birth experience for, like death, we cannot control the when, where, or how very well. What we can do is focus on outcome within reason. Every birth experience influences mother-child relationship, I believe. So glad she had the soother come to her.

Thanks for the birth story, makes me so grateful for all of mine, different yet the result of perfect babies fills me with gratitude daily."

Emilie said...

Thank you all for these comments. I know my experience is not unique and as Jordan and others so eloquently stated - there is a problem with birth culture in this country. That is unequivocal.

I also recognize that flexibility in what a birth experience will be is fundamental. I was rigid. Recognizing that we cannot control all outcomes in birth (and that applies to both the mother and the medical world) is a difficult place, but it is an important one.

I am sad that there aren’t more spaces to give birth in New York City that are somewhere in-between a fully medicalized world and a home birth (I villainized our midwife in my tale, but the reality is that this group of midwives are brave and good – they are one of the last groups of midwives in Manhattan who try to offer the option of birth in that in-between space. She was just overburdened). Legislation regarding birth and how it happens is a chief reason why more birthing centers aren’t an option for women. In any case, I didn’t mean to portray myself as a victim here. That isn’t very useful; mostly, I wanted to express that I learned a great deal in the experience. It was helpful for me to read birth stories before I gave birth. They often seemed to be tilted heavily in one direction of the spectrum and what I went through felt like something that straddled the conversation. I would have wanted to read this.

One of the most surprising things about birth for me was how it is a true source of connection among women. I know that seems obvious, but I sort of dismissed that before I went through the experience and now I recognize the linkage and bond - these comments are all affirmations of that.

Xtreme English said...

As I read this, I'm realizing that each childbirth is unique. No matter how many children a woman has, each one arrives differently. But nobody ever tells us that. There's a book in here, Emily. Thank you. And Romy is just adorable! Colette's kin, yet her own self. You and Jordan are so right that there's a political aspect of this, too. I think of North Dakota, where when a storm is coming, pregnant women near their due dates are often brought into shelter (the doctor's office)--like the cattle--and labor is induced so that the women and the new baby can be sent home before the storm hits. This is not only for the woman's and baby's safety, but who'll take care of the family if the mother is snowed in 25 miles away? It's life, but it needs to be reverenced. Still holding you all in the light. So relieved and happy you have a beautiful new daughter!

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