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Emma’s Birth: Taking My Cues from the Ethiopians

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06/02/2009

Emma’s Birth 1

My next door neighbors at Tabor Absorption Center, Israel, 1994. The grandma, of blessed memory, used to cover one nostril and blow her nose directly onto the linoleum floor with astounding nonchalance. Of perhaps greater relevance, the mom (seated) permanently changed my view of childbirth.

When it came time to deliver, my Ethiopian neighbors used to squat, yelp, yelp some more, and pop out those little babies. Then and only then would they call for an ambulance. At least, that’s what Benny the security guard told me, and he should know. He witnessed it five times.

Eight years later, the scenery had changed. Benny the security guard was now my husband and the view out our window was no longer the hills of Upper Nazareth but the sloped embankment of some not-so-scenic El tracks in southeast Evanston.

It was our turn now. Benny and I were ready to procreate. At least, we’d successfully deceived ourselves into thinking we were ready. And we remembered our former neighbors.

If Ethiopian women could squat, yelp and deliver -- why should I subject myself to the Western world of obstetrics-gynecology, in all its induced, episiotomied, caesarian section glory? Hadn’t I successfully turned a roundoff, back handspring, back flip the summer before fifth grade?  Hadn’t I, at age 28, ridden my bike 500 miles in five days with only modest butt-chafing? Hadn’t I mastered Pilates teasers and other abdominal torture? My body was made for this.

That’s what I told myself.  But the truth is, part of me longed for a nice silent, sterile C-section.

This may come as a surprise to some of you, but skinny girls hate their bodies, too. You know those kids in the gym locker room who changed their clothes without giving anyone a glimpse of their underwear? That was me. I won the Silent Camper award at overnight camp (where, it goes without saying, I showered during off-hours). I wore XL shirts on my 120 lb. frame from age 12 to 21, simply as a distraction. (No, I didn’t think I was fat – just ugly.) I walked around my entire junior year with my right hand plastered to the side of my face in an attempt to hide three small moles (as if, that didn’t draw attention). I even sneezed silently.

So the thought of making loud, guttural noises up and down a maternity ward – with my ass hanging out – held no appeal.

Here’s how I got over it.

Not one for secrets, surprises, or superstition, I told pretty much everyone I was pregnant within days of conception and then got busy preparing myself. The first person I told, on the train approximately 46 minutes after watching that little blue line appear on the pregnancy test, gave me the name of his midwife.

Debi Lesnick, CNM. To Debi, I was never merely a uterus, an inconvenience, or an imminent complication. I was a person – a wise, strong, capable person on an extraordinary journey – and I felt cared for. So much so that I kept her business card in my wallet and bedside drawer for the next five years.

Debi told us about a class in Andersonville taught by Mary Sommers. For six consecutive weeks, Benny (the security guard turned husband turned doula) and I learned the ins and outs of natural childbirth. He learned how to apply counter pressure, both on my back during a contraction and to any doctor pushing pitocin. You need to know enough to know what’s right for you at any given moment.

So I had my team – Debi, Mary, Benny. And I had my inspiration – the Ethiopian women of Tabor Absorption Center.

But sisters, I’m not going to lie to you. Squat, yelp and deliver, my ass. My former neighbors were clearly not having their first babies, sunny-side up, weighing in at 8.3 lbs. It hurt like bloody hell.

After 13 hours of back labor, uninhibited nudity and bodily fluids (because really – who gives a fuck when it comes down to it), one bite of purple popsicle in the labor tub, 90 minutes of pushing, and plenty – believe me, plenty – of loud guttural noises, Emma Sigal was born with her hand plastered to the side of her face. And Benny, the proud abba, cut the cord.

While I took pride in my Pilates teasers, flips, and marathon bike rides, nothing compared to childbirth. I had grown a person from scratch.

Emma is now six; her sister just turned five. And with two little girls watching, I try to send the right messages about beauty, about bodies, about strength. It’s hard to begrudge your barely B cups after they’ve nourished two kids to toddlerhood. What’s a few stretch marks, when you know why you stretched? Diapers trump vanity, contractions give you strength.

Not that I’d deny that at 2:41 this morning, my daughter woke me up to cover her and on my way back to bed, I ducked into the bathroom to get rid of a few pesky chin hairs.

The sad thing is, Emma – at just six – already engages in a daily battle to straighten her bouncy curls. Some days, she complains about her unibrow and moles and rounded belly. They’re beauty marks, I tell her. Your body is just right, I tell her. Look how fast you run.

Emma's Birth 2

Dana and Emma, making noise.

Three days after Emma was born, I wrote a poem in my journal. We’ll call it hormone-induced, if you don’t mind.

EMMA
I found my voice.
I found my heart.
I found my strength.
When I had you.

Someday I’ll tell her about the Ethiopians. And electrolysis.

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