On birth and becoming

It’s spring again in the mountains, and my daughter, Karoline Lucinda Johnson, is almost 1 year old. It’s hard to believe. She came in the month of May, when the mountain laurel was blooming. People tried to tell me how profoundly giving birth would change my life, but I could never have fathomed the incredible joy and love it would bring me.

With spring comes renewal, and I’m reminded of my journey through pregnancy and those I have to thank: My husband, Ben, for his unwavering support and endless providing (of more than just his seed, mind you). My mother, Ben’s and all mothers everywhere. The ancestors, all those who came before us, forking out like the branches of a giant oak. I give thanks for my body; I give thanks for my baby. And the wonderful, wise women of Asheville, where people come to give birth and to heal and to die, as my friend Lindsay says.

I was not a pink-cheeked, blissful pregnant woman. I didn’t spend my free time perusing pastel baby accessories or picking out the perfect layette. For much of my pregnancy, I was an emotional wreck. My hormones were raging. Angry, buried demons from my past rose up and smote me.

I was brimming with anxiety. Why haven’t I felt the baby move? Will I have to be cut open? Am I going to tear? Will my baby be a midget? Will I die? I used a hand mirror “down there”: How in the heck was this going to happen?

Pregnancy is a strange time. You are, essentially, two people; your body contains two heartbeats. You become a vessel through which another human, crafted of your own blood and bone, will pass on one of life’s sacred journeys. As women, we are constantly in a state of becoming: A true miracle occurs right in our own bodies.

In pregnancy there’s the sickness, the quickening, the swelling and the kicking—culminating in the climactic experience that is birth. Men are sweet and lovely and can be amazing birth partners, but it’s so important for women to have the help, support and empathy of other women too. Only they can truly know what it’s like—the pain, the great joy and wisdom.

At every appointment at New Dawn Midwifery—owned and operated by women, for women—I shared my endless litany of pregnancy woes. They listened, patient and kind. They looked me in the eyes, and I could feel their compassion. I was moving through the seasons and my belly grew and grew.

Soon it was spring again. Amy at New Dawn strongly urged me to attend a birthing class. It was too late for theirs, but she steered us to an impromptu one taught by local nurse-midwife Trish Beckman and Laura Beagle, a doula and massage therapist.

At Trish’s house, Ben and I ate blueberry muffins and watched our first birth video. We both cried; everyone in the room was crying. It was so amazing, so powerful, so beautiful, but also so real—and I was going to have to do that!

Our culture rides on so many falsehoods. Real romances aren’t like the ones on TV; neither are real people—much less real pregnancy and birth. In sitcoms, women clutch their bellies and say, in between Lamazelike breaths, “Honey, I think the baby is coming.” Two seconds later, they’re holding a pink, perfect baby that’s about 3 months old. Real labor takes a long time. It’s messy and gradual and violent; ancient and awe-inspiring.

My baby’s due date came and went. The midwives were prodding: “Any contractions? Any effacement?” Trish and Laura suggested herbs, evening primrose, eating eggplant (something about how it grows in the shape of a pregnant body). Walks, they said; spicy food; sex. Sperm is incredibly high in prostaglandins; there needed to be a deposit three times a day. Dang.

Jan at New Dawn sent me down the road to Dr. April Macary of Awakening Heart Chiropractic. She laid me down on her table and “opened my pelvis.” Sitting up, I felt different. “Come again tomorrow,” she said, and I did. “Come again on Monday,” she said, and I couldn’t because I’d already given birth.

Karoline was born May 7 at Mission Hospital, just after 7:30 a.m. It was a glorious day; I could see the sun and the mountains from my window. My midwife, Kirstin Rule, was by my side the entire time, as was my husband, plus a nurse with a sweet Southern drawl, fittingly named Joy. My daughter was born naturally, and she pooped all over me the moment she emerged from my body. I couldn’t blame her; I wasn’t the only one going through something crazy. She was crying and crying, and she came from right in between my legs, and she was here and she was alive!

Now it’s spring again, and Karoline’s a toddler. Her eyes are denim blue; she loves cats and ducks and trying to eat dirt. Bending low to inspect the new seedlings in our garden, I give thanks for it all—even those nasty, negative emotions. They taught me something too.

Asheville is a good place to have a baby. It’s in tune with the incredible power of giving birth—or, at least, my women helpers were. They’re tapping into an ancient tradition: women guiding women on this archetypal journey.

Spring used to be painful, reminding me of adolescence. So much effort: the trees’ hard buds, the sprouts pushing up through the still-cold ground, and all that unabashed blooming.

Yes, there is pain. But now, when I see the trees turning, the little spring beauties, this endless state of becoming, I feel deep relief and happiness. Winter is over. Spring is here, and it’s a miracle.

[Kristin MacLeod lives in east Asheville.]

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