It is Chan’s birthday today. He would be 24, but I never think about that. It feels silly to me. He was never seven or eight or nine — nevermind 24.
This story is already part of Now You See the Sky, but I wanted to share it today in honor of Chan’s birthday and in honor of all mothers and their birthing experiences. Birth stories are disproportionately underrepresented in our literature, an expression of our culture’s fear of all things related to the female body.
Chan’s Birth Story
At the time of Chan’s birth in the middle of 1998, we were living in my then husband’s home in a small town in Thailand, and I had gained all the confidence two years of mothering full-time had earned me. I was ready for a home birth in a culture where hospital births had become the norm as recently as only a decade before. My husband and all his siblings and cousins had been easily and simply received into the world in their mother’s beds. Why shouldn’t our son?
One woman, thin and bent with age, but wiry and clear headed, spoke with us as we stood in her clean-swept yard of packed down dirt. Around us the rice fields stretched away under the bright cloudless skies all the way to the distant hills across the river. She told us of how she always gave birth in the field as she worked. Squatting down and putting her hands below her crotch, she demonstrated the correct position for catching your own baby. She reminded me, “Don’t forget to tear the membranes with your fingers after its born. Your new baby will need to breathe, so you must remember to do this.” And she curved her forefinger and middle finger into a hook and tore open the imaginary bag around the imaginary baby between her legs.
We invited our midwife from Maine to travel to Thailand for a midwife’s vacation. She would attend the birth and we would host her visit. While she stayed with us and we waited for Chan to be born, we drove around the countryside in our 1966 Land Rover, visiting remote villages and granny midwives who told us stories of their lives and the mothers and babies they’d assisted. They were seemed so relaxed about the whole process of birth. Even when I asked about situations where the baby or mother had had complications, the response always seemed to require an effort on the part of the midwife to remember more than one instance of trouble in her fifty or more years of attending births. How much of this was a combination of optimism and the elusive quality of memory, and how much was designed to support my positive visions of the birth, I do not know.
I loved visiting these midwives, listening to them, feeling them lay their hands on my huge belly to find the baby’s position and announce him perfectly ready to be born. I drank in the relaxed confidence with which they talked and moved. “It will be an easy birth.” I heard this phrase repeated from each strong, wrinkled woman we met. I hoped they were right. An hour from any real medical care other than our midwife and our local ill-equipped hospital, I was banking on an easy birth.
When labor did finally start, three weeks after my due date, I sang through the contractions. Trying to keep the words and the tune gave me something to try to hold onto with my mind while the pain progressed. Life I love you. All is groovy … As the intensity of the pain increased, I increased the volume of my voice to match it.
During the first part of labor I kept searching for the best position to lessen the pain: on my knees, on my back, on my feet, but, of course, there was no comfortable position. The pain wasn’t going away. After a couple of hours of arguing with this fact, I realized I had to accept it. After this, I surrendered and things went much better. As the contractions came stronger and closer together, my singing turned into toning, louder and higher as the contraction built, dropping away as the pain diminished.
I knew the neighbors in this town where our houses crowd just a few feet from one another could hear me, but no one seemed to mind the singing cries that arose from behind our house every three minutes. I kept saying how this labor was so
much easier than Cody’s. It was so nice to be relaxed, not panicking, knowing my body would release this child.
The pain intensified. I threw up twice. I remembered Schyla’s telling us in her birth class two years before that that was a great sign of opening and moving into transition. I toned loudly. Schyla waited for a chance between contractions to put her fingers in my cervix to see how much progress I’d made.
“This baby is about to born,” she looked at me her eyes wide and smiling. “You’re 9 cm’s dilated! I can feel his head and the water bag bulging out.”
Dtaw and I looked at each other and laughed. I hadn’t expected her to say that at all. Things just hadn’t gotten that bad yet, not nearly as unbearable as they had with my first Pitocin-assisted labor with Codte.
For this birth, we had decided to have the birth in the bedroom where the oxygen tank was ready in case the baby needed it. Schyla ran to unwrap her sterilized tools and prepare. While she was gone, Dtaw and I joked happily. When she returned, I waited for one more contraction to pass, before standing to make the slow, heavy walk to the bedroom. Schyla was a little worried I’d have the baby on the way. I did have a contraction in the living room and had to hang on to the arms of a chair for support as my body told me to squat as the contraction moved through, Dtaw at my side.
I got to the bedroom and up onto the bed on my hands and knees with the baby still inside. Schyla said, “OK, your water will break, and then you’re going to have the baby.” She went out to wash her hands. A contraction started to build. POP! KERPLOOSH! The bag of water inside me exploded and water gushed all over the clean sheets, far beyond the edges of the square of absorbent plastic and cotton we had prepared.
Then another contraction started, and I knew I had to push. I suddenly felt the unmistakable sensation of the baby’s head against my perineum. “Ow! Ow! It hurts! It hurts!” I cried in anguish. This pain was much worse than the contractions. It was sudden, raw, unfamiliar pain. “Ring of fire.” Schyla’s words floated up from the long ago birth class. Despite the almost unbearable pain, I knew I had to keep pushing to hurry up and get the baby out so the pain would end.
“OK, do you want someone to call Codte and Jew so they can be here for the birth?” Schyla asked.
“I don’t care. Just get this baby out!”
Then suddenly he was. I felt the joy of relief and looked behind me to see a little baby on his back on the wet bed, blue umbilical cord spiraling up from his belly button into me. He was crying. They wanted to give him to me.
“It’s OK.” I just wanted to catch my breath. I didn’t need to hold him. His daddy had him. Then they started to pass him to me.
“The cord, the cord,” I said.
They brought him back around and handed him to me through my legs.
Somehow I got up onto my knees and back onto the pillows.
By now Tong and Cam along with their seven-year-old daughter, Teng, big brother Codte, cousin Jew, and my mother-in-law had all crowded into our small bedroom, all watching, waiting to see the placenta pushed out to signify the completion of the birth.
Chan was already pink as I held him to my breast. Schyla clamped the cord with the tools Dtaw had boiled during labor, and Dtaw cut through the blue and white cord with the sharp scissors.
Now I could turn my attention to our new boy. Codte and Jew stood beside me on the bed, little hands resting on each shoulder, watching Chan at my breast. My mother-in-law mom was tying a piece of white cotton string around his tiny wrist to call all 32 of his spirits in to ensure his good health. Cam was taking photos. I was asking Schyla if it was OK that Chan hadn’t nursed yet. Through it all, he looked quietly around, taking us all in.
Schyla called Mom. Cam called the cousins down the street. Dtaw’s sister called us.
Schyla weighed Chan, 6 lbs. 8 oz. Dtaw’s mom hugged Schyla, and with tears in her
eyes thanked her. Then suddenly everyone was ready for bed. “How could they be
tired?” I thought. Things were just beginning! It was close to 1:00 a.m. and Dtaw and
Chan and I were alone together in our bed. Dtaw brought me a bowl of soup. I had a bath. We lay and admired our new baby til dawn. He was four hours old when we all finally fell asleep.
When I woke early the next morning, everyone else was already up. Tong had steamed the rice and washed the blood from the sheets Schyla had put into tubs of cold water the night before. Cousins and family sat on the front porch near our bed chatting.
Cody came into the bed to see his new brother, so gentle and sweet as he touched his head and hands and spoke softly to him. By the end of the day he had already grown fond of kissing and stroking baby’s head and keeping him informed about what his big brother had been up to. “Codte’s had a bath, baby. Codte went to the market, baby.”
A little later, I sat up on the bamboo bed and the neighbor women came to admire and laugh and talk and admonish me not to get up at all from my bed, but to let Dtaw do everything for me. They said it was so important to just rest and not lift anything. I almost got teary the way they came with so much warmth and support for me and Chan. The time after the birth, when the new mother sits by the fire and eats only certain foods, and drinks certain teas, and bathes in special water for several weeks, is traditionally the
only time in a rural woman’s life when she is allowed to rest from hard physical labor and be completely taken care of. These women took that quite seriously.
When I said how well how felt, they asked hadn’t I torn. They couldn’t believe I had neither stitches nor tears. Dtaw’s aunt announced that that was impossible, that whether a little or a lot, everyone tears.
The neighbor behind us said she thought one of the foreigners at our guest house must be drunk when she heard all the singing. The woman who makes sausage next door heard only my cries when Chan was crowning and then his first cry.
Schyla said in all her decades of midwifery, it was the most text book birth she’d ever attended. “The perfect birth,” she said.
–Catharine H. Murray
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