“I can’t do it.”
“That means you’re close! Remember? It just means you're close. You’re doing so great.”
I know that’s what he’s supposed to say, but I’m not feeling what I’m supposed to feel. If I’m close, I should feel pressure. Unmistakable, hip-splitting pressure. At least that’s what the midwives and the internet forums told me. I don’t actually know what the pressure of being close feels like. I didn’t feel it last time.
“I’m not close.” I say to Brett. “I know I’m not. I can’t take this pain for hours more. I can’t do this. What if I really can’t?”
“You can. I know you can.”
He doesn’t understand. Something isn’t right.
Labour had started on Saturday night at 11PM. By 4AM, I was at 4 centimetres. Then I stalled. I took the day to rest and eat. It wasn’t until 6PM on Sunday evening when the contractions finally started again, coming like waves.
I’m warm in the tub, the tub I’d dreamed of giving birth in for months, but I’m not comfortable. It doesn’t feel right. I move off of the cushion the midwife gave me and slide my body around against the slippery ceramic, trying to find the right position. But there isn’t one. I pull a finger along the elastic of my sports bra to release the tension. I rub my face. Take deep breaths. Grind my teeth. Nothing helps.
I know I’m stalled. And I want a way out. I don’t want to feel one more contraction. I can’t do it. My body needs something, but I don’t know what it is.
Brett leans in. “Meg, you’re just clo—“
I cut him off. I don’t have patience for optimism. “This isn’t working. Something isn’t right.”
“Another ooooooone,” I moan in agony.
My hands squeeze the rim of the tub. My knuckles turn white. I shut my eyes and suck air in through my nose. The pain crashes over me. I force my attention onto the way Brett’s warm hand feels on my damp skin as it rubs quickly across my mid-back. Back and forth. Back and forth. Back and –
My mind falters. Flashes of my first birth flicker through my mind.
Emelyn. My first daughter. Forty hours of silent labour. A slow, painful crawl to 10 centimetres. Then, I was out of time. The doctors pulled while I pushed. They pulled harder. I pushed. They yelled for me to push harder. I pushed harder. Then, without warning, the doctor cut. An artery was hit. Blood. Everywhere. I screamed for the first time.
“Cover her mouth!” The doctor had yelled.
I screamed again. Blood. Blood. Blood.
He saw the blood. Feared the worst and did what she said.
A hand held my last scream back as they pulled my daughter from me.
The memory terrifies me.
What if I can’t do it? Why did I come here thinking I could do this naturally? Why am I trying to be brave?
The fear breaks my concentration. The pain overwhelms me. My entire body recoils under the weight of the contraction. My muscles harden, my shoulders rise, my jaw clenches.
Relax. Relax. Relax. You have to relax. You have to.
“Relax, Meghan.” The midwife lightly touches between my shoulders. Her hand is cold. I will my shoulders to drop, forcing my shoulder blades into their neutral position and holding them there. But I do not relax until the wave retreats.
“Can I get checked?” I say softly, but the room is quiet enough that everyone hears.
The midwives look to each other and look back to me. The one standing by the tub offers a kind smile. “Meghan, you’re really doing great. We just checked Baby and she’s all good too.”
“Please. I want to be checked. I don’t think it’s working.”
Brett moves his face closer to mine. “Meg, you just feel like this cause you’re close.”
“I’m not close.”
“The transition is when you think you can’t do it. So, this is the transition.”
“It’s not. Check me. It’s not…” My belly starts to tighten again. “Another one.”
White knuckles. Shallow breaths. Hardened muscles. Fear.
When the wave subsides, the midwife checks me.
“You’re about five centimetres.”
My heart hits my ribcage. I was right. No progress. One centimetre in five hours.
I look Brett in the eyes for the first time in awhile, “I need to stand.”
He looks to the midwife and she nods. “I think that’s a really good idea. Look how you’re laying in there. It’s clear your body wants a standing position.”
I am suddenly aware of myself; my arms are draped over the side of the tub and my legs stretched out behind me, one knee pushed against the bottom to secure me.
“Okay, let’s get you standing.” Brett says, already rising to his feet to help me out. “Where do you want to go?”
I shake my head. “I don’t know.”
“Should I get your clothes?”
“I don’t know...”
One midwife disappears into the bathroom while the other reaches to help me out of the tub. “She’s going to start the shower. That way you can still have water to help with the pai-“
I drop back down into the tub. “Another ooooone.”
Nozzles blast my back with hot water. I pull off my sports bra and reject my bathing suit. Something more primal is coursing through me now that I am on my feet. Gravity helps. The contractions are more intense. But I still can’t relax. My body constricts and twists with each contraction.
The same thoughts keep spinning through my mind.
I can’t do this. I couldn’t do it last time. Why did I think I could do it this time?
With each wave, I resist. I resist my body. I resist the contraction. I squirm in its grasp. My back arches. My heel pops off the tiled floor. My shoulders cave in.
“Meghan. Relax.” The midwife reaches her arm into the shower and rubs my back. The contraction reaches its peak. I hold my breath.
“Breathe, Meg,” Brett encourages.
“I can’t relax. My mind…my thoughts are spinning. I’m spinning. I have to relax…”
“Okay. Let’s think about something else.” Brett leans closer into the shower. His black sweater soaks up the stray water. “Think about the first time Emelyn meets Margot. She’s going to be so excited.”
I smile faintly and nod.
“Em’s going to be the best big sister. She’s going to be obsessed with her. She’ll sing her –“ He pauses abruptly when he sees my face turn to pain.
“No, keep telling me.” I moan as the contraction starts to build.
“She’ll sing her songs. She’s going to love rocking her bed and singing songs. And they’ll both get bigger. They’ll be best friends. And probably fight a lot. We’ll see who’s the most stubborn…”
I focus on his words. I feel control coming back. The contraction doesn’t overtake me this time. My hands are clenched around the metal bar in front of me. I sway my body back and forth as I push all the air out of my lungs.
It’s suddenly clear to me that my body is not my worst enemy.
My mind is. I am what’s stopping the progress.
“Brett, I know what I need.”
“I need to stay standing. And I need my mind to stop.”
I need the gas. I hold the rubber mask in one hand and my other hand grips the metal shower bar. Brett’s now accompanied by a tank of laughing gas. The pain feels the same, but my mind is no longer threatened by the pain. I could shut off its incessant chatter. My worries and fears are lightened; floating up and away.
I feel the tightening in my stomach and I plant the mask on my face, sucking back the gas in deep inhales. My body does not recoil this time. My thoughts are busy directing my body to relax with each exhale.
The contraction eases and I drop the mask.
“Breathe real air, Meghan.” The midwife softly reminds me. “For you and for baby.”
“Don’t Kill My Vibe” by Sigrid is playing. I hear it. How long had it been playing? I stare at the tiled wall, completely consumed by my body's instincts. I take deep breaths of real air.
For a moment, my mind flutters back to Emelyn's delivery. I remember the bright operating room I was in. The stirrups. The buckles. The crowd. The yelling. The knife. The scream. The hand.
The hand over my mouth. Silencing me.
“They filled the tub again.” Brett says brightly. His voice is comforting. “We can go back there now. Your contractions are getting really close together.”
“No.” I mutter. “No. I need to stand.”
I don’t know why I do. But, I know it’s true. I know I need to stand. My body knows.
It's suddenly hard for me to speak. I lift the mask to my face, even though I am not having a contraction. My thoughts quiet. I stand taller and something shifts.
After one inhale, my left arm swings down to my side, the mask in hand.
“Brett. I need the gas. And, I need to stand. That’s it.” I turn to look at him. “I mean it.” I say sternly. I know these will be my last words to him. I need to know he’s heard me. “If the gas runs out, get it refilled. You know my brain. You know me.” His face is serious and he nods along with me. “I need to be me without my anxiety right now. This gas makes that happen.”
I feel the tightening. I lift the mask and suck back gas. And then the sound escapes me; foreign. Animal. A deep moan.
I’ve never made a sound like this before.
I inhale. Exhale. With the next breath of air, another moan fills the room. When the contraction is over, I drop the mask and look to Brett. His furrowed eyebrows reveal his worry for the first time.
“Are you okay? Do you want the tub?”
Inhale. Exhale. Another wave crashes over me. I lift the mask.
Inhale. Exhale. Another groan.
The groan does not move up my throat and out of my mouth like sound should. It is a force moving downwards directing the pain. Pushing. My knees bend under the influence of the deep noise. Inhale. My legs straighten. Exhale. Groaning. Knees bend.
I am in a turbulent storm of pain. My groans are louder now. They force the waves of pain down.
My knees bend and straighten. Bend and straighten. Bend and straighten.
I drop the mask to catch my breath and have a few contractions without it, leaning hard against the bar. Then, I feel it.
Her head is between my hips. They part for her. The pain behind my pubic bone dissolves. I feel her moving through my pelvis. I drop into a deep squat and let out a groan so loud, it is almost a yell.
I don’t lift the mask.
No hand covers my mouth.
I am loud. I didn’t know I could be so loud.
“What can we do?” I hear Brett say to the midwife beside me. “Is there anything else we can do for her?” His voice has lost all bravery. He’s crumbling.
But, I am not. I’ve hit my stride. I am only aware of the head in my pelvis and Brett’s presence beside me.
I lift the mask.
Bend. Straighten. Bend. Straighten.
They offer me a chair. They offer me the bath. I don’t answer.
I yell. I bend. I straighten. Yell. Bend. Straighten.
I drop the mask. My eyes are squeezed shut. I only have a moment until the storm returns. I brace myself. There’s fire between my legs.
“I’m doing it!” I say brightly. I smile.
I hear laughter and am aware that there are multiple people standing in the bathroom with me now.
I let out a deep sigh and say it again. “I’m doing it.”
The wave crashes over me again.
Bend. Straighten. Bend. Bend. Bend. Bend.
I hear myself let out a fierce bellow with each breath. With each bend.
My sound moves her down.
The pain is inescapable now. It does not come as waves anymore. I am completely submerged. But, I do not drown.
I am the pain.
“Brett, go in. Be her support for these last few.”
They unfold a seat from the wall in front of me and, suddenly, a shirtless-Brett drops into it. I fall onto him and squeeze my arms tightly around his neck.
No hand covers my mouth.
He just sits and lends me his strength.
And so I roar.
The head comes out. And the fire goes with it. I roar again. Her little body slips from the grasp of mine and I hear her cry.
I collapse onto a small chair a midwife has placed behind me and they put her on my chest.
Brett sits across from me. We are both breathless. Bloody.
“My baby. My baby. My baby.”
The words tangle with the cries of my daughter and bounce around the small space.
Meghan Zahari is a published writer and creator of Willow Press, an indie publisher for creative projects that don’t fit within the traditional publishing route. On top of meeting her creative goals, she juggles her responsibilities as a mother and part-owner of a local donut shop. Her first book, Domestic, is available at McNally Robinson’s or online at www.willowpressco.com.