Several months ago I made up my mind that – beginning on my birthday in August- for one year I was going to read only books written by women. In a world where men’s voices constantly tower over women’s for the amount of attention they receive, credibility they are granted, and space they take up, it was easy to see the merit in a project like this. What would my internal and intellectual landscapes look like for a year if I intentionally removed the dominant male voice from my personal literary world.
Since my writing is largely (if not exclusively, at this point) autobiographical, the project quickly morphed into a year of women’s memoirs: women’s stories, told by their own voices.
So far, it’s been great – a grounding, affirming, enlightening experience. I’ve read four and a half memoirs in the last weeks, each of them wildly different from the last in both form and content, and in each one I saw pieces of my own story. This is what excites me so about writing: that it can be such a great humanizing force. In writing our individual stories, we can reach through to some little piece of the universal – the threads connecting us all to each other and to the world at large.
One of the strongest threads that has already shown itself is childbirth. While the trappings of childbirth undergo continuous evolution it remains true that women’s bodies labor and give birth much the same as they always have, and whether or not a woman is able to or chooses to give birth to children the topic will occupy space in each of our stories. Of the four and a half books I have read thus far, every single one has either told that woman’s birthing story or explained why that woman did not have children at the time she was writing
In the days and weeks after my son’s birth, I told the extended version of the story, sparing no detail, to anyone who even casually asked how the birth went. I couldn’t seem to stop myself, the need was bodily and strong. That powerful need to tell our birthing stories seems to be a common experience of women who have given birth, especially the the traumatic ones, and often to the dismay of mothers-to-be.
With Joseph’s first birthday approaching next week, I find myself transported through my days to these same late-August days last year, the days I spent swaying a big belly up and down the neighborhood streets, the baby still a mystery cradled in the bowl of my bones.
And so I cannot stop myself from telling the story of his birth again, knowing that the need to tell it will likely never fade. I’d also like to share with you birth stories told by two women whose memoirs I have read in the past weeks: one by Mary Mann Hamilton (Trials of the Earth), a woman who pioneered in the Mississippi delta and wrote of her life as an old woman in 1933; and one by Luretta E. Hulse, my great-grandmother, writing in Merchantville, NJ in 1921.
Joseph’s Birth: Lauren Hulse, Written August 26, 2016, Knoxville, TN
The contractions began on my birthday, mild ones, but regular. We sat and timed them obsessively until they reached the proper length and frequency to call the midwives. But this was what they call prodromal labor, or Braxton Hicks, or practice labor.
The night of August 29th was placid and warm. I was feeling antsy and I knew the moon was full – the last of three super moons that summer – so I packed my dog, Anna, in the second-hand Subaru I’d just bought to carry the car seat and drove us out to Seven Islands Wildlife Refuge.
Seven Islands has always been a special place, and that evening it was in full glory: the sky blushed pink over the wide brown loop of the French Broad river, long shadows the color of polk berries spread over the brambled hillsides, the crickets rasped out their dry songs in the grasses. Anna and I walked until dusk and drove home in the dark, feeling peaceful and totally in love with this gentle valley.
Around 1:30 I woke up and couldn’t go back to sleep. This was a common occurrence in those days, so I went back to reading Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, which had soothed me to sleep once that night already. I read for hours, at one point noticing that I was having contractions, somehow steadier and more purposeful than the ones before. Inside I smiled, finally.
Every so often I’d time the contractions, writing them down on a scrap of paper under the lamp light. Deep in to the witching hours, my body reached the marker again and I called the midwife. We talked for a few minutes, and she reassured me and told me to call her again when they got a little stronger.
I didn’t call my birth support – fully expecting a long labor I thought I’d let them sleep ’till morning – but stayed in bed reading Little Women. As the night wore on I remembered to repeat my affirmations and breathe to steady myself through each wave. I felt grounded and strong, eager to commit to the birthing process, immersed fully in the only task ahead of me.
Then very suddenly I was no longer a consenting partner in the process, it was as if the birth swept down and took hold of me, whether I liked it or not. I found myself puking in the bathtub and thinking calmly Isn’t this supposed to happen when you transition? I can’t be that far along. The contractions were powerful now, bigger than anything I had previously known to be contained by my body. They moved through me, rocking me back and forth on my knees and elbows, and came out as sound. Still I was glad to be present.
That was when I called the midwife again, speaking in breathless rushes between contractions, and my best friend Maryl who had agreed to drive me to the birthing center.
Maryl drove us to the birth center somewhere around six in the morning, the street lights were still on but the night given way to the blue stain that precedes dawn. In the car I turned to Maryl and said I think I’m pushing. We both laughed, she ran stoplights.
We beat the midwife, Danna, to the birth center, and when she got there she moved quickly to check my cervix: fully dilated. She pressed the doppler to my belly to listen to the baby’s heartbeat: a solid and steady beat racing through the water. But when another contraction came, the beat slowed to a sluggish thunk-thunk. Anybody could’ve known that wasn’t how it was supposed to sound.
She asked me to try a different position and then a birthing stool, but still the heartbeat slowed with each contraction. She explained that maybe if she ruptured the amniotic sac, the baby could be born quickly, and the risks would be low enough to stay there. I consented and pushed hard for a few contractions, but he was still high in the birth canal. She explained calmly that we needed to call a transport to the hospital, since he wasn’t getting the oxygen he needed during the contractions. She said If birth was imminent, we could go ahead and have the baby here, but since it’s not we’d better go to the hospital. If he needs some extra support when he’s born, it’ll be there.
I didn’t feel at all scared or sad except for one moment when I realized Danna might not come with me, but she assured me that she would.
She rode with me in the ambulance and then I was covered in crinkly white sheets being wheeled through the hospital hallways under all those fluorescent lights. There were what felt like at least eight nurses around me from the moment we arrived. One asked me very politely if I could hold my arm still so she could get an IV in it, and I told her perhaps not so politely that no, I couldn’t.
All this time the birth is still occupying my body, and I’m just trying to keep my brain out of the way. I stayed open to whatever was going to happen, and I never once worried about the baby’s safety or mine. I just knew we were gonna be okay.
They listened to his heartbeat and heard the same slow thunk-thunk, thunk-thunk. This worried the doctor very much and after a few pushes with lots of cheering from Danna and the nurses and my friends (Oh my god I see the head!), the baby was stuck and he decided we needed to expedite the process. The baby’s oxygen is being impeded, they explained, this is an emergency situation.
I was on my back on the table and the doctor sat between my feet, small and tidy, with white hair and small round wire glasses. I watched him between my knees as he explained very calmly and gently what my options were (vacuum extractor or episiotomy) and what they would do. From so far inside of myself and being so occupied by the birth I couldn’t reach out to make a logical choice, and I turned to Danna. She suggested the episiotomy, since it’s safer and they might have to do one with the vacuum extractor anyway.
So I nodded, they gave me a shot of local numbing agent, and the next time I pushed I felt the baby slide out. (Maryl would tell me later that she saw the doctor reach in and unwrap the umbilical cord from around his neck: this was the reason for the emergency.)
Everybody was screaming. Maryl and Jessica and Rose were all at my bedside, gripping the bedrail, and if my memory serves me right at least one of them was jumping up and down. They lifted him up and he let out the tiniest little cry, someone said it’s a boy! and they put him on my chest. He snuggled down and drifted right back off to sleep.
He was slimy and soft and beyond perfect. He was divine.
My friends were all saying over and over He’s so little! He’s so beautiful! He’s perfect! He’s so little!
But I kept thinking how big he was, and complete. I had known that there was a whole baby inside me, but somehow when he was on my chest it was amazing all over again. A whole baby, this big whole perfect baby, I just gave birth to this big whole perfect baby.
It was 8:30 the morning of August 30th.*
I just held him on my chest as everything else happened around me, the nurse rubbed him down and draped him with blankets, the doctor caught our placenta in a white plastic tub, gave me another shot and sewed up the cut he had just made. Danna suggested that I try nursing him, and he latched on easily the first time with little help. They didn’t ask me to let go of my baby until they wanted to weigh him, and then the nurse promised she’d give him right back. He weighed 7 lbs 6 oz.
Eventually they wheeled us down the hallway to a room on the maternity ward, where Maryl gave me my pillows and the quilt I’d made for Joseph and my bathrobe she’d packed from home. Everyone came and visited that first day, and I felt full of energy, bright and wonderful, telling this story over and over and over and passing Joseph around all wrapped up in a big bundle of blankets.
We stayed for a day and a half and I was as happy and content as I have ever been, just looking at Joseph laying on my chest and telling the story of his birth to everyone who walked in the door. Even though I hadn’t wanted or planned to go to the hospital, I felt safe there and cared for, with someone to bring fresh ice water every hour and my friends and family all gathered around me.
Excerpted from the diary of Luretta E. Hulse: Dated December 29, 1921 , Merchantville, NJ
[edits are original to the text]
This is a new sort of diary in this household – one to record the arrival and the events of the early life of John Keith Hulse, Jr., a much-wished-for baby.
We began to suspect that he was coming early last April. We gave a party on the evening of Apr.9 (a little dance) and that was almost the last of our participationin social affairs. On July 3, early Sunday morning he (the baby) began to move for the first time. It was only six o’clock but I did so wanted to waken John to tell him. When he did wake up, he was incredulous – that “it must be my imagination.” But in the following days, we were convinced that life had really arrived in the little being.
On Sunday morning Dec. 4, 1921 we went in to Cooper Hospital. When the taxi stopped in front of the house, and I was hurriedly trying to finish dressing, I looked at John. He seemed to be stunned. He looked as white and moved with such an effort. When I laughed at him, he said “I think I am more excited than you are.”
He stayed at the hospital most of the day with me. When at last he had to leave for the night, I cried after he was gone. I felt so lonely to be away from him, but I finally cheered up and went to sleep.
Dec. 5 – John came with the nurses when they prepared to take me to the operating room, and kissed me “good-morning.” To my surprise I did not cry at sight of him, but felt the comfort of having him near. He talked and cheered me up after we got to the room where they give the ether – and he kissed me again.
I tried to take the ether bravely but when I was too far under its influence to control myself any longer, I began to cry and cry. I knew I was doing it, but couldn’t stop. Then I heard Dr. Lee’s footsteps, and he said “She is terribly frightened” and Miss Andres said, “I know she is. She was asking me to be particularly kind to her —-. ” And that was the last I knew until sometime in the afternoon. I remember hearing the town clock strike two just after I first saw the nurse in the room with the baby. I had been conscious before that – but only enough to ask “What is the baby?” and “Is he all right?” Miss Bacon brought him to the side of the bed at 2 o’clock and let me see him, but wouldn’t let me touch him. She said “You must rest.” At 4 o’clock they brought him again and let me kiss him.
He weighted 7lbs 6oz and looked like his Daddy the very first day. The next day, they put him to the breast to try to let him nurse. I will never forget how sweet he seemed to me. His little mouth reminded me of a rosebud, so soft and pink and warm. He had no strength in his lips but one day later his seemed to know how to use them.
Excerpted from Trials of the Earth, Mary Mann Hamilton: Published 1992, written 1933, and taking place cerca 1883
…Two weeks later Frank took me to Mrs. Green’s. The first thing we did after Frank left was go shopping. Such an outfit as we got. What joy I took in making the little clothes, or rather big clothes, for every little dress measured fifty inches long. Fine tucks, then inserting, then more tucks, and so on to the bottom of the dresses, and there they were finished with a wide ruffle of embroidery. White linen underskirt was made the same way but finished at the top with a broad band five inches wide; white flannel underskirt made as long and finished with the same kind of band, then the usual muslin band to wear next to the little body. We made several suits and bought a ready-made cloak and cap of white cashmere, silk-lined; that, with forty yards of heavy white cotton flannel for diapers, was the whole outfit. It cost forty dollars. That was the first money I got out of my year’s work. It kept me busy sewing up to the twenty-fifth of July, when my first baby, a fine eight-pound boy, was born. Frank didn’t get there until after the baby was born. I wouldn’t let them wire him till it was almost over as I couldn’t bear to have him see me suffer. But, oh, the joy I felt when he came and saw his boy! When the doctor asked me what I was going to name him, Frank spoke up so quick and said, “She doesn’t have to name him. He has been named quite a while.”
I said, “We are going to call him Frank.”
Frank said, “My dear, you have nothing to do with it. His name is Jim Hamilton.”
He had had a drink or two, just enough to loosen his toungue. Mrs. Green looked at him and said, “What is the idea of ‘Jim’! You mean ‘James.'”
“I mean for Sir Jim Hamilton, the greatest friend I ever had, madam,” Frank said.
Again the past! I changed the subject. My baby was mine anyway.
Mrs. Green brought me a bowl of weak toddy, smoking hot, with crackers broken up in it, and Frank left. He came back for me when the baby was just two weeks old.
I had just one week’s rest after I got home when our cook took sick. The German cook they had got to take my place had gone a few days before with some of the men, laid off for a month on account of repairs at the mill. That left us thirty-five men at our home house with no one to cook for them, so there was nothing for me to do except go to work and do the cooking with the help of my dishwasher and one boy.
*As an aside, Joseph was born on the same day as my dad & Joseph’s granddad, Keith Hulse. I can’t pass up the opportunity to send a birthday shout out, so: Happy Birthday dad/granddad, we love you!