Miriam and my husband whispered, as they began to fumble with the tub. I said nothing, though it was getting to be too late to move. Cori, my doula, arrived as I was in the middle of a contraction. The only illumination in the room was a string of tiny white lights. My friend Gwen, a filmmaker and birth photographer, snaked them into the inflated birth tub, expecting me to be there. By the time the tub had been inflated and filled with water, getting into it was impossible. The contractions were too consuming. I couldn’t move.
Cori and Miriam, doula and midwife, sat on the bed near me, just watching. Ben knelt beside me, his “Rock the Vote” T-shirt clinging to his chest. My back began to ache. I mentioned this to Cori, who asked if I might want to try the shower. Our drain was clogged, rendering it out of commission. A to-do list item we were going to use the weekend to address. Another bathroom seemed so far away, too distant to travel to in that moment. Everything inside told me to stay put. Cori found a heat pack and pressed it to my sacrum as Miriam watched. When a contraction came, I would use my voice to bring myself into it, to move with the feeling. I relaxed my muscles and imagined moving the baby forward with full-throated sound.
I remember a distinct break in the contractions that felt like I had awakened from a deep sleep. I came to consciousness, greeted Cori, thanked her for the heat, reached for my phone. My nails ticked on the glass, navigating to Spotify. That was the last moment I felt firmly rooted in the room before the contractions began to roll into each other with no reprieve.
The fetal ejection reflex took over. This time I wasn’t threatened or bothered. The room was dark, quiet, and safe. I labored in the exact spot where I awoke that same night from broken water. In fact, I had barely moved from that mattress divot. An inner intelligence told me not to. After rippling contractions, I felt like I was on another planet. Miriam witnessed the increasing intensity in my movements, the sounds I was making, and the strain in my face. She moved closer. She didn’t speak. I felt Gwen’s presence but didn’t notice her or her camera.
I was overcome with the urge to push—as if my body was being puppeteered. The baby didn’t come out in one motion like the other two had. It was like he got stuck. I felt that burning sensation, which I had previously heard called the ring of fire. It zapped me of strength and presence, and it sowed real doubt.
Ben dutifully grabbed the handheld mirror we had bought as part of our DIY birth kit. Look! he said. But I couldn’t. I had wanted to theoretically, to see my baby emerge and catch the warm body in its earthly descent into my hands. But that was impossible. That was reality. I was somewhere else. Doubt, even thoughts of death, are a common indicator that the end of the active phase of labor is near. Humans are the unique mammals who need birth assistance. Our animal relatives all do it alone. But we need supporters, partners. Ideally those who see and support, who recognize the signpost of doubt and help us navigate through it.
“Reach down and feel the head,” Miriam offered. It’s the only thing she said to me that I remember. It felt warm, damp, soft. Pulsing with life. That charge launched me through the doubt. Moments later there he was. My friend Gwen snapped photos. They are some of the most precious ones I have.
“I now understand how birth can become an addiction, how some people end up with more kids than toes.”
She got images of baby crowning, sure. But she also captured what can be a very difficult shot to get. It’s called a “half-in, half-out” in birth photography parlance. I’m centered in the image, mid-writhe, back arched and chin(s) flattened like a stack of pancakes. Because I’m screaming like I’m trying to crack glass. You can see my widened nostrils, the lens of my husband’s glasses, and the arm and profile of Miriam, trying to catch my baby as he turns, his hair swishing. The next photo in the series is of Ben, me, and our baby, slick with vernix and blood. My eyes are closed and I’m smiling. Ben’s hand cups our baby’s matted hair. He’s smiling and crying and pressing his forehead to the side of mine. I had bought a tasteful, forest-colored bralette to wear for the birth and in the photos, but it never made it out of the drawer.
The most power I’ve ever felt was during birth. Birthing at home, I didn’t have to play defense. I didn’t have to fight for the agency and permission to do it the way I wanted. That was everything. I now understand how birth can become an addiction, how some people end up with more kids than toes.
When I think about this now, when I hear that a friend or loved one is pregnant, I am overcome with want. First, I pray that the coercion, manipulation, and needless suffering won’t touch them. Then, I wish for them support and the gift of being left alone to do the work of labor, to experience its magic and power. I want this for everyone.
Excerpted from of Birth Control: The Insidious Power of Men Over Motherhood, copyright 2023 by Allison Yarrow, published by Seal Press, reprinted with permission.
Allison Yarrow is the author, most recently, of Birth Control: The Insidious Power of Men Over Motherhood. Follow along @aliyarrow