I wrote this as a submission for the “Dear Sister” Anthology, and though it wasn’t accepted it was still an excellent prompt and writing process for me. I look forward to reading the finished work–insha Allah–and encourage folks to check out Lisa’s site for information about the release as well as resources for healing and writing.
Like a cliché from a box office smash, during my first pregnancy I dragged the husband along to a child birthing class. If anything, I insisted, it would be good for him, though really I didn’t have much idea about how the whole laboring thing was going to work for me. By the end of the evening, the birthing instructor leaned against a table in front of the group with a plush toy pelvis resting in her hands. In a semi-circle around her sat eight couples, in various states of repose on firm cushions brought, as instructed, from our homes. We had just finished watching the Brazilian Birthing video in which a seemingly endless number of women labor semi-squatting, leaning on a bar not unlike the one I used to do cherry drops from in grade school. One after another the women approach the bar, lean into it, and birth their baby either into their own hands or the soft pile of blankets on the floor. I was exhausted. And mildly nauseous, and a little hungry and yet still having a ping of indigestion. This was my first pregnancy and I was keenly sensitive to ever minute change occurring in and on my body. I had heat rash in December and another weird rash on my eyelids which made them look dusted with pink shadow. Not a cute look for me. Pregnancy was all consuming; it was all I felt and all I thought about.
The instructor had just asked the group “What do you expect of your labor?” While waiting for my turn to respond I was desperately trying to find something to expect. I hadn’t thought as far ahead as labor. While some of the couples had a great deal to say, all I could hear in my head was “I expect to live” and finally, when my turn came, that is what I said. I expect to live. After an epic pause of silence in which I was studied from head to toe by a room full of strangers, the instructor asked me to elaborate. All I could explain was, “With all the medical technology and stuff, I expect to live.” My husband has my loyal love for even less eloquently grunting out in his turn, “Well, uh, yeah. That.”
What I didn’t expect was to puke. I started puking with the first notable signs of labor–which was simply stronger contractions than the little ones which I had been having for days—and I continued vomiting for hours. My water broke, or later I would find out “partially broke,” but when and how much I wasn’t sure because I was so preoccupied with puking. I had been told to try to eat before coming in to deliver, so I dutifully had my favorite take-out and regretfully puked that right back up. I puked in the car and at the intake and for hours in the labor room and finally after so very long my midwife went against the implicit instructions on my birth plan and told me that she could give me something for the nausea but it would have to be intravenous.
In-between the laboring and the birthing classes, I finally admitted to myself that I would have to go through the actual labor process. There just wouldn’t be an easy way to avoid that. And so I began voraciously reading everything I could find about labor. For the last two months of my pregnancy I read fast and constantly. I spent my evenings online, my days sneaking peeks at books I bought from the big box next to work, and on the train after each prenatal appointment I would read everything that my midwives gave me to take home. I read somewhere that it was a good thing to make a birth plan ahead of time as I would be distracted during the labor process. Care providers could refer to the plan rather than disturb me or force me to make a decision hastily. So I did that and I wrote in it that I didn’t want drugs and not to offer me any incase I should buckle. Perhaps I would have reconsidered my rigid stance had I known that anti-nausea meds may be needed, but in my self-led crash course on What to Expect in Labor I hadn’t read about puking.
In all the reading I did for my labor preparation, I never read anything specific to how being a sex-abuse survivor could affect my labor. In hindsight that makes perfect sense. I was freaked about laboring, but I couldn’t tell you why—because I was freaked out. But now, a dozen years and a few more kids later, I can tell you what was freaking me about anticipating labor. I knew there was going to be a lot of pain and that it would be centered around my vagina. I knew that there was a looming date fast coming up in which things were going to happen to my body that I felt I had no control over. I was particularly worried about the ambiguous “pushing thing” that was about to happen and I foresaw it in my mind as a scene with a room full of blue and white coated people screaming at me to “Push! Push! Push!” Yeah, that could be enough to freak out someone who has previously experienced some form of sexual assault or abuse.
In the years since that labor, my many care providers have given me a whole lot of information related to pregnancy. I’ve been given handouts about the effects of coffee and cat poop on pregnant women and fetuses. I’ve been give information about how to prepare my perennial tissue and my vaginal muscles. I’ve been given fact sheets about the dangers of tuna fish, soft cheeses and vaccinations. But I have never given a handout that told me, “If you are a sex abuse survivor, it is likely that your prior experience may affect you during labor.”
That shouldn’t be such an implausible thing. I remember being given Xerox copies of stuff that really didn’t interest or concern me and being told, “Oh, you can just pass it on to a pregnant friend.” As much as I think that is a little obnoxious, I also think that maybe some of that stuff was important for me to read and my midwives were optimistic that I might get to it later. How about if they did that for survivors? Considering that up to one out of three women have been sexually abused at some point in their lives, and the probability of a pregnant women having been abused is one out of four, so then it shouldn’t be such a big deal to include in our little bundle packs some information about how sexual abuse can affect the emotional and physical state of a laboring woman. Puking in labor is thought to have a high correlation to sex abuse survivors. By the time I was ready to have my second baby I had learned that with the help of my friend Google. And I am so thankful that I did have a birth plan as I have also learned that for some survivors the labor process can be so distracting or disturbing that they concede all decisions to their care providers, who may not make the best choices for the laboring woman. I also learned about “crowning” and feeling for my baby’s head before I began to push.
Between that first and second baby, I read about sex abuse and how it can effect laboring from first-person survivor narratives, in midwife and medical journals, and on message boards. At a less frenzied pace, I have continued to add to my knowledge of pregnancy and labor as I continue to have kids. I am now one of those people who can breezily say about my last birth that “it was really fabulous.” Even though the nausea medicine that worked for labors #2 and #3 only helped a little, still, each birth has gotten easier and better for me both emotionally and physically. While I continue waiting for that handout—for me or a friend—I have learned so much from other survivors and about the birth process that nearly nothing about it seems ambiguous or frightening to me, not the pain, not the loss of control, and not the reminders to push when I already know when and how to do so. I have survived five births and two miscarriages.