On the Power of Women

Illustration by Samantha Harrington

Somehow, they sold you short. For months, maybe years if you’re around the right people often enough, they told you this would be “the greatest day of your life” and “there’s no other feeling like it in the world” and “cherish every second because it’s over like that.” They tried, with the vocabulary available to them, to describe something that was beyond words, beyond communication, beyond, even, comprehension.

They did not tell you, in the moment your daughter, Mayla Ruth, entered the world, as you watched the midwife unwrap the umbilical cord from her gray neck and she took her first gulp of oxygen, that your own chest would fill with a light you’d never felt before as around you time slowed and surroundings blurred. They did not tell you, as she was placed, softly and immediately, on your wife’s chest, that your head would, instinctively, fall there as well, the first moments of your new family captured not in a picture but solely in your memory, where they will live forever. They did not tell you, as your wife exclaimed, “I did it!” through relieved, joyous, clipped breaths, that you would be crying more than your newborn daughter, the tears falling under your cloth mask. They did not tell you, when they described her, that words like “beautiful” and “gorgeous” and “precious” were somehow not powerful enough; angelic, maybe even divine, would come closer. They did not, could not, tell you any of this, and perhaps that was for the best, because this was, after all, something, like watching the Northern Lights or viewing the Earth from space, that could only be felt.

The intensity of those feelings, of that love, for your daughter were matched only by the same ones for your wife, and the gratitude you felt for the people who delivered your baby: the nurses and midwives at the women-run birth center who guided you through the most intense, and greatest, day of your lives. All of them reminded you, on International Women’s Day no less, of the irrepressible, imperishable power of women.

You learn a truth soon after you find out you are going to be a father: A pregnant woman is a superhero. She carries, for nine months or more, a human inside of her, one that causes her indigestion and nausea and no small amount of pain. For the first few months, she can eat only watermelon and popsicles (maybe, too, a watermelon-flavored popsicle) lest she throw up, her body rejecting foods like it never has before. If she’s lucky enough to keep down the food, it might stay in there for far longer than is normal, or healthy: The only trips she makes to the bathroom are to empty her bladder, again and again and again, like an old man in a Flomax commercial, interrupting sleep, which she wants, and needs, desperately.

The next three months, the second trimester, are supposedly the easiest, because all she has to deal with then is the small fact that a living being is growing inside of her, constantly, expanding her stomach like a slowly inflating balloon. Perhaps, too, she’ll have some “practice” contractions, and her fingers and ankles and feet will swell, rendering quotidian tasks like taking off a wedding band or putting on shoes a true challenge.

Then it gets real. Her belly, by the third trimester, is at the point where strangers ask, “When’s your due date?” Maybe she’ll describe it to you as carrying, in her stomach, a basketball, only the type that constantly kicks and moves and squirms inside of her. On walks around the neighborhood, the basketball will press down on her bladder, requiring her to find, immediately, a bathroom, or simply make her extremely uncomfortable. Preparations for the big day will be made: bags packed, nurseries decorated, floors cleaned and vacuumed over and over. She will waddle around the house, attempting to make everything perfect for her baby’s imminent arrival, a practice, your how-to-be-a-dad books tell you, called “nesting.”

If, for some reason, she is pregnant during a global pandemic, she will go through all of this relatively alone, staying home for Christmas, celebrating baby showers on Zoom, talking to her doctors and watching ultrasounds by herself as you are forced to sit in the parking lot. She will not see family, or friends, for weeks, and by the end of it, months. She will ask you, on a random Wednesday, to take her on a ride to see the mountains under the sun and the cloudless sky, to breathe fresh air away from the house. She will cry, sometimes, but she will carry on with a quiet strength that you can only admire.

After all of this, she will describe it as a “pretty easy pregnancy.”

Maybe her preparation, weeks and months in advance, will be worth it soon, and she’ll have her baby on the due date, or perhaps even earlier. Or maybe she will have to wait a bit longer: a few days, or a week, or two. This time, you will learn, moves excruciatingly slow. In these cases — in the midst of countless doctor’s appointments to check the baby’s health and hers, of trips to the chiropractor to maneuver the baby into a better position, of uncomfortable exams and no-stress tests — she will experience a strange cocktail of emotions, a mix of disappointment that the baby is not yet here and disappointment with herself for feeling disappointed, and growing anxiety about labor, and anticipation, and true excitement that it could happen at any moment.

And then, one day, it will.

Or, more accurately, for biological reasons that she will have already explained to you, one night. Maybe the contractions will start around 11 p.m., just as she was ready to lay her head on her pillow to get some necessary sleep; she will attempt to sleep through them at the start, but she will soon learn that that is impossible, like trying to take a walk during a tornado. Instead she will open up her app to time contractions on her phone, and press the green button when they start and red button when they end. At the start, she’ll be able to talk through them, and as you are shuttling in and out of the garage to load up the car you will find her standing in the kitchen, wondering where to place a new sticker on her water bottle. You will smile.

The time between the contractions will get smaller, and their intensity will increase, until she calls the midwife, who will suggest taking a bath to see if they calm. They will not, and after the bath she will lay down, and suddenly she will jump up, sprint to the bathroom, flip open the toilet, and discard her dinner. The contractions, you will learn, have become so intense that in certain positions they make her throw up. “Maybe we should call her back,” she will suggest, and in less than an hour you will be on your way to the birth center as she huffs, from a small sheet of toilet paper, peppermint oil to manage the nausea.

By the time you arrive she will have been in labor for six hours, and the pain will only increase. For the next six hours, you will watch, hopelessly, as she struggles through active labor, her stomach contracting every couple minutes and rendering her speechless. She will sit on a giant exercise ball, her head bent over a pile of towels, and actually, for a few priceless minutes, doze off between contractions; she will try lying down, and again she will throw up from the pain; she will labor in a giant inflatable tub filled with water.

Throughout it all, the midwives and nurses will shuttle in and out of your room, checking on her and measuring the baby’s heartbeat. They will encourage her, suggest different positions to relieve the pain, and patiently answer your questions: “Does that mean it’s OK?” “All good?” “Are we still moving forward?” They will tell you what to do; you will gratefully listen.

You will change the music and massage her shoulders and tell her you love her, but mostly you will sit, in awe, of the strength she shows in the toughest hours of her life and the unassuming grace and professionalism of the other women helping her through them. She will not be able to speak to you, and this is perhaps the toughest part, because up to that point any major challenge you encountered together you discussed together. You will feel, more than any other time in your life, truly, utterly useless, as you watch the person you love go through something close to an out-of-body experience as you sit next to her, painfully aware of your own limitations and the injustice of biology.

She will not, contrary to what you remembered from your birth courses, experience any breaks, any letups from contractions. She will say, accurately, in one of her few full sentences in hours, “I feel like this is constant.” Despite this, she will not take any medicine to manage the pain, her mind set on the natural birth she’d planned for months.

And then, suddenly, miraculously, she will be 10 centimeters dilated and her water will break. You remember from your birth course that she has gone through the worst part, the dreaded “transition,” and from here it’s an hour, maybe two, of pushing the baby out. You feel, finally, that there is light at the end of the tunnel, and for the baby that is literal. Your heart starts to beat faster; you know she is close.

Three hours later, she will still be pushing. The worst part, it turned out, was far from over. At this point she will be exhausted, physically of course — over 15 hours without food, 27-plus without sleep — but also emotionally, with little left to give; she will feel nothing but pain; she will forget the reason for all of this. She will not have said a full sentence, or opened her eyes, for nearly 240 minutes. No position — sitting, laying, squatting — will ease her pain. She will, hands on her knees, barely able to hold up her head, tell you, “I’m scared.” At this point you will wonder, as you look out of a crack through the window at a plane leaving a white wake in the light-blue sky, “Is anything worth this?”

The answer will come less than 15 minutes later.

You will later reflect on the experience and conclude that it was the most impressive thing you have ever, and will ever, watch another human being do: 16 hours of unmedicated labor off of zero sleep and fueled only by fruit juice. You will know then, more than ever before, that your wife is the strongest person you know. You will force back an incredulous smile when she describes the labor as “pretty smooth”; you will know, too, that she is right: Every day, women endure labors with greater challenges and complications than hers, and you will feel even more grateful that she and your daughter are healthy and strong. You will be reminded that women are capable of what you thought was impossible.

They are capable of pushing out, through primal, guttural screams, a seven-pound human from inside of them. They are capable of forgetting all of the pain — the nine months of sacrifices and hours of searing contractions — almost instantly as they hold their baby in their arms. They are capable of calmly guiding other women through the most intense experience of their lives, and of soothing the nerves, assuaging the fears, of their partners. They are capable of the extraordinary.

And that, perhaps, is the most important lesson you will ever teach your daughter.

UNC ’15. Rumble, young man, rumble.

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