We were still in the laundry room when I started having Braxton Hicks contractions more and more frequently. At about the same time my midwife, Manindra, let me know that she was moving to Hawaii and would be leaving shortly. This seemed rather sudden to me and I didn’t know what all was behind this move, but it made me anxious. I had just gotten to know her and was feeling confident about her skill. She told me that there was another midwife in the community, Revati dasi, and she could deliver my child. With that referral I went off to find Revati who, thankfully, was happy to take over my care. We had a meeting and she did an exam. She urged me to also see a doctor when my welfare and medical card came through.
Just after New Year’s Day, I got my retroactive welfare check and we found an apartment fairly quickly. It was a basic one bedroom and as a bonus had a built in bookshelf. There was no refrigerator but I had my own stove and we had heat and our own bathroom, so to me it was a palace. I’m not sure where we got it, but we had a makeshift platform bed from plywood and wooden blocks, and on that we put my foam pad from the laundry room. This would be where I’d have my baby. I was firmly in nesting mode, knowing that I had a limited time to make my new apartment into a home that was ready to receive a baby. I painted the bookshelf and a side table someone gave us, both white. I gathered my baby stuff—the women in the community had been quite generous and we also had a changing table. My family was sending packages too. Everything was finally coming together.
Mahasraya was taking over the bedroom to grow his psychedelic mushrooms, pulling up the carpet and sealing it off with plastic and duct tape, sterilizing everything, building a makeshift lab table with a plastic hood to grow the mycelium in. If everything wasn’t sterile, other things could grow in place of the mycelium he was trying to cultivate. He’d found a mail order source for the mycelium. Who knew if it was genuine or not? He got the address from an ad in High Times. I’d already objected to the idea on the grounds of not wanting to get busted and having our child taken away. I didn’t know what else there was to say. I would be having my baby in the living room.
I went to the doctor who said everything looked good and took my blood pressure and blood samples. I was still anemic and he asked me if I was taking iron—which I was. Everything looked good for the delivery. I didn’t have the nerve to tell him that I was planning a home birth. This wasn’t a decision influenced by any doctrine of the Hare Krishna Movement. Devotee women were pretty evenly split on home birth versus hospital birth. I had read Suzanne Arms’ book Immaculate Deception about how modern interventions in the childbirth process often led to unnecessary C-sections and medicated births. I’d spent my entire pregnancy avoiding even over the counter medications for headaches or colds and I wasn’t going to put myself in a situation where I’d be urged to take drugs for the pain or to induce stronger contractions. I wanted my precious baby to be born free of adult-dosages of drugs, with a clear mind and body.
I barely had time to get settled before I went into labor Tuesday evening (January 10) while baking my very first loaf of bread from the Tassajara Bread Book. Mahasraya called our midwife, Revati, at the pay phone and we kept in touch through the early part of my labor. She came and checked on me but my contractions were still far apart. They started to pick up in the afternoon. I drank teas that were supposed to help with my labor but I suspect it was slow because I was still anemic. I was told not to eat solid food because it wouldn’t digest properly during labor. Revati brought an assistant named Svati with her in the early evening. Together they kept tabs on my baby’s heart rate and monitored my dilation. It had already been over 24 hours.
Near midnight on Wednesday I was fully dilated. I began what was to be a long ordeal of pushing. I pushed for nearly three hours with no progress. Revati explained that my baby was transverse, or turned in the wrong direction, and that pushing would help turn it. She also tried to massage my abdomen without success. I tried every position I could possibly get into in the hopes that gravity would help. The fetal heart rate remained strong. We all decided to continue and I followed my midwives’ lead. They said that as long as the fetal heart rate was good we were all right.
Finally my baby started through the birth canal. I continued pushing, exhausted but grimly determined. The baby seemed stuck after forty minutes of pushing and Revati reached in to find out what was holding things up. The baby had cupped its chin with one hand, wedging the head and shoulder in the birth canal. No wonder I felt like I was being split in two with every push! She managed to pull the hand down towards the opening and finally with a few more pushes my baby was free—and crying for all he was worth. It was a boy! I had a 9 pound, 22 inch son who looked more like he was a month old than like a newborn. His face was a very swollen and I took my first look at him and said, “Oh no, he looks just like my Mom!” But that was just the swelling. It didn’t matter; I was in love. We handed him over to Mahasraya, who’d ventured out from the bedroom, and I could hear Mahasraya say with awe, “He’s looking at me!”
I got up to take a shower and was shaky. Revati made sure to check on me because I was in a bit of shock. I was shaking at times. I had lost some blood and I felt like I was drifting away. As I got cleaned up from the blood and feces involved in the birth, I happened to look down at my abdomen.
“Oh my God,” I thought. I had this sagging pouch that seemed to form a second belly button. I never really thought about what would happen to all that skin that had stretched and stretched and stretched to hold a 9 lb. baby! This was hideous! I had no idea how I’d ever get rid of it. Keep in mind, I was only 19 years old and feeling like my body might be ruined for life. Meanwhile my breasts had gone from a B cup to a double D. I didn’t know this new, strange body at all.
Back in my newly cleaned bed (we had wisely put clean sheets underneath plastic and newspaper and an old sheet on top that we simply threw away) I snuggled with my precious newborn and could hardly rest for all the excitement of the long labor. The first solid food I had was a grilled cheese sandwich that Mahasraya made from the bread I had baked when I went into labor. I was in bliss. I slept in brief little snatches, waking quickly if my baby moved or made even the tiniest sound, coaxing him to nurse when he seemed hungry. Like all new mothers I was ever vigilant, terrified of that silent killer, sudden infant death syndrome or crib death. My older half-brother had died while very young from a respiratory disease so I wasn’t going to let my guard down. My pad was on the floor so that there was nowhere for my baby to fall.
A few days later I wrote the following poem, influenced heavily by what I had read about hospital births as well as our beliefs about the material world and advaita philosophy, which we called “impersonalism.”
In the midst of pain
The greatest material joy
The closest to true love
I hear his cry; my heart jumps
My little expansion
Part of a bond that seems eternal
I feel his body near mine
Firstborn from my womb
A reflection of my soul
The pain is far away
Only our love is near
As we meet and unite
The cord is cut between us
But a psychic bond remains
Absolute trust and faith
The bond grows minute-by-minute
Our bodies close together
These precious first hours
I imagine the emptiness
Of hospital separation
Impersonalism from the start
The child cries for the mother
The mother drugged and empty
Each alone and unfulfilled
They meet as strangers
Awkward at first
While we are at ease
For now, all was well with the world. I had my home and my baby and my husband all together. I had great hope for the future and relief that the worst was behind me.