(Photo of toddler Gabi, yelling her head off on a carousel, ready to take on the world.)
When I was pregnant, my partner Eric and I crafted a music mix of diverse tunes and created CDs to give to our friends who came to our baby shower. We get a baby bathtub, you get a CD with songs that reflect a diversity of our musical tastes at the time, including Joe Strummer and the Mescalaros, KRS One, Phish, and Gorillaz. “Mother,” by Ulali, a First Nations female a cappella group, was the first song on that mix. And it always made me cry. Every time that song came on—it didn’t matter if I was driving or going for a walk—to hear the first few bars of that song just made me start tearing up with emotion. Drum followed by powerful, brown female voices. When I hear it now, it still makes me cry. So it wasn’t just the hormones. Why did it cause automatic waterworks? Perhaps because it’s a powerful song in its simplicity–drums and voices singing in an ancestral indigenous language . And yet the complexity and weight of history, trauma, genocide, resiliency. Honoring mothers and motherhood, especially indigenous and brown mothers. The weight of knowing soon that I would be a mother for the first time. All of this made me cry.
On May 24th, 2007, I was 36 weeks and 6 days pregnant. I still had a few weeks left until my June due date, and only 1 day left until I was 37 weeks along, which technically meant full-term. My PhD oral exams were scheduled for May 25, which I had been studying for and felt pretty prepared. I just wanted to get them over with so that I could focus on having this baby and taking the summer off. May 25th was picked because it was exactly 3 weeks before my due date and my midwife had recommended that date when I asked her when I should schedule my orals; she said it would be safe. I had just completed my written exams and felt all sorts of awesome.
What was not fully prepared was Eric and I, in just so, so many ways. We had an Ikea crib, but it needed to be assembled. We still had to figure out the setup of our nursery/office area, which required a desk and a changing table and yet-to-be-assembled crib to share the same large-ish room in our small 2-bedroom bungalow, divided by some kind of yet-to-be-determined room divider curtain thingy. I hadn’t even packed my “hospital” bag for our upcoming visit to the hospital to deliver this baby. Ah well, we had a few weeks left, no worries.
At 2 am on May 24th, 2007, I woke up in the middle of the night. I noticed that my underwear was wet and that the sheet underneath me was damp. Of course my first thought was, “Holy shit, I wet the bed!” I got out of bed, walked to the kitchen and turned on the light, so as not to disturb my faithfully snoring partner. I was groggy and discombobulated and worried that I hadn’t done enough Kegel exercises. I noticed that a small amount of water was dripping on the floor where I had walked. And then it dawned on me slowly…did my water break? Is that water from my body? Am I going into labor? I can’t be going into labor. I still have a few weeks left for this bun to be in my oven and I have my oral exams in a couple days. I can’t miss my oral exams! My midwife fucked up the timing. I shouldn’t have listened to her. Should I get a towel and clean up the water I leaked on the floor? Oh crap, I should probably tell Eric.
I went back into our bedroom and woke Eric up. He was half asleep when I told him.
“I think my water just broke.”
“Oh…oh shit! That’s a big deal!” (Best alarm clock ever.)
Lights on. Running around like soon-to-be-parents with their heads cut off. I tried to put in my contact lenses but they burned my eyes because I use the kind of lens cleaner where you have to soak your lenses for at least 6 hours or your eyes will burn if you put them into early. Dammit, that stings. My water just broke, I’m going into labor, and now my eyes are burning and I can’t see. Well this is not starting off well. Ok, putting my glasses back on. Frantically packing a hospital bag and have no idea what the hell I’m throwing in there. Remembering my contact lenses though.
So maybe an hour later we were finally ready to go to the hospital. It’s after 3 am. It’s about a 15 minute drive from our house to the hospital. No cars are out. So we’re zooming along. Are Eric and I talking? I have no idea. I do remember texting my “doula,” one of my best friends from graduate school, Roy, who we had agreed he’d be my doula even though he has no doula training whatsoever. Ok, doula isn’t the right word at all and I don’t want to use it anymore because not anyone can be a doula. He was going to try to be at the birth and hold my hand and just be there for support. I texted him that my water broke and we were on our way to the hospital.
I think I felt my first contraction as we were taking the escalator up from the parking lot up to the hospital. It didn’t bowl me over or anything, I just felt something. A small amount of pain. But I knew—this is it, I’m in labor, I can walk, I don’t need a wheelchair because I’m a strong woman but thanks for offering. When we got to the labor wing, I got into a gown, they confirmed that I had indeed broke my water, and that I was already dilated a few centimeters.
And then BOOM!—the pain started. The unbelievably painful pain.
I was like—everyone was so fucking wrong! My midwife was wrong and that whole establishment got my due date wrong! There’s no early labor for me, what the hell is early labor? What the hell did they teach us during that cockamamie 8 week birthing class?! They are all wrong! Nothing is happening the way we planned!
My contractions started 2-3 hours after my water broke and came on with a vengeance. There was no break between contractions. Contractions are the most beautiful, agonizing pain I have ever felt in my life. No time for a bath, even though the midwives on duty drew me one. I had imagined that I would have been able to soak in the tub for a little bit before delivering. Not happening. This kid was coming fast. She was ready to come out and take no prisoners.
No time for drugs either, not that I wanted any. I had been an adamantly annoying and self-righteous advocate for no drugs. If women had been having babies for thousands of years all around the world with no drugs, I can do the same. Screw the western white establishment of drugs, bring on the pain! We are supposed to feel the pain of childbirth, and I wanted to experience it, and not dull it. To me, dulling it was a white western colonialist medical model mentality.
Did I mention that at the time I was at the end of my third year in my doctoral program and was getting my PhD in Social Welfare, became radicalized during my first year of my doctoral program, and interested in postcolonial and post-structural theoretical and methodological frameworks? Yes, all of this influenced my birth plan—choosing midwives over an OB/GYN (which my retired physician parents flipped out about) and refusing drugs if I could help it (which was very different from Eric, who, during one of our birthing classes, said “I would choose all of the drugs if I were having this baby. I have no pain threshold whatsoever.”) Where I drew the line, however, was a home birth. I did consider it, but I felt our house was way too small and I was worried about getting blood, placenta, and other bodily stuff all over the house and I didn’t want to clean up afterwards. (Every once in a while the privileged princess moments come out).
Childbirth is a beautiful thing and I remember a lot of it. But I’m not going to talk about the beautiful things. I’m going to talk about the nasty things that you don’t know about unless someone who has gone through it has been completely honest with you. As a couple who didn’t have any family nearby, who didn’t have any close friends nearby who had had a baby—and a busy couple who thought they could get by with reading baby books and going to birthing class and didn’t realize it was possible and a thing to ask friends about childbirth—we didn’t know jack and we didn’t know what to anticipate.
That Eric was the most freaked out my the image of me sitting on the toilet in the bathroom, holding my midwife’s hand, experiencing the pain of a contraction and trying to take a shit at the same time. Not the blood, not the fact that my vagina had expanded to the size of a cantaloupe. I was so freaked out that I would push too hard and our baby would fall into the toilet. I’m totally serious. It didn’t help that my husband was moving as far away from the bathroom as possible and shielding his eyes in horror. Women aren’t supposed to take craps, right?
That during hard labor, I wanted to die, or at least I felt like I was dying. That I uttered these words quietly, and I’m not sure if anyone heard me. Who has time to shout out those cliché words you see in movies and tv shows, where the woman is blaming their male partner for putting her in this position. “I blame you!” Never occurred to me because I never thought that way. What I wanted to shout across the mountains was this: this hurts so bad you can’t imagine it. Now I know why people take drugs. Yeah yeah yeah, this is beautiful I’m giving birth to a life blah blah blah. Fuck that. I want to die. This hurts. Make this stop. I want this to be over now. This fucking sucks.
Six hours after my water broke, at precisely 8:01 AM May 24, Gabriela Aleida Ronquillo Dunn was born. I became a mother. Fastest birth in the west. Girl was 3 weeks and a day early, and she still came out 7 pounds 3 ounces. She was born when she was ready to come out into this world, like we all are. Eric cut the cord. I said “thank you for being there.” And he said thank you to me. No tears, no weeping, just relief and exhaustion and gratefulness. Maybe a little deer in headlights. Gabi looked exactly like my Lola Azon—my paternal grandmother– when she was born. A Ronquillo through and through.
For me, childbirth was one of the most inwardly personal things I ever went through—probably the most personal process. It didn’t matter that there were three other people in the room at one time. I’m glad there were only three people there. I’m glad Roy didn’t wake up from his slumber, check his phone, and rush to the hospital. I thought I would find more strength from the other presences. But in fact, so much strength came from within me. I wasn’t necessarily expecting that. I remember actually being pretty quiet. I grunted and moaned a little of course, but as loud as I can be in other parts of my life, I was not loud during childbirth. It was just me and the baby. Women have been doing this alone for centuries, and I was channeling that too. It might take a village to raise a child, but it took only ME to give birth to one.
It is awesome, and inspiring, and weighs a lot.
Congratulations on the birth of your daughter! Childbirth seems to be one of those things that never goes according to plan… my mother had planned/hoped for a drug-free birth, and then ended up having me via emergency c-section more than 80 hours after she first went into labour. I was born a week late at 10 lbs! I hope your PhD exams went well!