Commusings: Be Ready (A Birth Story)

Oct 24, 2020

Schuyler and I have been hitched at the hip for 32 years of otherworldly bliss, over three decades of polkadots and moonbeams. Do you want to know the secret? Sure, you do. Don’t tell anyone but…

We have sex almost every day! 

Almost on Monday. Almost on Tuesday… 

[Insert ba-dum-dum-ching]

This flaccid dad joke was Wayne Dyer’s opening line for years. He admittedly nicked it from nutrition pioneer Jack LaLanne, who opened the first fitness gym in Oakland, California in 1936. Hence, I feel absolved for pilfering it here. 

Wayne was my first spiritual teacher. I met him once backstage when he lectured at Wanderlust in Lake Tahoe. After a frivolous chat about how nothing real ever changes, he reached out with his warm catcher’s mitt of a hand and said, “Jeff, stay close to the work. And be ready.”

There’s hard evidence that Schuyler and I exceeded the “almost” at least three times. Schuyler, who was herself born at home, never questioned where she wanted to birth our babies. We attended (i.e. she dragged me to) a workshop in lower Manhattan led by Ina May Gaskin, the legendary author and midwife. Gaskin has delivered hundreds of babies at her midwifery clinic on The Farm, an intentional community located in Summertown, Tennessee. Gaskin was a pioneer in re-envisioning birth as a natural process (or, the most natural process of all) and cataloged the litany of medical interventions that can lead to complications in the hospital. Home birth is certainly not for everyone, but, for better and for worse, Schuyler, like you, is not everyone.

As a homebody, I was quite content to follow Schuyler’s lead. Remaining snug in your jammies, avoiding the hailing of cabs mid-contraction, steeping rooibos in your own teapot. Comforts like these that breed serenity and minimize stress are friends of childbirth.

Our eldest daughter, Phoebe, was born in the guest room of her great-grandfather’s house on the Connecticut shore. Like the cocktails, the day was dark and stormy. The grandparents numbed their imaginations with Meyer’s rum as Schuyler raucously labored in the adjoining room. After our little Leo emerged, the blue fish started jumping and a rainbow arced over Long Island Sound. I’m not lying. 

The setting for the nativity of number two was considerably less bucolic. Ondine was born in a basement in Brooklyn. It wasn’t a dank, cement, bare-bulb type of cellar, but it wasn’t exactly Gatsby either.

We found a midwife named Cara who lived on the Lower East Side. It wasn’t far from our Williamsburg apartment as the crow – or, in this case, the stork – flies but it was a bit of a schlep on the subway. Cara was a former fashion model and her office was riddled with dozens of framed photos of her former fabulousness. I found this distracting. Nevertheless, we felt quite confident in Cara’s custody and, together, we hatched our birth plan. 

The doting husband assumes significant admin in a home birth. I’m not complaining. Despite the transformational experience women have as portals for new life, I wouldn’t swap roles for all the tea in China. I doubt I could be so brave. Dutifully, I ordered the receiving blankets and drop cloths, the peroxide and the sponges. I froze the sanitary pads with dabs of witch hazel tincture. I rented the six-foot inflatable tub and jiggered a makeshift hose from the laundry room to fill it. I carried endless cauldrons of boiling water down the narrow stairwell to keep the tub at a balmy temperature. 

At game time, the primary expectation was that I win the Emmy for best supporting role in a drama. To fully be there—emotionally and physically. And …to bravely wield the mighty mini-strainer just in case any pushes yield buoyant brown nuggets in the tub. I didn’t fancy this function so much. 

Our due date was in June. Coincidentally, Ricki Lake released her brilliant documentary on home birth, “The Business of Being Born” at the Tribeca Film Festival in May. Cara was heavily featured in the film and reveled in the limelight of it all. I suppose we felt vaguely notable by association but Cara, reliving her erstwhile stardom, became less accessible. It didn’t really concern us. We were veterans. We’d been through this before. 

The morning arrived, Saturday, June 23rd. We were patient patients. When the contractions were consistently two minutes apart, I rang Cara. She’d be right over. I helped Schuyler down the stairs into the cellar. We had a big blue yoga ball, an inversion swing, a quasi- dance bar you could hang on, and, of course, the ersatz jacuzzi. It was like a mini birthing Olympics.

Our doula, Tanya, arrived, thankfully, with bagels. My mum whisked Phoebe off to the Coney Island Mermaid Parade. Schuyler’s mother and I balanced each other on a teeter-totter of nerves, busying ourselves. When in doubt, boil water. And Schuyler, bless her soul, went to work. 

Matters were progressing slowly like a low-scoring baseball game. At the top of the third inning, my phone chirped the opening riff of Ice Ice Baby, my ringtone for Cara. I picked up and she literally said, “Are you sitting down?”

Cara wasn’t coming. She had another client in Queens who had gone into labor a month early and Cara felt, rightfully, that her situation was more pressing than ours. Few instances in life have ever tested my threshold of compassion like this call. As cortisol flooded the highways of my veins, my reptilian brain inwardly screamed, “What about my fucking wife!” Instead, I shakily scribbled down the number of Cara’s back-up, Miriam, and hung up. 

I briefly debated whether or not I should tell Schuyler that her midwife was headed to another borough, as if eventually she might not notice. This reticence might reflect my ludicrous approach to psychological problem solving: sweep it under the rug and hope it will disappear. But, as casually as I could muster, I tossed the news down the stairs like a gently pitched cornhole beanbag. 

Schuyler, well in the throes of it now, emphatically roared back, “I don’t give a shit.”

Next, I dialed Miriam who picked up on a scratchy line. I briefly painted the scene. She was chill and asked for directions. In return, I solicited her whereabouts. She was in a car headed north on I-87 near Woodstock. For those of you not familiar with the geography of the Northeast, that is bloody far away from Brooklyn! Two hours on the very best of days. 

Reality crashed over me and pinned me momentarily to the seafloor. As I surfaced, a steely resolve set in. I was going to deliver this baby. 

I suppose I could have rummaged through YouTube. Typing “how to deliver a baby” in the search box may scream of absurdity but, lo and behold, the platform is flush with turbaned hippies providing guidance.

Instead, I calmly took off my clothes and got in the tub with her. I don’t remember much of the next ninety minutes, just that evolutionary biology unwound. We became animals, moaning together, our intuition pulling us inexorably forward. Schuyler was stunning, pushing with controlled ferocity and returning to the breath. 

And, finally, Schuyler pierced me with her eyes and uttered, “I can’t do this.” Of course, this meant that she was on the precipice of delivery. I cautiously slipped my hand between her legs and felt our baby crowning. I must admit there was a tiny part of me that wanted to push that diminutive cranium back up the birth canal. But, instead, we braced for the next push and …

Ding dong. 

Really? A commercial break with 5 seconds left in the game. 

Did I actually say “wait right here?” I don’t recall. I trundled up the stairs like a wet retriever and swung the door open. There was Miriam. Somehow, she knew exactly where to go. I trailed her, already loyal. 

She flipped open a mini-valise of miscellany; a handheld Doppler, a fetoscope, clamped scissors to cut the umbilical cord, Vitamin K and a set of sterile gloves. She motioned to me to kneel behind Schuyler with my biceps underneath her armpits. She stepped into the tub, squatted down and felt around. So fluent were her hands that she looked calmly up at the ceiling as she surveyed. And then, with a tender effortlessness, caught Ondine, our little wave, and placed her gently on my beloved’s chest. 

A profound silence impregnated the room, the permeating hush of gratitude, the acknowledgment of the astonishing miracle of life. So transcendent was this moment of utter presence that quite astoundingly, Schuyler, drunk with oxytocin, looked up at me and said, “Let’s have another.” 

And we did. 

Miriam delivered our third daughter as well; in the same cellar, in the same tub, with the same confidence and grace. We were humble in the preparations for Micah’s birth. We took the time to actually meet the back-up, just in case. 

Ondine’s birth story was a reminder of the certainty of uncertainty. Despite the best-laid plans of mice and men, life is unpredictable, anything can happen.

Uncertainty is the nemesis of the conceptual mind. We seek control through knowing and, in the presence of unpredictability, it is too easy to succumb to fear. Our ability to reason, discern and act ethically is debilitated in this state. 

Why do we meditate, practice yoga, breathe and sit in silence? There are myriad reasons, one of which is to be able to witness fear and not become it, to understand it as a transitory phenomenon passing through your consciousness moment by moment. 

Viktor Frankl wrote, “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” We practice to cultivate this sacred space within us.

Over the course of our personhood, the unexpected will inevitably rear its head time and again. The unforeseeable colors not only our personal lives – our babies and relationships, jobs and projects – but also our global humanity. We are living in a time punctuated by uncertainty. It is increasingly difficult to distinguish between fact and fiction. We are careening toward an election the outcome of which may not be revealed for some time. The institutions that have long provided stability are showing fissures of fragility. 

A new, somewhat confounding reality is being birthed and the midwife may not show. But we must not accede to fear. We must commit to our daily practice such that we create the space between stimulus and response. This space will guide us toward right work and right action.

Let me whisper to you the words of a wise man, “Stay close to the work. And be ready.”


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