The midwife Mirta came over with an old wooden birthing chair.
“What beautiful music,” she said when she camein, (we’d put on some Edith Piaf). Mirta has 5 kids and goes about everything with birdlike alertness. She confirmed Lau was beginning her labor and already had a centimeter and a half dilation. Lau said it made sense because she woke up having different pains than she’d had at any point of the pregnancy, almost like menstrual cramps that radiated through her back. We’d taken pictures earlier in the morning—her panza having grown to an unbelievable roundness, ripeness—her face looking particularly serene.
Mirta asked us if we wanted her to stay but told her no, we’d just keep track of the contractions and call her a bit later. Lau and I sat on the sofa then and as each contraction came I’d hold her hand. They weren’t very strong yet and she’d just close her eyes for a few seconds and then open them again. These were the last hours we’d be alone together and we both knew it but said nothing as that would’ve ruined it. Instead we talked about how the temperature was perfect and how the tea (raspberry leaves from Patagonia) tasted fine. She wore a white cotton dress and had this innocent smile on her face which made her seem like a little kid.
Soon there came heavier contractions. She squeezed my hand harder. It had only been an hour or so since Mirta had left but the contractions seemed to be coming close together already. We called her again and she’d said she’d be over soon. Then we called Lau’s best friend, Alicia, who’d already left a bag of clothes here in preparation. Alicia was part of the equipo, the dream-team, as it turned out to be, for this home-birth. By helping clean and keeping food and drinks available to the doctors and midwife, she freed me up to be with Lau nearly every second.
Half an hour later Alicia arrived with bags full of sandwiches and sweets from the local bakery.
She commented that she’d never seen Lau look more beautiful. Soon after Mirta came back and found that Lau had already dilated to 7cm. The contractions came harder and harder then. Lau tried various positions in different places around the house—different sofas, beds—and then finally she got in the tub. I held her each time another one came—massaging her back—and then in between contractions I poured water over her belly. By this time the contractions had become very painful and Mirta showed her how to breathe through them, making these long O’s. Sometimes when it was really intense I hummed with her, our voices making these quavering, primordial sounds.
It occurred to me that these are the sounds our culture has always been afraid of. Perhaps it’s because they bring us closer to life and death, as they are the sounds of life and death—orgasms, pain, despair, utter joy. Somewhere along the way we’re taught to keep silent. We medicate ourselves so we don’t feel as much pain. People are born and people die in hospitals, away from family, friends, the familiar music and smells of home. This is not to say, of course, that hospitals don’t serve a crucial role. It’s simply that we were lucky—Lau had a healthy, full term pregnancy—and so we made this decision to have Layla this way.
Mirta called the neo-natologist and the obgyn while we were in the bath, and said they were in transit. Meanwhile we set up the birthing chair in the living room so Lau could look out over Parque Lezama and the dusk sky over rio de la plata.
Each time another contraction came she went into this place deep inside herself and it was like I was there holding her but I was only holding her body.
A couple weeks ago Mirta showed us videos of women in labor and then asked us what our impressions were, above all, on the women’s dolor, their pain. I told her that it didn’t seem so much like raw pain (but then again I wasn’t the one having to go through it) as a journey. The men were there holding the women, comforting them, but each woman was traveling somewhere completely on her own. It seemed and seems almost deathlike. Each of us faces it alone. Still I concentrated as much as I could on Lau, on breathing with her, holding her.
At some point I realized the doctors had arrived—youthful, tender Claudia who would, along with Mirta to deliver the baby, and Hugo, in his 50s, fatherly, totally at ease. They checked in with Lau. She said she was feeling like she needed to push. After examining her again, they told her to go ahead. She pushed and yelled and bled and pissed and cried through several contractions. I realized it was nighttime. After a while they told her not to feel like she had to have the baby right then, that it was fine for her to go lie down. But when we got in bed she couldn’t relax in any position and seemed to be really frightened, as if she doubted she could do it. Mirta came in and told me to go into the kitchen and have something to eat or drink.
While we’d been in the bedroom they’d dimmed the lights in the living room and lit a small space heater so that the room glowed a dull orange and had quickly heated up to where you were sweating in there. The door was shut to the kitchen and when I opened it I found the whole team passing around mates, eating sweets. Talking. Nobody was in a hurry. Nobody was worried. “Es un trabajito, no?” Hugo smiled at me. (It takes a little work, doesn’t it?)
I drank half a cup of coffee and then went back to the bedroom.
Mirta and Claudia were working with Lau trying to get her to focus on where to push. I winced when I saw her genitals, anus, her quivering legs, and thought: this is why most people have babies in the hospital. It was strange to see her suffer right there on the bed where we make love, take naps, read the Sunday paper into the afternoon with cups of coffee on the nightstands. And yet it made sense.
I got back on the other side of the bed where I could hold her shoulders. So we’re going to have the baby here?” Claudia asked. Lau nodded. The rest of the team entered. Then Lau went through a series of howling pushes. She would scream and then when she stopped screaming I could hear her teeth crack together and the sound of her jaws grinding. And then it passed. Hugo came to our side of the bed and whispered to her to put all of the energy that was coming out of her throat down through her and out the birth canal. And then on her next series of pushes Layla’s head appeared. Lau reached down and felt it. For a second I looked up and saw the four faces of the team looking all looking at her head. They were all yelling for Lau to keep going but it was too hard. Layla slipped back inside.
We all told her now that on the next series of pushes Layla would be born. That she could do it. And then she was pushing again and I was holding her and then Mirta said to get her up to her feet as they needed more room to turn Layla and help her out. We were all rising then in that small blue bedroom and it was as if all time and space collapsed into this tiny crying form with legs and arms writhing on the bed. Our hands scooped her up and placed her on Lau’s chest and suddenly I recognized her as if I’d been waiting for her all my life without ever even knowing it. And now she was here.
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