For some reason I took Ariel Dorfman’s autobiography “Rumbo al Sur, Deseando El Norte" to the hospital with me when I went into labour. There it sat by my hospital bed. As if I would be putting my feet up and reading in-between contractions. I knew though, that some labours can take a long time to get underway so thought I’d have it with me just in case. Anyway, no reading was done in hospital. But by coincidence when I did finally open the book up again when we got home it happened to be at the start of chapter two when Dorfman’s mother gives birth to him, in Buenos Aires. She had been given a pain relief gas so was drugged up when he was born. In her delirious state she had the sensation that he was falling. “Doctor, se cae el nene, se cae el nene,” (the baby’s falling), were the first words he heard her say, though of course he couldn’t understand them. Dorfman sees that as a metaphor for what happens to all newborns. “Yo caía hacia la soledad y la nada, de cabeza hacia la muerte,” I was falling towards loneliness and nothing, headfirst towards death.
Another birth story popped up when M, who was here helping for two weeks after JNH’s arrival, read me a passage from Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s autobiography that she had brought with her, Infidel. It describes the birth of Hirsi Ali’s mother in Somalia. “My mother, Asha, was born sometime in the early 1940’s, along with her identical twin sister, Halimo. My grandmother gave birth to them alone, under a tree. They were her third and fourth children; she was about eighteen, leading her goats and sheep to pasture when she felt the pains. She lay down and bore forth; then she cut the umbilical cords with her knife. A few hours later, she gathered together the goats and the sheep and managed to bring the herd home safely before dark, carrying her newborn twins. Nobody was impressed by the exploit; she was bringing home two more girls.”
Each birth story is different. JNH’s wasn’t as dramatic as either of those but was momentous in the way that any mother experiences the birth of her first child as momentous. My water broke, or half-broke, before I had any contractions, at home following a bowl of pasta and an afternoon snooze. C and I gathered up our bags and went to the 30th Ave subway station where a bunch of black cabs hang out under the tracks. The first driver had no idea where New York Downtown Hospital was. I said it was by Brooklyn Bridge, and he replied, “Ah yes, in Brooklyn…”(it’s on the Manhattan side, near Chinatown). Much consulting of maps and gesticulating later, all the while me concerned the rest of my water would break and contractions would kick in, and envisaging one of those New York births-in-a-taxi that only happen in films, another driver finally showed up who knew the way. More water falling just as we were about to get out of the cab and soon after, on a hospital bed and plugged into various monitors, labouring got underway. I used the monitors to vent my anger as the contractions intensified, “get me off these f***ing things”, as if roaming around the room would necessarily make the pain - which was all in my back - less intense.
I could easily have been in a dazed state like Dorfman’s mum when JNH was born. I’d wanted to give birth as naturally and drug-free as possible. But just as I was about to give in after 8 hours or so of contractions and have some IVF pain medication, I felt something change. “I think he’s coming,” I said. The doctor, who’d been elsewhere tending to more complicated patients than me checked where things were at and said yes, are you up to pushing? I pushed (accompanied by plenty of operatics – all those classes re calm breathing right out of the window), and an hour later there he was.
A tiny creature splayed on my chest like a shipwrecked sailor clinging to a life-raft.
Current mission is getting JNH to sleep properly. He loves the subway, just as C did as a child, when his mother took him for rides on the graffiti-covered A train from Washington Heights for fun, C gazing out of its windows at the dark tunnel walls. So we’ve considered putting JNH on board the N at 30th Ave in his car seat, headed to Coney Island, with a note saying “Please leave me on this train till it’s back in Astoria where my parents will collect me.”