I was forty years old when I became pregnant with my fourth child. I had my earlier deliveries in nursing homes and hospitals, going where everyone I knew went,doing what every one I knew did. Once admitted, my body was given over to the men and women in white. I lay on my back, opened my legs, gritted my teeth, suppressed my screams and had done to me whatever was necessary. I did not like the experience, but at the end of it all I had my beautiful baby.
During each pregnancy I read extensively, wishing to be informed of every aspect of birth. I went to classes, I exercised, I practised breathing, I studied Lamaze. Yet at the crucial moment my puny knowledge could not stand against the juggernaut of established medical practice. What good was breathing in a prescribed way when I could not assume the position that felt natural, nor push the way I wanted? Eventually I was forced to lie on my back, which was agonising, forced to submit to cutting and stitching, a routine that involved neither choice nor discussion. That I could participate actively in the birthing process proved to be an illusion. And since I had read so much and prepared so much I felt cheated. As I left the hospital I buried this feeling under the overwhelming joy of birth because I had no other choice.
With my last child, a chain of circumstances led me to an American woman planning to have her baby at home.
“At home? You can do that?”
The American woman looked at me with the confidence of her race. “Of course. It is easy in India. In the US there are many restrictions governing birthing places, whereas here you can do whatever you like.”
I passed over the implied slur to our health practices, and focused on the books she lent me: How to Have Your Baby at Home, Childbirth at Home, Births at Home and Hospitals, and The Last Good Earth Catalogue. As I remember The Last Good Earth Catalogue seemed to prepare women to have children in the jungle. The directions included preparing sterilized scissors to cut the cord and arming oneself with a strong needle and thread. A few sketches accompanied these instructions. I stared at the page fascinated. Give birth, cut the cord and start stitching! In my experience the pain and exhaustion of giving birth were inimical to alert cutting of cords and deft stitching of severed flesh. Nevertheless, a world of possibility opened before me. There seemed no limit to what an enterprising woman could do.
I hunted down other books on the subject. I read and read. Heavens, I had been abused in hospitals, and not known it. I had been the victim of episiotomies, suffered permanent scar tissue without realising this was unnecessary. I had passively lain on my back in a position guaranteed to increase my pain in order to make it easier for doctors to comfortably place themselves in front of my vagina.
A scene from the Grace Maternity Hospital in Ottawa came to mind. I was laying on my back in the delivery room, my feet hanging above me in stirrups, pubic area shaved, a cataclysmic force pushing the baby out. Two nurses talked over my head.
It’s about to come.
She has to wait, the doctor will be here any moment. They are paging him.
Can you deliver it?
I think so.
She’s still got her socks on. [My feet were like ice.]
No point taking them off now.
Sweat was pouring down my face. My gaze flickered over my dark blue clad feet dangling away from my body. When could my legs come down? I strained against the leashes.
Come on, pant. Pant.
I could not understand what they were saying.
Why should I blow when I wanted to push? There was no blowing at this stage in the Lamaze books. But the nurses were trying to delay the birth – the doctor had to be there.
Pant like a puppy dog, pant, they insisted and they started panting
In a mirror aimed at my vagina I caught a glimpse of black hair. The vagina closed, but I was frightened. Could that be the baby?
The nurses panted more vigorously. Come on, come on. Weakly I panted, against inclination, against nature.
The doctor came running in, tying on his operating shoes, fastening his mask. He cut me. At last it was all right to push, and in two great thrusts my first child was born.
The baby was lain next to me. I gave her my breast, [many books emphasised the importance of early bonding], but she lay quietly, eyes closed. I gazed at her tiny face in the bright lights shinning around us.
Oh, I wailed, she’s not nursing.
Everybody laughed. The atmosphere in the room was jolly. The doctor meanwhile was sewing me up.
How many stitches, doctor? I asked later. [Many women in the obstetric ward were comparing the number of their stitches. I wanted to compare too.]
It’s like embroidery, he said. You don’t count.
I was impressed by his aesthetic sensibility.
This positive experience now assumed a sinister aspect in the light of my reading. Why had they insisted on scraping me with sharp blades dipped in cold disinfectant when I was in the throes of labour? Why had I been forced to wait in pain when I was ready to deliver? Why had the doctor cut me when the baby was practically out? I could have been spared the slow recovery from poky scratchy stitches, and the more lasting consequences of hard scar tissue.
The second and third times had been just the same. I was pushed onto my back, shaved in between contractions by impatient nurses, made to deliver babies with doctors sitting between legs wide open.
Home births began to seem attractive.
But could I do it? No matter how many books one read, birthing was a matter for professionals. As educated middle class Indians, we had access to health care that was the latest, the cleanest and the best. Alternatives were for the less privileged.
Besides I lacked the intrepid spirit of the American. I was a woman whose medical reports claimed advanced maternal age in loud and uncompromising terms. Possible complications were often hinted at.
I approached my doctor with the idea of home birth. She looked doubtful. Births could take hours, she had many patients and she liked to attend to them from beginning to end. Her professional commitments, her sense of how those commitments should be met, meant that one person demanding her attention exclusively at home was out of the question.
Was I being self-indulgent? Uncertain of my position I began to look for a doctor who would deliver at home. If I was unable to find one then the hospital it would have to be.
I was eight months pregnant when I discovered Mangala Telang. Yes, she was open to the notion, yes, she had some experience in home deliveries [all American]1.
My family was horrified. My in-laws, my mother, every relative [except my husband] was dead against the idea.
My mother-in-law had given birth to six children at home, but she was keenly alive to the transgressive nature of my desire. ‘I had English doctors, and English nurses’, she said, and I understood her to mean that she functioned within the system, whereas I wanted to step out of it.
The fears continued.
-What if something happens?
-What if there is an emergency?
-Where do you get your crazy ideas from? Who delivers at home?
My mother dragged me to a doctor relative. The sub-text was put some sense into her.
Millions of women do this, I countered, cutting through the class bias. I knew that in many areas home births was an accepted tradition, but I also knew that in my socio-economic bracket, it was considered madness to not embrace the hospital.
As for the emergency, I had had three other babies naturally and quickly, why should there be any complications now? Intuitively I felt I would have a problem free birth and that everybody was trying to frighten me.
Preparations started. What would I need? Between books, Mangala Telang, and common sense I collected powerful torches in case the electricity went, a rubber sheet for the bed, a new basin to wash the baby in, Dettol, guddries, [stitched from old clothes], and a blow heater to warm the room. At the oxygen tank mentioned by how-to books I balked. I had no idea where to get / buy / borrow one, and it seemed easier to decide I didn’t need such a thing. Dr. Telang was reassuring. We have our own emergency kit.
For back up arrangements, I visited a clinic in our area, “Will it be possible to come here in case of birth difficulties?”
The men at the reception looked bewildered. “You want to have your baby here?”
“Only if I need to.”
“Yes, yes, you can book a room now.”
“No, no, I am having the baby at home.”
“Then you can make an appointment to see our doctor.”
“Will you take me in an emergency? Em-mer-gen-cy.”
hey looked dissatisfied as well they might. The nature of my request was unimaginable. I looked an educated woman.
“Madam,” they finally said, “we don’t turn away people in an emmergency.”
“Thank-you,” I said, and left.
This done, the ninth month passed waiting for the birth of the baby.
I taught my last class on December 23rd, the day college closed for the winter break. The baby was due on January 7th.
Driving had been getting increasingly difficult as my abdomen intruded more and more insistently between the wheel and me. On the way home I would sometimes be seized with contractions. Braxton Hicks I told myself, pleased with my knowledge. On the 23rd they were very strong and I had to drive to the side of the road and wait for them to subside, before driving on. Thank goodness I don’t have to do this again I thought.
Home. I threw my bag on the table. No college, no college forever more it seemed. When I returned to work, I would have had another child. I felt a little nervous. I was embarking on the voyage of birth more intensely than I ever had before. I was the one in control, in control of my body and the circumstances in which I gave birth. What this would entail was still a mystery to me. I felt I was having a baby for the first time.
Which room in the house was suitable for delivery? We live on the ground floor of a double storied joint family home. I couldn’t imagine producing a kid in my bedroom, amid servants and children. Eventually it was decided that an upstairs room belonging to an absent sister-in-law would serve the purpose. It was remote enough to protect the family from the cries of labour and the mess of childbirth. It was bare and easy to preserve in a state of clean readiness. It had no carpet or curtains, only a double bed, a small cupboard and a sofa.
In this room were arranged the things I had bought. A plastic sheet was slipped on top of the mattress to protect it.
The due date came close and my mother-in-law grew concerned about practical rituals. What about the disposal of the placenta? Who was going to deal with clothes stained with the polluted blood of birth? In a hospital all this is taken care of. At home arrangements had to be made.
Though I could not be bothered by any of this, my mother-in-law decided that I must have a dai to assist the doctor and take care of these mundane details. Mishra, our telephone operator was told to find one. Behind our house near Taj Hotel was a whole row of jhuggis. The wife of the pradhan of these jhuggis [a friend of Mishra’s] was providentially a dai. Perhaps she delivered jhuggi babies?
It is only at the time of writing this paper 14 years later that I find out these details. Otherwise, I had no idea of where she came from nor did I think of her. I knew that some of the women in the servants’ quarters had dai assisted births and I assumed the same woman would be attending me, but I didn’t care enough to ask. My home birth was not a result of tradition, but a result of my being individual, modern and doing my own thing. The dai was there because my mother-in-law wanted her. I was neither interested in blood nor its nature; clean, dirty, polluted or sacred.
At that moment neither I did not know she would be the lone assistant besides my husband during the birth.
All my attention was focused on the coming event. I was doing what no woman I knew had done [barring the American who didn’t count]. I was filled with dread that the experiment I had so wilfully embarked on would fail, that I would be punished for my hubris by being hauled off to the clinic in an em-mer-gen-cy. I had visions of being hauled bump by bump down the stairs by several strong men in the bedcover I had arranged as a makeshift stretcher, distraught with pain, covered with blood.
At the same time I experienced the exhilaration that the unknown creates, creates even in something as excruciating as childbirth.
January 2, 1990.
I am huge. Day or night, no position is comfortable. When is this baby coming? Suppose something goes wrong? But it is too late to go back to the doctor and say I want to have the baby in hospital. Not after buying all those torches.
Somnolesence creeps upon me, taking care of the anxiety. The baby has dropped, my belly bangs against my knees when I sit, and hangs between my legs when I walk.
I doze in the garden in the day lulled by the sun, I doze in bed at night, too bulky to sleep properly. I have no energy to move, no capacity to think. I just am. I sit in the same place for hours, with a book in my hand, testimony to the days when I could absorb other people’s words.
My status as a woman of advanced age in advanced pregnancy is respected by everyone. Hardly anything is expected of me.
January 6, 1990.
The baby is due tomorrow, will it be on time? I am sitting in the back lawn, The grass is dry and yellow. The bougainvillea is a brilliant deep magenta. I am alone.
The family has had lunch and left. I sat with them as they ate, not hungry myself. At this late stage there seems little point in forcing myself to eat for the baby’s sake. Besides I keep shitting. I remember Jan saying the births of her children had been preceded by a runny tummy. Is this it? No, can’t be, too so
As my book flaps listlessly in my lap, I am aware of contractions. More Braxton Hicks, I think observing the mild crinklings across my abdomen.
Idly I look at my watch to time them. They are half an hour apart. The sun is making me drowsy, I go inside, lie down. The contractions are so mild I can ignore them.
I get up, and to my surprise find the contractions still there. Groggily I time them again. Still half an hour apart. Their steady rhythm makes me wonder if I am in labour, then I dismiss the idea. It is a day early, and aren’t babies usually late? Besides I was geared to the 7th of January, not the 6th. I still have a day, there is no need to panic.
My large body creeps up to my mind and devours it, a strange calm descends on me.
Towards evening those mild flutters grow stronger. I decide to take my dinner in the birth room, just in case. I slowly climb upstairs. My soup and toast follow me. My husband trails after me with his own food. As I eat contractions keep coming, closer together, but still bearable. It is eight thirty p.m.
“Do you think you are in labour?” he asks.
“I don’t know.” I take a bite of toast, a sip of thin tomato soup. The china spoon clangs against the edge of the bowl. The heater hums. The room has not been used, and it is cold.
N phones the doctor and describes my symptoms. The doctor says the baby will only arrive in the morning but she will drop by later.
It is established I am in labour. Nine o’clock. The contractions are five minutes apart and stronger. Each time they come I clutch the end of the bed for support, and rocking slightly try to focus on the shallow breath – long breath taught to us in birth class. My husband gets up from his eating and rubs the base of my back.
Chair to bed-railing, chair to bed-railing. So far it is easy going, and we are calm.
A great weight presses down my lower abdomen. I feel I am about to burst.
“I have to shit,” I tell my husband.
He looks bothered. “Now?”
I need to expel whatever it is. There is an Indian toilet in the bedroom across the hall. I open the door to leave the room.
“Shall I come with you?”
“No, it’s all right. You finish your dinner.”
Panting, the discomfort leaping by the second, I waddle as fast as I can. I reach the toilet and squat nervously over it, my hands pressed against the floor to help me keep my balance. Nothing. I strain. Still nothing. And then, the realisation and the sudden fear. Oh, God, it’s the baby, the baby is coming!
I struggle back to the room.
“Well?” asks my husband.
“It’s the baby, the baby is coming!”
Alarm crosses his face. It is 9:30.
The pressure in my lower abdomen is unbearable. Instinctively I crawl onto the bed on all fours. When did I take off my salwar? I do not remember, but I am conscious of my bare knees on the bed, of my kurta and phiran hanging from my bent back, brushing the sheet.
A few moments and the word ‘intense’ loses all meaning. My body is the site of a shuddering, violent earthquake.
I am hot, so hot. “Take off my phiran,” I gasp. My husband gingerly pulls the black woollen garment off over my head. My arms tremble. So do my legs. Sweat gathers on my face and drips onto the sheet. Tak, tak, I can hear the drops fall onto the cloth clad rubber. My hoarse laboured breaths grate against my ear. My husband tries to rub my back, but I can bear no touch.
“Stand here,” I gasp.
He is irresolute.
“Here, here,” I pant. “Here. In front of me.” He comes to the side of the bed and my bent head touches his belly.
Anxiously he asks, “Are you having the baby? Should I call the doctor?”
His words reach me across a vast chasm. Is there a world where people think of doctors and make decisions about their bodies? If there is, I am not part of it. I am a mass of turmoil that involves every cell of my body.
I am aware of groaning. I am aware of my sweat, of the trembling in my arms and legs. They are stiff and weak at the same time.
I must lie down soon keeps flashing in and out of my head. No one I had talked to, nothing I had read, prepares me to give birth on my hands and knees.
My head butts against my husband’s stomach. I need him there, in front of me, but what about the baby?
How will it come out, will it fall, will it get hurt, the bed is high, I must lie down, I must lie down, I must deliver the baby in a safe place, will N. be able to run around the bed to catch it, babies are slippery, suppose he lets go, I must lie down, somehow.
But I can’t though I try. Anything else is too painful, and I remain in the position dictated by my body.
Through a haze, I hear my husband on the phone near the bed calling for the doctor.
Yes, yes, the doctor will hold the baby. The doctor should come.
N wants to open the side door in the corridor for the doctor. No, I cry, no. Don’t leave me.
The phone rings and our operator says the dai has come, she is waiting, should he send her up?
“Yes, yes,” says my husband frantically, “send her up.”
The dai comes. It is quarter to ten.
“Tell her,” I gasp, “tell her to stand behind me.”
The relief, Someone to catch the baby, it’s safe to go ahead, it’s safe to give birth.
The dai is not prepared for the situation she finds herself in. After all she has been called to take care of the placenta.
I hear her say anxiously to N, “call the doctor, call the doctor.”
“The doctor is coming,” he replies.
As the birth progresses she continues to demand the arrival of the doctor while my husband makes shushing sounds.
“I can only see one eye.”
I catch the dai’s comment. One eye? Did my baby have only one eye?
But there is no space to worry about these things. No space for anything besides the movements in my body. I am that pain, that sensation. Dimly I hear myself screaming. I, who never screamed at any other birth.
I pant, I cry, I moan. I rock on the bed. My arms feel weak, my wrists hurt, how long can they take this weight?
“Do you want to lie down?” my husband asks.
I shake my head. Lie down, and feel that monumental pressure on my spine? Not possible.
Still no doctor.
I am pushing, pushing with all my might. This huge thing has to come out or I will die. There is no interval between contractions. I had read of respites, shouldn’t there be some for me too?
The minutes pass.
I feel some wet stuff slide down my legs. And then a hot prickly sensation, more wetness, and finally, finally a slipping through. My loud exhausted breathing rasps in the silence. It takes me seconds to realise the baby is out, the pain is over.
“Bhaiyya hai,” says the dai. She is holding the baby, but I can hear no sound or cry.
“Is it all right?” I manage. My husband nods. My head is still resting against his stomach.
There is a clock in the room kept for recording the exact moment of birth to enable a precise horoscope. It is 10:04 p.m.
The door bursts open. Enter, the doctor, a nurse and the family.
First thing the doctor says is “Lie down.”
“No,” I respond. My body is still in charge of my position.
A few minutes later another warm wet feeling and the placenta emerges. Vaguely I realise, oh that’s why I can’t lie down, there was still the placenta to deliver.
Finally, everything out, my arms and legs buckle and I collapse onto the bed.
The room becomes crowded; there is much business going on.
The baby is given an injection, bathed in a basin of water before the heater, and wrapped in soft old clothes. A warm flannel sheet completes the tidy bundle he is made into. My maid slips a sanitary towel onto me, I lift my legs, and realise now my maid has seen me, we have become intimate.
They put the baby next to me. His eyes are open, he looks alert and beautiful. His face is red, he has thick black spiky soft hair. I uncover my breast and offer it to him, but like my first child he is having none of it.
“He’s not taking it.” Again the surprise.
Again the laughter, “He’s not hungry.”
In the hallway I can hear a banging. It is my mother-in-law beating a thali with a spoon from the birthing room to her temple situated at the other end of the house, rendering in her own terms the tradition of announcing the birth of a son from the gates.
The room gradually empties. I see the dai disappear into the night with the placenta in a large Jainsons shopping bag. It bulges at the bottom. I can make out the glistening dark red substance shining through the green and white plastic. I hadn’t realised placentas were so substantial. I wish I had looked at it. All these births, and never a placenta seen.
My husband is exhausted. He sinks onto the double bed and closes his eyes. The baby is next to me, his eyes too are closed, but for me there is no sleep. I am too overwrought, too excited. The hired nurse dozes on the sofa, her head gently cradled by the headrest. I lie awake for a long time. When I hear birds outside and see a grey light filter through the window, I too drift off.
The instructions to the dai were to bury the placenta. Later I heard that the big mango tree in the back garden had been chosen as the site. Did she do it that night, when it was cold and dark and lonely, or did she come back and do it next morning? Was she the one who washed the bloody clothes? Was she the one who took the polluted sheets? I don’t know.
I didn’t catch sight of her face. If I saw her I would not recognize her.
I had always been told that episiotomies were necessary to prevent untidy vaginal tearing, that a neat precise cut was preferable to nasty jagged edges.
Now I was torn and not cut. The area had been cut and stitched three times before and was no longer supple, so a tearing was inevitable. I had the jagged tear I had been so protected against in all my previous deliveries.
And what a difference! How easy it was this time! I had no stitches poking, no bristle digging into me. No soreness while walking.
The doctor’s advice was do not strain yourself, use a Western toilet, keep your legs together as much as possible, the area is so elastic it will heal itself.
And it did! Then why, why had I been made to endure all that torture
before? The shaving, the cutting, the stitching?
Well, at least this one experience was perfect and I was too elated and happy to dwell on the iniquities of the medical profession.
Next morning I was up and about. I wandered down the corridor to have tea in my sister-in-law’s room, defying the laws of sootak.
“Why are you not in bed?” demanded an older cousin come to see the baby.
“I’m all right,” I replied smugly. Considering how much my advanced age had been touted during my pregnancy, I was more than all right – I could do this over again, any time!
According to the laws of the family I was married into, I was polluted, and could not emerge from the room in which I had given birth. Though I did not take this seriously I had to maintain some semblance of separateness.
For ten days I stayed upstairs, while my husband and kids remained down. At times it felt peaceful. I stared at the trees outside the window a lot. At other times when my children were home from school, it felt strange to be so segregated. They came, visited, and then went down to their lives.
Ten days later I was formally allowed to cross the threshold of my room. I wore a red Kanjeevaram sari along with the Rajashthani odhni that the daughters-in-law of the house wore during special ceremonies. Puja was done, rituals observed. The baby lay in my lap. I held him and felt unconnected to what was going on. Having given birth on my own I felt distant from rituals that harkened back to a more community centred existence.
Forty days after my son was born he was named amid ceremonies that lasted half the day. I was given a bright red and orange bandhani sari ordered from Jaipur with intricate silver embroidery. My hair was done by my nanad and decorated with silver jewellery. I carried cow dung on my head and flung it in the well at the back of our house. The baby lay in the lap of his grand uncle [oldest male head of our family] before a havan. A hundred relatives were fed.
My sister-in-law, [devrani] heavily pregnant, ran around supervising. That night she went into labour, and there are roughly forty days between her son and mine.
‘The Birth of a Baby,” in Birth and Birthgivers : The Power behind the Shame, edited by Janet Chawla, Shakti Books Series [an imprint of Har-Anand Pvt. Ltd] 2006.