By Marissa Korbel
I remember it as a cold morning, but I don’t trust my memory; my early 30’s are rife with cold, gray fog that is less fact, or metaphor than sense. I was bundled up in multiple sweaters, picking my feet through street debris, while standing, aware of my clean hair, in the San Francisco Free Clinic line.
Months of crying and sleeping the afternoons away had brought me here. I was 31 years old, and 3 years out of law school. I was an overworked, underpaid adjunct professor of paralegal studies and criminal justice at a local college. My job didn’t offer health insurance. I could barely afford my therapist’s “low end” sliding scale. I had decided to try taking psych meds to feel better.
“Watermelon through a garden hose” was the phrase. It stuck in my craw, reminding me that my body was not built to open. I had always been afraid of corporeal things — blood and veins and the yellow tinged deep innards with their meaty secrets.
Hearing that watermelon thing, I believed: childbirth hurt. And not like breaking a bone. Like breaking a body for another body. Like becoming a portal.
About that portal — becoming it, I understood, could break my me, potentially damaging the locus of my pleasure. And I wasn’t OK with that. I wanted to keep my sex unbroken, for me. And so I made the radical decision that if I ever had to get a baby out of my body, it would be by an elective cesarean, thank you very much.
I said that to my mom, and delighted in how much it pissed her off. My mom is a manifester, a believer in the power of the natural, and the divine. She’s an herbalist, a naturalist, a skeptic of western medicine, and an expert in alternatives: acupuncture, homeopathy, chiropractic care.
When I said the thing about the cesarian, I didn’t really plan on having children. This watermelon line was just a physical reminder of what I had known for years — that motherhood meant sacrifice, becoming nothing else, and having nothing except your children. That motherhood was about loss, becoming less, giving up all of you for someone else.
I learned this from watching my own mother. She put all of herself into her mothering, something, I knew I was too selfish to do. I had dreams that I didn’t want to wait. I wanted to keep my unbroken body. I didn’t want to be a parasite’s host, breaking open on a table for some alien to survive.
I was twenty-two.
Twice a day, every day, I opened my pill bottle and tossed a white oval pill into my hand. Taking my meds gave me a rare sense of accomplishment: I had done it. It was the best thing I could do to keep my bearings in the fog.
My mother derisively called them my “happy pills.” I wanted to fight with her about it, but I didn’t have the energy. Instead I took a lot of naps.
One dead winter morning, it occurred to me that I hadn’t had a period in a while. I peed in a glass, swished a paper matchstick test through it, and set it on the bathroom countertop to develop. Although I had conjured them, I was not prepared for the two pink lines.
“What have we done?” The words flew at my husband.
I was thirty-two.
It was, my husband said, a surprise.
At first, I panicked about the effects of the Wellbutrin on my unborn. My doctors assured me that taking it during pregnancy, even beyond, was preferable to the risks of mothering from the foglands. Even so, I was determined to get off the pills. If not now, when?
One of my depressive head games was to wonder if the medication was responsible for everything. What would happen if I didn’t take it? On bad days, I told myself that I would be on it forever. On better days, I could almost believe that I didn’t need it.
Pregnant, I was going to find out, who I was I when I wasn’t on pills.
Placebo: from the Latin, placere. To please. A substance with no known therapeutic effect, used in clinical trials. Except placebo does have a measureable effect. One example: 30 to 50% of people given a placebo for depression will respond to the medication. They feel better just because they’re “taking something,” even if the something is a sugar pill.
A medication’s efficacy is measured above the level of the placebo. To call a medication “effective for depression,” it must help more than 30% – 50% of them.
To please. To pleasure. To pacify. To say yes to.
Some people are more susceptible to placebo than others. Nobody knows why.
Over the course of some months, I halved my dose, and then halved it again, until I stopped taking it altogether.
The truth is I barely noticed.
I was so full, I was bursting. Through my clothes, through my joy. My belly became a moon that eclipsed the rest of me. I could barely think about what would happen when pregnancy ended. But I thought a lot about what I would have to do to end it. The birth part. I thought about that constantly.
In the years since my watermelon fears, I had learned a lot about childbirth. I had watched a couple of close friends do it. I had seen “The Business of Being Born.”
I was determined to have a homebirth. I believed that I could, and I would. We hired a midwife and a doula. We took a homebirth education class. At first, I planned for only my husband and our birth team. I told my mother that I didn’t want her in the room during my labor or delivery; I wanted to do it alone.
Three days before my due date, I took out my breastpump, set it on the couch, and followed “induction by nipple stimulation” instructions I found online. I can still see the black bag balanced on the ledge of the sofa.
I had convinced myself that my daughter would come on August 15 –to be a fire sign, like me. So in my mind, she was late. And I was done waiting.
I felt a steady throbbing suction, and an odd, new sensation: lactation. I was embarrassed. I covered my breasts, nipples elongating into opaque plastic cones. There was warmth and a dripping. I tried to focus on my body, on relaxing muscles, sinking into the couch. My abdomen began to dance.
Did I nudge her before she was ready? If I had known that she wouldn’t come for another 3 days — until precisely her due date (a Virgo) — would I have even tried?
The following afternoon, I was still having consistent contractions. I stopped being able to move off my bed, or move at all except to the toilet to pee. My sense of time suspended — there are no words for what I did. My wrists remember the weight of me, on my hands and knees for hours. My eyes took in the changing patterns of light as the angle of the sun moved.
My mom arrived later that night. In a last-minute burst of compassion for her, and a desire to preserve our bond as mother and child, I had invited her; I knew it was what she wanted.
The muscles in my abdomen were gripping and releasing. It felt like the middle of me was twisting, wringing out my fascia like a dishtowel. My bones were moving. It was a pain without language, and I was between worlds, halfway into netherspace, on my hands and knees, and halfway stuck in the gripping.
I convinced myself that there were drugs — something natural, safe, but effective — that she had been saving for me. She had a bag, I’m sure I saw it. I’m sure I saw her, with her long braids twisted up and wrapped around her head. My midwife had a bag, and I was sure, between the twisting wringing, sure that in it there were the drugs and that if I can just get through one more round of pressure, of lifting, of grappling out a person from my body, she will smile and reward me with something that would make everything stop hurting.
Instead I got her hand on me.
I told her something’s dripping. On my thigh, during the twisting. I gasped to her that when I twist, it’s leaking. Something is leaking out of me.
For a while, my mother rubbed my back and said I was strong and brave. I was in too much pain to talk, but if my tongue could move its twisted meat, and my mouth could open. If anything other than a low, animal sound could come out from between my dry lips, I would have told her: I was not strong. I was not brave. I was stuck.
The only words I wanted to hear were from my midwife.
“Is it OK?” I wanted to know.
“It’s OK,” she promised.
Around 5am, she told me it wasn’t OK. There was meconium dripping out of me in little gushes. She had me wear a pad through a few contractions to be sure. When I looked, it was stained yellow and brown.
She said, we’re going to the hospital.
On my back, there’s a phoenix. I got it when I was 23, about to graduate from Mills College. About to become an adult. The tattoo takes up a solid ⅓ of my back. She wraps her colorful wings around my right scapula, her head cresting under my bra line, her peacock feathered tail swirling down to the top of my waist.
When I got the tattoo, I thought I might pass out from the pain. It took 3 hours to outline. Another 4 hours in coloring and shading. Laying on my stomach on a chair in downtown Oakland, three different Saturdays. Each time, I almost threw up.
But she was worth it.
People ask what she symbolizes, why I got it. I thought about phoenixes, as symbols, before I chose one. I just didn’t know how I would live up to it.
I didn’t know that I would die and rise again, at 33.
In middle school, I fixated on my signature. I filled page after lined page of my spiral bound notebooks with different versions of it. Over and over again, practicing. I had always liked the sound of my name. But I coveted a different series of letters; a name that started with a fancy, balloonish “E” and ended with a y like my friend Emily’s.
My name had seven letters, and that was a lot to write in cursive. Add in my last name, and you were looking at 13 letters, none of them really harmonious. I practiced because I needed to be able to sign autographs, naturally.
My mom made her K with a large loop in the middle.
I practiced making my K’s look like hers. My handwriting, like my voice, already looked a lot like hers. I liked her handwriting — feminine and clear, it looked correct to me. Familiar and sophisticated at the same time.
Part of handwriting is the anatomy of your hands. The way you hold a pen, the muscles that grip. The strength of your muscle memory, and of course, mimicry. Even if it’s subconscious, we are all copying our parents until one day, we don’t anymore.
My handwriting looks almost exactly like my mothers. My signature even has her loopy K.
Long after I’d given up the dream of the stage, I still believed that motherhood was about erasure.
In a way, I had two labors. Thirty hours at home in the dark on my hands and knees, and then the other one. Sixteen hours under lights. My second labor was a birth that wouldn’t.
I lost my head game; fell down into the script of my bad, broken body; of its dissection and repair. I made life from the death of it. My daughter stuck tight inside me, even as I begged her out out out.
In the hospital, it went differently. This birth was nothing like I’d planned. It was all pale blue scrubs, dripping condescension and IV needles taped to my hand. It was the burning pinch of the monitors. It was the rotation of residents.
It was the drugs I had been holding out for.
I want to tell you about how I asked for an epidural, and how I cried when I got it. Not from relief, but from guilt. I asked my husband if he was disappointed in me. A piece of my pride collapsed, folding in on itself; my first maternal failure. The pain that was impossible in my own bedroom, with the dim changing light and the whispered encouragements, became insurmountable under the fluorescents and the pressure of the doctors and the clamp of the monitors.
I want you to know that I didn’t take a safe birth for granted, but that I also had a path that I wanted to travel. And that I wasn’t allowed to choose. I got what I got.
I heard someone on my medical team tell someone else that the homebirth lady “was actually pretty rational.” I burned inside, and smiled through it. I made myself pleasing to them. I laughed at their jokes, and I listened to their explanations, and I agreed to everything.
In the end, it was the scalpel through the skin. A midline incision through the fascia. It was Mayo scissors and Metzenbaum scissors (so many cutting things!) and pickups and a bladder flap created digitally. Kocher clamps. I don’t know what any of that means. I only know that my daughter was born quickly, through my belly. That my vagina didn’t tear, and was never in any danger of tearing; I never got to push.
And that I shook and shook, strapped on a metal table like a crucifix, and cried as they took my baby from me, wrapped in a flannel blanket.
I spent 5 days in the hospital, recovering from my c-section while my daughter spent those same 5 days in the Intensive Care Nursery down a very long hallway. Every morning, I made myself eat before I made myself walk down the very long hallway to her.
She was the delight of the nursery.
We both cried many times a day.
This is a story about after birth.
On my second night postpartum, my doula arrived with a mason jar. Inside it lay a hundred capsules, filled with my daughter’s placenta, dehydrated, and chopped up. They looked like grayish brown vitamins, or like dehydrated meat capsules, which is more accurate.
She gave me instructions. Take one or two a few times a day. Or take as many as you need. I don’t think you can overdose on placenta. Desperate to have at least one part of my birth experience match my plans, I took the mason jar and gratefully swallowed capsule after capsule. It made me feel better just to hold it.
I don’t recognize her rounded face, her exhausted eyes. Her body drips — sweat, milk, tears. A tiny baby wrapped against her chest, her legs constantly bouncing, her hips rocking. She is the soother of its cries, the source of its life, the incubator, the garden, the water trough.
Her face has the beauty of ghosts. She is unkempt, unwashed, unthinking much of the day. She lives for her baby. She sleeps when her baby sleeps. She can latch her infant, half awake, in less than 10 seconds in the pitch black of the middle of the night. She dozes, her daughter tucked tight against her, to the rhythm of sucking and swallowing. She dreams in shades of white, and sleeps on top of a beach towel — to protect her sheets, and her mattress, from the rivulets of sweat, milk, spit up, and tears.
She is not depressed for the first time in years.
She is free from her internal torture. Her new cycle is not about her. Her erasure is a relief. The space in her narrative, where once she was central, has been ceded, gratefully, completely.
She thought motherhood would erase her, and she was right. It made her a supporting character in this act. Diminished. All of herself dormant, a backdrop. She is content to watch the changing of the light, the pattern on the floor, and nuzzle her face against her baby’s sweet, dark hair.
I have long, raised scar above my pubic bone. Fascia that will never be the same. I’m different now. I was saved by a scalpel and many sets of scissors.
The night my daughter was born, I might have died.
Marissa Korbel is a fifth generation San Franciscan. Her writing has been published by The Rumpus, Nailed Magazine, Under the Gum Tree, and The Establishment. She is currently revising her first book, an experimental memoir. She tweet @likethchampagne.