My husband and I arrived at the birth preparation class a few minutes late, our flustered, hurried state probably adding to the emotional wallop of what we were about to see. The instructor was playing a DVD of a water birth: A mother was seated in a big tub, and her husband sat behind her, supporting her as she labored. What happened next jolted my core. As the baby emerged, the mother started to shout, "I love you! I love you! I love you so much!"
And for once I finally stopped being afraid.
I'm about seven months pregnant, due in July, and I feel like I've spent much of this time listening to dire warnings — courtesy of friends, family and total strangers — about all the ways my husband and I might harm our developing child. Some of these wise people have cautioned that frequent ultrasounds will surely give the baby cancer. Others warned that without those tests, we could learn belatedly of a life-threatening illness, thereby endangering our child's health. When I suffered debilitating headaches in the first trimester, some warned that nothing could be worse for a developing fetus than painkillers. Others argued that the more pain and stress I suffered, the more the baby would suffer.
All this fear-mongering only added to my already ambivalent state. I had never felt a biological urge to have a child. My heart had always been pulled toward adoption. And two miscarriages last year did not exactly build my confidence that childbearing was right for me. Still, I didn't want to regret missing out on a major life experience. So my husband and I tried again.
Five months into my third (and current) pregnancy, my wariness still lingered, which was absurd. I likened it to being on a cruise ship that's already embarked and shouting back to the people onshore, "Wait! Are you sure it's wise to go on a cruise?"
But as I watched that woman give birth on the video screen, crying out of joy — not pain — I understood why people have children: this raw emotional connection. I set aside all my fears about parenting and childbirth. And I accepted that my child's birth would be an act of love.
Then the instructor, a woman I'll call Lula, marched across the room and shut the video off. Lula turned to our class — a group of five couples — and said she would not show us what happened next. It was too private. But she would tell us the story.
Moments after this incredibly easy and joy-filled birth, the water in the birthing tub turned red. The woman was hemorrhaging. "At that point I turned to the mama and said, 'Remember the conversation we had about saying goodbye? That time has come.'" Lula looked out at our class. "I told her was time to say goodbye to her husband and her baby."
Say goodbye. It took everyone in our group a few seconds to comprehend the message. Lula was telling us this woman was going to die.
Lula explained that the woman, in her zeal, pulled the baby to her chest too quickly. The umbilical cord was shorter than normal and yanked on her insides. This caused her to hemorrhage. It seemed that the take-away from the class was this: Don't be too happy to see your baby, lest you court death. After revealing several more harrowing details, Lula told us the mother survived. But that was of little comfort. When you hear such a story, the words "almost died" and "died" feel like they're on pretty equal footing.
At the end of the session I raised my hand and explained that I had taken the class to become less afraid of birth. The prospect of dying was seriously messing with my good attitude.
Lula's response rattled me. "Oh come on," she scolded. "Didn't you know that this was a risk? Because if you didn't, you really should've. And I'm not going to pussyfoot around and tell you otherwise."
It's hard for me to understand where such fear-mongering is coming from. People engage in all sorts of activities that are far more dangerous than childbirth. Are they ever lectured to a similar extent on the risks? When friends tell me they're going rock climbing or skydiving I don't grip them by the arm and rattle off the names of anyone who's ever plunged to his death scaling a mountain or jumping heedlessly out of a plane. And when I climb into a car that's being driven by my 81-year-old father, people don't grind their teeth and shout, "My God, what are you doing? Don't you know he drives in two lanes at once?" And perhaps they should.
You are literally 100 times more likely to die in a car accident than in childbirth. But automobile travel isn't laden with all the hope people invest in babies — even other people's babies. And that makes the stakes around pregnancy and birth seem very high. Where there's hope, there's fear.
That's one way of explaining why Lula would tell us that awful story about the mother nearly dying. But here's another possible interpretation: Lula's crazy.
A week or so after that class, I had a conversation with my midwife — who, unlike Lula, is a trained nurse. Without mentioning Lula by name, I told the midwife that we'd had some odd experiences with our birth class instructor. In addition to telling us horror stories, Lula had also presented what seemed to be pretty unscientific theories about nutrition.
The midwife had a knowing look in her eye. "Was it Lula?" she asked.
Apparently, Lula is known to be a "problem." She gives people lots of kooky advice. And she frequently holds forth on all the parts of birth that can go wrong. She makes people think the medical establishment is the enemy, and if she's not present at your birth to save you from the evil doctors, things can go terribly awry. The midwife has known women who ended up in therapy after taking Lula's classes because she made them so fearful of birth.
When I mentioned the video depicting the woman who nearly died, the midwife let out a long sigh. She was pretty sure that was a birth she herself had attended and remembered the whole sequence of events, including the hemorrhaging.
"I have to tell you," the midwife said, "that woman was never at risk of dying. I never thought for a minute that she would."
We promptly dropped Lula's class. And since then I've tried to tune out other people's paranoia. Instead, I've been focused inward, on my developing baby. His kicks and back-flips tell me he's healthy and eager to make his way into the world. And they remind me how much my ambivalence about parenting has melted away.
Each time I feel him stir, I think of how excited I am to meet him.