Visualizing Birth – my son’s birth story

Ten years ago today, my son Kieran was born. It is now 1:20pm in San Francisco and he was born at 6:17pm that day. As I’ve described in another post  about his birth, the birthing phase for Kieran lasted about 4.5 hours. So 10 years ago at this very time, I was about to enter into that long phase, one during which visualization played a crucial part in how he emerged into the world.

I don’t see Kieran’s birth story as a moment in time, however. Rather, it was a long series of events, understandings, and experiences that date back probably to the time of conception.

Kieran’s birth was arduous for many reasons. One week before I was due to give birth, medical staff advised me that I would be induced on my due date. The original due date was 3/12/2009. There was no problem with the baby, but the common practice at that particular location was to induce women by the due date. I ultimately questioned why the due date had been set at March 12th, and they changed it to 3/15/2009. But I passed that due date and Kieran was still not ready to be born. He ultimately indicated he was ready on the evening of March 21st. Resisting induction, I went through all required tests to ensure the baby’s safety during those last weeks of pregnancy. Such resistance was not easy because there was great pressure to induce, and the days crept on until I finally went into labor almost two weeks past my due date (as an aside, my second child was also born almost two weeks past her due date, indicating to me that I deliver late and that women should not be rushed just because they pass their due dates).

The good thing that came out of the pressure I received from medical staff even before my labor had commenced, was that I had grown resistant to it. This served me well once I did go into labor because Kieran was in a posterior position, something that nobody realized until well into the birthing phase, which was almost 24 hours after I had begun labor. Over the course of my labor, the doctors on call and some of the medical staff suggested that I receive Pitocin. I had read a lot about Pitocin during my pregnancy and did not want to use it for fear that the pain would be heightened and the baby would be in distress due to Pitocin’s aggressive manner of contracting the uterus. While not breech, a posterior baby is not in the optimal position for birth, thus I experienced intense back labor for many hours and dilation of the cervix was slow. Ultimately, a nurse named Deborah realized what was going on and I was instructed to roll from side to side, which helped Kieran to turn in the proper position and prepare to be born more easily.

By the time Kieran was ready to be born, I was exhausted. The back labor was a feeling I had never before experienced in my life. The first 12 hours of my labor were very difficult because I was trying to avoid the pain, walking and clutching my back during contractions. An important event happened at about the 12 hour mark. A nurse named Hillary came to me and told me that the feelings I was experiencing were normal and that I was feeling them because I was going to give birth. I went through an intellectual and physiological paradigm shift at that moment, realizing that the pain I felt was not something to be afraid of or to try and escape. It meant that the baby was emerging from me and that this was part of that process. Once I realized that, I can say that labor changed drastically. My dear doula, Stacy Hattori, had me try a number of positions until I found one in which I was comfortable. That position was hands and knees on the bed. I rotated hips during contractions and imagined my baby being born. Finding continued comfort in that position, I remained in it for almost 7 hours! My doula and husband Toni alternated in massaging my back during the contractions, something that also helped immensely. To this day, Toni says that he lost his fingerprints that night from all of the massaging 🙂 My knees grew very sore but I paid little attention to them because I was focused on the labor.

After four hours into the birthing phase, which was over twenty hours into labor, the medical staff became doubtful that the baby would be born without intervention. The staff in the room began to discuss the use of cesarean. I was very tired after all of those hours, especially after the back labor that had taken up the bulk of my labor, and then the long birthing phase.

But then something happened. During a crucial moment of my labor, I closed out the external world and entered what I can only describe now as a special, meditative, internal space devoted to the birth. It was within this space that a Daoist print from my dissertation came to mind. Appropriating the imagery of the Neijing tu, I imagined a large river flowing down a mountain through my own body. I visualized a baby riding its waters and emerging from the river’s mouth. Shortly after this process of internal visualization and meditation, Kieran emerged from my actual body and was born very healthy, a giant baby at almost ten pounds and twenty-three inches long. I was also in good health. I explain in more depth in the post on the Neijing tu exactly how that process of visualization came to be.

The gravity of birth and the way it is treated in the hospital has since become an important issue to me. The event had a huge impact on all aspects of my life, even redirecting my intellectual work towards birth, which I have been studying over the past decades and has led to the recent publication of my first academic book, Imagery, Ritual, and Birth: Ontology Between the Sacred and the Secular The focus in the book is on the ontology of imagery in the rituals of birth. In my own case, the Chinese print used to visualize my son’s birth has become sacred to me. Its sacredness relates to the process of birth, however, and not specifically to the practice of Daoism. My study of images, the visualization of birth, and the sacralization of images used in birth as a rite of passage began as an offshoot of my own maternal subjectivity.