We love to share the stories, we women who have given birth. At any gathering involving a hoard of moms, there always seems to be some reference to the pregnancy days. Talks of the cravings, the ample reading, the futile efforts made to prepare for the life that was to follow D-day. The talks of the baby showers and Lamaz classes; the trips to the baby supply stores and group meetings with those who have gone before, attempting to prepare the newcomers for what lies ahead. Hours of research spent on selecting the right bed, bottle warmer, diaper disposal unit, baby bath, wall decals, swing, rocker, bouncy chair, stroller...
I often listen to those stories wistfully, wondering what that would be like. Wondering if my beginning months as a mother might have been easier if I had chosen a different route, chosen something more similar to the stories I often hear. Instead, I chose to be pregnant and deliver my child in different settings from those that my passport gave me rights to. I chose to spend my days of pregnancy in a small beachside fishing village in Ghana, West Africa.
I lived in a small "house" built by my partner. We had an outside shower, no running water, and sporadic electricity. I washed my clothes by hand, built a fire for cooking, and walked to the farmer next door to get my wonderfully delicious organic tomatoes. Everything I ate was fresh and vine ripened; even my daily dose of coconut water was straight off the branch. Our baby preparations consisted of a few onsies, two incredibly adorable hats, a handful of receiving blankets, and a stuffed monkey. A local weaver was hired to construct a basinet that looked just like the one that had held generations of my American family. I didn't gain excessive weight becuase I walked at least two miles every day to and from the beach, swam in the ocean, and practiced yoga seaside. I taught at an international school, assisted in running an arts exchange program, and took African dance classes well into the wobble days.
The sight of my growing belly provided ample conversation for the village women and their partners; they had never before seen a white woman pregnant. As I walked down the dusty streets with my growing belly, giggles and pointing ensued, along with the occasional curious entourage, following the Obruni on her daily walks along the sea. Occasionally, the other expecting women would find ways to communicate with me our shared experiences. We found amusement in our similarities: yes, we all had cravings. Yes, we all drove our partners mad with the midnight runs for obscure food needs. And we all got busy in the middle of the night, preparing our homes for the upcoming child, scrubbing and rearranging, "nesting" in the wee hours.
Despite all of these similarities, I thought I would be exempt from the statistics of Ghana. I was, after all, separated from my Ghana village peers by the best prenatal care available. My child's gender was known because I was able to indulge in sonograms. The rythym of his heartbeat was a constant echo in my ear, accompaniment to the songs I sang as we walked along the beach. These things were all foreign to those that surrounded me. As the birth date grew near, because I had taken all the precautions and checked all the "should-do boxes," it never occured to me that I could have anything other than a "perfect birth story." I was naive. Or maybe optmistic. Positive to a fault.
We joked, on many occasions, that our son would make a dramatic entrance into the world. That he might come out singing the song I had been singing; that he might arrive dancing to the beat of the drums he had been hearing when I took my African dance classes; that he would arrive ready to dive into the ocean blue that had been my playground for nine months worth of sunsets. I thought my beautiful, natural pregnancy would be folowed by an easy delivery, and his birthdays to come would be filled with the joyful retelling of his earth day, and the many ceremonies that immediately follow birth in a Ghanaian community. Instead, I had a different birthing story.
It was March 7, 2007. Friends from the states had flown in to bear witness to the birth of my son. There was a wild and celebratory party happening in our small village: Ghana was celebrating the 50th anniversary of her independence from British rule. The streets were flooded with party goers, traffic brought to a stand still. Relaxing on the beach, retelling stories of our college days, noting the stark difference between my life now and the one I had then, laughter was aplenty. So when I felt the warm gush, I embarrassingly thought that I had just had a moment of laughter enduced pregnant woman weakness. When the cramping started shortly after, I suspected something other might be happening.
The roads, we were told, were entirely too full for anyone to travel to the "big city," where my carefully chosen birthing hospital was located. In Twi, the aging village midwife explained to my partner that I may need to deliver in the village birthing hut. Unwilling to accept this as an option, I insisted that we persist, and find a way to the swanky western hospital in the center of the capital. It was, after all, only 45 minutes away. Surely, my labor would last longer than this. So into a taxi we all crowded -- my Ghanian partner, my dear New York friend, my Spanish Ghana-dwelling midwife friend, and the trembling driver.
Far more crowded than we ever imagined, the roads were not providing easy passage for our crawling taxi. Me in the back seat, negotiating labor pains in the sweltering Ghana heat, my partner in the front trying to coax an incredibly nervous taxi driver along the busy beach road. Soon enough, the street-filling partygoers realized that there was something strange happening in the backseat of this car. A white woman was daring to give birth on this special occasion. Everyone wanted to see what this might look like, and so our slowly moving taxi was brought to a hault. We were now the entertainment.
Were it not for the quick thinking of a good Samaritan, I don't know if we would have made it off of the Kokrobite road. His decision to weave his motorcycle through the crowds, parting people like Moses did the sea, made it possible for us to reach the hospital. Upon arrival more than two hours later, we were ushered into the birthing room, where a nurse immediately stuck a needle (against my all-natural-don't-respond-well-to-pain-killers-birthing-plan wishes) into my leg, "Because white women cannot handle the pain." Within minutes, the pain subsided. And so did the full-on contractions. So began the next week of our life together: full-on hard contractions, minutes apart, followed by a cessation of activity.
"He is too big," the nurses murmured. "She will have to be cut."
But the doctor who does the cutting was incredibly busy with all of the anniversary celebrations. Ghana only celebrates a 50th anniversary once, I was told many times over. I clung closely to the only guide I had. My What to Expect When Expecting missed the chapter on this one. As the days lingered on, I grew anxious. For once in my life, I had no idea what to do; all I knew was my water had broken many days ago, and things were not progressing as the book said that they should.
My demands for different procedures were met with smirks and outright laughter. "Ahhh... You Western women always asking so many questions! And these demands -- you must think you are in America!"
Long walks in the hospital garden, hot baths, yoga -- nothing seemed to make his passage any easier. By now, my New York friends had returned to the states, their trip to see a baby born unfruitful. When the labor pains kicked in full swing on March 13, I yet again demanded something to help promote labor. This time, they agreed, as the doctor was finally back from his celebrations.
A shot of something and a drip of something else later, labor pains finally stayed, and my son seemed cooperative enough to make his way, but the doctor still reported that there was no progress into the canal. Seething in natural childbirth pain, I wanted my child out. I wanted the pain to stop. Making my way into the hottest shower I could create, I let the water fall onto my aching back. And that is when the sound came: the loud cracking of my tail bone breaking. My scream must have been loud, as the entire nursing staff came rushing into the room.
The rest is a maddening blur. I recall a wheelchair though a corridor, an argument about being strapped to a gurney (I won! no straps!). I recall feeling entirely too exhausted to push. And suddenly, my Spanish friend was there by my side, gazing deeply into my eyes. "I will give you the energy, just push," she whispered. One week and eight pushes later, my labor was over. There he was, my sweet and long-awaited-for son, Edem.
Immediately all eyes turned to him: he may have infection from the water breaking so long before birth. He may have been hurt from my "inadequate hip size," he may have...
But Edem was perfect. All 20 digits were present and accounted for. He was an unusually large (for Ghana births) birth weight, and he was alert, wide-eyed and wondering with a precious swirl of a curl on his head.
With the worry around my son, some oversights were made and I was never examined. He was taken from me so that I might rest, and into a deep slumber I fell. The next morning, we were released, and off to home we were sent.
When we arrived at our village home, many Western hands (Ghanaians believe that no one should see mother or child for the first seven days, so they stayed away) were ready to hold our sweet son, and I was relieved; I didn't have the energy to hold him up. I didn't have the will to hold him to my breast. Mothers, I thought, were supposed to have some innate desire to cling to their child, to hold them tight and nourish them. I kept waiting for some immediate bond to happen, but all I felt was exhaustion, pain, and a need to be left alone. People brought me food that I could not bring myself to eat, and tea that I would not drink. As the hours past, I grew less and less interested in all that was happening around me. As the exhaustion grew, so did the pain in my belly.
The next morning, two days after the birth of my son, I stood to go to the restroom and immediately collapsed in a crimson pool. What follows is hard for me to recount; those rushing around me began to sound like strange cartoon characters, their faces blurred away as my eyesight diminished. I cried for my family thousands of miles away. "What have I done?" I asked again and again, before I slipped into silence.
The following week is a mystery to me. I know only what I was told: I had a womb infection and had "gone septic," that I had two blood transfusions, that the U.S. Embassy was on stand-by to arrange emergency evacuation, that my parents called incessantly, and busied themselves with the steps necessary to travel to Ghana. I am told that the nurses held my son against my breast for hours each day to make certain that our eyes were never far from one another, and to ensure that he would suckle on the fore milk not tainted with the heavy drugs pulsing through my body. I am also told that I narrowly escaped the almost 20 percent maternal mortality rate (2006 UNICEF statistics) in Ghana.
My first strong memory of motherhood attachment came some time into my boy's second week. He was yelping for food in the hot Ghana night; the nurse who normally came to our aid was busy attending a birth. I had to find a way to be able to hold my son on my own; I had to generate the strength to meet his needs. Upon reaching his glass basinet, my son turned to my face, our eyes locking. For the first time, I was well enough to feel it: the immense love a mother has for her child. He was mine to look after, to love and protect. After that moment, it wasn't hard to find the strength to recover, for the sake of my son and all those mothers who would not know this moment.
Two weeks later, still too weak to care for myself, we left the hospital and stayed with my partner's family. We were kept under close watch, forbidden to leave the compound. People talked in hushed tones about the white woman who made it through. They also talked in hushed tones about my village neighbor who did not; she didn't have the resources to be rushed to a hospital.
On his 21st day of life, in a Ghanaian naming ceremony, my son was revealed to the world. For the first time since birth, his name was publicly declared: Edem, meaning "that which delivers you to God." As they put honey, salt, apateshy and water to his tongue, a prayer was shared for the boy whose mother escaped her fate, and extra prayers offered out for the child whose mother did not.
Follow Erin Michelle Threlfall on Twitter: www.twitter.com/ethrelfall