The Opening and Birthing by Kristen Kareem
Content warning: traumatic birth
My mother and I rumble along Highway 5 through Minnesota wetlands before an incubating dawn. A haunting fog levitates over bodies of water. The frosted tips of prairie grasses stand stiff like silvery needles. They await the morning sun to thaw and resurrect them.
At a swollen thirty-nine weeks pregnant, I required an induction before my unborn baby and/or I die. A few hours before, I received several dreaded diagnoses: severe pre-eclampsia, cholestasis and HELLP. Pre-eclampsia causes you to seize and possibly die and it can also kill your baby. Cholestasis is your liver failing. It could lead to fetal distress due to low oxygen. HELLP, another prenatal condition, harms the liver, deteriorates your red blood cells, and lowers your platelets. This is ride or die.
The day before, a gut feeling told me that my itchy pregnant body might be more than skin stretching. Some people call it intuition, I call it God. He was reaching out to me, urging me to stop trying to be brave. It was him telling me it’s okay, you can complain about your pregnancy.
It was a perfect pregnancy until then. I felt in control: my breech baby flipped her head down, I managed to exercise throughout the pregnancy, I gained only the recommended weight, and I didn’t take a single pharmaceutical the whole time. I hailed my other two pregnancies as successful natural deliveries with no drugs or interventions, but successful doesn’t always mean perfect. Successful means something that causes a positive change.
Control. I thought I had control, then I was delivered a dose of humility. I’m not in control of anything. I let go of everything and handed it to God, and to the medical professionals. I can do this. It’s like when people climb Everest and almost die on the way down. Their bodies are so depleted that they crawl. And now this is me crawling.
I feel like I’m not even on this Earth, like I am floating above it, like the fog we just passed. Is this a panic attack? Is this a seizure coming to claim me? My heart rate soars. I panic, thinking, “Who will die? Who will take care of my other kids if it is me?” Pregnancy is not just a physical endeavor, it is a test of your spiritual trust. What needs to be birthed? It is more than a body, but souls are delivered in this feat.
The country hospital sits silently. The hall echoes our footsteps. Night shift transitions into day shift.
The midwife runs several tests, checking my protein and liver enzymes. When the midwife attempts to loosen the amniotic sac, it does nothing. The sac remains firmly attached to me. Then we decide to do a balloon-type device that will help ripen the cervix. What am I? Some piece of fruit?
Once they start the magnesium sulfate drip for my preeclampsia, they transfer me over to the doctors. My doctor is small, smart, and analytical. She’s a hero. She lays it out for me: I need the drugs to prevent seizures and now I need Pitocin. I’m losing track of all the needles and tubes going into my body; two or three in the hand and one down below.
Did you know magnesium sulfate relaxes the body's skeletal muscles to prevent seizures and that Pitocin contracts uterine muscles? My body is fighting itself. My body is at war. Drip, drip, drip go the magical drugs that stop the chance of me slipping into a seizure. But the magnesium sulfate makes me feel groggy, like a birthing zombie. I ask the nurse if it is normal to feel so exhausted from this magnesium.
She says, “It’s better than the alternative,” which would be dying. The monitor routinely prints out fetal movements and uterine contractions. The blood pressure cuff revs in regular intervals, bursting my blood vessels with each mechanical inflation. My warm amniotic water both trickles and gushes out of me. I feel like a child, nothing in control.
I do not have several weeks or months required for c-section recovery. I must have a vaginal birth. The doctor says, “We can try.”
One hour passes, then a day passes, and no baby. They double my Pitocin rate, but my labor stalls. With each contraction, I clutch the bedside rail and call to my Lord. I read Surat-Al-Fatihah to myself, also called The Opening. I must have said the surah at least a hundred times. Open me up, God. I say to myself. Open this body both spiritually and physically.
My mom chats with the doctor about football but comes to my side when I start screaming, “Mommy! Mama!” I am reduced to infantile requests, demanding popsicles and massages. No pain killers I urge, I need to feel this. I need to feel this closeness to life and death.
They amp up the Pitocin dangerously and fatally high. “It’s too much,” one nurse says. She refuses to give me more. She knows too much Pitocin can cause fetal distress and uterine rupture.
The only thing that comforts me is al-Fatihah, The Opening. At thirty-six hours of labor, I feel my life is being squeezed out of me, as if my body is splitting and I can’t go on.
Then my body opens and she is born. She is perfect. Alhamdulillah. I can’t believe another human just emerged out of me. I rejoice, but momentarily. The magnesium sulfate machine keeps dripping. For the next several days there is a risk of me having a seizure.
For you, my newborn baby, did you know I would die for you? Her warm rosy cheeks flush and she looks at me with big doe eyes and dark matted hair.
Death still hovers. I am scared to close my eyes. I am scared for that last seizure to take me away. I worry about seizing while breastfeeding, that I might accidentally harm or kill my baby.
I call to my Lord, “Don't let me die tonight. Don’t let me harm my baby.”
My baby, when I birthed you, did you know you birthed me into a stronger believer of the Lord? It is The Opening that gave me strength and the opening that birthed two beings.