“I remain confident of this: I will see the goodness of the Lord
    in the land of the living.”

Alexa Heung: beauty, pain, and mystery in childbirth - Part 1

Alexa Heung: beauty, pain, and mystery in childbirth - Part 1

Alexa Heung is a photographer, arts educator, and blogger who writes about creativity and motherhood. We are godparents to each other’s firstborn children. She shares here about the birth of her daughter, River, and about the complexity of celebrating a child’s arrival while healing from the physical and emotional trauma that can accompany birth.

What was your pregnancy with River like? What were you thinking about?

I remember thinking about millennia of women who’ve given birth, in awe of how common it all seemed. If they’ve done it, I thought, I’ll survive too! But where am I in this supposed glorious lineage? I had never witnessed a birth. I knew didn’t want to be led by cultural hearsay or the fear-mongering cackles of strangers.

Most of my thought energies were just swirling around how the baby would come out.

I loved the idea that I was only eating and resting, while invisible, impeccable mechanisms were knitting a being inside my belly without conscious effort on my part. This was another reassurance: if my body was designing a baby without any needed interference, then birth, however mysterious it seemed, would not be a sudden catastrophe, right? It’s not like a baby is beautifully formed and then the situation suddenly deteriorates or malfunctions into a crisis the moment the baby is ready to come out. Right? Anybody?

I remember you collecting stacks and stacks of books, learning and dreaming about the process of childbirth. What did you read? How did it shape your preparation for River’s arrival?

Many people warned me to stay away from advice or philosophies. But God made me a seeker and a sifter of theories. I didn’t gather lots of information around me wholly out of fear, more so out of fascination. I liked Joyous Childbirth Changes the World, Spiritual Midwifery, Birth without Fear, and the research of Michel Odent and James McKenna.

There was a lot of voracious delight and discovery. I heard that you don’t “do” birth but rather it does you, as something you submit to and partner in, with pain or not. I wondered, how exactly does one prepare to be out of control?! How do I think about the coming time when I’ll have to cast aside thinking in order to get through it?

I hoped birth would be transformative yet bearable. I imagined staggering elation at the end. Looking back, I listened to varied voices, which helped loosen my grip on expectations. I was excited about the unknown, tinged with some trepidation, and anchored in the love that brought all of it about in the first place. I had my husband’s hand, my other one resting nonchalantly over a womb whirring with life.

  In our prenatal group they had us take twelve scraps of paper and write down a “birth intention” on each one. Then one by one we were instructed to set the least desired ones aside until each of us were left with just three top priorities. After the exercise we discussed how we would cope and find a way to thrive if this is what actually happened.

In our prenatal group they had us take twelve scraps of paper and write down a “birth intention” on each one. Then one by one we were instructed to set the least desired ones aside until each of us were left with just three top priorities. After the exercise we discussed how we would cope and find a way to thrive if this is what actually happened.

You and Ian were so joyful during your pregnancy. You also sustained that joy through difficulty.

O thank you. Yes, something else worth mentioning -- the very morning we found out we were pregnant, we had already planned a little get together at home with a dozen or so of our closest friends that same night. We decided to tell them, reasoning that these people we wanted to share this joy with would be the same ones who would walk through any loss if it was to be. Weeks passed and I started bleeding.

We Yelped a place so I could be checked and the only thing they could offer so early on was an internal ultrasound. I was uneasy. Just the day before, I had browsed through a book at a bookstore the that spoke to the unconfirmed safety of this technology. The “med-wife” nurse on staff sensed our hesitation and at one point thrust her finger aggressively at Ian and said “If she doesn’t do this procedure right now, you could sue us!” I immediately looked for the door, incredulous at the pressure and fear she was filling the tiny room with. She stepped out to talk to the OB of the practice, giving us “time to decide.“

Before we had a chance to politely decline, she came back and told us that we wouldn’t be a good fit for them, explaining that their patients “trust“ the doctor by not asking a lot of questions and doing what they’re told, when they’re told. She likened the process to a conveyer belt that we were about to get on. We said no thank you and were outta there right away.

How did you two deal with that kind of fear and morbidity, which are so common in conversations about pregnancy?

As we walked back out through the waiting room, I was still shaking in disbelief at the assumption that we would show instant obedience. In the sanctuary of our bedroom soon after, we quietly declared that we would not be run by fear in the coming months, but faith. That we wouldn’t consent to anything our spirits, intuition, or even hearts did not feel peaceful about as man and wife entrusted with this new gift. I still bled for weeks afterward, unsure if my body would sustain the pregnancy. We ended up opting out of a lot of procedures! Many eyebrows were raised. We said no to routine genetic testing (tests just so we would have the choice to abort? We just don’t need that information). We said no to antibiotics for back to back symptomless UTIs, using d-mannose instead. No to rhogam in utero or amniocentesis after finding out we had the rhesus factor. No to even the syrup to check for gestational diabetes. I took home a glucometer for a couple days and monitored myself. We were learning and trying to navigate the prenatal labyrinth according to how God was calling us to parent, fact-based but still intuitive.

The baby grew. I whispered to Ian one day, “even if he or she is born perfectly we might still suffer a fatal crash right after.” I’m not exactly a morbid person, but I needed to choose grounded-ness in the Gospel rather than dwelling on threat of death or developmental disability, all very real possibilities. I was both fragile and ferocious. There’s no way to bypass suffering or emerge unmarked. It’s guaranteed in life. But Jesus has the final say. He can give and he can take away and he is always good. Claiming that peace was the sweetest preparation we did

There’s no way to bypass suffering or emerge unmarked. It’s guaranteed in life. But Jesus has the final say. He can give and he can take away and he is always good.

What happened when you finally gave birth to River?

How do I share something so messy and glorious without tidying it up and sanitizing it with sentimental haze? Our baby girl was born in the summer heat at dawn. We had been calling her River for months already. My dad would grin over the phone and ask, “How’s little stream today?” I took long lazy walks around the lake often, getting out kinks in my back and marveling over the fact that my future granddaughter's (yes, please!) eggs were already formed in my daughter’s ovaries as she swam and swelled.

On the evening of her "due date" Ian accompanied me on that walk. Right past the weeds and sunflowers flirting along the canal, I felt that first contraction. River was born 34 hours later in Berkeley. Exhausted, elated, and trembling in my legs, we fought so hard. 10 hours active labor, 7lbs. 20 inches. Persistent posterior. Why have I not been able to write this story for years? Because I'm still healing from her arrival. The truth is I was hurt. Not just at the event of her arrival at that birthing center but for the months that ensued.

I remember visiting you and River a few weeks after your family settled in. When you shared your birth story, it was the first time you cried in front of me out of sadness, not joy.

I can’t talk about her arriving and sever off the trauma that swirled for months after. There are numbers and words that hint: Second degree labial tear and third degree perineal tear. Transferred to the hospital. I hated being held down by the man in the mask and scrubs in the freezing operating room as they inserted the needle into my spine. Like I had the energy to fight back. Before they started the sutures I told them I couldn’t feel anything but pressure waist down. Perfect, they said. I was gone for hours.

Ian wrapped River, only a handful of hours old, in his jacket. My sister contemplated offering to nurse her as her hunger for me grew in the waiting room. Slowly, sensation in my legs came back. Slowly we realized we didn’t want to spend our first night as a family in the hospital. We signed papers stating we were leaving against doctor’s orders. We collapsed into bed just before sunset.

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At the time, the phrase you used to describe those days was “this is my Garden of Gethsemane.”

Did I really say that to you? The days after were a mess of blood milk and tears. Drops of all three splattered on the bathroom tiles. Begging Ian to not make me laugh. Laughter sent searing pain. Fear of sneezing and the toilet. Feeling alone, confused. My own mama, though she brought sumptuous flowers and sweet cheer, also poured vinegar on my wounds when she declared that the way I chose to give birth (naturally) was the exact reason I was injured so badly. She insisted on this narrative despite my hope for gentleness rather than fearful judgement in the guise of care. I know it was not her intent to compound my sadness. I remember in those fresh weeks an almost raw desperation of craving not validation per se, but encouraging mothering, pure emotional support, a celebrating of what I had endured and the new woman I was becoming. I wish she had been able to stay longer. At the time they were living in Northern Japan and after a week my dad and her flew back for his job on an American air base. It felt like we only spent a handful of hours together. To this day I miss her. Our few and far between visits always seem too brief and intense. I gave up my offense of that particular memory but the yearning for closeness, the casual daily mundane type of closeness that would allow for cooking and laughing and mending or thrifting together without agenda or ticking clock, remains.

I should have stayed in bed. I belonged in bed. A midwife at the birthing center suggested we “get my stitches checked out” and it resulted in me trembling in the ER waiting room clutching our newborn for half a day with no productive conclusion at all. They thought River might have had tongue tie and be in need of oral surgery just because at two weeks she wasn’t gaining an ounce PER day despite the fact that she had reached her birth weight overall.

If there was anyone near me bedside in those early days who knew even two cents about breastfeeding she would’ve quelled all doubts in second. Instead, out of isolation and ignorance there were more completely unnecessary hospital visits, car rides, and inspection by strangers. My baby and I were learning, struggling but progressing beautifully (according to an independent lactation consultant we eventually hired to come to our home). Those early charts, protocols, the utterly inane meddling in an otherwise normal process of postpartum was crushing. At perhaps my most vulnerable and pain filled time in life I was fielding despicable remarks from a sexist OB I had never met right after he very un-tenderly inspected me. Other practitioners gave us conflicting, contradictory advice. I think I was bombarded with cortisol when all I needed was to be souped up on oxytocin. The latter requires peace, trust, space, intimacy, warmth, love undisturbed.

The only reason I was still breastfeeding was because I was wildly defiant. I didn’t want the plastic contraptions near me, the monitoring, the man-made measuring. Even though the learning curve, excruciating at times, lessened week after week, month after month. I knew my body was designed to sustain life but the metamorphosis hushed me. I was forced to trust and wait.

If there was anyone near me bedside in those early days who knew even two cents about breastfeeding she would’ve quelled all doubts in second. Instead, out of isolation and ignorance there were more completely unnecessary hospital visits, car rides, and inspection by strangers. My baby and I were learning, struggling but progressing beautifully (according to an independent lactation consultant we eventually hired to come to our home). Those early charts, protocols, the utterly inane meddling in an otherwise normal process of postpartum was crushing. At perhaps my most vulnerable and pain filled time in life I was fielding despicable remarks from a sexist OB I had never met right after he very un-tenderly inspected me. Other practitioners gave us conflicting, contradictory advice. I think I was bombarded with cortisol when all I needed was to be souped up on oxytocin. The latter requires peace, trust, space, intimacy, warmth, love undisturbed.

The only reason I was still breastfeeding was because I was wildly defiant. I didn’t want the plastic contraptions near me, the monitoring, the man-made measuring. Even though the learning curve, excruciating at times, lessened week after week, month after month. I knew my body was designed to sustain life but the metamorphosis hushed me. I was forced to trust and wait.


Read the second half of Alexa’s interview here.

Alexa Heung: beauty, pain, and mystery in childbirth - Part 2

Alexa Heung: beauty, pain, and mystery in childbirth - Part 2

Loving my postpartum body