By Farah Halime
My feet were smoking, again.
Scented smoke wafted from two burning embers stuck at either side of my pinky toes. That was the moment I finally saw the funny side, because before that, I had been trapped in a whirlwind of paranoia and fear. Will she come out deformed? Will she be cut out of me? Will I die?
My baby had wedged her head firmly under my rib-cage, and the doctors had told me I had to flip her head-down—the optimal position for labor—or I’d have to have a dreaded C-section. “Do you want a natural labor or not?” my obstetrician asked me. So, I stuck some mugwort-infused incense on my toes and hoped for the best. The ancient Chinese therapy is thought to have magic medicinal powers that can turn babies, treat diarrhea and heal snakebites. But if a snake bites you, you should seek medical treatment because aside from the pot-like aroma filling my living room and lungs, this nightly ritual was doing nothing except make my neighbors think I was a pregnant stoner.
It turns out my daughter was one of 4% of babies in the U.S. who is breech at term. Getting babies to flip head-down is a thorny issue that has spawned books, specialized treatments and a lot of (maternal) anxiety. My daughter, who had traveled in utero with me from Lebanon to England and the U.S., was subjected to so many different scans and pokes and prods that by the time we reached New York she simply would not cooperate any longer. She buried herself upright, as close to my heart as possible, and refused to budge.
Even when I tried standing on my head, a technique that “opens up the uterus” to help gravity do the work for you and is supposedly fool-proof, my daughter would not turn. But at least doing a headstand every day for six weeks was good for strengthening my upper body.
One day, when an acupuncturist pricked needles into my forehead and my arms and fiddled with my incense-scalded toes again, I started to feel quite dizzy. “I feel strange,” I called out. The room began to spin and my body felt like it was drifting, suspended in the air. “Normal,” he said, flicking another needle into my body. Then, I felt a kick, then another kick, and wriggling and swaying in my belly. It’s working! I thought. My baby’s response to the acupuncture gave me hope. But the joy was short-lived. She remained breech.
I even went to a chiropractor and paid close to $500 for the most expensive massage I’ve ever had, but my daughter was having none of it. The chiropractor told me she’d seen women like me before, first time mothers, that is. “The mother usually gets nervous, so the baby stays upright. Try to let go of the nervousness.”
So I meditated, and gorged on chocolate.
Then I forked out another couple of hundred to go to a physical therapist who realigned my pelvis and strengthened my abdominal muscles (despite having just “loosened” them at the chiropractor).
My daughter, however, kicked and tumbled and rolled side to side, sometimes laying her head on my left side, sometimes on my right, but never going the whole 180. She was being so stubborn I finally decided to get her physically turned at the hospital, a procedure called an external cephalic version. “It will be uncomfortable, but it doesn’t hurt,” my doctor reassured me.
I signed several legal documents absolving the hospital from any liability and starved myself for twelve hours prior, just in case the procedure put me into early labor. I smiled at the doctor who was going to contort my belly. He was short and had a friendly, hairy face. He reminded me of a hobbit.
“You’re not going to hurt me, are you?” I asked.
His eyes widened. “No,” he said, gulping a little. “But you let me know if you want me to stop, O.K.?”
It was more like a massage than the kneading I had read about on the internet. My baby stayed put. My OB seemed disappointed. She told me about another guy who had a higher success rate: 80 percent, she said. At this point, I didn’t feel like having another IV and sitting in a hospital for hours to do the same thing again. But he was the king of turning babies, apparently, and I would be stupid to miss out. “Do you want to have a natural birth or not?” she asked again, in her hard, interrogative tone. I nodded, obediently.
I got hooked up to the IV again. The doctor who was doing the version this time was no hobbit. He seemed determined, fierce. He splayed his hands out, curling his fingers around my bump.
The pain was like nothing I’ve ever felt. My stomach was being twisted so hard that it felt like my bones were grinding against themselves. I shook with pain.
“Try to relax,” he said. I used my birthing breathing techniques again. He tried to push her head past my ribs. It felt like somebody using a chainsaw to saw through my ribcage. My daughter did not move and while my heart rate shot up, hers remained completely steady, determined.
In the end, I had a planned C-section. I picked the exact date and time for my daughter’s delivery, like you would schedule a pedicure, and all the fuss over how she would come into this world evaporated into thin air. Then I was rocking her incessantly at 2:00 A.M., wondering why the hell I hadn’t read anything about how to look after a baby.
Author’s note: I wanted the whole rite of passage: giving birth perfectly aware, unmedicated and in the way nature intended. Except my daughter had other ideas. She is my daughter, after all.
Farah Halime is a British-Palestinian transplant to Brooklyn who is still trying to figure out the strange habits of New Yorkers. Her work has been published in The New York Times, Financial Times and The Wall Street Journal, and she’s the founder of the blog Rebel Economy.