by Mercedes Papalia
Mercedes is a multi-disciplinary storyteller through art, design, and creative writing. Her journey began as an acting and vocal student at a young age and she continues to expand and diversify her creative practices. She currently works as an interior stylist, visual artist, and production designer for film and television. Mercedes is a devoted mother, wife, and lover of fresh flowers and authentic Italian food, forever in the pursuit of a beautiful life.
It’s 3 a.m. and I’m wrapped in a blanket, looking out the front window of our Toronto bungalow. My body mirrors the full pink moon revealing her magnificence through the gently swaying branches of the tree standing proudly on our lawn. This lunar phase carries the powerful energy of rebirth and inspires transformation and recognition that we are cyclic beings in conjunction with nature. “Ah, of course,” I whisper to the moon. “She was waiting for you. How poetic, my Luna.” Today marks two weeks past her expected date of arrival.
The house is quiet. I peek into the bedroom to see my husband TJ comfortably cuddled up with our little dog, Toby. The floor squeaks as my swollen feet slowly move me into Luna’s nursery. Her crib is covered in sheets freshly washed by my mom, and adorned with a macramé banner handmade by one of our closest friends.
On the floor is a plastic blue bin filled to the brim with every suggested item on the checklist from my midwife. Eight towels - check, four receiving blankets - check, two bowls - check, a metal baking sheet - check. My diaper bag, however, is practically empty. This is a home birth. I’ve read Ina May’s Spiritual Midwifery, and am ready for initiation into the ‘badass women who’ve birthed their babies naturally club.’ I hold this idea like a badge of honor I’ll soon be wearing.
“This isn’t that bad!” I tell TJ as he makes coffee with a subtle jitter in his hands. Soon, my doula Asma arrives, wide-eyed, calm, and genuinely excited to be here. Asma shares the birth stories of her two children as I bounce on an oversized exercise ball. I exhale in revelation of the honour it is to have Asma here supporting me with real compassion and sisterhood.
I rest. I bathe. I bounce. I walk. I rest. I snack. I hug my husband. I rest. I kiss my husband. I bathe. I snack. I notice Asma through the crack of the nursery door sitting on my brand-new rocking chair pumping breast milk. “Wow.” I say to myself under my breath. I walk. I snack. I rest.
Over the next 24 hours, the pain increases steadily. I eventually surrender and wrap my body around a pile of pillows in agony. My newly arrived midwife Sarah sits at the foot of my bed. She explains that because my water hasn’t broken, I can choose to have her break it, or wait. She tells me it could take anywhere from a few hours to another day or two, and gently warns that if she breaks my water, the pain will increase rapidly. I laugh, because worse than this is simply not possible. I ask to see what she will put inside me to break my water. It looks like one of those things my grandparents use to put their shoes on. ”Okay, let’s do it,” I say.
Then, like a transport truck in a highway collision, it happens. THIS must be the most pain a human can maybe survive. I get back on my hands and knees. My voice generates sounds that derive from deeper than the depth of my womanhood. They were no longer mine; they are that of an animal awoken within.
I look up toward my bedroom door between excruciating surges. My husband stands there, and he too has transformed. From a broad six-foot man to a six-year-old boy. Terrified. Shaking. His ocean eyes puffy and red, his shirt soaked from tears, he watches me, desperately wanting to take my pain away. “Babe,” I say, as I grab his head and pull him toward me. “This is hard, and I’m scared too, but I’m okay. I know it doesn’t look like it, but I’m okay. I’m going to give birth to our daughter.” A fire of gratitude ignites in my soul. He isn’t pretending to hold it together, he’s just here - terrified, trusting me, loving me.
Sarah comes in for another check-up, I assume because the sounds coming out of me have deepened, once again. She’s gentle and quiet, yet serious, like the CEO of my vagina hosting a very important meeting. She tells me I’m nine centimeters dilated, and that Lu’s head seems to have dropped. This is it.
I call upon my courage to prepare my body for the next stage of labour and -
“Whoa,” I pause.
The pain has disappeared. What? How? I lie to Asma, I tell her the surges are still terrible and exaggerate my moans to match what they were.
Sarah investigates. Then, I watch as she places her hand gently on mine. “Mercedes, your cervix has closed and you are 3 cm dilated.” I don’t want to believe her, but my body already knew.
I pull my sweat-drenched spaghetti strap dress over my head and step into a lukewarm shower. As the water pours over my body, I feel physically, emotionally, and spiritually depleted. There’s nothing left in me except the big ball of human that I am incapable of birthing.
I cry. I cry so hard that the stream of water coming from the faucet seems to merge with my tears. After what feels like a lifetime, I catch my breath and pray. “Universe, God, whoever or whatever you are, please help me.” I crawl into bed and try to sleep for the first time in two days.
The clock says it’s 1 p.m., but I don't know what day it is. My contractions are a few minutes apart and becoming more and more difficult to manage. For the first time, I’m really scared. My gut is speaking clearly to me, I know it’s time to go to the hospital. I’m clinging to the hurtful backlash I felt from the outside world when I first decided to have a home birth. My ego boldly argues, “If you go, you prove them right.” My soul whispers adamantly, “go to the hospital.”
I crawl into the back of our green Civic, Yolanda The Honda. TJ is not crying. He has a job to do, and helping me is where TJ thrives. I feel his confidence as he gets behind the wheel. He safely swerves and speeds through the back roads, repeating “you're doing great babe!” Just like they do in the movies. I’m on my hands and knees exploding with long deep cries of distress. I’m using swear words I didn’t know were in my vocabulary. I can no longer recognize where one ends and the other begins. It’s just one, long, viscous feeling, beginning in my uterus and shooting through my entire body and beyond.
When we get to St. Joseph’s hospital, I climb onto the sterile bed and cry to my midwife, “It’s too bright, and I’m too tired.” Then I mutter through tears, “I think I need an epidural. I don’t know if my body can handle it anymore. I’m sorry, I’m so sorry I can’t do it.” In this moment asking for an epidural means failure. Sarah tells me I AM doing it, and that I’m incredibly strong and brave. I don’t believe her.
I’ve been given a gas mask and it is my new most favorite invention in the history of the world. I’m convinced that TJ and I are part of a secret society and he can hear my thoughts as I tap my nose and raise my eyebrows repeatedly at him. I feel myself floating above my body. I can still feel the pain, but it feels like someone else's. This is better than sex.
Sarah's dark eyes pop up from between my legs. “Mercedes!” she says, with a mildly excited tone. “I can see her head!” I quickly pull off the mask and ask, “what color is her hair?” Through desperation and pain surpassing, once again, anything I could have ever imagined, I want to know the colour of my daughters’ hair. Sarah then says, “it’s wet, so hard to tell, but there’s lots of it,” in a tone that accidentally embarrasses me for asking. “Are you ready to push?”
The epidural hasn’t shown up. I feel everything as hands reach inside me to pull Luna down. Hands. Two hands, and a baby, all inside me. I’m pushing and they’re pulling and it’s happening. Then, suddenly, a familiar - nothing.
No Luna. Just a half dozen women (when did they multiply?) standing around looking at my vagina. Some holding my legs, some writing things down, some just watching me. I look at the huge red and black digital clock in the corner of the room. I can’t recall what the numbers were earlier, but I know time has passed.
A tiered cart filled with medical instruments pushed by a slender, seriously looking man rolls past me. I decide immediately that he is mean and terrible. I do not like that I need what he’s preparing to stick into my spine. I sit with my legs dangling off the side of the hospital bed. My favorite intern midwife, Caitlin, senses my vulnerability, and invites me to wrap my arms around her. With my head on her chest, she strokes my hair and gently explains what will happen next.
A green-eyed nurse with a tiny frame and frizzy red hair adjusts the needle taped to my skin. “I can still feel everything, can you make it so I feel less?” I plead quietly. “Yes, I will try.” Just like that, the pain has gone from one hundred out of ten to forty out of ten. “The doctor is here,” she said softly.
The what?! I think to myself. I did not sign up for any doctor. I don’t even want to be here, I HATE - and my thought is interrupted by a vivacious dark-haired woman in scrubs. She oozes confidence bridging on arrogance, and I like it. “Hello love, I’m Dr. Maria, let’s meet this baby, shall we?”
Luna’s heart rate is dropping and so is mine. Dr. Maria is between my knees holding large metal forceps as midwives grasp my bent legs. TJ stands just behind them, and Asma beside him.
The visceral support I’m feeling from each human in this room is palpable. Somehow, this sensation expands, and I am held by every female in the entire history of existence who has given birth before this moment. This powerful force shifts me to laser-sharp focus. I push with every ounce of strength I have as Dr. Maria pulls until finally, Luna.
The biggest little hands stretch toward me and our deep brown eyes lock for the first time. “She looks like my dad!” I cry.
I feel each stitch carefully being sewn, as Dr. Maria casually says something about “next time.” We make a ten-dollar bet that there will be no next time. Asma takes photos of Luna's first moments as I ask repeatedly for my mom and family. I’m told to wait, as my placenta has not made her debut yet. Seriously? What feels like a lifetime later, I push the complex organ, that allowed my daughter to grow inside me, out of my body. It’s so big that it rips my stitches. At this point, nothing surprises me.
I request that my 6-year-old niece, Ellia, be allowed in the room first. Caitlin asks Ellia to help her check Luna's heartbeat and I’m happy that she feels special. I hold my mom’s hand while Luna lays on me. It feels so natural that I’m certain we’ve been together for lifetimes.
“Happy Birthday my love,” I say quietly into her tiny ear.
It’s been sixty-five hours since the subtle surge that woke me up. None of this is what I expected, planned for, or dreamed of. It is nothing like the stories I read, but it is mine. This is the beginning of the greatest adventure, the deepest love affair, and the most incredible journey of my life.