Birthing Ancestors

Anjoli Roy

What is the body but spirit? What is the spirit but love? What are your ancestors if not the way your hands know how to touch your sister’s laboring body when she gives birth in the hospital? What is it but the prayer of her safe deliveries at home?

“You know, when I had a reading done for you all those years ago, Kali Nath’s name came up,” Joya said to me in December 2012. We were sitting in the living room at home in California with her boys. Rab and Momo were giant teenagers, mostly closed in their rooms and their interior lives. Omja, her third boy, was curled up on a daybed perpetually reading a book. Shanti, the youngest, was playing Legos in his bedroom.

Just a few months before, I’d started researching Kali Nath, our great grandfather, the freedom fighter who our family had been at risk of forgetting. Joya had gotten the reading done in 2001. Joya had been connected to Ifá by a partner before Ben. Though our family didn’t have genealogical connections to West Africa, Ifá’s system of divination spoke to Joya enough for her to find out her older boys’ orisha, or primary energy, and to have other members of the family read. In the primary divination reading, the diviners also offered to name one’s guardian ancestor.

“All ancestors may step in to play a role in your life, as needed, but the designation of primary ancestor is that they take you on as their own. Guiding you. Mentoring,” she said. “Like their presence is more consistent. Active.”

I looked at Joya with her pretty, pregnant belly. Baby number five would be with us any day. She’d given birth to the last two at home and would give birth to this one at home too. It made us all a little nervous, no one more than our parents, the medical professionals, but the last two births had gone smoothly. “Birth isn’t an emergency but a simple emergence,” Joya had repeated to us all more than once, quoting Jeannine Parvati Baker, a midwife who had deeply influenced her. There was no reason to go to the hospital.

There was a deep and undeniable irony in how Joya, the daughter of an alarmist ER nurse and a gyno, insisted on giving birth at home and also without a midwife.

“It’s called freebirthing,” she explained to us, maybe a little impatiently, with a touch of I-dare-you-to-challenge-me-on-this. And so she gave birth at home, in a birthing tub, with only her husband there with her. “It’s one of the most intimate and private times of our lives,” she told me. She didn’t want bright lights or people poking at her or telling her she couldn’t move around. “I want the baby to come out the way it went in.”

I admired Joya for her rewriting of this part of our family’s story — of our relationship to birth and children, of taking birth back. When I told other people about her, people who didn’t know about birth, they were always shocked.

“But your dad is there, right?” they’d ask. “Or at least he’s in the house.”

Not necessarily.

I’d usually add here that Joya had trained as a doula and attended a number of births, supporting and advocating for other laboring mothers. Folks would nod along to this, but were clearly still terrified at the idea. In their eyes, she was reckless, dangerous. What if she hemorrhaged? What if the baby was breech? What if the cord was wrapped and wrapped? What if what if what if?

I recalled a story Mom had told about a birth she’d assisted in the ER. A delivering mother had arrived to the hospital with a foot presented, the rest of the baby still not born. The doctor tickled that foot softly and the baby yanked its foot back into the birth canal. The baby was delivered by emergency cesarean.

Joya wouldn’t entertain any of this fear-mongering. What you focus your energy on is what comes to you, she’d say, and she didn’t invite any of that. Not to herself, not via the people she allowed into her birthing rooms. What ifs had no place in birth. And that meant if you had the privilege of being in the birthing room, your job was to be calm and present, to be useful and to hold the space with your loved ones, for the laboring woman, for the baby making its way to all of you.

“I told Carole about it,” Joya told me once, referring to our mom’s aunt, the one who had beat breast cancer twice, weathering all those rounds of chemo and radiation. “How I don’t feel safe giving birth in the hospital.”

“Then you never will be,” came Carole’s simple and affirming reply.

When Joya had given birth to her first, Rab, in the hospital, the only thing that protected her from an episiotomy was the small shake of our dad’s head when Joya’s doctor — who had interned with our dad — inclined his head as if to ask if Dad didn’t think cutting her wide open wouldn’t help this inconveniently long birth move along.

“He saved me from cesarean, not just episiotomy,” Joya added. “Rab’s heart rate dropped when I got the epidural and he waved off the crowd who rushed in. Can you imagine? My whole child-birthing journey is possible because Dad held a space for me in that moment. And allowed my body and baby to recover from the sudden relief of pain being removed.”

With Momo, Joya’s second, the nurses had started her on Pitocin without her consent. With each medically induced, slamming contraction, she yelled, “These aren’t my contractions!!” Pitocin forces contractions, she explained to me later, at level ten over and over. Ricki Lake in The Business of Being Born and Joya taught me how that led to a cascade of unnecessary interventions. Too-high contractions begat epidurals, which begat women disconnected from their own labor, which begat babies in distress because the women weren’t actively laboring to move them through the birth canal amid these artificially increased contractions, which begat cesarean sections. All of this started because of impatient doctors and nurses who wanted births sped up, in time to be home for dinner.

During Momo’s delivery, I’d positioned myself behind Joya, my hands holding the pressure points on her hips that Ben’s hands had tired from holding. So much of our family was inside this labor room, way more than who was normally allowed in — another perk of having a dad who trained these delivery doctors. But it was crowded. The room was so bright. Little four-year-old Rab was there, a grownup had their hands on his shoulders. And so Rab had a front row seat to the crowning, and I wasn’t sure how he’d react to what he’d be seeing, to the blood, if he’d panic or be scared. When Joya’s pushing came and his brother was born, though, Rab’s eyes got so wide with excitement, his face calm and full of joy. When I talked to him later, I asked him about what he’d seen.

He said he didn’t see much at first. “But then the baby came! Through the dark doors!” He was reliving the moment, the thrill of the surprise rushing through his little boy body again.

Dark doors? Who gave him those words?

Eventually, Dad came around to this idea of Joya laboring at home. When he would come upon her with a cordless phone pressed against her ear, pacing around the carport as he oftentimes would do when he was on call, offering advice to a new mom about a nipple-shy infant or talking them through Braxton Hicks, he’d chuckle and jerk a thumb in her direction, stage whispering, “Dr. Roy!” with his proud, crooked smile.

I looked at Joya closely now, mother of four boys who was hoping for a girl, another mystery baby on the way. She was knitting something, the heels of her hands resting on her belly. I thought about Kali Nath.

“Who was your guiding ancestor?” I asked her.

She shrugged. “They couldn’t identify mine. For this type of divination, you need to know all your ancestors’ names for them to be identified. Irony,” she said. We didn’t know many of our ancestors’ names. Not beyond our grandparents and a handful of aunts, uncles, and cousins on our dad’s side, anyway. We weren’t looking at each other when Joya added that she felt that maybe they didn’t want to talk to her, that maybe she was doing something wrong.

“You’re birthing the next generation, Iya,” I said, using the kid’s title for her. I told her that maybe I could talk with the ancestors for us for now, if they wanted to talk to me.

I felt a sharp pain in my guts that I was becoming accustomed to, the one that was making me bleed once or twice a day with increasing frequency. I felt the spots on my scalp, trying so hard to fill in. I felt the broken bits of me pulled apart and reaching for each other across space and time, lifetimes. I felt my empty wound. Single Anjoli. Alone again. My sisters were married in their twenties, and I was well into my thirties already. Maybe this was what I would bring to our family. Ancestor stories in lieu of babies of my own. That felt like a beautiful invitation, but the thought made me want to cry too.

“What day is your flight again?” she asked.

“The fourth,” I told her. I was returning to Honolulu so soon.

“The fourth,” she repeated, setting down her knitting to put my hand onto the taut skin of her leaping, full belly. “We have until then.”

Months before Joya gave birth, I had a dream that the baby would come breech. Feet first. And was stuck. I had to reach in the dark water of the birthing tub and turn the baby, help the baby be born. I couldn’t see the baby in the dream, but I knew it was okay. That it would come to us okay. I woke with my heart rattling in my chest, feeling in this dream the truth of what was to come, thankful for this warning, maybe from our ancestors, from the spirit world, but also not sure how to speak this thing. If I told Joya, she’d think I was trying to make this thing happen to her, wouldn’t she? I buried this dream deep down, tried to let her go the way of gray women and bad dreams. Joya would be fine. Baby would be fine. Everyone would be fine because they had to be fine. I remembered this and breathed deep until my heart settled down.

It was a cold night, but not as cold as the rest. The moon a jaunty half-full. We walked in the neighbor’s dye garden as gentle trespassers, and he held your hand, a blanket around your shoulders. When you stopped to lean and breathe-breathe-breathe, your belly opened your sweater like curtains on a blustery night, your head down as you held his hips, his hand on your low back. You knew the baby would come in its own time, in the water (and at home, of course) as had your last two. I watched you breathe and counted seconds (poorly) but scribbled on a little pad each time the pain hit, his hand at your back always-always with all those pretty words, pressing and holding those points that you needed pressed and held. Those waves came slowly at first, then in quick succession, a rising tide not to be messed with. We were home when the baby was low and ready, and you both were in the water. I fumbled with the camera I couldn’t get working, and then instead of a head I saw little legs between yours in the water, which set mine wobbling. In this moment, it didn’t help that I’d seen this in a dream, and that it was all okay then. Everything will be fine because it has to be fine, I reminded myself, remembering this mantra, my breath. Remembering that I had dreamed this for a reason. I said prayers, quickly, drawing from some place in me, some place primal and deep, the knowledge that I could reach in those waters and help you twist and free and guide that small form coming out of you, those pale legs in dark water, but I was thankful that he would do it, he the papa, that he wouldn’t answer your question about the sex of the baby (though I think he smiled when you asked) but instead said we should focus on getting the head out, then assisted with his big hands, listening to your patient, slow-worded instructions as if wobbly-legged nervousness was for suckers. This was all normal. In that way that birth was all normal and cosmic and every day and world-shattering, just as it is the purple center of the core of every bit of this bright universe.

And then you two lifted the baby out of the water and in the darkness she looked at you with impossibly wise, quiet eyes that told you all those things promised and yet to be had and it wasn’t until the baby had seen into you that she yowled at last, ringing in her place in the world.

“Can I tell Dad?” I asked. I was at the birthing tub’s edge, watching Joya and Ben watching the baby, their star faces clustered so close together.

“Of course,” Joya said, eyes transfixed and cooing to the new baby, her first girl, her husband in the water with her, all of us with looks of wonder on our faces.

I dashed across our sleeping childhood house with its memorized furniture and called up Dad’s stairs, where I could hear him snoring.

“Dad!” I whisper-yelled. “DAD!!”

I heard him jerk awake.

“Do you want to meet your granddaughter?”

“Granddaughter!” he exclaimed and shuffled down the stairs.

“Hi there, cutie pie!” he said to the small moon face, now breaking into a small cry. “She’s hungry,” he ordered. This declaration, maybe the first thing he’s said to each of his grandchildren.

Joya asked Dad to check the placenta.

“Where is it?” he asked, doctor on scene.

I watched him prod the strange red and purple storm tree, the baby’s guardian angel, maybe, while Joya got the baby to latch on.

“It’s fine,” he said. “It’s in one piece.”

I felt that we all were too.

As we told this story over and over in the following years, it became its own legend.

“She was double footling breech!” Dad would exclaim proudly to former medical students who we’d run into at the grocery store.

Three-year-old Bodhi would be chatting with one or another of us, swinging from the grocery wagon handle while talking about neighborhood concerns like “the dilapidated La Loma bridge” that “needed care” — her words.

“She was born at home, unassisted, water birth, and she’s fine!” Dad would add with relish, watching his small audience’s jaws drop. They would turn their attention, perhaps to access her, mesmerized by her curious and insightful turns of phrase.

In each of these instances of storytelling, my mind would turn to that night. The vision of little legs that emerged from between Joya’s. How grateful I was that I’d had a dream about this, that in the dream I knew what to do even though I didn’t end up having to do anything.

“I’m still so grateful that Ben turned Bodhi, though,” I said to Joya. We were back on the couch in the living room at home.

“But he didn’t,” she said.

“What?” I remembered how Joya had reached down and felt the little white legs, how the baby was born up until the neck, how she’d explained to Ben that he’d need to brace the neck and turn her so that the baby was face up. Then he could bend the baby at the hips and that would help the head be born safely from the birth canal.

“Didn’t Ben brace her neck and turn her? I remember you telling him to do that.”

“He was going to,” Joya said.

Bodhi was building with magnetic tiles with her now-baby sister, baby number six, who was also born at home, but this time with the family all around.

“But when he reached down,” Joya continued, “Bo had already turned.”

Ben with his hands on Bodhi’s body, one on the top and one on the bottom. He knew Joya needed the baby to turn to belly up but he was terrified of turning her the wrong way and breaking her neck. As he paused, Bodhi turned on her own.

Bodhi had abandoned her magnetic tiles by now and was leaning on Joya’s legs, gazing at her face with that hypnotized look I’d come to recognize that children sometimes get when folks are talking about their birth stories. She was listening closely.

“The birth canal, like the structure of DNA’s double helix itself, is a spiral. And she rotated to spin out of me. We’re not sure who did that,” she said to Bodhi and kissed her on the neck.

Bodhi squealed, laughing hard, as if to seal this moment too.

I think back to that moment with Bodhi in the water. Bodhi still in the canal. My heart flopping in my chest, my knees ringing like bells that someone hit hard from the inside. How I checked the impulse to go get Dad. How I chastised myself a bit, remembering what Joya had said for all those years, in her hospital births, which I had attended, which is that any energy in the birthing room impacts the laboring woman. I wanted to keep the waters calm. Why else would I have dreamed this if not to help me keep the calm? And there was a calm. The calm that I recalled from when our stepdad David had left his body. The same calm when Bodhi entered the room. The calm of crossing the threshold, safely. The calm of all of our ancestors right there in the dark spaces, holding us safe and guiding us. The calm of invisible, quiet hands in the water where we needed them.

And yet in that moment, and in that memory, I felt an unknown pain calling, pointing to the unfathomable joy of knowing they were all in the room with us laced with the anguish of not knowing how to call their names.


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