Ah, there is so much more room in my brain this morning! I’m in flight on my way to a week with 2,000 midwives in Albuquerque. This conference is my annual booster shot of enthusiasm for women helping women.
Yesterday was the TED talk! What an experience that was; holy smokes. It has been my dream to take this message to that forum and having the chance to do it was a life-altering experience. I am truly grateful for that chance. I feel like I’ve gotten an entire post-graduate education in two months, and have learned so much about myself and how to push my limits in a new way. I was not expecting this. There was so much investment by so many people. I felt buoyed and supported and it’s been such a gift.
The dress rehearsal was possibly the most scared I have ever been in my life. I thought if I blew it there I would be ruined for the next day. Just ruined. I had been up on the stage several times since the last rehearsal where I froze in the lights. I was getting to like it up there. I was getting comfortable with not seeing the audience. But the stage looked totally different. Big. TED-like. Hollywoodish. My inner self starting doubting whether little ol’ me was supposed to be up there. There was a big red timer on the monitor where we could see our slides. I panicked. I had no idea where I was supposed to be in the script at every minute and I thought that would throw me off. I was afraid of dropping the clicker. I was unprepared for what my voice sounded like with that type of mic. Whole new world. Very, very savvy and skilled tech people were all over the place. I wondered if they often saw people in this state or it was just me. You’d think after all these months of practicing, by the day before one would be ready for anything. They told us this is why they have a dress rehearsal. Yes, of course, they know what they are doing, but I was sure no one else was a scared as me.
I messed up once during the rehearsal but was able to cover it and that boosted my confidence a little. I was not prepared for that level of anxiety, however, and the fact that my lips would not move over my teeth. My mouth has never been that dry. It was like my teeth were covered in sandpaper and my lips were stuck to them and I struggled to make the words come out of my throat to the air in front of me. It was like having to push every word out into the world. It was surreal. I learned that lips are very important and it’s nice when they move freely. I won’t take them for granted anymore. I do a lot of public speaking and have had dry mouth before, but this was in a class of it’s own. Desiccated.
Yesterday was also the thirty-sixth birthday of my firstborn. His birth happened in Malawi when I was a Peace Corps volunteer. I was twenty-three years old and caught between two cultures. Peace Corps insisted I travel to the capitol city for the birth and be attended by one of the two obstetricians in the country. I wanted to be with the midwives, but since I was American and the standard of care here was a doctor, that’s what I had to agree with or be sent home. I didn’t want to go home so I reluctantly complied.
One of the obstetricians was a Catholic nun and she remains one of the women I admire most in the world. I was completely comfortable with her. She made me laugh, was kind and caring, and listened to my frustrations. It was above and beyond the call of duty, since she had hundreds of women in line waiting to see her. I was naive and had no idea what was in store for me. I remember asking her how long she waits before cutting the cord, and she told me, that was like asking what shoe she put on first in the morning. She said they don’t usually call her unless there was an arm and a leg hanging out and the woman had almost bled to death. For her to spend time with me was an incredible waste of her skills, but she never acted as such. I really, really wanted her at my birth. The problem was she would be on home leave when I was due and I would have to be attended by the other OB who I hadn’t met. That was hugely disappointing, but I think it had been something like six years since the poor woman had gone home to visit her mother, so I dug out some compassion from my naive little selfish heart.
The birth was traumatic. It really didn’t need to be. Everything was fine; my baby was fine, but labor was taking a long time, as first babies often do, and OB#2 was not strong in the patience department. He kept trying to convince me to speed things up with Pitocin. I kept refusing. He was getting annoyed with me. I was getting scared of him. I was afraid he’d just say I needed a c-section so I kept trying to stay quiet and not complain. The Malawian nurses didn’t understand my desire to have my husband there. This was contrary to their culture. Men were never in the delivery room and they kept trying to get him to leave. I kept telling them this was our culture. In retrospect it was an interesting exercise in cultural education, but at the time I felt powerless and lost. And labor flipping hurts! I was developing a whole new respect for women who ever did it a second time. I thought you’ d have to be out of your mind to ever do that again.
By the time I was ready to push, OB#2 had completely run out of patience. I asked him a question and his response was, “You seem to have all the answers. Why don’t you tell me?” I lost the battle. He cut me and pulled the baby out with a vacuum, and then, since “I was so intent on doing everything naturally,” he sewed me up with no novocaine. I swear he was enjoying my screams. I hate that man still.
It took me a long time to get over that. I had to figure out a way to turn it into something good. Upon her return from the states, I dumped all of my grief and frustration about the experience onto the wonderful sister OB#1, as if she didn’t have enough to do saving women’s lives. My baby and I were alive; I felt like I shouldn’t be complaining, but I couldn’t stop. She told me to go home and become a midwife and work to change things for women. And that’s what I did.
The irony that my dream of doing a TED talk would become a reality on the anniversary of that birth was hard to get my head around. I went for a walk in the morning trying to calm my nerves. I felt like I had one nine-minute chance to get this message out and if I blew it, the chance would never come around again. I walked in the sunlight. I put my hands on my hips and threw my shoulders back. I walked in a Wonder Woman pose hoping I’d feel more confident that way. At some point during the walk my thoughts shifted from fear of blowing my only chance, to excited anticipation for sharing this message with a compassionate audience. I thought of all the times I’d helped women through that last stage of labor when they universally say, “I can’t do this anymore.” I’d always say to them, “Yes you can. You’ve got the strength in you. Dig it out.” It’s what I wished someone said to me that day 36 years ago. No one said it then, but I heard it yesterday. Many times.
I got dressed and went and pushed that baby out.