There I was, in the throes of labor. Covered in sweat, holding the hand of a girlfriend. Trying to remember to breath, relax and not work against myself. The complex hormones of labor made my body shake. It was the hardest work I've ever done or probably ever will do- giving birth. In the heat of the moment during labor with my first child, I swore I'd never do it again. It felt too hard. Yet Mother Nature has its way of helping us forget. I did it again 18 months later.
In the years following my labors, my husband Patrick would talk about how hard a large game hunt was, and I would reply quite emphatically "Well, thats nothing compared to childbirth". Nothing could possibly compare to the work I did and sensations endured to give birth. "I don't know about that, Zoya. You try carrying 120 pounds of meat on your back over a mountain ridge." he would reply.
A tension lingered. Who was stronger, which experience was harder? And why did it even really matter to us? We support and encourage each other. It was a subtle battle of the sexes.
When October arrives every year, the scene is a familiar one at our house: Patrick returning from some sort of big game hunt which involves miles of hiking over mountain peaks with a pack of 100+ pounds on it. Patrick gets out of the car, in a flexed position and slowly limps to the house. There is usually a moan or two involved as well as salmon berry bush scratches all along his arms. Sometimes I run a bath, fill it with epsom salts and watch as he slowly sinks into the tub, trying to keep his leg muscles from cramping up.
In these mountain treks, there is pain. I've never been hunting but have seen videos and pictures of the terrain covered and the bulkiness of the packs carried. I've seen the limps, the scratches, heard the stories. Seen the chipped teeth. I believe there is pain.
Pain is an unavoidable experience of life. It is a warning signal to us that something is being or could be damaged in our bodies.
Some say pain is unavoidable and suffering is optional. I don't believe that, but suffering is definitely a perception of that pain or experience. A runner who experiences pain from lactic acid from pushing himself hard would not see himself as suffering when he comes over the finish line.
Some women fear the pain of childbirth. Women are worried that the pain will be greater than them. Or they don't understand where the pain comes from, or what they can do to lessen the intensity of pain. Women are so strong and amazing and what better chance to display such strength and resilience than in labor and childbirth.
In our primal, tribe-like ways, we need each others physical encouragement, guidance, support. Not in the shape of Facebook likes or twitter posts, but in the physical presence of others. Women in labor who are physically and emotionally supported by others require fewer pain medications, have fewer medical complications such as cesarean, and have faster labors. And it reduces the chances for suffering or feeling alone.
Patrick and I finally met each other half way in our battle of the sexes. It happened one early September years ago while he was on the final day of a sheep hunt in the Brooks range. Patrick called from the Satellite phone and sounded miserable. "I think I'm in transition," He joked. (Transition is often the most grueling part of labor, right before pushing the baby out.) He had climbed 2000 feet over a pass and was 5 hours into a 12 hour hike with 110 pound pack of sheep meat and gear. Patrick and his hunting buddy Gregg hiked 10 miles that day, and Patrick described it as grueling. There was no stopping. No out. Ouch. I was glad I wasn't them. But I was so glad they had each other in that time.
When I went to bed that night, the rain and wind pounded rain against my bedroom window. I pulled the blankets up higher up to my chin. I was grateful for the work that he did to get our family good meat. When he came home from that hunt, I told him I didn't think I could do what he did. He seemed to appreciate hearing this. Some time later he admitted that he wasn't sure he could endure childbirth as well as I did. It took me by pleasant surprise, to hear him admit this to me.
Hunting can be brutal. But so rewarding with meat and sense of accomplishment.
Childbirth can be brutal. But can also be so out of this world amazing. And an experience which transforms a woman into a mother.
And more importantly is the validation we need of each others challenges, pains or suffering? This brings all of us a stronger sense of self. A better human existence. In the form of a supportive hand, encouraging words, supportive laughter. This is the element which enables us to move forward. One step, one breath at at time. Together.