I first observed this pause at a home birth in the Bronx, where I helped Laura and Neil work through a rather zippy labor. Neil’s eight brothers and sisters had all been born at home in Ireland, and home birth had made immediate sense to Laura when I raised it as a possibility months earlier as she mapped out elaborate plans to arrive at the hospital as late as humanly possible.
But now, after 5 or so hours of strong, active labor on a cold, January morning, Laura’s contractions changed and it was clear that she was pushing. She climbed out of the birth pool and soon she was pushing, hanging off the edge of a table and even walking up and down stairs. Finally, Laura birthed her baby on her living room floor. She was on all fours, kneeling in the warmth of a brilliant, winter sunlight. Valeriana Pasqua-Masback, her midwife, and Neil crouched behind her to catch the baby. I knelt in front of her, her arms wrapped around my thighs, her camera in my hands.
As I photographed the moment Riley was born, I realized I was capturing something I’d never seen before. What I witnessed would forever change the way I view birth. After Neil and Valeriana caught the baby, Valeriana did not hand the baby directly to Laura. Instead, she passed the baby through Laura’s legs and lay the baby on soft pads covering the floor below her. As Valeriana guided the baby onto the pads, Laura’s eyes were still closed and her head lowered as her whole body seemed to sigh from the effort she’d just made to birth her baby. For an impossibly long breath, she paused, and hung her head even lower in a gesture that spoke to a deep exhaustion.
Neil came up close behind her. She opened her eyes and quietly sat back on her heels. Together they knelt above their baby, studying their child below. Time passed slowly. They stared down at their daughter, mesmerized, taking in this new being. Laura turned toward Neil and kissed him. She then reached out to touch her newly born child. She felt her baby’s hands and then slowly touched her baby’s legs and arms. She stroked her baby’s sides and then wrapped her hands around her child’s body. Carefully, but with a clear confidence and readiness, she brought her daughter up to her chest, embracing her for the first time.
As I watched Laura, I thought that each move seemed to have its own kind of integrity: she took a moment to pause and catch her breath after the momentous effort she had just made to her birth her baby; she then studied her daughter visually and reached out for that exquisite first touch. Finally, she gathered her daughter in.
Within the space of these impossibly slow, sweet moments that added up to barely a minute or two, Laura and Neil arrived on the other side of birth in what appeared to me to be a very special way; they arrived, in their own time, as parents. They claimed their child.- Mary Esther Malloy