Patrice Gopo is a writer living in North Carolina.
Moments ago I’d been crouching on my bed, but now I lay wrapped in a thick duvet. My panting began to slow to a normal cadence. Then a sharp rush. My midsection hardened, followed by intense cramping. With a swift motion, I moved from lying on the bed back to all fours.
“Find your point and focus.”
I heard my mother’s words through the speakers of the computer. My eyes locked on where the edge of the metal curtain rod met the white wall.
Around me, voices and images drifted away.
Before I gave birth to my first child, I didn’t know that between a tightening abdomen and waves of pain, Skype conversations were possible.
While I appreciated that technology could bring someone distant close, my mother wasn’t supposed to be a face on the computer. She was meant to be by my side and not in a living room 10,000 miles away. But my daughter had decided to slide down the birth canal 12 days before expected.
My mother describes herself as a practical person. “I’m a nurse. It’s in the job description,” she often says. When pregnant with her own firstborn—my older sister—her contractions began in the midst of an overnight shift in the labor and delivery unit. She completed the night’s job before calling to admit herself as a patient.
Three decades later, I asked her to be with me when I gave birth for the first time. As a nurse, my mother held expert knowledge about supporting the birthing process. In her lifetime, she had helped more laboring mothers than she could remember.
“I will come early,” she’d said about flying halfway across the globe from my hometown in Anchorage, Alaska, to my married home in Cape Town, South Africa. “I’ll help you finish last-minute preparations.”
What better birth coach could there be? Probably a birth coach in the same room as me. Just before the scheduled beginning of her 36-hour journey crossing the world, she called. “They won’t let me fly. My passport is expired.”
“What? But are you still coming? When are you coming?” I paced back and forth in an attempt to slow my building anxiety.
“Not to worry. Five days. I will be there in five days,” she said in a calm voice that reflected her even temperament.
After the call ended, I threw myself on my bed and put a pillow over my head as if the slight weight might soften my distress. Hours later, my Braxton Hicks contractions escalated to something with greater force.
That night—when my mother should have been 30,000 feet above the Atlantic Ocean—I squatted on the bathroom floor, the phone cradled against my ear. After another debilitating contraction left me with a whisper in my voice, I said, “Mom, I don’t think I can do this.”
“Yes, you can.” My mother’s positive, commanding words came through the phone line. “Your body is doing exactly what it should.”
The heightened adrenaline made it difficult for my husband and me to recall and implement skills from birth class. As each contraction seized me, I couldn’t visualize any relaxing image. During the one minute that my body tensed, I wanted to—and often did—curl myself up, as I envisioned my baby folded inside of me.
“Let’s talk on Skype,” my mother suggested.
Her solution meant we could see each other. She could watch my body language for clues to my pain level and readiness. Her coaching could be more directed. Across continents, she chatted as if this were a normal day and not the middle of the night during my first, and unexpectedly early, labor.
When the next contraction began, I heard her confident, steady voice telling me to choose a single point to focus on. Just stare there. I picked where the curtain rod butted up against the wall.
As night turned to dawn, with every new contraction I moved from resting on the bed to crouching and staring at my point. In the background, my husband and my mother applauded my body’s work.
The sounds of morning began to float through our apartment—car engines starting, the bustle of people on the street. It was time to shut down the computer and head to the hospital.
Later that day, my newborn daughter’s fist curled around my thumb. Five days later, exactly when she’d assured me she’d arrive, my mother felt that same fist curl around her thumb too.
I suppose my mother’s words weren’t so different from what I’d seen in movies: find a focal point, focus, breathe, you can do this. Yet layered beneath what I heard, woven in her inflection and intonation, sat a deep belief in my ability to labor. A summoning of strength for me when I doubted myself.
I began labor thinking I needed my mother because she was a nurse—but as it turned out, I needed this nurse because she was my mother. If she couldn’t have been in the same room, the other side of the world became almost as good.