Women, on the point of bringing forth, will beg of thee a good delivery. All this wilt thou grant unto them, as it lies in thy power, O Ardvi Sura Anahita! – Hymn to the Waters, Avesta
Thirty-year-old Parissa Nouri was lying in bed in a semi-private room at the Obstetrics Department of the Montreal General Hospital. It was mid-March of 1976, and there was a heavy snowstorm outside. Around four in the morning, she had been taken, on the shift doctor's order, to the operating room for a caesarean section. The substitute doctor, an unfamiliar face, explained to her that the foetus was in a breach position, that she was not dilating sufficiently, and that it was dangerous to wait any longer. She had to put up with needles she hated and drugs she abhorred. The very long and painful contractions she had gone through for the last two hours or so made her agree to the operation.
Parissa's younger sister, Poupak, had accompanied her to the hospital in a taxi around eleven o'clock the previous evening when her contractions were still bearable. Parissa had happily undergone five months of preparation for natural childbirth. She had taken a Lamaze-like class where Poupak had been coaching her in breathing and pushing exercises, while singing the recommended silly songs to her. However, all the fuss and hope for a drug-free labour and natural childbirth experience collapsed when she was told, for the first time, by her replacement obstetrician, that the foetus had not dropped. Had her baby suddenly decided to come out feet first, or had her less than conscientious doctor judged it unimportant to inform her of her condition, during his last several meetings with her?
When she had first visited her obstetrician and told him that she had read Dr. Frederick Leboyer's recent book Birth without Violence and wanted an underwater birthing, the man had gotten angry and scorned her, “It is because of naive women such as yourself that the likes of Leboyer are selling thousands of copies of nonsense books and getting rich.” Stressed by her doctor's protestations, Parissa caved in and decided to stick to the mainstream version of a “natural childbirth.” But, now this! Why didn't her doctor tell her about the foetus' position earlier? Why didn't he try to turn the breech foetus into a head-down position before labour began? He could have pressed on specific areas of her abdomen to turn the foetus, couldn't he? Why didn't he care?
The Caesarean section lasted about half an hour and Parissa's baby daughter was born at the dawn of the day, out of the belly of her completely anaesthetised mother. Parissa didn't participate in her own baby's birth, which hurt her profoundly.
A few hours later, in a room full of dozing women, Parissa was awakened by the loud voice of a nurse who was repeatedly calling her name. The nurse transported her on a wheeled bed through a corridor and showed her a new-born baby held by another nurse behind a window. The baby seemed to be looking directly at Parissa, her turned-up nose shining and her big black eyes staring expectantly at her mum.
“This is your daughter,” the nearby nurse said softly.
“She is beautiful! She is so beautiful!” Parissa exclaimed, fascinated by the perfect face of this long-awaited angel she had already named Elika, for the Mazandarani village where her own mother was born. Soon, she was swiftly returned to her room. Once put in her bed, Parissa asked the nurse if the baby could be brought to her so that she could hold her for a while.
“You're in no position to hold your baby,” the nurse replied sternly before quickly disappearing.
In the evening, Parissa woke up from a long deep sleep, had her supper, took her painkillers, and asked for her baby again. A young nurse brought the baby to her room.
“You can look at her for only a minute. Then I have to take her back right away,” she said.
“Ok, but, could you please hand her over to me? I want to hold her in my arms,” Parissa begged, searching in her baby's face for something of herself.
“I'm putting the baby in this bassinet away from you. If you think you are able to hold her, come and pick her up by yourself,” the nurse challenged Parissa.
“Oh, no! You know quite well that I cannot walk yet. But if you just put her in my arms, I would be able to hold and caress her. Please!”
Ignoring Parissa's plight, the nurse grinned at her and left the room with the baby. Parissa wanted to cry, but her whole body was numbed by all the medication. Her throat constricted and she felt how uncared-for both she and her daughter were in the first days of their lives together.
Around midnight, an older nurse came in. Parissa asked her how the baby was doing.
“She is constantly crying; doesn't allow other babies to sleep. The whole nursery is crying because of her,” she said.
“Well, of course! My baby needs me,” Parissa shouted and then burst into tears. Her stitches began to hurt her terribly. She couldn't stop crying. Too much frustration in one day. And her sobs grew louder. The same older nurse came in again with some painkillers. While still crying, Parissa put the pills in her mouth, drank from the little paper cup, and turned her back to the door.
She visualised the nursery where her daughter was being kept away from her. She saw hundreds of new-born babies screaming, tens of nurses running around trying to shut them up. She saw herself walking along the narrow aisle of that noisy hell before entering into a quiet corridor that lead to a bright window. She opened the window with a gentle push and bent over to look down. There it was, the green backyard of her childhood, with flowers and trees. Parissa flew down and reached the ground. It was a hot summer day in 1946, in Tehran, and the freshness of the watered petunias was overwhelming. She entered the house. Even though it was so quiet, Parissa knew that there were a handful of people inside, moving around. She turned left and opened a familiar door. It was dark inside. She rubbed her eyes with the heels of her palms and tried to see what was going on in the bedroom. There were thick crimson velvet curtains pulled over all the large windows. Her own young birthing mother, Maneli, was lying on a white bedspread on the further side of the room. Four women were moving around her elegantly, whispering, as if performing a sacred ceremony. One of them was a midwife, called in after Maneli told the other three women, her closest relatives, that her contractions were announcing the imminent delivery. The three women quickly spread a nice clean mattress on the colourful Persian carpet, pulled the curtains, lowered their voices and burnt heart-warming wild-rue incense. Parissa was watching her eighteen-year-old mother going through the pain of giving birth to her. Soon, she slipped out of her mother into the attentive hands of the midwife who put her at once on her mother's chest. Baby Parissa's whole little body was feeling her mother's after a very short separation. The new-born had entered a space that was closest in ambience to her mother's womb: a warm, dark and quiet room. One of the attending women rushed out to fetch almond oil from a neighbour. The midwife was going to give the baby a massage, after washing her in a glazed basin and drying her in a clean flannel sheet. Parissa's mother breast-fed her the same day. The birth was a union, a moment of epiphany for both mother and child.
The remembered smell of her mother's milk made Parissa adopt a foetal position in her hospital bed. Her mother had almost died when she was born, hence her name Maneli, which means “Stay for Me” in Mazandarani dialect. Parissa saw her birthing mother more clearly: a blue-eyed mountain woman with wet and wavy blond hair dishevelled around her delicate face; a woman who looked so selfless, so absorbed by the room's caring occupants, as if her pain belonged to all women, as if she was but one of her female companions. She was not in much pain during the delivery, as her young body adapted easily to the labour pangs. Looking pale and serious, she was more of a participant than a passive pain-stricken patient. A deep psychic satisfaction carried Parissa to a relaxed state and soon made her fall asleep.
When she woke up to the brightness of the sunrays through the window, Parissa glanced at a hyacinth flower plant on her bedside table. Poupak had come for a visit the previous evening while she was asleep. She then fixed her gaze on the cold, empty walls of her hospital room and thought of her daughter and their nine months of attachment. The birth was a violent separation, a moment of hell for both of them. A line of tears ran down her face and burnt the skin of her soul. “Mother of all Gods, Anahita, why didn't you help me birth the way you intended and designed my body to do, naturally?” she murmured.
Moments later, she felt that the patch of sun on the opposite wall was moving like a vortex and becoming brighter. She could not take her eyes off of this blazing form that soon turned into a female shape that swallowed the entire room and gave her a deep sense of serenity. Parissa put her head on the shoulder of Goddess Anahita and closed her eyes. She asked the Goddess to tell her how Elika was going to be doing in thirty years while giving birth to her own child. Was she going to be at the mercy of the medical establishment like herself? Was her own obstetrician going to threaten to have her arrested for child abuse if she carried out her plan to give birth at home or in the water?
The Goddess lifted Parissa from her bed and carried her in her arms through the hospital walls to the year 2006 when women in North-America could give birth without medical intervention, and when water birth was on the way to becoming an available option.
They entered a house on Salt Spring Island in British Columbia and saw Elika as a thirty year-old pregnant woman, working in her back garden. As soon as Elika waved to her mother and the glorious woman who was accompanying her, she began having contractions. She had been having contractions for the last two weeks and today was just a day before her due date. By the time they gathered in the kitchen for herbal tea, Elika had her third contraction and was leaning over the kitchen table. Parissa asked for the midwife's number and called her on her cell-phone. As two of her friends were walking in the door, Elika was squatting and hanging onto the kitchen counter.
Guided by the Goddess, Parissa ran the warm water in the portable immersion pool and put on a bathing suit. Then, Elika's excited friends helped her get the bulb syringe and other items ready. The midwife was on her way, the contractions were so close, and Elika managed to take off her shirt and pants with everybody's help. Parissa got into the rented birthing pool with her daughter, holding her from behind in her lap, while Goddess Anahita knelt in front of the pool and the two friends assisted from the sides. The warm water helped Elika relax. The high-walled birthing pool had enough depth for her to achieve buoyancy. It was wide enough for easy position changes, and provided plenty of space for both the labouring mother and her attendant. A built-in heater maintained the water at a temperature that was comfortable for Elika and safe for the baby.
Elika could tell the birth was going fast. As she pushed, she could feel her baby's head inside her. She pushed through several contractions, and then the baby was crowning. The head emerged and the baby came right out of her mother through the last contraction and push. Parissa massaged her granddaughter's back and she cried. The midwife arrived, cut the cord and did the weighing and measuring. It was a fifty-minute birth. Elika cuddled baby Shirin next to her breast and nursed her. Elika's friends welcomed the new baby with open arms and smiles. It was wonderful to have her born into the hands of her grandmother and the hearts of her close friends.
On their way back to the Montreal hospital room of 1976, Parissa spoke to the Goddess.
“I'm so glad my grandchild is going to be home-birthed, water-birthed, and breastfed. Women who birth in water will have a strong message to deliver to the medical establishment. It's so inspiring for me to see their insight and courage.”
“My will is to keep the home-birth tradition everywhere on the planet and to open water birth centres anywhere possible,” the Goddess said. “By witnessing the power of birthing women, doctors and nurses will begin to rely less on medical interventions and more on the woman's natural ability to give birth.”
Then, as they gently landed on the hospital bed, the Goddess began laughing. “Elika's friends confessed to me that they were worried the baby couldn't breathe in the water,” she said. “I told them that a new-born doesn't start breathing right away, that when a baby is first born, she doesn't breathe oxygen because she's still using the placenta until the umbilical cord is cut.” After uttering these last words, she turned into a vortex of light again, while her sweet laughing voice warmed up the cold hospital room, “You should have seen the twinkle of surprise in their eyes. Where have they been? “
Parissa smiled and breathed deeply. It was still eleven in the morning and she was hoping to hold her daughter in her arms soon after the lunch. The door opened and a horde of smiling guests, her brother and sister carrying huge bouquets of flowers in front of fruit-carrying friends, stepped in. For the next hour, Parissa's mind was off all her worries. Her visitors entertained her, made her laugh repeatedly and then naughtily sang, “It hurts only when you laugh!” They all left when an aid brought in the meal and medication.
After a short afternoon nap, Parissa pulled on the call bell to ask someone to bring her baby and allow her to hold her and make a bond with her. Hours passed and different aids came and turned the call bell off and left. Parissa waited and waited and waited, and slowly descended into the deep, dark waters of depression. She was a companion to the upward moving bodies of nine million midwives and herbalists who were burnt alive as witches in the hands of the Churchmen and male doctors of the Medieval Europe. At the end of the day, they all floated like dead fish on the waters of Anahita.
Subscribe to The Iranian newsletter
Sign up for our daily newsletter to get the top news stories delivered to your inbox.