We were in southern Iraq when I found out I was pregnant with our first baby.
Ironically, we were working at a hospital serving children and their mamas when I got the news. My husband and I had moved over to Iraq during the war to help provide medical care, specifically lifesaving surgeries for children.
We weren’t trying to get pregnant and my periods were so irregular at the time I didn’t even realize I had missed it, but that morning I didn’t want to go to the buffet for breakfast. If you know me, you know this was really odd because I love a good buffet and this hotel was putting out a serious spread.
The smells were suddenly repulsive, though, and I knew something was off. I called the local guy who was helping us get around and told him I had to go to the pharmacy. I wouldn’t tell him why and I’m guessing he thought I needed Immodium or something. I put on my abaya and covered my head with a hijab and off we went, weaving through the busy streets. With only my face showing, I had been told I looked Iraqi, but the charade was over as soon as I opened my mouth. When I asked the woman behind the counter for a pregnancy test she quickly replied, “Are you married?” I responded “yes,” wondering if there were rules about this here. Then she asked “To an American?” I wasn’t sure what that had to do with anything but told her yes again and she gave me the test.
It cost 25 cents and was nothing but a strip of plastic with some writing on it. It worked, though, and with that we knew our first baby was on the way.
As my belly grew, we made plans to go back to the United States for the birth. I was able to see a local obstetrician and have an ultrasound to make sure things were ok, but there weren’t any hospitals there that I felt comfortable having a baby in. We figured if we were going to go out of the country anyway, we might as well go all the way home and be with family and have more birth options. I hoped to have a water birth and had already found a birth center near my parent’s house.
You can only fly internationally up to 28 weeks, so we planned for me to leave around then and my husband would come closer to the birth. I had already been in touch with the birth center and made my first appointment. I was so excited to meet the midwives and eat all the American food I had been missing.
I had a lot of catching up to do; so many tests, and so much paperwork. It was my third or fourth appointment there when the senior midwife took me back to the birthing room and sat me down to deliver some bad news. I had gestational diabetes and, because I hadn’t been tracking my blood sugar levels, I was considered high risk and couldn’t birth at the center.
I was devastated. All the stress that had been building up with everything I had gone through to get there came out right then and she must have missed her next appointment waiting for me to stop sobbing.
But plans changed, as they do, and she gave me a recommendation for a doctor at a nearby hospital. I also found a doula who would help guide me through the birth. That doula ended up being a lifesaver because on the morning of the birth I went to the hospital WAY too early and I think they would have kept me there all day if she hadn’t said “come to my house, you can labor there.”
It was something like eight hours of walking back and forth in her backyard, trying every position imaginable, puking on her tree and standing in her shower, finding a bit of relief as the hot water washed over my contracting body; and then finally at 9pm, my water broke. We got ourselves back to the hospital for two hours of squatting and pushing and then we finally got to meet our son.
The day was so long and so painful but when I held him in my arms, I was in awe of what my body had done. I felt so empowered and looked at my husband and said “Let’s do that again!”
Over the next four years I had two more children and was able to have them the way I wanted, but none of them were like the first. I never felt as strong and capable as I did that first time I felt my body grow and then push out a tiny human being.
We recently left Iraq and moved back home to the United States. I am grateful for the work we did alongside mothers in hospitals during the war, but it wasn’t quite as ‘real’ for me until I had a baby of my own. I always respected mothers, but now I am in awe of them.
I’ve seen first-hand the kind of impact our compassion can have in impoverished, war torn communities, I’ve seen the incredible dignity and brilliance of mothers in very dire circumstances, and I’ve seen just how important a motherhood community can be in offering support and care to new moms. Thank you for choosing to be a part!