I’ve been hanging out in Austin, Texas this last week, teaching a prenatal yoga teacher training at Yoga Yoga. It’s a trip I look forward to every year. There is a strong and vibrant yoga community here in Austin, the class is always packed, the community welcoming, and it is one of my favorite cities – a city I used to live in. A city that was my father’s home for the last eighteen years of his life.
This week has been a sort of running riff on my dad, as I walk the streets of his old neighborhood and spend evenings with my uncle, his younger brother. On Wednesday I opened the workshop by acknowledging to my students that he was in many ways the reason why I was teaching this particular workshop. On Thursday my uncle and I celebrated what would have been his 85th birthday with a bottle of wine, a commemorative dish of ice cream, and a whole lot of family stories, going back a couple of generations. As part of that celebration, my uncle gave me an album of photographs of my father from birth till just a few years before his death. I also posted a photograph of him on my Facebook page. A childhood friend who is like a brother to me responded by posting another photograph I’d never seen before. Another friend weighed in with her recollections of him. I feel like I’m surrounded by images, memories, and stories of Blair.
Dad was born in Englewood, New Jersey in 1927. The son of a highly respected family practitioner and a retired nurse who had briefly worked in Margaret Sanger’s clinic in New York City, he grew up with medicine in his blood. At seventeen, he lied about his age and joined the Navy, serving as a medic in the Pacific theater during the last days of World War II. After another stint as a medic during the Korean War, and before he met my mother, Dad’s adventurous nature led him to spend time digging for gold in the Honduras, where he also helped to provide medical services in the remote areas where he was living (My father was never happier than when he was practicing medicine in the jungle, preferably by flashlight.).
When I was born in 1955 at Englewood Hospital, which stood next door to the apartment where my parents lived above my grandfather’s office, Dad was working as a photographer. He later went on to nursing school, becoming one of a very few male nurses of that era. My father worked as a nurse for a number of years, including a short stint running a clinic for Caltex Oil Company in a remote area of Indonesia when I was about four years old. He often took me and my sisters with him on house calls, usually traveling by boat to river houses built on stilts. One of my early memories is getting peed on by a baby boy who was cradled in a hammock strung from the ceiling of a riverside hut – we were probably making a postpartum visit. He continued his path toward medicine after we returned to the states, eventually enrolling at the Philadelphia College of Osteopathy 1n 1963 – yet another move for our family which by then included four girls, born less than 5 years apart. He graduated from medical school at the age of forty in 1967.
My dad followed in his father’s footsteps, opening a general family practice in Hollywood, Florida, a practice that included delivering babies at a couple of the local hospitals. A much beloved doctor, but a lousy money manager, and never particularly fond of authority, the rising cost of obstetrical malpractice insurance for hospital privileges pissed him off. (“Fuck this shit,” is what I remember him saying. Dad had a very salty mouth, something his daughters also inherited.). So he quit paying it and started delivering babies at home in the early 1970’s.
So the first birth I ever witnessed was a home birth, which took place in a two story shuttered wooden structure rare in Florida, where most homes were cheaply built ranch houses, on several acres out in the flat Florida countryside. It was 1976. I had just turned twenty, and was visiting my father as part of an extended cross-country road trip taken with a friend after having lived in Arizona for a couple of years. In fact, my friend Pat and I were stranded at my dad’s house for six weeks that summer while we figured out how to replace the transmission of Pat’s ‘66 Volkswagen bus, using the classic Compleat Idiot’s Guide to Volkswagen Repair. (Lack of money and a willingness to get your hands dirty go a long way when you’re twenty).
The couple having the baby was part of an extended family that was good friends with my father. So Dad invited me, Pat, my sister Kate, and my uncle along for the ride, mostly to wander the grounds while he and his nurse took care of business. Tied into my memories of that visit was being taken to see a night blooming cereus – which blooms only once a year – blossom by moonlight and flashlight, the blooms of the cactus intertwined far up into the tall branches of a tree.
My recollections of that day are hazy and drifting, except for this: at some point I found myself standing in a doorway at the moment the mother gave birth, the baby caught not by my father, but by his nurse – he stepped aside so that she could make her first catch. I remember watching the bawling babe being handed up to its mother, the father cutting the cord. It was a relaxed, joyous occasion, full of laughter and ease. Several minutes after the baby was born, the great wooden shutters that protected the ground floor bedroom from the outside world were opened, and the grandparents stood in the window, arms resting on the sill, smiling and taking in the sight of their newest grandchild. There was so much love in that room – love that it has taken me years to fully appreciate. This was my first experience with birth. It seemed kind of cool, but at the age of twenty, pregnancy and childbirth were about the last things on my mind. The memory got put on the back burner to await future recall. Shortly afterward, my father gave up family practice for a commission in the Air Force, where he ran an obgyn clinic in Okinawa for four years before being transferred to Bergstrom Air Force base in Austin.
Fast-forward about twenty years. I see a notice on a bulletin board for a training to learn how to support women during childbirth, and know instantly that this is something I must do. During the training we watch a movie about vaginal breech birth. Suddenly my eyes fill with tears and I have to leave the room. I had been a breech baby.
In the 1950’s, breech babies were almost always delivered vaginally, even for first time mothers. Through his family connections at Englewood hospital, Dad had been able to be present at my birth (he was also present at the births of all my younger sisters). Witnessing a breech birth had triggered the realization that the only person who could tell me the details of my birth – who’d actually been awake and present the moment I came into the world, was my father. And he was gone. He’d died the year before. The fact that he’d been present at my birth – at a time when most men were relegated to cigars and a waiting room – meant that he must have wanted to be there. I was overwhelmed.
A couple of years ago on my birthday, my mother, now in her eighties, told me the story of my birth from her perspective, and in doing so filled in another piece of my father’s influence on birthing matters. I’d always known that we had been breastfed, a rarity in the 1950’s and 60’s, because I could remember seeing my mother breastfeed my younger sisters. What I hadn’t known was this – that my father was a big proponent of natural birth, that he wanted my mother to “Lamaze” it with me (though my mother had her doubts). That had been the plan for my birth. But when my mother went into labor, and it was discovered I was breech, the OB wanted to put her under so he could control the process. My dad gowned up and was present when I emerged butt first, something I have been living down the rest of my life. My mother doesn’t remember being fully awake for a couple of days, after which she struggled with postpartum adjustment for months. I can only imagine how hard it must have been for her, waking up to find a crying baby in her arms, with no recollection of how it got there. It took fifty four years for her to be able to tell me that story.
She also told me that that my father was a big proponent of breastfeeding. Given how hard it must have been to go against the dominant bottle-feeding culture of the time, this was another gift my parents gave me and my sisters. I grew up thinking that breastfeeding was what you did because that was what I had witnessed as a child. So when it came time for me to have a child, breastfeeding was the norm from which I chose not to deviate. Normal was, well, normal.
I’ve come to realize that much of my approach to birth and early parenting is rooted in childhood experiences, many of which I do not consciously remember. They are part of my cultural heritage, silent gifts laid down in my bones. And so while I’m in the town my father loved so much, I want to acknowledge the man who not only gave me the gift of life, but also profoundly influenced the career path I dearly love. And he did this not through the words he said, the philosophies he spouted, but through his actions, through who he was as a human being. Like the night blooming cereus, his legacy is woven into the branches of my life.
Here’s to you, Dad. Thank you.
How about you? Who and what influenced your perspectives on birth? What do you know of the story of your own birth? By bringing our birth stories to light, we deepen our understanding of how these experiences shape our lives, of the lineage that helps make us who we are. These stories are important parts of our cultural heritage. I’d love to hear yours.