One of the least forgettable sights in a long and varied lifetime is the serene, wet face of a half-born grandchild before the rest of his or her body emerges.
Like my generation in the United States, I had had no education in natural childbirth. When my own four children were being produced during the 1940s, puerperal fever, though rare, was still feared as a killer, as antibiotics had not yet been invented. The sterile conditions of the hospital were hailed as a major lifesaver. But humanly, the hospital atmosphere was chill and impersonal. As the woman's labor pains mounted, the anesthetic would be administered by doctor or nurse without so much as a by-your-leave.
With my youngest daughter, Claudia Bingham Meyer, about to give birth to her second child in Washington, D.C. in the 1970s, there was no hospital, no doctor, no nurse, no anesthetic and no sterile conditions.
Instead she had the supportive presence of her husband who had attended natural childbirth classes with her and a Lamaza monatrice or labor coach, who had had practical experience in the procedures of normal delivery. It was hoped that if something untoward happened -- as is the case with 5 percent of all births -- the monatrice could recognize it early enough to telephone the obstetrician. Also available was the usual emergency ambulance service that could whisk a hemorraging mother or oxygen-starved baby, perhaps in time, to the very hospital the parents had opted to avoid.
Statistically more dangerous than flirting with the Grim Reaper was flirting with brain damage to the infant. But I was given only two choices. One was to stay home and worry. The other was to attend the birth and try not to worry. For if I worried too much, I was warned, my "negative vibrations" might interfere with the anticipated happy result. This was, I realized, a bind for me, since if something did go wrong and I hollered for help, then I could be partly blamed for a dire result. On the other hand, I had made sure that the young people knew the full medical risks and therefore I had nothing to add. (The Finkbine Rule, named for my Vassar roommate, Adelaide, is never to be in a position where people can fairly say "Why didn't you tell me?" Tell them -- once.) Our daughter, after all, was a grown woman of 25. She had already produced one child. It was her body, her baby, her choice.
I could either guard my psyche by absenting myself or I could be with her and share what might be a time of bliss -- or unspeakable horror. I was flattered that she wanted me. I was also curious. Although I deplored her further plan to have her five-year-old son present "for the birthing," there was no way I could prevent that either. I did report once what Dr. Freud would have said, but that was brushed aside. If worst came to worst, I figured, I could always spirit the kid out of the room, or mash my hand down over his eyes. I asked the opinion of my good gray obstetrician. "My God," he shouted, "don't go."
That did it.
Our daughter and her husband, a Maryland man, are members of a spiritual commune comprised mostly of young white Americans from middle or upper economic backgrounds who have converted to the Sikh religion. The Sikh movement is the same vintage of Protestantism. It was founded in the Punjab by Guru Nanak in an attempt to bridge the doctrinal gap and growing hostility between his Hindu and Moslem compatriates.
Among the Sikh missionaries migrating to the U.S. was Yogi Bhajan who arrived from India during the Flower Child period of the latter '60s. His organization is called 3HO (Happy, Healthy, Holy Organization). Its adherents eschew all drugs, including alcohol and nicotine, together with meat, fish, eggs, processed foods, soft drinks chocolate and sugar. Our daughter Claudia met and married Tom Meyers within this organization and they have been with it now for eight years. Their hundred-or-so colleagues in the Washington area run a successful health-food restaurant and wholesale shoe business, a landscaping service, house-cleaning service, and a retail store, The Golden Temple Emporium. The most recent housing acquisition by the group is a multi-family dwelling that cost $250,000.
Some of these young people had previously besmirched their self-image under the influence of drugs, or the experience of living without any boundaries, inner or outer. Through the single commitment of joining 3HO, they now avoid all such confusion, and through the austerities they practice, feel cleansed, purified, and uplifted. Group living provides mutual reinforcement for remaining on their arduous spiritual path. Because they consider marriage a lifelong commitment they avoid premarital and extramarital sex.
They arise at 3:30 a.m., take a cold shower, and then chant, do yoga, and meditate, each for an hour. The "high" thus attainable, they say, is far greater and more lasting that the "druggy" kind. They feel in touch with God.
After a breakfast of fruit, toast or cereal, and yogurt, they do a full day's work "our daughter is a Montessori teacher). Like the orthodox Indian Sikhs, they allow no hair of head or body to be cut. (There is no prepping of a mother before childbirth.)
My daughter and her husband paid $150 each to change their names legally. She is now Gurunam Kaur, he is Gurunam Singh. "It is hard," she says, "to lose your temper at someone you address as 'Wisdom of the Divine.'" It is perhaps not irrelevant that on her father's side she is decended from a line of American Protestant missionaries who brought the Bible (and translated it), first to the Sandwich Islands (Hawaii) and then to the Gilbert Islands. One of ehr paternal uncles was a missionary in China before World War II and another went there as part of the Yale-in-China educational endeavors.
Her father, Jonathan Bingham, a member of Congress from New York City, was sitting drowsily at the wheel of our car, having driven me at 3 a.m. from our home in picturesque Georgetown to the area of midtown Washington where our daughter and her husband were living. He, Gurunam Singh, had awakened us by telephone in the wintry night to announce that labor was well under way. As I swung my legs out of the car, I turned back to my husband, who was wearing his pajamas under his overcoat. "Are you sure you don't want to come in?"
There was no ambivalence in his voice. "I'm very sure."
When I stepped inside the door, I was, as always, overwhelmed by the quintessential foreignness of the smell of incense. In the hall were hanging the residents' various sizes and shapes of coats. Below stood their twice-as-many-shoes. I removed my own shoes and slipped on a pair of white peds for warmth over the feet of my white tights. The rest of my costume, at Gurunam Kaur's suggestion, was also white. Fortunately Jonathan and I play winter tennis, so my closet was already stocked with white slacks and jerseys.
As I set my sneakers neatly alongside the other shoes, I noticed my grandson Harbhajan's ground grippers askew. It was somehow comforting to stoop down and in grandmotherly fashion set them straight. He is a sensitive, intelligent, little boy with side-set, big brown eyes and an irresistible laugh. He and I have had years of regular Wednesday afternoons together, and get along joyously except when he forgets to lift the toilet seat.
The Gurunam's bedroom was up one flight. In it, sitting cross-legged on the floor facing the bed, were some twenty young women and men. They was chanting "Guru Ram Das, Guru Ram Das," to a guitar accompaniment. Prerequisites for theiir attendance, I discovered later, were having been personally invited by Gurunam Kaur, having viewed a Lamzaze childbirth movie, and having bathed and donned spotless white.
Gurunam Kaur was garbed in a fresh white wrapper, her shining reddish gold hair was newly washed, and she wore her best golden earrings. She was squatting back on her heels on the bed, facing the group. Next to her, on one side, was a strange young woman in faded blue jeans and a white overblouse who turned out to be the monatrice. On the other side was Gurunam Singh sitting cross-legged. Never during the following three hours did he take his hands away from his wife. He was either kneading her shoulders or massaging her lower back. Later on, between the contractions, she would pitch forward to relax. During the contractions, her stiffened arms would lift her trunk up for Lamaze panting. Her eyes were focused on the same pre-chosen spot on the opposite wall.
Dominating that wall was a photo of their Yogi and a large colored poster of an ocean wave curling and about to burst on a long beach. The image of a wave, of riding up, up, up, hold . . . and then down, down, down . . . had been the image that my untutored mind had clung to during labor a quarter century before, while Claudia herself was being born. But I had never thought to mention that fact to her.
Gurrunam never cried out. When a contraction reached a particularly potent peak, she would gasp, "Wha Guru," a mantra which expresses the ecstasy of realization, or in the vernacular, "Wow, God!" Only once did she moan. As a contraction subsided, she would collapse on the bed for a moment's blessed relaxation.
Harbhajan, she informed me, had been in a few times during the night, but was back in his bunk. He had developed a bad cold, but was still expected to be there for the Moment of Truth.
I asked whether Gurunam's waters had broken. Answer was no. In fact, the monatrice advised Gurunam, the baby might be born with the amniotic sac intact. Gurunam looked apprehensive. "It's good luck" the monatrice assured her.
"One of your Dad's brothers was born that way," I said. "And his mother was thrilled. It used to be called 'born with a caul' and was thought a good omen." This memory, I realized later, was another link between the generations.
To my surprise, Gurunam rarely lay on her back. If she was not squatting back on her heels, she was lying on her side. Between contractions, she frequently shifted position as she tried to find as much relief as possible. Her husband began using powder as he rubbed her lower back. My own back was aching in sympathy, although a chair -- the only one in the room -- had been provided for me.
Contractions were coming a minute apart when the monatrice crooked her finger at Gurunam Singh and they held a whispered conference. He turned to me. "Please wake Harbhajan. The baby is coming."
"I'll believe it when I see it," I muttered darkly, and reluctantly went to do as told.
Harbhajan was snoring on top of a high double decker. On the lower bunk was his best friend, Sham, a black lad a year older.
Our five-year-old was hard to wake. He felt fevery to the touch and his nose was clogged. Little as he needed to lose sleep, I thought, the new baby needed even less to be exposed to his germs. Still, by coming, I had, in effect, committed myself to going along with the ashram way. If I had wished to keep to my own ways, I should have stayed home. He finally responded to my stroking hand and whisper of his name. Groggily he climbed down from the bunk. Together we went back to where the action was.
And action there suddenly was! Gurunam was laying on her side. She was being told by the monatrice when to push and when not to. Gurunam's was bright pink with the effort of pushing, and her blond eyebrows appeared white by contrast. Her eyes were tightly closed. My mundane old memory flashed back a quarter century to her as a baby on the pot. "Push," said the monatrice. "Good."
At the end of the contraction Gurunam opened her eyes and spoke welcomingly to Harbhajan. Having checked in with her, he was content to come to my chair and sit on my lap.
"The baby is crowning," the monatrice announced. Chanters all rose from the floor and went to stand by the foot of the bed. It was a first birth-witnessing for many of them, as well as for me, and several were looking apprehensive. One of the group held up a movie camera.
Harbhajan began to squirm. "I want to see thee baby born."
Sham had been awakened by his mother and he was looking more worried than Harbhajan.
The final contraction began. The face was coming through. The chant changed to what sounded like "Ahkahll," the call for spiritual union that for Sikhs attends both birth and death. Like a well-greased ball the head slipped through the lubricated aperture. A tiny, wet Inca-statue face!
The monatrice held a small rubber bulb in her hand with which she quickly sucked out the baby's nostrils and mouth. "Waah," the baby greeted the world, and the father greeted the baby with the happiest laughs. Then came the baby's shoulders and the huge-seeming cord, kinked like the curly kind of telephone cord. The the hips. "It's a boy," several of the chanters exclaimed. And indeed he was. Again the father laughed that happy laugh. The baby was clean and wet and perfect.
Again the monatrice used the suction bulb, wrapped the baby in a yellow receiving blanket and placed him by his mother's beaming face. Gurunam put her index finger into the baby's palm and he grasped it. A few minutes later his face turned blue and the monatrice suction him again. His face regained its apricot tint. When his mother offered her breast he took several healthy swigs.
Because Gurunam's perineum had been stretched by the Yoga exercises beforehand and the hot cloths during birth, there was no blood to speak of. Nor was there any when the time came for the umbilical cord to be cut, its blood having drained, I was told, toward the baby.
"Harbhajan," Gurunam said, "go over to the window and you'll find a surprise." He scampered over, followed by Sham. In a box was a black baby doll and set of bottles, diapers, clothers, and a small bed. The boys were enchanted.
"Come on," the monatrice said to Gurunam. "When I say push, give a good one. That afterbirth of yours is just sitting there." So Gurunam pushed, and the monatrice tugged gently on the cord. But nothing happened. "That's okay," the monatrice said. "We'll just have to wait."
Eventually the afterbirth appeared. Harghajan, as planned, was busy with his doll and paid no attention. The monatrice studied the placenta to make sure it was intact, that no part of it had stayed inside to cause later infection. Then she asked if she could keep it.
"What for?" I asked.
"My garden," she said. "It's wonderful fertilizer."
"Back to the earth it came from," Gurunam agreed, with pleasure.
The monatrice, with the help of a pregnant former chanter, began to clean up. In a Zasu Pitts distracted sort of way, I followed my yearning to be useful, and divided the paper products to be thrown out from the cloth ones to be washed. The new father had gone to phone the Yogi, in California, and be given the baby's name.
When he returned, I was in the chair with the newborn on my lap. "Would you mind removing your turban from one ear?" I asked.
Looking mildly startled, he obliged.
"Oho, I said. "Baby has your ears."
"Does he now!" Gurunam Singh came over to inspect them and, with suitable modesty, agreed. Baby's name, he told us, was to be Gurubhajan.
By any other name, I thought, he'd be as sweet.
Around 7, just as it was getting light, I drove Gurunam Singh's car back to Georgetown and the snoozing grandfather. He was interested in the details but did not regret having missed the occasion. He was glad, however, that I had represented him.
Later in the day when I returned to the ashram, Gurunam said she was glad I'd been there. I said I was glad too. And I was. For she had lucked out, and it was a fine birthing. Nor did Harbhajan, whom I took for the afternoon, show the slightest sign of upset. When he reaches puberty, he may not need to undergo the anxiety based on ignorance of the reproductive process that bedevils some youngsters.
When Gurubhajan was a day old, a doctor came and checked him. There is a growing demand for home delivery, he said, but the obstetrical profession is against it. In several states a new profession of nurse-midwife is being licensed, and halfway houses for normal births have been established. My husband had been born at home, I suddenly realized, and so had I. Although the newly arrived grandboy will grow up within a society quite different from ours, he and we already have that in common -- that, and a devotion to Gurunam Kaur that goes far beyond temporary agreements and disagreements about matter cosmic or minor.