My Labor Under the Influence

 Elizabeth Anne Pell

A single-parent mother recounts the story of her second labor and delivery.

I used marijuana to prolong childbearing labor so I could safely negotiate a 165-mile drive through a snowstorm to Canada, my birthing destination.

My tale is not meant to advise you of a new way to use marijuana, but to enlighten you to the virtuosity of that amazing plant.

It was the 1970s and the tenor of the times was rife with young men fleeing the draft. I was as outraged by this development as I was by the war in Vietnam.

My allegiance to America had severely decayed and, in response, I was committed to bearing my children in Canada, so that they would have a choice as to which country they ultimately wished to claim. My first son was born at home in Vancouver, where I’d taken up legal residence for the occasion. The year was 1972. There was a doctor, midwife, and even the photographer-father in attendance. It was a 12-hour labor, normal in every way.

For my second son’s birth, however, I had left the father behind in Washington State and was a single parent student at the University of Maine. It was 1975 and I was determined to give birth in Canada again. In planning another birth outside the United States, I took up correspondence with a women’s group in Toronto, the only supportive group I could find. The results were certain vaguely formed promises. So as I approached my due date, my son and I made our way there. I was hoping some serendipitous structure would emerge. Instead I found that the doctor who supposedly did home deliveries was not available; and that my personal contact, a sympathetic woman who had offered to open her home, was having an abortion.

It was upon our early morning arrival back from Toronto that I went into labor. The night before had been spent fitfully trying to sleep in the car at a French-Canadian railway station, so I’d had little sleep to prepare me for the labor now underway. My only remaining option was to drive up to Fredericton, the closest Canadian city, and give birth in a hospital. I would skirt the immigration laws by waiting until the last minute, appearing as an American woman suddenly in labor. To this end, I leaned heavily on my friendship with John, a graduate student at UMe, and his wife, Barbara, my baby-sitter. I turned to them at the first light of dawn, my 7th hour of labor, appealing to them to take care of my son. Under the circumstances, they were delighted. Now all I needed was time. If second labors are shorter, I could only expect this one to last 10 hours. There was no way to drive up to Canada safely in my 3 remaining hours.

Fortunately I recalled having read an article in an underground newspaper which extolled laboring women not to get high because labor time is doubled under its influence. Eureka!

When I explained my need to prolong labor by smoking marijuana, Barbara quickly offered me two enormous joints from their carefully tended stash. These she gave me with news of an impending snowstorm. I took it as fortuitous to my need to be stranded in Canada. Since there are 93 miles from Bangor to the border town of Houlton, Maine, I had more than enough time to smoke two joints. Snow was falling but I gave it little notice. Occasional waves of contractions came and went. No problem. What I wasn’t expecting was my reaction to the dope.

The first few tokes of marijuana, taken at the 8th hour of labor, were received as if ambrosia had passed my lips. Never, in all my years of smoking marijuana, had I ever felt such a tremendous jolt of well being. Like some magical gift conferred by the gods, a single note of some sweet song resonated through every fiber of my muscular frame and then let go. And in this sudden rush, my mind went wild with acclamations. Oh, this wondrous drug! And yet, all doubts and fears dispelled, I never once felt stoned. No glassy eyes, no drifting thoughts, no sailing forth or shipping out on a sea of the Incredible Now. Just a magnificent feeling of positive energy anointed every nuance of my brain. While all the subtleties of labor’s ploy to open me gave in and gently slowed, I applied my newly formed strength of purpose to careening down the snow-blown highway. At the border, my appearance to pass was scholarly. I was a student in search of the University of New Brunswick. My studentship fairly gushed with books and papers strewn throughout the car. So there was no reason to doubt my claim. Besides, I smiled a lot and was polite.

For all the world, I could think of no better place to bide my extended labor time than at the University’s Student Union. It was one o’clock, my 12th hour of labor—the exact hour at which my first son had been born. Relief flooded over me. If the information I had was correct, I was more than half way to my delivery hour. Whatever else happened, I was here and felt confident of the ambling progress of my labor; and alert, very alert. Perhaps too alert. I felt a surge of panic at my entrance. The snow had cancelled classes and the place was crowded. How should I be disguised? I took up a slow rolling gait through the building. Never staying in one place long enough to attract attention, never making eye contact. And always confining myself to hallways and stairwells when a contraction doubled me over.

Not that there was an extensive amount of pain. In fact, the effects of marijuana on contractions were quite remarkable. They felt like fluttering waves that began at my back and undulated throughout my whole system, gently pulling me over to meet them head on. They were distinctly different from my first labor’s contractions which were felt entirely, and brutally, in the spine.

I had no thought of timing a contraction. No watch by which to even know the time. In fact, my mind’s relations to the progress of my labor was all but non-existent. My body was telling me everything I needed to know. In this, there was a great deal of trust, not something that comes easily to me. But the marijuana had so calmed my fears of the unknown, I felt fully supported and genuinely graced with powers that simply were not my own. Powers that were overseeing my progress and allowing me to accept my body’s changes without question, worry, or concern. Thinking, then, became a walking meditation on the art of being reclusive in a crowd. My mantra—if I’m detected, they’ll send me home—kept me on guard and feeling safe, throughout the seven hours I was there.

Once it began to grow dark the students vanished. I walked into an empty lounge and to the windows overlooking an athletic field. It was still snowing. As a stronger contraction swept over me, I could only lean heavily against the cold window. This was no good. I sank down onto my hands and knees, next to a couch, trying to relieve the pressure building through my spine. When the contraction eased, I looked up to find a female student standing a few feet away. I lumbered up, embarrassed, offering as plausible a version of the truth as I could muster. No, I didn’t need any help. Yes, my husband was on the way. Everything was under control. I smiled and went looking for a telephone. It was time to consider my final destination. I called a child birth association and was given directions to Victoria, the only hospital in town.

I took my departure from the student union slowly and with regret, hating to face the confines of the car. But it was just after eight in the evening, my eighteenth hour of labor. It seemed like the right time to go.

My new residence, the parking lot at the hospital emergency entrance, was neither crowded nor difficult to find. I chose a strategic spot across from the entrance and hunkered down for another interminable wait. I had promised myself I would not go in until it became absolutely imperative. The next two hours in the car were beset with bouts of chaotic agony. During a contraction, I straddled the control pedals with my feet and pushed my back up and off the seat into a straighter incline. The crushing grip on my spine was radiating to every part of my body. I was wracked with silent tears, lest someone hear me and respond. There was nothing to be done about the pain. I was in active labor. Intense and spasmodic. Instead of using controlled breathing as a focal point, as I’d done in my first birthing experience, I used what I was given—the pain itself. Marijuana kept everything utterly simple and the pain was abundantly available. I went into it with all my heart. Between contractions I took care of housekeeping. The snow had cocooned the car into a kind of labor box, so I periodically ran the wipers to clear the view of my destination. It seemed important to keep it in sight. Cold was another problem. I had to start the car from time to time, against the chill that was forever creeping in around the windows and stiffening my joints.

Toward the end of my stay in the ar, images flashed unbidden into my mind scenes more textured and animated than any daydream of my experience, just came and went. Scenes of women birthing, of sticks between their teeth and straps on their arms. Horrible things that brought me an odd sense of comfort. I was amazed at how well marijuana kept meeting my specific needs, no matter how bizarre. Finally, when the contractions felt like they were coming faster and more persistent in their intensity, when it felt like I wasn’t gong to be able to tolerate another one; I emptied the contents of my book bag and put in what baby clothes I’d brought along, preparing to go. It was at the touch of something so tangible as a receiving blanket that I suddenly realized—in all my long hours of labor, through all the hiding and pretense and pain—I had forgotten that I was about to have another child. In all the fragmented details of baby’s head here and baby’s foot there, I had lost sight of baby as a person about to be born. All this time my mind had been wallowing in the sea of the Inredible Now. Every bit of my attention had been riveted on the details of surviving this primitive rite of someone else’s passage. Once again I had a glimpse of the truly beneficent effects of marijuana. It had not allowed me to stray outside of the moment. And if I had, in my first labor, a picture fastened to the wall as a visual focal point—during this labor the moment itself became my reference point; each moment taken as it came.

It was time to give birth. So I trudged through the snow and calmly gave myself over the emergency room staff. It was ten o’clock at night, the 20th hour of labor. True to my story, I presented myself as a hapless American student in labor. As if by some cheap trick of my imagination, the words I feared the most came out on cue. "Let’s send her back to the States in an ambulance."

But just as quickly, another voice, disembodied by a gurney sheet and examining my progress said, "It’s too late. She’s seven centimeters dilated." Considering that the urge to push commences at ten, I was elated. Now that I had the luxury of being warm, dry, and in more spacious surroundings, I was also forced to abandon my unique approach to bearing a child. I tried to position myself on the floor, on all fours, but was quickly taken up and put back into bed with admonishments to stay put.

At last the urge to bear down became so strong I had to cry out, "I’ve got to push!", whereupon I was wheeled into a birthing room and at twenty-four minutes after the hour, with no anesthesia other than marijuana, gave birth to a healthy nine-pound baby boy. He was pink and fresh and gave forth lusty howls. I gawked in delight.

Marijuana had safely facilitated my progress though a twenty-hour labor. It had heightened my instincts, enhanced my reserve, lessened the pain, and provided me with a sense of protection I would not have felt otherwise. Finally it had given me a tremendous amount of positive energy by which to follow the flow of labor to its successful conclusion without my fighting against it, not even the pain. But the greatest gift was that it kept me in the moment, pouring all my energy into the task at hand. So I had not thought of the harvest while plowing the field. Marijuana is, by last account, the stuff of wisdom. And in taking it, has such counsel to bestow.

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