By: Natasha Rogers
Every mother contains her daughter in herself and every daughter her mother.
She had just been born but already her veins pulsed with the blood of her history – the blood and history of her mother and grandmothers, her father and grandfathers. Her birth was like a moment in a river – swallowed up in the current of life coursing swiftly through time. But I was there. Her birth was witnessed. Her birth changed the course of the river and her first breath was in a world where she belonged.
It was the first time that my sister and I had witnessed a birth. I was ten-years-old and Tawny was eleven. Our pre-teen selves determined that the birthing process was more like a performance of birth than giving birth; we didn’t understand what was being given. The performance stage was the squeaky hospital floor that reflected the round lights and the actors had rehearsed their parts, everyone knew what was going on except for us.
We silently waited, watched, and observed in a foreign place that made our mother feel foreign, too. We waited with everyone else for the curtains to fall and the lights to shine on our new baby sister. Back then, the star of the play, we thought, was the baby. But now, looking back, we can see that, in this part of the baby’s life, it was our mother.
We had planned it out weeks before. Mom had asked us if we wanted to watch her give birth to our baby sister and, as part of the initiation into womanhood, we both decided that we wanted to. On the previously planned day, we were taken with our siblings to grandma and grandpa’s house while mom was being induced at the hospital. We were taught that induced meant using medicine called Pitocin to persuade a woman’s body to release the baby when the baby wouldn’t come on her own; two new words were added to our lexicon of adolescence.
Tawny and I waited at grandma’s house until dad called and told us it was time. We were woken up and sent for at 10:00 pm, much later than planned; the streets and windows were dark as we rode on the empty freeway to the hospital. I hadn’t expected baby to enter the world in the dark.
Mom always made us wait; she talked after church, on walks, when dropping dinner off to a neighbor, after book group, in line at the grocery store, parent teacher conference, everywhere. We always paused for mom. But mom wasn’t stuck talking this time, she was just breathing. The late-night darkness had me wishing that mom would just bring the baby home and that I hadn’t agreed to witness a baby come out of her privates. Everything was becoming more complicated than I wanted it to be and my chest felt all dammed up.
Mom had given birth six times previously; my own life came from within my mother, and the delay on this seventh birth had all the adults whispering and ushering Tawny and I out of the room. We started to question our ability to make mature decisions. We left our mom laying limply in the dark, foreign hospital bed with its white sheets and bleeping machines. We left our dad, too, hunched and forgotten in the corner.
Shannon, mom’s cousin, took us to McDonald’s for hash browns and orange juice in the silent darkness, an intermission. Eating restaurant food would have been a highlight, we never ate fast food, or unhealthy food of any kind; however, our tired brains could think only of the stage back at the hospital, mom with her eyes closed, and our baby sister inside her.
“Your mom isn’t doing so well.” Shannon said. She was wearing a cap over her short-bleached hair. She wasn’t eating anything either. “Sometimes having a baby is really dangerous.” I felt that Shannon’s lines had been practiced and the ending to the play was already written, she was just adding tension to the plot. “Your mom’s blood pressure is too low.” She said.
I knew moms could die. Aunt Brenda died the year before after a hysterectomy, another word added to my growing lexicon. She died even though she had five sons. I had learned that god didn’t prioritize moms. Indignantly, I believed that if I were god, I would never take moms from their children. However, my ten-year-old self couldn’t comprehend a world where my mom didn’t breathe, where low blood pressure was significant to the completion of the play, and where there was no happy ending with a baby and a family of nine.
McDonald’s felt horribly like the confusing quiet hospital and Tawny couldn’t swallow her orange juice. Tawny pulled her red straw up and down making a horrible screeching sound that none of us heard. We left the hash browns, forgotten, in Shannon’s car and neglected the orange juice we held in our hands as our shoes squeaked back into the silent maternity ward.
Tawny, Shannon, and I quietly slipped into the hospital room for act four. I don’t remember being asked to stand in the corner, but that’s what we did. We were asked to be the audience, and, like so much of childhood, trust the adults. I was suddenly scared of my mom and the power she had to leave me.
Tawny and I closed our eyes, squished together in the green armchair that warmed the sweat on our bare arms until we moved them and the sweat turned chilly on our goose pimpled skin.
“You girls should get some rest, try to sleep.” Shannon said, taking our orange juice from our hands and throwing them into the garbage can lined with a white trash bag; not the container lined with the blood red plastic and black words. I wondered what went in that one.
Nurses shuffled across the floor until the sun shone through the window; light exposed tubes, hoses, needles, and red buttons. Months ago, when mom surprised us with a sonogram of a black and white image, saying “You’re going to have a baby sister!” I cried. My hands shook and I was so happy. I had no idea a baby sister would force me to be this brave. Tawny held my hand, maybe she was scared too.
Eventually, we watched from the corner as a baby slowly squished out of our mother. A chubby, bald, naked, baby girl unfolded in the midwife’s arms.
Relief brought reality back to our senses when, miraculously, mom opened her eyes.
“Look. She’s healthy and pink.” The midwife whispered, holding the baby’s head and ankles dangerously. Tawny squeaked involuntarily, “oh!” she said beside me. I forced myself to not look away.
It seemed bizarre that the process of bringing our sister into this world had forced mom to risk her life. It was also bizarre that, suddenly, nakedness wasn’t bad but “beautiful” as Shannon kept telling us. The birth gave us sisters a glimpse of the realization that mothers paid a price for family and life.
The purple placenta was placed in a silver pan and still mom’s legs were spread. I forced myself to watch the visceral performance. Then, mom was sitting, clothed and happy, holding our baby sister. The red lined hazardous waste container, the silver platters with long thin tools in plastic bags, and the bleeping machines seemed inconsequential now; they were just the scenery. Mom had given me a baby sister.
We named her Chanel, like the French perfume, like Coco Chanel, the French designer, and Kathleen, after mom’s other cousin. Grandma EmmaJean was at her birth, too, crying and loving her 19th grandbaby. Grandma’s wisdom already encompassed the price a mother pays for her child.
Dad never left mom’s side. I hadn’t known that he was always terrified at the births of his children. He, like his daughters, could only be the audience, powerless and witnessing. Dad was relieved it had been a room of life, not death, on that dark then light May morning in Provo, Utah. A miracle. A daughter, a sister. A granddaughter who breathed into a room filled with family. They loved her before they knew her. Chanel Kathleen; a new life in existence.
Her father told her, “What you promise when you are confirmed is not that you will believe this forever. What you promise when you are confirmed is that this is the story you will wrestle with forever.”
Rachel Held Evans
Dad named and blessed her. He placed Chanel Kathleen’s name on the records of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. On a summer Sunday, in a blue rugged chapel, Dad held her out on his hands showing her to god and the congregation. The Judkins, our family’s name, had lived in the Mormon community for generations and this was the custom in 1997. A father publicly named and blessed his baby in the devout community, signifying belonging and acceptance, not just for the baby who had no idea, but for the family.
In a public demonstration of faithfulness, obedience, and “staying on the path,” Chanel’s visiting grandfathers and uncles formed a circle around her at the front of the chapel. Each priesthood holding elder put one hand under Chanel’s little body and the other on the man’s shoulder beside him, encircling the little girl in the middle. Chanel was the only female permitted.
“With the power of the holy Melchizedek priesthood, which we hold, we take this infant in our arms and give her a name and a blessing,” dad said these words into a microphone that Zach, the eldest son, held in front of dad’s lips. The whole scene was a re-enactment of what dad did for his other children and what his father did for him.
Randy, or dad, never enjoyed speaking in public, but he did it in church, for his baby daughter. Some fathers took the opportunity to bless their babies with an elaborate list of bizarre fortune tellings while their mothers and wives helplessly bowed their heads in the pews, closed their eyes, and tried to believe what their priesthood holder was saying. However, dad blessed Chanel with what he already knew she had – a mother, a family, goodness, strength, love, and life. Mom gave it all and he blessed it and loved it.
Soon, Chanel would be running through the same church’s cultural hall with the same grown babies of mothers that sat and listened to her father’s blessing. There would be an assortment of food laid out on long folding tables, spilled chili dripping onto the wooden, grated cheese covered floor. She’d be running, laughing, and playing with her dear friends, Sydney and Gloria, friends her ward family placed in her life.
One night she’d slip and trip on a stray jacket left on the blue carpeted floor while running down the hall mom had warned her not to play in, crashing down against the wall and splitting her eyebrow on the white baseboards just outside the cultural hall doors. Blood dripping into her eye, she’d scream, sending her friends rushing to find mom. She would get stitches and the gash would heal into a beautiful scar arching with her eyebrow.
Children aren’t’ fixed entities, but ever-evolving beings who are constantly transforming themselves.
The Judkins’ house was already full of children when Chanel was born. Zachary, the oldest, was in the eighth grade and didn’t usually go to school. He was kind and gentle and strong and angry. He punched holes in the walls and spent hours creating imaginative games for his younger siblings. Later, when Chanel grew up a little, he created a world inside the house where electricity didn’t exist but dragons did. He lit rolled up newspaper on fire for torches while he led his young siblings through pretend adventures. When mom and dad returned, the house smelled like smoke and their children had exciting tales of dragons, caves, and, most importantly, real fire.
Tawny, born second, a witness to her baby sister’s birth, was in the sixth grade. Tawny believed the untrue narrative that she wasn’t smart. Tawny, ever responsible and organized, became the designated babysitter. She hugged, held, and kissed her siblings, squeezing their cheeks and painting their nails. She sat on the benches with her dad at amusement parks and pretended to be Santa Clause for her parents. When Chanel was scared in the middle of the night, she climbed in Tawny’s twin bed where snuggling and sleep comforted.
Natasha, me, the third kid, and in fourth grade at the time, giggled and talked non-stop with friends. I wrote boys names underneath my bed with glow-in-the-dark paint and danced with shirts on hangers, pretending those hangers were the boys with hidden names that shone in the dark beneath my bed. I loved going to Macey’s with mom and pushing one of the two overflowing grocery carts full of food for our family of nine. I felt like I belonged in the world when my baby sister reached her arms out to me and said, “hold you.”
Gabriel, born three years after me, begrudgingly attended first grade the year his last baby sister was born. Gabe was extremely social and charismatic. He was a skinny, blonde haired, silly boy who blew everyone away with his wit and intelligence. He wore oversized hand-me-downs and befriended all of the seven-year-old hoodlums in the neighborhood by the Provo river. That river had too many bottom eating carps that Gabe and his friends would stab onto sticks and march around like the brown stinky fish were banners for our run-down neighborhood.
Arianne, four-years-old at the time, was oblivious, messy, and loved to eat all of the healthy food mom made without complaining, unlike her siblings who cried at the sight of split pea soup. She loved babies, especially Chanel. During family wrestling matches with dad, Arianne fiercely defended and attacked us in her usual uniform: underwear. She thrived in as little clothing as possible. Chanel, even as a baby, loved the soft skin under the arms, and would stick her little hand in Arianne’s armpit and caress the delicate spot on her arm until Chanel would pinch that tender spot with her tiny fingernails, making Arianne shriek.
And, finally, Isaac, number six, two-years-old when dethroned, was an intense, chaos loving, lion of a boy with a tangled mane of blonde hair. If he fell asleep in the middle of the day, his siblings and parents were terrified to wake him. He swaggered instead of walked and jumped off increasingly higher heights making the people who loved him scream. He teased his siblings until they chased him, or in Chanel’s case, cried.
When they had both grown a little, Isaac and Chanel were playing a survival game underneath the trampoline in the back yard. There was only one blanket for the two children who were pretending to be stranded in the arctic.
“Here Chanel, you have the blanket. Keep warm. I don’t want you to freeze to death.” Isaac said, snuggling the blanket around his beloved sister.
“Thank you,” Chanel pretend whimpered.
Within a few seconds, however, Isaac was shaking, teeth chattering, and whimpering.
“It’s so c-c-cold. I think I’m going to die out here without a blanket!” He cried.
“Oh no! Here take the blanket! Don’t die!” Chanel said, tucking the blanket around Isaac’s pretend quivering shoulders.
It was just a game of pretend, Chanel wasn’t really cold, neither was Isaac. But Isaac, again, wrapped the blanket around her, telling her, “I want you to have the blanket.”
And then, in the next moment, Isaac pretended he was dying. Chanel wrapped him in his own gift. But again, Isaac, feigning generosity, gave her the blanket. Again, and again. Chanel, confused by the game and her growing panic, choked on a tangled sob and crawled out from under the trampoline to have a breath of fresh air. Crying and exhausted Chanel walked away and ignored Isaac’s pleas for her to come back and “play the game.”
Chanel’s home was chaos, but it was also a home of homemade dinners together every evening and a different child cleaning the kitchen every night of the week. Our home was religiously devout with family home evenings on Mondays, prayers and scriptures every morning, and church every Sunday, but it was also a place of questions and paradox. Mom, every time we restarted the Book of Mormon with first Nephi, said, “I can’t stand Nephi . . . and I can’t blame Lamen and Lamuel for murmuring against him.” Mom was raising 3 oppositional defiant sons and understood how a self-righteous boy mixed with his two brothers, who didn’t like being told what to do, could be the beginnings of wars and prejudices between nations that would last generations. She didn’t like the one being presented as the ancient hero.
Our home had boy made holes in the sheet rock of every room and hallway. Our counter was ripped off the cabinets and thrown across the kitchen in an instant of male pubescent rage. Our gentle, nonconfrontational dad would step in, just in time, and put our brothers in choke holds at least twice a year until they all got bigger than him. Violence broke the house and the sisters’ dichotomous thinking of who was good and who was bad. We knew our brothers were good, but we also learned to hide, if we could, from their rage.
Every day, twice a day, we kneeled in a family circle with arms folded and eyes closed for united supplication and spiritual expression, or prayer. This human family circle often became a chaotic battle between reverence and self-expression. If there was a noise – a giggle, a toot, a pinch, or a word – dad, desperate for reverence, would bonk someone on the head with his knuckles in the general vicinity of the noise. A hollow knocking sound would send more giggles or whimpers or “it wasn’t me!” into the prayer circle. Which would ignite more clonking and knocking until everyone’s folded arms were over their heads inhibiting dad’s knuckles that begged for silence but initiated hollers and mayhem. Usually, no one in the family remembered who the original prayer sayer was and children and parents collectively decided “prayer time” was over. It was time to walk away without an “Amen!”
Chanel breathed into this family, into this home, into this river. The river was one moving thing, but also a million moving things. She belonged there, in that river, but she also changed it; Chanel, no. 7. Chanel, who probably never got bonked during prayers, unless by accident, joined the ever-evolving beings; moving with them, being carried by them, and then, evolving separately from them in the motion and movement of the current. Chanel’s childhood was steeped in rituals, scripture, and puritan laws mixed with confusion, anger, and music. The journey was to breath herself into being amidst all of it.