Shifra’s Story is a story of advent, written through the lens of a birth assistant. It is unique in that it is an attempt to retell the Christmas story through a female lens, focusing on the very real, very messy parts of the story that the gospels skip over. This is chapter 5 of 6.
Please note: This chapter contains graphic descriptions of birth and may be a trigger for those who have experienced sexual abuse or birth trauma. Reader discretion is advised.
Our final day on the road was difficult to say the least. There were so many ancient settlements in this area, and with Passover coming, there were even more people coming towards Jerusalem than normal, leaving the roads crowded and dusty, making it hard to pass. I kept close by Mariam’s side the whole day, and was glad that I did. By noon, when we came to a brief rest along the side of the road in the shade of some olive trees, I could see that the baby was well into position.
I found a low rock and encouraged Mariam to sit there, concerned that it might be difficult for her to sit on the ground at this point. It seemed she had very little interest anymore in what was going on around her. The energy that had gotten her up the mountains yesterday was rapidly ebbing away, and I found myself having to encourage her to take her food and water.
The pains had also come back by this time, and now they were no longer sporadic, but steady – still spaced widely apart, but nice and regular. I was torn between giving Mariam a rest, and urging us on to Bethlehem, well aware that the side of the road was not the place for this baby to be born, whoever it was.
We did get moving again, but as the afternoon continued, Mariam’s pains began to draw closer together. We found ourselves separated several times from our group, as Mariam would pause to gather her breath at the height of the pain before being able to continue the journey. I found myself thankful that I had spoken quietly to Jacob at our noon rest – I knew that he would stop at each mile marker and wait for us to join them, or send one of the boys back to check on us if we took too long to meet up with them.
Because of our delays, daylight was drawing to a close as we reached Bethlehem. I had a quick word with Jacob, who set out with Joseph to see what he could find by way of accommodation. I sat down by the well with Mariam and began to gently rub her lower back, helping her to flex her hips back and forth, side to side with each of the pains. They were now coming every few minutes, and I knew that this babe would be born tonight, whether we were in the fields or an inn. I hoped for the warmth of an inn, but I didn’t hold my breath – we were poor travellers, and the town was bursting at the seams with people from all walks of life. Plus we had arrived late in the day. I didn’t think we would have much choice.
As dusk was falling, Joseph and Jacob finally returned. They looked tired, worried, and defeated, but they put a brave smile on for us. “There is no room inside – no one has any space – but the innkeeper on the other side of the square has a courtyard he’s willing to let us use for the night. It’s full of his traveller’s animals, and open to the sky, but it will be safe from wild animals. He said he wouldn’t normally let someone stay in it, but when I explained that Mariam was in labor …” He broke off suddenly as Mariam’s body began to rock and sway of its own accord, a low moan breaking between her lips as she breathed her way through the building pain.
I waited until the pain had passed and said, “thank you, gentlemen. That will work. Please go ahead with the rest of our group. Make the space as welcoming as possible. Find clean hay if you can and make a bit of a bed. If there is any way to create some privacy for us, please do. If someone could please find the innkeeper’s wife and request that she put on as much water to boil as possible, that would be excellent. Mariam and I will follow at our own speed. You can leave Samuel with me to keep us safe.”
It was with great relief that the party heard my words. Up until then, I think they had all been worried about who would take care of this obviously inappropriate task. After all, Passover was just a week away, and assisting with a birth would render anyone involved unclean. They were thrilled to run ahead to ready the space, and I was perfectly content to do what I now knew in my heart was what God had made me to do.
And so, after whispering quietly into Mariam’s ear that after the next contraction we would set out, I waited for the pain to come and then to go, and then gently but firmly helped her to stand. Walking backwards in front of Mariam, I told Samuel to clear a path for me, and we started towards the inn together. I’m quite sure that we were a sight to behold – really, who in their right mind would wait this long into labor to find themselves at home in their bed? – but dusk was now turning to darkness, and the square was teeming with so many people that I don’t think very many of them even bothered to notice two small women with our heads pressed close together, and a young boy leading us.
We finally came to the inn, and Samuel led us round the back to the courtyard. I was relieved to see that the men had been able to carry out my instructions – and remarkably quickly. Our group had cleared out one of the stalls, and laid fresh straw across the bottom of it, nice and thick. Then they had rigged up someone’s blanket – I hoped it was an extra one – across the entrance to the stall to give us a small amount of privacy. Someone had started a fire in the middle of the courtyard, and one of the other women was busy preparing the evening meal, while another had begun to lay out the bedding around the fire, so it was clear where they would be – on the far side of the fire from the birthing stall. I was grateful – I didn’t want to have to worry about them hearing things or seeing things they shouldn’t. Someone handed me a lantern, and I shuffled backwards into the stall, drawing the blanket across as I lowered an exhausted Mariam to the ground.
Once she was as comfortable as I could make her, I placed my hand on her belly to feel for the baby’s movements. There were not nearly as many as I would have liked, but I could smell the soup on the fire now, and I stuck my head around the curtain and asked for some water and a share of the soup. I slowly dripped them into Mariam’s mouth – first one, and then the other – between the contractions, and as her strength came back, so did the baby’s. I was desperately relieved. She was going to need her energy if she was to get through this ordeal.
It is dark here for 12 hours, and these hours are broken down into four ‘watches’ of the night, each three hours long.
Mariam’s contractions continued regular, strong and long for the first watch of the night. I allowed her to rest between them, but frequently turned her from side to side, to prevent the baby from getting too comfortable in one position. By the second watch of the night, her contractions had come to their peak. With hardly a break between them, Mariam’s ability to stay calm left her. She began to panic – whispering into my ear as she clutched at me frantically, “I can’t do this – I can’t do this – it’s too much – please, make it stop, make it stop, make it stop!”
Even knowing, as I did, that this phase would soon be over, I wished so strongly that I could make it end. Instead, Mariam’s water’s broke, and with that enormous gush of fluid came a contraction that transformed alarmingly quickly into a pushing surge. Mariam – completely unprepared for what had just occurred, looked at me with huge questioning eyes as her stomach involuntarily pushed down. I called out, “water – now” through the blanket, hoping someone would hear, and prepared to help Mariam into a squat at the end of the contraction. I knew there might only be seconds to move her.
When it finally came, I lifted her from her side into a squat, pushing fresh straw under her to cover the puddle her body had made, which seemed much redder than I would have liked, and hiking her dress up above her baby, so that I could have a good view of her. Realizing that we were missing the birthing stones, I called out again, “Ruth – come help me. Bring Rachel.” And so Ruth came, bringing her new friend Rachel. I placed one of Mariam’s arms around each of their shoulders, and showed them how to brace their legs so that Mariam could push between them. All of this seemed to take forever, but really must have happened in the space of a minute or two at most, because everything was in place when the next pain hit.
Again with the pain, Mariam’s body bore down. She looked wildly around – as if she was trying to understand what was going on – as so many women do at this stage in labor. I stroked her belly gently, singing the songs of David, as my mother and aunt had taught me to do – willing her to draw strength from the strength of her ancestors. This calmed her down a bit, but didn’t seem to teach her how to push. Each time the pain came, her body bore down, but I noticed that although her belly would harden and try to push the baby out, her legs remained rigid, her pelvis tilted forward, as if she was trying to prevent the very thing that needed to happen.
I watched in confusion for several contractions, trying to figure out what was happening and why, before I finally remembered. Mariam was a virgin! She had never known the presence of a man inside of her, never learned how to move with grace through the building of pleasure, or how to enjoy these inner places she had been given. That must have been why her waters were so bloodied – that must have been her virgin blood. But now, somehow, like a woman who had been hurt through violence, I had to talk her through giving birth.
Once I had made up my mind that this was what was going on, I lay Mariam back onto the straw and sent Ruth and Rachel away. I drew myself down onto the straw behind Mariam’s back, and slowly massaged her upper leg until it relaxed enough to draw it up towards myself. When her legs somewhat looked like a squat, I began to whisper into her ear, “Mariam, its time to relax … its time to let the baby come. Mariam, I know that feeling is overwhelming, but I need you to relax into the sensation – I need you to feel that baby’s head coming down and then I need you to help it to come down further. It’s safe. I’m here. I’m not going to let you go. We’re going to do this together. But this baby needs your help. You have to push down. Right into all of that fullness – you need to push.”
And as the next pain came I held Mariam’s upper leg back and rocked her side to side, grunting with her through the pain – hoping she would follow my lead.
To begin with she didn’t. Thinking back, it must have been more than half the watch before she finally found the courage to begin to push properly into the contraction. I worried that she would loose her energy before she was able to finish pushing, and this I did not want, so I continued to offer her sips of soup between the pains, allowing her to fall back into my mother-arms to rest.
We tried many different positions, but in the end the one that worked the best for Mariam was probably the hardest for me. It involved me being behind Mariam’s back – propping her up into a half-lying, half-sitting position, and then curling myself up around her back as she pushed, peaking around her belly as best I could between contractions to see how she was coming.
Finally, as I heard the call come from the city gates for the beginning of the third watch of the night, I began to see the beginnings of hair. I guided Mariam’s hand down between her legs, and encouraged her, saying “can you feel that, Mariam? That’s your baby. He’s almost here. You’re almost done. Just a little bit more – can you do it?”
It was incredible the difference that one touch brought. Mariam had been almost asleep just a moment ago – barely able to push – and now some internal instinct told her to turn around, and get onto her hands and knees (thankfully facing me, as that stall would have been too narrow for me to pass her and hold her at the same time!) As the next pain came, she rocked back slowly onto her heels, and gave the best push I had seen so far. Rocking forward, she drew her breath in before pushing down again, slowly and intentionally. One more breath she drew, one more push down, and I could see the head right at the edge.
As the pain subsided, I helped Mariam’s groping hand find the head again. Then I explained that I needed her to rest back onto her heels and puff, puff, puff her breath for the next pain. I didn’t want to risk a tear – not here – not in an animal stall! I reached around her and dipped one of the rags Ruth had left earlier in the jug of water. I held it to Mariam then, pushing back ever so gently against the baby’s head, willing him to have patience – just a bit – and to come out gently for his exhausted mother.
Somehow, despite the overwhelming urge she had to push, Mariam managed to listen to my breath, and follow my lead through the next pain. Nonetheless, I felt the baby’s head pushing against my fingers, saw the skin slowly stretch, stretch, stretch, and then with an enormous bellow from deep within Mariam, the head was born. I quickly checked around its neck, and sure enough, there was the slippery cord. I was thankful that the pain seemed to have subsided by that point, so I had time to lift the cord up around the baby’s head – not once, not twice, but three times! I wondered then whether this babe would be okay or not, but there wasn’t long to wonder, as the next pain hit almost as soon as I finished, and this time there was no holding Mariam back. She rocked up onto all fours and bore down so strongly that it was a good thing I had already hooked my finger under the baby’s lead shoulder before it started, or I think he might have come headlong, straight into the straw!
As the baby’s lungs filled with air for the first time, and he made his entrance known to the entire courtyard, Mariam’s arm immediately reached down as she tried to move onto her back and take her baby at the same time – in some movement that is more built into women than taught. I helped to guide the baby through and into her arms, then moved quickly to gather rags and dry him off against the cool of the night air as Mariam half-laughed, half-cried – babbling with the incoherent love-utterances of the brand-new mother. Within minutes I had him rubbed down, and was thankful to have done so even with his continued wails of protest. But once he was fully wrapped, he seemed to settle down.
Mariam instinctively drew him to her breast, and after a few minutes of suckling, I saw the cord suddenly drop by several inches. I told Mariam to cough and give another little push, and the afterbirth came then, all in one piece, deep and red, and healthy-looking. I was relieved. I had seen an afterbirth come apart in pieces once, and no amount of herbs from my mother or aunt or anyone else in the village had been able to stop the woman’s bleeding. In the end, as the closest relative with milk, I had ended up raising that little babe for the first few years of her life. It was an experience, however, that I did not wish to repeat!
Mariam and the baby lay there feeding for quite some time, while I slowly tended to the work of cleaning her up. I called out for help at one point, and got a clean gown for Mariam, then had Deborah and Esther bring fresh straw and a blanket, and we somehow managed to change the straw under Mariam without once making her get up. Thankfully someone had thought to set aside some bread and a bit more soup from the evening meal, so I was able to give the now-ravenous Mariam a meal before finally tucking her up with the baby in the manger above her as the fourth watch was sounded.