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Hard Labor

Hard Labor

October, 2022


The story of my birth was always told from my mother’s perspective. This seems logical since it was she who suffered through the long and arduous labor that ushered me into this world. A small woman, my mother was huge by the time of her due date, this being the era of pregnant women eating for two. I don’t know who brought mom to the hospital — the only one within a fifty mile radius — but I don’t think it was my father. He worked construction and was out of town during the summer.

The hospital, a tall brick building situated next to Saint Ann’s church, was run by the so-called Sisters of Mercy. Years later, I would be brought to this same hospital to have my broken leg set. I still remember being ministered to by one of these sisters who showed precious little mercy as she straightened my leg to be x-rayed. My mother was convinced it was her Protestant affiliation that accounted for the neglect and rudeness she suffered under the Sisters’ care.

Whatever the reason, my mother’s labor progressed slowly. A day passed. And another day. There was no talk of a cesarean, just admonishments to keep at it. Fifty-six hours after it began, I finally made it down the birth canal, tipping the scales at seven pounds, six ounces. The story goes that when my father arrived at the hospital, my mother greeted him with an unequivocal “never again.” With my tiny head misshapen by the forceps and a scabbed nose, I was not a beautiful baby, but I was the only one my dad would ever get.

And what about that baby? What lasting effects, if any, resulted from my difficult birth? A Google search revealed several possible outcomes of prolonged labor on the child: low oxygen levels, abnormal heart rhythm, and hip dysplasia. In addition, the use of forceps can cause injury to the back and neck, negatively impacting the senses. Might the circumstances of my birth account for the lifelong periodic ache in my left leg, my sensitivity to tight clothing, my intense startle reflex?

It’s only in the past decade that I’ve recognized that my mother and I were both traumatized by my birth. That prolonged struggle— she to deliver, me to be born — proved an inauspicious beginning to our relationship. As though the cost of my birth placed me permanently in the debit column of her love, every gift I received from my mother — Christmas present, bedtime story, or cuddle — felt grudgingly given. For my part, I learned to resent her impatience, lack of warmth, her joyless approach to motherhood.

Grievance is a heavy burden, one I’m eager to shed. I tell myself my mother did the best she could, that she wasn’t cut out to be a mom, that by her own admission she didn’t really like children. But self-talk can’t fill the emptiness or provide the nourishment of a mother’s love. Thus, it is left to me to nurture the child within. I find I’m no better at it than she was.




2 comentários


Ellen Sholk
Ellen Sholk
13 de out. de 2022

What an emotional post, Justine. The trauma that you and your mother experienced haunted both of you as long as she lived, and has left physical and emotional scars that are with you still. Your career as a teacher of young children channeled that hurt in a positive way. Your kindness and positive attitude touched hundreds of little hearts and minds over the years, creating a long lasting legacy.

This piece describing a raw memory reminds us that our childhood experiences run deep. There is no such thing as loving our children too much. Thank you for sharing your experience so beautifully and openly.

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Justine O'Keefe
Justine O'Keefe
13 de out. de 2022
Respondendo a

Thank you, Ellen, for your thoughtful and sensitive comments. This was a difficult piece, but life is finite and some things must be faced squarely if they are to be transformed into understanding and compassion.

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