I finally got to see a human give birth ten months after I’d first arrived on Earth. Which is, coincidentally, about the length of the human gestation period. The day I landed on Earth, the baby I eventually witnessed being born might have been conceived.
We were in Korea when a private hospital reached out not to me but to Sandra. I had mentioned my interest in human reproduction and the history of it on the internet, and Sandra had been listing me as her employer online for months. The two things put together was enough for a medical resident in South Korea to take initiative and reach out to her. They talked, and Sandra brought the opportunity to me.
Finally, I thought, the opportunity to see how these strange people began their lives on this planet. If only I’d been able to see it sooner, I might have gone about things differently.
The woman who I was to see give birth was named Seo-Yun, and she was giving birth to her first child. She was a nurse at another, nearby, medical center.
“I have seen many people have babies,” she told me in the waiting room. “My first will not be so special.” And then she closed her eyes tight and squished her face up in an expression of pain.
I looked around in confusion, but other than her husband putting a hand on her arm in support, no one reacted.
“Sorry,” She said when she straightened up. “The contractions are painful.”
“Contractions?” I asked.
“Yes,” She said. “They are—”
“I’ll ask a doctor to explain,” I cut her off. “You should focus on the process.”
She nodded her understanding.
I found the nurse who was setting up the room and followed her around as she laid out towels, blankets, medications, and monitoring devices.
“Her uterus is contracting,” the nurse explained to me. She gave me a long look. “Do you know what a uterus is?”
I nodded an affirmative, but she told me anyway, gesturing to her own abdomen.
“It is the organ, here, that holds the child inside the mother. In Ms. Seo-Yun, it has grown many times its original size to hold the child, the placenta, the water. You see? And all that must come out. So the body pushes it out.” She squeezed an invisible balloon between her hands. Hard. Like she was trying to pop it with her palms. “Through the vagina,” she added, as if it needed to be said. “She has many minutes between her contractions, so there is no hurry.”
Seo-Yun yelped from the waiting room. She cried out in Korean, but when I turned to look it was clear what the issue was. There was a thin trickle of water running down her leg to the floor.
“Her water has broken,” the nurse said.
Sandra and Nick were not allowed in the room, and they had gone back to our rooms twenty minutes ago. I texted them both, but mostly Sandra, that I thought we would be moving into the birthing room soon.
“Good luck,” Sandra sent back. “Make sure you eat something before you go in there, Archie.”
“Cause you could be there for twenty four hours or longer.”
“Ah. I see. I’ll get something.” I ended up talking to the nurse and buying food for all three of us: myself, the father, and Seo-Yun. They were grateful for the help.
The nurses and doctors brought us into the birthing room after that. It was a neat, clean, medical space with a step-up bed at waist height, a large sink, and a host of medical instruments.
Seo-Yun stripped down and put on a thin white robe. It was the first time I’d seen a human naked in the flesh: there were plenty of images online and in textbooks. It was strange, though, to see any being completely naked: unfurred, unscaled, and unclothed. Seo-Yun looked at once fragile and strong. She was slim, and bones were visible in her spine, but she was steady on her feet, counterbalancing the weight of her pregnant stomach with ease.
For the first time, I understood the strength it must take to carry a human child.
She slipped on the robe then sat and allowed the nurse to examine her. Her heart rate and blood pressure were measured, and the child’s as well.
The nurse asked her to sit back and spread her legs, which Seo-Yun did. The nurse put on a glove, then added lubricant to it, and using two fingers, reached down and into her. Seo-Yun winced, and the nurse tutted. They spoke in Korean for a moment, then the nurse turned to me.
“She is dilated four centimeters, so she is still in the first part of labor. Would you like to see?”
No, I did not want to see. My metaphorical hackles were raised at the very thought of it. But it did not matter what I wanted. I needed to see what was going on. So I nodded my head and approached, knelt beside the nurse between the woman’s spread legs. Her husband went with me, I think more out of a desire to support his wife than anything.
The human reproductive organs are located between their legs. They are well-protected and almost never visible. I had looked at diagrams and discussed models with doctors and scientists, but I had never seen any in person before.
Seo-Yun’s vagina was a dark-red slit surrounded by coarse hair. The lubricant the nurse had used was giving its surface a slight shine. And I could see where the opening was by the trail of slightly-bloody water still running from it. There was a smell too, a thick clinging warm smell, like a warm bowl of broth.
The nurse gave me a glove, which I put on reluctantly.
“I’m sorry,” I said to Seo-Yun.
She laughed at me. “This is what you are here to see, isn’t it? Don’t worry. I’ve seen people do this hundreds of times. And I would rather it be you than some medical student.”
That relaxed me a little. It also made the situation infinitely less intimate, which I was grateful for. I used two fingers, as the nurse had, and very carefully slid them inside of her. After a few inches, I felt a solid ring of tissue, an inch or so across.
“I feel something,” I said.
“That is the cervix,” the nurse said. “normally it is so tight that nothing can get through it, not even water, but when the baby is born, it will dilate to ten centimeters. Seo-Yun’s is not ready yet.”
Just then Seo-Yun inhaled sharply and squeezed her eyes closed, and I felt something through her. An immense downward pressure, as if her body was attempting to eject the baby at the speed of a bullet. Something twitched inside her.
I pulled my hand out, trying not to gag at the feeling.
“How long was that between contractions?” Seo-Yun asked after several seconds.
“Eight minutes,” The nurse said. “Would you like anything?”
“Yes, let me stand up and walk around. If I try to do this on my back, I will never get him out.”
Her husband and I helped her off the bed, and she began to pace. I stripped the soiled glove off and threw it away, then followed the nurse around as she recorded data.
“How long until she gives birth?” I asked.
“Hard to say,” She replied. “It could be anywhere from three hours to a day. The first time is always the most unpredictable.”
“And what is going to happen?” I asked it without really knowing what the response would be. I didn’t really know what I meant.
“Well, she will have to push the baby out,” The nurse said. “There will be a lot of screaming, and blood, but do not be afraid. It is all perfectly natural. She will poop, probably, during that process. Also, her baby is large, and she is small, so she will likely tear.”
That didn’t sound natural. “What do you mean tear?”
“Her vagina will tear. To make room for the baby.”
“Oh,” I didn’t know what to think.
The nurse just kept working. “I would scold you for not educating yourself, but you have a good excuse not to.”
“Yes: my species hatches from eggs.”
She smiled. “Your poor mother. She must have been sick with worry waiting for you to hatch.”
I just nodded, unable to reply. I didn’t think my mother had worried about me ever. She had probably prayed that I would die in my egg. I don’t think she would have laid me if there was a possibility of tearing her sexual organs in the process.
Seo-Yun and her husband went on a walk around the hospital garden alone while I processed what I had learned. By the time they came back, the nurses had everything set up and they were ready. So the couple unpacked their bags and made themselves comfortable in the room. I had brought nothing but my notebook and a couple days worth of medication, so I just tried my best not to be in the way.
It took several hours for Seo-Yun’s labor to progress. Long before then, she was in physical pain from the contractions and dilation. She bounced and rocked and squatted. She did breathing techniques and stretches. But nothing helped.
“I do not want an epidural or pain management,” she told me at one point. “I need to be able to feel what is happening to my son.” An epidural is the name for a pain treatment that numbs the body from the waist down. Humans may choose to have one during childbirth in order to numb the pain of the contractions.
Seven hours after she first checked into the hospital, a new nurse checked Seo-Yun’s dilation and declared her ready to begin active labor. It was 8:20 PM at night by then.
Again I was asked if I wanted to feel what was happening to her body, and again I accepted. What had before been a tight ring of rubbery tissue was now a wide, tightly stretched band more than five inches across.
“What position would you like to be in?” The nurse asked Seo-Yun.
“I’ll be on my back for now,” she said.
They brought her a set of metal bars to hold onto and maneuver herself into the position she felt most comfortable in. Her husband stepped up to hold her hand and make sure she had plenty of water.
And then it truly began, after an agonizing day of leadup, in the dead of night.
The contractions came faster now, and longer. They lasted a minute or more, and she breathed through them raggedly. The room began to fill with more medical staff. An actual human doctor, dressed all in white with blue gloves, came in and checked on her. Then declared that it would be at least another three hours and left again.
Not long after that, she let out her first expletive during a contraction. She cursed in Korean, spat and writhed from the waist up. She declared her husband to be a bastard, and threatened to cut his penis off (“that is expected,” the nurse told me).
She cursed at me next, though I didn’t understand it and didn’t take it personally. She was in a lot of pain.
Three more hours of this went by, with Seo-Yun sweating and yowling. She got up shakily once to use the bathroom. She refused food and water. She had a manic shine in her eye. She was wild, feral, ferocious, and utterly focused.
Her body shook and shuddered when she laid back down. Her legs jittered against the metal bars.
She swore again, and climbed up, grasping onto the bars, to crouch over the bed.
“I think I’m almost ready,” she said to the nurse and to me.
The nurse peered into her, holding her body open with two fingers to see. “Not yet,” she said. “You will have to wait.”
Wait we did. All night. Ten more hours. Until Seo-Yun had gone from rosy and furious to pale and wan. The nurses and her husband forced her to drink water, but she would eat no food. So neither did anyone else.
Finally, at just after seven in the morning, the nurse bent down, checked Seo-Yun’s vagina, and declared. “You’re ready now.”
She looked despairing for a moment, then nodded and laid back on the bed, holding onto the metal bars.
The nurse gestured me forward to the end of the table, where I would be able to see everything as it happened.
I did not want to see it, but I felt as if I couldn’t look away.
“She is going to push the child out now,” The nurse explained to me. “This is when she might tear.”
The doctor came back in then, and pushed me further away so she could work properly, but I still could see what was happening.
Seo-Yun waited, breathing deeply, slowly. Her face scrunched up. Her muscles tensed. She let out a high, long whine of pain. I watched her whole body tense and squeeze. The whine turned into a gasp, and still she pushed.
The contraction ended, and Seo-Yun collapsed back on the bed, gasping. Her husband leaned over her to reassure her, but she just swore at him.
Her reprieve lasted for less than a minute, and then the next squeeze began. The nurse and doctors around her were encouraging her in Korean. “Push, push, push, push,” the doctor said, and then, as the contraction ended again. “That was good. I can see him coming. One more should do it.”
I stepped forward despite my revulsion. I could see the smooth cap of skin inside her, slick with blood. It was the baby’s head. I felt sick.
Seo-Yun waited, panting. Color had rushed back to her face. She was bright red with strain again. With the next push, she screamed. Shrieked. Her body shook, and there was a bright burst of blood. Her skin tore slowly, so awfully slowly, around the head of the child. It split her open vertically. The muscle snapped away and the baby’s head almost fell out of her.
The doctor reached down and caught the baby. He pulled out one shoulder, then the other, and then he was free of his mother. He was pink and red, blotchy, with a scrunched face covered in blood and viscera. His umbilical cord was a thick pinkish snake from him to his mother’s womb.
Seo-Yun was gasping, looking down at her baby with an expression of hope and horror. The doctor lifted him to her, and as he did so, the baby moved. He twitched, kicked his legs, and then, with a huge breath in, began to cry
All the humans in the room cheered. Seo-Yun was crying, reaching out to take the baby from the doctor. She cradled him against her chest and hushed him, smearing her own blood on herself. She didn’t even seem to feel the pain from her torn vagina.
The baby stopped crying, and seemed to go to sleep on his mother’s chest.
“Skin contact helps them bond,” A young nurse said to me. Then she went to the doctor, who was staunching the bleeding.
I stood away from the action while they cleaned Seo-Yun and her baby up. My heart was racing and my hands were shaking.
How we come into the world is incredibly important. It determines so much about our experience of the world and how it experiences us. Those species that hatch from dry eggs, for instance, differ greatly from those who grow up underwater. A Chintilik child is born with three instincts: to follow their parents, to eat bugs, and to burrow into sand. Frid are born small and squishy, and their overriding instinct is to cling to their parents for dear life and squeak if left behind.
If you are lucky enough to be born on a paradise world, such as the world where the Canteron evolved, your conception, birth, and childhood are a blissful haze of sweet foods, soft grasses, and the love of your parents.
In contrast, deathworlders are born with pain and distress. I had heard, before, that some deathworld species eat their mothers alive, or eat through her. That often the mother dies in childbirth. That for these species, their environment forces them to evolve heinous and terrible methods of childbirth. Human birth, I had thought, was very sensible and straightforward.
Now I understood how wrong I had been. This had been horrific. It had been a terrible miracle of life. There was nothing easy or simple about it. There were a millions ways this could have gone wrong, and it had taken so long to happen, that if there were not other humans around, and there was nowhere safe to go, the mother would have been completely vulnerable.
Seo-Yun called to me, and when I came to the edge of the bed, she asked me, “Isn’t he beautiful?”
I looked at her newborn son. He had opened his eyes, and they were the blue of a bright morning sky. He looked up at me from between his mother’s breasts. Still red and raw and connected to her.
“He is,” I agreed, “he is beautiful.” I asked for permission to touch him, curious what a newborn human felt like. She let me, so I put a hand on his tiny back. He was very hot and soft. His skin felt thin and fragile.
The baby began to squall, and I removed my hand. “I don’t think he likes my scales,” I said as he quieted again.
“He’s only twenty minutes old, what does he know?” Seo-Yun said.”Thank you, Dron. I hope you learned something.”
“I did,” I said, “Thank you for letting me be here. I will probably go soon. I am very tired, and you must be too.”
“I am,” Her husband said, surprising me. I hadn’t realized he understood English.
“I will be soon,” Seo-Yun said, “but I should try to feed him first.”
I left her and the nurse to try and get the baby to breastfeed for the first time.
It was ten in the morning, so I wasn’t surprised that Sandra and Nick were awake when I got back to the rental suite. Nick had gone elsewhere for the day, and Sandra was reading her new notebook and communicator, squinting at something.
“Welcome back,” She said, “How was it?”
I made no reply and went right into the bathroom. I turned on the sink, and stood in front of it for a moment, looking at myself in the mirror. Then I threw up into the sink. Just bile. There was nothing else in my stomach.
I washed the vomit away, trying not to think about the wetness of blood ripping from Seo-Yun’s body around her son.
There was a soft knock at the door. “Archie?” Sandra said through it, “are you okay?”
I opened the door. “I’m fine,” I said. “Just hungry and tired. Did you make rice this morning?”
She had. I ate some by itself, because that was all my stomach could handle.
“What was it like?” Sandra asked me.
“Awful,” I said.
“Oh, no! Did she have to get a C-section?”
“A what?” I hadn’t heard the term before.
“It’s when they cut the baby out of the stomach instead of delivering it vaginally.”
“Oh.” One of the many things that could have gone wrong. “No. In fact, I think it was a textbook birth. But it was just…it was a lot.”
Sandra looked confused. Her brows were knit together. “I thought you’d seen lots of species give birth, right?”
“I have,” I said, “but not like humans.” I looked at her. My stomach rolled around the rice at the thought that Sandra was capable of holding a child too—what a horrifying thought. That her body could, at any time, rip open or be ripped open by someone else. The thought of her eaten alive from the inside by a human parasite scared me. It disgusted me. I never wanted to see it happen.
“I guess other people have it easier?” She asked, oblivious to my horror.
“Most species on Earth do too,” she said. “The mortality rate for women giving birth used to be like fifty percent, you know. That was because we didn’t know what germs were though.”
I swallowed hard, trying not to think about Seo-Yun bleeding to death with her son trapped halfway inside of her. Or, worse, with him twisted around so he couldn’t be born at all.
“Sorry,” Sandra said. “I know it can be pretty traumatic to just see.”
I nodded mutely. I was still shaking just a little. Trembling.
Sandra reached out a hand to me and laid it on my arm. The opening to a dance I didn’t think I had the capacity for right then. “Would you like a hug?” She asked.
I nodded, and she leaned around the corner of the table to reach me. I buried my head into her shoulder and neck. I could smell my scent on her, but it was faint. It still calmed me.
“Thank you,” I said.
She let go of me. “You’re welcome. Do you want to talk about the birth?”
“No,” I said. I had to know, though. I just had to know if she had been ripped apart like that. “Sandra, have you ever had a child? Given birth, I mean.”
She shook her head, “and I won’t ever.”
Did she mean couldn’t or wouldn’t, I wondered, but Sandra was ahead of me.
“I was born without a uterus,” she said. “One in five-thousand women is. There’s nowhere for me to carry a baby, so no pregnancies.”
“Oh,” I was immediately relieved. The rolling fear and dread ceased at once. Sandra was never going to go through human childbirth. The next second, I felt guilty and self-disgust at my own reaction. She might feel awful because she couldn’t have kids. I knew how hard it was to accept that you would never have a family of your own in the traditional sense.
Maybe that was why she had stayed with Raymond for so long. Maybe she had thought anyone else would be wasted on her.
“I’m sorry,” I said, lamely.
She shrugged. “There’s nothing to be sorry for. Most of the time, I’m grateful for it. No menstruation, no pains, no worries about birth control or unwanted pregnancies. The only downside is that it makes my dating pool much smaller. Like Nick. He wants biological kids, he said. I wouldn’t date him anyway, but now he wouldn’t ever date me either because I can’t have them.”
“Did he ask you on a date?” I asked. I was genuinely curious what the two of them talked about when I wasn’t around.
“No,” She said, “but we were talking about past relationships last night. You know: talking a little crap about exes, comparing the dating scenes between our countries.” She sounded defensive.
“Did you learn anything interesting?”
“Yeah. I think dating in Australia is even worse than in the US.”
I flicked an ear at her in good humor, and she smiled.
“Did you learn anything at the hospital?”
“Yes. Quite a lot. I need to sleep so I can think clearly, and then I need to write it all down so I don’t forget.”
“Sounds good.” She hugged me again, more gently this time, and nuzzled into my neck like she was trying to scent me even though she couldn’t. “Have a good sleep.”
I did, though I found myself wishing she was in bed with me before I managed to fall asleep.