It’s 6 am and I’m already awake, laying on my side—the only position that feels half-way comfortable—when my water breaks. At least I think it’s my water. Truthfully, it feels like I peed my pants. There’s no poetic way to describe it. But something tells me this is not that, and I shift my weight slowly, like a turtle on its back, to look at my sleeping husband.
I lay like that for a while, letting the reality settle around me. The summer sun starts to filter in. A dog is barking somewhere in the neighborhood. But it’s eight days early, I think to myself. Everyone tells you you’ll go late with your first so I assumed I had more time. My mom is supposed to be here, is my second thought. She has all the swaddles, is my third. But she’s six thousand miles away and there are no flights because we’re in the middle of a global pandemic, and now we have no swaddles.
I silently rise from the bed and squeeze past the empty crib, making my way to the bathroom. No one tells you the water keeps coming, after you leave the bathroom, in the car to the hospital, waiting for the doctor to examine you. I wrap a towel around me while I walk through the house.
Throwing my hand on top of my husband’s shoulder, I laid most of my weight on him, trying to get myself to the empty chair on my mother-in-law’s balcony. My other hand held the bottom of my round stomach. We had just gone on a walk along the river, the June weather warm and breezy. People gathered on the grass, leaning against tree trunks, sipping hot tea. Covid restrictions be darned—nothing can stop Middle Easterners from picnicking in the summer.
Pregnancy had been easy, my body doing what the books said it was supposed to do, week by week, just a little bigger and a little more out of breath. Aside from that, things felt much the same—a saving grace when our life felt incredibly uncertain.
I heaved myself into the plastic chair and we all unwrapped our chicken dürüm, a common street food in Turkey. I propped up by feet, so swollen that it took work to slide off my sandals. Somewhere a woman shook out a heavy rug from her window. Thin swirls of smoke from the contraband picnics floated to the sky.
We joked that if the spicy chicken didn’t send me into labor that night, the full moon would.
I text my doula and my mom. They both confirm that, yes, it’s probably my water. I text a photo of the rising hot air balloons to my mom because they haven’t been in the sky since March. She texts back that I need to wake up my husband and tell him what’s going on.
Instead, I pour a cup of hot coffee and savor it on the couch in the silence of the living room.
I once read in a book somewhere a character described as someone with “complete assurance and more than a little recklessness.” I thought of my husband and that line has lived in my notes on my phone ever since. He is Persian through and through and I know exactly how he’d react to the news.
So I finish my cup of coffee first.
When I do tell him, with tears in my eyes, surprising myself with the sudden emotion, he cycles through every sort of reaction imaginable, like a thespian showing off their range in an audition. But for him, a man who wears his heart on his sleeve, it’s completely authentic. He’s upset for not telling him sooner. Then absolutely elated, shimming his hips and shoulders, snapping his fingers, and singing a made-up song. Then he’s on his knees, hands on my stomach, tears down his cheeks, praying for a safe delivery. We go through this cycle a couple more times before we get in the car.
We had been sitting across the table from each other once in the early days of dating, two cups of Turkish tea in tulip-shaped glasses in front of us, a street cat roaming under the table around our feet. It was during my second year teaching abroad and I hadn’t foreseen starting a relationship here—much less getting married and delivering my firstborn child.
“I have no grid in my brain to even begin to understand,” I had said to him, leaving my tea to cool and putting my hands in my lap, trying desperately to figure out this person in front of me, whose life had been so very different from my own. I didn’t know how to respond to his story of fleeing the only place he had ever called home due to the real threat of arrest, imprisonment–or death.
He had fiddled with the tiny sugar cube on the saucer for a moment before responding, “It’s because you’re an American; you’ve never had to think about what it’s like to be a refugee.”
My water broke but it wasn’t yet time for her to come. She still felt tucked up, hidden away inside me. The hour’s drive to the hospital, I felt much the same as I had the day before, although now wet and sitting on a towel. It was too early in the morning for the police checkpoints set up at the province border, usually there to take our temperature and verify we had the right papers.
The doctor confirms my body isn’t doing anything so Pitocin is started. Avoiding an induction was on the top of my birth plan, but with any birth and also the added layer of living in another country, things don’t always go as wished—a lesson I have spent years learning. My husband and I walk up and down the birthing unit’s hallway, dragging the IV drip behind like a dog on a leash. He makes light-hearted banter with the nurses. A hospital worker puts a wooden laser cut design of our baby’s name on the front of our door.
The contractions begin slowly and build up in strength, coming over me like waves, one on top of the other. I assume my body is doing what it’s supposed to do, but the nurses check and it’s not. The contractions come too hard and too fast so I ask for an epidural.
Afterwards, I carefully bounce on a birthing ball and resume slowly walking up and down the hallway, grasping at the wall’s hand rail, my legs heavy and numb. We eat lunch and dinner in our room and I remember breezily asking my doula if eating now will make me throw up later. We flip through the television channels to pass the time and land on the Turkish version of Animal Planet.
But hours later the epidural wears off and the sharp waves come back. I ask for another dose but my body still hasn’t progressed much. The doctor comes back. It’s late at night and I find myself wondering where she has been. Has she come from her house and family? She’s worried because my water had been broken for over twelve hours. The baby is stressed. She brings up the real possibility of a c-section.
Early 2017, we’d been engaged for just a few months and began to dream of what a wedding in the US might look like. But then there was an administration change and a man who campaigned on strict immigration restrictions was sworn in. Seven days later, he signed an executive order to ban travelers from seven countries, Iran included.
Our dreams of a US wedding quickly crumbled and we recalibrated our plans—something we would be doing often over the next four years. The door to the future we had dreamed about was slammed shut. Turkey grudgingly became our home and now the place we would start our family.
Someone catches my vomit in a plastic bag. Sorry, again, there’s no poetic way to describe that. A c-section is imminent. The doctor keeps saying the baby is stressed, and my doula sifts through the awkward curtain of translating from one language to another to try to understand what the doctor means.
The operating room is cold and white and no outside people are allowed in, one of the hospital’s extra precautions against Covid. But my husband charms the nurses and they bend the rules for him. He’s seated near my head. We lock eyes and I’m grateful to have him there in a sea of nurses and doctors who are speaking in a language I barely understand.
She’s cut out of me and she screams. Her cheek is brought next to mine and I crane to kiss her before she’s taken away to be cleaned.
My first words were to my husband: There was an actual baby in there! And second: I’m never doing that again. Although even in the moment, I know I don’t mean it.
She’s a copy of her dad, dark hair, long lashes, eyes the color of copper. No one says she looks like me. No matter though. For nine months I housed her, grew her, kept her safe.
My parents are eventually able to fly across the ocean to meet their new granddaughter. My mom makes casseroles and muffins, does loads of laundry, and walks a fussy newborn. I’ll be forever thankful to have my mom by my side while I took my first wobbly steps into motherhood. Also, she brought the swaddles.
Our baby gets her US citizenship at two weeks old. My husband accidentally rips the corner of her birth certificate trying to get out her passport from the manila envelope. It means a lot to him, this small blue book. Already her future is better than what his own passport could provide. A refugee, a man who crossed borders, fled his home, had everything taken away from him so he could make a better future, whose daughter is a US citizen.
The nurses call her yeni kuş and fındık, the Turkish words for baby bird and hazelnut. My Iranian family calls her zendegee, aroosak, and jigaram, the Farsi words for life, mini-bride, and my liver (yes, liver). The neighborhood aunties dote and gurgle and shower her with mashallahs, always tut-tutting at me for not keep her warm enough.
She coos and I call her my little dove. She smiles a hundred times a day and I call her my sunshine girl.
We name her Esther after Esther of the Old Testament, a Jewish woman living in exile, becoming a queen, saving her people. Esther, bold and courageous, standing up for truth and fighting for the good of others.
Our Esther was born to a refugee and a US citizen, in neither’s home country, amid a travel ban and an impossible immigration process, during a pandemic. Already she is strong and brave.
She is our star, a bright spot in the dark, joy in the middle of a whole lot of hardship, made for such a time as this. We are so happy she’s here.
7 thoughts on “A Pandemic, a Travel Ban, an Overseas Birth Story”
So beautiful, Sarah. We are so glad Esther is here, too.
Thanks for reading, Tarah! Hope you and your family are well ❤
You are a very gifted story teller with a very moving story to tell! Congratulations on your beautiful blessing, Esther. Best of luck to you in all of your upcoming challenges. Thank you for sharing.
Thanks so much for reading, Debbie. I appreciate it ❤ ❤