November came to a close with an ultimatum from my doctor that threatened to end our year at the farm: either the poison oak goes or we do.
My skin was blistered, puffy, and red from a severe allergy I never knew I had before one of our pets brought the plant residue inside. A week of aloe vera and oatmeal baths did little for my rash which continued to spread relentlessly. So, I began December with a deep cleaning of our home and a prescription for a heavy dose of steroids.
“Side effects include inappropriate happiness, extreme mood swings, personality changes, insomnia, bulging eyes…” I read Daniel the label and rolled the pill bottle in my hand.
“Would you take this if you were in my shoes?”
“Nah, I’d just tough it out,” Daniel said, sipping juice.
I glared and wanted to scream. “Tough it out?! Have you seen the puss oozing from my abdomen? And do you remember when the rash was at its peak last week, and I broke into a fever and could barely breathe? I’ve given birth without drugs, and you tell me to tough it out as if I have no tolerance for discomfort!?”
“Okay, okay, take the drugs then,” he replied, strapping Snowpea’s shoes on for daycare. “Just text me later today to let me know you’re still alive. You know how long it takes to drive to the hospital from the farm.”
An hour later, I sat down to my laptop in my coffee shop-style work-from corner of our home. After nearly two weeks of being entirely fixated on the incessant itch and ooze of my rash, I finally began to anchor to my surroundings again. Sunlight streamed through the redwood branches onto the green leaves of my bonsai tree and warmed the red candle by the window. I sipped my coffee and thanked my lucky stars I could taste it. Then, I saw the blue light of my inbox: “257 unread messages.”
Okay, I could do this today.
And my eyes affixed themselves to the screen. I click-click-clicked and typed replies faster than my mind could process.
"WHEW, THESE STEROIDS ARE STRONG," I thought in all caps.
I whittled the unread messages down to ten in a matter of seconds.
The heading of an email caught my attention. Last week, in the midst of my poison oak escapade, I had been interviewed by an expecting couple to be present at the birth of their first child.
Okay, let me back up. What’s a doula and why did I want to partake in something as intimate as childbirth with total strangers?
It's difficult to put words to the ways that giving birth and becoming a mother have changed me. Assisting someone through labor and early motherhood is an incredible talent, and I have itched to keep learning more about the magic of the process. So, last year, I trained to become a birth doula, which essentially means providing continuous emotional and physical support during labor and childbirth. To complete my certification, I would need to attend three births, and I had planned to do so once I was settled in California.
In late November, I was certainly “settled” despite the appearance of my bright red skin, so I decided to try my first interview. To avoid the awkwardness of my obvious disfigurement, I started off the Zoom call by explaining the poison oak situation. The two new parents, who had presented themselves as facing extreme anxiety about all things birth and the body, looked at me as if I had suggested freebirthing in my oak-infested forest. So, when I read “we decided to go another route,” in the body of their email this morning, I was unsurprised, to say the least, and went back to the mountain of unread emails.
New birth doula request.
It seemed like too much of a coincidence to receive a rejection and an acceptance for my first birth on the same day after nearly 10 months of letting my doula training accumulate dust. This had to be spam too, right?
“I am looking for a birth doula for my wife whose due date is 12/28,” the message read. “Please let me know if you are available, and we can set up a time to talk about the details today.”
I looked down to check today’s date on my watch. December 28? She could be giving birth any day now! My eyes continued to the peeling bumps that lined my arms, and I noted the swelling had gone down considerably.
“Thank you for contacting me!” My heart raced as I began to type. “Sure, let me know what time you’re available for a video chat.”
“You should do it,” Daniel said when he returned home that evening.
“But I feel so unprepared!” I lamented. “I don’t know when I’ll have time to reread my training manuals, and –”
“Rereading your training manuals isn’t going to help you. You're already book smart. But you won’t learn anything of value until you actually experience it yourself,” he reassured me.
“But what about Snowpea?”
“She has daycare during the day, and she has me at night.”
“But what about the farm duties?”
“I’ll do them if she goes into labor during the weekend. Besides, she can’t be in labor much more than 24 hours. It’s not like you’ll be gone the whole month.”
“But we only have one car! What if she goes into labor when you’re at work? Then I’ll be stuck on the farm, and I’ll miss her whole birth!”
“So just come into the city with me. It’s not long until the lab is closed for Christmas break, so how bad can it be to work from the city for a few days?”
I pursed my lips and looked away. I had run out of excuses, and I was enticed by the possibility of working from coffee shops. I took a breath, tilted my eyes back toward Daniel, and smile as I breathed, “Okay. Then, it’s a yes.”
Coffeeshops are my guilty pleasure. And when I say guilty, I mean really, really guilty.
Silly as it may seem, I can think of nothing else in the world that brings me more joy than writing over a latte while people-watching in a busy coffee shop. And yet, each time I do, I subject myself to an internal war. How can I bring myself to spend $7 on a no-frills Bay Area latte when there are mothers holding cardboard signs that implore passersby for food just down the street? No matter that I’m paid for the hours I work from a coffee shop. It still feels like unnecessary self-indulgence. And besides, there’s a pandemic happening. I’m a parent now. When will I ever grow up?
And then, I fork over my credit card, smile, and wait in line with child-like excitement for the greatest joy I could ever possibly imagine from a paper cup. I open my laptop, sip my latte, and everything becomes rosy again.
And I press repeat each time I come into the city.
“But NOT today,” I thought smugly to myself as I rode in shotgun into the city on a Wednesday.
There was just one little sticking point in my plan to self-sabotage my self-indulgence: I don’t have anywhere to work but coffee shops if I’m not working from home. Stanford libraries were closed to visitors during the pandemic and public libraries in Palo Alto were only open odd, infrequent hours. There is, I suppose, the possibility of working outdoors, but in the chill of December, that option is off the table.
So today, I would do the next best thing: I’d work from Starbucks.
In my experience, Starbucks is a kind of semi-public space where people for the Wi-Fi as much as they come for the coffee. So yes, today, I was going to be one of those annoying people who hogged an outlet over a paper cup of water.
I plugged my laptop into the one outlet available began to work. A few minutes later, a man in his early twenties with sleek black hair and basketball shoes returned to the table next to mine, scooted his laptop, and jostled my charger out of the outlet.
“Oh, sorry. Do you mind plugging that back in for me?” I asked him, smiling from under my mask.
He shot me a glance as if I had asked him to give up his full paper cup of coffee then heaved a sigh and broke my gaze to place my charger back in its socket. I tilted my head and tried to smile again, but he had already buried his head in the light of his computer.
I plugged my headphones into my ears and began to work. Over Arlo Parks, I could hear the man next to me murmuring to himself, “You don’t wanna do that. You DON’T wanna do THAT! I’ve been there and I know what they’ll do to you…”
My ears perked up. I paused my music.
“You DON’T wanna DO THAT, my friend!” He hissed, talking to no one in particular, and a chill ran up my spine. He quietly pounded his fist on his table, and my charger fell from the outlet again. I ignored it this time.
He got up from his seat and began pacing the room, talking through his headphones? Or to himself? I saw another outlet open up, and I snuck away to a table across the room. And began to work.
I was deep into the semantics of a sentence when a middle-aged woman sitting alone at the table in front of me suddenly SHREIKED at the top of her lungs. My heart leaped to my throat and began pounding. She set her paper cup down on the table and calmly walked out of the shop. I made eye contact with two freelancers at adjacent tables whose concentration had also been shattered.
“I almost had a heart attack!” One of them mouthed.
“What just happened?” The other whispered.
I shrugged and looked at the baristas, who seemed to be unphased.
A few minutes later, the man in black moved his computer and black coffee to the table next to mine. “You don’t wanna do that, my friend. They tell you, but you don’t listen. I told you. You DON’T wanna do that,” he said, gesturing at the air.
As discreetly as I could, I unplugged my laptop, composted my paper cup, and walked away.
Work from home, work from car – really, there’s no difference, right? I had run out of options for today, so I returned to the Plant Biology parking lot, where I had begun my day. I plugged my laptop into the car charger, turned on my music, attempted to work one last time.
“Why does the sun go on shining? Why does the sea rush to shore? Don't they know it's the end of the world?” A dreamy, jazzy song filled the empty space in our electric car.
The puss and swelling from my poison oak rash had (mostly) subsided, but the steroids were leaving me too wired for sound sleep. I knew this was my last chance to work today, but first, I’d just close my eyes for a minute…
“Hey!” I jolted awake to a woman in athlesiure knocking on my window. How long had I been sleeping? I looked around, dazed.
“Are you still using this?” She asked from outside, motioning at the electric car charger behind me.
“Um… yes?” I nodded from my seat but saw she had already unplugged our car. I looped my mask over my ears and stepped out of the car.
“Here,” she said and placed the adaptor on the roof of the car.
“Oh… thanks,” I said, defeated.
She looked at me, furrowed her brow, and asked, “Do you even work here?”
“Um… my husband does,” I replied and tried to make my eyes smile.
“I think I’m going to stay home the rest of the week,” I said to Daniel that evening.
“Your choice. I can just pick you up from home if she goes into labor,” he reassured me.
“Yeah, true,” I said, relieved. “But what if it’s precipitous labor? It could take you an hour and a half to drive from Stanford to home and back, and I could miss the whole thing! I’m definitely going with you.”
“Have you thought about trying a co-working space? There are a few of them close to Stanford.”
“A co-working space!” I exclaimed, my eyes widening. “Me? No, never!”
“Why not?” he asked.
“Are you kidding me!? I nearly have a panic attack every time I pay for a latte. Can you imagine me spending all that money?”
“Yeah, but you’re spending money to work, not just blowing it on shoes or something. Besides, this is tax-deductible. Were you really able to do anything from Starbucks and the car today?”
“Not really,” I admitted.
“So, try it tomorrow and if you don’t like it, we’ll work something out for Friday.”
“Hi, um. I have a reservation under the name Ramirez,” I announced apprehensively to the woman at the front desk.
“Yes, we’re happy to have you here!” she smiled. “We have you booked for open seating, so please make yourself comfortable at any of the desks in the main room. You’ll find outlets at each seat, and the Wi-Fi network is ‘Hanahaus’. Here’s the password,” she said motioning to a sign that read WorkHappy2022.
Okay, so the only thing missing is –
“Oh, coffee!” the woman exclaimed as if reading my mind. “I almost forgot. You can scan the QR code at your seat if you’d like to order Blue Bottle from next door.”
I smiled and tried to maintain my composure as I scanned the room full of Silicon Valley young professionals with earbuds in and eyes glued to their screens. Do I really belong here?
I took a seat at a high table, plugged my laptop in, and filled my ears with music. Bewildered and paralyzed, I tried to recall the last time it had been so easy to work. No screaming toddler, no threat of power outages, no need to wear 50 sweaters like I had to do to stay warm at the farm. Isn’t this what I wanted?
A feeling rose to my throat, but I swallowed it and turned back to my screen to work.
“I’ve got a surprise for you,” Daniel announced as he drove me back to Stanford.
"Marijuana? Coca? Threesome?" I joked.
“No, better,” he replied with a sparkle in his eyes.
“A new houseplant?” I asked.
“No..." He paused. “A car!”
My jaw dropped, and I laughed nervously. I looked at him again and saw his expression unchanged. My eyes widened and I asked, “Wait, really?”
“Yes, Lee should be meeting us in the parking lot for a test drive any minute now.”
“Wait, REALLY?” I repeated.
“Yes, really. Weren’t you just telling me how you can’t do anything in California because you’re stuck at home without a car?”
“Yes, but… A car!? Really? I’ve been stressing about spending money on lattes, and you just buy a CAR?”
“We bought a car,” he corrected me.
“But we can’t afford another car!” I protested.
“There’s the electric vehicle tax credit, and it can be partially written off as a business expense if you use it for your doula things or to go work at coworking spaces. We can afford the payments if they defer student loan payments again.”
“So, you’re taking a gamble,” I said, narrowing my eyes.
“A calculated risk,” he corrected me again. “Look, there it is!” He announced, pointing to a blue Leaf as we drove into the Plant Biology parking lot.
“Hi, Lee!” Daniel waved to the man standing outside the car as if he was about to be reunited with a high school friend.
“So, what piqued your interest in this car?” Lee asked.
“I used to drive a Leaf in Boston, so I know it’s a good car. And I wanted to get her something easy to drive,” he motioned to me as he narrated to Lee excitedly.
I shot Daniel another glare, then tried to maintain a smile under my mask as the two of them scrolled through the details on an iPad.
“So, are you ready to take her for a test drive?” Lee asked Daniel.
“Sure!” He exclaimed and passed the keys to me. “She’ll be driving.”
We piled in the car, and I maneuvered us out of the parking lot. I felt myself growing hot under my sweater and saw flashbacks from high school Drivers Ed. Driving around the superblock white-knuckled with my instructor turning the radio dial to country... wearing red shoes and mascara to my driver's exam... turning left on a green light... choking back tears as I told my dad I failed -
“So, how long did you say it’s been since you drove?” Lee asked casually from the backseat, suppressing the flood of memories.
“Um… regularly?” I asked and watched Lee squirm in the backseat. “Probably about seven years.”
“You don’t need a car in Boston?” He asked, perplexed, and I guessed he must be a native Californian.
The sun was beginning to set as I clutched the keys to my new car in my hands. Now more than ever, I wished we didn’t live at the farm.
The drive ahead of me felt impossible: 40 minutes at rush hour on a steep, winding road lined with cliff after cliff after cliff that fell to an abyss of redwood needles.
I clutched the steering wheel tight, ashamed I had arrived at this point of fear, dread, and dependency. “I’m not a bad driver,” I whispered to myself. “I’m just rusty.”
Daniel’s headlights lit up from his space in the parking lot. I blew Snowpea a kiss and followed them up the mountain.
“I think I’ll just let Lacey drive the ATV,” Randy shouted in my direction and chuckled.
I brushed the comment off and continued scooping chicken poop with a spade.
Christmas at the farm was chilly, muddy, and green. Eira shivered under her sweater after splashing in a bucket of rainwater. I was tasked with keeping Randy’s dog Willow out of the coop while Daniel threw around hay bales and learned to drive a four-wheeler.
“Wa-wa!” Eira squealed. I turned the corner of the chicken coop to see her dancing in a puddle of muddy water. She twirled in circles and I brightened until she clumsily fell to the ground. “Mama!” She cried, displeased by the dirt caked to her fingers.
Willow snuck behind me to snack on the chicken feed.
“Get her out of there, please!” Randy called now stationed from across the yard.
“Mama!” Eira wailed again.
In one motion, I scooped my muddy Snowpea out of the dirt and shooed Willow out of the yard.
At the door of the barn, I approached Daniel and hissed, “Did you tell Randy I’m a bad driver, or did he just make that assumption?”
“I think it’s implied because you’re a woman,” Daniel shrugged. Then, he looked down at Snowpea and hissed back, "Did you let her jump in puddles again?"
"It's just a little mud," I shrugged back.
I cast a glance toward Willow, the female dog who’s “too old to know where she is anymore,” according to Randy, and I wondered how much I had been told was true.
Because we had farm duties all morning, we postponed our Christmas celebration until after Eira’s afternoon nap. We joked that like most of the Amazon delivery people, Santa got lost en route to the farm. Snowpea, still too little to know the difference, smiled and squealed through our quiet festivities. She was my sous chef for making sugar cookies and my grandma’s breakfast casserole, which Daniel said was the best dinner I’ve ever made. After eating, we watched romcoms and made it through our mountain of presents under the tree.
Eira was gifted more than I think I ever received in my life. And while she enjoyed the toys, she found true bliss in tearing wrapping paper to shreds and climbing in cardboard boxes. She was so wound up from the day’s joy, she protested sleep that night. Eventually, her sugar cookie high faded, and I carried her to bed guided by the light of our Christmas tree.
After weeks of waiting in the city for labor to begin, my first client as a birth doula was induced three days after Christmas. And after getting a car to be ready at a moment’s notice, Daniel said he’d like to drive me to the hospital.
At 9 pm on the night of induction, we sat in the hospital parking lot eating burritos and streaming Death to 2021 from the Tesla.
“Are you sure she’ll be okay without me tonight?” I motioned to Snowpea who lay asleep in my arms.
Daniel shrugged. “Looks like she’ll be fine,” he replied, watching her sigh contentedly in her sleep.
“I wasn’t nervous before,” I observed. “But now, I just keep thinking of the time I passed out and got a concussion when I was watching a spinal block as a pre-med student. What if I faint again when she’s getting an epidural?”
“That’s why I’m feeding you now,” Daniel said.
I heaved a sigh, crumpled up the paper of my burrito, and kissed Snowpea on the head.
“Wish me luck,” I whispered to both of them, my voice quivering.
Fifteen hours later, I stood behind the obstetrician as she caught and lifted the pink baby boy into the air. He reached out his arms, sounding a soft cry and I felt hot emotion rise to my throat. Was I going to faint? Vomit? I tried to place the feeling. All the fear, nervous energy, and crippling imposter syndrome burned away in that moment and I let myself feel the two hot tears that rolled down my cheeks. The word I was searching for bubbled to my lips: Joy!