The Mermaid Birth

by Melissa Chapman

It’s called a mermaid birth. When a human child is born still fully inside the amniotic sac and for a few brief moments appears to be breathing underwater.  

Sometimes also called being born in a veil or a caul. It was rare enough in ancient times that this birth was a sign of special powers. A sign of a great leader or a sign of someone for whom the veil between the mortal and immortal worlds is unusually thin.   

It is considered a sign of greatness, or good luck. Alexander the Great, Einstein, Charlemagne and Napoleon are all said to have been born in a veil. There is even some indication that Jesus was a caulbearer.

It was rare in ancient days, but that it happened in 1990 in a modern teaching hospital with high marks for its progressive approach to safe and efficient childbirth was truly a miracle, or a series of happy coincidences. But coincidence is God’s way of choosing to remain anonymous, as my Uncle David likes to say.  

In 1990 in Nebraska it was illegal to have a midwife assisted birth and to plan to give birth anywhere but a hospital. To be clear, I had no intention of having a home birth- oy the mess!  But I did want a natural birth, and the best way to get that was to be attended by a midwife.

I’d love to say I wanted an unmedicated birth because I knew it was best for my baby, but the truth is I am afraid of needles and, being a serious control freak, could not stand the thought of having my legs paralyzed. What if I needed to run away?

My obstetrician, with long years of experience, knew to pick his battles carefully when dealing with pregnant women, so my ‘friend’ Gail was allowed to attend the birth at Clarkson Catholic Hospital UNMC.

Because of Gail’s attention, the nurses pretty much left us alone except for an occasional check-in while I labored along for some 14 hours. Every offer to help speed things up was met with Gail’s questions on whether or not it was necessary. It wasn’t – no distress for baby or mother, and at one point I was so unstressed I took a nap (Gail promised me I wouldn’t sleep through the delivery).    

The curiosity of an unmedicated birth taking place in a teaching hospital began to draw a crowd of onlookers, interns mostly. If you’ve been through this process, you know that once the serious work begins you are so completely controlled by your body that you are totally unaware of anything else going on around you. Unaware, that is, until someone asks “What is that?” as you begin to push. (How new are these interns?!?). “I hope it’s a baby”, I laugh nervously.  

The amniotic sac had formed a blue-green bubble that was pushing out ahead of her head each time there was a contraction, not something new doctors had ever seen (or are likely to see again).

My OB stepped in, “Did your water break?”  

“Ummm, maybe?” (This is my first time at this, you know! How do I know if my water broke?!).

He asked the nurse who checked the chart, and it was determined that my water had not in fact broken, but it most certainly would soon, with all that pressure.  
Now every time I pushed the interns all stepped back.

But it never broke.

Slowly she emerged into the world in her blue-green watery cocoon.  Her eyes were closed but her red bow of a mouth was open. Like a deep sea diver, her oxygen still flowing in and out through a cord.  

Dr. Schulte took a small scalpel and gently pushed it into the sac over her open mouth, and the veil dissolved in a gush of water. Her eyes startled awake and she gasped at suddenly losing her private ocean.

She was quickly bundled and handed to me – her face calm but confused, as if she had just awoken into a strange place and was trying to figure out where exactly she was.

My fey child, the seer. My mermaid on dry land.

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Melissa Chapman is a Cedar Rapids native and graduate of Kennedy High School. Melissa got her start in writing as a storyteller for such venues as The Hook and The Giving Tree Theatre’s Great Stories series. All of her work is autobiographical as she’s led a complicated and funny life so far (and plans to continue doing so for as long as possible).