Shelby Vittek | Longreads | December 2017 | 13 minutes (3,315 words)
It’s a hot August night in 1991 at the Greater Baltimore Medical Center, and the delivery room is filled with bright lights. A film crew is documenting a woman giving birth. After almost 12 hours of active labor, it’s time for her to really push.
A few anxious rounds of counting to 10 and many deep breaths later, the doctor says, “Ooooh there you go, lots of hair.”
“That’s it, the baby’s coming!” the red-haired nurse says with excitement.
That’s when I enter the picture, with a head full of red hair of my own.
* * *
I know this scene well. It’s my own birth. Not many people can say they’ve watched their own delivery, but I can.
In fact, I’ve watched myself be born more times than I should probably ever admit to. I’m doing it again tonight for the ninth time this week, sitting on the floor in my studio apartment with my eyes fixated on the television. The sight of my fiery red hair making its debut will never fail to amaze me.
The video of my birth in no way resembles your typical home video. It’s more like a documentary, with my parents and family, and then finally me, as its subjects. Every single reaction of theirs is recorded in the truest manner, and edited as well as early ’90s technology could allow. That’s because it was not shot by a proud father-to-be, but instead a professional film crew. I was paid $300 to be born (the check went directly into my first college fund, I’ve been told), and the footage was used to make an educational video for other expecting parents to watch during Lamaze birthing classes. Hundreds, if not thousands, of other people have watched me be born, too.
* * *
I first watched the video when I was 12, after school with my younger sister, while our mom was still at work. We discovered the tape in our entertainment center, next to the one labeled “April 4th, 1986,” the day our parents got married. The tape had “August 23, 1991” written on it — the day before I was born, when my mother went into labor.
My sister discovered it again while unpacking after a recent move and mailed it to me to keep. The video sat on my dresser for weeks until I could find a VHS player that still works, and now that I have, I can’t help but obsessively watch it, rewinding and replaying it over and over again.
Revisiting the film now as an adult is an entirely new experience. This isn’t the same scene I remember watching as a child. At 12, I was repulsed, embarrassed by the rawness of the images, the sight of my mother’s vagina, and the mess that is childbirth. At 26, I am in awe, euphoric, feeling high off this artifact.
During this first viewing as an adult, I realize that in the video, my mother is just four years older than I am today. I now have friends the same age as she is on screen, and it’s not at all challenging to imagine myself in her shoes. I’ve never really known her this young, and I feel as if I’m meeting a new version of her in these scenes — a different person, a complete stranger to me. She’s 30, though looks significantly younger. Her skin is radiant, her eyebrows delicately manicured, and her dark hair shows no signs of graying. She’s not wearing any makeup, and looks beautifully calm and vulnerable. Although it’s the end of summer, not a drop of sweat appears on any part of her face.
By the time I first watched my birth video as a tween, my parents had divorced and were living in separate states. Their marriage had ended in an explosion when I was 10, with an affair my father was rumored to have had, and physical fights, some of which I’d witnessed. Any memories I still had involving affection between the two were fading. They barely even talked anymore, preferring to coordinate custody drop-off times by email or through one of their daughters.
I know this scene well. It’s my own birth. Not many people can say they’ve watched their own delivery, but I can. In fact, I’ve watched myself be born more times than I should probably ever admit to.
My parents together, still in love, is an even more distant memory now. They’ve only seen each other in person twice in the past five years — at my college graduation, and then at my sister’s — so it’s touching to see their bodies occupying the same physical space. Though they move awkwardly in relation to one another, with badly timed kisses and odd petting motions, I can see how much he once loved her. I see it in the way he feeds her ice chips with a plastic spoon, and the way he reapplies cherry-flavored Chapstick to her lips. I see it in the way he closely watches the monitors to make sure both of our heartbeats are okay. Seeing my parents together in a moment that was, up until the point of this filming, the biggest milestone of their shared life is fascinating. It’s also a little bit heartbreaking, knowing what’s to come for them, knowing their story someday ends.
It’s wild to be able to travel through time and witness them together, to watch in real time when they were merely a team of two, in the moments right before we became a family. I’ve never been close with either of my parents, but right now I can’t help but fall a little bit in love with them, with who they once were and for the life they were about to give me. Now that I’m older, it brings me so much joy that this video exists, that I can be a witness of my own entrance into the world.
It feels even more remarkable because my mother had once been advised to forgo having children. In high school she suffered a massive aneurysm caused by an arteriovenous malformation, or a tangle of abnormal blood vessels, bursting in her brain. She had surgery to release pressure from the bleeding, but the cluster of blood vessels remained, and could have burst again at any time. A pregnancy increases the likelihood of this happening, and she was warned of the possibly fatal consequences for both mother and fetus.
That my mother was even able to give birth was a miracle. My being able to see it now as an adult feels like a second one.
* * *
I’ve studied this video and know it from every angle. My mother’s parents are there, sequestered in a corner looking on as the birth progresses. My grandfather, who missed the births of his own children while serving overseas in the late ’50s and ’60s, patiently looks on as his second daughter gives birth to her first child.
Before it’s time to push, my father spoons ice chips into my mother’s mouth in between contractions, while she repeatedly complains that all she wants is to “eat some damn breakfast.”
The first time I watched as an adult, I didn’t realize my gender was unknown until the doctor said, “Soon we’ll have our baby — a Shelby or a Steven!”
When the pushing begins, the camera zooms in on my mother’s face. She’s bearing down hard, with her face angled down toward her chest. Her face reddens and fills with blood. I’ve never seen her look more beautiful. She’s not the screaming, moaning trope of a woman about to give birth. She’s calm, aware, silent, almost in a meditative state. My father gently dabs her forehead with a neatly folded white towel as he continues to count her breaths out loud: One, two, three, four. His dark eyes are fixed on the monitors, his mustachioed face serious and concentrated on sticking to the steps they learned together in the Lamaze classes.
Whoever is holding the camera has a case of shaky hands, and there’s a quick switch in perspective. Now the camera’s focused on a long standing mirror, which is angled down to show a reflection of my mother’s vagina. A red-yellow mixture of blood and iodine appears to cover the area, and I can only barely make out the texture of hair on my crowning head. Everything’s still so bloody and disorienting you can’t yet tell what color it is.
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“Oh that’s so precious!” I hear my grandmother exclaim in her high-pitched tone, a voice I know so well today. “Isn’t that darling?”
And just like that I am born.
“You have a baby girl!” the doctor announces.
“Shelby!” my father says proudly.
I’m placed very briefly on my mother’s stomach, covered from the waist down in a strange, dark green paste, and then whisked away before anybody is able to get a close look at me. While still in the birth canal I passed meconium, or a baby’s first feces, which would have been dangerous had I inhaled it with my first breath. There’s a bit of chaos in the room as the nurse cleans me off on the other side of the room off-camera. I hear my voice for the first time. It’s a gentle cry, like the cry of a kitten.
“I can’t believe how well you did, Donna,” the doctor tells my mother. In the background, I hear the nurse whisper to me in a soft baby voice, “You’re a redhead!”
With the camera focused on the doctor stitching up my mother, I hear a woman’s voice, probably the nurse ask, “Is there any red hair in your family?”
“None,” my dad responds. “No one has red hair.”
“Uh oh,” the red-headed woman giggles.
“It’s hard to believe, Donna,” he says to my exhausted mother before letting out a long nervous laugh, followed by a long bout of silence.
On the floor of my apartment I am squeamish, not because of what I’m seeing on my television, but because of what I am hearing. Not even a minute old and a stranger is putting my newborn body’s identity and belonging on trial.
It wouldn’t be the last time this happened. Throughout my childhood, when people looked at our small family of four — three brunettes and a redhead — there was often the sense of suspicion lurking in their minds. Nobody called my mother’s role into question. She was the one who had carried and given birth to me while being filmed, after all. Which left my father’s paternity as the only open question. Even though my parents both knew that my mother had never been unfaithful, and were secure in their marriage when they had conceived me, doubt from outsiders was constantly cast on our family.
The footage of my birth was used to make an educational video for other expecting parents to watch during Lamaze birthing classes. Hundreds, if not thousands, of other people have watched me be born, too.
I’m feeling vexed after watching the very first suspicion voiced in the hospital delivery room. I grab my phone and call my sister. How had we missed this part all those years ago? We were so distracted by our mother’s stark nudity watching this as young children that we completely missed the adult reactions to my birth. Or maybe we weren’t old enough to pick up on them yet.
Or maybe they didn’t yet matter. In any case, I feel the need to purge this newly discovered fact, but my sister doesn’t answer.
* * *
I’m lying on my back on a white hospital blanket in a plastic bassinet, arms bent up toward my head and skinny, long legs spread outward to each side. My tiny pink, wrinkly body is cleaned off now — there’s no more blood or meconium. I’m wailing, my newborn chest quickly rising and falling with each cry. My head is covered with matted hair, which is vividly red-orange in color. The nurse comes over and takes prints of my feet — first the right, then the left.
I want so much for that newborn baby crying alone in a plastic bin. I want to pick her up and make her feel welcome and wanted. I want to soothe her and gently rub her little head of ginger hair and tell her everything’s okay. I want to tell her stories about the life she is about to live. I want to warn her. I want to share what I know now with her. I want to tell her never to be ashamed of who she is, to be loud and proud of her red hair, to know that she will someday love the beautiful color she’s been blessed with.
I want her to be united with her mother. Now. I want her to not be spending her first few minutes on earth feeling alone and exposed in a cold plastic tray.
When they finally bring me over to my mother and place my pink bundled body on her chest, the first thing she says to me, softly and with genuine curiosity, is, “Hi there. You do have red hair. How’d you get your red hair?” She glances a bit more at my head and face, equal parts confused and in love. “Hi there.”
It would be another four years after my birth, in 1995, before two scientists in Scotland would discover the genetic origins of red hair. And it would take even longer for members of my own family to understand how, exactly, two brunettes could have possibly created a redhead with their combined DNA. After taking a genetics class in college, I was finally able to explain that the several red hairs in my father’s full beard did not grow there by coincidence. They grew because of a recessive mutation he carried on his MC1R gene, a mutation that my mother also had, both of which had been passed directly to me. I was able to explain — with scientific evidence — that it was possible for me to be part of this family, that two carriers of the MC1R mutation have a 25 percent chance of having a redhead, and I was that one in four child.
My dad leans in and kisses my forehead. “Hi baby. You worked hard to get here.” He turns around and tells my mother’s parents, with shock, “Yeah, it’s red hair!”
As my excited grandmother is busy putting an “I’m a new dad!” pin on my father’s shirt, my mother is still looking over her first-born child. “Hi, sweetheart. Hi, Shelby.”
Then the nurse comes over again to wrap matching hospital wristbands around my arm and my mother’s. “Look at all that red hair,” she says, as if it hasn’t already been discussed enough. “A head full of red hair.”
“I can’t believe it,” my mom says.
All this attention on the color of my hair, and not once is my weight (7 pounds 14 ounces) or length (21 inches) announced. My size (healthy) is not addressed. My lung quality (good, clear) is not addressed. My heart rate (normal) is not addressed. But my red hair is brought up over and over again.
“You want to hold the baby?” my mom holds me up to my dad. “Don’t drop her!”
I watch him hold and embrace me, and I can tell he’s not even aware of the doubtful questions loved ones and strangers will ask of us during my lifetime. He’s not phased by the nurse’s remarks; he’s still in shock. With stiff, awkward arms that clearly have little experience holding newborns, he holds and rocks me — a whole body kind of rocking; his arms don’t move, but everything from the waist up sways from side to side.
Throughout my childhood, when people looked at our small family of four — three brunettes and a redhead — there was often the sense of suspicion lurking in their minds.
“Hi Shelby,” he says in awe. “Hi there. You’re a cute little thing.” I make a squeaky noise, and he voices a concern to my mother, “She sounds congested.”
My mom asks what he thinks of me. “She’s pretty,” he responds softly as he studies me, “…blue eyes.” He seems pleased to be holding all seven pounds, 14 ounces of his own baby girl.
But his dark, nearly black eyes are wide with bewilderment and I can’t help but wonder if — like everyone else in the room — he’s questioning whether I really am his daughter.
* * *
After the unexpected surprise that came with my birth, the doctors explained that sometimes newborns lose their hair and an entirely different hair color grows back in its place. They told my parents this could happen, that it probably would happen, given red hair didn’t run on either side of the family. Three weeks went by, then six months, and they continued to wait. But on my first birthday, my curly, fiery locks were still growing in strong.
Years before my mother had gotten pregnant with me, when they weren’t sure if she could safely carry a baby to term, my parents considered adopting. When I was in high school, my mother recounted these years to me, and told me about my paternal grandmother’s reaction when the idea of adoption was raised.
“I will not accept an adopted child in my family,” my grandmother had said. “Nothing but my own blood.” So when I was born with all that red hair, it didn’t align well with her desires for a grandchild with a strong biological resemblance to her son.
Her suspicions were only further supported when my sister was born a couple years later. If I was a genetic anomaly, Lindsay was the complete opposite. Her dark brown, almost black hair and skin matched the rest of our family. My grandmother died when I was 10, and I’m not sure she ever fully believed I was related to her. I must have been the milkman’s baby, or perhaps the mailman’s. There was no way her dark-haired Czech and Polish son could have fathered me.
I wish my grandmother could see the woman and the body I’ve grown into — her body, her plump nose, her broad shoulders, and her D-cup breasts, none of which appear on any of the petite women in my mother’s family. With the exception of my hair color and complexion, I am almost entirely my father’s daughter.
It’s been over a decade since my grandmother died, and even though I believe I’m my father’s daughter (am almost sure of it), I’ve still spent much of my life trying to prove I am just that. Never mind the brutal temper and stubbornness, scrawny limbs, and narrow hips I’ve undoubtedly inherited from him. It’s the hair, my uproarious red hair that will forever keep my identity and belonging on trial.
* * *
The childbirth movie cuts out after the scene where my father first holds me and I rewind back to the point where I am about to be born. I feel a new appreciation for my parents as I watch, and rewatch, our first seven minutes as a family. It’s a bizarre, perplexing, trippy kind of experience to witness your own birth as if you were just another person in the delivery room. But I’m thankful for this rare opportunity of intimacy.
I want so much for that newborn crying alone in a plastic bin. I want to pick her up and make her feel welcome and wanted. I want to soothe her and gently rub her head of ginger hair and tell her everything’s okay.
I remember feeling somewhat disappointed to finally have proof that I was indisputably my mother’s daughter when I first watched this video at age 12. The only redhead in our family, I had spent so much of my life until then feeling as if I wasn’t actually part of it. I’d wished I had been adopted so I could use that as an explanation whenever a stranger asked where my red hair came from. Now, I’m happy to have this proof that I belong, even though I still feel a bit conflicted about the events that transpired during my first minutes outside the womb.
There is no recorded video of my sister’s birth 17 months later, so I can’t compare the reactions to when she was born. From what I’ve been told, it went quickly and normally, with no shocking revelations needing to be made. She was born with a full head of thick dark brown, almost black hair, and skin that mirrored our parents’ coloring. I’m sure there was no doubt that both of her biological parents were in the room.
* * *
Shelby Vittek‘s writing has appeared in The Washington Post, Catapult, Bon Appétit, National Geographic, New Jersey Monthly, The Kitchn, and The Smart Set, among other publications.
Editor: Sari Botton