“You still don’t think you’re going to have this baby, do you?” my friend asked me over pizza last summer. I was approaching the end of the first trimester of my pregnancy but was still grieving a recent miscarriage and waiting on the results of a worrisome test. I hesitated.
“You know what this reminds me of?” she said, taking a sip of her rosé. “When you scout a rapid for too long. The longer you stand there, the scarier it seems. You are going to have this baby, and it’s time to get going.”
She was right. To begin any adventure, you first have to commit. As I embarked on a very different type of downstream journey, the river, as it has for many years, guided me. Here are some of the lessons I learned.
I was a very anxious pregnant person and I drove myself crazy reading about and envisioning every horrible scenario possible. I convinced myself that going in a hot tub before I knew I was pregnant had damaged the baby irrevocably. Before our 20-week ultrasound, all I could think about was finding out our baby didn’t have kidneys or lungs. With every cramp or twinge, I was sure the whole thing was about to end in disaster.
We all want beta before doing anything for the first time. It’s natural to want to ask other people for advice or head down an internet rabbit hole, but scary stories are a dime a dozen. People love to talk about nasty flips, swims, or their cousin who vomited for six straight months and then had a cesarean birth after being in labor for 72 hours.
Really try to limit your exposure to this type of information. My pregnancy would have been much happier if I had.
Before I rowed Utah’s Westwater Canyon for the first time, I limited myself to watching three “carnage” videos and I asked other people not to tell me any horror stories. Instead, I watched videos of people happily running clean lines and I imagined myself doing the same. I was nervous (especially when the big day finally arrived) but I wasn’t having nightmares about worst-case scenarios.
In this vein, I shifted my mindset as my due date approached: No harrowing stories about other people’s births (which people enjoy telling nearly as much as they enjoy talking about flips and swims) and definitely no carnage videos. I read about and listened to only positive birth stories – and when the day finally arrived, I wasn’t afraid.
Stay in the Present and Enjoy the Ride
On a Grand Canyon trip in 2021, we had one rule: No reading ahead in the map. We could flip through that day’s pages but no more. When I was pregnant, I tried to do something similar. I (sometimes unsuccessfully) attempted to read only that month’s chapter in What to Expect When You’re Expecting and only looked at the pregnancy app that told me the size of the baby relative to a French pastry once per week.
We all like to know what’s coming. It’s helpful to know what rapids are ahead, where you’re camping, and what sort of interesting things you might see along the way, but it’s not helpful to know everything about the major rapid you are running in seven days.
It’s also helpful to know what to expect as a pregnancy progresses—what tests should you expect? What discomforts should you anticipate? What should you pay attention to as your due date approaches? However, constantly looking ahead (especially to things that might seem scary) can lead to missing out on that amazing waterfall or your baby’s first movements.
The Greek philosopher Heraclitus said, “You cannot step into the same river twice.” It’s true. Whether you’ve run a stretch a hundred times or are on your third pregnancy, you will never pass this specific way again. Enjoy it.
Surround Yourself with a Supportive Community
When I was pregnant, I was fortunate enough to have a constant team of friends, family, doctors, and an excellent acupuncturist around me. It’s essential to embrace a community. Often that’s the people you are closest to—your family, a best friend, your partner if you have one—or perhaps even the cat that curls up on your belly while you lie on the couch. Your community can also mean your doctor or midwife, a doula, or even a particularly affirming Instagram account.
Like on the river, it’s always the people who make the trip. Whether you’re with your best friends or you’re only together for the duration, the human connections made on the river are like no other connections you make in the world outside.
It’s possible that you will only spend one hour with the person who catches your baby, but like the friend you make on one day on the river, you will always remember their name.
Expect the Unexpected
You know what they say about the best-laid plans. For better or for worse, anything can happen. Winds so strong you’re not sure you’ll make your takeout date. Flipping and losing all your drinks. A broken ankle or a snakebite, a last-minute addition to the trip who no one likes. Or, maybe, no wind, no rain, and dance floor-sized beaches every night. A surprise romance. A herd of bighorn sheep charging down a wash and swimming across the river while you scout.
Six weeks before my due date we found out that our baby had intrauterine growth restriction, meaning that the baby’s growth is slower than expected and will likely stop at some point.
Two weeks before our due date the doctor gave us two options: Go home, have lunch, and come back tonight, or come in tomorrow at 8:00 pm to begin the induction process. This was not what I had imagined! I had pictured going into labor at home, maybe going for a walk or having my husband massage my back through early labor. But, our baby, Wren, joined us safe and sound 72 hours later. She clocked in at 4 pounds, 12 ounces—smaller than anyone predicted and not far above the threshold for a NICU stay. Even though we didn’t have a single item of clothing small enough to fit her, she was completely healthy. It wasn’t what I had originally expected but what a pleasant surprise all around.
Be Prepared, and Then Trust Yourself
Getting ready to give birth is like preparing to run a rapid like the Grand Canyon’s Lava Falls. You’ve been anticipating it for months and the lore is rich, the carnage stories plenty, the ride exciting. Anything can happen.
To prepare for a rapid of such magnitude I’ve taken swiftwater rescue classes and lifted weights. As a pregnant person, I took a childbirth class and swapped heavy weightlifting for pelvic opening yoga and Kegels.
The days approaching the birth feel slow, somewhat reminiscent of the 13 miles of flat water above Lava. You row through black basalt, heat, and tension building by the hour. A feeling of calm acceptance may wash over you. This is what you came here to do. Your body knows how to do it, and many, many people have taken this journey before you.
The reality is you will never actually be ready to go. There will always be just one more strap that could be tightened, but eventually, you just have to put the oars in your hands and pull into the current.
When a river trip ends, you go home, take a shower, and return to your life before. After you have a baby, you go home, maybe take a shower, and nothing will ever be the same. The first six weeks of Wren’s life, though rewarding and precious, were the hardest of mine. Nothing can prepare you for being the caretaker of a tiny human who relies on you for everything. All the time. However, much of what I learned during my pregnancy has eased the path.
Once Wren was earthside, and after I stopped worrying that I wasn’t showing her enough contrasting black and white images and was therefore ruining her brain development, I let the anxiety go. I stay out of books and blogs and do my very best to shut out advice that doesn’t serve us. I trust myself, and I trust her. Wren is growing up to be an adventurous little girl, though she’s still too little to go beyond the pool. She dipped her feet in the Colorado River for the first time this summer and with the sound of her giggle, I knew that she would someday learn from the river too.