I thought I already knew how babies were born. It was just like I’d seen in movies and television shows. How my own mother, and most of my friends, had their children.
Simple really: After you get knocked up, you go to a lot of doctor appointments at your OB/GYN for ultra-sounds and tests. One day, your water breaks (dramatically) and you rush to the hospital where you’re given pain-drugs immediately (because WHO WOULDN’T WANT THE EPIDURAL!? What are you, NUTS?!) Once your feet are up in stirrups, you scream your head off and push while nurses count to ten during contractions. If anything goes wrong, you’re rushed into a simple surgery called a c-section. Otherwise, your baby squirms out into a doctor’s hands in a room lit by bright fluorescents. The father, looking quite shocked but excited now, cuts the cord and everyone smiles. A baby is born. A few family members try to stay out of the way as a frenzy of nurses tend to the new baby, washing it clean and dressing it up before handing the new mom her bundle of joy.
At least to think that could have actually been my birth story still terrifies me even more then what actually happened. But to pretend giving birth wasn’t terrifying would be ridiculous. It was, but it was many other beautiful and empowering things too.
It all started a few years ago, before Matthew and I were even really considering marriage, let alone children. We both rate on our Netflix account, giving our preferences a confused identity somewhere between between “Romantic Indie Dramas” and “Inspiring Foreign Political Movies”. Rarely does it say we will both really “5-STAR-prediction-rating-LOVE a movie,” but for whatever reason Netflix was convinced we would BOTH enjoy “The Business of Being Born”. It recommended it again and again, despite us always browsing past it, explaining to Netflix that we were not yet interested in babies. Finally one fateful night, we sat down, unable to agree on anything else, and gave in. We said “FINE, Netlix. FINE. We’ll watch it.” Over the course of the next 84 minutes my life changed.
I don’t know if a single film has ever had such a massive or direct effect on me. We’re not strangers to documentaries, it’s one of the few genres we always genuinely enjoy watching together, but never had a movie taken everything we thought we knew and … SLAUGHTERED it. I was in shock: at my own ignorance, about the state of maternal health care in my country, and mostly just that there were so many options I’d never even heard of before.
The film opens with a woman giving birth in her living room. In a tub. My first thought: “What kind of woo woo hippy shit is this?” It just seemed so silly: her stark naked in this huge inflatable kiddie pool. She had candles and soft music in place of an IV and fetal heart rate monitor. It just didn’t look… safe. Even by the end of the film, as much as it changed me, I still would not have believed that I would find myself a few years later stark naked in a tub. In my own living room. That I too would light candles and listen to soft music as I labored through the night.
When we first decided against a hospital birth, the next natural choice was a Birth Center. This seemed like the middle of the road and a fabulous compromise. We toured Alma’s beautiful birth center, an old house with delightful character laid out like a fancy bed and breakfast. Rooms with large birthing tubs, comfortable beds, and fire places. But, as we learned more and more, we realized that everything they have at a Birth Center is brought to your home, making it just the same as far as safety is concerned. The thought of driving across the city mid-labor seemed less and less appealing when I could just stay in the comfort of our little apartment. Perhaps if we had other children, or loud dogs, perhaps pesky relatives near by this would have been a more attractive option, but as it was, home seemed obviously ideal. (Our relatives aren’t pesky, but if they were it would be good a reason as any to chose a birth center!) What I mean to say is: the more I learned, the more home seemed like the safest of all options. And much more safe then a hospital.
Amelie’s birth story begins on Friday at noon for our appointment at Alma Midwifery. 41 weeks pregnant, and a day, (a woman’s “due date” is set at 40 weeks, despite first time moms typically running about 8 days past) and my midwife Kori was performing a “sweep of the membranes”, where the doctor or midwife gently separates the bag of waters from the uterine wall at the opening of the cervix in hopes of encouraging labor. A procedure like this only works if your baby and body is ready; it’s seen as a “gentle push”, like acupuncture. She told me my cervix melted away at her touch, and that I was perhaps 3 or 4cm dilated when we left. She said, if I really wanted to get the show on the road, to go to an acupuncturist. So, after lunch, that’s just what I did.
We came home, and I knew my long afternoon of “encouraging labor” was promising. I was crampy and had already had my “bloody show” during the membrane sweep. By 6 pm, I had noticed the contractions growing stronger and more regular, but knowing most first time moms have a number of “false starts” I tried to keep the excitement to myself and play it low.
My friend Laura came by to make me red raspberry leaf tea, said to strengthen the uterus, on the way to her waxing appointment that evening. Laura is the kind of friend you find once in a lifetime. She’s genuine, beautiful, intelligent, and a whole lot of fun. I trust her and have built an intimate friendship with her, much of it bonding over our mutual interest in maternity care and birth. When we met, she had already read Ina May Gaskin books, even though she doesn’t (yet) have children of her own. She was just as curious and passionate about natural birth as I was, and this bond made her an obvious choice to invite to my own home birth experience. My husband Matthew would later attest to it being one of the best decisions we made. She was not only added support for me, but helped him a lot through the night as well.
Laura left a bit after 7, joking she would be back soon enough. She’d had a dream where my water had broken the night before that had her convinced labor was surely soon to follow. Matt and I ate a huge taco dinner about 9, and although the contractions had been consistent I was still afraid to get too excited. Matt talked me into doing my self-portrait for my maternity photography project and by 10:30 I was having contractions DURING the session for the 41 weeks photo. (Weekly Baby Bump Portrait Project can be viewed here)
By midnight the contractions seemed like they were a bit closer. Should I track them? I remember thinking, call the midwives at 5-1-1 (five minutes in-between 1 minute long contractions that have been present and consistent for 1 hour). I start on the next one and before I know it the log on my iPhone app reads 11:56, 12:01, 12:06 and it’s time I tell Matt that I really think this could be it. He then begins timing the contractions for me and before we know it, it’s 1:30 am and he is on the phone with our lead midwife.
Kori, our lead, sent over our apprentice midwife Calla Maria. She first stopped by Alma for the birth tub and other supplies. That’s the thing about a home birth, there are so many supplies. The list of things we purchased ourselves before the birth was a 3 full pages long. I diligently shopped and separated everything into 5 labeled paper bags and a box, as per the midwives instructions. Things for me during and after the birth, things for the baby, things for the home to function efficiently as a place of birth. Even though we rented the tub through Alma and they took care of setting it up and and breaking it down, one of the bags read “Tub” and had a hose, a tarp, and a fish-net inside.
So, now it’s 1:35am and I’ve sent my friend a text that reads “This is intense Laura.” She got dressed and came over. This is where things begin to blur for me. Did she get there first, or Calla Maria? It is only 1 week later I’m finally able to sit down while nursing to write this, and already I don’t even remember details from that early in the night.
Labor was, and jointly was not-at-all, what I expected. I had read so many books and taken so many classes; I really thought I was prepared. Of course I’d never felt my uterus contract before, but I felt ready for it to. More then anything, I was excited for the journey of child labor. I knew it would hurt, but I had told myself to view the contractions as little 60 second challenges, and was told it was such a clean pain. That once it was over, it was over (until the next one of course.) What surprised me most of all was how all-consuming it was. I thought I would be able to function more clearly between contractions. Instead, what I found was just as I was able to cope and feel a bit of confidence, they would increase in intensity, always leaving me just one short step behind.
My husband Matthew was my rock. He was everything I could have ever hoped, dreamed, or asked for in a birthing partner and I never would have made it through that night without him. He let me squeeze his hands as he breathed with me through contractions. He made weird noises to make me more comfortable with the similar weird noises that were escaping my mouth. He stayed alert and looked me in the eye in the seldom moments I opened my eyes at all. I remember short stints without him, I remember Laura’s hands on the side of the tub as well. I remember her voice encouraging me “You can do this, you’re doing a great job.” And I remember the other midwives arriving, I caught glimpses of the faces I had grown to know and trust over the course of my prenatal care. They were all 3 in the background of the nightmare that was the pain of labor.
That’s the thing, everyone says sure, it hurts, but somewhere along the line I’d been convinced it wasn’t something worth worrying about and somehow wouldn’t be so bad. There are chapters in the books I’ve read titled things like “Pain vs. Suffering”. I’ve heard people touting it as “pain with a purpose”, and thus more manageable. But, when it came down to it, the pain was so far beyond unbearable that I spent much of the evening shocked by the sheer force of it. I was trembling and terrified for hours on end. By the time the sun was coming up, I was so ridiculously exhausted I would fall into a deep sleep in-between many of the contractions. Just 2 or 3 minutes sleep before the next one would hit. This sounds like it would be nice, but it felt like I was half passing out from the pain and waking to the shock of the next contraction was like an alarm clock from hell ringing in every fiber of my being.
I had “back labor” through the entire night. Some positions, on my hands and knees, would alleviate the pressure a bit, but over all my lower back was feeling the intensity of the pain with each contraction. I remember many positions through the night, in the tub, out of the tub, over the toilet, leaning on the bed, back in the tub. Whatever was suggested to me, I did. I trusted my team wholeheartedly, and couldn’t imagine the night had I not.
One clear memory of being in the tub is a song coming on from the french film Amélie. Matthew and I had one of our best first dates to watch this movie, and often referred to it as the night we fell in love. When we were married last summer, I chose our favorite song from the soundtrack to walk down the aisle. And while pregnant, I would practice learning to play this same song on our piano and the baby would kick inside my belly. Regardless, the entire pregnancy I’d been so sure I was having a boy. It just… felt like a boy. I had no rhyme or reason for my confidence, but as the song started to play in the middle of the night I felt something shift inside and I started to cry at the joy realizing that this in fact could be my little girl. I grabbed for Matt’s hand on the side of the tub and locked knowing eyes with him. It was the first time it really occurred to me, he could quite likely be a SHE.
Another memory from the fog was the sensation of my water breaking. I later found out this happened very late in labor, during a cervical exam, and was an accident. Perhaps she would have been born in her waters otherwise? Like the Dali Llama? I only remember enjoying the sensation of the release. And lastly, I remember Calla Maria pushing on my back during contractions in the bedroom, and how helpful that was. She showed Matt to do the same, and they took turns. I remember some times they would miss, they would be too low or too high, but there was no way to speak or communicate during the pain so it just became a treat when they found the correct spot to offset some of the pressure.
Finally, there was the birth. I was in the tub and I remember not being able to steady myself on one wall, but instead moving around frantically trying to escape the pain and feeling as though I would throw up again after most contractions. I remember a midwife suggesting some “guided pushing” in the bedroom, and I remember one last contraction in the water before I stood up to move. In the room, they had set up one of our kitchen chairs with absorbent pads all around it and on the bed. They had Matt sit in the chair and support me with his arms as I crouched into the all-familiar “birthing pose” I had practiced so many times in prenatal yoga. My yoga instructors voice in my head saying “this is the most open your pelvis can be”. And I remember Kori telling me to push during the contractions, as if I had a choice.
My body had taken over; all I could do was add to the fire. When she said harder, I went harder. The head came down the birth canal and I remember the excited voices around me, talk of the dark hair on my baby’s head. Kori had a mirror; she was encouraging me to look at my baby. I stole a quick glance, but it only made the pain worse. My eyes sealed back shut, but I continued to follow directions even though I felt myself tearing. I thought it should slow down, I wanted more oil, to be more stretched out. The logical side of me was saying I wasn’t ready, but the human part of me that had been in such pain for so many hours just wanted the baby out of my body. I pushed with everything I had, and once her head was born I made sure her body followed in the tail end of the same contraction. It was a huge relief, like none other, and I finally opened my eyes.
There she was. On an obnoxious tie-dye print towel we’d bought on a camping trip on my bedroom floor. A beautiful, large, perfect baby covered in blood and vernix and screaming. Kori said “When you’re ready, pick up your baby” but she was in my arms pulled to my chest before she could finish the sentence. My placenta was high and her cord wasn’t long enough to pull her too high on my chest, but I held her tightly against me in complete joy. Joy of finally meeting this person I’d waited so long to meet. Joy at crossing what I thought was the finish line. Joy at becoming a mother.
Finally, I moved her legs apart and pulled the cord to the side to reveal that she was fact a GIRL. It was my Amelie all along. I screamed with delight, a moment (thanks to Laura) I couldn’t be more thankful to have on video to share with her one day. Kori would later share that she seldom cries at births anymore, but that she cried in that moment for mine. And a warm moment made all the more warm when the baby peed on me mere moments into her life. I couldn’t have cared less. Everything about her was instantly mysterious and magical.
They moved me up onto the bed and I didn’t really understand nor care what was happening. I had my baby girl in my arms. I had worked so hard to meet her and waited so many years to become a mother. This was what I was meant to do with my life and she was finally here. I remember the midwives saying something about the placenta, about needing to push again, I remember them saying my uterus wasn’t cooperating, I was loosing too much blood. I remember the first shot of pitocin in my right leg. Then talk of Cytotec, the names of drugs I had done all of this to avoid. Another shot of pitocin in the other leg. They said I had a hemorrhage. The girls are trying to get an IV bag to hang off the mirror by my bed, Matt suggests a tripod from the next room. How appropriate my IV should hang from camera gear. They said I looked pale, they had to redo the IV site in my arm. I would later learn that postpartum hemorrhaging is the leading cause of maternal mortality world wide. I didn’t care. I had my baby on my chest.
Once things calmed down, and the baby was being weighed & measured, Kori began preparing to stitch me back together. I had torn in 3 places she explained. And one of them, I would soon find out, was in a place she could not numb to stitch back up. I laid in my bed squeezing Laura’s hand as Kori poked and pulled the sutures through my already tormented skin. I remember seeing the metal hook in her hand but, fresh after the pain of giving birth, I believe I dealt with it quite well.
I was asked about the placenta, if I wanted a smoothie. I didn’t care. Sure. I was so agreeable. I had to be, I had to trust them all. Why would this be any different? It came in a large pint glass filled to the brim, a purpleish color. I have no idea what they put in there but it tasted like a lot of berries. I tried to drink as much as I could and got most of it down. I would have another variation of this the following two days before I couldn’t stand the idea of eating it like that anymore and we had the remainder encapsulated. Taking pills of my placenta is much easier then eating it fresh from ice cube trays in the freezer.
It’s said that the human body can not clearly remember pain after a week or two. We begin to downplay it. To say “it wasn’t SO bad”. And I can already see myself doing that. It’s one of the reasons I need to write this, and I need to write it now. Before I forget, as I inevitably will. If we didn’t all forget, the human race may not go on. When I first handed Amelie to Matthew I said to him “Meet your daughter. Your only daughter. I know we talked of having a larger family, but she will be an only child.” I meant it. But even now looking at her in my lap a short week later, I can’t imagine she won’t one day have a siblings. That I won’t get baby fever in a couple years. But in that moment, in the aftermath, I suddenly accepted every woman who chose an epidural, perhaps even an elective cesarean. I felt I could not judge any of them, because what I had just been through was so horrifying and who could expect every one to want to chose that path? It was such a deeply personal choice to bring her into the world the way I did, and in that moment I felt that my way was simply the way it had happened for us, but not necessarily the best way for every woman and child.
Another Alma midwife who recently gave birth for her first time as well described labor as something that happened TO her. And I really connect with that statement. It wasn’t ever in my control at all. Rather, it was a traumatizing event that happened to me, but thankfully ended with great reward. My labor brought me my beautiful daughter, and for her, I would undergo anything. But that doesn’t change the fact that labor put me in my place. A time-warp, a total trip, I don’t know how to describe it. I guess what I mean to say is we are so used to thinking that we have a choice over what happens to us, but perhaps we’re just usually pretty good at predicting what will come next. We are no different from any other animal in that labor is not a choice, and once it begins, you can only try to flow through it gracefully. Any fight against it will only prove how small we are against nature.
I haven’t written this blog to complain or whine, but more to just record what I really feel about this journey. And how I REALLY feel is simple: It was worth it. Every scream, growl, grunt, and grimace that got me through the most terrifying night of my life. Every drop of blood, every stitch, every contraction. I am so blessed. I have become what I’ve always wanted to be, a mother, to the most beautiful child I have ever laid eyes on.
I am so proud to have given my daughter the start to her life that I did. She was born healthy and alert. I’m so proud that she’s never had to leave the comfort and safety of our home. I’m so proud that she has never been under florescent lights in a hospital. She was born to a strong woman, free of any drugs: naked, squatting, and growling. A woman supported by her lover’s arms. A mother who would give anything for her.
Matt said I lost my modesty during this process, and I explained to him that I had nothing left to hide for myself or be ashamed of because my body was no longer my own. It was just as much hers while we grew together in pregnancy and I sacrificed it in the most graphic and honest of ways to birth her from it. What is there left to hide? Now I am the vessel that feeds her, the arms that carry her, and the voice that soothes her. I am here for her, in so many ways, and in every way. Now the real adventure begins: For my next trick…Parenthood!