Thank you to this incredibly strong and sweet mama for sharing her birth story. It was the best surprise when she emailed it to me on her son’s first birthday! Her writing talent is magical. I’ll let her story speak for itself. Enjoy this treasure!
When I found out I was pregnant with our second child, joy filled my body like helium. Our son, James, had turned two just five days before. He should have been in bed that afternoon, soft and heavy with sleep; instead he was full of laughter. I gathered him into my arms and together we walked the quarter mile to our mailbox. It was late September, warm and dry, and the entire gold-threaded landscape reverberated with new energy. James fell asleep on our way back to the house, head heavy on my shoulder, legs dangling on either side of my belly where already our baby’s cells were multiplying furiously.
On June 6th, the day before our due date, I noticed a streak of pink on the toilet paper. I called our midwife, Kate, knowing that labor could start soon or not for several more days. There was no change in the rhythmic tightening of my belly, so despite my excitement and slight nervousness I tried to go about my day as normal. That night I took a photo of my round, low belly in front of the bathroom mirror, knowing that it could be one of my last chances to document my pregnancy.
After a restless night, I woke unusually early with very mild and erratic contractions. I left James and my husband, Aaron, sleeping in bed and took a hot shower before making myself breakfast. Halfway through my yogurt and muesli, I lost my appetite. My mom had woken early too, and we spent some time talking together before I retreated upstairs and gently shook Aaron awake, eager to tell him that I was in early labor.
I paged Kate at 9:30, wanting to keep in touch since my first labor had happened quickly and she lived an hour’s drive away, and was also planning on attending Bellyrama in St. Paul. “Hi sweetie, what’s up?” she asked when she called back, and her warmth brought a smile to my face. I told her that I was experiencing mild contractions that hadn’t settled into a pattern – most were coming 7-15 minutes apart and didn’t disrupt my normal activity. I had lost my appetite and felt slightly ill, and she recommended that I try to eat a few bites frequently, and reminded me to stay well hydrated. She told me that we could inflate our birth pool but should wait to fill it until she was on the road, and to call her back as soon as I felt my labor turn a corner.
Along with Kate, her student-midwife Rachel, and assistant Annika, I planned to have Aaron, my mother, and my two younger sisters with me for this birth, as well as my mother-in-law, Patrice, who had agreed to help care for James during my labor. My youngest sister, Laura, drove down from St. Paul that morning while Annie, who would be photographing our birth, headed to work in town with her back-ups on call. I called Patrice to let her know that I was in early labor, but that Laura had made it home and could look after James until things intensified.
I cocooned myself in our bedroom, knowing that rest would benefit my body. In bed, I opened Ina May’s Spiritual Midwifery to one of my favorite birth stories, but distraction was no longer a comfort and I found it difficult to focus on the words. I dozed for about half an hour before my contractions became too uncomfortable to sleep through.
Aaron was eager for Kate to join us, but I worried that it was too soon to call her and that the growing intensity had only brought me within sight of the corner of my labor, not around it. I hadn’t experienced early labor with James and felt unsure about what was to come. What if this labor didn’t move quickly like my first? What if Kate came down to us and I stalled, stranding her in our home for hours?
My contractions continued to gain strength and I could no longer cope with them alone. I needed Aaron’s presence and support, so we called Patrice to look after James. I began to travel between the toilet and birth ball, rocking my body as it simultaneously tightened and opened. The toilet and close security of the bathroom had been my favorite place to labor with James, but this time I felt a lot of pressure on my perineum when I sat, and I preferred the gentle support of the birth ball. Aaron sat quietly in front of me as I circled my hips, reminding myself to keep my eyes, mouth, and throat soft. He was such solid support, and serious. I asked him to smile for me, as his smiles lightened the sensations I was experiencing and brought me some gentle relief.
Just before 1:30, my labor demanded my entire focus and I began truly vocalizing during contractions. Each wave felt like an incredible weight against my belly, as if my body was trapped in a vise. As it ebbed and the pressure lifted, I felt for a moment like I was floating.
We called Annie home and got back in touch with Kate. I still felt shy about asking her to come to us – I craved a clear sign that our baby would be born soon. When she asked if I was ready for them to head our way, I said hesitantly, “I don’t know. I think so.” I’m grateful she didn’t wait for a show of greater confidence, because just before she arrived almost an hour later, I badly wanted her with me. Labor was intensifying quickly and I needed her there to feel like everything was okay, to feel safe.
I heard Kate’s voice from the bathroom and felt instantly relieved. She was here and I was having our baby. I joined her in our living room, sitting next to her on my birth ball while she removed a few things from her bag. When she pulled out the blood pressure cuff, I started to cry. Kate gently asked me what I was feeling but in that moment I had no words to describe it. I felt open, sensitive, and vulnerable. I was overwhelmed by the vastness of what was about to happen to myself and to our family: the birth of a baby. “Let it all out,” she said. “Don’t hold anything back.” In the few moments before the next contraction, while I watched the numbers climb on the monitor around my wrist, I cried, and felt a quiet relief.
Kate asked if I’d like to get into the birth pool, but I felt I could cope a little longer on my birth ball, and in the support and comfort of Aaron’s arms. During the next contraction I braced my hands on Aaron’s knees while he gently held my shoulders. I pressed my forehead against his forearm, rubbing it back and forth while I rocked my pelvis. As the contraction lifted I looked into Aaron’s smile and out the window behind him, watching Rachel’s car pull up the hill and her quick steps toward the house, a bag slung over her shoulder.
After two more contractions I suddenly decided that I needed the warmth and security of the birth pool. I stripped down to my bra, which I left on not for modesty’s sake but because I felt the next contraction approaching like a thunderhead and I wanted to submerge my body before it overtook me.
There was so little to anchor myself with in the water and I struggled at first to find a comfortable position. Between contractions I draped my arms over the edge while Aaron moved his hands firmly down my spine and put pressure on my lower back. I loved the effort he put into comforting me. Eventually I settled with my arms around Aaron while he sat on a low stool by the edge of the pool. During contractions I rocked back and forth on my knees while he held me. Sometimes his embrace was too tight and I had to shake it off to move my body freely. I closed my eyes and in the spaces between came to rest deep inside of myself.
Someone began pouring pots of boiling water into the pool to maintain its temperature. It slid over the surface like oil, encircling my belly. It burned and comforted. My contractions were becoming very intense and I was having a difficult time coping. I tried to keep my tones low but my voice started to climb at the peak of each contraction. I felt like I might vomit, and Aaron got a bowl under my chin just in time to catch it. I thought I must be getting close to the end. Now and then I would hear Kate tell me that I was strong, and to trust my body and move how it wanted to. When I felt discouraged, I thought to myself, “You’re doing this today and you won’t have to do it tomorrow.” Remembering my first labor, I reminded myself that I just needed to make it through transition, and once I felt the urge to push I would find relief.
I began opening my mouth wide during contractions and moving it back and forth over the edge of the pool. I felt a pop in my belly, then another deep in transition, a warm gush between my legs. Flecks of white floated in the water.
I was deep in the intensity of transition when my body suddenly bore down and a pain I never experienced in my first labor tore through my pelvis. I felt like I would split in two and I panicked. I began to fight my body. I struggled to gather myself back together, to tell myself that everything was okay, that I wasn’t being ripped open and that I needed to try to relax, let my body do its work, and let my baby come.
The pressure was unbelievable and constant, and I barely had time to catch my breath between contractions. I bellowed, pressing my face against the inflated pool, my body curling in on itself. I felt like I was still trapped in transition and I started to despair. I couldn’t do it anymore. I didn’t want to labor anymore. I didn’t want to have our baby. It wasn’t supposed to feel like this.
I felt for my baby’s head between contractions, soft and firm and about 2 1/2 knuckles in. Kate asked where I was feeling our baby but I couldn’t answer her. Another contraction surged through me and I felt for our baby again. He or she was still 2 1/2 knuckles in. I felt another rush of panic. I was losing my hold and I needed our baby out now.
Kate and Rachel passed the doppler up between my legs and swept their hands across my lower belly. Another contraction seized my body and still their hands were there, searching. I was near breaking; I wanted to knock them away. In that moment I didn’t care whether our baby’s heart was strong or struggling – my thoughts were consumed by pain. Kindly they asked me if I could move to my back and I clumsely shifted onto my heels and rolled into a semi-reclined position. I could feel our baby moving down the birth canal and I roared even louder. I screamed from the deep cave of my belly. I wonder now what my baby thought as he felt those primal vibrations and the constant pressure of my contracting muscles. Did he feel my strength? Did he feel fear? I was too overwhelmed by my own body to offer any comfort.
Every push was painful but it was all I could do. I looked up at the women gathered around me, ready to welcome our baby, and I met my mother’s eyes. I silently begged her to help me. I wanted to cry. She looked back at me with so much empathy that I knew she could see I was having a hard time. I closed my eyes again. The only way out was through, and I roared through another contraction.
Kate supported my perinium as our baby crowned. Finally there was a pause, a release of pressure as our baby was held between. “That feels good,” I sighed. What a relief to have a moment of rest before those last contractions, before every muscle bore down again and our baby’s slick body tumbled out of mine and into Kate’s waiting hands.
Kate helped lift him onto my chest, his arms spread wide, and as I gathered him to me I began to sob. I felt such complete relief. I had made it through. It was over, the pain was gone, and my baby was in my arms.
And he was beautiful. Smaller than James was at birth, and duskier, but after a few moments he let out a vigorous cry and his skin turned pink and rosy. “I know, baby, I know,” I said as I stroked his body and we cried together. The pain had been isolating, but as I held my newborn against my chest I felt suddenly how intimate our experience had been. I looked up at the faces around me. “That was so intense,” I said. It was so intense.
I stroked my son’s cheeks and circled my fingers around the small patch of vernix on his head. Here were my first memories of James as a newborn – the soft hair coming down over his temples, curling along the rim of his ears, velvety over his arms and back. There was something of James in this baby’s face, but something wholly new as well. He was simply himself, the same baby who, at 25 weeks, we had watched play with his toes on the ultrasound screen, his lips touching the umbilical cord to feel its reassuring pulse. And now in my arms on the day I least expected to meet him: his due date.
I cupped our baby’s small feet as Aaron leaned forward to cut cord. My placenta was loosening from my body, blood coloring the water, but it took some effort to push out. The water cooled. After lifting our new son into Aaron’s arms, I stood carefully, surprised again by the strength of my legs. But I also felt tender and a little raw, and I feared that I had torn deeply again. Kate could see my discomfort and asked if I would like her to examine me. Her touch was gentle but still painful, and so I was amazed and relieved when she announced that I hadn’t torn at all, hadn’t bruised, wasn’t even swollen. Ibuprofen and an ice pack gave me immediate relief.
Out of the water, I felt suddenly ravenous. My mom brought me a small, sweet strawberry that my dad had plucked from our garden where he had spent the afternoon, now and then hearing the sounds of my labor. My youngest sister disappeared into the kitchen and returned a few minutes later with a plate of scrambled eggs and sourdough toast. She tore the bread into bite-sized pieces and fed me with a tenderness I hope I’ll never forget. Nothing could have tasted better.
When James came in from his play several hours later, I was sitting up in bed, Peter cradled in my arms. I hadn’t seen him since that morning, and in that time my little boy had grown into a long-limbed child. He carried a book in his hands and shyly asked us to put the baby in the crib. A few moments later he brought his face close to Peter’s and gently stroked his hair and cheeks. Later, when I nursed James to sleep, I marveled at how much space he took up next to me in his bed, how heavy his head was, the sun just beginning to lighten his blonde hair.
For two days after Peter’s birth, I felt shaken by the differences in my two labors. Both progressed quickly and intensely. But while the three hours that I pushed with James were full of effort, they were also painless and almost serene. Afterward I felt strong, ready to tackle anything. The 28 minutes that it took for me to push Peter into the world were nearly excruciating, a raging storm, and I discovered how deeply rooted that strength was. I saw it in our birth photos, the deep intensity of my quiet and then straining body. Several days later, I played our birth video with a feeling of trepidation, afraid of revisiting the pain. Instead I heard the strength in my breaking voice. I watched my husband bury his face into my neck as I birthed our son. I saw love in every touch. I walked away empowered.
There are other things I think as I look back on my birth photos, things I was too busy to consider in the throes of labor. I look at the purple birth pool and I think of the other women it has cocooned during their labors and births. I think of how it has traveled through city, suburbs, country, how its been filled in family rooms and bedrooms. I think of women laboring against a backdrop of snow reflecting light, the first lush growth of spring, the bloom of summer, the leaves dry and curling. The hum of furnaces, air-conditioners, insects outside an open window. Intimate dark and bright sunshine. Partners, doulas, mothers, sisters, friends, children. I think of women who have brought their babies into the world with a quiet intensity or with a ferocity we sing from our bones. But always the women, the water, and Kate sitting quietly by our sides.