My son’s birth counts among the most difficult things I’ve ever done in my life. And also, my proudest. I worked impossibly hard for 31 long hours to birth him, though to be fair, the whole ordeal truly took 41 weeks.
The first thing I did when I woke up on that Thursday morning was call my chiropractor’s office. Though I’d been going regularly to correct O’Baby’s frequent acrobatics (one day vertex, the next breech, then posterior vertex, then transverse for a while, and so on and so forth), I hadn’t seen her in a couple of weeks because money was tight and her sessions weren’t entirely covered by our insurance. I spoke to the receptionist and begged her to squeeze me in for an adjustment. I explained that I was now overcooking my baby since I was approaching the 41 week mark and could I pretty please be seen a.s.a.p.? Thankfully, I got in only a few hours later and was pulled, tugged, and Webster’d into a much happier place and so, I’d hoped, was my baby.
I took Blossom (my nineteen-month-old daughter) out to lunch at the local co-op market. I ordered a grilled cheese and tomato sandwich for her and a cup of spicy coconut soup for me in the hopes that some spicy food would finish off what the Webster adjustment might have started. It was a beautiful, sunny March afternoon, so she and I ate lunch outside for what would become our last mother-daughter date when it was just the two of us.
Labor “began” (I use that term loosely based on the three weeks of prodromal labor that preceded the real deal) that same day around dinnertime. My contractions felt exactly the same as they’d felt for the past three weeks and followed the same pattern, too. So I ignored them. I cooked, served, and ate dinner as normal, then watched an Elmo’s World DVD with Blossom while we cuddled and nursed before her bedtime, which was at 7:30. The contractions continued, and I still ignored them, believing it to be the start of yet another evening of false labor that would go nowhere.
Ian put Blossom to bed and I started filling up the tub, remembering that my midwives had told me at my last appointment that if it was indeed false labor, a warm bath would stop my contractions. I wanted to see if I could keep them going rather than stop them, so I added some geranium essential oil that I’d bought at the co-op when we were there for lunch. (Geranium is rumored to be helpful in urging a stop-and-start labor pattern along.)
I soaked in the tub and tried to relax, but the waves kept coming. Eventually I moved from a lounging position to sitting straight up, cross-legged in the middle of the tub, aware that if this was the real deal then I would want to be sitting tailored-style to get baby into his optimal birthing position.
After my bath, I poured myself a half a glass of red wine and sipped it slowly – another trick that the midwives had told me about that would stop a false labor in its tracks. But the contractions kept coming and though I wasn’t timing them, I suspected that they were getting closer and I definitely knew that they were getting stronger. It was now about 9:00 p.m. and I decided to call the midwives.
Funny thing about O’Baby’s birth story – my labor began under the full Worm Moon and during an historical solar storm whose effects wreaked havoc on the nation’s cellular service that evening. As a result, I could reach neither of my midwives. And. I. Panicked.
I called the midwives’ assistant, Shanna, desperate to reach somebody who could at least come to my house and help us catch this baby who, at least at the time, seemed like he was on a rather quick route out.
Shanna listened to me describe my contraction pattern and then listened while I had one while on the phone with her, which required me to stop talking altogether so that I could focus on it. She agreed that I definitely sounded like I was in labor and said that she would call Liz’s – the midwife’s – home phone since her cell phone wasn’t working.
Liz called me back soon after. We had a similar conversation and she agreed with Shanna’s assessment that it sounded like true labor. Liz had warned me throughout my pregnancy that, as a second-time mom, my labor would likely go quickly and that, since she lived rather close to my house, she would want to come check me as soon as labor started to move along. Apparently, there’d recently been a lot of second-time moms whose babies were being caught by husbands and partners rather than by the midwives because their labors were so fast, and Liz didn’t want me to fall into that same category.
She arrived around 11:00 pm. It was raining, hard. She hurried into the house, dripping and flustered from dodging the wind and the downpour. She asked me how things were going, and I didn’t really know how to answer that. I still wasn’t convinced that this was actually it, and I felt guilty for making her coming out in the rain so late at night in case it was a false alarm. I think I even apologized.
We chatted while I bounced on the birth ball, sipping some pregnancy tea. I had a contraction. It cut right through our conversation as I had to set my tea down, grip my hips, and sway with it, moaning and breathing. Liz looked at me after it had passed, impressed with how powerful it seemed to be. “That seemed like a strong contraction, Suzanne,” she’d said. “I’d like to check you if that’s okay.”
I was at 4 centimeters and very thin – “butter-soft,” as Liz described it. She concluded that I was definitely in labor and that she was going to call the other midwife – Nannette – and Shanna to come and join us. I think she was still convinced that I would be one of those second-time moms whose babies would fly out before anybody even had a chance to place a chux pad down.
The only photo of me in labor. My Blessingway birth candle burns on the dresser behind me.
Ian, at Liz’s instruction, began filling the birth pool. Since I would now be laboring overnight, we decided to move the birth pool into the dining room so that I could labor far away from Blossom’s room, rather than in our bedroom which was right next to hers. My contractions were not yet unbearable and I could easily carry on normal conversation in between each one. In order to keep them manageable, though, I had to stop talking and grab the nearest stationary object to anchor me as I swayed or squatted during the peak of the rush.
Slowly but surely, everyone filled the pool while I swayed and stomped and sang and moaned and squatted about the house. Pots of water boiled on the stove, and as soon as those got dumped into the pool, new ones replaced them on the burners. Finally, I was able to get in and… ahhhhhhh. The weightlessness, the warmth… it was like sinking into a hug. I was instantly relaxed, and my contractions took note, as they ran away from me for a bit after initially getting in. I asked Liz, worriedly, if I should get out of the pool so that they’d come back (my previous birth with my daughter had stalled at 5 centimeters for seven hours, so I was terrified of a repeat performance). Liz assured me that I should take the rest that the water was offering me and use it to my advantage. So I lay my cheek down on the side of the pool and tried to doze. As nice as the water was, though, it was not a place in which I could comfortably sleep, so I got out and into my bathrobe. I was shivering from the temperature change, which almost instantly brought my contractions roaring back.
The midwives got comfortable on the couch and the recliner; I fetched some blankets for them so that they could get some sleep. Ian and I retreated back to our bedroom in an attempt to do the same, which proved futile for me. Lying down during the rushes was unbearable and my mind was too restless to let me even nap. I got up and began pacing through the house. Nannette heard me come back into the living room and looked up through sleep-soaked eyes, asking me if everything was okay. I told her that I just wasn’t sure what to do. I knew that we weren’t close enough yet for a baby to show up, but we were into the show far enough that nobody was going home. It was Birth Purgatory. Back into the tub.
As the night wore on, I toggled back and forth from the tub to my bed to the kitchen to the living room. As long as I was somewhere where I had a solid object to grasp during the contractions (a floor-to-ceiling post in our living room; the headboard of our bed; the countertop in the kitchen), then that was a safe place to ride them out. I don’t have many solid memories from the overnight hours. I do remember, at one point, asking Ian to play the birth playlist I’d made, and singing along to Greg Laswell’s “It Comes and Goes in Waves,” appreciating the irony.
I remember asking to be checked, being told that I was at 5 centimeters. I remember using the bathroom and how awful the contractions felt while peeing. I remember vomiting. Those contractions felt even worse.
I remember feeling him move. On all fours in the pool, I called to Nannette to tell her that I could feel the baby moving, that I felt lots of pressure on my rectum. She asked me if I felt pushy at all. I wasn’t sure; it was almost as though I felt like I should feel pushy because I was asked so. I told her I didn’t know if I needed to push or not, and she suggested I try a few practice pushes to see how they felt. And so, with the next contraction, I did, just a little bit. I half-yelled, half-growled that I could feel him moving. At that, the midwives sprang into action. One grabbed the Doppler, the other a flashlight. Suddenly, everyone surrounded me. The pressure, the intensity, the pain was all so low it felt like I had bricks stacked on top of my cervix and rectum. I could not discern where the pain stopped and where it started. I could not tell where my son was moving from or to. I just felt pain. Movement and pain. So when the midwives spotted me with my hands pressed against my lower back during the next contraction – rather than at my hips and pelvis, where I’d previously been gripping – they were worried that the movement I’d been feeling wasn’t the baby descending, but rather him rotating from anterior to posterior.
They were right.
The “right” way for a baby to be born is head-down and anterior, meaning that the baby’s face is facing your tailbone, and the back of the baby’s head is born facing up. This is optimal because it allows the baby to tuck his chin down, creating a better fit for the crown of the head to fit into the pelvic opening. When a baby is posterior, it’s more difficult to tuck that chin and rotate, often resulting in the widest part of the back of the head that’s just below the crown to press up against the mother’s spine during labor. What’s more, this position doesn’t allow baby’s head to connect with the cervix because it’s like trying to fit an oval peg into a round hole. (See diagram from Spinning Babies here.) Pressure from the baby’s head is what helps dilate a cervix to completion – without an anterior-facing baby, it can be extremely difficult to get mom to a full dilation without intervention. A posterior baby will stall labors, stop labors, and send moms to an OR time and time again.
So this is what I was up against. Or rather, what was up against me and my spine. Ouch.
Once the midwives realized, from this observation, that baby was posterior, they started suggesting different positions and things to do to try and get him to rotate. One such suggestion was to get into a horrid half-lunge, half-squat position during my contractions to help open my pelvis. I did this in the pool and it made me hate life. I was still giving tiny little test pushes during these contractions and during one, I felt my water break. So, for those of you who have ever worried about showering or bathing during labor and not being able to tell when your membranes rupture because of the water in which you’re already submerged: rest assured. You’ll feel it.
I remembered shouting, “My water broke! My water broke!” to the midwives. Then, I remembered crying because I knew now that my bag of water – my cushion protecting my poor little cervix from O’Baby’s hard head – was gone, the pain was going to get a lot more intense. I was scared. I was not embracing the moment, I was not calm, I was nowhere near Zen. I was tired and I was anxious and I was scared. But I was also ready to meet my baby, so onward we went. It was in this moment that I realized that the only way “out,” was through. It was now 6:00 in the morning.
If the night had been a blur, the morning hours that followed were a smear. Truly indiscernible moments and memories overlapped and folded backward on each other. I have no linear timeline in my memory from this point on. This marked the beginning of The Longest Transition Ever.
I remember the pain being so intense, so searing, that I actually thought I would die. The contractions were so powerful that they took my breath away. With each one I would find it hard to inhale, which panicked me. I had to keep asking for reassurance that I wouldn’t die. Shanna was an incredible ally during my transition. She continued to remind me that the contractions weren’t more powerful than me, because they were me. The contractions were my body. My body can’t be stronger than me because it is me. I really connected with the idea of this and latched onto it as tightly as I could in an attempt to cope.
During this time, I crossed a new boundary in my marriage. Here’s a fun little tidbit about laboring in a homebirth that you may not have read about in some of the other fluffier, rainbows-and-butterflies birth stories: You will pee. A lot. And once you’re barreling through Transition, you will not give a rat’s patootie where you do it.
So here’s me, on all fours on our bed. I am at least lucid enough to realize that I don’t want to pee in our bed, but I have to go, and I will not be making it down the hall into the bathroom, plus I’m afraid of the awful pain from having contractions on the toilet. I grunt, in my primitive Birth Language, for Ian to get a chux pad and get it on the floor by my side of the bed. He realizes what I’m asking him to do and why, and immediately starts trying to persuade me into using the bathroom instead. “It’ll be okay; I’ll help you get there…” Nope. Do not care. Must pee now. Chux pad. Now. And so I shimmy my tush over the side of the bed and pee onto the floor. Like an animal, in front of my husband. And if you ask him to tell his version of the story, it was at this point that I began yelling at him and crying like a hot mess, “You think I’m disgusting, don’t you?! You don’t want to be married to me anymore, do you?!?!” And then I puked, and he had to clean that up, too. The man is a saint, people.
Around 8:00-ish, Blossom finally woke up (she actually slept through the night! All this birthy racket going on, and my child – who typically wakes up screaming if you step on a creaky floorboard three rooms down – hadn’t made a peep for the last 12 hours). Originally, we had planned to play things by ear during the birth with her. I secretly hoped that she would be able to be a part of it, but the reality of the situation was that this was no place for a nineteen month-old. We decided to phone my dear friend, Antonette, who graciously agreed to come and collect our toddler for the remainder of my labor. She agreed to this because she, like we, erroneously believed that it was almost over.
When Antonette arrived, I’d just been checked and was told I was just about complete – 9.5 centimeters with a cervical lip, but very, very soft. We were going to start pushing, but first I was going to ride out a few contractions in bed to try to get some rest. Seeing her face was like breaking the surface after being submerged underwater. It jolted me awake. It gave me energy. Having had a beautiful and transformative HBAC herself, I’d drawn upon Antonette’s experience and her strength as a birth warrior throughout my pregnancy. Now that she was here, offering smiles and genuine words of encouragement, I was renewed. She left as quickly as she came, and the next thing I knew, the midwives and my husband surrounded me on the bed. It was time to meet this baby. It was now about 9:00 am.
The cervical lip and his posterior position were going to make this last stretch incredibly difficult without the midwives reaching into their bag of tricks. Liz told me that she wanted me in the McRoberts position – flat on my back, with my knees pushed all the way back to my shoulders, while I crunched up (yes, just like when you’re doing a stomach crunch or sit-up), bearing down to push baby out. Sounds super fun, doesn’t it?
We did this for what felt like a really, really long time. I mean, hundreds of contractions must have happened. All the while, Liz kept her hand inside me and broke and dissolved evening primrose oil capsules against my cervix, pushing the lip away while I pushed O’Baby down. Words cannot describe the intensity of this experience.
I made some progress, but I was far too exhausted to continue after a certain point. The midwives agreed to let me rest, and Liz said she was going to run to her house for her mugwort stick so that Shanna could perform some moxibustion on me.
I tried to rest, but the contractions were too overwhelming. No position was comfortable. I pushed when my body forced me to, but it didn’t get him anywhere. I was running on fumes.
When Liz returned with the mugwort and Shanna performed the moxibustion, I got – for the first time in many, many hours – some true rest. The point of moxibustion is to relax the body and thus, the ligaments, so that baby has more freedom to rotate and descend. It relaxed me, all right. By everyone’s account, I was actually snoring. But baby was still firmly, happily sunny-side up. I grudgingly agreed to start trying to push on the birth stool, which I had feared doing ever since the contractions I’d had on the toilet during the night.
Laboring on the birth stool, for me, felt like a demon freight train being exorcised from my body at full speed. I hated it. Ian sat behind me, on the bed, while I hovered over the birth stool (which, first and foremost, was not designed for short women, so my feet were practically dangling) arching my back during contractions in yet another effort to get O’Baby to rotate by opening my pelvis. After a few contractions and pushes in this position, Liz snapped a glove on her hand and gave me even more evening primrose oil, pushing against the lip while I pushed down. I remember seeing her, out of the corner of my eye, look at Nannette and shake her head. She left the room. Nannette got down in front of me and asked me what I wanted to do. I told her that I didn’t want to give up. I wasn’t going to the hospital. I wanted to birth my baby, simple as that, and that is what we would do. Here. I just needed to rest. I was begging them to let me take a break.
More moxibustion. More evening primrose oil. Then, more McRoberts pushes. Some pushes on the toilet. Some lunges. Some pushes on the bed, on all fours. Somewhere during all of this, my forebag of waters broke (it’s true—you can have multiple membrane ruptures during labor) and a pool filled with the milky-white fibers of vernix puddled up on the floor beneath me. It was a true sign that my baby was a real person and that I would meet him soon, come what may.
The midwives told me that they wanted me back on the birth stool and that this time, I would have to push with everything I had in me. There was no “or else” given, but it was implied.
With Liz’s hand, once again, applying primrose oil and pushing against the lip, I roared like a lioness. I dug deep within myself, searching for a stronger woman than I was. Someone who could handle this pain and survive it. Someone less exhausted.
I didn’t find her.
Liz crouched down in front of me, looked me in the eyes and said, “I think we’ve done all we can do here.” It was 3:00 pm.
Ian began grabbing some items – nursing bras, maternity jeans, my robe – and tossing them into, of all things, a straw beach bag. (This is what happens when you don’t pack an “in case” hospital bag in advance). I threw a cardigan on over the bra I’d been laboring in and pulled on a skirt, not bothering with underwear. In all of the chaos of getting us out of the house and into the car, I was calm. I wasn’t sad, I didn’t cry, and I didn’t feel defeat. The only time, though, that I felt a pang of sadness was when I looked over and saw Shanna just as she blew out the birth candle from my Blessingway that had been burning since labor began. Extinguishing that flame meant an end to my homebirth. Except I didn’t have my baby yet. I would now have my baby in a hospital, hooked up to machines, surrounded by strangers. I didn’t have time to dwell on any of this, but I noted the moment and put it in my back pocket for a time when I could properly mourn it.
The ride to Jefferson Memorial Hospital was the longest car ride of my life. Every bump, every turn would trigger another unbearable contraction. I called my parents en route to let them know that we were transferring. My father was worried, my mother relieved. (She had never been supportive of our decision to birth at home and so a hospital transfer was, to her, a far better outcome than the one I’d wanted.) I assured them both that everything was okay and asked them to go and pick up Blossom from Antonette’s house as she’d surely be staying the night with them now.
When Ian pulled up to the hospital entrance, I got out of the car wearing only my bra and skirt. I remember the hospital staffer and the midwives trying to get me to put my cardigan on as if I gave a crap what I looked like. I was wheeled up to Labor & Delivery and given a room right away. The minutes ticked by like hours as we waited to get though the administrative procedures before I could get my epidural, which I was now begging for.
The anesthesiologist’s name was Ray, and when he finally arrived, Ray botched my epidural. Badly. As in, my next contraction was just as long and painful as all of the others except now it had the added bonus of having a needle sticking out of my spine and the world’s worse L&D nurse ripping the super-glue tape that surrounded it off of my back so that he could re-insert it. Which he did. During a contraction. I was screaming and crying, tears running down my face, and the nurse had the audacity to look at me and say, “Well it’s not like you were going to get an epidural having this baby at home; why do you want one so bad now?” Had I not been exhausted from being in labor for the last 22 hours, my fist would have connected with her face and I’d have had my baby in jail.
Ray finally got the epidural in on the second try and all I could think of was Pink Floyd’s “Comfortably Numb:”
Okay, there’ll be a little pinprick
There’ll be no more “Aaaaaahhhh!!!!”
But you may feel a little sick
So, is that song actually about epidurals?
Anyway, I won the Obstetrician Lottery and got the sweetest, most non-judgy, patient doctors I’d ever met. She assured me that she would not be wheeling me into an OR, but rather that she wanted me to get some rest so that I could finish pushing this baby out once that cervical lip got out of the way. To have been a homebirth transfer after 22 hours of labor, 6 hours at nine centimeters and pushing, and about 12 hours of ruptured membranes, I truly expected to be an instant c-section. The doctor and staff (minus Ray and his Devil Nurse) at JMH were so amazing in giving me what I truly needed, which was rest and privacy. They shut the lights off, closed our door, and Ian and I fell asleep almost instantly.
I woke up several hours later to the sensation of contractions and I hit the call button, worried that the epidural was wearing off and that I would be thrust back into Laborland. A new nurse came to check on me and paged the doctor. I was checked and told that I was complete and could start pushing with my next contraction, which I could now feel. I asked for a mirror so that I could watch myself push him out. They happily obliged, and I began to watch a head thick with hair and vernix emerge into the world, finally – finally! – rotating to an anterior position on his way out.
Oakley was born at 12:57 a.m. Saturday morning, weighing 8 pounds, 15 ounces.
My perfect, vernix-covered boy gets some skin-to-skin from mama.
He cried a wet cry, but nobody made a move for him with any aspirators; he was placed on my chest instantly. Nobody wiped him down or attempted to swaddle him, and the doctor sat patiently at the foot of my bed, waiting for the umbilical cord to finish pulsating. Once it had, she told me as much and asked me to reach down and feel it, to double-check to be sure I was okay with her clamping it. I touched what had been my baby’s lifeline, motionless and wet, and agreed that Ian could cut it, separating mother and child for the first time in 41 weeks.
He latched onto the breast about twenty minutes or so after his birth. His gulps were audible and I was thrilled to be giving him a real meal after all that work we did. (Thanks to nursing a toddler throughout my pregnancy, my colostrum had already mixed with mature milk weeks before I’d even gone into labor.) He was perfect. I was exhausted, but elated. Ian stood by us and stroked my hair while I nursed our son. He was beaming with love and pride and yes, exhaustion, too.
Oakley wasn’t bathed, and our placenta was gently bagged by the doctor, who was supportive of my intentions to encapsulate it. He wasn’t weighed until well after he’d eaten and I’d been given stitches for a small second-degree tear. There was no rush to get him “processed.” Our wishes to decline the usual shots and such after the birth were honored. We were shown to our recovery room, and I was up and walking and feeling great, the effects of the epidural long since worn off.
This was an example of how the system should work. A homebirth transfer is taken to a hospital where she’s treated with respect; where her wishes are honored; where she isn’t shown the door to an OR without a fair trial of labor; where her midwives can accompany her to her delivery room rather than drop her off on the doorstep out of fear. Unfortunately, we had to cross state lines to get such treatment because if we’d stayed within Maryland and gone to the nearest hospital in our county, the story would have ended quite differently.
Oakley and I had a good birth. It wasn’t perfect. But I got what I needed when I needed it from beginning to end – support, love, suggestions, motivation, physical assistance, rest, patience and trust – and that’s what makes a good birth. I could have been happier with the overall outcome, but I couldn’t be happier with the outcome given the circumstances. I had a stubborn baby who continued his acrobatics all the way up until the end, refusing to budge until he was literally crowning. And, after a 22-hour trial of labor at home with no sleep, I and my midwives jointly made the best decision for getting me a low-intervention vaginal birth, which was the next best thing to a non-intervention homebirth. I am grateful for their skillful and loving care, and am excited to see them again when we try for Baby Number Three… many, many years from now. Until then, I’ve got a perfect son and a perfect daughter who require plenty of time and attention and love from me, their grateful, lucky mother.