We were driving to meet a local farmer for coffee when my first labor contraction hit. It was 11:30 a.m. on Sunday, October 30th. It definitely felt different than the Braxton Hicks I’d been experiencing for over two months, but I brushed it off. My due date was still two weeks away, and everyone knows firstborns tend to arrive late. I had met women who dealt with painful contractions for weeks before finally giving birth.
After feeling several more contractions throughout the day, I eventually calculated that they were spaced exactly one hour apart, lasting 30 seconds each. At 9 p.m., I texted my midwife DeAna, who suggested that I take a bath and try to relax. An hour passed without a contraction. And that was that, we thought. False alarm.
Steve and I took a walk through the neighborhood, as we did regularly to soothe my heartburn before bed. We weren’t a hundred feet from the house before I felt my next contraction. I felt a few more as we continued, but I was able to walk through them, so I didn’t pay them much attention. Had I taken them seriously, I would have realized it was during this walk that my contractions jumped to 10 minutes apart.
When we got home, Steve went to bed, and I stayed up, as usual. For months, I had been staying up well past midnight to try to outlast my heartburn and give Steve some time to sleep without a restless bed buddy. I sat in the living room and watched one of the four TV channels our antenna picked up.
And I had a contraction.
I shifted in my seat. Ten minutes later, another contraction.
I got up to walk through the house, assuming the change would make them subside. But it wasn’t long before each one stopped me in my tracks. And even then, I didn’t take them seriously. I thought each contraction would be my last.
At 3:05 a.m., after five hours of contracting every 10 minutes, I finally called DeAna to tell her how I was progressing. By 7 a.m., gap times shortened to six minutes. And by 8 a.m., DeAna and her assistant Whitney had arrived.
There was a flurry of preparation buzzing around the house. Steve and I were supposed to have set up the birthing tub in our bedroom during early labor, but we had been so convinced this was not the real deal – until it was too late for me to be of any help at all. I sat on the edge of the bed, unable to move. Contractions were four minutes apart, and as my contractions sped up, so did everyone around me. Steve stopped to kneel in front of me for support with each contraction, applying pressure to my lower back, where I felt the most pain. We made our way outside for one last belly photo. The show had begun.
The midwives were wonderfully calming. They sensed my need for space and busied themselves outside the bedroom door, keeping a keen eye on my status, cooking me scrambled eggs and pumping me full of electrolytes. The birthing pool was set up a foot from the bed in our 8-by-11-foot bedroom. Candles were lit by the far side of the tub, including my baby shower favors with blue or pink ribbon. DeAna had guessed girl. Whitney had guessed boy. My Blessingway necklace hung on the window curtain rod. Steve started my labor playlist with Ingrid Michaelson’s rendition of “Can’t Help Falling In Love.” The room was dark and warm. I had the space I needed to focus and breathe, while allowing Steve to help me through the pain. He was amazing. Even if I could have made it through labor without Steve’s constant support, I wouldn’t want to.
I lived within each contraction, forgetting the previous one, unconcerned with the next. I sat in the warm birthing tub for a while, and contractions were slightly less intense. But I could tell I was not progressing as quickly in the water. So I lay on the bed and felt the contractions with full force. We tried massage and applied a muscle stimulator to my lower back to help the pain. To little avail. I lost all track of time and wondered when the pushing would start. I knew the stages of labor, but I didn’t fully realize the uncertainty of each stage’s length.
I remember feeling completely defeated. I didn’t want to continue. The pain was too great. I was ashamed to feel like I was giving up, that maybe I couldn’t go through with this birth after all. I contemplated the time it might take to get to the hospital and have someone else do the work of delivery or at least administer pain medication. But I knew there was no other option than to continue. I surrendered to the task. I surrendered to the pain with each contraction. I surrendered to the idea that I may very well die trying. Transition.
When I felt the urge to start pushing, I got back into the pool. It’s an overwhelming sensation, the need to push. I could not stop my body from doing its job. Whitney reassured me that women can give birth in a coma because the body takes over: if I could just breathe through the contractions, my mind wouldn’t need to tell me when to push. When the urge came, my body made me push. My breath stopped, and I was suspended, like the breathless feeling just before heaving, when your throat makes way for food instead of air. Each breathless push I thought might be my last. To lose my breath so completely was the most terrifying sensation I have ever experienced.
I knelt in the pool, leaning over the side to grab DeAna’s hands during each contraction. Steve waited in the water behind me to catch, Whitney quietly coaching him along. Alexi Murdoch sang “Breathe” across the room. My water broke. I pushed only five times in 35 minutes before I felt my baby’s head emerge in one thrust. DeAna offered to help me turn and watch, but I was convinced that I should stay put. My current position had gotten me this far, and I didn’t want to jeopardize my progress. Not when I was this close. Not when I had this much at stake.
An eternity-long two minutes passed before my next push, delivering my baby’s body all at once into Steve’s ready hands. 2:24 p.m. Halloween.
I shifted over the umbilical cord and sat back into Steve’s arms. He handed our baby to me. All these months of waiting, imagining, and our baby was finally here. I was in awe. It didn’t even occur to me to see if I was holding a boy or girl until DeAna asked. Oh yeah, that. This human being that I just gave birth to has a sex. I looked at Steve to be sure he was ready, not realizing he had already discovered the surprise. It’s a girl!
Even though I had secretly wanted a girl, I was shocked. I was more shocked to find out that she was a girl than I was to deliver a human into the world. And she was absolutely gorgeous. Perfectly round head, beautiful eyes and nose, olive-pink skin. Emma Lucile.
I snapped out of my blissful gaze to hear the midwives urging me to push out the placenta. It had apparently detached from my uterine wall but wasn’t leaving my body quickly enough.
The bleeding had begun as soon as Emma arrived. Eleven minutes after her birth, I delivered the placenta. The midwives had me give Emma over to Steve and step out of the pool, into bed. I stood and commented on the amount of blood I saw spilling between my legs. As I lay down, I began to lose grip of my surroundings. Voices tunneled. The midwives fought to keep me conscious. We discussed the possibility of calling an ambulance. Steve lay down next to me with Emma and held my hand while the midwives administered herbs and oxygen. When the bleeding subsided, I had passed the point of postpartum hemorrhaging. And although it was a dangerous complication, I never felt a sense of emergency. I trusted Steve to take care of Emma. And I trusted my midwives to take care of me. I was at peace.
Emma joined me in a sitz bath where she nursed for the first time. She latched on right away, and I relished the feeling of my daughter’s tiny, warm body against mine. We kept the lights dim and the air warm, comfortably situated in the quiet of evening, while Ray LaMontagne serenaded us with “Hold You In My Arms.” The midwives brought us dinner, dismantled the tub, and tidied the kitchen before tucking us in for the night.
We had three groups of trick-or-treaters come to the door that Halloween evening, and DeAna met them with themed fruit snacks and popcorn that we had stocked up for the occasion. My extra-large orange T-shirt was still laying out – the one I had planned to wear as The Great Pumpkin alongside Steve’s Linus.
. . . .
During my pregnancy, when my midwife had asked me how I wanted the birth to go, my only answer was that I wanted to listen to my body and follow its lead. I wanted to put into practice the trust I’d built – particularly through my yoga practice – to discern the natural course my body would take, rather than push myself to speed up or force the process. And I did that. In my rawest moment, I successfully defaulted to the me I hoped would be present.