Ciaran Louis, 7 lbs, 21″. Born at 1:57 AM on his due date, August 9, 2015.
My son Ciaran was born at home, in the big, warm tub my husband set up in our living room. Even now, more than 19 months later, I find myself thinking about the experience – I’ll catch sight of the spot on our bedroom floor where I realized I was in transition, or I’ll have a sudden, visceral memory of sitting on the edge of my bed, rocking rhythmically between contractions. I was by turns excited and worried about giving birth at home, sometimes keeping myself up at night with endless what ifs. But when it came down to it, Ciaran’s birth was everything I hoped it would be. It was quick, but not too quick – I was in definite labor for only about seven hours, and only the last two hours were really hard to handle. I only pushed for nine minutes, and didn’t tear at all. The midwives made it here just under forty-five minutes before he was born, and he obligingly arrived on his due date. While I was in the worst of it, I know it didn’t seem like a good experience, and yet, the moment he was out, it became one. His birth made me feel powerful, and weirdly, intuitively attuned to my body in a way I didn’t realize I could be. It made me appreciate my body and what it’s capable of so much more than I already did. And it relieved the residual ache left behind by my first birth experience.
I gave birth once before, to our daughter, who is now five years-old. Part of the reason Ciaran’s birth was such a powerful experience for me, I think, is that our daughter’s birth felt incredibly disempowering. She was born in a hospital in Baltimore with the help of Certified Nurse Midwives, and while nothing terrible happened during her birth, the experience still left me feeling weak and strangely ashamed. Despite the fact that it allowed CNMs to practice there, the hospital, it turned out, was not very friendly toward women who wanted to labor naturally. I can still remember the bored eyes of the nurses and the wide stares of the two kids and their fathers sitting with us in the cramped waiting room (there weren’t any beds available when I arrived, and then they kept taking back women who were scheduled for inductions before they would take me). Because I felt incapable of moving or vocalizing at all during the contractions with so many eyes upon me, I squeezed my husband’s hands until their backs were stippled with broken capillaries. When I was finally given a room, I was immediately offered an epidural, despite the fact that I’d specifically asked not to be offered one in my birth plan, and I was feeling so vulnerable that I agreed. I also felt like I simply couldn’t do it any longer; my contractions were on top of each other, I was shaking uncontrollably and nauseated, and yet, because I was only three centimeters dilated, both the nurse and the midwife insisted I couldn’t be in transition yet. (They were in for a surprise when I ended up dilating from five to ten centimeters in less than half an hour).
We moved from Maryland to Traverse City when our daughter was a toddler, and I started meeting women – lots of women – who had given birth at home with the help of Dance of Life. All of their recommendations were glowing, and my husband, Stu, and I knew that when we had another baby, we wanted to have him or her at home. I got pregnant soon after, and we scheduled a meeting with Kathi, but I lost the baby before we were able to meet. Because I didn’t have any other provider to talk to, I called Kathi when I started bleeding, and even though she had never met me in person, she was so kind and so patient. I got pregnant again, and, again, miscarried, though this time we managed to meet both Kathi and Katy before it happened. Again, Kathi was wonderful when I called her; she knew exactly what to say in a situation when there is so little you can say.
Finally, I got pregnant again, and this time, it stuck. Every appointment with Kathi, Katy, and Nicole was leisurely and thorough. They had answers to all my questions, and even my mom – who was more than a little nervous about my decision to give birth at home – felt better after she came with me to an appointment. My pregnancy continued without complications, though in the last few weeks I had so many regular, strong Braxton-Hicks contractions that I kept thinking I was going to go into labor early.
On the day before my due date, I told Stu I had to get out the house – I was going to drive myself (and probably him) crazy if I didn’t keep busy and get my mind off wondering when our son would decide it was time to enter the world. Our daughter was born a week after her due date, so I knew I might have awhile to wait, still, anyway. We went to our friends’ house; their second daughter had just been born two weeks earlier, and they generously offered to have us over for dinner!
Throughout the five or so hours we were there, I started having the same strong, regular Braxton-Hicks that I’d been having for weeks already. I didn’t think too much of them, though, even when they started coming close enough together that it felt like there was no break. I was also starving – I ate three helpings of pasta and meatballs and my weight in chips and a spicy habanero salsa that my friend swore had helped her go into labor. In hindsight, my hunger should have been a sign that things were happening – this was August, and for several weeks I’d had almost no appetite because of the heat.
As Stu backed the car out of the driveway around 7:00 PM, I had what felt like a real contraction – not horribly painful, but enough to take my breath away. Without saying anything to Stu, I took out my phone and opened the contraction timing app I’d downloaded. I had several more contractions on the way home, again very manageable, though strong enough that Stu noticed something was going on. They were sporadic, although they were lasting a minute each, and despite the fact that I felt fairly positive this was the beginning of labor, I kept telling Stu I wasn’t sure. When we got home, I managed to put our daughter to bed as usual, pausing halfway through a lullaby to breathe through a contraction.
Stu went to bed at 8:00, worried about being in top form when I really needed him, and I labored on my own for about three hours. I bounced on my birth ball while watching something mindless on Netflix, ate half a pint of double-chocolate gelato (I was still starving!), and paused to lean over the ball and breathe through contractions. They were coming every three to twenty minutes, too sporadic for me to be sure anything was going to happen soon, but they were strong enough and lasting long enough that I wondered. Around 10:00 I decided to try to lie down and see if the contractions slowed down. Instead, they intensified; suddenly, breathing through them wasn’t enough, and purely by instinct I started moaning, deep and low, to get through them.
Sometime after 11:00 I called Kathi; I was worried about her getting to our house on time, since she was 40 minutes away at her family reunion. But because my contractions were still very sporadic she told me to call back when they had been 3-5 minutes apart for an hour. The intensity of them made me think things were happening faster than she realized, and in hindsight, I know I should have told her that. But instead I agreed. Half an hour or so later, I realized I was making so much noise during a contraction that I should wake Stu; I told him to call my parents to come pick up our daughter. I gathered the last of the things our daughter needed to bring with her, trying to explain to her, in her half-asleep state, what was happening, and having to stop every couple of minutes to drop to my hands and knees on the floor and moan through a contraction while she looked on, thoroughly bemused. I remember wondering where on earth Stu was and why he wasn’t helping me get stuff together (it turns out he had started filling the birth pool). When my parents arrived, I frantically said to Stu, “I’m not coming out, I don’t want to see them!” I was between contractions, sitting on our bed and rocking rhythmically back and forth; I’d begun doing a deep, slow breathing pattern between each contraction. I don’t exactly know why; again, it was automatic, as though my body had taken over from my brain and knew what to do on its own. Those slow, deep breaths, when I was just waiting for a contraction to start, helped me feel present and in control, and I didn’t feel like I could handle anyone seeing me just then. Really, I think that’s what made this birth so much better for me than our daughter’s – I didn’t have people watching me and intruding at all until the midwives arrived, and by then I was so far gone it would hardly have mattered who was in the room. )And they managed to be as un-intrusive as it is possible to be under the circumstances!).
I’d been timing the contractions with my phone’s app, but all of a sudden – only minutes after my parents left – they started coming so fast that I couldn’t time them anymore. I’d left my phone on the counter in the bathroom when I peed between contractions; the bathroom is about five steps away from where I was in our bedroom, but suddenly there wasn’t time between the contractions to get there. I vaguely remember finding myself halfway to the bathroom on my hands and knees, managing to shout at Stu, “Call Kathi!” between gritted teeth.
Everything that happened after that is something of a blur. I didn’t move from that spot on the floor – I couldn’t. It felt like transition hit me, bam, and all I could do was hold on as my legs started shaking and I began to feel nauseated (though by some miracle, I never threw up). I can’t remember what the contractions felt like anymore, but I do remember that as each one peaked I started screaming, and nothing could have stopped me. Once, in the brief space between contractions I tried to remind myself to breathe through it – almost everything I’d read and watched about natural birth talked about how screaming wasn’t productive, low tones or breathing were better, etc, etc. So with the next contraction I deliberately tried to stick with my steady breathing… until it began to peak, and then I thought, Forget that, and began to scream. While screaming didn’t precisely help the pain, it seemed to release something within me. I’d had no idea I would be so loud during labor, since I forced myself to be mostly silent during my first birth, and briefly wondered what our poor neighbors must be thinking, but the next contraction drove those concerns away.
Stu appeared beside me and told me the tub was ready. I remember the warmth of the water and the brief – too brief – sensation of absolute bliss when I entered it. It didn’t last, but being in the tub definitely was better than being out of it.
Kathi arrived just after I’d gotten into the tub. I remember Stu’s voice in my ear telling me Kathi was here, and then I remember glancing over my shoulder at her when I heard her enter the room, trying to smile, saying hi, and then turning away again. At some point soon after, her midwife-in-training, Ireland, arrived, and I vaguely remember being introduced to her but not really registering her face or anything else.
I remember telling Kathi when she first arrived that I didn’t think I was handling things well, and then announcing that I felt a lot of pressure. She told me I could push if I wanted, and I asked if she needed to check how dilated I was first. She said no, to go ahead and push if it felt right. (She later told me she knew from the way I was acting, and from where I felt the pressure and the pain in my back, that I was almost certainly fully dilated. I never had to be checked, which was SO different from being in the hospital, where they checked me constantly. I have a condition called Vulvodynia, which makes inserting or removing anything from my vagina extremely painful, so being checked multiple times while in labor was not a pleasant experience).
Kathi and Ireland were also incredible at anticipating what I needed before I even knew it, myself. I remember at one point Kathi put a cold wash cloth against my forehead, and it was the best feeling – I hadn’t even realized how incredibly hot I was.
At some point I began pushing without meaning to. My water hadn’t broken yet, and a small part of me worried that all the pressure I was feeling was just the water bag and that Ciaran wasn’t actually as close to being born as I thought. And then there was pain unlike anything I’d ever felt – I screeched, and Kathi said, “It’s just your body stretching,” and I didn’t believe her at all. Tearing was one of my bigger fears, since I tore fairly badly with Jane and recovery was so very slow as a result, and this felt like my perineum was being sliced by a knife. (I hadn’t really allowed myself to worry too much about how the Vulvodynia would affect me during birth, and while I was actually giving birth this time, I wasn’t in a state of mind of think rationally that, perhaps, the condition might be the cause of the excruciating pain). Kathi seemed a little surprised by the strength of my reaction as I stretched, but she was calm and told me when to stop pushing and just blow, and she put her hands against me to support my muscles as the baby began to crown. She told me he was crowning, and then seconds later said the head was out. I don’t remember how his body came out – whether I pushed or if it just emerged on its own – only that there was an odd sensation of something being flipped very quickly. I learned later that was the cord, which had been around Ciaran’s neck. He was still under the water, and somehow I found myself off my knees and sitting on the low bench inside the pool, and then suddenly he was in my arms, pale and not crying.
It was less than thirty seconds before he pinked up and cried, but those seconds felt very long. But oh, then he was so perfect. I remember looking around in amazement at everyone in the room – Katy had apparently arrived at some point while I was pushing without my being at all aware of it; she was still dressed for the wedding she’d been attending when Kathi called her as backup, just in case she herself wasn’t able to make the drive in time!
There were pieces of something brown in the pool, and for a horrified moment I thought it was my poop, that they hadn’t bothered with the little fish net that came in our birth box and that Ciaran had been born into poop-filled water – one of my mother’s biggest worries about my having a water birth – but Kathi laughed and reassured me that it was just bits of my mucus plug, which had come out just before he was born. My water had apparently broken just minutes before he was born, as well. Both of these were things that I’d been looking for for weeks as signs that labor was starting, and the fact that neither happened until birth was imminent is just more proof that labor absolutely does not progress the same way for all women, not the way they seemed to assume it did at the hospital where I had my daughter, where they were trained to see labor at formulaic.
After the placenta was out and had been declared healthy and intact, Kathi showed me the Tree of Life pattern in the branching veins along its backside. Then the midwives helped me get settled in bed, brought me some toast with honey and some orange juice, and left Stu, Ciaran, and me to bond for an hour or so while they cleaned up in the living room.
They weighed Ciaran, checked my blood pressure, and made sure he was nursing well, and then left us to snuggle and get to know each other, Kathi saying she’d be back the next day to see how we were doing. The whole experience was wonderful.