by Carrie Bourdages
Thirteen years ago I planned a homebirth. It was in Colorado. I was young. The baby’s father was supportive, and loving. Our families, however, were terrified. No matter, we were 2,000 miles from them.
We found a midwife. A green midwife – I was to be her first solo homebirth. She was a former engineer. I’ve worked with engineers for the bulk of my career as a technical writer. After all, we lived where Hewlett-Packard headquartered in Colorado. This was no surprise: an engineer that wanted to be a midwife I thought that very cool. With systematic, schematic schedules, we attended prenatal visits. Everything was sterile, exactly placed, and accessible in her home office. I could tell she was an engineer. She presented charts and graphs of our progress. She offered document, upon document of information about homebirth and genetics, and baby-delivering. By the end, I just wanted to feel the homebirth, not think it.
The pregnancy was ultra smooth – I loved having a baby grow in me. Nothing was troubling. I was healthy, the baby was healthy. We both felt good – the entire time. Not even a bout of heartburn! I couldn’t wait to meet this spirit growing inside me.
It was a really hot day – the hottest in recent recorded Colorado history. July 1, 1998. Suddenly I felt sick – like my stomach was upset; I thought I was coming down with diarrhea; I was sooo tired. Then the contractions began. So small at first. The baby was coming soon! We scurried around, washing bedding for the birth, organizing the room for the midwives, paying bills. On the way to the mailbox, I realized we hadn’t actually put stamps on the stack of bills we were mailing – utilities, mortgage, phone, credit cards. In the midst of a stronger contraction, I tried to get the baby’s father’s attention, as we pulled up to the blue mailbox in town. Too late. He dropped the envelopes into the box, all without postage. As I breathed through the waning pains, I let him know. Unfortunately, there was nothing we could do….they would likely end up in the dead letter office, checks and all. This was probably the beginning of what would be one of the most anxiety-producing experiences for him in his life. He took care of things by calling each recipient and borrowing money to cover all of the expenses to avoid late charges. Meanwhile, I sat in the bright Colorado sunshine, on our beautiful deck, and breathed through contraction after contraction, each getting stronger and more exciting, albeit more painful.
Our midwife, the engineer, told us to call her when they were exactly five minutes apart. Exactly? Five minutes from the beginning of one to the beginning of another? Five minutes from the end of one to the beginning of another? I just wanted to do this right.
Sometime during the night, the contractions increased. I couldn’t sleep and I couldn’t keep track of five minutes apart. I woke up the baby’s father and told him he should call the midwife. She rushed over, sleepy-eyed, and in a haste checked my cervix. “You’re dilated to four centimeters,” she said. “Four, I thought,” I’ve been laboring for most of a day and into the night and I’m at four centimeters? I was discouraged. I knew I had a ways to go. And I was tired. She suggested sleep and said she’d return in the morning. That was a long several hours. I couldn’t sleep. The contractions kept me awake and no position was comfortable for sleep. But still, the baby’s heart rate was strong. Push on.
When the sun came up, I can’t say that much was different, except that I was really grumpy. I didn’t feel like eating. I didn’t feel like sleeping. 24 hours later and I wasn’t sure what to do next. We called the midwife. She said she would come over and check me soon. Hours passed. I did laundry. I walked the dog. I paced. Contractions five minutes apart and no water yet.
Sometime in the afternoon she arrived. But I can’t tell this story without telling about Joy. She was my childbirth educator and became a fast friend during my pregnancy. She arrived long before the midwife and took me on several long walks up and down the foothills of our neighborhood. She made me laugh. She made me confident. She made me tea. She lost a long and courageous battle with cancer at 32 and is now in a pain-free place I’m sure. But those couple of days, she knew birth. She had her own two babies at home and she knew all would be well. She gave me that gift during those difficult days of labor.
Day Three: Dilated to five centimeters. My midwife was perplexed. My water hadn’t broken. She called her mentor. Yenni (spelled Jenny) arrived from Boulder. Long hair, long skirt, spelling of patchouli. She was in her fifties but didn’t look it . She had a very soft voice, and more than 2000 births behind her. She stroked my forehead, asked the baby’s father to leave my side, and talked to me about courage. Then she pulled out a knitting needle and broke my water. It was midday. After that gush, she reached deep into my cervix, she examined my enormous baby belly and declared that the baby was posterior. He couldn’t navigate the birth canal effectively.
So with Joy by my side in the backseat, she drove me to an acupuncturist for pain relief. The pain, by the way, had not subsided in three days and was nearly overwhelming during contractions. This baby was trying so hard to be born. Next we went to a chiropractor. After about an hour of adjustment through several contractions, she and Yenni successfully turned the baby out of posterior position. Surely, this is what I needed. And never would have guessed it like this.
Back to the house, through winding Colorado roads, to my bed, where afternoon was waning, the heat strong, I felt surprisingly less pain (needles still in my toes from the acupuncturist), I closed my eyes and Yenni prayed with me.
Good news: dilation to seven when Yenni checked me at five pm. She guided me softly on transition – the ring of fire. She told me I had to summon all of my strength for this, after these long days with little sleep, to push this baby out. And then she said in no uncertain terms, “If the baby doesn’t come by nightfall, we go to the hospital.” My midwife shuddered at that thought. I felt it from across the room. Everyone was quiet.
Midwives in Colorado were not allowed to carry Pitocin those days. That’s the drug that speeds delivery, and in my situation, would’ve helped immensely. Many hours had passed since my water broke and the risk for infection was growing, as was my dehydration.
Still laboring, the sun set. With a palpable sadness, we loaded into the cars, and drove the thirty miles to the hospital. Yenni took control. She sequestered my midwife, and the baby’s father, and instructed each of us on what to expect and what we’d do. We wouldn’t be met kindly by the hospital staff. She was right. They ushered a wheelchair to me upon arrival, forced an IV into my arm within minutes and scolded the midwives on my condition and the baby’s slowing heart rate. Yenni was a pro. She explained what the last two days had held for me, and even helped them to figure out if the baby was still in a non-posterior position. He was.
She argued against the emergency c-section the doctor ordered, and for the almond oil for perineal massage at the right time (sterile to me); she told them I wanted the miso soup we packed, instead of hospital food, and the placenta would go into the cooler, to go home with me. They obliged on all fronts.
But there was no way I was going to be able to push out this baby in my weakened state without Pitocin – agreed, by all. Once comfortable in a white hospital bed, with a blue gown on, with two IVs in my arm, I slept, deeply. For the first time in three days, I experienced sweet sleep.
Not more than two hours later, a nurse came in to check on me. I remember her shaking my shoulders, “Wake up, we’re going to have a baby!” she said with the biggest smile on her face.
Somehow in my exhausted state, I slept right through contractions of transition and was fully dilated. She said she could see his hair.
In moments, the dark hospital room became a flurry of activity and bright lights. Without changing position much, I spread my legs, and in five pushes, Joseph Gabriel Bourdages game into the world. It was 1:09 a.m. July 3,1998. Sixty two hours after that first contraction – a record for both midwives. He was no longer sunny side up, as they say, but instead of his head coming first, his right hand, over his head, greeted the world before the rest of him. This explained his trouble and mine with dilation. He was a little stuck.
That was my first homebirth.
Fast forward three years: Traverse City, Michigan. Joe is now two and a half. It is a rainy spring day in early April. My swollen belly and spirits are ripe for birth. I push Joe on an old metal swing set in a tiny park near East Bay. The wind picks up, as do the contractions, and I hold onto a tree to steady myself. It’s about four in the afternoon. I don’t speak a word to anyone – not friends, not family, not even the baby’s father yet, but know deep inside that my baby will be born tonight.
Rain increases and we call Kathi – the very non-engineer-like midwife who is assisting me birth this baby. Totally different feel from three years ago. No anxiety. No concern. Just steady contractions that feel like work. She says, “Call me when you feel like you want to sit on the toilet.” That made me laugh.
Within a few hours, I wanted to sit on the toilet. I did and we called. She said calmly, “I’ll take a shower and be over soon,” No rushing. No anxiety.
Kathi arrived with her assistant Kate, and a midwife of old, and her oldest daughter, Tara. Tara was to look after Joe during the birth, and bring him to my side when I was pushing. This was to be Tara’s first experience with birth and her mom’s amazing work as a midwife. I welcomed that gift and felt honored to be a part of it.
And just as Kathi said, a few hours later, at 11:00 p.m. I welcomed a second son into the world. This time in my bedroom, submerged in an inflatable water tub, with his big brother as the first one to hold his tiny hand. He even helped cut the umbilical cord, which I swear forged a bond between these brothers that I’ve rarely seen. Joe and Elliot, in the world together, with all of its trials and triumphs, always together, with Joe reaching out his hand to his brother.
Many times I’ve looked back on these two experiences and wondered how each has shaped the personalities and sensibilities of my boys, and myself as a mother. Joe is nervous and inclined to medical procedure (he wants to be a doctor), and always the last one out of the house when we’re leaving. Elliot is free-spirited, craves to be in water, and is the first to act without thinking. Both have taught me how to approach each of them with their unique life experiences.
And about birth, my opinions haven’t swayed. Birth is not a medical condition, unless there’s complications. Births in hospitals are not necessary for uncomplicated pregnancies. Homebirth is safe in nearly all situations. Midwives know birth and women’s bodies sufficiently to guide a woman through delivery, but really, she knows instinctively what to do – no need to tell her. It’s been happening for thousands of years, the same way.
I come from a long line of Italian women who gave birth in their homes, with a “midwife” who was really an older aunt who had been to many births, could encourage, and knew how to handle a newborn. She wasn’t certified in anything. This was my Joy – my “midwife” during Joe’s birth. And this is is the spirit that Kathi brings to birth, in addition to all of her training and medical experience.
Time and time again, throughout my life, it has been proven: when we can get our heads out of the way of our goals and dreams – from birth to career – we know what we have to do, and we can do it well.