I feel like the biggest lesson that I’ve learned through my home birth experience is to let go of expectations. It’s a lesson that God has tried to teach me again and again (and again!) and one that I never seem to get through my thick skull. Nothing about my home birth went the way I expected it, and I wouldn’t have changed anything.
I started having contractions on Tuesday morning, August 10th, and was totally excited to be going into labor in the morning. I’ve always had labor begin either in the middle of the night or right before bed, and the idea of laboring with a full night’s sleep behind me was really appealing.
My uterus just sort of messed around all day. Some contractions hurt, some didn’t; some were 70 seconds long, some were 30; some were 4 minutes apart, some were 14…and that never really changed. I finally emailed my midwife at about 9 pm, telling her that I was worried and was unsure about what was going on.
Oh, unexpected thing #1: My wonderful midwife was out of town. She was just a few hours away in Utah, and she had let us know at our very first appointment that she would be out of town during this week. It was her first vacation since becoming a midwife, and neither of us really thought I’d have the baby so early, so I had no problem with her going. I actually really thought she deserved a break! She asked me to call her if labor started and to call sooner rather than later so she would have time to drive back. So I sent her the email and she responded right away, saying that it still sounded like practice labor and I could have the baby that night or in a week. She told me to get some rest and call the back-up midwife if the contractions became consistently 5 minutes apart and 60 seconds long.
So I went to bed, frustrated that my dreamed-of day-labor was foiled but relieved that I wasn’t going to have the baby without my midwife, who I love for many reasons, not the least of which being that I knew I could count on her to give me a good shake if I lost control.
I woke up about 3 am and was unable to go back to sleep. The Ogre, who was just then going to bed, put on Amelie for me, got me some tea, and went to sleep. I watched the first half-hour of the movie, noticing an occasional contraction but nothing major, before deciding to go back to sleep. But when I got back in bed contractions began in earnest. They were seventy seconds long, five minutes apart, and painful enough that I had to close my eyes and really focus on relaxing to get through them. I woke up the Ogre and told him it was time to call the midwife and the labor tub company.
I stayed in bed and breathed through contractions for about another hour, during which time my husband called everyone, woke the kids up, got them dressed and sent them with our friend for the day. The back-up midwife, who I had never met but was absolutely wonderful and sweet, and the labor tub people arrived about 6 am. The midwife came in and introduced herself, checked the baby’s heartbeat, and told me just to relax and she would check again in a bit. Our midwife’s assistant also arrived about that time, and it was comforting to have a familiar face there.
It took about an hour and a half to get the tub assembled and filled, during which time the Ogre sat with me, read me some poetry, and reminded me to relax during contractions. I was surprised by the sheer force of the contractions. I had an epidural very early in labor with my first, and with my second I was dilated 5 cm when I got a spinal block, so I never really experienced the full force of active labor. I had expected excruciating pain, but that’s not really how it felt. It felt like each contraction was lifting me off the bed, like all the earth’s gravity had relocated to my uterus and was pulling with all its force. It was honestly more frightening than painful. I kept reminding myself that each contraction was getting me closer to holding our son, and as long as I managed to keep breathing and keep my focus the contractions were more manageable than I expected.
The tub was ready by about 7:30, and I climbed in and “asked” the Ogre to get in with me. The contractions were a lot more painful when I sat upright, so I wanted to be able to lie sideways in the water and lean against him. The next hour was actually pretty pleasant. The contractions kept coming, but they didn’t seem to get much stronger or closer together. The warm water made it easy to relax and it was such a comfort to be able to rest against my husband’s chest.
The midwives had been periodically checking the baby’s heartbeat and they checked my cervix at about 8:30. I think we were all surprised that I was already 8 cm dilated. So far, I hadn’t let out a moan, a scream, or a single complaint about the contractions, and the midwives both seemed shocked that I was managing my first natural birth so well. I was surprised and pleased and more than a little relieved that the pushing stage was almost here. I had never had a problem pushing before and in fact had considered that the easiest part of labor, so I was ready to get down to business and impress everyone with my fantastic ability to usher babies into the world.
Or so I thought.
About 20 minutes later I thought I felt a vague urge to push. At this point the midwife encouraged me to just listen to my body. That honestly threw me for a loop. I was used to being given specific instructions. “Put your feet here, curl up, when the contraction starts push, and again”…etc. So I gave a weak, half-hearted push with my next contraction and stopped almost immediately, crying out in pain. It HURT! And the contraction that continued after I stopped pushing hurt even worse! I was used to feeling relief with pushing, but this was horrible. The midwife checked me again and said that there was a little bit of cervix left and my water was still intact, so we’d wait a bit. After a few more contractions and an exciting bout of vomiting, she said that I was fully dilated and should try again. So I did, with the same result. I let out another shocked, pained cry. I was starting to get scared. I was completely unprepared for this part to be difficult. I kept at it for a few contractions with little progress, but with every contraction I lost a little more confidence and became a little more panicked. Finally, when I had completely lost focus and was screaming through contractions and crying in between, the midwives and the Ogre hauled me out of the tub and had me lay on a few towels on the floor. I was sobbing and saying “I can’t do this!” over and over, the Ogre was trying to get me to focus, and the midwives were trying to figure out what was making this so hard.
They decided that my unbroken water bag was putting counter pressure on my uterus each time I pushed, making it hard for me to make any progress. Also, the water bag was still cushioning the baby’s head, and without the pressure of his head on my pubic bone I wasn’t having a good urge to push. So they decided to break the water and then let me get back in the tub and try again.
Nice idea, in theory, but the second they broke my water and I finally felt the urge to push that I had been waiting for it was all over. I was pushing like my life depended on it, they were all shouting “Stop! Slow down! You’re pushing him out too fast!”, I was yelling “I can’t stop! I can’t stop!”, the Ogre had my face between his hands and was saying “Yes you can! Focus! You have to slow down!” and then there was a blue, gasping, screaming baby boy laying on my stomach.
Luckily I didn’t tear, which is what they had been afraid of, but poor baby Liam had been pushed out so fast that his forehead, nose and chin were red and bruised. One of the reasons I had wanted to do a water birth was because it seemed like such a gentler way to bring a baby into the world; from water, into water, and then gradually lift the baby out. But instead, my poor son was unceremoniously shoved into the world by his frantic, panicked mother, and left with the bruises to prove it. So much for the best-laid plans.
The midwives had to give me a shot of Pitocin to control the bleeding, but once I delivered the placenta and the Pitocin kicked in I was fine. They cleaned me up and helped me get into bed, where they weighed Liam and gave him his first little examination. A few minutes later, our midwife’s assistant brought me the phone. It was my midwife, calling from Utah. We had completely forgotten to call her in the hustle and bustle of getting the kids out the door and alerting everyone else! She hadn’t even known I was in labor. I felt really bad, and I know she was disappointed to have missed it, but even if we had called her she wouldn’t have made it back in time. Everything had just moved so quickly. We talked for a few minutes and she promised to call the next day when she was on her way home. Then the midwives cleaned everything up, gave me instructions about warning signs to look for, and said they’d be back to check on us tomorrow. The labor tub people took the tub away and the poor, sleep-deprived Ogre called all our relatives and then took an exhausted nap before our friends brought the girls back home.
I was way too jazzed on post-birth adrenalin to sleep so I sat in bed, nursing our son and trying to process the last six hours. As I was sitting in bed, mentally beginning to piece this blog post together, I happened to glance up at the bathroom mirror and catch sight of the reflection of the crucifix that hangs above our bed. The blinds on the window were closed, but the crucifix was illuminated in a beam of sunlight that was triumphantly streaming through one bent corner. As I looked in the mirror I saw the symbol of Christ’s suffering and triumph hanging above our bed, my own battered and glowing reflection, a wiggling bundle of blankets clutched in my arms, and my weary, wonderful husband lost to sleep, with one arm still curved protectively behind my back. I was suddenly overwhelmed with the deepest gratitude I’ve ever felt. I was grateful for everything; for every pain, every moment of doubt and confusion, every second of my life that had led me to this one, this moment in which I was made a mother again. I whispered a prayer of thanksgiving, thanking God that, in His infinite wisdom, He had given me a life full of things that I had never wanted…a husband, children, dishes, laundry, natural childbirth…things that have become my greatest treasures.
I think that moment was the greatest gift I was given through choosing to experience a natural birth. My mind was clear, drug-free, unclouded, and I was able to fully experience the post-birth euphoria for the first time. But it was so much more than just euphoria; it was a moment of clarity, a moment of grace in which I was able to see my vocation of wife and mother as the most precious gift God has ever given me. I’m so given to seeing my life as one of drudgery and servitude, one in which I’m constantly answering the needs of others and cleaning up tiny hands and tiny bottoms and big messes. But at that moment I saw how blessed I am to have been given a life in which, every single day, I have the opportunity to love and serve my children and my husband, and through that love and service learn to be a little more like our Lord.
The best thing about having the baby at home as opposed to in a hospital was that it allowed labor to be something that my husband and I managed together, without constant interference. The midwives sat quietly apart from the Ogre and me, whispering and only interrupting us when they needed to check on something or to give me some water. My husband held me through the whole thing, talked me through every contraction, and was my constant anchor and comfort. Even at the end when I was losing control his voice was the only thing that I remember hearing, his hands on my face the only thing that kept me from giving up. It was a great gift to be brought closer in that way. I’ve always known that we complement each other but it wasn’t until experiencing something that intense that I realized exactly how much I depend on him and how well he understands me. He was able to anticipate everything I needed and give me strength and comfort and the occasional reminder to focus and relax. Never before in our marriage has the reality of two becoming one been more clear to me as it was during those hours, when we worked together seamlessly to bring into the world the tangible evidence of our union.
Later today or tomorrow I will finish up the second part of this with a post about the recovery process, the benefits of which I think are reason enough alone to never again have a medicated childbirth. And as promised, I’ll explain the whole “eat my own placenta” thing. Don’t be frightened.
And soon I will do a quick post explaining Liam’s name…I know some of you have been wondering what it means and why we give our children so many names. I can explain the first part, and I’ll do my best with the second. Till then, happy Sunday!