I am so pleased to share the birth story of Rachel, below. The story is long, but its detail transported me into her birth experience in a beautiful way. I hope you enjoy her story as much as I did!
The body is wise. I dreamt of giving birth the night before my labor started, and woke up fleetingly throughout the night, noticing the faintest suggestion of menstral-like cramps. In morning, though the whisper of cramping had ceased, I thought to myself for the first time, “Today’s a day I could have a baby…I’m ready, I’m relaxed, and I can handle it.” I went about my morning with a sort of ceremony I noticed only in hindsight.
Later that evening, my darling Alder was born on a pallet on our living room floor. My husband, Mike, our close friend, Kate, and 3 midwives attended the birth. I pushed Alder out, with his help, and with what in the moment didn’t feel like Herculean strength, but certainly must have been. At the time I felt like I pushed with all I could, and had to find reserves I didn’t know existed, and then (or at least now) couldn’t tell I’d accessed. Alder’s hand was at his face, and his umbilical cord loosely around his neck; these presentations slowed his quick arrival from what could likely have been instantaneous (which is not to say, not hard).
It happened like this: In the midmorning, at a nearby park, aware of very subtle cramps, I noticed myself swaying. I didn’t feel like I needed to be, only that it felt good; I tried to assure my mother by phone that it wasn’t labor.
A couple of hours later, I wasn’t so sure. Mike and I sat on a shaded park bench. The sensation had grown intense in a very short amount of time. He began to notice how I changed with each set of cramps; I grew distant and distracted, and the sensations seemed painful. They were coming very close together; this confused me because it differed from how the “typical” labor (if there is such a thing) gets described. At first, walking felt good; it relieved the cramping; I walked slowly, in what felt like a fog all my own. After a while, the sensations got more intense when I walked around, but certainly didn’t go away when I rested.
An hour or so later, we began to time the sensations, and started to call them “contractions”. They were erratic, sometimes just 4 minutes apart. We alerted the midwives and Kate, and went home. I tried to nap and then to read, but the contractions prevented me from getting through more than a couple of paragraphs at a time, much less sleep. Eventually I took a shower; it felt wonderful.
From the very start, each contraction made me want to use the bathroom. So I did, and sit I did…every single time, which is to say about every few minutes. Then, finally, I’d rest on the toilet in between contractions since the position offered some relief. The sensations’ intensity and their rapid succession surprised me.
Over the phone, the midwives suggested I drink a glass of wine, lay down, relax, and see if the contractions might slow. As much as I wanted relief from the already intense sensations, I desperately wanted confirmation of what I knew deep in my cells—that I was in labor.
The wine slowed nothing but their doubt and, around 8pm, Ellah, one of our midwives, arrived. I offered her tea and tried my best to hold a conversation, pausing and curling my toes under during contractions. I asked her if the contractions got more intense than this. Ellah looked at me with eyes both empathic and twinkling… “Yes, they do. Eventually you won’t want to chat; you’ll need all your concentration and strength to endure them.” Just after that, she found that I was 4cm dilated—in labor. And, within an hour, I entered my own world of “labor land”. With my permission, Ellah took Mike aside and told him, in our green den just feet away from my laboring body, that our child would arrive that night…she told him more, and kind words that I wish I could remember, but smile at the vague memory of nonetheless. To be known well, and to have such love and support surrounding the birth were true gifts.
Ellah left to get her birthing supplies, Mike began filling up the birth tub, and we beckoned our friend, Kate. Almost instantly upon Ellah’s departure, the contractions ramped up, slamming into me without rest or relief. We prepared the house, dimming the lights, dressing the mattress on the living room floor, and assembling integral parts of my birth altar. I swayed, hands propped on thighs, back bent, throughout contractions. The pain radiated almost unforgettably down my thighs.
After one of countless contractions endured on the toilet, I left my skirt off, and later my underwear, as well. I saw myself as if from above, and remembered the odd milestone predicted in my birth class—“the moment the underwear stays off”. I was in it, emulating it because it felt right, but was watching myself, too…almost as if I was following a script, but the script was true. I acted, watched myself, and then fell into it—finally accepting intellectually whatever I was doing instinctually.
Kate soon arrived; I was amidst such intensity, I rather not speak. I hugged her and hung on—that was all there was to do. I was deeply grateful she’d arrived and would be with us. She and Mike were a seamless team, there to support me in myriad ways. They followed my lead. Mike gently guided me so well that the facts of his participation blend into the event as a whole. I easily remember that we swayed and hugged, that he applied pressure to various parts of my body, and that he matched my moaning, as if feeling the pain of my uterus contracting himself.
Within an hour of Ellah’s leaving, I had relentless cramping even in between contractions. The feelings were so intense and frequent that I told Kate I didn’t know if I’d be able to do it; I thought silently that if I had been at the hospital I’d have likely accepted pain medication, although that wasn’t what I’d wanted. I understood instantly how slippery the slope away from natural birth can be, especially if my desire for an intervention-free birth hadn’t been supported by my birthing team. Kate encouraged me, reciting phrases I’d prepared her with, but more importantly, she believed in me and, ultimately, I believed in myself. The words I’d so carefully prepared ended up meaning much less than being surrounded by love and support.
Suddenly, I had to drop down to my hands and knees, in a sort of squat; I felt the intense need to bear down. I didn’t tell Mike or Kate the first time. By the second or third, however, I went with it; I pushed, and told them I thought I was going to the bathroom on the floor….and then realized, perhaps I had started pushing. Midwives Ellah and Michelle arrived shortly, to Kate and Mike’s immense relief.
Just as they entered, I saw the birth tub I’d somehow forgotten about and submerged myself. The warm, soothing water offered the most relief I’d felt in hours. I rested, arms holding me up on the side of the tub, knees bent, resting in a deep squat on the bottom, Mike at my shoulders.
I felt deeply tired, forlorn, and even despairing. This is captured in a photograph, my face looking of utter surrender—a picture that made my mom leave the room, unable to endure my vulnerability and pain even though it was a natural part of the process that brought us our darling child. I’m sure one day I will understand. I sighed, rubbed my face with warm water, and allowed myself despair and a tiny bit of release. Joined by Mike, I began to moan with conviction, stronger and stronger until eventually the house shook with gutteral vibrations. I imagined the neighborhood listened in rapt attention, Mike closed the window, and then Michelle asked me to channel my energy into pushing. I trusted that I needed to reside in the intensity to bring my baby, so I stopped moaning and despairing, and started pushing with all that I had. Mike got in the tub behind me, and then, so that she could access the baby in the position I was most comfortable, so too did Michelle.
I wish I could say that the whole time I was thinking about how this process would bring my baby, and that this knowledge urged me along. As I’ve heard for other women, too, though, I got “stuck” in my body, and for a while almost forgot that the end product was a baby.
Until…I reached down and felt my bulging bag of waters, a tight sac. It broke in a big gush into the tub during a push.
I recall my lucid inner voice thinking, “I’m going to have a home birth, a water birth, like I’d envisioned. This is it.” And then seconds later, Michelle telling me that, because the baby wasn’t coming as quickly as they’d expected given the quick labor thus far, I needed to push and really push. I got scared. “This is also me,” I thought, “having complications—is my baby in danger? Oh my God, is this really happening? Will I have to be transferred? Will my baby be ok? Is this how it happens?” Tears well in my eyes just thinking about that moment.
Directed by my midwives, I got out of the tub and lay on my side on the mattress on the floor, and pushed like hell. At some point, the 3rd midwife, Nicole arrived. I closed my eyes and grimaced and pushed, frightened out of my mind. Michelle kept saying “Push, Mama, push,” and Mike kept groaning and coaching me, too. I moved onto my back, with my knees up at far as I could pull them, spread wide, opening me to the world. At one point I voiced my fright. Michelle tried to assure me that I needn’t be scared, but I did have to push even harder. I knew I needed to access reserves of strength that I couldn’t perceive. I closed my eyes, clenched my teeth and I pushed will more strength than I knew I’d accessed…Until Michelle told me to feel my baby’s head and it was amazing—right there, so close and so real.
I pushed and pushed more, and must have pushed enough because my baby’s head emerged from my body just before 11pm. Michelle had to remind me to continue pushing the body out. Moments later I put my hands down and helped bring my baby up to my chest in disbelief. It was my child, the person growing inside of me—a bit grey and not as gooey as I’d imagined; it was miraculous. The exhaustion I’d felt immediately disappeared, and I was overtaken by awe and love.
My child’s birth immediately relieved the intense pressure in my abdomin, although a slight pressure lingered…at some point, perhaps 20 minutes later, I pushed the placenta out, was surprised by how big it was, and felt that pressure all but disappear. We kept the placenta and planted it during a blessing ceremony a year later under a tree in our backyard.
I hugged my baby as it cried and cried and cried. I worried that it was crying so much…I imagine now how scary and strange that transition must have been for Alder. I examined its many parts and murmured to it. I tried to uncurl its legs from its body to see its sex, but they were so tightly curled that I didn’t want to pry them…after about 20 minutes my baby revealed that he was a boy! We were overjoyed with surprise. And our child became Samuel Alder. Somewhere within that time, Alder stopped crying, I felt and then cut the umbilical cord. Alder and I spent hours trying to nurse, coached by our midwives; eventually, Alder latched well. What a moment of relief, sweetness, and connection.
At 2am, the midwives set us up in our bedroom, Alder nestled like a treasure in the middle of the bed, between me and Mike. Kate stayed the night, lending us a sense of protection and comfort. Neither Mike or I sleep much; we couldn’t help but marvel at Alder.
I saw my maternal grandfather in Alder’s spirit just after he was born. I had only seen him up close, intimately in the first hour on the floor, and remember being excited to see him from a distance. His eyes were narrow and long; he had the look of an old man, a grace, calmness, and knowing. He noticed when I sang, and immediately calmed down. He seemed to recognize all the songs we sang in utero. He had a nursing blister for the longest time, big feet and a huge big toe, a light dusting of hair, longer and darker in the back. He cooed often, smiled and grimaced in his sleep. He made the most delightful “oh” faces, and revealed to me a whole other dimension of love. Alder is my endless joy, and our journey together, the most precious gift.