I was lucky to have an easy, healthy pregnancy and to have found Michelle to help me with this homebirth. Throughout the pregnancy we talked about labor, what to expect, and about Michelle’s experiences assisting others. My first birth had also been midwife-attended, but was in a hospital, and did not at all work out as I had hoped. In part this was because of the way the hospital handled some things, and in part, I now think, because my own fears and anxieties made things more difficult for me. Those two factors together created a vicious cycle and though I was finally able to deliver naturally, it was not until the residents had prepped me for an unwanted (and, as it turned out, unnecessary) C-section, and given me an injection of something to slow down labor, because they feared the baby was in distress, which made pushing incredibly difficult. I was in tears by the time my son emerged – and of course then he was immediately rushed off to the nursery for “observation” and I didn’t get to see him or hold him for 4 hours. I was determined to have a different experience this time around, especially since, given my age (I was 44 when I delivered Jesse), I knew this would be my last baby. I read and reread Ina May Gaskin’s Guide to Childbirth, which really resonated with me; that and regular long discussions with Michelle helped me to feel very prepared.
My biggest anxiety towards the end of the pregnancy was work. I am a project manager and team lead at a large consulting firm, and had a large project for a key client launching right around my due date. I put in long hours at my desk the last few weeks before the birth, frantically laying the groundwork so the project could run in my absence, and praying daily that the baby would not come early. My first son had shown up 2 weeks ahead of his due date, and though Michelle kept reminding me that this was entirely within the realm of “normal”, I badly wanted that not to be true. To this end, every night as I slowly walked upstairs to go to bed, I would stroke my burgeoning belly and implore the baby to stay inside “just a little longer”.
All went according to plan until the morning of January 29, a Saturday, two days before my due date. From the moment I got up that day I was oddly uncomfortable – my back ached, my belly felt ungainly and awkward, and I had a kink in my hip I just couldn’t work out. This was the first time in the entire pregnancy that I just didn’t feel myself. Saturdays are my days to take care of family stuff, and that day was no different: I went grocery shopping, picked up the dry cleaning, got the car washed, registered my son for Little League, did about 4 loads of laundry and felt out of sorts all day. No matter how I adjusted the driver’s seat in the car, my back continued to bother me, the seat belt bothered me, folding laundry was exhausting and I felt worn out just walking the aisles at Price Chopper, despite that I’d had plenty of sleep the night before. My mom, who was staying with us at the time, suggested I take some Tylenol and lay down for a nap, but I kept thinking I’d rest better once I got everything done, and the day somehow slipped away.
At 11:20pm I turned off the lights and headed upstairs, the last one to bed, as usual. As I got to the top step I was rubbing my belly and about to say “Just one more day, baby, just one more day”, but what slipped out instead was, “Ok baby, you can come now.” I remember pausing and feeling startled by that, but somehow it all made sense. I changed, washed up and climbed into bed, and just as I was drifting off, I heard and felt a gentle “pop”, and a trickle between my legs. Quickly, I jumped out of bed so as not to soak the sheets (yes, we had a plastic sheet, but I was so in denial that it wasn’t yet on the bed), and stage whispered to my husband, “Michael! My water broke!” It was 11:35pm. He came rushing around to my side of the bed, half-asleep but clearly charged on adrenaline. “Ok! What do you need?” As I was by now standing in a puddle next to the bed, I asked him to grab one of the old towels I had stacked on a trunk in the corner, in anticipation of the homebirth. In his excitement he instead gathered the clean stack of baby washcloths I had set aside to clean the baby with, and threw them in a pile at my feet. Somehow this struck me as really funny, but I tried not to laugh as I didn’t want to hurt his feelings. After somewhat ineffectually mopping the floor with my feet, we headed into the bathroom so I could change my soaked PJs and we could talk without waking the 6-year-old who was sacked out in the middle of our bed.
As I cleaned up, we debated calling Michelle. On the one hand, we didn’t want to put her on alert unnecessarily. On the other hand, my first labor had been pretty fast, and we knew it was going to take Michelle about an hour to get to us, so we thought maybe we should put her on notice. While we talked I had my first contraction, about a 6 on a scale of 1 to 10, and then 10 minutes later another one, each lasting about a minute. At this point it was 11:50 and I decided we should probably call her, just in case she was attending another birth and needed to call for backup. I felt very calm and like this slow period might go on for some time, but Michelle said that if anything changed in terms of pace or intensity – even if only 5 minutes had passed – I should call her right back, and in the meantime I should try and get some rest. Next we debated waking my mom – I knew she hadn’t been asleep long and was worried about her being up all night – but Michael pointed out that she had come to be present for the birth, and I should include her from the beginning, since she wasn’t going to get this experience again. So I went in and spoke to her, told her she didn’t need to get up, and that I was going to lie down next to her to rest between contractions.
I hadn’t been lying there for more than about a minute when suddenly a giant contraction hit – it was like being whacked in the kidneys, and took the breath right out of me. I scrambled to my hands and knees and started rocking back and forth, alternately exhaling loudly and flapping my lips like a horse to keep things loose, and begging Mom to work her knuckles into the spots on either side of my lower spine where the pain was most intense. As soon as it passed I collapsed onto the mattress to rest, only to have another contraction just as intense hit a couple of minutes later, this time accompanied by a really strong gush of water between my legs. I jumped to my feet to avoid soaking the mattress and was startled at the amount of liquid that pooled at my feet – far more than I had lost when my water first broke. I just stood there dumbstruck and sort of panting while Mom mopped the floor with a towel, and then helped me to the bathroom so I could peel off my soaked PJs for a second time.
Michael appeared and I gripped his upper arms as I exhaled and rocked through another intense contraction, after which he said, “Ok, I’m calling Michelle.” He dialed and then offered me the phone but I just shook my head; another contraction was coming on and I doubted my ability to speak. A soon as he hung up I could literally feel my pelvis beginning to open, and knew it was good we had called when we did. At this point I was feeling slightly chilled – we have this big old Victorian house and in the winter it’s chilly at best, especially at night – so I decided to stay in the bathroom, which is larger than most and usually one of the warmest spots in the house, and to labor in the bathtub, which I thought might ease my back.
Mom stayed with me to time the contractions while Michael went down to turn on lights and unlock the back door, in anticipation of the midwives’ arrival. Laboring in the tub didn’t really work as things were just moving too quickly at this point; I’d no sooner ease into a comfortable position than another contraction would hit (and that’s really what it felt like, like I was being whacked in the lower back each time), and I would turn over onto my hands and knees to rock through it with the help of Mom’s knuckles on my lower back. We have one of those big old cast iron clawfoot tubs and it seemed to be taking forever to fill; the whole time I was in there I don’t think more than about 5 inches of water collected in the bottom, and I seemed to be spending all my time being wet but not exactly comfortable or even in the water. (It wasn’t totally miserable: I had one funny moment while on hands and knees in which Mom said, “Oh, there’s your bloody show!” and I peered down into the water between my knees and said, “Where?”, only to have her laugh and say, “Oh, it’s just your red toenail polish!” – but then I was blowing like a horse again and I never got the opportunity to tell her she cracked me up.)
I remember thinking I needed a better plan than the tub, when suddenly I had a tremendous urge to pee. I managed to get from the tub to the toilet before the next contraction, and once there, discovered that if I put my son’s stepstool under my feet I could get my knees up into a position where my back felt nicely supported, even through the ever-intensifying contractions, so I ended up laboring on the bowl for a good while with my knees up and my hands around my ankles. I had one moment, when I was alone in the room and the pain was so intense I couldn’t catch my breath and just thought my brain was going to crack (it sounds crazy, but that’s exactly the thought that was running through my head), and I thought, “Oh God, I can’t do this. I can’t take it if it’s going to be like this all night,” and I felt the creeping edge of panic – but then it passed, and I was breathing, and everything was ok. It seemed odd to me at the time to be laboring in the bathroom, on the toilet, but every time I thought, “Well, I guess I should get up now” I would have to pee again, so I finally decided my body was doing what it needed to do, and I should just go with it.
This was a big transition point for me – not Transition, as in “transition phase of labor” (though I suppose technically it was, as the contractions were very intense and coming 60 – 90 seconds apart) – but realizing that my body was doing what it needed to do, and I just needed to go with the flow. In my first labor, this is the point where I started to panic, and I remember the midwife admonishing me that I needed to breathe, because I was depriving my baby of oxygen (I guess I was holding my breath through the contractions, I don’t remember), and I felt utterly frantic because things were not going as I had anticipated and I was terrified because I suddenly felt unsure of what might come next and I started to feel totally unmoored. This time around I was able to remain calm despite the incredible pain; on some level I really felt like my animal instincts were taking over, and I just needed to keep my cerebral self out of the way. By letting go I no longer felt like I was trying to control or anticipate or keep up with anything. Instead, I felt like there was this incredible force coming at me and through me, and I just needed to channel it, to allow it to happen.
At some point – and the more labor intensified, the more time seemed to slow down, so I cannot tell you how long anything was lasting at this point – my mom and Michael came in and I said I wanted to move to the bedroom. Initially I had thought of laboring in our upstairs hallway – we have a very sturdy railing around the stairwell and I thought I might like to hang on/pull against that – but it was drafty, and I was feeling the urge to kneel and/or rock to ease my back, and the hardwood floor wasn’t too forgiving on my bare knees. So Michael moved our sleeping 6-year-old to the guest bed (the bed furthest away from all the action) and I settled in on my knees at the foot of our bed, with a couple of folded bath towels topped by a fluffy bath rug underneath me for comfort.
Although I’m sure this is not true, I felt like this phase was the longest part of labor. The contractions were coming hard and fast, so fast that I barely had time to rest in between, and instinctively I began moaning to help ride out and release the pain, and yelling out for someone, anyone, to grind their knuckles into the base of my spine. I was laboring on my knees with my head back, arms outstretched and my chest against the foot of the mattress, and between contractions I would drop my head down on the mattress with my arms limp at my sides. Alex (our son) woke up when he heard my hollering and Michael went in to comfort him, eventually moving the little guy into his bottom bunk, where he hunkered down with his stuffed animals to wait out my labor, leaving instructions with Dad to come and get him when his brother arrived.
At some point we heard the crunch of tires on icy snow and saw the flash of headlights through the bedroom window, and Mom said, “The midwives are here!” I remember thinking simultaneously, “Wow, that was fast!” and “What took them so long?!” I read later in Michelle’s notes that she arrived just before 1am.
At this point everything became sort of a blur as I retreated further and further into myself to focus on laboring this baby out. I remember panting and grasping at the bedcovers, scrambling for a purchase on something, anything, as the biggest contractions came, and Ellen (the assistant midwife) climbing up onto the bed in front of me and offering me her hands to grip. I must have been awfully hard on her as she chuckled softly and remarked, shaking the circulation back into her hands between contractions, that she had no idea, just looking at me, that I would be so strong. (Honestly, at that point I could have lifted a car: “This,” I thought, “is what adrenaline feels like!”) I was so focused on my own breathing that I don’t think I ever even looked up into her face, but it was such a comfort to hang onto those hands.
Behind me Michelle settled into position on a stool and gently felt between my legs with her palm; her fingers didn’t enter me at all, so I was not surprised when she said in her unflappable way, “I think we’re going to have a baby here in a minute.” She stroked my back, reassuring me that everything was just fine, that I was doing great, and progressing normally, which I remember thinking was exactly what I needed to hear just at that moment. She then breathed, almost to herself, “Fast labors suck,” prompting me to blurt out “Why?!” “Well,” she responded, “I have to jump in without even getting to set up, and you, well, you’re here trying to channel a freight train.” Exactly so.
Someone asked what I needed and suddenly I felt parched, and managed to croak out that I needed water with a straw, which appeared blessedly fast; from then on I sucked down ice water whenever I could pause to breathe. I remember Michael at my side, asking what else I needed, and before I could even find words Ellen turned to him and said, “I don’t think she is capable of telling us right now.” Again, it was true, and I was grateful. Someone found a cool washcloth and began wiping my brow and the back of my neck, which was heaven; I wondered if I had asked for this, or if they just knew it would help.
The pressure in my pelvis began to build naturally without my really noticing a change and then almost without realizing it I was pushing and couldn’t stop. Michael was at my side encouraging me, resting his hand against my back and telling me to “push!” and I wondered how he knew what was going on. (He said later my facial expression became even more determined and my voice deepened from a moan to a roar.) Michelle was providing pressure against my bottom, I think with her palm, I guessed to prevent tearing, and at one point she suggested, “Ok, so you might want to pause here a moment,” but before her words even registered in my conscious mind I was pushing again, harder, and I remember thinking, “Is she kidding me?” (Looking back I’m even more baffled by others who tell me that they consciously decided to push or not while they were in labor – in my case, my brain had totally checked out and my physical self was running the show; I couldn’t have changed course if I had tried.) Amazingly, once I got to the pushing stage, the pain was gone. I felt like I was working through this totally inevitable, roaring wave and of course I felt everything stretching, stretching, but there was just action, no pain, no “ring of fire” as I had heard others describe.
A moment later I felt movement and an incredible, slippery stretch, and then a natural pause as I drew breath. Resting my elbows on the bed, I looked down into a little purple face, all scrunched up and hollering for all he was worth. His shoulders were still inside, but his hand was balled up against his cheek, like he was going to start shaking it at me any moment. His eyes were still closed. One more instinctive push and he was out, along with a rush of fluid, and Michelle had him in her hands. He was tiny, and calm, his eyes wide open and an amazing shock of dark hair on his head (his brother had been blonde). I started to feel shaky from exhaustion and then there were hands helping me turn around and sit down (a delicate act as the baby and I were still attached via umbilical cord), and someone found a receiving blanket and put him, and it, against my bare chest. I hadn’t heard Alex come in, but there he was sitting right at my side, with my mother and husband looking on and the midwives to my right, taking a breather. Jesse just blinked and looked around the circle and then back up at me. I asked what time it was, and Ellen said, “About 1:20am”.
We all relaxed a bit and admired the baby, and I was grateful that I had not removed my fleecy bathrobe during labor as someone had suggested; I felt very cozy and glowing. Alex was thrilled to meet his baby brother and didn’t seem to mind that he had not caught the baby as he originally planned, but he was determined to cut the umbilical cord. It was much thicker than he expected, and slippery; he told the midwives it looked “just like cooked fusilli pasta!” He said cutting it was like cutting a tough rubber band, and his dad helped him finish the job. Laughing with my family seemed to bring on another contraction, and I was reminded that I still had to birth the placenta. I handed off the baby and with a couple of gentle pushes the placenta slipped out, too, somehow larger and grayer than I had expected. (Michelle explained later that it looked gray because the amniotic sac was wrapped around it.) The midwives seemed satisfied that it had come out in one piece, and I was given the ok to get up and crawl into bed.
Perhaps one of the best parts about delivering at home came after the actual birth, as I was able to lie in my own bed and nurse the baby while everyone else bustled around, cleaning up. Alex was too excited for sleep, so his dad brought him downstairs to watch a video, and Mom appeared with a tea tray for the midwives and me. The baby and I alternately nursed and dozed until Michelle came back for our physical, around 4am or so. The baby weighed in at 6 pounds, 14 ounces – exactly the same weight as his older brother! – but was 2 inches longer, at 21 inches. I loved that he had his first check-up lying on a towel at the foot of the bed.
I was startled to find that I still had lingering contractions, and that they were more painful than I expected. Nothing like labor, but then again, nothing like menstrual cramps, either. Michelle explained that this was the uterus contracting back into shape, and that I could expect this to go on for some time. On the other hand, she also said that now I could take a double dose of Motrin, which was music to my ears! The final high note came when Michelle and Ellen examined me to see what damage the birth had wrought, and reported to my amazement that I’d had no tearing at all. Michelle said there was the tiniest bit of broken skin next to the scar tissue that was left from my previous episiotomy (which had taken 14 stitches to close up, when my first son was born), but that it wasn’t enough to get a stitch into, and in fact wasn’t even bleeding! I don’t believe I have ever felt so whole, or satisfied, or proud as I did in that moment. It had all gone so unbelievably well, and my birth journey was complete.