Born into the Water – Arlo’s Birth Story

It’s been one week since he arrived.

I’m from Aotearoa, New Zealand; I come from a family of strong home birthing mamas. I was born in our home and one of my earliest memories is of being woken up and taken to mum and dad’s bedroom as my little sister’s head was crowning, so going into my first birth I was adamant that I would follow suit.

 I also come from a family of women notorious for going into labor well past their official due date and being there for days. I was three weeks late, my sister was two, and so it was no surprise when I found myself at 41 weeks with no signs of labor on the horizon.

But with a cutoff date of 42 weeks and the uncomfortable feeling of suddenly being “on the clock” I started to get anxious. It was a huge relief when we passed our biophysical profile and nonstress test with a 10/10, but I had one week, and our baby boy didn’t care much for our schedule. For the next five days we tried everything, acupuncture, Chinese herbal remedies for uterine release, walking, sex, pineapples; so many pineapples… relaxation, laughter, I watched a lot of questionable Netflix comedies… I bounced on a birthing ball, ate ridiculously hot curry and had three membrane sweeps. But after all that I had only progressed from 1 to 3cm and was showing no other signs of going into labor.

With only a couple of days left before I hit 42 weeks, we were starting to have some pretty frank conversations about what a hospital induction would look like. Our plan for a non-emergency transfer was to go to Woodhull Medical Center. Our midwives, Shar and Carol, talked me through that process and assured me that they would help us transfer and get us settled if that were to happen. One thing that was really amazing about the level of care we received from them both was that I always knew that if, for whatever reason, our home birth plan didn’t work out, we would have them both in our corner, advocating for us within the hospital system every step of the way. I always trusted that they would do their best to make that transition as safe and supportive as possible, so, at that point of exhaustion and general fed-up-ness, days shy of 42 weeks, I felt a certain comfort at there being a designated end point to this journey. It was hard to admit that at first, I felt like I was betraying my homebirth roots. But I was just so ready for the next stage. This was my first pregnancy to carry full term, but it was my second pregnancy in a year, so I had been navigating a pregnant body for almost 13 months.

With my final few pregnant days before me, both Shar and Carol agreed that the only method I hadn’t tried for inducing labor naturally was castor oil. I’ve heard many stories about taking castor oil, both with positive and negative outcomes, so I knew there was no guarantee it would work. The only guarantee was that I would spend the day in the bathroom. Michael and I got the supplies the day before so that I could take the first dose early on Sunday morning. One 6oz bottle of Rite Aides finest castor oil and one large bottle of OJ, a lot of coconut water to stay hydrated, and toilet paper – lots of it.

I woke up early on Sunday, had a couple of eggs to line my stomach and mixed up the first concoction. Equal parts castor oil and OJ, it wasn’t as bad as I had anticipated. We relaxed at home as my body did its thing. Just after lunch I took the second dose and while things most certainly got more serious in the bathroom, I had no signs of going into labor. I’m not going to lie; it was a pretty awful day. That amount of castor oil causes extreme cramping and diarrhea. I did my best to stay rested and hydrated, but it was rough. When, at around 5pm, it started to wear off I was relieved and disappointed. I felt no closer to being in labor than I did that morning. Checking back in with Carol, we decided that I should get some rest and go for another BPP scan and nonstress test in the morning to see how our little guy was fairing. I was starting to resign myself to the idea that we would end up at Woodhull on Wednesday morning.

 

Around 7pm I started to cramp again. Exhausted and emotionally spent, I lay on the couch wishing for this day to be over, when suddenly the cramps had me on my feet and doubled over. I yelled out to Michael who was in the kitchen cooking dinner. Concerned at how much pain I was suddenly in, it didn’t occur to me that I was in labor at all. Everyone talks about the beginning, or early labor, as being a time to relax and rest, I expected waves of contractions that I could talk and breathe through. Spaced far enough apart so that we could set the room and birthing pool. Michael had even planned to bake a birthday cake for our boy. Instead I found myself either pacing the length of the house unable to think clearly or talk or doubled over the kitchen sink trying to throw up. Michael called Carol, but the pain had no pattern, it was just constant pain, maybe just a side effect of taking the castor oil? Carol said to try to breathe and relax and to call her back if it shifted into a distinguishable pattern.

Honestly, I had had the wind knocked out of me. I couldn’t think straight. I was panicked and shocked at how much pain I was in all of a sudden. But as I paced backwards and forwards for the next 20 minutes I did my best to focus on the sensations while Michael followed me around with a pen and paper. All I could say was “Now” and “It’s stopped”. There was a pattern; it was just coming so damn fast it was almost indistinguishable. I was having intense 30-second contractions averaging no more than a minute apart. Michael spoke to Carol again; she had him follow me around with her on speakerphone while she listened to me groan and sob and then said she was on her way over and to call our doula Lindsay. I was scared. Scared that this was that stage of early labor everyone had talked of being a time to rest, when we had planned to blow up the birth pool and bake a cake. I was scared that I couldn’t handle it, that I wasn’t strong enough. I didn’t feel calm and capable. I felt weak and overwhelmed. Every one of my senses was heightened; Michael was frantically opening the windows because I suddenly couldn’t stand the smell of the dinner he had been cooking us.

When Carol arrived and checked me I was still only 3cm dilated, but 80% effaced. This was active labor. I had bypassed the other stage. I lay on the couch clutching a hot water bottle in semi darkness. As each wave rolled through, my body twisted, strained and then released. Occasionally I would open one eye and see Michael and Lindsay working to fill the birth pool, they fed me sips of water after each contraction, but I was drifting in and out of myself and time was of little consequence.

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Getting into the pool for the first time was heavenly. Relief is an understatement, there’s a reason its referred to as the Midwives epidural. As Michael and Lindsay helped me get comfortable I sunk deep into myself. From that moment on my body took over, I was simultaneously deeply grounded and outside of myself. I don’t believe that I opened my eyes again until my son was in my arms. While Michael and Lindsay sat next to the pool, no one spoke, they seemed to know I needed them close but silent. With cold cloths draped across my eyes and the occasional hand placed on my shoulder, I traveled to a far-off ancient place. As the waves rolled through me I let my body feel weightlessness, low earthly sounds came out of my gut and at some point, feeling the urge to push, I flipped over to my hands and knees. Everything felt intuitive. Something else was in control now. I have a vague memory of Shar arriving, my eyes still tightly closed. Still no one talked. When the urge to push became too strong to ignore and the intense feeling of another body traveling through mine felt too much to bare, I called out for help. Shar replied, “You are doing everything right.”

In that moment it was so overwhelming that I considered my options. I had not chosen to have a code word, should I want to stop this home birth. But I clearly remember running through that process in my head and thinking the idea of getting out of the pool, dressed, and into a car to travel to a hospital at this point sounded absurd. It had been 6 short hours since this labor had begun, and the only way was through.

The people surrounding me that night allowed me the space to stand in my own power. They stood next to me, doing nothing, and everything, while I faced myself.

The rest of this story I write to my son…

Dear Arlo,

What a week.

When I felt you come through me I thought I was going to die, or at least break open. In a way I suppose I did both of those things. See Your Birth story is also My Birth story; as I roared you forth under the Full Pink Moon, I too was (re)born, as a mother and as a woman of immense power. I can’t thank you enough for that.

As you made your way through my pelvic bones, pausing to rest at each roadblock of bone and muscle, we talked…

“My boy”, I said, “I don’t know if I have the strength to do this…” And you replied,

“Here, let me help you.” as you rotated your fragile head just enough to traverse the bone.

In that moment I felt relief and wonder, and I thanked you.

Then when your shoulders came up against my hard bones, we talked again.

“My boy”, I said, “I think I might die if this goes on, is there any other way?”

And you replied,

“No. The only way is through. But don’t worry, you won’t die, you will just break open, so I can come through and heal you.”

As my skin stretched and tore I trusted you. When your beautiful head crowned and pushed its way past the threshold of my body, I trusted you. We paused as you sat deep underwater, between two worlds. That last push to free your shoulders from my body’s grasp required every ounce of strength I had left. And when your body slid out of me I felt every piece of you; the length of your arms and small fingers, the girth of your torso, your long legs and tiny feet, and lastly, the umbilical cord pulling tight inside of me as our midwife Shar guided you to the surface and into my arms.

Arlo Tangaroa Swan, ‘Our Birth’ was a perfect collaboration, and in six short days on the outside of me, you have healed me in ways I could never have imagined. You have been true to your word. I am filled with love.

Yours always, Mum xox

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