Birth: naturally at home

On Saturday, Mom was in a lot of discomfort. It felt like gas pain; pretty constant throughout the morning and afternoon. Dad went to run some errands—Home Depot, compost drop-off, food coop shop—and Mom was so distracted that it took her almost the whole time he was gone to come up with the grocery list. Mom and Dad did succeed in organizing our electronics bin that afternoon, though. In the evening, we walked slowly to dinner at Screamers Pizza with our friend Eric. Mom was feeling pretty good then—and ate everything—but by the time we got home, she had petered out and had to basically watch (instead of help) Dad organize all the baby clothes we had gotten from friends and put them away in your room.

On Sunday, Mom felt fine again, and after breakfast, she cooked a bunch of “Sally soup” (made with dried plants from her acupuncturist) for the freezer, as well as pasta and burritos made with Dad’s homemade vegan cheese for the week ahead. Dad installed the skylight window blind in your room and cleaned and caulked behind the dishwasher, which was a really disgusting and necessary job. Thank you, Dad.

On Monday morning, Mom’s discomfort was back, though not as bad, and Dad texted the doulas. Mom thought the discomfort was just regular late pregnancy stuff, but Dad thought maybe early contractions. The doulas said it could be either, but since there was no sense of a pattern to them, they thought it must be the former. Mom went to a yoga class where the stretching felt good. The class was small, maybe eight people, and almost everyone was 37+ weeks along. When they went around the room to each share something, Mom was up first and—instead of talking about her discomfort—asked if others were also on the “two speeds of pee” pattern lately: either “regular” or “slow trickle ending in only slight sense of relief.” The instructor commented on the special vibe in our particular class and ended it with a brief visualization of the golden thread that connected all our wombs. Mom couldn’t get into that visual 100%, but liked most of the other women in the class, and so was happy to exchange phone numbers with them at the end. Then she went to the post office to mail all the long hair she had just had cut off to Locks of Love. Then she went home and finished what would be the very last of her freelance writing gigs before you were born (copyediting a long interview about community colleges). By evening, Mom was again feeling a lot of discomfort: like a body-wide gas pain that wouldn’t let up, even after multiple poops.

Between 10:00 and 11:00 pm, Mom finished an email she had been writing to Dad’s mom (by the end, she was on her hands and knees on the couch with the laptop in front of her—maybe that should have been a clue??), and went to bed. But she just couldn’t get comfortable, and couldn’t fall asleep. Around 1:00 am, Dad roused just before she got up to take another unsatisfying trip to the bathroom. He saw that she was on her hands and knees in bed, rocking forward and backward. When she got back in bed, she laid down on her right side and heard/felt a pop in her lower center, then a gush of fluid. Her water had broken!! She woke Dad up for real.

She texted doulas Chloe and Tymaree while Dad looked up the emergency number to call Carol and Shar at MCNYC. He called several times and left a couple of messages before someone called him back. He and Mom hadn’t told them about all the discomfort, so they were not at all expecting us. Chloe looped MCNYC birth assistant Hannah in and within a few minutes Dad was communicating with them all himself, because Mom’s contractions had begun, fast and furious. She heard him tell Shar that her water had broken and then the contractions had started coming two minutes apart. (He would say later that Shar’s response to that was: “Interesting.”) Everyone got on their way over to the house, and Mom commenced to squeezing Dad’s hand hard with every contraction. It was pretty dark in the bedroom. Dad said later that he saw a huge cockroach scurry across the floor and tried to discreetly squish it, but it ran under the radiator. He said he didn’t want to tell Mom about it at the time. Good call, Dad.

I remember not wanting Dad to leave the room to fill up the bathtub for me or to unlock the front doors for the birth team, but he found a couple of good moments to do so, which of course was important. I just felt alone in those moments when the pain would swell up—not unsafe, exactly, or abandoned or lonely, because I knew Dad was there and I knew we would all be fine, but I guess just because you can only feel pain by yourself, and so when pain is so intense, the feeling of aloneness can also become more intense. I guess I was also scared by all the new sensations I’d never felt before, and so just wanted Dad there. It was a little different from scared feelings I’d had before—like being the passenger of a reckless driver. It felt like a more primal, child-like version of scared that is just in the moment: it’s not about anticipation of something going bad—it’s real-time fear. I remember starting to make noises at this point, although Dad would remember better. Grunting noises and high-pitched noises and moans. It’s hard to describe contractions. Waves of pain? Tymaree and/or Shar told me later that fast births can be more difficult in a way—even traumatic for some people—because you don’t have time to get “on top of” them. The experience happens more like a flash than a swell, so it can just blindside you. I will say that I think my existing habits and personality traits served me well (narrating, unclenching, remembering there will be an end, asking what I can do to improve, etc), but that relatively little I had learned recently (like in birth class) came readily to mind. Like, I wasn’t able to connect the notion of the baby “moving down” with what I was feeling—which, to be honest, was just a tremendous downward pressure on my butt. Like I was trying to push out a 10-lb bag of tar.

I think Chloe arrived first, then Shar, then Hannah. I asked Chloe at one point, “How do people DO this?” She chuckled lightly and said, “Pretty much like this,” a response I both loved and found super irritating. She asked Arthur if he wanted to help her fill up the pool, and Shar said something like, “Cancel the pool. She’s plus-two,” meaning I guess that I was two centimeters dilated, or had reached the second stage of labor? In any case, Chloe was like, “Ah, okay. Wow.” Shar pulled on her rubber gloves.

During active labor, as a lot of people say, my sense of chronology got blurry. I largely remember phases like sitting on the wooden birth stool, looking in front of me at the circle made by Arthur behind me on my left, sitting on or standing by the bed, letting me squeeze his hands; Hannah at 10 o’clock; Shar at midnight; Chloe at about 3:00 (I was squeezing her hands, too). I felt too much pressure on the birth stool; I remember the backs of my thighs going numb. I got back on the bed, ironically preferring the hospital-style on-my-back position with my ankles up on two people’s shoulders. I remember calling out for ice packs, my lower back hurting relentlessly with contractions. My eyes were closed so much of the time; when they were open, so much of what I remember is in shadow. It seems like primitive candlelight now. Tymaree asked me later if I threw up during labor; I said no, there was no time. I got the feeling she thought that was kind of unusual.

I see the birth now as having two dimensions: one, the contextual experience of being at home with a loving crew (I remember saying with gratitude and desperation, “I love you, Chloe!”) and having the best care and nothing go wrong and doing it as naturally as possible and on our own terms with zero complications and minimal damage. No tearing, just a couple patches of, what did they call it? rugburn? up at the top. Shar had instructed me so well on when NOT to push so much; when to be GENTLE—when Ivy’s head was crowning, I think, so I didn’t tear. Chloe had been great at telling me when to push—even though I didn’t get it bodily for a while, just mentally, that to make the damn pressure go away, the thing to do was not try to back away from it, but push toward it. “How’s that supposed to work?!” I remember wailing. But of course she was right. Telling me when to breathe in a second time and use the rest of the contraction to push; telling me when to let one go because it was starting to be over and I should rest. Learning to work with the system; there really are those waves they talked about in class, but it was hard to learn in the moment. Like learning a new dance: you just have to practice it until it clicks. It got much better—felt satisfying, even, once I got the hang of it. Which was very near the end, I think, haha! Oh lord. I remember feeling proud when I would do something like breathe out with horse lips or push in a good way and Shar would say, “Beautiful.”

Crowning, I really did feel the ring of fire. Burning, burning, burning, peak of burning (and the rugburn, I guess), then slowly better and better as I adjusted to having just the baby’s neck width in the opening. The moment Shar said she really wanted to use my birth video for (“Why wait for the next contraction” was the title suggested by Chloe) was when Ivy’s head was out, but I was resting at my own request. No one was screaming at me to keep pushing, and they let the baby rotate her head on her own. I think she emerged ROA, her shoulder or elbow popping out as the final big surprise sensation I felt. Hannah caught you while Shar recorded everything.

Also I had the sense of feeling like a baby myself. Dropping down into a dark and near-senseless identity where I was not necessarily in danger, but wordless and helpless; undeveloped and alone. Maybe this is the way nature designs the experience so we have more empathy for our babies. Wondering now if maybe I was revisiting my own birth experience with my mom: she said she recalls a sense of just letting go and letting god, so to speak. Surrender.

Then the birth team flew the baby up to my chest like an incoming plane. The umbilical cord, obviously still attached, pulled on my insides from time to time. We held you, Ivy, while the team assessed your breathing, wiped you off, whatever they were doing. After a couple of minutes, I guess, I thought to ask: “Is it a boy or a girl?” I looked around and saw faint smiles and shrugs: no one had noticed or checked. (I think this illustrates gender equality progress in our time!!) They held up your legs so Arthur could see, and he said, “Looks like a girl to me!” This was a shock, because we all—for reasons more and less explainable—had settled on the idea that you were a boy. Not the birth team, but me, my acupuncturist, Arthur’s mom and cousin… everyone except my dentist (who said he could tell by the color of my skin that it was a girl) and a possibly homeless guy I talked to on the street in Bed-Stuy. I found myself feeling pretty thrilled. I kind of couldn’t get over it. It seemed to change everything, in a way.

Shar blew a few breaths into your lungs when you kept wheezing. You pinked right up and breathed clearer. She explained later that if I’d been in the hospital, you would have been suctioned, which is not only really unpleasant for everyone, but the way it works is actually physically counterproductive. Another strike against unnecessary hospitalization for birth!!! Eventually, Shar also gave me a few under-the-tongue pellets of a homeopathic medication to help expel my placenta, which kept hanging on, maybe for 20 or 30 minutes without budging. Arthur cut the cord! (He said on the phone to a friend about it later: “Symbolically it was really cool, but in reality it was just like cutting something with a pair of scissors.”)

The team all stuck around while we ooh’ed and ahh’ed over you. Chloe made us a smoothie when I didn’t want solid food and was even thoughtful enough to ask Arthur if yogurt in it was okay (he’s vegan, but said yes). Your little fingernails were curled over 90 degrees onto your little fingertips. In the days ahead, this crease would act like a perforation, and make the soft little nail tips easy to peel off. That was wondrous surprise number approximately 1,538 in the first 24 hours of your birth. You were, you are, just a miracle in so many ways. Where did you come from? Your full head of dark hair, your big deep dark eyes, your golden pink skin. We love you and accept you endlessly, but we both had, and have, the sensation that you just floated in on a cloud, or flowed in on an ice floe. You are not ours, exactly, but decided to come and live with us. Well, welcome home, little girl.

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