Friday night when I thought I was going to be so clever and go to bed for some much-needed rest before the big contractions began, my body had other much bigger plans. Almost as soon as I laid down, I started feeling those radiating menstrual cramps in my back, and they were immediately strong enough to wake me as I would be dozing off. I started timing them and they were coming roughly 10 minutes apart. Ray came to bed — he was trying to rest up for the MPRE in the morning — and it got to the point where I couldn’t lie and deal with the waves without being vocal and needing to move around. So I got out of bed around midnight and came into the living room and — although I didn’t know it at the time — went into full-blown labor.
I still couldn’t quite believe I was in actual labor; labor denial is a powerful and very real thing. I kind of assumed my body was just warming up and these pains were back labor of sorts because the baby was posterior and trying to move, and that I’d have at least another day of that kind of pain. Thinking that thought had me concerned that I wasn’t going to be able to hack it. In reality, I was probably zooming from 1 to 7 centimeters. I used controlled breathing and motion techniques — all fours leaning against a birthing ball, making circular hip motions on a birthing ball, walking, leaning against the couch and rocking my pelvis — to deal with the contractions for several hours. They quickly became difficult to deal with without vocalizing in some way, and I was worried about waking Ray because I was getting louder and louder with each one. I was still kind of delusionally thinking that he would be able to go take his test and then come home and I would magically go into REAL labor and bam we’d have a baby. Ha.
I got a little freaked out when the contractions got to be between five and seven minutes apart each time, because all the books and classes tell you that five minutes apart is when you head to the hospital or settle in at home. Five minutes apart is when Shit Gets Real. And there I was at 3 a.m., alone and trying to be quiet in the living room with Shit apparently Getting Real. Also, I had started bleeding quite a bit, and became a bit worried that something was wrong because I wasn’t quite sure what “bloody show” entailed, exactly. I started thinking of calling my midwife, Amy, but I felt so terrible to call and wake her up in the middle of the night. I’m an idiot, I know.
But I relented and called anyway. I told her the latest developments and she asked if I’d like her to come check me. I balked because I STILL was not convinced that things were progressing at the clip they actually were. I was 100 percent convinced that I was in for a 24-hour labor and I wasn’t about to have my midwife come three hours in. So we agreed to have me call her back in an hour if the contractions got closer together. That next hour was pretty intense. I watched the clock and timed every contraction and moaned my way through every tightening. The contractions had progressed to every two to three minutes. I couldn’t find a good position to get into through them and the throbbing, radiating pain in my lower back was walloping my confidence. I imagined giving in and going to the hospital because I thought there was no way I would be able to handle actual labor if this was just early labor. I decided I couldn’t do it alone. I called Amy back after the hour was up and told her it was time for her to come over. She asked if we had filled up the birth pool yet. Ha, we hadn’t even set it up yet. We got off the phone and I went into the bedroom and woke Ray up and told him I needed his help and that Amy was coming. And that we had to set up the pool ASAP. He groggily got up and I helped drag the pool supplies into the dining room. I was pretty useless at that point and I dropped to my knees and weathered the contractions that way, with Ray providing some hip compression that helped so, so much. He would run to me during a contraction and then run back to the pool and pump while I rested, only to run right back to me as soon as I’d start my moaning.
Amy arrived as I was on the floor and she got her stuff inside. I am sort of foggy on details at this point because I spent a lot of time with my face mushed into the birth ball and my eyes closed. We got situated and went to the bedroom so she could check me. I was absolutely floored when she announced I was a 7, even though I still had some effacement to go. I asked if I could finally get into the pool and she gave me the go-ahead. I realized I hadn’t yet decided what I would wear in the pool — I wasn’t too thrilled about getting in there naked — so I put on a bathing suit top realized it was too tight, and ended up rummaging through my closet between contractions in search of my black tank top. Yes, there were wardrobe changes during my labor. This is what happens when your baby comes early and you haven’t hammered out the small details yet.
So into the pool I went. And it felt GREAT. Ray sidled up behind me in a chair and would talk me through every contraction, holding on to me and letting me squeeze the hell out of his flesh. Being kind of floaty was a relief in some ways but also disorienting in others because I really had no way of anchoring myself. I worked my way through contractions as best I could while Amy and Astrid, the backup midwife who had arrived after I got in the pool, sat in the living room. I had been listening to a Pinback mix on low volume as sort of a steady, soothing soundtrack, and when it stopped, I told them they could just close the laptop. But then one contraction against a backdrop of silence and I was desperate for some sound. I had Ray put the TV on the soul music channel, because that’s just what you do. I weathered more contractions and sipped water and Gatorade between them. At one point during a particularly productive contraction, I yelled, “I think I’m feeling pushy!” as Amy had left the room. She darted back in and we talked about the pushing urge. It was nuts. They aren’t kidding when they say you can’t help it. My urges started slightly, at the tail end of some contractions. I would be moaning and it would just sort of turn into a grunt and I would bear down without even trying. But I wasn’t sure if I was allowed to push yet. So Amy decided to check me. She said I had a little bit of a cervical lip but it was stretchy so I could make those little pushes here and there and be fine, as long as I didn’t just bear down and push with all my might. So I let myself have the little pushes here and there. They were difficult and they felt like my insides were trying to press diamonds. I don’t know if that makes sense unless you’ve felt that urge yourself.
I asked if that meant I had already gone through transition. Amy said she didn’t put a lot of stock in the idea of transition since there’s often no real line of demarcation for it. The important thing was that I could push if I felt the urge, which meant I had entered the big show. That made me feel pretty good mentally; transition is this big scary thing people talk about as being where The Wall crops up, making it seem impossible to continue. Apparently I had already scaled that wall. Awesome.
Meanwhile during all this, the pool had gone from lovely clear water to a dingy, earthy color with floating blood clots in it. Delicious. The midwives would occasionally skim out the solid bits (one of which my mother found outside when she was looking at my flower bed the next day, ha). I started to really get tired and the sun had come up by then. Amy made coffee and accidentally poured egg nog in hers instead of milk. I laughed at that. My legs were beginning to twitch involuntarily between contractions from fatigue. My hair was matted and Ray pulled it into a ponytail for me.
I had always heard that there comes a point in labor when you think you can’t do it anymore, when you want to cry uncle and just stop. I think in a home birth, that point is quickly followed by the realization that if you want anything to change, you are going to have to get out of the pool (if you’re in one) and get dressed and into a car, then ride to the hospital, check in, get settled, and then go about the business of getting the baby out. Except you have to do all that during these intense contractions that feel like your insides are fusing together and trying to get out of you with little licks of fire. So you have to sort of accept that the only way out of the situation is through it. Plow through the pain.
Things more or less continued in that fashion for a while until I decided I would get on my hands and knees. I was feeling pushier and pushier and sometimes the pushing was such a huge relief because it would seem to make the contraction end faster. Amy said I was moving the baby down gently and gradually with the little pushes, which is ideal. I draped my arms over the side of the pool and threw caution and modesty to the wind and shoved my butt out and pushed and screamed and cussed every few minutes. The midwives told me to try not and vocalize as much because I was using up so much energy grunting that would be better directed toward the actual pushing. I took that to heart and tried to start every pushing contraction quietly, but most ended up with a big grunting groan of a finale.
Holden made his way down slowly and Amy told me she could see my rectum bulging (there’s a sentence I never thought I’d be so happy to hear), which meant he was close to crowning. At this point, every contraction felt exactly like I had to push the biggest poop ever out of me, and I wasn’t sure if I actually did have to do that or if that was just the feeling of the baby moving down. But I decided that either way, I was going to push into that feeling and whatever came out of me would just have to come out of me.
Crowning was intense. He would get just to the surface and the contraction would end and I would be exhausted and need to rest, and I’d feel him inch back up inside a bit. Two steps forward, one step back. I pushed harder than I have ever done anything in my life to get him out, and he crowned to about his eyebrows before the contraction ended and I stopped pushing. Yes, it burned. He slid back in a bit as I waited for the next contraction. I pushed harder still and got his head out, the whole time wondering if I was tearing or staying intact. The ring of fire they talk about is real and intense, and probably the worst part was feeling that contraction end and having to rest there with his head out — talk about a serious, burny pain — until the next contraction kicked in. It was the first and only contraction I actually looked forward to. When it finally came, I didn’t even wait for it to peak before pushing with every shaky ounce of energy I had left. “Reach around and touch your baby!” Amy said, to which I replied, “NOPE!” with my face smooshed into the side of the pool. Reaching around would have required moving and I was more interested in not doing anything but getting him out. The contraction came and then floop! He was out and Amy (I think) scooped him up and maneuvered him and the cord around and I sat down and Holden appeared there on my chest, purple-pink but crying and getting pinker by the second. He was slippery and heavy in my fatigued arms but all I felt was overwhelming relief — relief that it was over, relief that he was here, relief at the sudden absence of pain and discomfort, relief at the gurgling sounds of Holden’s cries. Just a flood of honest-to-God euphoria, just like the textbooks say.
They draped towels over his little body and we were told to keep sprinkling warm water onto the towels to keep him warm. He had so much hair, I couldn’t believe it. Amy went about doing her checks and making sure his vitals were good. His APGARS were 9/9 because his little feet stayed blue a little longer than the rest of him, but that’s pretty normal for water births. He was so talkative and gurgly, just crying and fussing and talking to us in his little otherworldly language.
We waited for the placenta to pass, and it only took a few minutes with a gentle push and a little cord traction. That was a weird sensation but paled in comparison to everything that had come out before it because, as the saying goes, at least placentas have no bones. The midwives bundled Holden up and gave him to Ray to keep warm while they helped me out of the pool and into the bedroom, where they laid me on the bed, which was sporting clean sheets Astrid had just put on. They brought the baby to me and placed him on my chest, skin to skin, and we snuggled up and got to know each other. We tried to nurse but he wasn’t too interested and I was so bewildered by everything that I’m sure I wasn’t the greatest guide for him either. Amy checked my bleeding to make sure it was normal, and examined me for tears and whatnot (I only had a small internal one that required no stitching). Everything seemed to check out OK so they let us have some family time while they went and made us a breakfast of scrambled eggs and bagels and brought it to us in bed. I was famished (the whole eating during labor thing was not my bag but I enjoyed having the option, and I did swill plenty of Gatorade between contractions) and ate and phoned my parents while the midwives began their exams on Holden. He weighed in at 7 pounds, 8 ounces — wayyyy smaller than I ever imagined! — and 19.75 inches long.
I had originally told my mom I’d let her know when I started laboring pretty hard so that she could head to Memphis, but at 3 a.m. that was the last thing on my mind. I got my dad on the phone at around 10. Holden had been born at 8:34, just an hour and a half earlier. Dad picked up and I think he asked me if I was in labor. I was all, “He’s here!” and we got weepy as he asked me his grandson’s name and told my mom. I talked to her for a while and explained to them what had happened and how quickly it all had gone. I never expected an eight-hour labor, much less one that came a week early. I knew these hips had to be good for more than just making it annoying to shop for pants.
We got back to snuggling and Amy came over to go over some things with me. Ray was snoozing and snoring a bit as I listened to her checklist of things to watch for in me and the baby — fever, odd breathing behavior, excessive bleeding, etc. — and it quickly set in that the midwives were about to leave and we were about to start caring for a baby on our own, with absolutely no freaking clue what we were doing. We thanked them both profusely and they let themselves out and there we were with our new little baby snuggled in my arms.
The whole experience is exactly what I had in mind when I decided on home birth all those months ago. I had talked to lots of people and read and watched so much and decided that the midwifery model of care is so special, so empowering, that I knew it was what I wanted as long as I was healthy enough to try for it. That doesn’t mean that it was all beauty and candles and patchouli and self-affirmations. It was hard and it hurt and I doubted myself and the very fabric of nature at some points. I whined and moaned and woe-is-me’d my way through much of it, but I made it through because I had wonderful people around me helping me, encouraging me, feeding me strength at every wall I hit. Granted, I might not have felt so positive about the experience had it lasted much longer — an eight-hour labor is so ridiculously short for a first-timer that I almost feel like it doesn’t even count — but I know without question that having Holden at home was a good call. I am so grateful that there were no complications and that he and I were both healthy so that we were able to have this experience.
I would not change a thing about it.
Here’s a slideshow of photos. The birth pictures were taken by Astrid, who was such a sport when I said, between contractions, “Can someone take pictures when he comes out?” I told her where my camera was and she got on it immediately and took so many beautiful shots (including some of the aforementioned bulging rectum, oh yes, but I will spare you those). I am so grateful she was there to do that for us, as I hadn’t really planned very well for the photo situation since I knew Ray would be preoccupied with talking me down. I cherish these pictures so.