By the time week 39 rolled around, I was done being pregnant. Swollen, tired, and feeling more immobile by the day, I couldn’t wait for labor to begin. My hour commute to work was getting harder and harder, even though at that stage I was offered a seat on the subway 99.9% of the time, and I was growing more and more excited to meet Poppy. As I geared up for her arrival, I was also emotionally distracted from pretty much anything that didn’t directly involve my pregnancy, so it was becoming more and more difficult to concentrate at work. On Friday, October 16 (38w 6d), I tried to get things in order at work the best I could – “just in case” – and set off for a final happy hour with some coworkers, assuming I’d be back as usual on Monday.
I spent the rest of the weekend joking with folks about not wanting to go back to work on Monday. I told friends I was going to go home, order some spicy takeout, go for a lot of long, uphill walks, and have lots of sex. I also talked to my belly a lot, hoping she would hear me and comply with my desires. “C’mon, little Poppy! Make mama’s dreams come true and get this show started before Monday at 8, wouldya?” Tony and I spent a lot of time that weekend getting ready for her arrival and finishing up some last-minute projects around the apartment, and on Sunday afternoon, tried the sex thing, never actually believing it might help. After all, the baby would start labor whenever she was ready, right?
That night (Sunday-Monday), I started having really mild contractions. Every time I got up to pee – which was even more often than usual, if you can believe that – I noticed mild menstrual-like cramps in my lower abdomen. Not having experienced Braxton-Hicks contractions yet, I assumed this is what they were. It was hard to tell whether they were consistent overnight because I was able to sleep through them without a problem, so I tried not to worry about them and got as much rest as possible.
On Monday morning (39w 2d), I woke up earlier than usual and felt more contractions, so I decided to get up. Our friend, Caroline, had spent the night the night before and I knew three of us would be battling for shower/bathroom time before work so I figured a head start couldn’t hurt. From 6:30 to 8 a.m., the contractions continued and Tony decided to start timing them. We were surprised to see they were coming at fairly consistent 10-12 minute intervals, so I sent my boss an email, told him I was having contractions – though I was sure they were nothing but Braxton-Hicks – and would probably head to work an hour or two late, once they tapered off.
Around 8 a.m., Caroline headed off to work. A member of our birth team (hereafter known as Team Poppy), she is a student midwife at Yale and works at a clinic in Brooklyn on Mondays, so it was nice to have her already in town in case this turned out to be the “real thing.” She promised to stay in touch throughout the day and headed off.
Tony and I spent the next couple of hours at home, timing contractions but still hesitant to believe this was really labor. Tony got out his work computer and got a couple of things done, while I wandered around waiting for the next contraction to hit and drinking lots of water, having read online that dehydration can cause Braxton-Hicks. No matter how much water I drank, however, the contractions remained regular, though manageable. I would get up when I felt one coming on, lean over a kitchen chair, and sway my hips back and forth until it was over. I continued to send periodic emails to work letting them know how things were going. At 10 a.m. I was still convinced they were just B-H and insisted I’d only be out for the morning, but by noon, I sent a note saying I’d be out all day (though still not formally conceding that I was, in fact, in labor). We also kept our friend (and my coworker), Suzanne, up to speed on our progress, as she hoped to attend the birth as well. And we rang our parents to let them know that maybe (maybe!) we were in labor.
Not long after, I got a call from my midwife’s office regarding a prenatal appointment rescheduling in a week or two. I called back to let them know I probably wouldn’t be needing the appointment as I thought I might be in labor. Our midwife’s assistant told us that Joan was currently wrapping up another birth, but to keep them posted on our progress. A little while later, Joan rang us to see how things were going. We told her how long the contractions had been going and at what consistency, and she asked us to continue to keep her updated. She had just finished a birth a couple of hours before and hoped to get a couple of hours of sleep before pulling a second all-nighter with us. It was at this point that I asked, “Is it really safe to assume I’m in labor? I mean, is this the real thing? Because we’re still totally in denial.” She laughed and responded, “I’m pretty sure you’re going to have a baby today.”
For the rest of the afternoon, T and I continued to work through contractions. At some point, the intervals started to close a bit and we were looking at 7-9 minute consistency. We talked about going for a walk around the neighborhood to see if we could give things a kick start. When we had imagined early labor during the pregnancy, we always pictured ourselves strolling through the Slope, maybe heading over to the park for a while, and the day was perfect for it. Unfortunately, by the time we got going around 5 p.m., contractions were solidly 7 minutes apart and I was afraid to stroll too far from a bathroom as the baby was putting crazy pressure on my bladder with every contraction.
We ended up going out and strolling up and down 5th Avenue a bit. In the 8 to 10 blocks up, I think we stopped at three different places so I could use the bathroom and paused on the sidewalk numerous times so that I could stop and breathe through a contraction. It was ridiculous. We also stopped at one of our favorite sandwich shops to get a fruit smoothie and at a local bakery to buy a birthday cake for Poppy. While at the sandwich shop, I had to step outside to their patio a time or two to work through a contraction, and while at the bakery, I did the same thing. When I asked for the restroom at the bakery, however, the guy behind the counter (who we believe is also the owner), looked a bit startled and asked Tony, “Your wife isn’t going to go into labor right now, is she?” to which Tony replied, “Actually, she’s in labor right now. We’re just out for a stroll to see if we can get things moving. This cake is our baby’s birthday cake!” The guy looked surprised, slammed his hand against the counter, and yelled, “All right! Congratulations!” Tony said it was hilarious.
After the stop at the bakery, we quickly made our way home. We weren’t sure whether the walk had done harm or helped as the contractions got a little sporadic while we were out, but when we got home and resettled, things seemed to pick up a bit. It was probably about 5:30 at this time, and not long after, we got a call from Caroline. We told her that we were definitely in labor, so she promised to come after work rather than head back to New Haven. We also touched base with Suzanne and, believing we had several hours to go before active labor really hit, told her she had time to go home, grab dinner, and get ready for a long night before heading out to our place in Brooklyn.
When Caroline arrived around 6, things were progressing well. While the intensity hadn’t picked up just yet, the intervals continued to shorten and it seemed like the walk had ultimately done us some good. I asked Tony and Caroline to consider getting the birth pool ready so that I wouldn’t have to wait for the set-up when the time came to get in. While they laid the tarps and started to inflate the pool, I continued wandering around the apartment and getting hit by contractions, when suddenly, the urge to get in the water hit me pretty hard. The pool wasn’t quite ready yet, and I was hesitant to get in too early for fear of slowing labor, but thought I would try a brief dip in the bathtub and see how that went.
Getting into the tub turned out to the best thing ever. I was surprised at how good the warm water felt and the only bad thing was that my massive body wouldn’t all fit underwater at the same time. I laid on my back in the tub and when the contractions hit, I pushed my legs against the end of the tub and sort of rhythmically swished myself up and down throughout. It was at this point that I also started vocalizing more, breathing and moaning, and Caroline and Tony recognized that active labor was on its way soon. Tony left the bathroom to go finish preparing the pool and Caroline stayed with me, helping me through contractions and using a big plastic cup to pour warm water over the parts of me not underwater.
When the pool was ready, I made the transfer directly from the bathtub. I didn’t know how I’d react to water during labor – or, really, how I’d react to anything – but water was definitely working. It just felt really good to be buoyant after so many months of involuntarily grunting every time I had to lug my massive body around somewhere.
Once I was in the birth pool, my timeline goes all to hell. The water was deep and warm and the pool walls really supportive, which was great as I was able to get up on my knees and lean against it with all of my weight during contractions. Tony took over from Caroline and during contractions, when I got up on my knees and leaned against the side of the pool, he leaned in close to me and used the plastic cup to pour warm water down over my back. Fortunately, the water seemed to help things progress rather than stall out, and the more time I spent in the pool, the more intense contractions got. The intervals didn’t get too much smaller, staying several minutes apart, which sort of threw us for a loop. We touched base with Joan a time or two, letting her know how far apart they were and how I was feeling, and each time we talked to her she gave us another milestone to hit before ringing her back again.
Around 10:30 p.m., Suzanne arrived. Unlike Caroline, who had been there since early labor, Suz walked into full on active labor with no transition to ease her into the situation. I thought I might care about a coworker/friend walking in to find me naked and hollering in a blow-up pool in my living room, but at that point I was so far gone, I wouldn’t have cared if a marching band came blowing through. Fortunately, Suz said hello and jumped right in without a second thought, helping out wherever she could and taking lots of photos to help us document the experience.
Eventually, contractions really intensified even though the intervals were still at 4 and 5 minutes apart. When this happened, I asked Tony to please call Joan and ask her to come now. I’d been in labor a long time and felt we were hitting the hard parts and I wanted her to check Poppy’s heart rate with the Doppler. Someone made the call (Tony? Caroline? Suzanne?) and seemingly within minutes, Joan was there. Her assistant, Jamie, arrived shortly after and the two of them were all business. I remember them asking where a couple of things were and I was able to think and yell out answers between contractions. As soon as they were set up, Joan came to the pool and pressed the Doppler against my belly. Fortunately, Poppy’s strong little heartbeat sounded back. After the next contraction ended, Joan asked if she could do an internal exam to check my progress and everyone was pleasantly surprised when she yelled out “8 centimeters!” Oddly, this news didn’t make me happy like I thought it would. Not that I expected to be further along, but this was the first concrete number I’d been given on my “progress” at any point during either the pregnancy or labor and it just felt so… technical.
As the next contraction hit me, however, I pretty much stopped caring about dilation. At this point, the contractions were long and really hard, though I maintained comfortable breaks in between them still. During contractions I was LOUD. I found vocalizing to be amazingly helpful and didn’t give a damn who heard me. Tony stayed close by, leaning in and pressing his head against mine during the hardest parts. Either he or Caroline continued to pour warm water over my back at the same time. I remained in a semi-squat, hanging over the side of the pool, and holding on to his thighs during contractions, but let myself sort of roll/fall over onto my side during the breaks. I tried getting through a contraction or two in this side-lie position, but as soon as the contraction really started to get intense, I had this almost involuntary reflex that made me get back into the semi-squat to cope.
When I hit transition, I was miserable. I longed for the breaks to stretch out longer and dreaded the build-up of the next contraction. It was only during this time that I wasn’t able to relax in the rests between. Up until that point, I’d managed to pull myself back into the here and now and crack jokes and feel somewhat normal, but no longer. At the peaks, my vocalizing took a turn into the upper registers and a couple of times, my voice broke and I sobbed. Tony stayed close to me the entire time; I didn’t want him out of my sight or my reach. I never screamed the typical “I can’t do this!” line, though I do remember telling Tony that Poppy may be an only child at some point. And, at another point as I was coming off of a really hard contraction, T thought reminding me of my strength would be helpful, so he said something about me being a birth warrior and I responded, “Fu*k that shit!” Yeah, I’m nothing but class.
A few minutes later, as I was peaking on another contraction, T was talking me through it and said, “Just bear down, Jo! You can do this!” to which Joan responded, “No! Don’t bear down! We don’t know if you’re fully dilated!” Whoops. T hadn’t meant to tell me “Push!” – he meant “bear down” as… “you can do this!” and just chose his words poorly. But, coincidentally, “bear down” is exactly what I had to do at that moment. When I yelled this out (“No! I can’t help it! I have to push!”), Joan got us through that contraction, then insisted on one more internal exam to see if we were ready to head into second stage. To everyone’s surprise – and my immense relief – I was fully dilated and ready to go. Considering I was just 8 cm not all that long before, THIS was information I was glad to hear.
During the next contraction, I was blown away by the pushing reflex. And I call it a reflex because it was exactly that. I was amazed at how absolutely involuntary it felt. In fact, it kind of scared me. And it hurt. A lot. Just coming off of transition (the “hardest” part, as pretty much everyone will tell you), I felt lied to. I just kept thinking, “I thought transition was the scary part – WHY IS THIS SO HARD?!” I’ll admit that I tried resisting. I was having a hard time getting into it even though I knew, logically, that we were nearing the end and the quicker I got through this, the quicker it was all over. But, logic be damned, I was terrified of the sensations I was feeling and apparently my vocalizing made this clear, as my voice broke and basically turned into a high scream as each new contraction peaked. I was losing it.
Fortunately, Joan stepped in at this point and encouraged me to bring it down a notch. She told me that losing my focus and losing my concentration would just make it worse and to bring my voice down low and use it to help, not hurt, my efforts. Caroline also recommended that I push my chin against my chest to help center myself and keep my energy low in my body. I am so grateful for both pieces of advice because it was these two things that brought me to the place I needed to be. Instead of screeching and letting my voice break, I focused on bringing my voice low and grunting and keeping my body tight and pulled against itself – and it made all the difference in the world. Pushing still hurt and I certainly didn’t enjoy it, but suddenly it was productive, and that’s what mattered.
During the pushing stage, I largely got through contractions in the pool on all fours, rather than the semi-squat I’d used throughout first stage labor. I didn’t plan this, but just moved into this position instinctively every time I felt a new contraction creeping up. I was so tired between contractions that I again tried to get through one or two on my side, but it just wasn’t working. Joan and others offered to help me try and grabbed one leg to hold it up for me, but seconds into the contraction, I was kicking free and rolling over onto all fours as fast as I could. It was the only position that was working for me at that point, period.
Throughout all of this, Joan was regularly checking Poppy’s heart rate with the Doppler. And, for the most part, her heart rate was strong and right on target. A little while into pushing, however, Joan checked and Pop’s heart rate was lower than it should’ve been. We were all surprised when she asked me to roll over onto my back, stuck a finger inside me, and tickled the top of Poppy’s head. And we were all even more surprised when Poppy’s heart rate bounced right back up in response. I think that was the first time I’d laughed in an hour.
There was a moment a little while later when Joan got another heart rate reading she didn’t love, however, and asked me if I was willing to get out of the pool and onto dry land so we could finish this up and get the baby out. I was happy to do whatever Joan told me needed to be done, so when I hit the next rest period, everyone helped me lumber over the side of the pool and get down on all fours on the floor between the pool and the coffee table. Caroline knelt before me with a pillow in her lap and each time a contraction hit, I grabbed the sides of her legs, buried my head hard into the pillow, and pushed as hard and as long as I could. Tony stayed nearby, but behind me, as he wanted to catch Poppy on her way out. And Suz grabbed the video camera to catch what she could in the semi-darkness.
Eventually, the pushing was getting us somewhere and I was giving it my absolute all. Joan getting me out of the pool and insisting we get moving was all the motivation I needed to get my baby out safely and quickly. Several minutes further into it, I got even more motivation when Joan yelled, “We can see the head!” and someone else hollered, “Oh my god, look at all that HAIR!” Perhaps it’s superficial, but I was really hoping Poppy wasn’t bald, so this little piece of information just thrilled me like nothing else could’ve at that difficult moment. What I think was only another contraction or two and a couple of pushes later, Poppy’s head was out and her little body soon followed with Tony and Joan’s guidance. At this point, it is clear my sense of time was all out of whack because it was only a little later when someone apologized that they couldn’t get her to me immediately that I had any idea she came out with her umbilical cord wrapped around her neck three times and that Joan had to quickly work on that and make sure she was ok before passing her to me. I just remember the feeling of her leaving my body, taking a couple of huge breaths of relief and happiness, and suddenly there she was, being passed underneath my legs and up into my arms as everyone helped me roll over onto my back and settle on to the floor to hold and gaze at my new baby. Altogether, second stage lasted about an hour and 15 minutes and she was born at 1:35 a.m.
As they were passing her to me, I asked whether we had a boy or a girl, and it was only then that most everyone realized they hadn’t bothered to look! (Suz later said she had seen it was a girl, but didn’t want to be the one to break the news.) Tony quickly took a glance and yelled, “GIRL!” I would’ve been thrilled either way, but it was so exciting to finally know we had a daughter. Ridiculously, I think one of my first comments about her was in regards to all the body hair she has. Like a lot of newborns, she has extra hair in funny places – only Pop’s hair is really dark. So when I saw the little black hair on her shoulders, I couldn’t help but exclaim, “Ha! She looks like a caveman!” I’m not sure what everyone else thought of that, but oh well. I also asked Tony, “What’s her name?” and without hesitation, he responded, “Penelope!” – our frontrunner name for the past couple of months. I couldn’t have been happier.
Once we got settled on the floor, T came to my side and the two of us just stared at her and checked her out. She was so warm and snug on my chest that I never wanted to move. I found myself having some involuntary muscle spasms in my legs and shaking/shivering all over – not surprising, considering the marathon physical exertion I just went through – but Joan was concerned about our body temps so the birth team quickly grabbed every warm thing they could find and threw them over us… towels, blankets, my bathrobe. I’m sure we looked a mess, but no one cared.
I had no idea how much time passed as people bustled around taking care of whatever needed to be taken care of, but the next thing I remember is Joan expressing concern that my placenta hadn’t come out yet. She asked if I was feeling any cramping in my stomach and when I told her no, she asked if she could give me a shot of Pitocin to encourage my uterus to get moving. I told her that was fine – whatever we needed to do to keep things going well was fine by me – she gave me the shot and I passed the baby off to Tony who curled up on the couch right next to me with her laying on his bare chest and covered in warm blankets. A few short minutes later, I got a painful cramp in my stomach, Joan and Jamie helped me into a squatting position and my placenta came gushing out – with a lot of blood. I wasn’t sure whether to be alarmed or not. After all, blood is a pretty central component of any birth, but it was clear that Joan wasn’t happy. The next few minutes were a bit tense as she watched me and cared for me and I worried and Tony worried. I asked her if I was ok and she said, “You’re losing more blood than I’d like, but it’s not dire. We’ll take care of this. Don’t worry!” She gave me another medication or two (I can’t remember all the details here) and then started palpating my uterus with her hands. Initially, she was just pushing around on the outside right at the belly button, but – amazingly – this hurt more than almost anything I’d experienced so far. Joan apologized for the pain, but said it was necessary – she was trying to encourage my uterus to start contracting down to stop the bleeding. Eventually, she also stuck a hand inside me, kept the other on my abdomen, and continued the hard palpitations. Fortunately, this seemed to help and she didn’t have to continue for long because I was sobbing throughout. Considering I’d just pushed a baby out of my body, I couldn’t believe how much this hurt. When she was done, things started to look up, the bleeding slowed, and though I was weak and tired, I was stabilizing well.
Once things were calmer, Joan carefully examined the placenta to make sure it was intact and all of it had come out. She also showed it to everyone, explaining the different sides/parts and what exactly she was looking for. I was amazed by how big it was!
Eventually, when I was good and stable and all looked well health-wise for both Poppy and I, it was time to clean me up and move to bed. Jamie and Joan offered to help me sponge bathe on the floor where I was, but I REALLY wanted a proper shower. I knew it would help me relax better and give me the boost I needed to meet and further bond with our new daughter, so they helped me to the bathroom and into the tub. Tony was caring for Poppy at this point, and I was still very weak, so I turned on the shower and washed up sitting down in the tub. It was a bit awkward, but doable, and I felt a million times better afterward, even though I think I used up nearly every bit of remaining energy I had doing it.
Once I was clean and healthy, someone helped me into bed and handed Poppy back to me. She laid on my chest, pretty well passed out, which was not surprising considering all she’d just been through as well, and we got around to getting to know each other. Someone brought me some food and I ate as much as I could, knowing I needed the calories and the energy that would come with it. Joan came in a few minutes later to help us get breastfeeding started and that was really difficult. I was exhausted and still weak from my blood loss, it was at least an hour after the birth already – maybe 2 or more? – and Joan was pulling her second all-nighter in a row with little to no sleep in between. So, frankly, none of us were in the best shape. It also didn’t help that everyone present trooped into the bedroom to watch. I didn’t think anything of it at the moment, but after several minutes of frustrating attempts to get the baby latched onto my breast, I think everyone realized it might be easier to do without an audience. Live and learn. While Joan and I continued our attempts, Tony and Co. finished cleaning up the apartment, drained and deflated the pool, and got everything back to looking remarkably normal considering what had just gone down.
Eventually, Joan and I did get Poppy to latch a little bit, but she seemed too tired to do anything resembling the vigorous sucking needed to get any real nourishment out of me, so we called it a night, Joan gave me some pointers for things to try the next morning, and recommended that we try again when fully rested and to call a lactation consultant if we weren’t making any progress in the next day or two. I was thrilled that we were giving up for the moment because I was TIRED.
I don’t remember exactly how the rest of the night ended, but I did get a brief second wind once people started to make their way out. Caroline found a spot on the couch for the night; Suzanne grabbed a car service back home; and Joan and Jamie headed their separate ways. I pulled myself out of bed momentarily to grab my cell phone and send a text message to everyone we know and we called each of our parents to give them the news. At this point, it was about 4:30-5 a.m. When done spreading the word of Pop’s arrival, T and I climbed into bed together with our new daughter in the co-sleeper next to us, and settled in for a long snooze and our first day together as a family.
Photos taken by Suzanne Barker Agustyn and Tony Greep.