When I was pregnant I read “Ina May’s Guide to Childbirth.” Ina May Gaskin is the quintessential midwife and she is one of my heroes. I read that book and the birth stories in it with a great hunger. How will this go for me? Will I do it well? It was a bit like wondering how I would fare if I threw myself into a raging river, having been told I’d be fine if I just relax and let the waters take me. I read about painless births, back labor (one of the most painful kind), varying descriptions of “rushes” from gentle to fierce, relief for the pushing to start, crowning and the slippery body which follows, and so much more. I enjoyed a sense of sisterhood with those women. For as many times as I opened that book, it made me cry. Well, now I have my own story to share…
On a Monday evening in January I started to feel crampy. I was 38 weeks, 6 days pregnant. I didn’t really take the feeling too seriously. But it seriously kept me awake that night. I was tossing and turning (pregnant lady style, it involved a lot of arm strength and an embarrassing array of pillows) and afraid of keeping Isaiah awake. So, at some point I moved to the living room. I managed to get some rest but not much.
The next day we happened to have an appointment with our midwives Shelly and Seannie. Although I was 1cm dilated and 50% effaced, they assured me we could yet be days even weeks away. But they did encourage me to get as much rest as I could given my sleepless night, and as we passed through the door on our way out, Seannie did say, “Maybe you’ll be calling us tonight!” I was pretty sure this baby wasn’t coming for a while. I somehow didn’t see even the intense house scrubbing sessions I had recently been engaged in as a sign.
That night, I felt the cramping again. Awake by myself on the couch, I started timing these cramps on my iPhone (is there an app for that?) They were pretty regular. Five or so minutes apart. By 2am I could no longer manage them on my own so I returned to our room and got Isaiah up. We went through them together for the next hour and by 3:30am Isaiah decided we should call Shelly. I remember feeling sort of silly. This was early labor, and here we are waking our dear midwife to tell her. But the numbers don’t lie. Five minutes apart lasting one minute, for one hour. Shelly listened to me go through a contraction and suggested we go back to bed, try and sleep through them and to check in a little later. Sleep was simply not an option for me. Lying down was hardly an option. So at 5:30 we called again and she had us go for a walk. She said walk for 30 minutes. It was raining that morning. I love the rain in Los Angeles.
Bundled up and tucked under umbrellas, we ventured out onto our street. It was hard, really hard but so peaceful to be outside in the rain, the earthy smell rising up even here. With each contraction I had to stop and just breath through it. I also had to pee, which I did. Every time. We were giddy I think, in an early morning sort of way.
By 10:30am Shelly felt it was time she come and check me. At this point I was feeling a bit troubled. If this was early labor, I was doomed. This was hard, almost unmanageable. I told Isaiah I felt like a wimp. Isaiah is an amazing birth partner. He was excited, energized, happily making me eggs, getting the camera ready, and keeping our space light. As we waited for Shelly, we sat on the edge of our bed and dutifully snipped the tiny beaded bracelets we had been wearing since our baby shower in Berkeley. Our dear friend Aleishall made them, and everyone there had held them in their hands and said a well wish to us for a good birth before she put them on us. We were to snip them off in labor, to release everyone’s good intentions for us.
Shelly arrived wearing scrub pants and a long sleeved t-shirt. This meant business (she is usually adorned in snazzy dresses and shimmery eye shadows). Immediately I felt her welcomed force. Strong, beautiful, wise woman. Catcher of thousands and thousands of babies. Kali.
Before she set up everything she wanted to check me to see where we were at. Please, please, please, I thought. Let me be at least 3 cm. To my utter delight I was 8 CENTIMETERS DILATED. This was it! This was labor! I was doing it! HAD been doing it all along! My relief gave me a surge of much needed energy. As Shelly set up in our bedroom, I sat on the edge of the bed waiting for each contraction to take me. I would stand up with each one, and yes, pee. My temperature suddenly dipped. I felt very cold and shaky so Isaiah ran me a bath. It was the greatest bath of my life. I never wanted to get out. Robyn, Shelly’s assistant arrived soon after so we were all 4 in the bathroom as I continued to labor. They would take turns pouring water over my belly. Shelly checked me again and asked if it was OK with me to break my water bag. I felt a small relief of pressure, a whoosh. And from there the contractions got different. I had been very vocal going through them (I wondered if the neighbors could hear) but now I was really using my voice. Deep, guttural noises came from me. Time to push.
During my pregnancy, I managed to avoid getting attached to any expectations I had about labor and delivery. We were planning a home birth, but I well knew we could transfer to the hospital for a number of reasons and I was OK with that. And even within the home birth scenario, my mind remained fairly open to however it was my body was going to accomplish this task. There were however, two things I thought I could count on. The first was pushing…
Pushing didn’t turn out to be the great relief I was anticipating (finally I could exert some force, do something about the pain). No. Pushing was absolutely THE hardest thing I have ever done in all my life. It took going through several contractions for me to learn how to do it right. And then getting myself to do it right was another thing. I was tired. Robyn gave me spoonfuls of honey. Isaiah assured me things were progressing. Eventually when the baby started to crown a little, he would look and say, “There’s a human in there!” Shelly sat before me, calm and strong, keeping me focused. But I was exhausted and probably just hanging on. I was having a ton of back pain because of the positioning of the baby’s head which didn’t allow for any rest or relief between contractions. It took everything I had to push that baby down and it seemed to be taking awhile.
In fact it took four hours. That’s right, I was pushing for 4 hours. Finally the head crowned and after a few pushes it was out. I can do this, I can do this, I kept saying. So now for that final push where the rest of the body slips out like nothing. This was the other expectation that crept in. I couldn’t have imagined in a hundred years what would happen next.
The head was out, and the baby wasn’t budging no matter how hard I pushed. The cord was wrapped around the baby’s neck, too tight for Shelly to un-loop. I heard her say, “I have to cut the cord.” From this moment on, I went a bit numb. Robyn had the sealed bag in her hands with the clamp and the scissors inside and she was frantically trying to tear it open. But her gloved hands were slippery for all the almond oil compresses she had been applying to me (maybe one of the glorious reasons I didn’t tear). She couldn’t get it open, and Shelly was saying Just open it! OPEN IT! Then came Isaiah in a calm, even tone, “Use the scissors next to the bed.” The scissors, the little pair of scissors we had used to cut our bracelets off, saved the day. The sealed bag was opened and the cord was cut. “Now Jesse, you have to push as HARD AS YOU CAN,” Robyn demanded. All I was thinking was the baby was no longer connected to me and the oxygen supply. So push I did. But still nothing. Then I heard Shelly say, “The shoulders are stuck.”
Shoulder dystocia. I had read about this in all my books as one of those rare things that hardly ever happens but when it does it can be one of the most compromising situations. But before I could fully go there, Shelly was reaching in folding the baby’s shoulders in towards the chest, pulling him out and handing him to me.
The next minute was not frantic as I remember it. But it was essential. We all rubbed him (I had seen him and said, “He’s a boy”) telling him we loved him and that he just needed to give a good cough or a good cry. He had been purple and blue, but pinked up pretty quickly. He was limp at first, but not for long and his eyes were open the whole time. They put an oxygen mask on him (which he kept pushing away) and Shelly suctioned him first with a bulb syringe. He was breathing slightly. His heartbeat never faltered. She took him and gave him a few pumps of CPR then used a long tube down his throat to suction from her mouth.
Finally he gave some small cries. He was fine. He was beautiful. He was big. 8 lbs 4 oz. His lungs sounded clear, his clavicle was intact and his shoulders didn’t become dislocated which are the two things that usually happen with dystocia. The relief I felt is indescribable. I was overwhelmed with joy and so proud of us. I was (eternally) grateful to Shelly for her amazing abilities, to Isaiah for raging down the river with me with such ease, and to Robyn for holding me in confidence. I was also so proud of Asa. As hard as it was for me Shelly said, it was ten times harder for him. Although we had some difficulty, we had a successful home birth and our sweet, precious son was finally here. I never felt in danger, I knew we were in the best of hands. Recounting all of this has made me tremble. Birth and Death are… well, they don’t seem so different from one another anymore.