I’m sitting in a still house on a Sunday morning, my newborn curled up in a sling. As Ivy sleeps and dreams, her face flickers with smiles and frowns. She’s practicing a repertoire of expressions that she will later learn to put on purposefully. She breathes irregularly, her body not yet fully attuned to the steady rhythm of earth life.
This will be a different kind of birth story. I’ve always written detailed play-by-play versions: this happened, and then this, and then this. It was my strategy for capturing as much as possible before the smallest things sifted away through the cracks in my memory.
But the problem with writing a story down is that what gets left out no longer can exist. It disappears from the page and eventually from memory. If I write that labor was calm and empowering, or difficult and fierce, or any other combination of words, then it becomes hemmed in by what it was not. By what I did not say or remember.
I could choose a list of words to describe the day I gave birth. All are true, yet they contradict each other and still do not approach the essence of that day. If I swim in a river for a few hours, I cannot return the next day and recapture the water I swam in. It is gone forever. Even if I document the moment in a photograph or video, those images cannot reproduce the pressure of the water or the pull of the currents or the way the thousands of tiny hairs on my body swirled in response.
And yet, I must try: I remember calm and peace. Quiet accentuated by the muffled thumps of my children playing in the attic. The clatter of pans and dishes in the kitchen, cupboard doors closing. Ferocity and fear and uncertainty. The peculiar stillness that follows a snowstorm. Wildness and chaos contained by the pattern of my body’s labor. Hope for a living, healthy child and the audacity of that desire. Disbelief that it would actually happen. Uncertainty about the process gripping my body, alongside an uncanny awareness--sometimes demonstrated only in hindsight--of what was happening.
During this pregnancy I swam in (against?) an undercurrent of fear. It didn’t dominate my pregnancy, but it was always there pressing against my body, reminding me that I could not blissfully talk about the baby inside me as if it were already safely born. It was a hint of bitterness in everything I touched, if only the smallest aftertaste. With each pregnancy, I become more acutely aware of how much I stand to lose. Amidst all the other reasons for being done having children, the biggest is this feeling of tempting--and cheating--fate. I have four beautiful, healthy children and for that I feel incredibly blessed. Lucky, even. Isn’t it best to stop while I am ahead? I often think.
I could not let myself fully believe or imagine this new child until it was safely here earthside. No matter that suspended belief would not alter the outcome in any way. Until I saw and heard the baby, nothing was fixed or certain. That is why I exclaimed, as soon as Ivy emerged, “I can’t believe I have a baby!”
Part II: A series of vignettes
The night before the birth. We eat dinner at a friend’s house, and I hide the strong but intermittent contractions. This is not labor yet: no pattern, no rush of hormones. But I know it was the beginning. It is my secret. Later that evening I feel shaky, anxious. I am brought back to my university days--those hours before you take a big exam, when you’ve prepared as much as you can and all you can do is worry and wait until the work begins. Multiply that anticipation and tension a hundredfold, and that is what I am feeling. I know that labor will begin at night with strong but irregular contractions. That I will sleep in between them for at least part of the night. That I will stay in bed until morning, listening to my hypnosis tracks if I am unable to sleep. That I will finally get up, knowing active labor will begin but ready to work with contractions after a night of lying through them.
Morning, 6:30 am. In bed, contractions are increasingly strong but still widely spaced. I do not watch the clock until right before I get out of bed. They are 10-12 minutes apart.
I get up and feel palpable anxiety within my body. I know what is coming. I know what I have to go through to get the baby out...and it weighs on me. I feel shaky, uneasy, and unsure.
I ask Eric for a blessing. Some things are too personal to share, but I feel the power of the message moving through Eric. At this moment he is just a voice for something more vast and wise than himself. He assures me that I will birth smoothly and without complications, that this birth will bring the same joy that my other children’s births did. I finally feel able to move forward toward the task at hand.
As soon as I am up, contractions come quickly. They also seem a bit shorter, but it might be because I’m moving rather than lying still. The few times I glance at the clock, they are around 4 minutes apart.
We had a massive blizzard the night before, and the roads are terrible. I tell the midwife and the photographer to come right away based on the following calculation:
Time from getting up to move with the contractions until birth:
Zari: 10 hours
Dio: 7 ½ hours
Inga: 2 ½ hours
This baby: ??? but I know it will not be long
Around 8:30 am. The household is awake. Children are eating breakfast. Eric is fulfilling a list of tasks (fill the pool, dress the children, call the babysitter, gather some final supplies). I’m leaning over the radiator next to the bedroom window, feeling the heat shimmer up my arms and chest. Outside is deep in untracked snow. Our babysitter pulls into the driveway and her car gets stuck. The midwife’s car has just turned onto the street. A man arrives with a snowblower, clears out the pile of plowed snow blocking our driveway and our entire front sidewalk. A small serendipity. I speak on the phone to the photographer, who arrives soon after and tries to enter the wrong house at first, 3 doors down. The snow has altered the landscape. It makes the day seem separate from reality, a small window away from the mundane.
Around 9:30 am. The birth pool is filled, yet I resist entering. For so many laboring women, the water promises instant relief. But for me, water can feel like a prison as much as an escape. I have to be upright moving my hips during contractions. I labored in and out of the tub when I had Zari, but never wanted to stay in for more than 30 minutes at a time. For my next two, I didn’t get in until pushing was imminent. So here I am, eying the tub, wanting the warmth and buoyancy of the water but dreading the restriction it might bring.
I’m also feeling tired and extremely dizzy. I never experience the pleasant, heady rush of endorphins I’d had during my three other labors. Instead, it manifests only as dizziness.
Around 10 am. I want to know what’s going on with my cervix. I’d reached in multiple times over the past several hours, but labor has turned all the familiar landmarks into mush. All I know for sure is that the head is fairly low. I catch myself thinking, “Does asking for an exam mean I don’t trust the process? Will it mess me up mentally by having a number associated with my sensations?” And then I realize: Who cares. I want to know, and that’s reason enough.
So I tell the midwife laughingly: “I’m asking you for the first vaginal exam ever in four pregnancies and labors!” She looks surprised and wants to know if I am sure. “Yes, and I know it has absolutely no significance on how long it will take from here on. But I really want to compare it against what I am feeling going on in my body.”
I am a very stretchy 5 cms and the head is quite low, past the ischial spines. This confirms all that I had been feeling and seeing so far. I am not delusional. The bloody show is telling the truth, that persistent rectal pressure wasn’t a figment of my imagination, and labor is well on its way.
I get in the tub and find that I can still move my hips the right way if I kneel and lean over the edge. Only my legs and lower belly are immersed, so I add lots of hot water. It feels delicious. I keep trying to sleep but I can’t rest my head properly.
A few minutes later. In between my efforts to sleep, I pop my head up and say to the midwife, “I really need to work on the CEU & CME applications for the breech workshop in June.”
Around 10:20 am. I know I’m going to start pushing. Not right away, but in 4-5 more contractions. It’s the subtlest catch in my throat, so quiet no one else can hear. It’s the slightest downward heaving during a contraction. I keep this knowledge a secret for a few more contractions. One nice thing about being a seasoned multip is that you can read your body’s cues with extreme accuracy.
Part III: Pushing
I really dislike pushing. I fear it, I dread it, and when it actually begins I endure it only because I have to. I try to convince myself that I should be excited because pushing means the baby will be born soon. But no, it still is just as unpleasant each time. I don’t doubt those women who look forward to pushing and find that it takes the pain of transition away--it’s just never happened that way to me.
There was something “off” about this pushing stage. It took too long at first and then went too quickly at the end. Once you’ve pushed several babies out of your vagina, you know when something is abnormal. When I first checked, the baby’s head was just two knuckles deep. But after several really strong contractions--violently strong--I reached inside and the baby’s head was significantly higher up. I felt a stretchy band of something, probably a lip of anterior cervix, about 1 cm at the widest point and as thick as my eyelid. It stayed through several more contractions. We guessed it was a cervical lip acting, in my midwife’s words, like a “slingshot” and pulling the baby back in. Between contractions I’d stretch it and try to slip it under the pubic bone, but there wasn’t quite enough space for my fingers to push it back.
My body was pushing ferociously, made so much worse by the unexplained resistance keeping the baby’s head from descending. You won’t see any gentle “breathing the baby down” in the birth video. I had absolutely no control over what was happening during contractions.
During one of the pauses, I reached inside and felt a small bubble of water bag. It burst with a small pinch. “I just broke the water bag,” I announced. Maybe this would help bring the baby down?
Nothing happened after the next two contractions, but the earth shifted during the following one. In what I call The Mother Of All Contractions, my body gave a tremendous, 5-minute-long push that brought the baby all the way down, to crowning, and out with only the tiniest pauses.
This was just as un-fun as pushing with no progress. I was sure I’d tear. (I didn't. My body rocks.) Nothing had time to stretch or mold. I barely had time to apply counter-pressure and to cup the baby’s head in my hand before it slid out. The shoulders came just a second or two later. I didn’t even have time to look down before she was all the way out.
The first thing I remember seeing was Ivy’s hand reaching up. I lifted her out of the water, unwound a nuchal cord, and put her to my chest in one fluid motion. When I watch the birth video, I am amazed at the complex series of movements that I performed without conscious effort. I don’t remember thinking about having to shift her to the other hand and unwrap the cord; I just did it.
Part IV: Feel the Fear
Two days after I gave birth, I read these words from a British midwife currently practicing in Australia:
In a backlash against the medicalisation of birth women are beginning to reclaim birth (yay!). Partly thanks to the availability of information via the internet, a counter culture has emerged. Movies, images and stories of empowered birthing mothers circulate through social media – women birthing in beautiful calm environments (usually in water, surrounded by candles), looking like Goddesses whilst gently and quietly ‘breathing’ their baby out. Women are able to see how birth can be, and many are inspired and driven to create a birth experience like those they watch.I am telling my story first, before sharing the video or the pictures, so you know my internal experience before viewing it from an observer’s perspective. This birth was really hard. When I edited the video, I purposefully kept the most intense parts. Most of what I removed were the long periods of silence and rest--not because they don’t have value, but because if the video is too long, people won’t end up watching it!
Whilst these images can assist in building self-trust for mothers as they approach birth, they do not tell the whole story....
Regardless of attempts to ensure safety, deep down, like our ancestors we know we step into the unknown during birth. Fear is a normal part of birth....
Women who manage to remain calm and serene whilst birthing are admired for maintaining control. In contrast, those who are loud, and appear to ‘lose it’ are considered to be out of control....We have created a culture (and birth culture) that seeks to avoid and minimise extreme emotion and pain, and encourages being in control.... I think it is a shame that this powerful aspect of the birth experience remains hidden and suppressed.
I’m going to share the pictures last because I know they will be transcendent and amazing. If I have any complaint about birth photography, it’s that it can capture beauty in the most desperate, difficult moments. I don’t want my birth story to only show a calm, beautiful “birthing Goddess” or a triumphant superheroine or a rockstar or a woman silently relaxing through her “pressure waves.” I want it to also show the agony and the difficulty that make those previous images possible. Birth isn’t about avoiding one set of realities in favor of another. It’s about embracing all facets of birth--contradictory, messy, or unpleasant as some might be--as vital to the whole.
Ivy's birth video here.
Ivy's birth photos here.