Author’s note: Our new baby was born at home in our bedroom a week ago this Wednesday without a birth attendant present. This is the last installment of the story of how we came to choose an unassisted birth. If you’re visiting the blog for the first time, the story begins here.
When you’re expecting your fourth child and you’re past the due date, you become convinced that the baby will be a full-grown adult before coming into the world, which is why I pretended I wasn’t in labor for about 12 hours of regular but light contractions.
My uterus had been twitchy for days, and since the tightenings on Tuesday night were mild enough that I could sleep between them, I didn’t really think James and I would have a baby anytime soon. Besides, the squeezing feeling that woke me up was almost pleasurable.
Me: I wish I were in labor.
Myself: Maybe you are.
Me: This is way too easy. I wish real labor could be like this.
Myself: Maybe it can. Maybe labor can feel good. Maybe this is real labor.
Me: I hope I can get back to sle—
I slept better Tuesday night than I had in a long time.
Wednesday morning James bustled the kids off to school. Before they left I felt my uterus tightening so hard I had to lean against the kitchen counter to catch my breath.
“Mommy! Are you having a contraction? Wait, let me get my joke sheet,” my 8-year-old, Athena, cried.
I’d been reading about how humor can really help a woman along in labor and Athena had secretly compiled jokes for me.
“Where did seaweed go to find a job?”
My mind couldn’t focus. Seaweed? Job?
“The kelp-wanted ads!” We both cackled with laughter as the contraction subsided, mine a tad hysterical.
“Maybe you’ll be coming home from school early,” I said, kissing the three kids goodbye. “Or maybe not…”
Then they were gone. I was restless and puttered around the house doing breakfast dishes, folding laundry, tidying the bathroom. I think I even vacuumed. Then I set my camera on a tripod and took some photographs. A couple of times while I was fighting with the self-timer I felt something crampy and jagged going on in my uterus but I ignored it.
I had no inkling that in a little more than three hours I would no longer be pregnant.
James came home.
“I’m not sure what to do…” I said. “I have an article to finish…”
“We could go for a walk,” he suggested. “Or watch the romantic comedy I rented?”
I sat down by the computer and realized I couldn’t sit down.
“Do you think I’m in labor or am I just being wimpy?”
James smiled at me. “Well … I’m inclined to think you’re just being wimpy…”
Nonetheless, I emailed my editor and told her I was in early labor, maybe, and might need an extension.
That was around 8:50 a.m. I put Sadé on the stereo and took a shower, then a bath, then a shower. By now it was obvious, even to a denialist like me, that I was in full-blown labor. I oohed and aahed and breathed through contractions.
Me: This isn’t so bad, see? Mind over matter really works.
Myself: Aaahhh. Ooohhh. That was a good one.
Arms straight, I propped my hands on my knees, which allowed my belly to feel suspended, and I kept the warm water pounding on my back.
Pretty soon, though, the tightenings got really intense.
Me: This is what I wanted. This is what I wanted. This is what I wanted.
Myself: Careful what you wish for.
James made juice with garlic, ginger, kale, beets, carrots, lime, and orange. He brought me some in the shower.
“I can’t,” I sobbed. “I’m sorry.” All the sorrow in the world seemed to enter my body because I couldn’t drink the juice my husband had so kindly prepared.
By then I was starting to lose it. I could no longer ooh and aah through contractions. They weren’t coming in waves with a peak building slowly but instead slamming into my body like a truck crashing into a cement wall.
Me: If you relax your eyebrows and your mouth, your vagina will relax.
Myself: F**k off. I can’t do this. It hurts too much.
Me: What about mind over matter? This isn’t pain. These are interesting sensations you need to pay attention to.
Myself: Ow ow ow ow ow ow ow.
Me: Breathe in and expand your belly, everything is opening up.
Myself: Shut the f**k up already, will you?
James stayed in the bathroom with me. I wasn’t breathing anymore. I wasn’t groaning. I was screaming, rocking my weight onto the balls of my feet, making loud animal noises that came from some primitive place.
“Help me,” I begged him. “Help me, help me, help me.”
“There are a finite number of contractions,” he said. “You’re getting there.”
I turned off the shower.
“Should we get the kids?”
“I don’t think I want them to see me like this,” I whined, utterly miserable, during a lucid moment between contractions.
We put a pillow on the back of the toilet and I made it through a couple of contractions, gripping James’s hands for dear life.
I stood up from the toilet and a flood of fluid flecked with blood gushed down my legs onto the bathroom floor.
“I think my water broke,” I moaned.
“Oh good!” James sounded chipper.
All of a sudden I felt like bearing down. By this time I was talking to myself in an almost schizophrenic way. “You’re okay Jennifer. You’re okay. You can do this. You’re doing a good job.” I didn’t really believe it but the reassuring words helped me anyway. I was also chanting in a tight and whiney voice, “Honey, honey, honey. I don’t think I can doooo this.”
Everything felt like elbows and hard angles and cramps and my body seemed to be taking on a life of its own. But it—I mean we—were going so fast I could barely hold on.
During another lucid pause, I looked at James. “You okay?”
“You’re not worried?”
“Not at all.”
He was so focused and centered, completely unfazed by how miserable I was. Though reluctant about doing this birth by ourselves, once in the moment James was totally there, totally present, and totally calm.
After my water broke I somehow managed to walk the 10,000 miles between the bathroom and our bedroom though I’m not sure how. We put down a cloth pad and some disposable chux. I leaned against the dresser. I leaned on James. I squatted. I stood. I went on all fours. My legs were shaking. I was sweating. I was dying of thirst. I wanted to be touched. I couldn’t bear to be touched. Nothing felt right. I was pushing now with my eyes squeezed shut and the most animal-like groans coming out of me.
Pushing during my last three labors was easy and pleasurable almost—I only had to push two or three times before each baby came right out. This time felt different. I felt like I was tearing in half. The pressure was unbearable. Everything felt stuck. I was pushing so hard I felt sure the baby would emerge from my rectum. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done and by far the hardest stage of this labor.
But in between the knee-weakening, body-shaking Mack truck pushes, time stopped. I was completely lucid and pain free. I could have talked about the weather, the stock market, or Obama’s health care proposal. I felt strong, healthy, in my body. It was so surreal that I wasn’t sure I was really in the bedroom squatting on chux, moaning for water (which my husband gave me sips of through a straw), trying to birth a baby.
James grabbed the flashlight. “I see the baby!” He cried, full of joy. “I see the head!! There’s tons of black hair! I’m the first one to see the baby!!!!” He sounded as happy as Etani, my 6-year-old, trick-or-treating on Halloween. His glee was contagious. I started to laugh.
After the next overwhelming, body-numbing, elephant-pressure need to push, a tuft of hair stayed out even as I felt the head retreat. On the next push the head was out. James told me later the baby, eyes closed, was frowning, moving its head from side to side disapprovingly, as if to say, “Where is this place anyway? Do I want to be here?”
“I don’t think I can do this,” I cried after the head was out and there was a lull between pushes.
“You can. It’s happening.” James was so matter-of-fact and logical. “Here comes a shoulder!”
In a slippery gush after the first shoulder, the baby came out. James caught it. I was on all fours as the baby was being born and with the relief of the baby coming out, I sat down backwards. He handed the baby to me. I was laughing and crying at the same time. “Oh my god, we did it, we did it.” The baby–it was a girl–started bawling lustily, coughing amniotic fluid and spluttering with discontent. I cried with her and so did James. We were so happy—finally—to meet the tiny being who had been growing inside me for nine and a half months. The whole world had changed now that this new life was in it.
I was such a baby during the contractions—crying and pleading and screaming, “help me”–but birthing this little person by ourselves was the most empowering experience of my life.
Human women have been having babies unassisted for more than 200,000 years. I’m not strong or brave or exceptional. If I can do it, you can too.