The First Voyage of Rowan Ulysses
It took months for the babe to finally let go and feel ready for his trip. For nearly a week leading up to his birth I’d been having sleepless nights. Any breath of a noise and I’d rouse from a dreamless discomfort. Snow plow scraping ice, husband shuffling the covers, having to pee again and again, numb tingling fingers, full moon crossing my window, achy hips, feeling like my stomach was eating itself—anything could and would wake me up. I was ready for this baby to evacuate my womb and give me some level of peace. My mind was on high alert.
By the time March 20 rolled around, I was exhausted and eight days past my due date. I’d ineffectively tried stripping my membranes three times, cervical ripening gel twice, chiropractic adjustments three times per week, expensive acupuncture treatments and moxibustion preparations, castor oil smoothies, evening primrose oil, sex every other day, walking, jogging, jumping, lunges, hot baths, cold showers, writing about birth, writing about my anger about not having given birth, talking to the fetus, talking sternly to the fetus, and several days of blue and black cohosh tinctures in my daily two pots of red raspberry leaf tea. By the time March 20 rolled around, I was on the verge of giving up all hope that this baby was going to come out without someone reaching in and grabbing hold of him. According to my 41 week appointment, I was 2-3 cm dilated, 70% effaced and super stretchy. My body was as ready as ever to have this baby.
My mother-in-law had been staying in our spare room for the past two days to help me with Caelan, my 23 month old ball of fire, and keeping the house tidy. She was planning to return home, a two and a half hour drive to Connecticut, on Friday March 22 if I had not gone into labor. Wednesday, March 20, was covered in slush and puddles. The wind blew sharp, frigid air that could cut through layers of sweaters like butter so I decided to go to the mall to walk and run a few errands while I still could. Nothing went right. I barely got to walk around due to my MIL emailing and talking on her phone to people at work, so I had to keep stopping and waiting for her. My toddler wanted to walk and I had follow after him like chasing a butterfly. I locked my keys in the car and had to wait for an hour for AAA with a tired toddler running around a store. By the end of the day, I was totally wiped and had an emotional breakdown. I hated everyone and everything about my life and wanted nothing to do with my family. I ate dinner alone and stayed in my bedroom mourning my lost labor day.
On Thursday, feeling tired and without a whiff of labor symptoms, I decided that after a visit with friends for lunch at my house, I’d take castor oil and the cohosh tinctures and walk and rest the remainder of the day. Around 1 pm I made a smoothie and added 2 tablespoons of castor oil and chugged it. I began taking the cohoshes in my tea and increasing the dose every half hour. And I went for a walk. Irregular contractions picked up strength two hours later, but I didn’t have a bowel movement. So at 5 pm I cautiously decided to chug another smoothie with castor oil. I figured since I’d already begun the process I might as well give it the best shot I could to trigger labor.
Two hours later my contractions were much stronger, but still did not feel progressive. I timed them over an hour and they were about 3-4 minutes apart but not strong enough to convince me they were any different than the Braxton Hicks contractions I’d felt for months. I took a hot bubble bath with my toddler and the contractions slowed way down and became weaker but were still there. I got out of the bath, got dressed for bed, and hopped online to rest for a while before a late dinner. My family had already eaten but I wasn’t feeling particularly hungry. Contractions really picked up. It was about 7:30 and the contractions were enough to make me pay attention to them. I timed them and they were still 3 minutes apart. I called the on-call midwife and she told me she thought this was probably labor since I was so far along and that I should go the birth center in 45 minutes. My whole household was a buzz with excitement but I wasn’t so sure this was it. I kept trying to reality-check my family that we could be driving back home in an hour with no baby.
My husband Tim and I went up to our room to put our toddler to bed first. We lie in bed reading him books and rubbing his back and singing songs. It was relaxing for me and the contractions I’d been having slowed down and weakened to almost nothing. Beginning to feel let down again and ready for bed, I called the midwife to tell her that this was not labor and that I’d rather just get some sleep than drive all the way to the birth center to be checked. I went downstairs to brush my teeth and I realized how hungry I felt, but I didn’t have an appetite for real food. I ate a bowl of cereal and a brownie and lie down on the couch to watch Six Feet Under and consol myself for not being in real labor again. Tim came down to keep me company, which was really sweet as he usually can’t stay awake past 9 pm and had to go to work the next morning.
While I was lounging, the contractions picked up again but I ignored them for a good hour since I was tired of being let down. They began to change a little, subtly. They felt like intense menstrual cramps with tightening and were now strong enough to make me breathe through them and tense my muscles a bit. I finally asked Tim to time them once again just to see if they might be real labor beginning. They were about 2 minutes apart. Disappointed, I felt fooled for the millionth time since these contractions certainly were not strong enough at 2 minutes apart to be full-blown active labor. I wanted to totally check out of my body and give up hope that labor would ever begin, even though rationally I knew that was equally foolish.
I figured I had just really irritated my uterus with all of the natural induction stuff I’d done earlier. Angry at myself for messing with nature and giving myself a ton of yucky contractions that weren’t doing anything, I went to bed around 10:30 pm. My husband and I made love to try to encourage labor to begin and to simply enjoy a night of intimacy before a new baby. I drifted off without any contractions, confident that it was all over until tomorrow.
Around 11:30pm, I awoke with a start to a popping feeling near my cervix. I waited for a gush of wetness but there was nothing. My heart began to race, listening closely to my body. I woke Tim up to tell him what I’d felt because I was slightly scared. Then I got a really strong, crampy contraction. Three minutes later, I got another strong contraction and then another three minutes later. I woke Tim up again and told him we definitely should go in to be checked out. Somehow, this time I felt it really could be labor, but I was still cautious to believe it lest it be false labor again. We woke up my mother-in-law and she went in to sleep with Caelan in our bed and we took off. The air outside was freezing. It had snowed a few hours earlier and was now misting lightly. In the car, I noticed the rushes kept coming at three minute intervals and that they seemed consistently strong. Gripping the arm rests, I mentioned that we may not make it in time since I began to feel some pelvic pressure. My nerves were on fire and I tuned in to every movement and sensation in my body trying to read it. It began snowing lightly, which was shockingly beautiful on the empty back roads.
I sent a text to my friend Kristin that I was in labor. The plan had been to text her and she would start a phone tree with the other seven women in our mother-writer group so that I would be surrounded by confident, tender women during labor. Once Tim and I arrived at the birth center, I realized we had forgotten to bring food. Tim called Kristin to grab any food on her way out the door. The midwife on call that night, Debbie, was the same woman who attended my last birth. She did a cervical exam and announced that I was 3 cm dilated. I was shocked that all the start and stop contractions I had all day hadn’t done more to ready my cervix. While her fingers were still measuring me, I had a contraction and Debbie announced that I was now 4 cm dilated. She laughed and said I shouldn’t worry about progress since things were moving very fast. I stood up and paced, telling Tim what to take out of the labor bag. He put my CD of Bela Fleck and Edgar Meyers on in the background. The surges got stronger and I rocked my body through them but I found it hard to stand up through them. I felt incredibly heavy. Then Kristin walked in dressed in sweats, hauling a bag of food—bananas, clementines, and a new box of Cheerios—and wearing a huge smile. She hugged me tightly and thanked me for inviting her. Kristin’s energy was so warm, it immediately soothed my anxiety and tension.
After slipping on my bikini top, I got into the warm tub. The water was incredibly soothing and gave me the freedom to move and squat without pressure. I found a comforting spot on my knees, gripping the side of the tub. Settling in to labor, as it progressed very quickly at this point, I began my birth motions. Rocking my body back and forth, rolling my neck, I breathed loudly and repeated in mind Breathe in life, breathe out this baby. That mantra only lasted for a handful of contractions. The pain picked up and I found I couldn’t think through the contractions any more. I needed a new strategy. I began some moderate gutteral awwwwes as I rocked back and forth on my knees. I became very hot and asked for the door to be propped open. I happened to be facing the door so the snowy night breeze was like being bathed in tranquility and peace. I drank it in, smiling through active labor. I rolled my head around, listening to the floating, cascading piano in the background.
“I love this song. It sounds like snowflakes falling. I wish it were still snowing outside,” I said toward the end of another rush.
Kristin offered me a line from one of her poems, which went something like rather than opening like a flower, my cunt is a rocket! I got so excited over this line, I repeated it over and over in my head. It was an empowering line, a funny line, and perfect for how I was feeling. My cunt is a rocket, my cunt is a rocket! I visualized my baby shooting out of me, slipping easily as if he were all greased up and I was totally cavernous inside.
Tim and Kristin were talking and cracking witty jokes throughout the labor, which made the time pass quickly, but was distracting. Tim would get carried away on a thought and keep talking even though I would begin working through a strong contraction and shhhhhh him. But that is my husband. He’s not always perceptive about what other people are going through. Kristin kept trying to give him strong suggestive stares to keep him quiet, but he didn’t get it.
The conversation also had the effect of making me really thinky, and kind of passionately creative, rather than strictly instinctual and physical. I felt moved to come up with poetic concepts or lines, images or jokes that I no longer recall. Being conscious or “awake” during the end of active labor and through transition was tough. I was acutely aware of the intense pain and pressure. I kept telling myself it was all going so fast it would be over soon. It had to be over soon. I found my eyes habitually glancing up at the wall clock after each contraction, but the time never registered in my mind.
Once I was going through what must have been transition, I came out of a particularly wicked contraction and said, “That one really sucked!” Kristin just smiled big at me and told me I was amazing and like a goddess.
“Tim, I swear this time, I really honestly NEVER want to do this again. This is the worst thing ever!! You need to make an appointment right away to get neutered.” I had another incredibly strong rush. My moans were now several decibels louder and deeper. I was having a harder time getting through them. I shook my head back and forth as if I were saying NO. I lost my breath moaning a few times. My throat grew raspy. I wondered if I was getting nauseous or anxious because I began feeling kind of strange but couldn’t think about it because the contractions were on top of each other. I decided I was nauseous and then decided I would not vomit because that would suck even more. And I didn’t.
Transition crept up quickly like a street cat. The sensations were so strong I shout-moaned deep and long and finished with angry-sounding grunts as my uterus began pushing. My midwife asked me if there was still some pain in front with the contractions. Yes, there was. She told me not to push until that pain went away. With the next few contractions, the pain was still there and I was trying really hard not to push. I made some of the craziest sounds fighting my body not to push. Finally, I began to get some rest in between the contractions. Realizing I was pretty close to done, I felt a tremendous relief. I recalled my last labor and how much more I liked the pushing phase because it was not so intense. I looked forward to being done with all of this. Forever!
Then I really felt the urge to push. I went with it and felt my water pop. Curious, I began looking into the water. There was poop floating around. I told the midwife and asked if I could pee in the water.
She said, “Sure, it gets totally diluted in such a big tub.”
I felt another strong contraction and pushed in little huffy breaths a good bit. The baby’s head coming down quickly was very uncomfortable. I wanted it out. NOW. I then continued to push in short grunts. It seemed that I didn’t really need to wait for contractions because I was still able to move him down with these more gentle pushes. The baby’s head was about to crown and I had the most intense need to poop. I told the midwife that it hurt really bad and I needed to push it out. She told me to go ahead. I concentrated on pooping instead of pushing the baby out, which of course helped the other task. I was still so constipated (even after having taken castor oil twice that day) that only a small pebble of poo came out, but the baby’s head had crowned. I reached down to feel the head. The pain at this point, because I was so conscious, was overwhelming. I began feeling the different parts of the inside of my vagina that were now on the outside, slick and taut and surreal. I think this was probably my least favorite part of the whole birth. I got a little freaked out at the feeling of my girl bits about to rip apart from being stretched so far and so thin. Another contractions finally came, relieving my mind of the chore of freaking out and I began huffing and pushing again, this time leaning back in the water. The head emerged. It hurt. And although I had planned to catch him myself, I begged the midwife for help.
She told me to turn over back onto my hands and knees to push and I said I couldn’t move. She again told me to turn over and I again said, No, I can’t. Please help!”
She reached in and tugged a bit and pulled him out very quickly. She tried to put him up on my chest but the cord was extremely short. She told me to raise myself out of the water and hold the baby by my breasts. I was so relived it was over I don’t remember what I said to him or what I said to anyone. I don’t remember what I thought other than that I was so glad it was over and that I never wanted to do it again. Then I allowed myself to check him out. He did not look like what I’d expected. He did not look like me. Which was weird at first because my other two looked like me. Rowan looked like his daddy. Large Italian nose, pronounced brow, cleft chin. And Red Hair!! I had not expected red hair. I began to accept how different he looked and kiss his head and cheeks and smell him. He was my baby, even if he didn’t look just like me.
We got out of the water a few minutes later and it was difficult to move because of how short the cord was. My placenta was about to come out from having been tugged on so much. I lie down with the baby on the bed a few feet away and the placenta eased right out. Oh, that felt absolutely blissful. I let out a huge AHhhhhhhh… Rowan was born at 2:38 a.m., three hours after my first real contraction, and I went from 3 cm to baby in my arms in that amount of time.
The midwife checked my nether region and said, “Wow, it doesn’t even look like you just had a baby! Everything is perfect down here.”
Rowan began suckling about ten minutes later and then the after pains began. Oh, my, did they ever. These after pains were the worst I’ve ever had by far. I was taking Oxycodone, Ibuprophine, and still writhing around in my bed unable to cope with them for three days.
Rowan weighed 8 lbs and 14 oz, but the midwife guessed he’d been over 9 lbs at birth. Right after he emerged in the water, he passed a lot of meconium. He was 20.5 inches long and still has dark violet eyes that I hope turn blue like my second son, but who knows.
I was left with my husband to cuddle our baby in bed and the midwife didn’t bother us again for a few hours. My husband slept but I couldn’t of course. I was too overcome with awe of this new child, too overcome with hunger. I was starving and ate half the box of cheerios and two bananas. I really needed protein but my husband was too tired to go out and buy me food. He kept falling back asleep when I’d wake him for something.
Well, after thinking about what the midwife had said about my body recovering so well, I thought: Yeah, I may not look like it but I fucking feel like I just had a baby and I am not about to accept that I could do this again. I know that my body was made to do this, and that I had it pretty easy compared to some women, but I think I choose not to subject it to any more birthing. Three is enough. Three is fabulous. I feel absolutely fortunate and happy to have my boys.
I am still processing how I feel about this birth. I love Rowan so much. I love getting to know him and learning how to be his mother. I love that I was able to give him a healthy, natural birth. And I want to find peace with my experience and not confuse my feelings about labor with my feelings about him. But it is going to take some time before I really understand my feelings. At this point, I think I felt so much pain and struggled through the labor because I was distracted by the conversation in the room. I was on display and didn’t enter my labor cave. Tim and Kristin supported me in other ways, but I think my experience would have been much different if I had labored more privately, quietly, and with tender touch and encouragement. The atmosphere makes all the difference.