Holy cow. I’m still so pumped up, if it weren’t for my sore bottom end, I’d do the whole thing over again right now. It’s been just over a week and already I have to TRY to remember the pain of labor. What did it feel like again? Oh…that intense, downward pressure. In the dark, on my knees, the truck. That music. Dire Straits' “Walk of Life”. The details are still so immediate, but the pain is so far.
The Monday before Thanksgiving, three days before my due date, I had a line-up of appointments and errands across the border in Idaho. Midwife, chiropractor, the home improvement center, grocery store, furniture store. At the birth center, I asked my midwife what I could do to get this baby coming sooner rather than later. She said, “You’re seeing the chiropractor today? Ask her to do some pressure points. If you’re ready and the baby’s ready, it will work.”
At the chiropractor’s office, she greeted me with the same question she’d been asking for weeks: “Have you had the gender dream yet?” (Just the night before I dreamed that my mom told my husband we were having a girl.) The chiropractor adjusted my spine, loosened my round ligaments and hit some pressure points on my feet. Then, she told me to go for a walk. As I was leaving her office she said, “I think this baby will be coming soon. And for what it’s worth, I think you’re having a girl. The first time I met you, I saw you as the mother of two girls.”
I went for a walk. I ran errands at Lowe’s, waddling through the warehouse isles and holding my low-slung belly. I went to the grocery store, walking from isle to isle as my step-mom rattled off a list over the phone. I’d been having low, on-and-off contractions for days, but the grocery store was the first place a contraction would occasionally catch me off guard, and I’d pause for a moment thinking, That was a strong one. It was getting late, and I had the feeling I needed to get home. I decided to skip the furniture store. The whole drive home (about an hour and fifteen) my lower abdomen was contracting almost constantly and I started thinking we might be turning around and driving back to Idaho that night. About 18 miles from home, as I drove along the lake’s edge, I felt light headed. It wasn’t until then—in the dark, on a lonely highway, with no cell phone service—that I realized maybe it was a dumb idea to drive myself to those appointments.
Once home, I rolled out of the car, walked in the house and told everybody about the pressure points and how I’d been having contractions all after noon. My step-mom cheered, “Yeah! Let’s get this baby coming!” I emptied my bladder and the contractions slowed down. I ate dinner, gave my step-mom last-minute instructions on I’m not sure what, then the contractions picked up again. I called my sister-in-law to see if she thought I might be in labor. It was now eight o’clock. She said, “Sounds like labor to me.” And like so many other people, she warned that VBAC labors can be slow to get a pattern established. I called my doula, told her what I was feeling and that I was going to take a bath and then I was hoping to take a Tylenol PM and try to sleep through these early contractions. She told me to time contractions for an hour.
^Last photo of my pregnant belly.^
As I drew my bathwater, I could hear Juniper running around in the living room. I could talk normally between contractions, but everytime I contracted I would get irritable with my husband, wave him away and bark, “Just get her to bed.” We couldn’t find a working watch or clock with a second hand. I took my ipod into the bath with me, thinking I could find a “contraction timing app” but I couldn’t concentrate enough to open the app store. My husband brought me a pen and paper and I timed from beginning of one to beginning of next. 4 3 2 3 3 3 2 3 3 3 3…. We timed for twenty minutes and called my doula back. My husband told her I’d had 8 contractions in 20 minutes. “That’s a lot!” She said, “You need to call your midwife.” In those 20 minutes, my contractions went from barely being able to feel the “start” to wincing and curling up against the peak. My midwife wanted to know how long the contractions were lasting, but we didn’t have a second hand. I told my husband to get my dad’s watch; he always has a second hand. The midwife said to time for 15 minutes, we timed for 8 and called her back. I told her I didn’t like how close together they were…it didn’t seem like I had much of a break. Meanwhile, my husband is getting antsy, he just wants to pack up the truck and go. The midwife said to come on in and she’d check my progress then we could decide whether we should stay at the birth center or check into a hotel and try to sleep.
We hang up the phone and my husband leaves to pack the truck. My contractions are really starting to intensify. I can barely get out of the bathtub, I have to get on my hands and knees for each contraction and it briefly crosses my mind to just ask the midwives to come here, but then I remember they can’t legally practice in Wyoming, so I heave myself up and out of the tub. I get dressed, fall to my knees for another contraction, walk out to the living room, fall to my knees for another contraction, walk to the mudroom, fall to my knees, put my shoes on, fall to my knees. My dad takes some pictures, fall to my knees, get back up and say, “You’d better get me to the truck.” I don’t want to have a contraction in the snow.
^Getting ready to drop for another contraction.^
The truck is packed and running. I can’t sit down so I ride facing backwards with my knees on the seat, my hands on the headrest, no seatbelt. It is 10:30 pm. At first, I am quiet through contractions. 20 miles down the road, I am moaning and groaning, rocking and swaying. Then, the section of rough, windy road: “Slow down! No bumps! NO BUMPS!!” I want music, but we can’t reach the birth music cd’s we’d just made, so my man plays whatever is already in the cd player. Dire Straits' “Walk of Life.” And then, a song that is totally WRONG. My man keeps skipping through, trying to find something that won’t annoy me.
With every contraction my lower abdomen makes a vice-grip on my torso, but mostly I feel the intense, downward pressure on my cervix, like a Volkswagon bus is trying to drive its way out. “This sucks,” I tell my husband, “I don’t think I can do this.” Next contraction, “This was a really bad idea. If this is early labor, I’m not going to make it.”
I am making primal, prehistoric animal sounds. My man is driving faster. And then, a feeling like the baby just sucker-punched me in the cervix…POP! Gush….. Oh. My water broke. So that’s what that feels like. We’re at antelope flats. Already? Pass a cop car with someone pulled over. Wondering if I’d actually go to the hospital for an epidural because there is NO WAY I can do this for 15 plus hours. Pulling into the birth center, seeing my midwife and doula with anxious looks on their faces, wondering about the state of the woman who is about to roll out of a big red truck. Husband walks me to the door, I step inside and fall to my hands and knees. I can feel my doula’s small, strong hands squeezing my hips and I instantly know we can do this. I’m pushing. I’ve been pushing with every contraction. I keep saying “I. JUST. WANNA. PUUUUUUSH!!!!!” I’m not sure if I should be pushing, I still think I’m in early labor. I feel like I sound like my two year old: I. WANNA. ANIMAL CRACKER!!!
Pushing is a force unto itself. The whole idea of NOT pushing is like trying to stop a tornado. The tornado is rolling through me and I go with it. I’m amazed by the force, by the impossibility of stopping it. They try to get me to stand, but I fall back down for another contraction. Between contractions, I can’t stand so I crawl. I’m trying to make it to the birthing suite. I have another contraction. Someone takes my shoes off. I briefly wonder how stinky my feet are.
^My shoes on the rug.^
My doula says the midwife has water filling the tub. My husband and doula help me stand and walk me to the blue room. The tub only has about 8 inches of water so far. That sucks. I fall down for another contraction. With each contraction I push when I say “PUUUUSH”: “I’m PUUUUUSHING!” Or, “I’M GONNA PUUUUSH!” Or, “I WANNA PUUUUSH!” My midwife asks if I’m feeling pushy or if it just feels good to push. I don’t know what the hell she means, but I remember this as though we were standing up looking each other in the face and having a civil conversation. My midwife says, “Get her pants off.” Someone hesitates. “Get her pants off,” she says again with the authority of a woman who has raised twelve children. I don’t know who takes my pants off, I think it’s my doula. Someone takes my shirt off, maybe my husband. My doula asks if I want to keep my bra on and I tell her I don’t care, but I’m also thinking I don’t want it to get wet because it’s the only one I brought. They take it off and help me in the tub. Between contractions I can hear my midwife hustling and ordering around the student midwife, telling her to get the oxygen tank and a flashlight and…. I get on my knees with my hands on the edge of the tub. I keep bellowing and pushing with each contraction but I’m still not sure if I should. I have no idea how far along I am. I hear my midwife say she wants to check my dilation so I don’t wear myself out pushing too early. I have to turn around and sit in the tub, that sucks. She checks me:
Midwife: "You’re there, sister."
Me: "What do you mean?"
Midwife: "You’re ten centimeters."
Me: "But how can that be? I just started."
I’m not sure what happened after that because another contraction rolls me back to my knees and I hear my doula’s soft voice in my ear, “You’re there. All you have to do now is push your baby out.” I quit talking about pushing and I just bellow and push. The whole time, I can feel my husband’s hands squeezing my hips. I’m making a lot of noise and I know this. I probably sound like I up and decided to try benchpressing four hundred pounds of free weight. My midwife tells me to try staying quiet and to focus my sounds downward to push my baby out. I try it for one contraction and I’m a little quieter. But it seemed like a three-step instruction she gave me and I can’t remember. Between contractions I say, “I forgot everything you just told me.” But I remember the part about focusing my air downward. I can feel the baby’s head like a giant, hard, round nut and my legs are the nutcrackers. I’m trying hard to keep my legs wide enough that I don’t crack the nut. I start to feel like I’m pushing out a bowling ball. Without thinking I reach down and touch the baby’s head. It’s odd to feel something down there that I can’t feel back, that isn’t mine. I keep pushing with each contraction and everybody starts telling me to, “Reach down and feel the baby’s head!” Everybody tells me this and I’m annoyed because I already did. Finally I bellow, “I ALREADY TOUCHED THE HEAD! I. JUST. WANNA. GETIT. OUT!!!!!!” I continue to push with each contraction. Then I feel a sharp stinging sensation that feels like my skin is going to split up to my bellybutton. I keep saying, “it stings” and my midwife says, “that’s because the baby’s head is crowning.”
And then, everything slows down. My contractions slow down and we just sort of hang out like that. My doula has my forehead in her hands. I just wait for another contraction because the idea of pushing without one is like trying to flex a muscle you don’t own. I can hear my midwife giving my husband instructions on how to catch the baby, but I don’t hear what she says. Then my midwife says, “Okay Gretchen, you don’t want to wait too long.” And then I understand that for my baby’s sake, I have to flex that muscle. I own it after all. I grunt and heave and puuuush and I can feel the baby dive into the water, I can feel the tangle of bony limbs unfold behind it and the baby slips out smooth and fast, held back only by the rope that still binds us. In my mind’s eye, I have a perfectly clear image of this: my baby slipping smoothly, quietly, from my body into the water. It’s 12:10 am.
A second later, I hear a cry. And then I hear a little bit of a struggle behind me and people talking about a short cord. There is some passing back and forth of the baby and I have to lift my leg over the umbilical cord to get in a sitting position. And then, the baby is brought to my chest, but low because the cord is short. And I look down at a swollen, squished, squinty-eyed, vernix-covered little face trying to open its eyes to this candle-lit world and we meet eye-to-eye for the first time.
Dumbly, I say “Hi. Hello. Oh my gosh. I can’t believe it.” And I think I repeat those words over and over. Finally I say, “I don’t even know what it is. Do you?” My husband says no, he hasn’t looked yet. My midwife says we’d better look. We hold the baby up and both say, “A girl! Oh my gosh! I can’t believe it. Another girl!” My midwife wants me to try pushing out the placenta, but my contractions are so small, it seems impossible. But I heave once more and feel a jellyfish slip from my body.
We alternate between oogling over our new baby girl and trying to get her to latch-on. Everyone comments on how round her head is; amazingly, she has no conehead. She is perfect. Wow. Sisters.
We can’t get her to latch-on right away so we drain the tub and wash up and move to the bed. My husband says, “You did it. You had a VBAC.” I hadn’t even thought about that. The baby is still too sleepy to latch-on and we start to worry because this happened with Juniper, who didn’t learn to nurse until she was six days old and we thought she was going to whither up and die. The midwife says, “You have to be forceful. Don’t take no for an answer.” Our doula says, “Just keep talking to her, she knows your voices.” We start to sing her Happy Birthday because she’s probably heard it five million times in utero while we were getting Juniper to sleep. Just like that, she is calm, but alert, and she starts to nurse.
The student midwife inspects my placenta and says, "Well Gretchen. You grow a mighty fine placenta." She shows us all the parts: organ, amniotic sac, umbilical cord. We are so impressed to see our daughter's home for the last nine months. Then she arranges the placenta and cord into the Tree of Life, and it really does look like a tree. Incredible.
^I tried to edit this photo enough that it wouldn't just look like a bloody organ. I hope you're not getting squeemish.^
After we are on our way to nursing success, she is inspected, measured and weighed. 8 pounds. 20 1/4 inches. Everything works. She's perfect.
Between the time I called my sister-in-law to see if she thought I was in labor, to the time I held a baby girl on my chest, 4 hours had passed. Between the time we stumbled into the birth center and the time my husband caught his baby girl, 40 minutes had passed. This was my first labor and I had fully been expecting a 36 hour marathon…at least the average 15. I never would have anticipated things to be so fast, and so intense. I told our midwives I couldn’t believe the hospital would have made me have a repeat cesarean. What a crock. I said, “I can birth a baby faster than they can get the OR prepared.”
We stayed that night at the birth center. My man fell into a deep sleep and I alternated between nursing and listening to little squeaks and chirps and that heavy, irregular, newborn breath. I kept going over the events of the day in my head. The midwives had figured I was in early labor at the grocery store.
^Photo taken the next morning. On the phone with my mom.^
The next day, my throat was raw and sore and my forehead felt like someone had hit me with a baseball bat—I must have been grinding my head into the tub’s edge until my doula saved me from myself.
Worst part: those bittersweet and STRONG afterpains that lasted for days and days. Most surprising part (besides rapid labor): for the first four days afterward, I felt like I gave birth through my rectum. Nobody ever talks about that. (My midwife said, “I know. We should include that in our birth class so it’s not such a shock.”)
We have an 8 pound baby girl. Not a huge baby, but not tiny either. And yet, for the first week I just couldn’t believe how small she is. I just don’t remember babies being so small. Now, I can’t believe something so big and perfect was just inside my body, like, last week. And I pushed her out. I pushed her out in the same way women have been pushing out babies all over the world, in every culture, since the beginning of humanity. How awesome, and impossible, and perfectly normal.
We stayed in a hotel the second night and the morning of the next day, we named her. Hazel Iris. Hazel is a name we’ve had picked out for a daughter since before we were married. Iris suits her, and ties her to the place where we will bury her placenta come spring. She has darkish hair, deep gray-blue eyes, my tiny mouth, my husband’s widow’s peak and my long-toed possum feet. She sleeps a lot, hardly ever cries, makes a lot of scrunchy faces and smells like a flower-scented breeze. Almost instantly, I could tell she has an old soul. This girl has seen the world before.
:: Homecoming: it took her several long minutes to grasp the idea, but when she did, Juniper loved on her new baby sister.