You know how you hear those stories on daytime talk shows about girls not realizing they’re pregnant and having babies at high school proms or other wildly inappropriate places? Have you said to yourself, “there’s no way I could ever just not know I was pregnant?” Yeah, me too.
Have you eaten much crow in your life? I really don’t recommend it. Tough and gamey…
I knew I was pregnant with our first child almost immediately. I felt a tingling, a spark of something new inside my body. With our second child, I seriously thought I was dying of some dread illness. For real. I spent nearly three months unable to eat, nauseous, out of energy, waking up with a funny taste in my mouth that wouldn’t go away. I couldn’t even drink Cokes, for God’s sake!
In December, my husband bought (yet another) pregnancy test and begged me to please shut up and take it. Convinced I’d just be proving him wrong, I harumphed off to the bathroom.
Remember what I said about crow? Yeah, so this was the first course…
Pregnant. An ultrasound a few days later showed that I wasn’t just a little pregnant – I was nearly 12 weeks already (that’s 3 months or so for you cretins who didn’t pass elementary math and look at ladies who speak in weeks like we’re spouting some strange, new language.) I’d faked my way through the entire first trimester, convinced I had a stomach tumor or some intestinal disease. When the tech first put the ultrasound wand on my belly, the baby immediately jumped into view, and I swear the little critter WAVED at us. “Helloooo!”
Another ultrasound several weeks later showed a room full of ultrasound techs, their instructor and me what everyone plainly saw – my baby was a girl. We were terribly excited. My daughter, who is four, had been talking for years about a sister – she really, really wanted a sister pretty much as soon as she realized that such things exist. And lo, here we see on an ultrasound the sister our daughter has been waiting nearly her whole life to meet.
I arranged for a friend who is an excellent midwife to come to our little tropical paradise in the summer to enjoy a vacation and to coincidentally catch my baby. Our EDD as given by that first ultrasound was July 7. As things progressed, I started re-evaluating that ultrasound-given date. I remembered our conception date quite clearly (things like that stand out when you have an active and inquisitive four year old who is only rarely occupied with something long enough for conception to take place.) I also finally remembered the date of my last cycle – which I could not recall – and those two things together proved that the July 7 date was off by as much as two weeks. So my midwife decided to make the trip down earlier – toward the end of June – and we adjusted my EDD to around June 26 instead.
As June came to a close, all of my plans started to come together. My best friend was able to make the drive down to assist with my labor. She brought her 6 year old daughter with her to help keep my daughter entertained so I could relax. The same midwife who delivered that 6 year old would be delivering my new baby – and the last time we were all gathered together was for the birth of that little girl, so it was a pretty cool reunion. My husband had been an amazing support for me (literally) during our daughter’s birth and I could see him starting to feel anxious the closer to the due date we got – and then as we moved past it. So I asked another friend of ours who lived with us for awhile – and who was also present back in December when I took that pregnancy test, in fact – to join our birth party to provide a bit of a support system for my husband. I could tell he needed someone – and I knew in labor I would not be able to be that person.
When my CPM arrived in town on June 25th, we did a belly exam and I permitted her to do a vaginal exam just to get an idea about how my cervix might be progressing. I’d been having lots of Braxton Hicks contractions for weeks. She could tell from the belly exam that baby was cephalic (head down) and very low behind my pubic bone. We took this picture the next evening, and you can actually see baby’s position in my belly:
Yes, I’m performing with a band at 40w pregnant. It was awesome. And yes, I’m also holding a glass (one) of wine in my hand. But the point is that if you really look, you can see the outline of the baby, head down, angling off toward my left ribs. That’s not a trick of the light or something on my shirt – what you think you can see is absolutely what you’re really seeing. It’s also a prime position for a baby to be in for labor.
So I’m at full term, and I’m walking around 4 or so cm dilated and effaced to about 80% or so. Completely ready for labor, in other words. We checked a few more times in the following days, and the story was the same. Every night, I’d start having toning contractions at about 10pm or midnight and they’d continue all night until about 4 or 5am, when they’d finally slack off (or I’d fall asleep.) I was restless, pacing around the house like a tiger in a cage. My birth team was assembled and ready. All of our supplies were set out and prepared. All systems were go – but labor just didn’t seem to want to start.
At 41 weeks, we all took a trip to the beach for the day. It was the first of July and the weather was amazing. I couldn’t believe how good I felt for someone so terribly pregnant – and getting only about 6 or so hours of sleep at night. We had a great day in the water and I got my bestie to take some pictures of me. I’m glad I did – this is the last belly shot taken before labor started that evening.
I’ve written extensively about my feelings on interventions in pregnancy and how they often lead to unplanned for medical issues and procedures. I’m a strong advocate for unmedicated, intervention-free labor and birth. If you want to read more, check out this post I wrote a few months ago. I say that because the very next thing I’m going to tell you is that I decided to ask my CPM for a little assistance getting labor started – something that I would have told you I’d never do had you asked me back when I wrote that post. But I had a very good reason – on July 9th, my CPM had to return home. I didn’t have a backup midwife, I didn’t want to wind up with an unassisted birth nor did I want to wind up birthing with strangers in a hospital. So she and I chatted, and based on her advice, I allowed her to strip membranes. I knew full well that my body was ready for labor, my baby was ready – but birth trauma that I experienced in the third stage of my first birth had me feeling anxious and afraid. I think that fear was what kept shutting down prelabor before it could turn into the real thing. And I also knew going into it that if baby was NOT ready, a membrane strip would not be an effective means of starting labor.
At around dinnertime on July 1, Candace (my CPM) did what she called one of the best, easiest membrane strips she’d ever done. Within minutes of her walking out the door, I started having stonger-than-before contractions that were about ten minutes apart. I called my husband and his friend, both of whom were out running errands, and told them not to rush, but just to be prepared – baby girl was on her way and would likely be coming earthside that night.
Rebecca (the best friend) made an awesome dinner for me. If you’ve ever wondered what labor at home looks like, it starts out looking something like this:
I downloaded a contraction timer to my iPhone. Since Candace had left to go eat and try to turn in early for some sleep, my contractions had been about ten minutes apart and lasted for about a minute each. Labor can go on like that for hours. Just before she left, she told me to eat a good dinner and “have sex – lots of it if you can.”
As it turns out, sex is the best natural tool at our disposal to kickstart labor. Semen contains prostaglandins – hormones that stimulate the cervix to ripen, and orgasm causes uterine contractions. Both of those things together can put a body on the edge into active labor. Even WebMD says so. To paraphrase natural childbirth icon Ina May Gaskin, what got the baby in there will also get it out.
Contractions that were ten minutes apart had petered out to half an hour or so apart. After Jason (my husband) got home…and got down to business…contractions sprang to 2 minutes apart. Things were starting to get interesting. The entire birth party was assembled moments later when our friend Chris arrived, whiskey in hand (for the birth team, not for me…the irony of this did not escape me.) We were as ready as any group of friends can be:
I had my timer in hand – two minutes apart, each still lasting about a minute. But these were still early contractions – I could still talk and laugh during them. They weren’t a walk in the park, but they weren’t “the real thing” just yet. So I sat on my birth ball and set about trying to relax into each contraction.
Rebecca joked that Chris was a natural Doula. Then we giggled as we tried to explain to him what a Doula is. My husband asked if I felt like playing some Halo. At first, I declined – I didn’t think I could concentrate. But then he said, “what, you mean you don’t want to play versus and chase me down with a shotgun?” When he put it like that…
In all honesty, I sat there and set the game up – picked a board, picked out weapons, picked out secondary weapons – but then had to get up and move during a contraction that sent me over the edge. I suddenly couldn’t focus, couldn’t chat freely, and Rebecca heard me moan in the other room. She came in and helped me prep the bed with the fleece-lined table cloth and sheets. Our Halo game never happened. But this did:
Rebecca and I agreed that once my contractions got down to a minute apart and were strong enough that I had to make noise through them – three of those in a row – it would be time to call Candace. It’s nice knowing your midwife is a mile away and napping in preparation for your birth. Sometime around 1am, it was time to call Candace.
I laid down while I knew I still could. My pattern of labor with my first had been to walk and walk, only stopping to rock and sway through each contraction. I spent about half an hour or so lying in bed, holding hands with Rebecca through contractions, dozing off between them, waiting for Candace to arrive and check on things. Not long after this picture was taken, the first gush of water happened as my bag of waters gradually started leaking. The fun and games portion of our evening had come to a close.
Once that water showed up, I knew contractions would become more powerful. I was ready for it, while at the same time being completely unprepared. We never realize, do we? We just don’t remember – and that lack of memory is our greatest blessing.
The hard work began. My cervix didn’t want to open all the way. After weeks of preparation and early dilation, early effacement, that last anterior lip – the same one I pushed against for hours with my first baby – was back. Candace checked me and said I needed to work naturally against it for awhile before she could help me. She wanted me to go sit on the toilet through contractions. I wanted to stand through contractions, and sitting on the toilet through them felt like agony. I didn’t want agony. I wanted fearlessness. I wanted strength. Sitting on the toilet felt scary and weak – because it hurt more. Because it wasn’t “my way” – and because it just felt all wrong. But I respect Candace so much, and I know she knows what’s best, so I did it.
Every moment in that place was difficult. I would stay as long as I could, then I would have to go. I wandered from the bathroom to the bedroom and back again. When I was in the bedroom, I would sit back on the bed between contractions, then rise up and have my husband hold me while I groaned and moaned and…let’s face it…yelled my bloody head off.
Powerful waves pounding me. Picking me up and crashing me on the shore that was my sweet, lovely bed. Just when I’d start to feel comfortable and restful, another would creep up on me, clenching and grinding and building and grasping. All the while, I could feel my baby still riding “too high” inside me – not descending the way I needed it to. I tried to go out to our backyard pool, but once I got there, the water felt too cold and I didn’t even climb in. I made my way back to the bedroom. Candace kept gently reminding me to go back to the toilet. To let that position help open things up and bring baby down. I tried. I tried harder than I tried to do anything in my life. In the end, I found myself back on my bed, flat on my back, in the absolute last position I wanted to be in to give birth. I started to lose the faith. I thought longingly of all those women in all the hospitals of the world at that same moment, hooked up to tubes full of mind and body-numbing drugs that could make all of this go away.
Then I would think about what that meant to me – what giving in would mean to me – and I would fight through another contraction. One at a time. I know my husband was there with me. I know I saw Rebecca come and go, I saw Chris come and go – both of them full of concern, full of encouragement. I gripped Jason’s hands, hung from his arms, crouching and pushing against contractions, willing baby down. Willing that cervix to open. Willing the pain to break, to crest each time and collapse over me. And each time it did.
After what felt like a lifetime of coping and working and fighting, Candace checked me again and said she was able to help me overcome that last lip of cervix. It felt horrific and fantastic all at the same time. Terrific pain that was going to result in all of this finally being over. When she stood up, she told me I’d feel baby drop into my bottom on the next contraction and could start pushing for real when I was ready.
When I was ready.
I stood up. On my own two feet. I turned and faced that nice, soft, cushy bed where my daughter had come into the world four and a half years before. I got OFF of my back. I got out of my head. I turned my back on everyone in the room, on everything in my way. I decided once and for all to say, “Fuck you” to the fear – and I started pushing my baby into the world.
On the next contraction, I grabbed my bed with my hands and squatted down into it – pushing as hard as it felt like I needed to – which was as hard as I could.
I grunted and cried out like a woman coming apart. Because I was coming apart. I could feel the separation. I could nearly hear the grinding groan of my hip bones creaking apart. As that contraction abated, I stood up and readied myself for the next one. No lying down. No resting. No giving up or giving in or taking comfort. The time for comfort and weakness was over.
I pushed. And I pushed. I felt the ring of fire and I told everyone in the room. “Ring of fire…here she comes, Candace.” And when I couldn’t possibly take any more, I pushed even harder.
I heard Rebecca say, “I see your baby’s head, Tracy. I see your baby’s hair!” Of course she did – because I felt it. I knew right where my baby was, and I felt absolutely in control. Maddened a bit by pain, but owning every second of it.
I didn’t even wait for the next contraction. I gathered everything I had and I pushed until I felt the head come clear. You know when you’ve pushed the baby’s head out because the baby’s neck feels so freaking glorious after the unbelievable power of the baby’s head leaving your body. One big push got the crown, the second big push delivered the head. I gathered myself again for the next. On that third monstrous push, I felt baby’s shoulders, and I kept pushing, knowing it was the end. This last push, everything I had (because anyone who tells you the head is the hardest part has never paid attention to how fucking hard it is to push out those shoulders.) I felt the shoulders, I felt the tiny tear I learned about later, I felt the release that comes once the shoulders are clear and I heard Candace say, “Tracy, catch your baby.”
“I can’t. I’ll fall.”
I was bracing my entire body on my arms and legs. If I’d let go to catch, I’d have fallen flat on my face. But I looked down. And in that moment, I saw my sweet baby’s face looking up at me. Body still inside my body, sweet face with a head full of hair looking up at me. I’m coming, Mama. I heard my baby cry before the legs were delivered. “You catch her.”
And it was over. I was free. Baby was free. My legs started trembling, but I forced them to hold me. Candace said, “Tracy, you need to look closely at your baby” as she passed the baby between my legs to lie on the bed in front of me.
Oh my God, my baby. There’s my baby. And my baby, that sweet baby girl I’ve been talking to for months, singing to, calling by name…is a boy.
He’s a boy. And he’s perfect. He’s connected to me still – his lifeblood pumping into him from the placenta still inside of me, the light in the room offending every ounce of his being, crying out at the injustice of it all. He’s my baby boy.
I sat back on the bed, that blessedly comfortable bed I’d been trying to avoid lying in for so long and could finally allow myself to collapse into…my baby boy.
I pulled my shirt off, ready to put his sweet skin against mine. The bathing suit top I’d worn under it all night the only thing between us. I pulled it off, too, wanting to allow him to do a breast crawl if he could.
It was unreal. That tiny body squirming, the little head turning – he shouldn’t be able to do that! – but there he is doing it. He wriggled and he worked and he turned and he found and then missed and then found again. His first latch was weak but it was there, and he found his way without assistance from anyone.
Because really, this baby boy had come into the world on *his* terms, not mine. Not a doctor’s terms nor a midwife’s. Certainly not an ultrasound’s terms. We were all expecting one thing, and he showed us something else entirely.
“Yes, I have tricks in my pocket, I have things up my sleeve. But I am the opposite of a stage magician. He gives you illusion that has the appearance of truth. I give you truth in the pleasant disguise of illusion.”
— Tennessee Williams, The Glass Menagerie