About 12 hours before I gave birth to Jack, I got high. Really, really high. This is how it happened.
All morning I had really strong contractions. I had been having regular Braxton Hicks contractions for the last two months of pregnancy, but these were quite strong. By lunch time, my husband decided to take me to the birth center to see if I was in labor. On the ride over, the contractions started to weaken. By the time we arrived, I knew in my heart it was a false alarm, but the midwives checked me anyway to see how far along I was. My due date was the next day. When I heard I was only 2 cm dilated, I cried. I had been 2 cm for 2 weeks. No change.
As I sat on the exam table, the midwives reminded me that prodromal labor is actually the beginning of the process of birth. It’s not a big fake-out, rather the early stage of my body preparing for birth. That’s when I got high.
All of a sudden the room got dizzy; all my aches and pains dissolved; my body went limp and I felt good. G-O-O-D! I felt happy-drowsy and it took me a few minutes to explain what was happening. The midwives laughed. A woman’s body doesn’t leave her stranded in agony during labor. It releases a cascade of endorphins and other feel-good hormones to counteract the pain. The few hours of strong contractions had signaled my brain to release these goodies, so I was left to enjoy them. For about an hour I felt like I was at a rave. Then I got really sleepy.
Andres went back to work, not wanting to take any extra time off before it was needed. I was left at home with Max who had turned 16 months old a few days earlier. Max was the biggest point of stress for me anticipating labor. I didn’t want him to see me in pain. I also didn’t want to have to deal with him at all during labor. I knew I would need to focus inward. Because his birth was relatively fast for a first time mother and second babies come quicker, I was worried about the timing. Also, if you recall from Max’s birth story, my labor was really strong and intense from the start. Throughout my whole pregnancy I worried about how to care for Max and be in labor by myself. I created a binder with contingency plans for every possible scenario.
While preparing Max’s dinner, I felt an intense twisting pain. It felt a lot like painfully trapped gas, so I kept shifting my body position to encourage its escape. Nothing helped. I barely managed to get Max’s meal in his bowl and his body in his high chair. I looked at the clock: 5:45. Andres got off at six o’clock. It seemed silly to call. Five breathless minutes more and I gave him a ring. “I need you to come home now.”
“Are you in labor?”
“I’m not sure, but I can’t…I can’t…I can’t take care of Max right now.” I was in the living room, watching Max silently eat his dinner alone in the dining room.
“I’m already on my way.” Andres later explained that his phone rang, figuring I wouldn’t bother calling ten minutes before his scheduled departure unless it was serious. When he arrived home, I directed him to just take care of Max and get him down as soon as possible. I was wincing and trying to breathe, but I couldn’t focus on myself until I knew Max was fine. Our pattern is dinner, bath, stories, bed, so Andres just rushed through the whole thing. I remember kissing my baby knowing that the next time I would see him his family position would be usurped. At 16 months he was elevated to the status of big brother.
I began using my hypno-birthing techniques. After being completely overwhelmed and feeling incredibly unprepared for Max’s birth, I went in the opposite direction for Jack. I enrolled in a hypno-birthing class that all but promised a painless birth. The course consisted of six CDs and an enormous textbook. For two and a half months, I devoted two hours a day to learning how to hypnotize myself. I mastered very advanced relaxation techniques, built a strong visualization and followed instructions to create “mental anesthesia” which I could use during birth.
With Max out of my arms, I turned on the special birth track and focused on what I had learned. I laid down on my bed and brought myself into a state of deep relaxation. Once Max was tucked in, Andres sat behind me, gently massaging my back. The lights were low and it was a very calming environment. I’m not sure how long it lasted, maybe an hour or so. Eventually, my breath got short, my back got worse and my contractions fell into a long and fast pattern.
My response: I got mad. The hypno-birthing technique I had spent so much effort learning wasn’t helping much. I got out of bed and paced around my living room fuming with fear-turned-anger. I moved quickly, trying to step out of my body. Step out of the growing pain in my back. This felt familiar. It felt like the back labor that had nearly broken me with Max. I didn’t honestly expect a painless birth, but I did expect some sense of pain relief and the ability to focus from my months of training. Instead, my brain was seething in rage that I would have to go through this again. Andres called a neighbor to sit on our couch while his sister drove over to watch Max.
We arrived at the birth center a little after 11 pm. An unfamiliar midwife helped me out of my car. I was taken aback. After being pregnant for two years, I knew all the midwives. She introduced herself as Amanda and explained she was a nurse-midwife whom Shari had asked to help out at the center for a few months. She had trained there years before, but now worked in hospitals. That was her first night back at the center. When she checked my dilation I was, you guessed it, 2 cm. No change from the afternoon.
That baffled me beyond belief. If this wasn’t labor, I didn’t know what was. I didn’t want to back home even though the birth center couldn’t admit me until I was 4 cm. Max’s babysitter had been called. She would have to stay because we would need her soon. We have a small home and I prefer a very private birth experience. While these worries raced through my mind, I was in very intense labor. Amanda didn’t say much, but she suggested that I stick around for an hour and see what happens. She thought my labor was strong and I might make enough progress to be admitted. I gladly accepted her offer, though I felt a lot of pressure to hurry up and dilate, because more than anything, I didn’t want to be sent home.
Andres put my hypno-birthing CD on the stereo. I tried my best to labor on both the toilet and the bed, but every time a contraction hit, I felt like I needed to crawl out of my body. Max’s birth had completely overwhelmed me, but I never knew what was coming. This second birth was terrifying because I knew what was coming, but refused to face it. Rather than giving me the confidence that I could endure, I was shaking with anger at the repetition. I felt like I had barely survived Max’s birth. To do it again was just too much. At one point I shouted, “I can’t do this for eight more hours!”
A student midwife answered, “Well, maybe you won’t have to.”
I liked that idea, but still, I seethed with undirected rage. Part of me even wanted to go to a hospital for an epidural, but I knew that form of relief would take more than it would give. At the birth center nobody takes a baby out of a mama’s arms, let alone out of her room. The alertness of Max after birth was stunning. Besides that, driving to the hospital and getting admitted would take time, so I would be suffering even more during the transfer. I decided to stay, but something had to give. I was spinning out of control and I knew I had to get a grip.
“I think this hypno-birthing is kind of bullshit, don’t you?” I asked Amanda.
She looked me dead in the eye and said, “I think you really need to let go of that.” In that instant she reminded me of my Aunt Bridget. There was a strong physical resemblance, but an even stronger energetic similarity. Bridget is my atheist godmother who possesses the skill of a zen master at letting things go. She genuinely moves through life with a graceful acceptance of whatever it brings. I am the opposite. I am passionate and controlling, but those qualities weren’t helping me with the task at hand. The reminder of Bridget, who was a nurse who birthed four babies naturally and without the help of a doctor, was exactly what I needed.
I closed my eyes, took a few breaths and went deep inside of myself. I connected to my strength and my ability to control myself. When the world is spinning, it’s easy to get caught up in the motion and forget that that we have the ability and responsibility to control ourselves. I didn’t have to be in a state of perpetual reaction. I accessed the deep part of me that is perpetually calm. I made a decision to let go of my expectations and connect and cooperate with my body. I opened my eyes, told Andres to change the music to the African lullabies I used during Max’s birth. I undressed and stepped into the birth tub and got on my hands and knees.
During my prenatal visits one of the student midwives warned me that because Max turned posterior during birth, Jack might as well. She said that might simply be the exit route through my pelvis. I shuddered at the idea and did everything I could to avoid it, but my back labor let me know that her prediction had come true. This time around I knew to get on my hands and knees. (Note: the midwives are not to blame for me not being in this position for Max. Every time I tried to move, I couldn’t handle it.)
I decided to listen to my body completely at this point. During Max’s labor I flailed around looking for help. I followed directions not to push before I was fully dilated, even though every fiber in my being longed to. The second time around, I decided to trust my instincts and it ended up being one of the most extraordinary births.
I used my ability to deeply relax my body during most of my contractions. I muttered to myself my homemade birth mantra, allow, allow, allow. I tried my best to get out of my body’s way. It knew what it was doing. My job was to try not to resist the process. I relaxed and allowed my baby to move towards life.
I held on to that state as long as I could, but invariably, at the end of each contraction, I gave a little jolt of a push and shouted out, “FUCK!” I didn’t like the idea of cursing during birth, but it felt truly satisfying and oddly refreshing. I kept up with this pattern on my hands and knees: relax, relax, relax, then a curse and an unauthorized push. And then…
You should have heard that sound. It sounded like a rocket shot out of me. Felt like it too. The room fell to stunned silence.
“What happened?” I asked.
“Oh, my God,” someone said. “I’ve never seen that before. You just pushed your water sac right out.”
Because I was in the tub, I didn’t feel it. Two births and I never felt my water break. Hmm… I guess the movies are wrong. I continued with my pattern. Mirabel, the midwife who helped me through my entire pregnancy arrived. The midwives were fiddling around, checking my dilation. I was terrified I would be sent home. It had been about an hour.
“OK,” Mirabel said. ”Go ahead and turn around and sit so Andres can sit behind you.”
“No, I like it like this. Am I dilated to 4 yet? I don’t want to go home.”
“You’re not going home,” she laughed. “You’re having your baby right now.”
Shocking! I guess I didn’t have to wait eight hours. I sat down with Andres behind me. His arms enveloped me in an embrace. A few strong pushes and Jack tumbled out of me and immediately was placed in my arms, surrounded by his daddy’s arms. His first moments of life were spent in both his parents’ embrace.
Words are failing me here. I can not describe how incredibly beautiful this birth was. From the moment I decided to trust my instincts, it was absolutely exquisite. The natural dance of mother and child brought a quiet to the bustling room. This was deep in the middle of the night. There was candlelight and soft lullabies from a far off land playing in the background. The sacredness of life entering this world was honored by all.
After some time, we got out of the tub. Andres cut the umbilical cord and Jack nursed right away. His eyes were wide open taking in his family and his new blurry world. When he was measured a few hours later and needed to be removed from my arms, he cried. At the sound of my voice, he hushed, recognizing his mama from the start.
Later I learned three extraordinary facts about this birth. One was that on subsequent births, a lot of women seize up at the whatever was the most difficult aspect of their first birth. For me, that was the contractions. I was told a story of a woman who had five children. After the first birth, whenever she was told to push, she refused. That was her hard part and she needed to be coaxed into it. The second thing I learned was that there is some research that pushing early in labor when a baby is in a posterior position sometimes gives the baby the umph it needs to get through the pelvis and correct its position. By following my instinct, I had done this. In all, I went from 2 cm to a baby in my arms in one hour and thirty seven minutes.
The third thing I learned came when I asked about the actual moment of Jack’s birth. If you recall, I used the verb, tumbled, out of me. It was like he did a somersault into life. Amanda explained that his umbilical cord was short and wrapped tightly around his neck. This was unknowable until the actual moment of birth. When she tried to reach it over Jack’s head, it wouldn’t budge. She and Mirabel used an old midwife technique called a granny choke to move Jack’s head to the side and allow his body to exit mine. Once he was out, the cord was easily uncoiled. Because so few doctors ever witness normal, vaginal births these days, I wonder if a doctor would have known what to do. I doubt it. Jack could have died, or I could have been mutilated to save him had we gone with a medical birth. The midwives’ vast experience, quick thinking and cool confidence kept my birth safe and natural. As it was always meant to be.
We rested a bit at the birth center. I nursed Jack five times. I ate a meal and went to the bathroom a lot. At dawn we left. We were home in time to eat breakfast with Max, while I nursed his baby brother. We were a family.