I have meant to write this since Max’s birth, nearly three years ago. It should be easy to tell; I know the story so well, but each time I try to capture the moment I became a mother, words fail me. This is when the limitations of language come into play. Everything I write will sound like a cliche. I am bound to use words like: amazing, miracle, awe, precious. The writer in me winces at their banality, but the mother in me understands those overused, cliched words are the closest I could ever come to describing the (here goes) absolute miracle of birth.
8 Hours, 24 Minutes
That was the time it took for me to become a mother. That plus, 39 weeks and 5 days of pregnancy, but hey, who’s counting? Max was born at the Miami Maternity Center. My labor was all natural without even a tab of Tylenol to block the pain. I am not a glutton for punishment. I am a world-class whiner when it comes to even the slightest aches and pains of life. I am a strong person as all women, particularly all mothers are, but it wasn’t until I brought a child to life that I realized the depth of my strength.
I chose to birth with midwives primarily because I needed emotional support during my pregnancy. A new bride, my family lived 3,500 miles away and the only close friend I made in Miami moved away just before my wedding. After a few visits with a nice, but aloof OB, it occurred to me that he might not even recognize me in a line at the grocery store, yet he was invited to be at the most important moment of my life. It just didn’t feel right. I decided to check out the Miami Maternity Center. As I researched it I recalled Shari Daniels, the main midwife as the star of the show House of Babies on Discovery Heath. I had watched some episodes years before and felt like she was the Dog Whisperer of babies. She is one of the few people who are so intertwined in their unique niche that their single life enriches our entire society. I was apprehensive at first, but after touring the facility and answering an hour’s worth of my what if questions, I decided to give birth not in a cold, sterile hospital, rather the warm, friendly House of Babies.
My pregnancy was normal and healthy. I had every single symptom exactly when my pregnancy book said I would. I attended childbirth classes with my husband and read countless birth stories in Ina May’s Guide to Natural Childbirth. I even read about ecstatic birthing, learning that some women experience an orgasm during birth. Sign me up! I’m an optimist and thought I might be one of the lucky few. My breathing and relaxation techniques were top notch from years of yogic training. I felt confident that I would be able to relax my way through the pain. I planned a water birth for pain relief and thought that would be enough.
I was wrong.
My labor started late in the evening. I passed my bloody show, and within an hour I was in full-blown labor. It came hard and fast. My contractions started at 5 minutes apart. I never had the chance to settle into them and focus on my breath. I didn’t even have a chance to call my mom. I was completely overwhelmed. Full of so many powerful sensations, I labored on our toilet in case my water broke, but also because so much downward pressure made me feel like I wanted to pee, even though I wasn’t. I winced and twisted on the toilet for about an hour.
Andres tried his best to be a great labor coach. He spouted off loving cheers of encouragement, but he was also overwhelmed. I felt guilty, but hearing his voice wasn’t all that helpful to me. This was his first child too, so we were both clueless. I was also surprised that hearing a man’s voice really bothered me. I loved him; I wanted him there, but ultimately birth is a woman’s domain. I needed the sisterhood of motherhood to guide me through labor.
After about an hour at home we knew we were in over our heads, so Andres drove me to the birth center. That sounds so neat and tidy, but it wasn’t. Because my contractions were so close together, he only had small pockets of time to prepare for us to leave. All that needed to be done was take my meal out of the freezer. Put our cell phones and chargers in the baby bag. Put the baby bag into the car and prepare the front seat with towels and pillows for me. My water still hadn’t broken. This list was accomplished in racing 20 second intervals between my screams. During my contractions, I needed him right there with me, looking me in the eye and allowing me to squeeze his hand. When I felt the contraction let up, I dismissed him to run to the next task, only to call for him a few seconds later.
This is the part of my labor that could be twisted to make a sitcom. Andres rushing around in 20 second intervals trying to get the car ready for our trip to the maternity center. Me calling him back before he has a chance to get anything done, then getting upset that he’s taking so long. Me digging my mitts as tight as I could into his hands during contractions as some outlet for pain. It’s easy how this scene could be contorted into a canned laugh-a-minute.
The funniest part would be when I got frustrated by his words of encouragement. I knew he was trying really hard to say what I wanted to hear, but at that moment, nothing he could say could be right. Then he stumbled on a sentence that drove me batty. I let it go the first time, but the second time he beseeched me to, “think of our love,” I lost it. I did not want to be one of those angry, cursing women in labor, but this phrase was a wet cat pet backwards to me. Through grit teeth, I said as calmly as I could muster, “Stop talking about our love.”
That was as I was twisting in the car on our way to the birth center. The open squat of sitting on the toilet was much more comfortable than any position I could find in the car. It was a 20 minute agonizing ride up I 95 . All I wanted was to be there, where I knew the midwives would take care of me and the warm water of the birthing tub would ease my pain.
When I arrived, I was at my complete wits end. I was checked and much to my dismay, I was only 2 cm dilated. I had been 1 1/2 cm for the previous 2 weeks, so that meant nothing had really happened. The Maternity Center doesn’t admit anyone until they are 4 cm because they need women to be in active labor. Also Florida State law requires a baby to be born within 24 of admission for non-medical births, so the midwives don’t want to start the clock too early and wind up transferring care to a hospital unnecessarily. That was all fine and good and I knew those facts before I arrived, but I felt like I was barely hanging on as it was. The knowledge that I hadn’t even quite begun shook my confidence to the core.
What happened next is one of the greatest reasons I love midwives. My midwife went in the other room and asked a mother who had just given birth if I could see her baby. She was just a few hours old. The new mom allowed me to meet her and her daughter. She gave me a few words of encouragement which could not have come from a better source as she had literally just experienced what I was going through. My visit was brief, but gave me a strong reminder of the reason for my pain: the baby that was coming at the end. After talking to the new mom, I felt a jolt in my body and I bolted to the toilet where I threw up. My contractions, which had eased, came back. My midwife checked me again. In about a half an hour I had dilated another centimeter. Progress, but not enough. We were sent home.
Pretty much as soon as we got home, labor kicked into yet another level of the most intense experience. Even before I adjusted to what seemed like maximum intensity possible, it doubled. I just couldn’t get on top of my experience. At home, I went straight to the toilet. My contractions were now about 4 minutes apart, but they also never really felt like they let up. My back started to ache. The contractions got longer in duration. And here is where a sitcom would steal material from me once again.
There I was, sitting, rather gyrating, on the toilet. Each contraction put me over the edge and all I could think to do was flail my arms around, grab whatever was in reach and throw it. I could not help myself. Andres was the gold star hero in this scene, calmly guiding me through the craziness by allowing me to mangle one of his hands while he stealthily moved any breakables out of reach. I think I even chuckled once at the absurdity, but another contraction hit and I started throwing stuff again. I guess a primordial part of me thought if I’m going down, I’m taking whatever I can with me.
We weren’t home even an hour before we headed back out. This was a huge relief to me because the sun was rising. I was terrified of being caught in rush hour traffic during labor. Being in the car was Hell for me. I gripped the lever on top of the car ceiling with both hands and hung on like I was on a subway train blasting through a tunnel at rocket speed in one of those blockbuster summer movies.
This is where I lose a little time. I remember a few midwives helping me walk inside, but it’s all very blurry. At this point I was completely out of control and out of my mind. My water broke at some point, but I never even felt it. The midwives asked me when it happened, but I was simply shocked that it had. How did I miss that? They checked me. I was at seven cm. Ten minutes later I was at 8 1/2 cm. The water was run for my birth. I was convinced that it would be the pain relief I needed.
The birthing tub ended up being a mixed bag for me. The heat of the water did alleviate some pain, but the water pressure fet like added pressure to my contractions. The tub was large and I got in naked. Andres wore swim trunks and got behind me. His job was to press as hard as he could into my lower back at all times. The second he would relax his hands, the pain became unbearable and I would call for him to keep the pressure. His hands were raw by the time Max was born.
In Andres’ version of this story, his hands would cramp and he’d take just a few seconds to adjust and get some relief. Every time he did this, he would get hollered at. Finally it dawned on him that no one in the room cared about his pain and he wouldn’t be entitled to a break until the end of my labor. Daunting as that realization was, he bucked up and trooped through.
After maybe a half an hour in the water I was already at 9 cm. Officially, it was the stage of labor called transition. For me, it was just labor. After all that rapid dilation, I got stuck in transition for 5 hours.
5 HOURS OF 9 CM TRANSITION LABOR!
Ouch is an understatement.
Topping it all off, it was back labor. This is what back labor feels like: being set on fire and stabbed at the same time. Although Max had been in the correct position all the way through my pregnancy, he flipped over during labor so he was in a posterior position. That meant that in between my very close together contractions, the pain NEVER let up. It was constant and I feared it would consume me.
Actually the pain wasn’t the worst part. The hardest thing was dealing with the intensity of the moment. This is also what made it completely amazing. It was all electricity. My body was electricity. The shock, power and awe of the very essence of life embodied me. I was the conduit of creation. As common as it is for life to enter the world, each individual entrance into life carries the full force of divinity and chasm side by side. I, and my baby, dangled on the tightrope of life and death. It was just as when the world was created and an explosion occurred as something burst out of nothing Every cell, every neuron and electron, were supercharged and I felt suddenly very small. A tiny, unprepared girl being swallowed by the universe.
That’s when I met Pam. Pam was a gentle midwife student who was just about to graduate. Her shift began just as I was losing myself. Her calm voice and knowing eyes guided me back from the edge. She used the analogy of surfing a wave to teach me how to pull myself up and out of the crushing intensity I was experiencing. When she sensed me faltering, she would gently tell me to, “Stay on top of your wave. Don’t let it take you down. Stay on top of it. Ride it. You can do it.”
Eleven years earlier I had leaned to surf of the shores of Waikiki Beach where a man named Eddie Spaghetti had taught me to do just that.
It wasn’t just her words, but also her quiet confidence that made me trust her when she told me I had deep reservoirs of strength. Labor was not what I had expected it to be. As one midwife so aptly told me later, “Labor is harder than the hardest thing you think it could be.” Because mine came on so strong and fast, I lost myself in the rush. Just as a drowning person reaches out for a savior, so did I flail about hoping the midwives would carry me up and out of my experience. In a way they did that. They guided me through it, but they also taught me to dig deep within myself.
By mid-morning, I was exhausted. Labor at night made sense to me, but as the sun’s brightness streamed through the drawn curtains, it felt like it should be over. At this time Shari came into the room to check on me. She felt that my cervix had a lip, so she offered to guide the baby’s head around it while also turning the baby’s head so my little sunshine wouldn’t be born sunny-side up.
That was exactly what I wanted to hear. From almost the moment I had entered the tub, my body had wanted to push. Every fiber in my being told me to do so, but the midwives cautioned me against it until I was fully dilated. If you push too early, you can swell your cervix, delaying delivery even longer. But ignoring my every instinct was hard. I kept pursing my lips like I was blowing out a candle to prevent myself from bearing down. The moment I was finally given the green light to go, I was ready.
I roared like a lion and pushed with all my might!
Seriously, it was a full-on jungle lion roar. I was genuinely shocked that I didn’t have a baby in my arms by the end of it because there was that much force behind it. Fun fact: did you know that a woman uses 4 tons of force to push a baby out? I felt it!
The midwives quickly corrected my technique. Who knew? I was directed to crunch inward rather than arch my back. They added that roaring wasted energy that could better be put into the push. I gladly followed their suggestions. That one gigantic roar had been powerful enough to wipe away my pain and fatigue from labor. I was starting fresh at the end.
It took me a few tries to really get the hang of effective pushing, but I loved it. I felt strong, capable and productive. For some reason, I knew pushing would be easy for me and not take very long. At one point, Pam told me to reach down to feel my baby’s hair. Well, that stopped labor for a moment.
Hair? I was shocked. All babies in my family are bald, sometimes for a whole year after birth. It took another contraction to pull me back into the task at hand. It was getting closer. Hair, already tangible. My heart fluttered. A really real baby was almost here. My really real baby was almost here. That, in itself, felt unreal.
After a few more pushes, I was casually told that my baby’s heartbeat had slowed a bit. Shari would be better able to manipulate me if I was out of the water. I was not in the least bit afraid. The midwives’ calm assurance and my trust in their abilities was absolute. Getting me out of the tub and onto the bed a few feet away was quite a challenge. My contractions were still fast and furious so we had to move quickly in between them. Just out of the water I felt one coming. Angela told me to put my arms around her. I warned her that I was going to take her down, and she told me that was fine.
That’s just what I did in my one upright push. We bent our legs and pushed into a deep squat. After that I was suddenly on the bed, ready to have my baby.
But where was Andres?
I didn’t know what happened to him. There were a lot of people in the room at the time and I was pretty much out of my mind. I thought maybe he was toweling off and getting dressed which annoyed me. I later learned that a midwife had pulled him out of the room to explain that the baby was in distress, but would be fine and not to worry. He wasn’t worried, but he was eager to be with me. I felt a contraction coming. I called for him, but also said I wasn’t going to wait. This needed to be over.
And it was. Angela got on top of the bed and helped me push down with her hands. Pam maintained her eye-contact and calm directions. One big push and my Maximilian Felipe Cofiño began his life on Earth right in his father’s arms. Andres was honored to catch his first born son. At that moment I didn’t know it was Max. It could have been Luciana Francesca Cofiño. We had wanted a surprise. This was how I learned I had a son.
After pushing with all my might, I heard a cry and looked up. It was just like (I kid you not) the scene in the Lion King where Mufasa holds up baby Simba for everyone to see. Of course Max couldn’t have been held up above everyone’s head, but from my vantage point he was held up high to Heaven. His genitals were swollen from the hormones of birth and I announced my son’s arrival myself. This is the first thing I shouted in uproarious, spontaneous joy:
It’s a boy! I have a boy! I love my baby boy!
And ever thereafter, I was a mother.