The Journey Home - A Lesson In Compassion
My first son was born in a hospital with an OB. It was a fine birth after a long labor at home with a doula and my husband Len. I got to the hospital shortly before having him, so there was no time to do very much to me I simply had my baby, a 7lb 7oz boy we named Leo. That is not to say that I wasn’t treated as though my pregnancy was a disease, but overall the doctor was very respectful and supportive of my wishes and the birth was empowering. The pushing, on my back, was horrific and I needed a lot of stitches. Recovery in the hospital was all about fighting to keep my baby with me. The postpartum period was difficult and lonely at first. Still, birth transformed me.
When I became pregnant for the second time, I knew I wanted a midwife. I opted for a free-standing birth center. My care was less fear-based than the first time, less tests and worries, a more informed me. The labor was lovely, fun even - like a slumber party. Pushing was still frightening and painful, but I was so proud when I pulled my son, Oliver - all 9lb 2oz of him - free from my body and cut his cord myself. But still, we had to get up and go home & then we were on our own, with no at-home follow up care. By the time he was two days old, it was business as usual. I recall wandering around Whole Foods and forgetting what I needed to buy, but feeling that I should be up to the task.
We had decided that our family was complete with two sons. But I was so drawn to birth and it’s power that I left my full time work as an attorney to become a birth doula and childbirth educator. Then I had a powerful dream of birthing in a dark room, kneeling in a tub, facing two women. This was followed by other dreams about having another baby. Around this time, my husband began feeling that there might be one more child out there who wanted to be born to us, so we decided to be open and welcome another soul to our family. Soon after, I became pregnant. I knew that I wanted to have this baby at home if all went well. And I always said that: “ if all goes well”, like a talisman to protect me. I guess I thought that as long as I was acknowledging that something could go wrong then I would be OK and get to have my baby at home - no need for “I told you so“ from anyone. Being a doula, I felt blessed to know many wonderful midwives and we talked with several.
As soon as we left our initial meeting with Valerie, my husband said “she’s the one - I feel safe with her if you do and she seems so great that I want an excuse to hang out with her.” I absolutely agreed, so our choice was made. The pregnancy was wonderful in that I was even more involved in decision making and taking responsibility for my health. I looked forward to my visits with Valerie and she was wonderful about letting my sons “help” her listen to the baby. I had such fun in preparing my “nest” and was happy to spend time on my own, anticipating the birth. At my blessing way ceremony, surrounded by wonderful women, a doula friend, Memory, reminded me to try to surrender control and receive help and caring a hard one for me sometimes.
I was due around April 11th, but there was a full moon on the 5th and I had long ago thought I would labor on the 6th. I stayed busy in those final days with yoga and even attended a birth on the 4th as a second doula for a former client how empowering to witness a beautiful birth just before my own! On the 5th, I was having cramps and a backache. I went about my day - errands in the city, a visit with a friend & then shopping for food for everyone to eat during labor. I set out the ingredients for a birthday cake, an activity to keep my boys busy later. Soon after getting into bed that night, I felt a contraction and then a huge flip in my belly, followed by a dribble of fluid. I knew that my baby had just turned into a posterior position, something I had hoped to avoid. On a trip to the bathroom, I found bloody show. I told my husband and he got up and filled the tub. I didn’t sleep much, as I was having regular contractions that were quite painful. Eventually I asked Valerie, best friend Deb and friend and doula Jill to come and kept the kids home from school (bad move, in retrospect!). After all, I was going to have my baby on the 6th, just as I planned, right? Well, when visualizing something, be very specific! I had picked out the 6th to labor and that’s what I did: labor. With everyone there, things slowed down. I spent much time on hands and knees with my bottom in the air and even went on a bumpy, twisty car ride to try to help my boy turn. Valerie suggested that I take a certain homeopathic remedy to get things going. When I went to get it, I saw a different one and thought that perhaps I should take it instead, but didn’t. My husband and I went to a wooded area nearby to walk. On this walk I kept seeing Y shaped sticks and thinking of divining rods (water?) and also of the Yogi Berra saying, “if you come to a fork in the road, take it” but which way to turn? I was frustrated. This was NOT the labor I had planned (silly, I know!). I knew that third babies sometimes took their time, but I had hoped to have a straightforward labor like my last one - hard work, but a clear path. Where was my fun slumber party?? We sent everyone home. Another doula friend, Laura, called and told me it was OK to be angry and maybe I should scream and cry, since there is a saying that “tears soften the cervix” I would cry, but not until later. Meanwhile, I looked at that tub longingly but felt it was too early to get in. In retrospect, I now think I should have gotten in and not worried about slowing my labor.
I slept, but woke up feeling very low and didn’t want to see anyone. My feelings were so complex: angry, embarrassed to have had a false start, afraid that all this would mean I would need intervention to have this baby, knowing that I needed to surrender but still wanting to be in control. Why was I in so much pain but not really in a good labor pattern? I couldn’t find a rhythm. The time alone was good, because I was able to let go and finally cry sobbing tears of frustration. I spoke to Valerie and she suggested a different homeopathic remedy the one I had considered taking earlier in the day! The remedy, amongst other things, is for stage fright. I had known that self-imposed pressure to perform might be an issue for me and indeed it was. We put the kids to bed (really important for me, I think), ate something, showered and then took the remedy. Within thirty minutes I was in active labor. I still never really got into a groove and was having a hard time with the contractions. After a short while, I broke down and said I didn’t want to do this anymore and as I said this I thought “hmm- that sounds promising - could it be transition? but it‘s too soon.” Still, I told my husband to call Valerie - that it was time for the tub and to tell her to come quickly. She asked us not to get in the tub until she was almost here, for fear that the baby could come as soon as I got relaxed in the water. Suddenly I was overcome with the need to sleep. I told my husband that he had to stay awake but that I needed to sleep between contractions and, amazingly, I did. Sleeping let me escape because I knew I had at least forty minutes before I could get into the tub. Eventually I woke and got on my hands and knees next to the tub and then got in when Valerie called to say she was almost here. Ahhh - immediate relief. It still hurt so intensely, but I knew once again that I could make it and that I would be OK even if I had a while to go. A few minutes later Valerie and Gail, her assistant, arrived and I said that the water was too hot and that I felt dizzy. My husband dumped a big thing of ice in the water and I loved concentrating on the crackling sound. The images and words of all the amazing women - midwives and birthing mothers that I have read about or known or who were birthing at that same moment - were going through my head, giving me strength. I had a moment of realization and told everyone that I was overcome by compassion. I suddenly knew my labor was a lesson. I had never needed to work this hard and I felt so much empathy for women who experience labor like this. I was grateful for this awareness in the moment - for the knowledge that there was a purpose for this labor, the hardest of my three. This awareness continued throughout the rest of my labor and birth - I was both a birthing woman and a student. It was the most amazing sensation of being right there in the tub, in my body, but also in the corner, watching everything as it unfolded.
I had not been checked for dilation at all in pregnancy or labor and was about to ask for an exam when I heard myself grunt and push. I started to tell everyone that I was pushing but then thought “they know, of course - no need to tell them”. I asked for the boys to be woken and Deb brought them in. Valerie said that she would just check to make sure my cervix was out of the way and quickly said “wow-the head is right there”. It was at this moment that I thought to myself, “this is actually going to happen - I do not need to transfer - I can relax and have this baby”. I had worked hard to put my pushing fears aside for this birth. But the fears came back as soon as I felt that pressure. I decided to say what so many women say at this point: “I’m not going to do this right now. It hurts too much. I’m afraid I will die.” I was saying this in hopes that it would help just to verbalize what I was thinking but also out of curiosity to see what Valerie would say. I think some part of me hoped she could come up with a way out and part of me was taking notes as a doula.
When I cried out, Valerie told be to come to my center and made a hand motion to clear energy and get me to focus, which somehow helped. Gail used a small clip to keep my hair out of my eyes and I felt such relief and thought “oh - what a good idea! - how did she know that was annoying me so much? I have one of those & I will put in in my birth bag.” I was kneeling in the tub with my husband behind me. Valerie patted my left leg a few times and I realized she must be thinking of telling me to raise my leg to a squat in order to open my hips and make more room, so before she said this I told her “I don’t need to - there is enough room” as I thought of my dream where I kneeled to give birth. I then asked her to put her hand on the baby’s head to keep him from coming too fast.
Suddenly, his head was born and I felt a spilt second of relief that was so wonderful, but quickly followed by dread when I felt his shoulders. Then his body slithered out of me and he swam - he actually swam - forward then back as I leaned back against my husband in the most exquisite feeling of relief. My midwife pushed him forward between my legs and I scooped him up out of the water. I had been in the tub less than thirty minutes when he was born! Leo, my oldest, was asking to get in the tub with us like he had seen a boy do in a birth video, but changed his mind because there was some blood. I whispered the baby’s name to him and my first-born announced that this baby was to be called Eli, after my two grandmothers, Elinor and Elizabeth. Soon, we were covered with a towel and I was helped out of the tub to the bed nearby. The room was warm and lit by special candles I had picked for their beauty and the blessings printed on them. Over the calm music playing, I could hear the voices of many of the people I love best in the world exclaiming over our new little soul.
Moments after birth, as I was being checked out (no stitches needed!), my new son started rooting around. I had seen video and pictures of babies self-attaching to the breast, but had never actually witnessed it. I wanted to try it, but thought I would be too impatient. Eli didn’t make me wait. As I was about to help him, he used his elbows to crawl up my belly, flipped himself over and latched on perfectly. I relaxed with my newest nursling and watched my other sons, 6 and 3, taking pictures and making placenta prints with Valerie - pretty groovy! Eli was weighed in a scale that had been calibrated with a pound box of pasta (I mention this because it struck me as so homey!): he was 8lb 8oz. Later came Leo’s favorite part: he got to cut his new brother’s cord, something he had been looking forward to since before I was even pregnant.
Just before sunrise on April 7th, we settled into our bed upstairs, ate a snack, called family and then cuddled up for a long, peaceful sleep. We woke much later and had a birthday party and I thanked my lucky stars for such joy. This time around, my baby and I took a “baby moon” and let others go to the market and care for the household. Perhaps as a result, we have had a very easy time of it and I have been blessed with a peaceful and happy boy who smiles easily. We are thriving and know we are very blessed.
Kim Collins is a wife, mother to three sons, doula and birth educator living and breastfeeding in Maplewood, NJ. She is slowly working to more easily surrender.