It’s Friday, August 22nd, 2008, and I am a lumbering giant of a woman. I have enjoyed this second pregnancy, filled with wonder and awe and excitement, but now, after 39 weeks and two days of wonder and awe and excitement, I am tired.
I almost decline an invitation to Tony and Michelle’s barbeque at their Laguna Beach home. Today, I’ve noticed copious amounts of mucus and an increase in Braxton-Hicks. But not wanting to miss a summer evening hanging out with some of our best friends from college, my husband John and I decide I can manage one more night out. We get to their house, and within the hour, Jenn and Eric and their kids arrive from Arizona. The kids play well together while the women make beach plans for the next day and the men play Guitar Hero.
As we pack up to leave at 10 p.m., Jenn speculates on my condition. “I don’t know if we’ll see you guys tomorrow-you’ll probably go into labor tonight.”
“No way-this baby is in no hurry,” I say. I’d expected that things would get moving around the start of Week 38, like they had with my now three-year-old son. But when that didn’t happen, I mentally committed to the full 40 weeks and settled in, trying to stay patient.
We roll the windows down on the drive home, letting in the cool ocean air from the Pacific. Our son falls asleep quickly and peacefully in his car seat. Upon arriving home, my husband turns on the TV, and I finish off some delicious tortellini pasta salad my friend Coleen had dropped off earlier. Then I head up for bed and fall asleep quickly.
Suddenly it’s 1 a.m., and I am startled awake by a feeling down low, almost a stinging feeling. It is different. It is strong. I know right away that this is it. I take a trip to the bathroom and return to bed, but the feeling is not subsiding.
A moment of fear, of apprehension, seizes me, a moment that I don’t remember experiencing last time. Perhaps it’s because this time, I know what I’m in for. The first time around, I didn’t know what to expect; I had no reference point. But as a second-timer, I know the intensity and the hard work and the focus that’s required.
Also, this time, I’m not going to the hospital. The recent ban on midwives in local hospitals forced my birth paradigm to shift and expand and now, I was about to join one of the most misunderstood and even reviled collection of women out there: the home birthers. My big pregnant body was the starship Enterprise, boldly going where no woman had gone before-well, no one that I knew, anyway. Could I really do this?
I quickly accept that it’s time to board the train now, and that I can’t get off until the ride is over.
“I feel funny,” I tell my sleeping husband, and grab my pillow and blanket and waddle into the guest room. I’m lying in bed there for a couple of minutes when I realize that I’m wide awake and absolutely cannot sleep anymore. So I go downstairs to sweep the floor and do the dishes so we will have a clean house when my birth team arrives. Every five minutes, I lean over the kitchen counter for 45 seconds during a wave, taking deep breaths and focusing on staying loose, and then when it’s over, I resume cleaning. The waves are like clockwork, and by 2 a.m., I wake up John.
“Time to fill up the pool,” I say.
He lifts his head groggily. “Uhhh… Are you sure?”
I’m sure. The tightening of my insides is consistent, regular. So I call my certified nurse-midwife’s pager. Fifteen minutes later, no response. Thirty minutes later, no response. Mildly panicked, I get online, search the name and number of my student doula, and call her immediately. She is surprised to hear that my midwife hasn’t responded to the page and gives me her direct number.
I quickly place a call to my midwife, and thankfully, she picks up. She advises taking a hot bath to determine whether this is the real thing. If the waves speed up, she says, I’m surely in labor. If things slow down, then we all might have a ways to go. I head to the guest room and get into the almost-full AquaDoula. But the high, thin sides of the pool combined with the deep water make it impossible for me to relax and release my body during waves. I get in my bathtub instead.
While there, John is timing my waves on contractionmaster.com. By 3:30 a.m., the waves are coming every three minutes and lasting for about a minute. I can’t ignore the sensation of my body opening up. Discomfort is present but distant as I use my hypnosis tools. I am peaceful, calmly turning off my light switch during waves, confident that I’m doing everything right. The breath I slowly exhale through my nose is bright orange anesthesia that courses through me from top to bottom, deadening the nerves throughout my body. I pay attention to my jaw and facial muscles, making sure they remain slack, dead. I find myself thinking about the physiological reality of what is happening, picturing my abdominal muscles tightening and squeezing while the rest of me remains loose and limp and stretchy. And mentally, I remind myself how good this process is for my baby.
As part of my Hypnobabies study, I had often visualized a Special Place, but to my surprise, I don’t choose to visit it during the waves. Instead, a brand-new image keeps coming into my mind. During waves, I close my eyes and see myself on a ship. The ship is in a storm, bucking wildly. My job is to hold on and outlast the wild wave I’m riding and not get tossed into the ocean. My job is to hold my ground, to face it all bravely, and to do it while I keep my face and jaw relaxed.
In my mind, I also find myself unexpectedly chanting the chorus of “Ong Namo,” a song by Sikh musician Snatam Kaur that I had come to love after hearing it in yoga class. Saying the words to myself gives me something wonderfully repetitive to focus on while I ride out the storm.
The student doulas arrive at 4 a.m. My husband goes downstairs to let them in and I get out of the bathtub, wrapping myself in a big fluffy towel and retreating to the bed in the guest room. For a half hour, I cycle between sitting on the bed chatting with them and lying down on the bed during waves. After a while, I decide to sit on my birth ball and lean over onto the bed, hoping that this would provide as much comfort as it had during my last labor. One of the doulas massages my lower back with warm oil during waves. It feels great, but the bed I’m leaning onto is too low. My belly can’t hang forward the way it needs to. The pain starts fighting with me, so I give up on the ball and climb back into bed.
Things are changing. I grow serious and can no longer talk or joke around between waves. I just want to close my eyes and focus everything I have on my breath and this image of a triangle with one of the points at the top. It’s the way I’m envisioning my body opening up and releasing my baby.
It’s 4:45 a.m. My midwife arrives. She asks how I am, and I tell her I’m really cold and shivery, a sensation that I remember accompanying transformation (transition) during my last labor. She checks my dilation and finds that I’m at 8 centimeters with a bulging bag of water, which confirms my suspicions about my progress. I decline her offer to break my water and decide to get back on the ball to encourage my baby to keep heading down. As I’m sitting there, I start feeling “pushy” during the midpoint of each 90-second wave. It’s involuntary. I go with it and let myself bear down as my body dictates.
By 5 a.m., the haze begins. I can barely communicate anymore. I am unaware of the comings and goings of the two doulas, my midwife, the home birth assistant and my husband. But I am not afraid. On the contrary, I feel strong. The end of this physical challenge is in sight. I feel safe and know that my only job right now is to surrender to this force that is so much larger than myself.
I manage to ask someone to turn on my Snatam Kaur CD. The song “Ong Namo” plays. A spirit of peace hangs heavy in the dim room. Somehow I get into the birthing pool and on my knees, I lean over the side of the pool that’s been padded with pillows and towels and rest my head on my forearms. The water is warm and soothing. One of the doulas is holding my hand. Her constant presence helps me focus. She is my rock. She tells me what a great job I’m doing. The only thing I fear at this point is that she will leave. I quietly beg her to stay. She does.
As a wave comes roaring in, I suddenly remember an awesome water birth I’d watched dozens of times on You Tube (“Anya’s Water Birth”). In it, the hypno-mother emits a low, quiet, steady guttural hum during waves. There’s no screaming, no swearing, no writhing around, just humming. So I try it. It proves extremely effective for me. It gives me something to do, a way to push back against the force without tensing up my body.
It’s 5:30 a.m. During a wave, I am breathing my baby down, pushing gently and holding my breath occasionally, and I feel a pop. My bulging bag of water has finally broken. My midwife advises that things could really start ramping up now. I remain calm and just keep doing what I am doing. During the waves that follow, my midwife reaches into the water and touches me somewhere down there, saying, “Push right here.” It helps me focus. The room is silent except for “Ong Namo” quietly playing on repeat and the soft rustling of clothing and shuffling of birth supplies. My midwife asks if I want to turn over and sit down in the pool. I try between waves, but it just doesn’t feel right. So I stay on my knees.
By 5:50 a.m., I feel like it’s time. I turn around and sit down. It is so wonderful to be alone in the pool, alone with my body and my breath and my baby. The wave comes, and I start my hum. And then midway through the wave, I have to hold my breath for just a few seconds and push like crazy. My body wants me to. And then I feel…full. My baby is coming. I reach down and feel a soft, slimy head sliding into my hands. It is otherworldly. I feel so stretched, like I might rip from front to back, and a moment of panic hits me.
“I don’t want to tear,” I whisper.
“Just go slowly,” says my midwife.
I do. I breathe deeply and relax into the discomfort. And then I feel my baby’s head slip back inside a little, literally feeling it slide back under my pubic bone. Darn, I think. I notice that that reggae version of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” is playing. I wonder what happened to “Ong Namo.”
A few minutes pass, and then it’s time to push again. I go for it and push like hell. My baby’s head pops out. My midwife is right there, checking for the cord. It’s wrapped around the baby’s neck once. I try to push the body out with the next wave, but I’m not making much progress. A minute passes.
“Let’s have you stand up,” my midwife says gently, and she helps me to my feet. Trepidation washes over me. Is something wrong? But my trust in my qualified care providers, these wise women, smothers my disquieting thoughts. I smile with my eyes closed as I stand unsteadily, feeling my baby’s heavy head dangling between my legs.
I squat a bit and push and push and start feeling off-balance. No baby. I’m scared.
“HELP!” I yell. One of the doulas rushes to my left side as I push again. And then my baby, my sweet baby girl, slides out of my body in a gush of fluid and the home birth assistant catches her and shuttles her up between my legs so I can grab her.
“I did it! I did it!” I clutch her to my chest, yelping over and over again. The room is swirling around me as I scream with joy, flooded with euphoria. I have never felt so high.
Dim morning light trickles through the shutters. The warmest smiles I have ever seen surround me as I am helped back into a seated position in the pool. I look at my baby for the first time and start to sob, taken by how beautiful she is. John comes behind me and is equally smitten. Then I notice my son gingerly creeping into the room, peering curiously at his sister.
After about 15 minutes, my midwife reminds me of one final task: pushing out the placenta. Grudgingly, I get out of the pool, lie on my back on the bed and easily push it out. A quick exam tells my midwife that I have not torn, even though my little girl weighs nine pounds, one ounce and is 22 inches long.
Cat Stevens’s “Morning Has Broken” is playing. I nurse my daughter for the first time with my son snuggled next to me. The palpable after-birth high keeps rolling over and through me for days.
I am moved by Susan McCutcheon’s observation that “like water taking the shape of its container, experiences often take the shape of expectations.” I expected to have a joyful, spiritual, and life-changing birth experience, and with the help of Hypnobabies and caregivers who shared my vision, that is exactly what happened.