On November 4th, 2010, I met my third child in what I can only describe as the most ecstatic of ways. After an unexpectedly long first stage and a shockingly speedy second stage, I birthed my baby on my bed in the all fours position. As my midwife guided my baby down below me, I was thrilled to finish a labor that had seemed to last an eternity. But it is the next moments that are forever seared in my memory. As I saw my daughter below me… as I touched her meaty little arms and legs, took in her strawberry hair, watched her first breaths, felt her cord pulsing with the life force we had shared for so long, and finally – when I had really SEEN her- picked her up, the experience was nothing less than euphoric. I knew from watching others that not hurrying a baby onto its mother’s chest left the moment open to be what it needed to be. But I had no idea that being upright for this precious first meeting … with my daughter below me… no one hurrying her or me … would feel so powerful. I don’t think I have ever looked so hard at another human. I feel that I now understand in a visceral way what we mean when we talk about the imprinting that takes place at birth. It was an extraordinary gift to be able to truly see and take in this brand new person in the moments in which she arrived.
Here, in brief, is the tale:
I was 39 weeks and contractions had been coming and going for a few days as my little one pivoted between LOA, LOT, and LOP (the baby‘s back facing left and swiveling between front-ish, side and back-ish). We had an early dinner as a family on Wednesday and watched “Natural Squatting Birth” as another bit of birth prep for my 6 and 8-year old boys. I then took off for a women’s support group in Harlem. As I left, I wondered if it made any sense to go. Contractions were stronger for sure and I was 39.5 weeks pregnant. Oh, well. Hopped in the car and drove off. I’ll never forget the contraction I had as I turned onto Lenox Avenue from 135th street. I couldn’t think!
I went into the group… contractions were coming stronger and more frequently. The woman running the group kept asking my friend Laura, “Is she ok?” “No worries,” I assured everyone, “this isn’t labor. Just more warm-up.”… But around 8:30 pm I realized I needed to go home. Laura was going to be attending the birth (she’d been my doula for my previous two births) and she offered to come home with me, but I wasn’t ready for that yet. I drove myself home with only a few contractions. But once at home, things picked up mightily! I tried the wine and bath thing thinking I might get sleep, but only managed one sip of wine! Contractions were one on top of the other. Things were off and running. My husband called Valeriana, our midwife, and when she heard me over the phone moaning at top volume and throwing up violently, she (and the rest of the team) hightailed it over. By 11:30 pm or so, we were cooking… and I fully thought the baby would be born in the next few hours.
Alas. Things slowed … maybe around 2 or 3 am. Valeriana put us all to bed. I slept sweetly between contractions… aware of the wonderful labor high, but then woke to super challenging contractions that I made my way though mostly lying down. Aggg!
A grey Thursday morning arrived and my boys came in to kiss me before they headed off to school. Contractions were still strong, but far apart. Very different from my other labors that pretty much blasted from beginning to end. This was different. I had more time in my head. I had to keep choosing the labor.
My midwife checked me around 9 am. 6 cm that she easily stretched to 8 cm; baby minus one station. My team had me up and walking stairs… falling to my knees with contractions… sleeping when I had to… and finally dancing and stomping to the witchy-est singing and chanting you can imagine. My doulas, Laura and Marin, were incredible. Giving in to the November chill in the air, I had shed my own birthday suit by this time and was wearing things blindly grabbed from a closet: a long hot pink skirt, a flowing orange drape-y dress/shirt and a purple shawl. You can imagine the scene had our neighbors peered in the window! Well, the hours went by. More violent throwing up. Deep focus. Deep check-ins with the team…. homeopathic remedies…sweet drink concoctions and then… the pow wow.
The team gathered with me on my bed.
“Here we go,” I thought, “the ‘talk'”. And sure enough, someone began sweetly, “Is there anything you need to say or release? Anything to let go of… to let this baby down and out?” Arrrrg, I thought in my pre-verbal, laboring mind. How many times had I had ‘the talk’ with a laboring woman? Now I have to dredge up something that will get this thing going. Arrrrrg! I floundered around a bit until Laura said with a firmness in her voice, “Mary Esther, look at me. Really look at me. You are not alone here. Take us in. We are with you. Take me in. ” And then Gayla, Val’s assistant, picked up cards lying on my yoga mat. They were from my Blessing Way, filled with wishes my dearest friends had written out for me, this baby and this birth. She read through them slowly and held them up for me to see. My pre written- language labor brain tried to focus on them. I couldn’t make out the words, but I took in their meaning: love and connection. A community of people rooting for me and this baby. “Ok then,” I said to myself. I closed my eyes and put my head down to finish this job.
“Ten times more deeply relaxed,” I told myself as I gathered my courage and dove into contraction after contraction for a period of time I couldn’t name. I discovered that I could take the intensity down a bit further with, “joyful, easy birthing.” And then finally, at long long last my water broke. Sweet relief! Change! and yet I knew that now it was show time. It was Thursday around 12:45 pm. I was more or less 15 hours into the labor, longer than my first son’s labor 8 years ago. Now I had to choose the labor in the deepest sense…and I did.
Contractions picked up in frequency and, hard as it was, it was almost easier to handle. Now it was the surrender to the force I remembered from my other labors. … a force that pulled me in… far beyond the space of my mind. I was fully in my body. In a place of powerful depth.
I was on all fours. And without any hint that it was coming, I had a sudden, huge, overwhelming urge to push. I hollered through it. It was damn strong. “Oh boy!” I managed to think. And then, without thought, I heard myself yelling, “I don’t want my mother to hear this!” (She was downstairs keeping the team fed and watered. I later learned she quickly zipped off to church to pray…)
From all the births I’ve attended… from the sounds I heard myself making… from the pain present with the push, I knew there was still cervix in the way. “Val! There’s still cervix!” I called out. “Push it back, can you?” Val was on the job and said there was a LOT of cervix. But in two more pushes she skillfully got it out of the way. I wanted to lie down, but she said not to… she needed the baby’s head to keep the cervix back. I stayed on all fours. What happened next is hard to describe except to say that in two or three contractions I birthed my baby… but I will never forget those contractions. With my boys, pushing was measured, manageable. I didn’t feel all that much except a lot of pressure as I worked them down and out. With this birth, these pushing contractions were SO strong… they had the feel of the heaving I’d done with the throwing up earlier. Totally out of control in a way I’d never experienced. And, most incredibly, I felt my daughter’s head travel down my birth canal in about 4 seconds. It was an unbelievable sensation. Not bad, but phenomenally intense. My midwife called out, “Woah! slow down!” as my daughter’s head emerged. There was a moment’s quick, quiet rest…no one said anything but I knew her head was out…and then the sploosh of her whole body.
The peace of a long job at last completed.
I rested on all fours.
And then, looking down, I saw my daughter… my daughter!!!!! A girl??? Val placed her below me. (I swear I saw a boy as she was traveling through space to me… but I looked again and … lo and behold … I had the thrill of announcing, “It’s a girl!”). She was purple-grey, but vigorous, moving her little arms and legs. She had wet, but distinctly reddish hair! I was thrilled to study my little girl before I picked her up. I took my time, savoring this exquisite moment, touching her strong arms and legs, her cord. I don’t recall what I said to her, but I know that every fiber in my body was greeting her. She was so beautiful below me. I am not sure that I have ever been so present to another human being. I welcomed her with my whole self and experienced a pure and unforgettable happiness.
I am again awed and humbled by this inspiring process by which we birth and meet our babies. I celebrate those of you who have already birthed your little ones and wish the happiest of birthing experiences to those of you who are still waiting.
A very happy Mama Mary Esther