In a twist I would have never bet on, my labor started on my due date. Beginning at midnight, the very first moments of April 25th, I began having prodromal contractions. I was warming up. It got me out of bed and pacing for the remainder of the night until 7AM. Twice my two-year-old son, Gabriel, woke up during those hours, having accidentally ingested dairy the day before, which causes him to sleep fitfully. I went into his room and picked him up out of his crib to hold him close and soothe him back to sleep. I swayed with him as my uterus squeezed and was chilled by how very literally I was on the brink of closing the chapter of an only child and starting the pages of two little ones.
I tried to go back to sleep several times during the remainder of the night, and did spend the majority of the time lying down in bed, but every 5-10 minutes when the contraction hit, I would climb out of bed and bounce on the birth ball I had rolled into our bedroom. I just couldn’t handle them lying down; it was too uncomfortable. Gabe woke up for the day at 6AM and starting then my contractions picked up to every 2-3 minutes apart and also increased in intensity. Simon was thrilled. I put on my labor playlist and breathed with each contraction as I moved about the kitchen making tea and oatmeal. I had to stop what I was doing when a contraction started and found myself focusing on my breathing to cope with the sensations. I didn’t think I was on the verge of birth, really, but the contractions were coming frequently and it was my second labor after all, so I figured it would be prudent to alert my care team at 7.
To make a long story a little bit shorter, I ended up being cared for by a variety of midwives. My primary midwife, Allison, was pregnant herself during my pregnancy, and was due only ten days before me. Because this obviously complicated her ability to care for me, we planned all along for Julie to provide concurrent prenatal care and to attend my birth in the likely case that Allison would already be postpartum herself. Well as things turned out, I went into labor during the one weekend that Julie was out of town and therefore off-call, so it was Jennifer, my tertiary midwife as we joked, who ended up receiving my labor-alert text. I also texted Samanda, my friend and doula business partner, who would be assisting my midwife. Both Jennifer and Samanda offered to come over whenever we desired, as it seemed I might be moving along quickly, but were completely fine with holding off when I told them my intuition sensed it wasn’t the real deal yet, and rather I just wanted to prepare them for being needed later on.
I went about my day as usual. It turned out my intuition was correct and my labor pattern quickly evaporated; they spaced to 6-7 minutes apart within fifteen minutes of my contacting my care team. I knew I should try to sleep to conserve my energy. I did get in a halfway decent nap, as my contractions spaced even further apart, about every fifteen minutes, and then dissipated completely before lunch. I was frustrated but not terribly so. It was a bit stressful to “do labor” with Gabe running around anyway, and I always imagined (hoped) I’d go into labor at night after he was asleep. My parents came over that afternoon to play with Gabe and my sister Lacey and her fiancé Mike soon joined. My other sister Harmony happened to Face Time my mom while we were all together, so Harmony (and her finance Austin) were able to digitally join the fun as well. Gabe had a ball playing with trains and trucks in the inflated birth tub. We ate Nacho Mamas together for dinner on the porch. I didn’t say anything about contracting, able to disguise the very infrequent squeezes, but my mom knew something was up. I downplayed it when she asked. Simon went to work at 4 but the rest of my family stayed till 6.
When my family left, my labor switch flipped back on. In retrospect I would say this was the beginning of true labor. Thankfully the contractions started back up slowly; I still had 90 minutes of solo parenting to get through. I gave Gabe a bath and played with him from the other side of the tub while he giggled (contract, contract). He slurped down some of his smoothie and I got him out of the tub. Diaper, jammies, brush teeth. We snuggled in the popason chair in his room and read a few books (contract, contract). We said goodnight to the trees outside his window and I kissed his precious face and tucked him into his crib. Gabe wasn’t thrilled about his day coming to an end, but I said goodnight anyway and left the room (ouch, contraction, ouch). Well he still wasn’t settling down ten or so minutes later and, lets face it, I was in early labor and my husband was at work, so I went back in there and gave the kid Benadryl (#sorrynotsorry). We cuddled for a bit and I returned Gabe to his crib, who then went to sleep easily around 7:30.
I settled down for the evening as much as I could, which involved watching the Cardinals game while bouncing on my big yoga ball and fielding wedding text messages from my sisters. I think I heated up Trader Joe’s tamales in the microwave for dinner. The contractions averaged 6-7 minutes apart and were getting harder to ignore. Many of them fell into a couplet pattern…I’d have one “real one” and then two “baby ones” and so on. I debated whether or not I wanted to ask Simon to come home early from work. I was excited to be on the verge of labor (again) but wary too. Just like with Gabe’s labor, the pain was all in my back and I was not looking forward to another back labor; actually I was sort of banking on not having one! Seriously, what’s a “normal” BELLY contraction even like? I really couldn’t tell you.
At 9PM I poured myself a glass of red wine and got into the bathtub. Ahhhh bliss. I very much doubted that I would be able to sleep at all, but I thought I should give myself my best chance by getting as relaxed as possible. (I also worried that things could get out of hand before Simon got home so I wanted to do what I could to avoid that situation!). My contractions obediently spaced out to 10-15 minutes apart and I relished the break. They hurt but not so much that the warm water couldn’t quell them. I texted Simon that I was in the tub and OK by myself for the time being, and that he should go ahead and finish his shift and that I’d call if things got crazy. I also texted back and forth with my dear friend Corinne, who herself had given birth to her daughter Lily only ten days earlier, keeping her in the loop about my I-think-this-might-really-be-it labor. (She was giddy, naturally, already being on the other side. I whined that she should trade places with me).
I got out of the tub about 9:30 and got ready for bed. Seemed highly unlikely I could sleep but I knew I should at least try. No such luck. My contractions came thundering back quickly after I was out of the bath and moving around. I did lie down in bed, hoping that would squelch them for a while, but it didn’t work. I leaned on my dresser and swayed my hips, bounced on the birth ball, tried to lie back down a few times, and then called Simon at 10:30 and said, “When will you be home???” He responded he was off work and in the drive-thru line at Wendy’s and should he come home immediately instead of ordering? I said no, get your food, just come home right after that.
Simon got home and gobbled up his late night dinner. I had completely given up on sleep at this point and given myself over to labor mode. Still, the contractions weren’t so overwhelming that I couldn’t carry on a conversation or be distracted somewhat. So we watched The Big Bang Theory and Cardinals highlights for a little while, maybe 20 minutes, until I decided that nope, these bad boys needed more attention from me. I set up my diffuser and added a few drops of my Serenity blend to hopefully encourage calmness. We lit the “labor candle” to signify the start of bringing our child into the world (we let this same candle burn the entire 28 hours I was in labor with Gabe and I thought it would be neat to do it again for this baby). We put on my labor playlist. I was really digging Chris Tomlin’s “Whom Shall I Fear.” I know who goes before me, I know who stands behind, the God of angel armies is always by my side…
As midnight came and went I slipped into a new degree of intensity. My contractions hurt and I needed Simon’s help with them. I labored on the birth ball, leaning on our couch, and slow dancing with Simon. He applied counter pressure on my sacrum with each contraction. Sometimes he rubbed DeepBlue on my back too, an essential oil product that is similar to Icy Hot. We were doing well but I was restless. I think if my care team hadn’t been in flux I would have felt comfortable laboring with just Simon for a longer period of time, but as it was I was anxious. Samanda was going to assist (and for all practical purposes, doula) but I was stressed that she would be unable to come due to the likelihood of her being called to another birth. My friend Melissa, due only two days after me, had also planned on Samanda attending her birth, and she and I had been “ramping up” simultaneously over the past several days. So I was concerned that in addition to not having my original midwife at my birth, I would also have a back-up doula/assist. I didn’t like that. It was very important to me that Samanda be there; I felt like I really needed her presence to be at ease. I called her at 2AM and told her how I was feeling. She let me know she hadn’t heard one peep from Melissa that night and that there wasn’t competition for her services. She asked if I wanted her to come over. I felt odd about it, like I was being a big baby, and that my labor wasn’t quite hard enough yet for me to “need” more help. Samanda suggested I take a shower and then call her back.
Well Samanda is a wise woman. Things felt really intense in the shower — I think because it relaxed me enough to “give into” my labor — and I soon told Simon that I wanted him to call the whole crew over. Everyone arrived in the neighborhood of 3AM; first Samanda who lives the closest, then my midwife Jennifer, and lastly my mom, who was on Gabe duty. I was laboring in the living room as my care team arrived, standing up and leaning over the arm of the couch with each contraction (giving Simon easy access to my aching back). Samanda checked on baby’s heart tones with a Doppler; said they were perfect. Someone heated up my rice sock for me which was lovely. Jennifer and Samanda set to work arranging my birth supplies, plugging in a heating pad to warm towels, putting my postpartum stuff in the bathroom. My mom slipped in quietly and gave me a kiss and told me I was doing a great job; then she snuck into Gabe’s room with a cot and a sleeping bag and waited for her grandson to need her.
Now I had been assuming my entire pregnancy, and probably if I’m honest since the day after my 28-hour labor with Gabe, that I would have a short labor my second time around. It wasn’t a foolish assumption really; most women do have shorter and more straightforward labors and births in a second vaginal delivery. Plus my mom had a longish labor with me, and then only a two-hour labor with my younger sister. Why should it be any different with me? Well as Samanda always says, you can prepare for a birth, but you can’t plan one. As it turned out, I needed to learn this lesson again (thank goodness for Samanda’s Naturally Prepared classes!). I did not have a short birth. It was shortER, but not the single-digit-hours I was banking on. Of course I didn’t know this at the time. So when I had my entire birth team around me in the wee hours of the morning and I was contracting away, I completely figured that I’d have my baby in my arms by sunup or at least morning commute time! It was going to the romantic cutesy homebirth: I was going to give birth around 6AM, only three pushes of course, in the birth tub, with an intact perineum, and catch my own baby while everyone cried and awed over my awesomeness. We’d all ooh and ahh over my beautiful baby and Gabe would wake up around 7:30AM (having slept in, duh), and toddle in to kiss his new sibling, whom he would instantly cherish with zero jealously issues. The house would be clean, the care team would be packed up and gone, and all four of us would be passed out in our king bed by 10. Oh, and my hair would look great in the pictures.
Yeah, not so much.
That wasn’t my story. My story was harder. Grittier. More complicated. More to overcome. And as I later realized, more to learn from and slowly embrace.
3-6AM is hazy in my memory. I remember being in and out of the tub several times. Just like in my first labor, I was not impressed with the tub. I imagine for the lucky moms who don’t have back labor, the tub is great. But when the pain is all in your sacrum, and you’ve gotta have someone applying counter pressure to stay sane, you kind of have to have your back out of the water in order for that to work. Well what is the point of being in the tub if the part that hurts isn’t benefiting from the warm water? (Also, 98-100F — the safe temperature range for labor and birth — sucks. It’s just not hot enough). Besides my dissatisfaction with the experience of laboring in the tub (which I feel a bit guilty about because my husband went to a lot of trouble to secure that option for me), I was also in and out of the tub because it made my labor fizzle. I would really be in the zone and then I’d get in the tub and my contractions would space out to every ten minutes or even further apart. Although the break was nice, eventually that really annoyed me. I wanted to be done.
I also remember that Simon took a nap during this time frame and Samanda took over counter pressure. She was not as quick as my husband to apply pressure immediately when a contraction started, nor did she push as hard. (She was responsive to my requests, certainly, but overall not quite as prompt or powerful in her comforting). I think this is largely because no one can comfort a laboring woman to the same degree her partner can. It was also about 4AM and Samanda was in the middle of a very busy doula month (and therefore quite sleep deprived). However, I also wonder if she did this intentionally, making me harness my own inner strength just a little bit more, as a way to equip me for what was to come. Because whether she meant to or not, her actions were a gift to me. It was frustrating initially, but I realized that I was more powerful than I felt. I could handle my contractions better than I thought. I possessed a little more magic than I believed.
So I kept at it. Kept laboring. Despite the fact that my contractions were stronger and more frequent out of the tub, I’ve been around birth long enough to know that they weren’t “adequate.” They were probably 5-7 minutes apart. These weren’t the contractions that were going to get a baby out. (Which sucked because they still hurt!). I rubbed Clary Calm, another essential oil blend, on my abdomen several times in those wee hours, hoping it would bring on more effective labor. I labored in the doorway between the kitchen and the living room and hung from the pull-up bar suspended there, Simon behind me rubbing my back and thighs and kissing my neck (c’mon oxytocin, do your thing). I labored standing next to the couch and using the arm to support myself during contractions. I labored on hands and knees using the birth ball some too, although standing was my favorite posture. I ate a banana with peanut butter. Used the rice sock some more. And I got in the shower a lot. (After two labors I am convinced the shower is the best relief EVER).
I was in the shower at 6:15 when I heard Gabe wake up. He was clearly delighted to discover his grandma snoozing at his bedside and I heard her entertaining him for quite a while. Simon popped into Gabe’s room to see our sweetie and to make a plan with my mom. They agreed that my mom would take Gabe to her house to play until the baby was born. (We had felt open to Gabe being present for the arrival of his sibling, as he had been so excited about “baby out!” and we had been intentional about preparing him for the realities of labor and birth, but we also knew that we couldn’t predict how things would play out, nor how we or Gabe would feel in the moment. I knew that I wasn’t *that* close to delivering, that I had zero energy to give Gabe, and that I felt “scary,” so my mom packed up Gabe’s things and snuck him out the back door without him seeing me. He was delighted with this plan!).
Right around this same time, 7-something AM, Jennifer and Samanda broke the news to me that Jennifer was going to have to leave to attend one of her own clients’ labors; a woman who lived nearby and had a history of fast births. This other woman was on delivery’s doorstep and I wasn’t. I wasn’t entirely surprised by this turn of events because I saw Jennifer step out the front door to answer her phone a little earlier. Samanda listed off the midwives we could call in to take over my care until Jennifer could return, hopefully quickly. I told Samanda to call Linsey. It was funny, sort of, even in the moment, because here I was on my fourth midwife. What are the chances? Despite the fact that I wouldn’t have planned for things to go this way, I was and am grateful that each midwife in St. Louis is just as lovely and competent as the next. I knew my care would not be compromised. Jennifer packed up her things and left; Samanda would hold down the fort until Linsey could arrive.
Simon and I went on a walk around the neighborhood. It must have been about 8AM and it was chilly. The streets of Brentwood were deserted on this Sunday morning. I needed a change of environment and a change of attitude. I remember telling Simon on our walk that I was disappointed. Disappointed I wasn’t getting a quick birth, an easy birth, a birth I wanted. It was like Gabe Part II and I was frustrated. My sweet husband prayed for me, affirmed my strength during contractions, and joked with me just enough to lighten the mood. Most of the time I wanted him to do counter pressure on my back but with some contractions I didn’t. I had learned from Samanda’s slower response time that I could manage some contractions on my own, not that I had to, just that I could. And sometimes it was helpful to mix up my approach to pain management. Lean on my husband’s strength, lean on my own. Combine our strengths together.
We got back from our long walk and I gradually stripped off my clothes. My contractions were closer and more intense. Linsey arrived. She was unobtrusive and kind and I felt comfortable with her presence. Simon tried to feed me oatmeal with blueberries; I managed a bite or two. I was back and forth from the ball to the couch; Samanda following me with a Chux pad to catch drips. To and from the bathroom. The entire labor I was SO THIRSTY and I was just *pounding* glasses of water and Emergen-C. I’ve helped a lot of women in labor and I’ve never seen anyone want to drink as much as I did. I could not be quenched. Consequently I was peeing a lot. From 9-10AM roughly, I also felt the need to empty my bowels a lot. I felt like I had to poop every five minutes (and I did). I ended up just hanging out and laboring on the toilet for a stretch; it was a “comfortable” position and my body kept forcing me to be in the bathroom anyway. I used non-focused awareness to cope, especially if I wasn’t receiving counter pressure with a particular contraction; the idea is you just use your five senses to observe everything around you EXCEPT your contractions. White sink. Tile floor. Dripping shower head. Oatmeal in my teeth.
I started groaning more and making “pushy” noises while I was on the toilet. Though I didn’t witness it I’m sure this must have caused Samanda and Linsey to exchange a “Go Time?” look. Samanda came into the bathroom to listen to baby again and ask me if was feeling the urge to push or if it was only that I needed to use the bathroom. I whined some version of “I don’t know!” and she encouraged me to try some small grunty pushes with contractions. I did this over the course of several contractions but I still felt unsure. I’d been having loose stools for a week so it seemed just more of the same. I did feel a desire to push but it wasn’t overwhelming or uncontrollable. And there was no feeling of progress, of moving my baby downward. Linsey asked me if wanted to be checked to see what was going on and I thought about it for a while and then decided I did. Simon helped me move to our bed and lie down on it for my cervical exam. Linsey gloved up and checked my cervix. She said, “Do you want a number or not?” I said, “Just tell me I shouldn’t be pushing,” and she confirmed to me, “You should NOT be pushing.” Linsey and Samanda helped me up and I headed into my shower oasis with Simon.
I was disappointed but not distraught. I had been through this scenario before of finding out that I wasn’t as far along as everyone hoped. I figured I was around 5cm; it seemed reasonable but not too hopeful. I also guessed my baby was in some positional weirdness that Linsey and Samanda would come up with a plan to fix. I toweled off after a steamy shower and wandered into the living room to get some more information. They told me my baby was still pretty high in my pelvis and possibly posterior, which could explain why I felt pushy before my cervix was fully dilated (I was 4-5cm, 80% effaced, and -1 station, though they wisely didn’t tell me these specifics at the time). I asked Samanda what the plan was and sure enough, she and Linsey had devised a step-by-step strategy to encourage my baby to get his or herself into a more ideal position and consequently descend. I would later refer to their plan as “The Circuit of Death.”
It began at 10AM. Three contractions with a belly lift against your bedroom door. Game on, let’s do this (even though I knew it will hurt like a son of a biscuit, as we like to say around our toddler). Our hanging diaper caddies were thrown off to the side and I pressed my back up against the door. Samanda knelt in front of me and placed both hands underneath my huge pregnant belly and when the contraction started she pressed in and up with some force. The pain about doubled. When the contraction would let go, so would Samanda.
Now I actually slept in this position every night my entire pregnancy — it was comfy then. In labor? Not so much. Hence the name, I was doing a more exaggerated position than this picture shows — my bent knee was up higher and I was more flopped over. Oooh doggies, it hurt. Hands and knees wasn’t bad by comparison but still not as favorable as standing/walking around.
Ok Halley, you’re going to hate me, but let’s do 3 contractions in Walchers. OMG. I did hate her (Samanda). In that moment. I’m a doula and a nurse and a birth assistant. I know what Walchers is; I’ve helped other women labor in Walchers position before and it SUCKS. You have to lie down on your BACK, with a TOWEL shoved under your sits bones, with your legs hanging off the bed UNSUPPORTED. There’s no making it better; it just really really hurts. Samanda sat on my right side and Simon on my left, and I squeezed their hands tight. I tried to think about other things. We joked in between contractions that I “know too much” and couldn’t go into this with any ignorant bliss like other women. Somehow I willpower-ed my way through three contractions in that god-awful pose. Terrible as it was, it seemed to help my baby. Samanda palpated my belly and baby seemed to be LOT (left occipit transverse, which is basically “ear first” and better than posterior (“sunny side up”)). My baby was turning.
“Ok, what’s next?” I was sweaty and exhausted and hating my contractions, but I was also motivated. I knew labor takes hard work and I was thankful my team knew what specific hard work would be helpful for me! (In general vaginal exams are done far too often but I’m so glad I had one during this labor. It provided really pertinent information that probably shortened my labor!). Samanda laughed, “She’s so compliant! She’ll do anything!” And it was true. Tell me what to do. I will do it. “How about another walk?” Linsey suggested. Really, I have to walk again? I wasn’t wavering in my willingness to do whatever they thought would help, but the suggestion of a walk, something I had already done, made me think I still had a long way to go. And then the punchline: “Simon, you lift up her belly with every contraction.” $#@&%$&#. Ah yes. This would be a killer walk.
After some more peanut butter and banana, we headed outside a little shy of 11AM. Not so deserted anymore. We opted to just walk around our backyard and the alley behind our house. Things were getting REAL SERIOUS folks, and I was yelling loudly with every contraction. Didn’t feel like strolling through the neighborhood like that. (Our next door neighbor was doing yard work during our “walk.” Bless him for not saying anything to us. He must have been so confused, or terrified). Oh those belly lifts. Like sleeping in exaggerated Sims, Simon lifting my belly up was quite pleasant during pregnancy. A treat, actually, to have those 50lbs briefly lifted off my tired bones. But in labor it meant exquisite pain. I howled each time. My poor husband; I’m not sure how he did that to me. But here’s the thing: this wasn’t Simon’s first rodeo. He’d seen me triumph before and he knew I could do it again. He believed when I didn’t and that got me believing again too.
I found myself using a focal point and visualization to zone out as much as I could during those hellish belly lifts. I visualized the next day: baby in arms, nursing my baby, Gabe kissing the baby, meals in bed, and all things wonderful. For my focal point, I zeroed in on the blossoming honeysuckle tree in our backyard. Completely the opposite of the non-focused awareness I had used earlier in the morning, I just concentrated all of the energy I could muster on this delicious tree. My gaze was like a laser and it didn’t break until a contraction subsided. Simon and I stayed outside for thirty minutes doing belly lifts. I was screaming by the time we got inside and fantasizing about a c-section under general anesthesia. Forget the epidural, you shoot me up with crazy amounts of propofol RIGHT NOW. Wake me up when there’s a baby. I was starting to lose it.
It was 11:20AM. I had exactly sixty minutes left, though of course I didn’t know it. In hindsight I think my baby was largely straightened out at this point because my labor just ran away like a freight train. It was nuts; my body was going nuts. The relief at this point wasn’t relieving at all. I was making it on faith and guts. I was in the shower, wailing my head off, and asked Simon to get in with me at this point. I roared as the contractions came every two minutes and overtook me. I was consumed; a wild animal; crazy and scared, but wild and strong. Samanda popped her head into the bathroom (thankfully I had told Simon to put on swimming trunks, ha!). “WOW mama! These are monster contractions! These are the contractions that get a baby out!” She said some variation of that; I was in another place, so I don’t really know. But I remember the super impressed look on her face, and I remember the meaning behind her sentiments: I was close.
Soon Linsey and Samanda were carrying birth equipment into the bathroom and gloving up. I was crouched on the shower floor, absolutely brought to my knees by the raw power of my contractions. Samanda said something about, “Yay transition!” and was smiling about this too much. I demanded a vaginal exam. It was 12:05. “I need to know what’s going on down there!” I felt insane. Linsey complied quickly and said “You’re much closer than you were!” (I was a stretchy 7cm). I would have cried about not being complete if my water hadn’t broken right about the very next second. 12:10. Pop. Gush. Presto — 7cm to 10cm just like that. Baby was COMING.
“Can I push?!?!” I cried, exasperated. “Sure,” Linsey almost shrugged, so calm and not rattled. I let loose. It felt great for the first push, at least in the sense that it was a release, and I could tell I moved my baby down a LOT. It was overwhelming and it was uncontrollable, that urge to push. No stopping it. Linsey asked if I wanted to stay in the shower or move to my bed for the birth. The ceramic was killing my knees but I couldn’t fathom moving. “I’ll stay here but can someone please put a towel under my knees!” (Samanda was on it). Suddenly baby was in the birth canal and I was undone. All good feelings gone. This wasn’t a baby. At least not a human, possibly an elephant calf. Or, you know, a bag of knives. The stabbing, the shooting, the absolute ripping. My flesh cried; surely I was tearing in two. It just felt wrong, all wrong. I’ve struggled with wondering how to describe my pushing and actual delivery — should I romanticize it? No one is going to want to have a natural birth after reading about my experience. It was traumatizing…do I say that?
Obviously I decided yes; I’m going to say it like it was. Others have had births like this, and others still will, and although my honesty may scare some, I feel it will be a gift to other mamas who have traveled a similar path. This isn’t supposed to be an advertisement for natural birth anyway; it’s supposed to be a record of my experience. Though it didn’t help me at the time, there is a reason my birth was unusually painful. It was a compound presentation, which happens in roughly 1 out of 1,000 deliveries. I experienced the most common form in which the baby’s arm and hand are “prolapsed” along the baby’s head and deliver at the same time as the head. The “bag of knives” I was feeling was my baby’s elbow up against her head (maybe pokey fingers too?!). And the elephant calf was my child’s 14.25″ head plus a chunky arm up against it.
I pushed, knowing the only way out was through, but I was out of control. I was screaming bloody murder. Simon was behind me, his presence and his love the only things he could offer. I tried to angle my back so that the shower’s hot water hit the right spot but it wasn’t working. The pain just wouldn’t be conquered. It was excruciating and violent; a truly harrowing experience. The knives cut and the elephant crushed. I was engulfed by the pain of my baby moving down and out of the birth canal, normal as it was. The only thing that got me through it were the voices of the people around me. Samanda’s voice, in particular, was my lifeline. I remember her voice most distinctly. “Breathe, Halley, just breathe.” “Gentle pushes, mama.” “Stop! Take your break. Get a breath.” One of my goals was to deliver my baby’s head in a slow and controlled manner to hopefully avoid tearing (I just shot Gabe out like a cannon and suffered a 3rd degree tear). This time around I was determined to protect my bodily integrity. And if there is one aspect of my birth that I would tell you I am the most proud of, it is the gradual delivery of my torturous little porker. I *did* go slow (at least that’s what they tell me; it still felt crazy). I *did* find restraint, a little bit, enough. Despite being under the most intense physical pain I have ever known, I found a teeny tiny way to regain some control.
It was only ten minutes that I pushed. It felt like thirty seconds and it felt like two hours. All of the pain crescendoed and sharpened as my baby’s head crowned. Out came a little hand with the head and my care team had the answer for my labor’s mysteries. (Compound presentations are associated with long and/or irregular labor patterns, as well as especially painful deliveries. My labor was about 18 hours, which is long for a 2nd baby). Linsey facilitated the delivery, although it was Simon who caught our precious baby. Out came a ginormous head, in the ROA position (right occiput anterior), as well as a hand and arm, but the sharp sensations remained for me until the entire body was out. I yelled, “Out yet?!” when my baby was born to the waist and Linsey said, “Almost!” My baby squeezed out the rest of the way little by little, like the honey at the bottom of the jar when you turn it over. I was in a daze and couldn’t really think straight but I recognized the moment of birth by the immediate absence of pain. I couldn’t see my baby because I was on my hands and knees, but I heard Simon say, “Oh my gosh!” with delight and I responded, “Don’t tell me!” as I reached between my legs to grab my squishy slippery baby. Simultaneously I lowered my bottom to the floor of the shower, shifting into a sitting position and leaning my back against Simon’s chest. I moved the blue Twizzler umbilical cord out of the way to see what Simon had already seen: we had a baby girl.
A baby girl! I erupted into sobs of joy and relief and gratitude. I truly would have been thrilled to have another boy but this was extra special. I had dreamed of having a little girl since I was a little girl. This was the culmination of a lifelong dream! I clutched my DAUGHTER close and just cried and cried. “It’s Phoebe!” I announced and everyone gushed and smiled. It was the most redemptive moment of my life. We had lost Susannah, baby “Zuzu,” thirteen months prior and though she was only eleven weeks gestation when I miscarried, we just knew she was a girl. And now Heaven had sent another girl to us, this time all the way into my arms. She didn’t cry very much, just enough to let us know she was perfectly well. She was serene and pink and already chubby. She pierced my soul with her jet black eyes and I just kept crying. Ashes to beauty, mourning to dancing.
The three of us just loved and kissed on each other in the bathtub. I was incredulous when I heard the 12:20 birth time; I would have sworn to you it was 3 in the afternoon! I had gone from 4cm to 7cm in two hours and from 7cm to pushing in five minutes or less. (Really, once my compound presentation labor pattern was worked out and we got little girl decently aligned, hand and all, my labor did in fact become fast and fairly standard). I hardly bled at all, and Phoebe was in all ways perfect, so there was no rush to move us. It’s become very important to me due to a tragedy that I was involved with several years ago that my postpartum vital signs be assessed minutes after birth and Linsey quickly took care of this for me: afebrile, 110, 108/64. Phoebe self-latched to my right breast about ten minutes after she was born and started suckling like a pro (no lie, she did not let go for an hour and a half). It was such sweet respite to be able to sit down on my bottom without contracting and enjoy the immediate relief from no longer incubating a baby. The dreaded afterpains set in quickly though, and I requested 800mg of Ibuprofen pronto!
After those 3rd stage contractions started, it was no longer comfortable to be on the floor of the tub. Linsey and Samanda helped the three of us up, which was tricky because Phoebe and I were connected both by the pulsing cord and at the breast. I clutched my baby girl; that was my contribution. Our bed had been prepared in advance and my care team helped me fall into its delicious softness, babe in arms. Simon climbed in next to me. More contractions, strong contractions, and my placenta shot out of me all at once at 12:42. Now I was officially no longer pregnant! Best feeling ever. I squished my now flabby belly in celebration, belly henna now barely showing. Phoebe was freed from her umbilical cord. Linsey checked my fundus; it was firm and four finger breadths below my belly button. Linsey asked if she could assess me for tears; I consented. She reported that I did unfortunately have a 2nd degree tear, right along the scar tissue from Gabe’s birth, but that it was straightforward. It was encouraging to have her tell me that I did do a great job of delivering Phoebe slowly, and if it hadn’t been for her problematic presentation, I likely wouldn’t have torn at all. She asked me if I wanted it to be repaired and I stated I did. We would hold off on that for a little while and apply ice in the meantime while I ate something and bonded with my baby.
Samanda asked for my lunch order and I requested bacon and eggs. Simon called his parents and brother in San Francisco and texted some of my best friends. Jennifer arrived back at our house at 1PM and Linsey hugged me and went home. Jennifer quickly got to work where Linsey left off; assessing my vitals and fundal height; asking me what I needed. My mom arrived around this same time; she left still-napping Gabe at her house, who would come over when he awoke with my dad. Just as we had done with Gabe, we told my mom on the phone that her grandbaby had arrived but did not specify the gender — some surprises are much better in person. So when my giddy mother arrived to gaze upon her newest grandchild, I lifted up the towel covering Phoebe with a huge grin and my mom’s reaction was pricelss! It was such a joyous moment.
Jennifer stitched me up with Samanda’s assistance; my mom distracted and comforted me while Simon nuzzled with his baby girl in the living room. I’d love to not need stitches after childbirth someday, but I really don’t think it’s too terrible of an experience. Lidocaine is great stuff and nothing compares to pushing that baby out. I had pesky trickle bleed that just didn’t want to let up while I was being repaired; that made the process take longer. I continued to push fluids and thankfully my uterus behaved. When the last stitch was in I was ready to get off the bed and take a shower. My mom helped me and offered me sips of juice while I was washing off to combat slight feelings of wooziness. As I was toweling off and changing into my sexy Depends, my dad arrived with Gabe, right about 3PM.
I missed Gabe’s first meeting with Phoebe due to finishing up my oh-so-splendid shower, but the story was recounted for me by many and some precious pictures were captured. It was LOVE at first sight, oh my goodness! Gabe immediately felt a sense of ownership over Phoebe and cried (loudly) anytime anyone took her away from him. She was HIS baby! (We did her Vitamin K shot away from Gabe’s watchful eyes; I was worried it would traumatize him more than her!). Poor kid. It was an emotional day for him, as expected, but I couldn’t have predicted the visceral reaction he had to other people holding his sister; he really felt it was *wrong* and he sought to be with her continually. Someone helped Gabe up onto our bed so that he could “supervise” the newborn exam. Everyone had been chattering about how big Phoebe was; there were estimates of 9 1/2, maybe 10+ pounds. But she fooled us all: 8lbs 8oz, 20 1/2 inches long, and a 14.25″ head circumference. (Gabe’s head was a whopping 15″ and many of my “birthy” friends were curious to see if this baby would have a huge head too! So Phoebe’s head was 3/4″ smaller but throw in that arm and I’d say it was worse than Gabe’s noggin!).
Phoebe was pronounced officially perfect and handed back to me for another nursing session. I finished off my bacon and eggs and slurped down probably my third glass of juice. My mom and I gabbed about how the birth had gone and how precious my new daughter was. My sister Lacey had also arrived during the hubbub and took Gabe to the playground up the street (thank God for aunts!). I could hear my dad in the living room talking to Simon about how Wainwright had been injured and would be out for the rest of the Cardinals’ season. Normalcy was slowly returning. My care team made plans to check on me the next day and gave me hugs and went home. Thankfully my parents and sister stayed for the rest of the day until Gabe went to bed which was enormously helpful. We all ate take-out Bread Co and I uploaded pictures to Facebook with our girl news! (Let’s be honest; I was crafting that birth announcement in my head for months).
Postpartum set in immediately. My friend Molly had told me that although the postpartum period is always a vulnerable time, she thinks it gets easier with each birth, and I agree. It was hugely helpful that Phoebe was born a champion nurser and we had no issues getting her to eat. And although it presented some interesting challenges, for the most part I have loved tandem nursing. I did struggle with engorgement and then a ridiculous oversupply for about three weeks, which had me pretty stressed out. Finally I decided to just pump out *everything* twice a day even though that’s generally ill-advised because it encourages more production. But it just goes to show there’s a time for everything: it allowed me to be comfortable, it allowed my newborn to feed in peace, and it allowed me to provide amazing breastmilk to other moms and babies in need (I was pumping 30 extra ounces daily on top of nursing two children!). A weekend away from Gabe, with just Phoebe, ended up being the lasting solution and I haven’t needed the pump since then.
I quickly learned that resting after birth is a lot harder with a toddler in your house. I overdid it on the first day, just walking to and from my kitchen, and passed many large clots. I learned my lesson and stayed in bed for the next week straight, occasionally moving to the couch and gradually achieving “bathroom independence.” My mom came over to help almost every afternoon which was a godsend and allowed me to take my sacred postpartum baths. Around day 10 I felt human again and at about 3 weeks postpartum I was able to be out and about normally. I’d say at 6 weeks I didn’t “feel” postpartum anymore for the most part, as in I didn’t think about the birth every day and I was no longer surprised to wake up as the mother of two kids every morning.
I had a rather hard time incorporating my painful birth into my story and coming to terms with it. On postpartum day 5 I hit a major low and I was angry about my birth. I told Samanda I felt like a survivor rather than a champion; I felt traumatized. For the first several weeks I was “on again, off again” with my daughter, sometimes looking at her and feeling resentful, or simply detached, for all the pain she caused me. Simultaneously I was watching Gabe struggle to adapt to his role as a big brother. In hindsight I’d say he adjusted well and quickly but it was messy in the midst of it. I couldn’t play with him, or pick him up, or put him to bed at night. He adored Phoebe but also objected to her. In his jealousy he rapidly coined the phrase “CeeBee to Dada!” when he wanted me all to himself (sweet man can’t pronounce “Phoebe” very well). I felt like I was always neglecting someone; either my toddler who I had a relationship with, or my newborn who, for heaven’s sake, was a newborn! I cried several times about how I didn’t just automatically love Phoebe with all the depth of love I have for Gabe, and also about the birth itself and the agony I could still feel. Samanda assured me it was okay that my attachment to Phoebe was slower-moving; Julie (who took over my care again when she returned to St. Louis) encouraged me that I was still in the “culture shock” of parenting two kids and I should give myself some grace. That weekend Simon and I had time away from Gabe, who was living it up with my parents, was also helpful. There was time to just love on Phoebe and she pulled me deeper under her spell.
After a few weeks I took Phoebe up to the Birth & Wellness Center where I work to meet my coworkers. Jessica, one of our excellent CNMs, asked me how the birth had gone and I told her about the compound presentation and how painful it was. She blessed me with sympathetic eyes and told me that in all the compound births she’s attended, the mom is *always* screaming. She added, “I can’t imagine how painful it is.” It was a short conversation but it did something powerful for me: it validated my experience. And it let me know I wasn’t a wimp. And funny as it may sound, an episode of Call the Midwife that I had DVR’d also changed my thinking about my birth. In the episode a laboring woman delivers with the same kind of compound presentation that I had with Phoebe. The mother had not planned her pregnancy and was intending to give the child up for adoption; she did not want anything to do with her after the birth. However, after several days and no plan for a permanent home for the baby girl, the midwife gently encouraged the woman to hold her baby and said, “She was born reaching out her hand for you.” Well I just sobbed and sobbed. Phoebe was born reaching out her hand for me. She just desired to get into my arms as fast as she could. That’s all. She never meant to hurt me; it wasn’t her fault. And moreover, this precious child longed for me just as I longed for her. In losing Zuzu and mourning her profoundly, there was another angel girl waiting, rushing even, to be part of our family.
That girl was Phoebe. My sweet, sweet Pheebs. Phoebe means “radiant” or “bright, shining one.” It is a Greek name, found in the New Testament, and belonged to a deacon of the early church, described as being “helpful to many” (Romans 16:1,2). Many also believe Phoebe was the one to hand-deliver Paul’s letter to the Romans. In nursing school I learned that Phoebe may have been the first known nurse as well. Of course it is also the name of one of the beloved Friends, the sitcom that I can recite ten seasons worth verbatim. That Phoebe, Phoebe Buffay, was quirky and free-spirited and wonderfully her own person. I love the name Phoebe for all these reasons, plus it’s spunky sound and the fact that it’s recognizable but not overly used. Clementine means “merciful” and is a nod to my mother, Tina, whose full first name is Mary Clementine. It’s special to us to honor Phoebe’s grandmother in this way, and of course it’s special for my mom as well. As a whole, Phoebe Clementine bestows a title of “radiant and merciful” on our daughter and I can’t think of a better proclamation to make over our child.
I had told Gabe in the months leading up to Phoebe’s birth that his sibling would be born when the irises bloomed. Sure enough I turned out to be right about this. The wild purple irises in our front yard obediently flowered about a week before Phoebe was born, displaying their beauty to trumpet her arrival. That alone was special. But the iris flowers died about five days after Phoebe’s birth. It was as though they could only be bothered to make an appearance for something as miraculous as the birth of a new soul, and after that event, it was time for them to retreat. Turns out this pattern is typical of irises: they bloom only for one to three weeks in spring or summer. Being someone who enjoys learning the meaning of words, I looked up “iris.” I was stunned to learn it means “rainbow.” Phoebe was my rainbow baby, a child who comes after the storm of a miscarriage. And as I am now hopelessly in love with her, I see that she is also the rainbow after my trying labor and birth. If all of this wasn’t sweet enough, consider this: “In ancient times, the Iris was considered a symbol of power and majesty, the three petal segments representing faith, wisdom and valor.” Reading that was a baptism. God whispered to me in that moment, To you I gave power and majesty; you are full of faith and wisdom and fortitude. That is what got you through. I was with you in labor and I am with you always.