I awaited the arrival of my second child for more than twenty years. This is not to say that Life With Boys is insufficient, but more to acknowledge the secret storyline we girls all play in our heads from childhood on. Deep in the recesses of our minds, we imagine frills and lace, pigtails and layers of tulle. For some of us, this is a great obsession. For others, a quiet hope seated somewhere underneath the rest of life’s great possibilities, but with no great import. Just sitting there. And so it was for me. When I conceived this child, I thought surely it would be another boy. That I would surround myself with man-children, a strong husband, and our boy-dog. I would be the little lady of the group. I practiced saying “my boys.” It felt nice. And yet somewhere in there, I held a candle burning for a little girl to show up. We decided to wait until delivery to find out.
The last two weeks of my pregnancy were miserable. I had false labor pains nightly, sometimes for several hours at a time. On top of that, I had trouble eating due to the massive amounts of acid being pushed back upward by my squished stomach, pushed into my chest cavity by a seriously active baby. My pubic bone popped and cracked as I walked, the result of hormones preparing my joints for birth. My sciatic nerve was pinched, shooting pain down my right leg. The nightly labor pains were the ultimate dick-tease for a mother who just wanted to meet her baby. But with everything else going on with my body, I was struggling to get out of bed.
We planned a home birth with the midwife in our area attending. As most good midwives do, she much preferred I go into labor naturally, and as most good midwives would, declined to sweep my membranes for two consecutive appointments. Finally, the third week (and a day before my due date), I came to her begging for some kind of manipulation of my cervix, and she agreed. I was 3-4 cm dilated already, she said, and 80% effaced.
I had promised my son we could go to the beach later that afternoon. I picked him up and collected Daddy, and we three went out to play in the lapping waves around 1:30pm. I felt dull cramps, but thought nothing of them, as it’s normal to feel that way after a sweep. I stood on the sand and rocked a little back and forth, with no thoughts at all that this was actual labor. But stretching this way and that felt good, so I watched my husband chase our little boy up and down the beach, and imagined that I could dance our little one down. The rain came, and we made our way back to the truck. On the way, I mumbled to Tim, “I’m not in labor, but I think my hips just separated. I’m uncomfortable. My legs hurt.” Tim says it was at this point that he knew we would have a baby before the next sunrise. I would continue to deny it for several hours.
I call the midwife. More as a courtesy than anything else. A head’s up, possibly, maybe, but probably not in labor phone call. My contractions are varying from 2 – 7 minutes apart, lasting about 30 – 45 seconds each. I think they get less intense when I lay down, so this is probably just the same fake labor I’ve been having for weeks now. She tells me to eat and take a nap. With a full belly, I try to rest, but text her thirty minutes later to say “They’re a little too intense to fall asleep, so I’m just focusing on resting. I could call you around 8 to check in?”
My sister calls. There are 5 hours of travel time between herself and me, and she has just decided on a whim that she’ll come and see us today. There’s not much going on where she lives on a tiny island on the Outer Banks, and we’ve been planning for her to attend the birth the whole time. Somehow she knew I would need her soon. I answer the phone by saying “It’s a good thing you caught the 4:30pm ferry.” I am beginning to believe we could meet our baby today.
I spend the next couple of hours cleaning up, pausing during contractions to get on my knees, close my eyes, and breathe a little. I know that the midwife will want to know if I can’t talk through my contractions, so I keep trying to see how comfortable I am by that yardstick. I end up calling her back at 7:15 pm, roughly. It is only now that I admit to her, “Well, I’m in labor.”
At this point, I am breathing through contractions, and prefer not to have anyone talk to me. Technically, I can talk through them. But I become irritated easily if anyone needs me to actually say anything that makes sense. I have already called my good friend the photographer over, and invited two more of my dear friends to witness this baby’s journey earthside. Everyone is coming together. I begin to drop to my knees on the floor during each contraction.
It is not so much pain, but an incredibly intense stretching sensation that needs my focus. I blow out the feeling, pushing it through my body with thick, heavy breaths. I count the breaths I take. One, two, three….almost there. Four, halfway done. Five, six. Okay.
Inbetween contractions, I smile and love on my 2.5 year old son, who is having tremendous fun playing with our guests, and who stops occasionally to ask, “You okay, Mommy?” “Yes, baby. Mommy is okay. I am helping baby Charlie to come out.” And he giggles. He keeps me centered.
The midwife and her assistant arrive. I tell my husband we need to take the dog over to a friend’s house. As a courtesy, my midwife offers to check my dilation so that my husband doesn’t leave with the dog only to miss his baby’s grand entrance. I measure at 5 centimeters. I am immediately proud, as I wasn’t even 5 cm after 30 hours of labor with my first.
Inbetween contractions, I am completely myself. I wander between rooms, finding my favorite places to lean. I turn on music, I tell the midwife’s assistant that there is vegan stew in one of the crockpots. I offer tea and coffee. And again fall to my knees to push another contraction through my body, reminding myself that I am getting closer to meeting my baby, imagining my cervix dilating like a pupil. I’m really doing this.
My sister arrives. She puts counter pressure on my sacrum. I begin to ask when the birth pool will be ready. I begin to forget exactly how to make it through contractions on my own. I am reminded by everyone around me to relax into it, don’t fight it, open up to it. My husband holds my entire weight as I press into him, moaning through the pain, willing it to end quickly. He gently taps my forehead, “This muscle is tight right here. Relax this one. Just this little one right between your eyebrows. Just relax this little one here.” And immediately my body melts into his, and instead of fighting the waves, I coast on top of them. My baby is coming. I’m asking again when I can get into the tub. They are still trying to get the temperature down to a safe level. Only 3 more degrees, they say, and I can get in.
“Oh fuck! Why does it have to be like this?” I am on video telling my husband that I fucking hate him right now. His mood is too good. He is too excited. I just want him to be quiet. And I want to get into the water. My friend Angie chats with me in the bathroom, a welcome distraction. She makes me feel normal for a moment again. I try to kneel over my birth ball in the shower, but the tub isn’t wide enough to accomodate the way I want my knees to splay out, so I immediately get out, remembering that I hated the shower with my son’s birth too, and cursing myself for even trying to get in there. This isn’t working. Nothing is working. The pain is searing, and I forget to keep my voice low. I can feel myself trying to climb upward, away from the pain. The midwife’s assistant stoops next to me on the tile floor. “Breathe like this,” she says, and helps me to find a pace that helps. I don’t realize it right now, but she is teaching me to breathe my baby down. The little moments like this save me from losing my shit. I am in control again.
“I need to get in the tub. I’m done asking for permission.”
My midwife comes around, and says she will check me, and she won’t tell me how far I am if I don’t want to know. (This is a fear I’ve had all night. Being checked and not progressing. I am feaful of a repeat of my son’s birth). She says after I’ve been checked, I can get into the tub. Oh dear god, anything to get into the tub. I’m on all fours, she asks if she can touch me. “Go for it,” I say. She says I’m doing ‘perfect,’ and in the back of my mind, I wonder if I’m really doing perfect, or if she’s just saying that so I don’t give up right then and there.
I stand up, ready to get into the tub. I feel water trickle down my legs. “Oh, and that’s happening now. My water just broke. And I’m also peeing,” I tell my midwife. In retrospect, I can’t believe I just let myself pee right there on the floor. I think it was because I couldn’t imagine taking a detour to the bathroom when I had been given the go-ahead to climb into the warm water, which I was absolutely sure would take away the scorching pain I felt with every contraction. I was also terrified, because I knew that as soon as my water broke, the contractions would feel different. And by different, I mean worse.
I was right and wrong. The contrations were definitely worse. But the water I had been waiting so long for was wretched. I hated it. I was too bouyant, I couldn’t get a grip on anything, I couldn’t brace myself well during the next contraction, which sent me reeling into a whole new world of pain. I lost my shit. The midwife attempted to calm me, telling me I was “almost there.” I asked her what my dilation had been at the last check. 7cm, almost 8.
“I’m done. I don’t want to do this anymore. I quit. Make it stop. I’m not doing it. I’m done.”
“What do you propose we do?” asked the midwife. I had no answer. The next contraction hit me like a brick wall, and I collapsed into high-pitched wailing as I heard three people around me tell me to go lower, but I felt panic, and then a sensation that I had not yet felt.
I felt the remainder of my water bag explode, rippling the water behind me, and almost imperceptibly, I felt my lower body tense and push just for a moment..
“I think I was pushing a little bit at the end of that one. I didn’t mean to, but I think I was pushing.”
The midwife told me to try not to push on the next one. She didn’t think I was ready. I don’t blame her. Five minutes ago, I had been less than 8cm dilated. In order to prevent swelling in my cervix, I needed to wait until 10cm to push.
Another contraction, but without the pain like the others, because my body is pushing without my permission. I yell to the midwife, “I can’t stop, I can’t stop pushing, help me!” It is surreal and magical. It feels amazing. All this pent up energy is concentrated in moving my baby down to meet me. I feel every part of this tiny one passing through me. I feel my hips shift to accomodate the body moving through them. I know my baby is coming soon. I reach down between my legs and am in complete shock to feel a small square of a crowning head. I am in such shock that I don’t tell anyone. There is no way that’s a baby head. But it is. And for 30 seconds, my baby and I are touching each other, and no one knows.
The midwife has her hands behind me, I know she is ready to catch my baby. As the next contraction slams again into my body, I feel the uncontrollable pushing begin. I have surrendered myself to this process, I am not in control. My baby knows when and how to be born.
The pressure is enormous, I feel my body splitting in two. With one last push, I call out to my baby, screaming “Charlie!” It is a plea for this to be over, a prayer for safe delivery, and a christening all in one.
I hear the midwife, “Dare, reach down and get your baby.”
I reach again between my legs, and I feel a squishy tummy and hips sliding out of me. With both hands, I lift her from the water. And I already know she is a girl. So much so, that when they ask what I’ve had, I only feel between her legs to confirm my suspicion. I know my baby girl has come to me at last.
“She’s a girl! I did it! I can’t believe I just did it! And she’s a girl! Did I really just do that??”
She is covered in thick, cheesy vernix. I am in love with her. There is no one else in the room. We have a daughter. A daughter! She is perfect and beautiful, immediately announcing her arrival with grunts and sobs. Her cord is short, so I ask to get out of the water and into bed.
The birth team holds me up while I hold my new little one, cradled against my skin, and we settle down to nurse and birth the placenta. She stays attached to me for another 45 minutes until her father cuts the limp umbilical cord. The midwives clean everything, my friends leave, one by one, to allow our new family to get to know each other. My other sister arrives shortly after 1:00 a.m. and immediately sobs happy tears upon seeing her new neice.