We watched as the Egg Moon waxed and waited for the gentle, random Braxton-Hicks contractions to turn into something more committed. I took the opportunity to get a few lingering things crossed off the To Do list, as I had a hunch that one or two of those minor tasks might be holding up the start of my labor. Not more than 30 minutes after marking a line through them, the first contraction hit. It was shortly before midnight.
The reaction I get when counting out the duration of labor, from the gentle start to the intense conclusion, is always a mix of shock and sympathy. 23 hours is indeed a long, long time, especially for a second labor, but the truth is this: early labor is not all that hard to work with and it takes up the biggest portion of that time. In the early hours of my labor with Errol, I made myself a midnight snack, took out some bread dough to rise, snoozed, gave Daddio the heads-up, and showered. We readied the house, baked that bread, and awaited the arrival of the Moms. The excitement was palpable and we marveled at the significance of this guy arriving on his official due date, a feat that less than 10% of babies do. Of course, I said, reflecting on the last several months of my unusual punctuality and get-it-done-now attitude. (I’ve been known in the past to be much more of a procrastinator) Of course he would arrive precisely on time.
Soon Isadora awoke to the exciting news that she would become a big sister that day, and The Moms arrived to take over their shift of entertaining her. Andrew and I took a walk by the stream, hoping to kick the laboring up a notch. We paused at regular intervals to take in the contractions, and I was simultaneously brought up to speed on the best fishing holes, the location of our neighbor muskrat, and various other tidbits of creek trivia, all while the intensity of the contractions slowly gained momentum.
The return home marks the start of my Pain Management strategies, because, while my goal (fantasy) was for a pain-free, orgasmic labor (these apparently exist – google it!) I did have a robust plan for progressively coping with the pain.
- Level 1: vigorous rocking. Rock like it’s a mode of transportation, as if you might actually get someplace. I recommend a creaky rocker on a creaky floor – perfect for redirecting your focus. It also helps to have something very beautiful to look at.
- Level 2: Balance ball with hot rice sacks. Bounce vigorously, with the hot rice pads applied below the belly. Bored with that? Proceed to level 2.5.
- Level 2.5: Sit perfectly still on the balance ball, so quietly, and let the contractions wash over you like a wave. I had read, rather skeptically, of this technique used in many other birth stories. I can’t overstate how effective this strategy became for me, as I turned my focus inward. It was the most zen-like experience of my life and I soon found myself on an entirely different plane of consciousness. Quite simply, it was amazing. And relatively pain-free, but somewhat short-lived, as the intensity of the contractions picked up, marking the start of active labor.
- Level 10: (the ultimate in pain management) The Birthing Tub. Oh, I could write a love poem dedicated to the immediate, delicious relief of pain that is afforded by a simple container of hot water. How else could a laboring woman be so quickly transformed from a softly-moaning, coping, primal force to a laughing, joke-cracking, smiling Momma? Um, without drugs, I mean. Aaah. The relief is immense and immediate and, in my mind, key to the “natural” (drug-free) part of this birthing process. I couldn’t imagine going without it.
From the tub, I was surrounded by my team, chatting quietly, knitting, watching the antics of a red squirrel just outside the window. It was beautiful. The sun was shining through the aquamarine tones of the curtains; Chuck Norris was crowing in the background, heralding the significance of the day. The air was heavy with the palpable excitement of knowing that we would soon (hopefully) meet our child, here in this home, which undoubtedly had ushered other babies into the world in its 114 years of being. There was immense satisfaction of being at home, of embracing the process of birth in my own way, and I declared for the umpteenth time that day, “I’m so glad I’m at home.”
Pushing soon began, noncommittally at first, but upon the suggestion to try to feel the baby’s head descending with my finger, I was invigorated and able push much more effectively. I pushed and pushed and pushed. For hours.
And this is where the sky clouded over, where the rainbow crowning the day faded and the birds promptly stopped singing. This baby had assumed the dominant position of his in-utero stay – facing the exact opposite direction desired – outward (posterior) and was lodged behind my pubic bone. We tried different positions, exiting the tub, walking around, straddling our staircase, even. Amidst all of that, even with Grizzly-Bear-Mama-force pushing, he wouldn’t (couldn’t) budge. My midwives tried manually turning him. Nothing. At this point, his heart rate started dropping dramatically during the force of each contraction. I was exhausted, utterly and completely depleted. We all peered hopefully into the bag of midwifery tricks and found that it was empty, found that we had tried every one of them, to no avail. A call was made to the nearest hospital and they assembled the crew for the operating room while we gathered our things and drove to the hospital, me in the back seat trying to stifle the urge to push through the contractions. It was a long, long drive, followed by an even longer prep before finally, finally, I received my spinal injection of immediate, complete pain relief. Shortly thereafter, at 9:55 p.m., our baby boy was mercifully delivered by emergency C-section.
There is no one alive who is more surprised by this conclusion than me. Not for a minute would I have guessed, or believed, that I would be delivering via C-section. Not in a million years. Beyond the surprise, though, I have no regrets. I’m so thankful that I had the opportunity to labor at home, on my terms, and wouldn’t have changed that for the world, even with the tortuous ride to the hospital. It was the experience I had been hoping for, until it turned for the worse. I’m so thankful for the capable hands of my midwives, for their wisdom and experience and their competence. Not once during the darkest part of the ordeal did I fear for my own safety or that of my baby. I’m thankful also for the experience of delivering Isadora naturally, without medical intervention. If I harbor any sadness over the experience of Errol’s birth, it lies in the regret that Daddio wasn’t able to catch his baby, to be the first person in the world to lay hands on him. Or that Isadora wasn’t able to witness the beautiful, natural process that birth usually is, wasn’t able to see her baby brother’s miraculous entrance into the world. Or that I can’t point to the bedroom years from now, showing Errol precisely where he entered this world. Beyond those minor points, I’m instead grateful that Errol was born in this century, with the benefit of surgical expertise, or this outcome would likely be much, much different. I’m tremendously grateful for the miracle that is The Epidural, arriving not a moment too soon, and ending the excruciating pain that had clouded the preceding couple of hours. Would I have wished for it at the start of active labor, and cut out the suffering entirely? No way. I wouldn’t have needed it if he had been born after a reasonable amount of pushing. And the C-section? Having experienced both ends of a very disparate spectrum of birthing, would I advocate for a planned C-section and really cut out the “pain” of labor? Absolutely, unequivocally not. Physically, recovering from the major surgery that a C-section is adds a entirely new level of stress and difficulty to the already challenging period of newborn care. Emotionally, there is a sort of visceral disconnect when, after laboring for hours, someone dressed in white scrubs hands you a swaddled bundle that your brain says is your baby, without the physical sensations to support the process. A disconnect, I emphatically add, that’s quickly overcome by some skin-to-skin bonding and breastfeeding. And there is no escaping the pain entirely – an abdominal incision is no picnic.
But was this really a homebirth success story? Without a doubt. The biggest concern raised each and every time the phrase “homebirth” is bravely uttered is that of safety. Birth is such an unpredictable process, if only in that small percentage of normal pregnancies, but the stakes are huge. What, then, in the event of an emergency? My answer remains the same as it was 6, or 9, or 12 months ago: you transfer from home to the hospital. Safely. Simply. And then you thank the universe with all your heart for the mercy of modern medicine.