For Penny’s birth I envisioned a beautiful home birth during which we would labor largely outside and I would ultimately deliver in a pool set up in a tent outside with lights strung about, Maisy and Josh right there beside me. The only reality that came true out of that vision was the home birth part; none of the rest of it panned out. And that’s ok.
My labor started hard at 9 pm on my birthday, September 18. With 1:15 minute contractions about seven minutes apart. They burned like fire through my butt and down both thighs. I hoped I could get them to stop or at least sleep through them for a while, especially since I had a bit of a cold bug, but after only a couple of hours I was at 1-2 minutes long and 3-5 minutes apart and with “bloody show.” I promptly called my midwife and doula then woke Josh because it was go time whether I liked it or not!
Josh’s primary task was to get the pool set up. Unfortunately, the tent we’d rented to enclose the pool outside was still in the travel bag and now we’d run out of time. Plan B was to set the pool up in the living room, but then realized we didn’t have a way to blow it up other than lung power. A quick call to my doula promised we would have one upon her arrival so in the mean time we drew a bath. Before I could slip away into the comfort of warm water and candlelight, however, I threw up the contents of my stomach into a bowl Josh produced just in time, right as my midwife walked in the door. Then I got in the bath and tried to relax for a bit.
By the time I got out my mother-in-law was tucked away in the guest bedroom to be ready to take Maisy as needed, my whole birth team was present, and my living room had been turned into home birth central, complete with plastic draped over various surfaces and the pool set up and filling slowly.
In the dark hours of the night the atmosphere in my house was lovely, alight with candles and entirely quiet and peaceful. However I didn’t see the space very often because this part of my labor progressed largely behind closed eyes – I was so sleepy I couldn’t manage to keep my eyes open. Even when Maisy came down the stairs at 5am I couldn’t manage to summon the energy for a hello that remotely resembled the mom she was so used to. I just remember reclining in the pool like a dead whale wishing on a star that I would miraculously feel alive and awake, not like sleeping and shaking and puking. Each contraction I would close my eyes (if they weren’t already closed) and moan through the contraction. I thought I sounded like a sick cow. Then, after only a handful of hours, I experienced pushing urges. And then they stopped.
In the lighter hours of the early morning I still rarely opened my eyes but what I saw was medical stuff everywhere. My house didn’t look like my house anymore with the light of day revealing my couch draped in plastic and bed pads, a bright blue kiddie pool with sea characters brightly smiling at me, and clipboards and other supplies strewn across my dining room table and on any surface of my living room. During these hours of labor I now was also chronically freezing and still unable to keep food in my belly.
In the full light of the day I kept the blinds shut and stayed inside. That’s entirely unlike me but my laboring self was afraid of onlooking neighbors and did not want anything messed with – I think I was afraid any change would make things worse even though it very well could have made things better. I still battled to keep my eyes open and cease shivering but my eyes did finally start to stay open in-between contractions and near the end of the day my shivers turned to sweating as the heat of the 82 degree September day took the interior of the house up to 76 degrees.
During this time I started asking about going to the hospital for pitocin and an epidural. I was ashamed to ask, I didn’t want to disappoint my all natural birth team, especially my doula, but also desperate. I was miserable from the unrelenting burning contractions in my butt and down my thighs and exhausted from no sleep and no food. I would labor for a while, then bring up the hospital again, labor for a while, then bring up the hospital again. The most heartbreaking moments in this time, however, were the glimpses I caught of Maisy. I could see in her eyes the distress that I felt in my body and I couldn’t be there for her – my ever interrupting contractions took all of my attention in order to cope. Instead, she tried to be there for me; she would come up and give me a hug from behind, stroke my hair, or give me a kiss. Then it became too much for her all of a sudden. After so much time seeing me in distress and not being allowed to be with me like usual, Maisy broke down and cried for me. Despite the team’s best efforts to continue to keep her distracted and occupied it became obvious she couldn’t handle it anymore. My midwife suggested she head home with Grandma and I reluctantly agreed. I so very much wanted Maisy to be present for the birth of the baby but for her sake and the sake of me being able to focus 100% on my labor I said goodbye to her.
After some hopeless sobbing shortly thereafter, I said I was done and we talked strategy to get me to the hospital. My “nonemergency transfer birth plan” stated that we would drive to St. Mary’s Hospital in Madison. My “I’m in labor and don’t want to be in the car for 45 minutes laboring brain” stated that we would drive to the St. Mary’s Hospital just 3 minutes away. My midwife’s face sunk and she ever so sweetly informed me that the St. Mary’s in town has a very high c-section rate and they don’t receive home births well. My heart sunk but simultaneously got the resolve I needed to get my baby out in my house like I planned. Somehow I deduced that it sounded much better to buckle down and do anything and everything my midwife and doula asked me to do to get my baby out at home than to make the agonizing 45 minute drive to Madison and chance being too far dilated to even receive an epidural.
By this point I knew my contractions weren’t going to do the job for me; no, I faced the reality that the only way I was going to get this baby out was to intentionally push my contractions to their maximum, to make them hurt worse. I spent the last couple hours of labor exhausting my already exhausted body by going up and down the stairs, lunging, doing squats, and pacing the house as my doula and midwife egged my labor on by massaging my pressure points with Clary Sage essential oil and asking me to drink some labor concoction. With a lot of intentionality I finally found some slight pushing urges in my system and jumped on them with a vengeance. The going was impossibly slow even still. Finally I focused entirely on pushing in a squatting position at the edge of my dining room table while pacing the dining room in-between contractions. The contractions stayed pretty wimpy (not on the painful scale mind you but in productiveness) but I was determined. After pushing as hard as I could through several of the pushing contractions I felt Penny’s head pop through some interior vaginal layer and my body took off with a vengeance causing me to push straight through with all my might for what had to have been 5 minutes straight. I couldn’t take the intensity any longer so I took a deep breath to stop that round of contractions. It worked and I got a breather for a few seconds before my body was racked by the next wave of contractions. My midwife told me I could move to my hands and knees if I wanted. I did, still clutching the leg of my dining room table for dear life. My midwife told me to feel for the head. I did and felt something squishy. It was my bag of waters. Another push and it popped. My midwife told me to feel for the head again. I did and this time I could. My midwife told me to hold the upper part of my vagina to help prevent tearing. I did. My midwife told me I could use my other hand to try and guide the baby’s head out. I did. I felt a burning in my netherparts and pushed strategically to stretch things out before giving the big push that I new would bring my baby’s head the rest of the way through. This part was frustrating because her head kept slipping back in if I relaxed too much, so enough times of that and I was done waiting, done stretching things out, and I gave it one more big push and she came. Eleven minutes after that initial strong wave of pushing and Penny was out.
As I pulled her body up from under me I noticed the cord around her neck. My midwife couldn’t see yet due to my position so I stated simply, “the cord is around her neck.” Her hands went for it and slipped. My hands went in then backed off seeing more hands on the cord. I figured this was not a case when “the more the merrier” applied so I simply watched. Life freeze framed in that moment when I saw the back of my daughter’s head and the chord around her neck. I literally do not have a visual memory of how that moment got to the moment with me on the floor on my back in my doula’s arms holding Penny in my arms, untangled and fighting valiantly to clear her lungs and get a good cry in. It felt like she cried forever, the poor girl frustrated by lack of good air and breast to suckle – air had to come before breast Penny. Sorry love.
In the next moments, one midwife looked me over reporting next to no bleeding and no tearing while the other puffed oxygen into Penny’s lungs. As my midwives shimmied some bed pads under me for cleanliness and padding they asked what the sex of our baby was. This time I hadn’t forgotten to look but simply didn’t have access to taking a peek until some of the chaos abated. That moment proved to be the first chance though so I unceremoniously lifted a leg, saw the girl parts, and said, “it’s a girl.” Though I was convinced we were having a boy all through the pregnancy I was not at all surprised that our baby was a girl. The moment she came out, the moment I saw the back of her beautiful little head, I knew she was a girl. “What’s her name?” said our midwife. I looked into Josh’s proud and scared eyes, “she looks like a Penny.” “Penny Elaine,” he agreed. In that moment I was somehow passed from my doula’s lap to Josh’s. I felt and saw him tearing up for the joy of having another daughter and for fear of the moment that just passed. We watched with pride as Penny fought so hard to get good air, and we knew the worst was over and rejoiced that our secret wish for a girl, a sister for Maisy, was now a healthy and whole reality in our arms. After a few moments of just staring at Penny I felt some contractions again, pushed my placenta out, Josh cut the cord, and I promptly got up to get more comfortable in a bed where we just snuggled and got right back to staring at the beauty of our brand new baby daughter.
Ultimately, the birth was not what I’d dreamed and planned. I was disheartened by my body’s inability to perform on it’s own. It is my understanding that most women ride their contractions and simply cope. Turns out my body is only willing to get a baby out if I very intentionally push my contractions to work harder – to hurt worse. I wish I could say I was happy with my labor, but I wasn’t. I did not feel empowered and strong. I felt frustrated and sleepy and bummed. However, I am so happy to have done it at home and completely natural. The contractions were ridiculously painful and wearisome and the pushing hurt like hell but man, the moment I saw the back of my daughters head all that work went up in smoke. Not forgotten, but entirely trivial compared to the wonder of the product of all that hard work that I held in my arms. I would do it all again to have my Penny and I would do it again at home.