My first birth was a good one—at home, in a labor tub, with great support and healthy outcomes. I don’t think I could have asked for more from a first birth. But like many first experiences, I learned a lot about what I wanted and what my body needed me to do next time. My biggest “do over” was that I had started pushing because I thought it was time, not because I felt the urge. At that point the “here comes the baby” enthusiasm in the room swept me up, and combined with my strong desire to be done with labor, I pushed my baby out asynclitically (his head was tilted a bit) and had a very unpleasant perineal tear.
My first birth also taught me how intense everything—not just the labor itself—can be for a laboring woman. When I discussed the pushing phase with my husband and care providers later, no one else thought that my support team was loud about encouraging me to push. But to me, instructions that seemed simply encouraging to someone not in labor, like “keep pushing” or “let’s get this baby out,” actually sounded like they were being shouted. The intensity of labor turned up the volume on everything: voices, lights, and emotions.
With my second pregnancy, I decided to trust my body and my instincts from the beginning. I never took a pregnancy test, because I didn’t need a magic color-changing wand to tell me that I was carrying a child. With no medical indications for one, we never had an ultrasound. We waited to hear the baby’s heartbeat until it was audible with a fetoscope, because we didn’t want to expose baby to Doppler ultrasound and we trusted baby’s energetic movements to tell us we were doing well. And I told my midwife that I didn’t want routine vaginal exams during labor.
At 38 weeks, our area had a major snowstorm that shut down even the major roads for a few days. Our obliging midwife let us come over on a Saturday night for a short prenatal, since we hadn’t seen her the previous week either, and I just wanted to see her and feel the security of the prenatal visit ritual. Snow was in the forecast for that Tuesday, so on Monday I put my toddler down for a nap (my husband works from home) and went out to run a ton of errands. I even remembered to renew my driver’s license so I wouldn’t have to sit at the DMV with a newborn! On the way home I thought, “I got so much done today, I could just go into labor tonight and it would be okay. Heh, heh, yeah right.”
I got home about five o’clock, and sitting on the couch eating supper around 5:30 I started noticing contractions. Just Braxton-Hicks, surely, but I kept glancing at the clock. Every six minutes, here came another one—distracting but not painful. My husband’s cousin, pregnant with her first baby, texted me with a question about breastfeeding and breast pumps, so we carried on a conversation for a while. Around 7:30 I thought, “I think I’d better wind up this conversation and do something different because these contractions keep coming.”
So I went and puttered around in the kitchen. Still contracting. Took my 2-year-old to the potty and had to stand up because sitting on the edge of the tub during a contraction was not fun. Now, at this point I really knew these were not practice contractions, but when something big is going on, my introverted personality really shows out and I “don’t want to make a fuss.” So I told my husband I was contracting and was going to get a shower to relax and see if they would stop. Of course, they didn’t, and by this time he was putting our toddler to sleep, so I didn’t want to disturb that process. So I called our midwife, around 8:45. After my description of what was happening, and some hemming and hawing on my part, she finally asked me flat out, “Do you want me to come over?” I admitted, “Yeah. I might have to send you home, but I really don’t think so.” I also asked if it was okay to take Tylenol for a headache, and she said that it was fine, and agreed that laboring with a headache just didn’t seem fair.
By this time our toddler was asleep, so I told my husband, “I called Lucy.”
“Okay…” he queried, not really understanding, because despite the fact that I’d had to stop and lean on something every time I’d had a contraction for the past hour, we’d managed to be in different rooms most of the time and I had been extremely non-vocal and unobtrusive about it.
“She’s on her way over.”
Once we got that sorted out, we both started rattling around the house getting things ready. I emailed the close friends who had come to my blessingway and asked them to send us good energy. I also emailed the photographer with whom we had scheduled a maternity photo session several times, only to be foiled by snow, to tell her that we were now being foiled by another force of nature. Every time I called someone, my contractions stopped completely, which was embarrassing since I kept thinking “She’s not even going to believe me!” Of course, my body considerately reassured me that I really was in labor by starting the hardest contraction yet every time I hit the “end call” button.
My close friend who was planning to take birth photographs and bring my blessingway necklace was not feeling well, but she was able to catch Lucy on her way out the door and have her pick up the necklace. So it was about 10:30 when Lucy, her apprentice Anna, and Lucy’s daughter Angela arrived. Angela was in charge of my toddler so that he would have a buddy who was comfortable around birth but was focused on his needs. By this point I was definitely done puttering and was needing more support, but of course my contractions stopped with all the welcome hugs, checking out my labor necklace, and then standing around sort of looking at each other as if to say “Well, are we having a baby tonight, or what?”
Lucy, being the smart midwife that she is, suggested we go sit down in the candlelit kitchen and relax. She asked how I was feeling, and I told her my headache wasn’t gone yet, so she started rubbing my neck and shoulders. Aaaahh…and with the relaxation came the contractions. By the second one I had to stand up and lean over the table, and Anna teased that I was being extremely rude and just ignoring everyone in the middle of the conversation. Next I heard Lucy say quietly, “Let’s go get our stuff out of the van,” which I found out later is midwife code for “Yes, she’s really having a baby tonight, we really do need to bring in our metric ton of medical supplies.”
Leaning over the kitchen table was only so much help, so Anna reminded me that I could get in the labor tub anytime. (And let me tell you, setting up the tub ahead of time is the way to go.) I said that I kind of wanted to, but that I wasn’t ready to get naked in front of everyone yet. Then I remembered that I had bought a sundress for just this purpose, so I went and changed. This reminded us that we didn’t have any maternity photos, so Lucy took a few for us.
When I got in the tub I started shaking—specifically my thighs were shaking—even though I wasn’t cold. I knew that this was a sign of transition, but I decided that I couldn’t be so far along already. Ha! Baby was moving around a lot, which was a new experience since I didn’t notice my older child moving at all in labor. It seemed as though baby was protesting every contraction with little fists in my lower abdomen. I pressed my hands as hard as I could against my stomach and begged “Please, baby, stop!” because that unpredictable pain made it harder to work with the contractions.
My husband turned the light on in the next room for some reason, and I didn’t notice that it was bothering me until Anna turned it back off. Low, soft light made me feel much more secure and able to focus. My husband also started the playlist I had created of simple, relaxing piano pieces, and while I didn’t even notice the music during contractions, I appreciated its influence while I rested between them.
My senses had refocused completely into labor land and I had no sense of time at this point. After a while, the contractions felt sharper, which I interpreted as a need to empty my bladder. Sitting is not a happy position for me in labor, so going to the toilet is not fun. I started a contraction while peeing, of course, so I stood up just as soon as I could. Standing while leaning on the wall and flexing my knees in a kind of rhythmic ¼ squat felt great, so I moved out to the living room and labored standing up for a while, using the back of the couch for a support, and having Joel reach around me and press on the lower part of my belly where baby was still putting up a fuss.
Eventually I needed a new position again, so I got on my hands and knees. That was good because whoever was behind me could apply counterpressure on my hips and lower back. I wasn’t always sure who it was—I would just gasp “press on my back please” and a pair of hands would descend from heaven to help me out. I was still moving a lot, flexing down into a sort of frog position and back up, or flexing one hip toward the floor and then the other. Whatever came into my mind to try, I did, and it usually helped.
Then I started feeling serious pressure in my pelvis. I started blowing air between my lips like a horse and even shaking my head side to side like one. I’m sure it looked ridiculous, but it sure helped me relax instead of fighting against that intense pressure. Not long after that, I felt the need to focus on relaxing my pelvic floor, and doing so started to trigger a pushing reflex. If you know me, you know I love birth, so believe me when I say that if I could think of any other comparison than a bowel movement, I would. That said, if you have ever had a BM large or delayed enough to cause serious discomfort on its final descent, you have some idea what I was feeling at this point. I knew in my mind and in my body that relaxing my pelvic floor was needed, but it also increased the sensation of pressure, and the only way to make that feel better was to bear down against it. This is what began the “grunty pushing” phase. I heard it happening and knew that birth was getting close, but I was also glad not to have anyone comment on it so that I could stay completely focused and not feel rushed. I also had some bright red blood begin to show, which my midwife said was probably from my cervix. Looking back I’m sure it was from my cervix being pulled over baby’s head.
I began having trouble staying calm, and my midwife asked if I wanted to get back in the labor tub. I frowned, “Yes, but I don’t feel like I can get low enough on hands and knees because the water’s too deep.” So everyone quickly started working on the obvious solution, which was to take some water out of the tub!
Back in the tub, things stayed intense but more manageable. I soon started pushing actively. I checked myself and felt what I thought was the baby’s head, but was disappointed to find that it was receding after each contraction, which seemed odd because I thought that only happened when the head was crowning. My husband asked if I wanted him in the pool, and I said yes, that would be good, especially because then he could push on my back while I leaned forward on the edge of the pool. As he went to change into his swim trunks I began another contraction, and I heard Lucy whisper, “Okay, Joel, but wait until this contraction’s over just in case.” After he got in and during a push, I felt a huge pop and gush, which was my water breaking. Now I really felt the baby’s head, not the amniotic sac, which had been stretching down with each pushing contraction and then receding when I took the pressure off.
My midwife’s records say that I got back into the tub at 20 minutes after midnight and that my water broke ten minutes later; but in the moment I had no sense of time or number of contractions, nor any concern about it.
Soon after my water broke (my records actually say with the next contraction), I blew right through crowning. I knew my midwife and her apprentice were telling me to slow down and breathe, just like I had asked them to do to help me prevent a tear; but I just didn’t care. I pushed because it was the only thing I could do that felt right. Baby’s head was about two knuckles in when the contraction started, and when it was over the head was out and I was shouting, “The head is out! Why does it still hurt? The head is out!” because the “ring of fire” was just catching up with me. Everyone (including me) was sure I had torn. I kept feeling all over the head and exclaimed “There’s an ear!” which totally took the pain away, because that little detail made it concrete that I was about to have a new baby in my arms.
Next contraction, I continued to push but made no forward progress. Baby did rotate, so that that ear went from my left thigh to facing my pubic bone. I was concerned and could feel my team planning what to do if we had another contraction without the baby being born. Lucy asked me to back off touching the head so that the baby wouldn’t get stimulated to try to breathe.
Just as the next contraction started I remembered that I couldn’t even get my first baby’s head to crown in my current position, which was kneeling with knees wide apart. So I started pulling my left leg up and with my husband’s help got into a semi-squat on left foot and right knee. Whoosh, here came the shoulders and the rest of my amniotic fluid, the contraction was over, and I had absolutely no desire ever to push again in my life; but here was this baby still hip-deep waiting to be born. So I just reached under the armpits and brought baby out the rest of the way.
Lucy asked me to swoosh the baby around under the water for a few seconds before bringing baby to the surface, which felt like an eternity to me. Finally I brought baby up onto my chest and lay back onto my husband while my birth team covered us up with a towel. I was too ecstatic even to remember to look between baby’s legs. I could feel little arm, leg, and face movements, and hear quiet little first breaths, but to everyone else baby seemed too quiet. Baby’s face was bruised from that contraction when just the head was out, so it also looked like baby wasn’t pinking up. Lucy smacked the bottom of a foot a bit, and baby yelled but calmed back down quickly, to Lucy’s chagrin. Finally we pulled back the towel a little and realized that the rest of baby’s body was quite pink. I was never concerned, whether because I was full of birth hormones or because I could feel the little life pressed to my chest, but I know everyone else was relieved.
Finally everyone was calm and I pulled back the towel, lifted a tiny leg out of the way, and felt a sense of rightness, as if I should have always known that we had another boy. I asked, “What time is it? What day was he born?” and was surprised that it was not even 1 a.m.
I delivered the placenta in the tub with him on my chest, and then handed him to Lucy so I could climb out and head for my herb bath. Once my new baby boy (for whom we had no name yet) was settled back on my chest, he started to root, so I let him work his way down and latch on all by himself. What a difference from my first birth when I “put the baby to the breast” and tried to direct the process! This baby had an excellent latch from the beginning, and I had almost no soreness, which I completely attribute to supporting his instinctive “breast crawl” and latch.
My baby was 8 pounds 8 ounces and 20 inches long, with a halo of dark hair and almost no cranial molding. It turned out that I had no tearing except one tiny, almost invisible skid mark. While I would still have preferred a slower crowning and will try to take it easier through that part of any future births, my body clearly knew what it was doing and opened the way.
I felt a little tired, but mostly calm, confident, relaxed, and right with the world. I am so glad I chose to trust the normal process of pregnancy and birth. Going into labor, I felt settled and calm. I never did have a vaginal exam. Not only did I catch my own baby, but it was the most natural thing in the world to do—I didn’t even think about how cool that part was until Anna pointed it out to me. And the trust I had in my baby got us off to an unbelievably easy start with breastfeeding.
I am deeply grateful to my husband, my midwife, and my midwife’s apprentice for their loving, gentle, peaceful support, and to the other amazing women in my life whose faith in me makes me have faith in myself.