Birthdays are to celebrate the coming of another year of life for an individual--but they are also a time for mothers to remember birth and the first days of their children's lives. I spent the day looking at old photographs and rereading my birth story. Here it is for anyone who is interested:
At 6 a.m. on April 24, 1999, my thirty-second birthday, I woke up feeling slight cramping, like I was starting my menstrual period. For nine months I had actually been missing the cyclical bleeding. But I knew that this morning was not the return of ordered time. I heaved my enormous belly out of bed and waddled to the bathroom. Could labor be starting? I had hated all thirty-eight weeks of my pregnancy and was eager to have it end. Nevertheless, since I was a first-timer, I was prepared for a few more weeks. I sat on the toilet, urinated, and lost my plug on the toilet paper. I sat staring at the glob of blood-tinged mucus with disbelief, then grinned. I called my partner out of bed to come look: "David? Can you come here for a second? I have something to show you."
He came in, sleep still on his face, and yawned. "Are you OK?"
"Have you ever seen one of these?" I asked my physician husband.
David put on his glasses and looked at the glob. "Oh my goodness," he said gently. "Wow." He looked like he was about to cry. "Happy birthday!" He yawned again. "Hm. Maybe you should get a bit more sleep just in case things start to pick up later today. Do you think you can?"
I was suddenly filled with more energy than I had felt in months, but I told David that sure, I could sleep. He brought me a glass of juice from the kitchen and crawled in beside me. I stared at my clock for about twenty minutes until I heard David breathing the deep breaths of sleep.
Then I remembered the stack of exams waiting for my red pen. They had to be finished before the birth process started! In the den I sat down with my feet up and tried to finish marking the blue books. I paused every seven minutes and marveled at my hardening belly. The contractions were completely painless and utterly fascinating to me.
After a couple of hours, David came downstairs and asked me what I wanted to do with the day. I quickly suggested going to a bookstore—my favorite way to spend a day.
David frowned. "Do you think you should be out that much?" he asked. I had been on bedrest for weeks because of rising blood pressure, increasing protein in my urine, and some fairly significant edema. Although many women in my situation would have been hospitalized for pre-elampsia, my midwives and consulting obstetrician agreed that I could stay home as long as I quit going in to teach. I agreed to have David, a family physician, take my blood pressure every morning and evening. He also brought home some urinalysis sticks and asked me to dip them in my urine every other day. My blood pressure skyrocketed whenever I sat up, but as long as the pressure was taken while I was lying down, it stayed under 140/90. Usually I was very good at following the bedrest order, but today I was feeling healthier and friskier than I had felt in months. David saw my face, and said, "Fine. For a little while."
We headed to Borders. I was constantly distracted by the regular tightening and loosening of my uterus. When one of the tightenings came on, I would smile with wide eyes and occasionally grab David's hand and place it on my belly. After the bookstore, we went to a celebration lunch. Although I was eating meat during my pregnancy, poultry--and even the word 'chicken'--had made me unbelievably queasy for months. But today it looked wonderful. I knew something was changing.
When we returned home, David suggested I call my midwife to let her know that I might be needing her before very long. I told her I was having very regular Braxton-Hicks contractions and had lost my mucus plug but nothing official yet. She told me that it was her guess that the contractions would get stronger, then either become real or simply fade away. "Keep me posted," she said.
David, his parents, and I spent the evening preparing labor aides. We filled two tube socks with rice to serve as heating pads. We stuffed two tennis balls in another sock to use as a massage tool. I picked out a couple of quiet CDs to listen to during labor. David's parents hit the grocery store for frozen fruit bars, some soft foods, and lots of drinks. David and I rehearsed some of the labor positions, including the slow dance. And we reviewed the list of supplies we needed to have on hand for the home birth.
We went to bed. Since we knew orgasms and semen could help initiate labor, we did what we could to get encourage things to get underway. Contractions began to pick up. I stared at the clock on the nightstand, timing the still-painless hardenings until 2:30 a.m. and getting more and more excited. And then they stopped. Well. So much for that.
On Sunday April 25, one of my best friends from college came down to visit us. We took pictures in front of the azaleas and dogwoods, did a lot of catching up, made a great dinner of roasted vegetable burritos, then sat down to watch a rented movie. As the movie progressed, I tried to signal my husband that I was feeling something. The contractions were still painless, but this time I thought something was different. I couldn't put my finger on it. My friend suggested that maybe he shouldn't sleep at our house, that he could stay with other friends in the area instead. I panicked when he talked about leaving. Something told me that if he stayed, the baby would be born. He stayed.
At 3:30 a.m. I woke up with contractions I could feel. Although they did not hurt, they were not just the rehearsal contractions of the last two days. Earlier, David had made me promise to wake him as soon as I felt something. But I waited to see if the contractions continued for a while first. After forty-five minutes, I woke him. He and I were both amazingly calm and peaceful, much to my surprise. We cuddled in bed, trying to sleep for a bit before things really got underway. Neither of us could sleep. At 5:00, David lit a candle, put on a CD of Shaker tunes, and went down to make me some toast.
We decided to call the midwife, but thought we should time a few contractions first so we could inform her of the pattern. They lasted thirty for forty-five seconds and came every five minutes. And they were building. David paged the midwife, and I answered the phone when she called back. I told her where things stood and she was very encouraging—but then seemed to be very sleepy yet trying to make small talk. Finally she said, "Well, I know, um, maybe Dav..."
Right at that moment a strong contraction came on and I lost all patience with her and needed to concentrate on the contraction. I threw the phone at David. "Did she hand the phone to you because she's having a contraction? That is what I was waiting for. I'll drive over there as soon as I shower. I'll call your birth assistant."
David and I called his parents and our closest friends. All four planned to be at our house during the birth. We suggested that my in-laws come after breakfast and told our friends (both of whom were on their way to work) that nothing was likely to happen before at least noon. We wondered if my college friend had been awakened by all the stirring, but there was still no peep from the guest room downstairs.
The birth assistant, since she lived right around the corner from us, arrived at 6:20. She listened to the fetal heart rate and then took my blood pressure, timing things with my Pinnochio watch. This was the moment of truth; I knew that if my pressure was elevated, I would be transferred to the hospital. Much to our relief, my blood pressure was perfect.
At 7:00, the midwife arrived, lugging a huge bag of supplies that she tucked into a corner of the bedroom. She hung what looked like a sewing kit from my dresser. Then she gave me an IV since I was GBS positive. She hung the bag of antibiotics from the curtain rod. Afterwards, she unhooked me.
Contractions were coming fast and strong by now. The way I coped with them was to stand beside the bed leaning onto my hands, with David pressing into my back. This posture was certainly not one I planned, but my body was taking control and doing what it pleased. Between contractions I felt absolutely glorious. At some point someone suggested I try lying on my side. I tried, falling deeply asleep between contractions. David's ability to press into my back during contractions was reduced when I was on my side, however. Waking up after the contraction started also meant I could not prepare for its coming. So soon I was standing again, resting my hands on the bed.
The assistant suggested I try a shower. Although it felt lovely to have the water pulsing on me, I still needed David to push on my back during contractions. I finally got out of the tub and spent the next ninety minutes trying to urinate. When I was standing, I needed to pee. But as soon as I sat down, a contraction would hit. So I would stand up and lean into the bathroom counter during it. I would sit down again and another contraction would hit. When seated, the surges were almost constant. I jumped up and down from toilet to counter so many times in my opposing efforts to urinate and cope with contractions that I was almost crying in frustration. I eventually gave up and headed back into the bedroom.
I glanced at the clock. It was almost 10:00. I was shocked that time had flown by. But I also began to wonder how I was going to make it for what I assumed would be at least another eight hours. Although I was still fine with the contractions as long as David was pushing on my back, I knew they would pick up a great deal in intensity before I reached the pushing stage. Could I do it? I began to doubt myself. Would I wind up in the hospital just because I needed pain medication? I knew I couldn't cope with hours more of labor.
David asked me if I wanted something to drink. I didn't know. He said he would get something anyway--what did I want? I didn't know. "ORANGE JUICE or GRAPE JUICE?" he asked. I whined, "I DON'T KNOW! Whatever you think!" He started laughing. "Sounds like transition to me!"
I brightened. Transition? Could that be possible? I might only have another hour, you mean? Surely not. Labor had to hurt more than this. On the very next contraction, my low moan had a bit of growl in it. The sound made me a little self-conscious. Was that me growling? Could I stop it?
The midwife heard me growl on the next contraction. She smiled. "Sounds a little pushy to me. With your permission, may I check your cervix?" I was fully dilated and fully effaced, but the baby was still really high.
My mother-in-law, who had been coming upstairs occasionally since she and my father-in-law arrived at 7:00, came in to watch the pushing stage. She told me that my college friend had to leave to catch his train. I had totally forgotten about him being downstairs. He shouted his best wishes to me but was unnerved about the prospect of coming up. I sent down my love.
Another contraction came. I had lost all ability to speak coherently. "Push!" I called to David, wanting his hands on my back as he had done for almost every contraction.
"Yes, yes," he was crying, "push!" He was caught up with the impending birth of our child.
"No, PUSH. PUSH!"
"Yes!" he repeated.
Cyndia realized what I needed and said, "I think she means you need to press on her back...."
I pushed as my body told me to. Contractions slowed to a more manageable pace, but pushing was nevertheless quite painful. I realized I had a choice: I could push hard or I could try not to push. If I pushed hard, the baby would be born soon. If I didn't, I could avoid the burning for another minute. I hesitated. "I don't know if I can do it," I said.
"You are doing it! You are so strong!" my midwife said. Strong? Yes. I had never thought of myself as strong before, but now I knew I was an athlete in disguise.
The birth assistant told me that my friend would be up in a minute, "just in time." My friend cancelled classes to get here earlier than she planned. When I heard that she would be with me soon, I got a new burst of energy. When she came in the room, I was standing up pushing. With her gentle and encouraging style, she said, "This is so wonderful. This is so beautiful. You're amazing. Thank you for waiting!" I laughed.
"Who is going to catch this baby?" the midwife asked. David answered, "The new mother, with my help, and with you helping me." She helped me to lie back down on the bed so I could help catch.
The baby was starting to descend, but my water had still not broken. The caul bulged out as I pushed. "What did you eat during your pregnancy? Steel?" joked Cyndia. David looked at the bulging membranes and, amazed, said "Oh, it looks like a crystal ball! It is glowing from the floating vernix. Touch it!" I reached down and felt the smooth membranes. Incredible. For my entire pregnancy I had dreamed of giving birth to a baby in the caul.
The midwife wanted to hurry things along at this point because blood was coming from inside the canal and and because the baby's heartrate had dropped more than she felt comfortable with. She told me to push hard with the next contraction, to push past the pain and get the baby out fast so she wouldn't need to cut an episiotomy. When I the word episiotomy, I pushed with all my might, and the baby's head and right hand slipped out. The midwife tore the membranes open and clear water gushed out.
The umbilical cord was wrapped tightly around the baby's neck. David tried to reduce it but couldn't. He asked if they needed to cut it immediately. The midwife said no--and told David to hold the head at the perineum while the body somersaulted out. He thought the move was amazing. I was entranced by the smooth, fast feeling of the body coming out of my body. I reached down to bring the baby to my belly. So warm, so tiny, so precious! It was 11:15 a.m. on April 26, 1999.
It was now obvious that the blood from before was from an internal tear. The midwifes would repair it after the baby was checked out. He was squirming and slippery. The birth assistant and David dried the baby off a bit, then covered the baby and my belly with the comforter and a heating pad since he was having a hard time holding his heat. David and I were both crying as we stared at the beautiful baby and he stared back at us.
"You are so beautiful! So incredible! I can't believe this could happen!" I cried.
After about fifteen minutes, David's mother asked if it was a boy or a girl. I laughed. How could we have forgotten to check? David lifted up the baby and saw a big purple scrotum and a little penis. He looked into my eyes and told me quietly that it was a boy. (I had always assumed I would have a little girl. After all, that is what I decided when I was about seven years old.)
We named him after David's grandfather. He crawled to the breast and took a few licks. We looked at every part of our son, from his brown hair and the birthmark on the top of his head to his tiny triangular toenails.
After the birth David's father came upstairs along with my friend's partner. While the midwife and birth assistant repaired my internal tear, we all admired Son and cuddled his body to keep it warm. After about twenty minutes, the birth assistant helped me take a shower and urinate. By the time I was back from the bathroom, the others had cleaned up the bedroom. My parents-in-law brought me a peanut butter sandwich because I didn't have patience to wait for the vegetable lasagna heating in the oven. Son, David, and I snuggled in bed as the crew closed the door and went downstairs to give us a chance to be alone together as a family for the first time.