One month ago, I was laying in bed with a tight round drum of a belly, snuggling a sweet Sparrow and her far-flung limbs. I was 41 weeks and 1 day pregnant, and every morning I would wake up with a strange delight that I made it through another night still pregnant. I didn’t mind going “over”; and despite my many despairs earlier in the pregnancy, I felt peaceful about relinquishing a year to change and finding a new rhythm. I loved the extra week I had to enjoy both of my already-born babies and to glory in the anticipation of meeting Baby Tarzan. I even got an extra week of work in!
I was lying on my side cradling these two babies, one outside and one within my body, when I felt my water gently break. It was around 7:45 a.m. The first thought I had was a pinch of disappointment that I was starting out with waters broken, but it also felt good to be waking up with fresh energy after a whole night of sleep. I sprang from my bed and dashed to the bathroom, crowing to Jonathan that something was finally happening. Getting up and moving caused more water to fall, soaking my basketball shorts; and almost immediately I had a very sharp, jagged contraction that made all the weeks and days of gripping my tightening belly during a practice surge and declaring, “Oh my! That was a hard one!” seem like a total joke. When it’s real, it’s unmistakably real.
I remember leaning over the bathroom counter and groaning, thinking I had to get my contacts in and find pants and text everyone! It was like one of those “choose two” diagrams. So I opted for contacts and texting, first apprising everyone that it would be “Sometime today probably,” and telling Katie to “get ready casually,” and then shortly after, revising the message to, “If you want to be here GET HERE NOW!”
There is some total silliness here that I wish were not part of my story, but I kept having to delete old texts out of my mailbox so I could read new ones, which was taking me forever because of course there are those texts I don’t want to part with, so I was scrolling back through months of old texts so I could delete them and read my new messages; and meanwhile the surges were already rolling in and slamming me and I felt impatient – couldn’t my body appreciate that I had to take care of some ward business before we moved on to the main speakers?
I was using all my brief in-between-surges time to text, and I still hadn’t found any pants; and this became more and more distressing to me as I realized people were almost going to be there, and I didn’t want to spend the next potential many hours pantsless. My phone kept chiming with messages and distracting me. It was absurd. I finally texted everyone one more time, a message I thought was clear and instructive, explaining that I couldn’t find any pants, and to text Jon. I had meant to text Jon if they had any more questions, but hilariously, a lot of people took it to mean that Jon wasn’t home and I needed his help. To find pants. Ha! So some of them began helpfully trying to locate him and inform him of my problems. “She needs pants, Jon! She can’t find any! Where are you?” I ended up just putting my wet basketball shorts back on, because I am hardcore, just like the pioneers.
I needed to be in my body and just with my body and stop trying to manage anything else. As soon as I tuned in I was surprised at how spicy the surges felt already, and I regretted my water breaking and removing the cushion that softened the edges. What I remembered from my surges during Sparrow’s birth was this delicate crescendo, like a musical scale of building pressure, a sharp, shrill peak and an ebbing away with kind relief. Instead of a musical scale, these surges felt like gut punches of peak-peak-peak-like someone leaning on a truck horn, blaring.
In a physical sense, it felt very loud in my body. I remember trying to quiet my mind down; to keep my body still and accept these sensations, but they seemed so strong already that it was difficult for me to connect with them. Part of me wanted to wiggle away and avoid them for a while longer. Another wise part of me remembered that there was no way out but through; and I told myself, “You can do this.” (“It’s a unix system…I know this.”)
Katie arrived and I wandered out to the living room to greet her; I tried to talk with her, but I had mostly already gone under and I’m sure it was a pretty spotty conversation. Chai woke up during this time and came out full of cheer and wonder when we told him that Baby Tarzan was coming today. He cupped my face in his tiny hands and told me he loved me, and he rubbed my back. My sweet boy! I always have a soft heart for my children, but when I’m in labor they just melt my soul and I want to cry warm buttery tears of pure love for their innocence and kindness. I know that sounds gooey, but it’s really how I feel towards them. They tenderize me with their tenderness.
Richelle and Shanlee were there with their serene excitement, and began the comforting bustle of setting things up. Richelle checked on the baby’s heart rate and explained she didn’t feel the need to check me because I seemed to be laboring well. A few more gut-punch surges and I moaned that I thought I would get more of a break in between, and asked to be checked. I was at 7.5 cm. Katie cheered for me. I started to feel perplexed about where my support people were; I’d made it this far completely untouched. I felt disoriented and confused. I wanted Jonathan to come be close to me, and I wanted the fearsome swelling pressure in my pelvis to go away. I was annoyed that the vacuum cleaner was in the middle of the floor and I disliked seeing it there whenever I opened my eyes.
They told me that the birth tub wasn’t ready and they weren’t sure it would be in time for me to have the baby; I said in that case I wanted to go labor in my room, and started to make my way there slowly. The surges were so fierce. I remember hanging onto the back of the couch and swaying my hips, and the midwife’s assistant Shanlee came and pressed on my back; it felt so merciful! I managed to walk into my room, arms wrapped around Shanlee and Jon, and when I got there I dropped to my hands and knees during a surge, and remained there for the rest of my labor – just collapsed on the floor between the wall and the bed.
Sparrow had been sleeping, tilted forward with her mane of wispy hair face-down on the pillow, but my moaning and humming woke her up. She was a little distressed and called out for me. I remember seeing her face pinched with worry to have all these strange people in her room, but she slipped off the bed and into my arms and I sat up against the wall and held her and submerged myself in that insistent tightness.
Mary and Diana were suddenly there, and their presence made me feel like a bright light had turned on. I was comforted just seeing them. My dear friends and sisters were floating in one by one. Kayte was near my face – such a warm and graceful presence. Laurel hugged me when she arrived; and even as deep as I was, I was so happy to see her! She was tearful and told me she had been sobbing in the car on her way to my house because she was afraid I would have the baby before she got there. I’m so glad that didn’t happen…I still have an ache in my heart from missing the birth of Laurel’s daughter, the only chance I could have had to support her as she has done for me so many times.
Magical doulas, knowing hands, they pressed against my knees; and even at that awkward angle, it relieved so much pressure! I felt like a broken doll whose limbs had come off and they were pressing them back into the joints. It was lovely, and I held my sweet girl against my belly; she was the perfect size to give me some counter-pressure against my abdomen. I was so grateful for her gentle resting there. She was utterly calm and seemed to understand some kind of solemnity about what was happening; she just clung tightly to me and whispered, “Mama. Mama. Baby?” and patted my belly and snuggled me.
Those moments are so precious to me. Whatever happens in the rest of my life and my relationship with Sparrow, if I never have another little daughter, if she grows up and despises me for awhile, whether or not I ever hold her while she has her own babies, we will always have that unbelievable pocket of time when she loved me and I absorbed her kindness with my raw, wide-open heart and it was so terribly sweet. My life – what an incredible piece of life to experience. I remember my sister Diana exclaiming, “I am never going to forget this! She is so beautiful!” Sparrow was somber, and tender, and just rocked with me.
I was locked into labordrive by then. I held onto my girl and smoothed her hair and her face over and over again; and when the surges came, I just tried to sink into them and let them be what they needed to be. No resistance; just acceptance and surrender. In my mind, I told myself, let them be; let them come. Sometimes I felt like vocalizing through them, and sometimes it felt okay to be still. I let every surge show me what was needed to work through it.
At some point, someone gently moved Sparrow away to get her ready to go to her grandparents’ and they helped me change into my skirt, which seems simple but in active labor that many movements can be overwhelming. Standing and moving my legs and then sinking back down took a lot of energy. Richelle let us know that the water wasn’t getting warm enough for baby and that we wouldn’t be able to use the tub. I was going to have a “dry land” birth. I remember feeling a little crushed that I wasn’t going to get to birth my baby next to the orange wall of my prophetic dreams, but it was alright; the creation of that space was still full of magic and healed me when I needed it.
I crawled forward and collapsed on my hands and knees again and my doulas circled around me. One of the things that touched me so much, looking at the photographs later, is that at every point of my labor there is a circle around me –whether it’s one or two people curled around my body, or six or seven performing those merciful acrobatics, I was completely cradled by these women. They are so powerful! Every single one of them believed in me, and every single one of them brought an energy of confidence and joy. I felt encircled by their laughter and open hearts; I could feel them melting at my children’s’ sweetness, feel them aching with me, especially those women who understand the poignancy of birth, I could feel empathy from their hands and strength from their muscles.
I realize that my experiences giving birth are probably the times I have been most able to release my concerns about reciprocity and social balance and just accept touch and holding and rescue; maybe that is why those moments are so dear to me – it’s not a natural space always in my life. Such kindness! Everyone deserves such kindness. I needed every single touch, every single hand. They talked to me, vocalized with me, which always makes me feel absurdly and childishly special; and laughed at my “labor jokes.” I wish I could remember some of them.
I remember being there on my hands and knees and seeing Sparrow’s dear little feet in front of me, as she hugged me and rubbed my neck and patted my head. She was my Littlest Doula. The pressure in my belly and pelvis was tremendous; this heavy pressure that sagged and stayed between surges. I tried lying on my left side, which I’ve never done in labor before, to see if that felt better, but it made me feel confined and a little panicky. My body wanted to be upright and grounded. I twisted a piece of my back in trying to get up, and clever Moh and Laurel or Laura rubbed it out. I asked if there was any way someone could support my belly, and some lovely gracious person found a rebozo. Oh, that sweet rebozo! They took turns standing and pulling up while the others squeezed my hips, pressed down on my shoulders and back. They had hot pads on my back and cold cloths on my neck. I was still present enough to describe and ask for what I needed. Such is the skill of my doulas that there were whole increments of time where they were working with such precision and energy that they took the entire brunt of a surge away. There were whole delicious spaces of 20 or 30 seconds I felt completely normal – even while experiencing surges.
Even with all the support, it was a fierce labor. I could feel every surge so hard in my belly and my hipbones. At one point I vomited in an act of desperation. I murmured, “I can’t” and Laurel told me, “You are.” I kept breathing, kept hanging on. I was missing Jonathan. I wanted him close to me and I could hear Chai squawking and I felt impatient. The surges were so ragged and so rough that at some point I asked for another check and Richelle declared that I was complete.
What?” I said. “How can that be? Don’t I still have to go through transition?” “You already did!” Everyone rejoiced but I was despairing because I didn’t feel like pushing at all and I was still tensing my body against that enormous swelling pressure. I pushed slightly hesitantly just to see what it felt like, if I could help my body along, and pushing felt so wrong and awful. So there wasn’t anything to do but wait. Finally, Jonathan came in the room and he said, “Hi Racher” and I bleated “Hey, Jon,” and I remember people laughing at this casual greeting in this dramatic scene. But I didn’t feel casual and I didn’t feel histrionic; I just needed him. I put out my hands and he dropped to the ground near my face. I grabbed his hands and squeezed, and he let me do it as hard as I needed to; it was simple, but it helped me so much.
I felt suspended. It was so hard to stay there, knowing I was close but having to endure being on pause until it was time to move on. At some point I tried pushing again and felt that familiar but still shocking sliding and widening feeling of the baby sliding down; warm, insistent, relieving. It was so vulnerable to be pushing out a baby with everyone clustered around my body, no water to shield me. But I also felt comfortable enough (and ready to be done) to do it! I felt like an animal. A purposeful, quiet animal. I felt steely and determined, quiet and blank. I told myself I would push through a count of 10 in my own mind no matter what it felt like, and then I would pause. I got the head out by the count of seven and took a rest to breathe; I heard gasps and cries of “Slow down, slow, slow, slow!”
Then I pushed again for less than 10 seconds and felt the baby’s slimy, floppy body move through me and drop; and then I was free, and I came back to life! It was such a sudden shift to be sprung from that deliberate, shuddering place into soft, rosy euphoria. I heard a creaky little cry, I sat straight up and was instantly flooded with giddiness and joy. I don’t remember reaching for the baby, but I must have; I remember hugging them close and crying, “Oh, my baby; I have another beautiful baby! Oh!”
I feel like I must have been shaking; I saw Laurel and Laura holding each other tightly and both crying. I was holding the baby already wrapped in a towel and I asked if everyone had already seen the baby’s sex and they assured me they had not. I leaned over to take in this new little person. I touched their tiny fingers. In that moment just beholding that little face, I couldn’t tell whether this baby was a son or daughter. My heart was pounding. I was nervous; I was meeting such an important new person. A new soul was there in the room with us!
Someone was exclaiming they had no idea I was pushing and someone else was saying, “That’s how she always does it.” I said that I like to be a stealth pusher and not tell anyone what I’m up to so I don’t have to manage their expectations; I don’t have time for that. Jon crawled over closer to me and we embraced, he kissed my face. I asked for Chai and Sparrow to be brought back in, and they were so beautiful to me, my little sacred children of my body. I kissed them and showed them the baby. I felt dizzy with not knowing.
We had decided to wait a few minutes before checking the gender of the baby. I had a conversation with my supervisor at work about the expectations and assumptions we all make base on perceived gender, and she had told me about a couple who chose to wait awhile even after birth before checking the baby’s sex. They spent some time interacting and getting to know the baby just as a new human and not as a son or daughter with gender informing their perception. They even wrote a song called “the first five minutes of life” and sang it to the baby. I loved this idea so much and had talked to my midwife about wrapping the baby in a towel immediately after they were born (providing there were no complications), so we could welcome this new person mindfully and when we felt ready. We decided it would be fun to sing to welcome our baby, and I spent months teaching Chai the song from Babe at bed-time so he would be all ready to sing to “Baby Tarzan.”
“If I had words to make a day for you, I’d sing you a morning golden and true. I would make this day last for all time, then bring you a night deep in moonshine.” I rocked with the baby and my doulas sang with me, then I pulled back the towel and in a heart-thumping second, understood that it was a baby boy who had been my Very Quiet Cricket all those months. I felt a quick pinch of loss for the dream girl-baby possibility (as I would have for the dream boy-baby if it had been a girl) and I said, “It’s a boy! Chai…Chai, you have a baby brother!” I cried. It’s too astonishing of a feeling to suddenly not be pregnant anymore, to hold a child you created in your arms, to be in the presence of such powerful newness. It’s brutally beautiful.
The hours after my baby’s birth are so warm in my memory – my friends and sisters climbing on the bed with me, talking and laughing, processing the experience. He was born at 10:28 a.m., making the total labor from first surge to the placenta being delivered a little under three hours. He weighed 8 lbs 2 oz (my tiniest baby, and my latest baby!) and his aunt Diana cut the cord. I felt delighted and relieved. I wanted to talk about how rough and all-encompassing my experience was, I wanted to talk about all the women who have ever lived who have given birth, how I worried and ached for them, and I wanted to explain how my heart was exploding with love. Laurel, Laura, Mary, Diana, Katie, Kayte, Sarah, you are and always have been so dear to me. Thank you for being connected forever with this sweet day. Thank you for holding and creating sacred space, for singing, for your comforting words. I heard or felt every one.
It is overwhelming to give birth three times in less than four years. I know I’m far from the first to experience so many pregnancies in quick succession, but it has taken a lot from me. I also know how lucky I am. I feel so grateful to have three healthy babies. I don’t want to take it for granted. I don’t want to pretend that I’m immune to devastating experiences. I don’t know why we have been so lucky and why each of these times I got to wrap my arms around a healthy, squalling infant, but I honor all those women who felt every sensation that racked my body, some for so much longer, and without kind hands on their backs, and never got to hear a cry, never got to feel the relief because even after all that enormous work their bodies were flooded with panic.
I thought of the women who are abused while giving birth, who birth with injured bodies, who are insulted or shamed or alone. I felt humbled to the core of my soul that my body had worked mercifully, for the kind humans who flocked to me and threaded their fingers through my hair, pressed with all their strength on my heaving body. There was a rock of horror I didn’t fall off of; I was held, I was cradled, I was honored. I believe every woman who goes through this process deserves that, even if they would feel overwhelmed by the phalanx I had in that tiny space, too many hands, I believe everyone deserves gentleness at that time. And my heart was pierced for those who didn’t experience gentleness, but the opposite.
I talked with Katie about the photos she took…I told her they have a National Geographic feel, probably because we actually are creatures being photographed in our natural environment. They are different from my other homebirth photos, more chaotic, all this sheer emotion and intensity smeared against our wall in this tiny space; my kids wearing motley clothes, the hair I slept in. Everything about it was sudden. There is something glorious about capturing the unpreparedness of that day. There was nothing posed or staged – just this collapse into the labor that completely captured me and the good souls who swooped in to help carry me through, and then at the end we met this baby who lived in me an extra week and hopefully will be with me and Jon in all of our days of this sojourn together.
We were unprepared from the beginning to accept this new life. I never thought I could possibly feel good about it. But just like his birth, I worked very hard; I went through something transformative, and I was healed and uplifted by friends swooping in to hear me and support me It changed my heart from famine to feast. I also realized (again) during this pregnancy that Jonathan is my truest friend. He knows me and he accepts me. I love my newborn son. He is Good. I love my life even in this time of transition. I feel very young, and very old, very strong and very human. “How strange it is to be anything at all.”
Photographs by Katherine Loveless