“There is a secret in our culture, and it’s not that birth is painful. It’s that women are strong.”
~ Laura Stavoe Harm
This is the story of the at-home water birth of my daughter, Skyla Winter. The details are intimate and plenty, which I willingly share with the ether in hopes of dispelling the myth that birth is anything but a sacred, empowering and normal physiological process.
Saturday, February 22, 2014 started the way a Saturday should. I slept in and woke up hungry. Two days past my due date, my hunger had escalated. My belly stretched and my stomach grumbled.
Still, I was happy. I practiced patience. I dressed in a tight shirt to savor my bump and we headed off to breakfast at our favorite neighborhood cafe then to a park with big trees where I sat in the car while James and Giovanna braved the Seattle rain. After that we went downtown to the shopping district to make a return, and then to the Central Library to read children’s books. By then I had become very aware that the Braxton Hicks contractions were not slowing down as they usually did, but speeding up. I hoped, but I didn’t count on anything. They could stop at anytime.
At home I had the urge to clean, a sign of impending labor but nothing I took seriously since I’d been feeling this way for a while. I’d grown a bit obsessive about keeping the house as tidy as possible. I wanted to bring my baby into a neat and peaceful environment rather than a cluttered and chaotic space. I couldn’t control when she came, but I could try to be ready for her. Even if it made me slightly batty.
As I moved through the house the Braxton Hicks became tighter and more frequent. I took a break, lying down to see if they would stop. They didn’t. Around 6 pm they were coming every 3-4 minutes. Not painful but slightly uncomfortable, a hard gripping in my center. An hour later, when they still hadn’t slowed and after I’d confirmed with my friend (and former doula!) that her second labor had started like this, I sent text messages to my midwife, my doula, Giovanna’s birth buddy and my mom. Just a heads up, I said. It could happen tonight, it could not. My midwife agreed, they could change or they could stop. And so I put Giovanna to sleep in her bed, I sat on the birthing ball, I read, and I waited. When the contractions did slow down I ignored my disappointment and drifted off to sleep.
By the time I woke up I was joined in bed by both James and Giovanna. I went to the bathroom and while slipping back under the covers I felt a small gush of fluid in my underwear. Similar in size to the gush I felt when my water broke during my first birth, but without the accompanying pop nor the subsequent blood. I checked the time. 11:30 PM. I investigated, smelling and feeling and pondering. If my water had broken, I needed to know. I’d tested positive for Group B Strep, a normal bacteria in healthy adults but one that causes infection in (1 in 250) babies as they pass through the birth canal. When antibiotics are given the risk decreases to 1 in 4000. I needed to get the antibiotics sooner rather than later if it was, in fact, my water that had broken. I sat on the birth ball and swayed my hips and wondered if the contractions would start on their own, like they did my first time around. If they didn’t, what would I do? How would I know?
My prayers were answered. I’ve never been so happy to welcome pain. The contractions started 20-30 minutes after I’d felt the leak. Cramping so slight I didn’t know for sure that it was real. I waited. I moved the air purifier from Giovanna’s bedroom into our bedroom and turned it up to drown out any potential noise. I gathered my candles. I set up the iPod speakers. The cramps became more apparent and they were coming about every 3 minutes. At 12:33 AM I paged my midwife, I woke up James and I alerted the rest of my birthing team. When my midwife, Chenelle, called back I told her that I thought my water had broken but I wasn’t completely sure because the leak was so small and there had been no pop or blood like before. But regardless, I was feeling crampy at regular intervals. She agreed that it was probably my water and she would come right over.
This was happening. I didn’t need to swallow my excitement.
Solveig, who lives close by, arrived first to my candle lit lavender oasis. Solveig would be my doula. She is not just my doula but also my soul sister and the soccer teammate of my 10 year-old self and the classmate of my high school self (one year we had 5 out of the 7 classes together) and the sorority sister/roommate of my college self--among many other things. She probably couldn’t even tell I was in labor. The contractions were mild enough that I could easily talk through them. My midwife, Chenelle, arrived at 1:15 AM and began to move in all of her supplies. Her assistant, Marquita, a midwifery student, arrived 5 minutes later. When asked, Chenelle said she would not check the dilation of my cervix, not then and probably not at all. I had done this before we would follow the cues of my body.
My body was in charge. It was my body that would get the baby out. Alone but very much not alone.
A few minutes later came Jenna, who would take care of Gigi should she wake up (hence the term birth buddy). I grew up with Jenna, we’ve been best friends since the first day of sixth grade, inseparable until we graduated from high school, still inseparable in spirit. In middle school we created an alter ego of our combined personalities. Her name was LUNA, the LU from Lucy and the NA from Jenna. Our adolescent selves had no idea this is the spanish word for moon. Now, well over 15 years later, there we were. About to welcome my child by the light of the moon.
James had started filling up the birthing tub by using a hose connected to the shower and also by boiling water on the stove. Jenna went to work to help him and Solveig played with my hair to help me relax. Everyone knew just what to do, just what I needed. I played my birthing playlist at a low volume and we spoke in loud whispers and I crossed my fingers that Gigi, separated from us by a door, would sleep though it. I knew Jenna would take good care of her if she did awaken, and maybe drive her to Grammy’s house if she wanted to go, but I also didn’t want my girl to lose a night’s sleep. Losing sleep can throw off a little person for weeks.
And so I labored like that for a few hours though it felt like only one hour. Eventually I moved off the ball, searching for a better position, a position that would allow me to relax more fully between contractions. I started to get the shakes and I needed to manage them. During my first labor I didn’t get shakey until transition (the period right before pushing) which made the most painful stage nearly unbearable. Of course the whole thing is nearly unbearable yet you bear it anyways. Because what choice do you have? No matter what you do, those rushes keep coming to take you away. There’s no escaping.
It took every ounce of concentration, focus scraped from the deepest caverns of my physical body, to smooth out the tremors. Even breathing and long exhales helped. If I lost focus for a moment, my limbs responded with twitches and tremors. There was no time to think about the pain, there was time only to breathe. I alternated between wide-legged child’s pose and all-fours. Solveig waved lavender essential oil under my nose and applied pressure to my lower back during the contractions which worked some kind of magic.
As Marquita approached to take the fetal heart rate once again and I moved onto the edge of the bed, I felt a pop in my uterus. It was strange and alarming. I told Chenelle but she wasn’t concerned. I went to the bathroom, said hi to Jenna in the hall, and there it was, the first sign of blood, my cervix opening.
After this, everything sped up. Moaning through the contractions helped me to cope, as did Solveig’s encouragement by moaning along with me. James hovered in the background, coming in to give Solveig a break and then receding back into the shadows. While some women rely on their partners completely for labor support, I feel most comfortable having my husband present for emotional support but not responsible for helping me to manage the pain. I need a professional for that, specifically a woman who has studied labor and childbirth. And I recommend that every pregnant mother hires a doula. These women provide invaluable expertise and morale. They remind you that birth works. I know I would have survived my births without the presence of my doulas, but would I have looked back upon them with such fond memories? Would they have gone so smoothly, so quickly? I can never know, but I do know that I love my doulas and I am forever grateful to them for being with me--and James--as we welcomed our children.
Marquita gave me permission to get into the birthing tub at about 3:45 AM (see a photo of the tub at the bottom of this page). They had me waiting as to make sure the water did not slow the process. After the next contraction my clothes came off and I submerged my body in warm water, not unlike my baby submerged in the warmth of my womb. I found myself floating up and down with each contraction, moving with the rhythm of the mysterious force that rippled through my body, squeezing my baby down towards the earth. Solveig held me through each rush, her arms hooked under my shoulders so that I could let every muscle relax, every muscle but my uterus which seemed to have harnessed every unit of life force in Creation. I became aware of a clenching in my rear end which was exactly what I knew not to do. How can a baby come through if you fight the opening? Immediately I let it go. Through the thick of the pain, I focused on softness and allowing.
Though the water was merely body temperature, the power tearing through my core generated heat, escalating my discomfort. A cold wash cloth on my forehead soothed and calmed. As did Solveig’s words: you’re doing such a good job, mama. And the quiet presence of James, bearing all the reverence for birth a man should have. The shakes had finally dissolved, swallowed by the smooth caress of water, an element essential to making life.
I made a life, her flesh and blood built with my flesh and blood, and the water would help me to welcome her.
The contractions worked me, turned me inside out. Some of them came right on top of each other. The pain turned me into a wild animal, living purely in the moment. I wasn’t thinking of the prize at the end and I had no way of knowing how close we were. I did not know it, but I was in transition.
When I felt my baby’s head descend down the birth canal, I said, I can feel her coming. And Solveig said that’s right, she knows what to do. Recalling those words brings tears to my eyes. My baby knew where to go just as my body knew how to make her; my doula knew what to say and my midwife knew what to do.
On the next contraction I felt her come lower, which was both frightening and promising. I'd anticipated this stage the most, this homestretch, this opening of my body. It would all be over soon. I could think like a human again, I could foresee the future. A future that included this tiny person emerging from my loins.
Spontaneous pushing began. There was no stopping my body from bearing down, the urge uncontrollable, and like God, greater than myself. I remembered this feeling well from my first labor, but unlike my first labor in the hospital where the nurse checked me before I was allowed to keep pushing, no one questioned my body’s lead. (And I did not tear in either birth, which is more likely when we push in response to the natural urge rather than when directed.) I told them, I’m pushing. This began at 4:20 according to the labor flow sheet. Chenelle appeared on the other side of the tub and I felt so much gratitude for her smiling face and her capable hands ready to catch my baby.
With my baby on the brink of life outside of my body, my body stretching to accommodate her passage, I felt the power of the universe pushing its way through me. And it wasn’t painful in the way you might imagine it to be, but rather it was momentous. My pelvis opening to its edge, my baby’s life hinging on my ability to push her through. But I couldn’t push without the help of the contractions. Waiting for the next rush, with my baby’s head engaged in my pelvis, I asked aloud, where is the next one? Those few seconds between stretched and stretched, like my perineum.
I wanted her out. Chenelle could see her head. She felt for a cord around the neck and announced no cord. I reached down and felt for her head. I pushed and I grunted and I spread my legs and held my thighs and I used my abdominals as I had been mentally and physically and spiritually preparing to use them for months.
When Chenelle said, you’re going to get her out on the next contraction, I knew I had to make it true. I gave it everything I had, and then I gave it more than I thought I had in me. Motherhood seems to often require us to give more than we think we have, doesn’t it? We find ourselves continually surprised by our own capacity, leading us to the question: what else is possible?
And then, at 4:34 AM on Sunday, February 23, 2014, the rest of her head broke free into the water and her little body slipped out. In my excitement I reached down to grab my baby from Chenelle’s hands, and when I pulled her up to my chest, perhaps too quickly, the cord broke. It broke! The cord was too short to bring her past my belly and I broke it. Chenelle clamped it shut with her fingers and called to Marquita in an urgent tone for a clamp. I had wanted to keep the cord attached until it stopped pulsing but this no longer mattered. All that mattered was that we were both okay. And we were.
I held her squirming little body and marveled at her pink rosebud lips. She didn’t cry and I like to think she didn’t cry because she knew she was in the arms of her mama. Marquita slipped a hat on her head and they covered us in towels. Eventually they helped me out of the tub and sat me on the birthing stool where I pushed out the placenta and the midwives pushed on my uterus to help it contract. I knew that it hurt somewhere, but I barely felt a thing. My baby was here.
My baby is here.
Some other things I’d like to note:
Everything sped up like crazy once I heard that “pop” while moving around during a contraction. Proof positive that labor goes quicker when the mother is not confined to one position.
My sweet Giovanna slept through the entire birth and did not wake until 7 AM! She is a light sleeper and rarely sleeps through the night even at 4 years old (hence the trip from her bed to our bed), but the white noise from the air purifier kept her in a peaceful slumber. Now she tells people: when I waked up, the baby was born!
When I went past my due date, I practiced trusting my body and my baby, I knew that she would come at the perfect moment. And she did.
Jessica of Jessica May Photography recorded the hours right after Skyla’s birth, including the moment Gigi emerged from sleep to meet her baby sister, and I am so thrilled to share some of them with you. So stay tuned for the next post.
Giovanna's beautiful bedroom transformed into my birthing suite.
Please comment below or reach out via email (lucy [at] lucilleinthesky [dot] com) with any questions you may have about giving birth in the water or at home or with the help of a midwife and doula. If you live in the greater Seattle area and are interested in using my midwife or doula for your own prenatal care and birth, I highly recommend both of them and would love to pass along their contact information.