Jess and Louie’s Birth Story
A few years before I got pregnant, one of my dearest friends, Sunni, was planning a home birth. I remember thinking at the time that she was both insane and brave, but most of all, that I trusted her and she must have known something I didn’t, that compelled her to make such a seemingly radical decision. While she was still pregnant, I watched a documentary she had been raving about – Birth Story: Ina May Gaskin and The Farm Midwives – which is about a community of midwives and home birthers that was formed in the 70’s and is still operating today. I sobbed my way through it and by the end, I had a new understanding of birth and knew that I too would be having a home birth some day.
Fast forward two years to 2015 and a surprise pregnancy found me pregnant in Berlin. I never expected that I would give birth abroad, especially not in an apartment, but my initial trepidations about the lack of privacy and the neighbours hearing me were rapidly quashed once I started delving deeper into the overwhelmingly positive information – both statistical and anecdotal – surrounding home birth.
I think it’s really important to note here that home births are not unsafe. A labouring person is safest where they feel most comfortable (which includes a birthing centre or a hospital if that is their preference), and where they will be treated like the highest form of care, with as little time pressure and intervention as possible. I was being assisted by two highly trained midwives, who would have me transferred to a hospital if at any moment they felt that my baby or I were in danger. The only two things my midwives were unable to do at my home – that would be available to me in a hospital – were administer an epidural or perform a c-section. They were equipped with a full medical kit, including an oxygen tank in case my baby was having trouble breathing, and pitocin which could be used to slow bleeding if I started to lose a lot of blood after birth and needed to be transferred to a hospital. My midwife had not needed to use either of these things in over ten years.
By the end of my third trimester I was pretty well prepared for birth. I knew exactly what was going to happen to my body during labour, I knew that millions of other women had done it before me and that my body knew exactly what to do, that my baby would be working even harder than I was and that all I needed to do was surrender. But that doesn’t mean I was without moments of self doubt and uncertainty. I had never even had a tattoo before so I had no idea what my pain threshold was like. How long would my labour be, would I be able to handle the pain, when was I going to go into Labour??! Any time I started to doubt myself, I would flip to one of my favourite birth stories in Ina May Gaskin’s books and by the end of a story I would be back to feeling empowered and excited.
I had a healthy and relatively easy pregnancy, with the exception of some pain in my symphysis pubis joint which made me pretty uncomfortable at times during my third trimester. When Louie dropped a little but didn’t get as low as he should have, my midwife, Annette, realised it was because his head was resting on, not in my pelvis, hence my discomfort. As my due date neared (he was due on a Wednesday), my midwife suggested in attempt to get Louie in a better position, that I see a craniosacral therapist on the Thursday, do an enema on the Friday and then sit back and see what happened over the weekend.
I had been collecting images during my pregnancy that I planned to have on the wall next to the birthing pool to draw on during labour. Photos of friends who have given birth, mountains I have climbed and powerful and inspirational images from friends. I was unsure whether I wanted to put them up before or when I first went into labour, but on the Wednesday night – Louie’s due date – home alone for the first time in days, I was overcome by the urge to put all of the images up and so I sat on my giant birthing ball and did exactly that. When Andy came home, we lay on the couch together and when he showed me a photo that a friend had taken of us earlier that day we cried with laughter. I remember thinking “it’s not even that funny” as the stream of tears pooled in my ears. In hindsight, that laughter was the release of some kind of hysterical nervous energy. My body knew what was coming, even if my brain didn’t.
That night I went to bed with an achier than usual back and hips, so I got Andy to make me a hot water bottle and dozed in and out of a light sleep. I had lost a little mucus in the days prior but at 5am I awoke with a bloody show. I woke Andy to tell him – even though a bloody show can happen days before labour starts – and after that I managed to sleep until about 8am when I woke up to period-like cramps. I thought they were just Braxton-Hicks but decided to time them anyway and they were every 3-5 minutes lasting 40 seconds – 1 minute long. They were sore, but manageable so I decided to stay in bed with a hot water bottle on my back until my scheduled craniosacral appointment at midday.
My appointment was three blocks away and because the cramps were contained to the lower part of my abdomen I was sure that when I got up to go for a walk, whatever contractions I was having would disappear. They didn’t. I shuffled the whole way there, gripping onto Andy’s arm for dear life but still in utter denial about the fact that I was in labour. When I realised that these cramps weren’t the kind that could be made to disappear with a walk, I called my midwife to let her know what was going on. She said to proceed with my treatment and that she would meet me at my home soon afterwards.
Andy returned home to hang blankets over our windows and blow up the birthing pool we had rented, and then picked me up and shuffled with me the three blocks home. Annette arrived about 2:30pm and popped me on the CTG and could see that I was having contractions and that our baby was doing just fine, so she checked my dilation and said I was 2cm dilated. She recommended I go ahead and give myself an enema as it would clear a lot of space and make labour a lot easier for me and my baby. She offered her assistance but said if she were me, she would prefer to do it alone, so suddenly I found myself on all fours on my bathroom floor, having regular contractions, trying to keep a slippery little hose in my butt as I slowly let my rectum fill up with warm water. Annette had told me to try and get at least a litre in there and to hold it for at least 5 minutes. I managed the litre but could only hold it for about three minutes before I had to sit on the toilet. To date, that enema is one of the most strange and confronting things I have ever done. Annette popped me on the CTG again and I remember thinking ‘it’s not working, these contractions are way stronger than the machine thinks they are’. She said our baby would come that night, probably in about ten hours, so she would like me to have a nap, drink a litre of tea and call her when my waters broke or when I switched to my animal brain, whichever came first. She left at 5pm.
The tea made me feel nauseous and there was no way I was napping because as soon as she left I was having minute long contractions and only a 2 minute break between them. I needed Andy to spoon me because the feeling of his warm stomach on my sore back was the only thing that provided me with any relief, but I also needed him to fill up the pool, so he called Shanay – our doula – and told her to come as soon as she could.
Andy moved a lamp into the bathroom so I could have a shower (it’s all about the low light when a person is in labour), in hope that the warm water would slow the contractions down, which it didn’t. By this point I was miserable and my contractions were 1 minute on, 1 minute off and I thought to myself ‘there is no way I can do this for another ten hours‘. I was shivering as Andy helped me out of the shower, hugged me and put a towel around me and I said to him ‘Andy I don’t know how I’m gonna do this. I’m just not getting a break!’ He reminded me that I can do it and that my body knows exactly what to do and I was so grateful to be reminded of this but was simultaneously thinking ‘now I know why some women get epidurals’. One thing that stuck with me from all of my reading during pregnancy, is that women always doubt themselves during transition. Two other signs of transition are nausea and shivering, however given that my midwife told me I had about ten hours of labour left, I thought it was much too early for me to be in transition and therefore it was much too early for me to be thinking I couldn’t do it. In hindsight, those moments would have been more bearable if I had known how far along I was, for I was indeed in the throes of that glorious transition that the body goes through between the cervix fully dilating and the body getting ready to push.
I got into bed with a pillow between my knees and breathed through my contractions, clenching my pillow with my fists and jiggling my feet. Shanay arrived just after 6pm and the first thing she told me to do was relax my brow. She climbed into bed with me and put pressure on my back and hips, and was surprised that I was still talking between contractions considering how close together they were. Because I was so chatty she thought – as we all did – that we still had hours to go and what a relief she came in her pjs as she was definitely going to need to take a nap at some point.
All of my closest girlfriends were wearing a piece of string around their wrist, that they were supposed to cut when I went into labour to symbolise a release of energy. I said to Shanay “So I’m really in labour huh?” And she said “Yes honey you are” and I said “Well I better message all the girls to cut their bracelets then”. It was 6:30pm and I managed to send some messages between a few rounds of contractions before they got too intense and I had to put my phone down.
I was laying there with Shanay and between a couple of contractions I managed to tell her that I didn’t get to finish my wall, that I had also planned to put the words ‘surrender’ ‘have a nice time’ and ‘you’re gonna get real big and wide’ up there. As I said the last sentence – one I had been carrying around with me my entire pregnancy after reading it in one of Ina May’s books – I heard a POP! which felt like a strong kick and I realised my waters had broken.
I waddled to the loo and told Shanay to call Annette. My waters were clear so she said to keep doing what we were doing and to call again when I switch to animal mode. I had a few really strong contractions there on the toilet, one hand on the towel rail and one hand on the wall. The force coming from inside my body made me push my arms against the wall so hard, I thought I might break right through it. Andy and Shanay were right there with me, trying to coax me back into the bedroom where I would be more comfortable, but I could not and did not want to move. I wanted to poo! I stayed there for a moment, and then suddenly I felt like I needed to push and I switched to full beast mode. I still laugh whenever I remember the way the words came out of me as I said “I ne-ee-ee-ed to pu-uu-uu-sh!!”. Shanay called Annette back and I still remember her saying in a timid voice, as if she didn’t believe what had happened in the short time she had been at our home “Um, she says she needs to push”.
Andy and Shanay helped me off the loo and I had a few contractions on the floor in the hallway. The birthing pool still wasn’t full (it was 7pm now) so they helped me back to my bedroom where I knelt on the floor with my elbows on the bed. I was overwhelmed with this sensation that was coming from inside me. I wasn’t sure if I was even supposed to be pushing because I didn’t know if I was even fully dilated but the urge was overwhelming. I kept thinking about Sunni’s birth story that I had read two nights earlier, and how she said pushing felt incredible. It did. With each wave I let out the most guttural, beastly groans. Not like a cow or a lion, like some other animal I have never even heard before. I wanted to see if I could feel his head – to see if he really was moving down my birth canal – but I somehow still had my knickers on and it was impossible to move enough to to get them off.
My midwife arrived at 7:45pm and flew into action. She told me not to push, that I needed to slow things down a bit and pant through my urges to push. She checked Louie’s heartbeat and I remember the relief I felt when she said ‘baby is fine’. She needed me to take my knickers off and I told her to just cut them because the thought of lifting my knees off the floor was too much. With the help of Andy and Shanay, we managed to get them off in one piece and then my midwife told me to feel my baby’s head. I was expecting to have to stick my hand quite far up but it was RIGHT THERE, I could feel it with my fingertips. At this point Andy had realised there was no way I was going to make it into the pool, so he and Shanay were scrambling to get towels to cover our bedroom floor and a hot compress for my midwife to hold on my perineum. I wanted to ask how much longer but didn’t because I was scared that the answer would be in hours. My midwife was kneeling next to me and with every urge to push, she was telling me to pant. I managed to pant through some but I couldn’t help but heave through others. She would remind me to pant and I would say ‘I CAN’T, I NEED TO PU-UU-UU-USH!!’
Then I felt the sting, the sting that means you’re crowning and oh what a glorious feeling that was. Annette had hot compresses on my perineum and said ‘ok now you can push with the next contraction.’ I pushed and she said ‘Baby’s head is out’ and I was like ‘WHAT??!’ ‘Are his eyes open??’ ‘Oh my god!’ And then she said ‘with the next push you can deliver the body’ and he slid on out and she placed him on a towel on the floor as I kneeled over him in shock, thinking ‘is that it???’. It was 7:58pm.
She cut the cord and passed Louie to Andy and then helped me into bed. The following moments are a blur, but I remember the backup midwife arriving (usually she arrives once the mother starts pushing), her and Anette trying to help me deliver the placenta (way harder than delivering a baby, they were telling me to push and I was like… how??? It’s so different when there isn’t a little human inside you trying to escape and doing most of the work!). I called my mum, who said it sounded more like I had been for a walk in the park than in labour, I fed Louie for the first time, we weighed him and checked his AGPAR score. Andy, Shanay and I laughed about the surrealness of it all and how they were both getting ready to roll up their sleeves and deliver Louie themselves. The midwives checked over me and my placenta and then gave me an internal stitch for a tiny abrasion caused by Louie coming out with his hands around his face. Shanay chopped up my placenta and put it in the dehydrator to be turned into capsules the following day. And sometime in those moments while Louie was in my arms, we decided to name him Louie.
Eventually Shanay and the midwives left and Andy and Louie drifted off. I was unable to sleep, so lay there in bed, messaging my friends, with my precious little bundle asleep on my chest, I was too scared to move him anywhere else and so he stayed there all night as I dozed in and out of a very light sleep.
To this day I feel ecstatic when I think about my birth. It was hands down the coolest thing I have ever done and I feel so grateful to the community of birthers who did this before me and have shared their stories and wisdom in books and online, so that people like myself can have a positive birth experience. Birth doesn’t have to be traumatic or scary, and I implore anyone who has made it to the end of these ramblings and hopes that they too can have an ecstatic birth – either at home, in a birthing centre or in a hospital – to explore their options, do lots of reading and birth prep and most importantly, believe in your body, it was made to do this! Before doctors, before hospitals, before books and blogs and documentaries, people have birthed.
Oh, and the neighbours didn’t hear me by the way ;)