We’re celebrating all kinds of births this week, so we’ve dubbed it BIRTH WEEK. Today we’ll be focusing on the power of home births.
Thanksgiving Monday: it was a cool fall day, the streets wet with rain and scattered with the crunchy, crimson leaves that mark this time of year. The sun would peek out from behind the clouds, chasing away their dark heaviness, and briefly reveal the liquid blue hidden behind. My partner Vibhu and I spent the day hunkered down inside, him working on Tutors Nirvana and me, folding clothes, tidying the house, and compiling a digital version of my pregnancy journal. By the middle of the afternoon, I had enough of being inside and craved a long walk through our neighborhood and along the waterfront.
I set off, as I do on most days with sunglasses perched atop my head and my iPod hooked discreetly onto the waistband of my pants. I had recently downloaded a playlist of the US Top 40, so my leisurely stroll picked up pace as I moved to the likes of Maroon 5’s Moves Like Jagger and One Republic’s addictive Good Life. Through Beacon Hill Park and along the Dallas Waterfront, I passed families and couples, dogs happily chasing balls, and squealing little girls splashing in puddles. The effect of a relaxing holiday weekend spent with loved ones was evident in the smiles of people’s faces.
I returned home with aching legs and a tiredness I’d grown accustomed to over the past few weeks. Vibhu welcomed me back with freshly made pakoras and hot sweet chai. As we sat sipping chai, we watched the dark clouds engulf the sun and the slow release of raindrops as they coated the trees and streets in a damp blanket. There was a sense of sleepy coziness that made me want to curl up on the couch with a good book. Vibhu felt it too, and together we settled onto the couch to watch a movie.
I chose The Tree of Life — a then newly released drama with Brad Pitt and Sean Penn, but it was slow and artsy and I felt my mind wander. Noticeable cramping in my lower back nagged at me as I struggled to get comfortable. I’d lost interest in the movie, and so had Vibhu, so we turned it off.
We migrated to our bedroom and laid down to try to ease the achiness in my back and pelvis. It came and went, in waves, mildly. Sometimes stronger. I tried to ignore it, brushing it off as the same Braxton-Hicks I’d been experiencing for the past few weeks. But they just kept coming — and that was new. Vibhu encouraged me to time them with an app we had downloaded on the iPhone, but it was tough to tell when they started and stopped. It was like long rolling waves that picked up intensity, peaked momentarily, and then slowly dissolved away. They seemed to be lasting about 45 seconds and coming every 6 minutes or so. But I wasn’t confident it was the beginning signs of labor.
Around 9pm, I decided to call home and let my mom know what was going on, just in case. Being down in California, it was going to take her a good seven hours to get here with two connecting flights and a taxi ride, so I wanted to put her on alert that tomorrow might be the big day. Vibhu and I went back to watching a movie. When the waves came, I’d breathe deeply and sit on top of the waves, riding them just like I did as a kid in Half Moon Bay.
I was awake again; the contractions getting more intense as it radiated around my hips and down into my thighs — like giant hands squeezing me.
11:30pm: my mucus plug releases with a streak of blood — another positive sign of labor. I tried to sleep, but it evaded me. Vibhu and I sat and ate a bowl of Cheerios, but as the combination of excitement and discomfort coursed through me I felt my chances of falling asleep in any meaningful way surrender. Sometime around 2am, I finally fell asleep listening to the playlist I had made to help me relax through labor.
But by 4:30am, I was awake again; the contractions getting more intense as it radiated around my hips and down into my thighs — like giant hands squeezing me. I lay in bed breathing through them just as I had done earlier, timing their frequency and duration.
I wrote some emails, took a shower, ate breakfast, and went about my usual routine as Vibhu cleaned and organized the house and threw in a load of laundry. We went to the grocery store to stock up on milk, juice, and other basics to ensure that we have enough food on hand to sustain us and our midwives through what could end up being a very long day. I had four contractions during our 20 minute grocery store run.
By 10:30am, the contractions had definitely intensified and it took all of my concentration to breathe and relax through them. But between the contractions, I continued to feel great. I baked a batch of peanut butter cookies, chatted on the phone, and began writing this birth story. The contractions only lasted 45 seconds, but were coming every three-and-a-half minutes, so I called our midwife Ashley with an update.
Ashley was in the hospital with another laboring woman and had been up all night with her. She talked me through a contraction and let me know that things were still early, so to get some rest and get ready because “It sounds like you’re gonna be a mama really soon.”
My mom arrived around 4pm. The contractions were continuing to intensify, but they weren’t coming any more frequently. I remember wondering why things were taking so long. Our other midwife, Colleen, called to let us know that Ashley had just left the hospital after a long, overnight labor and was going home to sleep before she’d be able to come and check on me. Colleen came to check me instead.
By the time she arrived, I had dilated to about four cm, and remember a pang of disappointment that it had taken so long to not even be half way. But she was jazzed and enthusiastic, saying that I was doing great and that it wouldn’t be much longer. Colleen went home to eat some dinner and gather her things, and we decided it would be a good time to go for a walk and get a bit of fresh air while I was still able. We walked up and down our street, stopping every three or four minutes for contractions. I held onto Vibhu, breathing and moaning as the wave coursed through me. I’d focus on riding the wave, staying right up on top of it for as long as possible before it’d crash onto the beach. I could feel the cold of the Pacific and the salty sea air. The contraction would peter out and we’d continue on walking up and down the street.
Eventually we came inside to pee and had planned to go back out, but while inside the calm between contractions faded and was replaced with a cramping sensation that were impossible to ignore. I began to lose all sense of time.
I heard Vibhu call Colleen and then he began to fill up the pool. I continued to labor on all fours in the kitchen as my mom and Vibhu moved around me making preparations for the beginning of active labor. I wanted desperately to immerse myself in the soothing water that was filling up the pool behind me, but every time I looked at the water level it seemed to taunt me with its stagnant progress. It became impossible to imagine the contractions as my childhood boogie boarding past time so I focused instead on rhythmic humming and the vibrations that filled my head. Everything was dark and embracing as I rocked forwards and backwards, side to side.
Vibhu guided me into the pool. Its effect was immediate and all-consuming. “I feel like I’ve just had an epidural,” was all I could think. “This is unreal.” I felt like I was floating. With each contraction, I’d move into position, leaning over the side of the pool with my face buried in the buoyant plastic, focusing on the warm water cascading down my lower back. In between, I let the water support me as I lay on my back and the pain would slip away.
I noticed Colleen’s voice and was comforted knowing that she was here. She checked my blood pressure and we listened to the baby’s heartbeat. “Everything is great, the baby is doing well and you are amazing,” Colleen reassured me. The intensity was more than I could have ever imagined, and I struggle now to find words to even describe the feeling of the tightening pressure that consumed me.
I felt the collective support and guidance of the millions of women who had done this before me in hospitals, under trees, alone under the night’s sky.
A wave of nausea overcame me as my mouth filled with saliva. This must be transition — I’m so close. The intensity of the contractions was unbelievable, nearly unbearable — I dreaded every one, but was comforted knowing that all I had to do was relax through them and breathe. I felt the collective support and guidance of the millions of women who had done this before me in hospitals, under trees, alone under the night’s sky. There’s nothing you can’t do.
Laboring on all fours in the pool, I felt a building pressure in my rectum and knew that pushing was imminent. Colleen urged me to go to the bathroom and pee before the grand finale. It was as I lumbered into the bathroom, cold and wet, that I decided I didn’t want to get back into the pool.
Labor continued on our futon, which had earlier been covered with a plastic shower curtain and an old sheet to protect it from the mess of labor. The contractions were coming hard and fast, and I could feel the baby descending into the birth canal. Again on all fours, with each contraction I pushed and pushed. Colleen told me she could see the head. The pushing offered some relief and a distraction from the pain, but I was exhausting myself in that position and Colleen suggested I lay on my side so that I could relax in between contractions. As I laid down, I closed my eyes and relished in my ability to completely surrender and escape. I felt sleep swooping in and I wanted so desperately for it to take me away. But the contraction was bigger and faster, there was no escaping its presence.
I heard a new voice. Amy, another midwife from the clinic was next to me. She was encouraging me to push, but I wanted to run away. I was too tired, the pressure in my back too strong. I felt a pop and then a gush. Finally, my amniotic sac had broken.
My mom brought out a large mirror and propped it at the end of the futon. Suddenly I could see it all. The crowning of the baby’s head, the mess of the water breaking, my leg held up in the air. The time between contractions seemed to stretch into an unending vacuum and I began feeling like labor had stopped — like the baby had decided she’d had enough and was retracting back into the comfort of the womb.
Through a few more contractions, I pushed, encouraged by the sight of my baby’s head and the words of my midwives, mom, Vibhu and a friend who was offering up support through Skype. A tight, burning sensation made my toes curl. This must be the ring of fire that everyone talks about — they weren’t kidding. I could feel myself tearing. The searing stretch of tissue had reached its limit, my eyes wild with fear. “I can’t go through with this, my whole vagina is going to rip in half.” But I knew I had to — there was no other way.
With the next contraction, I stared down that searing pain and pushed through it. I have no idea if I was screaming, shouting words of profanity, or if anyone had any idea of how much it hurt. I wanted to be done so badly, that the pain and the tearing didn’t matter anymore. I vividly remember Amy telling me that once the baby’s head was out, the rest of her would slip right out. So I pushed and pushed, determined that this was the last of it, I wasn’t going to let it go on any longer.
Amy was right: once the head was out, the rest of her body slipped out with the next contraction. Colleen told me to reach down and grab my baby. It was 1:02am on Wednesday October 12. She came out screaming. When I felt her wet, slippery body on my chest I knew it was over, we were done. I heard laughter and radiant smiles. I couldn’t believe there was a baby.
Colleen said we needed to cut the cord because it was too short and asked Vibhu if he wanted to. He couldn’t speak, he just shook his head. I encouraged him to do it and so did my mom and Michelle, but he wanted no part of it. My mom took the scissors from Colleen and cut through the tough, rubbery cord. With the tension between baby and the placenta released, I was able to move the baby further up on my chest, kiss her tiny head, and smell her sweet skin. Vibhu was radiant as he announced “It’s a girl!” I KNEW it.
Amy began massaging my fundus to help facilitate the delivery of the placenta. Colleen asked me for one more push and out slipped the placenta. Along with the placenta were massive amounts of blood. Amy massaged harder, hoping to get the uterus to contract to slow the bleeding, but blood kept coming. There was a rush of commotion to gather pads, diapers, anything absorbent to soak up the blood. Amy told my mom to call 911.
Colleen injected a dose of oxytocin into my thigh to slow the bleeding. I kept my attention on the pink baby laying on my chest, the screaming baby with a full head of jet black hair. The paramedics arrived within minutes, but when they took their time to put an IV in my arm, a catheter in my urethra, and strategized the best way to get the stretcher into and then out of the apartment complex, I knew the situation wasn’t emergent. There was no panic in their voices. They were calm and chatty.
They loaded me into the ambulance with Kaiya on my chest, the heat turned up, and my mom and Colleen seated next to me. There were no sirens or speeding down the road. We arrived at the hospital 20 minutes later and were wheeled up to Labor and Delivery, where Colleen was able to take my vitals, start additional oxytocin, cover me in warmed blankets, and stitch the superficial tears that had occurred during the final pushes.
Colleen explained to us that the placenta was the biggest that she or Amy had ever seen, with a diameter of well over 12 inches. The excessive bleeding that had occurred was likely due to the fact that the placenta had covered such a large surface area of the uterus, that once it separated, the uterus had a hard time contracting quickly enough to slow the bleeding. She estimated that I had lost nearly two liters of blood and although they had controlled the bleeding while we were still at home and my blood pressure and hemoglobin levels were both normal, she wanted me to be observed overnight as a precaution. It was my first stay in a hospital.
Kaiya Sol Athavaria was born under a full moon just like her papa had been 30 years earlier. She weighed exactly seven pounds and was 20 inches long — not bad for a baby that we all had thought would barely make the six pound mark.
I was discharged from the hospital the next morning under a bright blue sky and a beautiful rainbow.