I became pregnant with my seventh baby at the age of 44 — after my husband, Michael, had undergone cancer treatment for Stage 3 colorectal cancer two years prior. To say that this pregnancy was a surprise would be quite an understatement; my age alone made it seem somewhat unlikely, and we were under the impression that his cancer treatment had left him sterile. Our family felt complete with six kids, and we were thankful that Michael’s cancer was in remission, so the idea that we would have no more children was fine with us.
After a week or so of mood swings and crying jags last October, however, I decided to take a pregnancy test just to rule that out as a cause of how strange I was feeling. I was absolutely certain the test would be negative, but I needed to see that just to be sure. It was positive.
I cried. How could this be? I was too old, I had no business being pregnant. There was no way this could end well.
When I called my midwife, Sue, who had been here for my children Lilah’s and Finn’s births, and who had also become a dear friend who gave us so much support through Michael’s cancer treatment, she laughed. She was sure that this was a miracle baby who would someday do something phenomenal. I spent the entire first trimester being really scared (and nauseated), sure that I would miscarry, or that it would come to some other bad ending. But it didn’t.
By the time the second trimester rolled around, I was feeling much better physically, and I felt myself relax and stop thinking about bad omens. Right around the time my nausea disappeared, I began to feel those little flutters of movement. Wow! I was really going to have another baby.
We opted not to undergo any prenatal screenings to detect disorders or birth defects, despite my advanced age and the fact that Finn, born four years ago, has Down syndrome. It wasn’t a difficult decision for me; I didn’t feel that knowing anything ahead of time would be of any benefit to me or to the baby. I was glad to have not known about Finn’s Down syndrome until after his birth, and I wanted the same opportunity to just enjoy being pregnant this time around. I figured that our family was strong enough to deal with whatever surprises this baby might be born with as well. We did opt for a mid-pregnancy ultrasound just to rule out obvious physical anomalies that would preclude a safe home birth, and it was then that we learned we would be having another little girl.
The whole pregnancy went by really quickly. I guess that happens when you have a passel of other kids to keep you busy. I settled into being pregnant and reveled in it. I felt really good and could hardly believe how smoothly things were going.
Around 38 weeks, my midwife went out of town for a few days, my blood pressure started rising, and I came down with the flu — all at the same time. That was stressful! She and I were in constant contact via text about my blood pressure, and I was able to bring it down somewhat after a couple of days, but from then on it continued to go up and down and remained a big concern.
On Wednesday, June 20 — two days shy of my due date — I woke up with some bloody show. This was a promising sign; it meant that labor probably was not very far off. I happened to have a prenatal appointment scheduled with Sue that morning, and she checked me and said I was dilated to 1 cm — which really means absolutely nothing, but at least it satisfied my curiosity.
My blood pressure continued to rise and fall. By Friday, June 22 (my due date) the Braxton-Hicks contractions I had been experiencing for so long were finally becoming real contractions, but they were pretty irregular, ranging from ten to twenty minutes apart. Still, I thought it was a sign of progress, and I went to the bakery and bought a “birth day” cake in anticipation of the big event and put it in the fridge.
Sue came over again late in the day. She and I talked and I agreed to have her check me again and if I had dilated any further, she would strip my membranes to see if she could get things moving. I had, indeed, dilated a little more, so she did a membrane sweep.
For a few hours after that, my contractions picked up. They were definitely more intense, and consistently ten or so minutes apart. Michael and I went to bed, half expecting things to really pick up during the night. I slept fitfully; the contractions were waking me up from time to time, but they actually had gotten farther apart. By morning, Saturday, June 23, it seemed that whatever had started up had now mostly stalled out. I was feeling a little frustrated — was this going to be another drawn out start-and-stop labor like I had had with Lilah? — but also sort of okay with it; I figured the baby would come when she was ready.
I trusted that Sue would send us to the hospital if necessary, and she hadn’t, so it wasn’t necessary.
Michael and I ran some errands in the morning — mostly to kill time, I think. We came home and fed the kids lunch and then decided to go for a walk. While we were out walking, Sue called me on my cell phone. She was still very concerned about my blood pressure, and talked to me about risks associated with maternal hypertension. Placental abruption was the biggest risk and the biggest concern. She emphasized that the best thing would be for the baby to be born as soon as possible, and she wanted it to happen that day if possible. Suddenly I was scared. Placental abruption? Now I had to consider the possibility of death for my baby and/or myself? Sue said, “I love you guys too much, and have watched you come too far, to allow a bad outcome.” I trusted that Sue would send us to the hospital if necessary, and she hadn’t, so it wasn’t necessary. But we needed to give my labor a kick-start and encourage this baby to come out and meet the world.
When Michael and I got home from our walk, we figured we had better get things set up just in case.
Sue came over mid-afternoon and she, Michael and I sat down and talked about our options. I was having strong but sporadic contractions, and she checked me again and found that I was dilated to 5 cm. I asked her about breaking my water, and she said that she’d rather not unless I was in active labor. She suggested castor oil. I wasn’t thrilled with that idea because I had taken castor oil to get things moving with Lilah and remembered the effects. It was worth a shot, though, so I agreed.
So we sent Michael to the store for the ingredients for Sue’s Special Kickstart Labor Shake: castor oil, OJ concentrate, and vanilla ice cream. She threw it all in the blender, and I drank it at about 4:00 p.m.
Then we waited.
Michael texted me a few minutes after 5:00 from the neighbor’s house to see how I was doing, and I told him my contractions had picked up a bit but they were still 10+ minutes apart. My friend Lisa texted me at about 5:30 and I told her that my contractions were picking up some. I still thought it was going to be quite a while, and I was prepared for it to stall out again.
Michael came home with the girls at around 5:45, and Daisy, one of my seven-year old twins, got into the shower. Suddenly, my contractions started coming on stronger and closer together. By 6:00 they were no more than a couple of minutes apart and incredibly strong. Every time one would hit, I would drop down on all fours because that seemed like the position to assume to deal with the contractions best.
In no time at all, the contractions were coming fast and hard, one right after another. I began to panic. I yelled for Daisy to get out of the shower because we needed the shower connection to fill up the birth pool.
I was trying to get undressed, but the contractions were coming so quickly. “Shit! Here comes another one . . .” I moaned. “Fuck, another one . . .” Sue said, “Why don’t you let me check you just to see where we are?” “No, there’s no time, I’m there!” I said. The baby was coming. Sue helped me get a bathing suit top on and into the pool, and being submerged in the warm water was a relief.
I remember thinking, “I hope it just stalls out now, I hope it just stalls out now…” but the contractions kept coming, one right behind another. I couldn’t believe how fast this was happening.
We sent the girls out of the room so I could focus, and because I didn’t want to scare them with all the noise I knew I’d be making. I had screamed my way through Lilah’s and Finn’s births — the truth is, as big a fan I am of unmedicated birth, I’m not one who will claim it’s a peaceful or serene experience. I felt my water break in the pool, and suddenly my body took over and the pushing started. It is the wildest thing — completely beyond your control, that bearing down with everything you have.
I could distinctly feel the baby — especially the round, hard shape of her head — moving down and out. Though it felt like it took an eternity, the truth was that I pushed through two contractions before my daughter was born. Sue’s labor notes read: “6:45 — head out; 6:46 — body out.” Scarlett was born with a nuchal arm, meaning her hand was up against her face, so her head and arm came out at the same time. I don’t know if that added to the intensity of it, but I can’t imagine it didn’t.
Sue went out to tell the kids that their sister had been born. They were all playing in the front yard and didn’t hear me make a peep, and it had happened so quickly from the time they had left the bedroom that they couldn’t believe she was really here. I absolutely love that the kids were right there to meet their new sister right away. Home birth is truly a family affair.
I sat in the pool, enjoying the weight and warmth of my baby in my arms, marveling at the improbability of all this, until the placenta was ready to come. Michael cut the umbilical cord, severing the physical tie that bound Scarlett and me for all these months, and took his newest baby girl.
Sue helped me dry off and get into bed, and when I put Scarlett to my breast, she knew exactly what to do. After I nursed her for a while, it was time for the initial newborn exam. She measured 7 pounds, 5 ounces and 20 inches. She looked healthy and beautiful in every way. I look at the lines in my face and think about how far and wide my life has taken me, and I am amazed that my body can still do this, and I am thankful for all that I have.