My youngest child was born this week...
He was born in the quiet and dark of night with a blessed candle to light his way. His father was at my side praying him into the world. Baby Z briefly landed in the hands of his midwives before being placed in my arms where he has been ever since.
Before I begin our birth story, I want to briefly explain why we chose this unconventional route. The idea of a home birth makes many people uncomfortable, even upset, (including a few who are close to me) and the topic deserves a mention. But I'm going to mention it only to clarify, not to fuel an argument here or anywhere...
I believe that you should be able to choose the best birth for you and your baby, whatever that looks like. For us, in our particular set of circumstances, home birth was the safest and healthiest option available to us. Do I wish that all families could experience the birth we had this week? Oh yes... just like I would wish any beautiful and good experience on a family. But my birth story is not about you or your neighbor. It is simply a glimpse into a moment of joyful intimacy in our lives.
I will write more about our decision to give birth at home soon. For now, I invite you to enter into our dream. Oh, it was real enough... but somehow, it seems a bit other-worldly. Do I dare write it down and risk a sharpening of the memory past the happy haze? Yes, it's safe. And I'm ready to share my joy.
DREAMING OF HOME
I have always been committed to having unmedicated labors and have been mostly able to achieve that in the last 20 years and 8 births (apart from one "necessary" nightmarish pitocin experience). My reasons for wanting to go "natural" are not complex. When I was 20-years old and pregnant with my first, I read about common labor medications and simply ruled them out. They all crossed the placenta and all reached the babies. They all brought a certain measure of risk to both mother and child in otherwise low-risk pregnancies.
Maybe it was my youthful naivete. Or stubborness. Or fierce maternal instinct. But it made sense to me to accept the pain in order to better protect my child. And I simply never looked back. I credit youthful impetuousness, not any real courage of my own... and the subsequent knowledge that, yes, I can do this really hard thing. We went on to have 7 hospital births without pain medication and also one miscarriage at home at 13-weeks.
In spite of my commitment to "natural" birth, I didn't start dreaming of a home birth in earnest until my 6th child was born. His was a 45-minute hurricane labor in which I barely made it into the delivery room. In theory, 45-minutes sounds perfectly lovely. In reality, it was brutal. The stress level was extremely high, the pain difficult to manage, and the baby distressed.
I didn't ever want to go through that again. Ever.
So the seed was planted... and the idea of peacefully, gently, quietly welcoming any additional babies into the world began to take root. We did our best to plan that kind of hospital birth for number 7 and it was much better but still a far cry from the unfolding dream that I couldn't shake. I continued to research and imagine and learn about my body and God's design for birth...
And then we found out that we were expecting our 8th child.
My pregnancies are difficult and this one was no exception. The first few months were a complete blur of misery followed by remaining months of unconquerable fatigue and sickness. Every once in a while, I'd think about upcoming labor and tremble. I'm no fan of pain, especially labor pain. You might say it even terrifies me. And I was tired, sick, and lacking courage. The thought of the hospital scene kept rising up before me and one thing was absolutely clear to me...
I didn't want to step foot in a hospital to deliver this child if I didn't absolutely have to.
The thought of the noisy, crowded, intervening medical scene filled me with anxiety. The very image reminded me of PAIN... and my mind would take refuge again in the dream of just staying home. The dream always went something like this...
Contractions would start or my water would break... and I would just... stay. In the quiet. In the dark. In my room. With my husband. And then our son would be born.
That was all.
And in the end, that really is what happened.
I had been laboring for weeks just like my previous pregnancies. The textbooks call it "prodromal labor" but I just call it the World's Longest Labor. There are many "false" starts to active labor and many nights filled with contractions too strong to sleep through.
The one advantage to this is that once active labor starts, babies are born within a couple hours. I deal with the uncertainty of timing by sticking close to home for many weeks. Waiting... waiting... waiting. Knowing this time that I didn't have to leave to go to the hospital or arrange for complicated child care was significant. My anxiety level didn't rise with contractions. My heart, mind, and body stayed rooted in place... rooted at home.
On the afternoon of the 26th, I noticed a slight increase in the regularity of my contractions. I paid attention but not too much. After all, it was standard fare and might taper off. I did notice that I was crankier than usual and that I felt an urgency to get something done. Let's take the kids out for ice cream, I said.
So we did.
Contractions were coming irregularly (typical) at about one every 15 - 40 minutes, but I noticed that they were getting a little sharper when they did come. Duly noted, Body. You've faked me out more times than I can count but I'm paying attention for the moment.
We arrived home from ice cream.
After waiting for our oldest to get home from work, we said late family prayers. I was feeling a little serious at that point but the rest of the family didn't seem to be on the same page. I felt very restless and irritable.
This is probably it, I thought.
I suddenly felt much more earnest about getting the kids into bed. Unfortunately, my desire and my toddler clashed and she didn't fall asleep until night passed into morning. By that time, I knew we were going to have a baby. Soon.
It was around that time that we called the midwives.
The doula was the first to arrive and my husband directed her downstairs to wait. I don't remember telling him that I wanted to be alone but I suppose we must have talked about it enough. Whatever the case, he knew what to do and I continued my labor in the quiet and dark of my room.
Quiet and dark and cool. It was the labor scenario of my dreams. There isn't a whole lot of room to wander in our tiny bedroom but it was enough. I rested on the bed in front of the fan and then shuffled back and forth, the affirmations I had been looking at for at least a month running through my head... and the music of my pre-labor playlist coming back to my mind in little bits and pieces.
As labor intensified, most of those mental words fell away until I was left with only a few. I didn't choose them consciously... they just seemed to be the ones I needed most.
Come down, Baby.
Sweet Jesus, carry me.
I began to sing to myself when the waves of the contractions crested. I never would have done that in the hospital and probably not in front of the midwives either. But alone, I sang. The words were from the chorus of a Chris Rice song...
And my soul wells up...
And my soul wells up...
And my soul wells up in an alleluia...
As the wave would rise, I would imagine the pain rising up to Jesus - the one prayer I could give in the moment - and an effective way to surrender to the intensity and then give it away. The pain didn't disappear but it was manageable. It was purposeful. And I never panicked.
I sang an octave lower than usual so that my jaw would stay loose since a loose jaw means a relaxed pelvic floor. My plan had been to hum or "sing" low (sort of like a cow mooing, to be honest), but the actual singing was working beautifully.
So I danced and sang in the quiet and the dark.
In the hospital, I have never been able to rise from a side lying position. I lay down, close my eyes, and wait for babies to be born. It is the way that I cope with the pain in what I find to be a highly stressful environment. The moment I open my eyes and see a nurse or a monitor is the moment I start to panic. At home it was different. I found relief in the standing. I saw our wedding picture faintly in the dark. I watched the fan. I danced and sang and there was no one to judge or to shush me. No intrusions.
1:10 am (approximately)
The midwives arrived and stayed downstairs with my daughter and husband. I would need him soon but not yet. And he seemed to just know. A midwife entered my room to briefly check on the baby. I stayed standing while she listened to his heartbeat which was strong even through a tough contraction. She left as quietly as she came.
My water broke gently during a contraction and I knew that I would need the Chief with me. I felt the baby drop and and recognized that feeling... It wouldn't be long now. A midwife asked my husband to make sure the fluid was clear. It was.
My husband didn't leave my side after that point and as I leaned into his arms and rocked, I couldn't help but think that we were dancing our son into the world.
And he prayed. He prayed Hail Mary's and he prayed for protection. He prayed when I couldn't and when I did call out to Jesus, he joined in with me and it was, in many ways, like singing in one voice to God. The meaning of our marriage vows in those moments of suffering love was illuminated... I'm not sure I can put words to that kind of intimacy and joy.
(I don't recall the picture above being taken. It must have been close to birth since that is when others entered the room. It is blurry and dark and barely visible and that is the way I prefer it. This was not a moment for the world but a moment of intense privacy and loving focus. But my daughter loves this picture and encouraged me to share. And I think it shows well how that one blessed candle was sufficient for the moment.)
In the meantime, the midwives waited downstairs. As the baby came closer to birth, my sounds began to change. I knew that, being good midwives, they would hear and know when to come. I laughed to myself a little at the time... thinking about my groanings as a birthy way of communicating with the women downstairs. Like bird calls or something. And they were listening and moving; first downstairs, then up to the kitchen, then to the base of the stairs leading to my room.
I felt those panicky feelings that come with transition. I wanted to squeal but instead I focused on dropping my voice low and thinking only of the baby. There was no way around this moment. It is always a rather terrible moment when control slips away and is wholly replaced by a need to surrender to pain... but it was almost over.
The difference between my earlier births and later births is that the pain took over every part of me, even my mind. Like a white hot blanket. In my more recent births, I have learned how to pay attention a bit more and to work with my body instead of raging against it.Still gotta go through it... but that shift in mindset makes all the difference.
As we moved through transition, I got on my hands and knees on the bed. The Chief stayed by my side, supporting, and I felt the baby descend. I have only ever pushed while on my back or on my side at the hospital but made a conscious decision to change that at home. Laying down was how I coped in the hospital but I didn't just want to cope... I wanted to thrive. The books all said that standing, squatting, or hands and knees were better and faster and less painful. And I wanted to spend as little time in transition as possible.
The books were right, I think. Everything opened quickly but gently.
And suddenly, the midwives were there...
quietly, steadily, as my baby crowned.
His head was delivered with one push and his body followed right after. And just like I had dreamed, he was born in the relative silence and darkness of the night, with only those there who belonged. They handed him to me immediately, and our family was changed again forever.
It had been approximately 2-3 hours since I first "knew" that it was birth day. It was the quick labor and birth that I knew I would have. It was the gentle and joyful birth that I knew I could have. Thank God it was over. Thank God he was here. Thank God for the peace, for the quiet, for the joy, for the birthday.
After they gave the baby to me, I held him while we waited for the cord to stop pulsing and he received all the blood that rightfully belonged to him. I held him and nursed him while we waited for the placenta. No one pulled or tugged to make it go faster. There was no excess bleeding. No tearing. And we rested.
The midwives retired downstairs to give us time to be alone and bond before they came in to check on the baby again. I was helped to the bathroom to clean up a little while the bed was quickly changed. I returned to a fresh resting place and the baby was finally weighed and admired. He was quiet and calm through it all.
After waiting to check different milestones of recovery, the midwives finally went home and the Chief and my daughter continued with a little chatting, baby admiring, and a couple minor points of clean up.
The Chief finally went downstairs to eat his "dinner" and my girl went to bed. I prepared myself for what I knew would be a long night of after pains... consoled by the presence of the sweetest baby on planet earth... as the sun rose in the sky and the birds took over the songs of our night of joy.
Everyone slept in that morning and the children straggled from their beds one at a time over a period of hours. I will never forget each awed face as it passed our door and realized that there was a tiny human being resting next to mommy.
All the children except for three had slept soundly through the miracles of the night. My oldest daughter wouldn't have missed it for the world. And my two oldest boys lay awake, hearing the sounds of our little community and of birth. If they minded, they didn't say. But one of them did pay attention and marked the time of his little brother's arrival by his clock. I can't help but think that such a memory (even though only through sounds) will have significance in their lives. They will know...
Birth is important.
Birth is natural and God-designed.
Birth is beautiful.
Birth is God's gift to the family.
Birth is a time to celebrate even while we carry the cross.
Birth... looks a lot like real Christian love.
I called this post my "Catholic" homebirth not because other births aren't, but to draw attention to the great potential for intentional Christ-centered birth. That is going to mean different things for each family and in different seasons. With some of my births, I have surrendered to a spirit of fear instead of surrendered to love. Always "Catholic" but not always welcoming Christ wholly. And indeed, I am humbled that it has taken me so many births to become so intentional... and that is has been so strongly motivated by my aversion to pain. But I know He has been leading me and that the blessing is not fundamentally about the human victory but about the grace of the journey. This journey has always been and will always be wholly about His generous grace.
In past births, we have also felt that same grace...
A baby lost.
Back labor... and a fractured tailbone.
Birth in a power outage.
Preemie NICU baby.
Labor with lights and sirens.
9 births. 8 living children.
So many miracles, struggles, details...
Just grace. So much grace.
I give thanks to God for the opportunity to experience birth in such a beautiful, natural, and empowering way. Like every single labor and birth, it has transformed me. I have been permanently changed. We prepared for this but the imagination cannot anticipate how God will bless when the time comes. And I am filled with gratitude for the gift of my femininity and the creative, merciful sovereignty of Almighty God.
ONE WEEK LATER...
I am marveling at the relative peace of the household and the easy recovery of my body. The baby is calm and happy and healthy and I am healing faster than I ever have. The midwives have been back to see us multiple times. The toddler is adjusting. I am wishing that I had more arms and legs with which to do things but... I am awfully glad not to be toting a baby belly.
Would I do another home birth? Yes. Absolutely.