As amazing and empowering as birth is, it is so very much sweeter to emerge on the other side with an amazing, empowering birth story. Because, let's face it, birth is many things, but easy will never be one of them. Birthing a baby pushes you to your edge. And then moves that edge a little further. And it is precisely in this space between edges where incredible empowerment as well as complete and total dependence on your loved ones is born.
I knew my son was on his way at 4 PM on Tuesday afternoon. Dear friends were visiting from Boston and we had spent a lovely afternoon catching up and witnessing the miracle of our children engaged in peaceful play. I bent down to pick a toy up from the floor and felt...something wet. We'll leave it at that. A trip to the bathroom confirmed what could have been nothing, really, but what I immediately sensed was very much something. I went straight to Sisay, already rushing on adrenaline, and told him I thought this was the beginning. I wasn't having any regular contractions- just the occasional Braxton Hicks that I'd been having for months- but I texted my midwife and gave her a heads up. There wasn't a doubt in my mind that this was happening. Soon.
Our friends went home and I spent a frenzied hour or so cleaning up the house. The nesting impulse on home birth hyperdrive. The past week I had been consumed mostly with tasks such as: MUST CLEAN TOP OF CHINA CABINET BEFORE BABY ARRIVES and NEED MORE BASKETS FOR BABY STUFF!! Both obviously very crucial. This whole third pregnancy was mostly very laid back until of course I realized that he was actually going to come out in a couple weeks and I'd best be getting it together, like, NOW. Once the birth supplies were gathered though, it was hard to reign myself back in. Nor did I really want to because God is it satisfying to have a clutter-free top-of-the-china-cabinet. And when will that ever, EVER be a priority again?
Ok, back on topic. By 9 or 10 PM I was having semi-regular contractions every 10- 20 minutes apart. The kids went to bed and Sisay and I tried to sleep, but I was far too hyped up to be very successful. Our midwife, Brenda, arrived around 11, kindly making the 1 1/2 hour drive down the moment I said, "It would make me feel better knowing you were here." She had her doubts, I'm sure. Irregular contractions that could just as easily have been more Braxton Hicks practice runs with no other clear indicators. But she sensed my certainty and trusted it. After all, I had known Violet was coming (also two days before my due date) in very similar fashion, she would later tell me. We chatted for a bit, then she went to take a nap in the guest room too. I gave sleep my best effort once again, but ended up in front of the wood stove with a cup of chamomile tea and a novel. I was at the end, and it was good, so it provided a much needed distraction from obsessively counting the minutes between each rush.
By midnight, it was intense enough that my body and my brain had submitted to the process and I actually did manage to sleep for a bit between contractions, a sure sign that things were progressing. At some point (1 AM? 2?) everyone was up. The tub (or rather, kiddie pool) was filled. Birth supplies were gathered and organized. Hands were squeezed (crushed) at regular intervals. Lindsay, our other midwife, arrived somewhere in here too. The girls wandered out of their room a couple of times, but went back to sleep until around 4 AM. Then Sisay brought them downstairs to my parents, where they all tried to sleep for another hour before realizing the utter futility in that.
By this point, I was--ahem--singing quite loudly and holding quite tightly to some combination of Sisay and our midwives. This being baby number 3, Sisay had the foresight to remove both our wedding rings. It was also around this point when complete and total dependence surfaced. If Sisay left to go to the bathroom or get a drink or add more hot water to the tub, a part of me panicked a little wondering what I would do if he wasn't back before the next contraction. With him by my side, I knew I could stay on top of one wave at a time, no matter how high each rose. Without him...I felt like a tiny boat tossed about by an overwhelming ocean. He was my anchor.
I got in the water at around 4:30 or 5 and the warm weightlessness offered some relief, though at this stage the line between contraction and non-contraction was heavily blurred. As we got closer and the baby descended further into the birth canal, they spread out a bit, but lengthened and intensified. I had the sensation of both being very present and completely removed. For 90 seconds it took every ounce of focus I possessed to stay on top of the wave, and for the following 4 minutes I would fall deeply asleep. It's a surreal experience- having everything and nothing to do with the mysterious process of birthing a baby. My baby.
I felt his sweet little head through this last phase, the still-intact amniotic sac, his thick matted hair, my increasing dilation. The temptation to push was great, and I did so a couple times before I really should have. Brenda checked me to be sure and told me to breathe through the next couple. My water broke then and in the following (two?) contractions I pushed his head out. Apparently I was also pushing his head back in with my hand, you know, because it felt basically like I was breaking in two.
“Don’t push,” Brenda said.
‘Don’t push?’ I said, confusedly. For a moment, his head half-way out of my body, I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to do.
“My hand is here, supporting you.” She clarified. “You can move your hand and push out his head.” And I did just that. The cord was wrapped tightly around his neck, too tight to slip over his head or past his shoulder. When the next contraction came, Brenda coached, I would push his body out and she would somersault his entire body to untangle the cord. I’m not sure if I actually waited until the next contraction. I just know pushing out his body was much harder than his head. My throat hurt for two days from the scream that accompanied that final effort. I felt his slippery body leave my own and suddenly my son was on my chest. It was 6:05 AM.
His presence was strong and maybe that was why I never panicked, but his breathing was absent. For what felt like an eternity but wasn’t more than a minute, Brenda and Lindsay sprang into action, suctioning his mouth, filling his tiny lungs with air, rubbing his body. Sisay was beside himself, pacing the room, praying out loud, barely breathing himself. For reasons I can’t fully explain, I knew this little one was with us. I talked to him, coaxed him to take a breath, willed him to cry. He was listening, I was sure. And then came that first whimper, followed by a full-bodied and beautiful cry. I cried right along with him.
In shock from the cord around his neck and some mucus in his airway, Isaiah recovered quickly. The two of us made it out of the tub and back to the couch, where he settled right into his full-time job of nursing. He took this very seriously, nursing right through the delivery of the placenta up until his first introduction to his sisters and grandparents.
Sisay brought Samaya and Violet up a little before 7 and they reacted exactly how you would expect; quietly amazed and at a loss for what to do or say. With some encouragement from Sisay and I, they carefully approached their new brother, touching his still wet hair and satin skin, kissing the top of his head. Regardless of how much knowledge you have of the actual mechanics involved, the arrival of a tiny human being into your family is nothing short of magical. I can only imagine what it is must be like when you are two.
Both girls are completely smitten with their brother, begging to hold him every chance they can get. Violet is clearly struggling with some very strong middle-child emotions, involving crazy acts of violence, diabolical defiance, refusal to sleep without an epic battle, and ruthless harassment of her older sister. To Isaiah, though, she offers nothing but love songs sung in very high octaves and gentle kisses.
Ten days into life on the outside, and Isaiah is proving himself to be an excellent sleeper (though slightly better in the day of course), ridiculously good looking, and a generally mellow little fellow with a hearty appetite. He went from 8 lbs. 8 oz at birth to 8 lbs. 6 oz. on day 3 to almost 9 lbs. on day 6. That’s 10 oz. in 3 days folks. Having an out-of-control milk supply is probably the best problem one can have, and I am so grateful for it.
This story cannot be complete without mention of the man I so wisely married 6 years ago. Let it just be stated that never did a more capable house-husband walk the earth. He can wield a laundry basket and load a dishwasher as good as any work-at-home mom. But more impressively, he has gotten up with the girls without complaint, sometimes before 5 AM, for the past 10 days after a harrowing night with a newborn. And then has the good humor and coherence to play ‘restaurant’ and serve up plates of banana pancakes. Every single morning. Those last couple hours of sleep are the best gift I could ever receive.
Let us also not forget about the grandparents, who took the girls during the birth and who had them all morning today so I could write these words. They are our constant source of support, child care, and hot dogs.
We have also been tremendously blessed by a community that has brought us dinner every evening since Isaiah’s birth. Truly, the love and support surrounding us is palpable.
No doubt this honeymoon stage will end, Sisay will go back to work, and reality will set in. But I hope I remember to be grateful every day.