ROSEMARY, IN WORDS | PT. 3: BIRTH AT HOME

 
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This is a multi-part series on the home birth of our daughter, Rosemary. Click here to read Parts One and Two.
Note: My home birth story is triumphant and positive, though not without intensity and pain. This is safe to read if you are avoiding stories of negative birth experiences.

Moments after I told my mom to stop saying labor would come, labor came. It was 8:30 p.m. and I can still picture the look of excited hesitation Mark was flashing me when every five minutes I would say, "it's happening again."  All day I had been waxing between anger and calm over the absence of labor signs. A woman overdue is a force unto herself, or I was. Mark and I spent a large part of the day encouraging labor. So fond is the memory of those final hours just my husband and I. We took a walk to the post office and the hardware store — less than a quarter-mile but all the walking I could muster. Beyond just walking, we tried a host of recommendations for encouraging labor: spicy food, a bath, physical affection, aromatherapy, the whole kit and caboodle. (A quick digression: I have chosen to be open about the physical aspect of our pregnancy because a) there's only one way a baby is conceived, and it should not be taboo to discuss the same thing in pregnancy, and b) if pregnancy came to fruition in a healthy and consensual way, it can only fortify the couple to be physically affectionate during pregnancy — especially before a cataclysmic event like birth, after which time there is a long spell best summed up like this: ain't no way.)

Whether a combination of efforts or just the baby's time, it worked. 

 After having eaten a supper of red miso soup with rice noodles and cilantro, we settled onto our sofa to watch an episode of some such food show. The first sensation of the uterus contacting is not unlike menstrual cramps. I messaged my sister and asked if it could be true. She confirmed that it was absolutely so. We excitedly timed my contractions at five minutes apart and thirty seconds long. My contractions never spaced out and never stalled. Mark made the final preparations in the house: dishes washed, floors vacuumed; snacks set out for the team, bone broth thawed. In the mix of it all we forgot to get our cat out of the house, so he spent a cozy 20 hours in the laundry room. We lit candles around our icons of St. Isidore and the Nativity and prayed together. Mark got some sleep and I settled into the brand new sensation of working to get a baby out instead of keeping a baby in. 

In the middle of the night I experienced a strong contraction that lasted 60 seconds and a few more just like it piggybacked. Officially in active labor. We called my sister and got ahold of our midwife, who sent over her assistant midwife. My labor continued for another fifteen hours. I labored down in the birth pool through the night and well into the frosty, overcast morning. Aimee and my mom sat beside the pool and prayed a rosary aloud to me. It was so soothing that I fell asleep between contractions. During the pool hours, everyone took turns resting or reading, eating or making coffee. It was a wonderfully calm time. Mark said that for the ten hours I was in the water I kept to one thing: steady breathing. I could feel my body making progress, like my cervix was dilating with every contraction and I was sending my baby downward. It was challenging but I was not afraid. Submitting to my body felt good.

I focused on my breath and my womb, imagining that the sacred home our baby had occupied was ready to send forth the incredible life it had nourished. The intensity was mounting; once I hit transition I lost sight of everything going on around me save my husband. I held tight to my gaze on Mark. He held my arms in the pool; we looked into each other's eyes and cried. Who would our baby be? . . . Late morning arrived and I had no idea so many hours had passed. And I was fully dilated! Up to this point my labor had been a dream—not without hard work, but the hard work was making it all happen and thus felt very worthwhile. 

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I got out of the pool around 10 or 11 a.m. and thought I would just wait to feel the urge to push. I supposed that since I was fully dilated I might not have as many contractions. Not so. For all the reading and listening I did, no external source prepared me for what my body would do. The baby had to move down the birth canal, which would prove hours of the most challenging — at times excruciating — work of my life. My mom and dad (yes, my dad was there!), three of my sisters, and Mark were all there, plus a substantial birth team of eight or more women, and eventually Mark's parents joined us in the house too! My family would take turns rubbing my back and offering counter pressure. They would place cold towels with lavender and frankincense essential oils on my forehead and neck. The towels felt so good. Inhaling peppermint oil during each contraction staved off vomiting. Nicole (our midwife) determined that baby's head was not in an optimal position and some positioning and belly manipulation was necessary.

This was the stage of labor where every contraction felt like the strongest pain I had ever been through—I thought it could not possibly get more intense, but this was before pushing for three hours. My mind was blank to everything except that my baby had to come out, had to come out, had to come out. Some part of me — greater than my hope, greater than my courage, greater than myself — held fast in understanding I could and would persevere. If I had never witnessed hundreds of animals give birth I might've faltered in that belief. Also, it became abundantly clear that Mark and I both needed the support, touch, and voices of every person there. Like ancient history, we gratefully allowed a whole village of women (and men!) to take care of us and usher in new life.

labor 2

There were hours of pushing—first with my bottom in the air, and later on my back. I hated those positions. But in doing so the baby was successfully adjusting and moving. So I kept to it. Eventually I was able to move onto all fours on the bed with a peanut ball to rest beneath my chest. It was agonizing. I remember saying the words, "I want to die." In that moment—but only for a moment—I was defeated. I would have preferred my body expire than keep working. But I needed that baby to live, and there was only one way to ensure life: keep pushing. I was using every ounce of energy I had, depleting my womb with every series of pushes and restoring it with bone broth and a high-protein smoothie. I could hardly abide the wretched texture of the smoothie, the honey sticks, and an especially harrowing spoonful of peanut butter, but I could feel each swallow literally restoring my energy, like I was Mario leveling up. In retrospect, the way I was nourished by food was a very powerful experience. Without sustenance, I 100% would have transferred to the hospital for a cesarian. I could not have pushed her out on my own without food, and for that I feel immense gratitude to the animals, insects, and plants that helped bring forth life.

All I saw or knew was Mark, through broken blood vessels and swollen eyes. He was supporting the weight of me — emotionally and physically — with the fortitude of a husband truly devoted. 

Nicole rightly suspected she had her hand up by her face and manipulated her position as she was crowning. How can I put this delicately? It felt like someone poured kerosene on my vagina and threw a lit match on it. Instantaneous red hot flaming heat. Pushing (obviously) made it worse, and the only reason I continued to push was to keep our baby alive. Fire, fire, oh God I am on fire, is what I would have said if I could have spoken. This went on for a veritable eternity, or long enough that I was so consumed to have no idea when her head came out. There was no relief in that moment. I heard nothing; I only felt the fire. I had no idea everyone in the room was telling me our baby had a head of hair; no idea about anything at all other than fire, fire, fire. I had entered into this delirious state of Beyond, and in that space I pushed harder than I knew myself capable of.

I felt a magnificent whoosh best described as a slippery flood of water extinguishing the fire: she was out. Alive. Life entered into life. I reached for her through my legs with an animalistic need, brought her to my chest and all but collapsed onto my back. I closed my eyes and touched her wet, warm head. Mark was crying. I have no memory of what he said, only that he laid next to me and smiled. I opened my eyes to behold her, whispered the graceful words, ". . . our baby is a cone head," and smiled my first. (More accurately, she was a train head. That's what hours in a narrow birth canal do to an unfused skull. Truly miraculous design.) A few minutes passed and my mom asked if we were "ever going to check if it was a boy or a girl," to which Mark looked and announced with 90% surety (our room was dark!) that she was a She.

She was. . . resplendent. My 9 1/2 pound daughter with a 15 inch head and the chubbiest legs you've ever seen was common as a baby and extraordinary as my own. Rosemary Isidora, our child of the good earth, born on the feast of Saint Agnes.

In an instant, my life took on incomprehensible meaning. 
I was deliriously glad.
I was supremely proud.
I was, and still am, and hope to always remain, fully transfigured.
Thanks be to God.

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mark and rosie

Rosemary and I two days after the birth; Rosemary one day after the birth; Rosemary and Mark a few hours after the birth. You can see that just a few hours after the birth her head had already resumed a normal shape.


—S

ROSEMARY, IN WORDS | PT. 2: GROWING A BABY

 
the magic is in you

This is a multi-part series on the home birth of our daughter, Rosemary.
To read the first part on finding out we were pregnant, click here

It's really something to have two people inhabit one body. Pregnancy is a fact of every life, yes — but is it maybe so common and required that we easily forget how astounding it actually is? I suspect it is the most tender time of a woman's life. A pregnant woman is a literal vessel for another life, and not just any life, but a life that is so completely dependent on her that they could not survive even fifteen minutes without her. What a hugely important job it is to be pregnant! And this is not even to speak of the mental and physical endurance. It is monumental; it is anything but ordinary. Around the start of the second trimester this job of utmost responsibility and privilege started to suffuse my thoughts day and night.

For the first twelve weeks I was trying to survive the nausea and the exhaustion and understand how my breasts could possibly hurt so much. In retrospect that pain was like a gentle rain compared to the tsunami that was the boob pain I would experience after Rosemary was born. I couldn't read books or write letters because focusing my eyes made me want to throw up. It seemed like everything I had once loved made me feel awful. Growing a life is pretty great consolation, or it must be, because the misery never outweighed the joy.

Actually, my pregnant body was the most comfortable I have ever felt in my own skin. 'Comfortable' as it relates to self-image—there is nothing comfortable about gaining 50 pounds and having a baby jab you in the cervix and the ribs at the same time. I felt empowered carrying another life around with me, and I've come to understand that I feel most feminine and feminist when my body has a job to do. I suppose that's why I love my postpartum body: my belly may be soft and my eyes might never look rested again, but I keep another human alive. To borrow a word from my dad, gah-lee, that's amazing stuff. If I were to retroactively assign a word to my approach to pregnancy, 'willing' would be it. I was willing to become and do whatever my baby needed, and it's a good thing I had that fortitude because round ligament pain, and breasts that suddenly look like bullseye targets, and skin tags (seriously why), and hugely swollen ankles are not exactly mood-boosting. But it was always worth it. . . and I ripped the skin tags off. (Are you cringing yet? These are the things people never say and maybe for good reason.)

 The last photo I took of Rosemary in utero; three days before she would come earth-side.

The last photo I took of Rosemary in utero; three days before she would come earth-side.

I committed myself to a few things for those nine months that no doubt influenced Rosemary's beautiful, spiritual, challenging birth at home. Most importantly I was unafraid. Once I could read again, I educated myself about the female body and what it needs to and will do in labor. Fear comes from a lack of knowledge; a lack of trust. Animals are unafraid during birth and I wanted to channel that fearlessness. I read dozens of birth stories and listened to countless episodes of The Birth Hour podcast — though I avoided traumatic stories, because I was particularly sensitive while pregnant and tried not to impart negative emotion on myself or my baby! We entrusted my care to a phenomenal midwife and doula team. Secondly, and this is unconventional in the western world (though it is traditional): I committed to staying at home with our baby after s/he was born — to not leaving even once unless an extenuating circumstance required it — for at minimum two weeks and hopefully for one month. And this, from a woman who loves conducting nearly every aspect of life outside! Mark and I both felt called to the ancient tradition of keeping baby and mama out of the wind and harsh conditions of the outside world so that we might stay warm, cozy, and focus solely on bonding. 

By the time the third trimester rolled around, I was deep into nesting. I was knitting for hours every day, cleaning the house top to bottom, and resting a lot. I made many fancy turmeric hot cocoas in those final days and stockpiled bone broth in the freezer. I pondered. And if I wasn't pondering, I was pampering. Readying. My body and mind began turning inward and there was no sense in protesting. Beckoned to linger and move slower, it was as though my body was saying, "rest up, for soon there will be much work to do."

affirmation table

I drank raspberry leaf and nettle tea. I ate dates. Mark gave perineal massage. We made love. I took baths and rubbed essential oils over my belly. Mark played piano for the baby. And in the days that would become the last before she arrived, I set up an affirmation corner on the dresser with beeswax and bayberry candles, icons of St. Isidore and the Nativity, a statue of an angel holding a baby that my own mama gifted me as a young girl, and notes I had written to myself. I hung a banner with the words THE MAGIC IS IN YOU sewn into it directly above the birthing pool. And it was. (And it still is.)

And then. . . I waited. My due date came and it went. Though I had tried feebly to "forget the due date" like sage women had advised, I always knew when it was. My body wasn't ready but my mind was. Carrying around a huge globe on the front of my person rendered me quite weary, a condition nearly every full-term mama can understand. The days kept coming and going, and still no little one. My mom had been in California on business with the knowledge that I might have the baby while she was gone. This was the only unsavory detail of my birth plan because I wanted — no, needed —her by my side. Each morning I'd message her, "still nothing." She called me as soon as her plane landed in Ohio and said, "I'm home! This baby can come anytime! This baby will come very soon. Maybe even tonight!" And in my indignation I grew irritated and told her to stop saying my baby would come soon and start assuming it would be a few more weeks because, "I will be pregnant forever and my baby is not coming anytime soon." I hung up the phone, and ten seconds later I had my first contraction. 

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Psst. This book details the tradition of staying indoors and was a major influence in my prenatal and postpartum philosophy. Also, The Birth Hour podcast is an excellent resource for anyone interested in / pursuing / in the throes of pregnancy!


—S

ROSEMARY, IN WORDS | PT. 1: DISCOVERING PREGNANCY

 
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Before I was ever pregnant I knew I wanted to birth at home. Home is where I feel safest and most comfortable. I have witnessed hundreds of animals giving birth and knew without any doubt that I, also a mammal, could give birth in my natural environment. I was eager and curious about pregnancy, wondering how my body and especially my mind would respond. I desired sincerely for my body to become a vessel for another life: an incredible act of feminism and strength; a sacred transformation exclusive to women.

Mark and I track my fertility so we didn't need a test to tell us we were pregnant. My body had already let us know, charted out on a piece of paper, clear for the eye to see. Despite it being obvious, I was in total disbelief. (Mark: "Sam, you're pregnant." Me:"No, I'm not!" "I think you're pregnant." "No, I'm not!") In wanting so much for it to be true I convinced myself that it couldn't be. That night we drove to three separate grocery and drug stores to buy a test to no avail. I still can't understand it, but all three places were either closed or without pregnancy tests. As fate would have it, we would have to wait to find out until the following day on the feast of Saint Isidore the farmer, to whom we were developing a growing devotion and after whom we would name our baby. Receiving the news of a positive pregnancy ranks among the most sacred and wonderful moments of our life. There we were, two hopeful kids in love sitting in a doctor's office, uncontrollably laughing and crying after the nurse told us 'Yes' and kissed me on the head. We were full to the brim with the mystery that was always going to be Rosemary. Insofar we had cared only for goat kids—still very much in the throes of kidding season, actually. Barely the size of a poppyseed but already our beloved baby: everything was changed.

mark digging fence posts
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I had the day off while Mark had to manually dig fence posts. I drove to my favorite town, bought a new water bottle and Ina May's Guide to Childbirth, then treated myself to a fancy little lunch. The sun was shining and I felt heavier in the best way. (That heaviness would become so cumbersome that I would later rue the day I ever became pregnant, becoming so convinced that I would set the record for the World's Longest Pregnancy that I would actually google who held the record. Poor, poor Mrs. Hunter. . .) For all the things that have already blurred in my mind's eye, the first 24 hours of knowing I was pregnant are crystal clear. 

Mark took the best care of me. We had a CSA that provided fresh fruit, vegetables, and chicken. My body craved fruit and protein, so I listened. I continued to drink raw milk and eat raw cheeses and allowed myself small cups of beer. I was lucky to never lose my appetite despite feeling nauseated 24/7. The notion of coffee (my first love) suddenly became unpalatable, so I switched to the antioxidant juice Ningxia Red every morning before milking. We decided we would stay in Vermont for the birth (ha!) and continue working the farm (ha!). I can see now that it would have been too much to reckon with if we thought we were having a baby and quitting our jobs and moving home. That is exactly what happened, but God knew the ways of our hearts and I'm grateful for those first weeks of imagining a Vermont birth. It allowed us to choose a home birth midwife in Vermont who was wonderful and ushered us into pregnancy very gently. When her heartbeat came through the dopplar for the first time, we wept. We would both weep in the 17th hour of labor when her heartbeat stayed steady and strong while she rested stubbornly in my birth canal. Our Rosemary Isidora, child of the good earth, waited until she was perfectly ready to join us and not a moment sooner.


—S

IN WHICH SHE DISCOVERED

I wrote this a few weeks ago, shortly before things turned a corner and became much smoother. Mark and I were genuinely sleep deprived and had been for weeks. For now both of us are on the other side of that darkness (it's downright divine what a few solid hours of sleep will do for your psyche), but this piece of writing still holds true for me. This pinnacle evening changed my outlook and continues to do so. 

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In a dimly lit bedroom, wet cloth diapers and coffee mugs strewn about, deep nighttime filled the sky outside the window and I, replete of energy and grace, sat crumpled in bed with my face in my hands. Our daughter was in need of sleep but inconsolably crying, and in that moment it seemed the crying would never end. I had just handed her to Mark, with whom I'd been bickering over I Can't Even Remember and It Didn't Matter. Wishing for a romantic chimera instead of a greasy-haired day at home, I s'pose. In my despondency I prodded God: Where is the gift in this? Mired in self-pity of my own creation; aligning myself with the sorry sort I knew in books. And then, as though a shroud of self-asborption evaporated, I looked up to see my husband on his knees beside the changing table, eye-level with his quieted baby, whispering sweetly to her through his own exhaustion. Right then and not a moment sooner I knew: This is the gift. It's not hidden or late to arrive; this very nowness is the gift. And suddenly my perspective went from pleading to praising. The two people I love most in this life, with whom I get to share my bedroom, a warm room in a house I cherish, which is situated in a town that is also home to my family and all of my childhood memories . . . that's all gift? Oh right, so it is. The exhaustive bouncing and ceaseless crying and nights that turn morning too soon are not chapters to be omitted from our story. Nor are the toothless smiles, or the suppers eaten with a babe on the breast, or the sweetness of family bath time. Turns out there is grace—freely given and abundantly available—even in the sorriest moments and sourest attitudes (of which I have had many). In fact, it turns out life really and truly and sincerely is All Gift. 


—S