birth without fear

LEO'S BIRTH STORY: A JOYFUL, GENTLE HOME BIRTH

 
leo ioannis birth story

Note: This is safe to read if you are avoiding stories of negative birth experiences. To read the birth story of my first child, see Rosemary, In Words.

I knew he would arrive, but I didn’t know when, and each day that passed beyond his expected due date led me to believe it would be even longer. For every day that passed, I tacked on several more. (The mind of a full term pregnant woman is not to be understood or questioned.) I had made the mistake with Rosemary of expecting, or hoping, she would arrive by her due date. She didn’t, and neither did he. My womb is a safe, sacred space that is poised to hold my babies until they are very ready to enter the world.

He was born on a Monday at 4:16 p.m. But first, there was Sunday. I already forget where Mark had gone off to, but Rosemary was asleep and I felt the sudden urge to hand wash the kitchen floor and walls. In the years we’ve lived here, we have never cleaned the thick plastered kitchen walls. It occurred to me that the overwhelming nesting might be a sign that labor was imminent, but I wrote it off. Of course he was imminent, but “imminence” could still mean weeks. Later that day I went swimming in a lake my body knows well. I floated and pondered; when, when, when?

Three days before baby arrived. A cumbersome belly.

Three days before baby arrived. A cumbersome belly.

The morning of the birth, already hours into labor and very happy.

The morning of the birth, already hours into labor and very happy.

This pregnancy had been quite challenging. Hard, but healthy. Two weeks before I delivered, I spent a late night and early morning in the hospital with a G.I. virus, on a drip of fluid, and praying to God that I not go into labor from the stress my body was under. Thankfully, no — once again my womb protected my son, and I fell asleep in the maternity room to the sound of his strong heartbeat and the cries of newborn babies. For having home births and receiving my prenatal care outside of the hospital, it was very beautiful to hear the sounds of other babies and their mothers. My mom and I marveled at how soon I would hear the cries of my own little one. How quickly one forgets the utter innocence of a newborn cry.

Nighttime is a beast, both while pregnant and postpartum. It seems your body prepares you for the lack of sleep by diminishing your sleep while pregnant, which can feel like a curse. Each night Mark and I tried to go to bed early just in case the baby decided to arrive, but even with my husband by my side, it felt like my own journey through the night. I would ponder my body and how heavy it felt, how limited my mobility was. Round ligament pain rendered me almost immobile in bed, and I would have to ask Mark to help me turn from one side to the other. Even with the decreased mobility, I enjoyed the days with Rosemary and Mark and my very, very large stomach. Change was so near it made me nostalgic before he had even arrived. (By the way, we had no idea he was a He. As with Rosemary, we relish the surprise.)

leo ioannis birth story
Having a contraction while holding Rosemary and taking final photos as a family of three. I cherish these photos.

Having a contraction while holding Rosemary and taking final photos as a family of three. I cherish these photos.

On the night of the 7th, my water broke at midnight. It’s true what they say: there is no dramatic rush. It felt as if I was slowly but constantly peeing my pants. My water did not break with Rosemary until I was well into the pushing stage of labor, so this was very different. I let Mark know, but we both continued sleeping, and as contractions started to come more regularly, I noticed them but worked hard to sleep in between. I managed to sleep several hours that night — any mother will tell you that the best thing you can do in early labor is try to sleep, which is nearly impossible, so sleeping felt like a real triumph. I awoke the next morning to a sunny, temperate July day — very unlike summer in Ohio, known for its humidity and mid-nineties summers. We enjoyed coffee in our purple room while Rosemary flipped through board books to herself, and I started eating as much healthy food as I could muster, knowing it would serve me well, if indeed the baby was going to arrive that day. Avocado toast with turmeric and flake salt, a mug of bone broth, a raspberry and cacao smoothie, bananas . . . It was such a joyful day. I truly felt so calm, so peaceful, so joyful. During Rosemary’s morning nap Mark and I said a rosary together and prayed over the birth. I felt infused with grace; the day was genuinely supernatural. Later in the early afternoon, we all moseyed outside and into our garden beds. I pulled some weeds and thought to myself how I’d spent many quiet moments in pregnancy dreaming of doing that very thing. Mark and I (mostly Mark) worked so hard in the months leading up to the birth to prepare our back garden and home so that we could relax fully when the baby came. And to be weeding our beautiful garden on the very day I would deliver our son was a prayer answered.

I called my mom to come over around 1 p.m., and shortly my sister joined me, too. Eventually my sister-in-law, plus two of my nieces would join the room (ages one and seven . . . girls are never too young to witness birth!). We started filling the birth pool, and as it would turn out I would only spend an hour in there before getting out to deliver. My midwife and her team of 4 arrived shortly thereafter. My brother-in-law arrived took Rosemary to his house around 2 p.m., and at that point I was still walking around, leaning against the walls of the house to have contractions, feeling more intense but feeling total joy. I was smooching Rosemary and telling her over and over that she would soon have a baby brother or sister. There are photos of she, Mark and I around the 2 o’ clock hour, just before she left. . . and then I delivered her sibling two hours later at 4 p.m. Just mind-blowing. Different from her birth in nearly every way.

leo ioannis birth story
Our beautiful and compassionate midwife, Nicole; My dear sister, Aimee, who caught my baby.

Our beautiful and compassionate midwife, Nicole; My dear sister, Aimee, who caught my baby.

The hour in the pool was really nice. My contractions were intense, but I remembered how to center my breathing and focus my energy on truly pushing the baby downwards; on allowing them to open the gates of my womb and come onto this side of the veil. The brain can create as much resistance as we let it, and the most important commitment of labor is focusing the mind. After a while, my midwife could tell I was ready to go — and this, without ever once checking how dilated my cervix was, without ever once hooking me up to a monitor. They were frequently checking the baby’s heart tones, but that was it. Truly, there was no intervention. So when it came time to move to the bed and start pushing, I experienced some hesitation remembering how difficult it had been with Rosemary. With her, I pushed for hours and hours, never once experiencing the urge to push. It was so physically demanding, and the recovery took months. As I headed for the bed, I wondered if the same scenario would unfold. I remember choosing to let go of that fear and rest in the assuredness that I would be OK, however OK looked.

I wanted to be on my hands and knees, and it was in that position, with a pillow supporting my chest and head, that I waited to see if the urge to push would greet me. And, hallelujah, it did! I held Mark’s hand with my right, and my mom’s hand with my left, and used their strength to bolster my own through a series of pushing contractions. It was very, very challenging; I was very, very sweaty. Through this labor, I learned that hard work — the hardest work of your life — can still be gentle. I never lost my joy. In fact, I was enjoying the work, knowing this baby was going to be in my arms soon.

leo ioannis birth story
leo ioannis birth story

At 4:16 p.m., with Mark by my side and palpable love in the room, my sister, Aimee, caught our son. Just as with Rosemary, they handed him to me, cord still attached, through my legs and then onto my chest. The familiar sensations of exhaustion and adrenaline and incomparable happiness met me. Here was my child, the mystery of my womb, the familiar friend who kicked and hiccuped and grew all those months. Here he was. Oh, how I loved him. It was as if heaven was brought down, in the extraordinarily ordinary way of a baby.

We named him Leo Ioannis Spigos. He weighed 9 lb, 6 oz. and is every bit as gentle and joyful as his birth.

leo ioannis birth story
leo ioannis birth story
leo ioannis birth story

—S

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

 
labor

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. 

baby toes

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