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.
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.
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.
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.