my birth story

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. 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

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