I can’t believe I have a daughter. I can’t believe we have two kids! Our beautiful Shelby finally arrived and we’ve had 3 weeks of baby bliss here at home, right in the middle of the holiday season. Like with my son Jasper’s birth, I was under a midwife model of care at a local birth center throughout my pregnancy and I was once again trying for an unmedicated birth, out of hospital. If you haven’t read Jasper’s birth story, you can do so here and learn more about why I choose to birth outside of a hospital.
To say that I was done with being pregnant is an understatement. As soon as I turned 37 weeks and was “allowed” to safely go into labor, I was ready to put all of the unpleasantness of pregnancy behind me and meet our new baby.
As I approached my due date, Matt reminded me of the night he took, unknowingly, the final photo of me when I was pregnant with Jasper because I went into labor just a few hours later. You can see the photo over on Jasper’s birth story. He claimed he could make the same thing happen again and aimed his cell phone at me before bed one night for yet another terribly unflattering photo. Sadly, this time it didn’t work and I didn’t go into labor until 9 days later.
Just before 2am on November 15th, at 39 weeks and 4 days pregnant, I woke up to a familiar burning ache in my lower abdomen. The time on the clock read exactly 1:46am. I remember the time because my brain is weird about permanently storing such useless information. When I went into labor with my first baby, the clock read exactly 1:50am and I was 39 weeks and 3 days pregnant. I’m nothing if not consistent.
At first, I mentally rolled my eyes at the niggling pain. For days I had been waking up in the middle of the night to several hours of mild, not-very-painful contractions that were spaced 10-15 minutes apart. After a few hours they would stop altogether until the next night. I assumed that this time was no different and rolled over, telling myself I was going to go back to sleep and ignore them, but knowing that I wouldn’t be able to refrain from glancing at the clock every time a pain would start.
Much like the days before, the pain was coming every 10-15 minutes, but I immediately recognized the new sensation as a “real” contraction. Instead of a tightening of the belly with a bit of discomfort attached, these new sensations started as a pain in my sides and hips that wrapped around to the front and down into my thighs. Luckily, I was able to use my experience from my first labor to alert me to the change, and I let myself begin to think that I might finally be in real labor.
I wasn’t in much pain, so for the next few hours I laid in bed and timed the contractions. When they hadn’t stopped at the end of those few hours and had slightly increased in strength, I leaned over and woke Matt to tell him that it might finally be go time! He started a timer on his phone to help me track the contractions and a while later, after the pattern of contractions hadn’t slowed, we were convinced that this was the real deal. I picked up the phone and called my parents just before 6am so they could begin the 2 hour drive to our house to watch Jasper. Even though I knew I would be laboring at home for hours before going to the birth center, we didn’t know how many hours we would have before leaving, so it felt safer to have my parents already there so Jasper would be set at home when it was time for us to go.
Next, I called the on-call midwife to give her a heads up, and then I took a shower and dressed in the clothes I intended to wear to the birth center. Matt also showered and then insisted that I eat breakfast while I still felt like eating. I was feeling anxious and that was causing my stomach to be upset, so all I could manage was a container of Greek yogurt with a handful of plain Cheerios mixed in with it. The contractions were still coming regularly, but were still far apart and I still wasn’t in much pain. They hurt, but I knew they’d have to hurt a lot more to get any work done, so I was confident that I still had a long way to go.
My parents arrived and we all sat in the living room talking for a bit before Matt suggested that we go back into our bedroom so I could “focus.” I told him that sitting around and talking wouldn’t stop real labor, but I humored him, climbed into bed, and propped up on some pillows to try to doze between the contractions.
By lunchtime, the contractions had increased ever so slightly in intensity but were only marginally closer together. The timing also wasn’t very consistent. I’d have a run of pains 7-8 minutes apart and then I’d have a big gap of 12-15 minutes. I decided to check in with the midwife again to keep her updated. When she heard my voice she said, “Yeah, you still seem pretty ‘with it’ while talking to me, so I think we still have a while to go.” I had to laugh at that. She suggested I try to rest as much as possible and to keep eating and drinking. I was feeling hungry so I nibbled on a protein bar and moved to the kitchen to sit with my parents while they fed Jasper his lunch. My mom brought homemade potato soup and baked some fresh cornbread, so he was a well fed toddler. She also brought a pan of homemade brownies with a thick layer of fudge frosting.
After lunch I was getting frustrated that things were moving so slow. I’d been “in labor” for 11 hours already and didn’t seem to be making any progress. I changed my clothes and announced to Matt that we were going on a walk. It was an absolutely gorgeous day and walking in the sunshine did wonders for lifting my mood, but seemed to be slowing down my contractions. During the walk I only had a couple of extremely weak pains that were 15 minutes apart. Blech.
When we got back home Matt suggested that I lay down again and focus. The contractions picked up a regular pattern and were coming every 7-9 minutes. They were slowly increasing in strength, but I was still able to manage them quite easily by breathing through them. One coping technique I used was watching those fun short cooking videos that are all over Facebook nowadays. The videos are usually under a minute long, which was the same length as my contractions. Perfect! I could sit there and learn how to make sinful triple chocolate caramel fudge and at the end if it I knew the pain would be over.
By 3pm the contractions were stronger and 6-8 minutes apart. I was breathing through them but could still carry on a conversation with Matt. I called the midwife again and apologized for bugging her so much. I’d read all of the anecdotes about how fast second labors can progress, so I was nervous that I couldn’t predict how the next few hours were going to go. My midwife asked me to stay on the phone with her through a contraction. When one hit, I told her it was starting, and then she started asking me several questions to keep me talking. At the end of it she said, “Because you sound perfectly fine between contractions and are still able to carry on a conversation with me, let’s check in with each other around 5pm and for now, just keep doing what you’re doing.” That sounded fine to me.
From there, things got crazy.
45 minutes after the call to the midwife, my contractions started getting very painful. I wasn’t vocalizing, but they had reached a level of intensity that made it difficult to speak, and I felt the need to alter my positions in order to cope with them. I ended up sitting on the side of my bed with my weight on my hands while I rocked my hips forward and backwards. I even started giving myself broken pep talks out loud, though I wasn’t able to speak very well. “Pain… this is just pain, and it’s a good pain. I’m healthy, this is healthy. There is nothing wrong.” I felt silly, but Matt seemed surprised that I was staying so positive (I tend to “catastrophize” situations) and encouraged my chosen coping mechanism.
A little while later I was beyond the point of being able to stay quiet during the contractions. At 4:15pm, during a break in the pain, I sent a brief email to our best friends telling them that Matt would be taking over the updates from then on because the contractions were strong enough to cause me to vocalize. We’d been in contact with them throughout the day, so they had been getting a play-by-play of my uneventful labor.
With the next few contractions I went from grunting, to moaning, to yelling. I was not getting a full break in between the contractions. The pain would peak, then valley, and then peak again. I was able to sputter out to Matt that the pain wasn’t ever stopping and we both had the same thought… I was in transition. Somehow, I had gone from manageable contractions to transition in just a couple of hours. I felt myself start to panic and I threw my phone at Matt’s lap and was able to say one word. “Call!” Matt called the midwife as my pain peaked again and though I told myself I was going to be quiet so he could hear her, I physically could not stop myself from yelling. Matt didn’t have to say anything when the call picked up, and I could hear the midwife through the phone say cheerily, “Sounds like things are getting intense over there! Are you guys ready to come in?” That whole exchange seems pretty funny to me now!
I hauled myself off of the bed and Matt said he should go upstairs to tell my parents we were leaving. “No, we have to go NOW.” I said, and started to run to the garage door. After I climbed into the car I realized I forgot to grab my shoes, but at that point I did not care. Matt pulled out of the driveway and then suddenly waved out the window and said my mom was waving from the upstairs bonus room window. He encouraged me to wave but my pain had hit another peak and I was leaning sideways over the console, yowling my way through it while Matt spoke to me in soothing tones.
One universal “symptom” of transitional labor is self-doubt, and I sure did a fine job of exemplifying that during the drive to the center. When the pain “valleyed” and I was able to speak in short bursts, I started begging Matt to take me to the hospital.
“I want an epidural!” I started to cry. “I can’t do this anymore, please, take me to the hospital, do not go to the birth center!” Matt stayed cool as a cucumber and reminded me that I did not want to go to the hospital. He reminded me of all of the things about our hospital stay with Jasper (after I had to be transferred from the birth center) that I hated. He also reminded me that if I go to the center, I would be at home and sleeping in my own bed that same night! Basically, he said all of the things I needed to hear in that moment, even though at the time my brain wouldn’t let me process them. At that point in time I would have sawed off my leg if someone told me it would make the pain stop.
Just after 5pm, we pulled into the lower parking lot of the birth center where the delivery suites are located. Matt barely had time to put the car in Park before I jumped out in my sock feet and headed to the door. We were buzzed in and I was relieved to find the place empty. My midwife, a nurse, and a student midwife that I had met a few weeks prior were there to meet me, all smiles. I walked the few yards to my room with my knees pinched together and my hands shoved between my legs, still groaning and moaning and incapable of even saying hello to anyone. I had started feeling quite a bit of pelvic pressure on the way over and was concerned I was going to drop the baby right in the middle of the hallway!
I got to my room and Matt was right behind me with our small packed suitcase and our birth pool, still in the unopened box per the birthing center’s policy. I noticed a yoga ball next to the wall and I placed it onto the bed and leaned my upper body onto it so I could rock back and forth as I continued to ride through the rise and fall of the transition contractions. My midwife wanted to do a dilation check, so I discarded the ball and collapsed diagonally across the bed as another pain peak rocked my body. My midwife climbed onto the bed behind me and started rubbing my back and speaking in soothing tones, saying things that were exactly what I needed to hear. I can’t even remember exactly what she said except that it was perfect and I felt myself calming.
When the pain lessened I allowed her to do a cervix check and she told me that I was “more than 8 centimeters” and completely thinned out. What a relief! She moved to the corner of the room and began inflating my birth pool. I had a few more intense contractions while the nurse placed cold, wet cloths around my neck and on the side of my face. That felt incredible. I realized then that I was actually sweating and burning up when just a few minutes earlier I heard the student midwife mention that it was chilly in the room! That’s very unlike me, as I am usually always cold. (I didn’t have a fever – my temperature was checked several times.)
Around 5:35pm I had a huge contraction, the granddaddy of my entire labor, and knew that was the one that brought the baby down through the cervix and into the birth canal, because the contraction ended with my body suddenly bearing down like a freight train, already trying to push my baby into the world. I remember feeling a huge relief that transition was over. Thinking back to my first labor, I remembered that pushing contractions were much easier to deal with, consisting of mostly pressure instead of pain with a complete break in the sensations between each one.
“I’m pushing,” I said after Grandaddy Contraction was over and I got my first total break from pain in over an hour. My midwife was in the corner and had finished inflating my pool and started filling it with warm water. “That’s great!” she said. The student midwife took my vitals and listened to the baby’s heartbeat with a handheld Doppler. I laid there with my eyes closed, enjoying the total break from the pain. When the next pushing contraction started, my body gave a big heave ho and my water exploded Hollywood style. Pretty sure I saw the spray reach a good 10 feet from the bed. My midwife stood up and said, “Okay, your water has broken!” Oh, ya don’t say! I actually managed a chuckle. “I think we’re going to be meeting your baby very, very soon,” she said. She walked back to the pool and turned off the water even though it had only been filled a few inches. “Nope, not gonna make it,” she said, referring to the pool.
The midwife instructed me to listen to my body and follow its lead. I was terrified to actively push. Pushing meant getting the baby out, which meant that the baby… has to come out. The only part of Jasper’s labor that I didn’t feel was his head crowning, so not knowing what to expect had me pretty scared. The baby was right there and I had already begun to feel a slight stinging burn. With the next pushing contractions I unconsciously tried to resist them and my legs and lower body shook violently as a result. My midwife had a slight smile on her face and said “Okay Erin, I feel like you are fighting this pretty hard. I need you to push into that burn, she’s right there.” I shook my head back and forth and said that I didn’t think I could do this part. Like… what did I think I was going to do, just stop and stay pregnant forever? You ladies out there that have given birth know what I mean when I say I wasn’t of sound mind at that particular moment.
The sweet nurse was behind me on the bed and said softly into my ear, “Why don’t you reach down and feel your baby’s head?” I was confused because I had no idea things had progressed to the point of actually being able to feel her. So, I reached down and my hand immediately made contact with the top of her head, not quite crowning, but there. I was totally shocked!
The next contraction was a good one and before I knew it she was crowning and I didn’t even have to push beyond what my body was already doing. Perceiving more fear than pain in the moment, I just threw my head back and screamed. Making noise was my coping mechanism. To be honest, I can’t even remember what birthing her head felt like. I blocked it out by distracting myself with my noises, so my very un-ladylike way of dealing with the situation ended up working quite well. When I’m asked how it felt giving birth unmedicated, I answer by saying, “Not that bad.” And it’s really the truth, because I honestly have no memory of feeling pain in that moment.
I do remember feeling a sudden release of pressure an absurdly short time after she began to crown. Matt said excitedly, “Her head is out!” I couldn’t believe it, and I stopped making noise abruptly and curled up into a half sit-up, now excited and determined to push the rest of her out! I gave a huge push of my own and seconds later a tiny body appeared from behind my belly and was placed onto my chest. All pain stopped immediately and I stared at Shelby open-mouthed, unable to process that she had arrived. That moment is one that you just can’t explain to anyone who hasn’t experienced it. There are so many feelings that just slam into you at once and your mind and body start competing with each other, both trying to catch up with everything that is happening. You’re exhausted, energized, relieved, happy, and confused about why and how you have this fresh, wriggling, crying, wonderful little baby lying on your chest. You’re covered in sweat, blood, vernix, amniotic fluid, and your hair is likely a wild nest of knots. A natural birth is far from pretty, but let me tell you the best part: right after it’s over, you feel amazing. There are no after effects from any pain relief drugs or other interventions. I felt like I wanted to get up and run a marathon, and I probably could have if I wasn’t so fixated on my precious baby girl.
My birth center routinely practices delayed cord clamping, which means that the umbilical cord is not cut or clamped until after it has stopped pulsating. After birth, about 1/3 of a baby’s blood volume is still in the placenta and cord system. The typical hospital practice of immediately cutting the cord prevents the baby from receiving that extra blood volume. Waiting until the cord stops pulsating helps the baby transition to life outside of the womb with a full count of red blood cells, stem cells, and immune cells.
After several minutes of lying there holding my baby and finally able to relax, the placenta was delivered naturally, the cord was clamped, and Matt cut it. Next came the necessary but not very pleasant task of being checked for tearing. The midwife told me that our little stinker was born with her hand and arm up by her head, a “nuchal hand,” which usually causes additional tearing. I was familiar with the term and said, “So, that means I need stitches, huh?” After being checked I had two tiny tears, one in the area where most woman experience tearing, and an extra one on the side where her arm was up by her head. I only needed two tiny stitches at each site and the process wasn’t painful, just unnerving (you want to put a needle where??).
To maximize immediate skin-to-skin contact and breastfeeding, my birth center delays taking newborn stats and the first full exam until 2 hours after the birth. Instead, vitals were taken for me and the baby (without taking the baby from me) and then we were left alone. Completely alone. It was bliss. Matt and I both laid in bed, sent some texts and made some calls, and even dozed a little bit. I can’t begin to compare the experience with Jasper’s birth, because it was chaotic and there was always someone in my room, taking the baby, asking questions, messing with me, messing with the baby, etc. Rarely did we get more than a few moments of peace. This time, it was the complete opposite.
This was the exact place and position where I gave birth, minus the pillows, diagonally on the bed because that’s where I landed and I couldn’t make myself move. Matt snapped this photo after I’d been stitched and cleaned up but before I changed and positioned myself. I’m on the phone here making those necessary “Baby’s here!” calls! Afterward, Matt laid on the bed with me and we stared at Shelby.
The nurse peeked her head in to remind me that I needed to eat before being discharged. In an uncomplicated birth, you are discharged only 6 hours later. When she mentioned food, I realized I was starving. Matt was also dying for food, so he went out to fetch some burgers while I laid in my quiet room and bonded with Shelby.
After we ate, the nurse, midwife, and student midwife came back into the room to take Shelby’s stats and to do her newborn exam. She was 6lbs 15.5oz and 19.5″ long. She was also perfectly healthy – what a relief!
Next, the nurse wanted me to try to get up and walk. I felt awesome and needed no help sitting, standing up, or walking to and from the bathroom, though a little soreness had set in and I moved slowly. Once I was settled back into bed we were left alone again for the remainder of our time. It’s amazing to me that during our 6-hour postpartum stay at the center, we had more peace and quiet than we did in the entire 30-hour stay at the hospital with Jasper. The only time we were “interrupted” was when the midwife and student midwife popped in to congratulate us and tell us goodbye before they headed home for the night.
Around midnight the nurse returned to go over our discharge paperwork, and then I cleaned myself up a bit, changed my clothes, and we were ready to go. The nurse walked with us out to our car (I was still shoeless) and we said goodbye and headed home! My parents and Matt’s parents were at our house and Jasper was long asleep. When we arrived I found that my parents had changed the sheets on my bed and had it made up all nice and fresh. I climbed in and everyone had a chance to soak in some brand new baby snuggles before we were left alone for our first night at home.
The next morning when Jasper woke up, Matt brought him down from his bedroom and he climbed in bed with me and got his very first look at his baby sister!
Being a mom is the hardest and most amazing thing I’ve ever done with my life. If someone told me 5 years ago that I would consider “mommy” to be my favorite and most important job title, I would have laughed you down the street. It’s a good life.