I’d read all the books, perfected my low squat, taken epic walks every day, and could write Happy Birthday on my vaginal walls with my Kegel muscles (it’s a thing). For months, I’d peed with the bathroom door wide open, to rid myself of body modesty. My labor was going to be quick — orgasmic even. I would have to hide my smugness when I spoke about it, remember not to brag, try not to judge others (they must not have done enough prenatal yoga!)
I really believed this. So, um… my bad.
A week past my due date and no signs of labor, my husband Charles drove us 40 minutes away to the Sequim Lavender Festival. It was a sunny Saturday, and we first stopped to let our little dog Lupin run around. It was there, at the Sequim dog park, that I felt my first real contraction. I felt it in my back, not even painful, just very noticeable. I giggled and told Charles (and some dog park strangers) but assured him it was probably nothing. Except, then it happened again. And again.
“Should we race home?” Charles asked, giddy, but clearly deferring to me.
I knew labor can last a long time, and we’d come all this way, so I said, “Let’s go on to the festival.”
We picked some lavender, watched live music, ate falafel, all with our ecstatic secret — we were going to have a baby! Like… today? We got back in our ’82 Civic (with the car seat in the back) and drove home, timing my contractions with the car’s clock. Numbers don’t lie, but I still kept saying, “Well, I don’t know,” while Charles insisted that, since they were coming every 5 to 15 minutes now, this was really happening.
For the first time, we called the midwives’ labor/emergency phone number. It was 6 pm, and midwife Kathy told me, “I know you don’t want to hear this, but….” The chances of the baby popping out that very night were so slim that my priority should actually be to rest. She said, “Drink half a glass of wine, take a bath, go to bed.” Labor would pick right back up tomorrow.
Sleeping sounded like a joke, but I agreed the baby probably wasn’t coming that night. My bath was really enjoyable, with the all-consuming excitement of labor, taking some time to just be quiet and alone with my baby still inside of me.
I did sleep, but strange sleep, with vivid dreams squeezed in between contractions, which came every 6 minutes. I would wake to one — painful now, but manageable — lying on my side, and press my hands to the small of my back, trying to ease the pain. As each one ended, I would peek at our clock radio, note the time, then instantly pass out again, wake to another, check the clock — yep, 6 minutes — over and over, deliriously, all night. I knew these respites shouldn’t be long enough to dream… and yet.
Sunday morning, Charles made me pancakes, by request, and started setting up the rented birthing tub. It’s hard to remember how this day passed, this day that I was sure would be my baby’s birthday. I know we walked to the beach. I baked chocolate chip cookies, as the midwives had eagerly suggested.
And sometime in the late afternoon, Kathy said it again: “Try to relax, have some wine, get some sleep; you’re not having this baby tonight.”
Sleep sounded impossible this time; how had a whole day gone by with no progress? Contractions came every 4 to 10 minutes, but they weren’t getting any closer together.
I got my little glass of wine, but rather than a bath, we watched a movie on our projector screen: Noah. Random, but what exactly is the proper movie choice while in labor? I lay on my side on a mattress in the living room and enjoyed the movie, though I zoned out a lot. Toward the end, there’s a birth scene. She screams for half a second, then the baby’s there. Birth is so easy!
I slept, repeatedly waking for contractions again, but avoiding the clock this time. Just after sunrise, Monday morning, I got off the mattress and walked toward the bathroom — was I peeing a little? Despite my very pregnant state, this was not normal. Naked, I stood in the bathroom, with the door open, liquid just pouring out.
“Look, Hon. Look, it’s still happening! I really don’t think I’m peeing myself!”
My water was broken! Midwife Melanie was already scheduled to come at 11 am, so I tried to get more sleep.
My contractions slowed when she arrived, which was frustrating; I wanted her to see the full intensity of my labor. She took my vitals but, since my water had broken, we skipped the internal exam to minimize infection risk. Hospitals try to ensure birth happens within 24 hours of water breaking, so I felt thankful to be at home, where no one was pushing a timeline. Still, I couldn’t imagine trying to sleep through contractions for another night, so I asked what I could do to really get things going.
Melanie told me about castor oil, that it won’t start labor if your body’s not ready, but if you’re already there, it will give you that push to make it really happen. She made sure I knew what taking castor oil would really be like, but my mind was made up — let’s get this baby out!
As soon as she left, Charles ran to the store for castor oil and chocolate coconut-milk ice cream. At 1 pm, I mixed some together and ate it. I was committed. The unfortunate side effects started quickly (although, honestly, speeding up labor is the side effect. Totally vacating your digestive system is the main effect). Luckily, I had baby wipes and diaper balm on hand.
By 2 pm, my contractions were only 3 minutes apart. This meant only 2 minutes of recovery between each 1-minute contraction. Charles spent each recovery period writing the time, then filling the tub; during each contraction, he would press hard on my lower back, usually in small circles. I must’ve been barking at him to rub at exactly the right spot/pressure/speed, but he understood I was too far-gone for niceties.
Since nothing felt good — there were just different levels of coping — I tried different positions. Charles spooning me sounded good in theory, but it wasn’t right. Mostly, when a contraction came over me, I would dive to my knees, bent over our couch, with my face stuffed into a big pillow. Already, time had stopped existing; I worked on instinct, and I only know how far apart my contractions were because of Charles’ documentation.
Throughout pregnancy, I’d searched for an adequate description of how contractions feel; everybody talks about them but no one explains. Sure, I’d read they were like “intense period cramps,” but that couldn’t be right; period cramps suck, but they don’t cause you to hold your partner’s hand while screaming, “You did this to me!” Of course, I didn’t trust that TV portrayal of labor anyway.
Toward the end of the movie, there’s a birth scene. She screams for half a second, then the baby’s there. Birth is so easy!
I preferred the birth stories in Ina May’s books; contractions were rushes, waves crashing, and I could either fight them and be pulled underwater, or I could let myself drift with the current. I loved this metaphor; I spent most of my labor visualizing them this way.
But, I made the mistake of thinking that “not fighting” the rushes meant letting myself feel them as painfully as possible; I thought that if I tried to relax my body, my cervix wouldn’t open — that I could only progress by embracing ultimate pain. Two days into labor, I finally asked Kathy, on the phone, if “not fighting” meant relaxing or not relaxing; I had to ask a few times before she even understood the question, because it was so obvious to her — try to relax! By the time I gained this wisdom, relaxing felt impossible.
Okay, so what do contractions really feel like? Well, now I forgive the vagueness. Part of it is the amnesia that follows the experience — why would anyone ever give birth again if they could viscerally remember how it felt? But even at the time, when I tried to tell Charles, to tell myself, what I was feeling, words were inadequate.
I definitely had back labor, which, while not rare, isn’t the norm. Yet, back pain — forcing me into one position, while my husband pushed circles into my lower back just so — tormented me with the fear that labor was actually irreparably damaging me, that I’d never be able to walk again. So without the back labor, what is there? Maybe “intense period cramps” were hitting me in the front all along, and they just didn’t register because of my back pain.
Contractions were rushes, waves crashing, and I could either fight them and be pulled underwater, or I could let myself drift with the current.
Okay, so time — who knows? At some point, Charles finished filling the tub. I got in, and it felt glorious. I mean, still more pain than any person should ever feel, but such an improvement. But, as a result, my rushes stopped coming so close together. Reluctantly, I got out of the tub, and they were soon back to 3 minutes apart.
Charles took a video at 7 pm of a contraction. There, on the table, is a tower of sushi. Charles had been making sushi. Apparently. While I was in very active labor. He had never been more than a few steps from me and had somehow (hands covered in sticky rice?) managed to rub my back for each rush; then he’d slice and roll up some tofu, avocado and carrot. I was too far gone to notice, and I think his sushi is proof that he was in an altered state as well.
I called Kathy, because here it was night again, and I was dying to know how many centimeters dilated I was. That’s how all the birth stories go — things feel more intense, midwife checks: Yup, you’re 5 cm now! More intensity. 7 cm! — but my dilation hadn’t been checked once. She reminded me that, since my water had broken, internal exams would introduce infection risk, so there was no point in coming. But she asked to listen to some contractions over speakerphone.
I felt totally self-conscious, knowing she would hear my moaning over the phone. I just wanted her to come. After an excruciating half hour, she said, “Yes, 3 minutes apart. Call me when something changes.”
When something changes? But… but…?
Just before midnight we called again. By we, I mean Charles, because there was no way I could deal with a phone. I heard the conversation on speaker: “Um, she’s sort of freaking out.”
“Yeah,” he said, and laughed nervously, like you might do at a funeral. He didn’t elaborate, and again Kathy said call if anything changed.
I was not sort of freaking out; I was terribly, horribly, no good, very badly freaking out. I felt abandoned by the midwives. I could not understand why they weren’t there, and I told Charles we were going to have to deliver this baby ourselves. He told me, if that was the case, that he would be seriously pissed at them forever, but that he had a feeling that they would redeem themselves by the end. Their redemption did not interest me. They weren’t there. They were never coming. Even if they came, I would not trust them.
I was exhausted. In the tub, with my hands and head over the rim, I kept passing out between rushes — apparently even giggling during these unconscious respites, though immediately forgetting the hallucinations my mind escaped to for 30 seconds or less.
I know now that I was experiencing transition — the beyond-intense time when your cervix is dilating from 8 to the final 10 cm. But without an internal exam, I didn’t know. Was something wrong? Or, was I just a huge wimp who was only 3 cm but couldn’t handle it?
Just before 1 am, I was in the tub when my lower abdomen started hurting intensely. Terrifyingly, this new front pain was constant — even between contractions — and my positions for back pain relief made the front pain unbearable.
“Tell the midwives to come now!”
Midwife Melanie arrived first, 20 minutes after he called. She hadn’t heard the previous calls, so I didn’t blame her for not being there sooner. Kathy arrived very soon after; she was dead to me.
“Can you please, please tell me how many centimeters I am?”
“I think you’ve earned it.” — Kathy put on gloves and checked me — “8–9 cm.”
I felt a combination of thank you and I told you so.
I had read that transition was supposed to last 15 minutes to 1 ½ hours, so I knew it must be ending. I was almost there! I could relax into this realization, could be strong just a little longer. The push urge would overcome me any minute now, and the hardest part would be over.
So… that’s not what happened.
Long before getting pregnant, Charles and I did (way too many) mushrooms together in this house. I was lying on our deck, in the bright sunlight, when they kicked in fast, and the first place my mind went was to an infinite stream of women giving birth, stretching from me up past the sun. It gave me a feeling of eternal feminine strength, and was the high point of an experience mostly defined by the “understanding” that nothing would ever be good again.
Possibly all rite-of-passage rituals come from this one natural (and before modern science, unavoidable) altered state. Is childbirth the original ceremony?
Well, that’s what labor was like. Time didn’t exist; there was throwing up (in our favorite mixing bowl), a lot of shivering, and an inability to focus on anything around me. I have an image (just like when I did mushrooms) of Lupin-dog staring at me, and me realizing I could not be there for him, because time didn’t exist, but he somehow still existed in a world with time.
Hours passed. In and out of the tub, shaking with chills as they helped me into my robe and socks, then often keeling over, just one sock on, to have a contraction, then feeling so feverishly hot that the half-on clothes had to come right off, inconceivable pain when I would sit on the toilet to pee, then back to the tub, more 30-second fever dreams perched at the edge.
“My cervix is melting away. My cervix is melting away.” Apparently, I’d been repeating “I’m dying I’m dying I’m dying,” so they gave me this new mantra.
Finally I asked what was going on. Kathy checked me again and said there was just a little lip of cervix. In birth stories, midwives use their hands to move the lip out of the way, so I asked for that. Did she say yes? I think she just laughed.
A birth stool appeared. Despite all my yoga, I’d forgotten about squatting. I sat on the stool, found that I was a little short for it, so we put pillows under my feet. My cervix is melting away. My cervix is melting away. Apparently, I’d been repeating I’m dying I’m dying I’m dying, so they gave me this new mantra.
Even better was when Melanie answered my “I can’t do this,” with, “You are doing it.” Whoa. This felt so very profound and gave me a power boost to keep going.
Now that I think of it, maybe one or both of them was also putting their fingers in me to peel the cervical lip out of the way while I pushed? I know I asked for that, but all my memories of the midwives are things they said, not things they did.
Anyway, the way the birth stool works is you sit on it and push. There’s no actual seat, so if a baby comes out, they can catch it. I held on to the sides, and at the start of each contraction, I inhaled, then held that breath, pulling up with my arms and pushing out through my bottom. So it was not just the disposable pads below me, but also our new white pillows, that I splattered with blood and bits of poop, and not only did I not care; I didn’t even notice.
Holding my breath seemed counterintuitive, but once I got the hang of it, I understood. The breath filled me, worked to push the baby down. Soon, I was getting 3, then 4, pushes out of each contraction, putting all my strength into each one, all the while my arms and legs shaking.
People talk about birth being painful, and it is — oh, it really, really is — but the challenge isn’t just to cope with pain; it’s to use every ounce of strength and willpower, to think you have nothing left but to somehow find more, and more.
I had read not to push before the urge, because you could tire yourself out that way. I knew I definitely did not have the urge, and that I was already over-tired, but I had to do something to get that baby out, and I couldn’t imagine what I’d be doing if I wasn’t pushing.
Kathy smiled and told me to reach my hand inside myself.
So much hair!
After every contraction I would feel again, and there was that hairy head, but no apparent progress. The baby moved down when I pushed, then right back up, undoing the progress. Kathy told me I would only be able to notice the progress if I stopped feeling for it every single time.
“How many more pushes?” I asked, so deliriously happy.
“275,” she said. An obvious joke. (Right?)
I got into the tub. I asked Charles, “Wanna get in with me?”
“Nah, I’m okay,”
“WHAT? I’M NOT ASKING! GET IN!”
And there it was — the urge!!! Actually feeling it confirmed for me that I had definitely not felt it at all previously. Having recently thrown up until there was nothing left in me, I recognized this feeling as the same, but repeatedly throwing down instead of throwing up. My body was unconsciously throwing down, and while I was certainly experiencing it, I was not making a decision to do it. The urge made me so happy.
In the tub, Charles got behind me; he sat back against the wall of the tub, and I leaned back onto him, resting my head on his shoulder and letting the rest of my body float. My legs were up like in gynecological stirrups, and I gripped the back of my thighs with my hands. Now, when a contraction was coming, I let Charles know, and together, we would take a big breath in and hold. I would pull my thighs in while Charles pushed down from the top of my baby bump.
The midwives listened to the baby’s heartbeat with the waterproof Doppler. It was so hard for me to hold still while they found the right spot under the water, so once I understood where they needed to put it, I just grabbed it myself and held it there. They joked that I was almost ready to be a midwife. They listened to the heartbeat more and more often now, to see if this long labor was taking a toll on my little one, but the heartbeat stayed steady.
Sometimes the push urge would make me roll onto my front, and I would push away to the front of the tub to lean over it and have my throwing down pushes; mostly it seemed right to lean back into my husband. Somehow, I continued to do this after hours of feeling overwhelmed, and I felt now, his arms around me, massaging my breasts, then breathing and pushing with me during each contraction, that he was lending me his energy as well, that I didn’t have enough left in me to do it alone, but that together we could. He insists that, while it’s sweet that I feel that way, that I was definitely just using my own strength for it, but that was not my experience.
I actually pictured the Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode where Giles, Willow and Xander magically join their psyches with Buffy’s to invoke the powers of the slayer lineage, so she could be even more powerful than she had been alone. This image merged with my mushroom hallucination of the infinite line of women giving birth.
I also pictured I was at a carnival, swinging the strongman mallet (Step right up!), that each push used all my strength, and yet my goal was to keep getting the puck just a little bit higher the next time.
Baby’s head was getting further down, and without being told to, I started holding my labia open during pushes to make it easier for the baby to get just a little further.
One of the midwives grabbed a mirror so we could see the head coming out. Charles looked, but there was no way I could focus on a mirror. What would a mirror possibly tell me I that I couldn’t feel for myself? The baby was more present than ever with me — the head poking through, my hands peeling myself open to let it out.
I had read to go slowly during this part, so as not to tear, but I was just so eager; I continued to do anything I could to get that head out. And, many pushes later (literally 275, as Kathy had estimated), the whole head was out. I felt such bliss just then. I asked, “Just wait for the next contraction and then push out the body, right?”
This was the easiest push, and suddenly a baby was on my chest; I leaned back into Charles, and our new family cuddled together there in the water. Eyelashes were the first thing I noticed. Long, gorgeous eyelashes. I didn’t notice the extreme conehead, the product of a long labor, that big head molding to my small opening to make its way out. I noticed blue-tinted skin and vernix, but I had read to expect that, so I didn’t worry. This baby of mine cried a beautiful, snotty cry, and that didn’t worry me either, not even when they put a respirator to my baby’s mouth.
We waited to clamp the cord until it stopped pulsing, but the cord was so short. The baby’s head just barely reached above the water, and when I tried to lift it higher, it was very uncomfortable to feel the tugging on the cord and placenta inside of me. Charles of course couldn’t feel this, so he kept telling me to lift the baby up.
The taut cord went right between the baby’s legs, so we didn’t know the sex until we cut the cord. Ten minutes? Longer?
I must admit, the vulva was a happy surprise. My little baby would probably have the option to birth a baby too, and so that psychedelic line of women giving birth stretched the other direction now. My thoughts were of this, and of her eyelashes.
Charles says he felt like a new person had just entered the room, and not through a door. But I’d felt her moving in me for so many months, then felt her dancing her way out, felt her hairy little head for hours — she was present with me for so long that she didn’t feel new at all.
I tried to nurse immediately, but it was difficult because of the short cord, and I didn’t get a latch right away. We’d watched a video in our hospital birth class about self-directed nursing, where the new baby just shimmies up to your breast, but that sort of magic did not happen for us.
I wish I’d known more and tried harder to get her to latch right away. It probably would not have made any difference in my long struggle to produce enough milk (because of a breast reduction surgery), but it is a regret, one I’m working to forgive myself for.
Was I holding her when I pushed out the placenta? I must have been, but I don’t see her there in my memory of reaching down to what I thought was the placenta, only to pick up a handful of blood clots. It was only then that I realized the tub, clear until I pushed her out, was now a dark witch’s brew of blood, and apparently meconium. I pushed again, and the placenta slid out easily. Melanie put it in a container so someone could encapsulate it for me.
We spent the rest of our golden hour in bed with her, skin-to-skin-to-skin. The midwives had put down disposable pads on my side of the mattress; I didn’t know why, but I found out when I got up; there was a lot of blood coming out of me.
Charles stayed in bed with the baby while Melanie helped me into the shower to rinse off my bottom half. I got light-headed, which she said was normal. She told me to try to pee. I thought try was a funny way to put it, until I did try and found that I couldn’t. Everything down there was so swollen and numb that I really could not pee — or even tell if I needed to pee. She told me I could try again later, and they wouldn’t leave until I peed. There was plenty for them to do in the meantime, as they cleaned up everything, including draining the tub into our yard, where a pile of blood clots impressed grossed-out visitors for days.
I lay back down with my baby and husband, and he told me if I was hungry, the plate of sushi should be right there on my side of the bed. That’s when we realized that 15-pound Lupin-dog had tried to eat his weight in sushi. There were only three pieces left, which made the random sushi-making even more bizarre and funny to me. We did still have a tiny birthday cake I’d baked/frozen for this moment. I was very hungry and I devoured my slice.
I took some ibuprofin for the pain, actually forgetting that I was allergic to it. My face swelled up, so I didn’t take anything else for the pain after that first day. And oh, there was pain. Amazingly, my perineum didn’t tear, but it was crazy down there: lacerations inside my labia minora (did I do that with my own fingernails?) that took weeks to heal.
And possibly worse than that was the soreness in my arms. Their range of motion was severely limited for the next week, and it was very difficult to get in and out of bed with a sore bottom and weak, useless arms.
Still, I felt so thankful that I had been able to give birth at home. If we’d gone to a hospital, I would’ve accepted any intervention offered, because I truly felt, “I can’t do this. I can’t do this. I can’t do this.”
If this had been answered with anything other than Melanie’s, “You are doing it,” if anyone had said, “Do you need to take something?” or “We need to get this baby out now,” if anyone had confirmed my fears, there is no way I would have argued and said, “No, I’m fine. I want a natural birth.”
I wasn’t fine. But I did want a natural birth. And these knowledgeable midwives, by trusting in women, by trusting in me, were able to give me that.
So, yes, Kathy was redeemed in my mind. I thought they were showing up too late, but with little Tzivia Fritzi born Tuesday at 10:42 am, they were actually there with us for over 9 hours of labor, plus the hours afterwards of cleanup and checkup.
I’d felt her moving in me for so many months, then felt her dancing her way out, felt her hairy little head for hours — she was present with me for so long that she didn’t feel new at all.
They weighed her in a little cloth hammock scale: 7 pounds. Smallish, though her head, even after being slowly forced into a cone, was average: 35 cm. Why was labor so long, so hard? When Melanie came for a postpartum home visit, I asked her. And she told me:
At my very first internal exam, they observed that my pelvic opening was tiny and there was a good chance I would end up in a hospital. The three of them, without me, discussed what to do: Do we tell her this and probably psyche her out, or do we keep it a secret and give her a chance to labor at home? They decided, because I wanted a homebirth so badly, not to tell me.
“With your pelvis, giving birth to a 7-pound baby was harder than for most women to give birth to a 10-pound one.”
Melanie said this, and I wrote it down. I found it very emotionally helpful in the months to come, when multiple people said, “Oh, 7 pounds! Lucky you!”
I am happy with their choice to keep it secret, because they were right: If they had given me an ounce of doubt about the capability of my body to give birth, I would have ended up in the hospital. Our culture instills that doubt. The stories in Ina May’s books, while sometimes rose-colored, try to dismantle that doubt, to remind us how strong we are.
I felt more powerful after that birth than I had ever felt before. Despite my physical exhaustion and weakness, I had just scaled Everest and lived to tell the tale.
People talk about birth being painful, and it is — oh, it really, really is — but the challenge isn’t just to cope with pain; it’s to use every ounce of strength and willpower, to think you have nothing left but to somehow find more, and more.
Possibly all rite-of-passage rituals come from this one natural (and before modern science, unavoidable) altered state. Is childbirth the original ceremony? And if we try to opt out of the intensity, due to pain or fear — or misinformation or societal pressure or a lack of support — are we missing out on something huge?
Tzivia’s growing up, and she shocks me daily with her boundless creativity and empathy. She made me a picture of sparkly hearts stuck to red construction paper and asked me to hang it on the living room wall. She invented a ritual where she leads me to it, to the spot, the spot where she was born, and asks to sit in my lap. Then she points at her art and says, “Mama, hearts mean I love you.” That feeling is worth any kind of pain, worth climbing a mountain for.