I’m an Irishwoman who lives in America. My first child was born in Texas, and when he was four months old we moved north to a Maryland suburb of Washington DC. When I got pregnant again, 21 months later, several friends and acquaintances in the delightfully slightly-hippie-but-not-snobby town I live in recommended a birth centre about half an hour away. Having had a straightforward hospital birth with no epidural (but some narcotic) the last time, I was ready to try for an unmedicated birth. The centre is a five-minute drive from an excellent hospital, and I trusted the midwives to know in plenty of time if someone would need a transfer in an emergency.
There we were, my two-and-a-half-year-old and I, one afternoon in November, two weeks and two days before my due date. It was election day of 2008, actually, the momentous day when America decided who would replace George W Bush. Monkey was up from his nap and we were lolling on the sofa nursing – I had continued to breastfeed him throughout my pregnancy, mostly because there never seemed to be a good time to stop – before getting round to going out for our usual afternoon jaunt. And suddenly, flub went something wetly in my pants. “Oh wow,” I said, because I knew where this was going. Yes, even though only something like 15 percent of labours actually begin with the melodramatic “and then my waters broke and there was fluid everywhere”, both of mine have done.
Actually, let me back up a little. That morning, something else a mite portentous had happened. I had lost my mucous plug. I don’t remember this happening with my first labour, but this time I was pretty sure what that yellow blob in the loo was. I looked up “mucous plug” images on the web, just to be sure. That was a nice thing to do before breakfast. Anyway, I knew that meant very little beyond that I would have a baby in the next week or two, which I sort of knew anyway, but it was, um, interesting.
So. Back to the sofa. I told Monkey that something had happened and it meant the baby was going to come soon, probably today or tonight. Then I got up and did the same pointless flapping around looking for a pad and a large towel to sit on that I’d done the previous time, except at least it wasn’t two in the morning, and my husband was at work close by, not at a conference two plane rides away. I gave him a ring and mentioned that he might want to pack up and come home and tell them he wouldn’t be back in for two weeks or so. Not that I was having contractions, but I thought they’d probably start soon enough. I also called the birth centre and the midwife said to wait till I was contracting hard, five minutes apart for five minutes each, and then ring again. I also rang my wonderful friend, Alice, who was on babysitting notice for when the baby would be coming. Luckily, she was free to come over with her daughter and hang out and watch Monkey whenever we’d need her.
I languished on the sofa with B’s fancy running watch that has a stopwatch in it, trying to time the contractions – I never had to do that last time, since we were in hospital hooked up to the infernal machine; this was much better
Then I repaired to the sofa. Monkey was looking worried and ominously quiet. I asked him was he okay, and he said, “Giant coming.” He’d been having nightmares about giants lately, and I think it was his psyche manifesting the prospect of the baby as something big and scary. I tried to comfort him and sound as normal as possible. I didn’t really want to nurse him much more in case it made the contractions come too fast, but I did nurse him a bit. We’d cut right back to only mornings, but with so little of my pregnancy left I’d relinquished a bit and let him nurse after his nap or before dinner some times, feeling like we may as well make the most of this time alone together before the baby came.
So B came home and made tea or whatever one does in these situations, and I had some cereal and drank some water and made sure everything was in my bag, and went to bed for a couple of hours. I didn’t sleep, and the contractions started coming slowly but surely, but the rest was good. Still, I didn’t want them to go away entirely, so I got up after a while. I languished on the sofa with B’s fancy running watch that has a stopwatch in it, trying to time the contractions – I never had to do that last time, since we were in hospital hooked up to the infernal machine; this was much better – and leafing through my Ina May Gaskin Midwifery book from the library to get me into the right frame of mind. I didn’t think too much about what was going on, because I wanted to try and string things out till after Monkey’s bedtime, if possible, rather than asking Alice to put him to bed.
Everything, amazingly, went to plan. If I got up and walked around the contractions got stronger, so mostly I just stayed put. They slowly got a bit closer together but not much longer – about 30 seconds each time. Monkey’s bedtime came and he was put to bed with as much normality as possible, and no big promises of a baby tomorrow morning, though we did tell him that Alice might be here when he woke up. Alice arrived at 9pm with her daughter asleep over one shoulder, and we rang the birth centre to say we were on our way, even though the contractions weren’t exactly as hard and fast as they should have been. I felt they’d ramp up once I was in the right place, and I wanted to get there and get things under way rather than hang around the house any longer.
It’s a 30-minute drive, door to door, and by the time we arrived the contractions, while still there, were weaker. The midwife chatted to us, got our info, and then said frankly that I didn’t look as if I was working all that hard, and maybe we’d have to go home and come back in the morning. We explained that our babysitter was in our bed, and we really didn’t want to check into a hotel just for the sake of a few hours. I resolved that the baby was just going to have to hurry itself up and get the show on the road. The midwife said we’d give it an hour or so and sat down to do some paperwork. B installed himself in the kitchen with a fresh paperback. And I started walking the corridors of the empty birth centre, weaving in and out of the rooms, rubbing my nipples shamelessly (feeling a bit of a fool, but I knew there’d be more embarassing things to come if it worked) and thinking good thoughts about wide tunnels and open and down. Every time a contraction came, I tried to loosen my jaw and not clench anything, and think the baby down.
After maybe ten minutes, the contractions really did start to get long and painful. I’d lean over the bedstead or against the wall (where the midwife could see me so she’d know what was going on and banish any more silly notions of sending us away), and I began to wonder how I could possibly have even suggested that my sister-in-law, newly pregnant, should attempt a drug-free labour. It’s one thing to do it to yourself, but to imply that someone else should take on this pain was apalling. I decided I needed to go to the bathroom, and was pleased to see that my body was getting everything out of the way in preparation for the big push – so that hopefully I wouldn’t poo while pushing.
And then something weird happened. I was still sitting there on the loo, unflushed and unwiped, even, and I realised that I was still pushing even though I’d finished what I thought I’d come there to do. And I couldn’t stop it. And it hurt like the bejaysus.
The memory I’ll always keep of my daughter’s birth is that of the quiet house, with just us three in it, the calmness surrounding me as I worked on the contractions, and how lovely it was afterwards in contrast to the hustle and bustle of a hospital.
The second time it happened, I think I managed to get a quick wipe in there, and I yelled in a strangulated sort of way for the midwife. My husband came and hovered outside the door – we’re not open-door pee-ers in our family. I said “Come in!” and “Get Maggie!” and saw the midwife walking calmly by pulling on some latex gloves. She probably thought that since I seemed to be definitely in labour it might be time to check how dilated I was (since my waters had broken, she hadn’t checked me when I arrived as that would make me susceptible to infection if the labour didn’t progress right then).
There I was, still trapped on the blasted toilet, in agony, and nobody seemed to realise what was happening. “I’m pushing!” I finally wailed, as it really seemed that this was not transition, as I had thought might account for the awful pain, but the actual real deal. This time both B and Maggie looked down, where modesty had prevented them looking before, and there was a head, crowning.
“Scoot forward,” said Maggie, holding out her hands, I managed to move myself so that our daughter wasn’t born straight into the porcelain, and with one almighty push she came out. Maggie said, “Lift up your shirt” – so much for the clothes I’d brought “to labour in” and the nightdresses I’d brought “for delivery” – I was still wearing the tracksuit bottoms and red shirt I’d shown up in, and I believe I still had my knickers round my ankles – and she put a pinky-grey, writhing, alive, slippy tiny baby on my tummy. “I think it’s a girl,” said B. “Is it a girl, really?” I asked, and Maggie confirmed that it was.
I got myself from the bathroom to the bed holding my daughter to me, umbilical cord still attached, and she latched straight on to the breast with no difficulty. After a while, B got to cut the cord and my placenta was delivered with a little yank on the cord and a little push from me. They rubbed the vernix into the baby’s soft, soft skin and put on the obligatory hat.
A little later on, while we three were cosying up in bed and discussing names (B had only made it to the B’s in the girls’ names side of the book) the midwife and the nurse looked in to tell us that John McCain had conceeded and Barack Obama was going to be the new president. We decided not to name the baby Obama, but were very pleased all the same.
We went home the same night, as per birthing center policy. They only keep you 4-6 hours after delivery, and she had been born at 10.22pm. It would have been nice to just go to sleep where we were, but the nurse wanted to get home too, and I was clearly recovering well and had no need of a longer stay. I had no tearing (hooray!) and my bleeding was very manageable, and the baby was just perfect. We turfed poor Alice out of our bed, climbed in, and Monkey got to wake up the next morning to find a new baby sister had sneaked in overnight.
The birthing center experience was wonderful for me – certainly helped by my ridiculously quick delivery, and we didn’t even get to use the birthing pool we’d requested. The memory I’ll always keep of my daughter’s birth is that of the quiet house, with just us three in it, the calmness surrounding me as I worked on the contractions, and how lovely it was afterwards in contrast to the hustle and bustle of a hospital. Labouring at home earlier in the day was also wonderful – everyone who says “Stay at home as long as possible” is right. And I’m now a firm believer in the power of Ina May Gaskin’s visualization techniques, and recommend them to every pregnant woman I meet.
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