Published on December 15th, 2017 | by Julia Whitehouse0
Shared Labor: A Birth Story
When I told my husband, Ben, that I wanted to have a home birth with a midwife and a doula he said that whatever made me comfortable, he was on board. I am a “cross that bridge when we come to it” kind of person, so I had a lot of research to do when I got pregnant. I surprised myself when I started leaning towards birth at home because, prior to my research, I figured it was only the choice of dreadlocked white women who make their own yogurt and work at vegetable co-ops in Brooklyn.
Then I saw a video of a regular looking man holding his regular looking partner from behind as she labored in a regular looking apartment (regular, save for the adult size inflatable pool of water in the middle of the tiny living room). They were breathing together and humming and it looked so romantic and simple. I have never had an emergency that meant I had to go to a hospital. The only time I have been to a hospital was when my mother had a stroke and my friend was run over by a subway car. Going to a hospital to give birth suddenly seemed scary and unnecessary. It occurred to me that my husband and I made this baby together in our home, we could bring it into the world together in that same home.
My certified nurse midwife, Cara, suggested that Ben and I take a natural birth class that focuses on the Bradley Method, the partner-supported natural birth. Ben and I love taking classes and meeting new people. We met doing improv, after all. The teacher, Mary Esther, was a beautiful woman with long, flowing hair and a soft voice, whom you can tell used to be a dancer because all of her movements are graceful like she is the embodiment of the word radiance. AND she can sit on her knees for a long time and that’s not something normal people can do.
Twelve couples gathered twice a week in a room that smelled like a frequently used gymnastic room at the Y on 14th Street. We put our shoes in kid cubbies inside the door and sat in a circle on the feety mats and pillows, an environment that totally matched the way pregnant couples feel at the end of the day in August. Everyone was there to learn how to pant and visualize through the enormous pain of labor, with a variety of commitment levels. One couple was always late and whispered to each other constantly. One woman only asked questions about vaginal tearing while her husband sneaked looks at his phone beside his lap. Another fellow giggled nervously whenever he was asked a question. However, most of the people were soon-to-be parents just like Ben and me; couples in love, interested in the process and excited to start a family. There was only one other couple that was planning a home birth and admittedly, this made me feel like I was in the cool crowd, especially since she was beautiful, had a great sense of style, and seemed wise.
We did exercises where we learned how we dealt with pain management by putting ice on our wrists and necks whilst maintaining our breathing and counting. I kept thinking, “I ran the NYC marathon, I know how to deal.” We talked about the history of birth in our own families. My mother had given birth in hospitals. Ben’s mother had wanted to have a home birth but was not allowed because she was near the “scary age” of 40 when she had her children. We discussed our birth plans and our patient rights. We learned the stages of labor and acted them out to memorize and recognize them: Early labor can last for a while and is filled with excitement and smiles, then the contractions are more significant and the mother may get serious and want the lights turned low, then comes the transition when clothes come off, contractions get closer together and more intense and then the pushing, then the ring of fire (when the membranes are pulling apart as the head comes through and you may experience an intense burning sensation), then the baby comes out. And just when you think everything in you is out, 15-20 minutes later, the uterus contracts and behold the placenta!
In one of the last classes, we talked about our fears. Mary Esther had us close our eyes and think of the worst thing we could think of happening, our greatest fear for the birth of our child. Then we were to open our eyes and draw ourselves handling this, our greatest fear. Ben is a skilled graphic designer so I knew he was going to excel at this exercise. My fear was that I would have unnecessary surgery: the baby would take too long to come out and the doctors would perform a C-section and then I would have a big gross scar. So I drew a silly little figure, smiling with arms akimbo in a sports bra and a gash across her middle. I was finishing doodling in the hair when I sensed movement next to me. Ben was shaking and silently crying, tears pouring out of his face. I looked down at his picture. His drawing depicted the bottom half of a face speaking into an ear, with a speech bubble that read “I’ll love you forever, I’ll take care of our daughter.”
I realized that he has just drawn a picture of him dealing with me dying. I drew a scar on my tummy and his greatest fear is me dead.
I was stunned. Almost six years together and eight months of carrying our child and I had not taken into account that Ben would carry fears too.
The morning of Tuesday, October 11th, I had a sonogram appointment on the East Side because I was nearing 42 weeks. I walked through Central Park amongst the early morning runners, mentally greeting them as I walked slowly, taking in New York in autumn.
After a stone-faced technician did the sonogram, wordlessly taking pictures of my insides, I was ushered into the doctor’s office and before I could sit down he asked me where my hospital was, because “We have to get this baby out today.”
“Er, um, I’m doing a home birth.” I stuttered.
He said, “I am trying to get in touch with your midwife, but I can’t reach her. Your birth needs to be monitored. Your amniotic fluid is low, your baby is small, and your placenta is old, we gotta get this baby out.”
Fighting the constriction in my throat, I asked: “Is this an emergency?”
He said, “No, but it’s emergent.”
I asked if I am allowed to leave and he said: “Yes, but…”
And I said: “Goodbye.”
In retrospect, I’m sure the doctor thought that I was some kooky character trying to avoid hospitals at all costs, making a political statement with my birth, shouting behind picket lines “HOME BIRTH OR STILL-BIRTH!” But I didn’t know how to explain to him a thing I did not even have the strength to draw. Because at night when I couldn’t fall asleep and the baby wasn’t moving, because she was sleeping, despite my completely healthy pregnancy, I wondered if I was carrying a dead baby. I wondered how long it would be before I would try having another baby? How long before I stopped screaming? Before I let my husband touch me again? I wanted to tell this doctor that I did not need help scaring myself, but I also did not want to tell him how to do his job. I knew I could be monitored by my midwife, I trusted I could be safe at home.
I saved my tears until I got out of the building and called Ben to cry, “I don’t want to be scared, I want to trust my body like I’d been doing for 9 months.”
I had no trouble reaching my midwife and within two hours she was at my apartment. She did a cervix sweep, told me I was already dilated, and instructed me on how to make a castor oil milkshake. First labors usually take at least 10-12 hours, so she said she would return a little later in the evening after I had had the magical milkshake which would make my body eliminate everything from poop to the baby. Ben got home from work around 6 pm. We blended up castor oil, almond milk, Trader Joe’s speculoos ice cream, and a shot of vodka (to relax me), prepped the bed with plastic for the imminent water breaking and assorted birth juices, and laid down to rest. I could not get comfortable, kept having to pee and felt a minor round sensation, not unlike cramps and around 7 pm I thought, “Ohh, these might be the contractions.”
Ben timed the contractions and in the space of 2 and ½ hours I go from “La la la these might be contractions” 7 minutes apart to “CONNNNNN-TRAAAAAC-TIOOOOOOOOONS” on top of each other crashing waves with no space in between the churning force within me. I had no sense of time while Ben and I walked around the apartment, him backward and me hanging on him stepping as though through the air without gravity.
The contractions only seemed impossible and neverending when I looked away from Ben, so I kept my eyes locked on his eyes. I suggested he eat something since we were at the beginning of labor so he put some leftover pasta in the microwave. Suddenly I was vomiting. Then I was pooping. Then I was vomiting and pooping, all the while looking into Ben’s eyes. He held a basin for me to vomit in and made sure I was hydrated with water and Gatorade from the multiple hydration stations we had set up like we were holding a mini-marathon in our living room. The beeping reminder “Your food is ready” from the microwave punctuated the rest of the labor since he was never again able to leave my side.
Thinking we had at least 10 more hours to go, I sat on the toilet and leaning against the wall, looked up at Ben and said: “I’ve got to get better at this.” One-half hour later, I ripped off all my clothes and climbed into the bathtub (it was the one thing in the apartment I had not cleaned). With one hand Ben was on the phone with the midwife as she maneuvered traffic on the FDR and with the other hand he was palming the top of the baby’s head between my legs. Every muscle in my body was working without my control, trying to get a baby out. And then Ben told me to “Blow him over” with the word “Fuuuu” to redirect the desire to hunker down and push before the midwife could arrive. Fuuu, fuuu, fuuuuuuuu. I didn’t know who I was anymore. All I wanted to do was push, but it was just me and Ben and a dirty bathtub. It was the intimate birth I wanted, but I did not want us to be alone! And then suddenly the midwife appeared. I whelped “What should I do?!” Calmly, she knelt next to me checking the baby’s heartbeat and said: “Push.”
Two contractions later the baby was born. Three and a half hours, start to finish.
I gave birth to a baby faster than I ran the NYC Marathon.
I will never forget the moment a skinny grayish purple creature came out of my body and was put into my arms and I looked at Ben, his face, the relief and joy looking at his new family, naked in a bathtub half filled with water and bloody bits of birth. Of course, our labor was scary. Of course, our labor was lucky. Every birth is lucky and scary. We had never experienced birth before, were alone for most of it, and everything happened so fast. I do not think that it negates my personal female experience to say that it was an amazing birth because of my partner. We were together, we were prepared, and we were so busy trusting my body that we didn’t have time to entertain our fears. We just did the work of labor, riding the great waves of painful sensation together.
Our baby has reached her first birthday and as I look back on the year of unexpected and scary moments we have had together alone since her birth, I am thankful. However you decide to cross that bridge, whether you have your babies in dirty bathtubs or pristine birthing centers or emergent emergency rooms, I wish all mothers and fathers the same feeling of shared accomplishment, embracing the fear, and laboring with love together.