Published on July 23rd, 2019 | by Linda Baird1
A Beginner’s Guide to Birth in the Field
You know it’s love when your husband helps tie off your newborn’s cord with his shoelace in the back of your beat-up sedan. Love, and quick thinking.
To his credit, throughout the pregnancy, Chuck had shown his affection in myriad ways, from stocking our apartment with ice cream, to organizing a “babymoon” in Miami, where we brainstormed names for our son while we sipped drinks—mocktails for second trimester me, bourbon for him—and dipped our toes in the infinity pool, planning the future.
Though he wasn’t one to read pregnancy books, a few minutes of Googling led to these ideas about how to support your expectant partner, and Chuck executed them flawlessly. It takes a little more work to learn what to do when said partner gives birth on the highway. And then, you’re unlikely to have the tools on-hand that the internet suggests: rubber gloves, clean towels, a sturdy and sterile clamp. You’ll need to improvise.
Doctors refer to any baby born outside of the hospital as being born “in the field.” The term evokes nature—one imagines a grassy patch to cushion the labor, a brook to bathe in afterwards, birds chirping all the while. But I’m a city girl with a phobia of body fluids, and consequently had no interest in natural settings. Of course, had you asked me during pregnancy, where would you most like to give birth outside of a hospital?, I would have taken a tranquil forest over the backseat of a Honda Civic parked haphazardly on the FDR any day of the week.
But that was not what our baby had in mind, that June day when construction workers narrowed the Brooklyn Bridge entrance ramp to a single lane just as we were pulling onto it, just before our GPS could catch the delay, just in time for us to park there for 45 minutes. It doesn’t sound too long, unless your entire labor is less than three hours. Then 45 minutes changes your life.
I thought we’d done everything right, waiting until rush hour had passed, but still leaving as the contractions began coming five minutes apart, the interval at which doctors recommend going to the hospital. True, in New York City, traffic is a given. But not traffic like this—completely halted, without a shoulder or emergency bypass. Without anywhere to go but forward. Or in our case, nowhere.
Chuck gripped the steering wheel, found a jazz station that didn’t annoy me, promised we’d be moving soon. Our doula sat beside me. I passed the time at first by talking, making up stories between contractions about the cars around us—imagine if someone else were in labor too!—and then, as the pain increased, I stopped. I focused on the immediate: the speed of my breath, the angle of my hips, the staccato notes coming through our speakers. Notice the details, I told myself, forget the pain.
But I couldn’t forget the pain.
They say to walk when you’re in labor. Change positions. Move your body with the pain to overcome the pain. The back of a Honda Civic offers little space for this. I unbuckled my seatbelt, hoisted myself onto my knees, turned around and hugged the headrest behind me. When my voice returned, I used it to scream.
“I feel pressure!” I yelled, and Chuck begged a construction worker to let us pass. Somehow, it became our turn. We accelerated over the water, tourists snapping selfies above us, blissfully unaware of our predicament. As we moved across the bridge, the baby moved too. My water broke with a pop.
I couldn’t forget the pain.
Instead I let it take over, ignored the voice in my head telling me to hold on. Because how could I wait when it felt amazing beneath the pain, a break in the pain, a moment where I was both in complete control and completely lost? With a breath, an involuntary squeeze, I felt him, our future, hanging hard between my legs. That’s when I screamed again.
“I think it’s the head!”
The doula pulled back the waistband of my sweatpants, her gasp confirming what I knew. She tried to turn me onto my back, except that was impossible in the small sedan, so my shoulders pressed against the windows, my knees bent across the back seat, the baby between two worlds. We were nearing the Clinton Street exit when I heard my voice, firm and steady—parental instincts already kicking in—directing Chuck to pull over and call 9-1-1.
Dispatchers need time to find the script for your emergency. So our emergency, clearly stated as, “my wife is giving birth in our car,” was met with a pause. The baby, however, didn’t wait, revealing himself after one more push, falling into our doula’s arms. She laid him on my stomach. I looked at the tiny body resting just outside of where he’d grown with a mix of horror, shock, and love – my body tingled with love – and observed his blue-hued skin coated in vernix, his body unmoving.
“The baby is out!” she yelled, “What do we do?”
The question hung in the air as the dispatcher searched for information. The doula reached forward, flicked the impossibly tiny soles of his feet. He whimpered. It was the first moment I knew my son was alive. We breathed together, the cord connecting us still pulsing.
The cord. That’s what needed attention. “Do you have anything to tie off the cord?” the dispatcher asked. And that’s when it happened: Chuck reached down to his Converse All Star and handed our doula a shoelace. She reached to her sneaker, did the same. Seconds later, she tied the cord with an improvisational sailor’s knot. The dispatcher asked if we had a tool to cut it. We did not. “When will help arrive?” we asked.
The answer was soon. And in true NYC fashion, help arrived dramatically. We are talking fire truck shutting down the highway level drama. We are talking arguing with the EMTs to allow mother and child to ride in the same ambulance level drama. We are talking husband driving our impromptu birthmobile to the hospital with a personal police escort level drama.
Once it was decided the baby and I could travel together, he was placed in my arms in the ambulance, and then promptly removed as, with a final contraction, out came the afterbirth, right into a red biohazard bag. The rest of the drive to the hospital was mercifully uneventful, the ambulance dropping us at the ER alongside people with broken bones and unexplained headaches. My obstetrician examined me there, pronounced me stunned but healthy, and said the baby’s vitals were normal. We moved to recovery, where my son suckled for the first time. Then a nurse announced they had lost the placenta.
Initially, I saw no problem with this. My aversion to body fluids ensured that I had no plans for the organ—the idea of “encapsulation” was as appealing as eating raw poultry, as far as I was concerned. It was bad for the nurses though. Cord blood, they explained, is used for the baby’s initial screenings: blood type, cell counts, abnormalities. Without it, a nurse needed to extract blood from his heel, pricking it over and over. But he was so small, had so little blood available, that she couldn’t draw enough to test. We watched him kick meekly against her as she pricked, again and again. He objected with tiny yelps.
Then the door burst open and yet another nurse walked in holding that familiar red bag high in the air. “They found the placenta!”
Incredibly, there was some debate about this. The nurse with the needle in my son’s heel pointed out there was no chain of custody, that since it had been lost, it was impossible to say definitively that this was in fact my placenta. I gaped at her. “How many placentas do you have lying around the ER?” I asked, postpartum hormones raging. A third nurse opened the bag and laughed. She motioned for Chuck to look inside. “Is that your shoelace?”
With a smile and a nod, he gestured to the empty eyelets on his left shoe. That was good enough for a positive identification—apparently in the ER’s vast placental collection, shoelaces are still a rarity. The nurse stopped pricking, drew the cord blood, and gave our son back to us, leaving us alone as a family for the first time. Chuck and I looked at each other and burst into tears.
The birth certificate we filled out the next day hints at the story. In the field for “place of birth,” there’s a check mark in the box labeled “other,” the blank line next to it filled with the word “car.” The doula’s name occupies the space for birth attendant.
The last thing we added was the name we finally agreed on for our son, one that we had discussed and dismissed in Miami that felt right once more: Elliot. It means “boldly and rightly,” just the way he came to us.