It has taken me close to six months to complete your birth story. I won't lie and tell you it was for lack of time. Lord knows, I spend plenty of it sewing and browsing Pinterest. It's an emotional day to go back to and I could only manage to write little bits at a time.
Everyone said I would just know when it was real labor. And I believed them. After all, eight months earlier, I just knew that I was pregnant before ever taking a test. When that second line appeared it only confirmed what I knew in my bones; I was pregnant. But when labor does come just a few hours after my 40week appointment with the midwife, my intuition is not quite as keen. I spend a restless evening and then a sleepless night riding contractions that still seem not much stronger than the Braxton Hicks contractions I’ve been experiencing for weeks. At some point in the night things ramp up and I am jolted out of my shallow sleep with every contraction. Still I am skeptical. It is only when I barely make it into the bathroom and vomit into the sink, that I finally admit this is it. Our baby is coming!
Noah, the midwife, calls in the morning and tells us that we should have her come over as soon as managing the labor becomes a three-person job. In the hours Rob and I spend alone before the she comes I discover that nothing I had planned for sounds appealing. Forget the birth music I chose. I only want silence. With every contraction I tell Rob to put pressure on my lower back, but it only seems to dampen the pain. Finally Rob needs to fill the birth tub, a job that would have been infinitely easier hadwe been able to hook up a hose in the house. But instead Rob has to fill it with hot water by hand so we tell Noah to come over now and Mary, my best friend, to come over too.
I am lying on the couch when Noah arrives; staring outside at the brightest February morning I have ever seen. I always thought it would rain on the day my daughter was born. Once again, I surrender to the element of surprise.
When Mary finally gets there I am tucked away somewhere inside myself. In retrospect I realize this is the closest I ever got to that dreamy state known as “Laborland”. Mary’s loud and cheerful voice only pisses me off. Doesn’t she know that I just want quiet? But how could she? Only last night we ate dinner and laughed through my contractions. Only last week we rummaged through her CD collection for powerhouse birth music.
With Noah’s hands on the small of my back, primed for action, and Mary stroking my feet, I dive into a contraction. I learn to distract myself from the pain through Non-Focused Awareness. My mind skates from the sounds of construction outside to the brush of skin against skin to the blinding yellow of Mary’s daffodils. But I only skim the surface of the sensations; each one is given its due, before I move fluidly to the next.
“As soon as you can, soften to the sensation. Soften your hands, your back, your belly,” Noah says. The pain drains from my body as the contraction ends. My cheeks are on fire and I can hardly catch my breath. I hear Rob filling the birth tub, pot by pot.
I turn to the midwife and tell her the story of my 11th Valentine’s Day. The bathtub in our home had been out of commission for months, leaving my mom and me dying for our regular, luxurious soaks. As a Valentine’s Day gift my dad boiled countless pots of water to fill a tub for each of us. I feel safe in that story and in the memory of a perfect expression of love. And every splash of water I hear now makes me feel safe too. The midwife smiles. She says my mom and I must be mermaid girls, the way we find such peace in the water. I think of the next mermaid girl to come, an Aquarius baby born in water. Rob fills the tub where she will soon swim up to meet us.
“Acts of love,” Noah says, motioning towards my husband. And even though I am so scared, even though the pain is so strange and unknown, I feel loved. I know I am loved.
The afternoon feels like it drags on without any sign of progress. I admit to Noah that I am scared of the pain becoming too much to bear.
“I know,” she says, stroking my hair. “And there are thousands of women around the world right now wondering if they are strong enough too.”
The pain begins piling up on itself, leaving me breathless after every contraction. I wonder how this can possibly be called active labor when I feel so completely passive, as if labor is happening to me. Even the slightest movement sets off another contraction. I feel like I’m lying in a field of landmines. All I can do is lie still and get out of my body's way.
Lying there, I become obsessed with “transition”. What does it feel like? Is it any better than active labor? Worse than pushing? How can this possibly get any worse? Noah answers each question with the utmost patience and admits that some questions she doesn’t have answers for. Only in retrospect do I learn that while my mind was preoccupied with transition, my body was actually enduring it.
The contractions pull apart and I am miraculously able to fall asleep between them; something I haven’t been able to do for an entire day and night. Rob lies behind me, hands ready to press down on my back at my signal. I am later told that I slept so deeply I started snoring. But before long the contractions ramp up again and I can no longer sleep. At this point Noah has not checked my dilation once but something keeps telling me that now I really do want to know how far I have to go.
“I don’t want you to be disappointed if you’re only 3 or 4 centimeters,” she warns, but I tell her to go ahead anyway. She moves quickly because there is virtually no relief between contractions. Every time I feel one rip through my belly I writhe and jerk around in pain, making it impossible to check. After checking Noah is silent and lets another contraction come and go before telling me what she feels. I think we are both a little shocked when she announces “You’re almost completely dilated.”
Rob and I move into the tub, triggering a handful of back-to-back contractions. I slump into the water and wrap my arms around the edge of the tub, letting my hips float to the surface. But now when a contraction comes I feel the urge to push and as I push with the contraction the pain is pushed away. I feel empowered by this sudden feeling of control. I am no longer mentally checking out so my body can do its thing, now I have work to do! Noah, the assistant Jamie, Mary and Rob cheer me on from around the tub. The pushing part is almost easy, I think to myself. It’s the pain of my hips spreading apart that drives me to push harder and longer, knowing the end is in sight. My water breaks as I push and everyone else can see her hair. When I demand to know the color, they say it is dark, as I imagined. I look at the clock in the kitchen. 6:30. This baby better be born by 7, is all I can think.
6:36pm. Everyone is cheering me on through a contraction, but when I get to the end of it I just keep pushing and out she comes! Surprised, Rob catches her in the water and he struggles to get hold of her slippery body before Noah grabs her, unwinds the cord from around her neck (it's so long!) and hands her to me as I turn around. But the baby in my arms isn’t dark-haired as promised. I barely recognize this hair-skinned, red-headed girl, though she is my spitting image. For nine months I had imagined a baby that looked just like her Italian papa. But she is perfect. And as the three of us lie on the bed in exhaustion and wonder, placenta coming out, Pitocin going in (to staunch the bleeding) we announce her name to the midwives with pride: Ophelia Catherine. Thank goodness you’re here.