My husband, Matthew, and I chose a homebirth for a private and healing experience (from my first birth), as well as the opportunity for our 4 year old, Zahra, to witness the birth of her sibling. We asked Kate, a homebirth midwife in the area who I have worked with, to be our midwife. With her gentleness and wisdom she would be my guardian of safety. Her birth assistant and student midwife Star happens to also be my closest friend and doula colleague. She would be my doula, my midwife, and my spirit sister who would walk by my side through this journey. We also asked our dear friend and incredible photographer Adina to take pictures. Our friendship had begun through photography and blossomed through being her doula and attending births together. I cannot imagine a better birth team.
As a doula and student of birth, I am fascinated with the concept of painless childbirth. What I have experienced and witnessed made this seem impossible. But the more I spoke with midwives and read articles, the more fascinated I became. I opened my mind and body to this concept, of viewing the sensations of labor as a positive energy, a force moving my baby down, an intense sensation that required all of my attention. I was determined to work with what my body would do, to rise and flow with the energy in my body, ride the waves rather than tense or try to fight it (as I had done during my first labor). Birth is not something to be conquered or endured, but rather surrendered to. According to Grantly-Dick Read, author of Childbirth Without Fear, fear is the source of pain in labor. I worked through my fears and released them. I was unsure what this birth would look like, and I definitely did not think I would experience a painless birth. Perhaps it would be a long and hard 24 hours like my first labor. I visualized laboring around the house peacefully and listened to hypnobirthing tracks. I meditated and tuned into my body with yoga. I held my vision for my birth loosely; I was open to however it was meant to unfold, even if it meant transferring to the hospital or evolving into a scenario I did not prefer. I hoped for a healing, empowering experience but I was ready for however this little one's arrival was going to manifest.
On October 14th at 11pm Matthew and I went to bed. Within minutes of laying down a contraction came over me and I found myself moaning through the intensity. 10 minutes later another one came. I nudged Matthew and told him these felt different. He reminded me that it would be best to try to sleep through this early phase--they were still so far apart that it could be all night until things became truly active. We trusted that time and my body would tell us if this was another practice round or not.
I texted my birth team to let them know I was needing to moan through the contractions, but they were still only 10 minutes apart and that we were going to try to get some sleep.
After 2 more in bed I got up with an urge to use the bathroom, moaned through another contraction on the toilet and thought to myself, “forget sleep”. I went downstairs to brew some labor aid, believing myself to be in the early stages of labor. It had taken 13 hours for me to dilate to 3 cm with Zahra, and while my intuition and my midwives told me this would go quickly, I was in denial that this could possibly even be labor. I looked at the clock on the stove and thought to myself, “If this is truly labor this baby will be born on October 15!” and I asked my little one if it was his time. A sense of peace flooded me.
The bathroom urge came over me again and while I sat in the dark my legs were shaky and I felt nauseous. The room began to spin a bit and I could feel the hormones of labor pulling me into a subconscious state. I thought to myself, “This is a lot like transition”. When I got up, Matthew was in the kitchen and another surge came over me and I dropped to my hands and knees and moaned loudly through the intensity.
It truly was not painful, just the most intense tightening, pressure and energy that passed through my being. The moaning came instinctually without any thought or effort, it was simply the way to ride the wave of the contraction without drowning in it's intensity.
We went upstairs and decided to make up the bed for the birth since this seemed like the real deal. I had to stop, drop to my hands and knees and moan through a few surges. It was midnight and they were now 4 minutes apart. Matthew let the midwives know and they texted back that they were already on their way. Adina was also on her way. I got in the shower.
“During this time the Mother craves privacy, silence, warmth and the intimacy of the dark. She looks to her Guardian to know that she is safe and that no one will breach the sacredness of her travels by distracting her or leveling any expectations on her. But most importantly, she looks to her Partner to see if he is with her. She reaches for him to bring him into the vortex and together they speak a silent language as the sensations between them become more powerful and intense. No one may disturb them; they are Between the Worlds.”
Every time a surge came I needed to squeeze Matthew’s hand. It was another way to release the energy passing through me. His hand kept me grounded. I kneeled in the shower and let the warm water relax my body and belly. It is indescribable how soothing water is on your laboring body. Matthew finished making the bed, and when a surge would come I would reach up and his hand was there for me to grab and squeeze as I moaned our baby down. The warm, steamy dark bathroom was my laboring nest and I began to float out of my head and body.
I thought to myself that the midwives were coming too early, that they would be up all night for a long labor. The surges seemed spaced too far apart and not nearly strong enough or even painful yet. But I resolved to just focus on relaxing my body, and let the hormones pull me away.
I heard footsteps on our stairs and Matthew said, “Adina is here.” I was aware of her presence at the door but found myself unable to open my eyes to greet her, and I knew it was alright. I moaned loudly through the next surge and rested deeply in between.
“The Mother reaches a point in her traveling where it is time for her to go alone. The endorphins released by her body during her embarking have begun to change her consciousness and she enters, more deeply, the realm of the altered state. She travels to the edge of her normal reality, parts the Veil and goes beyond. The Veil is my nomenclature for the curtain that separates ordinary reality from the deep altered state. Brain wave patterns have begun to slow down and change from Beta (ordinary reality) to Alpha (the bridge into the subconscious)”
As my birth team arrived I slipped deeper away. I was aware of Star’s cold hands grasping mine, and I knew my sister was here and that I was surrounded in love, strength and comfort. I am unsure how many surges passed as this point, but it felt timeless (I believe I was in the shower for 1h30 total). At some point Star said my name and I opened my eyes and saw Kate standing above me handing Star the doppler to listen to baby’s heart rate. His familiar horse-gallop heart rate that I had heard at every prenatal visit played through the bathroom, assuring us all that he was happy and handling labor just fine. The next surge rose like a wave and I felt it in my back and bottom for the first time. I said so out loud and they both smiled knowingly and offered a quiet “mhmmm”.
I was shocked that I was not having back labor with him like I had with Zahra, knowing he was posterior and likely bigger than her. I knew what back and bottom pressure meant, but I thought to myself that it wasn’t hard enough yet, I wasn’t doubting myself yet, there was no way that I was close to having this baby.
Matthew stepped out to fill the birth tub and the water pressure dropped so I got out of the shower. I hung onto the edge of the sink and squatted during the next surge. The pressure was building as baby got lower and Star squeezed my hips which helped immensely. The next few surges I cried out for her to squeeze. The power my body was using to bring baby down was almost too much. The intensity was building and my focus and voice wavered a bit. I rocked and swayed and then felt an urge to go to the bathroom again and I sat on the toilet. I breathed and relaxed my body, sitting in a silent, peaceful haze as a candle flickered in the dark from the hot moisture in the air. That pressure was baby's head.
My eyes met Star’s eyes. She said, “Let’s go down and up the stairs and then get you in the tub so you can have your baby. I’m not sure what my expression was but I thought she was crazy. It still didn’t seem hard enough to be time.
I felt a sudden need to kiss Zahra as she slept. Often throughout my pregnancy night awakenings I would go into her room to check on her. I would cover her with her blankets and kiss her soft cheeks and breathe in her salty sweet smell. Tonight I was kissing my only child goodnight, for when she woke her life would be forever changed. I hurried out of her room as I felt another surge coming on. This one was powerful and the pressure was intensifying. I grabbed on to the stair railing and roared into the stairwell below. I am still shocked Zahra didn’t wake up.
“At the Veil, Mom no longer feels chatty and often the experience of something more serious and profound presents itself. She begins the process of separation and while the mom is aware of details and specifics occurring in the room, she becomes less interested in them. There is often a palpable smell in the air or a subtle but perceptible color change in the room that marks the presence of the mother at the Veil. Many caregivers can calculate the flow of labor by these signposts, making yoni exams redundant at this point.”
Being close to mothers in labor, I am attuned to the subtle smell that comes when a baby’s descent is imminent. A nurse had once described it to me as “the smell of the earth after the rain”, and squatting naked in the stairwell, there it was. My little one was near.
I climbed into the birth tub and the hot water immediately soothed the building pressure. Matthew was there, holding my hand through each surge, and in between I would release and relax every part of my being.
"Now, in the next stage of labor, brain wave patterns slow down even more and mother has access deep into Theta (the subconscious). The aloneness reflects the fact that women move into a place of self-direction that seems to emanate from a grounded yet altered place in them.”
Climbing in to the tub made everything become very real. Here we were, it was time. Everything I had visualized for my birth had manifested and we stood at the precipice. The shift from the dark warmth to this new space was a bit unsettling. I attempted to read the birth affirmation flags that my spirit sisters had made for me during my blessingway but it took too much concentration and I could feel it pull me out of my comfortable haze, so I closed my eyes. I had been floating, riding the waves and rhythm of my body, keeping up with the power and letting the intensity pass through me as best as I could, and now it was time for me to push my baby out. And I became afraid.
“The Veil is that stage of labor that heralds the change to this new place. This doesn’t mean that a mother wishes to be alone and that others are not relevant. Rather, it signals the shift into a more self-directed realm. Mothers may approach the Veil several times before deciding to move through.”
I had done a lot of mental preparation on not doula-ing myself through my own birth. I wanted to be able to be primal about bringing my baby earthside and the only way I could access that was to be surrounded in safety, peace and love. And I was. My birth team circled me in the tub in quiet reverence; they were my witnesses and truly ‘held my space’. My mind had vascilated between denial and disbelief that this was my time and I had to continually release and let go of a reoccurring habit to analyze what was happening. This is what they talk about when they say to “surrender” during labor. I had also meditated and prepared to traverse my triggers and past traumas during this labor. I did not know how they would emerge, but they always do, one way or another. I knew this could interfere with my labor so I had discussed with my midwives my history and what would hinder my progress and what I would need to feel safe. This part of my labor was particularly delicate. I had never truly been given the opportunity to bring my baby down and push it out before; I had been forced onto my back, roughly examined many times, threatened with a cesarean after a grueling 20 hours of labor with little food and water, surrounded and essentially held down by nurses, coached to push despite my body not being ready and given an unnecessary and traumatizing episiotomy after only 2 pushes. At this point I took my time walking through my fears, and despite my out-of-body state, I was aware of what a gift it was to be allowed to simply trust and witness the birthing wisdom of my body.
I now sat in the tub feeling my baby coming down and truly was in awe that I had never felt this the first time. It was uncomfortable and the power of the surges was intimidating, but I savored it. I remember saying out loud, “I didn’t feel this with Zahra” and “Thank you”(to my team, for surrounding me and waiting quietly as I found my way through my labor). As I lay on my side, the surges were insanely powerful and expulsive. I did remember this feeling from my first labor, and it had been my favorite part. The wild feeling of your body pushing your baby down without any effort or thought is exhilarating. I remember thinking, “This is what they mean when they talk about orgasmic birth” But my focus was elsewhere. In between the surges I would rest on my side in the warm, soothing water. The pauses became longer at this point and my body was hot now, my cheeks flushed. Someone would wipe a cold washcloth across my forehead and put a straw up to my lips. I was feeling more and more pressure and even some stinging. I lay there and in silence, worked through my fear. I knew I was holding him in and I knew that all I had to do was allow my body to bring him out and it would. But I had to take it slow. I said aloud. “I’m holding him in”. I knew that they knew. “Thank you for waiting for me” I was indistinctly aware of Kate by my head as I could sense her calm and reassuring presence. Matthew and Star were at my side. Everyone was silent and waited with me through my process.
“Labor is considered hard now and often painful…at the least, strong and intense. Mother has coping strategies. She is not lost. She has what it takes to find her way. She doesn’t usually need words…simple reassurance in the form of present companions who give her privacy and offer safety, although sometimes quiet murmurings of respect and affirmation may afford the mom an understanding that you are there if needed.”
I was at a crossroads, it was intense and becoming painful but the only way was through. I was ready and able to bring this little one earthside. I began to physically open my body, I opened my knees and let a surge take its course through my body. I almost hated when it stopped because it took so much resolve to work my way back up to the peak of the next surge. I checked myself for baby’s head and it was farther back than I had thought it would be. “Ok” I told myself “I’ve got a little more work ahead of me to get him out”. I locked onto this idea of getting baby’s head out. A surge or two later I felt a pop and the surprise opened my eyes. For a split second I thought baby’s head had come out. I looked down and saw that it was my bag of waters.
I was really roaring now with each surge. A few surges later I checked myself again and I could feel baby’s head inches closer. I smiled and said aloud, “There you are”.
“Mother becomes aware that she is nearing the peak. She is deep in a vortex, past anything she has ever known… She has been continuously opening to wisdom, opening to revelation and now she comes face to face with the apex of her labor. This is what she has come for – accessing the new spirit, the new person that is her child and her Partner’s child, and bringing this soul to Earth. She hears the Summons, she summons her child and together they make their way back.”
I could feel that baby was getting closer and closer. I had Matthew go get Zahra. I knew that once she came into the room I would be able to release any last fear that was holding me back, be brave and bring my baby into the world. Star said, “When Zahra comes, you’ll be ready”.
This is often the most precarious part of the journey. Mother must summon all her reserves and she may want to know that her Partner is totally present and supportive. She assumes her caregiver is following their course and holding everything steady on the other side of the storm. Mother is braver and more courageous than ever before in her life.”
I labored on, letting my body push baby down closer and closer. Zahra was there now, sleepy but present. I felt her little hands on my shoulder. She was trying to soothe me but her touch was distracting. I kissed her hand and asked her to not touch mama. I told her I loved her. She whispered encouraging words. The sweetness of her presence will always be in my memory. I heard her munch on the remainder of the popsicle Matthew had given me when I got in the tub. She whispered to Kate, “Every day when I go to school they ask me if the baby is here, now I can tell them yes!”
Star listened with the doppler to baby and I could hear the heart rate was slower than before. This was not surprising to me, even in my subconscious state. I knew he was low and getting squeezed and that I had held him in long enough. Star suggested I try a different position. I knew it was time, time to stop holding back and time to rage to the end the universe to gather my baby and bring him earthside. It took every ounce of resolve and strength to hoist myself into a kneeling position. The next surge that came upon me was like nothing else I have experienced. To stay afloat on this wave I had to become almost ferocious, or else completely drown in the intensity. I roared like I never have before. I pulled on the handles of the birth tub and squeezed Matthew’s hand simultaneously. Zahra’s hand was in there too at one point and I remember thinking I would accidentally hurt her. I became aware that I was roaring in her and Matthew’s face and when it had passed I opened my eyes and looked at her and assured her it was ok, I was ok. She was sleepy but at peace. Although this was wild and loud this was not unfamiliar to her, we had prepared her for this.
“The presence of another will allow her to feel safe and she will then rage to the end of the universe. Her personal tempest may take her far from ordinary reality. She will become the storm, become wild and incredibly powerful. Caregivers and partners may be amazed, even intimidated. Mother will find her way however it takes.”
In between the surges I was so distinctly aware and connected to River. I started to talk to him. “It’s ok baby, time to come out, come on baby, come out.” I was deeply in tune with him. I also said a few things about “him” although we did not know what gender we were having. I knew that he would be more olive complected with dark hair and look like Matthew. I would push and rage and feel him come down, and in between when I would rest and relax my muscles he would slide back up a bit. This became frustrating. I was ready to get this baby out. I might have uttered a few curse words. I knew that at some point he wouldn’t slide back up anymore, and I would push with all my might to get him down to stay, but he had to take his time to stretch me out. While the surges were more intense than painful, the pressure of his head coming out became painful. I had never experienced this either and I had to coach myself through it. I often tell mamas at this point, “Decide you want it more than you are afraid of it”. You push with all your might and you are stretched and opened and it stings and hurts like nothing else, but it is also strangely elating to be so close to the finish line. I reached down and felt the top of his head pushing against the bottom of the birth tub and realized I needed to sit up a bit on my knees to give him space to come out. Star turned on the flashlight. With each push I got his head out a bit further, but there was no relief at the peak or after, just the constant stinging. I would get him so close and then he would slip back, but this little guy began to kick and push himself down. He was working with me to get out. A few times I wasn’t ready for him to come back down, the feeling was so strange. But his little legs kicked around inside of me and pushed to propel himself down and out. I wanted nothing more than to get him out. I have never summoned so much strength or determination in my life.
“During this time of openness, women find their way, find themselves, find their power and their will and commune with forces greater than they have ever experienced.”
I fought every urge in my body to expel this baby out with everything I had, and instead I panted through the next surge and just let him sit there and slowly ease out. I think I even asked for permission to do this and received encouraging nods and praise.
I gave one last HUGE push to get his head out. The sharp intensity of pain and the summons of every bit of strength I had was the most wild experience of all. It was what I imagine fainting to be like. I can only describe it as falling the deepest part of my being as I ever have, or going into the eye of the storm.
“At this point, close to Crowning, the Mother experiences a rush of adrenaline. With the speed of light she is in two worlds. Her oxytocin birth trance is still palpable and she is cognizant of her earthly reality. She is back and is ready to bring her baby to dry land.”
“mom may feel somewhat overwhelmed as she transports from one dimension to another but she is never at a loss for what to do. She simply births her baby. As she kneels to birth…perhaps another pair of hands, those of the midwife are are ready to assist, and then again, perhaps not. Assistance is normally not necessary. Mother is not out of control, birth is not chaotic, there is no hysteria or confusion. Birth is accessible and a woman does what is natural.”
His head was out. The relief is inexplicable. I peeked down and saw his little ear and the bit of a hairline. I really felt like I was straddling two worlds. My primal instincts gave way to coherence and I felt a bit lost. I instinctively leaned back to release his shoulders one at a time. Kate said, “We’ve got a nuchal cord (cord wrapped around his neck)…we’ve got a triple nuchal cord!” Their hands helped bring him up and the three of us unwound him and I brought him up to my chest.
There was his little wet body, there was his sweet head. He was so big and plump! I looked into his big dark open eyes and greeted my baby with a deep knowing and familiarity. I glimpsed his soul and I knew him. I knew he was a boy. We had just journeyed together, deeply connected. I had birthed him. “Hi little one. You look like your Daddy! I knew you would!” tears of exhilaration welled up in my eyes and I looked up at Matthew and Zahra. What a flood of emotions! I couldn’t believe it was already over. It had begun at 11pm and he was born at 3:46am. “That was so easy!” I said in disbelief, still coming down from my labor high. I took in the whole room for the first time since labor had begun, I thanked Kate and Star. I cried tears of joy.
Someone said,” Boy or girl?” I checked although I already knew the answer. “Boy!” we all laughed, although Zahra cried because she had wanted a girl (It didn’t take long for her to fall in love with him though). I invited her into the pool (she had been very excited about coming in with me) and we all took in our new baby. “Hi River”.
I wish I could end my birth story by saying my placenta came out, that River was able to have a lotus birth and stay attached to his placenta for the next 2 hours, honoring his transition gently into the world. I wish I could share about our cord burning ceremony, how we all held candles to his umbilical cord over a little wooden box that grandpa had prepared, to separate him from his placenta. I wish I could say we all snuggled in bed, ate breakfast and fell fast asleep as the sun rose. But that was not to be the end of my birth story.
Matthew put a sleepy Zahra to bed and she thankfully missed all the drama that would unfold. My placenta would not come out. Despite every effort on my part and my midwives and a shot of pitocin, it would not budge. I began to loose too much blood and consciousness and the ambulance was called. Grandma came to stay with Zahra as she slept. River stayed with Kate, Grandma, and Adina at home until he could join me. Rather than giving him formula, Adina breastfed him (I had joked with her the week before about her ancestors being nurse-maids because her baby was no longer nursing but she still had milk). I will always carry the beauty of this gesture in my heart.
I was put under general anesthesia and had a D&C to retrieve my placenta. In recovery Star brought River to me (an hour later) and we nursed and snuggled. I lost more blood then they had realized and needed a blood transfusion and a stay overnight. River slept peacefully through it all thanks to Adina's breastmilk.
After Zahra's birth I had a similar complication with my placenta, but had a traumatizing D&C fully conscious with no pain relief. When the doctors and nurses were told this, they were horrified to hear of such a thing. I was so grateful to be surrounded by my husband and birth team who were by my side every step of the way, who advocated for me and held my hand through it all this time. I was treated with so much love, respect and compassion. Even though I needed a D&C once again, this time was so very healing.
That night in the hospital was beautiful and peaceful. We savored our first moments with our new little boy. I was taken care of by angelic nurses, a few who I had attended births with. At the end of their shifts they hugged me and said it was an honor to take care of me. My previous postpartum time in the hospital had been challenging and painful and this was another level of healing that both Matthew and I had needed.
My peaceful, painless, powerful home birth ended with a dramatic hospital transfer. But it was exactly what my journey was meant to be, and it ultimately brought deep healing.
River waited to open his eyes until we got home. It's as if he waited to be truly born and present until then.
"It’s important to note that birth does not look any particular way. Some moms are calm, some are wild. Some labors are fraught with pain, some are totally bearable, some are even orgasmic. I am not suggesting that any style of birth is better or more conscious than another. What I am saying is that when the mom is in her authentic power, no matter how that may appear, her birth is normal, natural and perfect for her." *The Matrona: Holistic Stages of Childbirth
(Photography by Thistle & Lace Photography)