Nate was born at home on December 2, 2013 towards the end of one of Maria’s great “Birth Quakes” – the seventh or maybe eighth baby to arrive in just over a week.
Nate was born at home on December 2, 2013 towards the end of one of Maria’s great “Birth Quakes” – the seventh or maybe eighth baby to arrive in just over a week.
Our entire humbling journey brought to light the mystical powers at work during pregnancy and birth:
Mystery 1 – The Scare in Manila
Just one day after I found out I was pregnant, I boarded a plane for a long work trip, traveling first to Cambodia, then Singapore, then the Philippines. By the second week I was starting to feel pregnant. My first craving (raw green beans) struck on a small ferry in the Philippines. My first bout of nausea came later that day over a plate of fried fish. Then, in a hotel room in Manila, just a few days before I was supposed to come home, I started to bleed. Maria, who had not even seen me yet, responded to my worried email: “Usually this all goes away, but truth is that the first 12 weeks is the miscarriage zone. Unfortunately, right now it's just wait and see. But stay hydrated, eat well, rest. Keep in touch if things get heavier.” That night, alone on the other side of the world, I put my hands on my stomach and tried to focus deep inside to connect with our baby. I meditated over and over: “We want you, we want you, please stay.” The bleeding stopped.
Mystery 2 – The Hemorrhoid, My Teacher
I had a “perfect” pregnancy from that point on. Strong vitals. Good energy. My belly grew and our baby moved into the “optimal” fetal position. As if someone were keeping score, I felt very pleased to be earning top marks as an A+ pregnant mama. Then, at 36 weeks, I got the hemorrhoid. It happened on my last big day of work commitments. After 14 hours of meetings, driving all over the Bay Area in a tent-like dress and maternity pantyhose, finally I came home at 10 pm, utterly exhausted, constipated and done. And there it was. My reaction was violent: I felt furious. I was so close to the end of pregnancy and now my “perfect score” was ruined. I dragged Dave to 24-hour Walgreens for witch hazel pads, then sat on the toilet in disgust and read about hemorrhoids online. On WebMD: “Too much pressure on the veins in the pelvic and rectal area causes hemorrhoids.” Slowly I realized my body was under too much pressure – from the pregnancy, from my last big push at work, from the weight of my expectations. And now this one little part of me had given out. Suddenly it was obvious: I needed to love the hemorrhoid. I needed to take care of it. I needed to take care of myself and accept whatever might happen. So I did. In a weird way, it was a defining moment. As I went to bed, I felt a new sense of peace with the process. In the morning the hemorrhoid was gone. I can’t say exactly how this lesson affected Nate’s birth, but I know it was extremely important.
People in my family often share birthdays. I was born on my uncle’s birthday. My cousin was born on my mom’s birthday. So we were curious to see whether our baby, due December 5 or thereabouts, would be born on his uncle’s birthday (December 2) or his aunt’s birthday (December 12). I was hoping for the former and, amazingly, Nate did not disappoint.
Just a few days before his arrival, Thanksgiving stood out as a final milestone on our calendar – possibly our very last weekend “alone” for some time. We shut out the world. At 39 weeks pregnant I was grateful for the chance to be lazy. That Sunday afternoon, December 1, we ate a huge slow-cooker feast. Then – as if under a magic spell – we both drifted off into a deep sleep on our sofa. Dave’s hand rested on my belly. We woke up a few hours later as the sun began to set.
When I woke up, I felt restless. Suddenly nothing could hold my attention. I couldn’t wait any longer for our baby to be born. I spent a frustrated hour on my laptop researching the statistical delivery dates of first-time mothers. Eventually Dave decided to eat dinner but the idea disgusted me.
At 9 pm I convinced Dave that we should go for a walk to get some fresh air before bed. The night was quiet and cold. I was so glad to stretch my legs. We started walking and talking. I didn’t want a water birth but nonetheless I was worried about not having a birth tub. Dave was very patient with me. He agreed to redouble our efforts to track down one of Maria’s spare tubs.
We walked for more than 3 miles under the starry winter sky. I started to feel some cramping but nothing noteworthy. Still, when we got home, I decided to take a warm bath to relieve the heaviness of my enormous belly. It was nearly midnight when we went to sleep.
The surges woke me up at 1:30 am. My first thought was that I must have overdone it on our walk. Then I noticed the rhythm…squeezing…then easing up. Dave asked if I was all right. I don’t remember answering him, but once I was in the bathroom I discovered an unmistakable pinkish goop. With a mix of panic and joy, I called out: “Mucus plug!”
I had to repeat this to a disbelieving Dave once I crawled back into bed. Remembering the lessons from our birth class, we tried to go back to sleep. I thought if I ignored the squeezing, it might go away for a few hours. We turned out the lights and Dave rolled over. I tried to get settled on my side again, but now I could not lie still. The squeezing continued to grip and release. After twisting around for a few minutes, I ended up on my hands and knees with my head buried in the pillow, moaning softly and rocking back and forth. I thought this was working well, but Dave rolled over again. He looked at me and said matter-of-factly: “We’re not going back to sleep.”
So that was that. We turned on the lights. I started pacing uncomfortably around our apartment while Dave switched the sheets and gathered the birth supplies. He downloaded a contraction timer on his phone. We weren’t supposed to call Maria until the magic 4-1-1: surges four minutes apart, one minute long, for one hour. My surges were coming every 2 or 3 minutes, each lasting about 45 seconds. I leaned on our bed for one surge, then trudged to our sofa for the next one, then shuffled back to our bed, over and over, constantly moving and moaning, like a pregnant zombie. Dave followed me. Sometimes I leaned on him and we swayed together.
I had borrowed an affirmation from one of my favorite Ina May Gaskin birth stories: “I’m going to get HUGE.” I tried to keep my throat soft and open, my breathing slow and steady, imagining my cervix as wide as a dinner plate. I had also written a breathing mantra on notecards pinned to the wall (Huge Open Baby Down Yes Love Come Now), which I recited in my head until it became too complicated. Then I just thought (inhale) HUGE (exhale) OPEN. I felt a distinct shift after one big surge and wondered, “Maybe my cervix just opened the first centimeter?” – like an ancient door that was stuck, requiring a strong shoulder to make it budge. In retrospect, I believe that one surge popped open my cervix several centimeters all at once. Not long afterwards I felt a cold wave of nausea floating down from a surge, like seasickness. Before the next surge lifted me up again I was on my hands and knees vomiting in the bathroom. Vomiting was a huge relief, but it was followed shortly afterward by an irrepressible urge to bear down.
It was 4:30 am. I had been in labor for three hours. Our doula Dina had given us a chart of labor signs, which Dave was studying in the kitchen. He decided to call Maria. For some reason I was surprised to hear that she was coming to check on me. I was leaning against our sofa, swaying and looking out into the darkness when I saw her car pull up to the stop sign. She peered over her steering wheel and turned onto our street. I flashed on a thought of Maria getting out of her bed so many times, for so many mothers, making her way to a birth in the dark. Now she was coming to me. Just being so aware of her arrival seemed like a discouraging sign. I felt too much like myself.
Then she was with us and I got the news: 8 centimeters! Maria went back out to her car to get her bags. She was going to stay. She started making phone calls. Our baby was coming soon! I felt incredulous and incredible all at once. I texted my mom on the east coast and she sent encouragement.
Then the real work started. If I kept moving, the sensations were bearable, so for the next four hours I continued my zombie march up and down the hall with occasional monitoring from Maria. Our baby’s heartbeat was steady and strong – all was well. I felt so grateful. Every time I heard that solid little heartbeat, chugging away, I tried to connect with our baby to say thank you and reassure him or her that everything was okay with me, too.
Later, someone arrived while I was sitting backwards on the toilet. Birth cave mentality had set in: I did not like hearing our front door open. But soon the mystery woman’s hands pressed my lower back and I felt a rush of warmth to greet Sue, our assisting midwife. Then our doula Dina arrived directly from her early morning yoga class. It was 7 am, the sun was coming up, and our whole team was with us.
By now the pressure was strong. Maria checked me again, but I was still 8 centimeters. Gently she nudged my cervix with her finger and I stretched to 9 centimeters. My waters broke while being examined on the bed – perfectly clear! Another milestone. All was well. I sent a silent message to our baby: thank you for trusting this process.
Still, a tiny edge of cervix remained. Maria decided we should change course. She was worried the pressure of bearing down would cause it to swell, so she instructed me to spend the next hour relaxing and breathing through each surge without pushing.
The word “hour” was a reality check. The surges were no longer simply peaking and melting away. Each one was followed by a heavy sinking sensation, like a bowling ball inside, barreling down, down, down... The task was impossible. I spent some time in a warm shower while Dave and Dina reminded me to breathe lightly. I tried not to push, but I sounded something like this: “Whew, whew, whew, oh god I really want to push, I WANT TO PUSHRRGRRGHH URRGRRRRGGH, whew, whew, whew…"
Meanwhile a breakfast party was taking place in the kitchen. Sue had ransacked our fridge to make a skillet of eggs and leftovers. Knowing I was getting close, she sent Dave and Dina with a bowl of chicken broth and plate of honey toast for me. In between surges, I ate a small triangle of honey toast and drank some water. I also ate a honey stick, but that’s another story.
The surges had become huge.
At this dark point I was alone in labor. Only I could do the work.
I fell back on a memory from years ago in Brazil, swimming for hours before a storm, ocean and sky blending together with no horizon. Drifting, unable to touch sand, fighting panic at the sight of each monster wave rolling in. Now it seemed my survival depended on finding the same focus, swimming out to meet each surge, diving through rather than getting caught unaware and underneath.
Finally, after an unknown amount of time in the surf, I got the clearance from Maria: 10 centimeters!
The active pushing stage of labor surprised me. Having just come through transition, I hadn’t really visualized grunting and exerting so much energy at this point. In fact, I dreamed that maybe gravity and the baby would do most of the work while I just reclined on some pillows. Ha!
By now it was 9:30 am. I felt like I had been swimming in the ocean all night. I was tired, so everyone helped me settle sideways on the bed – my life raft – so I could rest between the surges. No longer giant waves, more like sirens, a stampede: Up, go, NOW! They were relentless. In between I was nearly asleep, only vaguely aware of the voices around me. Dina dabbed my brow with a cool washcloth. My pillow was damp. I tried to relax completely until another surge came: UP, NOW, PUSH! Together Dina and Dave lifted up my top leg as I pushed. I remember thinking that it would have been impossible to lift my own leg like that, and it was also nearly impossible to ask them for help. Thank goodness they were there and they understood. Maria coached me on how to curve my body and direct the energy as I pushed and pushed with every muscle in me. It didn’t feel intuitive to me. I felt the pressure but I couldn’t really feel any progress. I needed everyone’s help so much.
My mind did funny things at this point. I realized our baby was going to be born in that room. I was doing this thing I had dreamed about doing for so long. After so many months of wondering what birth would feel like, craving this sacred feminine experience, now I had it! Good for me. Without any sarcasm, I actually thought, “I never need to do this again.”
At another point my mind scanned my body for options. I was lying on my own bed, in my own bedroom, thinking maybe this would end shortly in a C-section, or maybe I would be the first woman to figure out another way to give birth, even while realizing that was ridiculous.
Maria and Sue could feel the top of our baby’s squishy head inside of me. They told me to reach down to feel it, too. Very strange: some hair, some gelatinous thing… A brain?
Lying on my side, I could see Dave’s face. We had joked that maybe he should avoid the “business end” of birth. But now, after so many hours, he couldn’t look away. Our baby was getting closer. I was tired, but I could watch Dave’s expression with each push. His face held so much emotion: love, amazement, fear, like an entire stadium of die-hard fans up on their feet, holding their breath, waiting for a miracle, imminent victory… Watching his face gave me the extra motivation to push on, push harder, each time.
I decided I wanted to stand up. Birth was close. It seemed right. I hadn’t planned on giving birth lying down. It was challenging to get up again – we had to time it just right – but soon I was standing with my feet apart, my arms around Dave’s neck, sinking into each final push. I was making some powerful noise. Dina suggested chanting “Out!” so we did, all five of us together.
Maria was down there. Things were happening. She instructed me to lift up one leg onto the bed in a lunge. She wanted me to get wider. I did it. I pushed again. (“Out!”)
Maria told me to give two more good pushes, then get back on the bed on my side. The baby was coming quickly. She said we needed to slow things down or I might tear. That was good motivation.
So I crawled back onto the bed with an entire human being deep in my pelvis, the baby’s head almost crowning. There are no words for that. It’s a very interesting sensation.
It was 11:40 am. Our baby was making his way into the world. Maria was supporting my perineum with a warm cloth. I felt the “ring of fire” for just a moment and I welcomed it.
Then his head and shoulders were out! Maria told me to reach down. So ungrateful at the time, I thought “Really? I have to do this part, too?” as I summoned my strength, then I reached down and lifted our slippery baby onto my chest.
He was red-faced and loud, yet still semi-inert, unfolding and coming into his body. And he was huge! I was holding him in my arms, completely naked, overjoyed and overwhelmed. There was a flurry of activity, a warm blanket, a moment of confusion. It’s a boy!
We had a son. It felt so right.
The next several minutes were a blur. Nate was at my breast, but he was too hysterical to nurse. It was a little funny and a little scary to hear him crying so loudly. Lung function: check!
We waited fifteen minutes until the cord stopped pulsing, then Dave cut it. I handed Nate to him. Dave cuddled our baby on his warm bare chest before moving to the living room for their first (loud) moments together, father and son.
Mystery 3 – The Placenta
Meanwhile, back in the bedroom, I still had to birth the placenta but nothing was happening. The surges were gone. I was exhausted and elated, with no desire to push.
The clock was ticking. As we got further away from the minute of Nate’s arrival – 11:41 am – Maria’s and Sue’s demeanors changed. Sue was monitoring a stopwatch and calling out numbers. Maria suggested I sit on her birth stool. She told me sternly that I had to deliver the placenta now and I knew she meant it. But I didn’t know how.
The interventions started. I was given a shot of Pitocin in my thigh to bring on contractions. I barely felt it. I was given a catheter to empty my bladder. That felt great. Maria and Sue gave me an IV of fluids (I think to keep up my blood pressure). That was fine, too. I was very relaxed. I felt completely safe, and so very happy. I did it! I had a baby! Besides, it was clear that Maria and Sue were doing all of the worrying for me.
I was bleeding this entire time. Now forty-five minutes had passed since Nate’s birth. Maria gave me another 5 minutes, then she said we would have to consider transferring to the hospital. She instructed me to let her know if I felt dizzy or heard any ringing in my ears. I wanted to deliver the placenta, but I was also at peace with whatever happened. I already felt like our birth had been such a victorious and empowering experience.
At this point, Sue came to my shoulder. Quietly she said:
“Thank you, placenta, for supporting Nate throughout this pregnancy. It’s been a wonderful pregnancy. But it’s over. Nate’s on the outside now. We will nourish him here. You can let go. “
Her words were so powerful. I hadn’t realized that I felt any sadness about ending the pregnancy and entering this new phase of motherhood, but I did. I closed my eyes and let her blessing sink in. I thanked the placenta and tried to let go.
A minute later, there was a gush of blood. Maria said, “I think that might be the placenta detaching. Let’s push.” And out it came, all in one piece. The bleeding stopped. We stayed home.
I lost 1,200 cubic centimeters of blood during the last stage of Nate’s birth, about 5 cups. For the next three days, I was pale and dizzy whenever I stood up. But mostly I stayed in my own wonderful bed, snuggling with Dave and our beautiful baby while a crazy new world revolved around us.
In his quest to help heal me, Dave learned how to make an amazing boeuf bourguignon.
When Maria weighed him, we discovered Nate was 8.5 pounds – so much bigger than anyone had guessed!
Adorably, his left foot had a slight curve to it – the same unmistakable foot that I’d felt nestled under my ribcage for so many months.
My mantra had worked: I did get huge! Thanks to Maria’s coaching, Nate was born without any tearing at all. (Although to be honest, after everything I don’t think I would have cared about stitches in the slightest.)
I had intended our natural home birth as a gift to our baby –-the gentlest possible welcome to Earth. Instead Nate screamed inconsolably for three full hours. Our pediatrician, Dr. Avril Swan, even came over that evening to check on him and confirm he was okay. (He was.)
But when he finally fell asleep, his cheek pressed to my breast and his arms wrapped from one side of my torso to the other. He was just hours old and already giving me a humongous bear hug.
In those glorious hormone-steeped days that followed, I felt such heartache and joy – knowing every new day would take us farther away from the time when Nate and I were inseparable, yet also realizing every day would bring me closer to knowing and loving him fully. And so it still goes now, 19 months later, with every great and small leap forward, every morning that begins (too early) with the sound of “Mama!”