My “due date” was on a Saturday.
As it approached I noticed an uptick in my braxton hicks contractions. I had been experiencing prodromal (pre-labor) for about 3 weeks until this point. I would have actual labor type contractions that wrapped around my back and squeezed my body and would come at 3-5 minute intervals for hours at a time some days. Other days I would have just the whisper of impending labor. Some days nothing at all. I had gotten quite adept at ignoring them for the sake of my own sanity. I was trying to relish the last few days of my life as a mother of one. But also badly wanting to meet my son!
While my body squeezed and prepared for birth, my mind was preparing for the reality of the Freebirth/Family Birth/Unassisted birth I had been preparing for for the last 10 months. Everything I had done was in preparation for this birth. And it was going to happen soon, I could feel it.
Our house was prepared. As prepared as it was going to be. We had a make-shift homebirth kit we put together ourselves that consisted of chux pads, old sheets, a large package of new washcloths, straws and random things leftover from my last homebirth; the one that became a homebirth transfer to cesarean.
On the date of my 40th week of pregnancy (Saturday), I noticed things were changing. I began having my bloody show and my contractions were getting much lower and focused in my cervix. Every time I would have a contraction baby began little pushes with his feet in my side and his head in my pelvis. He was wanting to be born, too!
My contractions increased in number and in strength Saturday evening. I managed to sleep a little Saturday night. Sunday they were there again, nudging not-so-gently toward the day of his birth. I continued writing in my journal to him, telling him how much I loved him and that I knew our bodies would work together to bring him into this world. I was looking forward to laboring just with my husband, although I had a couple of friends on “standby” for emotional support should I need them.
For ten months I had prepared my mind in every way I could think of. I meditated. I used positive affirmations. I enrolled in the Indie birth class for women wanting to take control of their own decisions and exert their own inherent power over their births. To work with their bodies. To understand physiological normal birth. I had learned to truly trust my instincts throughout the pregnancy; as that is the main indicator I relied on for nearly everything in my pregnancy- including conception.
Throughout this time I had not had a single vaginal exam. I had not been to see a regular midwife. At 19 weeks I made an appointment at a hospital for an intake appointment with a nurse practitioner to establish myself as a patient should it be necessary to transfer at any time, and truly my main reason was to face my fears of medical professionals. My experience with my last midwife and subsequent cesarean left me scarred not just across my belly; but emotionally and mentally. Little did I know it would be those scars that inhibited my birth with my son. We also had a professional ultrasound done at 20 weeks for an anatomy scan, and to decipher where my placenta was located. These things, for me, were necessary and I have absolutely no qualms about a 10 minute ultrasound when I know, personally, had I not had that ultrasound to check on my son, I would’ve had even more fear in labor. I trust my body. But I didn’t trust the fact that multiple strangers in masks had opened my abdomen 6 months prior to getting pregnant with my son, and had sewn me back up in who knows what fashion. The ultrasound we had eased my mind. And that was my choice. Every single action in my pregnancy and birth was MY choice.
As a woman who had just had a cesarean 16 months prior to the onset of labor, I actually had no fears of my scar rupturing. I had researched thoroughly and was satisfied that my scar would remain in tact. The likelihood of a rupture was immensely small. I did not yet realize how deep my emotional scar tissue reached, however.
As Sunday morning came and left I was more sure that labor was coming, but I was beginning to tire already from the contractions I was having. More bloody show on Sunday. Sunday turned into Sunday night and around 2 am on Monday my contractions were so strong I couldn’t lay in bed anymore. For five hours my husband pushed on my sacrum during the painful contractions. I stopped timing them as it was pointless by then. They came on when they wanted to, they lasted as long as they needed to and were as strong as they needed to be. I trusted that this was the necessary process for me in my particular labor, being 16 months post-surgery, to prepare my uterus to birth my son. My body was smart and I knew that. I just tried to be patient. My husband and I prepared our bed, laying down a plastic sheet between a set of clean sheets and a set of old sheets that could be thrown out after birth. I finished placing all of my birthing affirmations in our room. I finished washing laundry and we waited. I somehow fell asleep between contractions but kept waking up covered in sweat as I laid on top of the plastic sheet-sandwich we had created on the bed. Was this labor? Was this really happening?
Monday morning came, the sun rose and with it came our nine year old daughter; eager to see me in labor. We told her she needed to go to school and, if necessary, we would send someone to pick her up if things really got moving. She was very excited and wanted to know if that day would be the day she would finally meet her brother. We told her not to get her hopes up, that labor was doing whatever it needed to do and it “may not be today”. She was disappointed, but understood.
We continued laboring on for the rest of the day. My contractions continued to be irregular and painful. I could feel my son had rotated into a posterior presentation, and while that didn’t bother me very much, I also felt I should maybe prepare for a long labor since my two previous babies had been posterior. The contractions were coming so sporadically- some hours I was left wondering. Other hours I had them every few minutes. On and on it went. Our daughter came home from school that afternoon, we ate dinner, she went to bed. After she hopped into bed the contractions became stronger and very painful. I could feel my son pushing himself and turning himself into a more favorable position and I thanked him and told him how smart he was to prepare himself for this birth.
My husband and I continued working together as a team. When the contractions were coming they were extremely painful- I felt as though I was actually in transition whenever they came. Each and every swell of pain; my husband jumped over my body as I positioned myself on all fours on the bed and would press down on my sacrum, pressing as hard as he possibly could, until the contraction ended. This happened every single time without hesitation. I didn’t want to be in any other position- all fours was it.
I remember thinking back to my last birth with my surrogate daughter. My transfer birth. I remember my instincts screaming at me inside then and it only came out as a whisper. The midwife who attended my birth completely controlled everything that was happening. She barked orders, she continued to interrupt me by wanting to check my blood pressure over and over. She wanted to perform vaginal exams. She annoyed me by talking so much during labor. She set up my entire room like a hospital room and wheeled her oxygen tank around my house whenever I decided to change rooms. She made suggestions I didn’t like. She thought I should go outside and I didn’t want to. She thought I should leave my room (instead of her leaving) and I didn’t want to.
As I felt my husband press into my pelvis with his hands now, when the pain rocked me, I was so relieved, this time, to be able to move how I wanted to. To lay in any position that seemed right to me. To moan how I wanted to. To sway when I needed to. To howl without reservation. To not have anyone badgering me. My instincts were leading the way. They told me what to do and where to be. And I listened. And it was no longer a whisper pushed to the corner of the room…it was a lioness’ roar. It was the howling wind outside. It was the crowing voice of every woman ancestor before me who birthed her baby on her body’s terms.
The night wore on and so did my patience and resolve. This labor was different. And although I trust birth, when I am in pain, that trust wanes. Why were the contractions so spaced out and painful? Some were piggybacking. Some were non-existent. Some were 10 minutes apart, some 15, some six, some two. I thought to myself that perhaps I couldn’t do it anymore. Maybe I was a fool to think I could do this. The pain was so intense. I shouted to my husband, “CONTRACTION!” whenever I could feel it coming. I could hear myself saying “oh no!” and “oh shit!” when they came even though my instinctive voice was saying, “YES! This is what we want!”. The pain was wearing me down. I heard myself talking about transferring to the hospital for pain relief. “If I just get something for the pain I can continue laboring. I’m so tired. I can’t do this anymore.” And my husband, determined to keep me afloat, wouldn’t entertain the thought. “Maybe you can call someone for support?” he asked.
I decided to call my friend Maryn, who runs a fabulous pregnancy and birth support website called Indie Birth. She had basically been my mentor this entire pregnancy, I had loved her indie birth classes and all of her free pod-casts on pregnancy, birth and postpartum. I love how realistic she is, non-judgmental and discussed evidence based findings instead of allowing fear mongering of pregnant women to continue. I realized that I was in a bad situation- I could feel myself giving up and the instinctive part of me NEVER wanted to give up. Just my body. And so I listened and it cried, “yes…call someone!”
Around 11:30pm I called Maryn to talk to her as I sat on the toilet to help the baby descend. I cried and told her I didn’t know what was happening. Something must be wrong, etc. She heard everything I said and just kept telling me “You’re doing it, Ashley. I know it hurts and I know you’re tired. But everything you’re telling me sounds totally normal. There’s nothing wrong.” And I responded, “What if if he’s stuck?” Maryn, knowing the outcome of my previous labor, calmly spoke to my instincts and not to my fear, “He’s not stuck. Don’t let that thought get into your head. Your body is doing everything it’s supposed to to bring that baby down. Your baby will come out and you’re getting closer…it’s almost time. Your body knows what to do.”
The emotional scarring was palpable. It was at this point during the last labor with my surrogate daughter that I had also begun breaking down. I remember asking my midwife what was going on. Around this time was when she decided it was necessary to see “how far dilated” I was to know if it was time to call my surrogate daughter’s parents to come and be here. She then proceeded to break my water without my consent. And the water poured and poured like buckets from between my naked legs, and the pain became so intolerable during those subsequent contractions that I begged for pain relief. I begged and begged because my midwife also told me I was fully dilated and effaced. Ready to be born! I just needed to push her down. But I had no urge to push. “Just push her down and she’ll be born, Ashley.” I tried and tried but there was nothing to push. And the contractions would come and I would scream for someone to help me. My midwife just kept telling me to push. Eventually (and quickly) I decided something must be “wrong” since the baby wouldn’t come. My midwife agreed, saying, “Yeah I’m not sure. We call this obstruction of labor- she must be stuck.” and we made plans to transfer.
But, now, 16 months later in my room, hanging up the phone after my conversation with Maryn I was in the same state of mind. Trying to get out of that thought process would prove very difficult. I paced the floors, dropping to all fours when a contraction came, howling through the pain, having my husband dig his fists into my back over and over and over. Maryn had suggested water. We filled the tub and I got in for a number of contractions. The water felt wonderful, but the back labor was still too strong to be in such a vulnerable position. I needed pressure and lots of it.
A few more hours passed of this with no “outward” progress. My mind continued to comb through the emotional scar tissue of my previous birth trauma. Why weren’t my contractions “doing” anything!? How could I keep going like this? I was so exhausted, I could barely even form sentences. My husband was exhausted. I heard myself continue to say, “Let’s just go. I can’t do this. I can’t deal with this pain, it hurts too much. Please..let’s just go. It’s impossible.” and inside I was thinking, “no, no, no” I was envisioning what they would do, the cesarean they would give me, the hell of a freak-out the hospital staff would have when we told them I had been self-care this pregnancy. They would immediately think I was some drug-addled woman who didn’t care about her pregnancy, because unfortunately many of the in-labor women who walk through E.R doors who have not had prenatal care aren’t really taking care of themselves or their babies. I envisioned my heartbreak, my son being cut from my belly behind the papery blue curtain and placed on a warmer with a hat slapped on his head and antibiotics in his eyes and me unable to be skin to skin with him. I remembered the statistics- the fact that the hospital IS NOT safer. That once an epidural is given you are so much more likely to have a cesarean. That cesarean is so much more likely to cause the death of myself or my baby. Did I really want to chance that because of pain? My husband convinced me again to call someone before making that rash decision.
It was 2am and I called Maryn again. Bless her soul for answering at that time of night! I cried into the phone that now “DEFINITELY something must be wrong, right? I’m having all of these random contractions, they’re not regulating, I am so exhausted. I can’t do it anymore…I just want to collapse. How can I continue and still push?”etc. We basically had the same conversation and she suggested honey and other foods…it was a good call as I realized I hadn’t eaten actual food in some time. Pat began bringing foods; bananas, toast, more bone broth, honey water, etc. to try to get my energy levels back up. He was such a trooper through this whole ordeal. I cannot explain how grateful I was to have him by my side through literally every single contraction.
After hanging up with Maryn I had another contraction that just rocked my body to the core with pain. I stood up and knew I had to make a decision- I either had to call in physical support from friends or I was going to lose to the pain. I texted my friend Sami right after the contraction ended. Our conversation went like this;
Me: “I can’t do it anymore. I am so exhausted I’m hallucinating. I need pain relief”
Sami: “Is it back labor pain? Or just contractions?”
Me: “cervix. And pelvis”
Sami “Oh, mama”
Me: “Wanna come over now?”
Me: I’m afraid I’m going to go to the hospital
Sami: I need pants then I’ll be there in 20 minutes
Me: Ok, cool
Sami arrived at 3am, shortly after her arrival my exhaustion was clear. I wandered downstairs and rested in the glider chair I had spent the last two months envisioning rocking my son in. I rocked and fell asleep and woke again as another contraction came. Sami suggested calling another friend who may be able to bring homeopathics to the house. I was still mumbling about the hospital, about pain, about being exhausted. Our friend with the remedies arrived to support me. Immediately she began asking me what I wanted to happen with this labor. “What’s most important to you right at this moment in regard to your labor?”, she asked. “I need to sleep”, I slurred with my eyes closed. “Just ten minutes, I don’t care. I just need to sleep,”
I had never envisioned my two friends coming to the birth. The last few months I had decided that I would love it to just be my husband and I and possibly my daughter. I knew, however, that because this was an autonomous birth, that I was free to bring in whomever I wanted for emotional support. Having an “unassisted” birth didn’t mean not having anyone there to support me. It meant that I was in control of the decision-making process. It meant that my instinctive voice was not shushed beneath the cacophony of fears and thoughts of other people. I was forefront. My instincts were center. I didn’t have a medical professional because I WAS the professional. In the end, no one knew how to birth my baby better than me. And I had the power to invite whoever I felt compelled to. I could also ask them to leave. I could ignore their suggestions if it didn’t suit me. I could hold them and they could hold me. Or they could sit in a corner playing Yahtzee if that somehow seemed appropriate! “Unassisted” didn’t mean I needed to be completely alone with my baby, although that speaks to some women. The point is- we need to own our births. And this was mine to own. And I got by with a little help from my friends.
By the Grace of God or a twist of the Universe or one of the homeopathic remedies, I suddenly came out of a contraction while standing next to my bed. I looked at the bed and it looked comfortable and I decided I was going to lay down for a while. The hospital talk ceased and never returned. I closed my eyes and fell asleep- possibly for mere moments- until another contraction came. And when that one came I dealt with it (with Pat’s fists digging deep into my sacrum) and fell asleep again. Time and events are so fluid and dream-like in labor. For the next few hours we went back and forth between sitting on the toilet to bring the baby down to being on the bed, to being on the floor. As I labored on; I and my cohorts were getting increasingly tired, and I was becoming more and more aware that there was a secret fear bubbling up that was keeping me from progressing in this labor.
I didn’t want to push.
I never did get a chance to push my surrogate baby out. I never felt her crown. I never
experienced ‘fetal ejection reflex’. In my head she was ‘stuck’…just like my midwife told me. My body had been broken. The baby; stolen. The deepest, darkest chasms of my mind held me, now, with the fear of my body failing again with my son. I also wanted to keep my son safe. I had tried to keep my surrogate daughter safe. The home she was going to be living in was not a place I would want a child to live. I spent a majority of my pregnancy with her protecting her. Letting her out meant letting her go where I couldn’t keep her safe. And now, it seemed letting my son out felt so scary to me. I was afraid of the physical pain. And I was afraid to let him go. And I was afraid of failing.
My old midwife blamed my cesarean on my weight. That I was too fat for my surrogate-daughter to fit through my pelvis. And I spent countless days, from that moment on, convincing myself through evidence-based research (which she obviously had never read) that BMI was not a factor in my surrogate daughter’s lack of descent into my pelvis. I was so body-positive through this new pregnancy. I loved my body more than ever. I even modeled for a belly photograph for a photographer when I was 8 months pregnant. I felt like a Goddess.
But here I was…16 months later, and at least 25 lbs heavier than when I delivered my surrogate-daughter…my mind was frozen with the penetrating voice of my old midwife.
“there’s a problem”
I wanted to push. I did. My baby wanted me to push. But goddammit! I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t do it. I finally admitted to my husband and my friends… “OK. Look. I KNOW if I just SQUAT things will progress” and they all became very excited and said, “Great idea! Yes! We’ll help you squat!” and they followed me into the bathroom and surrounded me in support; knowing that I was afraid.
I sat down on the toilet, my husband sat in front of me, I had a trusty pillow (that I continued to use for the rest of the time on the toilet!) to push into my face because, hey, women have interesting rituals to help them get through the pain of labor.
Before the contraction came I looked up at my friend Sami and I said, “It’s just 60 seconds, right? I can do this” she smiled and nodded. Sixty seconds. I had to be brave for 60 seconds.
The contraction came. They all came. I sat on that toilet for a while letting them come, letting the pain come and you know? It wasn’t as bad as I had feared. My husband and I started talking through the contraction. Talking to our son. Yelling, “Come down now, baby. It’s safe. It’s ok to come down now!” and I would repeat “Please come down, please come down, please come down. I love you. It’s safe”
and the dream-like quality of labor comes again here. We left the bathroom but came back. And finally I had an urge to push. And I let it happen and SPLASH! My water broke into the toilet.
Dream, dream, dream.
Eventually after many contractions after my water broke and baby still was not present yet and some of the contractions had weakened, we realized I needed to rest again. Every time I reached a plateau of exhaustion all I needed was a few moments of sleep. So we put this theory to the test and Sami and my friend left the room. It was just Pat and I. I collapsed on the bed laying on my side. Pat covered me with a blanket at my request- as if I was going to take a long nap. A few minutes later, however, I could feel a contraction coming. My eyes widened and I stared at the wood-grain of my headboard which had become my trusted focal point through the contractions. This was a big one.
“CONTRACTION!” I yelled. My husband jumped up, fists at the ready, plunging them deep into my back and I felt the urge to push as I had never felt it. My body did it for me, I puuuuuushed and felt a large amount of amniotic fluid come gushing out and suddenly I felt my son’s body slide from within my cervix into the birth canal. I jumped up on all fours, tossed the blanket aside and my friends, hearing the change in my vocals, came rushing in. Sami sat beside me and asked if I wanted to be alone, if I wanted it to just be Pat and I. I didn’t. But it wasn’t because I was afraid of being alone. It was because I wanted them to join me in welcoming my son. Because we had all worked together as a team the entire last 8 hours and I knew he was coming. I wanted them there.
Another contraction came and another incredible urge to push overtook my body, I wasn’t even in control anymore- my body was ejecting my son into the world and I was along for the ride. Hands and knees felt right. I never envisioned hands and knees. But my body knew.
No one coached me.
No one instructed me.
No one hushed me.
No one had their hands inside my body.
No one told me it was ‘time’.
No one told me to hold back.
No one told me I couldn’t do it.
And I pushed and pushed. My body pushed harder than I even knew possible. I draped my upper body over my friend Sami as my husband and my daughter (now in the room) and my other friend sat behind me watching my son emerge. I felt his head come down, I felt him crowning, I screamed some obscenities in the loudest roar I could ever imagine. And in my ear, my dear friend Sami whispered,
“You are doing this. You are a Goddess. You are so powerful. You are so strong. Your baby is coming. You are going to meet your baby, Ashley! You’re doing it!’ And I could hear her voice quake with tears and I could hear the wind HOWLING outside, a blizzard had begun to descend on the Denver area suddenly and I remember hearing all of these things. Howl, Goddess, my daughter’s voice saying, “I see his face! I see his face!” and I remember thinking, “FINALLY! I’m going to meet you, baby!” and my body stretched open to bring him forward onto the Earth.
As I pushed I could feel my son assisting, I could feel him wiggle and twist and turn. He was helping himself be born. I pushed and pushed and pushed and suddenly his warm body slipped from mine and I heard my husband yell out in happiness. I lifted myself and turned to pick up my slippery newborn.
His breathing was shallow although he was pink. His umbilical cord continued to pulse life-saving, nourishing oxygen into his body while his respiratory system underwent enormous change to start breathing air. His inhalations weren’t happening as quickly as I’d liked. He was grunting and amniotic fluid was rattling around in his airways. He wasn’t breathing. I could feel panic sitting in the back seat of my mind. Instead of letting it take control, I grabbed my son, pulled him up to my face and sucked the amniotic fluid out of his nose with my mouth, spitting the fluid onto the bed beside me. I did this a few times. In between doing this I was telling him how much I loved him. He was doing it. He was going to breathe. I told him how beautiful he was. And I suctioned more. And every time I suctioned, a little more fluid was released from his airways. I did five small rescue breaths into his nose and mouth to allow him to facilitate the respiratory process. And every time I told him I loved him. I held him in an inverted position to allow the fluids to drain. And after all of this he let out a lusty cry. His color continued to remain pink through all of this. I was not afraid. I felt no fear- I was nervous, but I knew he would be ok. And he was. And his cord continued to pump oxygen into his body. Every cry he made was music to my ears. Unlike the rest of his life; this would be the only time I would enjoy hearing my son wail.
I collapsed onto the bed with him on my chest and we both breathed for a while and I thanked him for being so smart. I thanked my friends for supporting me. And after a little while I stood up and birthed the placenta that was hanging out in my uterus causing some pretty intense labor contractions. It slid out beautifully and completely in tact. All at once. I was done. We were done.
My friends assisted in wiping off my legs, we noted that I barely had any bleeding at that point. I barely had a tear on me. And my son was breathing and crying and healthy on my chest.
I realize sharing that part of my story may make some people nervous. It may sound scary. But I want to share that part. It’s important. It’s important because birth is normal. A real, true complication requiring excessive assistance that a woman can’t handle is rare. And when a woman is allowed to follow her instincts, many times she will KNOW when there is an issue. Or that there is going to be an issue. She can feel it in her bones. But we need to be able to hear our instincts. We need to be able to not be silenced or allow ourselves to be silenced. And perhaps he would’ve breathed on his own even this time, but I felt the need to assist in that aspect and I’m OK with that.
As I was laying back on my freshly sheeted bed with my baby in my arms, my husband, my daughter and my friends at my side, Sami looked at me as she was stroking my hair and she smiled and said, “Ashley…the only person broken at your last birth was your midwife.”
And it was in that moment I realized how far I had come. And my tears finally came. The enormity of this birth and the trauma of the last one hit me at once. And I knew how beautiful birth could be. And how alive I felt and how happy I was to be home with my family to welcome our son. I was so grateful to not have transferred because of the pain. I was so grateful to have phoned friends when I truly needed to. That I listened to that roaring voice inside of me that knew precisely what to do. That I let my body labor however it needed to. That my daughter was able to see what a woman’s body was capable of. The powers we can harness in those moments that are so non-chalantly thrown away by women who are indifferent toward birth. I want my daughter to care what happens to her body in all aspects; and that doesn’t stop when you’re pregnant or birthing.
Sami was right. The birth affirmation flag my friends and family made that was hanging above my bed speaks Truth.
I AM a Goddess. I DID birth my baby. My body WAS NOT broken.
I was 25 lbs heavier, I had a baby that was a half a pound heavier, I labored for 32 hours at home, 24 of them with just my husband and I, without anyone telling me what I could or could not do, I have a 7” scar across my belly that held tight through the storm of labor and I. Pushed. Him. Out.
And I AM a birth warrior. I AM.