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Calm and Unafraid: Briana's Simple, Normal, Beautiful Birth of Baby Helen

A little backstory: My first birth, with our son James was in June of 2021 and was an uneventful, normal, healthy, entirely unmedicated delivery at a freestanding birth center. Despite the lack of complications, my experience was not entirely positive. I did not feel prepared for the level of intensity and naïvely thought my breathing work and mental prep would be enough and “make it okay.” For the last two or three hours I ended up feeling trapped, desperate, and scared. I was pretty out of it after my baby was born and didn’t feel very bonded to him right away. My midwife was…fine...but she was so chill and hands-off that I realized in hindsight I would’ve benefited from more support. Afterwards, there were memories of particular moments of my birth that I didn’t want to think about because they were pretty scary. Again, baby and I were completely healthy the whole time; it was just the mental experience of normal labor intensity that was overwhelming.

This next pregnancy I was due on Tuesday, March 19, 2024. This time I went with a group of three midwives at a birth center five minutes away from us, and I loved them all. We thought we were having another boy because of the Sneak Peek blood test I did, but were also not 100% certain because I had forgotten one of the sanitization steps. My leg hair also basically stopped growing, which is apparently more common with girls. I decided not to do routine ultrasounds this pregnancy, so we didn’t confirm the sex that way either. So I knit a pink hat, as well as blue ones, just in case.

My pregnancy was extremely normal. Baby was very active and I felt great throughout. Then my father-in-law died of a sudden heart attack when I was 38+1 weeks. We immediately knew we would name our baby after him if we had a boy: Damien Joseph. I was really looking forward to honoring his memory in that way, and for my husband Peter to be able to name his son after his own father. The funeral, however, was scheduled for the same day as my due date, so we had no idea whether we’d be able to make it, depending on when baby arrived.

I had been excited and confident about having another baby all through my pregnancy but as I got closer to the end, I started to think more about the really hard parts of my first birth and got scared I’d end up there again. I began to dread my birth a little. I had to work through a whole pile of negative thoughts, pray about them, and let them go. I finally told myself that, whatever happened, it was an opportunity to say “yes” to God in my vocation as a mother, and I could say that yes to Him even if I didn’t know what lay ahead. That brought me a lot of peace. The book Made for This: The Catholic Mom’s Guide to Birth by Mary Haseltine, was also pretty life-changing in my thinking about the spiritual meaning, purpose, profundity, beauty, and importance of birth. Everyone should read it!!

On the afternoon of Saturday, March 16, I started feeling little cramps deep down that felt different than the Braxton Hicks contractions I’d been having for months. They weren’t strong at all - the BH contractions were often much stronger - but they felt different, like a menstrual

cramp down low instead of a big, all over, painless squeeze. They were very short and erratic, though. I also noted that I kept having to go to the bathroom, and wondered if my body was starting its pre-labor clearing out process (it was). We had been planning to hike Mt. Peak on the warm, sunny day, but just ended up visiting with Peter’s family and resting. I was thinking it might be best to stay closer to home too, and a big uphill hike would likely be pretty uncomfortable. I did play piano and sing for the 5pm Mass that evening, and finally had a chance for Fr. Lou to give me the special Blessing Before Childbirth, which was really neat. Peter came after Mass specifically to join me for that. We then returned to my in-laws and I ate a little bit. I had a premonition I’d rather not have an uncomfortably full stomach/a lot in my digestive system that night, and we went home later.

Laying in bed I started watching the clock to see the timing of the funny cramps I had; they were anywhere from 5 to 15 minutes apart but finally fizzled out by about 12:30 a.m. I told Peter it was probably nothing, or prodromal labor. He was still nervous but fell asleep quickly. Then our son James came into our bed an hour or so later. I put him back into his own bed about 4:30 a.m., and was drifting back to sleep when I felt a “real” contraction at 5:05 a.m. I thought, okay, let’s see if these continue, because if they do I’m sure this is actually labor.

I had another at 5:15 and again at 5:22. Three in a row was convincing enough for me so I got up

and made myself a bowl of yogurt with chia seeds, nuts, dried fruit, honey, and fresh strawberries. I had been quite hungry when I’d wake up throughout the night, and knew I’d need to have some energy for birth. Also more bathroom trips.

I labored alone for an hour, breathing, swaying, and relaxing, then woke up Peter at 6 a.m. I told him, “Guess what, I think we’re having a baby today,” and gave him a kiss. He flew out of the bed, tore up the stairs, and ran into the bathroom to shower, then ran down again like a madman. I told him there was plenty of time, I just wanted him to have time to make breakfast and not be rushed. I think him seeing me work through the contractions freaked him out a bit because it was all becoming suddenly real. They were 2-5 minutes apart, lasting about 50 seconds, and moderately intense at that point, but I wasn’t having to “vocalize” through them yet.

I sent a message through the midwife pager at 6:30, letting them know I was in early labor. After hemming and hawing about not wanting to wake her up, I finally called my mother in law just before 7 a.m. (to have her pick up James), and to give her time to make any arrangements and breakfast prep, etc. I had a contraction while on the phone with her but was able to carry on the conversation through it.

Through the next hour or two I walked around, packed the bags, braided my hair, made my electrolyte “labor margarita” (salty with limes), paced the front porch in the morning sunshine, and laid down for about 45 minutes to try to rest, all the while timing contractions. The timing was still variable (2-6 minutes mostly) but the duration was closer to a minute and they were definitely increasing in intensity. My brother in law came to pick up James just before 9 a.m.

We had to wake James up but he was excited to go. Once James was gone there wasn’t anything keeping us from leaving for the birth center, and Peter was eager to go. I wasn’t sure it was time yet, because although the contractions were quite close together I felt like they were pretty manageable with my breathing, hip swaying, and gentle low moaning routine. But I realized I wanted to try their TENS unit, get settled in, and possibly see how far along I was, so I sent another message to the pager and we left at about 9:30.

During the 5 minute drive I knelt on the front seat facing backwards and had two or three contractions in the car. In between, I checked my email (“oh I need to put in the Azure order

today!”) and told Peter I still thought it was too early. When we arrived, I had a contraction on the way to the door and stopped to lean on the wheelchair railing. Hannah the midwife found us there and let us into the beautiful birth suite.

The water was running in the tub, and the sun was shining through the curtains in the windows,

and I felt relaxed and excited and ready to have this baby. It was really happening! After Hannah checked my vitals, etc., she offered to do a cervical check if I wanted one. I hesitated briefly because I didn’t want to be less progressed than I had hoped, but did ask for a check anyway. After a few minutes of trying to get situated on the bed - being on my back was horribly uncomfortable and I had a contraction or two just getting into position - Hannah very

gently checked me and said, “Good work, friend! You’re 7cm and 90% effaced.”

I then asked for the TENS unit, which ended up being a great help. Peter was quietly praying the Rosary, I was pacing the room, and when a contraction would come I would lean my arms over the bed, dial up the TENS unit, and Peter would put counter pressure on my back. This worked very well for me. I would remind myself that the intensity was temporary, would be subsiding soon, to let it flow over me and away, that it wouldn’t hurt me, and to stay relaxed and breathe. I was calm and not afraid, because I knew I could get through each one and that there were only so many. I was walking around, sipping my electrolytes, and making small talk between contractions. Things were going beautifully.

Midwife Terah and Michaela, the student midwife, arrived about 10:40. They administered the IV antibiotics for group B strep that I decided I wanted and requested. While that was happening, Hannah held my hand during a strong contraction and helped me keep relaxed and soft. I vividly remember how comforting that was. I felt like I truly was “doing a good job” instead of just getting “run over by a steamroller,” which was how I had described my first birth experience.

But the intensity was definitely picking up, and I felt a pressure and heaviness at the peak of contractions that made me want my water to break; that sounded like it’d be a relief. They were also getting longer - I’m guessing close to 90 seconds. Hannah asked if I was ready for the tub and I said yes. I stripped everything off except my bra and got into the water just after 11 a.m. From there, Peter sat by my head and held my hand, and I laid on my side through contractions. I said that things were not so bad, I wasn’t losing my mind like last time, so I didn’t feel like I was as far along as maybe I’d hope to be. But I also noticed the sounds I was making were starting to shift and sound pushy. The midwives noticed too, and Hannah told me I could start pushing whenever I felt like it, and that they could check me if I wanted. At that point I never questioned whether I was far along enough to push the baby out - I clearly knew it was time.

I did NOT want to push. It was easier to relax and let the contractions roll over me than to bear down and push into the pain. But the pressure was getting so strong and I was so uncomfortable, even between contractions. I said, “I don’t think I can do this. I want someone

else to do it.” (Hello transition!) Hannah suggested I could try getting on all fours if I wanted. I

said, “Nah, everything sucks.” After a particularly hard contraction, during which I timidly started

to push and felt how painful and difficult it was, I started praying aloud, “Oh Jesus, oh Jesus.” It’s hard to articulate exactly what I meant in that brief prayer but I guess I was asking for help

and strength and for Jesus to be present with me in this incredibly intense moment, in the

few words I could manage.

I thought of all the many people praying for us and was encouraged by that thought as well. I finally realized there was no other way this labor was going to end and this baby come out of me other than me pushing. So I did. It hurt like…I don’t even know. I just screamed or yelled or whatever. Peter said later he was impressed with my “vocal power” and steady pitch, but that I hurt his ears. I was laying on my side with one knee up out of the water. At any rate, it was not long at all once I got down to business that the baby’s head was crowning. I reached down and felt a lot of soft hair floating around in the water. Then the head was out!!

I waited for the next contraction - less than a minute - and pushed her whole body out into my own hands at 11:26 a.m.

Hannah helped unwrap her cord and I pulled my baby up to my chest. I asked if it was a boy or girl and Peter saw first - a girl!!

She was quite purple and not crying or breathing, but making little gasps and moving. And she was covered in vernix. I held my baby and cried and talked to her. Hannah reassured me that her heart rate was very good and she was still getting what she needed through the umbilical cord; she got two lil puffs from the Ambu bag and began to splutter and cry, taking her first breath at nearly a minute after birth. She began to pink up after that.

About five minutes after Helen was born the placenta was ready to come out; the “separation gush” started to turn the water red. Hannah very gently picked up the cord - I couldn’t feel that she pulled at all really - and I pushed two or three times and out it came. They put it in a big mixing bowl that just floated on top of the water. A little more blood flowed and some (I thought) big clots came out, about the size of eggs. The midwives asked me to hand the baby to Peter while they helped me out of the tub. He took off his shirt to put her on his skin. I didn’t feel faint

or dizzy at all and they helped me take off my wet bra, wrapped me in a towel, and helped me to

the bed.

Helen’s umbilical cord was clamped and cut (by Peter) about 15 minutes after birth, and he handed her back to me. She latched perfectly right away. Hannah very gently checked me for tearing and said I had a tiny skin split below, and maybe a tiny tear above. No stitching needed. They set me up with a lovely ice pack pad and blankets, and left us to chill for the next two hours or so, with occasional checks on my and baby’s vitals. Helen just nursed and nursed and slept and we had a great time calling our families and friends and sending pictures. I was starving hungry though, so we pulled out the couple of “snack packs” and Babybel cheeses we brought.

After about two hours, the midwives came back to do Helen’s newborn exam and weigh her. All was well and she weighed 7 lbs. 9oz. They helped me to the bathroom, but despite bracing myself for stinging, I felt no discomfort with peeing. Maybe the tears had already closed up or just weren’t deep enough for me to even feel. Hurrah! The midwives said my bleeding was minimal. I got cleaned up and dressed, and we packed up and went home just before 3 p.m.

Pretty much everything was simply great. I didn’t like what pushing out a baby felt like, and I wasn’t as chill right before then, but everything else was fine. I didn’t end up feeling scared, desperate, and trapped. I never felt undignified or exposed. I didn’t poop. I felt loved and supported by my husband, my midwives, and God, and I always felt safe. The sun was shining, the room was beautiful, my baby was perfect, I didn’t tear, hardly bled, and had no lingering soreness. The midwives were unfailingly gentle, considerate, and respectful.

The photos are breathtaking. I see little, tangible reminders of that day - the clothes I was wearing, my big water bottle, James’ backpack, even the bruise from my IV line - and they’re all completely positive associations. I remember Hannah with fondness and look forward to seeing her again. I want to tell everyone my birth story. I have no bad memories or dread of experiencing birth again. I wouldn’t necessarily want to do it again this minute, but I know I could do it again eventually. It was beautiful, prayerful, calm, and peaceful (okay, mostly!) and I am so, so grateful. Thank you Lord for my beautiful birth and my precious baby!

Briana and her husband Peter have been married for four years, live in Enumclaw WA, and are parents to James (almost 3) and Helen (brand new). Briana is mainly a stay at home mom but also works part-time as the Director of Sacred Music at their local parish, holding a baby in one arm and directing the choir with the other. 

(Photography courtesy Foothills Midwifery)


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