Falling Into Home Birth: The Birth of My First Baby John Paul
My first born baby is now somehow a young man and celebrates his 18th birthday today! So here is his birth story - how I fell into home birth, how he was born, and ultimately how that birth changed the course of my life.
I had no idea it was labor. I remember being half asleep at around midnight uncomfortable with what I thought was the baby's position. I laid there a while slowly waking up out of a groggy sleep uncomfortable trying to keep the baby from pushing so hard on my upper abdomen. It felt like every few minutes he was using my lower uterus to brace himself as he used his legs or knees to push with all his tiny baby strength on the upper part. He would push and I would try to change his position and keep him from doing it so hard. I'd push back with my hands to try to get him to flip around or choose another spot to play. But then it kept happening. It started getting more and more intense and eventually bright little me figured out that maybe this was that labor thing that I was supposed to be ready for.
Except I wasn't ready, not the way I wanted to be anyway. I was 38 weeks, 6 days (but who's counting?) and every time the birth was brought up it was assumed I would go past forty weeks because after all, I was a first time mom and that was the norm. Most of my family members had so it didn't even hit me that I could have that baby sooner. Two days before I had completed my brief stint as a youth minister. A week before I had gotten home from a strenuous week long work camp with my teens. I was exhausted and looking forward to having at least a week to get all the last minute things done, take a few naps, and breathe for a few seconds before the baby was born.
But it was earlier than I anticipated. I wanted to make sure this was the real thing but I had never done this before so I didn't know. I laid there a little while and pretty soon it was obvious that it was at least, something to notice. Contractions were intensifying so I woke up my husband and let him know what was going on. Then I ordered requested that he clean up the hundreds of books that we had left stacked in precarious piles and lying around the living room the evening before because it seemed like this might be it. He had just finished making these monstrous bookshelves to house our vast collection of books in our tiny starter house. He had just moved the shelves into our extra room downstairs (the room where I planned to birth the baby) hours before and we had finally been able to pull out our boxes and boxes of books to be sorted on the shelves. The categorizing and alphabetization had started (no, really) but it got late and we planned to finish in the morning. So in the midst of early labor, he was zipping back and forth from the living room to the office with teetering stacks of books to place on the shelves and out of the way.
I helped at first. In between contractions I was feeling tired but good so I would bring in a stack, start lining them up on the shelf, then bend over or lean against the wall while I sort of breathed and danced through each one. Soon I wasn't able to play librarian anymore and I paced around from bathroom to living room to office dealing intermittently with the contractions while he finished up installing the books. Then it was done and our living room was clear and office floor empty which was good because...we also needed a bed down there. I wasn't going to have the baby til next week so getting the room ready was on the docket for my week off. Down came the queen sized bed frame, the box spring, and the mattress from our upstairs bedroom, my husband squeezing it through our tiny staircase all by himself. I paced. He assembled a bed. I had no desire to eat or drink or do anything but occasionally use the bathroom and organize things. I took my first oral antibiotic because I had tested positive for GBS and that was the protocol he used (something I wouldn't do again if I could do it over!). At some point around this time, maybe 4 a.m., we called the doctor's office. I was so nervous to call and wake anyone up too early. We got a call back, and I think my husband talked to them a bit, maybe I did, too, I don't remember. We left it that the nurse midwife who worked as his assistant was on her way to our house.
During this time the bed was finally set up and he began bringing in our birth supplies from the closet. At least I had those ready. A little folding table was set up for most of the supplies to be on hand and we began making the bed with the now familiar layering - nice sheets, shower curtain, old sheets, chux pads. This time, though, we had to consult our doctor's info sheets for step by step instructions on how to turn your tiny 12 x 10 back room into an adequate birth space.
Let's break from our tale for a moment and acknowledge why I was choosing to have a birth at home with my first baby with a doctor. No, it wasn't because I was some natural birth hippie activist or was anti-hospital brave warrior woman and had researched the statistics and had been convicted that home birth was a superior choice. Nope, not at all. (That came later.) I got pregnant, didn't have a doctor, and a Catholic friend of mine in the area recommended this doctor who wouldn't push birth control and respected NFP and that sounded good to me. She liked him, he would respect my faith, so I went to him. By God's grace, he just also happened to offer home birth as well as hospital and was a huge supporter of natural birth.
I had no plans on birthing at home, we kind of just fell into it really. At one of my prenatal appointments the doctor asked what we were doing for the birth: home or hospital. I'm sure we asked a bunch of questions but in the end, he said it was safe, the drive to the hospital was long, and I had confidence that under normal circumstances this having a baby thing didn't need to be all that complicated. So we decided to do it. My experience with natural family planning and understanding my fertility helped me to truly believe that God knew what He was doing when He designed this whole body thing. It helped me view my body and its functions as a work of intelligence intentionally created by a Father who not only knew what He was doing but desired only the best and greatest things for me. And besides, I'd seen my cat give birth when I was little so I knew odds were that I could do it, too.
I wanted to birth drug-free. It felt instinctive that I didn't need medications to birth and that both baby and I would be better off doing it that way as close to the normal design as possible. It was also convicted deep within my heart that embracing childbirth was a way that I personally could be able to enter deeply into The Story for which I had and continue to offer my life, that beautiful, story beginning with a man and woman who defy and fall and as a consequence for their sin, this life and their union becomes messy and painful, sometimes excruciatingly so. I knew that I needed to be a part of that story, participating in it through my own bodily offering. "Women shall be saved through childbearing," the apostle says. It just seemed to make sense for me in my state in life and vocation to do it this way.
The contractions intensified. I moaned and paced and leaned against the wall. The whole time is a blur, really. I know the midwife got there and checked me but I have no idea what she said. She went to go try to sleep on the couch and Brian laid down to sleep on the bed. I felt alone but it was okay. I remember trying to sit on the giant play ball I had bought for just this purpose (I was far too cheap to spring for the real exercise ball) and the pain became so intense I popped right back up. I chose to walk and move and get my baby out that way. I was so tired. At some point I remember the midwife coming back in to check me and she being surprised that I was far along and would soon be pushing. She called for the doctor to come and she had to convince him that I really was going this fast as a first time mom.
By this time, it was probably after 9 a.m. I was on the bed and I remember her asking if I wanted her to break my water as it would probably make things go faster for me. At the time it sounded fine to me and I didn't question it. As soon as that water broke, the sensations totally changed and became even more crazy intense and we were at push time. Looking back, I wish I had said no but I was pretty clueless about the topic and I trusted her. All I remember after this was the doctor arriving just before ten, him scrambling to get his supplies ready, and a few minutes later needing to push. They coached me and held my legs back (again something I would change) while I couldn't do anything BUT push. I remember them telling me to not push in between and I tried but it was completely in vain. My body was pushing whether I wanted to or not. They could see his head! It took three of those crazy mammoth pushes and at 10:13 a.m. our amazing baby entered the world.
I was in shock and awe and my sweet baby was placed on my chest, A BOY! Somehow I sort of knew it was a boy. I didn't cry. I just stared and held and felt the sweet (albeit temporary) physical relief. I was in another world and my body felt like a limp noodle but my baby was here. His cord was allowed to pulse for several minutes before my husband cut it.
I don't remember exactly how the birth of the placenta happened. I'm sure there were a few more contractions and more pushing. My pushing in the third stage always feels so forced. I don't have a super strong urge then and my body feels so weak but somehow or other we did it. I also was able to start nursing my babe sometime during this time. I did have a tear from that quick pushing despite my doctor's attempt at warm compresses and massage. I was stitched up sometime during this time and even with the lidocaine it hurt like the dickens.
His labor was about 10 hours long, give or take, and we named him John Paul (my choice) after the pope who played such a huge role in our reversion to the Faith and our views on love and sexuality. His newborn exam was performed and he weighed a sweet little six pounds 15 ounces. Pink, healthy, beautiful. The doctor and midwife cleaned up, I was able to get up (SUPER dizzy at first) and try to use the bathroom. About an hour or two after the birth we were left with our baby and next to no idea what we were doing. While hard this was actually really neat because we figured it out and followed our instincts. One of the office nurses did come by the next day to check me and the baby and to give me my Rhogam shot since my blood is negative and baby's was positive.
A few hours later our neighbors knocked at the door, worried. I was in the other room and my husband assured them that, though they had seen a doctor going back and forth from the house, everything was fine and the baby was here. (Note, if you have neighbors in close proximity, maybe tell them if you plan to have a home birth and don't want them knocking!) I stayed hidden with the baby. Later that day, we had to host in-laws and while I wanted to share the joy with people it was extremely hard and looking back, not at all a good idea. I was in so much pain and had no idea what I was doing. I was moving around WAY more than I should have been and didn't even know that I should be laying down and getting some cold compresses for my very very sore stitches and perineum. I wish I had had someone who knew how to care for me check in and just make me stay in bed while they fed me and gave me what I needed to care for my lower half. But they brought subs with them, at least, and I was totally craving a sub.
I remember a feeling like I had never felt before as I surrendered my baby to the arms of other people. It was wild. I literally ached to hold my baby again and it was all I could do to not jump up and grab him back during the 23 seconds I would let someone else (besides my husband) hold him.
That night was surreal. We went to bed falling into a dead sleep. A few hours later we were woken by a cry and for several moments were so confused as to WHAT that sound was. Right! Baby! We were still downstairs and John Paul was sleeping in the bassinet next to us. That would be our temporary bedroom for a few weeks, at least. For weeks when he would wake at night it was a full blown two person Olympic event. One person had to soothe him while we changed his little diaper and then I needed Brian's help to get him nursing. I couldn't bear to hear that cry and I'm not sure he never really cried during those first few months. I would really have this interior physical reaction to it so I would try to tend to him before he could get distressed. The sound of a crying baby (even not my own) still cuts through me like nothing else and I think maybe it's supposed to be that way.
Those first few weeks were beautiful and hard. I was in love with my son but recovery was very difficult. I had no idea how to care for stitches (even though I had been told...seriously I was in some sort of hazy sleep-deprived dream world and completely thrown off by BABY). It took me weeks to not feel sore and heavy and car rides were brutal. It wasn't until we were six weeks down the line that nursing wasn't tear-inducing, toe-curlingly painful. We did see a lactation consultant. I was making tons of milk, he was growing fine, but it was just that I was too impatient with getting a proper latch and would let him nurse with his tiny mouth not completely open. I was completely committed to nursing and eventually either he learned to latch better or my breasts toughened up enough to handle it because nursing became somewhat easier. It took a good seven months before I wasn't constantly afraid of leaking. I know now that I don't have any struggles with creating milk and have to nurse only one side at a time in the beginning or I make way too much and my letdown is then crazy fire hydrant strong. But in the beginning I followed the standard "rules" of nursing on both sides each session (even if one side wasn't empty) which created a cycle of too much milk/crazy letdown ---> baby swallowing air and getting too much fore milk ---> gassy/refluxy baby ---> nurse to soothe (but not block feeding so stimulating too much production) ---> too much milk/crazy letdown. Repeat. Thankfully, he still thrived despite the reflux symptoms and occasional projectile spitting.
Emotionally, having a baby threw me for a total loop. We were pretty much on our own. The reality of motherhood was shocking to my system and the complete dependence of this tiny very real and vulnerable person was a huge shift in my worldview. It was almost scary to me how important I was now in the life of another person. We got through it and in some ways are probably stronger for it, though I absolutely could have used more support and mothering of me through this transition. There were many many blessings in the way things happened for us, though, even with the struggles. I am confident in my instincts as a mother. Being on our own in those trying years cemented our little family unit and we have been able to create healthy space and boundaries that have been valuable for our family's growth and goals.
While there are some things I would change, the way John Paul's birth happened was such a crazy profound blessing in so many ways. I changed on that day. I felt like a completely new person. I was not at all steeped in the birth world at that time nor was I even very educated in it. But I experienced a practically tangible empowerment in my motherhood through his birth. I felt like people must feel after having run a marathon but ten times so (and with more pelvic pain, ha). I knew with every fiber of my being that I could and should be this baby's mom. I knew I had it in me to do anything I needed to do for this baby. That confidence was necessary for me to get through some incredibly challenging first weeks (not to mention later life events) and I'm so grateful for a doctor and husband who believed without a doubt that my body was designed to birth my baby. Without that support I'm not sure what would have happened or if my experience of birth and motherhood itself would be completely different. In fact, the entire track of my life would likely be incredibly different. I'm glad it happened the way it did. That said, and with that dichotomy that God so loves to present to us over and over, the actual reality of motherhood has been one of the most humbling roles in all my life. From the vulnerability of birth to the difficult recovery to the present day mothering of the now eighteen year old young man who still holds my heart, I am humbled that I, with all my faults and quirks and sins, could be his mother and that God has given me this undeserved privilege now seven times over.