November 11, 2020
I stared at the positive pregnancy test and started crying. My husband would be ordained a Catholic priest in eight months, and I now would have a baby three weeks later. How could we possibly handle all those major life changes at once? What if I couldn't fly and missed his ordination? And there was guilt, too - my friend who experienced low fertility and had lost four babies in early pregnancy was trying to conceive. Why was I so blessed with ease of conception and healthy pregnancies? Why couldn’t she be the one with beautiful news this dark, cold morning? I nursed my fussing toddler while I called my husband, several states away doing a weeklong intensive, to tell him the news. His positive reaction gave me the strength to get the kids up and go to daily Mass, as was our practice, and move on with the day. If he wasn’t anxious about it, I could work on trust a little more.
The next evening, I went to a mother blessing for a dear friend. It was beautiful to pray with and for her and her baby. As we shared in fellowship, I mentioned that I had had my other three babies at home, and the hostess asked who my midwives had been. When I shared, she said that one of them, Jeanne, had died that summer. I had known she’d had cancer - she’d been in treatment and almost hadn’t made it to my previous birth - but I hadn’t heard that death was imminent! I was crushed. She had been such a wise, sweet woman, such a support! I reached out to her assistant midwife and another midwife she had trained, both of whom had been at my previous birth. They were willing to work with me as a team, just as they each had before with Jeanne, which was such a solace to me.
That winter was a hard one, with early, heavy snowfalls (without fail, every time my husband
was out of town!). On Thanksgiving, we FaceTimed my only remaining grandparent, Grandpa M, to tell him our news. We could barely hear each other, but he couldn’t stop smiling at us, murmuring “beautiful family,” over and over. What a gift that call was. Two days later, he died suddenly. His name was James, and our baby was born on the Feast of St James. God gives so many little reminders that He sees our every sorrow and loves us in that sorrow.
In February, my husband’s remaining grandparent, Grandma T, also died. We all flew down for
him to officiate her funeral services. My husband’s mother's family was Catholic, although he was raised Protestant, so it was beautiful both to be able to offer the prayers of the Church for Grandma. I flew back home alone with the children as he went on down to Texas for another weeklong intensive. It was during that week that he was informed of his assignment: we would be moving from the Twin Cities in Minnesota, our home of the past six years, to Omaha, Nebraska, a city neither of us had ever been to.
Not only would we be cramming house hunting and a move into our summer as well as an ordination, new job, and new baby, but Nebraska is a state whose medical system is known for being hostile to home birth. I began searching for a midwife, and quickly found that without being on the ground and having an “in” into the homebirth community, I could find nothing. I researched, brainstormed with my husband, sisters, mom, and midwives, and prayed. At last, we came up with a plan: we would wait to close on our home that we were selling until after the birth, and leave the necessary furniture and supplies there. Within a week before my due date, we would drive up, wait for the baby to be born, and drive back within a week after birth. Should I have signs of early labor before then, we would be prepared to make the six-hour drive at a moment’s notice, or, if necessary, transfer to a local hospital.
My previous babies were born between 39+6 and 40+4, and my shortest labor (counting early labor as well as active) was 17.5 hours, so our plan seemed reasonable, and we prepared for other scenarios as well. It was not an easy decision to make, though. We had taken great pains with the last two babies to hallow the first two weeks postpartum as a time of rest for me, bringing in family to help and ensuring my husband had at least a week off work. Now, we were planning for a six-hour road trip just a few days postpartum, with my husband diving right back into his new responsibilities at two different parishes, and no solid plan for having help postpartum. It was difficult to surrender and trust every day, as my exhaustion and hormone driven anxiety raced high.
We traveled a lot during the pregnancy, road tripping out to Michigan so that I could sponsor my sister when she was received into the Catholic Church at the Easter Vigil, as well as to visit my in-laws a couple hours south, and then back and forth a few times to Nebraska, as well as the flight down to Houston, Texas for my husband’s ordination on the Feast of Sts. Peter and Paul (I did make it!) at the end of June. With everything we had going on during the pregnancy, I found it difficult to bond with the baby as I had with my others. I didn’t feel the affection or the excitement to meet this new person as I had before. It wasn’t that I didn’t love or want the baby (although sometimes I feared that might be the reason), it was simply exhaustion, and not enough space in our life for me to rest.
I was blessed with a healthy, fairly uneventful pregnancy. I always experience constant nausea, exhaustion, and depression in the first trimester, but my second trimester brought plenty of energy for the hard work of organizing and packing a house while caring for young children. I had a wonderful chiropractor who kept me up and moving, and when I experienced round ligament pain in the third trimester, she was able to help me treat the debilitating pain and keep going.
Early in this pregnancy, my husband and I had been discussing the role of prayer in choosing a name for the baby. We had never given much thought before to listening to what God might want us to name the baby, and it caused us to approach our many discussions on that topic over the next several months differently than we ever had before. We already had a girl name selected that we hadn’t needed for the previous two baby boys, but this time, we both felt strongly that the baby was another boy. We’d never felt strongly one way or the other before, and we couldn’t think why we would this time.
In August 2020, I had been hit hard by the death of a holy young man I’d never met, the son of a married priest in our diocese. I had been asking his intercession daily since his death, and wanted to use his name, Isaac, as a middle name, should we have a boy. However, following my husband’s return from his spring intensive, I realized it should be the first name, and he agreed. He suggested Peregrin for the middle name, after the boy martyr, whose relics are housed at St
John’s Abbey in Minnesota, where my husband is an oblate. The name meanings were not lost on us, either - Isaac means laughter, and it seemed to us as if God had been laughing at all our plans for a while, and was calling us to join Him in the grand joke; and Peregrin means wanderer, poignant for us both for all our travels, as well as the fact that the deaths and the changes of plans and the call to holy obedience reminded us daily that this earth is not our home; we are but sojourners on our way to the Heavenly Homeland.
Later that month, as I was reading my Bible and praying, I asked my brother Ford (through whose intercession my own family and six of my siblings have become Catholic) and Isaac Scharbach to pray for me, as always, and as I was thinking about Isaac’s work as an artist, I heard the words in my heart, “Write an icon of me.” A real icon? I still hadn’t found time or funds to pursue iconography at all. When would I now, with the family continuing to grow? Or was this baby I was carrying to be a living icon? In our new apartment, we worked hard in the brief time we had between travels to make this house a home. As I was hunting through the box of pictures, only pulling out things that I knew where I would put them, an unframed work caught my eye: a watercolor of the Dormition of the Theotokos that I had painted the fall before. I knew I needed it out, I needed to pray with it for the rest of the pregnancy and for the labor. The Dormition and Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary is a big feast day for our family; my brother Ford died on its vigil, we chose that day as our date for Marian consecration even before we became Catholic, and there were many other graces we’d received in connection with the feast. This baby would be baptized on the vigil, God willing. I put the painting on a clipboard and hung it in my room. Often, as I wrestled my toddler down for a nap, my mind racing with anxieties, the image would catch my eye, and I would be stunned again by those powerful hands resting. The obedience of Our Lady in life and in death and in resurrection gave me courage to surrender even in the moments when it seemed I had too much important work to do to rest, or when my panic held me back from trusting.
At last, the week of my due date came. We had just survived a five day power outage in the
hot July weather, simultaneously with discovering our family car was unfit to drive. We
replaced it with something much older, but bigger and safe for the road. We finished loading
up the Suburban, and on Wednesday, July 21, we drove up to St. Paul. In addition to our air
mattresses, we kept one twin normal mattress for me to get better rest leading up to the birth, during labor, and in the first few days postpartum.
On Thursday, we went to a prenatal appointment. The baby sounded and felt good; the position was posterior, so we discussed ways to encourage turning around. I then had a chiropractic adjustment, and asked my chiropractor to do what she could to try to get labor going. She showed me some trigger points to massage, and taped a couple of acupuncture tacks on my hands. Those were weirdly uncomfortable and made me feel icky, so I only left them in a few hours before removing them.
Friday morning, my estimated due date, we went to the cathedral, where my husband had worked before our move, for daily Mass, and afterwards, as he visited with the other priests, the children and I admired the roses and they played in the Mary garden while I walked briskly. We spent the day as low key as possible, knowing that my body needed to relax and adapt to its surroundings before labor would begin.
On Saturday morning, I went to the toilet at 2:30, then lay in bed, half awake, waiting, of all things, to go into labor. I finally woke up enough to realize it didn’t actually make sense to stay awake waiting for labor to begin, so I turned to my side to go to sleep, and promptly had my first real labor contraction. Soon after this, I had to get up to drink milk for my heartburn anyway (milk was the only thing that would calm it enough to prevent vomiting), so I took the opportunity to walk in figure eights through the empty rooms downstairs. The contractions, while regular, didn’t seem strong enough to warrant staying up, so I went back to bed, having the occasional contraction through the night.
My husband’s alarm went off at 5, and I asked him to come to my bed to snuggle, and told him that I’d been having contractions through the night. We planned to go to Divine Liturgy as a family, and I got up at 5:45 to dress and braid my hair. I left to go to confession at 6, after which I stopped at the grocery store to pick up a few groceries, where I had the fun of telling people who asked that I was due “yesterday!”. I made French toast when I got home, and began to time the contractions. They were lasting about 1 minute, with 1-2 minutes between. This was a new pattern for me. All my other labors started out with 2-3 min contractions with 3-5 minute intervals, although both the boys’ spaced out further as the first day of labor progressed. But this time, I maintained this pattern all day. By the time we were getting close to time to leave for Liturgy, I was moaning a bit through each one, and they were so close together and just intense enough that I knew I couldn’t handle it in public. I asked my husband if he could just say a private Mass at the cathedral, which would be much closer and potentially shorter. I contacted my midwives and let them know what was going on, and they asked a few questions and let me know they were there for me whenever I needed them. I also contacted my friend and asked
her if she could come watch the kids after naps.
My husband got back about 10:30, and got the kids a snack and took them to the playground. While they were gone, I went down and fixed myself lunch, then some lunch for the kids. I was getting tired, and while I knew it was too early in labor for the midwives to come, I wanted physical support and encouragement. I felt alone and abandoned. I messaged my mom and sisters, updating them on progress and asking for specific prayers with each new challenge. After I’d eaten lunch, I went upstairs to try to nap. I dozed off and on for about an hour, then went in search of my husband after he’d put the kids to sleep. We decided to do some Spinning Babies exercises and ask one of the midwives to come over in the afternoon or evening and check on baby and me. I hadn’t felt as much movement from baby during the day, and was a bit worried that something might be wrong. After we did a side-lying release, something shifted in my body, the first sign being that I was finally able to have a bowel movement for the first time since 2:30 a.m.
My husband struggled to know how to help and encourage me, but then he remembered what the Church in her wisdom provides for women in childbirth. Finding the blessing for women before birth, he gave it to me. I also pulled out my phone and opened the Hallow app, which I had downloaded solely in order to have access to Mary Haseltine’s labor soundtracks. I listened to them, seeking trust and peace.
Midwife A came at 4:45 to check on us. Baby and I were both doing fine. It was difficult to
determine baby’s position, as the uterus was almost continuously hard, even when not contracting, and seemed much more full of fluid than it had been two days before at our prenatal. Another odd thing was that she could pick up baby’s heartbeat with the fetoscope on my right side, but using the doppler, she could only hear it on my left. “Maybe it’s twins,” I said, not quite joking. I found myself quite free to say aloud all of the strange or silly thoughts, fears, and concerns that I had during this labor and delivery, to the point that when it came to pushing later on, my husband wondered if I was going a bit batty with some of the things coming out of my mouth.
At my request, she checked my cervix. I was 50% effaced, 2 cm. The baby seemed to be turning around into the proper position very slowly. The midwife suggested eating dinner and taking a shower and then getting in touch a bit later. I agreed, and said we would probably try to sleep through the night, as we’d done with the last two births. I ate some dinner, and found myself so weary that I couldn’t get up and shower. When I used the toilet, I had a little spot of pink a couple of times, then a brownish-pink bit of mucus and small clot. I was entering into the most intensely sad/anxious phase, my brain racing with unbidden, unconnected thoughts, unable to rest. I applied a heating pad to my back, and when my husband got a chance, I had him turn on Baroque at Bathtime, the one album that had helped me calm during my previous labor, and once he had the kids in bed, asked him to climb into my bed and lie with me. His touch calmed me.
I worked hard to breathe, rather than moan, through contractions, trying to force my body to relax as much as possible. The contractions began to space out a bit. Every time I had a contraction, I would be bathed in sweat. Then I would be chilled as my body relaxed, then hot again for the next one. At some point after 10, the contractions intensified enough that I could no longer force myself to get through them quietly, and they were closer together again, as well. Finally, at 11, we decided it was time to get up. I went downstairs to eat some plain Greek yogurt and asked my midwives to come before returning upstairs. I was shaky and cold, and the contractions were getting wild. There was a lot of low back pain, but the front of the belly, underneath, felt like it was being ripped apart. Unlike most of my contractions from previous labors, there was no way to get any relief, or to feel as if I was working with the contractions instead of just trying to survive them; this seemed like some crazy awful transition, only I was sure I couldn’t be in transition yet.
On my knees, resting forward on the mattress, I inhaled some wisps of hair during a contraction and my gag reflex triggered. I lost all my dinner and my yogurt. Thankfully there was a disposable pad to protect the bed from that. My husband got a new one, and instead of unfolding it, he shook it out…and bits of fluff flew everywhere. We laughed, but then I quickly sobered as another contraction took hold and wrung my body.
When Midwife A arrived, she checked me. The cervix was completely thinned, and I was at
4 cm. “So another 9 hours?” I asked, knowing that’s what it had been for the last two. “Not at
the rate you’re going, you won’t be at it that long,” she assured me. I was relieved. She confirmed that it looked like transition, and I was glad to trust her experience with other moms as well as previously watching me labor with another baby. I had progressed a lot since her first time checking me, and she wondered if having checked me the first time helped to “wake up” the cervix to what it needed to do. That suspicion fit with my previous labors, wherein I had requested being checked, and labor seemed to progress better afterwards. What a gift it is to learn more about one’s own body through one’s own observations and those of others! It helps so much to gain confidence in approaching successive labors. The attention of a midwife to small details is all a part of the beautiful art of midwifery that has as its primary focus the service of women!
I continued to work through contractions, on my knees, on my back on the bed, on my side, holding my husband’s hands as he sat on the air mattress behind me, trying to get relief, finding none. “God help me,” I cried out in agony. “I can’t do this.” On my back on the bed, if I tipped my head up, sometimes I could see behind my husband to the Theotokos of the Dormition hanging on the clipboard on the wall. “In returning and rest shall ye be saved,” shot through my mind, and I was able to relax into the contractions just a little bit. Trust. Surrender.
I often wanted to bite something, and sometimes there was a pillow in reach which could serve that purpose. Mostly there was just my husband’s hand, and while I got very close a couple of times, I was determined not to be that wife. At one point, my husband heard the toddler fussing and went to cover him; at another, our daughter got up to use the toilet, but she went back to bed without coming into our room. The clock ticked on, and the contractions didn’t change, except to intensify. Panic welled up within me and I longed for drugs to alleviate the pain, a c-section, anything to avoid living through this moment of “too much”. I surrendered my helplessness and stayed in the present with cries of “God help me!” I tried listening to the birth playlist again on Hallow, and this time I couldn’t pray along verbally. My focus was entirely demanded by my uterus working to birth my baby, but I was grateful to hear prayers when I could not pray.
Eventually, exhausted, my husband and I dozed between contractions, but soon they were coming so close that there was no time for rest between. “I just need a break,” I said. “I just want to be lying down on my bed, snuggling my baby.” Expressing the desire to snuggle my baby, this baby, suddenly broke through all the fears that had worried me as I struggled to bond throughout the pregnancy, helping me to realize that I really did want and love this baby, even though that love and longing may have looked different than it had with any of my other children.
The midwives had gone downstairs to do some prep in the kitchen, and were on the stairs, listening and waiting. They only came up occasionally to check on the baby. But I wanted more help, so finally I asked them to come support my legs during contractions. They did, and it was reassuring to have them close. I tried to push a little at the end of some of the contractions, just to get some relief, but it didn’t seem like it was the right time yet. Finally, a little after 3 a.m. on Sunday, I began to push in earnest, closing my lips and putting all my silent energy into it. I was on my back with my legs held up. It didn’t feel like it was moving anything, but it shortened the contractions, and the midwives were encouraging me to continue, so I did. “Is this even doing anything?” I asked. They assured me that it was, that the bag of waters was bulging, and things were moving down. After a few pushes, they asked me if I wanted to try hands and knees on the floor. I was worried about having a contraction while changing position, but they assured me that I wouldn’t, so I changed position. It felt less effective, so after a couple contractions, I asked if it was not working as well as in the other position. They confirmed my suspicion, so back up to the bed on my back I went. After pushing for about 10-15 minutes, the waters gushed out, yellow with meconium. This meant it might be wise to get baby out quicker if possible, but also that we would have to be careful in checking airways after birth.
I wasn’t enjoying the pushing; it felt like it was doing so little. But then I remembered that this was a part that I could do, rather than just suffer, and that I’d done it three times before. I tried to “access my primitive brain” (a phrase that was in a birthing book we read years ago that we laugh about, but sometimes actually fits better than any other phrase) and really push well. It still felt discouraging. Then baby crowned and it burned so badly. It felt like I pushed forever before the head was born, then Midwife J said, “Now I want you to flip over onto your hands and knees and get this baby out.” I rolled over off the bed onto my knees with my upper body erect as I was instructed, and pushed with all my might. It seemed impossibly hard, but at 3:24 finally came that beautiful “shloop”, and there was baby between my knees, born on another gush of
As I stood on my knees to sit back to get baby, another splash of waters hit the floor, and the midwives looked at each other in surprise. Midwife A said it was probably the most amniotic fluid she’d ever seen at a birth. I reached down and scooped the crying, vernix-and-meconium covered creature into my arms and began massaging his back. In a moment I lifted his leg to check the sex, and began calling him by his name, Isaac. He had a good strong cry, and very little fluid in his airways. I started to get up and felt my nightgown rip a bit at the sides as the bottom was caught under my feet - this was the first birth that I was actually clothed when it got to the end! It took a bit of help to get up and untangled from that. We got me set up on the bed, where I delivered the placenta.
Baby was trying to eat his hands, so I offered the breast, and after a few times, he took it and latched well (what a relief that was after the struggles of my previous baby! Like my first two, this baby would nurse and gain weight just fine, despite his lip and tongue ties). As he nursed and the midwives began to tidy, we called our family members who had all been alerted to pray for us. Then as Isaac was measured and weighed, I had a shower. He weighed 10 lbs., 4 oz., and was 22.5 inches long. His chest was 15.5 inches in circumference, and his head was 14.75 inches.
Finally everything was tidied up and the midwives left and we snuggled down with the baby…and the alarm went off! It’s impossible for me to get any sleep in the afterglow of birth, anyway. I just wanted to rest and gaze at my baby. We rested as best we could over the next few days. My friend came and played with the children again while my husband was saying Mass that day, and friends brought dinner for us every night. I stayed up in my room with the baby, only getting up to use the restroom and shower.
On Thursday, I went down the stairs for the first time, said goodbye to this home that had housed us for the conception and birth of this baby, and climbed into the car. We stopped for me to have a much-needed chiropractic adjustment, then south we went for home. Thanks to the new vast space my bladder was enjoying, we only made one pit stop on the way home. I sat in the back next to my baby, where I could observe him closely and respond promptly to any needs. It didn’t feel close enough, though; it broke my heart every time I had to buckle him back into his seat. When we arrived home, I went up the stairs to bed. Our apartment is on one level, with the laundry in the basement of our unit, so I was able to keep to my “no stairs” rule for nearly two weeks, talking my 6 and 4 year olds through the process of washing each load of laundry, only breaking the rule once to go to the notary to sign the closing papers for our house in St. Paul. People from both parishes my husband serves showered us with meals, disposable diapers, gifts, and so many prayers. I had my placenta encapsulated, and it arrived a week after the birth, providing a little more stability to my hormones, energy for the morning, and making my postpartum depression and anxiety a little more manageable.
Two weeks after Isaac’s birth, I brought him to church, and was led into the Lady Chapel for the Thanksgiving of Women after Childbirth. I find it impossible to express the deep gratitude and joy of that first time bringing my newborn before the Altar of God, and am so grateful for the prayers the Church provides for that beautiful occasion.
Isaac’s name has proved more suitable than we could have predicted, as he is the most jovial baby we’ve ever had. His wanderings have continued, both in his mastering of mobility earlier than some of our other babies, as well as in a number of lengthy road trips we've made. Whatever ways he continues to live up to his name, we will always be grateful to God for leading us to it, and above all for blessing us with the gift of his life to accompany us on our joyful journey to eternity.
Hannah Hilgendorf is a homemaker, married to the Reverend Stephen Hilgendorf, a Roman
Catholic priest of the Ordinariate of the Chair of St Peter. Hannah schools their four children
at home, while anticipating the approaching birth of their fifth. You can find out more about
the Ordinariate at Ordinariate.net. You can read about baby Isaac’s patron, Isaac
Scharbach, at http://iconologos.com/who-is-isaac-scharbach/