Before my husband and I got married, I’d never really given much thought to birth or the kind of birth that I might want. All I knew was that the idea of labor and childbirth terrified me – thanks to Hollywood, Buzzfeed, and birth horror stories from other moms, I was convinced that it could only be violently painful and wholly unpleasant. If I thought about it at all, it was that I would surely want every drug the hospital could offer me.
Unfortunately for that plan, I hate hospitals – I am very grateful for modern medicine and medical technology, but I don’t like any part of the hospital experience: the gowns, the tubes, the smells, the food, the parade of personnel in and out of your room. So I started to consider a home birth with a midwife, to my husband Ben’s utter dismay. “What if something goes wrong?” he’d ask. “I don’t know if I’m comfortable with that.” However, we were blessed to know several people who had had a home birth themselves and raved about how wonderful the experience was, including my own mother, who birthed my younger sister at home at the age of 42 and insisted it was by far the best of her five births. Slowly Ben became convinced as I showed him birth stories and research and we began looking into midwives.
After 2 years of infertility, we became pregnant with our first child, and after some research into local midwives, settled on Helen Stockton and her apprentice Ashley Hutton with Mother Earth Midwifery in Ypsilanti, MI. We had been visiting the wonderful Catholic clinic in Ann Arbor that Ben and I were both patients at for the first 2 months of our pregnancy, while we decided on a midwife. Despite being quite pleased with the care and Catholic perspective we experienced at our clinic, our first appointment with the midwife exceeded our expectations. Our appointments at the clinic had been 15 minutes or less, with a quick ultrasound, a cursory though kind overview of my pregnancy symptoms, and a brief 5-minute interlude in which we could ask questions. Once we switched care to Helen and Ashley, every appointment was at least an hour long, in a cozy room at Helen’s home office, where 10 minutes were spent doing clinical checkups on me and baby, while the rest of the time was spent in long discussions about my physical, mental, and emotional wellbeing, where I could bring any lengthy question I had and discuss it thoroughly.
I read Ina May Gaskin’s Ina May's Guide to Childbirth, Penny Simkin’s The Birth Partner, and filled my social media with empowering birth stories from content creators like Made for This Birth and Pain Free Birth. I was feeling really confident about the calm, peaceful, transformative birth I had come to hope for, but there were a handful of fears lingering in the background. I had heard stories of terrible back labor which I was very much hoping to avoid. I was worried about tearing so I was determined to avoid any forced pushing. I was concerned about heavy postpartum hemorrhage, given some family history.
As my due date approached, my midwives told me that based on the way baby was descending and my own symptoms, they suspected I wouldn’t go any later than my due date and that I might go early. At 39 weeks, I went to work as usual and then Ben called me, saying that after he finished his work for the day (as superintendent of an HVAC company) that he was going to go back to the shop to spend the evening building some ductwork for a side job. He asked if I wanted to pick up food and meet him there for moral support, which I did. I wrote some lectures while I was there and then ended up helping him with some of the lighter work. We didn’t get home until after midnight and weren’t in bed until 1:00 a.m.
At 3:45 a.m., I woke up with the usual middle-of-the-night urge to pee. After I went to the bathroom, I went back to bed and woke up a few minutes later feeling wetness. Thinking I might be having some discharge, I walked into the bathroom again and before I could even make it to the toilet, a huge gush of liquid poured onto the bathroom floor. I quickly sat on the toilet and called Ben in. “I think my water just broke!” “Um…okay?” he replied. I told him to go back to bed and I called Ashley. I was having incredibly strong Braxton Hicks, but they weren’t painful and they weren’t very time-able, just constant tightness, so Ashley told me to try to sleep and call her back if things intensified.
Within five minutes, they became painful and with a clear pattern, so I called her back. She told me to get in a bath and try to relax and see if they subsided. I did so, but they only kept getting stronger. Within 10 minutes of my water breaking, they were about 45 seconds long and 5-6 minutes apart. Ashley suggested we wait for daylight to see if the contractions subsided as the sun rose, and I agreed. Around 6:00 a.m., I told Ben he needed to stay home from work. As the sun came up, the contractions only got stronger, so Helen and Ashley headed to my house and arrived about 8:45 a.m.
I had been laboring in my living room, kneeling on an armchair and hanging over the back of it. By the time Helen and Ashley arrived, I had moved to my bedroom and was laboring standing by the bed or lying on my side. I found that counterpressure on my hips and lower back helped tremendously and while the contractions weren't fun, I felt like I could manage them well. Nearly from the time they had started at 4a.m., I hadn't been able to talk through them, but I'd begun vocalizing to move through the waves and found that sound was helping me to manage the intensity. By about 9:30 or 10:00 a.m., Helen and Ashley had the birth pool ready and I moved into the pool – the water felt wonderful and was so relaxing in between contractions.
A little while later, my mom stopped by to drop off dinner for us for that night. Originally I hadn’t wanted anyone at the birth besides Ben and the midwives, but when I saw her, I asked if she’d stay (she was thrilled). I labored in the pool for several hours, working through every contraction with Ben putting counterpressure on my hips and my mom holding my face and stroking my hair.
I had printed out a series of birth affirmation cards from Pain Free Birth to use during labor, but active labor started so fast that I never had a chance to put them up in the birth space! And anyway, the whole process was so intense from beginning to end that I don't think I could have focused on anything but the contractions. The only decoration in my birth space was a painting of a bleeding Sacred Heart, propped up above my fireplace, just in my line of sight in front of the birth pool, that I had painted two years before. I had painted it as a way to help me work through the desperation I felt as a result of my unexplained infertility and the accompanying darkness in my spiritual life. Feeling the futility of my seemingly normal menstrual cycles, without the baby I so desperately wanted, I had painted the Sacred Heart using my own menstrual blood, and at the bottom it read: "This is my blood, given up for you." It had helped me realize that I could offer the suffering of my cycles to the Lord in union with Christ's Passion, in hopes that it could be redemptive, even though they weren't bringing the redemption of new life. During my labor, it was the only thing I could see, out of the corner of my eye, as I labored for over four hours in the pool.
Ben came up to me around 10:30 a.m. and said, “Helen and Ashley think you’re gonna have the baby by noon.” It was incredibly encouraging at the time, but became less so as the minutes ticked by and noon came and went with no baby. I began spontaneously pushing at some point in the pool, greatly aided by Ashley (with my consent) placing her finger on my perineum to help me visualize exactly where to direct the pushing energy. I found that so helpful!
After several hours, Helen asked to do a cervical check, since baby wasn't coming as quickly as she'd expected, given how well and how long I'd been pushing. I agreed, and I moved from the pool to my shower to get in a more gravity-assisted position. Helen checked my cervix and told me the reason baby wasn't coming was that I had a large cervical lip that her head was getting stuck on. She suggested I move to the bed in a side lying position with my leg pulled up to my chest to encourage the cervix to dilate.
The next stage of labor in that position was the worst of the entire process – up until then I'd felt that I was managing the intensity quite well, always able to stay on top of the contraction. But in the side lying position I felt like I was drowning; the contractions became very painful and I felt like I was just grasping to not descend into despair. It felt like an eternity, and I remember thinking, "It's probably only been 20 minutes!" But later Ben told me that I labored in that position in the bed for nearly 2 hours! I only made it through each contraction by clinging for dear life to my mom or Ben, who took turns all the way through with one standing by my head and one doing counterpressure on my back. My baby was pressing against my tailbone, and the back labor I had feared was overwhelming me. Earlier on, I'd been able to have a break as the waves subsided in between contractions, but now while I could feel the contractions rise and fall, this intense pounding pain in my lower back was constant. I remember saying to my mom "I just want it to be over!"
After nearly two hours, Helen came back in to check my cervix. I so desperately hoped for a positive report, but instead she looked up at me. "It hasn't gone down at all." That was my lowest point – would I have to continue in this seemingly endless pain? But Helen instead told me, "This position clearly isn't working. If it's all right with you, I think it's better that I push your cervix out of the way and you'll have to just push her over it" I was so relieved and grateful to have a way out.
"Okay, let's do it."
"Alright, get ready," she said. "This is not gonna be fun."
I didn't care. As they say, the only way out is through.
I laid on my back with my legs up and my head and chest curled forward. Ben sat behind me supporting my head and holding me close while I curled forward and held my own legs back. As the urge to push came on, Helen put both her hands in to push my cervix over my baby's head as I pushed for all I was worth. The pushing and the stretching was wildly intense, but having the cervix moved out of way helped baby descend really quickly past my tailbone, so the back labor stopped! All of a sudden, once a contraction ended and I stopped pushing, the pain was totally gone! It felt like a true break in between where I could catch my breath, take sips of water, and gather myself for the next effort.
At some point we ran out of towels, so my mom called my little sister (my dearest friend) to bring towels from her house just minutes away. My sister Maggie rushed into the room with piles of towels at the most intense point of my labor. I was roaring through each contraction, yelling almost more from the extreme effort than the pain – the loudness helped carry me through the intensity. Later on, I realized how grateful I was to be in my own home and have the freedom to be as loud as I wanted without anyone telling me to quiet down or that I was frightening the other mothers in labor, as I've heard happen to friends of mine who gave birth in hospital.
All of a sudden, blood started pouring out of me and within a minute or two, Helen told me, "This is too much blood. We need to call EMS just in case we can't get this bleeding under control. You may need to go into the hospital. And you need to push this baby out now."
So I pushed. A minute or two later, Helen told me, "With the next push, you're going to have a fully crowning baby." I responded, "And the next push, the head?" She nodded. "And the next push, the body?" She laughed a little – "Three to five pushes, okay?"
I pushed once, and then I pushed again with absolutely everything I had in me. Helen, Ashley, Ben, Maggie, and my mom were shouting encouragement, my mom praying over us all. I was yelling louder than I ever have, shouting "Jesus, help me!" And then I pushed that entire baby out - Head, shoulders, and body all in one push.
Her cord was wrapped around her neck but Helen was unwrapping it as she was coming out and by the time her feet were out she was already unwrapped and Helen had her on my chest instantly. The immediate intensity of relief and adrenaline was even more than the intensity of the journey to get her out of me. As I cried and rubbed her and held her, she started to cry and turned bright pink, but I heard Helen telling me that I was bleeding far too much and we needed some medication. I agreed and though Helen and Ashley were totally calm, they were fast. I could tell the bleeding was serious.
They gave me a shot of Pitocin in the leg and a large dose of Cytotec rectally, and it still didn't stop. Helen told me I needed to push the placenta out, so I gave one push and out it came, and almost immediately the bleeding slowed and stopped. EMS, who had already arrived, never even had to come into the house – we were able to tell them they could go home and sent them away. Later on, Helen told me that what had likely happened was an early placental abruption as I was pushing her out. She told me that an abruption at any other time in the pregnancy could have been disastrous, and any other time in labor likely would have meant a hospital transfer and an emergency C-section, but that the fact that it waited until we could expedite the delivery and stop the bleeding was nearly miraculous. "I think your baby was just meant to be," she told me.
The recovery in own home was wonderful. Helen and Ashley left Ben and I to cuddle with our baby for almost two hours while they charted and cleaned up the house, then stitched up my second degree tear (caused by the speed of the final pushing), got us cleaned up, and then left us tucked into bed. After Helen examined my placenta, she came back in to tell me I'd lost almost 1500 ccs of blood. Based on my own body weight and blood volume, that amount came out to almost exactly 33 percent of my body's blood. All I could think of was that painting of the Sacred Heart. "This is my blood, given up for you."
I cannot explain how transformative the experience was for me. It brought me to the very edge of myself. Every single fear I had about birth – back labor, pushing, tearing, and bleeding – all occurred during my labor, but I did it anyway. I still had my home birth, and I realized that those things happening helped me to face those fears, to realize that God would bring me through those fears and out the other side.
Through my very own Calvary, our daughter Beatrix Blair was born during the Hour of Mercy, on my sister Maggie's birthday. Her middle name is in honor of her grandfather, who had passed away two days before her birth. Her first name, Beatrix, because she is our blessing, unearned and undeserved.
"For this child I have prayed, and the Lord granted the desire of my heart." (1 Samuel 1:27)
Mary Catherine is a Catholic wife, mother, medievalist, and professional organizer who lives with her husband, baby, and two dogs in Brighton, MI. You can find her on Instagram at @nest.organizing .