It feels strange to return to this space after my son was born four months ago. It feels strange because I had a beautiful birth this time, a birth so unexpected and different than my first one. I think about what I wrote about God as a laboring mother and find it difficult to connect those essays to my latest experience, which was astoundingly good.
A writer-friend remarked to me once that I like to write about failure. That struck me as devastatingly true — I do tend to frame stories by my mislaid expectations and the crashing disappointment of real-life-living. Even the title of this blog, “What Life Does,” refers to a quote that reflects that sense of disillusionment.
But I don’t want to be a person who always frames her life in terms of failure. In writing out this birth story, I am taking a small step in exploring the positive in my life.
I was overdue. I was approaching the deadline, 40 weeks plus 14 days. Instead of needing to produce a paper or article, I needed to give birth. By December 4th. Otherwise I would become a “high risk” pregnancy because there is greater chance that the placenta may atrophy once you pass 42 weeks. And, if you’re high risk, you can’t deliver at a birth center, you have to deliver at a hospital.
I had my daughter at a hospital three years prior and the birth hadn’t gone the way I had hoped. Somehow, I had it fixed in my mind that giving birth in the hospital again would mean re-experiencing the same birth I had the first time. I wanted a different birth. I wanted to deliver at the birth center.
It was December 3rd and I wasn’t in labor. I woke up in the morning feeling angry. Contractions still hadn’t started. I had been doing all the things people tell women who are waiting for their babies to come: have sex, take castor oil, climb stairs, eat spicy food, acupuncture. The midwives at the birth center told me that, if December 3rd came around and I still wasn’t in labor, I could go into the birth center to have my water broken manually. Something about a knitting-needle hook that would be inserted into my cervix. A friend of mine had delivered at the same birth center and had the procedure done to help jumpstart labor; her daughter was born 10 hours later.
I was desperate to have a different birth. I wanted to deliver at the birth center.
I called my doula, my friend Melanie, a friend who I have known for years. Our families have lived together and we’ve seen each other at our best and at our worst. We’ve had fights over unloading the dishwasher and cried together during house meetings and watched each other parent our babies. We’ve talked about our family issues, about old hurts and ways to move beyond them. She has influenced me so much in the way she mothers. She knows how to grow beautiful plants and run a greenhouse, the little seedlings bending toward her careful knowledge and light. I trust Melanie in the way you can trust someone who has known you, who you’ve watched caretake vulnerable things: small children, small plants. The way she nourishes life, gives it the light of her attention, the water of her diligence. And she knows a lot about maternal medicine, having doula-ed countless births.
So I called Melanie, and she didn’t give me advice straight out, but I could sense she didn’t agree with the breaking your water strategy. If your water breaks, you have 24 hours before the risk of infection rises and before medical professionals will hook you up to Pitocin to jumpstart labor. Choosing to break my water could open up my birth to the possibility that I would need more interventions later.
Still, not breaking my water would mean that I would be delivering at the hospital, it would mean that my dreams of a birth center birth would go unrealized. And I wasn’t ready to let that go.
Melanie came with Josh and I to the birth center to discuss the procedure with the midwives. I remember being in one of the birthing suites, seated on a couch, and sobbing as I finally chose not to get my water broken to induce labor. I was letting it go, I thought I was deciding to have a hospital birth. It felt like giving up, it felt like history repeating itself.
The hospital was across the street from the birth center, so we walked over icy sidewalks to visit the brand new Mother Baby Center. It’s a new wing of the hospital, done up in rainbow hued glass and futuristic couches. It looked fine, it was all fine, but I longed for the soothing green walls of the birth center, the tasteful art, the giant water-birth Jacuzzi-style tubs. I know, in retrospect, it may sound selfish and privileged to be whining about where I give birth – a top-notch hospital is among the better places (or so I imagine) to have a baby. Yet, I’d been picturing myself delivering in another place for months; I had all my prenatal appointments at the birth center. Switching to an unfamiliar hospital at the very last minute made me tense.
After touring the hospital, Josh and I tried to decide what to do next. My three-year-old daughter was staying at her grandparents for the day. Should he go back to work? Should I take a nap? Try something else to get labor started?
Melanie suggested we visit an herbalist midwife friend of hers. I wasn’t sold on the idea, but I was desperate. There was still a slim chance that I could go into labor that very day and be able to deliver at the birth center.
So we went. Her office was in her home, the upstairs of a duplex, beaming with light, with hanging plants and warm neutral wall hangings. There were bookcases lined with Ina May Gaskin’s books and several copies of Birthing from Within. She asked us a few questions, she scoffed at the birth center’s rigid two week post-due-date time frame (your gestational length is perfectly normal! There is no real reason NOT to keep waiting, besides for insurance). If you were my patient, she said, we wouldn’t be trying anything to get labor started. We would just trust that it would start in the next few days. And then I felt guilty for not having chosen a home-birth in the first place.
She had me stick out my tongue and she listened to my pulse. She pulled out black eyedroppers full of herbal tinctures and placed a few drip-drops on my wrists. She gave me a few brown bottles of “strong uterine herbs” that are supposed to jumpstart labor. I felt foolish when I wrote the check for $50 – we were barely making our monthly budget – and wondered if this would work.
We went home, I took the herbs, I took a nap. I felt utterly depleted, my tears and decision to deliver at the hospital feeling like giving up on my hopes for a beautiful birth. But when I woke up an hour later, I was having a contraction. And then another. And then another.