Vintage postcard, circa 1910; art by Katharine Gassaway
Our littlest man has arrived! The express was late, as usual, but came in at a rush at the end.
The nice thing about having a pregnancy go past the due date is that they don’t turn you back at the hospital door. With our first two babies, it was all we could do to convince the staff that I was actually in labor.
With this baby, I walked around the birthing room shortly after I arrived. It had many windows looking out onto a wooded area – a long vista of green leaves. I touched the coverlet on the bed gingerly.
“I don’t want to get anything dirty,” I said. “What if they send me home?” My doula and my husband reacted according to their personalities. My doula, who is practical, motherly, and wonderful, laughed; my husband (who is also practical and wonderful, if not motherly) thought I was nuts.
I’d spent a great deal of time during the third trimester trying NOT to dread labor. Natural birth is beautiful and also really painful. As the day approaches, the latter aspect looms large in my mind.
And good grief, anything can happen during labor. There are no guarantees whatever.
(Add to all this that I am a naturally anxious person. “Is there anything,” my husband said to me today, “That doesn’t give you anxiety?” I don’t know. I’d have to think about it.)
Eleven days after my due date, after a night of unsteady contractions, I sat on our porch, contemplating labor gloomily. If I was going to offer up my sufferings for others, a more painful labor would be better, right? More pain, more help.
“Lord,” I said sadly (I had been praying a rosary during the contractions), “I am a coward. I do care about the people for whom I am offering up this labor. But I really, really don’t want so much pain!”
But then I remembered something – a short time before, I had finished a Marian consecration. That’s when you dedicate yourself to Mary, the mother of God. The particular consecration I used had the consecrated one (that meant me) dedicate their interior and exterior goods to Mary, to dispose of as she wishes. So the matter, it seemed to me, was out of my hands. I turned it over to her, and it felt like a weight off of my shoulders. (Is suffering easier when you permit it – as in, “Suffer the little children to come to me”? I don’t know, but it was so much easier to give it over, and not have my will involved in it one way or another.)
We set off for the birth center, my husband and I. I was glad we were going in his car, because it’s a standard shift car with a relatively powerful engine and my husband drives, how do you say – assertively. His passengers with tender stomachs or nerves tend to have a hard time. I was glad because I hoped all the jerks would push me into steady labor.
“Be still.” This was the theme of the third trimester, and became the theme of the labor. The midwives at the birth center had started me on a regimen of herbs at 36 weeks, knowing that I usually go beyond my due date, in the hopes that the herbs’ actions would prevent my being late. So I felt hopeful that this time, I might have an on-time labor, and got very excited when I started having contractions. Only they stopped, then started, then stopped, then started, then stopped.
It could have been the herbs, or it could have been simply the way this labor was meant to be, but I suspect it was because the baby was posterior – that is, he was facing my front, which is a sub-optimal position for labor. I tried baby-turning exercises, I tried being active, but nothing helped for long.
One day, during the third trimester, my sister told me about how she felt God speaking to her about something.
“I felt as though God was saying that I didn’t need to be fighting all the time, that I wasn’t the only bulwark between my children and a crazy world. He seemed to tell me that he would do the fighting for me.”
This gave me to think about my own case. I felt like I was fighting so hard to get the labor going, but in vain – also fighting to be brave.
My lovely doula gave me emotional support even through this time. She got many texts from me to the tune of, “I don’t know what is going on! Everything starts and stops!” She texted me a Bible verse: “The Lord will fight for you. You need only be still.”
I wrote back that my sister had said something very similar to me.
“That is your word, then,” she texted back.
She was right. I needed to let go of my anxiety, it was true, but even physically the invitation to be still applied. I noticed a pattern. When I lay still, my contractions got stronger. When I got up and moved, they stopped. This was the opposite of what I had heard over and over about childbirth – everyone always says to keep moving to facilitate labor.
On the morning we went in to the birth center, the contractions still were few and far between. I was getting restless – my other labors had all been straightforward; the contractions began, and proceeded in a relatively orderly fashion until the birth. I texted our doula for our last birth, Elizabeth, and she suggested that I try the Miles Circuit.
“What is that?” I asked Allison.
“I don’t know,” she said, taking out her smart phone. “I’ll look it up.”
It turns out that it is a series of positions meant to help a posterior baby to turn, so that labor can progress. A posterior baby can cause a labor to stall, and mine seemed to be repeatedly stalling.
Allison showed me how to lie still.
“It says you stay like this for thirty minutes,” she said.
“Ok,” I said. Suddenly, I felt very very shy. I knew we were all here for my labor, and whatnot, but it felt awful all of a sudden being the center of attention.
“Would you mind, um, going away for a little while?” It sounded so rude!
Allison had perfect aplomb. “Sure!” she said. “I’ll just be in the other room.”
The moment she left I regretted asking her to go – now I was too alone! I hoped the thirty minutes would go by fast. They did, and the contractions increased. Being still was working! Allison came back and showed me how to do second step in the circuit.
After she got me settled for the third part, she asked, “Would you like to listen to some music?”
“Sure,” I said. “What have you got?”
“Here is a song that someone sent me recently,” she said. “I think you will like it. It is done by a couple who lives near here – they sang it in a silo, and it is really beautiful.”
The song was “It Is Well With My Soul.” Just hearing the name put my anxiety and fear in perspective. I knew the story of that song – it was written by a man as he traveled by sea to meet his grieving wife, who had just been in a shipwreck with their four daughters, who did not survive. By contrast my problems were small.
The song is beautiful in itself, and it is rendered so beautifully. (You can listen to it (and see it being sung) here.) I listened with my eyes closed, holding back tears. The contractions stopped for the duration of the song. It seemed to last a very long time, this island of peace during the labor. Be still.
Then, without warning, just the song finished, labor suddenly ramped into high gear. Until that point (before the period of peace during the song) the contractions had been pretty respectable – that is to say, they hurt a good deal, and required internal focus on my part. But this part – transition – is the hard part. It is the time when one feels crazed with pain. Anyway that’s what it feels like to me.
Allison and the midwife and nurse helped me through it patiently. I felt – I suppose this sounds strange – like a stricken animal. Maybe it is the sensation of helplessness that seems animal-like. I remember clearly the people and things around me from that time, but pain, and yes, fear, dominated.
The prenatal exercise video I used referred to contractions as “lovely labor surges.” Oh for the love of Pete. A contraction by any other name still feels fairly horrendous – especially during transition, where the contraction pain seems non-stop.
One part of my brain tried to manage talking and moving, while another large part of my brain kept broadcasting PAIN PAIN PAIN PAIN. My mind cast about desperately for relief, but came up with nothing.
“If I died,” one part of my brain said, “the pain would stop. One good knock on the head would do it.” I went over, mentally, all the objects in the room, to see if anything was hard enough, while easy to swing, to do me in.
“It’s no use,” another part of my brain said – “Nobody here’s going to be willing to knock you on the head.” Even at that moment, yet another part of my brain had the energy to be aghast at my thoughts.
“I can’t do it!” I said to Allison.
“Aha!” she replied, “You told me yourself that when you said that, the baby would be born soon, and he will.”
At that very hardest time of the labor, Allison started to pray over me, something she had not done, at least not out loud, before. And also, about at this time, the following happened:
Prior to labor beginning, quite some time before, I had asked Our Lady, my guardian angel, and St. Therese to be with me. I envisioned Our Lady on my left, my guardian angel on my right, and St. Therese with her hand on my shoulder, during the contraction pains. I had been praying the Sorrowful Mysteries of the rosary as my labor began. While praying the rosary, you meditate on scenes from the life of Christ. I often find it difficult to pay attention during the rosary on a good day, so you can imagine how it was during labor. I never got past the first Mystery, the Agony in the Garden – so during the contractions I had my mental eyes focused forward, on an image of Jesus praying in the garden of Gethsemane. During transition, I focused my mind again – Our Lady on my left, my guardian angel on my right, and St. Therese behind me. I looked ahead, in my mind, to see Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane, but to my surprise I did not see him. I saw the risen Christ, beautiful and confident.
There was a tense moment or two, right before birth, when the baby’s heart rate slowed; but the midwife and doula helped me to move, and his heart rate went back up. Within a few minutes he was born.
* * *
Halleluia, we had made it!
Every time we have a new baby, I marvel at their tiny beautiful hands, and tiny perfect feet, and sweet little heads. And the nurses always say,
“Good heavens! Look at the size of those feet! Look at his little biceps! Look how long this baby is!!”
Of course I only see my own babies at birth, so they all look tiny to me. The nurses see all kinds of babies, and it always feels so odd to hear the nurses exclaim at how huge our babies are. This little one, like all his brothers, was over ten pounds. He’s not fat – he’s not even big-boned; he’s just big.
We rested all afternoon in the quiet.
We had gone to the birth center in the morning – baby was born in the early afternoon, and we went home in the evening. My wonderful, glorious in-laws had been taking care of our other boys (and of all of us for the whole month prior! I told you they were wonderful.) We came home with a new little baby, of course, fast asleep in his car seat.
“You look great!” my in-laws said.
“I feel great,” I replied.
And I did. It wasn’t until a day or two later that I felt like I’d been hit by a bus. But that pain is a good sort of pain somehow – or at any rate nothing can dampen the glorious fact that labor is over with. And our new baby is the most beautifulest baby in the world, as I often tell him, with the possible exception of his brothers, when they were babies.