Better Than Seven (A Birth Story)
Come to Me, all you who labor – and I will give you rest. -Matthew 11:28
(This is a birth story, complete with all the guts and glory. Reader discretion advised.)
It was a dark and stormy night. The full moon hid behind thick clouds. Wind howled around the creaking house, warnings of floods and power outages blinked on screens, and cold air seeped under the kitchen door. I felt it because I was barefoot and pregnant as I shuffled across the cold linoleum. But the weather did little to dampen my mood. The end was finally in sight. Labor was kicking in, the house smelled of warm chocolate chip cookies, and I was caught up on laundry.
I was three days away from my due date. It’s closer than I’ve ever been to the 40 week benchmark. This pregnancy began with extreme fatigue (probably due to low iron and struggling thyroid function) and was finishing with constant pain from over-stretched ligaments between my legs. Funny how I can get so excited for an event that will cause such discomfort. But I was.
Plus, I’d done everything possible (within reason) to encourage labor to kickstart. I walked and did squats, I drank red raspberry leaf tea and ate dates, spent quality time with my husband, vacuumed, sat on a big exercise ball, and prayed. I’d been having cramps and lots of Braxton Hicks practice contractions since 36 weeks. Every night I’d go to bed hoping to wake up in active labor. No such luck.
Finally, Friday morning, the delightful mix of blood and mucus that blocks the cervix appeared. (Sorry if this is TMI; it is about childbirth after all). I texted the midwife, my husband, and my mother that labor would likely start within 24 hours. But I wasn’t having major contractions yet.
Grandma came over later in the morning, so I took the opportunity to do a last-minute grocery run. One older son went with me to help pick snack foods that the boys could get for themselves if I became otherwise occupied. He joyfully chose lots of prepackaged treats, yogurt, and chips while I stocked up on diapers, milk, and meat for the freezer. I breathed a sigh of relief as I put away the bags of groceries. The baby could come now. I was ready.
But the day dragged on. My first real contractions started a little after noon, but they were sporadic for hours. I tried to take a nap (always a success when you’re in labor in a house with 6 kids). The surges came every 10 minutes, slowly ramping up to every 5. Back labor. The pressure built, but I could still function. I expected it to get more intense quickly. My husband came home early from work. “Having a baby?” He asked as he came in. “I hope so,” I replied uncomfortably. “She doesn’t seem to be in a hurry though.”
Grandma took the boys to her house for supper. My husband connected the hose to fill up the birth tub and spread plastic over the bed. I made cookies. Why wasn’t this moving faster? The boys came back; my inexhaustible mother put them all to bed about the time the midwives showed up. And so the long night began.
Historically, I have pretty quick active labors. Since this was number seven, I assumed it would go even faster. I had a friend training to be a doula and a photographer friend both on stand by until it got closer to the big moment. I didn’t want to call them to stay awake all night if it wasn’t happening until the next day. They were both moms of babies themselves. But this time took – time. I labored in the birth tub, the midwives did counterpressure on my back, I walked stairs… They encouraged me to drink and eat small snacks, they read Bible verses I’d picked out, they monitored the baby’s heart rate. I didn’t feel like I was progressing, which was insanely frustrating. My nurse midwife, who has attended nearly 300 births (and 6 of her own), was unfazed by the duration. “This time was divinely chosen for you, your baby, and your husband,” she reminded me. “Custom made by your Almighty Father.” The wave of a hard contraction rose against my back. I wondered if this was how Jesus felt as He bore the lashes of the whip. I had rejected the option for an epidural (you can’t get those in a home birth) just as He had turned from the vinegar-dipped sponge of pain killer. Not that I was taking the sin of the world on my back, but in a very small – but very real – moment of my own life, I could taste His pain. “For the joy set before Him, He endured…” I was not alone, even in back labor.
Sometime after 2 in the morning, even the warm water of the birth tub stopped helping the back pain. I climbed out and sat on the toilet praying, rocking, begging for it to be over. “I’m glad I got to commiserate with You, Lord, but I don’t think I can take this any more. Really!” A wave of nausea rolled over me. I lost the banana and nuts I’d been snacking on, and the intensity of my stomach contorting made my water break. (Conveniently, in the toilet). The hours of back labor suddenly disappeared and were replaced by intense downward pressure. Now we were getting somewhere!
Things ramped up from there (or ramped down?). The ladies could tell by the way I was breathing (more downward, sort of channeling my inner Darth Vader), that pushing wasn’t far away. “You need to get off the toilet,” they encouraged. “It’s almost time.” But there was no way I wanted to be lying down at the moment, or even sitting. At the midwives’ suggestion, my husband rigged a bedsheet into a long sling by knotting it at the corners, throwing the knot over a door, and closing the door. I hobbled over and slid the sling under my shoulders and around my back, letting it take my weight. I thought about calling my friends; finally it was almost time. But it was 2:30 in the morning. Hospitality just wasn’t top priority at that moment.
Several strong contractions pulsed through. I thought about pushing, but no. I didn’t want to try until the urge was overwhelming. I knew my husband was behind me, praying. My mother might have been too. I faced the door, hanging, knees bent, shameless in that humbling position. The midwives hovered close, ready when I needed them. Waiting. “I must look like a trussed up chicken,” I thought ruefully, “White and round, and about to lose my stuffing! And everyone’s standing around waiting for the button to pop!” Oy. Maybe it was good the photographer wasn’t there!
The next contraction started. Oh, she was so low! I’ll just do a practice push, I thought, just to see… I strained, and felt her head slide down. The contraction continued, unrelenting, so I took a deep breath and let out a holler (I wish I didn’t have to yell, but I go primal when it comes to pushing). Her head emerged. “Try to pant,” One of the midwives coached. I obeyed, feeling the rest of her body slide out into their hands as I crouched, facing the door, held by the sling. Suddenly, it was over. She let out a hearty scrawl. What a beautiful sound!
“Oh, that was so hard!” I exclaimed (Not the most profound statement ever uttered at birth). But immediate relief and joy washed over me. It was just after 3 a.m. on March 3rd, Saturday morning. One of the midwives slid a birth stool under me and helped me get untangled from the sling so I could hold her. She was warm and wet and still attached with the umbilical cord. My husband was beside me. “Can you check?” He asked. I looked down. It really was a girl. We had a daughter. I laughed.
The ladies helped me to the bed about 10 feet away. I lay down and she nursed as the placenta delivered. They cut the cord about half an hour after she was born. For the first time in seven births, I didn’t tear. The midwives cleaned up. I started to shake uncontrollably. My husband held the baby while the ladies checked me and helped me get warm. (Electric blankets are a genius invention). They weighed and examined the baby, brought me food, cleaned, got us comfortable, and disappeared into the cold, windy night. They’d be back later to check in, but now was time for rest. By 5 am, quiet descended over the house. The boys had slept through the whole thing.
I woke a couple hours later to the patter of little feet. How glorious to be in my own bed after birth! Each brother padded in, shyly, as if knowing something holy had occurred over night. It was a supremely content feeling – sore – but right. All my children around me. “Blessed” is an overused idiom in my circles, but how else to describe it? The Bible uses it for just such a time. I lay back and let my own indomitable mother shoo them into the kitchen for scrambled eggs and chocolate milk. My husband stirred beside me, still needing to sleep off the trauma of watching his wife go through labor (a challenge in its own right), but also to answer the call of the coffee pot. I pulled open my Bible to Ruth, where I’d left off the day before. The story was of a daughter (Ruth) given to a woman (Naomi) who didn’t even realize that was just what she needed. When Ruth married her Prince Charming (Boaz) and had a son, the women of the town rejoiced with Naomi, telling her that Ruth was “better than seven sons.” I smiled. I would have rejoiced to have a seventh son, as anyone in that Patriarchal society would have. But God chose something I needed even more. A daughter.
Welcome to the world, India Sophie. Glad you came.
photo credit: Kendra Bruton