The baby (cherub) is sleeping beside me on the bed, one little arm draped across her cheek. According to everyone’s advice, I should be sleeping too, but I have wanted to record as much as I could recall before it is all one beautiful glossy memory. This is the story of our daughter’s homebirth on December 3, 2009. The choice to birth at home was an easy one without many reservations. Among them were the fear of disturbing the neighbors (which is quite possible as I sang through each contraction…more on that later) and the fear of destroying my favorite rug with various gross fluids (I actually birthed on my favorite rug with many layers of towels between us, and am so happy such a beautiful piece of art holds that memory).
Notably absent is the reservation shared by many…that “something” would go wrong. From the beginning of the pregnancy, I couldn’t wrap my mind around the belief that pregnancy and birth are a medical instance in need of treatment. My husband and I both favored the idea that birth is a normal physiological event and inherently safe process. It seemed the most tangible manifestation of nature and spirit that I could imagine. Very early on I began researching models of prenatal care that could reserve intervention and treatment for medically necessary complications, and allow a normally developing pregnancy to progress into a normally developing labor and birth. The primary goal was an emotionally, spiritually, and physically healthy mother and baby. I realize labor doesn’t always progress as planned, and would have been happy and grateful to transfer our care to our local hospital in the event of an abnormality, complication, or (as most common with home birth transfers) a stall in labor progress. Luckily, there is education and information available today so that all expecting families can make choices that feel best for them. For us, this was midwife-managed care, although in the beginning we weren’t planning to birth at home. Deep in my pregnant belly I longed for the comfort of home birth, but I struggled with the myth so deeply indoctrinated in us all…you have to GO somewhere to labor and birth.
We started our journey at a free standing birth center near our apartment in Brooklyn. The center is staffed by four midwives and throughout the course of pregnancy, we saw each one (as is common with obstetrical practices, we wouldn’t know who would be on call the day labor started). Instead of packing a bag and preparing to leave for the hospital at the first sign of labor, we would pack a bag and labor at home until active labor began and then travel to the birthing center for delivery. At the center, I was so pleased with the quality of care that I found. I was surrounded by birthing professionals who reserved Pitocin use for emergency situations, wouldn’t equate a multiple pregnancy with a c-section, and didn’t even offer epidurals. I didn’t realize just how medicinal it still was. I had ultrasounds for instance, and in addition to multiple blood tests to check for a very long list of abnormalities, I drank the strange orange soda substance to check for gestational diabetes.
The midwives measured me and we listened for the baby’s heartbeat at each short visit. Because I spent most of my pregnancy deeply and quietly trusting of my body, when the portion of the check up arrived for me to ask all my burning questions, I wasn’t really interested in discussing all the strange and random pregnancy quirks, favoring talk of my meditation practice, the journal I was starting (of my experience of pregnancy that I plan to give to my daughter when she is pregnant someday J) and which affirmations were working best so far to keep me balanced. While the midwives would patiently nod while I described my vision of a peaceful, uncomplicated birth, there was a vacancy in their eyes that I can only attribute to a waiting room full of other moms needing their urine and weight checked too. It was better than what I imagined care to be at an obstetrical practice, but I wanted more.
Around my 28th week of pregnancy, we moved to a larger apartment in the Bronx, relieving some tension that had cropped up in my marriage due to sheer lack of space. While the birthing center assured me that many birthing moms traveled from over 2 hours away to labor there, my 45 minute labor commute scared me. My dreams of freedom of movement, candles, music, dancing, and laughter were replaced with nightmares of being fully dilated during rush hour traffic on the Brooklyn Queens Expressway, and an unassisted back of our SUV birth.
Enter our superwoman home birth midwife Anne. I found her during an internet search of all places, and found her face so kind I scheduled an interview. Although I wasn’t positive yet I had the strength to make my secret longing for home birth a reality, I wanted to meet with her in hopes I would find clarity surrounding my choices. In addition to sharing experience, offering references, and generally just putting me at ease, she made us laugh. I didn’t realize how much I needed a practitioner to be both knowledgeable at the craft, and also human enough to laugh at the process. We loved her. I wanted to home birth, and think I just needed someone to say YES YOU CAN. Coincidentally, we also found out a birth she attended was featured in a documentary that was next on our Netflix queue, a great movie called Orgasmic Birth. Although I had trouble picturing myself reaching orgasm during labor like some of the birthing women, we were excited to see her in action (and actually, our birth was more like her patient’s, beautiful and NOISY).
We began each prenatal visit at our homebirth midwife’s office with couch time. We discussed my diet, my feelings, my dream birth, and my questions before the routine check-up. She lent us books, documentaries, and showed us many photos of childbirth at home so we would be as prepared as possible. One of my favorite things from these visits is before our midwife measured or checked the baby’s heartbeat, she would lovingly place her hands on my belly and joyfully say “Hi, Baby!” I loved that our little mermaid girl swimming about in there was greeted. Without her, after all, we would not have been there in the first place. On average, our appointments at the birthing center lasted about 15 minutes. With our home birth midwife, they were closer to an hour.
At a prenatal appointment conducted in our home with our midwife and our doula, they both asked what sort of vision I had for the birth. They wanted to be able to respect my wishes, and also hold the type of energy in the space in case I wasn’t able to maintain it. I wanted our beautiful home to be warm and dimly lit, have softly playing music, the sound of our softly trickling fountain, a million lit candles, and ROMANCE JOY and LOVE energy filling our apartment, both to nurture me, and to make the placeour little girl journeyed to beautiful and comfortable. During labor, I wanted to laugh, dance, sing, and kiss my buddy. I wanted to relax into the joy that my baby was coming, Most of all, I wanted to trust my body to know what to do. I had a commitment from the birth team of my hubby, midwife, doula and my mom to maintain a loving, safe and gentle process for me and the baby. I joined a wonderful birth circle with other expecting moms where we released residual fears, blessed our bodies, and imagined our perfect births. I created drawings and notecards to hang that reflected the vision I had of a beautiful, gentle birth in hopes that the constant reminders would somehow influence the big day.
On my due date of November 23, my mom arrived. She planned to stay for three weeks. We were all hoping the baby wanted to come sooner than later so we’d have the necessary postpartum support that is so important for women to receive. I spent over a week with my mom watching movies, tooling around Manhattan, and answering the question “do you feel any contractions yet?” about 137 times. Every so often, I felt slight tingling sensations, but without any pattern whatsoever. Each new one even felt so different from the last, that if I were to experience it again I am not sure I would recognize them as Braxton Hicks.
The morning of December 2nd, I noticed I passed my mucus plug. I excitedly went into the living room and told my mom that YES I think we’re having a baby soon. I had already decided that during my early labor, I wanted to make a birthday cake for my little girl. We decided her name would be a tribute to my late grandmother, and so I wanted to make her specialty, Italian Crème Cake. (I get a lot of mileage out of that detail…not only did I have a home birth but I made a cake during labor. People are in disbelief. J)
Not yet contracting really, but just FEELING like the day was here, I started my cake project. During the baking I became ravenous. I ate about 5 leftover pancakes, a banana, and some other assorted snacks. Later I recognized this as a typical early labor sign…my body was trying to tank up for the day’s work. While my cakes were cooling, I decided to watch a little guilty pleasure comfort TV viewing (Gilmore Girls on DVD) and rest for a while. I dozed and watched and started to notice the dull tightening sensation I had been feeling all week were occurring about every 12 minutes. I was SO excited to realize that finally after all the waiting there was a pattern to the contractions. Not wanting to get my hopes up in case it turned out to be a long day, I napped and continued my GG marathon (for any fans out there….it was the season where Rory is secretly into Jess but still dating Dean. Juicy).
With beautiful butterflies in my tummy, I decided to take a bath. As I soaked, I called out to my mom in the other room every time I felt another tightening. Just as I’d done so many times before, I rubbed my belly and imagined what that little angel looked like. Realizing I would soon find out made me grin from ear to ear. The contractions still weren’t painful, and were just a dull achy feeling. My mom said they were starting to come every 8 minutes now. This was it! By the time I got out of the tub, I started to feel like I was leaving the room. It was so intense already. I lay on my bed, closed my eyes and started to go through one of the relaxations I learned in our Hypnobirthing class. (Hypnobirthing is a childbirth preparation method in which relaxation and visualization are utilized to eliminate the fear that constricts birthing muscles and allow your mind to aid your birthing). As I became more and more attuned and present in my body, everything else just started melting. I remember calling out to my mom and husband that I think they better put together the birthing tub we rented because this baby was coming faster than I expected.
Around 3:30, I met my much appreciated and loved birthing partner, the rented Aqua Doula birth tub. Instinctively, I sat in the same position polar bears do when they labor and rocked back and forth as my hubby rolled tennis balls on my lower back. The contractions were coming about every four minutes, and were strong already. During this time, I pictured this drawing our childbirth educator shared with us of an opening flower with a baby’s head in the center. With every rise, I imagined my body opening. At the advice of the doula that led the birth circle I joined, I also mentally said YES and THANK YOU to each tightening, yet opening feeling. Over the course of the next hour, the contractions began coming every 2 minutes. I was so deep in my body that I was having trouble coming out in between contractions to carry on conversation. My husband (or my mom?) called our doula. By the time she arrived, the contractions that were bringing my beautiful baby closer to us were only 90 seconds apart. It was around this time that I started chanting. A deep, moan-y, unstructured chant come from deep within my soul each time another came on. I am told most times, I was harmonizing with the brilliant global, rhythmic birth music mix my husband made. It makes me smile that even in labor, I was creating harmonies.
Dreamlike, my midwife somehow arrived. About 5 hours into labor, I moved into our bedroom and asked her to check my progress. Luckily, I was 7 centimeters dilated and about 90% effaced. I say luckily because it is extraordinary, hard work. If I had gotten news that I wasn’t progressing as quickly as it felt like I should be, I imagine it would have been very discouraging. I feel for women who labor in hospitals and are forced into frequent and disruptive vaginal exams. Back to the tub I went where hubby resumed rubbing my back with tennis balls, which at this point was adding to the intensity. Apparently, I couldn’t control my volume when I struggled to focus long enough to ask (demand?) he STOP THE BALLS. I started picturing this spiral charm our childbirth educator gifted us. I traced in my mind its grooves while internally chanting with each contraction, “I am connected to every woman before me and every woman after”, the power and poignancy of which fueled me.
About an hour later, I was fading. I had gotten sick earlier in the day and the thought of eating again made my stomach churn. The only energy I was adding was in the form of frozen cubes of cranberry juice. My arms were tired from holding my position, and I struggled with the most challenging part of my birth…not knowing when it would be over. It is a bit like running a marathon without ever knowing just how long a marathon race is. I felt like if I just knew when I would see a finish line I could pace myself. Contractions were still coming every 90 seconds and lasting about 60 seconds. With only half a minute to rest between each, I desperately needed to know. I went back to our bedroom so our midwife could examine me. At 9 centimeters dilated and completely effaced, it seems I was somewhere around mile 20. Relief flooded me; the baby’s almost here. After the exam, the bag of waters in which my little girl so gracefully swam about for 9 months released. About 10 minutes later, I started pushing.
Because active labor was so manageable for me, I was completely overwhelmed by the intensity of pushing. Guttural screams escaped my tired throat each and every push. I was still lying on my side on our bed; eyes shut, I felt paralyzed. It was so intense that I was letting contractions pass without a push. My midwife and doula were encouraging me to try a new position, but I couldn’t move. I struggled to cry, but couldn’t find tears. Comfort comes when you most need it I suppose, because at that moment I heard a small clap of thunder and a downpour of rain. When I opened my eyes, I noticed my mom had moved a tray of candles into the bedroom and they were softly illuminating the Buddha statue on my dresser. The sound of rain and a candlelit Buddha saved me. I finally moved from the bed, sat on the birthing stool my midwife set up on my favorite rug and leaned against my sweet love husband. Finally, I reached down to find the baby was crowning. I remember hearing my mom say, “Oh, her head is out now!” Another push at 12:25am, and Carolena Frances Benelli joined the world. I looked down at her, overcome with sheer wonder and joy.
We wanted to leave her umbilical cord attached as long as possible so that she would benefit from the rich nutrients still pulsing through from the placenta. Maybe because of this, or maybe because I was just so exhausted, it was another hour and a half before I birthed the placenta. Carolena nursed and then snuggled with her grandma so I could clean up. Perhaps the most romantic moment of my life was my husband coming into the shower and cleaning my body after I gave birth to our daughter. I felt so loved and cared for in that moment. I came out of the shower to fresh sheets and a cleaned room. Our little love weighed in at 9 pounds, 3 ounces, and measured 21 1/2 inches. Around 3:30 in the morning, our midwife and doula went home, and the new grandma went to sleep in the other room. Hubby and I snuggled in with our new little angel and enjoyed our first night of sleep together.
There is not a single thing I would change about the beautiful way our daughter joined the world. Seriously, how many times did I describe something as beautiful in this account? There just aren’t many other words for it. I am so grateful for the information available that allowed us to truly make conscious choices for Carolena’s birth, and that I found the perfect birth team for me (thanks Pauline, Marin, Nancy, Anne, Mom, Chris, and all the wonderful women I’ve met before the birth and since who encouraged me). I would birth naturally, and at home as many times as my husband will agree to pregnancies J. When I tell the story, women are shocked that I “made it through natural childbirth”. To the women that think I am somehow MORE powerful than they, I would just like to say YOU’RE WRONG! My body is no different, and the power that enabled me to birth in the way it was intended is in every woman. The only difference between us is mental; I know what is possible for every woman and every baby. I learned that it is as true in birth as in life…you have the experience you intend to have. And mine was just beautiful.
Image by Megan Hancock Photography
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