Our little one decided to come into the world on one of the hottest days of the Summer. And my husband decided that we didn't need the services of the complimentary hospital valet. Perhaps he thought it would encourage the labor process to walk in the blistering heat. At any rate, we took a long, slow walk across the black top. I waddled slowly and nervously and my two sidekicks carried our bags.
Aren't we supposed to go in through the ER entrance?
I don't know.
I think we are. That's what we've done every other time.
Let's just go straight up to maternity.
But I don't think we're supposed to.
We'll be fine.
I'm the rule follower. He is the rule breaker. We've both travelled a little closer to the middle over the years but our inclinations still reveal themselves regularly.
We went directly up to maternity while my heart raced and my muscles contracted. I hate this place, I thought. Plastic smile. Plastic smile. We were buzzed into the maternity ward and our midwife was sitting right at the desk, beaming from ear to ear. We've been waiting for you! Let's have a baby! My blood pressure settled down and I smiled a real smile. Thank you, God, for this woman.
We were ushered in to our room and a nurse asked if I would like to be examined. NO. I'll wait for the midwife. Thank you though. Plastic smile. The birthing tub was set up on one side of the room, already filled and warm. The two nurses attending were cheerful and quiet.
Blood pressure taken. Baby monitored. As soon as we get a few contractions, you are free to do what you like. You can get in the tub, use the exercise ball, walk around, whatever. I was so grateful for the offers but all I could think was: I would like to go to sleep. I would like to just lay here. I said, "Thank you so much" and lay back to wait, feeling slightly guilty for not using the lovely tub they had prepared.
In the meantime, my husband was changing into his superhero costume. It's invisible but he definitely has one that he uses on such occasions. He stationed himself at my side and his presence in that room grew and grew. I could sense his movements and confidence at every moment even during the hard contractions. I knew that he would allow nothing harmful into that room and nothing good out... and that I could rest and focus on the baby and birthing process without another care.
On the other side of the room was my sweet Cookie, who was about to get the surprise of her life I think by witnessing the birth of her little sister. I had prepared her a little but was reluctant to get into any major detail. Not that I oppose detail, but I know that no birth is the same and that this one would go the way it would go no matter what she was expecting. She knows basic biology and the scientific outline of the process... what I could not really prepare her for was the reality or my actions. Because I didn't know myself what that would be. I did not doubt that she would be mature enough to handle it well. I did wonder if it would scare her off motherhood... or whether it would just motivate her to become a midwife. At that moment, however, she sat quietly. I was aware of her presence and prayed that she would witness a smooth and happy delivery.
When the midwife walked in, I looked at Cookie and thought Here we go. She's in for it now. And then I forced myself to ignore the worry.
We had talked about the midwife breaking my water before. Normally, she is reluctant to do it because it brings on a fast and heavy labor but this is a non-issue with me because I have fast and intense labors regardless of what anyone does. Her exam found me to be at 5cm dilated with increasing intensity of contractions so we knew that everything was ready. There was no point in waiting and tiring out. Let's have a baby.
My water broke at about 10:30am and we had a brief period of calm (about 2 contractions) while my body processed the idea of change. I was encouraged to get up and move around to "facilitate" labor but interiorly and in action, I heartily rejected this proposal. I did not want to facilitate labor. I wanted slow and steady. The babies come quickly without my help. I'm just going to lie here and wait for her.
Our midwife led the nurses out of the room and the three of us were left in silence. I stayed on my side with my eyes closed and Mr. Wonderful periodically pushed me to drink ice water which I did my best to do. Then they prayed...
My husband was on one side and Cookie on the other, a few feet away. They took turns leading a quiet and gentle Rosary. Gentle as a breeze and powerful as the ocean, those prayers led me deeper into labor and closer to the arms of Jesus...
Jesus, Jesus, Jesus, I give you my heart and my soul... Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us... breathe, breathe, Jesus, Jesus... O Blood and Water, which gushed forth from the Heart of Jesus, as a fount of mercy for us, I trust in You...
It was an experience of a steady increase of waves of grace and pain. My conscious focus was keeping every muscle as relaxed as possible through each contraction. I have read a lot about the effect of tension on pain during childbirth and wanted to give my body the advantage of having me work with it instead of against it. Keeping that focus and calm came easier with the rhythm and lifeline of prayer.
At the beginning, I was able to offer up the struggle for the intentions of my friends, family, and all who had asked for prayers. As things progressed, I began to beg Jesus to hear the prayers offered by others on my behalf.
Closing my eyes helped me focus. If I opened them, the busyness of the visible room, the curtains, machines, and wallpaper, distracted me from focus and I would start to feel a surge of panic. Start to think of how I could get out of this situation. The primary mental obstacle was the constant urge to let my fear get control and look ahead to the larger pain that I knew was coming.
The Rosary concluded and my own prayers increased in frequency and decreased in complexity. Keep me here, Jesus. Keep me right here. Mercy, Lord. Have mercy... keep me here. I fell into praying that prayer over and over again because I knew that anticipating fearfully was a problem. If I could only stay focused on him and calm in the present moment. Keep me right here.
Focus on the Baby.
One great advantage to having birthed so many children naturally is that I can feel the process of labor with some degree of clarity. For my first children, I just felt like a huge ball of pain. It just happened to me and I didn't know what was going to happen next or when it was going to happen. That kind of experience lends itself to panic and I do understand how so many labors degenerate into frantic interventions. As an older mother, I now understand the process. I know when transition is imminent. I understand what it means to be in transition. When it feels like you're going to die, you're almost done. I can feel the descent of the baby and am able to tell my support team to be ready because birth is happening.
You're doing great, honey. She's almost here. My husband's love and confidence has a way of flooding over me and I believe him when he speaks.
I reached a point in this delivery when I could feel the baby descending and her head beginning to make significant work of the cervix. I told my superhero to go get the midwife because it was just about time. He took his time and walked around the bed so that he was standing and looking at my face. I admit I got a little grumpy. What are you doing? I told you to go get her. He told me that he was observing me to see if it was really time. I understood what he meant because he is really, really good at being a birth partner. He is an expert actually. But when mama says it's time... please go. He did go. He was perfect... not too soon, not too late.
One of the oddest, most surreal moments during my labors is during transition. It is the point at which I am focusing and feel like I'm going to die with each contraction and the rest of crowd in the room is... well... they're waiting and chatting. Chit chat. As in, so you won't believe what my dog did yesterday kind of chit chat. And I'm in my own little world but still conscious of these waiting, cheerful people gathered around quietly talking about other things.
During this particular labor, the discussion turned to the suffering of expectant fathers. My guy made a comment about how difficult it is to watch someone you love in pain and not be able to physically help them. The midwife returned with a very passionate tribute to the terrific suffering of fathers in that position and how under-appreciated that suffering is. I had a lucid moment in between contractions and could not help myself: Yes, I am definitely under-appreciating his role right now.
The room paused and then laughed and someone commented that I must be doing all right because I still had my sense of humor. And I thought that the statement was funny in an ironic (not a ha ha) kind of way and added to the surreal quality of the whole thing. Surreal but sweet. A calm and happy peace descended upon everyone, like the 2 minutes at a surprise party before the guest of honor arrives. A little whispering, a little laughing, a reverent hush. An expectant joy.
I had only three full transitional contractions that were each separated by two very mild ones. I have never had such a beautiful breather before. With the second one, I knew that she would be out with the next contraction. I could feel her moving and pressing and I gave notice: HEAD!
One push and they told me to stop. Little breaths, Mel. That is when they clear out the breathing passages of baby and whatever else they do. It is also that moment when you think the world has gone crazy... telling you to stop. As if you can. As if you can without exploding and dying.
Second push and she was all out and I am shaking and wishing that I could feel my fingers. I could hear her little cries and could think nothing other than Thank God for minutes on end.
I apologized for yelling so much and the midwife told me that she loves to hear good hearty yelling because she believes it helps with the pushing. Cookie made sure to tell me that I didn't just yell... but that I also screamed and squeaked. Thank you, darling. I don't remember squeaking but I guess she was probably paying better attention than I!
Because I have a wonderful husband and midwife, no one took the baby away. She nursed within 5 minutes and stayed and stayed. We didn't know her weight for another two hours because they just let me love her. Nobody poked her or put in eye medicine so that she couldn't see me. She nursed and looked at me with big eyes and then slept the sleep of pure contented happiness.
They didn't cut the cord right away so that the baby could benefit from the final minutes of cord blood. The midwife offered to let Cookie cut the cord but she declined. I would have declined as well. Give that job to Daddy! But Cookie did get the opportunity to learn quite a bit and the midwife took a very interested and active role in helping to teach her. Cookie was mostly quiet but she was very attentive and completely enthralled by the new little life.
She ended up staying for hours and pondered more than she talked about all that had happened. The details of her head and heart take a while to unravel and reveal and so that first day was spent quietly and happily. I don't think there is another soul in my household besides myself who is quite so in love or attached to this little one. Daddy loves her deeply, of course, but there is a maternal quality to my daughter's attentive care that is impressive. I have to think that watching the miracle of her being birthed has enhanced that bond. I have no regrets about bringing her with us. In fact, I think her presence made the experience even more beautiful. I do admit that being so exposed to additional people is humbling, but it is a feeling that was easily overcome when surrounded by so much grace and blessing.
The Gentle Birth.
I wouldn't normally use the words "gentle" and "birth" in the same sentence... or ever... but there was a quality about this one that demands it. The pain was something I don't care to remember. It was not gentle. But the way that our Lord led me through the circumstances and actions of delivery were so lovingly merciful. He did not take the pain away. But HE was there. And HE transformed fear and suffering into something magnificent.
At one point during the final moments of delivery, I recalled our last labor and the incredible focus that came with calling on the name of Jesus out loud. His name is not magical... not a token word that makes things better like the clicking of Dorothy's ruby slippers. His name is His Presence. Crying out to our Lord does not necessarily diminish pain, but brings focus, like a camera lens being adjusted in the very soul. I remembered and called on Him and was surprised and grateful to hear the midwife affirm my prayer.
I have wondered in the past whether the smiling martyrs were smiling because they were miraculously relieved of the pain inflicted by their tormentors. I used to think that it must be so, but now I wonder if Jesus became just so much bigger and more present than their pain that they were able to smile in spite of it. Of course, I am not like those martyrs and have never even been inclined to smile through childbirth... but there is no doubt that He attends to us when He is called and carries us through.
We were left alone for most of our recovery. The fact that ward was unusually busy, the midwife had given a "hands off" directive, and that we are experienced parents, convinced the nurses that we didn't need much fussing over. We have had difficulty in the past with uptight staff who don't understand our more relaxed preferences or our desire to keep the baby with us. This was not one of those times. By the time we were ready to leave 24 hours after the baby's birth, not a soul was there to poke, prod, bother, or fuss at us. I got into the wheelchair and we rolled home... to the loving arms of the rest of our "babies."
I always forget how challenging the first days with a newborn are, trying to balance the needs of the baby, the household, and my own recovering body. But I haven't forgotten how quickly the time goes. How quickly they grow. How beautiful each moment is and how the human memory wipes so many of these moments away eventually. And I'm breathing it all in deeply and intentionally.
One of my favorite quotes is from Fr. Benedict Groeschel and I have been rolling it around in my mind frequently lately, hoping to live the message more fully: