Nate and I welcomed our daughter, Franklyn Olivia into the world on April 29th, 2019. Reading and listening to positive birth stories was a huge source of support for me throughout my pregnancy. Frankie’s birth ended up being the most empowering experience of my life. I want to remember all the details of her wild journey into the world but I also want my story to help re-write the narrative that our culture has around birth. I wish I could go back in time and tell my pregnant self not to be afraid, and to trust my body and my baby. I hope Frankie’s birth story can be a source of support and empowerment for other pregnant women.
Part I: Early Labor
Friday, April 26th
I woke up feeling really rested. The night before as I was going to bed I noticed period-like cramps. I’d experienced them a couple nights scattered across the previous weeks, and although I’d never been more excited by the feeling of cramps, I knew they would likely just come and go like the others had. That night before I also happened to turn in my last paper for grad school, ever. My last day of work had been that Wednesday and the next day I had completely open to rest and prepare for maternity leave. I remember thinking I’d feel anxious having finished up in so many areas of my life and then arrive at a place where I was just awaiting her arrival, but when it came down to it, it actually felt like a relief. I could finally breathe, rest, and mentally prepare for her birth without distractions. Something about turning in that final paper then getting really great sleep left me feeling at peace.
When I woke up that Friday morning the cramps were still present, which was new. In the past they hadn’t seemed to linger, so I was feeling excited and ready. I made myself a smoothie then headed to a noon yoga class at Tejas. I remember having mild cramping during class, but yoga felt good. I left class feeling really grounded, cramps still present. I figured it was a good time to pick up last minute food to have on hand for the midwives and doula, so I headed to Trader Joe’s and bought more coffee, half and half, and a handful of frozen meals since they’d likely be with us for nearly 24 hours during labor. The cramping became heavier at Trader Joes and I texted Nate that I think it’s going to happen this weekend. Like I always do at Trader Joe’s I bought too much and needed to take a Lyft home. The driver asked when I was due and I said “tomorrow”. He seemed impressed that I was out and about. We drove lakeshore home, it was a beautiful warm Spring afternoon on a Friday and excitement was in the air. I felt really at peace.
I had been feeling super exhausted and depleted the last couple weeks of pregnancy. Like first trimester level exhaustion. I kept wondering how am I going to have the energy to birth a baby with this level of exhaustion? But that day after getting home from Trader Joe’s that boost of energy everyone had been promising finally seemed to arrive. I cleaned the house, assembled snacks for the midwives/doulas, printed copies of my birth plans, finished packing my hospital transfer bag, then wrote out all my favorite positive birth affirmations on post-its and placed them all over the apartment. I messaged our doulas to let them know what was up and they said to just keep them posted. Then I propped myself in a Restorative pose in our bedroom and rested waiting for Nate to get home from work. By this point I told him to pack up his things and plan on not coming back into work on Monday. He was so excited and for weeks had jokingly been asking me, “when are you going to give me my baby?” By now my cramps were pretty uncomfortable, and seemed to come in what felt like waves. I did as our hypnosis for childbirth instructor told us and tried to just ignore them and go about my day.
When Nate got home we walked to Dinotto’s, an Italian place with great pizza about 10 minutes from our place. I messaged the midwife on call on our walk over and she said to keep her updated and to call if things intensified during the night. Along the way to dinner I experienced what I no longer recognized as period like cramps but contractions. They’d come in a wave, then vanish, over and over. They were a totally new feeling. I remember feeling more and more excited with every one. I was ready, I could do this. We ate dinner and I remember feeling really badass knowing I was probably in early labor but I was handling it and staying calm. Our pizza was really good.
When we got home I followed careful instructions from both the midwives and doula and had my first glass of wine in nearly 10 months. Nate and I sat in bed drinking before bed feeling excited but knowing we just needed to relax and try to get some sleep. I laid in bed feeling both excited but intimidated by what the next day would hold. We joked that for the most part my pregnancy has been so textbook, she would arrive on her due date – what a good baby!
I had contractions that woke me up throughout the night but they weren’t horrible. I was able to get some sleep between them. Then around 4am when I was practicing deep breathing to get through them I smelled cigarette smoke from our upstairs neighbor coming through our open window. We’ve had an ongoing battle with the condo association board over this issue and to smell the cigarette smoke during this time filled with a fury so strong my contractions nearly stopped completely.
Part II: Prodromal Labor
Saturday, April 27th
We woke up the next morning to snow. It was my due date. I laid on the floor of our bedroom propped with bolsters and blankets as we timed things. The contractions were short and not very intense but at times 3-4 minutes apart. They stayed this way, then lulled as the morning went on. I fully intended on having the baby this day and hoped to have our doula arrive by the afternoon. By the evening things had slowed down. I’d spent the entire day inside and was starting to feel defeated at the thought of having to go through another night of trying to relax and stall labor to preserve my energy for the next day. I had been on the phone with the midwife on call throughout the day; this midwife has been delivering babies for over 30 years and started the practice that I’d been working with during my pregnancy. She described what I’d been struggling with for the past day as “prodromal labor”. Hearing those words left me completely defeated. My mom had what I understand to be prodromal labor with me – she was admitted to the hospital Friday and I wasn’t born until Sunday. Both of my parents had been warning me to expect the same thing for myself, “you labor like your mother” people would say. This upset me throughout my pregnancy. I wanted to be hopeful things would come together better for me. I took a very different approach to pregnancy than my mom did – I hired a doula, practiced yoga and meditation daily, took a 5-week hypnosis course, ate all the dates, and worked my ass off trying to re-write my internal narrative about how our culture tells us birth is a scary painful experience. Things HAD to turn out better for me. So to hear the words “prodromal labor” felt completely defeating. I knew what it meant and had listened to and read so many women’s birth stories throughout my pregnancy that I knew it could go on for days without progress. That night I sat at the dinner table with Nate and cried. On top of this, I was having back labor which likely meant she was malpositioned despite my 6 months of daily spinning babies exercises, weeks of chiropractic, and yoga. What the hell. Meanwhile the positive birth affirmations I had posted throughout the apartment seemed to taunt me. The midwife instructed me to take a Benadryl and a bath which was supposed to stall contractions and once again try to get some sleep. Nate scrubbed our gross tub and prepared the bath for me with candles. He’s the best. We got some sleep and prepared to do it all again the next day.
Sunday, April 28th
The next morning I woke up actually feeling rested. The snow had gone away and it was sunny. My spirits felt lifted by the weather. Nate made me a big bowl of oatmeal with berries and nuts (per the instructions of the midwives – bland enough if you throw them up during labor but nourishing nonetheless – I later learned oatmeal is known as “the midwife’s Pitocin”). We decided to take advantage of our lifted spirits and go for a walk. We walked almost 2 miles up to the park with Pumpkin. I rested on benches between contractions and practiced deep breathing. Inhale for 5, exhale for 8. I’d been practicing this one for two days straight at this point! I got a voicemail from Stephanie, the third midwife I’d been in contact with over the past 3 days saying she’d heard things were brewing and to know she was there for me if I needed her. Hearing her voice gave me a ridiculous amount of comfort. From the beginning I had felt most connected to this midwife and had hoped she’d be the one on call during my birth.
On our way home we stopped at La Fornette around 3:30 to pick up a loaf of bread to make grilled cheeses. I sat on the stoop with Pumpkin while Nate went inside. I remember being worried a contraction would come right as I needed to order and it would be super awkward, so I waited outside. I remember another dog owner coming up to me and trying to engage during a contraction. I was super annoyed she didn’t get the memo I wasn’t interested, but didn’t want to freak her out by telling her I was (sort of) in labor. When Nate came out of the bakery I stood up from the stoop and felt a small rush of liquid come out. It was startling but definitely could have been urine, not my water breaking. Let’s just say late pregnancy did some damage to my bladder!
When we got home Nate made me a grilled cheese with wilted spinach and avocado on our La Fornette sourdough. Then I sat down on the couch and tried to relax while watching Brene Brown’s new Netflix special. I’d pause it and get on hands and knees during contractions. I listened to her talk about vulnerability and bravery and taking the big risks in life. At moments my eyes filled with tears knowing I was on the brink of the ultimate testament of bravery and vulnerability. Up until this point I had largely been able to handle the contractions independently. Then one came on that felt next level, I looked over at Nate who was on his laptop completely oblivious to my sudden pain and panic and I totally snapped and yelled, “Nate, I need you!” as I jumped to hands and knees to get through it. By now I had to turn off Netflix. I had noticed some continued leakage, which suggested that my water may have in fact broken on that stoop outside of La Fornette. We called the doula at 6:15pm and said she planned to eat dinner and then would be ready to come over whenever I needed her. She instructed us to contact the midwife. After talking to our midwife around 6:45pm we concluded that it was in fact my water that had broken and it was officially go –time.
Part III: Active Labor
I got in the shower and told Nate I think it was time to get our hypnosis scripts out. Up until now I had been instructed to save them for active labor as to keep them most powerful. I rode the waves in the shower as Nate read the same relaxation script to me over and over. I was relieved to see how powerful the hypnosis actually was. I have to admit, I’d been practicing the tapes every day for nearly 6 months but wasn’t sure how much they’d actually help my labor. They taught my body how to relax, I’d done the work, and it had sunk in. It felt like I had just unlocked a whole new set of arsenal to help me get through labor. I hung my arms over a bar above my head and swayed as the hot water sprayed on my low back throughout each contraction. Nate timed everything. We got a good, but intense system going, and it worked really well. So well that despite intense contractions I couldn’t always pinpoint when they ended because the hypnosis and water seemed to relax and numb me deeply. I was going to ride this as long as I could and stayed in the shower for nearly an hour and a half. We timed for the doula to arrive right when I got out because I knew without the water things would be more uncomfortable. Just before she arrived between contractions I leaned over and gave Nate a big kiss. Partly because Ina May taught me kissing your partner produces oxytocin which helps labor and partly because I felt so in love and connected to him and excited that we were bringing a child into the world together.
Our doula arrived at 8:45pm and met me on hands and knees over yoga bolsters in our bedroom. That’s when things got really intense. Suddenly my contractions were 1.5 – 2 minutes apart lasting almost 2 minutes. According to this intensity and spacing the midwife should have been there by now and we hadn’t even called her. The doula instructed Nate to call the midwife and start filling up the birth pool immediately. Nate left to go do these things (and I pretty much didn’t see him again until I’d reach the pushing phase) but it was fine with me because our doula was awesome and knew exactly what to say and do. She did this magical massage on my back and hips that felt so good. She was so calm and told me everything was going beautifully and just as it should.
Throughout the intensity I still cognitively knew things were coming fast. The waves were one on top of the other, I could barely catch my breath between them. We had almost all the lights off in the bedroom and I could hear what sounded like chaos going on outside preparing the birth area. I hoped it would be ready in time, but knew all my focus had to be on riding these waves. They were coming fast and intense. They took all of my focus and attention to make it through. It felt like surfing: intensity, a break to catch my breath and more intensity.
Throughout all of this I had my hypnosis track playing in the background – it was our instructor’s voice and the tape name was called “Happy Birthday” only to be used on the day of labor so it was my first time hearing it. It was a combination of relaxation, visualization and the same positive birth affirmations I had been listening to almost daily for months but worded in real time. I found it so helpful! I could visualize my cervix opening through each contraction and I knew that though intense, this was a GOOD thing, what my body was meant to do! I kept repeating lines from the hypnosis to myself “with each surge, I go deeper and deeper relaxed” and “I can allow strong sensations to run through me without resistance”. Knowing from a physiological standpoint what was happening to my body was actually really helpful in allowing it to happen. I remember feeling intensity in my back and low belly that radiated down the front of my thighs. Between contractions I felt nothing and I could engage with the doula and catch my breath, then another would hit and it was like being pulled back under water – I lost all ability to speak or communicate in any way. I hummed and moaned through contractions – I hadn’t really planned on doing this, the sound just seemed to come out and the humming helped me lengthen my exhales. It felt very natural. Minutes later I felt a massive pop of pressure and a gush of nearly a liter of water – my water bag had burst. Luckily I had been kneeling over one of Pumpkin’s potty pads. Likely I’d just sprung a leak in the outer layer on that stoop outside the bakery, but this was the real thing. After the birth was over, I asked my doula if things were really happening as fast as they felt to me in the moment. She said, yes, and that she predicts I went from 6-10 centimeters in less than 30 minutes. I’ve read and listened to enough birth stories to know that’s insanely fast, especially for a first time mom. The crazy part is, I never had a single cervical check once throughout my labor. But I obviously made it to 10. Looking back on it, I really wonder if allowing strong sensations to move through me without resistance led things to progress to swiftly.
Just before our midwife arrived I felt a huge pressure to start to push. I had listened to enough birth stories to know this meant the baby was coming SOON. I remember wanting to ask the doula, “is there anything we can do to slow things down?” but I never got a chance to, it was full speed ahead. I honestly worried I’d have the baby right there on the floor of our bedroom without the midwife present and that was scary. My body involuntarily started pushing during two contractions before the midwife and her assistant arrived. They arrived at 10:06pm (I only know this because I’ve read through their notes in my chart – I had no concept of time in the moment). I hadn’t even realized our midwife arrived and was right there in the room with me until a contraction was over – I was so happy to see her, I felt like leaping up and giving her a giant hug. She was the first midwife I saw in the practice, and made me feel so supported during my first visit where I had to get my blood drawn (I have a longstanding phobia of needles). She was secretly my favorite of the three in the practice and she was now going to be the one to help me bring my baby into the world. I honestly trusted her with my life throughout labor. I remember so clearly looking up, seeing her there and thinking to myself, “Now I can have this baby”. Right after the contraction the midwife’s assistant checked the baby’s heart with a Doppler and my blood pressure. I remember feeling like I was in such good hands.
I kept asking if the tub was ready and I kept getting the response “almost”. It must have only been 10 -15 minutes after the midwife arrived that they told me they were ready for me to go to the other room and get in the tub. I looked up at them with huge relief and said “okay, but I’m going to have to crawl there”. The idea of standing up and walking felt completely unmanageable. They said, “that’s okay” but also offered to help me walk to get there faster. I leaned on them and they practically dragged me over. When I got to our living room, I saw that it had been completely transformed – there was tarp everywhere protecting the floor and furniture, the midwife’s supplies, and the pool perfectly positioned right under my 10 foot fiddle leaf fig tree just like I had planned. It was 10:34pm at this point. I could tell they had all been working so fast and hard to get it ready. I climbed in the tub and immediately said “oh my god, this feels so good”. I hadn’t always been so set on a water birth, but figured it made sense. After having gone through it I can say there is no way I would want to not have a water birth – it was so natural and really helped with pushing and delivery.
I now felt like I had full permission to actually push during the contractions – it was go time! I remember feeling so surprised by how loud I was during pushing. It was like I was watching myself from outside myself. I sounded and felt like a wild animal, I feel like I was even surprised to hear the noises that came out of my mouth, while at the same time I felt like I couldn’t control them. Way back deep in my mind I remember thinking “the neighbors are going to be so freaked out, I should really keep it down”, but to my body that didn’t feel like an option. Pushing wasn’t painful, in fact, I don’t think I experienced any pain once I got in the tub for the most part. Pushing, like I’d heard a million women before me report, actually felt good, though physically challenging.
The midwife told me I could put a finger inside and see if I could feel her head shortly after getting into the tub, I couldn’t. She suggested I try this several more times throughout my time in the tub and I went from feeling something way up there, to feeling something just an inch or so from the surface, to her head touching the edge, and so on until her head bulged outside my body stretching everything around it. I remember being so exciting and asking Nate if he could see her or feel her – I wondered if she had hair and what color it was; he couldn’t. At one point I remember feeling soft fuzzy hair on her head and thinking it must be so cute! At another point, our midwife encouraged me to try to vocalize less during pushing to help preserve my energy. And to try to hold my breath and get 3 big pushes in per contraction. This was hard. Her and the doula also offered me suggestions for different positions to try pushing in. I pushed mainly on my knees with my back arched and my forearms on the edge of the tub holding Nate’s hands. They had me try some time on my side, which felt a little weird. I also tried a squat, though they instructed me not to deliver in that position (I think I’d read it leads to more tearing). I ended up being in a half squat, half virasana. My left leg was in a squat with my foot on the floor of the birth pool, and I was standing on my right shin. I don’t think I would have chosen this position without the midwife and doula’s suggestion but it worked incredible well and according to them provided the baby with maximum space to come out.
I pushed for a little over two hours in the tub. I asked several times “what time is it?” because I knew it was close to midnight and I wondered if she’d be born on the 28th or 29th, for a while I thought it could really go either way. Between contractions it was silent and peaceful. I could hear the “happy birthday” hypnosis track on repeat. I caught my breath as everyone observed in silence around me. It was, in a way, so oddly normal. Just everyone waiting for her arrival, myself included. Between contractions they checked the baby’s heart rate with a Doppler – which they never seemed to be able to find very well with me in the tub and them awkwardly feeling for my belly. At one point I got so frustrated I grabbed the Doppler and put it on my belly myself and instantly we heard her heart. They also checked the pool temperature between every contraction, reported the temperature and then adjusted so it maintained a steady range, between 97-100 degrees I believe. I remember Pumpkin snoring, which was the opposite reaction I’d worried she’d have. Our doula told me Pumpkin woke up right before the baby was born, as if she knew. Our doula gave me drinks of ice water, homemade grapefruit electrolyte water I’d prepped for myself, and put cool wash cloths that smelled like lavender on my neck and shoulders – they felt so good. At another point we heard fireworks outside the window, so odd for a Sunday night in April. My time in the tub was incredibly hands off, it was like the tub created this protective barrier around me. Looking back on it now, I so resonate with the saying from evidenced based birth, “Babies aren’t pizza, they born, not delivered”. I don’t feel like my midwife delivered my baby. I birthed my baby.
When she started crowning I remember waiting for what I’d heard referred to as the “ring of fire”. I didn’t experience it as this, though it was ridiculously intense. I remember thinking there is no way my body can stretch more than it is and then a contraction would come and I would stretch more. I could reach down and feel my body stretching to the brim, and although I couldn’t see it, I knew what it must look like because I followed so many positive birth accounts on instagram throughout my pregnancy. It felt sharp and intense and like she might break me in half. I’m pretty sure I dropped the f-word a couple times at this point and yelled “ow!”. At one point I even vocalized, “I’m scared I’m going to tear”. My midwife reassured me that it’s just the feeling of my tissues stretching, and told me I was doing a good job of holding her in place between contractions. I remember wanting to take my time and go slowly so I didn’t tear. The midwife and doula seemed to encourage me more and more but I was content going at my own pace.
Then right before she was out, something truly incredible happened. In our birth class the instructor told us that everything we do to prepare for birth is only part of the equation, the other part comes from our baby and we can’t control them. The baby and I have to work together. I really resonated with this, and every night when I talked to my belly in the shower I told her “you and I are going to work together to get you out!” Well right before she was out, her head started MOVING – wiggling! I had always thought babies and their heads were just passive beings being squeezed out, but she was wiggling and squirming her way to help me push her out. It was the most surprising and incredible feeling I have ever experienced in my life. It was like she was saying “mom, we’ve got this!” like the unexpected underdog who flies in during the final scene to save the day. She was rising to her occasion, puling through on her end of the deal. I worked with her wiggling and pushed during the next contraction and she released all at once and floated up to me. I reached down and pulled her to my chest, all by myself. I brought her into the world and I was the first person to lay hands on her. This fact is something I will treasure for the rest of my life. I said “oh my God”, over and over again and there she was in my arms. I had done it. There was a baby in my arms – our baby- the one we’d dreamed about and wondered about for months. There she was – eyes wide open, crying in my arms, staring up at me – perfect in every way and mine. It felt like she had always been mine, that we’d never been apart and she was my daughter all along. Of course, we belong together. She arrived at exactly 1am on Monday, April 29th, 2019. Our daughter, Frankie. Nate and I starred at each other in wonder and soaked in all her details for nearly 45 minutes. He kept saying “she’s so small!” The midwife worked to keep her covered with a towel and her body under water because her temperature registered as a little bit cold. The water in the pool was clear, no blood, I think I was actually seeing it for the first time because my eyes had been closed for nearly all of the pushing phase. Our apartment was dark and I could see clearly everything around me for the first time. It was so peaceful and calm. It was like none of the intensity had ever even happened. With lots of work, she successfully latched and we started breastfeeding. She was much tinier than I expected and had a little cone head. She was born with vernix still in places on her body, “birthday frosting” which I lovingly rubbed in.
At each point I had mentally calculated my odds of having to go to the hospital. I knew that sometimes when the placenta doesn’t come there can be problems. Mine didn’t end up coming for 50 minutes, but I had no bleeding so the midwife wasn’t worried. They gave me two doses of “angelica” this herbal tincture under my tongue to help it come. Then after 45 they cut her cord which was still connected inside me, and I pushed only slightly and out it came. The “tree of life” I had seen so many times in birth story photos. It was incredible.
Looking back on it now, I can say there was never a point during the birth where I felt like it was more than I could handle. It was incredibly challenging and incredibly intense, but it never felt unbearable. I never questioned my ability, I never contemplated needing pain medication, or wanting to transfer to the hospital. I never even felt scared or anxious. This is surprising because throughout my pregnancy, I, and nearly everyone I told I was planning an unmediated homebirth, really doubted my ability to cope. They told me over and over how hard and painful it was going to be. And I had to work so block out all that noise. How wrong they all were. How wrong our culture was for weaving fear and disempowerment into the narrative about labor and birth. I don’t want to negate other women’s experiences that may have included scary and painful birth experiences, but this just wasn’t my reality. I wish I could go back in time and tell my pregnant self not to be afraid. I wish I could tell myself that I could trust my body and my baby. I attribute my positive experience to the work I did during pregnancy, but also largely to the midwives who cared for me throughout my pregnancy and birth, our doula, and the instructor who led our hypnosis for childbirth class. They all left me feeling incredibly empowered and supported and I wish all women had access to support like this.
I eventually made my way out of the tub for skin the skin in our bed. The midwife checked me. I was sure I’d need stitches since I wanted to be realistic and most first time moms do, but the tiny tear I did have wasn’t bleeding, so she applied some golden seal on the cut and let it be. I hate needles so this was a huge relief. Eventually after more skin-to-skin, the midwife walked me to the bathroom. She asked if I was dizzy or lightheaded. I felt completely fine, shockingly fine actually, just a little shaky. I went to the bathroom quickly and they gave me a frozen pad soaked in an herbal sitz tea that felt incredible. I crawled in bed and snuggled more with Frankie and Nate. Then the midwife did Frankie’s newborn exam – she was basically perfect. When they lifted her off my chest she had had her first poop right on me. She’s amazing. The midwives left to do more paperwork and we rested and bonded. Around 5am they asked us if we needed anything else, gave me details about how to care for myself over the next day, and then headed out. I remember laying in bed thinking, there is no way they can expect us to sleep. This has been the most wild, empowering, and magical night of my life.