A few notes: 1) While I avoid graphic detail, this is a birth story, and as such, requires some attention to the physicality of childbearing. I don't recommend reading on if, in doing so, you will be unable to appreciate the story and the miracle of birth. 2) I am unapologetically an advocate of natural childbirth. That being said, in telling my story, I have no intentions of judging or dismissing the experience of any woman. Bringing a life into this world is a fundamentally life-changing act, one that should empower women as individuals and bring us together in community. We all have our own stories. Each is unique, each is important. 3) I am happy to talk with anyone about my decision to have a natural, unmedicated birth. I believe firmly that women have been disempowered by a patriarchal society and medical system who tells us that our bodies are fragile, our minds weak, and our pain tolerance absent. Women, we are capable. Our bodies are miraculous. Our intuition is dead on. We are strong. Ultimately, we must seek women-centered birth, acknowledging the unique, creative power of the female body and the fierce, determined spirit of a mother.
"She believed she could, so she did."
How do I tell this story? What words could adequately describe the weeks and hours leading to her arrival? The moment I laid my eyes on her, heard her first breath, took her into my arms?
Ruby Day. Tuesday, April 14, 2015. 6:27 AM. Just over 6 pounds, a smidge over 20 inches.
Perhaps we pine for those details precisely because we don't know what else to ask or say. Nothing else seems important. A child has taken it's first breath, has been given a name. My dear friend Sam says that newborns are a super-concentrated dose of human. In only a few pounds and inches exists everything we are, everything we are meant to be.
Something is missing, though, in our choice of questions and answers. We shy away from acknowledging the pain, the ecstasy, the magic of birth. We forget the long road the child's mother has journeyed. Months ago, I wrote that I felt pregnancy is all to often stripped of it's significance -- and women of their voices -- by the shallow chatter about bellies and bows. Similarly, we risk missing the miracle of life and birth when we summarize the story with a few statistics.
So, despite the inadequacy of language (or my ability to use it), this is Ruby's birth story.
Hands trembling, I opened the bathroom door and met Jordan's gaze. My arm was behind my back, holding a cheap pregnancy test bearing a clear positive. He was completely unaware that I was taking the test or that I had been suspicious. Shock, joy, confusion, and doubt flickered over his face in the span of a few seconds. Neither of us really believed it. A trip to the grocery store and three tests later, we still harbored doubt.
Five years, we told ourselves when we slipped rings onto each other's fingers. Five years until we would even discuss having children. Sure, we dreamed. Some days, we dreamed of having a family . Others, we dreamed of a life without children. We nearly made it. It was late July, only a week before our 5 year anniversary, and I was pregnant and we were happy.
It seems impossible that 10 months have passed since then. As much as I didn't enjoy being pregnant, every week seemed to speed by, propelling us at breakneck speed toward parenthood. Then, at 39 weeks, it seemed as if time stopped. Any time, family and friends said, eyes sparkling. The texts and calls began to trickle in. "Anything today?"
I hunkered down and waited. For a few days, I was patient. Then, the contractions began. Nearly every day for two weeks, I had prodromal labor. You've probably heard people refer to it as "false" labor. Others call it "practice"* labor. Some days, I had timetable contractions for 2, 8, 12, or 14 hours straight. They never grew closer together, and didn't increase in intensity. But they stopped me in my tracks. I spent nights in the glow of a TV on which I could not actually concentrate, bent over a blue exercise ball, longing to sleep. Eventually, exhaustion would overtake me and, in the morning, I woke up to find the contractions gone.
Ruby's due date came and went. Although we knew a due date was only an estimation in the midst of a three or four week span of time a baby might arrive, we found ourselves sad and frustrated. Another week passed. The wait was painful, emotionally and physically. Nearly every day seemed to hold the potential for labor. After a few hours of contractions, I began to allow myself to believe that perhaps this was it. Then, inevitably, the dull ache that wrapped itself around my back and abdomen would subside.
I always feared birth. Given our society's attitude toward labor and delivery, I'm sure that doesn't come as a surprise. When I became pregnant, though, I knew I wanted an experience that was not dictated by big medicine. I landed at Brookhaven Birth Center. There, I was surrounded by a community of supportive, knowledgeable women who taught me to trust my body and intuition. Over the course of my pregnancy, the fear of pain was gradually replaced by a reverent excitement to experience my body's power.
In the long days of prodromal labor, though, fear began to creep back in. I understood that the pain I was experiencing was only a taste of what was to come. I worried I would become too weary, too physically and emotionally exhausted to take on the real thing.
On Monday, April 13, Jordan and I headed to what I hoped would be my last prenatal visit at the birthing center. As had been the case with every other visit, I was immediately put at ease and my confidence was restored. Never underestimate the power of a supportive community. Maya and Zazi assured me that all was well and that my baby would come. I believed them. Maya offered to perform a membrane sweep**, a simple procedure that had the potential of kicking my practice contractions into real labor. Within a couple of hours, I began having light contractions.
With a sort of timid excitement, Jordan and I timed the contractions, growing disappointed when they did not become regular. They did, however, begin to grow in strength. And, unlike the contractions of practice labor that seized my low back, they were centered deep in my abdomen.
At 3:40, Jordan headed off to see his first client, making me promise to call if I needed him to come home. He was scheduled to be in sessions until around 8:15. At some point within the hour, I threw up (I would do so many, many more times throughout the course of the evening) and texted Jordan asking that he come home. Soon after he got home, we headed to a quiet spot in our favorite park and walked. And walked. And walked. With each loop, my pace slowed and my stride became more of a waddle. These contractions were different. They stopped me in my tracks, stole my attention, took my breath away. When Jordan tells the story, he says that with each one, my eyes glazed over and I seemed to be in a different place altogether.
Eventually, I decided I needed to stop walking. We got home sometime after 7 PM and I ate a bowl of oatmeal and got in the shower. The hot water brought sweet relief, albeit temporary. The next few hours were a blur. My contractions had still not developed into a reliable pattern (the rule of thumb is to prepare to go to the birthing center when contractions are three to four minutes apart, lasting for one minute, for at least one hour. When they were consistent, though, they came every two or three minutes. At around 9:45, during my third or four shower of the evening, I began to wonder how I would bear the drive to the birthing center and asked Jordan to call Misty, the on-call midwife.
Misty told us to plan to arrive at the birthing center around 10:30. Jordan quickly, but incredibly calmly, gathered our bags and packed the car. I'll never forget that drive. It was as painful as I thought it might be. My instinct was to move through my contractions -- something I couldn't do strapped to the seat of our Jetta. But, despite the pain, those 25 minutes were unimaginably precious. The emotion in the car was thick. Excitement, fear, uncertainty, and, above all, joy.
My mantra through the last few months had been the quote at the beginning of this epic. In the last weeks, I sang the ridiculous (and amazing) Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt theme song to myself over and over. "Unbreakable...females is strong as hell." As we neared our exit, Jordan played the song on his phone, making me chuckle and strengthening my resolve.
We arrived at Brookhaven around 10:40. Walking through the front door, I felt as if I was entering a sacred sanctuary. Misty met us and led us to our room, a large, serene room that would delight any Bed and Breakfast guest. Warm water poured into the tub as Misty asked questions, took my vitals, and listened to Ruby's heartbeat. Over the course of the next hour, my mom and the rest of my birth team -- Kai and Zazi -- arrived at the birthing center. I paced the room, bending over the bed with each contraction. Misty and Kai, who had attended a birth the night before, slipped out of the room for a few hours of sleep while Zazi, my mom, and Jordan stayed in the room with me.
Around 12:15 AM, I got in the tub. Friends, water is a miraculous thing. Again, it brought me much needed relief.
The next few hours were a blur. Contractions came and went. It seemed to me that they remained inconsistent. An exhaustion like I had never known fought to overpower the strength of the contractions. I sipped water and spooned tiny drops of applesauce into my mouth. Very little of it stayed down.
In the midst of the throes of labor, I was acutely aware of how comforted I was by the presence of the people around me. I was also amazed by how known I felt. Each gave me space, attending to my needs quietly and calmly, drawing near only when they rightly sensed I needed a human touch.
Around 3:30, Zazi came to sit by the edge of the tub. She noted that my contractions had become more intense -- something I had not consciously recognized. It was incredible, really. By simply listening to me, she gathered that my labor was progressing. While my mom and Jordan caught a few moments of sleep, Zazi stayed by my side, quietly telling me her own birth stories and offering words of encouragement.
Around 4 AM, Kai entered the room. I did not realize it at the time, but looking back, this must have been around the time I hit transition. Every contraction was all consuming. I took each one on my hands and knees. As a generally quiet and reserved person, I expected that I would be relatively quiet during labor. I was wrong. In the early hours of active labor, I discovered a deep, primal vocalization, a sound that seemed to tie me to all the mothers of the animal kingdom. At some point, I noticed a distinct difference in my contractions. It was as though I was being swept away by the tide of a force previously unimaginable. I asked what it would feel like to push and, when Zazi told me that it would be an irresistible urge, I knew I was almost to the next stage.
It was at this point that fear began to prick and prod. After a particularly intense contraction, I looked around the room. Jordan was there, at the edge of the tub, waiting. Kai was beside him, calm and compassionate. My mother sat nearby on a couch, quietly looking on with the expression of unmitigated love and support I knew I would need. Zazi sat beside her, offering me a gentle, reassuring smile. Misty came into the room, bringing with her a compelling, contagious strength and determination. When the next contraction hit, everything in me seemed to tell me that I could not possibly go any further. But, in that moment, the presence of those around me strengthened my resolve. When I wanted to scream, "I can't!," I said, "I can do this." Everyone in the room responded in unison, "Yes you can."
Sometime around 4:30, Jordan got into the tub with me. It had been our plan from the beginning that he would catch Ruby and be the first person to touch our child. The next hour felt like the span of a few minutes. I remember noticing between contractions that Jordan seemed a bit queasy. Fatigue, hunger, and anticipation had begun to take their toll on him. Still, during each contraction, he offered steady support and encouragement, his own physical and emotional exhaustion seemed to subside entirely.
Jordan tells me it was 5:25 when I started to push. At that point, my water still hadn't broken. Misty had been trying to get me out of the tub and to the toilet for a while. I was stubbornly adamant that I could not possibly walk across the room. After one or two (maybe three? I don't remember, really) contractions, I leaned back and my water broke. There was meconium in the water. After this, Misty became more insistent that I get out of the tub. Though I am notoriously stubborn, I'm no match for Misty.
As I stepped out of the tub and began what seemed an insurmountable trek across the room, I realized I would not be having a water birth. When I reached the toilet, I panicked. "If I sit down, I'm going to have a contraction and I'm going to have to push." The look on Misty's face told me I was stating the obvious. Within moments, I was back on my feet, knees bent, supported by (I think) Zazi and Kai, completely and totally overcome by the force of labor.
At this point in the evening's events, Jordan was struck with the need to pee. This urge came at nearly the same moment that Misty was asking him if he still wanted to catch Ruby. There was no time for him to leave the room, so, giggling, everyone turned around to allow Jordan to use the toilet in the room. (If that doesn't offer some insight into the beautifully safe, intimate, and relaxed atmosphere of the birthing center I don't really know what will.)
Meanwhile, I still stood, shaking uncontrollably, becoming a bit frantic. My vocalizations had ceased to be low and guttural and were becoming higher. I was losing control and the midwives knew it.
"Bring your voice down."
Though we all anticipated I would give birth on my hands and knees (as I had taken that position for nearly every contraction over the course of 10 hours), it was suddenly the last position I wanted to take at that moment. Instead, I asked for a birthing stool.
Moments later, I was seated on the stool, Jordan was squatting in front of me, and Ruby had crowned. I looked up and saw my mom standing behind the midwives, a smile of excitement on her face. It was exactly what I needed to see. One more contraction, and her head emerged. Another and she was born, received by her father.
Suddenly, there were hands reaching for Ruby. I heard someone say that the cord was around her neck. "Nobody touch the baby!" Misty took hold of my tiny little girl and deftly unwrapped the cord, snaked three times around Ruby's neck, before suctioning blood from her airways. It only took a moment, and, in reflecting on it with Jordan, it was a moment in which neither of us were afraid. We trusted our birth team completely.
It was 6:27 AM when Ruby Day came into the world. By 6:29, Ruby was in my arms. It was a strange, heart-rending encounter. She was so familiar. It seemed as though I had always known her, always known her precious face.
Tuesday, April 14. It was a day of pure magic. We spent the morning laying on the bed, Ruby on my chest, marveling over each sound, each movement she made. In the first hours, I was given the space to bond with my daughter. No one took her away to be weighed or measured or cleaned. She stayed with me as our vitals were taken and examinations were done. It wasn't until we were ready that Misty and Kai took her to the other side of the bed to record her height and weight and APGAR results. Ruby was never taken out of the room.
For the next few hours, we recovered. Jordan faded in an out of sleep while I stared wide-eyed at Ruby. Our birth team brought us fruit, eggs, and bagels. Eventually, we dressed Ruby and began to gather our things. At around 11:30, we left the birthing center. By 12 PM we were home, laying in our own bed. Soon after, we were all sound asleep.
Giving birth was absolutely the most difficult thing I have ever done. It took every ounce of my strength, required every bit of my determination. Ultimately, it was the most transformative, empowering experience I have ever had. It was deeply spiritual, an extraordinary opportunity to experience the mystical force of love, the mystery of creation. And, it is as they all say, the moment I saw Ruby, I knew a love I never thought possible. Certainly, a taste of the love of God.
And now, I am a mother. Ruby is a gift for which I can never offer adequate thanks, a grace so perfect and precious I can do nothing but stare in awe and do my very best to honor her and the One whose breath gives her life.
Endless gratitude to my friend John Robinson of Robinson Imagery for these gorgeous photos. If you're ever in need of a photographer, he's your guy.
If you're in Rockingham, Augusta, or a nearby county and want the most incredible pre-natal care and birth, go to Brookhaven.
*Prodromal labor is really like the warm-ups of the real thing, in my experience. While I can't say I'm entirely grateful for it, it did allow my body to do a lot of work before active labor began.
**One of the many wonders of this model of prenatal care is that this was actually the first time I had any sort of internal examination. During labor, I was given the option to request internal exams, but was not required to receive any. I never asked, and gave birth without knowing at any point how many centimeters I was dilated.