Karen's note: scroll to the bottom of this story for a lovely video of a gentle birth; read the story first!
Although we hadn't been "not trying" for a few months, I was so surprised to find out I was pregnant in late May 2014. I had gone through a rough patch getting off of birth control a few years back after being on it for about 15 years. I hadn't gotten my menstrual cycle for a year or so, and was being told I'd most likely need to see a fertility specialist when I wanted to get pregnant. I was devastated since I had already decided that a Homebirth was right for me and I knew fertility treatments can make you high risk. I was being advised to go back on birth control to force a menstrual cycle and when we were ready to get pregnant to switch to pills that would try and force my body to ovulate. Then if that didn't work the treatment would escalate into several other drugs and interventions. Every cell in my body was completely opposed to this plan. It felt so foreign and made me feel helpless. My husband and I did some research and found a naturopathic doctor who specializes in female hormonal cycles and was able to get my body back in balance and menstruating regularly using homeopathy and an incredibly thorough health history.
So fast forward a few years later, during which time our sole form of birth control was pulling out. We decided to "pull the goalie" (like my hubby likes to say), and let nature take its course in deciding if and when we would be blessed with a little soul. In that same time I had just started my own business teaching prenatal yoga from a home studio we had built, and sure enough when I wasn't thinking about charting my cycles and possibly checking my temps every day - I got pregnant. This is why I was surprised. In some part of my being, I had decided that getting pregnant wasn't going to be easy for me. It was the residual energetic crap left over from that stoic Penn endocrinologist with the cold eyes and sterile affect. I had unwittingly been carrying a piece of her around with me for years.
I remember the moment so clearly - we had just come home from eating Thai food, both feeling super stuffed and tired. My hubby jumped right into bed, and as I was getting changed I started noticing how different I was feeling... How sore my nipples had been for the past few days, or has it been weeks? How full my lower belly felt, even before eating dinner.... I had stopped practicing hot yoga as well a few weeks prior, thinking I just needed a little break from the heat and that my body needed a moment of rest; that the demand of building my own studio was telling me to step off my mat for a little bit.... I always had pregnancy tests on hand since my cycle was pretty unpredictable, so I checked...... And for the first time in the I don't know how many times that I've peed on a stick, I saw a faint, very faint, second line......
We live by the Jersey shore and the only local Homebirth midwife had stopped taking clients to prepare for her move down south. Ironically she ended up being present at my birth anyways - but we'll get to that shortly. After reaching out to several other PA midwives and getting turned down because of the distance, we luckily got in touch with two midwives who were willing to meet with us. After our initial phone conversation I felt drawn to Karen - her warm and uncomplicated tone was exactly what I was hoping to hear. Actually, every single thing about our interaction with Karen struck a chord with both me and my hubby. We felt welcomed and at ease in her beautifully eclectic home office, where her years of work and passion for what she does are so palpable. Her smile, the warmth in her eyes and hugs, her recommendation for the best local beer and burger joint....we were over the moon to have found her! We left our meeting with huge smiles and peace knowing that we would have her care and wisdom in this very special time in our lives.
I loved every second of being pregnant. The trips out to see Karen became this sweet little pilgrimage that was dedicated to our growing baby and being present with the incredible process that was taking place inside my body. Sometimes my hubby could come with us and sometimes it was just me and my little fox. On those days I would spend the trips talking to my baby, checking in about whatever was going on in life at that time. My pregnancy was nearly beautifully unremarkable until my 35th week prenatal appointment when Wendy and Karen noticed that my baby had possibly turned breech. And there it was, the B word; a word that, if you know anything about mainstream birth culture in this country, instantly reduces a woman's birth choices to the date and time of a scheduled c-section. Suddenly my whole reality was rocked, and for a brief moment that cold voice was again whispering to me, "see, it IS going to be hard for you to have a baby. I told you so."
And so the tides changed..... the start of almost weekly ultrasounds to check position, acupuncture, moxabustion, chiropractics, inversions, swimming, nightly meditations grounding my little family in peace, love and acceptance. Prior to all this we had only had our 20 week anatomy scan and we didn't know the sex. We were floating along in the process of being pregnant pretty easefully, dare I say blissfully. I had already done all my research about Homebirth and vitamin K, GBS, circumcision, and all the other run of the mill birth stuff, and for the most part I knew how I felt about it all. I remember learning all about breech presentation in school (did I mention I used to be a neonatal RN with aspirations of becoming a Homebirth midwife?) but I never gave it much real thought, not like the space it was about to occupy in my life. To be honest though, I can't remember a single moment in which I truly felt I wasn't going to be able to birth my baby, no matter what part of it came out first.
Having Karen's support and care was a huge factor in the confidence me and my husband felt. We never felt like our options were suddenly diminished just because our baby wasn't facing head down. She helped us to take every day as it came and focus our energy on finding peace and inspiration in our new process. On my own, I started searching for stories of breech Homebirth, watched YouTube videos of women birthing their babies breech and started filling myself up with trust. I feel so lucky to have a partner who was completely on board with my every move, and who was sensitive to my health and wellbeing above all else. After weighing all our options and a solid month of awesome chiropractic care, acupuncture/moxa treatments and practices at home to help our baby turn, we decided to try an external version. We all felt it was worth at least going in for the consult and worst come to worst we walk out of the hospital no different from when we walked in. The Dr came very highly recommended as being one of the very few OB/GYNs in the area to still perform external versions.
That day was surreal to say the least. We had to leave home around 5am to get to our appointment and settled in on time. I had packed a hospital bag knowing that there was a possibility that we could be meeting our baby that day if things got crazy. That felt odd. Going from the flow of letting our baby decide when it was ready to be born to potentially knowing the day it was going to happen... I was instructed not to eat anything aside from water from the night before, but I cheated and had a yogurt on the drive up. We were checked into the hospital as though we had been going there for our care the entire time, as though it was our plan to give birth there. I had a hospital band on, was placed in triage, had my vitals taken and was given a gown to change into. I didn't. I also refused the IV the nurse wanted to place. My plan was to meet the Dr and then go from there, what use is an IV and a gown until I knew for sure we were going to go through with the attempt? A few hours later we got to meet the Dr, and I was blown away by energy and presence. He spoke to me like a midwife would, he made me feel empowered in making a decision that was right for me and my family - not one that he felt was right or wrong. He told me the facts - that my amniotic fluid level was lower than he'd like to see, that my baby wasn't in a great position for the version, that he would give us a 20% chance of a successful version, that there was less than a 1% chance of an emergency situation. He explained how they would use the ultrasound to check the baby's heartbeat and how he would approach the version. He told me that he would likely be the one performing the emergency section if it were to come to that, but the later it got in the day the more potential there was for him getting pulled elsewhere. He explained why the gown and the IV were non- negotiable if I were to decide to go through with the version in a way that was relatable, clear, and completely non patronizing. He told me me and my baby were safe. He respected me as a woman and a mother, and knew that my plan was to birth my baby at home with a midwife. He was confident and calm and gave us all the time we needed to make up our minds, and after gathering ourselves together for a few moments we felt empowered to say yes.
So, my mom and best friend were asked to head to the waiting room, I got into the gown, got my IV placed w fluids hung, and in rolled the team and props needed for the procedure. He checked my baby's position one last time while the nurse gave me the dose of terbutaline (which was also a non negotiable) and then looked me dead in the eyes and told me it was time for me to go to "that place" - to breath big, relax my belly and connect with my baby. He started off slowly scooping my baby up from my pelvis getting his hand as far under its bottom as he could and coaxing its head forward. I felt lots of movement from my baby reacting to his touch, which I guess he felt as well because suddenly he started working very deeply and quickly to follow through with the flip. It was only the matter of seconds to a minute or two but for me time just stopped. All I could hear was my breath reverberating in my head like I was under water as my body was being shook on the bed and then suddenly he yelled for me to roll onto my right side and I felt my baby slip into a new position deep in my belly. I was in shock! Did it really just happen? Did we really just flip our baby?? As the sound of my breath started to die down in my head, I could hear the doctor and my husband cheering, a high five and awesome surprise that it had worked.......and then the room got silent.......everyone was staring at the screen with my baby's heart rate, and obviously it was starting to dip. He told me to quickly roll to my left side and I could finally see his and my husbands faces. Their eyes were growing wider and their faces paler. Being a NICU nurse I knew what was happening and asked him if the heart rate was over 100. "No." Ok - is it over 60? I'm thinking please please please be over 60......"no, and I think we have to call the emergency section." Holy shit how the energy in that small room changed. I knew there was a window of time before having to pull the baby out - 6 mins or so, and I calmly asked him if we still had that time. He looked me dead in the eyes like he had already done so many times and calmly said yes but he'd rather count out those minutes in the OR than in this room. I was completely on board. That moment of calm connection and communication between us was exactly what I needed to find the strength to remain present for my baby. My husband's face was drained of color as they wheeled me out of the room, the announcement being made over the speakers to prep the OR for a stat section. I had hers this phrase so many times before in my work but now it was me on the bed being whisked down the hall. It was an out of body experience for sure, but I wasn't scared of any part of it. I knew if my baby's heart was slow in that it needed as much oxygen as I could provide so I wrapped my arms around my belly and started breathing as big and deep as I possibly could. I told me baby we were safe, that help was right there if we needed it and that everything was going to be ok. I stayed calm, breathing with my baby while watching myself from somewhere else at the same time. Again, only a minute or two had passed before we were in the OR, along with a bigger group of residents and nurses who were all buzzing over a failed version, with what felt like mysticism since those procedures are seldom performed anymore. I felt myself chuckle even at the thought of what was going through those residents minds wondering the potential shit show they thought they were about to see. The minute we got to the room the doctor quickly and boldly snipped that energy off stating that it wasn't a failed version, the baby's heart had dipped below 60 and he wanted to count the minutes in the OR. I was so impressed with his demeanor. I noticed his hands were shaking a bit, I guess the adrenaline in the room had gotten to him too, so without thinking I reached out and grabbed one and placed it on my belly. When he rechecked, my baby's heart rate was in the 120s...........
That moment was almost as intense as the moment when I gave birth to my daughter... My husband hadn't even made it into the room yet as they were being told to wheel me over to a private room for monitoring and recovery. I can't even imagine the cocktail of hormones and emotions that were surging through his body that whole time. Then, moments later, we were in a huge dimly lit quiet room. I was still laying on my left side, and by that point I didn't want to move at all. I was nervous that it would make my baby flip back and after everything we had just gone through I was definitely NOT down with that plan. We had to stay for 4 hours for monitoring which I was happy to cooperate with. But man was I hungry! I think the terbutaline didn't kick in until I was in that recovery room as well, felt like I had taken 10 shots of espresso all of a sudden. I was so happy leaving the hospital that evening knowing that I wouldn't have to set foot in one again.
Fast forward to December 31st, I was driving home from a juicy chiropractic adjustment in philly and I noticed an old familiar cramping in my belly... It felt like mild menstrual cramps. It took me a few minutes to land that though - it had been so long since feeling my uterus like that and part of me was convinced that I would end up birthing past my due date so this was a bit unexpected. But there they started, very very far apart and mild throughout that day and night but there none the less. That night I was laying on the couch, pantyless and in an old pair of huge sweatpants - pretty much my uniform those days. I stood up to pee and felt this cold squishy thing roll down my inner thigh... It was like a dime sized bugger! Resisting the urge to fling it at my husband and yell, "hey honey, catch!" I instead announced that I was loosing part of my mucus plug, this party had officially started. The mood shifted, there was a palpable excitement/nervousness that filled our whole house. We went into full birth prep mode, gathering all the random last pieces of our birth list, cleaning up the den where we were planning on setting up the tub, and covering the carpet with tarps. Finally we went to bed, and the waves kept on rolling. We checked in with Karen from time to time and she just kept saying - "sleep as much as you can now!" So that's what we did, one of us more successfully than the other for sure. It was by far the most exciting New Year's Eve I've ever had.
A friend of mine stopped by the next morning, we were planning on grabbing breakfast but my contractions were intense enough to keep me in the house. They were still pretty far apart though so we just went on with the day as much as possible, not knowing when things would shift. It was so exciting! The waves of contractions grew in intensity but I found my breath to be extremely helpful in getting me through it. Thank you to my yoga practice for putting me in touch with that essential tool! It became my guide through the storm. That night we decided to watch a movie to keep our minds calm..... Cold Mountain, sure why not? 2+ hours of a civil war love story.... By the end of the movie my contractions were making me feel antsy. The space I had between them was shrinking to the point that I couldn't really settle down enough to forget about them in between. I was starting to enter a space in which my birth was all I could think about. It was around 11pm and we figured we should try to sleep....... right...... They were about 20 minutes apart, so I would flop around until I felt somewhat comfortable in bed, close my eyes and just be starting to drift off when a contraction would start up. My breath would start to boom and my husband would hold my hand throughout, and then the cycle would begin again. So after about an hour or so I just couldn't do the bed/sleep thing. This was happening and I needed to be awake and present. I flipped on a light and started pacing around our room. Keith suggested going downstairs to watch another movie and keep our minds off of it, but I knew there wasn't any more space for distractions. They were closer, and building. We texted Karen again and she remained calm saying to keep her posted and keep trying to get as much rest as possible. My contractions started folding me over at the hips. The thought of going all the way downstairs to our "birthing space" was completely out of the question. Forget the fire, forget the playlists, I wasn't leaving the bedroom. Things had gotten too intense and a change of scene didn't feel right. Keith got my birthing ball and I started taking my contractions on my knees bent over the ball, every single one holding onto his hands. We were both silent. Only breath filled the room. I could feel the contractions in all my joints, but mostly my hips. They were like lightning, very powerful and demanding. I had barely eaten that day but at some point I ran to the bathroom to throw up. I remember being on my knees bent over the foot of our bed holding onto his hands and for the first time in the whole process thinking I didn't think I could handle another one.... And then my water broke. A very distinguishable gush of fluid poured out of me. Holy shit! And it was clear!! THANK YOU GOD!! After everything we went through with the version to flip our baby, there was a little piece of me that was worried something could have gone silently wrong, and I prayed I would see clear fluid when my water broke.
Keith suggested I get in the shower, and in I went! Once I was in the shower my contractions suddenly started rolling in MUCH faster, like 2-3 minutes apart faster. He called Karen while I tried to find ways to help myself ground down and find some space for comfort in my body. I could hear him say, "well, they are about 3 minutes apart and she's making some really crazy sounds....". I don't think I lasted more than 20 minutes or so in the shower, and when I got out he told me that all our midwives were on their way and that the local midwife, a good friend of Karen's, agreed to come as well since she was only 15 minutes away and our baby might be coming faster than we all expected. I was so happy to hear that all those women were coming to us!
Not too long after that, Joanne showed up. Keith introduced her and I giggled about meeting her for the first time completely naked and bent over my birthing ball on the floor of our bedroom. I felt like saying, "hi, I'm Erika, and this is my ass". She gave me a warm smile and said I was obviously doing great work and asked if she could check the baby's heart rate. It was perfect, and suddenly I felt a huge relief from a bit of worry I was doing a good job of not letting myself feel. Any little bit of fear I was holding onto about not knowing exactly what was going on with my baby completely dissipated and I felt blissful. I had no idea what time it was, only that it was still dark out. I knew I had done so much work already and had found immense support in my husband's hands and quiet attentive energy. My water had broken clear and now I knew my baby's heart rate was happy plus we now had Joanne's support and presence. My contractions were still rolling but my energy had moved me into a mind space where they weren't the only thing that existed anymore.
Shortly thereafter, Wendy showed up and then Karen. Our birth space went from just us to a family of women who brought so much warmth, peace and support with them. The room wasn't still anymore, it was buzzing with quiet conversation and smiles. I asked if I could get into my bathtub and they all helped me over. It was heavenly to say the least! All the tension and stress I was feeling in my hips, shoulders and wrists from bearing all my weight during my contractions for the past few hours was completely relieved in the tub. My body was suspended in the water and as I peered over the edge of the tub I distinctly remember feeling like a naughty little kid getting away with something I shouldn't have been. It felt too damn good! I just wanted to become invisible for a while so no one would notice and I could stay in there forever. My contractions were still rolling in, a bit more spaced apart, but I was able to work through them with so much more ease. It was such a beautiful lull that we actually had the space to call my mom and let her know to start making her way over. They caught onto me though, and Wendy asked if she could check me in the tub just to see what was going on. The first and only cervical check I had the entire time. She slid her fingers in and let out a little gasp - she could feel the baby's head pretty low down in my vagina! My baby was slowly birthing his/herself in that tub! I was given an option - I could stay put and keep birthing my baby as I was, or I could stand up and try to pee to see if that moved things along at all. Stand up??? Are you kidding me??? I didn't want to change a thing! But, I hadn't peed in quite some time, let's just see. I could always get right back in if I wanted to...
So I was helped over to the toilet and almost instantly felt the overwhelming urge to push. I don't even remember if I peed or not. Karen got the birthing stool and set it up right in the middle of our bathroom. They helped me onto the stool, Keith kneeling on the floor to my left. All I wanted to do was push my baby out with the next wave but Karen told me to go slow, to be gentile and to breath my baby out. I knew that would help keep me intact so I slowed down and focused on my breath - the thing that had gotten me through so many twists and turns already. Crowning..... Holy h o l y...... They don't call it the ring of fire for nothing! I reached down at some point to give myself a bit of support, Keith had his hand on my belly, and with the next couple of waves our baby slipped out into his hands and then onto my chest. Complete and utter bliss bubble! I had never felt so at home in the world. After a few moments, we checked to find out she was a girl. We had a daughter now. There are just no words to describe those initial moments. She ripped a fierce cry and her little pink self looked so foreign yet so familiar. I wanted to lay down in my bed and deliver my placenta there with her in my arms. It took a little while for my placenta to come out, and in the mean time they helped me get her latched. there was such joy over this tiny little woman that was among us now. It was sweet having her in my arms while still being attached to me like that. Such a peaceful transition to life outside of my body. She was so tiny and so awake. She looked at me like she knew me so well already, in a way that no one else ever has or ever could. Once my placenta came out, Wendy showed us the sac our daughter had called home for the past 10 months of her life. It was unreal to imagine her folded up in there inside of me. We waited for my mom to arrive to ceremoniously burn the cord. After a bit of conversing the three of us were tucked into our bed and left to soak in all the magic that had just happened. We got to sleep, undisturbed, and upon waking up we were fed and got to find out our daughter's weight and measurements. I still can't believe how peaceful and fluid my birth was, and how blessed I am to have welcomed my daughter to this life surrounded by love in our own home. I am forever grateful for this experience.