The most incredible week of my life has just passed; perhaps matched only by the week I met Isaac, that summer three years ago when all my hearts desires seemed to have unraveled like fireworks down the New York City sidewalk. Last Saturday I gave birth to a baby boy. He was nine pounds and four ounces and I grew all of him. I labored for ten hours and experienced childbirth in the warm peace and safety of my own home. Julius was born at 1:07am on May 3rd 2014, and he arrived just in time.
I had been overdue for what felt like a year. Having lost a first pregnancy in January of 2013, I seemed to be mimicking the 23 month gestation of an elephant. I had waited to hold my baby for so many months, diligently walking the path, healing my wounds, grieving the loss of potential life and getting up again to try once more. There was fear, there was hope, and there was doubt. But I wanted my baby with every atom of my being, I yearned to be a mother.
My own mother arrived off a flight from Australia on April 18th, one day before my original due date (it was later changed to April 23rd.) She showed us old footage from when I was a child, breastfeeding teddies and doting on my sister. As the days turned into weeks waiting for a sign, the four of us went about our day in much the same manner as those before: Isaac’s mother and mine, and we their first born children, patiently expecting the boy.
By the time the calendar read May, I started to realize that we might not have much time left to have the home birth we’d planned. I tried all the regular natural methods of induction but still no baby. I had an acupuncture session on Thursday. No difference. That same night my midwife texted me. Ready for a try of castor oil tomorrow? Call me before you take it. I said yes, but I wasn’t really ready. I wasn’t sure I liked the idea of irritating my body to get the baby out – castor oil contains a compound which is a smooth muscle irritant – both the bowels and the uterus are composed of smooth muscle, so the logic is that contractions may be kickstarted in the same way the bowels are…
I was awake almost all night (mistakenly) reading internet stories about both the wonders and the horrors of castor oil. I found myself fraught with fear. What if it didn’t work? What if the baby became distressed? The next morning I called my midwife and she reassured me that castor oil is a safe method of induction which her patients have used successfully since the dawn of their practice, that it can be truly effective. Her confidence reassured me. Through tears I worked up enough courage to go for it. I blended raw cacao, coconut ice-cream and 1/4 cup of castor oil and downed the cup. Isaac had a taste. I felt it gave me strength. I had crossed the first threshold.
Within thirty minutes I was pinned to the couch cross legged, meditating through an infusion of nausea. I wore a black hooded sweater, needing the sense of protection, a slight witchiness brewing. Isaac comforted me before running a last errand. I felt rotten. I took a nap and when I woke, found my mother in the kitchen. It was very difficult to trick myself into doing the necessary second dose when my body was obviously trying to get rid of the first. It was working. I’m doing it for all of us, I thought. I climbed back into bed until Isaac returned.
“Do you realize we’re going to have a baby soon?” Isaac said as he leant over me, weak and weepy. I paused. Yes, I could see that there would be a baby at some point. “But I can’t see the path,” I said. Isaac nodded, and at that very moment, I felt something like a water balloon popping between my legs. “I think my water just broke.” I was suddenly wide eyed, a grin spreading over my face. “Really?!” He called my mother upstairs and soon they were doing a victory dance on the landing outside the bathroom door. “I can finally bring out the bunting!” Mum crowed.
The next nine hours were filled with the ebbing and flowing of contractions. I squatted through most of them, feeling like that was the most effective way of doing the job. Later Mum would tell me that it’s also the most intense (and yes, effective) position for laboring. I squatted almost every morning of my pregnancy so it felt natural to continue. My midwife Pam arrived at 5pm when contractions were coming every two minutes and lasting 45 seconds. I was progressing.
At dusk we went outside and I attempted to walk around the garden. I remembered Alanis Morrisette talking about her labor and home birth, how she had only one photo of herself, pacing the dark garden in a black hood. I was there now. I hung off a blossoming tree while Isaac went inside for a moment. Our neighbor was mowing his lawn. Life was continuing as usual and yet I was having a baby. It felt like the most natural occurrence, and yet so often we are shielded from birth. I moaned loudly to match the intensity of the contractions. After several hours of doing that I almost lost my voice so ended up hissing through them instead. I hardly recognized myself.
I remember eating one of my mothers gluten free chocolate chip cookies. I remember the African mask that I labored in front of by the fig tree at our front door. I remember the sounds of my mother and mother-in-law pottering in the kitchen. I remember crouching by the red couch with the lamp on. At some point day had turned into night. I remember asking for watered down coconut water and my mother-in-law bringing me watery coconut milk. I remember laughing with the assistant midwife who I’d bonded with over all my prenatal visits. I remember how she sat with me on the stair well just watching, smiling. She told me that Heather (the other midwife not present at the birth) had sent a text saying “Sophie you’re so strong and awesome!” I felt so supported.
At some point Pam told me I could get into the water. We had set up a birth pool in our living room, right in front of the altar on our fireplace mantel where I have sat almost every morning since we moved here, praying, meditating, asking. The water felt so good. I kept squatting, kept moaning. Isaac was fully present and calm. He would ask me to look at him and keep breathing. I would zone out between contractions, completely relaxed and completely surrendered. I think he wondered if I was okay. Soon I started bearing down, sensing things shifting. Pam checked me and I was fully dilated. I could start pushing. Little did I know these would be the most excruciating moments of my life.
How can a woman explain what childbirth feels like? The experience is no doubt different for every woman, but I’m sure almost every mother can relate to the intensity. I had no idea. I got out of the water at some point upon request of the midwife, but when the smell of the the plastic carpet protection got to me, Isaac and I decided it would be nicer to born into water. I pushed for an hour, which really seemed like twenty minutes. I would later learn that my mother and mother-in-law were sitting in the dining room able to hear everything. I began calling to God at one point. My mother grabbed Madeleine’s hand and squeezed it hard for ten minutes. They sat in silence together as a great cleaving occurred in the next room.
I can’t express the pain nor the thoughts that went through my mind for that last hour. In a situation like that, one cannot return. The only way out is through. I reasoned that this wasn’t going to last forever, but the necessity of pushing into the pain was a test of my conviction. It hurt like hell. I wanted this baby out. Pam, Heather and Isaac encouraged me, telling me how much progress I was making with each earth shattering groan. I’d always imagined I would feel the head emerge, or that the midwives would tell me the head was born. Nothing of the sort happened. I remember the last push though. I remember the way that I summoned up all my remaining strength, bit the bullet, grit my teeth and gave it my all. It was a sort of giving up as well as giving everything, the way a marathon runner flings themselves towards the finish line, hoping it might make all the difference.
It did. Suddenly I was sitting back against the wall of the tub and a baby had appeared, I was holding him, bringing him to my chest, the voices of the midwives firm, reassuring and yet distant. They slipped a loop of cord from his head and I held him close. He was perfect and pink. He cried and a blanket was put over him and everything around me stood still. Isaac was right beside us. A baby. He had arrived. A precious jewel excavated from the mountain of my body. All pain was removed in those moments and I was not myself any more.
The voices became louder and I heard an instruction to get out of the tub. I clung to our baby and was supported as I stepped out of the water. The placenta came soon after and then I was stitched up. I had a first degree tear that’s still healing but nothing too serious. (That was probably what had made the pushing so painful.) The midwives stayed with us until 4:00am that morning. The bond I felt with them both was unique. Not only had they assisted me in birthing our son, but they had stared in my nether regions for an hour as a baby appeared. There’s not many people who know you so intimately! I have a new freedom and love for my body now. Nothing is sacred. Everything is sacred.
The week following Julius’ birth was a heady mix of pure bliss, profound joy, moments of sudden realization (“It really is 24/7!”) and adjustment. It continues to be so. I lay outside on a blanket a few days later and breastfed my tiny baby amongst the violets and the green, green grass. All around us Spring is blooming. Two blue birds are nesting in bird boxes near the flowers. New growth appears every day. The vegetable garden we planted while waiting for our jewel has been sprouting, the trees getting ever fuller with foliage. Such is life. Ever fuller. Ever beginning. I am humbled by these blessings and moved by how fiercely I love this new baby, this new life.
Photos 1, 2 & 5 by Isaac Koren, 3 & 4 by me, and the above by Stef Mitchell