From Homebirth to Hospital & Back Again: Why I Became a Common Sense Birth Advocate
“We constantly seek affirmation from others. We pay people to tell us about our own bodies… we rely on relationships to convince us that we are attractive or desirable. Giving birth in my own complete power was the ultimate lesson in understanding that there could never be another master over me on this earth.”
Sometimes I can’t believe I’m pregnant again. That I’m going to labor again. Try to birth again. On my own. For the past three years, I’ve had certain female friends who’ve been poking me to write the birth story of my son. An intensely protective and still confused part of me has never been able to do it. Now, expecting our second (and last) baby in a matter of weeks, so much light is being cast upon the shadowy corners of my memory and mind. It seems like it’s time to package Eben’s birth up into whatever form I can — to most perfectly tell it, or some version of it.
The thing is, when I got pregnant with my son at twenty-eight, I hadn’t yet ever really delved into the deep connections that exist between birth and death. And I would discover that this is the place where I would walk, along some silvery gray veil, when laboring. I never knew that place existed. Living in America in 2010, I lived in a state of complete unknowing about both things: How amazing, enlivening, and empowering birth can be. And at the very same time, how close to death it can bring both you and your child, metaphorically, spiritually, and literally. But my unpopular assessment nonetheless became this — both are true. Both can at any time be very, very true. A lot of beauty lives here.
How about that? Polarized as we’ve become on nearly every topic in this country, birth, like most things, isn’t black or white. Right or wrong. Safe or unsafe. Terrifying or serene. It is all of these things. It’s the deepest, closest experience with life I’ve ever experienced. And it is also the deepest, closest experience with death I’ve ever experienced. And that’s okay.
I dove into a home birth experience with my pregnancy because I’d seen The Business of Being Born, I’d read about Ina May Gaskin and the incredible natural births that took place out at The Farm in Tennessee. I knew the shocking and shadowed statistics about maternal mortality rates in American hospitals and read all about the obscene number of unnecessary interventions in women’s birthing processes’, not to mention the resultingly outlandish cesarean section rate, and I simply felt that my very healthy, uncomplicated pregnancy did not need to be medicated or controlled — that women had been birthing babies since always, and that my Midwife and Doula were impeccably capable and incredible women who would:
- Provide us with excellent and skilled prenatal care and help get me through my labor process to a healthy delivery in the comfort of my own home, OR
- Get me to a hospital should I be one of the low number of women who wind up needing to transfer from home to hospital during labor.
My choices caught us some flak, to say the least, all though I never felt anything but respect and love for all women, whether they choose home, birth center, or hospital. I simply felt (and still feel) that we as women should all be allowed to make those empowered, educated choices for ourselves. So, for myself, I stacked the deck in favor of having an unmedicated, intervention-free birth. I wanted the experience — all of it. No one was going to be offering me an epidural in my living room, which made it easier to trust myself and my choices as I moved through pain. Or “discomfortableness”. Or whatever the hell buzz word we’re calling it now. I rested assured in the knowledge my Midwives weren’t going to put me on some kind of a time clock as though my vagina was a cooking turkey, or encourage me to take drugs like Cytotec or Pitocin, and that made me feel comfortable. Knowing that these interventions are often pushed on women in the hospital setting, and that they often result in higher chances of cesarean section, I decided to just stay away from that well and drink my own water.
I can’t say enough about my prenatal care with my Midwife. Every visit was lovely — at least an hour long, thorough, thoughtful — half therapy session, half examination, complete with urine tests, blood tests (if I’d wanted them), measuring of baby, and carefully listening to his heartbeat on thefetscope. We talked constantly about my nutrition and level of activity, my emotional well being and my dreams for my birth. I felt supported and deeply cared for. When, during the last few weeks of my pregnancy it seemed that baby just didn’t want to budge from his posterior (or sunny side up) position, my sweet Midwife helped me find a chiropractor to help, in addition to discussing physical exercises and positions I could do to try, to turn baby into a more favorable position for labor. Worst case? He wouldn’t turn at all, and we’d have potentially a more difficult labor, but babies are born posterior all the time. In fact, they often flip during labor. I wasn’t worried. Maybe I should have been. I don’t know. But Eben never made that flip. Evidence would also later suggest that he was asynclictic, which didn’t help our cause.
The day I knew things were getting started, I first had the super sexy experience of losing my mucus plug right away in the morning. I was over the moon excited. It seemed like I’d been pregnant forever. I was ready to meet this little person. I was in a glowy, strange state all day, moving through our home and river valley in pure joy. I’m not kidding. I was smiling like an idiot. The Midwife urged me to go on about my day. I took a beautiful walk to a nearby stream with a friend. It was lovely. Everything felt heightened. Dreamy, surreal. I climbed into bed that night and felt tightenings start to really grab my attention. I let my partner keep sleeping and tried to watch the most horrible romantic film ever created in the history of Richard Gere. This bullshit bubblegum romantic piece of shite was so bad that it gave me rage, and I felt it had totally screwed me in the wake of my contractions, which had my complete attention now. Somewhere around three, I woke up my partner and told him sh*t was getting real and I didn’t want to be alone anymore. Groggily, he tried to help me keep level. He filled up the giant inflatable birth tub that was occupying our livingroom with hot water and I got into it regardless of it probably being too early. It was like heaven. Until it wasn’t. By the next morning I was really feeling the “discomfort.”.
The Midwives came. Beyond this point, everything gets blurry. I labored for three days before we wound up in the hospital. During that time, here’s what I remember (most of it’s pretty standard):
- Feeling like I was on another plain of existence.
- Losing time. Minutes feeling like hours. Hours feeling like minutes.
- Losing space. I knew there were other people around. The house was full with Jim, two Midwives, and a Doula. But what the hell were they all doing? Didn’t know, mostly didn’t care.
- At one point I had a very strong sense that “Something isn’t right.” Regrettably, I didn’t listen to this voice and insist on it, because I didn’t want to be weak, or to fail. I couldn’t decipher anymore whether this was an intuition (I try always to trust my intuition. It is very nearly always right.), or if it was just the damn “discomfortableness” talking. So I decided to be cool, hang in there, and trust in my experience. I’ll never know. Maybe that was the right(est) call I could have made.
- I spent an unfortunate period of time projectile vomiting and being encouraged to drink chalky vitamins and take tinctures underneath my tongue. I hated it. I wanted to be left alone. I knew they were just trying to keep me nourished and hydrated. Still.
- At one point the Midwives gave me an IV. It was incredible and left me feeling absolutely refreshed and ready to get on with it. It wore off.
- At another point, I was given an enema for hydration. It worked wonders and allowed me to get a bit of sleep. I was so grateful. Did I really just put that in print?
- I never, ever, even while fully dilated, felt like pushing. Even as the Midwives asked, I remember feeling confused, like “What? No, not even slightly.” There is an urge to push women experience. I was not one of them.
Please don’t mistake me. Even through all of this, my labor was great. It was honestly otherworldly and transformative. It was challenging. I had moments of fear and moments of intense relaxation and an almost meditative euphoria. But it’s birth. So yeah, it’s hard. And I think it’s okay to say that and not commit crimes against my tribe.
I have no idea even now, what time it was that night when we decided to go to the hospital. But the drive there was by far the most unbearable period of my labor. I felt myself begin to brace against my contractions (which by now felt like they were directly on top of each other with no relief periods in between) instead of riding them like a wave. This was not good. Bracing against or fighting your contractions is not just bad form — it’s totally counter productive to the labor process. I heard a voice in my head acknowledge this and say “You’re screwed.” But I couldn’t stop myself from doing it. Something about feeling trapped inside the giant moving metal machine had changed everything. I kept thinking I was truly going to put my feet through the floorboards of the car. My heels ground into the cheap carpet. I felt caged, panicked. I wanted deliverance. My Midwives had been on the phone with the hospital. A man appeared in the parking lot with a wheelchair. I was taken upstairs.Was this really happening? Why hadn’t my baby just fallen out in the kitchen while I baked a souffle?Exhausted from nearly three days of no sleep, food, and little water, I didn’t refuse the pain meds.No f*cking way. And when those drugs, the ones I’d never thought I’d have, flooded into my IV, I will absolutely positively tell you without shame that I felt unabashedly, tearfully grateful. I wanted them. I still didn’t want a c-section. My other option was to take Pitocin by IV, to intensify the contractions and potentially get the baby out.
This could also send his heart rate reeling at a time when we were both spent. Then our c-section would be emergent, rushed, scary. I didn’t want that. I didn’t want the panic. If we were going to go, I wanted to go gently, however strange it may seem. I signed on for the cut. Tearfully, I looked at my Midwives as I finally announced my decision. I’d stalled for as long as I could. “I just… I just,” I stammered… “I feel like…. I’ve put in my time.” When I heard it escape my lips, it sounded like such a stupid and weak thing to say. “Oh honey, oh honey!” said one “You’ve put in five women’s time!” But we were all sad that things hadn’t lined up with our dream birth. And that’s all right. It was time. The OR was bright and strange. It felt like an alien ship — foreign, stale, metallic, cold. The epidural and anesthesia left me feeling absolutely nothing. No pain. No contractions. No legs. For the first time in three, days I felt like I could rest. I had no concept of time or how long this would take, but it seemed like it would surely take hours, so I asked the anesthesiologist if I could go to sleep. “Sure,” he replied reluctantly “But just remember — the anesthesia’s not supposed to make you tired….” I gazed up at him in wonder. I thought “The anesthesia? Making me tired? Have you heard that I’ve been in labor for three f*cking days? I’m catching a nap.”
I had left my grace in the birth tub. I closed my eyes and within what seemed like seconds, I suddenly heard a sharp cry. My eyes snapped open. They met with Jim’s. He had the same expression “What the HELL? Oh my gawd, is that real?!” I heard the nurses cooing at some imaginary infant. “Ooooh, look at those EYES! Those are the biggest, most beautiful eyes I’ve ever seen!” My Midwife leaned in and whispered “Baby has hair!” I still hadn’t seen him. I still didn’t know for sure he was a him (though I’d had a feeling all along). They handed him to his dad. I couldn’t hold him. I was shaking too badly from the anesthesia. I watched as Jim wept over him, totally in awe. He still didn’t know whether we had a boy or a girl. We’d agreed not even to care or focus on that immediately, but just to bask in our new baby for as long as possible. I mean, what’s a gender anyway, am I right? But then I saw them. Little balls. Dangling in my face. Teeny, tiny little huevos. I still hadn’t seen my son’s face, but here were his tiny little testies, in all of their newborn glory. “Jim,” I croaked. I was incredibly high, and exhausted, and unable to hold it in. “It’s a boy,” I murmured. I heard him repeat it to himself through his tears.
Jim took Eben for skin-on-skin with him in the next room. I watched his Papa swaddle him in a warm blanket to his chest and hold him. Talk to him. Love him. Right away. They had each other while I was being put back together. Did you know that when you have a cesarean they physically take your uterus out of your body, sort of ring it out, and put it back? Did you know that healing from a cesarean is actually no picnic? We’re grateful we got this procedure that I still believe we needed. But in a culture that treats getting the cut like getting your nails cut, I wasn’t prepared. I mean, this is some seriously crazy sh*t. And there you are, wide awake, for all of it. Still, things seemed fine. Until the morning, when they would fly my son away on a helicopter.
Being back in the room with both of my guys was gorgeous. I was so in love with Eben from the start. Some say that c-section can hurt bonding, and maybe that’s true, but fortunately it wasn’t for us. He made my heart burst from the beginning and latched onto nurse right away with no guidance. “Smart baby,” the nurse smiled. Still, she looked troubled. “I’m just a little concerned about his breathing,” she would say when he slept. The three of us were stacked in my tiny twin sized hospital bed, needing to be together. She checked on us tirelessly throughout the night. In the morning, she shared her concerns with our doctor. Within an hour we were being told that Eben was going to need to go to the area’s closest NICU (neonatal intensive care unit) — across state lines, into Wisconsin, because his lung was collapsing. I was stunned. I wept, I pleaded. “Don’t worry,” our doctor assured us “I’ll make sure you can go with him.”
Thirty minutes later, the doctor and multiple hospital staff members appeared in my doorway looking forlorn “We’re sorry,” they said “Your insurance won’t pay for you to travel with him.” I had to stay put, on the IV antibiotics for potential infection. I couldn’t go. “They’ll have to take him by helicopter. You’ll have to stay here.” It was something like a nightmare. I couldn’t believe my ears. If I left against medical advice, I could get very sick, be unable to care for Eben, be in a whole hell of a lot of trouble with the state, and wind up bankrupted by medical bills which our insurance would inevitably refuse to cover. I now had to watch a team of seemingly twelve-year-old medics pile into my room and take my son away in an incubator. There were IV’s plugged into his tiny forehead. There was a helipad. There was screaming. I think it was mine. No more nursing. No more holding. I huddled in my bed, afraid to get close to say goodbye, afraid that I might go primal — completely mama bear, and snatch him away from them, make a break for it. It was the worst thing that’s ever happened.
And I blamed myself. Of course I did. I’m his Mother. I was supposed to protect him and keep him safe. I’d failed at my most basic task. We hadn’t even had a whole day. Jim did what he could. Our families descended upon us. Our friends surrounded us like white bloodcells. For the next 48 hours, Jim would dutifully drive my paltry pumped breast milk the forty-five minutes into Wisconsin. After my release, the next four days in the NICU were trying. Eben was basically already better by the time we arrived. It turned out he’d inhaled some meconium and just needed some oxygen to re-inflate the lung. He was strong and healing beautifully, but they still wouldn’t let us leave. He was nearly nine pounds and ate like a wildebeest. We were love drunk exhausted. When we finally got home, we were a swirling mixture of extreme gratitude, confusion, relief, anger, fatigue, guilt, and happiness.
The experience was, quite simply, everything. It was all of it. The mellow familiar breath of home, speeding wheels across the highway, the fluorescent hum of the hospital lights. We’d traveled across birth culture at the speed of life. It took weeks to heal from the surgery. It took years to heal from the emotional fallout of feeling like I’d failed at something my body was designed to do. I am still in route.
Here’s the bottom line — there was no way of predicting the future. We made educated choices and did what we could. Most homebirths wind up healthy and happy. We trusted our Midwives to get us to a hospital if we needed it and that’s precisely what they did. And yes, we needed that hospital. Andwe are also ever grateful for those gorgeous three days of labor at home — our opportunity to give Eben a chance to try and make it into the world on his own individual, human terms. Now, here we are, getting ready to do it all again.
For our second babe, we’ll be heading to the hospital for an attempt at an attended, un-medicated VBAC with our doctor and Doula. I’d like to be able to say I’ve worked through my birth experience enough to relax into a homebirth once again. The truth is, I probably would give it a shot. The potential car ride that hangs me up, as odd as it may seem. I try not to be someone who bases her life choices on fear. But I know my limits, and I can’t do that again. And knowing that in the (rare) event that we need a NICU, we’d once again be separated from our baby with a local hospital, we’re making the best decision we can toward a place where we can all stay together, no matter what. It’s a crap shoot. This time, we have to trust that the hospital and doctor we’ve chosen will support our choices. We have to trust that others will not attempt to unnecessarily interfere our hijack my birth experience in the name of efficiency or liability. It’s a risk. Either way, there are risks. And every mother has to weigh those risks for herself. I’m still a fan of homebirth. I’m a fan of hospital birth, birth center birth, and water birth. I’m a fan birthdays, birthday cake, and birthday suits. Occasionally, I see a birth mark that I think is completely awesome. In fact, I’ve taken to calling my own cesarean scar my birth mark. And I think that’s pretty cool.
Women face enough challenges, violence, and hostility in this wild world. We don’t need it from one another. I want to be an advocate for Educated Birth. I vote for common sense birth solutions, access to real, honest information, and I want women to be able to make informed decisions based on their own research, communication with health professionals, and yes, especially their own intuition, without insurance execs or other non-moms deciding how their littles will be born. In closing, I salute you, brave mamas, wherever you are — however you birth, and want you to know, I stand with you.
You’re doing great.