Sarah’s Birth Story Baby Sigourney, born January 22, 2009
Sarah worked as a tree planter for the first 20 weeks of her pregnancy, a wonderful preparation for the long, intense and beautiful unfolding of the home birth of her and John’s first child, baby Sigourney.
Before my pregnancy had even begun, I experienced a series of premonitions about it. Last year when I moved to Montreal, I would catch imaginary glimpses of myself in my apartment pregnant. They were nothing extraordinary - usually I would be sitting on my couch knitting or reading, and these were two things I did often, but they were strange nonetheless. Some months later, on a day I had mistakenly calculated as a safe day during my cycle, I caught a glimmer of an infant named Sigourney in my mind's eye. Reassuring myself that the image meant nothing at the time, I asked my husband John what he thought of the name. We joked back and forth that since we were both such huge Alien and Ridley Scott fans, it would be perfect for us, and then, on a more serious note, we noted that the name had character. One month later, we were in northern Alberta starting our treeplanting season when I took a pregnancy test and discovered I was pregnant. We were surprised, but felt that the pregnancy was 'meant-to-be'. We'd had a hard time deciding (even after twelve years together) when we wanted to be parents, and now our child-to-be had grown tired of waiting and chosen the right time for us. For the first twenty weeks of my pregnancy, I worked outside in the bush planting trees. I had hundreds of solitary hours during which I would try to envision my unborn child. Deep down, I knew that I was carrying a girl, and even though we sought out other names we liked, I always knew we would name her as she first appeared to me. To this day, I like to say that technically my daughter named herself.
Because I'd had so many premonitions that came true, when my gut instincts told me that my daughter would arrive early, I was positive it would happen. Still, the last month of my pregnancy passed uneventfully and my body gave no indication that it was preparing for labour. Week 39 passed. Week 40 passed. I drank raspberry leaf tea, took herbal supplements, jumped up and down, scrubbed floors on my hands and knees, went for walks, ate spicy foods and even a few other silly things like copious amounts of pineapple. I was extremely stressed about hitting the 42 week mark, losing my midwife and being induced. I stopped answered the phone when family members called and ignored my e-mails. When I was 5 days passed my due date, my midwife encouraged me to do even more walking. That was the weekend of brutal cold, but I forced myself out for two hours a day and after the second day of walking, I finally began lose my mucous plug and feel mild contractions that felt like spasms in my lower back. That was late on Sunday.
Monday morning I woke up after sleeping poorly due to the contractions. I decided to go for another one hour walk to see if I could speed up them up. It worked! Every time a contraction started I pumped my legs faster through the snow. I was very excited and although the contractions left me nearly breathless, I was ecstatic that something was finally happening. When I arrived home, I phoned my midwife. She told my husband and me to keep an eye on the length of time between contractions and that she could stop by if we needed her. Throughout the day the contractions varied from 6 -10 minutes apart. All of my contractions spread across my lower back and I spent most of Monday leaning over my birthing ball and using ocean breath or humming. In good spirits, John and I joked that Sigourney might be born on Obama's inauguration day. How wrong we were! Over Monday night the contractions suddenly slowed down to 12 - 25 minutes apart, although they didn't diminish in intensity. I could only cope with them only by leaning over my exercise ball; I slept with it next to my bed so that I could roll out from beneath the sheets all night long.
Tuesday morning my midwife came to check on me. Much to my frustration, after 36 hours of contractions, I was only 2 cm. dilated. My midwife told me to keep drinking the raspberry leaf tea, rest up, take it easy, and try to distract myself. The contractions were too strong for me to consider leaving my house. I was long past ocean breath and relying on vocalizing for every contraction (aahs and oohs). One of the most liberating tools from the prenatal yoga workshop and class was the ability to feel comfortable making sounds. In conjunction with the vocalizing, often I needed John to massage my lower back. I watched Obama's inauguration and re-watched the parts I missed with contractions during the replays. I watched bad TV and played Tetris like a possessed person, pausing the games for contractions. John and I made gourmet pizza and I destroyed a nicely flung crust when I had a contraction while holding it. Tuesday night I tried to focus on my relaxation techniques and I managed to sleep a little bit better than the previous night.
On Wednesday (Day 3), my contractions once again dropped to 6 -10 minutes apart. One of the greatest misconceptions I'd had about labour beforehand was that it followed a basic script; that contractions became progressively closer together and became longer and became harder. My labour continually defied my expectations. It sped up and slowed down. I might have an easily bearable contraction, and then be blindsided by one that was incredibly intense. Occasionally, if I didn't made it to my birthing ball in time, I would wind up physically trapped in whatever position I was in when the contraction hit. As the intensity of the contractions increased, my birthing ball became less helpful. I resorted to standing in door frames, pushing off the opposing side and grinding my lower back against the frame to alleviate the pain. When my midwife came to check on me that evening around 10:30 pm, I was at 3 cm. At this point I had been in labour for 72 hours. All along, I had resisted asking if she had a professional guesstimate as to how long my labour would go. Now I did. She said it was hard to say. I was worried that there was a time limit on my labour and she said no, as long as I the baby and I were physically in good shape (which we were), I could keep going. She encouraged John and me to cut out all distractions, lay down in the dark, try to be more in the moment. She said I was still too in control and that I needed to let my body go more.
(Those expressions! Go with the pain, dive into the contractions. In theory, I understand, I really do. And I spent a lot of time focused on relaxing my body during my contractions, but I'm still not sure how one goes with the pain? It's not a choice. It's not conscious. It simply takes over everything else.)
John lay down with me. We cuddled as much as we could and then he rubbed my legs and back for about an hour. The contractions became progressively more difficult to endure. I decided to take a hot bath and see if I could cope with them better there or at least give my body a change of sensation. After half an hour in the bath, they were 1-2 minutes apart and I couldn't find relief in any position. I felt as though someone was laying red hot pokers across my lower back and my legs and my hipbones felt like they were being crushed. At this point, I hit the wall with my labour. I told John I didn't know what to do any more, I didn't know how to cope and that he had to call my midwife. It didn't really click that I had hit active labour and that there was an end in sight; my labour had become a process with no beginning and no end.
My midwife came right away. In the two hours since she'd left, I had dilated from 3 4 cm. She said I should try to get some sleep between contractions, and had me fold one leg up over a pillow to maximize the effect of the contractions on my cervix. My contractions started spiking and with the strongest ones came aftershocks (just like earthquakes) and occasionally two came together in a row. John lay down with me again and rubbed my back while my midwife tried to nap on our couch, but after an hour, it was obvious that no one was going to get any sleep while I kept howling into my pillow. I felt like I had to let out as many sounds as possible to match the intensity of the pain.
Over the next three hours labour moved quickly. By 5 am I was at 7cm. and using every available coping mechanism, including massage, hot water bottles, leaning over my washing machine, the shower and vocalizing. Transition was an out of body experience for me. As every contraction waned, my body began bearing down violently with every ounce of strength it had. I'd heard about women wanting to push and being told not to push, but I didn't realize my body would push so hard without my being able to control it. My midwife kept notes and minutes periodically during the birth, and at this point she quotes me as saying, "I need a break from my body" and truthfully, I would have traded places with anyone in the world at that point. I wanted to catch my breath, gather reserves of strength, put a coherent sentence together all things I had become incapable of doing. We tried to make it back to the bedroom and I discovered my left leg was twitching with nerves and I could only rest it in one position. She and John made up the bed, and when she checked again I was at 9 cm. She phoned the second midwife and then had me voluntarily start pushing with my contractions while she pushed back my cervix. Shortly afterward the baby was on its way.
Pushing was incredibly hard work and exhausting. I pushed for two hours and seven minutes (although if felt like a million). Because I was on my back, I lost the help of gravity and my urge to push wasn't as strong, but it was the only position where I could handle the back labour. The final stage of labour was hazy and surreal. Deep down, I kept telling myself that it would all end and that my daughter was coming, but I lacked a genuine sense of time passing. (When the midwife asked my husband to gather receiving blankets for the dryer and find our portable heater for the bedroom, I dreamily thought that they were going through the motions of preparing for the baby's arrival so that I wouldn't grow discouraged.) John supported my left leg, and between pushes he kept telling me we were almost there and that I was doing great. He gave me sips of ice cold water through a straw and the water was heaven in the midst of all the pain! I distinctly remember telling myself during sets of pushes that if I made it a few more seconds, I would be able to drink more water. I couldn't imagine being in a hospital, working so hard and being given only ice chips. My husband's voice and the water are my two clearest memories from that time. My bedroom lights remained off (the light streamed in from the hall) and that helped me to focus only on pushing. My midwife rubbed my other leg and foot and applied hot compresses to my perineum. When she told me to reach down and feel for the top of my daughter's head, it felt tiny! (And when I finally saw her afterward, I couldn't believe how much bigger her head actually was, or that she had fit.) The pain of crowning vanished during the first few seconds of pushing and then I was so determined to get her out that I didn't care. During the last few pushes I worked so hard that I lifted my entire body off the bed.
After her head came out, I remember thinking that the last push (the shoulders and body) would be easy. Instead, I felt her body thrashing and kicking and squirming inside of me. It turned out that her although her head came out posterior (facing up), she did a complete 180 degree turn all by herself in the birth canal before the rest of her was delivered. This is apparently the type of thing a midwife only sees once or twice in her career, so quite the feat. The backup midwife told me she wished we'd been recording the birth, but not me!
Sigourney came out with the cord not just around her neck, but around her shoulder and chest as well. The second midwife put her on my chest and gave her oxygen. After two puffs she breathed. After five she began shrieking. She had a caput (little swollen pointy crown) because her head had been pushing against my cervix at 2-3cm for so long. Although I was touching her, I was very drained and drifted off somewhere else at this point, and then the midwives were saying, "Sarah, talk to your baby. She's here." The midwives were concerned initially that I'd lost too much blood so they gave me a shot just in case (it turned out it was just because the placenta had already detached and on its way out).
The morning Sigourney was born it was snowing outside and the light inside my room was watery grey. The aftermath felt like the calm after a massive storm; I was suddenly lying in my own bed with my daughter on my chest nursing her and the mood was incredibly peaceful and calm. I didn't experience the moment of 'overwhelming joy' that I've always read about it it was much mellower, probably because I was so exhausted, but beautiful all the same. My midwives cleaned up, did the laundry, looked after me and the baby, made us a plate of fruit and cheese and crackers and put all three of us in bed together.
In retrospect, I think my years of treeplanting prepared me well for a long labour. The catch to treeplanting during long seasons, especially on the longest, most brutal days, is to acknowledge that every day ends, that everything ends shifts, contracts, and seasons. And then, the trick is not to dwell on the end, even if it's in sight. I never felt the urge to anticipate the next contraction. Occasionally they were worse, occasionally easier, it was always a surprise.
Someone asked, and yes, I would do it all the same way again in a heartbeat. I actually have less fear of doing it a second time because I don't believe I'll end up with 84 hours of back labour again! After the fact, I now know that my labour was long and that my daughter went past her due date because she was posterior. I also dilated slowly because the wrong part of her head was pushing on my cervix. We had known she wasn't positioned perfectly but I hadn't known how much of an impact that would have on my labour. The amazing thing about labour is that the pain and discomfort abandon you the moment your child is born. And there are breaks between contractions. I once had an abscessed tooth that was drilled into and left to heal; the aftermath of that procedure was infinitely more painful because the pain never let up.
My midwife felt strongly that due to her positioning, the fact that I went ten days over my due date, and my failure to progress, I would have wound up with a c-section if I had been in a hospital. I would have been pushed for an induction at 41 weeks, and considering the pace of my labour, the odds of my having a failed induction and stressing Sigourney out would have been high (especially because my cervix was completely long and closed at 40 weeks and three days).
I am grateful to my midwife. I could not have made it through that last fuzzy night without her guidance. I am grateful to John, who was initially afraid of a homebirth - it turned out that the idea of labour scared him more than it did in reality. I am grateful that I was able to have Sigourney at home and avoid unnecessary interventions. My recovery was blessedly easy compared to the birth. I had no tearing and minimal soreness. I was up and about the day she was born. Personally, I know that I could not have coped with such a long labour if I had been anywhere other than in my own home, doing it on my own terms with people I trusted. My birth experience suffused me with an incredible sense of peace and happiness that is both spiritual and transformative. Now, even a month later, I struggle to find the words to adequately describe it. The experience is one that I will always cherish.