James Francis Thesing
Katie and Aaron's Birth Story: James FrancisWhen I stood in the bathroom one January night after taking the train home from Wisconsin, watching the second line darken on the pregnancy test that I held in my hand, I felt two things simultaneously. I felt the breathtaking weight of responsibility that I had just entered into: my decision to be, every day until the end of my life, a mother. I also felt a loud, battering wave of joy. After six months of anticipation and hope, I was pregnant. We were expecting a baby.
That summer was unusually hot and humid and I was big-bellied, slow-moving, and in love with my changing body. A late baby myself, I wasn't surprised when September 14th, our baby's guess date, came and went with no sign of imminent labor. I felt confident that my body and our baby would choose a perfect time to birth, and while I was eager to meet our son or daughter, I was in no hurry for my pregnancy to end.
Just after forty weeks, our baby dropped and the shape of my belly changed dramatically. We affectionately called it my "torpedo belly," and my first stretch marks rippled out from my belly button where the skin had become sore and itchy. During the next week, my midwife recommended that I take evening primrose oil and drink raspberry leaf and nettle tea to gently encourage my body and baby toward labor. I went for frequent walks and Aaron and I renewed our efforts to make love around the swollen orb of my belly, hoping that it would help to ripen my cervix and prepare my body for birth.
Because our birth center's accreditation would prevent me from birthing there if I was more than two weeks overdue, I hoped to birth at around forty-one weeks - I didn't want the stress and anxiety of a looming deadline to define my last days of pregnancy. We passed forty-one weeks on Friday, September 21st, and I began to feel a little impatient. My next prenatal was scheduled for Monday morning, and my midwife, Catherine, had told me the week before that she felt sure that the next time she saw us for an appointment, we’d have our baby in our arms. I wanted that to be true, but when I woke up on Sunday I resigned myself to the possibility of arriving at Morning Star the next morning with our baby still tucked firmly inside of me.
Aaron and I lingered in bed that morning and when I used the bathroom shortly afterwards, I noticed a scant amount of blood-tinged mucous. The strong tightenings that I’d been having for weeks began to feel a bit crampy, and I felt cautiously optimistic that I might start labor in the next day or two. I decided to take it easy, do a little laundry, and go for a walk with Aaron and our two dogs. As we walked along the gravel road we shared our excitement about the birth, asking ourselves questions that we didn't yet have the answers to. What time of day would my body go into labor? How long would it last? Were we having a little girl or a little boy? Would he or she have hair, and what color would it be?
That night, my mom made turkey and kale soup and I sat down to watch Sister Act while I ate. I began to pause during the cramping sensations, but it never occurred to me to start timing them. I felt like I needed to use the bathroom and when I stood up I felt a sudden warmth as my bag of waters started to leak. Aaron had gone outside to feed our small herd of dairy goats, so after going to the bathroom I told Mom that I thought that my water had broken. She said, “Oh, that’s so exciting!” and asked me if I was nervous. “Yes, a little,” I said. While I felt excited about meeting our baby, I was also a little nervous at the thought of truly entering labor, and knowing that I had some hard work ahead of me.
There was an intensity to my contractions that hadn't been there moments before. I felt one building and reached for my mom, wrapping my arms around her neck and swaying with her. It felt wonderful to be held close. I suddenly needed Aaron with me and I asked where he was, as I felt like he should have finished chores by then. He was searching for his wedding band, which had slipped off when he was filling hay racks. When he came back through the door, ring on his finger, we surprised him with the sight of our embrace, and the announcement, “Labor’s started!” I continued to labor in the kitchen while we timed contractions, slow dancing with Aaron or leaning over the counter and rocking my hips while I vocalized through the sensations. My entire body moved during one contraction - my head rolled back and forth, my body swayed, my hips rocked. So much movement made me feel lost and a little out of control; when the contraction ended, I told myself to relax my body and focus my energy toward my pelvis. Contractions were coming consistently every three minutes, and I asked Mom to call the midwives. She talked to Catherine briefly before handing the phone to me. I could hear Catherine speaking, but I could barely comprehend what she was saying. I felt another contraction coming and the need to sink back into my body. I handed the phone back to Mom. Catherine asked that I try to eat and drink something, take a shower, continue to monitor contractions, and to call her back in an hour. I felt confused and discouraged - I couldn’t understand why I was being made to wait at home. Because of the distance between our house and the birth center, our plan had been to leave for Morning Star when my contractions were coming strongly and consistently every five to seven minutes. I worried that the strong sensations that I was experiencing were only early labor, and that much more intense contractions were ahead. (Catherine later admitted that she thought that as a first-time mama, I might have been having anxiety contractions). I moved into the bathroom to continue laboring because the close space felt secure and because my body was continuing to empty itself. While I was sitting on the toilet I suddenly felt the urge to vomit and I asked Aaron to hurry and grab a pot for me. As soon as I had my hands on it, I threw up my entire dinner. Aaron was wonderful throughout my labor and seemed to understand that I only needed him near me. I had just finished reading the birth stories in Spiritual Midwifery, and I remembered Ina May’s suggestion to make eye contact and connect with someone during contractions. While Aaron sat on a stool in front of me, I looked into his eyes and watched his face go in and out of focus. He sometimes offered little smiles, but mostly looked calm and steady. As I sat there, I asked my contractions to get stronger and to bring my baby to my arms. While Mom continued to pack our labor supplies, Aaron and I climbed into the shower to see if I could get a little relief from the hot water. I wrapped my arms around Aaron’s neck and let him support me while the water hit my upper back. After many minutes I began to feel a little irritable, and when Aaron asked if he could get under the spray and wash his hair, I chose to get out. Shortly after getting out of the shower, I felt a touch of despair. The breaks between my contractions disappeared – they were coming like waves. I kept thinking, “Where is the break where I won’t feel any pain? Where is it?” I tried desperately to find a comfortable position and moved rapidly from sitting to all fours to lying on my side to standing, all the while holding my towel like a security blanket. I didn’t know how I would be able to cope with that intensity for hours, and I tried to comfort myself by remembering what we were told in one of our Childbirth Collective classes: that when you enter each new stage of labor, it can take a half hour for your endorphins to catch up. I was hoping for that sense of relief when suddenly, I felt the urge to push. Mom had called Catherine back and was told that we could make our way to the birth center. I hadn't told anyone that I felt the urge to push because I was afraid that someone would have told me to stop. Being told to stop pushing would have felt like being told not to vomit as I was heaving into a toilet – it seemed impossible. My body had taken over. My vocalizations came from deep in my throat.
I asked Mom to stay with me while Aaron dressed himself - I felt that if I was left alone, I would lose my ability to cope. I lied down on the couch and closed my eyes while she gently stroked my hair. Her touch was soothing and I felt a deep stillness between my contractions. The dread that I had experienced minutes before had lifted - I had a sense now of where I was in my labor, and I knew that I would be meeting our baby soon. My towel was still in my hands as Mom and Aaron helped me out to the car. I felt grateful for the darkness - it felt secure and intimate - and for the little traffic that we would encounter on our way to the birth center. My body continued to push through my contractions while Aaron sat beside me in the back seat. I loved the sensation of pushing - while I still felt the intensity of my contractions, they were no longer painful. My body felt incredibly powerful. I continued to vocalize, reminding myself to keep my tones low. I said “Oooooooooopen” and Relaaaaaaaaaax” outloud during contractions. I began to feel some pain in my lower back, so I put my hands behind me and dug my knuckles in for relief. A part of me was still concerned that it was too early to push and that I would arrive at Morning Star with a swollen cervix, but I wasn’t sure what else to do except to trust my body and my baby and to follow the incredible urges that had taken over me. Midwives Vicki and Rachel were waiting behind the desk when we arrived at Morning Star. I waddled in, supported by Mom and Aaron, and Rachel asked us to come into an exam room so that she could check my dilation. Halfway there I had another contraction and fell into a squat. I remember Rachel’s feet and ankles as she stopped in front of me and her voice asking if I was feeling the urge to push. When I said yes, she said, “Well, let’s try to get you onto a table and check you quickly.” It seemed like an impossible task but somehow we managed it, and I was so relieved to hear that I was completely dilated and that our baby was moving down the birth canal. Rachel told us that we could skip the period of electronic fetal monitoring that we had previously consented to and move right to the birth tub. She handed me a pad to hold between my legs and I waddled, pantsless and grunting, to the birth rooms. In the Chocolate room, I peeled off my t-shirt and climbed into the birth tub as it continued to fill with water, getting into a froggy squat with my hands and knees on the floor and my forehead resting on the cool side of the tub. Vicki moved the Doppler against my lower belly to listen to our baby’s heart rate but had a hard time finding it. The silence made me nervous, but Rachel was able to find the reassuring tones right away and they sounded perfect. Aaron, my midwives, and my mom folded cool washcloths against the back of my neck, poured cupfuls of warm water down my back, and offered me sips of Powerade between contractions. They filled our birth space with love and support. I was deep inside of myself, but I relied on their comforting presence. Rachel told me that I was in a wonderful position to catch my own baby. I continued to push on my knees until she suggested that I try lying on my right side and pulling my left knee up during contractions. By that time I was aware that Catherine had arrived. She held a small pillow under my head and I felt someone stroking my hair. The room was dark and quiet. A couple of handles were placed along the walls of the tub to help me anchor myself. During contractions, Aaron helped me bring my left knee up and hold it while Rachel monitored our baby’s progress with a flashlight. Between contractions I tried to stay soft and relaxed, sometimes blowing horse lips as a contraction ended to help myself relax more deeply. I continued to feel my contractions in terms of power and pressure, but I also began to feel discouraged because it seemed like I was making slow progress. I remember Rachel saying during a contraction, “Beautiful push, Mama. You’re doing so well.” Her gentle encouragement carried me forward. I began to feel for my baby as I pushed. The head felt strange in the birth canal – soft and wrinkly, like a brain. It descended slowly during each contraction. When it finally became visible, Rachel told me that our baby had hair. Our baby's body rocked back and forth, peeking out during contractions and sliding back when I relaxed between them. I told myself that the slow movement was good, that it was allowing my body to stretch, but I so badly wanted to reach a point when the head would stay outside of my body between contractions. More and more of our baby's head began to show. I stroked and massaged it between contractions, and Rachel suggested that I also circle it with a finger to help stretch my tissues. I thought to myself, shouldn’t this hurt more? Where’s the ring of fire that women talk about? It amazed me that I felt no burning or stinging sensations as our baby’s head crowned. I birthed the head and felt a warm rush of fluid and the cord wrapped loosely around. I waited for another contraction but none came. Rachel asked me to try giving a couple of small pushes, but without the power of a contraction they felt weak and ineffective. She then told me that we would wait twenty more seconds before trying to move me out of the water and onto my hands and knees on the bed. I knew from reading Morning Star birth stories that her suggestion meant that our baby’s shoulders might be stuck, but the atmosphere in the room remained calm and I felt sure that everything would be all right. My only small concern was how I would manage to climb out of the tub and onto a bed with a baby’s head between my legs. What happened next is a blur. As I moved to stand, a contraction surged through my body. The downward pressure was so intense that I felt like the earth was pulling me to its core, and I fell immediately to a squat. Seconds later I opened my eyes and looked down to see our baby floating in the water. He was big and long and beautifully pink, not dusky like I imagined he might be. Rachel somersaulted him through his cord and I reached into the water and brought him to my chest. It was 12:28 am, about six and a half hours after my water had broken. I didn’t check the sex of our baby right away – I only wanted to hold him close to me. His light-colored hair surprised me. The loose skin on the back of his scalp was unbelievable soft. He had brown hair on the outer rims of his ears and long fingernails. As I smelled the top of his head and massaged his silky body, I thought, “That wasn’t bad at all - I could do that over and over again!”
We stayed in the birth tub until the water began to cool and our midwives suggested that we move to the bed where our baby would be warmer skin-to-skin. When I stood, the strength of my legs surprised me. Drops of blood spotted the rug while my midwives toweled off my body and helped to ease me into bed, and our baby grunted and cried against my chest. Catherine came to my side and told me that she was going to give me a shot of pitocin to slow my bleeding. Our placenta was already slipping from my body and as she helped to guide it out, Rachel said, “You had a lotus birth without even planning one!”
After I birthed the placenta, Rachel began to massage my uterus to encourage it to contract. “Massage” is a gentle word for it - it was the first real pain that I experienced since I had gone through transition hours before. Rachel knew that her touch hurt and said, “I’m so sorry, Mama,” as she kneaded my soft belly. It wasn’t until sometime after the placenta was born that I turned our baby from me in order to see if we had a son or a daughter. We had a little boy! Rachel clamped the milky-white cord, Aaron cut it, and I clumsily put our baby to my breast. Afterward, the midwives and my mom left the three of us alone for some bonding. I was in awe not only of our beautiful baby boy, but at what I had just accomplished. I had given birth, and I had a son!
When our midwives returned to check on us, I left our bed to try to use the bathroom. Despite drinking fluids between almost every contraction, I had not peed since sometime before my labor had started. My full bladder was becoming increasingly uncomfortable, but my muscles were swollen and tender and wouldn't release. While I was in the bathroom, Rachel weighed and measured our little boy. He weighed 10 pounds, 2 ounces, even after expelling quite a bit of meconium in the tub. What surprised us even more was his length – 24 1/4 inches!
Later, Rachel examined me to see if I had torn. That was the most painful part of my birth experience - my bottom was swollen, and she had to do some feeling around to find the extent of my tear. Because I had pushed our baby out without any pain, I was amazed to hear that I had a second-degree tear in my perineum and a small tear in my labia. Catherine suspected that our baby had come out with his hand near his face, and that I had torn when his arm had popped out.
During the hour that it took to repair my tears, I was surrounded and supported by women. After numbing me with shots of lidocaine, Rachel sutured me while Catherine held a flashlight over her shoulder, Mom held my hand, and Vicki and our birth assistant, Michelle, supported my legs. Aaron sat on the floor and fell asleep with our baby in his arms.
When they were finished, my midwives gave me kisses and Aaron brought our baby back into bed. My bladder was now painfully full. I had visited the bathroom several times, listened to running water, and tried warm water in my peri-bottle, but nothing I tried would release it. Finally, I asked Michelle for a catheter. It was only mildly uncomfortable when it was inserted, and afterward I didn’t feel it at all. I had been holding about one and three-fourths liters of urine in my bladder (which had likely slowed our baby's descent) and I felt incredible relief when it was emptied. Aaron and I were left alone again to snuggle our beautiful baby, whom we decided to name James. We napped together in bed while Mom called my family to share the news and then cooked us a delicious breakfast of pancakes and bacon. I was high on post-birth hormones, but the eventful night had wiped Aaron out and he continued to nap while Michelle drew an herbal bath for James and me.
After relaxing in the warm water, I nursed James one more time in bed while Michelle reviewed our postpartum instructions. We dressed him in flannel and bundled him into his car seat. It was bright and cool outside, and as we all climbed into the car we laughed at the sight of our carefully packed labor bags - the rice socks and ginger candies, rebozo and essential oils - that had never made it into the birth center. It felt wonderful, after so many months of anticipation, to be bringing our baby home. The memory of James' birth continues to bring me so much joy. I am still in awe of how capable and powerful my body is, and so thankful for the compassionate care we received from our midwives and for the gentle, loving environment that my son was born into.