The birth of a child is a story we dream of for 40 weeks or sometimes more before it happens. When it does, there seems to be an unbelievable significance to the event and it’s not just because it’s what brings your child into the world.
Could it be because it’s the experience that marks the transition from woman to mother?
Could it be because it’s the experience that connects generations of women through history?
Could it be because birthing a baby exemplifies the sheer power and strength of a woman?
I was 37.5 weeks pregnant with my second child and as my due date began to approach, I would often ask myself, “how will my story begin?”.
On December 14, I woke up around 2 AM and as I stumbled sleepily through the dark hallway towards the bathroom, I felt a sudden gush of fluid hit the ground. I called to my husband who I could hear was coming upstairs to bed after falling asleep on the couch, careful not to wake my daughter, sleeping next door.
Up until this moment, I was excited for the labour.
My first birth was not at all what I’d planned but it was empowering and beautiful and I was excited to meet our next child. In that moment though, I was terrified. My immediate reactions were doubt and fear. I couldn’t stop my body from shaking as we checked the fluid to make sure it was clear. My husband and I sat in the dark bathroom waiting for another rush to come – a little trick I learned after having my first. I repeated my affirmations from the books I’d read as I began to mentally prepare. Birth warriors don’t stay clean. We complicate it. It is simple.
Contractions were mild and I attempted to sleep a little longer, anticipating what would most likely be a long day. I slept on and off resisting the urge to contact my midwives, knowing they also needed rest for what would be a long day ahead. I had no idea that after the baby was born, going back to sleep, a decision that seemed so natural in the moment, would be one fraught with judgment and regret.
I did sleep on and off and we decided around 6 AM to call the midwives. They listened to my contractions over the phone to determine severity. I could still speak through them very comfortably and they were still no more than 14 mins apart, lasting only 30 secs. “It’s up to you”, my midwife said. “I can meet you at the birth centre or you can labour at home a little longer if you’re more comfortable”.
We had to get my older daughter to school and the birth centre was completely across town so we decided to get going. I got up to brush my teeth and get dressed as my husband got my daughter ready for daycare. All of a sudden and with no warning, the contractions were strong and timing was all over the place.
I can’t explain it, but something changed.
35 minutes later we had dropped my daughter at daycare and we raced through the city as my contractions became stronger and stronger. My husband was flying down one way streets and I braced myself in the front seat, trying to stay lucid through the pain. Little did I know, I was in transition.
We were still more than 20 minutes away from our destination when I felt the urge to push. “Call 911”, I said, “the baby’s coming”. The operator instructed us to pull over somewhere safe once we were able to alert her to the urgency of the situation. She began with all the usual questions, “what’s your name? How far along are you?”. We kept yelling, “the baby’s coming” until she finally understood now wasn’t the time for questions.
I climbed into the back seat and positioned myself on all fours (between two car seats) and we undressed me from the waist down. The operator asked my husband to get some warm blankets and find something to cut the cord. At this point, I was resisting the urge to push.
A minute later, a paramedic appeared behind my husband and when he spotted me, the same fact finding questions began. I just kept thinking, is this really happening? In the seconds I had between contractions, I convinced him the time for questions had passed. I became vaguely aware a crowd of people had gathered around us. Some of them onlookers and some of them firemen and paramedics.
I told them I could feel the baby’s head crowning and they directed me to get onto the gurney which they’d now wheeled up next to the car door. I said “no” a few times before realizing it was the only way they knew how to catch a baby so I didn’t have a choice. [My husband insists they covered me with some kind of blanket while transferring me out of the car.]
I waited for the next contraction and with one strong push, I felt the baby slide out on to the gurney. It was December, I was naked from the waist down and it was raining. They quickly began to wrap the baby in fire blankets. When I heard the first oxygen fueled cries I knew the baby was OK. Without thinking, I tore my shirt off and directed firmly that the baby be placed on my chest for warmth. They wrapped both of us in blankets and wheeled us onto the warm ambulance.
At this point, I still had no idea if we’d had a girl or boy. Once inside, the paramedic that had caught my baby leaned down and introduced himself, “Hi, I’m Aladdio,”, he said. I peeled back the blankets to uncover a gorgeous baby girl burrowed into my chest. My husband introduced us and our second perfect baby girl, Maisie.
When I had dreamt of this birth story, I dreamt of a warm and intimate place. A safe place to experience my most vulnerable of moments. Moments before I began to push, I made eye contact with an onlooker outside the car. I’ll never forget the look on his face as he watched in fascination and horror.
For a long time after the birth, it was still hard to talk about. I felt judgment and shame (like I should’ve known this might happen or it was my fault for not leaving earlier). I felt violated. I felt robbed of my amazing, life-affirming birth. The thing I heard most was, “all that matters is that she was healthy.” I know this was meant to be caring but it was hard to hear.
Are our expectations so pathetically low that a healthy baby is the most we can hope for in labour?
In a world where we accept a mundane ritual like a shower to be considered self-care for a mom, I think we should be aiming a little higher for our births. Of course the health of the baby is important, but so must be the comfort of the mom. Birth is unpredictable but that doesn’t mean we should expect it to be bad.
Maisie is now 9 months old and time has given me an opportunity for reflection and clarity. I choose to now focus on what my body did and how strong I am to have come through that experience. My story went from traumatic and shocking to empowering and unique. I think this can be true for all women – regardless of the type of birth. Even though our birth stories have a profound impact on us, they don’t have to define us.
Let’s share our stories proudly, support one another in our triumphs [and defeats] and aim higher for ourselves.
To this day, Maisie still hates to be cold.
Written + Shared by Shannon Rothschild