Birth Story, Part One

It feels strange to return to this space after my son was born four months ago. It feels strange because I had a beautiful birth this time, a birth so unexpected and different than my first one. I think about what I wrote about God as a laboring mother and find it difficult to connect those essays to my latest experience, which was astoundingly good. A writer-friend remarked to me once that I like to write about failure. That struck me as devastatingly true -- I do tend to frame stories by my mislaid expectations and the crashing disappointment of real-life-living. Even the title of this blog, "What Life Does," refers to a quote that reflects that sense of disillusionment.

But I don't want to be a person who always frames her life in terms of failure. In writing out this birth story, I am taking a small step in exploring the positive in my life.


I was overdue. I was approaching the deadline, 40 weeks plus 14 days. Instead of needing to produce a paper or article, I needed to give birth. By December 4th. Otherwise I would become a “high risk” pregnancy because there is greater chance that the placenta may atrophy once you pass 42 weeks. And, if you’re high risk, you can’t deliver at a birth center, you have to deliver at a hospital.

I had my daughter at a hospital three years prior and the birth hadn’t gone the way I had hoped. Somehow, I had it fixed in my mind that giving birth in the hospital again would mean re-experiencing the same birth I had the first time. I wanted a different birth. I wanted to deliver at the birth center.

It was December 3rd and I wasn’t in labor. I woke up in the morning feeling angry. Contractions still hadn't started. I had been doing all the things people tell women who are waiting for their babies to come: have sex, take castor oil, climb stairs, eat spicy food, acupuncture. The midwives at the birth center told me that, if December 3rd came around and I still wasn’t in labor, I could go into the birth center to have my water broken manually. Something about a knitting-needle hook that would be inserted into my cervix. A friend of mine had delivered at the same birth center and had the procedure done to help jumpstart labor; her daughter was born 10 hours later.

I was desperate to have a different birth. I wanted to deliver at the birth center.

I called my doula, my friend Melanie, a friend who I have known for years. Our families have lived together and we’ve seen each other at our best and at our worst. We’ve had fights over unloading the dishwasher and cried together during house meetings and watched each other parent our babies. We’ve talked about our family issues, about old hurts and ways to move beyond them. She has influenced me so much in the way she mothers. She knows how to grow beautiful plants and run a greenhouse, the little seedlings bending toward her careful knowledge and light. I trust Melanie in the way you can trust someone who has known you, who you’ve watched caretake vulnerable things: small children, small plants. The way she nourishes life, gives it the light of her attention, the water of her diligence. And she knows a lot about maternal medicine, having doula-ed countless births.

So I called Melanie, and she didn’t give me advice straight out, but I could sense she didn’t agree with the breaking your water strategy. If your water breaks, you have 24 hours before the risk of infection rises and before medical professionals will hook you up to Pitocin to jumpstart labor. Choosing to break my water could open up my birth to the possibility that I would need more interventions later.

Still, not breaking my water would mean that I would be delivering at the hospital, it would mean that my dreams of a birth center birth would go unrealized. And I wasn't ready to let that go.

Melanie came with Josh and I to the birth center to discuss the procedure with the midwives. I remember being in one of the birthing suites, seated on a couch, and sobbing as I finally chose not to get my water broken to induce labor. I was letting it go, I thought I was deciding to have a hospital birth. It felt like giving up, it felt like history repeating itself.

The hospital was across the street from the birth center, so we walked over icy sidewalks to visit the brand new Mother Baby Center. It’s a new wing of the hospital, done up in rainbow hued glass and futuristic couches. It looked fine, it was all fine, but I longed for the soothing green walls of the birth center, the tasteful art, the giant water-birth Jacuzzi-style tubs. I know, in retrospect, it may sound selfish and privileged to be whining about where I give birth – a top-notch hospital is among the better places (or so I imagine) to have a baby. Yet, I'd been picturing myself delivering in another place for months; I had all my prenatal appointments at the birth center. Switching to an unfamiliar hospital at the very last minute made me tense.

After touring the hospital, Josh and I tried to decide what to do next. My three-year-old daughter was staying at her grandparents for the day. Should he go back to work? Should I take a nap? Try something else to get labor started?

Melanie suggested we visit an herbalist midwife friend of hers. I wasn’t sold on the idea, but I was desperate. There was still a slim chance that I could go into labor that very day and be able to deliver at the birth center.

So we went. Her office was in her home, the upstairs of a duplex, beaming with light, with hanging plants and warm neutral wall hangings. There were bookcases lined with Ina May Gaskin’s books and several copies of Birthing from Within. She asked us a few questions, she scoffed at the birth center’s rigid two week post-due-date time frame (your gestational length is perfectly normal! There is no real reason NOT to keep waiting, besides for insurance). If you were my patient, she said, we wouldn’t be trying anything to get labor started. We would just trust that it would start in the next few days. And then I felt guilty for not having chosen a home-birth in the first place.

She had me stick out my tongue and she listened to my pulse. She pulled out black eyedroppers full of herbal tinctures and placed a few drip-drops on my wrists. She gave me a few brown bottles of "strong uterine herbs" that are supposed to jumpstart labor. I felt foolish when I wrote the check for $50 – we were barely making our monthly budget – and wondered if this would work.

We went home, I took the herbs, I took a nap. I felt utterly depleted, my tears and decision to deliver at the hospital feeling like giving up on my hopes for a beautiful birth. But when I woke up an hour later, I was having a contraction. And then another. And then another.


It's the first Sunday in Advent and I couldn't bear going to church this morning with my ten-days-overdue belly. Of course everyone understands that babies don’t follow any kind of schedule (at least mine don’t – inside or outside the womb, for that matter); of course, normal gestational length can vary by as much as six weeks. Still, when you pass that magical date that you’ve been spouting out to curious well-wishers for the past few months, everyone starts getting antsy. It's enough to make me want to hide forever. Hide from questions and small talk, hide from hope that he will be here soon.

I know there are many parallels to entering the season of Advent with being "overdue" with child -- but frankly they make me grouchy, even if they are apt. Yes, waiting for this birth reflects the greater waiting we are doing for Jesus' birth, for the Kingdom to come, for peace to reign on earth. But in the actual calendar season of Advent, I know Christmas is coming on December 25. It will come on time. I already know that story; I can make plans.

This physical knowing I will give birth but not knowing when? This is different. With Advent, I can intellectualize its meaning. I can check out emotionally and passively move through the season until Christmas morning. I can even skip ahead to joy by playing Christmas music early and setting up our tree. But there is no sneaking in snuggles with my baby before labor; this is a wait in utter darkness.

Up until this weekend, I have felt okay waiting. I’m not physically uncomfortable or roiling in pain. Sure, it has been wearying -- the not knowing, the wondering if I should do a big grocery shop or make play-dates for my toddler, the pressure to be doing things to go into labor (primrose oil, walking, doing stairs, eating spicy food, castor oil, acupuncture, squats and lunges to name a few). I have known that, no matter what I try, there is always the underlying reality that nothing that I “do” will push me into labor until my body is ready.

But the past two mornings I woke up at 4 AM with panic so thick in my throat that I thought I would choke. Somehow I had it in my mind that the baby would come this weekend; that the baby would be born before December 1. Instead of waking to labor pains or to the rush of my water breaking, I blinked awake to hope unmet and stomach acid. Nothing was happening.

I’ve been surprised by the anger that I have felt at having my hopes misplaced.

The unease I feel now is more of an agitated readiness, a frantic desire to meet this being who is sharing my body, to endure and be done with labor, to finally have the anticipation put to rest. It’s a thirst to move forward, not remain stuck here in limbo, in wondering.

For so many days now, I’ve been on top of everything house related – all the dishes done immediately, the toys always picked up, the manic check-things-off-the-list mentality driving me forward, lest we go into labor. Ask my husband; he will tell you about how we dusted the tops of every kitchen cabinet this morning.

I had been so hopeful that my baby would be born by today. Every Braxton Hicks contraction pain has stirred anticipation -- is this it? But nothing real has happened, nothing tangible. I feel despondent, uncertain whether to keep preparing or sink into hopeless grief.

December is nearly here; my baby is not. And, though the parallels make me grouchy, I wonder if this is exactly what Advent is supposed to feel like: an angry anticipation for the thing we most long for, a discontent with the ways of this world, a bitter hope teetering on despair for wrongs to be righted, a desperation for light to overcome all this darkness.

It’s this restless hope that is forcing me to pace the hallways of my apartment building, to do circuits of stairs wherever I can find them. It’s forcing me into a more active wait, not a passive one. It’s forcing me to try small things to get labor started, though I have no ultimate control in this process.

I keep going through the motions, though the oil in my lamp is burning low. Draw your flame a little closer, wait with me.


Image via Flickr’s Creative Commons can be found here


I wrote this piece in late March. Now that I'm into my second trimester of pregnancy, I feel ready to share it with you here. Announcing a pregnancy is a joyful thing but I know it can also provoke mixed feelings. If you are facing infertility or infant loss, I mourn with you and wait expectantly with you. ***

Soaring high

A few mornings ago I held a positive pregnancy test in my hands, the faint blue lines making a “+” sign on the plastic wand. There was no excitement, no rush of joy or sadness or anything in particular. I showed my husband, he nodded. I threw the test in the trash, moving into the bedroom to pack my gym bag. My two-year old daughter demanded help putting on her socks, I bent over to pull them on.

When I got to the YMCA and began running on the treadmill, my feet slapping the nylon, I watched the incessant CNN coverage of the missing plane. It was carrying 269 people and disappeared a week ago, swallowed up by the sky. It might have landed, one headline reads. The plane flew for four hours after the last communication, another reporter says. Families are pictured holding vigil, resting their heads in their hands, hugging and crying. They are in the worst kind of darkness, the one of not knowing.

I don’t think much about the tiny zygote burrowing into my uterine lining, only four weeks along. I don’t let myself wonder if it’s a boy or girl.

Later that evening, when I use the Due Date Calculator online, BabyCenter says the baby is the size of a poppy seed. I don’t click on the link to see what the baby looks like at four weeks. I wonder briefly about having a baby near Thanksgiving, about how this child would be three years younger than my firstborn.


We lost the last baby at six weeks. I was holding my toddler on my hip, striding across the library floor, my arms loaded with book bags and coats. There was a popping sensation, then a whoosh of fluid that soaked my underwear. A thought fluttered in my mind: “Am I having a miscarriage? I have to remember this moment in case I write about it.” I batted the thought away with the detached curiosity of someone who has never experienced real loss. Of all the things, it seemed so implausible.

I walked to the children’s section of the library and locked myself in the bathroom with my toddler. I sat down on the tiny child-size toilet while my daughter started pulling down paper towels from the automated dispenser, the mechanical “weee” sound jamming over and over. My jeans were wet; it looked like I had peed myself. But there was no blood, so I chalked it up to a weird womanly moment.

The next morning I started spotting. It was Sunday so we went to church and I tried not to worry. My husband had to stop by work, so I came home with my daughter. My upper thighs began to ache and my lower back pulsed with slow-moving pain. I called the midwife line and spoke to a nurse. “The midwife on call is delivering a baby right now,” she said. “But I paged her and she will call you back soon.”

The cramping continued and I searched online for clues. My daughter was cranky, ready for her nap, but I couldn’t pull it together to go through the nap routine. She sensed that something was wrong and she touched my wet cheeks gently.

“Mama crying?” she said. “Ooooh, mama. Sorry mama.” She patted my face, her tiny fingers moving up and down.

The midwife called back, fresh from ushering a new life into the world. I described my symptoms, my throat constricting as I tried to push the words out. She told me that spotting is very normal in pregnancy, but the cramping was not a good sign.

“This doesn’t sound too good for you, honey,” she said.

I laid my head back on the couch as I listened to her speak, my eyes squeezed shut.

“Are you still there?” she asked.

“Yes,” I said, my voice thick. She told me to get an appointment at the clinic for the next day.

After I hung up, I started sobbing. I started thinking about all the late nights I had spent recently watching Netflix, about how I was still drinking several cups of coffee a day, about how I had missed a few days of prenatal vitamins. “This is my fault,” I thought. I had taken it for granted, what my body could do, conjuring up new life like magic.

The first pregnancy had been so easy, so straightforward. I come from fertile women, hourglass figures and broad hips. My sister always said that our bodies were the kind that can squat and deliver a child in the fields after working outside all day. We conceived the first time we tried. Having babies was something that I was confident I could do.

I never knew a baby could slip away from me, disappearing into the clouds.


Another week has gone by and my mind hovers on grocery lists and schedules and legions of library books to return. But I also start drinking decaf and swallowing the large oval prenatal pills, their smell nutty and healthy. Except on nights when I’m writing, I go to sleep before midnight.

We made it to five weeks, I think nonchalantly. Nobody besides my husband knows that there is magic happening in my womb. Nobody will know if the magic stops.

With the last pregnancy, we told our immediate families right away. So many joy-filled, Guess whats! What a thing to share, the news of a second life in your very body. And what happier news to receive than another grandchild that will toddle around during holiday meals?

Once the blood tests confirmed the miscarriage, I had to make sad phone calls, send the emails and texts. Yes, it’s a miscarriage. And the loss kept happening as I bled for days, a life leeching into giant maxi pads. We got a few cards in the mail, my sister sent flowers. Days kept coming and going, the bleeding finally stopped. Most of the time it felt like nothing happened.

But at the most random moments – in the post office, driving the car, stirring pasta – I would remember that the baby was gone. (Not dead, I didn’t think of it that way, he or she never was, never had become.) The baby was gone and the loss would stir up panic and the realization that ALL THE TERRIBLE THINGS IN LIFE CAN HAPPEN TO ME. Lives can be magically conjured in my very body and lives can be ripped out before I even hear evidence of a heartbeat.

I’ve never been a worrier. I don’t dwell on worst-care scenarios or follow my kid around with a bottle of Purell. But miscarriage has cracked my glass half-full optimism; it has revealed how fragile it all can be. It’s a world where your loved one can board a plane and vanish in the sky and you don’t know whether they’re at the bottom of the ocean or waiting for rescue on a desert isle.

It’s also a world where magic can happen; I know, I have a zany pig-tailed toddler to prove it. For now, I let my body do its mysterious work while I busy through my day, trying not to jinx it. And as each week passes, I’ll sigh a little deeper in gratitude that we made it this far.