Isabel’s Birth Story

I was 39 weeks pregnant, feeling good physically and emotionally–better than I had for most of the pregnancy. Over the weekend, I started to get the feeling that something was going to happen soon. Isabel had changed the way she was moving inside of me. Instead of kicking, punching, and having “playtime” in there, it suddenly started to feel as though she was getting down to business. Her movements were more studied and intentional, like she was getting lined up for her big entrance into the world. She would move her little head back and forth, telling my body it was time to start opening up. She made little changes to her body position, making sure everything was just right for the big day.

Sunday night Doug and I went to dinner with friends, wanting to get in one last “grownup” excursion before baby became the primary focus for a while. It was a lovely evening, with yummy food, candlelit conversation, and good friends. We came home afterward, sat in our warm little living room, and basked in the afterglow of our beautiful evening out. I kept saying to Doug, “That was just what I needed.” We went to bed in a happy glow.

Around 3:30am Monday morning, I woke up feeling a little “pop” inside of me. I sat up to go to the bathroom and felt some water run out of me. In the bathroom I saw part of my mucous plug, and I knew then that the length of time we would have to wait to see our little girl was growing short–little did I know how very short it would be!

I went back to bed, and I started having mild contractions twelve minutes apart, though I didn’t really believe they were the real thing. I was able to sleep in between, so I just laid there and rested and felt very calm. Doug woke up a little bit and I told him what was going on, and we agreed not to get all worked up, but instead to go back to sleep and save our energy for the work that lay ahead. In retrospect, I realize that I was definitely having contractions and though far apart, they were already regular, but I was dealing with them so well that, being a first time mother, I kept second-guessing myself and thinking these couldn’t possibly be REAL contractions. Maybe they were just intense Braxton-Hicks contractions? At any rate, I slept as long as I could and tried not to speculate on how much longer it would be before Isabel came to us.

In the morning, Doug went to Chick-Fil-A and got me a bacon, egg and cheese biscuit–my favorite pregnancy breakfast–and I devoured it with gusto in between the little contractions. I was still able to talk through the contractions, but they were starting to feel more intense, so I decided to call my doula, Teresa, around 10am. I realize in retrospect that because of my first-time-mom insecurities (and the fact I was handling the contractions easily) that I was reluctant to tell Teresa things were getting started, but deep down inside, I knew I was in labor. I was just scared to say “I’m in labor” in case I was wrong. Anyway, fortunately Teresa suggested I contact Margaret, my midwife, and let her know what was going on. Margaret suggested I come up to the office so she could check me and see if my cervix was changing.

Doug and I got dressed and headed up to the office on Howell Mill, which was a bit of a drive, but the contractions were still manageable, so it was okay. There were a lot of people in the waiting room, so we didn’t get in right away. By the time Margaret checked me, it was around 1pm and I was 2cm dilated and 80% effaced. There was some uncertainty as to whether or not my water had broken (I never had the big gush, but had been leaking clear fluid pretty constantly all morning) but Margaret didn’t seem concerned so we didn’t worry about it. So things were happening, but it looked like we still had a long time to go before baby. Margaret said maybe she’d see us later that night, and we were thinking maybe we’d have the baby the next day. At the advice of Margaret and Teresa, we decided to continue doing what we were doing–just going about our normal day, and not timing contractions until they were so strong there was nothing I could do but time them.

We were getting hungry, so we thought we’d stop off and get one more good meal inside of us before things got more intense. We stopped for my favorite pregnancy lunch–Pad Thai from Doc Chey’s–and got it to go. The girl at the cash register noticed me breathe through one of my contractions and asked if today was the day, and I told her we thought so, and she congratulated us and I felt so proud and excited about what we were about to do, I wanted to tell everyone! While we waited for the food to be ready, I sat outside on a low wall, basking in the beautiful fall sunshine and feeling the cool breeze, and being so happy to be alive and doing the amazing work of bringing a child into the world. The contractions were getting more intense, and when Doug came out with our food, I leaned on him and we breathed through one together–the first one I’d needed help to get through. I had no idea this was a sign of the major ramping up in pace that was about to occur.

We got in the car and on the way home I said to Doug what a gorgeous day it was and how when we got home I wanted to sit out on the front porch and eat my noodles and then maybe we could labor outside together for a while. He said that sounded like a good idea if it was what I felt like I wanted to do, so it was settled.

By the time we got home, everything changed. Contractions were suddenly no longer manageable while going about normal activities. It was like a switch had been flipped, and I was no longer in early labor, I was in active labor. I had to stop everything to deal with the contractions and they started to hurt a lot. Needless to say, I didn’t eat any of my noodles, and I didn’t sit on the porch and I didn’t enjoy the sunshine. I got in bed and I started to struggle through the contractions deliberately, breathing and trying to relax my abdomen and just let myself open.

At my insistence, Doug wolfed down his noodles (I wanted him to have energy for the journey ahead) and then came to the bedroom to be with me and help me through contractions. He did such a good job, I get all emotional when I think about it now. We did some of the things we learned in our birth class, but mostly he was just there with me, and we were connected, not just here in the physical world, but also on a spiritual plane that is difficult for me to explain. But we were there together, and I felt our connection stretch into infinity, and I felt so loved and held and protected by him and it was so beautiful. This middle part of my labor was very short, but I will treasure it for the rest of my life as the most special moment Doug and I have ever shared. He laid in the bed with me and held me, and I held onto him and we rode the waves together. It was so very very short, and I wish it could have lasted longer, but I’m so grateful that we got to share that time at all and I would not trade it for anything.

And just like that, the switch was flipped again and we catapulted into the next phase of labor–transition. Only we didn’t know that’s what had happened. You have to understand that all through this experience, our brains were in one place, and my body was in another, and it wasn’t until after all was said and done that we realized what had happened. There I was working really hard, contractions coming one on top of the other, the pain never really letting up in between, and Doug and I were still trying to breathe and relax through them like it was early labor, and frankly starting to get scared that things were quickly becoming too intense to handle. We tried and tried to time the contractions, but I was getting little ones and big ones, and they were all over the place time-wise, and the pain never really let up in between, so we couldn’t establish a pattern and when Doug called Teresa and Margaret to tell them there was no pattern, they quite understandably assumed that there was no way a first time mom had dilated that quickly and told us to keep doing what we were doing and stay put at the house. So we did.

And I got more and more scared. At some point, I remember looking at Doug and telling him I was terrified, and I know he tried to reassure me, but I don’t really remember what he said anymore because by this time I was in another place entirely. My brain split into two–there was my rational, logical, “modern” brain, and then there was my primal animal brain. The primal brain was taking over, and the logical brain was drifting to the background. The logical brain still interjected comments from time to time, but was mostly playing second fiddle to the primal brain, which now had me kneeling on the bed or the floor and roaring my way through contractions. Doug could no longer do anything to help me through them, and my logical brain felt so bad for pushing him away, not wanting to hurt him or keep him from performing this role he’d been getting himself ready for. But the primal brain was now in charge, and she said there was no breathing through this, there was no relaxation, no being touched. All that was left was to get on my hands and knees and roar the baby out.

Part of the reason I was so scared is that I didn’t know when we should go to the hospital. In retrospect, I realize we should have gone to the hospital well before we did, but as I said, we didn’t realize how rapidly I had progressed. I just thought I was doing a really bad job of dealing with regular contractions, not that I was actually doing a GOOD job of dealing with transition. But I was afraid, and I know that made the pain worse. I knew as time passed I was getting into more and more of a state where I wouldn’t be able to tolerate the journey to the hospital and I was worried we’d have the baby at home. I don’t remember exactly how the decision was finally made to go to the hospital, but Doug made the phone calls to Teresa and Margaret because I was way past being able to talk on the phone. Doug tried to get me dressed, but with each contraction my clothes became more intolerable and I kept ripping them off myself and getting down on my hands and knees. I realize now that I was experiencing an intense urge to push, but at the time I just knew that every time I tried to relax into a contraction, I felt a sense of panic and pulled back in instead. I think my instincts were working to slow me down and keep me from having my baby there on the bedroom floor!

Finally Doug found me my purple cotton dress to wear, since clearly I was not able to keep my pants on. Doug got the bags loaded into the car and moved the car seat out of the back. I did NOT want to get in that car–I knew it would hurt so much more in the car, and I was scared to make that trip, but I knew that for my baby to be safe, I really needed to do it, so that’s when I started to pray.

I started out asking for strength and courage and guidance. I asked for these things over and over again, at first under my breath, but then out loud, and it became my mantra I repeated to myself, as Doug helped me climb into the car.

Doug made the drive as quickly and smoothly as possible, but it was hell. I had to bring my logical brain to the fore from time to time and give him directions (“turn right at the cemetery”, “go under the blue bridge and turn left”) because we had never gotten around to doing our trial run to the hospital–and every time I had to bring forward the logical brain, the pain was worse. Then I would switch back to the animal brain and I would howl and grunt and go back to chanting and praying.

I called on the gods and goddesses, and my ancestors. I believe a part of me needed to be mothered at that moment, because I asked Freya to hold me and cradle me and give me strength. I asked my female ancestors for guidance in bringing the next in their line into the world. I asked for courage to do the work required of me. And in the middle of all of that, somehow I received a message. The message was: “It has to hurt to mean something. If it wasn’t hard, it wouldn’t be worth doing.” And I found strength in that, and realized that, even though it was hard, I was safe and my ancestors were there with me in that moment, and my children and my children’s children were also there with me in that moment, and it hurt, but I would not break and I would make it through.

To anybody in a car passing us, it probably looked as though I was out of my mind with craziness, writhing around in the back and yelling and chanting and praying. But actually it was then that I started to pull myself together. Those things that seemed crazy were actually me centering myself and pulling on reserves of strength that I wasn’t aware I had.

When we arrived at the hospital, I had to help Doug figure out where to park and how to get into the hospital–I cannot emphasize enough how important it is to do a trial run of this sort of thing, and I will definitely plan better next time! But we managed it. We didn’t bother waiting for a wheel chair for me–we didn’t have time, and I wouldn’t have been able to tolerate contractions sitting down, and besides, I was determined to walk in there under my own steam. We made it up to the 7th floor (thank goodness for elevators!) and stumbled up to the reception desk, and I feel bad for the cleaning crew because I was leaning my head and face and hands all over the glass window, propping myself up while they got me admitted. But these people knew their stuff, they could tell I was late in labor and in no fit state to sign waivers and the like. They immediately got me into a room.

Margaret showed up not much later, but by this point time meant nothing to me, and I have no idea how quickly it all happened. People were bustling everywhere around me, but I didn’t know what was happening outside of my own little bubble. I know the nurse asked if I wanted to put on a hospital gown and I said I’d prefer to keep on my dress. Then at some point I know I had to get out of my dress, and two people helped me–possibly Doug and the nurse? I don’t know. Margaret checked me and announced I was 8cm, and I have never been more relieved in my whole life. If I had been less far along, I would have known there was no way for me to make it through the rest of the process. But knowing that I was right there, right at the worst part of it, that this was the worst it was going to get–that’s what allowed me to keep going.

They started to get the birthing tub inflated and filled up. The nurse was trying to monitor the baby, but I couldn’t stay still long enough to keep the monitor on. I writhed around and I remember whining something about “it’s so bright in here…” and they cut off the overhead fluorescent lights and I was SO grateful. i know I was also bitching about how they needed to hurry up with the tub, and how the damn monitor band needed to come off my belly NOW. They were so good to me, and the nurse took off the monitor and they switched to intermittent monitoring, and I’m pretty sure they fudged the rules for me because they’re not supposed to let me in the tub until the baby has been continually monitored for a certain amount of time, but they could all tell where I was and they took care of me right. I don’t know what I did or said to cause it, but at one point I remember Margaret saying “and that’s how we know she’s in transition” and the other people in the room laughed. I don’t know who all was in there–it seemed like so many people, but I just shut it all out and went with the contractions, and Margaret started coaching me through them, urging me to grunt low. Sometime in all this mayhem, Teresa arrived, of which I was vaguely aware, mostly because my logical brain (which was now completely in the background) was thankful she was there to reassure Doug. I knew he must have been terribly worried and felt things were out of his control, and I was thankful when I saw Teresa put a reassuring hand on him from time to time.

After what felt like hours, but I now know was quite a short time, they had the tub inflated and filled enough for me to get in. When I did, it was the most blessed feeling of relief, I can’t even explain. I’m sure if we’d realize a few hours ago we were progressing quickly and I had been able to labor in that tub most of the time, I’d be telling a very different story now about a more gentle birth experience. But as it was, I was thankful beyond belief even for the few minutes I did get to spend in that tub. The warm water and buoyancy gave me the comfort I needed to push through the last little bit of labor. I was able to get on my hands and knees and be comfortable, and between contractions I could lean against the soft walls of the tub.

When my baby started to come down the birth canal, I reached down with my hand and touched her, felt her tiny head coming out, and that was all I needed to keep going. Doug held me in his arms there at the side of the tub, held me so tight, and even though I was still in my primal brain, I was there with him, and he was with me, and he gripped me and sent me his love, a palpable force which I could feel as I pushed our daughter out into the world.

Isabel Ivey was born at 7:12pm, into a tub of water that had just barely finished filling. She was not born on the bedroom floor because her daddy was strong enough to help me into that car when I didn’t want to go. She was not born in the car because her momma somehow knew not to push yet, even though I wasn’t even aware it was pushing I wanted to do. And she was not born on the hospital bed because the life-giviing sound of the water pouring into a tub gave her mom the patience to hold on just a little longer.

No, Isabel came into the world in a warm, watery dimness, as gently as her momma could manage, given the circumstances.

I felt her slide out of me, like a rubbery cork, and I breathed a sigh of relief and I don’t know how I got into an upright position, but I did, and I held my baby there in my hands and she had her eyes wide open and gazed into mine, and she was so alert, and started to turn pink right away, and I just knew she was okay and had come through the journey safely. I held her for a while, and I don’t remember what I did or said. I just remember wanting to memorize everything about her, down to the way the umbilical cord looked attached to her body and the way the vernix felt on her skin. I wanted to remember it all before it all changed, before cord-cutting and tests and baths and time rushed us away from that moment. I held her little purple sticky wet body in my hands, and there in the dimness I fell in love.

Doug cut the umbilical cord and after what seemed entirely too short a period of time, they took my baby from me and helped me out of the tub. I immediately started shaking uncontrollably, partly shivering with cold, and partly reeling from the intensity of the experience I had just had. They wrapped me up in warmed blankets, and helped me to the bed, and it was only then that I finally started to be aware of the people around me. Doug was at one side of me, and Teresa at the other, and Margaret and the nurse were at the foot of the bed as I delivered the placenta. Afterwards they let me see it, and Teresa even took pictures of it for me, and it was beautiful. Teresa showed us how it had a Tree of Life in it, and Margaret showed us where it had attached to my uterus to transfer life to my baby. It was amazing.

The baby was never more than a few feet away from me while they checked her out to see if everything was okay, and Doug says that whenever I talked she would turn her head in my direction. When they put her back on my chest, she laid there and I was amazed at how strong and alert she was. She could lift her little head up and push herself around with her feet, and her eyes were wide open and she looked at everything around her, most especially focusing on my face. I’m so grateful we got that period of quiet alertness that comes with a non-medicated birth. It was priceless.

I have a tendency to doubt myself, and because during my labor I felt such intense pain, I thought it meant I was weak and not managing well. But I realize now that a hole inside of me opened up, and did so much more quickly than it usually does for most women, and that when things progress that rapidly, it hurts more. And considering how I breezed through early labor, I realize now that I dealt with the sensations very well indeed, and I’m proud of myself. Several people have said to me after the fact “Oh, you’re lucky it went so quickly”, not realizing that the faster passage also means more intense sensations. But I know, and Doug knows because he was there, and we know that my shorter journey in no way lessened the intensity of my ordeal. It just made it different. My rite of passage was mine, and I lived up to the challenge. I know now what I’m made of and what I’m capable of.

We spent our first night with the baby in the hospital, and in the middle of the night, while dad slept in the cot next to us, Isabel and I laid in the bed together, in the dim orange glow of the city lights, and she stared into my eyes and I stared back. It felt like all of eternity was encapsulated in that one night, in my little girl’s eyes. As exhausted as she and I both were by the experience we’d been through, I think we both could have laid there gazing forever if we’d been allowed to.

When we left the hospital two days later, the hospital people insisted they bring me a wheelchair to ride down in. I was resistant at first, just because I was impatient and waiting around for a wheelchair seemed silly when I could walk perfectly fine. But as I rode along in the chair, followed by the hospital person pushing it, and my parents walking along after him, cradling my new baby in my arms, I felt a sudden surge of pride. People looked at us as we went by, commenting on how cute my baby was, or stopping to congratulate me, and I felt triumphant. The wheelchair didn’t make me feel weak, it made me feel like a triumphant queen on a litter!

And then, when Doug and I pulled into the driveway of our happy little house, I looked out of the car window and saw my front porch, decorated with bouquets of flowers, and teddy bears, and balloons–congratulatory gifts people had sent to greet us as we arrived. And I carried the fragile little bundle of my baby into our living room, and I sat on our little couch, and I told her “Isabel, this is your home now” and I burst into tears and finally all the emotions of the last few days became real and came pouring out of me, and I told Doug “We’re a family now. We were partners before, but now we are a family”.

Nearly a week has passed now since the birth of our daughter. Her wrinkly, funny looking little face has filled out and pinked up and turned into the most heart-wrenchingly beautiful thing in the world to me. We are bonding with reckless abandon, nursing constantly, snuggling in between, and drinking in every moment of togetherness we can. Dad takes care of us both, bringing me food and drinks, changing Isabel’s diapers, and lavishing us both with kisses. I know eventually Doug has to go back to work and I have to do things like laundry, and every day won’t feel quite this blissful, but I don’t think I have ever in my life been happier than I am right now.