Every birth is an event, an unfolding. Alice’s birth, however, was almost comical in its eventfulness because of two things: where my husband Aaron and I were at the time the labour had started, and how I knew it had started.
Early on in my pregnancy with little Ali Aaron had purchased us tickets for a live special by John Mulaney – a comedian we both enjoyed watching on screen, but had never seen live. In fact, stand up comedy was, up until the night of November 10th, something I got to enjoy only on our TV at home. With the due date estimated to be somewhere between November 16th and 19th, we knew we might not make it to the show. But the hope was there, and so the tickets quietly awaited their turn for months.
Prior to that night, for weeks I had felt that baby would come a bit early. My midwife had also started saying that baby sat very low, very early, at about 32 weeks. It was not a concern, but something to note – Alice was head down, riding on what was left of my muscles and bladder, and eager to meet us. At that point I did not know baby was in fact a girl – we had decided to wait until birth – but I had a feeling she was. Most people also predicted her to be a girl. The two things came true – having a girl in my belly, and an eager one to come just a bit early. In the weeks leading up to her birth, I occasionally even got the sharp sensation of a foreign object inside, and it threw me for a loop, until the midwife and I concluded it must be baby putting her hands up to her face, very low in my pelvis, in her own way “knocking” to the outside world.
And so on that chilly November night, at 38 weeks and 4 days, we stood in line for the show. It was a long wait even for those with tickets. We had also made the night even more eventful by walking all around downtown prior, getting tacos from our favourite place and ice cream from a new place in town that dipped the cone in thick chocolate (it sounded better than it tasted). Having walked around a bunch with my big belly and then standing in line of a few hundred people, I was understandably anxious to get inside. After a bit of back pain and a few deep breaths, we managed to finally get to our seats and were both in great spirits. I did not feel any different from the previous days and weeks. Aaron and I were taking photos of the theater ceiling that was made to look like a night sky, quietly pointing out other pregnant women to each other, and enjoying the jolly atmosphere.
The show was everything we had hoped for and more. We laughed, we related, we appreciated the less appropriate jokes, we cringed as the members of the audience in the front rows were teased. It was a blast, and I still felt the same, other than the endless need to pee (late pregnancy, amirite?!). Just before taking the long train ride home, I told Aaron I had to use the washroom. The theater bathrooms were incredibly full, so we decided to stop by an A&W near the trains. It was there that things got very interesting.
Having waited in yet another long line – can we talk about what people do in the public city washrooms? Or maybe let’s not, – I finally got inside. Maneuvering the belly and the maternity jeans (the band only helps so much), I finally got to pee. The moment I stood up, a gush of fluid went all over my underwear, my pants, the floor, the shoes – in other words, it was a confusing mess. I cleaned up the best I could, and after a brief moment of standing frozen by the sink, came out to talk with Aaron. “I’m not sure, but I think my water may have broken. Or maybe I just peed,” I said. Aaron seemed surprised to say the least, but stayed put. We called the midwife, and promptly found out (of course!) that it would be the backup midwife in charge that weekend. It was midnight. She was tired, or quite possibly asleep, before I had paged. Her response to the situation was: since I was a little early still, and since I was peeing, most likely I just kept peeing standing up as the bladder was under so much pressure. She told me to see if I would keep leaking (when the water really breaks it does not stop) over the next hour, and to put on a thick pad. If it got soaked in that time, I were to call her again. I did as told and we headed home. By the end of the hour ride home, I was not only very wet, but starting to have contractions. If you’ve ever tried looking straight in the face at strangers sitting a couple of feet away from you on the train, and not give away the fact that you are having painful contractions unlike anything you’ve felt before, call me up, we have something to talk about.
Janice, our new midwife, was quite shocked to hear me call back, and even more surprised to hear my contractions were already 3 to 4 minutes apart. Somehow, in the back of my head, I kept denying the whole experience as real labour partially because at 30 weeks we had already gone to the hospital with consistent contractions (that were, after all, Braxton Hicks), and partially because no matter how much you mentally prepare yourself, when it really is happening, you don’t feel prepared at all – at least that was our experience. And prepare I did: prenatal yoga classes, prenatal teacher training for me for the future (I am a yoga teacher), childbirth class, daily breathing and meditation, lots of time spent bouncing on the birthing ball… Here I was standing in the bathroom once again, at home, looking at the first bit of blood in the entire pregnancy now alarmingly present at the bottom of my toilet. It really was happening. We had planned a home birth. The midwife was getting a few things together and heading over. Aaron was blowing up the pool, grabbing towels and snacks and ingredients for something called Labour-aide, and who knows what else. I watched him kick into action mode as I was slowing down instead with every contraction.
It was a little while before Janice came. My contractions were strong, taking my breath away and making it hard to think. I started to lose track of time. When she arrived, she had a few questions and ran a test on the pad I was wearing. It showed her the wetness was indeed from amniotic fluid (not that there was much guessing by then!). The first thing to do was get me IV antibiotics because I was GBS-positive in the weeks leading up to the date (to anyone who doesn’t know what that is, it is a gut bacteria that we all can have from time to time, harmless to adults, dangerous for babies). Up until that moment I was a huge believer in home birth being the right route for us, allowing flexibility if we had to transfer to the hospital. My confidence was slowly leaving me, however, as I watched the midwife struggle over and over to put the IV needle in my hand, while telling Aaron to be the IV pole. After multiple tries in both hands, blood all over the couch, and an agonizing 40 or so minutes later, the antibiotics were finally entering my system. Aaron stood over me, with his arm patiently up in the air, and I lay there wondering if we were completely, utterly crazy to attempt this at home. My contractions were also intensifying, and the strange thing was that I felt them only in my back; extremely localized and extremely painful, immobilizing.
Having finished the first dose of the antibiotics, and figured out the set up and temperature of the pool, I could finally be in water. I had beautiful visions and ideas about waterbirth, and to some extent I still think today that water is one of the best tools in labour. It was helping, although I was also very hot despite the temperature being right (either that, or a broken thermometer). Soon, however, the contractions reached a degree of intensity and frequency that didn’t allow for complaints about anything else at all. I cried then, pushing my face into Aaron’s arm draped over the pool. It felt as if my back was splitting apart. Janice was observing from the couch, periodically coming over to check the baby’s heartbeat, which also served the purpose of bringing me back down, remembering the little being inside that I needed to work with. I got out of the pool to be checked for dilation and was at 4 cm, which was pretty good and encouraging for early labour. Over the next few hours, until early morning, I rocked and swayed, hugging into Aaron, went back and forth between a TENS machine (electric impulse pads on my lower back) and the pool, and many, many contractions. I was convinced there had to be progress. We were playing some of my favourite music, we put “The Holiday” on TV at one point and hardly watched it, we snacked a little, and my contractions had slowed briefly. After another while, they picked up again, and I was really starting to feel exhausted, as we never slept at all, labour having started at midnight. Janice checked me again. I was still at 4 cm, even though many hours had passed. Rationally I understood this could happen and didn’t mean too much for the rest of the labour, but my spirits were falling nonetheless.
Two more rounds of IV antibiotics (including many unsuccessful attempts and heavily bleeding, swollen hands), more light outside, non-stop debilitating pain in my back, and I was starting to lose track of not only what time of day it was, but of how and when things happened. At some point Aaron had ran out to pay for Janice’s parking; I briefly got to say goodbye to our puppy Nina, who went to stay with Aaron’s aunt and uncle; Our neighbors went in and out of their apartments; Another midwife had come and gone – as she checked my vitals and the baby’s heartbeat I could hardly turn around to look at her. Life was happening while I sat and lay with my eyes closed, closed almost the whole time, inward, curling into a ball, quite different from the mobile, dancing labour I had envisioned. Still, there were many moments that I would emerge from my darkness to see Aaron and Janice, there for me, skipping sleep and everything else. We were in the deep, but I wasn’t alone.
At some point I realized I couldn’t see the rest of my labour playing out at home. I couldn’t see myself taking on the later contractions because the unexplained back labour I was having was absolutely excruciating. I knew at some point I would have to push and I wasn’t able to find the energy – there was still a lot ahead, and I needed to change something for the labour to progress. A part of me also wanted more of a team and more options for help. I weathered a few more contractions and told Aaron it was time to go to the hospital. After checking that I was sure, he went to let Janice know in the other room. There was a lot of confusion about which hospital had room, but eventually, with Aaron carrying a million and one things and looking like a nice Christmas tree, we headed out. By the time we left the apartment, I had laboured at home for 13.5 hours. I was wearing a loose grey nightgown and slippers; I believe I sat in our building’s lobby like this, and a kind neighbour couple with a young baby slipped by, whispering “good luck!”.
Janice promptly checked me again at the hospital and finally the dilation of my cervix was between 5 and 6 cm. It was this fact along with Janice’s magic work that got us a room – someone was scheduled to be induced in it that day, and while I will never know who they are, I am eternally grateful. While the main room was being prepared, the three of us had to wait in another tiny room of about 6 by 4 feet. This proved to be the hardest part as I had reached a point of throwing all ideas about non-medicated birth out the window and wanting medical relief STAT. It doesn’t work that way though of course, so it was another while (45 minutes or so, I later learned) until we made it to the delivery and recovery room. Once there, we met our main nurse, and she was so extremely proactive, it was a true blessing if I know one. While the epidural was being organized and set up, I reached for the gas, I reached for Aaron, I asked what else I could have, and threw up over and over again. Once the epidural was administered, it worked pretty much right away; All our questions were answered and everything was run by us; our nurse hooked up my IV in one try. Scary as the epidural has always seemed to me, it was one of the best decisions we had made in the whole process. Suddenly, I was not only out of pain, but more present in my labour experience. After just a few minutes, all I could feel was pressure, and for the first time in over 14 hours I wasn’t folding down from pain. It did tie me to the bed and to being on my back, which wasn’t the position I wanted to give birth in, but back labour had made me nearly completely immobilized anyways. I got to rest. That’s right, I actually slept in active labour! Aaron got to rest. Janice got some food. I chatted with the nurse, who was incredibly beautiful and equally as kind. Her name was Marylene, and she was a young black woman with the most amazing long lashes and friendly features. This matters because in labour you want kind faces around you. A different, male nurse came by to bond over our roots and speak Russian to me and wish us luck, which was really sweet. It was an entirely different experience, and I felt like it did just enough to help us get our baby earthside. I loved having so many people there to care for us, and how organized everything was – the hospital wasn’t a cold, scary place at all!
Janice had come back from her meal break and was running everything by an OB-GYN. She then checked me for progress. Her and Marylene were happy to see I had progressed to 8 cm. Normally at that stage the birther is really not having a great time, and here I was chatting away. A catheter was put in (which I did not feel!) to give me a chance to pee and apparently it just kept going and going – what a bizarre thing to not feel yourself peeing. Only a little while later I was checked again, as I mentioned to Janice I felt a lot of pressure in my bum, and as if I had to use the washroom. She said it was a very good sign. Indeed, my body had opened – I was at 10 and ready to push. It all sped up so much after the epidural that I asked Marylene, “so this is it? It’s time??” and sure it was. She even skipped all of her breaks because she was determined to meet the baby. As long as baby came before 7 pm, at which point she would have to be off, she would skip all breaks, Marylene had said. “So hurry up, we can just about make it!,” she told me, jokingly.
The pushing stage lasted another two hours. It was both similar and different from what I had imagined. Similar in the effort and focus that I imagined it would take. Different because I had to be on my back and given more medication to keep the contractions frequent. Different also because when I close my eyes now and think of my labour, it is the most memorable part as with every push I got closer to meeting Alice. Ahead of time I couldn’t have expected it to be as direct, visceral, powerful as it was. My eyes continued to be closed except for a rare time that I looked at Aaron or Janice. I listened to Aaron count though, and if ever he stopped even for a brief moment, I’d tell him to keep counting. His counting was my rhythm, and everything else fell away. It was as if the earth was parting right there around the bed; I was in the same room, but I had dropped off the earth and entered another dimension. Right before Alice was born, I felt her head still inside me with my fingers. It is an indescribable feeling, to reach down and feel your baby right there, the baby you have been waiting 9 long months to meet.
Despite the epidural, I did experience the “ring of fire”. When the baby is almost there, for many women, it feels like having a candle put by your labia. It is an intense pain, and for some the epidural will take it away, but not for everyone. It made me scream, it took away my focus for a moment, but by then I just kept seeing my baby in my mind, moving down and out, and finally my mind’s eye and the real world collided: I opened my eyes as the worlds strangest sensation took over my body. The burning pain was gone. It was like a twist, an opening, a release, an emptiness but also a fullness. It was everything at once. It took my breath away and dropped me back into my body at once. I don’t remember the exact words, whether it was the traditional “It’s a girl!” or something different, but after many many months of waiting, I learned we had a daughter. And then there was so much love. The room made of love, me made of love, Aaron, the bed, the baby. If love is a feeling, a sensation that takes over, I had never felt it like that before. I looked at her as she flew over in somebody’s hands onto my chest, all wrinkly and pink and warm and fresh, so fresh and new. I looked into her eyes, I felt her red chick-fur hair, which was a complete surprise, I held her both gently and tight. It was a second, no more, but it was the happiest moment of my life, and I just lived in it. I turned to Aaron and kept repeating, “She is a girl!!! We have a daughter! We have a girl!!!” Then I paused for a moment, running the name we had planned in my head, trying it on for (her) size. “Alice! Alice, right?” I looked at Aaron. “I think so,” he said, also the happiest and proudest I have ever seen him.
So real, so tender, so beautiful. Our daughter lay on my chest, the whole world lay on my chest. Her belly pressed into mine, her sleepy blue-grey eyes exploring my face before going back to their cozy darkness. I understood. We had both been through a lot. After an 18.5 hour labour, little Ali had entered the world on November 11, 2017 (11.11!) at 6.23 pm – she must have heard nurse Marylene’s 7 o’clock deadline. After all the measurements and health checks and the placenta making its entrance, we were back to cuddling. I knew then that I would do everything to never let anything come between us – belly to belly, smile to smile, Alice, Aaron, and I. Ali made a face and I found my own mimicking hers, a bond for life already in place.