Right now I'm sitting on the couch, laptop out, mug of tea steaming beside me, listening to the sounds of three sleeping beings: our black lab Numi, with his deep sighs and occasional snores; my husband Matthew, who has a shirt covering his eyes to block out the light, with his arms closed around the newest addition, Penelope. Penelope's breath comes softly, with little whimpers and moans, her sweet little mouth puckered like the cutest duck you've ever seen. These three are my whole heart, put into physical form outside of my body. It is the loveliest and most terrifying thing.
When thinking about putting the past week into words, especially written words, and not just the middle of the night whispers between Matthew and I - "oh my God, can you even believe this, I know, look at her, this is crazy, my heart is exploding" - I can't help but cry. Not sobs, not sad, not overwhelmed, just simply tears of awe when I consider what our family has experienced. When I was pregnant (wow, that feels weird to say...), I hungrily read as many positive, low-medical intervention birth stories I could get my hands on. Throughout my pregnancy I was encouraged in our birth classes to visualize the birth that I wanted to experience. Over and over I would read birth stories, and picture Matthew and I going through the motions and experiencing labor and birth as a positive, empowering marathon of mental and physical strength. And let me just skip to the end right now - that is exactly what we experienced. I feel so incredibly fortunate to have had the experience that I had hoped and prayed for over the course of my pregnancy. It did not go exactly to plan, but wow, was it good.
Side note: each woman, labor, birth, and baby are different and should be given a medal of honor no matter how, when, where the process happens. There is so much judgement over the choices a woman/family makes with regards to this incredible event, and I hope that as I tell my story you know that I tell it authentically, with no judgement of experiences different than mine. Also I'm going to talk about lady parts, very unglamorous aspects of labor, and just in general try to keep it real. If that scares you, go onto Pinterest and search for baby ducks running. You'll feel better.
As we approached 40 weeks, I was ready to have our baby girl. It's incredible how your body becomes this unrecognizable thing at that point - you stand in front of the mirror and swear that there is NO MORE ROOM and if the baby keeps rolling and kicking your belly just might pop. At my 40 week appointment, I was 2 cm dilated and 80% effaced. My midwife assured me that my body was doing it's thing, and that the baby could come anytime. I told her that I was getting really uncomfortable and cranky, and asked if there was anything I could do to coax our girl to come out. Short answer: NO. Long answer: all the classics, eat spicy food, have sex, go for a walk, do squats, etc. could help the process along.
Penelope was born at 41 weeks, 1 day. And let me just say - that last week before birth a new side of myself emerged. Well maybe not totally new, but a side that doesn't present itself too often. I just closed up shop. I didn't want to talk to anyone, didn't want to answer my phone, didn't want to go out. Looking back, perhaps it was my body's way of storing up energy in preparation for labor, but I felt miserable. I couldn't handle everyone asking about when the baby was coming, couldn't handle that my reality was all about waiting to run a huge marathon race...but we weren't sure when the race was going to happen...and when it did come, we weren't sure how long or painful it was going to be. Sorry if that sounds dramatic or self pitying, but that's how it was. Matthew was incredibly supportive and positive during this time, and I can honestly say that it was because of his daily encouragement that I got through that last week with some semblance of sanity.
The day before Penelope was born we were required to have a stress test with the local perinatologist, to ensure that she was not under any additional stress and happy to still be baking in my oven. It was not a great visit. The nurse tried to convince me that I was endangering myself and the baby by not inducing, despite all the signs to the contrary: I was healthy, the baby was perfect. I could say many more things about this visit, and this nurse in particular, but I won't vent here. If you're giving birth in Santa Barbara you will visit their office at some point - call me and I will give you the full story.
We left the appointment feeling unnerved. I felt in my gut that things were fine, and that the best thing to do was to let the baby come when she was ready. I called my doula and she offered great support and advice (Ronda Perea - highly recommend). I emailed our birth class teacher (Tracy Shmidt - highly recommend) and they both said the same thing: my body was doing what it was supposed to, try to relax, enjoy these last few days. I didn't need to force my body to go into labor, that my body and baby would kick into action at the right time.
At 11:30pm that night my water broke. I've been sleeping with a huge pregnancy pillow called the Snoogle (for real, that's what it's called) between my knees, and in it's final act of glorious valor, it took the full brunt of this very messy event. It really does feel like you've peed your pants. Like you've returned to infancy and you're just letting it all go. I stood up and indeed, amniotic fluid was dripping down my legs. Matthew sat up with a start and I said "honey, I think my water broke..."
I texted Ronda and tried to go back to sleep. (UM YEAH RIGHT.) I laid there thinking a million things...I couldn't believe it was finally time. I couldn't believe our amazing luck - our midwife delivers babies in the hospital one day a week, and that day is Tuesday. There we were, on the eve before Tuesday, with very real signs that our baby would be born very soon. Eventually I fell into a weird sleep, occasionally waking to contractions.
The next morning I was surprised to feel...relatively nothing. While I know that the reality of labor is definitely not like movies and sitcoms tell us it is, I expected to feel something more than just some mild cramps. I called our doula and she suggested we take it to the next level: castor oil. Before I continue, I know that castor oil is not for everyone and that some people have had terrible experiences with it. This was not the case with me. I trust my doula completely, and was happy to be armed with a tool to help my body along. I mixed castor oil with orange juice and gulped it down. I did this three times over the course of three hours, between 9:30am - 12:30pm. Matthew filmed me on his phone, both of us laughing at the absurdity of what we were doing.
At 12:30pm, I still felt only mildly crampy, but tired. I think I was tired out from over-congratulating myself for being such a badass with the castor oil. Why do people complain about this so much? It wasn't that bad! I would take more if Ronda would let me! Matthew (rightly) made fun of me for having such bravado.
We both tried to nap, thinking we would be thrown into labor at any moment. At around 4:00pm I woke up with stronger contractions, though nothing regular. Progress! You know you're still in early labor when you're stoked about stronger contractions...but over the course of the next few hours they got even stronger and closer together. Matthew started timing them on his phone, and I started deeply moaning with each wave. I moved from my side, to being hunched over a pile of pillows, to leaning against the wall...nothing made them go away or less painful. Progress!
At 6:00pm we called Ronda, and decided to head into the hospital around 7:00pm. Jess Clayton, our other doula, came to the house to be with us and help us get to the hospital. Both Ronda and Jess have been blessed with the softest, most comforting voices I've ever heard. When Jess arrived she talked me through the contractions, rubbing my back, while Matthew packed up our final things into the car. At this point I knew things were getting real: for one, I was no longer pleased that the contractions were so intense. And two, we were literally driving to the hospital - IT WAS TIME.
Matthew remembers this drive to the hospital as a singular and bizarre event - his wife, on all fours on the backseat, leaning over, moaning loudly; our doula Jess sitting in the front, turned around, trying to apply counter pressure to my hips and massaging my back through each contraction. I remember making a few jokes about if we got pulled over for not wearing our seat belts, and we all still managed to laugh and talk in between contractions. We arrived at the hospital and slowly made our way to check in. I had to stop a few times to lean against a wall, or hang on Matthew's shoulders to get through the pain. Ronda and Jess carried our bags, Matthew checked us in, and I maintained a pretty solid resting bitch face to avoid having to answer any questions. I wasn't mean or rude to anyone (one of my major goals for the whole birthing process: DO NOT BE A BITCH, no matter how much pain you're in) but I knew that I needed to focus all my energy on walking and getting through each contraction.
We finally got to our room, and I changed into a hospital gown and met our labor and delivery nurse Michelle. I wish all of you could meet Michelle. I'm convinced that God sent her to work at Cottage Hospital to make laboring women feel human. She was incredibly supportive, funny, and a great encouragement to both Matthew and I.
Now is when things get fuzzy...I was intentional about not looking at any clocks, but afterwards was told that once we got settled into our room it was about 8:30pm. I moved all around the room - hanging from the end of the bed, sitting on a birth ball, sitting in the birthing tub, hugging Matthew. Our midwife came by to check in and I remember being a little annoyed that she wasn't concerned at how much pain I was in. Come on lady, this is hurting REALLY BAD why aren't you concerned?! Looking back, this marks the beginning of my time in Transition. I remember saying over and over "okay, you guys, seriously...you guys, I mean it...you guys, I'm not sure I can do this" which was met with the calm and reassuring voice of Ronda "Jess, but you ARE doing it!"
This is when things started to move, fast. I was sailing through transition, throwing up, shaking uncontrollably, and telling anyone who would listen that you know, I really wasn't sure that I could do it. I was feeling such incredible pressure in my lower back, like I hadn't pooped in about 3 months. This is the harsh reality of that final stage - they keep telling you that your baby is coming, but really, you just feel like you're going to be the subject of one of those horrifyingly embarrassing bathroom-related accident stories. We had a relaxation playlist going, and I remember Joni Mitchell coming on and Michelle saying how much she loved her. (Have I mentioned how much I love Michelle? And Joni Mitchell? )
Ronda suggested that with each contraction, I gently start pushing, just to see if it felt right. Let me just make one thing clear: pushing a watermelon out of your vagina will never feel right. NEVER. But I got her point, and started pushing. This really was the moment of utmost surrender. I felt backed up against a wall of sheer pressure and pain, and my only true option was to let go, and lean into that pain. And you know, I get why women get epidurals and pain meds and laughing gas and whatever else they are offering these days - I totally get it. I knew that I wanted to try a low-medical intervention birth, and had told everyone not to offer me pain meds and that if I truly wanted them, I would ask for them.
Things were progressing faster than everyone anticipated, and nurses were running around getting everything set up. Our midwife was called to come ASAP, that this baby was coming! I got halfway onto the bed, and pushed through a contraction. Apparently my amniotic sack had resealed, because with that push came the rest of my water breaking. They noticed right away that there was meconium present (the first, tarry baby poop) and told me that contrary to my wish that the baby be placed directly on my chest, they would need to clean her up first.
And now the pushing, oh my, the pushing phase of labor. One of my most vivid memories of this time was screaming from a place I didn't know existed. If you asked me to imitate that scream now, I couldn't do it. And I can't even fully describe it - it was the most primal, raw experience of my life. Matthew was crying, and kept whispering into my left ear - "babe, I can see her head, I can see her head! You can do this, you are amazing, you are so strong..." No one yelled at me to push, no one made me feel pressure about how long it was going to take me, all I heard was encouragement, support, love, and cheering.
I rested in between contractions, with my eyes closed, but still felt her progressing on her own. Apparently, she was kicking her little legs, helping to push herself out. Our midwife was amazed - "just keep helping her along, Jess! She really wants to meet you!"
I pushed for 5 contractions - 14 minutes - and she was out. I tore slightly, so they stitched me up while she was checked and deemed perfect. Matthew ripped off his shirt and had skin-on-skin contact and I heard her first cries.
Penelope Katharine Roy was born at 11:53pm on Tuesday, April 21, 2015.
She was 7 lbs, 15 ounces, 19.5" long. (And she had a 13" head. HOLY LORD.)
I labored for 8 hours, pushed for 14 minutes, and managed to do it without any unnecessary medical interventions. I am not saying this to boast, I am saying this because it is absolutely possible. The birthing team we had was positive, supportive, safe, and absolutely incredible at their jobs. I can't fully express the immense gratitude I feel for my experience. I can't believe that it went as well as it did, and that I actually survived the event. I am so proud of myself, of Matthew, and of Penelope for all of us getting through birth so well.
So now we're home, and adjusting to all that comes with introducing an infant to daily life. I'm basking in the glow of the wildest, most uncontrollable love I've ever felt, and sleeping as much as possible. To all of you who have dropped off food, sent messages, gifts, your love from afar - we thank you. You are all part of our team, and for that we are incredibly thankful.