Reposted with permission from Cotton Bottom Mama, pictures and all – thank you!

Before I tell my birth story, I have to say that about halfway through my pregnancy, I became committed to a natural childbirth. It’s something that I researched a lot and felt passionately about by the time I finally made the decision. When I told people that I was planning a natural birth, I got a lot of negative reactions. I can’t really blame them because I would have reacted the same way before I started researching. I think a lot of people don’t really understand natural birth because it’s so rare in our culture. This quote from Ina May Gaskin sums up my faith in nature and God regarding childbirth:

Your body is not a lemon. You are not a machine. The Creator is not a careless mechanic. Human female bodies have the same potential to give birth well as aardvarks, lions, rhinoceri, elephants, moose, and water buffalo. Even if it has not been your habit throughout your life so far, I recommend that you learn to think positively about your body.

Reflecting on it from the other side, I am insanely happy with this decision. Josh and I put in a lot of work beforehand, but every second of preparation paid off, and I don’t even have the words to describe how empowered I feel after having experienced such an amazing birth.

During my 39-week prenatal appointment, my midwife Karen King did an exam and determined that I was 3-4 centimeters dilated. (10 is fully dilated) We were very excited to hear this news, but we didn’t really share it with anyone at the time because we didn’t want any added pressure. On Monday morning, January 3rd around 2:30 or 3am, I woke up with a very strong contraction. It was very different from any Braxton-Hicks contractions, which I’d been having for a few weeks and had felt to me just like menstrual cramps. This was markedly different, so I suspected that I was in labor. I stayed in bed for about 4-5 contractions, doing some of the relaxation exercises that I had learned and practiced. The contractions were stronger than I had anticipated at the beginning. I had expected them to start out lighter and increase in intensity, but mine ended up being pretty consistent in intensity throughout most of my labor. At about 4am, Josh started stirring, and I whispered “Are you awake?”. He said that he was, and I told him that I was in labor. We got up and made some breakfast. We were both excited but focused, and he started timing the contractions on my phone. (Yes, they make an app for that!) At around 5:00, we called our doula, and then we called our midwife around 6:00.

I get asked this question a lot, so I’ll just go ahead and explain the difference between a doula and a midwife. A midwife is a medical professional who specializes in childbirth. You could have a midwife instead of an OB at your birth. Some midwives will come to your house to do a home birth. Our midwife works at the hospital and only delivers there. Midwives view birth as a natural human process, whereas the medical model often looks at pregnancy as a series of problems waiting to happen. A doula is someone that you can hire personally as a labor support person for the mom. She can help with pain management, emotional support, and helping to honor your birth plan, as well as any number of other things.

Our doula, Michele Peterson, and our birth story photographer Emily Goodstein came over early-to-mid morning. My contractions did not follow any pattern that I had learned about. I had expected them to increase in duration and get closer together in a predictable pattern, but mine seemed to be pretty random. They were anywhere from 2 minutes to 10 minutes apart and lasted 20-90 seconds. It did seem that when there was a longer break, the next contraction would last longer, and when they were close together, they tended to be shorter. This is pretty much the opposite of what’s normal and made it hard to determine how far along I was and when to go to the hospital. Karen anticipated that I would progress quickly based on the exam from the previous week, so she called frequently encouraging me to come in. Part of our plan had been to labor at home as long as possible so that we could relax and use the techniques we’d learned without all of the potential restrictions of the hospital. I happened to have a prenatal appointment scheduled for 11:30am on Monday anyway (is this baby going to be type A, or what?!) , so we agreed that I would just come in to her office, which is at the hospital, at that time unless my water were to break sooner. Then, if I was not very dilated, I’d be able to go home, but if I was getting close, she could admit me.

While laboring at home, I was surprised by the labor positions that seemed to work better for me. I had anticipated that positions involving lying down would work best for me, but that was not the case at all. I was most uncomfortable in any kind of horizontal position. I did best leaning over the birth ball or standing up in “slow dancing” position. The main strategies I used were relaxation, visualization (of what was happening in my body), and affirmations. Affirmations were not something I had learned about in my classes or reading- my grandmother called me just a day or two before I gave birth and told me that when she was in labor, it helped her to repeat “my Lord, my God” over and over during contractions. She assured me that you could substitute other words. For example, “Jesus, my savior”. Thanks, nan. I went with the classic “my Lord, my God”, and I’ve gotta say, it worked for me.

As we walked into Karen’s office, I posed for a picture in front of the VA Hospital Center sign giving a thumbs up. Michele told me later that when she saw me pose for that picture, she thought for sure I was still in early labor. We arrived at Karen’s office at 11:30, and I was 8 cm dilated (!!), which meant that I needed to be admitted to the hospital right away. We were all surprised that I was so far along. Karen encouraged me to consider letting her break my water, as she thought that was all I needed to progress the rest of the way. I was not willing to go there are this point, as I thought I was making good progress and didn’t see any reason to intervene. She said that she’d check back in at 3pm and that I should reconsider at that point.

Once I was admitted, it was more of the same in the delivery room. We worked very hard during contractions to stay focused and use what we had learned, but in between contractions I was not in any pain and was able to relax. The hospital required 20 minutes per hour of external fetal monitoring, which was tough for me. I had to stay very still during the monitoring, which made it more difficult to manage the pain.

Hospital policy does not allow patients to eat while in labor, which is standard practice but ridiculous when you think about what your body needs to do to deliver a baby. It’s like having someone fast before running a marathon. Anyway, we brought lots of snacks, and I snuck them when the nurse left the room. I don’t think I could have made it through pushing if I hadn’t done that. At one point, I had the last bite of a pb&j in my mouth and the nurse walked in. I was hooked up to the monitor, which displayed my heartbeat. I stopped chewing, trying to hide the fact that I was eating, and we were all trying really hard not to laugh. My heart rate shot way up, and the nurse was like, “hmm, I wonder why your heart rate is so high”. Totally busted.

Around 3:30, Karen came back. I was 9cm, and we decided to let her break my water. She said at that point there was really no risk or downside to breaking my water, and it would probably bring on pushing quickly. She didn’t know how long it would take to progress the last cm, and she didn’t want me to be too exhausted by the time I was ready to push. She broke my water, which did not hurt at all (everyone says it does). Contractions started to pick up speed and intensity, and I got ready to start pushing. At one point during this time, I realized that I was so close to meeting my baby and I became overwhelmed and started crying. Everyone thought I was losing it and got ready to talk me down until they realized that they were happy tears. I ended up pushing for about 40 minutes. The beginning of pushing was the hardest time for me. I think because it’s hard to really prepare for this part. Reading and hearing about it is nothing like actually experiencing it. Everything became a blur, and it was hard to remember what to do. I had the most amazing nurse, Krista. She coached me through the pushing- I just focused on her voice and tried to do exactly what she told me to do. Once I started really concentrating on her voice, the pushing went pretty quickly.

Our baby came out in a compound presentation, meaning that her little hand came out at the same time as her head. “Hello, world!” I reached down and caught her myself, and Josh and I both looked and said “it’s a girl!” We both had a strong feeling that she was a girl, but I think most people thought I was having a boy based on the way I was carrying. The placenta came out quickly, and I just had a small (1st degree) tear. Krista said that with a compound presentation, there is typically much more severe tearing. I think all those kegels must have paid off!

Penelope Jane was born at 4:39pm. She weighed 6 lbs, 14 oz and was 19.5″ long.

If you would like to read more from Elle, check out her blog – Cotton Bottom Mama!