By Jess G., Mother ~
This is the birth story of my daughter, Philippa… I had a really great pregnancy. Minus weeks 5-10 when I was extremely nauseous and exhausted and eating snacks constantly at work to try to keep from throwing up, I actually really enjoyed being pregnant. I loved talking to my little girl and bringing her everywhere with me. I wasn’t scared about the birth process at all. Mostly I was excited to have what I envisioned to be the powerful experience of bringing my baby into the world and just couldn’t wait to meet her. Leading up to my due date, I enjoyed visiting the midwives at Del Mar, I drank lots of date shakes, ate super well, went for long walks, and was generally really motivated to do everything I could to keep myself and baby happy and healthy and in shape for a natural birth.
About a week and a half before my due date, one of my best friends, Sara, who is about to become a certified nurse midwife, arrived at our house to stay for a month. She was going to be my doula and basically everything-support during this whole exciting time. The same day she arrived I also had friends over to our house to eat Indian food and draw henna patterns on my belly in anticipation of the birth. These friends also wrote and brought me birth affirmations to save for when I needed to hear them during my labor. After that day, I really felt “ready” for whatever happened next!
For about four days leading up to Philippa’s birth, I was noticing my contractions more than usual. I had been having plenty of Braxton Hicks contractions throughout my pregnancy, and while I knew that while BHs were generally mild and “real” contractions much more intense, I wasn’t quite sure when I would start to know “the difference”. My friend/doula Sara assured me that I would know. Several people I talked to compared real contractions to really bad period cramps, which I have more than a little experience with, and I’ve always thought of myself as having a high pain tolerance. I wondered- when my contractions began in earnest, should I expect them to be like MY period cramps at worst possible level, or more mild cramps that others experienced as painful? Or was this just a poor analogy in the first place? It would be impossible to know until it happened! Either way, I took comfort in knowing that the ramping up in number of contractions meant that my body was in some way beginning work towards birth and was a positive sign! My job now was to soak up as much oxytocin as possible until baby decided to come; the plan for her due date (Friday, June 15th) was facials in the morning and The Incredibles 2 at night, with plenty of games and pool floats before and after. I had been reminded many times that most first time moms give birth after their due date, and I didn’t want to think too much about when exactly little Pip would arrive, although I hoped that it would be soon (after 42 weeks, the birth center would no longer have been an option…plus, I believed it would be in my favor for baby to continue to gain weight outside of me rather than inside…I’m a pretty small person!)
On Wednesday the 13th, my husband Levi and I had our 40-week appointment at Del Mar at 12:30. After talking with midwives Hayley and Taylor and meeting nurse Anna, we left saying, “See you next week…or hopefully sooner!” and went out for a nice lunch and tea date (oxytocin!). I was craving a burger, which is pretty unusual for me, and ordered a delicious grass-fed burger at True Food Kitchen–it really hit the spot. Now I’m pretty sure my body wanted to give me a mega-dose of iron before the big event! We bought Father’s Day cards at the tea shop and wondered if Levi would have his baby before Sunday. After we got home, I went straight over to my in-laws house to hang out at the pool with a few friends. Nothing like the anti-gravity effect of swimming when 40 weeks pregnant!
Plans for the evening evolved and we ended up picking up pupusas and bringing them over to our friends Jason and Ruth’s house for dinner (Ruth was 38 weeks pregnant at the time, her little girl was born just 9 days after our daughter!) As we were playing a game, I noticed that the contractions I had been having on and off seemed to be getting slightly more regular and a little more “period cramp”-y. I was sitting on Ruth’s birth ball while playing and there was one contraction in particular that I remember breathing a little more intently through and bouncing on the ball just a little bit. Ruth got excited about this (being a fourth time mom I think she was much more clued into the signs than I was). I was still thinking that there was no way this was the night.
By the time we got home though, I was beginning to reconsider. It was already late-ish (10:30?) and I thought I could go to bed and sleep through what were now mild but undeniably regular contractions. Sleep didn’t come right away and I soon got up to make sure that I had a small glass of wine and two Benadryl on my bedside table…this was the midwives’ suggestion for if it seemed like early labor was starting but it was bedtime and rest was needed. I laid back down again, and shortly thereafter wanted to take the Benadryl and wine. At this point Levi also called Del Mar for the first time–we were connected with an answering service and then with Hayley, who was on call for the night. It was funny since we had had our appointment with her earlier that day! She told us to keep an eye on the contractions, making sure they were getting longer, stronger, and closer together. Levi also texted Elisabeth Millay, our birth photographer, letting her know that I was having contractions and that the birth could be in the morning (at this point we still had no clue how quickly everything would move). Elisabeth responded saying that she would keep her phone next to her and to call her any time. (By the way, all the pictures that follow were taken by Elisabeth. I can’t even describe how thankful we are to have these precious moments recorded. If anyone reading this is deciding whether or not to have a birth photographer…please do it!!)
From here, my memories are a little blurrier. The time frames are rough estimates.
12:00-1:00 am. I laid in bed dozily, I was able to rest and be peaceful during that time thanks to the wine combo, so I’m glad I took it. The contractions had begun to need focus and I would breathe through them like I’d practiced in our classes with Julie from Two Doulas. Levi could hear me start to breathe at the beginning of each one and would hit “lap” on his phone stopwatch. I remember thinking it was funny because he seemed sound asleep to me other than timing and I didn’t know how he was managing to do that. I could see from the screen that the contractions were really just about 5 minutes apart, if that. At some point towards the end of this I wanted to plug in an electric heating pad and put it against my back.
1:00-2:00 am. I got out of bed, the contractions were getting more painful and were by now more like four minutes apart. By now I realized that this was labor and that we would likely need to head to the birth center in the near future. I was moving around, thinking about what else I’d practiced besides breathing…leaning on a birth ball, having Levi “belly sift” my belly with a long scarf…I wanted to do each of those once…instinctively when I got out of bed I pulled out my yoga mat and started moving around gently on the mat (Philippa being no stranger to yoga! I am so happy about all of the great yoga classes I attended with her in the belly…Thanks to Carol Corpuz at Yogaraj!.) Hayley had suggested at some point when things got really intense that I get in the shower, which I did around the same time we called her for the third time and got Sara out of bed. Levi was holding me through a contraction before I got in the shower and I said “I’m going to throw up,” then got in the shower and got on my hands and knees and did just that. Easy clean up at least. The hot water felt good on my back but at this point nothing felt “good”. The pain was getting more real. I got out of the shower and sat on the toilet at Sara’s suggestion. She sat in front of me and put my feet up on her legs and helped me adjust my breathing (which was now much louder, like a moaning) so that I was making lower-pitched sounds. Hayley said we could come in if I felt like it was the right time, after listening to me through a contraction. I had always pictured being in “early labor” at home for hours and hours but something told me Philippa didn’t have that kind of time, and I asked to start getting ready to leave. I didn’t want to be alone with the contractions ever, so Sara and Levi took turns getting the car loaded, finding my blue nightdress, and getting dressed themselves, until we were all ready to leave the house.
3:00-3:45 am. We drove to Del Mar. Levi put Sara Groves on right away (my favorite artist, her music has a calming effect on me like no other). Sara sat in the back seat with me while Levi drove. We tell Pip now that she picked a good time to avoid traffic!! The car ride is kind of a blur to me but I don’t think it was as bad as I expected it to be. Somehow the darkness outside calmed me down. The contractions were very painful but I still had several minutes in between each one to catch my breath and relax.
3:45 am. We arrived to South Pasadena, Hayley was already there. I had my vitals taken and peed, stopping to hold onto whoever was closest for contractions every few minutes. I don’t know exactly what I pictured a cervix check would be like but I had definitely never thought about how uncomfortable it would be! The report was that I was 4 cm dilated, 80% effaced, and baby’s head was in the -1 position. Technically the birth center doesn’t admit before 5 or 6 cm dilated, but Hayley assured me that I was making progress quickly and that I could go straight to the room we had chosen ahead of time to see what took place in the next hour or so. At no point was I worried about being sent home or felt that was an option for me. I couldn’t see this being a false start, I was well into a rhythm by now and I knew Philippa was well on her way. Elisabeth the photographer arrived by 4:00 am.
4:00-5:00 am. I went straight to the big jacuzzi-like tub. The playlist that Levi and I had made the afternoon before while waiting for our lunch order went on (mostly Sara Groves, some Audrey Assad, Rivers and Robots, and other comforting, familiar spiritual songs). The birth playlist had been sort of my last real “to-do” that needed to happen before baby came, so the timing on this was perfect! Lavender oil went into the diffuser. I asked for these things to happen, but part of what was so lovely about the whole experience is that I felt everyone around me already knew exactly what I wanted…even things I didn’t know that I would want…like the cold rag on my head and shoulders as laboring in the tub made me hotter and sweatier but I still couldn’t picture getting out….and the orange Recharge drink in a glass with a straw and ice cubes that tasted so much better than water could have in the moment…I would motion for it throughout labor by bringing my hand to my mouth. I became aware very quickly that I needed every ounce of my energy to bring Philippa into the world and I didn’t want to waste a bit of it. I switched positions in the tub several times…most of the time my back was to the edge of the tub and I held onto Levi’s or Sara’s arms above me as each contraction came. Some of the time I was on my hands and knees or in more of a squatting position. Levi read a few of my birth affirmations to me. Some made me laugh if I wasn’t in the middle of a contraction. At some point it was too hard to even focus on or listen to these. I had prepared phrases for myself to motivate myself if I needed them, like “Your body is not a lemon!” from Ina May’s Guide to Childbirth…but everything was so intense that I really wasn’t thinking about much besides taking each moment as it came, the sounds I was making and keeping them low (I didn’t know I was capable of making sounds like this. Sara referred to it as the birth song). Hayley was in and out of the room for this first hour and would say comforting and quiet encouragements to me and check baby’s heartbeat with the Doppler intermittently.
5:00?-6:30 am: At one stage the contractions came over and over right on top of each other. I remember saying, “I’m really going to need a break soon,” which seems now like a funny thing to say. It was so intense and I didn’t know how I was going to be able to keep going. And then I felt a strong urge to push which scared me a lot and I said “I’m pushing!! Is that okay?” Last I had heard was that I was 4 cm dilated and while I was sure that wasn’t the case anymore it seemed too soon to me to be ready to push. Hayley checked me again while I was still in the tub and told me that I was over 9 cm and that there was still a small lip of the cervix present but that I could push past it, so yes, if I felt like pushing, I definitely could from now on, and to listen to my body. During the pushing phase I felt very relieved that the contractions once again had breaks in between but shocked by the power of the pushing urge I had with each one. I was asked not to let so much of my energy out in sound while pushing but to channel that energy towards the actual pushing and keep the sound in…very hard to do but good advice that I understood how to follow. Throughout the whole labor and especially this part, I had a very strong sense that Philippa was working with me to come into the world and that each contraction was effective and had its purpose–so while I was getting exhausted, I also was reassured by how quickly things seemed to be going and how well she was “cooperating”. It was getting light outside and there were gardeners working right outside the window, we could hear weed whackers. It didn’t bother me in particular but just a funny detail.
I don’t really have words to describe how intense the pushing feeling became. It was like nothing I have ever felt before. Definitely very similar to a pooping sensation, like everyone always says, just 1000 times stronger–I felt like I had no control over my body and it was delivering Philippa on its own. When she was getting close to emerging, Hayley asked me if I wanted to feel her head inside of me and I was able to put a finger inside my vagina and feel something there. When she started crowning the burning sensations were very strong, I could feel her head stretching everything at the surface and then retreating backwards several inches. This felt like it happened at least 5 or 6 times before her head was actually born, but it could have been more than that. After the head was born, I felt a sense of relief knowing that the hardest part was likely over. By this point there was a nurse in the room, and a little while ago Hayley had asked Sara if she wanted to do the catch, so I knew the end was in sight.
They had me take off my bra so it wouldn’t be cold on my chest when I held the baby. Hayley asked me if I wanted to feel her head once it was out and I said, “No, I’m sorry!” I was just so focused in that moment and felt like I couldn’t shift forward or even reach my hand down because I needed to stay right where I was and push the rest of her out. We waited until the next contraction and I don’t remember her body being very hard to push out, I was so determined that she would come out with that contraction. When Philippa’s head was born, Levi could see it and he started to cry a lot and I found out afterwards that he had to step away briefly, which I didn’t really notice at the time (he came right back!) Even though I knew exactly when I was pushing her body out, I was still shocked when suddenly Pippa was being lifted out of the water and placed on my chest (and towels immediately covering her to keep her warm. She cried right away. I felt like I had never held a baby before and couldn’t believe my eyes. I was so relieved that the pushing was over and so amazed that she was finally here, this little person I had been talking to and feeling move around inside me and carrying for what felt like forever. She seemed big to me and it felt unbelievable to actually know what she looked like after so much speculation and recurring dreams (I’d always pictured her with dark hair and she was so, so fair). I could tell right away how healthy and perfect she was and it was overwhelming to me. I was helped out of the tub by several people after I had held her for just a couple minutes, the cord still coming up from between my legs, and I laid on the bed holding her when I delivered the placenta soon afterwards. It was placed in a bucket next to me on the bed so that the cord could stay connected to her for some time (after about 30 minutes or more, Levi cut the cord). I found the placenta fascinating and asked Elisabeth to take a photo of it. What an incredible design. That sums up my feelings about the whole birth process. I believe in a loving Creator God and everything I learned about the body and what it is capable of throughout pregnancy and birth just affirmed that 100 times over for me.
The moments after Philippa’s birth were so sweet. I felt like I had lots of time to just stare at her, hold her on my chest and be amazed by how amazing she was. I had the thought that I had never experienced joy in my life ever before in comparison to this. Over the next 6 hours before we went home, she and I were cared for by a wonderful nurse (Laura) and midwives Taylor and Margo (Hayley went home shortly after Pip was born). Philippa breastfed soon after she was born like she knew instinctively what to do (she did, of course!) which was incredible to see. I needed some stitches for first degree tearing and Sara read me the rest of the birth affirmations (and the ones I had already heard, too) while Margo took care of the stitches, it was great to have the distraction. (This was hours after the birth, Levi was holding little Pip and doing skin to skin with her at this point.) Pip’s vitals were consistently great although her temperature was a little low, so we were keeping a hat on her and doing lots of skin to skin. She gave us a tiny scare coughing up and sounding like she was choking on amniotic fluid and I got to experience what I’m sure I will again many times over, of my heart just hurting to see her struggle..but all was well. Levi heated up enchiladas that he had made the Sunday before (his last pre-baby to-do!) and they tasted great. By noon, we were ready to head home and start figuring out what life with this new little being would be like. Our hearts were just bursting with love and thankfulness!
Thank you to all the staff at Del Mar for guiding us and giving us such valuable resources, information, and support while Philippa was growing and in the weeks following the birth. I honestly can’t imagine a better experience. Thank you, thank you. <3
Thanks again to Elisabeth for the invaluable photos. <3 https://www.elisabethmillay.com