Tuesday, January 14, 2014

fly, little bird. // phoebe ruth

I intended to write this story within a week or so of her birth - and here it is, 5 months since. Better late than never, I guess. (Pictures throughout are courtesy our birth doula, Kim Wheaton.)

I had thought, since pretty shortly after finding out my estimated due date, that I was actually due on August 18th, and that date was stuck in my head for a long time. When Friday, August 16th rolled around (a weekend when I knew my OB was on call), I was starting to feel a little panicked - Jason was due to start teaching classes in just over a week, my mom (who was visiting to help out with Lorelei once the baby came) had to be home for surgery on August 28th, and it seemed like no baby was in sight. My doula had gotten in touch that morning to let me know she'd be out of town that night but within a 90 minute drive, so to call her if anything happened. I figured I was in the clear.

The morning was a busy one: bought some evening primrose oil to get things moving, visited some former work colleagues, took Lorelei to the park. I put my labor bag in the trunk of my car, "just in case." I decided to take a nap after lunch when L went down, and when I woke up, I noticed my Braxton-Hicks contractions didn't feel like Braxton-Hicks anymore. I started using my handy-dandy contraction timing app but figured it was probably nothing.

Lorelei, my mom, and I spent the afternoon playing - I didn't mention anything about the contractions, but I did text Kim to let her know that things were feeling "different." Even after Jason got home, I kept the news to myself, because the contractions didn't seem to be progressing too much and I didn't want to worry anyone or concern Lorelei. I had been wearing a necklace with Lorelei's name and birthdate on it all week - not even taking it off to shower - and I was feeling especially forlorn about what were possibly my last moments with her as my only child.

Once my sweet girl was in bed, I told Jason I was worried about bothering Kim during her fun evening out but that I thought that I was pretty clearly in labor. I was starting to have much more intense contractions at that point, but I think Jason was fooled by my demeanor, because he didn't seem concerned about the timeframe at all. Around 8:30, I told him to call Kim and tell her things were happening sooner rather than later. When he tried to get me to talk to her myself and I told him I couldn't, Kim said, "I'm on my way."

We headed out the door to the hospital at 9:30pm - I was in a panic that I was ruining Kim's date night, but there was very clearly nothing I could do - and we forgot a million things at home because we had put off making the decision to go to the hospital until I knew that if we didn't go rightthatminute things might get dicey. My experience checking in, heading up to labor and delivery, filling out all the paperwork, and finally being in "my" room was so different than it had been with Lorelei's birth; the first time, my water broke and contractions didn't start for hours afterwards, but this time, I had to grit my teeth to get through all of the questions and the dozens of pages to sign. Near the end of the never-ending signatures, Kim arrived, and she coached me through what she thought was a contraction but was actually the extreme pain of an inexperienced nurse putting in my IV. By 11pm, I was finally done and the real work started.

I should probably say here that, although I gave birth to both of my daughters without any pain medications or interventions of any kind, I might not initially be the kind of person you'd think would attempt an unmedicated birth. As I prepared for my second delivery, I confided in my doula that I am not someone who finds birth empowering. I hate pain. I hate not being in control of any aspect of my life. So the thought of surrendering to the most intense experience imaginable was crippling to me. I kept dwelling on everything about my first birth experience that had been scary and upsetting and negative, and it became impossible for me to think about giving birth again without feeling overwhelmed by anxiety and fear. I spent the summer gathering quotes and readings to bring me strength (thanks, friends who contributed), painting pictures of what I wanted this birth to be like (metaphoric ones, of course), and trying to find books about childbirth that were honest about the terrifying reality of what I was going to have to do but were still, somehow, hopeful and optimistic. Nothing much helped.

I had painted a picture of my first birth with an image of a clock all tied up with angry red thread - I had been so pressured by time and was so aware of every second as it ticked by - but I can't provide for you a moment-by-moment account of my second labor. From 11-12:30, it was incredibly hard work. I felt consumed by the pain, by my heightened sense of my own body and physicality, by the emotional strain. My eyes were closed most of the time and I could barely think in a straight line. Mostly what I can remember is thinking that this was so hard, too hard, and that I couldn't get a firm grip on anything - that I was completely out of control and drowning in it all.

And therein lies the difference, I think: my ability, somehow, to surrender more successfully to the drowning this time was what enabled me to, in fact, be more in control of the experience of birth. Going in knowing how mindblowingly difficult this was going to be - to have no false hopes of pain-free labor, to have no illusions about the intensity of what I'd be facing - gave me the strength to get through it instead of trying desperately to resist it. And so everything just tumbled forward, faster and faster, instead of inching by, minute by minute.

I suddenly knew I had to push, but I was still contracting - and that terrified me. In my first labor,  there had been a definite shift from labor contractions to pushing ones. This time, everything was happening all at once, and I didn't think I could do it. My doctor - a huge proponent of unmedicated birth and a very gentle soul - had been given the call to wake up and check on me because I seemed close - and even though I wasn't measuring 10, she told me to go for it. 20 intense, delirious, guttural-scream-filled moments later, our second daughter was born.

Phoebe Ruth entered the world into a quiet, darkened room - made that way by my amazing doctor, who saw no need at 1:04am to turn on all the lights. My water never broke until, at the last moment, my OB did it herself, so I wonder if Phoebe would have been born "in the caul" - I guess I'll never know. When Lorelei was born, I cried from the sheer exhaustion and emotional upheaval of it all. This time, no tears - just relief. Holding her and nursing her for the first time - before any tests or measurements happened (so grateful for an understanding doctor!) - felt familiar, comfortable, normal. Somehow, despite all my trepidation, this birth had been scary and intense and out-of-control and just as crazy hard as the first time - but it had been good, too.

Later, Kim told me that it's always fascinating to her to see which of her clients end up using interventions and which do not - she said that (barring medical emergency, of course) it can sometimes come down to personality. And so I suppose my desperate need for control was a good thing - because it enabled me, twice, to undergo a terrifyingly difficult ordeal simply because I'm unbelievably stubborn. During both labors, I certainly felt that I couldn't go through with it - but I never, not once, actually considered giving up (unless you count deciding to just not have the baby at all and go home instead, which I fantasized about almost from start to finish). Despite my worries about not seeing birth as a spiritual experience or feeling any joy at the prospect of childbirth, bringing my daughters into the world entirely on my own was just something I was going to do - end of story.

And so my birth art came to be, after all - the image of a bird rising from my outstretched palm, flying forth unfettered by me or the ticking of a clock or anything else. She is named for the bird, of course, and also for my beautiful grandmother Phyllis (her middle name is an homage to my other grandmother - maiden name Gloria Estelle Ruth Althoff - and it will also serve as her Hebrew name; Lorelei Jane, whose Hebrew name is Eliora, is named in part to honor Jason's two grandmothers, Jane and Ellen). She is my determined little Leo, and I'm grateful to her for listening to my silent inner monologue that night: "Phoebe, we have to do this together. We're in this together." I'm so, so glad that I'm never going to do this again. And, in a way, I'm also glad I got to do this again.


  1. What a wonderful account. I had never heard of the Phoebe bird, so I just listened to some of its calls online, lovely and positive sounding. Also, of all the tons of birth stories I've read online, I can't recall one where the mother wrote about bringing the baby into the process "Phoebe, we have to do this together. We're in this together." Usually it's what is happening to the mother and the hard work the mother has to do, but your comment made me think how hard it also must be for the baby as well. A marathon, almost a year before they will ever even learn to walk! I've enjoyed the pictures you've shared, here and on instagam.

  2. I love this! I totally relate to your feelings about your last moments with Lorelai as an only child. Micah came two weeks early, and when my water broke unexpectedly, I snuggled up with Noah with tears in my eyes.

  3. I love this story! I am the same way with pain and birth yet so few blogger mamas will talk openly about it. Thank you for sharing such a beautiful moment!

  4. So beautiful - just like you and your sweet family. Sob. :)

  5. This is a lovely story and she will love reading it some day. "I'm so, so glad that I'm never going to do this again. And, in a way, I'm also glad I got to do this again." I struggled with that last part for several months after we committed to adoption. But now I'm happy to say that first part describes me pretty well these days ;)