Getting There: The Prologue
This could start with: Contractions started at 4:27 in the morning. But it really begins with the birth of Rowan Sky, my firstborn, my teacher, crazymaker, joy; and our cesarean birth. The short of which is this: Serkan and I moved to the USA from Chile when I was 7.5 months pregnant. We didn’t have our own space, and stayed with my aunt. Much was up in the air. I remember saying I felt OK with this at the time, but looking back I wonder what the hell were we thinking?
We planned to birth at a birth center, but the presence of meconium at the 19th hour forced us to transfer to the hospital. And an “emergency” cesarean for breech presentation. The backup midwife mistook his head for butt. The main midwife went to Arizona to deliver her grandbaby. I never got a good feel off of either of the midwives, but I trusted my body. I know now that Rowan never turned; his breech position concerned us late in my pregnancy until he magically flipped, and I stopped doing my baby positioning exercises.
I’ll stop there. Who’s birth story is this anyway? Well it’s Linden’s birth story from my perspective since he can’t type yet. But it’s also my story, my HBAC (home birth after cesarean) story. And that’s why it starts with Rowan’s birth and my navigation through recovery.
With Rowan, I read Ina May’s Guide to Childbirth. That was that. I read a couple of other homeopathic pregnancy books, but this was the Bible. I felt strong in my body; my body knew what to do. But after someone cuts open your body to deliver your baby, that trust sinks. This is a truth I didn’t start to palm until about a week before Linden was born, a time plunged in an undercurrent of doubt.
After Rowan, we experienced two miscarriages. One unplanned baby and one hard-won baby. The first miscarriage happened at 11 weeks; baby was due on 6/1/2013. As soon as I found out I was pregnant I started looking into birth options. I decided on two homebirth midwives in our little apartment, a frightening decision at the time and a giant relief.
Rowan was 20 months old when I started to miscarry. We were by ourselves at home. It was October 2012 and I was cutting butternut squash to make soup. That morning I’d gone to yoga and Rowan and I just got back from a long stroll. A couple weeks prior, we’d found out the baby stopped growing. [I was offered Misoprostol [Cytotec] to speed up the process. I went for this option; I didn’t feel emotionally ready to just wait it out, since the baby appeared to have stopped growing a few weeks prior. I would not make that decision now.]
I just thought I had a stomachache and continued to knife the squash. Soon I was curled up on the couch, moaning through contractions. Rowan didn’t know I was pregnant, but he was a super birth partner. He held my hand and breathed with me. He looked into my eyes. When I asked, he brought me water from his sippy cup, the only water he could reach. When Serkan got home, I moved to the bed. The whole thing took about 4 hours. I ate pasta that Serkan prepared while leaning on my side in bed. Then I went to the bathroom and felt something mouse-size leave my body. I peeked before I flushed, but I chose not to see.
A few months after that, we started trying to have a baby with no luck. Then I got pregnant again and miscarried at 6.5 weeks in August 2013. That baby was due on 4/14/14. Rowan still talks about me falling on the trail at Caples Lake while holding him, getting picked up by my friend Annie to sit in some plants off the trail, then fainting. He also asks why I was crying at our old house. I think it was the first time he’d seen me cry hard. I was crying, Serkan was hugging me—I didn’t need words to tell Serkan what happened—and Rowan was on the sidelines asking: Mama, Why you crying? He again didn’t know I was pregnant. Bleeding from this miscarriage stopped very quickly. We tried again immediately, and conceived Linden, who was due June 3, 2014.
[After talking with many midwives and doing more research, I do think the cesarean made it more difficult for me to make and keep babies, especially given the invisible scars that come with difficult births. As for the Misoprostol and our difficulties to conceive after taking it, I have no proof the two are linked, but I am suspicious.]
During the first mc pregnancy, I had ordered lots of used pregnancy and homebirth books. Most of these books arrived after the first miscarriage. During the second pregnancy, I was already finishing book #1 when I miscarried.
With this baby, I still hadn’t fully embraced that this was a viable pregnancy even after I’d reached the second trimester. We had told Rowan immediately this time around, even though it was hard for me to believe in the pregnancy. I thought telling him would help make it true.
But I was busy at work and didn’t look into birth options. I knew I was planning a VBAC, but figured the Kaiser midwife would be fine. I started looking up home birth midwives in the area several times, and hesitated. And hesitated and hesitated some more. Around 20 weeks, I started interviewing and decided on home birth, again a giant relief. Once I chose a home birth midwife, I started reading books and grounding myself in the pregnancy. This is really happening. I was psyched and yeah a little scared.
I ordered “Hello Baby,” a book on homebirth for young siblings, and read it over and over with Rowan. At one point in the book, the midwife and auntie babysitting the youngest sibling leave. Here, Rowan would cry and ask why they were leaving. A heartbroken-sad cry. “But you’re not going to leave, are you?” I’d say, “No, honey. I’m not going anywhere,” and wonder why that part was so confused and sad to him.
One insomnia dark morning while I stargazed from our bed, it dawned on me: When he was born, I left him. No skin on skin and then hours before I could hold him. He remembered—at least bodily—his cold lonely introduction to this wide world.
I bought tons of vitamins and several pounds of herbs to prepare my own pregnancy tea. I did prenatal yoga several times per week. And I worked hard. I knew I needed to back off, but I waited till maternity leave—a month before my due date—to start centering myself. All was fine, and then it hit me. …After we bought the birth kit and started rounds of evening primrose oil, perineal massage, and Birth-Prep.
…After one of my closest friends lost her baby, Simone Esperanza, at 41 weeks. Our babies were supposed to grow up together! That could happen to me too. Birth and death, those close relatives, aren’t supposed to overlap like that. Elena birthed her nearly 10 pound baby, knowing she was dead. She had been planning a homebirth too. It’s the kind of thing I’d read about in forums when looking up facts about miscarriage. The kind of thing that would jog tearful rivers and I’d think nothing could be more difficult.
At some point I had started a Blessingway letter for myself. My mom appeared in the letter prominently. A surprise to me, until another friend reminded me that birth and death really are so close, and that they do touch. And that I am becoming a mother again. It’s natural to remember and long my own mother. But I thought I had finished the mom work I had to do. It’s how I got to Chile, how I eventually met my husband. And why didn’t these mom issues come up with Rowan? Simply, because I hadn’t yet crossed over into momhood. And postpartum with Rowan, there was nothing I wanted more than nutritious food and to be a mothered daughter.
Part of sending this mother blessing letter out into the world—requesting love and a bead or talisman—was to send love. Of course I sent the letters late, but I did receive some thoughtful loving things in the mail, virtually and physically. One in particular was a necklace from my surrogate mama Donna. It had a heart with the word ‘daughter’ on it. This was left to her by her mama who passed away the year before.
There’s something about a mom’s love. And generally speaking, I think no one can love you like she does. So it is a big deal for that love to cease to exist at a young age. I was 14 when I became a motherless daughter, and my mom had been very sick for a couple of years before that. I’d lost the role of daughter long ago and with it some semblance of being deserving of love and nurturance. The necklace reminded me that I too am a daughter and deserving of everything that a new parent would want for their little girl.
And yet. I was freaking out, even while researching VBAC successes. The stuff that is supposed to be encouraging only made me more scared. Higher risk of uterine rupture. OK everyone fearmongers you about that one, even though that risk is extremely small, and there are serious risks with cesareans too, especially multiple cesareans. I started worrying about my death more than that of my baby. What would Rowan and Serkan do? How could I do that to them? You are more likely to have a uterine rupture with certain placements of the placenta. I couldn’t find my placenta report! Where is my placenta? I wrote to the Kaiser midwife and she sent me the report. All was well. But what about my surgical report? I never got that info and now it was too late. How did they stitch me back together? Young doctors are notorious for single-layer suturing to save time, even though it is proven that this increases risk of uterine rupture with future pregnancies.
My midwife suggested I try to attend at least one ICAN (International Cesarean Awareness Network) meeting before I give birth. Get some of that good vibe juju from women going through the same thing. It helped! Talking about my surgical report qualms out loud to people who viscerally understand made all the difference. If I were to find out I have a single-layer suture, will that make me want to go the hospital for birth? Absolutely not. During those first 20 weeks I’d feel physically ill just going to my prenatal appointments at a non-hospital.
I was also writing some long emails to Elena during this time. One of them mentioned all the issues I found myself needing to work through, including my mom and the fact I was VBAC. I acknowledge that it may have been inappropriate to write to the woman who is grieving the loss of her baby about difficulties I’m having preparing myself mentally to give birth. It somehow seemed OK at the time and I thank her deeply for sharing her strength with me.
The night before I went into labor, I read a note from Elena. I was up late baking mini banana chocolate chip muffins for the freezer. It said something like this: Funny you mention your mom. I was just talking to Lane about that last night. I knew when you left the slumber party so early in the morning that your mom had died. And I still regret never mentioning anything about it.
Elena and I have talked about this before. But at that moment, it floored me. I wanted to write back right away. But I also wanted to give Elena some breathing room. I wrote in my journal instead.
Before I went to bed to write, I picked up my Masters’ thesis book of poems titled “Sing to Me.” About a girl struggling 14 years after the death of her mother to make sense of it, her start to grieve. I hunted for the poem I wrote about the party, the sad daughter who "didn't go to the door [who] dressed quickly and gathered [her] things and walked through the living room of sleeping bags and girls [her] shoulders as straight as [they'd] ever be into this shamed sort of womanhood."
On the way I spied many heartbreaking poems, which would be written so differently if I were to try them now. I kept thinking about the young woman writing these poems: She is so sad. While literarily questionable, I am so happy that, at 28 years old, I was able to bear witness to the 14 year old girl walking the threshold to motherloss. And write it down! And that I can do the same for the so-sad woman on her journey through its heartscape. Whenever those girls need some love, I have a tangible path to find them. That’s totally worth getting that MFA in poetry.
The party was the first weekend in high school. We had just moved to Gilroy from southern California during the summer. I didn’t get to go to my 8th grade graduation in Westminster and I didn’t know anybody in Gilroy. It was a hot, dusty summer. Pale gold hills backdropped the heavy scent of garlic. Some old friends of my parents saw an article about a woman with cancer in the local paper, celebrating the new oncology ward on No Name Uno Street. They didn’t recognize her picture; but they recognized her name: Eileen Poyhonen. They got in touch and introduced us to one family with a girl, Rachel, my age (it was her birthday party), and she introduced me to Elena. It is remarkable that I was invited to that party at all.
I wrote in my journal that the oddest part of that period in my life was that nobody talked about it—not inside or outside of the home. Our worlds had broken open, and we inherited a disease. I’ll call it information leprosy. We were only allowed to be fine. I like to think that I got good at that role, but it’s a horrible burden and a horrible role to be good at. And that’s still what I do. I feign fine, even when I’m not.
But if I’m going to get this baby out, I have some tending to tend to! I sailed the waters of my VBAC, my mother, myself. I journaled love and paper-airplaned it out to the world.
Later that morning, at 4:27 on May 26, 2014, I awoke with my first contraction. It really was a wave. Nothing like I remember my contractions with Rowan, which floored me from the get-go like punches and which started at 5-6 minutes apart. I can’t believe this could be it. Am I ready?
Love = Open. That’s what I wrote 3.5 years ago in Ina May’s Guide to Childbirth. Just go back to sleep and let’s see if another wave comes. I couldn’t sleep. I facebooked a friend to say happy belated birthday. I thought of the birth bracelet from the ICAN meeting and the bead from a new friend that I still needed to string. I had another contraction 10 minutes later.
I jumped out of bed to string a bracelet. I dug out a new pack of markers and opened the package of notecards we’d bought the day before, so I could draw birth affirmations with Rowan. I nearly tripped over the belly cast we’d sculpted only 12 hours before. I got back in bed with the markers, cards, string. I tied on the bracelet. Around 5:30, I wrote to the midwives, Randi and Jaslynn, and our friends, Teresa and Ozan, who would watch Rowan during the gnarly parts of labor. But I couldn’t stay in bed for the affirmations. Soon Rowan woke up, and I was managing contractions, reading him books, cleaning, canceling appointments, and arranging the birth space.
Around 8 or 9 my water broke. With Rowan, labor started when I felt a kick a pop a gush, which woke me from my slumber. Seriously it felt like Rowan kicked the bag open. I remember thinking: Maybe I’m just an early water breaker type of mama. I’m not sure if the contractions got stronger after the water breaking. I was still managing them fine alone.
I sat with Rowan in his bedroom sorting through baby brother’s clothes and sizing them, deciding which ones to take down to the big bedroom. He took a particular interest, as always, in the socks. He mittened them on and proclaimed the starry yellow ones his and the blue ones for baby brother.
Contractions slowed when I sat to sort. I wrote Randi to let her know that contractions were slowing down and that I would go for a walk to get them going again and then jump in the shower. But I kept working instead. Serkan made a breakfast of hard boiled eggs, cucumber, olives, tomatoes, and toast with almond butter and honey. I ate this over a long while in between arranging.
During a contraction or two I had to tell Rowan: When mommy is doing this (leaning forward on the counter, moaning, and rocking my hips), please don’t ask me questions. I can be more attentive to you when I’m not doing that.
Around 11, I texted Randi to tell her that contractions were about 5-6 minutes apart and 45 seconds long. She said they’d head up and be at our place around 1 p.m. To let her know if they get stronger. I texted back: Wow. Already? They were based in Folsom, about 35 minutes away, and I didn’t want them to make multiple trips up to our home in Placerville. But a while later, I wrote to say: OK. These are really getting intense. I am getting in the shower now. At some point around that time Serkan also texted Ozan and Teresa to head up from Davis, about an hour away.
I’m not sure why I felt so adamant about wanting to shower. I was about to get into an eventually bloody birth tub after all. I just really wanted to wash my hair. But once I finally got in the shower, it was hard to get out. It was hard to remember to rinse the shampoo out of my hair. My inner mantra: You need hot water for the tub; you need hot water for the tub; you need hot water for the tub. This is what made me finally climb out of the shower, after “just one more ‘wave’.”
I stepped out, toweled up and yelled for Serkan. “I’m going to need you now. Like fuLLY. SQUEEZE MY HIPS AND PRESS YOUR THUMBS INTO MY BACK!” Breathe. Whew “Thank you.” I remember being surprisingly polite throughout labor. Because you know, less is usually more. Panting for “thumbs, more thumbs, more pressure” is way more effective, than: Babe, can you please throw your whole body weight into the pressure you put into your thumbs while squeezing my hips with the rest of your hand as hard as you can AND not lean up against me?
We made it to the bedroom, I put on a nightgown, and we towered up all the pillows. I leaned on them and put my butt up in the air. I just wanted to slow this labor down, since it was still just Serkan, Rowan, and I. At some point the midwives were in the room setting up the pool. They entered quietly to keep the sacred quiet of labor quiet. Everybody who entered whispered. I felt so thankful for their reverence and respect.
The day was warm, but not hot, with a magnificent wind. After a recent heat wave, I worried that our bedroom would be way too hot. All the curtains were drawn, but their sheerness filled the room with sweet light and a feeling of rightness. The long turquoise ones billowed in and out, like waves.
(In the quiet days postpartum, when the birth aura of the room was still strong, I’d watch the curtains skirt in and out as if in a twirl as if in a breath. Their calm dance and grace mirrored the love in the room. Somehow magic to me as the sight united with the background wind chime and bird song, leaves shushing, chickens cooing, the cars and airplanes and garden power tools doing their thing quiet and loud, kids playing far away. My baby breathing next to me on the bed. I didn’t want to leave the room, but life and big brother made me. For the first week, though, we ate all our family meals together in the bedroom.)
The midwives went to work fast, inflating the birth tub aka kiddie pool. Little did I know that so many colorful fish would surround me. Rowan ran to get his boat to float in the water as it filled. Someone convinced him to take the boat out when there was enough water for me to get in. He did so without complaint. Then he asked to get in. Someone said that was up to me. And Serkan said not right now. That was the right answer.
At this point, Teresa and Ozan hadn’t arrived yet, and—I found out later—the midwives were wondering how this would play out with Rowan there by himself. He wasn’t phased by my mounting loudness during contractions. When Rowan’s lovely caretakers arrived, they whisked him to another room. He returned when Jaslynn invited him to meet his baby brother.
Normally we would have had the tub beforehand to be able to inflate it in early labor. But we didn’t, and the kiddie pool was the emergency backup. It is larger in diameter and doesn’t fit the tub liner we’d bought. This also made the water shallower than normal. That and my shower which sapped us of a fair amount of hot water made for a very shallow birth tub. “I just want my bottom in the water.” Randi suggested I recline on my side. I did that until the hard ground underneath made my hips ache more than I cared to take.
I tried hands and knees while hug-leaning on Serkan and over the side of the tub, but the ground hurt my knees, my butt wasn’t in the water, and the contractions felt less intense that way. I finished transition naked in the tub semi-reclining with my back against Serkan’s chest. He straddled me with his legs, and I held them during contractions while he tried to do that thumb-pressure-hip-squeeze maneuver in this more awkward position.
Jaslynn frequently brought me water and coconut water. At the end of it all, they were impressed by how much I drank. Yet, while I was drinking, I felt like I couldn’t get enough out of the straw. She took care of both Serkan and I, offering liquid and wiping our brows with a cold washcloth. They teased that it looked like he was the one in labor for his profuse sweating. I guess it was still a fairly warm day, and yes, Serkan was working hard. We tried turning on the ceiling fan, but that made me cold, so we turned it off. Meanwhile Jaslynn continuously boiled water on the stove and poured hot water into the tub. Slow going.
Shortly after I was in the water, I had the go ahead to start pushing. I felt like I needed the ‘go ahead’ because with Rowan I had an immense urge to push for hours while I was only dilated to about 6 cm. I was told to blow raspberries at the urge. But it was so primal, that seemed impossible. This time, though, the urge wasn’t as strong, but I tried to make the most of it. I felt good and I never hit a wall or felt like I couldn’t continue. Randi said: Why don’t you see if you can feel his head. Reach in there toward your belly button. I lit up. My expression said Yes! Serkan said, Really? Are you sure? Yes, a head of the softest hair. I felt for that head of hair after every contraction. Randi told Serkan to feel it too. I should ask him what he experienced at that moment.
Amid faraway sounds of Rowan chasing chickens, yelling at Cloud to come back, and getting hit by the ball while playing basketball with Teresa and Ozan, I pushed. I pushed for a little over an hour, and it’s hard to say if I felt the head descend. During a push, Randi said she could see his hair and that it was dark. I wanted to see! Rowan was strawberry blonde when he was born.
Apparently around the hour mark is the when the midwives start really coaching the pushes. I got a lot of: Push harder, Heather. It’s harder than you think. I know the birth books say to breathe the baby out, but it’s harder than that. You have to continue past the burning sensation. I was deep in laborland thinking the gamut: Seriously? “Breathe the baby out. Slow down during pushing” was going to be one of the affirmations for my wall. I don’t even feel the ring of fire. Are they in a hurry? (It was Memorial Day Monday.) Are they worried? Should I be worried? Chill out, guys. I’ve got this.
Randi would pull down on my perineum during pushes, and that helped a lot. The urge would pick up again toward the end, almost like doubling the push. I’d get to the end of the urge, and then get an all new one that was even more powerful. That second push was what they wanted to see! And I could only give them that with the help of my body pushing, not me willing myself to push. Then Randi got out the mirror. At first I couldn’t see anything at the angle and didn’t have the energy to say so. Then I could only see that I had torn a contraction or two before. I’d felt it happen, and that bummed me out. Then Serkan spoke for us, and Randi corrected the angle of the mirror. During a push, I could SEE how close our baby was to being born. If I could just get over that lump of middle head, he’d be out!
I was in a semi supine position that I never imagined I’d be in for this birth. I thought I’d squat. I’d been doing a lot of prenatal yoga squats. Serkan pulled back on my legs during these final contractions. I held the skin back around my vagina to try to pull it over our baby’s head. And I pushed. Hard. And I did it! Our baby’s head was out. Halfway out. And I had to wait for the next contraction to push out the rest out of his head.
And then one more or so for his shoulders. I was hoping after the head was out, the rest of the body would shoot out of me with the next contraction. But Randi assisted his shoulders out. That part took longer than I’d imagined, and I had a few seconds of shoulder dystocia fear. Maybe I’d read too much.
Suddenly my baby was on my chest. They say I pulled him out of the water, but I have no recollection of how he got there. I was crying and trying to catch my breath and belief that this baby was really here with us. Through tears, I squeaked, “I’m your mommy.” The first minute or so just seemed so involuntary. Like I couldn’t control what I did. I cried a cry of sheer relief, disbelief, and gratitude. My baby shook in my arms, an extension of me and my shaking. He was covered in vernix, which I never got to see or feel on Rowan. And then he belted out a hearty cry. I started to sing my version of “You Are My Sunshine” without crying.
Randi asked if they should get Rowan and I said, Yes! Please. And Rowan met his little brother. He touched his head. He beamed. He walked out of the room and returned with his boat. He sailed the boat in the water for his little brother. He asked why the water was so red. Randi answered something true about birth being bloody.
They gave me something to help the placenta contraction come. Randi gently tugged on the cord. I guess it had already been over 10 minutes. I was feeling ready to get out of the water and change positions. I can only imagine Serkan was hoping for the same. Birthing the placenta wasn’t hard, but I do remember feeling like I was done pushing. It was a great relief to be placenta done. Soon after, Serkan cut the cord. Rowan watched, his obsession for placentas and umbilical cords heightened. Some blood spattered on us.
Jaslynn prepared a throne of pillows for me on the bed. They helped me out of the water and into the bed. This is where I really breastfed our boy for the first time. I tried in the water, but it was still early. We were skin to skin and both blanketed with warmed receiving blankets. My baby's eyes were open and we stared at each other. I completely missed that first golden hour with Rowan. After the midwives cleaned and cleared out the pool and everything birth related, they weighed, measured, administered the vitamin K shot, and clothed Linden in the bed right next to us. Jaslynn gave Rowan, Teresa, and I a placenta geography lesson, before taking it home to encapsulate it for me.
There are a few pictures of Serkan, Rowan, and I looking down at our new baby. I tear up just thinking of these pictures. So many memories make me need to reprocess my beginning with Rowan. I had no idea there was so much work to be done on that front. When a mom has had a psychologically painful birth, people just point to her healthy baby or change the subject. They don’t want to hear the pain in her eyes. So you learn fast that, just as with every loss, it is a closed subject. You have a new human to care for. That takes up most of your time.
Later that evening, Serkan was away talking to Ozan, and I was talking with Teresa. She gave me the report of how Rowan was during the labor. When my screams got real loud, Rowan’s face lit up and he said: That means baby brother’s coming really soon. Rowan normally slept in the bed with us, but unbidden, he told Teresa: I’m going to sleep in my bed tonight because baby brother needs mama. When Serkan was getting Rowan ready for bed, Rowan asked if baby brother was going to cry a lot. Serkan said that he might. So Rowan said, OK. I want to sleep in my bed. Normally, I do all the bedtime routines, and I just figured that Rowan would get in bed with us. He lasted two days outside of the room with frequent hollers for daddy from across the house. Then we brought Rowan’s mattress into our room, into a perfect nook. We also hung a long scarf above the bed, so it’s like a little fort.
My new peace is wind chimes, sleeping baby grunts, the washing machine swishing diapers, the toddler singing selfmade lyrics to no one in particular and asking: Mama, do you like my singing, a good song. Rowan, I love your singing. Linden, I love your smiles.
I love that Rowan is part of Linden’s birth story. He was there. And if he doesn’t remember it someday, there are pictures of him meeting his baby brother for the first time. Covered in vernix and still attached to his placenta still inside my body. I loved that I could labor and get our space ready without having to worry about going anywhere. I loved that everyone there approached the event quietly, reverently. I believe love brought about Linden’s labor and infused the room he was born into. As I travel further and further from the early postpartum days, I want to try to deliver that love, gratitude, joy to our family.