This is the story of Martha Elanor’s birth – the whole story, no text omitted. Fair warning: I am pretty thorough in my description of what happened, which gets a little specific in the medical quarter. If that bothers you, be forewarned. All pictures are pretty modest, though.
You will notice below this post a password-protected post; that is the same text with more pictures. This includes pictures of the birth itself, which are lovely and wonderful, but not something I want publicly searchable on the internet. If you would like to see that expanded version, please feel free to email me at osbornfiber at gmail dot com to ask for the password.
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Foreward the first: Easter vigil is hands-down my favorite service in the liturgical calendar. Entering a dark, solemn church, after the intensely sad observances of Holy Week. The light of Christ starting with a single flame at the back of church. The major chords of “the light of Christ” sung in mysterious chant as the lights spread to candles in the hands of each person in the church. The exultet, a lone voice calling to us to rejoice and sing, as from over a hill in a far golden country.
I think the first time I went to an Easter vigil service, I knew the Anglican church was going to be my home.
Foreward the second: During my first trimester, I started having dreams about fast labor. Like, so fast she was born at home. Despite the fact that we wouldn’t find out baby’s gender for a while, in my dreams, the baby was always a girl.
I knew a labor that fast was very unlikely, since N had taken about 29 hours. Subsequent babies are faster, and an additional factor in N’s slowness was her being posterior, which I worked very very hard to avoid with #2. But second births, I learned during our birth refresher course, are faster more on the order of four hours, maybe as much as twice as fast. Still, I obsessively kept a supply of clean towels in the house after 37 weeks, just in case.
I was obsessing over this several weeks ago, as our pre-birth preparations hit full-stride. I was just lying in bed, thinking about what we’d do if we had a super-fast birth. Did we have enough babysitters and back-up babysitters? What if we birthed in the car? Who are we supposed to call if she comes at home?
I tried to calm myself down, knowing how unlikely those scenarios are in my case. But sometimes I get caught in mental loops at night. So I did what I don’t always think to do, and I prayed about it. When I did, quite unexpectedly, I felt God smile and say, “I have a great gift for you.”
I blinked. I knew he had a gift for me in the baby, but I could tell he meant “in this birth experience.” This wasn’t entirely comforting, as God’s idea of a gift might include something like “have horrible complications that lead to a C-section that teaches me about the value of life.” I sorta looked squintily at God and said “really?” He just smiled. Maybe rubbed his hands together in glee a little bit. I kept my eyebrows up, but I took courage too.
Part 1: The Interminable Lead-Up.
If you’ve been reading this blog for the last couple months, you know that the emotional side of labor started a long time ago. I hit my first wall before thirty-seven weeks, when the lack of sleep and physical exhaustion started really getting to me. I got through my big ordination interview at thirty-nine weeks, and my due date came and went.
I started asking the midwives for a membrane sweep on the day after my due date. N was 10 days late, and a sweep at +8 was what got me started. If anything, my due date was earlier than March 24th, as a dating ultrasound put her five days before, so I had no qualms about getting things going. But the midwife center has a policy of not doing sweeps, or other methods of natural induction, if all their midwives are already occupied with other women in labor, or all their rooms are full. They were, so I had to wait.
The spiritual struggle of being done with pregnancy lasted most of Lent, culminating in a truly frustrating Holy Week. N got a horrible stomach bug on the Saturday before Palm Sunday, which kept us home for that service. God provided enough strength and energy to deal with that trial, and she got over it quickly. I was grudgingly grateful that I didn’t have to deal with a puking toddler and a brand-newborn, but at four days past due, the whole thing seemed to be getting ridiculous.
The days ticked by. I was having contractions every day, but they weren’t painful, they weren’t consistent, and they weren’t close together. I took every slight ramping up in number or intensity as a good sign, but didn’t know if they were a sign of labor in hours, or labor in days. The midwife center stayed completely slammed (something about an impending full moon, which however had no dramatic effect on me), so no sweep still. Our lives were totally on hold, waiting for this baby. In my frustration and attempts to keep a good attitude, I felt increasingly isolated and helpless.
N and I got a chance for a walk on Wednesday – our first walk of the year without jackets, and what turned out to be our last walk with just the two of us. We are dressed up because we’d gone to chapel that morning to hear Bishop Bob Duncan preach. Little girl amazed her mama by actually listening to the sermon, the main point of which she summarized: “Cross turn world upside down!”
That very afternoon, I got hit with the stomach bug. Wednesday night was truly horrible: I hate nausea, and nausea when you have no room for your stomach is worse. But I trooped, by golly. I kept drinking water ’till I could hold it down. I kept hydrated, and started eating as soon as I could. I was again grudgingly grateful that I was not in labor while I felt like this, and that this illness did not put me into labor. I knew my body was wise to hold onto the baby until it was recovered enough to do its job, but I was not in any way pleased about the whole thing. By Friday – Good Friday – I felt more or less like myself again.
Meanwhile, the late date was starting to make things a bit strained with my care providers. They have a policy that fourteen days after your due date, you have to deliver at the hospital. They really want you to get induced at that point, though I gathered that I might be able to get a few extra days if I pushed back and talked to their supervising docs. The more research I did, the more I found that post-dates (42-44 weeks) pregnancy isn’t particularly risky if you have proper monitoring and the support of a hospital, or at least, not risky enough to make me want to go through an induction. I certainly wasn’t going to try a chemical induction without trying some natural (medical, but non-chemical) induction methods that the midwife center offers. So you can imagine my frustration when we were running right into Easter weekend, and they were still saying no to those natural methods.
I had a non-stress test at the midwife center on Friday morning, and I had started to make it clear that if they continued to refuse to give me a sweep, I was going to start being difficult. They refused that Friday morning, again Friday afternoon, and again Saturday morning, since things were seriously out of control there. (I found out later that they had fourteen births between Wednesday and Saturday morning.) But they reassured me by then that everyone knew my situation, we’d keep calling back and forth, and I would get in for a sweep on Saturday, somehow.
Friday night was a not-Benadryl night. I woke up just past midnight, at the end of my wits. I finally got it all out, and with some hesitancy, hit post. Lent was at its climax. Jesus was in the tomb, his soul harrowing hell.
Part 2: Saturday gets Serious.
Meanwhile, on Holy Saturday, my contractions changed. They were still no more frequent than they had been for days – fifteen or twenty minutes apart at best, but mostly with longer breaks – but they felt like N’s labor had felt. That is, they were in my back. At first I thought the baby was just sitting on a gas bubble or something. But later in the morning, when we were all walking around Sewickley to pass the time, I had to lean on Jared and say, “Ow, this really hurts!”
I still wanted the sweep, though. Theresa got me in around 3:30 on Saturday. I was only 2 cm dilated, 50% effaced, with baby at -2 – not really progressed from the day before – so I didn’t care if I would have gone into labor soon anyway. If the sweep only saved me a couple of hours, I would take it. It might save me a couple days. Yeep, though, I forgot how uncomfortable that procedure is. Not that it compared to what was coming.
My in-laws had come into town the day before, so they were with N for the afternoon. That meant Jared and I were free to dawdle in the Strip District for a bit. It was impossibly busy, Saturday right before things closed for the holiday. Everyone seemed to be buying flowers, and bakeries were practically giving their overstock away. We got a parking spot right in front of Wholey’s and impulsively bought a couple little legs of lamb. We wanted to get some Highlander Grogg coffee for Jared’s dad, but by the time we made it that far up the Strip, I had had a few more uncomfortable contractions. We made it to the coffee, but I was glad we were turning around to go back.
By dinnertime, I was having to hum through the contractions, but I could still be sociable over dinner. I wanted to participate in putting N to bed, knowing it might be the last time for a while. But during the last bit of bedtime, when we cuddle in her bed and I sing her songs, I had a couple contractions. Despite all my attempts to prepare her for Mama making funny noises when baby sister is coming, I think that freaked her out a bit. I called Jared in to finish singing to her, and I got in the shower.
As I got in the shower, it was starting to hit me that labor was really coming, and not in a happy way. I should have been relieved that things were finally getting started. But really, I was surprised at how much pain I was in already. I had been able to hold it together because I had a good fifteen minutes or so between contractions, so I could recover. The idea of having one of these every seven minutes, then five, then three… well, I needed a shower to give myself space, to talk to Jesus, and to have a little weep.
Part 3: Active Labor Starts
It was only 7:30 after my shower, but I knew I was done being sociable. So with only a little compunction, I pulled Jared aside and told him I wanted to hang out with him and watch a movie, but not be around his parents. (A hint: you know you might be in labor when you don’t care about being rude.)
I still had the timeline from N’s birth in my head, so I thought I might well have thirty hours ahead of me. I at least thought I would be wanting to get some sleep that night, to have energy for a day of labor the next day, so I took a Benadryl at 8:00, thinking I’d fall asleep shortly after the movie.
It took us a while to decide on a movie. We had wanted to watch Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, since Jared had never seen it and I randomly wanted to see it after a while. But five minutes in, when I had a contraction, it became evident that we would be rewinding a lot to keep up with the subtitles. I was still in a martial-arts-flick mood, so we rented Hero on Amazon, which I had seen a few times when it came to the US and remembered loving.
I really didn’t care for it that much this time.
I watched it mostly on hands and knees, leaning over pillows. I knew that staying “upright, forward leaning, and in motion” statistically reduced labor time, so I intended to stay that way as long as I could. Jared applied counterpressure and timed contractions, while I thought about how slow and redundant this film was, feeling increasingly hazy from the Benadryl. I wasn’t really in a position to appreciate aesthetics and artistry or Chinese national cultural identity.
By the time the credits finally rolled, we looked at Jared’s phone, and contractions had clearly been five minutes apart or less for over an hour. They weren’t a minute long, really, so I was still skeptical, and thought that lying down might make them go away. I went ahead and called the Midwife Center. Theresa asked if I wanted to come in or not; I just wanted her to tell me whether to come in or not. I said I wasn’t sure, but I’d probably know within an hour or so if things were going to die down or keep going. Just in case, I had Jared throw a few last minute things in a bag.
I lay down, and things did not die down. If anything, the contractions got more intense while I was lying on my side. I went from humming to ending each contraction in “ow ow ow ow ow!” I started shaking a little, probably from the Benadryl, which was still determined to send my body to sleep, which body was going to have none of that. But maybe, I thought, shaking was part of transition?
I mentioned this to Jared, and he was very skeptical. He said, “I don’t know, last time you were in transition, you were all begging for an epidural, saying you couldn’t do this, etc. I don’t think you’re there yet.”
I said something rather unladylike in response. It was really dawning on me how serious this was, and though I wasn’t in emotional despair, I knew this was the inescapable pain of a baby coming rather soon.
On my next contraction, I felt a *pop!* and a small gush of water. I ran to the bathroom, phone in hand, and called the midwife again. “I think you’d better come in,” she said.
We collected the last of our things. Or, rather, Jared collected the last of our things and called/texted relevant parties while I put on a second shirt, a bathrobe, and shoes, then had contractions kneeling over the side of the couch. He was asking me about what flavor of protein smoothie I wanted to bring, and I was mystified that he thought I could still care. He was looking for my deodorant (at my request) when I finally just yelled “We need to go NOW!”
We drove to the midwife center by the light of the moon, now one day past full. Contractions were four minutes apart in the car, then three, and I was past humming into loud vocalizations that I struggled to keep low in pitch.
Part 4: Vigil Service at the Midwife Center
It was around 11:15 p.m. when we pulled up to the front door. Of course, things slowed down a little bit when I got there, much to my dismay. But Theresa, and nurse Ashley, said “Don’t worry. This always happens. You’re definitely in labor.” Ashley took my temperature while I told her about how she’d been at my last birth. I had no expectations she would remember, but when someone talks you through transition the first time, you don’t really forget.
Carrie, my friend, spiritual director, and experienced birth-buddy, arrived while I was doing the requisite initial deposits. I was a little dehydrated, which I knew, but they didn’t think I needed IV fluids yet. Fine with me either way.
Theresa checked me right as Sara, the birth photographer, got in. (She got an eyeful! Again, gotta love how labor makes you stop caring about that sort of thing.) All players were present and accounted for; all we needed was a baby.
Theresa said I was “four plus,” with baby at -1, and that it was a big change from when she’d done the sweep eight hours before. I wasn’t unhappy with this news; I knew I was only going to be depressed if I was less than four. But that meant that I definitely had transition ahead of me, so I tried to wrap my head around that reality. My water had probably broken, but Theresa wasn’t sure – unsurprising since I hadn’t gotten much of a gush at home.
Then she said, “From here on out, things will go a lot faster than they did with your first baby.” I probably said “okay,” but I was taken aback, because I remembered things going really fast with N after five centimeters. I mean, it was probably still two or three hours, but less than that didn’t sound like a lot of time for what I still had to do.
Mercifully, they asked if I wanted to get in the tub. I had some thought that they might not let me because my water had broken, so when they asked I said “yes please!” and had them fill it up as high as it would go.
The water is where I really got to work. Carrie said the key words to me: let the bottom open up. Willingly opening up to that pain was like stepping in front of a freight train, or into a scalding-hot waterfall, and then staying there until the pain, not me, decided to subside. Just not something that made sense to my will. I was yelling proper by that point.
And then it occurred to me, quite matter of factly – I should just sing.
“I named her Martha,” I thought out loud. “Of course I’ll have to sing her out.” So I sang. Or, well, I yelled on key, but close enough. I tried to stick to major chords; no reason to be sad now. I sang word – “Let it go” – “Open up” – “Come on” – but mostly I just sang. Every time I held onto something, I couldn’t help but resist opening up, so I reached my hands out in front of me, conducting invisible mountains.
I was a lone voice on an alien planet. I was a seed at the bottom of the ocean. I shook the foundations of the earth.
When my hair started getting in my face, I asked Carrie if she would brush and braid my hair. I don’t know how, but I knew in advance that this would happen. Like, I knew I’d be asking Carrie to brush my hair. Weird, right? I therefore had the foresight to bring my hairbrush, but not enough to bring a hairband. Sara donated hers out of her hair. It was a sweet moment. A woman moment, or something.
The clock struck twelve. It was Easter morning.
Part 5: And Suddenly, A Baby.
They asked me at some point if I wanted to push. I thought, no way – my memories of pushing were that something really changed, and pushing didn’t really hurt. Right now, there was still a lot of hurt. I thought felt a ring of something, and I was successfully giving in to opening it up, but goodness, I really didn’t want to push through that.
Carrie told me later, she and the nurses conferred and said, “She’s in denial. She’s already pushing.” Sure enough, at the end of the next contraction my body started pushing for me.
To this point, I’d been having all my contractions on my knees. Carrie and Jared made sure I sat down in between so I didn’t destroy my knees, for which I am very grateful. But that meant that when I got out, I had no desire to lie down. I couldn’t stand for contractions; that was somehow awful. But I didn’t want to be on my side. I felt… symmetrical, somehow. And I suppose I knew intuitively that gravity was working for me, though consciously I did not want gravity’s help. Things were moving fast enough, thank you very much.
So when I yelled, “That’s a push!” and they helped me haul out of the tub, they said, “You don’t have to go anywhere!” and I knelt down right next to the tub.
I struggled through the next couple contractions, not singing anymore. Yelling, feeling the urge to push but not really willing to push, breaking down into whimpers at the end.
“Rebecca,” Theresa asked in a clear voice, “Do you want to give birth here?” meaning beside the tub.
“What? I don’t know,” I replied, still not getting it.
“You can get on hands and knees in the bed,” she said.
That sounded good. They piled up pillows for me to lean on, and I climbed up. I was tired, and didn’t know how long I could stay like that, but any other position sounded intolerable.
I was still struggling, and they were saying things about pushing, but I still needed clarification. See, I still felt like I did not want to push, and I was used to the first-birth experience, where you sort of need permission to push. They had made a big deal out of making sure I was dilated, and there was the horror of trying not to push, etc. So I finally just asked:
“What am I doing right now?”
Sounding like she was trying to keep a straight face, Theresa said “You’re pushing your baby down the birth canal.”
“Am I dilated?!” I asked.
“This is your second baby,” Theresa said. “I’m just going to assume you are, but if you want me to check…”
“But I feel like I’m going to rip wide open!” I objected.
I don’t remember the reply to that. But Carrie said at the tail end, “You’re not going to tear.” I was skeptical, but knew there was nothing I could do to control it. Then she added, “And you’re gonna have a hands-and-knees birth! That’s so cool!” Being in that much pain puts me in an altered state of consciousness, but there was some little birth-nerd part of me awake. Awake enough to know, distantly, that this was pretty cool.
Either way, that was enough. I had the green light; now I knew what to do.
I just held my breath and started bearing down. Thankfully, Carrie and Jared knew to hold my hands for me to pull against; I don’t remember them getting there, but that was just what I needed.
I think at one point I thanked someone for wiping my bum. I feel pretty open about poop, but they thought that was funny. Okay, it was pretty funny. I just figure, it’s like acknowledging farts. Everyone knows what’s going on anyway; why not diffuse the tension? It helps me, anyway.
I wasn’t sure I had the strength to stay on hands and knees the whole time. But in a shockingly short space, Theresa was saying, “Two or three more pushes and she’ll be out.” My mind went, “What?!” I still felt like I was going to rip in half! But rip in half or no, there was no reason to make this take any longer than it had to. Jared had been at my side, giving counterpressure on my back while holding one hand, and Carrie held the other. At that point Carrie took both my hands while Jared headed to the back to help catch, and I heard Theresa talk him through how they would catch together.
True to Theresa’s word, it took three more contractions to get her head out. It could have been two, but I knew I couldn’t make it happen on that second one. Bracing myself for the third, John 16:21 from my post twenty-four hours earlier came into my head: “When a woman is giving birth, she has sorrow because her hour has come, but when she has delivered the baby, she no longer remembers the anguish, for the joy that a human being has been born into the world.” In a slightly convoluted hermeneutical jump, I translated this into “I’m not going to remember this pain tomorrow. Jesus said I’m not going to remember this pain tomorrow.” Interpretive issues aside, it worked, and I pushed right through that pain until her head came out.
Things got a little complicated at that point, though all I was aware of was that there was a slight lapse before we started working on her shoulders. It turned out little M had one hand up by her chin, and the cord wrapped around her neck. Nothing an experienced midwife couldn’t handle, and handle it she did, but retrospectively, goodness I am glad for someone who knows what they’re doing in a moment like that.
One more big, rather weird push, and she was out. They put her through my legs so I could see her under me for a moment. My vision was clear, and I could see her big head of hair and squishy face. Mercifully, I was soon on my back with her on my chest. They didn’t have to suction her, and I had all her slimy goodness on my chest for a nice long time.
Martha Elanor was here.
Part 6: Details of What Came After
We had been at the midwife center a grand total of an hour and fifteen minutes before Martha was born. I’d been in active labor for four and a half hours, and pushed for about fifteen or twenty minutes.
Hallelujah and praise the Lord, I didn’t tear at all!
Delivering the placenta was less awful than I’d hoped, though after that labor adventure, I had trouble understanding why I had to do anything painful ever again in my life. Then there was some fundal massage stuff that was much more unpleasant. Ouch; I’d rather just let nursing do its thing next time.
They told me the placenta looked textbook on the baby side, but had started to calcify quite thoroughly on my side. It had definitely been time for Martha to make her appearance. I should have said yes when they asked me if I wanted to look at it, but I wasn’t yet to the point of having considered thoughts.
Martha had a solid nurse on one side, with some positioning help from Carrie, and after a break took the other as well. Nipple and colostrum were the first things in her mouth, just like I had hoped, and she’s taken to nursing like a fish to water. Or a fish to fish food, I guess. To algae? Clearly this is the wrong choice of cliche.
They let me hold her for a nice long time before doing her exam. Actually, Theresa had to go finish my admission paperwork, which she hadn’t had a chance to do before the baby arrived. While she did that, Ashley made us cheesy eggs and english muffins, and I managed to eat most of mine. Sara and Carrie went home, I think each on cloud nine, parting with supportive words. Carrie was still going to get her four little kids to a sunrise Easter vigil service!
A little ironically, as happy as I was to get to hold my little lump for a nice long bonding period, I was impatient to get her newborn exam over with so I could go to sleep. It had still only been five hours since I’d taken a Benadryl, the shakes were coming back, and I needed to rest a little bit to get it through my system. Also surprisingly, after the midwife center’s insane week, we had the place entirely to ourselves, so we could stay and rest until the end of Ashley’s shift at 7 a.m.
Theresa came and did Martha’s stats, giving her the little vitamin K shot, the eye goop, etc. We found out that she was 8 lbs., 0 oz, and 20.5 inches long. Not at all a large person, despite her extra-long stay indoors.
We rested fitfully until about 6 a.m. Martha’s stirrings and fussings woke me every hour or so, and I had done due diligence in drinking lots of water during and after labor, so I had to get up to use the bathroom a couple times. By 6 I needed more Motrin for the cramps, and the sleepy drugs had worn off enough that I was ready to feed Martha again. She did have another good feed, and Ashley delivered our departure paperwork and sent us off.
Part 7: And We All Go Home
The sun rose over the city on Easter morning as we drove home. I had one more request upon which I insisted: I asked Jared to make sure someone was holding my camera when N got to see her sister for the first time. Jared did the duty himself, and the pictures tell the whole story.
Everyone wants to know how Naomi is doing, and the answer, I suppose, is “as well as might be hoped for.” Kindness takes a while to learn, and this is a huge change. I have a truly fabulous picture of N yanking on M’s ear. But it goes again to show that we start out in every way as hopeless sinners, deserving nothing of grace, and it is because we are first loved by our Father that we get the chance and the help to learn and grow and become holy and wise and good. That process has started, and I’m glad to see it through, because I’m a sinner too, and I love my little sinner-saints very much.
Welcome home to your family, little Martha. The struggle of carrying you through Lent was a good work and a kindness of God to my soul. In naming you after our dear departed friend, delivering you on Resurrection Sunday is a mystery of providence that has me utterly awestruck. Oh, how beloved you are! Oh, how gracious and good our God is, who gives such good gifts to his children!