This is the story of the birth of my first child, my daughter, Elliot, on 30 November 2002.
I longed for this baby. My life was everything I had ever wanted — great husband, education, dream job, lovely suburban house backing up to woods, money and time enough to whatever we liked — when I started to dream of her. There was an emptiness in me. I was a teacher at an elementary school, and one afternoon the children were performing a play in front of their parents. I looked around the darkened auditorium at the faces of the parents. They were radiant, filled with so much love and pride as they looked at their sons and daughters. That’s when I knew what would fill the emptiness: motherhood.
It was a long road to pregnancy. I had very irregular cycles and didn’t ovulate. I sought help from a few different doctors, and ultimately found a kindly endocrinologist called Dr. Greenhouse — the perfect name for a fertility specialist! I injected myself with hormones, my husband caught his sperm in a test tube, and Dr. Greenhouse “cleaned it up” and froze it so we could “keep trying” while my husband went to sea with the Navy. On the morning of my appointment, the day Dr. Greenhouse determined through ultrasound that I was ovulating, my best friend told me she was pregnant. For the first time in three years, this kind of news did not make me cry, but gave me hope. I walked into the clinic, put my legs in stirrups, and Dr. Greenhouse inseminated me with a fancy turkey baster. About ten days later, a tingling in my breasts woke me up. I knew I was pregnant.
When I was only seven weeks along, a friend of my husband’s recommended I read Sheila Kitzinger, rather than “What to Expect When You’re Expecting,” which he thought was “too medical.” Given how I’d gotten pregnant, I had no reason to question the medical approach! He said, “Oh, question it.” So I read Kitzinger’s “Rediscovering Birth.” It looks at birth across cultures and throughout history, and it completely reframed birth for me! I had believed everything our culture told us about birth — believed in the danger and the pain and the necessity of rescue from those horrors by doctors and hospitals! While that may be true in some cases, I felt inspired to plan and prepare for a natural birth, attended by midwives, in a free-standing birth center.
The birth center I chose was called “Best Start.” During one of my prenatal appointments, I saw a flyer in a bathroom stall which said, “Did you know birth doesn’t have to be painful?” I didn’t, so I took the flyer and called the woman behind it. She was a HypnoBirthing practitioner and told me a bit about their philosophy and techniques. I signed up straightaway and attended the course with my husband, Guy. It made a lot of sense and gave us both a lot of confidence in my body’s ability to birth naturally and comfortably. I really enjoyed the practices, too, which are like very relaxing guided meditations.
At 30 weeks the midwives discovered I had a condition that would not allow me to birth in their birth center. I was not sick, and I would be able to birth naturally; however, they had to transfer my care to the hospital. I was very disappointed, because I so loved the care I was receiving and the atmosphere of the center. At the hospital, I realized that doctors made me feel like a patient, whereas the independent midwives had made me feel like a mother. To re-tip the balance in my favor, I hired a doula, Jewel, to be an extra layer of support to my husband, the baby, and me on the birthing day.
My due date was December 4. We lived away from most of our family and friends, and I was determined to have Christmas presents bought, wrapped, and shipped before I gave birth. Friday evening, November 29, I finished the job! After returning from the post office, I sat down, put up my swollen feet, patted the baby and told her, “Okay, honey, you can come any time now.” Early the next morning, my membranes released and I had my first surges — I was in labor!
Things were regular but quite gentle until about 10:30 the morning of November 30. I was walking across the house and I felt a surge beginning to build. It was going to be a strong one, so I braced myself against the wall — I tensed and held my breath — and it hurt! I became terrified: this was just the beginning! I couldn’t possibly handle this! Then I remembered: Oh right, I do HypnoBirthing! I can do this! So I turned on my relaxing music, sat down on the sofa, called my husband to sit with me, and the next surge I felt, I relaxed and breathed and the difference was stunning. I was reminded of swimming in the ocean. The surge I had felt when I braced myself against it and held my breath felt like being knocked off my feet by a strong wave. But the surge I felt when I used my HypnoBirthing techniques felt like swimming up to the crest of the wave and then sliding down the other side. I could do it!
Jewel came over and sat in the room with me and knitted. When I would have a particularly strong or long surge, I would look over at her and she would just smile at me, like what I was experiencing was the most natural, common, and wonderful thing in the world. Her calm confidence and the warm solidity of my husband beside me were so heartening. My mother in law made me toast, laden with butter, cinnamon, and sugar. My brother came over to encourage me, but ended up telling me that I encouraged him! He couldn’t believe how serene I was. I felt so loved! Late in the afternoon I asked Jewel when we were supposed to go to the hospital. She said, “When you’re ready. What do you think?” I loved her for trusting me to know when to go. And she was right, I knew the answer: Now. It was time. My surges were very close and very long, and I knew I’d have my baby soon.
The hospital was only a mile away, but it felt an eternity getting there — getting the bags, getting into the car, the drive, walking to the labor and delivery ward, all while having surges made stronger by walking. I felt triumphant when finally to be at the admissions desk, but when the nurse on duty didn’t even look up from her papers, my sense of triumph felt dashed. She questioned whether I was actually in labor, because I was so calm, but my husband gave her my history. She gave me a cursory look then waved me to a seat and said I’d be seen soon. In a few minutes I was taken into triage and examined: I was 9 centimeters open! Talk about validation! At that point I was admitted — the English teacher in me recognized the irony of the word: one meaning of admit is “to concede as true or valid.” However, I discovered that the soulless treatment of the admitting nurse was standard at this hospital. Poking, prodding, talking about me as if I weren’t in the room, the lack of eye contact all were so disorienting and disheartening. And so different from the love I had been feeling at home! Guy and Jewel stayed at my side, but being on hospital turf, with all their protocols and efficiencies and staff made it hard to feel this was my birth anymore, despite the fact that I was still very much in labor.
When I had been there a few hours but still hadn’t had the baby, the staff suggested I start pushing. I felt no urge to push, but I was beginning to doubt myself and become impatient for it to be over with. I pushed in many different positions and each time my efforts produced no baby I became more and more desperate. I started to cry. I opened my eyes and saw the OB standing just outside my door, pointing to his watch in silent but clear communication with my midwife: “Speed this up.” My midwife, Sharon, said she’d like to augment my labor with Pitocin. Despite my own low spirits, my fear of Pitocin was greater. I said, “There’s nothing wrong with my surges. There is nothing wrong with my baby. I am not having Pitocin.” She replied, “Well, if you don’t have this baby within the next 30 minutes we’re going to prepare you for a c-section.” I was flooded with anger! I thought of how beautiful my labor had been at home, how I had been doing perfectly until I came to their stupid hospital! I had an image of all the women who’d ever given birth before. They were holding hands in an infinite chain and reaching out to me from across a precipice. I realized, “There’s no quitting, no going back. Either I find some strength and have this baby or we both die.”
Jewel took me by the hand and I opened my eyes. Jewel, incarnation of that infinite chain of psychic mothers! She said to me, “Allison let’s take you to the bathroom. You can pee and maybe push on the toilet.” She was brilliant — no one follows a woman into the bathroom! Once inside she closed the door and got very close to my face. She said calmly and gently, “Your body did not make a baby that is too big for you to birth.” (The staff had been loudly speculating that my pushing was ineffective because the baby was “too big.”) “I’ve been listening to you, and I think I know what’s going on.” She said she thought the baby was right on the perineum. When I pushed, the baby’s head started to crown, but I was pulling back from that sensation because it burned. She called it “the ring of fire.” I was not aware of that sensation, but I loved the image. She said, “Pay attention.” The next time I had a surge I did pay attention and discovered she was right! She said, “Now you know that burning sensation is your baby! She’s right there! Don’t pull back! Give it all your power.” We went back to the bed, and the next surge I had, I did as Jewel told me to do, and I birthed the baby’s head! With the next surge came her shoulders and body. Our daughter, Elliot, was born at 10:38 pm on Saturday, November 30, 2002, 7 pounds, 10 ounces, and 20 inches long (i.e. not too big!). With the love and encouragement of my husband and doula, I found my strength, and I had never felt more powerful!
I discovered over time how giving birth to Elliot — and to myself as a mother — transformed me. The physical power of natural birth inspired a respect for my body, and an awareness of my body-mind, that I had never had before. That was my first step in actually healing my infertility, and led to the natural conception of our son. . . but that’s another birth story! I developed a strong sense of my own worth and a trust of my intuition. I found a passion for natural birth and became a HypnoBirthing practitioner. From that work there grew a passion for helping all mothers through the transitions of pregnancy, birth, and new motherhood. To that end, I’m now I’m training to be a life coach — a doula, if you like, for the birth of the new woman you become when you become a mother. I am always learning from my children, no longer exclusively a teacher! Now I know that the emptiness I felt before I became a mother was my essential self calling me to my true path.