luka's backyard

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Three in Bed at Sunrise

The story of a home birth that went exceptionally well.

I’m told there was a brilliant moonset that morning. Looming large on the horizon and nearly full, she sank just before the sun came up in the southeast. Perhaps there was a fog coming off the snow. Somewhere, someone was honoring this beauty, and the fact that it was January 20, the cusp of Aquarius. But not me. And not because I had read the recent news of the zodiac having been thrown into upheaval by revelations of a wobbling earth axis. I simply wasn’t outside under the stars. Besides, I’ve always known a basic mystical truth: astrology is total bullshit.

No. I am neither looking to the skies nor to my inner vastness. I’m not meditating on things holistic or heavenly. I am simply in a sonorous haze with fuzzy brain waves, excited nervousness, blurred rays of sunlight through a slit in the curtain, and one very concrete feeling: my son’s tiny little hand squeezing my nose. It is 6:30am, ish. He lay between us in a crafty, fabric-lined cardboard box, my right arm curled around his body, his lime green pointy hat poking up and shading my eyes. How to describe the moment? Peace? No, not really peace. What is the word?

Just then, a car speeds by on the nearest interstate. Its passengers have been on the road for nine hours and are celebrating the sunrise. I don’t know who they are or if they even exist. I’m just imagining that someone, somewhere had been doing something for those 9 hours. For us, 7 hours from the first hint to the event, two hours of afterglow. For them, not much to tell. Rest areas, dirty snow banks, exit ramps. But in the magic light of the morning, the light that lifts their weary eyes, maybe one of them feels…. something.

Or not. Maybe they don’t feel a thing. It really comes down to faith in such things. Me, I’m not religious, or even spiritual. And you know how I feel about those damn silly horoscopes. Still, I do have faith, in something. And faith can be fun, even if sometimes the world comes crashing down on the best and noblest among us. It didn’t on January 20. It worked out. It worked out way perfectly.

So yes, sunrise, three of us, in bed. Me, Luka, Kristen. Rewind, 9 hours. Me, Kristen. The next room over, our living room. Me on the couch, computing, like now, like always. Her, on the phone, explaining about the ongoing “false labor” or “fake contractions,” the Braxton-Hicks of the past few weeks, with increasing frequency and irritation. Our selected day has come and gone on the 18th, and the supposed due date looms four days on. “I’m gonna let you go, Nonnie.” She feels one of them coming on.

Then another, ten minutes later. But she hasn’t said anything to me and I can’t do labor this evening anyway. No, I’ve decided it can’t be tonight. I’ve got a job interview tomorrow and besides I didn’t park the car in the right place for the midwives to pull in behind me. We just got you checked a few hours ago and you were zero centimeters dilated. The door is still closed, the baby has not begun to pack his bags.

Kristen in labor, having a contraction
A third wave comes, this time in mid-sentence to me, and she doubles over. I’m in denial immediately, but that just gets brushed to the side just as quickly when she emerges from the bathroom with a report of things related to mucous plugs and a bloody damn good show. “We are making this baby tonight!” We high five. OK, we don’t, but we did at some point later, I think maybe she was in the bathtub.

For me the first hour or two is a just like any other night at our home. I’m cleaning. Organizing. Dishes and laundry. Hanging that random collage she made on the wall. I go into the basement to retrieve the numbers 5 and 6, metal and spray-painted black with Krylon. Out on the front steps, the snowy front porch, after moving my car up 8 inches, I push the former nails back into their holes, my flip flops sliding slightly on the ice. Passersby can now see our address against the painted pale porch steps: “65” Maple Street is complete and ready. Back inside, snow melting off my pant cuff, she chides me for cleaning up for the midwives. I explain it's not for them, it's for me. I like order and I like a clean palette.

I can’t tell you what those two first hours are like for her except by giving you the numbers (look left). We are supposed to time the contractions. How long is the contraction itself and how long between? We don’t get the stopwatch out. It's too annoying to find it among my cell phone’s functions, and besides we have calls to make. Contractions, as you can see, are listed in three varieties. There is “45 sec, “1 min,” and “ " ” I am having trouble representing with this keyboard. (It’s those two short lines you make, like quotes, but actually they mean “whatever it says above these here little two lines.  Repeat the above.”)  Sometimes we leave it blank, which means: “Probably the same as the above, or maybe not, maybe we just don’t know, sorry. Is it that important?”

We call Kristen at around 10:30. That’s the midwife’s name. Kristen. A second midwife will come later. Her name: Kirsten. Sorry, but I insist on calling them by their real names. Henceforth, my wife will be called Kristen. The first midwife: Kristen. The second midwife, Kirsten. I do this because that’s how it really is. But I also insist on doing this to torture those of you out there who prefer “normal” names or names of our immediately preceding generations. I do this to drive home the point that coming up with new names for a new generation isn’t remotely as non-conformist as it is practical. Just like having a homebirth: not weird, not risky, not eccentric, but for us, primarily, practical.

By the time Kristen arrives, it is nearly midnight and Kristen’s contractions are already only 2-3 minutes apart. She has already begun to share a swooning “hooooooooooo” with the walls of our first floor apartment. As each onslaught comes on, she breathlessly calls out to me, not quite making it to the “m” in my name: “dthaaahhhhhhhhhhhhh (m).” I prance over, reluctantly wrested from some less than crucial but still helpful task or preparation, excitedly, and with an occasional laugh, take her arms and walk her across the floor. We dance awkwardly, like I did when I was in junior high and every time since. Unsure, we take turns leading, but always her advancing, me giving ground. She leans slightly forward, her hands at my wrists, her head bowed in my chest. She breaths deeply, not huffing and puffing. We need the house to remain un-blown down. It’s winter. I remind her, occasionally, to slow down.

We both are a little confused. This isn’t what we were told, this isn’t how our natural childbirth is supposed to go down. The early part of labor is supposed to take several hours. We had a contingency plan to go to a nearby building with long hallways, if just for a change of scenery, somewhere to walk beyond the circle of our four room circuit. There were other plans too. Kristen was going to bake a cake. Yes, the one with the belly bump, baking a cake in labor.

But no, no time to rest, no time to think. No time for all that hypno-relax imagine-you-are-in-your-favorite-place-of-nature, countdown from ten and feel the stress leaving your body, from your head from your arms, from your toes. No time for the kegel exercise or squatting on the birth ball. No time to summon your inner goddess to guide you through the forest. Fuck all that. Fuck the candles, leave the lights on. Fuck the music. Turn off that damn Spanish guitar.

We need to check, we need to know. Are we making any progress? Kristen performs an exam on Kristen. (That’s two different people, no mirrors). Two centimeters. That’s it?! Kristen is dismayed but we are reminded, by Kristen, that it has only been three hours. Still it disappoints and I begin to hear her say the things we knew she’d say while crinkling up her face and opening her mouth in shock. Bitterly and labored, through three breaths: “I understand why people do drugs for this.” But we have practiced this discussion. She's allowed to say it, but we won’t be giving up, whimping out and going to the hospital, where it would only get worse and where everything would just suck. We have no reason to believe she can’t take the pain. Indeed she braves it well, it’s just, there’s no rest. “Can I skip a contraction?” She wants to laugh but it’s not a joke. She wants to believe Kristen can give her something to skip a contraction. Is there no drug for that? No drug for skipping one? No magical hippy tincture like the one with 65% grain alcohol, red raspberry leaf and black cohosh. Damn. “I thought it was going to start slow and build up. I don’t like this. I don’t like this at all.”

Those two hours. The two after being told she was only two centimeters. Only two. Those two hours were probably the hardest part for me. I was hungry, and starting to fatigue. This season I have found myself unable to go without a lot of sleep. Lack of light, lack of exercise, lack of sex (OK, we did it twice), lack of an all night party, lack of a paycheck. And each night, composing emails unwritten in my head to far flung friends halfway around the world. A final briefing before I become a father, or not. What if it all goes wrong? What if I panic and can’t take control and make it all work?

Contractions coming fast and hard at 2:30 am. Time to check again. What is the magical dilation number? For those following along at home, and who don’t know the mechanics of birth: you want to get to like10cm- that’s how wide you have to open your lady portal before your body switches gears and starts pushing the fetus out. Last we checked we were at two, remember. And it’s only been about two hours, but oh have they been thunderous! Essentially we need some good news here, for morale. Kristen is going for a 6. I’m betting 3 or 4, way lower than I think but I don’t want her to be disappointed.

We’re on the bed, the three of us. Kristen the midwife is tooling around in there, and she looks happy. It’s good news but she doesn’t want to give us a number too early. Probably three seconds of tension and suspense that last eons. The coolest moment of the night. Oh right, this is when we high fived. 9 centimeters. Oh, yeah, she rocked the labor. All hail your homebirth goddess! All tremble like her quivering lower lip!

I call her mom, who brags of a similar feat when Kristen was born. We knew, in fact, that a long line of babies in her blood circle arrived early and through short labors. Apparently Kristen was following suit. “Joy,” (that’s her name, mom) “we’re gonna get the pushing started soon. When the baby crowns, I’m gonna call you, and just lay the phone down so you can hear.”  The hoooooooooooooo-ing doesn’t quite reach the eardrums of our upstairs neighbors, but it manages to make it to Tennessee. I call my mom as well, in heaven, if that’s where she is. Somewhere, she’s with me, and she’s very psyched for me. I begin to get the sense she’s pulling some strings for me. She always did so many things to make my life go smoothly. Thanks Mom.

Kristen’s deepest hole is now. She's in the bathtub again and she is attuned to the fact that her body is transitioning from contractions to expunging. The urge to push creeps in and the panic of “holy shit that hurts” combines with “I need to move to the bed, we can’t do it in the bathtub in our tiny bathroom!” Add as well the emerging horror that there is now no break between events, it’s all one blur of new, intense feelings, and the grip of my hand is the only thing escaping doubt.

From the bathroom, through the kitchen, she steps to our bed. Kirsten, the second midwife, has arrived. The four of us work together, experimenting with different positions for pushing. The on-all-fours one definitely does not work. I think we settle on something that involves diagonals and I can definitely see something beneath the surface, making the movements outward. The doors are bulging. But I have no sense of the significance of this. Kristen and Kirsten keep coaching Kristen with happy voices, telling her she is doing amazingly and that her pushes are exceptionally productive. I’m cynical however, silently suspecting they are just saying that so as not to reveal that we’ve still got plenty of work to do. Still, less than perhaps only 45 minutes from the bathtub, I see the first brown black mass appear from the slit.

Now boys, you might want to skip ahead a couple of paragraphs. Don’t say I didn’t warn you. This part, I’d seen it in the movies, several times. Not just any movies. Special, poorly produced and cheesily narrated natural birth documentaries by new agers, people with crystals and strange vocabularies. People not like you and me. Weird perhaps, but you have to give them credit: they took the first steps. And, more importantly, they used a video camera. Score one for me. Now I know what to expect. Still, this is what I see: Like I said, it’s black brown. It’s pointy, almost like a fin and yeah, for a second I think its poop. I know its not poop. It’s hair, it's the top of his head. And I know they have pointy heads when they come out, but its really, really pointy! I’m trying to sketch the rest of his skull shape in my mind, imagine what still lies beneath. It comes out a bit more and retreats. She does her rounds in sets of 2 ½. They are strong, stronger and weaker. With each weak ending whimper, she apologizes for her failure but is unaware of her progress. The midwives continue their amazement and soon I am forced to concede- they aren’t making this up. We are seconds away.

I make the call, the cell phone is flipped open, resting on the pile of pillows near Kristen’s grunting throat. “Holy shit it burns! It fucking burns, oh fucking god it burns!” She’s actually pushing too well and Kristen cups the emerging head, protecting Kristen’s parts from tearing. Stretching takes time, even if just a few seconds. One more round of 2 ½ and his head is out. Damn it, I’m on the wrong fucking side, he’s facing down and slightly away from me.  I begin to feel a little panic. This is it, this is totally fucking it, she’s basically done with the hard part, but is he OK, is he going to open his eyes and breathe? Does he look like me?!

I’d been told this is where the baby now actually turns on his own so that the rest of him can slide out. But it’s all happening so fast, so I don’t witness if this actually happens. Kristen, emboldened by the success of her efforts is ready for another push, which isn’t even going to be as difficult as the previous, but is sternly ordered to wait. Kristen, the midwife, is telling us to stop. Something about the cord. The umbilical cord. Tangled? A flash of concern. Memories of hearing about cord-related tragedies, thoughts of ambulances. But no, there is no point in injecting drama in this story. It is a quick pause, my faith pours in to hold me aloft. The midwife knows what she is doing and this baby is going to be fine. Three seconds, five seconds. Who knows, how long, but the green light comes. “OK, one more push Kristen.”

Boom. He’s out. I see a flash of gray, I was told to expect goo, you know. I’d made it known I wanted to “catch,” to be the first to touch our baby, and to be the one to place him on Kristen’s chest. But instead, as the moment approached, I’d chosen to stay up by my wife’s side, holding her hand, placing a cold cloth on her forehead, making sure the cell phone doesn’t fall on the floor. The midwife needs to be down there, doing what needs to be done. “I’ll just jump in at the right moment,” I think to myself. And I do. Somehow my hands reach out at just the right second, and grasp the baby in just the right places. Midwife Kristen, seeing she is being intercepted by my darting limbs, begins to say something. But there’s no need. Together our hands go where they need to go and as I bring baby Luka up over my wife’s belly, I turn in time to see the joy on her face.

The new mother is shocked and amazed. She’d wanted to use a mirror to see the crowning but it all happened so fast. She’d found a moment to unclench one of her hands and reach down to feel when he was still emerging, smiling and almost laughing as her finger tips touched the brown black. But she’d not actually seen it and thus hadn’t known she was seconds, not minutes (or hours) from the end. Now it is truly over. Over over over! Her baby is in her arms, moving. A second later, he makes a melodic and friendly squeak. It’s 4:30am.

I don’t remember too much about the next two hours. The midwives do their thing. The placenta is delivered thirty minutes after, I don’t even watch when the cord is cut. Why play a bit part when you’ve already successfully completed your role as best supporting actor? I finally get the camera out and even manage to pick the best four images and get the announcement out to the world. The digital equivalent of ringing a bell and hoisting the “It’s a Boy” flag. They knew in Thailand before they knew on the second floor, that Luka was alive.

And then they are gone, proud midwives with another job well done behind them. The first floor is quiet, except for the breath of the basement furnace and three sleepy humans sharing a bed. An icicle falls, landing softly on the snow. A car speeds by on the interstate. The moon, is somewhere.


  1. I need more tissues...Really beautiful x

  2. One of the most beautiful stories from a father's perspective that we have ever read. We feel so blessed to have witnessed you become a family. We adore you all. Love, your midwives

  3. Fantastic and well written! So Happy for you guys :)

  4. I was moved by your beautiful birth story. Your accounting will be valuable to many, soon to be, papas and mamas. Welcome Luka!

  5. The last picture of you, disheveled hair, look of awe, sums up your experience quite well.

  6. I didn't think at first I would want to read this, but once I started, I couldn't stop. It was incredibly moving. Thank you for sharing. Welcome to fatherhood. Congrats to you both.