By Gillian Gillette
Before both my children were born, I wondered who they were and who they would be. In retrospect, my first physical experiences of them in utero and during birth gave me more of a connection with the individuals soon to come into my life than I could have guessed. Their birth was the first step in the dance of knowing and love.
I could not escape or writhe away from the intense and non-relenting pain. It was my first time birthing and I kept waiting for that little break of contractions where I could catch a resting breath. I looked up in a moment of panic and asked Susan, my midwife,”Isn’t there supposed to be a break between these things?” She was leaning against the wall, quietly watching and hanging back; she shrugged, “apparently not.”
My midwife was not one to sugarcoat and I was surprised how much I loved her for it. The most support I could get from my husband, mother and midwife was as witnesses to the labor I was doing. Even in my fairly frantic state of wishing the whole thing was over, I found Susan’s dry tone somehow funny and perfect; She was right, there would be no breaks, there was no escaping this labor as this labor was meant to be: back labor.
Sofia, my first baby, was in a great fetal position until her eighth month when I made the ambitious decision to tile my kitchen floor. The bustle of activity right before her birth had to do with buying a very old and rundown house two months before she was conceived and then realizing that if we didn’t finish fixing things up before she was born, it was likely we wouldn’t ever have time to fix it up because we would be too busy with a baby. Somewhere between laying down the hardy-backer and smoothing out the mortar, something changed and I couldn’t put my finger on the sensation. From a quiet first eight months to the last month of bustle before birth, it seems Sofia got curious about what was going on out there. During my next examination, the midwife looked puzzled and then explained why I was feeling a difference: Sofia was still head down, but she was facing out. I did some shifting of my pelvis, some gentle stretching and wiggling of my hips, trying to move her around, but she persistently stayed facing outward. Without a true understanding of the importance of fetal position and how it could affect outcomes in labor and birth, I didn’t think much more about it. I felt ready and hung curtains, nesting and practicing breathing and relaxation with pre-labor contractions.
My water broke at five in the morning, and after a day of waiting and hoping things progressed so I could have a homebirth, labor really began when everyone had finally gone to bed. I awoke and everything was different and intense as active labor can be. Seven hours later, Sofia was born. No one really told me or could tell me what back labor was going to be like: being my first labor I wasn’t able to distinguish how intense back labor is until my second birth. For my back labor, there was intense pressure and pain in my back where the baby’s skull was trying to move past my back bone while simultaneously working with the contractions of the uterus in the front of my body. There was a sensation of being squeezed from the front and the back and the back pain didn’t cease until Sofia had moved down and twisted to face my back as she entered my vagina. After seven hours of serious work, I gave birth to Sofia squatting over a birth stool with a favorite piece of sarong clutched like a rope between my hands, my husband pulling the rope as a counter pressure and the midwife down on the floor ready to catch Sofia as she came. As soon as she was out, I held her while still in a crouched position. The relief of holding her was an instant balm against the pain and exhaustion and I melted into bliss.
From birth on, Sofia was calm and observant, opening one eye like a pirate as she peered at us. Almost immediately, her favorite positions were looking over our shoulders, being held up outwards against our chest by our forearms and once I got a little help figuring out the Maya sling at three months, she was happy for hours in a cross-legged, outward sitting style where she could see everything and get plenty of interaction from the safety and height of my arms. Her birth position and the positions she was most comfortable with for the first two years were very similar.
I draw a connection between observing the eight year old Sofia as she joins different activities and her time in utero and babyhood: I see her circling the group, then finding a spot where she can observe before she joins in. Time passes before she looks comfortable, but then she works to master the skills with intense concentration. She inspires me. Part of me wishes she could just jump into a situation and not hang back as long as she does and maybe have more fun, but recognizing the essence of her and seeing her as a unique person is the part of me that I try to honor more. My wishes to change her for my own comfort level began our dance together and accepting how she would come into this world and be in it will continue to be the acceptance that is part of a mother’s lifelong work.
The one stretch mark I have from birth is exactly where Oli tended to push his head down slightly to the left of my lower belly and do a lot of stretching against my ribs. He didn’t like to be curled up at all and his stretches were a big part of his expression before birth. Oli’s birth position was great throughout pregnancy and labor was typical of a second birth: fast and at night as the midwives had cautioned me might happen, while the first child is still sleeping. Sofia had drawn many pictures of a baby in my tummy. Early on I had requested them all to be upside down babies, preferably with just a little face showing: after all, why take chances on another back labor? She used face paints and painted a picture of him on my 38 week belly, a smiling baby, looking ready to play.
The birth records say there was a four hour labor, but really there was only about an hour and a half where I was lost in the work of labor. As soon as everything was more or less set, I had stripped off my clothes, put my glasses on a shelf and let the labor really begin. Instead of trying to avoid the pain and intensity of the contractions of my lower body, I backed and lay myself into them, willing myself to open and accept it. Thus, I opened and was ready for transition fairly quickly, but without back labor, the sensations of uterine movement were more intense sensation rather than pain and I did get those little breathing spaces I had been looking for in my first labor. When it was time, I pushed Oli out while standing, knee deep in a hot tub, one leg slung up on the rim. Once out, I took him in my arms and sunk down into the hot water relieving the muscles in my legs. It was fast and fairly furious and the way that he was meant to be born. The image I had as he was born was a giraffe that births her young to the ground and gets him moving right away. It is Oli’s essence: a moving, strong creature ready to begin right away. The midwives said he was hearty enough at the first Apgar check that if there was an Apgar score above ten, they could have given him an eleven or twelve, he surely deserved it.
Oli’s birth position has also translated to a picture of who he is in the world. After birth, he really didn’t like being rolled up into a sling and did all the familiar pushes to get out of it that he had done inside me. His strong neck and head pushes in utero are a mirror of all the movements he makes today: he tends to be a headstrong personality, he pushes with his head when he’s upset and he has given me more bumped lips, noses and head bruises than I can count as he plays like a wild animal.
He is delightful in this physicality though it can be painful to play with him as he learns physical control and responsibility for his actions. That is the work set out for me: helping him harness his innate strength and physical determination for his greater good and to make the world a better place because he can help push and pull it together. I continue to accept him and his physicality easier when I reflect on that strong, rosy baby already wildly sucking at his first nursing, his fists trying to make it into his mouth as he worked to take in life as much as possible.
Labor with both my children was my first experience of their physical expressions and the first step of the parenting dance to which I am constantly learning the next steps, just so I can keep up. I continue to create a connection with who they are and how to parent them through my memory of their births.
Gillian Gillette is a writer and mother who lives in the Bay Area.