My first birth to Athena Joy was a typical first birth successfully accomplished at home. My midwife later informed me that I was statically in a group of less than 1% of women in the US to accomplish this feat. Even so, it was a long, painful, and utterly exhausting experience that broke me physically, mentally, and emotionally. I was happy with the decisions I had made and Athena thrived as a baby. But the experience had such an impression on me that I wasn’t sure I wanted to go through birth again. Low and behold, I became pregnant two years later and knew I had to go through it again. My experience the second time exceeded all of my expectations and left me feeling on top of the world and capable of anything. This is the feeling I wish all women could experience as they bring their children into the world.
This is the birth story of Isabella Claire.
At 40 weeks and 4 days, I woke up in the middle of the night feeling an odd period like sensation as blood flow to my pelvis increased without any discharge. I woke up in the morning with pelvic pressure hoping it was a sign that the baby was ready to bare down and get labor started. I took an epsom salt bath to see if the discomfort would disappear or progress. The sensations of pelvic pressure and discomfort disappeared during the bath, but picked back up after I dried off around 10:30 AM. I continued my day as usual taking care of Athena, cooking, cleaning, and doing house chores. I made and drank fresh pressed orange juice, consisting of navel and blood oranges. Every now and then I would feel a Braxton hick contraction sensation with associated pelvic ligament pain. Walking felt more difficult and any desire to leave the house diminished. I felt the urge to minimize movement, walking, and changing positions.
For lunch, I made brown rice pasta with moringa, avocado, tomato, tomato sauce, soy sauce, and turmeric. I called my husband, John, to let him know I suspected labor was impending but there was no need to rush home. I encouraged him to pick up groceries on his way home from work. At 3:40 PM, I texted my midwife to let her know that I had experienced two Braxton hicks accompanied by searing ligament pain. I watched a funny show to help pass time as I sat on my exercise ball. The contracts kept coming, and they were easy to breathe through. I ate a vegan burrito bowl from Chipotle for dinner.
By 7:00 PM, the contractions were 8 minutes apart. I told John to go to bed with Athena as early as possible. I wanted him to get some rest before the contractions became intense enough where I wanted his support. They were in bed by 8:00 PM. I brought my exercise ball up to the bedroom where I sat on it next to the bed. I made a stack of pillow to lean against and rest between contractions. The room was quiet, filled with only my thoughts. The light was dim with a red flow from my salt lamp. I entered a meditative state where I felt positive affirmations come and go. I asked my body to let the energy go where it needed to go. I asked my body to not resist the pain and discomfort. I focused on breathing as deeply and relaxed as I go during each wave. I asked my body to be strong where it needed to be strong and soft where it needed to give way. I found strength in breath and reminded myself that only I could give birth to this baby. By taking full responsibility for the birth, I asked for the strength to be the mother this child needed. I was quiet, focused, and felt confident in my ability to labor on my own. This lasted about three and a half hours.
Since my first labor took a couple of days, I had told my midwife and in-laws to get some sleep and that the baby would likely be born sometime the next day. I knew this birth would be faster, but assumed the early stage would take a while and wanted everyone to come well rested.
At 11:30 PM, I went to the bathroom as I felt like I needed to poop. When I pushed down, I felt something shift. Suddenly, the manageable contractions became much more intense. I could no longer enter my quiet meditative state. I found myself vocalizing with each contraction to help with pain management. The primal instincts kicked into full gear and I felt the power of labor take over. John heard me in the bathroom and came to see if I needed help. He came with me into the bedroom and gave me support and comfort during each contraction. He offered a heating pad, but I was repulsed by how the heat changed my blood flow. Even massage felt like a distraction from the process at hand. Therefore, I sat on the ball holding onto to John and vocalizing through each wave. During one particularly painful contraction, I felt what I perceived to be the baby’s nose and forehead twist into my pelvic bone. It was simultaneously fascinating and horrifying. I suspect this contraction is what caused her stork bite.
At 12:00 AM early Friday morning, the contractions were 4-5 minutes apart. I had difficulty breathing into the waves and felt resistance to the pain. I became nauseous, panicky, and shaky. I told my midwife that I needed her at 12:23 AM. I felt like labor was progressing much faster than I had anticipated and felt like I needed support or a new strategy to cope with each wave. Surprisingly, Athena was sleeping soundly in the next room and was not disturbed by my vocalizations. She woke up once asking John to stay with her, and quickly went back to sleep after he left the room.
The midwife arrived at 1:10 AM. Right after she walked into the room, I felt a downward urge with the contraction. I looked at her in disbelief and asked if it was okay to bear down. She encouraged me to go with the sensation. I couldn’t believe I was in the transition phase already. Soon after, the pain of a contraction tested my limits and I heard myself tell John and the midwife “I can’t do this.” John looked at my slightly puzzled and said, “You ARE doing this.” It was the perfect response to give me confidence. I realized that I had hit the transition phase and the labor would be over soon.
I began pushing at 1:30 AM, right after the midwife’s assistant and my in-laws arrived. I felt the urge to push 3-4 times per contraction. I was surprised by my muscle memory and strength during each push. I could feel baby moving down through the birth canal. The midwife checked the baby’s heart rate once and it was perfect. I was in a squat position leaning against the bed with protective pads underneath on the floor. I realized the baby was coming very fast and awkwardly stripped off all of my clothes. I felt the baby’s head emerge and then the body soon after. It was quick and there was no ring of fire. John caught the baby and held it as I crawled into bed. After only 15 minutes of pushing, the baby arrived at 1:43 AM on January 4th 2019.
John put the baby on my chest and exclaimed, “It’s a girl.” After several dreams vividly showing the baby as a girl, I thought, “Of course! It’s Isabella Claire.” No boy names resonated during the pregnancy, so I was hoping my intuition was right. Ironically, I was confident about the labor, but as soon as I held the small baby on my chest, I no longer had a clue what I was supposed to do. I kept asking the midwife, “What do I do next?” We took our time and bonded. The midwife wiped vernix off of her eyes. Within the hour, Isabella had latched. We waited until the umbilical cord was done pulsing to cut it.
Isabella rated a 10 on her first apgar score. She cried and breathed well. She was an average size, weighing 6.5 lbs and 20 inches long. She looked beat up with a stork bite on her forehead and right eye, but showed no complications or reason for concern. The midwife confirmed that I had minimal blood loss when the baby came out, and I was not at risk for hemorrhaging or excessive blood loss. I even managed to keep my perineum in tact without a single tear. My placenta came out easily. The afterpains were intense, but very effective at stopping bleeding and helping my uterus shrink.
My total labor lasted 16 hours with 2-3 hours of active labor and 15 minutes of pushing. It was very fast compared to my first labor that lasted 53 hours with 10 hours of active labor and 3 hours of pushing.
I was high on hormones. I could handle all of the physical and emotional stress during and after labor. My core still felt relatively strong as I walked to the bathroom for the first time after birth. I was tired, but not exhausted and could move well on my own. I bled fairly heavy for 3 days and then the flow was spotty and minimal for the next couple of weeks. I was able to switch from depends to pads within two weeks. Bleeding nearly ceased by 4 weeks with minimal spotting afterwards. Isabella grew fast, gaining 4 lbs in the first 5 weeks. She slept and ate well with almost no crying. She would sleep on her own sometimes and was content as long as she was fed, clean, and being held.
In the postpartum period, fresh orange juice in the morning and grounding soups with root vegetables at night gave me life. I had some night sweats that I was able to reduce by increasing intake of organic soy milk and soy sauce. I took an Epsom salt bath every 2-3 days to keep my magnesium levels high to help cope with stress and optimize healing. I rested in bed as much as I could for the first 3-4 days. After that I became stir crazy and became cooking, cleaning, and went for car rides and walks. I was constantly surprised by how well the labor, birth, and postpartum period had gone. I was healing at least twice as fast the second time around. I was 10-15 lbs lighter than the first time. I was stronger, happier, confident, and empowered. I could easily see myself having another child in couple of years.
Suffering and trauma are an inherent part of life and the birth process. What we can do is educate ourselves and submit in a way that reduces additional unnecessary suffering. We need to embrace the pain, submit to the discomfort, and believe that our body knows exactly how the baby needs to come out. I had no fear. I had no desire for external pain medication. I never entertained the idea of going to a hospital. I loved staying in my home and focusing on the task at hand. I knew my birth vision could come to life if I stayed in the moment and embraced each challenge with a positive perspective. I am able to look back on my experience with pride.
I attribute my positive birth experience to a whole food plant based pregnancy. I used muscle testing to pick optimal foods and quantities at each stage. I gained enough weight, but did not suffer from edema or intestinal distress. My body was hydrated and flexible. I continued to exercise moderately until the day before labor began. I focused on walking, rebounding, handstands against a wall, and calisthenics that focused on pelvic and back strength. I did regular Epsom salt baths to keep my magnesium levels from getting depleted. I meditated daily and worked through fears, concerns, and emotions regarding the birth, including processing and healing from my first birth. I found a midwife who was very supportive and brought a peaceful confidence to the process. She focused on informed consent without fear mongering.
Every woman is different. Every pregnancy is different. Every labor and birth experience are different. I hope more and more women will enter birth with confidence in their natural ability instead of fear of worst-case scenarios. I hope birth attendants will support women when they feel doubt instead of looking for a reason to create unnecessary panic and interventions. When I envision female empowerment, I think about how we view and treat women during their most vulnerable and powerful moments during birth.