Tilja's Birth Story:
Ben was at happy hour when I went into labor. My mom had been up visiting for the day to work on some baby projects, and she greeted him when he walked in the door at 6 p.m., saying, “I think your wife is in labor!” He chuckled, and said, “wait -- really?”
I’d had a slow, steady leak of what I eventually figured out was amniotic fluid all day long. I messaged Ben before lunch to tell him simply, “my body is freaking out today”. Fortunately I stayed busy running errands with my mom, which kept my mind off of what was going on with my body. By the time we got home around four o’clock, though, I knew I had to cancel the evening appointments I had on my calendar - I felt terrible.
I really didn’t know I was in labor. The “contractions” I felt early on were not anything like the hard contractions that would come later, and felt much more like menstrual cramps -- a constant downward pressure, not marked by a clear start or finish. I had texted our doula, Holly, at 4:15 p.m. to tell her I felt like the baby was about to fall out of me, but that I’d let her know “if anything gets real…” Fortunately she had the intuition to call a couple hours later to check on me because she was in the neighborhood. I had one of the first surges that began to feel more like the contractions people described while I was on the phone with her. We agreed it made sense for her to just stop by to see how I was doing.
She arrived shortly after Ben got home, around 6:30, and reported, “I think you’re in labor, Jen!” I was in disbelief that the day had finally arrived!
My mom and I had picked up my 2-year-old niece, Adeline, earlier that afternoon, so as all of this was going on she was running around blissfully unaware, chasing the kitties, playing with toys, singing nursery rhymes! My mother was a godsend, and not only kept an eye on Adeline but rubbed my back and hips as I grew more and more uncomfortable. She and Adeline left once Ben and Holly arrived, just as my contractions grew more regular and began to intensify.
We labored at home for five hours. At about 7:30 we went for a walk around the neighborhood, pausing for each contraction. As my contractions intensified, one worried neighbor opened his door and asked if we needed any help, to which Holly replied, “No, thank you -- it’s just labor!” He looked no less worried and retreated inside, probably wondering if I would have my baby on his sidewalk. When we got home around 8:00, my contractions were 3-4 minutes apart.
The hours between 8 and 11 p.m. are something of a blur. We moved from laboring in the dining room on a birth ball, to the nursery, and eventually to the living room. Ben put on my classical playlist and I remember being totally enraptured by a period of Eric Whitacre choral music I had sung in college. Samuel Barber’s “Adagio For Strings” came on (one of my favorite orchestral pieces), perfectly timed with the climax and reprieve following one of my contractions. While I was in the nursery, Memphis (our cat) sat right next to me and purred, beating his tail with the rhythm of my contractions. Tupelo (our other cat) hid under the couch. I had a good sob-fest in the nursery while Ben went to get some coffee, and told Holly “it just feels good to cry.”
Around 10:15 p.m. Holly and Ben noticed a spike in my contractions, now 1-2 minutes apart. Danica, our friend and photographer arrived in the middle of a contraction. It took a great deal of effort to greet her with a smile after it was over.
All I wanted was to get in the water, but the thought of running a bath at home seemed crazy to me -- getting undressed, wet, dried off, and dressed again with contractions of this intensity seemed outside the realm of possibility, so I asked Holly if it would be too soon to head to the birth center. She agreed it was time to start moving in that direction, so we started packing up. In the process, I remember throwing up in a trash can, checking my to-do list to be sure we weren’t forgetting anything important (I insisted Ben get his sweatpants from upstairs because it was on the list), and drinking in the fresh air as we stepped outside. I rode the 17 blocks up Park Ave on all fours in the backseat while Ben reached back to hold my hand the whole way.
We got to the MN Birth Center at 11 p.m., where Mary-Signe met us in the parking lot. She helped me inside where a warm bath was waiting for me surrounded by flickering candles. Upon the suggestion of our brilliant childbirth educators Liz and Katie at Blooma, I had asked for two things in my birth plan: to not have a clock visible to me while I was laboring, and to not be told how far dilated I was -- only if I was making progress or not. These proved to be excellent suggestions, and helped me not get fixated on the numbers or sense of time passing. When I found out later I was already dilated to 7 cm when we arrived at the birth center, I was totally shocked! I had assumed the worst in my mind… that I was maybe 2 or 3 cm dilated and had a loooong way to go.
I labored in the tub for about two hours. The water felt like heaven to me. I was able to lie back with my ears below the water, and the noise of voices and music in the room became a distant murmur. I remember feeling so “zen” in the water… my mind was in something of a trance, such that I was even able to sleep between my contractions! After two hours, Mary-Signe came in to check my progress again and though the baby had descended a bit in the birth canal, my cervix hadn’t dilated any further (all I was told, thankfully, was that we were making progress but needed to try and mix things up a bit to see if we could move things along). I wasn’t happy, because this meant getting out of the tub!
For another hour, I moved around the room, laboring for awhile on the bed, on hands and knees on the floor, and in the bathroom. It hurt so badly to be out of the tub. I remember repeating the phrase, “I don’t know… I just don’t know” and beginning to grow concerned. I could tell things were not going the way the team wanted them to, and worried things were much worse than I knew -- that a trip across the street to the hospital was imminent.
I did know that something had to change, but I had no idea what, or how.
When they checked me at 2:30 a.m. I was still at 7 cm (thank God for my ignorance)! I’m told at this point, Mary-Signe, Holly, and the resident who was assisting, Tess, had a quick pow-wow in the hallway where they speculated that the baby was posterior (face up) and asynclitic (head crooked). They tossed around ideas for techniques to spin the baby, and decided to try everything.
First my doubly talented chiropractor-doula, Holly, gave me an adjustment to be sure everything was in proper alignment in my sacrum and pelvis. Then they used a technique called Rebozo Sifting to gently lift and shift the baby side to side using a scarf while I knelt on all fours. After that, they moved me to edge of the bed and to try a side-lying technique to align my pelvic floor muscles, having me drape my top leg down over the edge and hold it through a contraction. (I screamed bloody murder during this one, it hurt so bad!)
The last thing they tried was called an abdominal lift. They had Ben stand with his back against the wall, and had me lean against him. He put his hands under my belly and lifted the baby up out of the birth canal while I tilted my pelvis forward. This hurt like hell, and I screamed as I felt the baby move up out of my pelvis. They had us do this lift three times, to my agony, but the third time they saw the baby turn in my belly! I told Ben he should become a doula! I could feel a major difference -- this baby was going to be born now! Immediately, my body started bearing down to push, and I climbed back into the water, ready to get this thing done!
I pushed for an hour and ten minutes. It felt so good to be back in the water, but mostly to feel actual progress happen with each push. I felt tired but strong, and increasingly confident. An ambulance went by the window, sirens on and lights flashing. “Is that for me?” I asked, “Because I’m not going.”
Ben sat on the back side of the tub behind me so I could drape my arms over his knees to help hold myself in a squat. My contractions were still two full minutes apart, so the breaks between pushes felt like an eternity, especially once the baby’s head started to crown. I remember having the feeling that comes over you during a good long run, of feeling so physically tired that you actually make yourself speed up so you can get home and rest quicker. If they had let me push between contractions, I would have -- but of course, that would have been an exercise in frustration. Instead I committed to each push with everything in me and tried to make as much progress as possible. When her head came out as far as her eyes they asked me to give the next push everything I had, to try and get the rest of her head and body out in one big push.
Tilja Alice was born at 4:25 a.m. on Thursday, March 27 in the warm water with her mama and papa. They put her immediately on my chest, all newborn-purple and covered in thick, cheesy vernix. She had a full head of black hair and was very calm, as newborn babies go. Ben announced her gender (once mama moved her hand out of the way so they could determine it) and cut the umbilical cord as Patty Griffin’s “Heavenly Day” came on in the background.
People warned us that births never go quite according to plan, but by some miracle, with the amazing intuition and experience of our birth team, Ben and I got to have the birth experience we had hoped and prepared for. I take little credit in the success of our plan, as I felt my own determination wane under the pain I was in for awhile. I know that if I had been offered drugs in that moment I likely would have agreed to them, but because of the quality of care and support of our team, my dream of a natural childbirth was realized.
I have sinced read of many womens’ vastly different outcomes as a result of a posterior, asynclitic baby -- most of them in c-section deliveries after hours of pushing. I am so grateful to the talented women we chose to have be part of our birth team, and believe now more than ever that it is as, if not more important to surround yourself with people who are as committed to your desired outcomes as you yourself are.
We went home to rest and recover four and a half hours after our daughter was born, just as the clinic opened for the day, and began our adventure of parenthood with a fine morning mist -- and big grins -- on our faces.