[In case it’s not super obvious from the title, this is a story about birth. If words like cervix and placenta make you squeamish, you might want to skip this post.]
My birth stories are very much partner stories–I couldn’t do any of it without Daryl!–so I’ve asked him to contribute to this post as well. His observations are in the indented/quoted text.
So… the last month of pregnancy lasts forever. Not to mention I tend to have my babies a bit on the overdue side – 10 days with Lincoln and 5 days with Wilson. One nurse referred to me as a “crock pot.”
As we waited to welcome baby girl, by 39 weeks I was OVER IT. Just plain over it. Tired, achy, out of oxygen. (Have you seen what happens to a woman’s internal organs when there’s a baby in there? Seriously – Google it. They get smashed up and back and down and everywhere. No WONDER I couldn’t breathe.)
I prayed this baby would be early, and if not early, at least not late.
Then, in the early hours of Wednesday, October 24–at 39 weeks, 3 days pregnant–I woke up feeling an odd sensation. Could that be my water breaking? Nah, that had never happened until I was in hard labor before.
Yet there it was. I was definitely leaking. Like a sieve. And then a geyser. I checked the time: 3:30am.
[God bless our birth center, which sent us home after our 34-week appointment with a plastic mattress cover. “Mattresses are expensive,” they said. “You’re going to want to protect yours.”]
“Daryl?” I said, hating to wake him from sleep, knowing we’d likely have a long, long day ahead of us. “I think my water broke.”
He sprang from the bed like bread from a toaster.
Not really. Both the other births had started with INTENSE contractions. This was quite disorienting. Doubt isn’t quite the right word because I utterly trust the intuitiveness of Birth Courtney. Disorientation + sleepy delay + caution because this isn’t how this usually happens is probably the most accurate way to describe my reaction.
“It’s not an emergency!” I told him. “I’m not in hard labor or anything yet.”
My internal thought: “Obviously. Hmm… Is this okay?”
“I just need my phone – it’s in the kitchen and I’m supposed to lay down on my left side for the next half hour or so. Oh, and maybe grab me a towel?”
He did, and I paged the midwife on call. Everything checked out. Baby was moving; I wasn’t feverish; until I started having strong contractions we should try to get some sleep, eat a breakfast rich in protein, and wait for my normally scheduled appointment at 9am.
Get some sleep. As if.
“We’re going to meet our baby today!” I chirped.
“You got this,” Daryl said, rubbing my shoulders. “She’s coming today.”
Insert a groggy few hours filled with not sleeping and mishmashed thoughts of “we’re having a baby!” and “PLEASE let contractions come before we get to the 24 hour mark because then things can get serious,” and “where do I find the energy to wrassle up plans for the other two kiddos in the house…?”
Daryl showered and made us breakfast. I lay down for a few minutes, ate breakfast, and then I showered too, assuming contractions would begin as soon as I was vertical.
We puttered around the house, throwing the bedclothes and towels into the washing machine, tidying the kitchen, talking through the plans for the boys. Daryl prayed over me. I turned on a podcast for distraction, put fresh sheets on our bed, and at 6:00am finally tried to nap. Daryl lay down next to me.
Lincoln woke around 6:30 and bounded into our room. “Morning, Mommy! Morning, Dad! Can I snuggle with you? In the middle?” he crawled in bed between us and patted both of our faces with a huge grin.
“Hey bud,” I said, “what would you think of having Mr. John [a friend from church who lives nearby and often volunteers at Linc’s school] take you to school today?” He pondered this. Lincoln’s not always fond of last-minute changes.
“Why?” he asked.
“Because…” Daryl said. “Mommy is going to go have the baby today.”
Linc lit up like a Christmas tree. Big smile. “Today?” he asked.
“Mr. John can take me to school!”
Daryl got Linc dressed and loaded into John’s car. Praise God for wonderful friends who live nearby and don’t mind a 6am text followed by a 6:45 phone call asking them to be at our house by 7:15!
We got the rest of our birth center supplies ready, not knowing if we were in for a short trip or a marathon, or even if they’d send us home for a few hours. Daryl walked Wilson across the street to a neighbor’s house. Still no contractions.
The waiting felt ominous in a way. I couldn’t wait to meet our little girl, but labor is difficult and intense and painful. I wanted it to start–statistically the likelihood of developing an infection for both mom and baby skyrockets 24 hours after membranes rupture–but I also didn’t mind basking a little bit in the calm before the storm. Baby was going to come, but nothing hurt yet.
Unsure what to do with our final hour before my appointment, I did what I always do when I’m stressed. I baked. Five minutes before we headed out the door I pulled a pie from the oven and gave a batch of mini-muffins to Daryl to take to the neighbor’s.
I’ve seen Stressed Courtney = Baking Courtney many times. Muffins I could’ve predicted. But a pie?
One of the joys of having three kids is that by the third birth my auto-censor was pretty in tune. “A pie?” Duly noted as significant to the narrative. Forward comment immediately away from external communication and into internal voicemail to be chuckled about later.
“Um… isn’t Courtney in labor?” the neighbor asked when Daryl handed her a basket of warm pumpkin goodness.
“Sort of,” said Daryl.
Side note: we have the best neighbors ever. Not only did they take Wilson all day on a whim even though they have 6 kids of their own–all homeschooled (and brilliant, by the way)–but when I asked Wilson if he wanted a hug goodbye after dropping off the muffins he firmly shook his head no. The implication was this: I love it here. If I let you get close to me you might take me away from these wonderful friends. Therefore: no hug. Love you, Dad. Mean it!
We loaded up the car and drove the 20 minutes to the center. Everything felt different. Weird. Off. Labor with our two boys had been remarkably similar: contractions began at night and with great intensity.
With the boys’ births, there wasn’t time to think or worry or process. We’d called our doula and the midwife with no doubt things were progressing. This time it was broad daylight. We had time to prepare. I had time to feel a rising tide of panic and push it down. It was a moment by moment struggle.
Courtney: “My water breaking without contractions feels ominous.”
Internal Daryl: “I feel exactly that way too.”
External, Birth-Tested Daryl speaking truths that are still true no matter how it feels: “Tell yourself true things, love. Your body totally knows what it’s doing.”
We talked politics, church happenings, and the World Series on the way. This didn’t feel like labor. Courtney never asks about sports. Especially not in labor.
I texted our doula to let her know my waters had broken but nothing was happening yet.
“Should I come now?” she asked.
“Not yet,” I said. I didn’t want to feel like a watched pot that wouldn’t boil.
I had a light contraction or two during our drive, but nothing more. I tried not to think about worst-case scenarios. If labor doesn’t progress naturally, some of the necessary interventions can make the whole experience more intense and painful. I’d always said I’d never accept Pitocin–a medication that makes contractions exponentially stronger–without an epidural, but I might have to. (Our birth center doesn’t have epidurals.) What then?
Much of what got me through labor with my previous two births was that it happened so quickly I didn’t have a lot of time to anticipate the pain. It happened so quickly that even if I’d planned for a medicated hospital birth, I might not have had the time to get an epidural anyway. Now awaiting what lay ahead was all I was doing. The anticipation was killing me.
The midwife checked my vitals and the baby’s, proclaimed everything good, and put a belly binder–a big elastic and velcro tummy wrap–on me to keep baby in an optimal position.
She asked us to start timing the contractions even if they weren’t super-intense, and then sent us out to walk the strip mall in the hope that labor would start up on its own in earnest. She said she’d get in touch with the on-call midwife to come check me again in about an hour.
So we walked. The day was California perfect. 75 degrees, a little bit of a breeze, sunny. As we strolled, I had a few middling contractions, coming a little closer together. I held Daryl’s hand and prayed for courage to face down whatever came next.
By the time we walked back to the birth center the contractions were five minutes apart and ramping up in intensity.
Seeing this ramp up in intensity was such grace. I had seen Courtney be such a warrior in the first two labors in exactly the same way. I knew that if we could just get into actual labor that she’d be fine. It was the mental games the not quite there created that made me nervous.
Lorri–the midwife on call–met us in the little courtyard out front and told us to come inside whenever we felt ready.
One of the things we love about midwives in general and our birth center in particular is that they take a nuanced, gentle, intuitive approach to labor and delivery. She didn’t say, “Come in right now.” She said, “Come in when you’re ready.” I waited out another contraction–this one a little stronger than the previous one–and we headed inside. It was 10am. Go time.
Lorri checked my cervix. 5cm. Halfway there! Progress! I’d hoped to be a bit farther along (I have weeks of early labor, so I am often at 5cm for a couple weeks before I start hard labor), but 5cm was workable. That dilation, coupled with the increasing contractions, meant that transition, and pushing, and meeting our baby were probably not too far off.
“Ready for the birth room?” she asked. The birth center’s labor room is amazing. During routine exams it looks like a fancy bedroom, with plush pillows and cream-colored bedspreads, an in-wall fireplace and battery-powered candles. It smells like a spa. When a laboring mom arrives, they change it into this magical birth-land with all the necessary supplies, from towel warmers to baby blankets to cleverly disguised medical equipment.
We nodded. Daryl headed out to the car to get our supplies while I waited out another contraction. When he came back, we headed to the birth room and I put on my bathing suit to get into the tub.
I can’t describe the peace that comes from having another baby in the EXACT same room–literally the same tub–as our second child, Wilson. There was a palpable sense of peace and “we’ve been here before doing this exact thing” that fell over both us as we settled into the birth room.
When people tell me they could never do natural childbirth, I totally get it. It isn’t for everyone. Birth is a very personal path. I’d never, ever criticize a woman who chose a hospital birth or an epidural, who needed a C-section or sought medicated pain relief. The only thing that makes natural birth workable for me is the fact that my labors are short and I can labor in a tub.
Warm water is an incredible pain reliever during labor. It relaxes and softens everything. It takes the pressure of the heavy baby off of a laboring mom’s back. It allows for easy movement and weightless position changes. Also: who doesn’t like lounging in a hot tub?
For me the difference between riding out a contraction in the water and out of the water is the difference between powerful but tolerable labor and completely overwhelming pain.
As soon as I got into the tub, I started to cry. I don’t usually get emotional until after the baby comes, but with this slow ramp-up, all of the anticipation and fear and excitement hit me and I just lost it. My tears fell into the water. I gripped Daryl’s hand and all the feelings from the past nine months came pouring out.
“What if we can’t do it?” I asked. “What if this is too hard this time? This year has been so long. This pregnancy was so hard and I threw up for so many weeks and we moved and I wrote a book. Then I wrote another book. It’s so much. And this baby is a girl! I don’t know how to do girls! I make boys! It’s too much!”
Daryl rubbed my shoulders, handed me a tissue, and assured me that we could do this. That I was strong. That I was in fact already doing this. That baby was strong. That God had brought us this far and wasn’t about to abandon us now.
My tears continued to come on and off throughout labor and I had to simply accept them and let them come. Birth is all about release, and releasing the emotions helped my body to release as well.
Internally, I had a very similar experience. When Courtney got into the tub and starting laboring, I had several strong rushes of tears as well. I’m still not 100% sure why, but I think it definitely has to do with having less time and fewer emotional reserves to really focus on getting ready for this birth and this child.
It certainly wasn’t from a lack of desiring to prepare for her, it was more just that there is a lot more going on in life these days: two kids, much deeper engagement and long-term commitments at church, supporting Courtney in writing her books, and continuing to settle into our home.
The emotion felt odd in a way. Not wrong or bad. Just different. At the first two births, the emotion felt all about this thing happening now; at this birth it was like there needed to be a release and processing of everything else as preparation for engaging fully emotionally with this thing (labor) and this new person already on her way…
What I need most in labor is to be left alone to fully into my labor headspace. I can handle the pain, but to do so I need descend into my long-distance running zone. When I used to run, I’d listen to podcasts to help me forget the physical exhaustion. In labor, I turn on music and dim the lights and close my eyes and just let the outer world fade away so my body can do its hard work.
Any time I have to answer a question, open my eyes, or speak, it takes me out of that place and makes the pain much harder to bear.
Can I just say what a warrior Courtney is? Having seen Courtney go into “this place” twice before, honestly one of things I was looking forward to the most in all of this was getting the honor of witnessing this wondrous happening. It’s amazing and beautiful.
As labor ramped up, I went deeper and deeper into my labor place. Daryl had his swim trunks on, ready to help me when I needed him, but he waited for an invitation. For half an hour or so I labored alone, sometimes grabbing his arm, but usually just vocalizing through the contractions.
Then the contractions got more intense, and I asked him to climb in with me. He came right in, his steady, loving, silent presence anchoring me when the pain began to increase exponentially.
Our doula, Tonya, arrived exactly when we needed her. She could tell I was getting too warm, so she set up a portable fan. She sensed my back was aching, so she began massaging it with tennis balls. She saw only water cups by the tub, so she brought me some juice so I’d have the energy from extra calories.
“You’re doing great,” she whispered. “You’re so, so close.”
The intuitive bond between Tonya and Courtney is something special. I’ve learned in labor that what is most helpful for me to do is simply be a quiet, strong presence. I tend to be very intuitive–for a dude. But I’ve found that in labor any sense of “what Courtney needs right now” is probably wrong and disruptive.
However, Tonya gets it and gets Courtney. When she senses something that Courtney needs, she’s correct–and decisively so–pretty much every time. That’s incredible.
My moaning turned to yelling, and I felt ready to begin pushing. I pushed for awhile–it felt like years, but was probably only ten or fifteen minutes–and then Lorri checked my cervix to make sure nothing was in the way of the baby descending since she didn’t seem to be moving down.
“I think if you come and…”
At this point, I thought Lorri was going to suggest that Courtney get out and push on the bed. At which point, I would have ceased been and a strong and quiet presence and become a strong and exceedingly vocal presence. The water is Courtney’s place in labor…
“…use the restroom…”
I was wrong. Glad to be wrong.
“…that will clear the space baby needs,” she said. I reluctantly got out of the tub and walked to the bathroom, contractions beginning to pound me with increasing force. I asked the birth team to give me some privacy – I didn’t want to go potty with an audience, thanks! – and did my business.
Side note for posterity’s sake: while Courtney went to the bathroom, I snuck out of the room to find a bathroom for myself. The only problem is that the birth center does not allow men to use the bathroom in the birth center. (Right, I get it. Nothing stalls labor as quickly as Dad doing his business up the hallway.)
But the bathroom I could use was outside across the patio and I had on wet swim trunks. So… I wrapped a towel on myself and tiptoed across the way outside in bare feet. The birth team was hilariously delighted by this backstory after baby girl had arrived safely.
Ok, back to the real story.
After using the bathroom, the change was instantaneous. The baby’s head slammed down with such force I was scared her birth story would end by her arriving directly into the porcelain bus.
“Baby is coming!” I screamed out in a panic.
What a moment. Watching her get out of the tub and then clear the room minutes earlier was incredibly tough. The result was some anxiety, fear, and a great deal of feeling helpless. Obviously, I completely understood, but it was still an unexpectedly fraught period of time.
Then, when she called out, “Baby is coming!” there was simultaneous fright–I don’t want my wife and baby to be alone!–and relief: we’re almost there!
The team rushed back in and shuffled me back into the tub. Lorri had been right.
The baby descended in seconds, but as she did I began to feel totally out of control. I screamed and thrashed and started yelling that I couldn’t do it, that it hurt too much, that it was impossible, that I needed help, help, help. At one point I screamed for Jesus to save me – I’m sure that everyone in the Coldwell Banker next door heard that one – and pushed with everything I had.
This part of labor is the hardest to witness. There’s a mix of wanting to make it all stop, but also knowing that the only way to “make it stop” is to keep going. I was grateful to have witnessed this moment two times before.
One of the birth assistants said after, “Whenever they say ‘I can’t do it’ is right when they are doing the most. Thank goodness that moment is so short.” Preach.
“Head is out!” said Lorri. This baby, like Wilson, had a broad chest and shoulders, so she didn’t slip out easily after her head was born. Lorri kept trying to get me to lean back in the tub, but I could barely hear her over all the noise I was making and I didn’t understand why I needed to move. Every change in position caused greater agony. Finally, in desperation, I listened to her and leaned back, and baby girl was born.
“She was stuck,” Lorri said. “Her shoulder was stuck inside you. That’s why you needed to lean back.”
The split-second change from agony and borderline despair to exhilaration and utter joy when a baby is born is truly astonishing. There being two of us – Daryl and me – in the tub and then suddenly there were three people. The world’s greatest magic trick. Presto chango – human being! It’s what we’d been working for over the past 40 weeks, and yet I was astonished to finally be holding her in my arms.
“Is it a girl?” I asked. The ultrasound tech 20 weeks earlier had said so but with “only 95% certainty.” We have dear friends in Chicago who were told they’d be having a girl only to discover when the baby was born that he was definitely all boy!
We all leaned in to check.
“Definitely looks like it to me!” said Lorri. The baby cried a little meow of protest and began to turn pink.
“This is Felicity,” I said, touching her dark hair, marveling at her long fingernails. “Felicity Marie.”
I had called out Lincoln and Wilson’s names after their births. [Though we actually didn’t settle on Wilson being Wilson until the car ride home!] It was such a delight–and spontaneous at that–to have Courtney declare Felicity’s name. Seems so obvious: after all that, Courtney SHOULD get to declare the name!
Felicity means “happiness” in Latin, a nod to Daryl’s dissertation and love language as well as to the joy we’d felt in preparing to welcome her.
There are at least five Maries in our family, some on Daryl’s side and some on mine. My mom and sister share it as a middle name, it was Daryl’s beloved grandma’s first name as well as one of his cousins, and it was the name of one of my favorite great-aunts too. Knowing this would likely be our last baby, it was really sweet to be able to honor both sides of our family with Felicity’s middle name.
We finished up all the end-of-birth necessities – moving to the bed to deliver the placenta, putting Felicity on my chest for some skin-to-skin snuggles and bonding, getting us all dried off from the tub, watching Felicity begin to acclimate to life outside the womb.
At our birth center they offer new parents a “Golden Hour” to just bond with the baby uninterrupted. In our sweet, private family time, Daryl and I prayed over Felicity, thanked God for her life and the gift she was to our family, and marveled that we’d made it through to the other side. We held each other and we rested.
After the Golden Hour Lorri did a full well-baby check. Felicity felt sturdy to me when she was nestled on my chest, but I wasn’t prepared to hear how big she was – 8 pounds, 14 ounces! Big girl! I felt grateful I hadn’t gone to 40 weeks and beyond with her, as she was as big a baby as I’d ever want to push out. (I’m also glad I didn’t know how big she was until after she was born. Mercy.)
I needed a few stitches, and Daryl helped get Felicity dressed. When we were ready, the birth team moved us to the family room for a sparkling apple juice toast and we took a group photo. It was only then I asked what time she was born. 12:43pm. I’d been in hard labor for just two and a half hours.
“Are you sure?” I asked. It had felt like an eternity. Many midwives say that the shorter a labor is, the more intense it is. That certainly felt true for me. It was my shortest birth (our oldest was six hours, our middle was four hours), and since I’m pretttty sure our next baby would be born in ten minutes in an aisle while I was shopping Trader Joe’s, I think it’s safe to say Felicity will be the end of the Ellis babies!
We made it home by 3:45pm, greeted by our dear boys and a whole gaggle of neighborhood kids.
I had texted the neighbors the news. Watching their kids clap and yell in celebration as we drove up was something I will never forget. Every birth should end in neighborhood celebration. Even better: I know those neighbors were celebrating in part because they celebrate life as the God-given miracle it is. Cue the singing, dancing, and clapping indeed.
I went inside for a nap, astonished that the whole epic adventure had taken just over twelve hours from start to finish, and the really hard part of it was concluded in less time than a decent superhero movie.
God is good, friends. We are home now, happy and sleep-deprived and learning more about this little person every day. Praise Jesus for his faithfulness in this journey and for this new little life.