By Annalysa Lovos
Some things in life a person just knows. When I first met my husband, Dave, I knew I could spend a lifetime with him. I also knew, long before I ever laid eyes on him, that if I were to bear children, I wanted to do so at home, in the intimacy of my own bedroom.
It seems only natural to me that the nurturing smells, warmth and feeling of home must be most comforting to first experience as a newborn. Although in the U.S. homebirth is somewhat rare, it is common in many European nations, and in New Zealand, 70 percent of births are attended principally by midwives. Statistically, midwife-attended homebirths have fewer follow-up complications for mothers and babies alike, and they are almost always significantly less expensive than hospital births.
Still, homebirth is not for everyone. I believe every woman should choose the situation in which she feels most confident to birth her baby — I do not intend to suggest that every woman should opt for a homebirth, merely that it was most comfortable to me.
In my early 20s I nearly lost my life when a head-on collision left me with an L3-4-5 spinal cord injury. Yet this was not enough to shake my inner conviction that home was the right place for me to have a baby.
There are a thousand things that can go wrong in childbirth, and they can go wrong in an instant. Some situations get so hairy that emergency medical procedures are absolutely necessary. So when Dave and I pieced together the surprising clues that we were pregnant, we consulted with many doctors, nurses and specialists. All of them believed I could have an easy, natural childbirth. Every one of them advised me to do so in the safety net of the hospital.
I wanted my birthing experience to be a deliberate, conscious and joyous event — not merely an anesthetized, perfunctory salute to the medical modus operandi. But I also accepted that no matter what I wished, it was possible that it might be best for me — and for my baby — to compromise. The relative unknown of paraplegic delivery makes doctors quick to label it high-risk. Even though I didn’t feel I was a high-risk patient, I heard their admonitions and dutifully went for a prenatal consultation with the most respected obstetrician I could find.
When she asked, “What medications will you be using?” my idealistic sensitivities were taken aback. Apparently, “no medications” is not a popular request in labor and delivery these days.
There are times when you know something with certainty. Stand by this intuition; for if it is abandoned here, the track of life can be instantly altered in a way that leads your experience further and further from what you truly wished for. This was just such a time.
We went home and called a midwife, Marimikel Penn. “Wonderful!” she said. “Absolutely, you can have a homebirth. Honey, you’re going to do great.”
She not only told us what we wanted to hear, she meant every word she said. Marimikel is no newcomer to midwifery — she has been delivering babies at home — over 2,000 of them — for 28 years. Only 7 percent of her patients have Caesarean sections, while the average for hospital births in the same area is 25 percent. She also gives the most thorough prenatal and post-partum care a woman is likely to find, and shares so much support and knowledge with her mothers that it would be almost impossible to go through a birth with her and not feel empowered by the experience.
Dave and I felt great about our decision to work with Marimikel. The hospital was a mere five-minute drive from our home and she had excellent back-up support if we needed to go there. But I was confident that we would not. I believe she was, too — otherwise, she would not have agreed to work with me. Having trained originally as a nurse, she knew exactly what I meant when I said paraplegic.
Pregnancy was wonderful. I felt healthy and enjoyed my growing roundness. The hardest part was managing a neurogenic bladder with a belly full of baby bouncing on it like a trampoline. This I endured as best I could with trips to the bathroom every 50 minutes or so.
By the time my due date arrived, I was ready to have that baby. After nine months of pregnancy, my condition had begun to seem vaguely hopeless, like I might just continue to be pregnant forever. I prayed with every one of my warm-up contractions that actual labor would soon be set in motion.
Three days past my due date, I woke up and prepared for an 8 a.m. appointment with Meredith Kline, a young midwife who would assist Marimikel at our birth. I was disappointed at her conclusion: I wasn’t in labor. Yet not long after she left, contractions began, then stayed at 10 minutes apart. This was nothing new, but I had a slight backache, too. I decided to lie down, and Dave lingered around the house in hopeful anticipation, like a boy who smells cookies baking.
After contractions had gone on for about an hour, still at 10 minutes apart, we called the birth center and left a message, just in case. By the time they called back 20 minutes later, contractions were intense and only four minutes apart. Marimikel said we were going to have our baby today, and she would be over soon.
Relief and excitement. I was not destined to be pregnant for the rest of my life!
Shortly it became obvious things were moving much faster than we thought. Dave called back once more and begged them to hurry. Thankfully, the birth center was only five minutes from our door. Any further and they might not have made it in time.
Immediately after he hung up, an enormous rush of energy whooshed through my entire body, curling and shaking me, accompanied by the undeniable sensation of my baby advancing down my birth canal. It was an unmistakable feeling, like the one that tells you you’re about to vomit — which I felt like doing. Something was moving inside me, and it was both awesome and scary to realize I was not in control of it. I breathed slowly and carefully and hoped that if I refrained from pushing for a few minutes, Marimikel and Meredith would arrive soon and everything would be grand.
As for Dave, these were formidable moments. “Oh, no!” he said, when I told him that the baby was arriving. He pushed up his sleeves, grabbed the sheet entitled, “What to do in the Event of an Unassisted Birth,” and prepared to catch the baby. “I wish Marimikel would get here,” he said. These words sunk in for a long moment.
Then, as if in answer, she burst through the door. She jumped onto the bed and sized up the situation. “OK, we’re gonna have a baby RIGHT NOW!” she said. “Annalysa, next contraction, take a deep breath and push.” The baby’s head was beginning to crown.
I had planned to push either on my hands and knees or sitting on a birthing stool, but as it turned out there was no time to move from the side-lying position I’d been in during early labor.
Marimikel told me exactly how to breathe, and I did my best to follow her directions even through the intense, ripping birthing sensations. At the next contraction Meredith appeared by my side, and, working with Marimikel, she applied downward pressure to the fundus of my rock-hard belly with each push, to help my half-paralyzed abdominal muscles get the baby out.
At 11:27 a.m., only minutes after Marimikel’s arrival, the baby’s head and top shoulder emerged. With the next push, the bottom shoulder, then the entire body shot out into Dave’s waiting hands, it felt like a huge pressurized cork being liberated. Marimikel helped Dave guide the slick, pink and purple newborn onto my belly and cleared its throat. The baby let out a lusty cry and we all shed tears of joy.
Sarah Katherine Sage Lovos weighed 7 pounds, 3 ounces and was 19 inches long. She held up her head — wobbly, but undeniable — right away on that first day, and she smiled within an hour of her birth.
We were right about the birth being an easy one. Maybe it was the absence of tightly clenched muscles on my pelvic floor that made the process so smooth and speedy, or maybe it was faith, or perhaps genetics. Actual labor lasted three hours, and I was only sure of it the last 45 minutes. The midwives bubbled about it, Meredith laughingly called me a birthing goddess.
The Goddess Humbled
No birth is without its high points, peculiar weaknesses, or downright alarming moments. It was my turn to be humbled when something strange turned up for me.
In the pictures taken during and immediately after Sage’s birth, I look energetic and happy. Fifteen minutes later, I look absolutely peaked. My body started shaking, hard and uncontrollably. I was forced to hand sage off to Dave rather than nursing her as I’d intended. The midwives looked concerned.
When I spat out a thermometer reading 105 degrees, the midwives called the backup doctor and began covering my body with bath towels soaked in ice water. This felt both wonderfully cooling and painfully agitating, making it even more challenging to relax, breathe deeply, quit shaking and stop my teeth from chattering. I drank several quarts of cold liquid through a straw and thought about how even though I was dangerously hot, I knew I was OK. I used every scrap of mental power I had to cool and calm my body. After several changes of towels, my temperature came down to 99 degrees, but the shaking took longer to shrug off. Finally, an hour and a half after Sage was born, I felt normal again and was able to nurse.
Marimikel was quite worried and stayed for several hours to make sure I was well. Her take on the situation was that it was related to Pitocin, the hormone that causes contractions and induces birth. She thought that my body had released more Pitocin than normal to compensate for the paraplegia, and that it was this energy coursing through me that had caused the heat and shaking. She felt that if I were to have another baby in the future, my body might be more on target about the right quantity of produce.
Lessons of Motherhood
The combined experiences of pregnancy and motherhood seemed to soften some lingering bitterness in me, and I became more grateful for help whenever it came my way. Help was not there all the time, however.
My greatest ally in managing a newborn on my own was baby sling. Being in a chair and trying to carry a baby at the same time felt like having both arms and both legs tied behind my back. The baby sling freed up my arms and allowed me to work and do other things while holding the baby. I learned how to do almost anything wearing my sling, including use the toilet.
Letting the baby sleep with us for as long as she is nursing was also a very practical solution. Our culture tells us that a baby should sleep in a crib in the nursery. Yet who wants a two-or three-times a night ritual that includes transferring, rolling down the hall to a crib and sitting up awake for as long as needed? If the baby sleeps with you, or right next to your bed, nighttime nursing becomes so instinctual that you need not even wake up to do it. This approach also makes it easy for babies to learn their parents’ sleeping patterns, which makes the whole family happier.
Sometimes, as I drift off watching her sleep, I wonder if the track of Sage’s life would be different had she been born in a hospital rather than our home. Sage is a bright, energetic, and precocious young girl. Her eyes and skin shine, and people who are not related to us regularly remark on how stunning she is. Maybe she would have been the same way had we listened to the experts and gone to the hospital, but I like to believe differently. I think one reason she is so bright and clear is precisely because she is the product of a natural, comfortable birth, in circumstances we knew were right for us.
I feel that somehow I was guided into making the best choice I could have made for her arrival. The mere fact that I am disabled was, in the end, not a good enough reason to ride along with a convention I could not justify in my heart. My greatest hope is that with this choice, I have started Sage off on the path of listening to her own inner voice. Whatever track she lays with the rest of her life, I hope she always takes the time to appraise what her heart, as her most trusted advisor, tells her.