My dear sister-in-law Halli, who has also been a close friend of mine since we were teenagers, was having her third baby. She had had her first baby in the hospital, and after 27 hours, an epidural, a fever, and a lot of stress, her daughter Eden arrived. The second time around, she and her husband, Ben, chose to have their baby at home. Halli hoped for a calmer birth, no interventions, and more privacy. Her son, Jesse, decided to arrive in under two hours, so she didn’t get the calm she hoped for, but she speaks of his birth as one that brought much healing from the difficulty of her first birth.
While Jesse was still in the womb, Halli and I dreamed of the possibility of my coming from Buffalo, NY to Ann Arbor, MI to act as her doula. That was the second time we were pregnant at the same time, but she was a couple of months ahead of me so we hoped it would work. Instead, I was hospitalized and had a preemie one week before she “roared Jesse into the world”—as she puts it—on her living room floor.
This third baby, gender unknown, would also be born at home, and would be full of surprises for Halli and her labor team. Once again, we had hopes that I would be able to make it to Michigan in time to be her doula.
I woke up on a Thursday morning to see a text from Halli telling me she’d been having regular contractions since 3am. This was her fourth bout of overnight contractions, but unlike the other three times, the waves persisted in coming even after she got up for the day. We spoke briefly on the phone and decided I would begin packing while she waited to see what her body decided to do. Many bags and half the day later, I arrived at her house.
When I walked in Halli’s front door, she smiled and said, “Hi!” before grabbing Ben’s shirt and leaning into him, groaning softly and swaying until her contraction ended. Then she sighed, smiled at me again, and we laughed at the reality that I had finally made it to one of her births, and what perfect timing! We had spoken on the phone an hour earlier, and her contractions were close to half-an-hour apart. Now, they were only about seven minutes apart. It seemed like things were picking up speed quickly!
Halli’s sister, Jenna, was there, and before long her midwife, Beth, arrived as well. Once all of the kids were in bed, we settled in to help Halli cope until she would meet her baby. She wanted pressure on her back throughout every contraction, and the stronger, the better. Ben was the best at this with his big hands and strong arms, so the rest of us deferred to him whenever possible. Every time a wave began to rise, Halli would mumble, “Ben,” or call, “BenBenBen!” and he would press on her back while Jenna or I faced her, breathing or rocking with her, reassuring and encouraging her, or quietly holding her hands.
The surges were short and were becoming further apart instead of progressively closer together like we expected. Around 10pm, Beth suggested that everyone try to get some rest and see if more privacy might help bring Halli’s contractions closer together again. She surmised the inconsistency may be because of the integration of so many new people into Halli’s birthing space. She also wondered if the baby was in a less-than-optimal position since Halli was experiencing so much back pain.
Halli was sent to her bedroom to assume “the position,” as we now refer to it: Beth instructed her to kneel with her knees as wide open as she could tolerate and then lay her chest down on the bed with her arms extended behind her, palms up. She was supposed to stay in this position for half-an-hour to help the baby’s head rotate and engage in the pelvis. I helped Halli get as comfortable as she could, made sure her water and phone were within her reach, and headed to the guest room for a nap.
As I snuggled under the covers of one of the beds in the spare room, Beth said from the next bed, “This is the part when we try to nap and let her do what she needs to on her own, and we’ll know it’s time to help again when she’s suddenly laboring outside the bedroom door, loudly.”
I chuckle at Beth’s prediction as I remember that that’s exactly what happened. At 12:15am, Halli’s voice woke us as a strong contraction swept over her, right outside our door. When it passed, she opened the door and said she needed more help coping. We all moved downstairs to the living room and set up a mattress on the floor. Beth called a second midwife who she had arranged to have attend the birth with her to assist as needed.
It didn’t take long for Halli to want to push. We held her, reminded her of her baby and her strength, and pressed hard on her back as her groans turned to growls through each powerful surge. Halli did standing lunges on the stairs and on a chair, she stood and clung to Ben, she labored on her hands-and-knees, and all the while Beth watched for signs of the baby’s descent. Around 1:30am Beth asked Halli how she would feel about a check. Halli agreed, got positive feedback from Beth about her cervix, pushed for a while, and eventually could only think about how exhausted she felt. She was lying on her side now, and as Ben lay beside her they both dozed between contractions. I sat on the floor on Hali’s other side, holding her hands while she drifted off so that she could squeeze them when her contractions came. When she still wasn’t feeling her baby descend, she was checked again. This time, the news was harder for her to embrace.
Beth told her, “This is resting and relaxing time, now.”
The baby was still high, but we didn’t yet know the reason. Halli’s dilation had reversed, and the necessary course of action was for her to do the only thing her body did not want to do at that point: resist the urge to push.
From there on out, it was an uphill climb.
Halli tried the shower, resting in bed, and sitting in a chair to help her through what must have felt like endless hours of not pushing. It took everything in her, and all of us helping her, to focus through each and every contraction in order to stay relaxed. We took turns pressing on her back, fanning her face, and drumming a steady rhythm on our legs for her to mentally anchor herself to. Later she described the tiny accordion-style fan as her lifeline: the air moving past her face with each beat reminded her to pant instead of bearing down. She needed that reminder every second of every contraction.
Finally, Halli couldn’t stand resisting her body’s instinct to push any longer, and she asked to be checked again. Her cervix had opened, but the baby was only slightly lower in her pelvis than before. The position that made all the difference was when Halli sat backward on the toilet and pushed. There was only room in the bathroom for Ben to be with her, so the rest of us ate breakfast and waited. When she emerged from the bathroom, she dropped to her hands and knees and said, “I can’t,” meaning she couldn’t walk any further than she already had. But despite uttering that she couldn’t do that, she was confident that she had everything she needed to birth her baby. Not only that, but she had demonstrated immense strength throughout the early morning hours while she accomplished something that feels impossible when you’re in it—not pushing—and she was about to meet her baby in her own space, on her own terms, and using her own powerful strength to complete a delivery that turned out to be quite difficult. Her “I can’t” went unfinished in the moment, but it didn’t matter what she couldn’t do. What she needed to do, she could, and she did, and it was incredible to behold.
As the baby’s head emerged, we discovered the reason for Halli’s extreme amount of pain all night, her premature urge to push, and the baby’s difficulty engaging and descending: the baby’s right hand came out right beside the right cheek. And then the progress paused. Halli was told firmly but calmly to turn over onto her back and then to press her right knee as far toward the floor as she could. After this brief dystocia, the baby emerged, and Beth passed Halli her third child as Halli asked, “Is it a boy or girl?” She was told, “See for yourself!”
As Halli picked up her baby, she gasped and looked up at Ben with surprise and elation. “It’s a girl!” She cried. Over the next several minutes—no, days—Halli kept repeating, “I can’t believe she’s a girl!” She had wanted, for years, for her daughter Eden to experience sisterhood like she and Jenna had grown up with and still have today. Eden had prayed throughout this pregnancy for a sister. Halli had been afraid to let herself fully hope for a girl in case God had chosen to grant her a second son. But her joy could not be masked. This blessing of another daughter was a gift that left her overcome with gratitude and contentment.
Zoe Elinor. Zoe: “life.” Elinor, after Halli’s grandmother.
As Zoe lay in her mother’s embrace in those first moments of life outside the womb, she struggled at first to breathe in an organized pattern. The midwives each worked to help her adjust and to discover the reason for her inconsistent breathing. They couldn’t find a reason for it, and their efforts didn’t seem to make a difference. She was put back onto Halli’s chest as we cautiously waited to see what a few minutes would do for her. She seemed to be improving while she remained skin-to-skin with her mom, and after a minute or so she sneezed hard, and her blueish hands immediately pinked up and her breathing became steady. Halli and the entire team was relieved to not have to transfer Zoe anywhere, and once Halli was ready, she and her new baby moved to the bed to snuggle and breastfeed.
About an hour after the new baby arrived, Eden and Jesse were invited into the master bedroom to discover whether they had a baby brother or sister. They were delighted to meet Zoe! Eden was especially thrilled that the baby was a girl, and Jesse was immediately possessive of the little bundle—”My baby!” he said as he clung to her every time someone tried to remove her from his arms. With the whole family cuddled together on the bed, the love in the room was palpable.
Halli’s relief and joy were evident, Ben was clearly a proud daddy, and Auntie Jenna’s cheeks must have hurt from how hard she was smiling at the three little siblings being together for the first time. What an honor to be able to take in this scene firsthand. Thank you for the invitation, Halli. I’m so glad I finally made it.