Let me start with the end in mind. Estella was born, healthy. I delivered without complications, and although found post-partum recovery more challenging than I thought, I was healthy. I was able to enjoy the first weeks of E’s life without cesarean stitches (although I did have other stitches). These facts alone make me so very grateful for my natural childbirth.
Before I was pregnant, and during my pregnancy, I read up a bit on natural childbirth. Most natural childbirth advocates, aware of the overmedicating trends in childbirth the U.S. has adopted, have responded (in my opinion) with the promise of an almost mythological birth experience. I read tale after tale of beautiful, near-spiritual childbirths where the time just flew by, and before she knew it she was holding her baby, completely forgetting the pain. As long as you have the proper mindset, I’d translate from the words on the page, your body is just meant to have a baby. And while this is true, the fact that as women our bodies are well designed for babies, natural childbirth it doesn’t mean birth free of pain. At least not for the vast majority, and certainly not for me. And no, you don’t always forget.
I was eleven days overdue. My mother had arrived a week after E’s due date, which meant both Frans and I were at the airport to greet her, a bit late because we hadn’t clocked in the waddle-factor…how long it took me to walk. But I will be forever grateful of those five beautiful, quality days together, most of which was spent walking. She was getting over jetlag, and I was trying to get over pregnancy. I was getting puffy and impatient, my face looking more and more like a chipmunk. What added to the excitement was a gas leak in our kitchen (which the amazing man fixed with new copper piping in one day). I also knew that I had fourteen days after my due date before they took me to the hospital and tried creams and injections and finally a C-section. Whatever happened, I had decided, I would never tell myself, “You can’t do it.” The books and articles and birthing class had prepared me for this. Staying positive is the key. On the plus side, I had found out that I had passed all four sections of my difficult Dutch language exam. Here is my proud chipmunk face holding my certificate.
March 12th our midwife Deana was on call so she came by and stripped my membranes, which is she described as peeling an orange. Which gives you an idea of the sensation. This was intended to induce labor. So we waited…and we ate dinner, and put on a film to watch. The film was Nebraska, and about halfway through, my muscles contracted. I had been getting ‘hardbuik’ aka. Braxton Hicks for weeks, so I wasn’t too excited yet. Finally my mom began timing them. Ten minutes apart. Nebraska was a good distraction.
After the film we decided it was a good idea to get some sleep, so the three of us went to bed. Only I was too excited to sleep. I decided to slip on some headphones and watch another film. Throughout The Butler I timed my contractions at five minutes apart. After the closing credits and some reflection about generational differences, I finally woke up Frans and he called the midwife, while I went into the shower to bounce away on my birthing ball. The contractions hurt, and were getting harder to manage. After about ten minutes in the shower, I was tired of trying to keep my birthing ball from clogging the shower drain, so I got out and lay on the couch. The contractions had begun around 10:30pm, and the midwife came around 4am. You’re in labor, she announced. Four centimeters dilated. You had to wait until five cm to be admitted to the hospital, so she said she’d check again after another birth she was attending. The next three hours were increasingly excruciating. My time was measured in contractions. They were from three minutes to a minute and a half apart. I barely had time to catch my breath before the next one started. I vaguely remember feeling like it wasn’t fair. I also remember wondering, “Can I do this?” and even a moment of panic when I realized that at home, an epidural wouldn’t be an option. I kept having visions of a fire truck lowering me out of the window in front of gaping schoolchildren, their teachers taking advantage of a teachable moment. I was stuck. I wanted to go back in time, or fast-forward, but neither was possible. I clung to my mom’s hand and tried not to panic.
My water still hadn’t broken. I was in such pain, I couldn’t even walk. I lay on the couch and tried to break Frans’s hand with my grip. Every minute was measured in pain. And relief. And pain. And counting seconds. Somehow we managed to snap a photo.
Deana was back around 7am. Seven centimeters! she announced. This time, to my relief, she stayed. Tall and blonde and attractive, dressed in jeans, a pretty sweater with sparkles, and suede boots, she commanded the room. I remember her closing the blinds to keep the sun from rising into my eyes, and making a funny comment to Frans when I complained about coffee smells. She quickly covered the couch in plastic. We’ll have the baby right here! I’m an expert at protecting these, she announced, gesturing toward the couch and forgetting the English word. She’d been up all night. You’re okay with having the baby here, right? Not going to the hospital? I think I mumbled something asking about the baby being okay, heart strong, asking if it was okay and safe to stay put. She assured me it was, everything looked great. She had a portable heart monitor with her, and somehow was measuring how Estella was reacting to the contractions. Steady heartbeat, good sign.
The next thing I know Deana is running around, pushing back our coffee table and rug, setting up a chair and a wooden birthing stool that looked a little bit African tribal. A mixing bowl was set underneath. You’re almost there, Deana encouraged. Soon after the sun rises, you’ll have your baby. I could hear the neighbors next door brewing coffee and wondered what they could hear.
At one point the pain was so excruciating I did it: I broke my rule and looking into Frans’s eyes confided in him, “I don’t think I can do this.” “Yes, you can,” he said. “You are doing it.”
Okay, Erin, Deanna said. You’re at the perse phase…the pushing phase. I want you to come and sit on the stool. It took all of my strength to stand up and walk over to the stool and sit on it. But I did, and even stood up when Deana asked me too. That’s when time began to stand still. I was either going to have this baby or die trying. When you feel like you need to push, Erin, you push! Deana commanded. I was so anxious to have the baby out, I did. With every contraction I yelled and pushed with all of my might. Don’t yell! Deana said. Use that strength to breathe out that baby, to push her out!
By that time the room was filled with women: another midwife, Marieke, was supposed to relieve Deana but I was too close to delivery for Deana to leave. So Marieke stayed, and another strange face appeared, and my mother, and Frans. Frans’s mother had been called and she was on her way. The whole room was breathing with me, and it helped. My water finally broke with a loud ‘pop’ and gushed out into our mixing bowl (anyone want to come over for some cookies later?). Clear! Shouted Deana, indicating there was no meconium (baby poop, sometimes showing signs of baby’s distress) in the fluid. Push! Shouted Deana. And after a few more minutes, push again! There’s her head! At that moment I was in such pain, I was almost angry. I was in this self-centered space of push baby out, push baby out, push baby out. The finer details eluded me. Deana then shouted something and grabbed a knife to cut the cord from around Estella’s head that was blocking her entrance. One more push, and Deana yelled catch your baby! It’s over! I thought, so relieved. But I couldn’t reach the baby; she was too quick for me. She was caught by Deana, slippery like a fish and purple, but with eyes wide open and arms waving as if saying where am I and what just happened?
I will carry that image of my tiny, fighting, wide-eyed daughter until my dying day.
And then she began to cry, out of fear and helplessness. And I took her into my arms and tried to keep her warm. And that desire to keep her safe and warm will remain, I think, my whole life.
My mother-in-law walked through the door as I lay on the couch, my new daughter in my arms. Frans by my side, also marveling at his little daughter. He couldn’t believe her beauty. His mini-me. I delivered the placenta, and they stitched me up. But after labor and delivery, no pain could touch me. I was now invincible, unafraid.
And the ladies celebrated in two languages in the kitchen over banana bread and coffee.
Estella Christine van Santen was born. And so was a mother.