Monday, June 11, 2018

18 Months Later: Rebecca's Birth Story

I wrote most of this in the months after Rebecca arrived but have just now gotten around to finishing it. Her story is in many ways connected to Benjamin's birth story, and as with any story I tell, is not lacking in words. 

It was April, and a good friend of mine was texting me that she was certain she was in active labor with her second baby. As she told me about her symptoms and contractions, that hadn’t let up all night and they were getting ready to head to the hospital, I suddenly felt a wave of sickness and panic. I can’t do it again, I thought. I can’t give birth again. I can’t labor again. There’s no way I can ever willingly subject myself to that same ordeal again. These feelings were problematic seeing as I was already 7 weeks pregnant. As the texts became less frequent and I realized my friend was likely in the thick of labor, I kept imagining myself in her position. Was she wailing on the floor? Was her body splitting open? Did her back feel that it was breaking into several pieces? Was she three hours into pushing with no sign of the baby yet? When I received a text the next morning that her baby was successfully delivered and all was well, I was still preoccupied with my own imminent date with labor-doom. I was pregnant. Lord willing, I was going to have to give birth, no matter how much it terrified me. But I found solace in the fact that today was not the day I was required to face my fear. I still had months to go.

And so that day, I made the only decision regarding labor and birth that seemed feasible and logical given my fears. I decided I just wouldn’t think about it. After all, if it worked for Scarlett O’Hara (which it sort of did), then surely it will work for me. So rather than spend any time working through my fears and trauma, I buried all those thoughts, lived in denial, and went on with my life, plastering a mental “Do Not Disturb” above the place in myself I stored all my thoughts of labor and birth. 

I was 33 weeks pregnant and at the chiropractor. I had been relentless about keeping my appointments here, even if it meant hauling a toddler to the other side of Portland every week. I was determined to do everything I could to ensure my labor would look different than before.

At this particular visit, my chiropractor asked me how I was feeling about labor now that I was well into my third trimester. “Honestly?” I laughed, “My main strategy is just not to think about. Nothing good is going to come from me thinking about my labor. So my plan is to not think about it at all.” 

She nodded slowly at me and then took out a piece of paper and began writing something down. Is this a note in my chart? I wondered. “Lyndsey in denial. Seems like a good strategy.” Instead, she gently slid three names to me across the table. “I think you should go talk to one of these women,” she said. “They’re midwives who are extremely gifted at helping women work through their birth traumas.”

I looked at the names on the yellow piece of paper and sat in stunned silence. She was giving me the names of counselors. Therapy. She thinks I need therapy! Doesn’t she know I’m not someone who goes to therapy? Especially not for something that thousands of women do every single day. “Here’s what I’ve found in my experience,” she said, gathering up the remaining folders. “The people who don’t want to think about labor, who act like it isn’t going to happen, when their labor actually does begin, they completely lose it. They can’t handle what’s happening to them because they haven’t processed how to deal with it mentally. You need some tools to help you get through. I think these women can really help you.” And with that, she was walking me out the door. I tried to seem appreciative and not offended, and told her I would definitely look into it. Then I made an immediate right turn out of the office and into the bathroom because I was definitely and suddenly crying. Crying! Why on earth was I crying? Did I need therapy? Had Benjamin’s birth so damaged me mentally that I needed professional help? And are there other people who have experienced the same trauma? I hated using the word trauma to describe the process that had brought me my son, but it felt like the right word. I was still damaged, unable to healthily perceive of this process, to really recall it without fear.

It was the first time I thought that maybe I didn’t have a normal approach to my birth and that maybe I was going to have to do the hard work of revisiting what had happened with Benjamin’s labor. When I got home, I looked up the three women’s names that were scrawled on the Post-It note. They all claimed to have extensive experience helping women with various aspects of the prenatal and postpartum process, including “processing traumatic births” and addressing “pregnancy and birth concerns.” Those phrases struck an honest chord with me. But I have much more than birth “concerns,” I thought. Concern is when you want to go downtown on a weekend and you’re “concerned” there might not be parking. Concern is not the word I have for wondering if I’m going to feel like I’m going to die for hours on end and then have to push a giant creature out of my body.

I had an appointment with my midwives a few days later. I told them about the birth counselor suggestion, hoping they would think it a bit over the top or unnecessary. Instead, while I was explaining the exchange I’d had with my chiropractor, I started crying. AGAIN. It wasn’t really a convincing narrative that I didn’t need to talk to someone about the fear and trauma I had experienced while I cried confusingly about the fear and trauma I had experienced. Worse, the midwives were familiar with the counselors and spoke highly of their abilities to, again, give me “some tools” to approach my labor. Apparently preparing for labor is also like installing IKEA furniture. You need tools, but you’re not sure which ones. I felt slightly panicked at this point. I didn’t want to go talk to someone about my birth experience. I didn’t want to try to explain who I was and what had happened and how it still impacted me. I have a hard enough time doing those things with people I love and trust. But now both people I was seeing regarding my prenatal care were recommending the same thing to me, and surely I would be foolish to ignore it. I stared blankly at my midwives and in all honesty said, “I just don’t think that’s something I want to do. I can’t see myself going to talk to someone I don’t know.” Expecting push back for the value of counseling, I was surprised when my sweet, affirming apprentice told me my feelings were completely understandable and maybe a different route would be more helpful to me. Had I considered reading and working through a book? Yes, yes, I thought. A book! Reading a book versus talking about my deepest fears to a stranger is absolutely my choice. I choose that option! But I had read several books about birth when I was pregnant with Benjamin and didn’t find them to be particularly helpful after the experience I had. She mentioned a book I was familiar with and had seen but never read: Birthing from Within. And if that isn’t the epitome for a book title about giving birth recommended by a midwife in Portland, Oregon who also makes tie-dye shirts in her free time (for reals), I don’t know what else is. They had a few extra copies at the birth center and so I took the large yellow book home. The cover looked about how you would expect—weirdly artsy and spiritual looking and not at all like anything I wanted to be seen with in public. To be fair, birthing books are probably quite tame reading material in the Portland scene.  The last time I rode the MAX, the guy next to me was reading The Bible of Witchcraft.

For several weeks I ignored the birthing book entirely. Every time I saw it, I felt like it was the physical manifestation of all my fears and anxieties regarding labor. I also knew that actually reading the book was going to require a fair amount of emotional energy and attention, and wrangling a toddler during the day and being 30+ weeks pregnant didn’t exactly leave me feeling high on life at the end of the day.

Finally, when I was around 35 weeks, I devoted one of my evenings to cracking open the book and my buried anxieties. Let’s see what kind of inner demons I’m really dealing with. Sounds like a great form of entertainment for a Wednesday night!

I identified immediately with the author, who, as a trained midwife and someone who had seen and experienced a great deal of birth, ended up with a horribly disappointing labor experience with her first child: “I gave birth to my son, Sky [because of course his name is Sky], by Cesarean. As I was being sewn up, I mused over the painful irony, that I, the person in my family who knew the most about birth, was the first to have a Cesarean. ‘How did this happen?’ I wondered. ‘Was there something I needed to know that I didn’t learn as a midwife?’ Through soul-searching and listening more deeply to the women I was working with, I finally understood that women have to prepare for birth in their heart and soul, not in their head. And that giving birth is something a woman does in her body, not in her head.”

I tried to read the last line through tears. I felt so sad for this woman I didn’t even know. I understood her disappointment. Few of us get the births we actually want. And we carry that experience with us forever. It’s hard to really measure how much one of the most defining moments of our lives, the moment we introduce life into the world, how the triumphs or shame of that experience colors our view of ourselves. And of course there are horrible birthing experiences—miscarriages, still births, traumas much more severe than any I had faced in my labor with Benjamin. He had been healthy. He had been born. And I was grateful for all those things. But that wasn’t all I felt. Something in me was changed from that experience, and for the worse. That evening, I felt all my old shame and disappointment start to press through the surface. And this time, I let it be known. I let myself grieve for what had happened during my birth with Benjamin. It is a grief and shame that doesn’t always make sense or seem logical. I don’t even know if I can explain it now. But some part of my identity as a mother needed to grieve that my first real test of motherhood had seemed like a failure. And I was worried I would fail again.

The author stressed the importance of forgetting all the things we think we have learned about birth and to instead to “remember our instincts.” The methods she recommends include journaling and birth art. Well, crap, I thought. “Birth art” sounds like the most “not me” thing I can think of. One, I’m terrible at art. As in the worst. Two, just no. I am an educated adult woman, not someone who makes weird subconscious drawings while her husband and child are sleeping. But as I thought about giving up on this process and having to go talk to someone about my fears instead of just scribbling them out haphazardly, suddenly I found myself with a tiny notebook and Benjamin’s crayons.

I’ll spare all the details of what I masterpieces I made that night, but the work I put in during those hours where I let go of my insecurities about the weirdness of what I was doing and allowed myself to really “sit quietly with all my heartfelt questions and deepest fears” moved my heart and mind in ways I did not expect. One drawing, in particular, ended up being one of the few items I took with me to the birth center when my labor began. I did not know the important work I was beginning in those evening hours at home.

From the different drawing prompts and questions—How do you see yourself as a pregnant woman? What do you most fear happening in labor?—I learned I saw myself as a weak and fearful, unattractive, and that much of my anxiety centered around the fact that I was afraid of an unmedicated birth, even as I was more afraid of a hospital birth. I did not solve anything concrete that evening, but I did start to put names and images to my fears, and that gave me a better idea of what I needed to move forward.   

Over the next week, I recommitted my mind and my body to a natural birth experience at the birth center where I brought Benjamin into the world. The midwives there ministered to my heart and not just my body. One reminded me that birth experiences don’t “get much worse” than what I had experienced with Benjamin (though obviously in some ways they do). They talked with me about all my options, some of them sharing their own disappointments in the births of their children and their need for medical help and even a c-section. “Even if you choose to transport,” my dread-haired beautiful hippie midwife told me, “there’s still something empowering about making your own decisions.” And so I began to make them in the weeks leading up to my delivery. I would not give birth in the same room where I birthed Benjamin. Even the sight of the room was enough to tighten my throat. I sometimes had my prenatal appointments in that room—a large red room with a pastoral painting placed above the bed that is not centered correctly. Every time I was there, I felt anxious and obsessed with centering the picture. It was a reminder that everything about the birth experience was off and uncentered in my own mind. For my daughter’s birth, I chose a large green room with bamboo on the walls and sheer cream curtains and began requesting my appointments there. I told them I would labor at home as long as possible. I consented to use of Nitrous Oxide (laughing gas) if I felt the pain became unmanageable. One thing Birthing from Within allowed me to give myself permission to do was to set limits. If I started having relentless back labor again, I would transport. And I wouldn’t feel shame about getting an epidural at that point. And I gave myself a time limit. This time, if the new baby wasn’t here within 18 hours at the birth center, I would transport. 

Thank God I would end up only needing 3.

It was the evening of Thanksgiving, my due date, and I was making everyone in my family crazy. Even though I was hosting Thanksgiving dinner at my house, I had opted not to actually make dinner in my largely pregnant state, and instead assumed the role of telling others how they should make dinner. I had been experiencing fairly difficult pubic symphysis pain for most of my third trimester, which basically felt like my pelvis was separating at random times of the day. The pain was particularly bad that evening as we were wrapping up dinner and heading to bed.

Since Benjamin was over a week late, I had a similar mindset headed into this pregnancy. So though I was feeling very uncomfortable, no part of me thought I was headed for labor anytime soon. At about 2:30 in the morning, I woke to similar sharp pains I assumed to be pubic symphysis. I was so tired, but managed to heave my heavy body into “child’s pose” until the aching subsided. Thankfully it did, and within a few minutes I was back asleep. About the fourth time I was awoken from this process, the thought suddenly occurred to me that these uncomfortable sensations were happening rather rhythmically and could possibly be contractions. But they felt so different from my previous contractions, where my whole uterus seemed to seize up and I felt the pain throughout my whole midsection. This pain was much more isolated—as if it was coming from a small central location. Looking back, I realize this was my cervix I was feeling. After about 45 minutes, I decided I should time what was going on and see if there was any reason to wake up Andrew. I had an app on my phone I struggled to make use of in the dark and in my state, where the pain was surprisingly getting stronger. Whatever discomfort I was feeling was happening about 4-5 minutes apart and lasting at least a minute. This seemed an awful lot like contractions. But I had had a similar experience in my pregnancy with Benjamin that dissipated several hours later. So I decided I would wait to make any type of fuss about this. But each time the pain gripped me, it was growing stronger in sensation and I was starting to be unable to stay quiet. I was starting to moan a bit more through the pain and trying to ride out what was happening. I was hoping the noises I was making would naturally wake up Andrew, but alas, we are not all such gifted sleepers. At about 4:30, a wave of sickness came over me and I moved as quickly as I could to the bathroom. Immediately, I began shaking. Only one other time in my life had I ever experienced that type of trembling, and it was several hours into my labor with Benjamin. For me, it was the moment I knew I was in labor. Something hormonal was happening to my body and this was going to be the day I met my baby. I cried out for Andrew, who later said from the tone of my voice that he knew this was the real deal as well. As he steadied me from my shaking, I could not stop sobbing. I knew that it was mostly hormonal but the fact that I was crying made me start to feel a little scared, like I was already out of control with what was happening to my body. I told Andrew I wanted to call my midwife. 

Since I was about 30 minutes from the birth center and she was 45 minutes away, she told me I needed to contact her as soon as I had any signs of labor so that we both had enough time to make a decision about what needed to happen. Obviously I hadn’t called her when the contractions had started because I wasn’t really sure I was in labor. But it was go-time in my mind now, and I wanted to establish communication. Between contractions, which were still coming pretty frequently, I called the woman who had been by me during my darkest hour in my labor with Benjamin and who had safely brought him into the world. I knew I was right in calling my midwife, but I also realized I had very little information to give her. I knew she was going to ask me specifics about my labor pattern, and I hadn’t been timing contractions with any real consistency since they had started a few hours ago. Sure enough, she was looking for evidence that things were really moving forward. I was in and out of the phone call, working through some growing contractions, and hoping my inability to have a fluid phone call with her would indicate to her things were moving quickly. One thing I was able to communicate to her was that the contractions felt very low, and that I had been physically ill. “Do you think you might just be sick?” she said. The question knocked me a bit, and looking back I see why she felt the need to ask, but at the time, I worked to keep condescension from my voice. “No. No I don’t think I’m sick. I think I’m in labor.” I handed the phone back to Andrew. I heard him agreeing to track contractions for the next 20 minutes or so and then to call back.

My pregnancy app, complete with contraction timer was all set up and ready to go. But for whatever reason, my former-military husband opted instead to track contractions using his Timex watch and a green notepad and ballpoint pen. I have completely forgiven him for turning on and off the light every minute while I was in labor to write down something my phone could have told him effortlessly. Completely. But at least we were able to call back with more information. And my midwife agreed—minute-long contractions, a few minutes apart, for several hours now—I was in labor. She asked me if I wanted to head to the birth center now, but I was terrified going too early. Last time I arrived at the birth center thinking my baby would be born shortly, I spent 26 hours in labor before Benjamin made an appearance. I was worried about the mental struggles I would have if I arrived at the birth center and was in early stages still. So I decided I would labor at home for another hour and then go. It was now Friday morning, around 5 a.m., and I was concerned about traffic driving into Portland. I didn’t want to leave for the birth center during rush hour and be screaming at people during their morning commute. But about 30 minutes later, something in me shifted. I had to get out of there. I needed to be where I was going to have my baby. I wanted to be with my midwife. I told Andrew I wanted to go. Now. As if we were just planning a Saturday morning outing, he informed me that he wanted to shower first. Not what one expects to hear when she tells her spouse she needs to go deliver her baby now! He reassured me he would be lightning fast and we would be on the road in 15 minutes. He had set a time frame and I held onto the fact that we would be leaving soon. He later told me, and understandably so, that he was also still affected by my birthing experience with Benjamin, where he spent a full day helping me labor, and wanted to be showered and prepared in case we were in for another long haul at the birth center.

Over the last few hours, I was growing louder with my contractions. My parents were just down the hall and I was surprised my mom had not made an appearance. I imagined her nervously restraining herself, feeling torn between giving me my privacy and wanting to help her child in pain just out of arms reach. Andrew went to get my mom so I would have someone to hold onto during contractions while he got everything together to go. When my mom entered the room, I could immediately see relief on her face. I had been rightshe had been awake for the last few hours listening and debating whether she should come help. I could tell she was glad finally to be asked to assist. I was laying on the side of the bed, and she was kneeling on the floor, gently stroking my hair, and assuring me during the height of contractions. It was an important moment for me. Fear was creeping into my heart and my mind as I was coming closer and closer to what was going to be required of me to get this baby out. I did not want to give birth. But here was this woman, holding me now, who had done the same thing for her daughter 32 years ago. She had done the hard work of giving birth to me, and now it was time for me to do the same for my daughter. I felt connected in a long chain of women who have faced and persevered in the face of the great calling of giving life. And by the time Andrew reappeared, I found a bit more resolve to face what was ahead of me. There was some hustle and bustle in the house now that both my parents were up and aware the baby was on the way. My dad knelt beside me and held my hand and prayed over me. I was surrounded by people who loved me, and it’s strange how even though physically and mentally I was somewhere else, fighting a battle against pain and fear, my heart and my spirit were strengthened by the love of those who loved me.  

Now that Andrew was ready to leave, I stood up from the bed in between contractions and started to make my way around the bed. But then I remembered. How could I have forgotten the person I had revolved the last two and a half years of my life around. “Benjamin,” I said. A wave of grief struck me. I started to kneel back down. Things were never going to be the same when I left this house today. He was never going to be so small. He would never have the same measure of my attention again. I was leaving the world we had known and that we had created over these years and I could never reenter it. The relationship to the firstborn is so powerful. It may seem a disproportionate response, but that grief seems fresheven now, knowing what a blessing that new baby was to our family and how much joy there is in a sibling relationship. But in that moment, I needed to see my two-and-a-half-year-old baby one more time. I needed to hold his small body and look at his delicate features and soak up a few more moments of time while we were still “us.” I started to weep because I knew I wouldn’t. I wouldn’t wake him up. I knew I wouldn’t be able to be quiet at this point of my labor, and that my pain and my emotions would scare him. The moment had already passed. I was across the threshold of becoming a mother of two. I did the next closest thing I could think of and asked someone to grab the stuffed kitten Benjamin and I had bought for the baby last month. He often practiced holding the kitty and rocking the kitty to sleep in preparation for his baby sister. I wanted to hold the kitten in a way I couldn’t hold my son at that moment. Andrew seemed to understand. He told me Benjamin would be fine. But it wasn’t him I was worried about. It was us. The us that would be forever be different.

I’ll always remember my parents buzzing around as I tried to get down the stairs. It was pouring rain outside and my dad hurried outside, trudging around in wet socks just so he could flip the car around so the passenger door was closest to me. I was moaning a lot during contractions, trying not to yell and wake Benjamin or the neighbors. My mom would later tell me she thought I was dying or in serious need. Apparently in her day and age, you were taught to stay quiet during contractions, and my unrestrained noises made her think something wasn’t right. Nope. Sorry, mom. Just tapping into the primitive female inside me! They helped me out the door, got me in car, and stood huddled together in the rain while we drove into the night.

At this point I was still shaking rather violently. We made it to the birth center, only having to stop one time because I was certain I would vomit if we moved for one more second. Andrew pulled up along the curb and opened my door and I heard the soothing sound of my midwife’s voice: “Lyndsey, honey, you’re going to have a baby. We’re all ready to go and we’ve got a warm bath for you and a quiet room, sweetie. Let’s get you inside.”

Surprised they expected me to walk (was I also supposed to solve quadratic equations at this point in my labor?) I sat unmoved in the car for quite a while. After a bit more prompting and the help of my midwives, I miraculously (to me!) made it inside. They led me to the large green room. It was romantically dim and I could see soft steam rolling off the tub. It was still dark outside but dawn was quickly approaching. I felt myself let go just a bit. I had made it. I eased onto the queen-sized bed, lying on my left side, knees together, and Andrew laid down next to me, facing me. I would not move from this position for the next three hours, opening my eyes only a handful of times until Rebecca made her full entrance into the world.

It was about 6:45 in the morning now. One of my midwives kept repeating to me, “You’re safe now, Lyndsey. You’re safe. You can have your baby. You made it. You’re safe.” I appreciated the sentiment of this—I was indeed where I was going to have my baby, and I suppose the safety aspect meant I could relax and not worry about having my baby in the car. But it also made me feel like I had made it to the safe area of a war zone, or was delivering a baby in an episode of the Walking Dead. I was safe from Portland traffic, so that was something.

My midwife and two apprentices were there, all in a sunny mood. My main midwife asked me if I wanted to be checked for dilation. I was afraid of hearing news that would leave me dejected (like when I was in labor all night and then arrived at a 3…like last time). But something inside me felt very connected to the process of what was happening. I felt certain I was advancing in labor. I felt I knew when I needed to leave for the birth center. And I felt certain things were going to move quickly. I expected her to say I was at a 6. And this time, thankfully, my instincts were right. “You’re at a 6, Lyndsey. You’re going to have a baby today.” But I already knew that. This was just more confirmation that my body was doing what it needed to do. And so far I was hanging on for the ride. No mental breakdowns yet.

The midwives told Andrew they were going down the hall to prepare breakfast and asked if he would like some as well. “What are you all making?” he asked, and I heard some of the sunniness creep into his own voice. Everyone was having a happy time talking about a sunrise breakfast of pancakes and sausage, while some of the rest of us were starting to feel like screaming from contractions that somehow managed to feel sharp and stabbing, and dull and aching all at the same time. The midwives had left to enjoy some tea and cheery cooking time and I diva-like told Andrew that I needed someone here with me to put a hand on my back and to help me with labor at all times. I know the midwives were trying to give me my privacy to work through my labor, but I was scared and felt like I needed the quiet, watchful presence of someone who believed things were still going as they should be. When the midwives arrived back at the room, they had a large serving plate piled high with pancakes, eggs, and sausage. I remember yelling something about the sausage needing to get out of the room and that Andrew did not need to eat anything right now or do anything other than help me. I think he managed to surreptitiously eat between contractions (I do not actually know since I never opened my eyes). And thankfully, I was in a pretty consistent pattern by now. Contractions came every couple minutes, I would hold onto one of Andrew’s hands with both of my hands and grip his hand as hard as I could as if I was channeling the pain and tension out of me and into him. When the contraction ended, I would let go, and completely relax. Often my mind would go blank. I would even fall asleep sometimes. This was a massive improvement from my first labor with Benjamin where I endured debilitating back labor that never let up. There was no rest between contractions, no time to refocus or recenter. It was just relentless pain. I had prayed for a more consistent labor pattern like the one I was currently having, and I could understand for the first time, the major difference it made to have any type of a rest period between contractions. At times there was still back labor and it would cause two of my contractions to basically be strung together with no break in between. Here I would yell for someone to push on my back, but it hurt if they pushed too hard, and they later said “it was a finger’s touch” to indicate the amount of pressure I actually needed. I think the touch factor helped me focus on something during the pain that was seemingly everywhere at the time.

They asked me several times if I wanted to get in the tub or if I wanted to change positions or do anything other than lay on my left side with my eyes closed. But all I could manage to do was shake my head. One of the mantras I had picked up from Birthing From Within that served me well in my labor journey was one of eliminating all superfluous words or movements: “Relax. Breathe. Do Nothing Extra.” These were words I breathed in and out of my psyche during all times of rest between contractions. This is why I never moved from my position and why I barely spoke. I wanted to do NOTHING extra because I did not know what would be required of me on this journey—how long I would be in labor and how hard the pushing stage would be—and I was not willing to waste one iota of my strength on anything (other than occasionally condemning people for bringing steaming pork into my birthing room). I didn’t want people talking to me. I didn’t want people touching me unless I told them to. I wanted silence and to be left alone, but not physically alone. Unlike Benjamin’s birth where in order to get an epidural I would have agreed to never watch The Bachelor again or not buy Starbucks or any number of promises I would have regretted later, my birth with Rebecca is one that likely would have been a natural birth even at a hospital, simply because the prospect of someone interacting with me was intolerable. And any physical requirements to move or to sign something would have been equivalent to someone asking me to name and alphabetize all the states in the US.

I was focusing on my mantra and praying between contractions and managing to stay on top of my labor. Until of course, I wasn’t. The pain was increasing with each contraction and I was aware something was starting to change in my body. I heard someone offer to check my progress and part of me wanted to hear that I had made measurable, numerical progress, but since that would have required me to talk or to move, none of that happened. One thing I really hated about my labor with Benjamin was how often I vomited. It seems to add insult to injury to be in labor and also trying to find a convenient time and way to throw up during a contraction. I had felt nauseous throughout most of my labor, but things were starting to take a turn. “I’m going to throw up. I’m going to throw up,” I started repeating. And immediately there was a large, cold steel bowl beside my face. I quickly lifted myself onto my elbow and began to violently vomit, simultaneously breaking my water. Talk about a fun feeling! Perhaps no stranger physical phenomenon has ever happened to me, besides of course pushing a giant baby out of my body. “I think my water just broke,” I managed to mutter before I rolled back to my left side to resume the only position I decided my body would ever be in again. “Oh you sweet girl, you’re right!” I heard my midwife say, as if I had just announced her favorite essential oils were buy one get one free. These interactions stick out to me in my labor because there is such genuine kindness in them. Only a mother or a midwife would call you a “sweet girl” and celebrate your water breaking as if it were an exciting gift. The difference in our moods always highlights those moments for me—while I feel like I’m dying, my midwife knows I’m about to bring life into the world. She has the perspective I so often lack while I’m in the trenches of the pain.

With the vomiting and water breaking, I assumed I was in transition. I threw up a few more times and found myself holding the steel bowl to my face because I found the cold relieving. I will never be one of those women featured in birth books who look beautiful while in labor. Here I am, covered in sweat, continually groaning in pain, literally hugging a giant bowl I just threw up in. The pain was increasing, and if I would have labeled the last few hours of contractions as an 8 on a scale of 1-10, now we were starting to reach that level 10. I was starting to scream a bit more through the contractions, starting to become more fearful about what was happening to me, and starting to drown in the pain. “I’m dying. I’m dying,” I groaned as a contraction waned. I didn’t think I was physically going to die, I thought I was not going to survive feeling the pain I was feeling for much longer, whatever that meant. Maybe like in Harry Potter how Neville Longbottom’s parents are actually alive, but forever damaged from experiencing the Cruciatus Curse, unchecked. I was going to be like them. (Harry Potter is always applicable, even in labor.) “That’s good, Lyndsey.” My midwife offered. “That’s a normal feeling.” I could also feel my hips pushing apart and my bones ached in a way I had never felt before.

“You’re going to start feeling a lot of pressure down there, Lyndsey. Move into that pressure. Go to that pressure.” For all the weird language I feel like these midwives offer sometimes, I knew what she was talking about. Soon I was going to feel an urge to push and I needed to follow those instincts and not shut them out. And it seemed like only a few minutes later the feeling came upon me. But there was only one problem: pushing would require me to move from my left side and possibly open my eyes. Since that was obviously impossible, I decided not to mention I felt the urge to push and wonder instead if it is possible to deliver a baby on your side with your legs closed. I decided it was. I betrayed myself in only a few minutes as the urge grew stronger and I was starting to panic: “I feel like I need to push,” I said, urgently this time. My midwife was at the foot of the bed. “Ok, Lyndsey, that’s great. You’re going to have to move onto your back to do that,” she said, as she gently tried to lift my top knee to roll me over. “No, I can’t,” I whimpered and continued to clutch at the bed with both hands. My midwife was thankfully still operating in a world of regular physics where people can move if they choose to and assured me I could in fact roll over. After kindly encouraging me a few times with no results, she shifted her voice to include a bit more instructing and a bit less asking. Since I trusted this woman almost implicitly at this point, I was able to listen to her voice in some ways over my own body. So with great inward drama, and fear, I moved onto my back for the first time in 3 hours. And once I finally did it, once I finally moved myself into a position to birth, a shift occurred in me. There were a lot of encouraging words offered at this stage, but I didn’t need them. I had been here before. I knew I was in the last stage of labor and that I needed to show up here and finish what was required.

Whereas Benjamin’s birth required over 3 hours of pushing, Rebecca’s required only 6 minutes. 6 minutes. It happened so fast in comparison to what I was expecting. I had pushed 3, maybe 4 times and her head was out. I knew I had to push only one more time and this whole thing would be over. And so I did. My midwife pulled her out. For the first time since my labor had started, I eagerly opened my eyes to see my dark-haired, whimpering daughter placed on my chest. I closed my eyes and slowly laid my head back. Feeling her warm body on me, listening to her soft cry, I wept. “I did it.” I repeated. “I did it.”

I had survived the thing I most feared. I had come to the other side, and my mind and my emotions were still whole. And so I sobbed softly that the thing, the birth, had passed. I had done it. I felt such immense gratitude towards my midwives and Andrew and God. And however self-congratulatory it sounded, I gave myself that moment to celebrate that with their help, I had accomplished, no, beaten, this thing that I was worried would damage me forever. 

I remember a postpartum midwife comforting me after Benjamin’s birth, as I wrestled with the trauma of that experience, telling me that “success in labor is just getting your baby out.” And I could never accept that idea. Why then did my labor feel like such a failure? Why was I forever changed and damaged by something I should deem “successful”? With Rebecca’s birth I was finally able to realize what success looked like to me in labor: It didn’t necessarily mean a birth center birth, or an unmedicated experience. I had had those things with Benjamin and they didn’t comfort me. Success, for me, was coming to the other end of the birth experience with my mind and my soul still intact. Not just getting my baby out, but keeping my peace. Of course all labors feel difficult and overwhelming at times, but I think there are labors that swallow you whole, that take your mind and your well-being and drown you in pain and fair, and even when the baby is out, it’s hard to know if you ever really came back up for air again. Someone asked me recently what the worst day of my life was, and my mind immediately went to the time in June, 2014, where I labored from dawn to dawn with my son, and something in my soul shattered. If you asked me what one of the best blessings in my life is, I would also say my son. He is the best. My love for him is immense. But isn’t that what makes it all so much more difficult? Trauma is usually the result of something terrible and unwanted. But what do you do with trauma that brought you such happiness? Trauma you have to choose to face again if you want more of that happiness. How do you find the courage to revisit those fears and gamble with a similar outcome? All birth takes such immense courage because there is never a guarantee of what your outcome will be. God had given me the courage and perseverance to face this battle once more, and I rejoiced that this time around, I as a person, was still that same woman on the other end of my birth.

Those feelings of relief and accomplishment and gratitude quickly turned to elation as I took the time to inspect my baby. Here I did feel empowered, holding her, recognizing my own ears on her, and I said, “Her name is Rebecca. Rebecca Evangeline.” I wasn’t giving the midwives information, I was announcing I had just brought life into the world.

And she was such a sweet life. Wide-set eyes just like Benjamin, wavy dark hair and dark eyes, and the longest and most feminine-looking fingernails I had ever seen. She weighed a healthy 8 pounds 2 ounces, and nursed immediately and then laid contentedly between Andrew and me on the bed with the stuffed kitty we had brought for her.

There were some postpartum difficulties (the cramps, I tell you...). But for the most part, my early hours with my newborn daughter were extremely gratifying. When my family, along with Benjamin, showed up a few hours later, I was energized and talkative, high on adrenaline from the whole experience. I had to be reminded I was recovering from a serious physical ordeal and not to overdo it. We spent one night at the birth center, mostly for the amazing takeout they have delivered and so I could try to remember all the things you forget about tiny babies, like how to put a newborn diaper on a baby when you’ve been dealing with size 6 diapers and a two-year-old. But by the time it was the morning of the next day, I was ready to recover at home and get to know my new daughter.

I went back to the birth center a few weeks later for a check-up with Rebecca. We had had our own set of struggles (girlfriend can scream), but were adjusting well. My midwife walked me back to the large red room where I had given birth to Benjamin. As I sat nursing my newborn daughter, staring directly at the off-centered picture above the bed, I realized I felt no fear or anxiety sitting in the same place I had once dreaded. This room was emptied of its power. I looked around the space, and whatever part of me that exists, whatever part of my soul or mind that bears any markings of the word "birth" or "labor," or any impact from those things, those parts were more intact than ever before. Rebecca’s birth had chased some of those shadows away. I could sit peacefully in the room that had been the location of one of the worst days of my life just a few years ago, and hold a precious new life in my arms. 

Sometimes birth changes us. It makes us different people. This time, it made me better.

Thursday, January 25, 2018

Christmas Letter 2017

13 December 2017
Merry Christmas from our home, where as I write, Rebecca is ripping open other people’s presents under the tree (Sorry, Kendra!). This year in particular I have struggled to write a Christmas letter. It was a year where few noteworthy things happened: we didn’t take any exotic vacations, didn’t run any marathons (have we ever?), and mostly just adjusted to life as a family of 4. On reflecting, I think the most exciting thing that happened this year was the time Benjamin accidentally ran over the neighbor kid with his motorized Jeep. Somewhat exciting? Sure. Christmas letter worthy? No. And yet here I am, telling you about toddler hit and runs. Merry Christmas! Everybody is fine, by the way. But let this be a reminder that the suburbs have their own dangers.
Basically it was a year of small things. Rebecca was an infant when 2017 began, and my motto repeatedly during the difficult early months was “keep your head down.” What I meant was, just focus on the small, day-to-day tasks in front of you and try to take life in small pieces. If I became too concerned with the big picture—when will I ever sleep again? How many more months until this child can eat solid foods? When will I ever find a normal life rhythm again?—I felt very overwhelmed. Approaching life myopically was the best option. But the result was that in looking back the year also felt small, uneventful, and much of my memories are of the mundane: diapers, dishes, picking up 100 Ziploc sandwich bags from the floor every day (emptying drawers being a favorite pastime of Rebecca’s). But as anyone with small kids knows, the challenge is to find joy in the simple tasks and treasure in the ordinary.    
So in that spirit, let me share with you some of the small treasures and everyday snapshots I do remember of the year:
-Benjamin seated on the breakfast bench next to Andrew every single weekday morning while Andrew takes an 8:00 a.m. work call. Later, I would overhear Benjamin on his toy phone saying phrases like “Elastic Search Plug-In.”
-Rebecca looking wide-eyed (a euphemism for unbelievably startled) at every single person she saw for the first 6 months of her life.
-Staying at a house along the Klickitat River with my family over the summer. Coming back to the house after an afternoon fishing and seeing Benjamin running in circles in the front yard with my mom, the sun setting, bubbles trailing from the wand in his hand.  
-Finally potty training Benjamin. Hearing him walk down the stairs 5 times a day yelling, “Momma! I pottied!” The excitement and inflection are the exact same every time.
-Enjoying the process but attempting to no avail to perfect my green curry recipe so that I can stop pining for the Thai restaurant down the street. Why is it so much better than mine? Legitimately asking.
-Andrew waking up perfectly lucid and coherent from knee surgery. No embarrassing viral videos to be had.
-So many late nights with Rebecca, walking her around the darkness of her room, simultaneously trying to feel the shape and weight of her body so that I could impress it on my heart and mind for when she would be too big to hold like this, and also desperately, desperately wanting to put her down and go to sleep.
-Hiking the base of Mount Hood with Elizabeth and Jonathan, and my in-laws Rich and Cindy, in which my 60-year-old in-laws were out of sight and up the mountain in a matter of minutes while the rest of us younger ones complained about things like altitude and inclines and knee pain, and slowly trudged along.
-July, tying the fishing lines my dad taught me over and over again with the same lure, hoping the muscle memory would last me the rest of my life. Curious if it has even lasted me through the winter…
-Finally convincing Andrew to buy a grill this summer, which we used for basically every summer dinner: grilled pesto pizza, grilled chicken with homemade barbecue sauce, vegetable kebabs. How have we lived the last 5 years without one?
-Andrew turning the lock in the door at the end of the day, so relieved to see him and glad he is finally home and the parent-to-child ratio is reset.
-Every single morning I used my Keurig and thought of all my Oregon coffee snob friends judging me. Contentedly sighing as I felt not one ounce of regret at my instant hot coffee.
-Long evenings talking to Rich and Cindy when they stayed with us for the month of August.
-Benjamin playing his ukulele every day, and still left-handed. He has had to start learning chords upside down since he refuses to switch. His latest hits include “Pinecone Song” and “Rockout Song.”
-Rebecca’s “crawl,” which is both endearing and terrifying. She drags her body by doing the splits and then folds her left leg under her, flopping forward. The rhythm is unsettling, and as my brother pointed out, looks like something from Resident Evil.
-Accompanying Andrew on a quick work trip to North Carolina and basking in 5 hours of uninterrupted quality time on the plane, followed by the perfect southern pulled pork dinner.
-Rebecca aggressively cuddling her stuffed kitty upon every reunion at night in her crib. And Benjamin petting his stuffed puppy’s ears so much it eventually tore a hole in one of them. I think these stuffed animals will be treasures of mine forever when the kids are done with them—a small part to represent the whole of the preciousness of childhood.
Let me leave you with one last Christmas snapshot. Benjamin is practicing to sing with the other preschool kids for our Christmas Eve service. They are going to perform “Go, Tell it on the Mountain.” Currently he’s strumming his ukulele and mixing up the words a bit, but he has this verse memorized: “Down in a lowly manger the humble Christ was born / And brought us God’s salvation that blessed Christmas morn.” I’m reminded that Christ Himself was born into the lowly and commonplace. He is always able to meet us where we are and transform our everyday elements, our bread and butter, into a gracious feast. I think he’s done that with me this past year—in the mundane, in the drudgery of seemingly meaningless and never-ending tasks, in the toil of routine, He has given us so much beauty in these “small” days. My mind may not remember the big events of 2017, but my heart will certainly remember its sweetness.
Merry Christmas,

The Browns