Though my blog rarely, if ever, deals with pregnancy and birth and my readership is largely made up of single girls, I still encourage you to read through this story! If you are new to my blog and came over specifically to read this post, welcome! I approached my birth from the perspective of my Christian faith, so you will see that as a pivotal part of the birth story. However, there are some tips at the end that may be useful to any woman looking to attempt an unmedicated birth.
Five years ago, if you had told me I’d deliver my first child at home in a natural, unmedicated birth, I would have said, “You’re crazy.” Simply put, pain is not something for which I had any patience. I’m a regular pill-popping machine when it comes to headaches, bruises and any other bodily injury. Though I grew up around women who regularly delivered their babies naturally (though rarely at home, as it wasn’t such a thing back then) I had no desire to put myself through such a state of affairs when there seemed to be other options available.
Somewhere in those next five years I heard a rumor (and it truly is a rumor, because it isn’t always true) that natural birthing moms didn’t tear as much when they gave birth because they could sense how hard to push, whereas women who got epidurals often tore more; thus women who had epidurals might escape the discomfort of labor, but their recovery can be longer, harder, and more miserable. The very word “tear” in association with that area was enough to send me running to the hills. I was ready to do anything to avoid such a fate.
Enter natural birth.
It started simply as curiosity, but as time went on, I found more and more information touting the benefits of an unmedicated birth: quicker recovery, greater comfort, more presence of mind, awake baby, and many more. This is all great, I thought. But I still have to do it MYSELF. Natural-birthing women were, to me, Greek goddesses of pain tolerance – seated in a sphere high above my own. How could pill-popping Phylicia ever achieve what these women were able to do? How was someone with no pain tolerance going to endure what I had heard was the “worst pain of your life”?
My husband and I found out we were pregnant on our one year wedding anniversary. I was just beginning my travel season as a college recruiter and spent the first seven months of the pregnancy working full time either in the office, on a plane, or speaking at conventions across the Eastern seaboard. I didn’t have time to bask in my pregnancy; I had never been more busy. But I did make sure to enroll my husband and myself in a Bradley class (husband-coached childbirth) and in lieu of regular office visits at my practice, I joined Centering, a small group of women due in October like I was. We met with a midwife and nurse once a month for the first two trimesters.
I could not afford to have a difficult pregnancy, to be quite blunt. I had to find ways to tough out the difficult periods. To make this post a little shorter, below is a list of items used and things I did that were pivotal to the ease of my pregnancy, enabling me to work full time up to 36 weeks pregnant and maintain both my health and quality of life:
- Working Out: I worked out until the 36th week (9th month) of pregnancy, and would have continued had we not been moving out of state. Working out during pregnancy was hands down the best decision I made. I continued running until the 5th or 6th month, after which I started using the elliptical and walking outdoors. I combined this cardio with strength training, including deadlifts, squats, bicep curls, tricep extensions, planks, and pilates. This combination kept my back from aching through the entire gestation (and enabled me to wear heels until 37 weeks, when my feet swelled too much even for my biggest pair of shoes!).
- Ginger: In the first trimester and on my flights for work, ginger was like magic. In the first tri I ate ginger cereal (found at Trader Joe’s) and drank ginger peach tea. I also chopped up raw ginger, lemons, and limes for my water. My mom sent me ginger candies that I sucked on during take off and landing for my flights.
- Coconut Oil: Some women do all natural make up and hair products during pregnancy; I didn’t – it’s just not my thing. The baby is perfectly healthy despite my Estee Lauder addiction. But I did find that coconut oil worked best to offset break outs, and it is completely natural. I washed my face with it every night. It can also be used to soothe itching, which started up in the ninth month once my belly started to really stretch.
- Reading: And not on the internet. Yes, I realize, this post is on the internet. But I hope you take what you see here and go buy some awesome books that educate you about your body, pregnancy, and the baby you are going to have. My favorites were Ina May’s Guide to Childbirth, Dr. Bradley’s Husband-Coached Childbirth, and Childbirth Without Fear. I also bought What to Expect When Expecting and What to Expect in the First Year, but found BabyWise most helpful with my questions concerning care for a newborn.
- Relaxing: As someone who finds relaxation annoying rather than enjoyable, natural birth should have been my last option. Relaxation is ESSENTIAL to an unmedicated birth, because tension causes the woman to resist her body, extend labor and intensify her own pain. We practiced relaxation in our Bradley class, but I also made a point to do my reading (of the above books) each night in the tub. I lit candles, closed the door, and played spa music. Not only did it help my body recover from the day, it also taught me how to relax, breathe, and prepare for labor.
- Prayer: My chiropractor (another essential to pregnancy) happened to share my Christian faith. His wife had had five children, all naturally and with the same practice I was using. He suggested a book called Supernatural Childbirth by Jackie Mize. It sounded kind of whacky, but I bought it – and am so glad I did. I learned to pray specifically for what I hoped for in Adeline’s birth. I prayed over my pregnancy. I asked for God’s protection against the things I dreaded: a long labor, tearing, complications, induction, and medical intervention. Every time I felt fear rising up in my heart, I wrote out my prayers and requests again. This was by far the most important aspect of my pregnancy and the birth I will describe below.
So Much For Stress-Free
As I was getting ready to go on maternity leave – around the 36th week of my pregnancy – my husband (Mr. M) received a job offer in Pennsylvania. We were living in Virginia at the time. They wanted him to start as soon as possible. We decided that it would be wiser to move BEFORE the birth of the baby rather than after, with all the adjustments that come with a newborn. So at 37.4 weeks pregnant, I moved with Mr. M to central Pennsylvania.
Moving in general is stressful. Moving when you could technically go into labor any day – it’s a whole other level!
I called all the midwives, birthing centers, and birthing centers in hospitals within an hour’s radius of our new home. None of them would take me. I sat at my computer and cried. Where on earth am I going to have this baby? Stress and tension are the enemies of a good natural birth; how could I be stress-free and relaxed when I didn’t even know where my baby would be born, who would be delivering her, or where I should go?
I Googled “midwives near Lancaster” and that’s when I found Shirley. A home birth midwife (CPM) in Pennsylvania, Shirley shared my Christian faith and just reading her biography gave me a sense of peace – despite the fact I had never planned on a home birth, and my previous midwife worked out of a local hospital. But I emailed her anyway and heard back that same day (after hearing five successive “nope, no room for you”s from other practices and practitioners) – she was willing to meet with us when we came to PA looking for housing (a week from our move, we had nowhere to live).
The day we were to meet with Shirley, Mr. M wanted to go look at one more rental in the area. Because a home birth was now on the table, we had to find something that would be conducive to that plan. I thought we had already decided on a location, but went along with Josh’s instincts to look at the one last rental. When we arrived, the landlord asked me where I planned to have the baby. Before I could answer, she said, “Are you doing a home birth?” I hadn’t been wanting to admit that but since she brought it up… “Yes, we are, since no other practices would accept me. Is that okay with you?”
“Sure, if that’s what you want to do!”
I was dumbfounded. Not only was the landlord also a Christian and a wonderful woman herself, she had opened the door for us to have a home birth – without us having to do it on the lowdown. We signed the lease on the house the next day and returned to Virginia to pack.
Fast forward a week: I am unpacking boxes in our new home. It’s 84 degrees, my feet look like bricks, and I’m pretty sure I can’t stretch any larger – even though I’m still two weeks out from my due date. Other than a few cramps here and there, however, I had no signs of early labor.
The Saturday after we moved in, we went garage saling with some friends. Josh found a large exercise ball we thought could be helpful for labor, so we bought it on a whim.
The Birth Story
That Sunday night at 2:30 A.M I went to the bathroom for the upteenth time. I noticed a small spot of blood, and since I’d never bled before during the pregnancy I decided to see what was going on. It appeared to be the mucus plug dislodging, a sign of labor beginning soon. Well nice, should be soon! I thought, standing up. That’s when my water broke. Well nice, sooner than I thought!
The night before I had planned to make some freezer meals and pack up the items for the home birth, but I got distracted and never did it. So at 2:30 AM I bustled around the house, collecting the chux pads, towels, and bowls for the birth, laying out Adeline’s newborn clothes “just in case”. I knew of women whose contractions were irregular for days following the water breaking. I was so unconcerned, I didn’t tell my husband what happened until 4 AM.
“What?! Your water broke?!”
“It’s no big deal – no contractions yet, I just set everything out in case.”
Ten minutes later it wasn’t “in case” anymore. The contractions started immediately at 6 minutes apart, then dropped to two minutes apart, and back to 5-6 minutes. They felt like longer, gradual period cramps. I practiced relaxing, just laying on my side in bed with Josh. My plan was to stay out of the tub as long as possible, because the tub can slow labor down if you get in too early. For about 45 minutes I laid in bed on my side until the contractions got strong enough Josh filled up the bath. At 5 AM we called Shirley. She advised us to call again when the contractions became too hard to bear.
What does that mean?! I wondered.
The one thing I HAD finished prior to pregnancy was a flipbook of verses and affirmations to read to myself in preparation for and during labor. I had written out verses about God’s might and strength, His faithfulness, His love, and how to deal with fear or trouble. In between verses I had written affirmations about relaxing – things like “Each contraction brings your baby closer!” I also wrote out some of the prayers from my Supernatural Childbirth book. I had Josh read some of the verses to me while I sat in the bath.
By 6:30 AM Josh said, “After two more contractions like that one, I’m calling Shirley.” They were closer together and more intense: tighter, heavier, and more pressure in my pelvis. The pressure was more uncomfortable than the tightness. With each surge I told myself: This is good. You can do this. You were made for this. Each contraction is pushing her further down. You are making progress. These affirmations helped me relax through each contraction, rather than tense up in fear and fight my body.
Shirley arrived around 7 AM. At this point I was nearing transition – the period between first and second stage labor. This is where the Bradley class came in so handy: because I was completely “present” I knew exactly what my body was going through, and because I had been educated (in the class and through Centering, along with the books and birth stories I read) I knew I was in transition. Signs of transition are throwing up, shaking, and suddenly not wishing to be touched by anyone – including your husband. I had all three of these happening at once. Though it was uncomfortable, I was hot, my legs were shaking and I abhor throwing up, I knew this meant I was nearing the end.
The birthing ball we had bought on the garage sale turned out to be a stellar investment. I rotated sitting on it with sitting in the bath.
After a short stint in the tub again, I went back to the bedroom with Shirley, Josh and Danielle, the second midwife. I had read that squatting during the pushing stage would open the pelvis by 15% more, and since Lord knows I didn’t want to tear, that’s what I did. At about 9 AM I started to push. The contractions were further apart now and I got to really rest between them, then bear down during them. This stage was much more “fun” than the last, because I could actually DO something!
After what felt like 15 minutes, Shirley said, “I can see the baby’s head, Phylicia. Now do short little pushes so you don’t tear!” I followed her instructions, along with another thing I’d learned in Bradley – that arching your back out shortens the birth canal. I wanted that thing as short as possible. Shirley applied counter pressure and also rubbed oil on me while I pushed. At 9:32 her head appeared and at 9:37 Adeline Sophia was born into the world.
My labor was 7 hours beginning to end: very uncommon for a first time mother. Some women labor longer but with more lead up; I had very little lead up and few breaks from 4 AM to when Adeline was born. It was intense and at times difficult, definitely uncomfortable, and there were moments when I felt I couldn’t do anymore. So below are some of my takeaways and the things that gave this “no pain tolerance” girl the ability to do something I thought was impossible:
- Education: Ignorance leads to fear. Fear leads to tension. Tension leads to pain. Pain leads to greater fear, and so the cycle continues. By educating yourself and knowing what your body CAN do, you can recognize telltale signs in your own pregnancy and labor (much like how I knew I was in transition, and it helped propel me forward without losing heart). YOU become the expert on your own body, pregnancy and birth! And remember – you can always buy a stroller. You can’t always be prepared for the birth you want. I still don’t have a high chair; newborns don’t need them. But I needed a good understanding of my body and what it could do in time for her delivery!
- Bradley Childbirth Class – we loved this and highly recommend it. It ran about $300 but was completely worth it.
- Centering – if your hospital offers this, look into it! I loved my group and my midwife.
- Books – read books about childbirth and most of all, read POSITIVE birth stories from women who are realistic about what to expect. Ina May’s book begins with a whole section of birth stories – her book was by far my favorite.
- Affirmations: In the first stage of labor, through each contraction I repeated to myself: “You are moving her down. You are moving her down.” The image of the baby moving DOWN with each contraction made me feel as if I was actually accomplishing something. I also told myself, “You can do this. You are strong. You are strong enough for this.” Reminding myself that I had the capability of birthing this child helped me press on when I wanted to give up.
- Recognition of What the Pain Is: Labor is the body’s way of birthing a child! It’s truly amazing, but we have to actually recognize what the body is doing – not just focus on the pain. When I have a headache, I take a pill because I don’t see the headache as beneficial, but distracting. Labor pain is beneficial. And it’s not like a headache: it’s like a muscle workout, the same muscle, over and over again. As someone who loves to work out, this image helped me see that the contraction was simply accomplishing something my body couldn’t do on its own.
- Midwife: Some OBs are fantastic, holistic, and very supportive of natural birth. But this is not always the case. Doctors across the board are very helpful in the event of an emergency or medical intervention (I would have used a local hospital had something like this come up). Midwives, on the other hand, specialize in healthy, normal births and keeping low-risk moms low-risk. I loved both my midwives – Julia, in Virginia, and Shirley here in PA. Having a professional yet motherly figure in the room with me made a huge difference in my relaxation and labor.
- Prayer: One of the things people said to me when I 1) said I was using a midwife and 2) said I was having a home birth was, “But what if something goes wrong?” First of all, this is a silly question to ask because no pregnant woman would intentionally put herself in a position to harm her baby. That aside, I was not worried about anything going wrong because I had complete peace through prayer. Every time I had a fear, I brought it to God and committed it to Him. And truthfully, I knew in my heart that nothing WOULD go wrong. In the event that it did, I had a hospital as a back up. I had a specific prayer list, and I am delighted to say that every single one of these prayers was answered:
- A shorter, rather than longer labor
- That my labor would progress quickly and regularly
- That the baby would not be in distress
- That the baby would not have her hands by her face (makes you more likely to tear)
- That I would dilate at the appropriate intervals
- That I would not tear at all or, if I did, only a little (I had three very tiny tears)
- That I would have the energy to complete the task at hand
- That the baby would not be posterior (facing front)
- Tools: The birthing ball was a fantastic $8 investment. I loved using this during labor. We used our own bathtub, which was good for a time but was not satisfying at the end (we chose not to get a kiddie pool and have a water birth, though that was an option). I was given a peri bottle for postpartum that was helpful when using the bathroom for the first few times.
- Dealing with the Pain: Below are some ways I dealt with the pain that made it manageable for a low-tolerance gal like myself:
- Kissing: Sounds ridiculous, right? But in early labor, this actually helped me a lot. Kissing (like, the real deal, not a peck) releases a hormone that helps lessen the intensity of the contraction. When Josh was helping me in the first few hours, this was a great pain reliever and relaxer. (Somewhat related, sex can induce labor, and the more sexually active a couple is while pregnant the more likely a woman is to have her baby near her due date. The prostaglandins in semen soften the cervix.)
- Massage: Throughout labor Josh would massage my arms, back and shoulders. At one point, I had him pinch my shoulder muscle tightly – it offset the muscle contractions in my uterus and helped for at least 3-4 contractions.
- Speaking/Praying Over Labor: As previously stated, hearing myself state what I was doing, or praying my verses aloud, helped me refocus my mind throughout labor. One of the verses that stood out the most was one in Proverbs: “The name of the Lord is a strong tower; the righteous run into it and are safe.” I repeated that to myself over and over. Josh reminded me that God was present in the very room. He was giving me strength for what I was called to do in that moment.
- Moment by Moment: Shirley, my midwife, had 13 children. At some point between contractions I remember asking her, “How did you do this 13 times?!” She replied: “Moment by moment Phylicia, just like you.” It’s the “eat an elephant one bite at a time” concept. You don’t have to deal with the whole labor – just each contraction. And as one woman told me and I remembered, “You can do anything for sixty seconds.”
- Breaks: The best thing about labor “pain” is that it gives you a break! You get to rest in between, at least till the very end. At the pushing stage, I had even more time to rest in between. It is not a constant pain (though there is discomfort/pressure) but the kind that comes in waves. You just deal with each wave individually.
- Prevent Tearing: Since this was very important to me, a few things really helped. Shirley provided counter pressure as the baby crowned. I was also in the squat position that opened my pelvis more (another option is the asymmetrical squat, one leg up, one down). Shirley also rubbed oil on me as the baby descended. And rather than bear down as the head appeared, I did small, short pushes to ease her out.
God is Present with the Pain Intolerant
If you are a first time mom like me wondering if you can do a natural birth, I hope my story encourages you! I did not think I could do it. I was the most unlikely candidate for the job! But I truly believe that God was present in that room during the birth, not only because He is Lord of Life but because Josh and I invited Him in. We prayed for His presence and depended upon it. And because He was so present in power, we were brought closer as a couple and as a new family. I had peace and joy and health that I credit directly to Jesus Christ.
Though a home birth was not on the table until the ninth month in my pregnancy, I would do it all over again. Being in the comfort of our new home, able to immediately rest in my own bed, shower, get dressed, and walk about the house four hours after the birth – it was phenomenal! Something foreign, new, and even frightening became so much more relaxing with a simple change of environment (if you aren’t sure about home birth, go with a birthing center! They are usually decorated to appear like a home).
Adeline is now three days old and as wide awake as can be. We are enjoying every moment with her and are so grateful to God and to the people who made our move, her birth, and our adjustment into family life a little easier!
If you have questions, feel free to post them below.