rachel twelmeyer

a birth


First of all, you should know we had a midwife and Ilo was born at home. I saw an OB at eight weeks to confirm that both my pregnancy tests weren’t wrong and that something was in fact growing inside of me. A few weeks after that we met with Kathy just to explore our options, but we left her house an hour-and-a-half later feeling remarkably confident about a home birth. She answered all our questions and before we left we exchanged hugs with Kathy, her partner Hannah, and their apprentice Rebecca. I have zero regrets about choosing to have a midwife and a home birth. It was the right thing for me and my body, and if Spencer hadn’t been totally supportive, we would not have done it.

You should also know that there’s probably way more information here than you could ever want. Oh well.

Right after Ilo was  born, I wrote down every minute detail of the birth and – as exciting as those details are – it felt like all of the moments before and after he was born were all crammed into a tiny space, each taking up the same sized slot in my mind. But over the past few months those moments have had time to mill around: some have slipped away as inconsequential details while others have billowed and become more significant and marked with time. This is less a catalogue of events leading up to Ilo’s birth and more a reflection on his birth as a rite of passage.

My mom often mentioned – in the years before I was pregnant and during the daily conversations we had while I was pregnant – that the timing of babies’ births is always so exquisite: you’re so uncomfortable and desperate to be un-pregnant that you’ll do almost anything (including suffer through labor) to get out of it. As I stumbled into the last few weeks of pregnancy, I repeated that line over and over to anyone who seemed over anxious about my pregnancy; the previous nine months had been relatively misery-free, and so I figured that if my baby was as comfortable as I was, he was a long way from coming.

On a whiteboard we had gridded out the last two weeks of November and the first two weeks of December with the names of all our family members scrawled on the day they thought our baby would arrive. Spencer and I tried to collate the data – our baby’s 20 week measurements, my mom and sister’s previous births, and how I finally got stretch marks in the last few weeks – to figure out when our tiny human would come. But we had no idea.

Almost 30 hours before Ilo was born Spencer went to see Ant Man (the story always starts here, which is stupid, but impeccably amusing), while I immersed myself in the beauty of Russian ballerinas and the world of Dior on Netflix. While I watched I downloaded a contractions tracker app and for the next fifteen hours my phone constantly at hand. I was obsessed with keeping track of the contractions. I barely slept that night as the contractions slowly got a bit stronger and closer together. I put off waking Spencer until 7:30 and it felt like Christmas morning, waiting until that blessed hour when we could knock on mom and dad’s door to start the parade.

Now, my husband is a bolder, more honest, and more confident person than I am. I couldn’t overcome the anxiety of sounding a false alarm, and I would have waited all day before I ever made “the call.” So I made Spencer my point of contact for everyone. He called the midwives and told them what was happening, but when Hannah arrived and saw how chipper and nimble I was, she correctly guessed I was still only one centimeter dilated. The midwives decided to leave to get lunch and instructed us to call when things got more intense. It sounds odd to remember we went to Home Depot after that to get something for the birthing tub, but we did.  During the minutes I sat waiting for Spencer in the parking lot (dutifully tracking contractions), I spent a few minutes watching a man a few cars over pluck nose hairs in the rear view mirror before going in the store to buy something. When we got home I couldn’t sleep but laid down, took loud breaths and tried to concentrate on the music on my “labor jamz” playlist. Around 4:00pm I threw up and the force of it caused me to lose what felt like a lot of water, and I instructed Spencer to call the midwives again and tell them to come back to the house. I was still only at a two when they came back, but I vomited again and we decided I should spend some time in the shower sitting on the medicine ball.

Time stopped in the shower. I was able to deliberate over deep thoughts, a kind of respite from the intensity: “Is my sacrifice the price for this tiny life?” “What is my role really in all of this?” “Does my body really know what it’s doing?!” While I sat I sipped pink Vitamin Water (which I threw up later, very glamorously onto the sheets of my bed). I dreaded the moment I had to get out of the shower, but I was simultaneously anxious to keep moving forward. After each dilation check I would vomit, then ask for the next landmark, the next thing that would indicate progress. This helped me immensely, to have a milestones ahead of me. So when I thought I was so close to the end, I found out that I still had rectal pressure and increased nausea to look forward to.

There are so many micro-details in the story. They feel like little shims, getting wedged in here and there – wherever there’s a little space. Like the fact that I was eating peanut butter toast before the midwives arrived, or that I watched Mansfield Park and two episodes of  North and South with my eyes shut during contractions, or that I couldn’t decide if the essential oils my midwife put in the diffuser were pleasant or were actually making me nauseous, or how Hannah had draped my favorite piece of cloth from Thailand over my grandpa’s Herman Miller lamp to set the mood, and how I loved that.

I cycled through sitting on the toilet, sitting on the medicine ball, standing with Spencer’s hands on my back, and spending time in the shower. When I’d finally reached “active labor,” it was in the evening sometime, and Hannah said that this could last another twelve hours, and I reached a peak level of panic; I had only slept a couple hours, and any scrap of nutrition inside of me was long gone. I was physically wasted and I was frustrated that I couldn’t find ways to cope better with contractions. I didn’t say anything out loud but I was dubious – no way no how was I going to make it that long.

Fortunately it did not last 12 hours, closer to six. Somehow the next couple of hours and centimeters slipped by and it was time to get in the tub. After Hannah told me she thought it was time to get in, I confronted her and wanted to know if she really thought it was time; I had been holding out for the tub and if we were too hasty for that last milestone I had no other contingency plan, nothing to hold out for. She assured me and was confident that we were closing in on the end. By some magic I progressed from a five and a half to a ten in just over an hour. I was pushing what felt like immediately after getting in the tub. By my own preference, I’d been alone with Spencer for most of the day, weathering the contractions while the midwives played games and ate sandwiches downstairs. But once it was time for the pushing, they were right there, sleeves rolled up and giving very strict instructions to pant, to slow down, to let my body slowly stretch open. They told me I could reach down to feel his head, which I did, but it felt nothing like a head. I’m surprised I wasn’t more encouraged by the fact that this baby was very obviously on its way. I remember feeling so cynical; in between contractions and sips of water I silently wondered how finally getting to meet this total stranger was motivation for anyone to proceed through all of this. But I kept taking deep breaths, with a little push and then lots of panting. Spencer was half in the tub, not permitted to move because I needed him to put pressure on my back every contraction. I had read that transition was a distinct hurdle that you recognized when you got to it, but there’s no demarcation in my mind.  When a third of his head was finally out, I was ready to wrap things up and pushed out his head and then the rest of his body in the same contraction. When I pushed him out of my body, I couldn’t believe how enormous he was. He felt so huge in the water. Spencer had hopped in at the last moment, and with him in the birth tub I could barely keep Ilo’s head out of the water. I was overcome with emotion, murmuring how he was finally here, this little boy I hardly knew but wanted so badly to meet.

The placenta came very shortly after Ilo. I stepped out of the tub and instead of waiting I just pushed it out. (I ended up getting my placenta encapsulated, which was a good choice – more on that later if you’re interested.)

After Ilo was born the midwives and my husband told me I’d done great, that I was victorious. But even though I had a beautiful baby in my arms whom I genuinely loved, I felt I’d been beaten. It took me a couple of weeks (months, years?) to process it, but I realized that even though I never let myself verbally exclaim defeat, I felt so close to my own demise, and that proximity to being overcome felt equal to failure. It was hard. The first time I made Spencer tie my shoes when I was pregnant he reminded me that birth was going to hurt like hell. I quipped back something about the fear-tension-pain cycle* and dismissed it. Despite the exhaustive amount of reading I did, I knew I had allowed myself to be a little naive about the intensity of labor. I had done so much to prepare myself: I had practiced labor yoga positions, I had rehearsed mantras, Spencer and I had even practiced all kinds of labor positions – but none of it was adequate to disentangle the mess of blinding discomfort. And so I went through labor more overwhelmed with frustration than pain. I just wanted to find a way to make some kind of reconciliation, to feel like I was empowered by my own preparation during labor, instead of just standing there to let the intensity crash over me.

It’s hard to not make a birth story into a personal odyssey. In a way it is like the journey of a life, and I keep trying to make it define me, to calculate how it’s made me more of a person. But honestly the things that were true before Ilo was born are still true when the pieces of his birth story are factored in: the fact that I don’t want anyone to see me in pain, that I try to barrel through when things get hard, the fact that I sometimes have trouble connecting with people I don’t know very well, that I like to be proactive in difficult situations.

It’s true what they say about the memory of the pain fading away in time – which was hard because I wanted so badly to remember, to grasp onto the intensity before it slipped away from me. It was such a significant experience that I didn’t want it trivialized by faded memory. But instead of the firm imprint of the pain and intensity, I’m left with a keen recollection of the serenity of sitting in bed with my tiny baby and my husband after the intensity ceased. The midwives were swift with frozen pads soaked in witch hazel and warm receiving blankets for the baby and then they left us alone for so long, to just stare at each other and breathe (and in my case to notice how strange my deflated belly looked). Our moms showed up not long after the birth, and we just let things settle. Ilo got his first little bit of milk. Spencer kept commenting on Ilo’s cone head, but I was holding him so close I couldn’t see it. Rebecca put frankincense on his head to help with the swelling and the smell lingered for days.  After a long time the midwives came back and Spencer cut the cord and the baby got weighed and measured (8lb 4oz, 22 inches long). I took an herbal bath and sweet baby Ilo came in with me. Kathy checked me and I had a paper cut tear that ended up healing on its own. And then we slept. The midwives came back later that day to check on us. (As a side note, even though we paid the midwives for their services, I kept thinking that they did so much for us – more than I could really ever re-pay them for. They were kind and trustworthy and took such good care of us.)

I had been sure my baby would be born with dark hair like me. But we had a little arrangement that if he came out with red hair we would name him Elmer after Spencer’s red-headed great grandpa. Our sweet baby came out with hair we have not yet been able to categorize. We named him Ilo Frederick: Ilo after my great grandfather, and Frederick after a couple generations of Frederick’s on Spencer’s side. He has been really good to us. We really love him.


*Grantly Dick-Read’s philosophy on birth

One Comment

  1. Posted April 7, 2016 at 3:05 am | Permalink

    I LOVE a good birth story – thanks for sharing!

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