Letters to Our Baby – Letter 4, Birth

Started May 26 on the iPhone in between feedings with a sleeping baby in my lap. Please excuse typos and nonsensical sentences.

The Best Day of My Life

It’s been 10 days now since our baby boy swam into my arms, and I got to pull him from the water to take his first breath of air. Baby M was born on May 16 at 9:21 pm at 3.15kg. I was in a trance when he swam into the world, as I heard our midwives saying, “Pan Pan, reach down!”. Within seconds, our wet, gurgling son was in my arms, still attached to me and cooing as he spit up amniotic fluid in our bedroom birthing pool. He didn’t cry as we gently transitioned him from womb to water to air.

In the days following, I revisit that moment often in my mind, running it over and over again, terrified that my sleep deprived brain will lose some detail of what was one of the best moments of my life.

We had the windows open and the sun had just set. I remember because the neighborhood kids suddenly stopped talking and laughing, and I was convinced I had scared them away with my 2 hours of trance-like feral labor noises. We kept the lights off in the upper bedroom where the birthing pool was set up to let the night into our room.

I had 30 minutes with Baby M in the pool, his body close to mine for warmth. My husband embraced us as we waited for the placenta birth. Once Daniel cut the umbilical cord (not nearly as traumatic as he had imagined), our baby was taken into his daddy’s arms for his favorite song (“When a Kitten Be A Huntin'”) until I was done with birth.

The rest is a blur: a quick check up, breast feeding tips, chatter, a cup of tea. The only thing I remember is our son wrapped warmly in my arms, my entire world circling around me in our room in London on a warm May night.


Your Body

Just 18 hours earlier, my water broke at 2am. I had just finished up a week of work and unpacking (our shipping container arrived on that Tuesday at the peak of my nesting phase). After waking up to go to the bathroom, our baby kicked me hard and a small pool of water was at my feet. He had decided to arrive 2.5 weeks early, and politely waited until the dead of night on a Friday.

Television has taught me that the water breaking is some dramatic event that is followed by sweating, panting, contractions and a screaming baby. My experience was rather anti climatic. Daniel convinced me to come back to bed (“K and H said pre-labor can last for days. Get some rest”). As he snored away at my annoyance, (“Aren’t you excited?!”), I laid awake the rest of the night, anticipating contractions and the arrival of our little one 9 months and 2 weeks in the making.

Early contractions during the latent phase of labor (or, pre-labor) feel differently to everyone. Some people don’t feel a thing and others can barely speak. For most, the experience is similar to heavy period pains that ebb and flow in intensity and frequency, starting from your lower back and moving forward to your uterus. Mine spread across that entire spectrum and began with dull pains that kept me awake but didn’t prevent me from talking, doing some work, and keeping to business-as-usual.

Contrary to what happens in a hospital, our midwives explained to us that laying down is one of the more uncomfortable positions. I found this to be true, and preferred kneeling at the foot of the bed with my head smothered into the covers (“Well, this one is new”, Daniel remarked when he saw me). My contraction positions varied from cradling a yoga ball on the floor, to bouncing on the yoga ball, to leaning into various furniture pieces around the room, in the bathroom, or on the staircase. This pre-stage of labor felt like I had entered some time dilated twilight zone, expanding in slow drags of discomfort. By mid-afternoon on Saturday after 16 hours, the contractions moved from conversational to extreme discomfort as they slowly ramped up in intensity and succession.

Daniel stayed with me, timing the contractions in search of patterns. We were told to call the midwives once they become regular and closely spaced together (e.g., varying depending on person from 3 min on/3 min off, 1 min on/1 min off, 30 sec on/30 sec off etc). Often, pre-labor can last for days, and it’s too early. K had explained to us, “When people say they were in “labor” for 72 hours, they mean pre-labor or latent labor”.

Looking back, it’s funny we even tried to record those contraction spacings. As a woman, you know when you go from latent to Stage 1 (or “active”) labor. For me, it was one single contraction that told me. This contraction changed from being localized from the lower part of my body to one that shook my entire self. I went from being able to control the pain to suddenly breaking out in a sweat, panting, and feeling my limbs shake.

“CALL THE MIDWIVES, Daniel,” I said as I squeezed his legs (he would later do an impression of me that was a mix between Morpheus from the Matrix and The Exorcist).

The next 45 minutes of Stage 1 is a blur after K and H arrived. This is the best I can piece together: After a quick check-up, we confirmed that I had dilated to a little over 4 cm, exactly entering Stage 1 labor. I remember when H gently told me after a check-up as I laid in the bed, punching our wall (laying down was really uncomfortable!) and my reply: “Okay, so we’re half-way there” as my heart secretly sank. It already felt like hard work, and I was barely into the hard part. Between pants, screams, moans, sweats and vomit (yes, you vomit sometimes – your body is working hard!), Daniel, H, and K set up the pool, comforted me, and gave me the gas and air (nitrous oxide aka “laughing gas”) for some pain management.

I’m often asked about the pain of delivery since we didn’t have access to an epidural, and strained London ambulances were not taking women with home births for pain relief. The best I can compare the 45 minutes of my Stage 1 labor is to a really hard VO2 max or anaerobic cycling workout. It’s not a pure block of straight pain. Everyone and every pregnancy is different, but for me, I had about 45 sec-1 min on, 30 sec to 45 sec off. To be fair, those moments in between contractions feel unfairly short. In fact, I asked H, “I feel like I’m not getting a break”.

To which she comforted, “You are, but you’re working hard. It’s like a tough workout where the breaks feel like they’re going by faster.” I sometimes try to go back into that headspace of Stage 1 because it fascinates me the most. The best description I have is that the female body is unbelievably strong, and it just knows what to do. Once I accepted the magnitude of the contractions, it’s almost as if my brain tapped into some very primal instinct that I had no idea existed previously. I rejected the nitrous oxide (aka laughing gas). It annoyed me to have a plastic thing in my mouth when I could instead let out deep, rumbling screams that – irrationally – felt more productive. I stopped caring about who could hear me or my own nakedness (somehow, my clothes came off which I don’t remember). All I could focus on was managing each contraction until the breaks.

People have asked whether Daniel and I had “prepared for labor”, and the truth is, no. Our preparation was denial, and it worked out okay. I believe thousands of years of evolution have conditioned us to be able to tap into some collective memory that allows the human race to survive, one birth at a time.

A few weeks earlier, the midwives had explained to us that Stage 1 lasts until you’re dilated enough to push in Stage 2, generally until about 10cm. Between Stage 1 and 2 is a phase called “Transition”. Here, the woman is inundated with extra adrenaline and oxytocin to dilate enough (~7-10cm) to begin pushing the baby out. This is critical since prelabor and Stage 1 can last a while, and the extra energy is needed for exhausted moms during the final stretch. The adrenaline psychologically manifests itself in some form of deep fear and anxiety. H and K explained, “We always know when it’s happening because the woman will ask us to take them to the hospital, beg for an epidural, or say they can’t do it. In reality, the contractions are just as intense in Transition and Stage 2 as in Stage 1, but people perceive it to be worse because their energy is heightened and they’re tired.” I compare it to mile 20 of a marathon.

The entire neighborhood probably knew I was Transitioning. K and H went downstairs to make a cup of tea when my contraction scream changed. They ran upstairs as Daniel finished prepping the pool. From what I can piece together, I remember thinking privately as I kneeled against the foot of the bed with my head pressed into the covers, “The next time I do this, I’m getting an epidural.” Right after that single contraction, the rest felt distinctly different: as if they were coming from the back of my body and distinctly like I was pushing with each one.

Stage 2 was by far the easiest stage for me. This time, rather than annoying pain management, I felt in control. Birth is a testament to how humbling and amazing the female body is. During this stage, all three of us – our baby, my mind, and my body – were entirely working together with each contraction with gentle coaching from H, K, and Daniel. It’s impossible to explain in words, but the contractions gave me the cues of when to push and when to stop. The body led and the mind followed. I remember thinking, “The messages are so clear: start, push, stop, wait, start.”*

* * * * *

K and H, told us that nighttime is when babies are born since women adapted to the safety of the dark. Babies, in return, feel comfortable as night is closer to what they experience in the womb. They were right.

Once we were in the pool at sunset, I knew it was the final stretch. I was tired. Hanging onto the edge of the pool in a weird kneeling position, I wanted water and food in between contractions. It was also during this phase that Daniel stress roasted a chicken from scratch as I contracted and pushed, contracted and pushed (“I’ll be right back, guys, this should only take 10 minutes to prep – I have a Jamie Oliver recipe! – and an hour to roast”).

Physically, pushing can feel like it lasts forever. For every millimeter of progress, there’s a step back as the baby makes his way out of the U-turn of the uterus and cervix. Days later, I would complain about mysterious neck and shoulder pains (“Shouldn’t other places hurt more?”). Daniel likes to remind me about my contraction thrashing when I beat my head against the edge of the inflated pool, grabbed the linings, and pulled on them to try and tear them apart. I don’t remember the thrashing or the teeth grinding, but I do remember the smell of roast chicken, my annoyance at his insistence that we all eat it after the baby is born, and the way the lights dimmed as the evening settled.

Being Born, Not Delivered

There were incremental steps before that “final” push, but the last one is the one that clings to me closest. It felt long, and I remember thinking that if I didn’t continue now, I’d give up completely.

“Do you want to feel his head?” H had asked me a few contractions earlier.

To which I replied, “No, I just want to keep going.”

Reflecting now, I realize your body knows when it’s close. Some people argue it’s the burning sensation, but I don’t believe them. I remember that final push because both my body and mind decided that after an hour of pushing, this was going to be it. In one orchestrated, long effort fueled by encouragement, I went for it. Within seconds I could hear Daniel gasp from behind, “Why is does he have his hand on his head like that?”, and H say immediately after, “Reach down! Reach down now!”

At 9:21 pm just as the sun disappeared and the neighborhood quieted down, I grabbed our baby out of the water for his first breath of air.

Daddy okay’d a photo as long as your face is covered. 

Dear Darling,

Thank you for giving me such a gentle birth. I know every mom is proud of their baby, but our midwives confirmed that you had a “text book birth that rarely happens”. Reading in between the lines, they meant that you did not destroy my body (long ramp up, fast-ish – but not too fast – delivery, no stitches required). Even daddy survived with minimal casualties, with the exception of one moment when mommy squeezed his thigh really hard. He got to cut your umbilical cord, sing to you while mommy birthed your 10 month rental home, and kept you snug with us through your first night. 

I think about the first time I held you at least once a day. I had fantasized about that moment for weeks before you were born, and I revisit it often now that you’re here. In my  mind, I lifted you up into the world like Rafiki did Simba from the Lion King (which we’ll watch together one day), but the photo evidence indicates it was way less poised. You had a slight frown, your body was half in the water since you were still attached to me, and we couldn’t take our eyes off you.  

It’s hard to trace coherent thoughts from those 24 hours, but your daddy and I agree we both felt permutations of this in those early hours and the days that followed:

  • Who left the baby with us? Where did the adults go?
  • I’ve stopped feeling the baby kick, oh, wait, he’s here next to me.
  • Are you breathing?
  • How is this possible?
  • I can’t stop looking at you, and I can’t let you go.

In fact, I didn’t sleep the night after you were born after K and H left us. I still couldn’t take my eyes off you. The room was dark and quiet, except for the small noises you made when you slept. I memorized each one of them: the coos, the deep breaths, the squeaks, the tremors. 

When you arrived, you carried us into a new world. Holding you and hearing you breathe filled me with excitement, love, and fear. It’s as if at exactly 9:21 pm on May 16, an entire dimension of life opened up for me. Like my life split into a parallel universe filled with a new intensity of emotions and possibilities. The world became scarier than it ever had. Anxieties about your future and safety flooded into me from every corner of my mind (and the internet). Yet, I developed – in that moment – a confidence to protect and love in a way I didn’t think possible. Your arrival let the genie out of the bottle, never to be put back. 

So Darling, there’s so much more I need to share with you, but for your birth story I can only say one thing: thank you for giving us the opportunity to give life. In all my experiences and adventures, this one has left the deepest imprint on me.

With love always.

*This is one argument home birth supporters have against epidurals. When you have an epidural, you lose some feeling in your lower body, which is why the pushing often requires coaching. I strongly believe that pain relief is a very personal decision, but for anyone interested, I can attest that the pain from an uncomplicated, healthy no-drug birth is manageable.

4 thoughts on “Letters to Our Baby – Letter 4, Birth

  1. beautiful post, pan pan! a fascinating glimpse into an experience that seems so foreign to those of us who are not mothers.

    based on your history of athletics, i do feel like you were spending your whole life preparing for this moment – you have one of the highest pain tolerances of anyone i know!!

  2. Pan pan! Absolutely beautifully written. I cried but labor/birth stories do that to me. I felt like I was there with you. You are an amazing and strong momma and I hope to meet M one day soon. Congrats on starting this new journey as a mom. It is the best thing in the world. Sending you all the love and support that can flow through the atmosphere.
    Rachel B…from XC and then triathlon and then random meetings in Kona

    1. Thank you so much for reading! I can’t wait to meet up again and meet your little one (maybe in Kona?!?!). Xx

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