Part Three: The Birth
Finally, we get to the real heart of this series of posts — the actual birth of Jude, whom I affectionately call SB — Spirit Baby, for the way I told Emi I knew she was pregnant before she even thought was.
Note: I’m only sharing a select few of these birth pictures, with Emi’s permission. Also — this is long, and therefore somewhat detailed — but not a very graphic birth story, since I was only an observer. Which is to say — you’re not going to get a lot of medical details, and this should be a fairly tame read — but if you’re squeamish about birth, you’ve been warned!
With all that background out of the way, I can finally get down to the actual birth, that experience that so awed and inspired me – and I have to start that story the week before Emi gave birth – not that we knew it, at the time.
There had been some concern, in the final weeks – every expecting woman’s nightmare: Emi’s midwife, beloved Candie was going on vacation on September 23. Emi’s official due date was September 24. Of course, none of us ever know when a baby is going to decide IT’S TIME – but there was a fairly decent chance Emi wouldn’t have the woman she’d trusted and met with her entire pregnancy with her when she gave birth – that she would be passed over to some stranger who didn’t know her preferences and her background.
And I think there was more to it than that – Emi is a doula, she’s worked with Candie on multiple births. There was a trust there, a working relationship – and after I met Candie myself, heard her talk and work with Emi throughout her birth – I knew Candie really wanted to be at Emi’s birth too, for her own sake.
So in the week before, there was a lot of concern, a fair amount of rush. As I packed my doula/photographer bag, slipping in last minute chargers and essential oils, Emi and I texted, pretty darn close to day and night. How’s my girl, I asked every morning, how are you feeling?
Her answers varied. Some contractions last night, she’d say, but they petered out. Nothing too exciting.
I finished my bag, double-checked everything, worked out a schedule to share the car with Shaun to where I had access to drive to Emi and Trav even if Shaun was at work. I admit – I was nervous myself. I wanted Emi to have her baby with Candie, before she left – but it was a difficult week for me in terms of juggling obligations. I’d gotten approval to miss work if Emi went into labor during the day, but this week was one where a fellow team member would be out one day and I would need to be there if at all possible, I had dance classes Monday and Friday, I had a practice for my work’s team Dragon Boat Races on Friday, and was scheduled to row in the races with the rest of my work team on Saturday. I didn’t want to let anybody down – I didn’t want to make anyone mad or disappointed in me, and I didn’t want to miss out on any of it.
True to form, I tried to stress at first. What if Emi goes into labor on Wednesday when my coworker is out? What if Emi goes into labor while I’m teaching and I have to find someone to cover? What if she goes into labor just before the races start? Or in the middle, and I can’t leave? All the while, I tried not to bother Emi with my worries. My obligations were definitely not her concern, and I didn’t want to shove my potential problems in her face while she was waiting to go into labor, of all things.
After a few days of this, I went right back to that word – trust. You are just going to have to trust that it will work out, I kept telling myself, hearing my sweet mama’s advice in my own head. (Maybe I’m finally learning.) You are going to have to trust that it will work out as it should. Worrying about it is not going to change anything, or make anything happen. Rest, wait. See what happens as it happens.
Thursday is where things started to get interesting.
I woke up at a 5:45 AM – my early shift week – to a text sent from Emi at 3:30 AM. Not to get you too worked up, it read, but I’ve been having steady contractions all night. You might need to be prepared not to go into work – this might be it.
Thursday, luckily, was a perfect day for Emi to give birth. I had known from her previous birth stories that she went fairly quickly, not someone to labor for a full day or longer. If she went into labor Thursday, I felt confident I wouldn’t miss any of my obligations on Friday, and therefore not on Saturday, or the following Monday.
But the text had been sent at 3:30, and I’d gotten nothing since. No further texts, no phone calls saying, YUP, LET’S GET GOING!
I texted Emi with bleary eyes as I puttered around the bathroom, brushing my teeth, throwing my contacts in. Haven’t heard anything more – you still contracting? I’m going to get up and at least go into work to do my morning traffic reports, unless you tell me differently.
Things had quieted down, and I could tell Emi was disappointed. I have an appointment with Candie at 10:30, she said, I think I’ll get checked – she’d been avoiding any unnecessary checks up until this point – and see what she says.
The work day progressed as normally as it ever does in this industry. I was more than a little distracted, checking my phone too often to see if Emi had an update. Waiting to hear the results from her appointment. 3 centimeters, came the reply, which is fairly normal for mothers close to their time, and she striped my membranes. Should get things moving here soon. I’ve had a couple good contractions. Candie thinks it’ll be within 24 hours.
I was excited! Things were moving! It was getting near to time! I spoke with Emi later, after lunch, and we agreed that I’d come by after I got off of work, just to check in, to keep her company and give her a hug. I was ready – I’d grabbed my bag that morning when I left for work at 6:30 AM, just in case. I could leave from their house if need be, if this was really happening.
I think we both hoped this was really it. Emi was ready, ready to be done with being pregnant, ready to meet her baby, ready to know she’d deliver with Candie and not anyone else. I was ready too – just excited, pumped up, ready to know it was time. Ready to embrace the experience. I’m sure we didn’t do each other any favors, we kept trying to play it cool, not get too excited, but clearly we were excited, watchful – clearly we kept amping each other up.
I arrived at their house on Thursday afternoon – and I include all this mainly to have an excuse to talk about the time I spent with her and her two children, just before she gave birth. The entire pregnancy, as months rolled by, I kept saying to Emi, I know whatever I’m feeling, you’re feeling times a hundred million, since it’s YOU and YOUR baby and YOUR FAMILY – and I’m sure this was one of those times. I arrived at their little white house, and poked my head in the door, and Jack and Norah immediately looked up. Emmy! Emmy’s here!
They came over and gave me hugs, kisses, showed me that they were watching the Prince of Egypt, what they’d worked on in home school that day, their new paintings, pictures they’d drawn for their adoptive sister still in Uganda. In between holding their hands, hiding with them under blankets or spelling out words with magnets on the fridge, Emi and I managed to discuss her situation.
I don’t know, she said, I’m having regular contractions, every five minutes. For a full minute. And it stayed that way, for an hour – and in normal birthing, that’s an indicator to get thee to a hospital, it’s go time. But these don’t feel right, Emi said, they’re not amped up. They’re very tame.
We took food out to their chickens, and I pushed Norah and Jack on the swings. This time was so precious to me. These kids have me wrapped around their little fingers, and their affection and love for me is such a treasure to me. I kept looking at them with wonder at how big they were, how well-spoken Norah is at three, how creative, how utterly darling in her personality, her big eyes and wild curls. And my Jack – the first baby I ever really loved in this way. He’ll be six, in a few months, and he’s such a good boy, a dear boy and a sweet big brother. I watched him hold Norah’s hand on the couch, pick her up and squeal with laughter together. He kept sidling up to me and nuzzling my side like a cat, wrapping his arms around me.
I couldn’t believe there was about to be another baby in their family. We had known this, of course, all along – that the end result would be another baby. Of course. But now that the reality was upon us, I found it hard to believe. I love Jack and Norah so much, I have so enjoyed seeing them grow into their own little personalities, the ways they are different, the ways they are the same – and now, I would get to do it all over again, with SB.
(Again, all of this, I knew Emi felt times a hundred million percent.)
Trav came home from work, Daddy’s home! We all hugged, and I decided to bow out for a little bit. Our dear friend Bri was in town for a precious few days, and we had a birthday dinner planned downtown for her that night. I didn’t want to leave Emi, but I’d also heard several birth stories where too many people around an early laboring mother could distract her, could keep labor from really progressing. I wanted to be there, every single second, but I didn’t want to distract her.
The evening passed with little more excitement. I met Bri, Murph and Jeannie for dinner, and we caught up, laughed until we cried, had a few drinks and listened to music. Met up with BB and Laureny later. Somewhere in the middle of that, I texted Emi again. How are things?
Slowed down again, she told me, and I think we were both a disappointed. I had really thought this would be it. But we agreed we would both try and get some good rest, and see how things were going in the morning.
I had no texts overnight, no phone calls. I made myself wait until almost lunch time to check in with Emi. Not much had changed. I had lunch, took Shaun to work, came back to work. I thought I was in for a very normal Friday evening, teaching dance, meeting the girls for dinner again as long as Bri was in town.
And then Friday afternoon started to get interesting. I raced about town, first downtown to have my team Dragon Boat practice, which involved a hell of a lot of rowing and a hell of a lot of splashing, and I ended up showing up to the dance studio to cover Emi’s classes, still half-soaked in river water.
In my mind, the evening was on track. Emi had been quiet all day, I really didn’t expect to hear from her that evening – and then, as I walked back over to the stereo to pause the music and make my next set of corrections, I glanced at my phone to check the time – and spotted a text from Emi.
I know this is HORRIBLE timing, she said, but I really think this is it, this time. I think it’s go-time.
I went a little dizzy, for a second, processing, and the girls were still out center, talking to me, and I had to hold up a hand. Hang on a second. I think – I think I may have to go be with Miss Emi while she births her baby.
They freaked out, of course. Hush, hush, hush! I called, Y’all get in the corner and start your chainé turns! I’m gonna go call Miss Emi!
So I scampered out to the lobby, and called her, and she – dear, precious one – apologized for interrupting me teaching her class. She sounded a little faint, a little unsure – reluctant, I think, to pull me away from classes when there was most likely no one to step in to cover for me covering, last minute. Finally, after we hemmed and hawed for a few minutes, I asked, point blank, would you feel better if I were there? And she answered quickly, yes!
That sealed the deal for me. Arrangements were made to finish the ballet class with a mom as supervision. (I do not care what you do, I told my teenagers, after they asked me if they could this, or if they could that, so long as you are either improving your physicality or your technique and you are not getting hurt.) Emi had told me not to rush, that we definitely had enough time for me to take it easy getting to her house – and as I pulled out of the studio driveway, I thought – how is that possible?!??!
But I worked for calm on the drive over. I knew a lot of my role that night would be calmness and reliability. Steadiness, solidness. There’s no room for fear, anxiety, or too much excitement, at a birth – one little whiff of it, and everyone can pick up on it. Everyone has to be committed to this calm and this peacefulness, or else energies can start spiraling out of control. So, I put on my peaceful choir music, made myself take deep breaths. I prayed the whole drive over, as I passed people and changed lanes and waited at stop lights. Let this all go smoothly. Let Emi feel strong and healthy and capable. Let SB be calm and ready and moving quickly. Let all of us who attend them be focused and strong and a source of love and support.
At their little white house, I left everything in my car and hurried in. The scene was not that much different than it had been the day before – the kids looked up, saw me, and cried, Emmy! Emmy’s here! and rushed over for hugs and kisses. Emi’s dad was there, ready to take on the babysitting duties for the foreseeable future, and Emi and Trav sat on the loveseat.
I’ll go ahead and warn you – I’m going to find it hard not to gush over Emi from this point on. I can’t not. I adored her, loved her before – but every affection I felt for her before has tripled, since. She was so beautiful, then, in a little grey dress and a colorful headband from Africa. Her hand on her belly, Trav’s hand on her shoulder. She was incredibly calm, which didn’t surprise me – but did relieve me, to see she was already starting off well. The only hint that something new and different was going on was when she occasionally dropped her hand lower on her belly, looked down for a second, and breathed. At this point, she could still speak through contractions, and she did – to ask Jack gently not to climb on her, to give last minute instructions to her dad, last minutes whispers of love to her two older babies.
Trav and I loaded my car up – their van would remain at home in case Emi’s dad needed to take the kids anywhere in their booster seats. And then – we left!
The drive to the birthing center takes us out of Paducah, and into the next, smaller town between us and Murray. The drive is one all three of us were quite familiar with, a portion of that same drive to Murray that Emi and I took so often in our early friendship on our way to rehearsals. That did not escape me, as we drove through the darkening, purple-violet dusk. We passed Ali’s family farm early on, and thought of all the good moments we have shared there, before. Emi continued to be very calm, and very lovely – sorry, she said once, after a long pause, I’m getting to the point where I can’t talk through the contractions anymore. As if we cared, or were offended. She had chatted with us very freely, early on, but as the skies darkened and we got closer to the birth center, she grew quieter.
I had never been to the birth center before, but Travis dropped us off at the entrance. I grabbed my bag and Emi’s, and walked her in. I remember feeling a swell of pride and love – I got to walk Emi into the birthing center. This was happening. I was going to watch, I was going to be with her, she trusted me, Travis trusted me, they both loved me.
Intake was very standard, and fairly unremarkable. Our friend Kristin is a labor/delivery nurse at the birth center, and yet again – the timing worked out perfectly. She was on duty that night, and would get to be with Emi as she birthed too. I felt like we made a good team – Kristin has worked as a doula, but she is infinitely more knowledgeable about the science and mechanics of birth, clearly. I felt like we countered each other well – she had extensive knowledge of the science, the body, the progression, the potential complications, when to do what – and I was there to be what I do best – be emotional and loving and supportive, to smooth rough edges, to lift and carry when others cannot. To document, and save up every little detail so later, I could recount the story, after.
Kristin and Emi kept laughing – Kristin, as our intake nurse, would normally check her patient for dilation. But normally labor/delivery nurses don’t normally know their patients quite so well, haven’t lived with them for a year, or raised sons together. Kristin checking Emi would be something akin to walking into your annual Pap Smear and finding out your favourite college roommate was going to do it for you. I’m fine with it, if you are, Emi would say to Kristin, and then Kristin would say, I’m fine with it if YOU are – back and forth, back and forth, until they finally buckled down and Kristin checked Emi – around 5 cm, at about 7:40 PM.
The next half hour, again, was fairly standard. Hospitals and birth centers make a laboring mother wear heart rate monitors for her and for the baby, for at least 20 minutes after admittance. Just to check in, just to see how well both mother and baby are handling the labor. A lot of women aren’t crazy about this – being strapped with two belts, top and bottom of belly, tends to limit one’s mobility. Most of the time, it leaves the mom trapped in bed for at least 20, sometimes 30+ minutes, unable to move, stretch, sway, walk, or squat to alleviate pain.
But Emi, of course, handled this like a champ. She sat up in the bed, with Travis nearby, kissing her shoulder, stroking her arm. And as they labored together, quietly, for the first half hour, I got settled in. Parked all of the bags and shoes in an out-of-the-way place, pulled out my notebook and pen to note times, important happenings. I got out my camera and started snapping test pictures, seeing the light and the good angles.
We had been worried about the lighting in the room, or – I had been. In times of extreme pain and extreme concentration, it seems like all of the senses go into overdrive. (This will come into play later, heh.) So I knew to expect that the room would be dimly lit, if not near dark. Emi and I had discussed it, prior – I can lighten up pictures in Photoshop, but I can only do so much before I start compromising the integrity of my pictures, their resolution. I did not want to use the flash, knowing that would be a major distraction, but I didn’t want to only have terrible pictures due to lighting. As I snapped a few, I realized we actually had decent lighting in her labor suite – not as perfect as I might have hoped, but the first few pictures I took turned out OK, and I knew I’d be able to work without the flash frustrating Emi.
Emi’s mother arrived, and then Emi decided to move to the birthing ball as she finished her monitoring and Kristin filled up the birth tub. I started to find a rhythm for my place at this labor. I’ll admit – I know there are things about me that would make me a good doula. They are the same things that – forgive me, I always fear I’ll sound arrogant – make me a good friend, a good leader, a good helper. I’ve heard people at #friendsfamily get-togethers say, I don’t know what to do, what should I do, how should I help? I don’t know what to do! A willing heart is a good and necessary thing – but to me, someone having to stop and tell me what to do means I’ve slowed them down, interrupted their work, distracted them. Sometimes, you’ve just got to jump in and get your hands dirty.
The key to being a good helper, of any kind, is to observe. See what’s going on. Understand who is struggling with what, what remains to be done. Where are we in the process, who is trying to do too many things at once? Where can I step in and simply carry something for someone? Who is in the most need, right now? Who is my priority?
I knew going into this birth that I did not have the most knowledge in the room. I knew that I didn’t need to be all up in every cord and every report and every check, because I would be a hindrance instead of a help. But I could certainly hand towels or cloths to people as they were needed, I could get Emi’s chapstick for her. We had discussed, ahead of time, that I’d need to remind her to drink water at least every thirty minutes, and remind her to pee every so often. I think, at first, I was hesitant to offer too much, too often, but as this first hour helped me feel more at home. Emi was still able to talk, in between contractions, happily answering questions or laughing softly at our jokes. The initial excitement of labor starting began to slack off – we were still excited, but it was a calmer, less frenzied excitement. We were here now, we were settling in – we knew that even though Emi was a quick birther, we still had at least a few hours ahead of us.
Then! The birth tub! Both Emi and I were very excited she would have the opportunity to labor in the tub. In fact, having time to labor there was part of the reason Emi left her house so early – so make sure she hadn’t progressed so far by the time she arrived that the window to rest in the birth tub had been closed. We had read many stories about the warm water and weightlessness of a birth tub really eases labor pains for many women, and Emi had never had the opportunity before. I was very interested for my own future birth – I’ve always had an intense love of water, I’ve always had to be in the water if possible, swimming in 50 degree oceans until my mom called me out because my lips had turned blue. Water is always soothing to me, even if I’m just near it, and I grow so easily hypnotized by floating in a body of water, letting it buoy me up, feeling like a mermaid.
The water was too hot, at first – and I was useful again! I ran back and forth dumping pitchers of ice into the tub until the water cooled to a comfortable warmth, much like a bath. This was some of my favourite time of the evening – we were still very relaxed. Travis knelt, and later sat on a exercise ball, at the edge of the pool so he could hold Emi’s hands or rub her back as the contractions came and left. The room where the birth tub was set up was small, and the tub took up most of it. There was a small bed/gurney against one wall, and a chair tucked in a corner near monitoring machines, and one short wall of counters, a faucet. But the walls were painted elaborately, a peaceful garden scene dripping with flowers and streams and trees, the kind of painting that reminds me of a church’s ladies room.
At this point, everything still seemed very calm, almost to the point where it seemed nothing spectacular was happening. This can really only be a testament to the strength and focus of Emi – she was, at this time, at least 6 cm dilated, so really firmly in active labor, over halfway to complete – a point in which many – most – women would start to really struggle with pain, perhaps feeling some fear or a willingness to take the pain away.
Emi could not have been calmer or sweeter, or more gracious. I definitely recommend the birth tub, she said to me once, and then later – This feels good, she kept saying, this almost maybe feels TOO good? She wondered if she maybe ought to get out, if she felt so comfortable she might slow her progress. Have your contractions slowed? we asked a few times, and she’d shake her head no. No, they’re still coming really regularly, they’re just way less intense.
We hung out in that little room for at least a good hour, Emi and Trav and Emi’s mother and me. Kristin ran in as often as she could, to check in on Emi, or use the heart monitor on her, or to just visit for a moment. Emi looked up at me at one point and reminded me to pace myself – yes, really, the laboring mother stopped to express concern over those of us perfectly fine and healthy, and this was not the only time that happened – but it was a good reminder. This could certainly go on all night, and just because I was so excited, experiencing this all for the first time, didn’t mean I would be invincible and full of energy all night long. I was already looking at a long night, and if all went according to plan, I would still show up for the Dragon Boat races early in the morning – I did need to pace myself.
So I sat down on the little bed next to Emi’s mom, having snapped Emi laboring and Trav supporting her from just about every possible angle in that tiny room. A few minutes later, somewhere around 9:30 PM, we heard a voice, coming down the hall, and Emi looked up from the edge of the birth tub to say, Candie’s here!
I was really looking forward to Candie. Emi had spoken nothing but praises of this midwife, even before she was pregnant this time around. I just feel like you and Candie are kindred spirits in a way, she told me. She’s so steady and capable, I think you’ll really love her.
When Candie arrived, she was, at first, a little different than I imagined. A tall woman with a long, greying braid and dark eyes, she appeared a little less bubbly than I had expected from all of Emi’s glowing praises. And she certainly kept Kristin hopping in the first half hour after she arrived, running and fetching and getting the proper monitor for the heart rates. But – in time, I began to see quite clearly why Candie was so special. There was this steadiness about her, a steadiness even more concrete and palpable than Emi’s calm. She seemed like someone you could certainly trust to give it to you straight, not someone who would beat around the bush, or put too negative or too positive a spin on the facts. That, in a medical professional, is such a necessary thing. I know I’ve had doctors who I felt like either didn’t take me seriously, or else were so keen to feed my worries that they didn’t stop me in my tracks when they ought to have.
Candie was quiet, at first, but that was because she was gauging Emi, on many levels – her mental state, her physical state, the baby’s state. How far she had progressed, how quickly she was progressing, how much longer she might have to go.
Somewhere around ten PM, Emi got back out of the birth tub. I missed why, as I think I was coming back from a potty break, and grabbing a drink and sandwich for Travis. This – this damn sandwich – was one of my few faux pas the entire birth. I had mentioned I was going to go get some crackers from the little kitchenette available to guests, as I hadn’t eaten dinner. I wasn’t hungry, exactly, but I didn’t want to crash from hunger in the middle of an important moment. Travis, at Norah’s birth, had forgotten to eat and gotten incredibly lightheaded just after Norah was born, almost passing out and needing smelling salts to come to. I didn’t want that to happen to me, and I definitely didn’t want it to happen to Travis again. So I asked him if he wanted something to eat, and he said, sure, grab me a sandwich.
I asked Travis specifically what kind he wanted, and he told me whatever. Whatever I could find, he wasn’t particular. I was trying to be really conscientious still, a good doula – and I looked through the sandwiches in the fridge. PC, several said, which I assumed meant pimento cheese. I remember thinking so clearly, oh, no, not pimento cheese. That’ll be super smelly, and Emi will hate the smell of it in the room.
Then I saw a sandwich labeled T. Perfect, I thought, a plain old turkey sandwich, pretty much everyone likes a turkey sandwich, it’s not messy or smelly like pimento cheese. Perfect.
I got back to the room and delivered the goods, snarfed down my saltines. Things were certainly progressing, back in the room. Emi was back on the exercise ball, and Travis took a bathroom break. At some point later, he came back and opened up his sandwich. Um, this is not turkey, it’s tuna. I apologized profusely, offered to go get him a different sandwich, and he assured me it was fine, dug into it.
Meanwhile, on the birthing ball, things were starting to get more visibly intense. Emi – still sweet, still polite – finally told Travis he had to leave the room to finish his sandwich, the tuna salad smell was too pungent, it was distracting her and grossing her out. I’m so sorry, I kept saying, as they laughed at me, I was trying so hard not to bring back smelly pimento cheese and I brought back something even worse!
But as Trav stepped out into the hall and eat his sandwich, I took his place, sitting on the edge of the bed to be within arms’ reach of Emi, as needed. I feel like this was the time where the energy shifted, when the air became very serious. Not concerned, not scared, just – we were getting closer. I became transfixed watching Emi at this time. Around me, people in the room might chat, quietly, but I couldn’t watch anything but Emi.
She still smiled at me, in between contractions, thanked me for water – but the contractions themselves had changed. She closed her eyes and breathed very deeply, I could see her eyes rolling back in her head and her long eyelashes fluttering. She started turning inwards, and I could see it happening – her listening to her body, her tuning the rest of us out and becoming this little temple, all her own. Here and there, she leaned on me, I held her against my chest as she labored and I just felt so – blessed. So lucky to be there, to be trusted in this way. To get to witness these long moments of incredible strength.
But the contractions soon became too much for just the birthing ball. Emi moved to the bed, and Candie was very attentive. She checked her again, and Emi was at about 8 cms. Maybe just under. Candie had suggestions for how Emi could continue to cope – turning her in the bed, letting her lean on the birthing ball or a stack of pillows as someone applied counter pressure to her back. I’m having way more back pain this time, Emi had told us, I’ve never had quite this much.
Candie listened to the baby’s heart rate and said, yeah, I think it’s a boy. That’s my guess. I tried not to feel disappointed — really only Shaun and I were left on Team Girl. It wasn’t that I’d be upset if SB was a boy, I just felt like I knew she was a girl — but if Candie said she thought it would be a boy, I felt like I had to start accepting that.
I felt only the faintest flicker of worry during this time. I was never scared, never fearful or anxious during the entire birth – in fact, I felt more at home there than I do a lot of places. But I think up until this point, I had been surprised at just how well Emi was doing. I had heard she was incredible, a champion birther – and she lived up to those expectations, continued to go above and beyond that expectation – but for the first time, it was very clear and visible that she was in pain. It’s always hard to watch someone you love in pain, especially when there is little you can do. With birth, all you can do is wait until the baby is born, and until baby’s ready, everyone – especially the mama – just has to endure.
But the mood in the room was good. We knew we were getting closer, Emi was in good spirits and incredibly focused. Candie suggested getting back into the birth tub to ease the last chunk of time as Emi came into transition and Emi agreed that sounded wonderful. Kristin ran off to add some warm water back to the bath that had been sitting still for at least an hour, and the rest of us concentrated on Emi. More water, a trip to the bathroom, frequent breaks to be held by Travis as contractions hit her.
During this time, I really began to be awed by Candie. Her focus was always entirely on Emi. She might chat with Emi’s mom or me, here and there, but her eyes always flicked back to Emi, always gauged her progress, her pain management. Once, Emi came out of the bathroom and was caught by a contraction and leaned on Trav in the doorway. Candie came up behind her and pressed her hands to magical spots on Emi’s back, and leaned in close to Emi’s ear, whispering gentle words I couldn’t hear from even a few feet away. Travis stepped away to – do something, I don’t know, I was still watching Emi and Candie – and Candie didn’t leave her. Emi hung on the door frame, and Candie was right there with her, in tune with her, keeping her focused, taking the edge off.
We all trailed down the hall back to the birth tub room; first Emi flanked by Travis and Candie, then Emi’s mom, then me carrying the birth ball for Travis to sit on, and the phone playing calm meditation music, and everyone’s drink. Back in the little room, the lights had been dimmed to near darkness. The mood was different from the first time around – we had been fairly talkative then, even Emi – and now, everyone was aware how close we were to meeting this baby.
The mood was almost churchlike – no one was upset, or worried, but the air felt almost holy to me. Still and yet very full. I don’t know if I can explain, except to say that if one was open to it, attuned to it – the air was full of action, of work. None of us could see it, and only Emi could feel – oh, could she feel it – but there was clearly a great work happening in that room. Things were happening, big things – and speaking too much or too often or too laud seemed gauche, seemed as inappropriate as laughing out loud in the middle of church.
Again, I watched. There was little to be done, little movement from anyone. We each found our perches – Emi in the tub, of course, Trav on the ball at the edge, Candie against the counter, Emi’s mom on the bed and Kristin in the corner. I sat down in the doorway, half in the room and half out of the room. Candie or Kristin kept offering to get me a chair, and I explained the inevitable dancer/yogi dilemma that others find hard to believe – I’m way more comfortable in the floor, in bound angle pose, baddha konasana. I wasn’t tired or in pain, but it was nice to stretch easily and wait for a task.
My admiration for Candie continued to grow. She was so solid and calm, and yet I noticed she was timing Emi’s contractions as they grew in frequency and intensity. She listened to Emi’s breath, made suggestions on the best positions to be in, how Trav could hold her to let Kristin use the heart monitor on her belly without Emi having to stand. And I think Candie came to – I’m not sure I’d go with the word respect, but something similar – me by this point. I’d tried to be as helpful but unobtrusive as I could – but I was quick to jump up and grab a towel or a drink of water or re-wet a cloth. Kristin was one of two nurses on staff, she had a lot to do and I didn’t want her to feel rushed – and really, I was happy to do all that. It was nice to be needed and useful, and really, honestly – to learn.
My biggest goal that evening was, of course, to support Emi and Trav and capture as many quality images as I could. But the other big goal – and Emi was completely on board, urging and pushing this goal as well – was to experience birth itself – for a myriad of reasons. Because I had never attended one before, and as I hope to give birth sometime in the relatively near future, to have an idea of exactly what waited for me. And because I had felt that pull for so long, I wanted to see if birth in action called to me the same way the idea of it had before. And it really, really did – I loved being with Emi and watching her beautiful face, I loved listening to Candie or Kristin explain what they were doing, or why.
Travis took a couple bathroom breaks or water breaks during this time, and I got to spell him, sit on the birthing ball and hold her hand. She was so stunning – the contractions were clearly very intense, then. Even with stoic, dig-deep Emi, I could tell we had reached a different point, all together. When her contraction hit, Emi’s breathing changed, became much louder and much more audible – still calm, controlled, but I could tell she had to do that, at this point. Up until then, she had barely made a peep during her contractions, and even then, she barely made a sound other than the inhales and exhales – but it was work now. It was clearly work, and she clearly needed to concentrate completely to stay on top of the contractions.
I’ve almost only ever known Emi as a mother. I met her just before she became pregnant with Jack, but not much before, and Jack will be six in October – the amount of time I’ve known her as a mother has been nearly the entire time I’ve known her. And sure, it’s easy to see her as a mother when she is cuddled up with her littles ones, but I felt like, there in labor, I was truly seeing her as a mother, for a first time. I could see how dear and precious this new life was her, through the way she was so determined and driven to complete her task, this absolute surety that it would be worth it. She didn’t try to fight the pain, she didn’t wish it away – ha, well, maybe she did – but she knew the worth of enduring this pain. She was so clearly focused on the end result.
(Also, can I just take a moment to say – Emi, during transition, in the height of labor, managed to look up at me in between contractions and ask if I was doing all right. If I was doing all right. Incredible. This woman. Then, at some point, I stood stretching in the door way, and she looked up at me – my ballet mistress – and said, nice tendu. Love it. Will never forget it.)
Candie left to go prepare some things, and she slipped her phone into my hand, pointed to a big green button and whispered, Start. And I nodded, whispered back, then again to stop? She nodded, patted my shoulder, and left. I timed the contractions while Travis crouched down in the floor, still cradling Emi’s back in his hands as she floated and breathed and then breathed deeper. I sat on the birthing ball and felt such tender feelings of love and admiration for my two friends, their love. Granted, this was their third time doing this, but they were such a team. Travis was always right there with her, whispering quiet praise and love in her ear, holding her up. He never complained, managed to say thank you to me for anything I brought him or offered him. Here and there, he and I hugged.
He looked over at me, at one point during the night, and he said, you know, I was looking at you a second ago and I thought, we’ve been friends since we were Jack’s age. And it’s true – we were in a combination kindergarten/first grade class together – just about Jack’s age. He added, and now you’re here with us, tonight. I could have wept – this was why I wanted to be there, with them. Our lives have been so tightly intertwined, for such a long time. In so many ways, Emi and Trav are our brother and sister, and I always call their kids our godkids, we have such a tight and special relationship with all of them.
(We hugged then, too – Trav and I always talk about how we’re definitely two touchy-feely people. Emi always says our love language is touch, it’s how we show comfort, affection, consolation. We often talk about how we’re both the type of people who have to be aware that not everyone likes to be hugged as often/as long or have their hands held or whatever. So when Trav and I hug – we have to remind ourselves to stop.)
I asked Emi, later, what she was thinking about during this transition time, this last chunk of time in the birth tub. What she was focusing on – because she was clearly on a different realm of existence than the rest of us. She was physically present, but her mind was far away, unless one of us interrupted her to check heart rates or offer her water. Days later, safely on the other side, I had to ask, I had to know what had her so focused to get her through this last, most difficult part. She told me – first, that with Norah, she had been focused on visualizing her first coming out, finding out whether her second baby was another boy, or if it was a girl. But with this time around, Emi said she was visualizing the moment when she got to pull SB onto her chest – regardless of gender, she just wanted that crowning achievement moment, when she got to actually hold her baby and the fruits of her actual labor, all that hard work paid off.
Just before 11:30, Candie came back. The contractions, at this point, were coming at least every 2 and a half minutes, and lasting for about a full minute and a half. You don’t have much longer, Emi, Candie told her, here and again, and around that 11:30 mark, the two of them began to discuss their plan from there. I don’t know when I should get out, Emi told Candie, and Candie was pretty laid back about the whole ordeal. Stay here, if you want to, she said, or we can take you back. What do you want? What do you need? She had complete faith in Emi, that was attuned to her body and would know what she needed.
Emi looked a little torn – one the one hand, floating in the pool with Travis cradling her back seemed to be helping her pain and her focus. But on the other – I feel like if I don’t get out now, here in a little bit, I won’t be able to get out when I need to. I feel like sooner rather than later.
All right, Candie said, let’s go!
Saying it, of course, was easier than doing it. Emi told me later, those trips to and from the birth tub were the WORST. Understandably so – that feeling of leaving a warm and comforting bath or shower to step into the cold air – times a million in this situation. Candie and Travis helped Emi out of the tub, Kristin got plenty of towels and made sure Emi had dry ground to walk on. I gathered up all the gear, the camera, the phone playing music, the drinks, the birthing ball, and trailed slowly behind them down the hall.
Back in the room, it was clear Emi’s hour was near at hand. They settled her back in the bed and tried to find a comfortable position. I was trying my best to stay out of the way while still being nearby if anyone needed me, and to snap pictures – because there was a lot going on, all of the sudden. We’d spent hours in gentle, comfortable quiet, only moving when we had to – but now, Kristin and the other nurse on duty kept wheeling things in – a warming station for the baby, a tray of tools and medicines, many, many blue drop cloths.
The energy changed, yet again – we had settled into that focused stillness, and now everyone was extra alert, had a spring in their step where we had all been a little lethargic and watchful before. I felt – again, still – not the slightest bit nervous. I always lament – sometimes, my poor brain has trouble with the emotion excitement. My brain has a hard time interpreting it as just excitement, it goes onto autopilot and assumes any feeling of that caliber has to be anxiety, instead; so a lot of times, I end up feeling super anxious and nervous when in reality , I’m just excited – happy in my anticipation. Luckily, this was not one of those times – for once, my brain got it right, and I was simply excited. I remember my heart pounding during this time, but not in a bad way – it was just time, I could just see that we were about to meet this baby, that this miracle was about to happen right in front of my eyes, that suddenly, there would be a baby, a new life, where there hadn’t been before.
And in the center of all this hustle and bustle – there was Emi. She would maybe hate me for mentioning it, but I have to – she was perched high up on the bed, completely naked – and yet completely at home. I remember thinking she looked so beautiful, she looked like a goddess. She looked like a Woman, in every sense of the word. She was so lush and so warm and vibrant and full of life and I couldn’t take my eyes off of her. Even days later, I look back at pictures from this time, and I notice things going on in the background – and I think, oh, right, that happened – because I didn’t have eyes for anyone else but Emi.
Candie checked Emi again, once, confirming she was nearly complete but had a bit of a lip, and then again a few moments later – complete. A full ten centimeters. You can push whenever you feel the need to, Candie told Emi. They had discussed, back in the tub room, what Emi wanted out of this birth. Candie wanted to know if there was anything in particular Emi wanted or didn’t want. Emi mentioned controlled pushing, taking her time in the final stage – so, even when Emi was completely dilated, Candie didn’t rush her into pushing. Told her, yet again, to listen to her body.
And at that point, Emi’s body told her that sitting up in her great throne of a bed was just not working anymore. She’d had terrible back labor – or at least worse than she’d ever had before – and sitting up, in these final, torturous moments – she couldn’t take it. I need to turn over, she told the room at large, I need to turn over! I need counterpressure on my back! I heard her, but I’m not sure anyone else did, busy in their preparations. She said it again, I need to turn over! – and then just kinda went for it. The pain was too much, and she started to shift herself onto her side while the press of people swarmed around her, finding gowns, finding gloves. I darted in and grabbed her, got my arms under her arms, took her weight and helped her flip. Suddenly, people realized what was going on and rushed in to help – about the time we got Emi on her hands and knees.
Safely back on the sidelines, camera ready, I glanced up at the clock hanging on the wall. It’s ten till midnight! I called out. I knew – from all my research – that the push stage can take a while. I prepared myself for it – I knew Emi was considering “quick” in her births, and everything I had witnessed so far that night certainly supported that – but I prepared myself to be patient. I had read birth stories where women had pushed for a couple hours, often at least an hour. I didn’t expect this to go quickly.
And yet – at the same time, I had one of those weird, niggling feelings, like I’d had before. For some reason, I thought – or maybe I just hoped, but I had that weird surety about it – that SB would be born right at midnight. I was still really trying to wrap my head around the idea that SB would be a boy. It went, just – contradictory to my gut. But now that even Candie had thrown her lot to Team Boy, I felt like it would be stupid not to try and believe that. Emi had said, I don’t want you to be disappointed if it’s a boy! I had laughed and said that of course I wouldn’t be disappointed. I’d be happy either way – I just knew it was a girl, and every right upon the cusp of SB being born, I was trying to get right with the idea – the accepted notion – that this new baby would be a boy, even though it just seemed wrong to me.
And, of course – Emi did go quickly. Once she was on her hands and knees, she told me later, her body was ready, her body couldn’t wait. No one, of course, was narrating out loud for me anymore, nor did it seem the appropriate time to ask a host of questions. I’ll admit I felt ever-so-slightly in the dark, at this point – or not in the dark but out of the loop. I wasn’t sure how long this would take, what was going on, how near the baby was. Everyone had crowded around Emi, Candie applying a hot compress while Travis slipped on a robe and gown, he was going to catch his child if all was going well – do you want a gown? Kristin had asked him, and he’d kinda shrugged, and then she rephrased, are you okay with getting blood and goop all over your clothes? Travis grinned with understanding and slipped on the gown.
I didn’t want to get in the way, especially as I had no experience catching babies, and Emi and I had discussed this stage of birthing in terms of picture taking – she and I had agreed to capture important moments throughout the entire birth, and we could delete or crop later – but she was not someone who necessarily wanted a bright and crisp and clear crowning shot. So it seemed wisest to wait just barely off to the side of her bed, and snap pictures as Emi’s mom leaned in close, whispered instructions in her ear, as Trav waited at the foot of the bed with Candie, watching, waiting, ready to catch, Kristin and the other nurse scurried around in the background, getting receiving blankets and a shot of Pitocin ready.
He’s near, Candie said, he’s moving his little head the entire time! He won’t stop wiggling!
And then – oh, and then, I saw this smile spread over Travis’ face. I managed to capture it in a picture – this sudden, fierce joy on his face – I didn’t need a narrator to tell me what was happening. It was time – the baby was coming.
And then oh – it was absolutely beautiful. It was messy and bloody and sudden and quick and lovely and the faintest bit scary in its intensity – but that moment was incredible. There was a baby. There was a baby!
It was as if all the air had been sucked out of the room at once, as if all the lights suddenly flared brighter. You know those moments in your life when it feels like you’ve been sacked in the chest by a linebacker, in the best possible way? Where the world is swirling and turning around you, but you, yourself are frozen for a fraction of a second in time? When the momentum and the velocity and the supreme weight of the moment weighs so heavily on you that you just have to slow down and breathe and process for a second?
That was me, in the instant after the baby arrived earthside.
Oh, and then – it got better.
IT’S A GIRL!!!!
As if I could have been wound up any tighter, as if I could have been anymore keyed up with exhilarated excitement – Travis announced SB’s gender to the room and OH MY GOD, I felt like my blood was suddenly pumping glitter and sparkles and candy and lightning.
SHE WAS A GIRL!!!
I will completely and totally admit that I kinda did a twerkin’-shimmy-jazz hands-flailing Victory Dance of Celebration. I will completely and totally admit that a couple of pictures just before and just after that announcement are blurry simply because I was so excited I couldn’t stop bouncing.
And Emi – oh, Emi, clutching that new fresh babe to her chest, as everyone helped her flip over again – the joy in her eyes, the astonishment. Hi, she kept saying, hi, oh, here you are, and you’re a GIRL!!!
I managed to slip through tables and trays around the other side of the bed, tucked back in a corner so I could get a better angle to get pictures of both Emi and Travis as they took in their newest child. Travis just couldn’t stop smiling, his hands were pressed to the baby, to Emi’s arm or shoulder. He kept kissing both of his girls. Emi looked up, for one second, found me, and said, come here, come close!
I think I keep tap-dancing around this subject without every really delving into it – and so I will, now. Every time Emi called me close, every time she made sure I could see or was involved, or was OK, every time she made sure I was a part of the experience – I wanted to cry, in the best way. I want to cry now, thinking about it. I was hyper-aware that this was not an experience that not every single woman would be comfortable sharing with a friend, even a close friend, a best friend. I was hyper-aware that this was such an intensely intimate moment, physically and emotional vulnerable – and not only was I there, present – but I was a part of that vulnerable moment. I was cherished, and loved, and appreciated, and I got to share in the joy and the wonder. Particularly in light of how difficult relationships in my immediate family have flared and festered over the last couple years – moments of acceptance and peace and feeling included, just as I am, have been rare. I have absolutely never felt closer to Emi, or Trav, than I did that night.
We’re a special kind of friend now, I told Emi, a few minutes later, when the wave of exhilaration had crested and we were starting to settle down into reality again. And we are – on so many levels. Not just because she made sure I shifted down to get a good look at her placenta, after she delivered, or because she held my hand as well as Travis’ as Candie stitched her up. (For the record, girlfriend did not squeeze my hand at all. I don’t know what Trav’s hand felt like, but I swear, Emi was trying not to bother me even as she was getting stitches!)
We were special friends because not only had she allowed me to be present, she had welcomed me. She had made sure this experience was as incredible as it could be for me, that I learned and witnessed. I truly felt like her sister, more than I ever had before, and Trav my brother.
Slowly, slowly, we all came back down to earth – not without some remnant of that caffeine-like buzzing energy humming about us, but Emi had to be taken care of, and cleaned up. I’m not sure she or Trav or I really noticed much of that – I was snapping as many pictures as I could, of Trav cutting the cord, of Emi and Trav pressing their heads together as they just gazed at their newest little one. I swear, it seemed like I looked up one moment and half the equipment that had crowded the room had just vanished.
Travis got to take the baby, swaddled and capped, as Kristin and I helped Emi out of bed, and to the bathroom. Kristin took over, for a time, doing the medical side of things, getting Emi everything she needed to rest a bit easier after, and I joined Travis back in the room.
We were giddy – we have a habit of reverting back to the first grader and kindergartener we were when we first met, if we’re left alone. We tend to get the giggles, and snigger at things no one else would find funny. I snapped a few beautiful, precious pictures of him holding his daughter – are we sure it’s a girl? he kept asking in disbelief. Maybe we should check again. And then, of course, we were silly, he kept leaning under the heating lamp to soak up the warmth, he ate the second (pimento cheese) sandwich I grabbed him, and we just laughed, appreciated the pimento cheese.
Emi called to me from the bathroom, Emmy, if Trav’s OK with it, you should hold the baby.
Oh, I absolutely should hold the baby, I agreed – and getting to be really the third person to hold SB in her entire life was incredible. I sat down in a big squashy chair with this little nugget in my arms. She seemed so tiny – we found out later she was the longest of the Hensel babies, but she seemed to incredibly tiny to me. Maybe it had just been a while since I’d held a newborn, or the last one I’d held was a bit of a chunk (Rachael’s) – but SB seemed tiny. I looked over her little face, and reveled in the fact that she was a girl, that Shaun and I had been right all along!! I took in her little features, noticed how she looked like Jack and Norah had when they were first born, about the eyes and cheeks.
The night continued to wind down from there, we got Emi settled back in the bed, snapped some more breastfeeding pictures. Lord, the only stressful thing of the night – at some point after SB was born and out and Emi had delivered the placenta, Travis had cut the cord – my camera died. I had never tested its battery to the fullest extent before – but I did have the foresight to pack the camera charger, just in case. And I consider myself lucky that I got pictures of everything important before the camera did die. I had snapped a few pictures on my phone as the camera snagged a tiny bit of juice to keep working, and I was able to get more breastfeeding pictures on the actual camera once Emi was settled back in bed. I was just relieved the camera came back on – I didn’t see it flashing Low Battery just before it died, too busy moving Emi around or admiring a newborn, I guess. I just looked down and it was off and wouldn’t turn back on – I was scared for a bit, until I got a good 15-20 minutes of charging on it.
Just after 2 AM, I went out to grab food for Emi and Travis and myself – a task that seemed simple but proved a little difficult. I have a decent working knowledge of the basic layout of Mayfield, but a lot of the highway portions I was driving have absolutely no street light, and are so far removed from the main hub of the city that I couldn’t see anything. I kept getting on the parkway in the wrong direction, and missed a turn once or twice – I’m pretty sure I performed two illegal U-turns and hit a curb at least once. The midnight McDonald’s shift was very patient with me trying to order, and calling Travis back when they didn’t have chicken, and then circling around again to actually order.
I’ll admit, when I got back to the birth center, I was pretty exhausted. Not horribly so – but I knew I had an early, early morning, I was obligated to go downtown and row for my work’s team in the Dragon Boat Races. I’d have to be downtown at 8 AM, which meant I’d be up early. I do kind of wish I didn’t have that race in the morning – in retrospect, it was fun, and I was looking forward to getting home to Shaun – who, by the way, remembered to burn my ceremonial candles from our ceremony at Emi’s Blessingway, bless him – but it would have been nice to hang around Emi and Travis and the new baby a little longer. But I’m sure they were excited to have their first night with their newest – and probably last – child, and get some privacy, settle in and process the entire experience themselves.
I’d heard a few people talk about the birth high – Emi had, certainly, from her experiences as a doula as well as her own births, and she, Lauren, BB and I have another mutual acquaintance who is a doula, and all of them had told me about seeing her glow after she got back from a birth. I definitely felt that glow – tearing around Mayfield at nearly three AM, getting a little lost and then a little lost again – that should have made me incredibly anxious and upset. It normally does – even the idea of getting turned around, mixed up navigating, even in daylight – that alone can make me sick with worry. I never was, I was effortlessly determined. I drove home, exhausted, at three AM, knowing I’d have a long day ahead of me with only a couple hours sleep – and I just didn’t care. I wasn’t upset, I wasn’t wishing there was a way I could get out of the race. I felt like I could handle anything.
If you’re wondering if I still felt the call, if I still felt the pull to gravitate towards birth and perhaps being a doula or, as Kristin coined it, a doulatographer – yes. I certainly do. I did even more so after the birth than I did before. At no point was I frightened, overwhelmed, or grossed out. If anything, this entire experience made me want to learn more. Emi and Kristin both had extremely kind words for me afterwards, Kristin nearly made me cry calling me perfection, just the right amount of involved and the right amount of out of the way. Saying I had a gift, and it would be a shame to waste it.
I don’t know about all that – I don’t know how confident I feel in my skills, but experiencing Emi’s birth definitely lit a fire in me. It made me passionate about birth – not just my own potential future birth, but birth in general. It reaffirmed what I had come to suspect, to understand from all the reading I had done. I definitely still feel a call. As I told Emi and Kristin and anyone else who asked in the days that followed – I’m not sure how I get from here, to there. I’m not sure where I start and what path I need to take, in order to make doulatography more a part of my life – but I’m passionate, again, about making it happen, and intensely, eternally grateful to both Travis but especially Emi for allowing me to have this experience that has so stayed with me, so awed me, and so inspired me.
Welcome to the world, Jude! Your mom, dad, brother, sister, and all your extended aunties and uncles are so glad to finally meet you!