…And ah! less bright
The stars of the night
Than the eyes of the radiant girl,
And never a flake
Their lustre can make
Of the vapor and gold and pearl
Can vie with the sweet young Eulalie’s most unregarded curl —
Can compare with the bright-eyed Eulalie’s most humble and careless curl.
Now Doubt — now Pain
Come never again,
For her soul gives me sigh for sigh,
And all day long
Shines bright and strong
Astarté within the sky,
And ever to it dear Eulalie upturns her matron eye —
And ever to it young Eulalie upturns her violet eye.
– Edgar Allan Poe
Meet Eulalie. Lula, Lalie, Lou. Eulalie Willa Ludwikowski. Simply, our Eula. A lilting French rendition of a Greek name, Eulalie means eloquent. Sweetly spoken. It’s also the name of a Spanish saint and the title of the E. A. Poe poem the above excerpt is from. She was born a healthy 7.2 pounds at home after 12 hours of active labor on August, 15 2016 at 2:52 PM—on the day of the Feast of Assumption, the day in Catholicism on which the Queen of Heaven ascended. But in our case, a little girl descended. She entered the world the extraordinary ordinary way: in blood and sweat and tears to the rhythm of banging fists and the pitch of writhing screams. As I write this, she is a week old, an ancient being as far as I’m concerned. Our time, these precious liminal days, are slipping like so many cliché grains of sand right through my fingers, fingers which look more like my own mother’s now than ever.
A long home birth story & too many baby photos (thanks to Eric Peterson for the ones of her in my lap!) after the jump…
I’d planned a hospital birth with a doula & my OB, planned it in great detail so as to avoid every routine intervention we might face. We poured over research. Our birth plan was typed up, printed, and titled “birth preferences” so that the nursing staff wouldn’t misunderstand us and think we had the naive notion that birth was something you could “plan”. My desire was simple. No medically unnecessary interventions, no drugs, no IVs. Just me, my body, and birth. The hospital was a mere contingency plan. I felt I’d be safer there. It took me all the way to two weeks before the birth for it to hit me full force that everything I hoped my birth would be was against the hospital grain. I realized that the experience I was comfortable with, the place I’d feel safe, was not there. It was home.
The hospital would have been, for me, an experience of swimming upstream, and birth is upstream enough without trying to navigate hospital politics and policy. So I called our doula and asked for a short list of midwives. Within 48 hours I’d decided to have a home birth, something I never thought I’d do.
I had no identity or pride wrapped up in how I would birth. Her life & mine were the only bottom line, the only non-negotiable. I was always very willing to meet myself wherever I ended up. I set the intention of a natural birth but gave myself the grace to recognize the limits of my own body and use pain medication if that’s what I needed. In the end, it wasn’t ideology or identity that made me choose home. I was just less afraid of it, pain and all. I felt my baby & I, in our very particular to us situation, were safer not just physically but also emotionally at home so long as there was an excellent transfer plan in the event of an unlikely emergency. I also was comforted by the idea of taking pain medication off the table. I didn’t want to be in a battle of wills with myself. Rather, I just wanted to accept the reality of the pain, no matter how bleak it felt at the time. Though I held on to a hope that it wouldn’t be so rough. I knew different women experienced very different levels of pain, so maybe I’d be fortunate.
The statistics were on my side. I’m young(ish) at 33. Low risk. Ideal pregnancy. And, very importantly for a decision like this, I live in an area with excellent midwives. That isn’t the case everywhere in our country and had I not had access to that care, I likely wouldn’t have made the same decision. I also live 5 minutes from the hospital. Could something happen? Of course. Something could happen every day, and “somethings” happen in hospitals too. There is no such thing as a risk free life, no matter how risk averse you are. That said, I gathered that there was no significant statistical risk to our decision given our specific context (healthy mom, uncomplicated pregnancy, excellent midwifery care, and great transfer plan and proximity to a hospital), and so, with that, the decision was made.
And now is the part where I talk about the birth. If you’re pregnant and avoiding birth stories, now is the time to stop reading. Or if you simply don’t want to read that sort of thing. I’m going to be honest about my experience. But please remember this is only my experience. The range of possibility is so, so very wide. I don’t want anyone to walk away thinking this “is what’s it’s like”. It’s just what it was like for me—both the good and difficult.
I went into early labor on Sunday night. I awoke to stomach cramps, which I ignored. I didn’t assume it was labor. The next day the cramps continued. Regular intervals. Contractions. I realized I was having contractions, the thing I’d wondered so much about. It was exciting, which is hilarious considering what they would become. Matt & I took a long bath together, went to the grocery store, walked around down town, timed contractions eagerly. I knew early labor could last for days, so I kept telling myself she likely wouldn’t come any time soon. The anticipation was palpable, despite my having no real concept of what, exactly, I was anticipating.
That day remains etched in my mind—in retrospect it was a golden fog, a nether world between our life before and the one we inhabit now. We were already on our way here, even if we didn’t fully register it yet. It was such a peaceful day with a quiet hum of excitement. We had fun. I cry thinking about it. It was just us for the last time.
When we went to bed Sunday night, and the contractions picked up. There was no bloody show, no water breaking. But they became more and more intense until, at 3 AM Monday morning, I wasn’t able to speak through them and found myself crying out in pain instead. I’d promised myself I wouldn’t call the midwife & doula far too soon and have them rush to my house only to go home. No good reason I promised myself that. I just have an innate tendency to want to “do it right” even in situations where there is no right way to do it other than just doing it (i.e. childbirth). Personality flaw.
From what I’d heard, when it was time, I would be in another place. A birthing trance. The pain, hormones, instinct…something would send me away. So I waited for that. I got in the bath. I couldn’t text or speak on the phone any longer, so I had Matt interface with the midwife & doula. When the midwife text us “no doubt, we’re having a baby today”, it began to sink in. This thing had momentum. I was powerless to stop it. It was a tsunami. There was no turning back. And so I labored through the night. It was a blur of pain as I dilated to 7 cm by morning. At some point after sunrise, once the doula was there, the bloody show happened. It was such a relief. We were getting somewhere.
For me, contractions were a surreal landscape of pain I couldn’t have previously imagined. And I’ve known some pretty intense physical pain. From what I hear, that isn’t so for everyone. It’s always different. But for me, I felt like I was being tortured. Game of Thrones style. I felt like someone was holding me down and carving my insides out. Time disappeared. Self-awareness along with it. All I knew was the pain, and it seemed to have no beginning or end. It was worst when I was lying down, better when I was standing & leaning over, and best with my husband holding me in the shower. While still excruciating, the shower was a godsend. Being able to get up and move around and go from shower to bath to bed and back again was one of the biggest factors in my being able to endure my labor pains naturally. If I’d been confined to bed, I don’t know if I would have been able.
I would try to relax into each wave, succeed for 2 or 3 contractions, and then another wave would hit and I’d be back to screaming, tears streaming down my face. By the time transition hit, I couldn’t cry anymore. I could barely “scream right”. Low, guttural moans help you relax. The higher pitched screaming I was doing, not as much. But each time I’d try to moan, I’d feel like I was going to throw up.
The entire time, from the giddy first contractions to the writhing last, my husband was by my side. He never left me. He held me in the shower. Held me wherever it was I happen to be doubled over and near collapsing. Rubbed my back. Never stopped encouraging me. Cried with me watching my pain. Stayed awake for every second of it. Applied counter pressure to my back when her descent was killing me. I was so far gone he was like a loving ghost abiding in my periphery, warm arms and gentle touch and kind words disembodied but there. I couldn’t have done it without him. He was my constant comfort even in that searing pain. My heart swells up when I think about it. Another thing that makes me cry. I cry a lot these days. I mean a lot. For me, pregnancy hormones have nothing on postpartum hormones.
I’d always heard you’d feel an uncontrollable urge to push. But for me that never seemed to come. I was pushing simply to alleviate the pain, and at some point my water broke. I felt more relief. I took it as a sign that everything was moving along, that this wouldn’t be interminable. I had the midwife check me. I was fully dilated but there was a small cervical lip that stubbornly wouldn’t recede. I very likely could have ended up being labeled “failure to progress” in a hospital and ended up with interventions or a c-section, but what she proceeded to do helped me birth my child at home, naturally. And was also another gauntlet of pain. She manually lifted the tiny bit of my cervix that was impeding the baby’s descent. I screamed. It worked.
I still never really felt a strong urge to push, but I did because I knew I had to get her out to keep her safe. That’s all I knew. I was sobbing dry tears, too tired & in too much pain to really cry. On oxygen for the last hour. They were rotating me from side to front to side again to keep her heart rate stable because in certain positions it would dip. I was terrified for her. I was sweating. My hair was matted. I kept apologizing to the baby. I was so, so scared.
I felt, for the first time in my life, that my best might not be enough. I dug as deep as I could. Focused as hard as I could. And it felt like it would just never happen. That I just wouldn’t get her out. Thoughts of being cut open started to sound like a relief. I felt so defeated yet never stopped trying. I felt her life depended on me, and I wasn’t sure I could do it. I knew I wouldn’t stop trying until I collapsed or they told me it wasn’t working. But they never said that.
They kept telling me how great I was doing, how normal everything was–a chorus of encouragement. But I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was going to let her down. And so I kept on. Finally the midwife grabbed my hand and placed it on her head. It was warm and wet and soft. A disturbing sensation out of context, but in this context that sense of progress, her on the verge of this world, was what I needed to keep on. Within minutes she was born. The relief was stronger than anything I’ve felt in my entire life. She was on my chest, alive: she was here. It had actually happened. I was sobbing, relieved yet still scared. I kept asking “is my baby okay? is my baby okay?” and they just smiled and said “she’s wonderful”. Everything was perfect. My Eula was there. Matt was crying tears of joy. I was crying but mostly from exhaustion and pain mixed with relief and protective panic. I pushed for about two and a half hours.
The aftermath: I was still in pain after she was on my chest; I didn’t find it magically disappeared. But I wasn’t in labor, and that’s something. And now, just a week later, the memory of that pain is fading beneath the force of remembering her on my chest. I was scared to birth the placenta because I was so spent, but it turned out to not be as harrowing as I feared in the moment. I didn’t tear at all (despite my OB having told me that “10 out of 10 first time moms tear”) though it felt like I was being ripped in half. The swelling and bleeding are gone just over a week in. My recovery has been wonderful. I have, save the odd short walk or milling around the house, stayed off my feet for the first week and half. I feel like that time invested now will buy me a quicker recovery over all & has allowed me to focus exclusively on breastfeeding.
As soon as it was over, I couldn’t have imagined doing it any other way. The pain, even nightmarish pain, was a small price to pay to have a natural birth at home. I did it. There are no words for the strength I felt when it was done. Unbearable pain turned out to be bearable, and I never once wavered or wished for medication to get me out. I was just in it. I would do the exact same thing with the exact same team next time. For us, home birth was the right choice. It may seem strange to describe such a crucible as ideal, perfect, exactly what you wanted. But it was. Being at home was serene—to simply settle in with my husband after a long, hard birth was a dream. No monitors, no checks, no beeps and wires and needles. Just peace in bed. No drive there or drive home. Our midwife taught us everything we needed to know, and they stayed with us for four hours after she was born. She was back the very next day for a follow-up and has remained available for every little question we’ve had. And as first time parents, yeah, that’s a lot.
And that’s how I became a mother to Eulalie. I, in the corner of my eye, feared my sense of self just might fracture into unrecoverable shards leaving me an amorphous what instead of a who upon entering motherhood. And it has fractured me. But it scattered me into an exquisitely painful stardust. I don’t need to be whole. To be broken into pieces is somehow a pure experience of love. To be completely atomized. Self became, in a moment, irrelevant and overrated.