Rebecca spent much of the week before Sibyl was born having diarrhea and occasionally throwing up. I spent much of the week cleaning up after Rebecca, having a nasty cold, and thanking my lucky stars that I didn’t have a newborn yet. Then a day and a half before my due date, my cold turned into stomach flu. Rebecca and I spent the next day in bed, sleeping a lot to try to keep the food down. I woke up with my life flashing before my eyes, reflected that I’d had a good run, and finally relaxed about everything. (What I should’ve done, though, was take a minute to write down why I’d had a good run; all I remember is that the selection of life scenes surprised me. Let this be a lesson if it ever happens to you.)
That evening I woke up with cramps. Then I noticed they were happening about 10 minutes apart. So they were contractions. From dehydration or time to meet my baby, or both? One of my midwives had said that women don’t go into labor when we’re sick, that our bodies generally wait until we can handle it. I told my body to snap out of it, that I hadn’t eaten normally for days and wouldn’t have the resources to make it through a long labor. I wasn’t supposed to be in labor right now. But my contractions kept coming anyway, and over the phone, the midwife on call said, “Sometimes you just need to trust these things.” Twenty minutes later, my contractions were less than four minutes apart, and she came over to rehydrate me via IV and check that the baby’s head had moved back down. It had, because throwing up helps with that.
I labored on all fours in the living room and watched light puddle in the tupperware I’d been throwing up in earlier that day. It was beautiful–why don’t more birth stories talk about how suddenly beautiful everything is?–until I got self-conscious about it, so I switched to staring at our Persian rug and golden maple floor. This moment, when we were about to welcome our baby, was going to be embedded in the rug and the wood floor forever, the same way as the scratches from when Rebecca pretended to ice skate or tried on Shayna’s high-heel shoes.
Voices around me were setting up the birth pool, putting the good sheets on the couch–let it go, I told myself, blood usually washes out–and I was at the navel of the earth. I chanted a little, We are the flow and we are the ebb, we are the weavers, we are the web, but my nose was too snotty for it to gain much momentum. Mostly I listened to myself moan through contractions, watching the sounds change like echoes of my changing womb. Now I was in the sounds as much as I was in my body. When I was in labor with Rebecca, I’d listened to the contractions the same way, idly wondering if maybe some could pass as pleasure sounds, even though I could feel them and I knew full well they weren’t pleasure.
Three and a half years ago, the central mystery of Rebecca’s birth was how normal it felt. I mean, I already knew that unmedicated birth is a normal, natural thing for a woman’s body to do–otherwise we wouldn’t have opted for a home birth–but on some level I didn’t believe it. I had expected labor to be something new, something that would push me to my limits. But then when the time came, it felt neither like the hardest physical work I’d ever done, nor like the first time I’d done it.
Rebecca’s birth wasn’t the first time I’d been trancing, at least. One of the things I’ve learned as a pagan is how to notice small shifts in consciousness and accentuate them, so that’s what I did. I sent Ted off to nap and let labor steal me down, down, and down into the earth. I’d like to remember that as a beautiful spiritual thing, except the only vision I recall dealt with children’s cereal characters like Captain Crunch. But regardless of where the contractions took me, they took Rebecca down lower and lower, closer to being born.
I knew as I was laboring with Sibyl that I wasn’t as deep as I’d been with Rebecca. There were more people around, for one thing. Their voices mostly felt nice, as long as they weren’t talking to me. I liked thinking that I was the center of this hurricane. Enter my now three-and-a-half year old baby, who had trouble watching quietly. I gently reiterated that it wasn’t a good time to talk–and felt just a little decadent saying that–and I sent her off with Shayna.
Some of my contractions got so flimsy then, and each time I hit a flimsy contraction, I worried my labor was petering out. Now, the flimsy contractions were alternating haphazardly with contractions that could sweep you away, but that seemed irrelevant whenever the flimsy ones came. Then I noticed that the moaning didn’t seem to be stopping at the end of a contraction anymore, because the baby’s head was pressing down the whole time, and also that I was shivering.
The birth pool was as useful as a narrative guidepost as it was for the warm water, because it meant I always knew what the next step would be. When “what’s next?” got a desperate little edge and I needed to change things up, I knew what I’d do: I’d get in the birth pool. And I figured the next step after that would be having a baby.
When Rebecca was born, I was so deeply into it that six hours of labor felt like two hours tops, and from time to time I forgot there was going to be a baby at the end. My first words to Rebecca were something like, “Look at you! Where did you come from?” followed rapturously by, “Oh, you angry drunken dwarf!” That was a spontaneous allusion to Hank, the angry drunken dwarf who’d been voted People’s Most Beautiful Person of the Year in an online poll sometime in the late ’90s. What did I know about newborns then, anyway? Just book knowledge, which would’ve been a distraction. I had at best a foggy idea of what to do if I met one, so it’s just as well I forgot that I was pushing out a baby and trusted myself instead.
This time I didn’t forget there was a baby. I looked forward to seeing her every time things got hard. I noticed when my body started tensing against the contractions and downward pressure, and I relaxed it. Let the pressure come, let the baby come. After a couple more contractions in the tub, I realized that I was pushing. I felt my body squeezing around something soft–”I think I’m pooping! Get ready to catch it!”–because I didn’t want to be swimming in the toilet longer than necessary. Then I realized that the push wasn’t stopping. Then it really wasn’t stopping: one huge push moving through me. Things were going too quickly, but when you’ve spent all of labor opening up and saying yes, when you’ve been telling your muscles to loosen whenever they started tensing against contractions, so that you could meet your baby–after all of that, how do you start saying “slow down” at push time? Some people can do it, but apparently not me.
I held on tight to the tub. Pop went my water, then the warm prickly stretching of her head, then a tiny pause and the same warm prickling as her body came through. I reached down and caught my baby. She had dark hair like we predicted, but I didn’t recognize her face. Who had I been expecting? “My baby,” I said, “My baby, my baby.” Just mine.
And where was everyone else, anyway? It wasn’t quite how any of us would’ve planned it. Rebecca was watching Dinosaur Train with Shayna. Ted had been heading to the other room to get Rebecca when he realized I was seriously pushing, saw the water change color, and started to come back. Our midwife was texting the second midwife to tell her I’d started pushing. I have no idea where the apprentice midwife was. So there I was with just my baby, who wouldn’t have a name for another week.
It took longer to push out the placenta than the child. I’d moved to the couch and my midwife told me to push. I tried; nothing happened. “This is going to sound stupid,” I said, “But I don’t think I know how to push.” Eventually I got the hang of it, though, and once the placenta was out I could move my short-umbilicalled baby up to nurse, which she was super enthusiastic about. I had a bagel and we found out that our new daughter measured eight pounds and five ounces, 20.5 inches. Afterward the midwife stitched me up. I hadn’t torn as much as with Rebecca, but the stitches felt worse this time. (and incidentally, it was the first time this pregnancy that any of the midwives had touched my crotch. I did my own GBS swab.) Then Ted put the house to bed while I went to bed with Rebecca and the new baby, but I waited until Ted was with us to fall asleep. It was six hours since I’d woken up with contractions; labor itself had taken three and a half hours from start to finish, which was just long enough for our baby to be born on her due date.
Staying up late into the night for Sibyl’s birth weakened Ted’s immune system, and he caught the same GI bug that Rebecca and I had had. I couldn’t take care of him and he couldn’t take care of me, so thank goodness for our housemates. Ted and I alternated sleeping for days, like lovers who only meet at dawn and dusk, and when we saw each other, we talked about what to name our baby. We tried out several different options, and eventually settled on Sibyl Allaria, after her grandfathers Sid (d. 1996) and Bill (d. 2011), and after the Greek sibyls, who spoke for the gods, and the middle name after her Grandpa Bill’s beloved boat. Sometimes I catch myself calling Sibyl my middle child, though–not because we’re planning on any more kids, but because she was born into the middle of things.