My water broke nearly 2 weeks early, waking me up at 1:30 in the morning on a Monday. I woke Adam and called the midwives, who told me to go back to bed and sleep as much as possible. I didn't manage to sleep at all, but went into a very deep and restful trance, felt the location and intensity of the first contractions introducing themselves, which were like nothing I'd ever felt before, and had heroic preparatory dreams.
The following morning we drove out to the midwives' office, where Catherine, Leslie’s partner, checked some of the fluid under a microscope to make sure that it was actually of amniotic origin. Upon confirming that it was, she told me that because my water had broken and because of the positive GBS results, they needed me to be in hard labor by nighttime - as I said earlier, a hospital would have given me 18 hours from my water breaking to deliver because of the GBS results, and the midwives didn't need to push that hard, but they did need me to get things moving.
We came home, our beloved Willa came over and helped us to Mary Poppins our house into a place fit to birth in, and I started drinking castor oil cocktails by late afternoon. Castor oil is a trip: it's a bowel irritant (most hospitals will tell you not to drink it because it can cause diarrhea, which, apart from potentially causing dehydration, creates a mess for them to deal with - they would rather administer a pitocin drip they can control) and is a classic way to intensify contractions which doesn't in any way affect the flow and receptivity of the nervous system to oxytocin, as pitocin does. My former doc's PA had told us an incredible story about using it to bring on labor with her 2nd kid. In her own words: "My first kid was born at 42 weeks and was so big that he gave me a completely new ass, and I didn't want to deal with that again, so I made myself a castor oil and tequila sunrise at 41 weeks, and he was born 45 minutes later. No time for anyone else to even get there, so it was just me and the dog.”
Heartened by all of that, we made the cocktails with top shelf tequila and orange juice. That plus liberal nipple stimulation did the trick: contractions steadily intensified and grew closer together. At some point in the thick of it all, I attempted to use a vibrator to steer the sensations towards pleasure, but it just intensified what was already well on its way to overwhelming rather than making it more fun. It seems possible that if I had tried stimulation earlier it might have been possible to take the labor in a more orgasmic direction, but I honestly have no idea. Needless to say: if you try it, gentle reader, please do let me know how it goes :)
We were graced with the presence of three deeply trusted friends as our doulas through the night: Willa, Liz, and Cynthia, all of whom had attended births before, and the latter of whom is a L&D nurse who's seen a zillion births in hospital but for whom we were the first experience of homebirth. Because there were enough loving hands, whoever needed to could nap or eat or take time and there was always still someone with me, and frequently two or three people. I vividly remember the entire night, the faces and the words, dancing to Whitney Houston with Adam, the beautiful hands on my body, the unendingly generous support of my loved ones: Liz's care and levity, Cynthia's excitement and total confidence in directing me, Willa's unshakeable calm and loving encouragement, Adam's comfort and solid support. There was a lot of giggling and a lot of affection and absolutely no stress on anyone's part.
In the middle of the night, I got into the tub (they had set up a kiddie pool on a tarp in the middle of the living room) and realized that it was wonderful to be in the water because it was slowing contractions down and letting me rest. Cynthia was with me, and I told her that I was starting to consider a transfer because I had no idea whether or not the intensity I was experiencing was actually progressing my labor - this was the crux of the births I had seen rushed into C-sections - and I was fucking exhausted and didn't know how much more I could manage. Cynthia reminded me that I had said to her before going into labor that I didn't want an out, and that if I started talking about a transfer to please remind me that if I had an epidural I wouldn't be able to walk or feel my legs. (She also had been the person in touch with the midwives all night, and was aware that if I wasn't dilated enough to start pushing come morning when the midwives arrived that I would very possibly be transferred - it was Now or Never.) She told me that she would let me stay in the tub a little bit longer, but then we were going to get in bed and we were going to work the baby down, and that it was time to marshall all of my energies into making this shit happen.
And then she revealed herself as my Jedi master. It was fucking incredible. What followed was among the most painful experiences of my life, and it was without question the furthest my nervous system had ever been pushed, and I have no idea how it would ever have happened if I hadn't had this profoundly capable woman ordering me around like a cosmic drill sergeant. Everyone got into bed with me, and Cynthia had me turn one way on my side and focus on the eyes of the person in front of me, and I howled my way through several contractions, and then had me turn onto my other side and repeat the howling with someone else, and back and forth for what felt like thirty years until the midwives arrived at 6:30 in the morning. I looked up and saw Catherine smile at the ruckus I was making, was aware of her slipping on a glove to check my dilation, and felt an utter jubilation erupt in the room upon her finding that I was at about 9 cm. She pulled the lip of my cervix that remained out of the way and brought me to 10, and told me it was time to start pushing.
I pushed in the tub for a while, but it was a huge and slippery contraption that made it difficult for anyone to support my body without actually getting in with me, so I moved to the floor, where I realized what exactly the quality of an effective push was, which was more or less that the hand of God was doing the work. Catherine suggested that we move to the bathroom, because the toilet is an ideal place to push, both because of its birthing stool shape and because it’s a place where the body is well accustomed to letting go. Pushing took on a lightninglike quality once I was on the pot, which scared the hell out of me, and I asked to move to the bed.
Once on the bed, I had the central realization of the entire experience: namely that as mammals we are wired to flee from pain, but that the only way to move the baby out of me was by diving directly into the pain, into the lightning. Upon understanding that, I committed myself fully to riding through it without hesitation, and asked to move back to the toilet. I felt the baby move down and crown, and felt her head with my hand (there is no crazier sensation) and at the point that her head was emerging, Adam came and sat under me and held me while I pushed Kora out. At some point I felt my tailbone snap, and simply made a mental note that I would deal with it later. The hardest part of the entire labor was pushing out her body after her head had emerged - I scraped the bottom of the barrel of my energies, and tapped out the last of myself moving her all the way out. As soon as she was in my arms, she cleared her own nose and throat, let out a single yowl, and opened her eyes to see.
After it stopped pulsing, Adam cut the umbilical cord. I watched that, saw all the blood on the floor, and because my nervous system had reached its limit (but probably also because I'm a fainter when it comes to blood) I passed out. Becky, Catherine's marvelous assistant, took the baby and passed her out to Cynthia and Willa (where Willa held her skin on skin), and lay me down on the floor, where I delivered the placenta. I’m told that everyone slapped me, Catherine gave me two shots of pitocin in the thigh to stop the bleeding, and finally after I passed out a couple more times she jerry-rigged an IV and gave me half a bag of fluid. It took about an hour and the threat of calling an ambulance for me to get it together enough to crawl out of the bathroom and into bed. Willa gave Kora to me to hold and I gave her the nipple for the first time. We missed the golden hour for breastfeeding because I was out cold, but we caught up without any issues.
I didn't know it, but milk doesn't come in for three to four days, and the baby is fine just having colostrum during that time - please call bullshit on anyone who tells you differently. Kora and I began to figure out nursing, and I realized that what is a strange and gorgeous and crazy process at the best of times has the potential to be downright nervewracking to a new mom who is utterly exhausted and has inaccurate judgement. So I made a lot of phone calls and asked everyone who had offered for help. I was advised by a family friend who is a lactation consultant to use Vitamin E on my nipples to prevent problems, which it absolutely did. When my milk started coming in 3 nights later, I became unbelievably engorged and used cold cabbage leaves in my bra to soothe the hot spots and hard places in my breasts while the tissues adjusted to the flow of milk. I asked for a lot of counsel until we got the hang of it. Once we did, and ever since, breastfeeding has been a deep pleasure.
The postpartum body takes time to heal. Time as in weeks and months. The landscape of the body is significantly changed by birth. There are huge amounts of ill-conceived pressure and shame, private and public, on postpartum women to pull themselves together and get back to whatever they was doing before all that, and it is frankly a fucking tragedy. There is nowhere near enough space created for the healing and rest and brand new life-giving intimacy that begins the moment a baby is born, and that, more clearly than nearly anything else I’ve ever come across, reflects the cultural demonization of the female body. There is little regard for the recovery of women after the fundamental act is complete, and little thought given to what we need to return to an active life with our health intact and our experiences integrated.
I’m extremely lucky in that I have the kind of support that allowed me to carve out for myself what wasn’t given to me - but which is, for example, freely provided in a country such as France, which seems to have an entirely different model of medicine than we’ve created in the US - and I had enough of an education to know what to seek out.
Briefly, these are the circumstances of my postpartum recovery, and the details of the care that was the most indispensable:
My entire pelvic floor was sore for about a month in ways that are difficult to describe to anyone who hasn’t experienced it: the entire structure of my pelvis had shifted in the most extreme fashion and I felt terribly bruised and torn. I didn’t want to be touched at all for about 6 weeks. The snapped tailbone took longer to heal, and I was in wincing discomfort, sitting and standing slowly and with extreme caution, for perhaps 3 months. At the point that I felt healed enough that I could tolerate deep touch, I began to work with my own hands into the scar tissue at my perineum where I had torn and been stitched, soaking with hot water to warm the tissue and then massaging myself intravaginally and externally around the scar as firmly as I could manage with castor oil using my fingers and thumbs, whenever I was in a bath or shower. This was something I had studied as a sexological bodyworker and thought about within the context of the protocols of Holistic Pelvic Care, and it helped a lot with the general discomfort and especially with the pinchy, sharp discomfort I would experience with any penetration. I also began to practice the Arvigo self-care protocols, which are delicious and simple and incredibly restorative, and the Holistic Pelvic Care exercises detailed by Tami Kent in her amazing book Wild Feminine.
It’s worth writing a little bit about castor oil packs here, because they are so wondrous.
The topical action of the oil of the castor bean is a goddamn miracle. There has been precious little study in scientific quarters about why it does what it does, but its primary action seems to come from a component called ricinoleic acid, which has been shown in clinical studies to reduce pain and inflammation. It’s thought that castor oil helps to flush lymph, clearing toxins and excessive waste from the area where it is applied. What I do know firsthand is that castor packing has consistently reduced my recovery time from sprained ankles from a month to less than a week, that it does beautiful things to my digestion, that it visibly reduces inflammation in surface tissues, and that it makes deep tissue and myofascial bodywork much less painful when it is used. It’s a recommendation in the annals of Arvigo, and it has nearly unbelievable results with internal scarring in mucous membranes - Ellen Heed and Kimberly Ann Johnson, with whom I studied scar tissue remediation, reported having felt intravaginal scar tissue dissolve from a single application of castor oil. And it was hugely helpful to me in doing internal work on myself.
After a while, I had two internal scar tissue sessions with Ellen, who brings a beautiful combination of laserlike, merciless focus and exquisite attention to her work, and found that receiving internal work was a major key to recovery. I believe this is true for all births - a significant amount of scar tissue is created by the act of birth, whether it’s a vaginal delivery or a caesarean, and scar tissue has to be addressed to maintain fluid and energy flow through the abdomen and pelvic floor.
Another common postpartum situation is diastasis recti, in which the abdominal muscles separate. This can be a minor separation, a finger’s width across, or a major one, four or five fingers across. It’s not a thing to ignore, and it’s a strange and amazing road back to a normal abdomen - DRs don’t knit back together from crunches or any of the usual abdomen-building exercises, and in fact are made worse by most normal exercise. The best things I found to resolve mine were binding my belly with a splint from the Tummy Team and doing the one kind of abdominal exercise that works to resolve DRs in which one engages the deepest layer of abdominal muscle, the transversus abdominus. Katy Bowman talks about it quite a bit on her excellent blog.
The return of a body that feels like mine is ongoing - when I’m back in aerial training, I feel sore in all the right places, flexibility returns, and my core bounces back to what I know it to be. And: the time to train is dear right now, because making time for myself is a whole new equation with a baby. I end up doing yoga at home as often as I’m able.
Also, kegels are real. They aren’t a thing to overdo in general - their effectiveness has everything to do with whether or not the pussy in question is lacking in strength from lack of engagement or over-engagement, too little tone or too much tone - but as a postpartum exploratory exercise, they’re pretty essential for beginning to feel like oneself again. I prefer the exercises associated with the use of jade eggs, as having something inside the vagina to provide some interoceptive feedback is wonderful, and the exercises develop sensation and control involving both engaging and letting go, rather than just repetitions.
The open portal.
I understand that this isn’t the case for everyone, but birth blew me open in a way I had never experienced and didn’t anticipate. My sensitivity to sounds and energies was on hyperalert for weeks, and as a result I became extremely private, still, quiet, and slow in the first weeks with the baby. The midwives had left a sign on our door when they left which asked that guests wash their hands upon entry, make themselves useful while visiting, and limit their visits to 15 minutes, and although that sounds unnecessarily draconian from a normal state of being, those rules actually saved my sanity. It was absolutely exhausting being with anyone but Adam and Kora. We rested, took a lot of space from the world, stayed in bed, watched Orange is the New Black, moved very slowly, read books, shnookled, and rested some more. Going outside for the first time 8 days after the birth was unbelievably overstimulating and brief - I could hear everything for several blocks around, and felt like a wild animal suddenly released into the middle of the city.
From that perspective, the care I’d recommend for new families is this:
Respect their space, and help them defend it if necessary from people like guilt trippy relatives, as best you can. Move slowly and with sensitivity. Speak quietly and gently. Ask them what kind of food they would like, rather than bringing food that you want to bring them, as digestive distress will affect both the nursing mom and the breastfeeding baby. Offer foods that support nursing: raw, clean fats like avocado and salmon, bone broth (if the mom is a carnivore) and coconut water are all incredible support to the recovering body.
And, if you REALLY want to help, friends: offer to clean. Wash 4 dishes. Do a load of laundry. Get in there and clean. It is, in fact, the greatest and most intimate kindness.
These are some of the books I found to be especially wonderful.
Spiritual Midwifery and Ina May’s Guide to Childbirth by Ina May Gaskin
Heart and Hands by Elizabeth Davis
Birthing From Within by Pam England
The Birth Partner (Adam found this one absolutely invaluable - it’s also a required text in many doula trainings) by Penny Simkin
Orgasmic Birth by Debra Pascali-Bonaro and Elizabeth Davis
The Gentle Birth Method by Gowri Motha
The Thinking Woman’s Guide to a Better Birth by Henci Goer
The website that was far and away the most useful in preparing for the birth was www.evidencebasedbirth.com
In learning about breastfeeding, both www.kellymom.com and www.lalecheleague.org were awesome.
I STRONGLY recommend taking a birthing class, if you can, with a partner if you have one or with another loved one if you don’t. Ask around, go online, find out who’s really wonderful who is teaching in your area. The one we went to in LA was at a birthing center called Gracefull, taught by Elizabeth Bachner and J.J Brake, and it was tremendously helpful for both of us.
Your best resource, full stop, is your local community. Face to face as well as online. Ask around about midwives, hospitals, birthing centers, doulas, books. Talk to friends. Ask for support from people who have comparable priorities to yours and who you respect. I stopped speaking to people who I suspected would freak out about my plan to birth at home, because pregnancy really does render one more permeable than usual, and I was clear that internalizing other people’s terrors on any level held no benefit for me. Instead, I surrounded myself with people who could get with my program and support me in planning a fierce, unmedicated birth - and, better yet, with women who had already had such births. Talking to educated moms who are ahead on the curve is the single best medicine there is.
Similarly, going into online forums can quickly become overwhelming - everybody on earth has a strong opinion and will want you to benefit from their wisdom, which cascades rapidly into oversharing and storytelling, not necessarily the most useful for a pregnant woman just trying to do a little research. Set your filters properly when venturing into the jungle of the internet.
And that, my loves, is all I have to say about that for now.
Thank you for reading. Please reach out with any questions or if I can support you in any way.
May you experience all phenomena as fodder for your growing awareness and deep, amazing joy.