This is the birth story of my daughter June, who was born a few weeks before the COVID-19 pandemic turned everyone’s lives and the world itself pretty much upside down. This is also a story of my journey to experience an out-of-hospital birth for the first time.
In 2016, when our firstborn son was four years old, we began trying to get pregnant again. I hadn’t known for sure that I wanted a second baby until one day I woke up and knew with absolute certainty that I did. This was reiterated for me one afternoon over a glass of wine with two of my closest friends, when I found myself in tears talking about wanting another child in our family. (Thankfully my husband Adam was on board with this plan too.)
This time getting pregnant was a lot harder. I had three miscarriages over the course of a year, including one that was ectopic, meaning the fertilized egg had implanted somewhere other than my uterus. The technician searched for it on the ultrasound but we couldn’t find anything. Weeks later, my blood tests kept coming back positive, so my doctor gave me an injection of methotrexate (cancer drugs, basically) to halt any cell growth and end the pregnancy. A few days later, I was on a weekend away with a small group of girlfriends and I couldn’t stop crying. I was bleeding heavily. I was bloated and my breasts were sore. My hormones were all over the map, and I was so sad to not be pregnant anymore, however tenuous it had been. The hardest part of this process was not being able to talk about it and hiding what I was going through with most of the outside world. I still had to go to work and pretend everything was normal. I remember my eyes filling with tears during a meeting with one of my coworkers, and I tried to justify it by explaining I was “having a bad day and going through something personal”. It’s so unfortunate that miscarriage is still such a taboo topic of conversation when so many women experience the loss of losing a baby. Adam hugged me every time I sobbed — yet my sadness dragged on for months.
My husband and I drew a line in the sand and decided we would keep trying until my 40th birthday. I didn’t want the ambiguity to drag on forever — either it would happen or it wouldn’t. We said it was up to nature to decide.
When I got pregnant in May of 2019, we were thrilled — but I kept my guard up, not believing it would stick. I was terrified of dealing with the aftermath and ambiguity of another miscarriage. We saw a heartbeat on the ultrasound around six weeks. Eight weeks passed. Then ten. Then twelve. Finally I felt like I could breathe a little. Like my first pregnancy, I dealt with daily nausea for several months, until it began to ease around 18 weeks. This gave me hope — a positive sign, however uncomfortable, that things were progressing normally.
Initially I started care with an OB-GYN through our primary health care practice. She was lovely and supportive during my checkup appointments, but I felt something was missing, although I wasn’t quite sure what. I was doing all the right things and checking all the boxes. At every checkup I would be weighed, measured, blood pressure checked, baby heartbeat monitored, questioned about my lifestyle, etc. At 39 years of age, I was considered a “geriatric” pregnancy. Yep, that’s what it said on the ultrasound printouts!
Because of my age, my OB-GYN advised me that they didn’t want me to go past 39 weeks of pregnancy, since there is a small risk of stillbirth in babies born to older mothers that go past their due dates. If I didn’t go into labor spontaneously by that time, they would recommend that I be chemically induced with Pitocin to kickstart labor. I started doing my own research — something I hadn’t done enough the first time around. I verified that while there was in fact a small risk, it the risk was higher for less healthy mothers and also for first time mothers. I was healthy, and this was my second baby. I also knew that getting induced increased my risk of having to get a C-section. Each intervention increases the odds — induction can lead to more painful contractions and thus more epidurals to reduce that pain. The use of an epidural requires constant fetal monitoring which demands the mother to be on her back for labor in order to be hooked up to the EFM machine and have an IV placed in her arm. This leads to more frequent C-sections, since laboring lying down on your back is one of the worst positions for trying to push out a baby because it creates a smaller pelvic diameter (compared to laboring while squatting, standing, etc.)
I started thinking more and more about my first labor experience, and what I wanted to do differently this time.
I really wanted to avoid an induction and the potential interventions that might result from it. Because I would be 40 at the time of my baby’s arrival, I was annoyed that there were specific rules I had to follow regardless of my good health or specific medical history. I reread Ina May’s Guide to Childbirth and Birth Matters, and checked out more books from the library including Childbirth Without Fear, Birthing From Within, and Giving Birth With Confidence. I was unafraid of all the hippie-dippie literature this time. The more, the better! Most importantly, I wanted to be my own advocate and be the one in charge of defining what my labor experience could look like. I didn’t want to let someone else decide that for me. My hope was to balance those needs along with the necessity of keeping both me and my unborn baby safe and healthy. I realized I wanted to try to attempt a natural delivery, because I wanted to be fully part of the experience and not separated from the sensations, as painful as they might be. Rather than delivering in a hospital, I felt I might be more comfortable in a different environment, and started researching freestanding birth centers in Bellingham, Washington where we now live. Adam and I briefly discussed home birth and decided that particular path was not for us.
One morning, I went out for coffee with a good friend and shared with her how I was feeling. She was empathetic and understanding, and referred me to a midwife she had worked with in the past. It was reassuring that she felt similarly, and I was relieved to have somewhere to start. These were uncharted waters for me. Many of my friends couldn’t relate to my desire for a natural, out-of-hospital birth.
I had so many questions. What does a midwife do? How is that different from an OB-GYN? What about hiring a doula? What would happen if I needed to be transferred to a hospital in the middle of labor? On and on. I was over halfway through my pregnancy — was I really allowed to stop seeing my OB-GYN this late in the game and how exactly would that work? Would I be able to handle the pain of labor on my own? I was afraid of both the pain and of personal failure, and of not being able to physically handle the delivery.
After my first midwife appointment with Alli, I left feeling confident, excited, and happy. It was a good fit — I could just feel it. Alli is simply a lovely person — kind, genuine, knowledgeable, and personable. Her office was organized, clean, and comfortable. She took the time to really get to know me. Compared to my OB appointments that typically lasted about ten or fifteen minutes, sometimes my conversations with Alli would go on for over an hour. She did all the regular things at my check-in: measuring my belly and listening to the baby’s heartbeat with a fetal doppler machine, taking my weight and blood pressure, and taking samples and drawing blood for screenings. But she offered so much more — including advice from her own personal experience catching hundreds of babies and delivering two of her own. We soon established a level of trust and friendship. I felt comfortable and safe, and knew I could trust her to help guide and support me through this journey. My gut told me that if she felt at any moment that my safety or baby’s safety were going to be compromised, she would be decisive, straightforward, and level-headed. If I had to be transferred to the hospital, Alli would likely be able to come there with me so I wouldn’t lose her support at that critical time.
I read a saying recently, “Every pregnant woman deserves a midwife.”
I wholeheartedly agree. Whether you’re planning to deliver your baby in a hospital, birth center, or at home in a tub, having the support and knowledge of an experienced midwife is priceless. While an OB-GYN also has a wealth of knowledge, their specialized training revolves around treatment of issues and diseases for times when a pregnancy doesn’t progress normally. A licensed midwife has expert hands-on experience in natural, unmedicated, vaginal birth. I believe there is a need for both types of support to be available to any expecting mother. I wish midwives were more common here in the US for the sake of all expecting moms, and I realize my good fortune in finding Alli.
I did a tour of the birth center. It was a small house with 3 bedrooms, a waiting room with a fireplace, and a small kitchen area. Each of the delivery rooms had its own tub, bed, and bathroom. On the window on the front of the building there’s a sign announcing how many babies have been born there (nearly 1,900 at that time). The birth center is a short 3 minute drive from the hospital which was important to us for an easy and quick transfer in case of emergency. I immediately felt comfortable and at home.
As my due date neared, I was nervous. I was eager to meet our little girl, and felt like this time I had done my homework and preparation. Yet I was still worried and fearful of the pain ahead. I was reassured by a mantra I had read, “My body is made to do this.” I played music for my baby, did a few yoga classes, went on long walks, and waited. The weeks leading up to my due date were full of sleepless, uncomfortable nights. On the Monday evening before my due date, my contractions began. They started around 7pm and I measured them about five to seven minutes apart. They weren’t painful yet and felt similar to menstrual cramps. They never got closer together or stronger, and around 10pm, they stopped. I kept waiting for them to continue, but nothing happened. Eventually I went to bed. Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday evening were the same. Contractions for several hours would then just disappear. It was so frustrating. My midwife said it was likely early “prodromal” labor — that my body was preparing for delivery but was not quite ready yet.
By Saturday I was an emotional wreck. My due date had passed, and every evening that week I’d been filled with excitement as the contractions started, and then flooded with disappointment when they would peter out. We had tried a number of natural methods to get my labor going including stripping my membranes (several times over the course of the week), drinking raspberry leaf tea, going on long walks every day, eating spicy food, yoga, etc. Alli said we could try castor oil. I had heard negative things about the use of castor oil, like it would make you vomit and have terrible diarrhea. Ugh, I didn’t want to be going through that while in labor if I could avoid it. But by Sunday afternoon I eventually gave in to the idea and we tried a tiny dose. I felt a bit queasy but kept it down, and the castor oil ran its course. It seemed to be out of my system by 7pm that evening, and I still hadn’t had any contractions. I did have a few small contractions around 8pm, but again they stopped completely. Alli happened to be at the birth center that evening helping with another delivery, and I remember texting her around 11pm to say that I wasn’t having any more contractions and was heading to bed.
I fell asleep on the couch. Around midnight my husband came and rescued me, urging me to come sleep in our own bed, and I groggily went upstairs. Around 1:45am I woke from deep sleep with a strong contraction. I laid there, dozing. Ten minutes later, a second contraction came. It wasn’t painful, but it was so strong that I decided to get out of bed. Maybe I would go downstairs and sit on the exercise ball to see if the contractions would get closer together. I got out of bed and felt liquid leaking down my legs. What was that?! I moved quickly into the bathroom and just as I went to sit down on the toilet, a large gush came out and began to puddle on the tile floor. In the dim light, my foggy brain wondered if I had peed myself or if this was my water breaking? I wasn’t 100% sure. I turned on the light. The liquid was pink tinged and there was A LOT of it. Now I knew, and I excitedly called Alli, apologizing for waking her up to tell her that my water had broken. She acknowledged my excitement and told me to call once the contractions were stronger and closer together.
I woke Adam up to tell him the news. He asked if it was time to go. He was already out of bed and getting dressed. I still hadn’t had another contraction since getting out of bed. I was giddy. Next I decided to call my good friend Stephanie to wake her up. A labor and delivery nurse herself, she had offered to be my doula for the delivery. The catch was that she was in Seattle, nearly a two-hour drive away. As I dialed her number, a big contraction hit. I grasped tightly to the edge of the bathroom counter. I could hear the smile in her voice as she told me she was rushing out the door and would see me soon.
I hung up the phone and dropped to my hands and knees on the floor, gasping. This contraction was crazy strong! I couldn’t stand up or move, and I heard myself moaning. Two minutes later another one hit. These contractions were so different from the early ones. I could feel everything tightening through my abdomen like I was being cinched up from the inside. There was low pressure in my pelvis too. Exactly like an ocean wave, all of this pressure would build and crest, and then it would fall away and the pain would be completely gone. When it began, it felt like a bad menstrual cramp, and then began to deepen and swell in size and intensity. I had gallstones the year after Finn was born. The pain I felt with gallstones doubled me in half and crippled me on the floor for hours at a time. It was a 10 out of 10 on my pain scale. The pain I felt right now during these contractions wasn’t knife sharp, but it was incredibly intense. Probably a 7 or 8 out of 10.
Adam called Alli back. When she heard me groaning over the phone, she told us to definitely come over to the birth center. It was around 2:30am. Unbeknownst to me, Alli was frantically calling around to find another midwife to come help at the birth. It’s standard protocol to have a second set of hands to help, but the baby hadn’t given much advance notice and it was a bit of a scramble!
In between contractions, I managed to get dressed in comfy sweats and make my way downstairs. As a contraction would hit, I’d fall to my hands and knees on the floor wherever I was at. One contraction hit at the bottom of the stairs, and another one started by the back door as I worked to quickly lace my shoes. Adam said I didn’t need to put on socks or lace my shoes. He was understandably nervous, trying to get me out the door as quickly as possible. He realized things were progressing really fast, and neither of us wanted to deliver a baby at our home alone.
Adam helped me into the backseat of the family van. I couldn’t sit, and hung onto the headrest squatting on the floor. My son was in the backseat also — there was no time to take him to our friend’s house. As another contraction hit, I groaned loudly. My son asked nervously, “Mom, does it hurt?” We drove around a corner and I held onto that headrest as tightly as I could and yelled, “Yeeessss it doesssss!!”
We arrived at the birth center in less than ten minutes. I waited for a contraction to end so that I could make the fast dash to the door. Alli was in the room already, filling the tub and getting everything prepared. Another contraction hit and I dropped to the floor on my hands and knees. Alli suggested with a smile, as calm as always, that I get undressed and get in the tub. Adam put on some music that I loved, and the lights were warm and dim. He did a quick trip to check on Finn who was sleeping in our van (along with our dog). The room was cozy and looked like the charming but a bit outdated guest room in your grandma’s house. Somehow, I was comforted knowing how many women and midwives had brought babies into the world in this very room. For now, we were the only ones here and had the birth center all to ourselves.
Getting in the water felt amazing. It took the intensity of the pain down a notch or two, and the warmth of the water took the edge off and held me in a way that felt safe. My contractions were coming in waves. It was exactly as I had read about in so many of my books, and I recognized it, yet I had never experienced the full sensation until now. It was amazing to me how strong the waves were, and how I could feel my body opening and my baby’s head descending the birth canal. All my attention focused on getting through a single contraction. I gripped the side of the tub for support and squirmed to find the right position. I ended up on hands and knees in the water. The strength of the contractions rippled through me and surprised by the sheer force, I heard myself moaning, “Wooooooooooowwwwwww. Wow. Oh wow.” Which was funny, even in that moment. But sounds were coming out of me that I didn’t expect. Honestly it was a little embarrassing. I was groaning and growling like an animal.
When a contraction ended, all the tension I was holding would melt. My arms and legs were quivering, and I’d thirstily gulp down water. I’d look up at Adam or Alli and smile. We were doing this! I was doing this! In a matter of time we’d be meeting our baby girl. That would give me the reassurance I needed to hunker down for the next wave. Adam and Alli kept encouraging me through each contraction, telling me I was doing great.
Before I knew it, it was time to push. The pressure was increasing and it felt like I had to poop (like the biggest poop of my life). Suddenly my long, deep, exhalations weren’t cutting it, and I felt like I was losing some of the control that I had. Before I even had time to panic, Alli told me to try shorter exhalations. Huff huff huff huff. It immediately helped and (I think) I smiled gratefully. She told me to reach down and feel for my baby’s head. I was amazed! Her head was right there, ready to crown. I could feel her soft hair. I was so excited. On my next contraction, her head started to come through. It burned like the ring of fire I’d read about.
Prior to this moment, I wasn’t sure whether I’d deliver in the tub or not. I’d watched videos of water births and found them fascinating and beautiful. But I wasn’t sure if that would feel natural and comfortable to me. Now I can confidently say that it was a more comfortable place to labor than anywhere else, and I can’t imagine NOT laboring in the tub.
Alli told me to stop pushing. She was helping to guide the baby out, and I did as she asked. She helped me move from my hands and knees to a semi-reclined squat in the tub. I didn’t realize my daughter’s arm was coming out next to her head, and the umbilical cord was around her neck. Alli deftly moved the cord aside and told me to push. One or two big pushes was all it took and there she was, lying on my chest. She was a little blue. Her tiny arm was limp. She hadn’t made a sound yet. However, the cord was still pulsing and she was still getting oxygen, Alli assured me. “She’s just a little stunned,” she said, “talk gently to her.” Everything had happened so fast. I imagined it was such a shock for her to be in her warm cocoon and then booted out into the world so quickly.
“Hi sweet girl,” I murmured, stroking her back gently, caressing the back of her head. Still nothing. Alli and her backup support Mary helped suction out her airway, and she finally took her first breath. Those one or two minutes felt like a long time to me. It was a whimper at first, but then turned into a good healthy cry. I was so relieved. June Gray Thornber was born at 3:52 am, only about two hours since the first contraction that woke me from sleep. Such a quick and relatively easy labor!
June and I snuggled in the tub for a few minutes. She just nestled herself right into my chest. Just then my friend Stephanie burst through the door, smiling. It was a happy moment. My baby had arrived safe in my arms, I was surrounded by people I loved in a comfortable place, the hard work was over, and my good friend had arrived.
With June still resting in my arms, Alli helped me deliver the placenta. Apparently it was huge, comparatively, nearly two pounds. I had to admit it was a sight to behold. Alli and Mary were poring over it, examining it closely for tears and for clues, too. It was fascinating to know that based on the condition of the placenta, as well as the amount of vernix June was born with, they could tell how close the due date really was. They deduced she had arrived right on time, Goldilocks style.
Everyone took wonderful care of the two of us. June and I were wrapped in warm towels and blankets and moved onto the bed. June weighed in at 9 pounds, 9 ounces and 23 inches long — bigger than my son Finn was at birth! She was so pink and healthy and I couldn’t stop staring at her little rosebud mouth. She was perfect. Stephanie and Alli helped me nurse June for the first time. I really did forget how awkward it can be to find the right positioning at first, and it took a few tries to latch. After I nursed her, Alli gave me two small stitches for minor tears. I was feeling great, filled with happiness, pride, and those amazing endorphins from the birth. Adam fed me snacks that we’d brought from home and I sipped on some coconut water. Finn was able to come in and meet his little sister for the first time. He was so gentle and proud. He is going to be a wonderful big brother.
After we rested for a bit, Alli helped me get into my comfy clothes and get ready to leave. We were home by 7:30am and back in our own comfy bed, on a beautiful sunny February morning. What a way to welcome our sweet girl into the world!
The next day, I received a visit from Alli in my home to check on me and June. Again, I realized what a blessing it was to have a midwife. Never in routine OB care would your doctor come to your house to check on your stitches, check your blood pressure, make sure nursing was going ok, ask if you were getting any sleep, weigh and hold your baby and tell you how beautiful she was, etc.. How special that was to me and to our family! The entire months-long experience was absolutely a premium level of care — one that I can’t help but imagine most expecting women would benefit from. Alli would continue to visit and talk with me regularly until I was fully healed around six weeks postpartum.
Overall my physical recovery was easier compared to Finn’s birth. I had less pain and felt more like myself earlier than the last time. But it was still a challenge, especially that first week. Caring for a newborn is a 24x7 job, and on top of that you need to care for yourself. I remember one of my midwives, Mary, holding up her hands in the size and shape of a dinner plate and explaining to me — this is the size of the wound inside your body where the placenta was attached. This is why you need to rest. I stayed in bed as much as possible, nursing June and sleeping in short chunks. Adam brought me food and snacks. In between feedings, I’d get up to change my ice pack and apply cream to my sore nipples.
Breastfeeding hurt, even the second time around. This time I knew what to expect and had done more advance preparation. While I was pregnant I met with a lactation consultant to discuss my prior challenges, measure for correct pump flange size, and learn about different nursing positions I could try. However, our latch wasn’t perfect and my nipples started to crack. On the third or fourth day my milk started to come in and my breasts were painfully engorged, hard as rocks, and warm to the touch. June was nursing so frequently that I couldn’t allow my sore nipples to rest. I remember sitting on the toilet bawling, aching all over and feeling like I’d been in a car accident. Your body really has been through a major traumatic event. Thankfully, the lactation consultant was able to come to my house that week to help me improve the latch, and she was absolutely invaluable until we got breastfeeding fully established. By two weeks things had greatly improved.
As I write this my daughter is 16 weeks old, and I’m still in the thick of my postpartum journey. These blurry early months of sleepless nights and endless nursing sessions still continue, and my body is still adapting to a new set of hormones. I’m going through night sweats, postpartum hair loss, and crazy mood swings. Some moments the sun hits my face and my baby is in my arms and everything is all right. Moments where my son leans over my daughter’s face and croons “Hello, Baby Juuuuuuuune.” and she smiles from ear to ear and gurgles to him. Yet there are so many more moments where I feel bone tired and numb, empty of everything I have left to give. Moments where I can’t see through my tears. Days upon days of feeling like I’m walking around in a fog, alone. After all, we’re simultaneously in the middle of a pandemic and protests. Everything has been upended and daily life has gotten harder. People are marching in the streets in clouds of tear gas. Scrolling through my social feeds doesn’t help, either.
Having a newborn is isolating, even when times are normal. Having a newborn during quarantine is isolating on a whole different level, and more challenging. I long to be able to spend time with friends and family, to go get a haircut or a massage, to have a girlfriend come hold the baby for a couple hours so I can take a nap, for the ability to hire a sitter for an evening so my husband and I can have a meal together. I want life to return to normal. I know in my heart eventually it will get easier and I’ll feel like myself again.
But right now, I’m taking things one day at a time. I’m going on long walks nearly every day for the fresh air and the way it improves my mood.
My memories of June’s birth are still fresh, and as I recall these moments in writing, I’m emotional. I’ll know that I’ll treasure this experience for the rest of my life, and I can’t wait to share this story with June someday, so she knows the story of how she was born. I’m incredibly grateful and thankful for Alli’s support and expertise, and for my husband’s reassurance through it all. I’m so proud of Finn and how gentle and sweet he is with June. We are filled with love. That is what family is all about.