Excerpted from Sheri Menelli’s book Journey into Motherhood: Inspirational Stories of Natural Birth. For more stories go to https://smenelli.wordpress.com
A Secret Home Birth
By Gina Kennedy
MY HUSBAND ROB and I have three children, all born naturally. During our first pregnancy, we knew we wanted to have our baby naturally, but we had no one to turn to for support or advice. My mom could barely remember giving birth in the 1960s. She said she had been so drugged, she hardly knew her own name! In the 1980s, my older sister had a C-section because her baby was breech. She went on to have two VBACs (vaginal birth after cesarean), but not without anesthesia. In speaking to other parents that we knew, we had not come across anyone who had a natural birth. It was frightening for me to realize that I was attempting to do something that had not been done by anyone familiar to me.
I began to read everything I could about natural childbirth. It may sound extreme, but in 1995, choosing to have a natural birth was a bit of a battle. My husband and I found that there was not much of a support system in place for women who wanted to give birth naturally; you had to work hard for it. We had to listen to our elders say, “Just take the drugs, why put yourself through all that pain?” They honestly believed that the drugs were harmless.
Today, a few clicks on the Internet will teach you that the drug in an epidural may be just a few molecules away from crack cocaine! We had to deal with many ignorant people who would ask us, “What is a midwife?” In the next sentence, they would be lecturing us on why we really should use a doctor to have a baby, when they didn’t even know that most midwives have more hours and training in birth than obstetricians.
Our first two children were born at a birth center in Pennsylvania, where the staff included midwives with an obstetrician on call who could assist if circumstances led you to deliver at the hospital across the street. It was a great facility, with four bedroom suites decorated much like a home. In the corner of each suite was a large tub for anyone who wanted to labor in warm water. In the lobby area, there was a nice living room with a full kitchen, a play area for children, and plenty of room for siblings and grandparents to be together while waiting for the arrival of their newest family member. They even had great flags that announced “It’s a Girl!” or “It’s a Boy!” for the proud siblings to display on a special pole outside the building. It was the perfect setting for us to birth our babies.
When it came time to have our third baby, we had just moved to New Jersey and found that there were no birth centers in the state at that time. We did our research and found a nearby practice of midwives who delivered at a local hospital. While living in Pennsylvania, we had not considered a home birth because the birth center was just perfect, and we were concerned that our home was too far away from the nearest hospital, should complications arise. While I always held the idea of a home birth in the back of my mind, Rob was uncomfortable with the idea. I never really pushed the issue, until we toured the hospital I was to give birth in.
During the hospital tour for expectant parents, I watched him raising his hand to ask questions about every detail of the tour. People were beginning to make faces. It seemed that Rob was perplexed by every other sentence that came out of the tour guide’s mouth! For example, he wanted to know why the babies were separated from the mother between the delivery room and recovery room. He was told it was a safety matter. The babies needed the heat of an incubator to stay warm while being transported from one room to another. Our first two babies stayed warm on my chest after they were born. They nursed and cuddled and never left my side. When my husband explained this and questioned their reasoning, they said that it was an insurance matter, and it would be unsafe for the baby to be held in the mother’s arms while they were transported from one room to another. Then came the question, why were we moving so much from room to room? Nothing made sense, and we sadly seemed to be the only ones on the tour who felt that way. We left the hospital tour disgusted. After our experiences at a birth center, we knew we could not possibly give birth there. At this point it didn’t take much to convince my husband that maybe we should reconsider a home birth, so I made an appointment with a local midwifery practice.
We met with two midwives, Gee Gee and Linda, to discuss whether we could be candidates for a home birth. By this time I was in my seventh month, so we needed to meet with the back-up obstetrician and have my medical records sent from the other midwifery practice. I was healthy and having a good pregnancy, and with two previous natural deliveries, it didn’t take much to deem me a suitable candidate for a home birth. We were very happy about our decision. It seemed as if a weight had been lifted. There were no more uneasy feelings and fears about whether the hospital staff would allow us the type of birth we wanted. We knew that the home birth would be the best for everyone in our family.
Unfortunately, we could not tell our parents about our home birth plans—they had been questioning our decision to use midwives since our first pregnancy. We were lectured constantly. “Shouldn’t you have a real doctor there?” Talk about not having support! Not only was there no one we could call on for advice about natural childbirth, everywhere we turned we found ourselves defending and explaining our choices. So we kept the big secret.
We pretended that we were still using the midwifery practice that delivered at the hospital, and we privately prepared our young children for the home birth.
My husband didn’t care who knew we were having a home birth, but I could not bear the thought of all the difficult conversations that I would inevitably find myself in. I just didn’t have the energy or attention to satisfy other people’s curiosity, or deal with their insecurity and lack of faith in nature. I much preferred to concentrate on preparing my two young children for the day they would witness a miracle. Our son was five years old, our daughter two and a half. Our midwives offered a library full of videos and books that we could take home and share with the children to help them prepare for the birth. Birth in the Squatting Position was by far their favorite video… they liked to see the placenta cthe floor! They kept asking me to rewind it, watching it over and over in amazement. It was one big science project for them.
We chose to have a water birth in our sunroom. This was also a big hit with our children, because the birthing tub looked just like a kiddy pool. Our midwife dropped it off at the house a few weeks before my due date, and from that point on we got many requests from the children to set up the pool. They were ready!
When the baby was ready, the contractions began on a weekday morning. I went about my usual business, taking my children to school and their other activities. By the afternoon, I was in labor. My husband came home to set up the tub. It came with a sterile liner that needed to be attached to the inside of the tub prior to filling it. I tried to relax on the hammock in my yard while Rob prepared our sunroom. When he came outside to check on me, something made me ask if he remembered to put in the sterile liner. He smiled and quickly headed back inside to empty the tub and start over.
A few weeks before this day, we had made the decision to let my older sister Michele in on the big secret so that she could be there to support us. We knew we could count on her, even though she had not experienced natural childbirth herself. She was someone who sincerely wished that she had, and was not the type of person who would question our decision. She arrived and helped bake a birthday cake (organic carrot!) with the children while I labored. I preferred to labor in the warm water of the tub, but got out a few times to let gravity help things along. It was a perfect labor. I used the buoyancy and warmth of the water to manage my pain, and I walked around a bit to help the labor progress.
My support team was amazing! The midwives used a Doppler to listen to the baby’s heartbeat, but they allowed me to labor naturally, without internal exams that could introduce or increase the chance of infection. My doula, Denise, held firm pressure on a point between my thumb and hand, and helped administer homeopathic remedies for labor that had been prescribed by our family homeopath. Even my five-year-old son, Robbie, held my hand during parts of the labor.
I remember telling myself during each contraction, “You won’t remember this pain.” That mantra had worked well for me during my previous labor, and it was true — I didn’t remember the pain. I kept thinking about holding my new baby. After a few hours, I felt a change in my contractions, a feeling similar to having to poop. Suddenly I was unaware of my surroundings. I was unaware that Denise had begun to take incredible photos of the birth. I was on my knees, leaning on the edge of the tub with my arms folded. GeeGee had placed a mirror on the bottom of the tub so that she could see what was going on without disturbing my comfortable position. Denise’s camera caught the reflection in the mirror, and you could see a dark shadow protruding… my baby’s head making its way out. I concentrated on keeping my breathing deep and slow. I remember Linda saying, “Keep it low,” which helped me moan through the pain in a productive way. Anytime my voice got high, it broke my concentration and my breathing became erratic.
It was dark outside, and the room was softly lit. My water broke during my first push, and my baby was born slowly through the next three contractions. I was not aware of whether or not my children were in the room, until I heard my daughter Erin’s sweet voice say, “Baby.” She was at the edge of the tub, watching as his head came out; then a pause; then his shoulders and waist came out; another pause…. He was floating with his arms out; then his legs followed, and with a hand from his dad, he floated up into my arms. Denise’s photos captured the entire sequence, as if it had been shot as a movie and then edited into freeze frames. It was such a gentle birth. The whole time, Robbie was at the edge of the tub taking pictures with his camera. Since Denise was also taking pictures, the back of Robbie’s head is in many of her photos. It is really funny to see the Mickey Mouse instamatic sticking out from the side of his head as he clicked away. He wanted to be the one to identify the sex, and when he took a look, he squealed, “A pee-pee, it’s a boy!”
I got out of the tub so that Molly could draw the cord blood for storage. Molly was a CNM associate who had asked to come along for the experience of drawing the cord blood. Stem cell storage was still so new at that time, and many midwives were not experienced with the practice.
My baby nursed immediately and then rested on my chest while we collected the cord blood. My children got impatient with me, asking, “Where’s the placenta?” The midwives laughed at how eager they were to see the placenta. The children took turns trying to cut the cord, and my husband helped their tiny hands manage the scissors. After I delivered the placenta, Linda took the children to the kitchen table for a “placenta show.” She taught them everything they could possibly want to know about it. Robbie took a whole roll of film of the placenta spread out in the middle of my kitchen table. We still have the pictures, all 36 of them.
After the newborn exam, we had our birthday party. Our children opened up their big brother and big sister gifts, and presented the baby with the gifts they had selected for him. We had birthday cake, took some more pictures, made some phone calls and went to bed. The next day my children went to school with Polaroid snapshots of themselves holding their new baby brother. At a parent-teacher conference a few months later, my son’s kindergarten teacher commented about the birth, wondering if his description had been a tall tale or not. It was not every day that a five year old came into her classroom announcing, “Mommy had a baby in the sunroom last night.”
Our children still love to talk about that night, and our little baby Liam, who is now three years old, loves to look at the photos and hear the story of his birth. We hope that through the photos and the telling of Liam’s birth story, our children will have a good foundation when it comes time for them to have their own children.
A Mother’s Guidance: You have to seek out the people who think like you. If you don’t have friends or relatives who have experienced natural childbirth, you will need to be very proactive to get the information and support you need. Some general advice: shop or browse at your local health-food store. You are likely to run into other pregnant women there. Start conversations. Ask other customers or the staff for recommendations for a good midwife or prenatal massage therapist. Seek out the information and support you need. Go to prenatal yoga classes. Make sure your childbirth preparation class is really geared towards natural birth. (We were surprised to find that the most famous course was not!) Go anywhere that you may find childbearing people who think like you! A natural birth is the healthiest thing you can do for yourself and your baby. It is something that requires dedication, faith in yourself, and a heartfelt desire to stay in tune with nature.
I came across a book called The American Way of Birth by Jessica Mitford. It was a compelling, historical overview of how birth had changed over the years in our country. I was amazed by how nothing in modern obstetrics seemed to support a natural birth. Many people our own age told us how they had to have a C-section because there was fetal distress or the cord was wrapped around the baby’s neck, and thank God for the doctor. We wanted to say, “Well, lying on your back can decrease oxygen to the baby, and that will cause some distress….” But we bit our tongues, seeing how inappropriate it would be to tell someone what they should have done. In fact, it would have been just as inappropriate as what they were doing to us, sharing their horror stories!
Know in your heart and mind that you can have the type of birth you want. Remember that women have been giving birth for years and years. If painkillers and interventions were always necessary, humankind would not exist! I recommend the following publications: Mind over Labor by Carl Jones, Gentle Birth Choices by Barbara Harper, and Mothering magazine.
Additional Thoughts: If you are committed to attending a natural childbirth class, you may have to find one that is not associated with a hospital—an independent class. Hospital-affiliated educators are often not allowed to advocate for natural childbirth.
Gina Kennedy and her husband Rob live in Spring Lake, New Jersey, with their three children, Robbie, Erin and Liam. They run an indoor instructional basketball facility called Rebounds in Neptune, New Jersey. They spend summers in the Pocono Mountains of Pennsylvania, where they own a basketball camp that has been run by the Kennedy family for more than 40 years.
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