Joyce and her partner Peter contacted me about having me document the birth of their daughter, Taylor. I have been capturing mostly home birth for my book project and body of work on NYC home birth for years now (if you know someone who’d be interested please contact me!) but had yet to have the opportunity to capture a birth center labor, a prospect which intrigued me. They had a midwife and doula lined up to help with the labor but their vision and plans were all about natural childbirth. I was thrilled to be there to capture the labor and delivery for them– and I was super impressed with their hard work, patience, and dedication to one another and their daughter’s wellbeing at every step of the way. Below is a slideshow and image collection of some of my favorite shots that tell the story of their experience, as well as the birth story itself, which Joyce so beautifully put together after reflecting on how it all went.
Freeform reflection by Joyce after the birth of her daughter Taylor:
After a day of walking 6 miles around the city trying to speed up the process of meeting our baby girl, my mucus plug came out around 9 pm that night. We were super excited at this first sign of labor, but knew that it could be anywhere from hours to another 2 weeks before actual labor would begin. We watched some TV then went to bed. At 4:19 am, I woke up from a strong cramp (very similar to menstrual cramps), but fell back asleep. About 40 minutes later, I woke to another one, then they began coming every several minutes. I let my husband Peter know I was having contractions, but recalled that if early labor begins overnight, it’s good to try to sleep through as much of it, so that’s what we tried to do. However, they soon started to get stronger, and I could no longer sleep. We used an app called Full Term (free on App Store, highly recommend!) to start timing them. Our friend Elizabeth who was functioning as our doula (she’s not an actual doula, but has had 2 home births herself and is the one that got us into natural birth) arrived around 7 am. From then on we began working through the contractions as a team. It was so great to have two people assisting me as one would help from the back and one would help from the front, and if one needed to deal with something else I still had the other to help me. Peter and I had taken an 8-week class on the Bradley Method and so that was the main method of pain management we used, surrendering to the sensations, practicing total relaxation of all muscles in the body and deep abdominal breathing. I think this helped me through the majority of active labor (until I started to reach transition, where really no pain management technique could help anymore, but that’s the shortest part of the labor anyway). We also employed other techniques like the hip squeeze, massages, and use of scented oil. Finally, being a Christian believer, worship music, encouraging Bible verses, and prayers over me from Peter and Elizabeth were crucial in reminding me that even if I can’t do it in my own strength, I could do it through His strength.
We were told that the time to go to the hospital is 3-1-1, when contractions are 3 minutes apart, 1 minute long, lasting for 1 hour. In fact I was at 3-1-1 for already 2-3 hours when we headed to the hospital at 10 am, so we thought this would be a rather quick labor. However, when we went to triage, which was my least favorite part of the whole hospital experience (harsh fluorescent lights, separation from my birth team, uncomfortable monitoring (in fact the gel caused me to get rashes on all the areas the monitors touched that lasted over 3 weeks postpartum), and being on my back through contractions), after 30 minutes of monitoring, they said I wasn’t dilated far enough to get admitted to the birthing center. The options were to instead get admitted to Labor & Delivery now (the standard hospital delivery area), labor around in the hospital, or leave and come back later. Our midwife told us we shouldn’t come back to triage for another 4-6 hours. We chose option 3 and headed back home (only 5 min from the hospital).
I should note that part of my birth plan was to not know how many centimeters dilated I was throughout the whole process. Knowing the dilation is nearly meaningless because it’s not a reliable measure of how far into labor one is. You can take anywhere from a couple minutes to several days to go from 1 to 10 cm, and you can regress as well (i.e. be 8 cm dilated and go back down to 2). Our Bradley instructor, who’s also a very popular doula in the city, talked about many women who got very discouraged and/or distracted by focusing on dilation and we thought it was wise advice to skip knowing this randomly moving figure.
Since I didn’t know how far along I was and wanted to surely get admitted the next time we showed up to the hospital, I tried to labor for as long as possible at home. I think we stayed home for about 6.5 hours and by the time we got through triage it had been 7 hours since the last triage. At home, we tried a bunch of things to further the labor, including remaining active, going up and down the stairs, and “shaking the apples off the tree”. I realized later that the contractions I was having when we first went to the hospital were nowhere close to how they feel towards the end. They get exponentially stronger as you head towards transition.
What I looked forward to the most in the birthing center was the jacuzzi tub. I usually take baths for soothing my menstrual cramps or when I’m not feeling well, such as when I’m sick or hungover, so I knew I would need a bath for my labor too. Thus, I basically labored at home until I couldn’t go another hour without getting into the bath.
Around 6 p.m. we headed back to the hospital. This time, remembering how unpleasantly bright the lights in triage were, I wore a hat and sunglasses. That helped. We got through triage and were told we had made significant progress and were ready to be admitted, but some bad news: we can’t go to the birthing center because the L&D floor is very busy right now and needs all the staffed nurses working there. This was the one thing I was praying not to happen – getting sent to L&D instead of the birthing center – because the L&D room is tiny, filled with medical equipment, offers epidurals, does not have a bathtub, and just screams “hospital/unnatural”. Peter apologized saying he knew how much I wanted to be in the birthing center but tried to encourage me. I also knew that regardless of the environment, I would be able to have this baby, so with faith I wrapped my head around the situation and tried to proceed with courage.
But, five minutes later, our midwife came in and said, “Good news! We found a nurse who can assist us so we’ll be getting you into the birthing center after all. She’s filling the tub for you right now as we speak.” These words were music to my ears and I knew God had heard my prayers. I couldn’t wait to get in the tub.
As soon as we got into our room in the birthing center, I took off my clothes and plunged into the tub. The water was really hot and relaxed all my muscles. I don’t know if it was the sudden change in environment/temperature or just the point of labor in which I was, but I began shaking or somewhat convulsing in the water. But I didn’t care, because it just felt so good to finally be in the bath.
I labored in the tub basically until I started to reach transition. It was there that I started to really experience the self-doubt that we learned in our class would be the emotional signpost of transition. I started thinking, “Why did I decide to do this? Why am I putting all these people (there in the room) through this? How have so many women before me done this? How did my mom do this 3 times? How much longer will this go on for? What if I end up having to get a C-section and this was all for naught?” I then realized I was thinking way too much and reminded myself to take one contraction at a time. I didn’t know the answers to my questions but knew I could handle one more contraction, and that’s how I got through the most difficult part – by shutting out the thoughts of self-doubt and just dealing with each contraction as it came. That, and basically begging, “Heeeelp meeee” to God in each one.
Suddenly, I started to feel the urge to push. It really just feels like you have to take a giant #2. I got out of the water into the bed (for sanitary reasons, you’re not allowed to give birth in the tub at the birthing center) and our midwife checked my progress. She told me I had made a ton of progress, but wasn’t quite yet at the stage for pushing. That discouraged me a bit because I thought how much further I’d have to go to reach the end. But just as I began to think that, she told me, “but you don’t have to resist those feelings of pushing if they come to you. You can continue to do as your body tells you” (or something along those lines). I decided to forget the first part she said and focus on that second part, to do as my body told me.
Well, my body kept telling me to push at the end of each contraction, so I did. A few contractions later, I started to feel the baby’s head emerging, and the midwife agreed I should start actually pushing now. It’s funny that most people are afraid of the pushing when I realized that actually it’s the least painful part. The beginning of the contraction is so intense, it almost feels as if a giant wave is about to overtake your body, but at the end of it you get this urge to push, and when you do, it feels so relieving, and that giant, overwhelming wave disappears. It was quite amazing to feel the baby’s head crowning each time I pushed and then feel her go back in a bit during the rest between the contractions. They say pushing is two steps forward, one step back, and I really felt that. Also, because I was not medicated, I could really feel each time my body told me to push, and each time it told me to rest. I could also feel the exact limit of my skin stretching down there and so I would stop pushing when I reached that limit, and that would also be when the contraction ended and the baby’s head would go back in. (I thus ended up with no tears or stitches needed and my recovery was quite speedy!) You really don’t need a teacher for this, as your body tells you exactly what to do.
I think I really only pushed about 6 times when at the end of the next contraction, I didn’t feel the head go back in; it just stayed put. The midwife then told me that if I work with the next contraction, I can birth the head. Well, that really amped me up, so with the next contraction I gave a really hard push, and out the baby came! Not just her head, but her entire little self just came out in one big, gloriously slippery second.
I had pushed on my knees, laying the weight of my body against the wedge pillow and the headboard of the bed, so I didn’t see any of this as it happened; I only felt it. When the baby came out, I could hear her crying, and Peter and Elizabeth crying as well. Peter’s face was right next to mine on the right, and Elizabeth’s was on my left, and both were bawling and saying, “You did it!!” So naturally, I started crying as well, half because I was so happy Taylor was finally here of course, but the other half just out of relief that my work was done. Heh.
Our midwife then told me she was going to hand the baby to me between my legs (since I had my back to her) and for me to reach out and hold her. I felt her tiny little body in my hands and couldn’t believe it. This little girl was living inside me for 9 months and then one second later, she was in my arms, and I get to keep her forever. I am so happy and thankful, and the whole thing was worth doing for her.