Theodore (A Backwards Birth Story)

If this were a fairy tale, there would be something special about the seventh child; some great destiny he was marked for; some lucky or portentous star that danced in the sky at his birth. Of course we Nielsons are far too rational to believe in such things! But I will let you judge for yourself. :)

I've never felt like one of those intuitive souls who knows her baby before it's born—I don't even know beforehand if they're boys or girls, for goodness sake! And I quite like it, the surprise and excitement of it all, speculating and wondering which little glimpses of personality will turn out to mean something, and which ones won't. But, from the very beginning, this seventh baby seemed extra mysterious, even by my usual standards. He or she was a riddle, wrapped in an enigma, inside a mystery—or whatever it was Churchill said about Russia. I felt a bit guilty about the lack of time I'd spent really thinking about the baby or trying to communicate with him or her. After having felt the baby's flutters and kicks earlier and earlier each time with my previous pregnancies, suddenly this time I found myself at 20 weeks and still not really sure I'd ever noticed the baby moving. To make matters worse, when my midwife Cathy came over to do a prenatal checkup, she couldn't find the baby's heartbeat, which had never happened before. Sam and I went into the ultrasound a week later with a sense of slight worry, telling ourselves everything would be fine, but not completely sure that was true. Everything was fine, as it turned out, but the baby remained unusually elusive. It often took several tries to get the heartbeat at checkups, and while I did end up feeling lots of movement as time went on, I never had any sense of what the baby was like. There just didn't seem to be anything to grasp onto—baby wasn't unusually active inside me like Malachi had been, or unusually calm like Daisy had been; he or she didn't jump at loud noises like Junie had, or get the hiccups every night like Sebastian used to.

And then I wondered if the baby was already showing a personality but maybe I was just too busy and preoccupied to notice? Or if the baby could TELL that I was too busy to spend hours daydreaming about him or her, and he or she was offended and put out about such neglect and therefore refusing to give me a glimpse of who he or she was?

But the days just kept tumbling forward and I kept saying to myself: after this week I will have time to think about the babyafter Christmas things will slow downonce Sam's work deadlines are past I will definitely sit and commune with this baby. And when the new year came, I did make an effort to find some time to read my favorite birth book and ponder some of the symbolism of birth and think about baby names. There were quiet moments here and there, and I felt a bit more tuned in to the baby's presence. But I still couldn't believe the time was getting so close and I was feeling so unprepared. I didn't know what to expect about the timing, having had babies come everywhere between two weeks "early" and a week "late," but I did plan to start our school break the week before the due date, to give us a few days to slow down and clean the house and get settled into "ready for baby" mode.


February came. We went on a field trip to the family history library, celebrated my birthday, enjoyed the beautiful weather—Spring weather! So unlike the snowstorm I was born during!—had picnics, did schoolwork…and so the week passed by.
From my friend's Instagram—she takes a picture of the temple every day
After a long night of discomfort and some contractions, Friday morning arrived, and the first backwards thing—or second, if you count the warm weather—was that I was driving my mom to the airport instead of home from it. She had just gotten back a couple days earlier from visiting my brother, a trip she had planned early enough that she'd be back in plenty of time before my due date. But when my uncle in Seattle passed away, the plans changed, and now she was headed off again to be with her sister and attend the funeral. "Don't have this baby while I'm gone," she said. "Hmm. I might," I said, thinking of the contractions which were still coming regularly at this point. We waved goodbye. There was such a beautiful sunrise, and since the boys were in the car with me, we drove around the big airport loop a couple times hoping to see some planes take off. I was trying to notice how far apart the contractions were as we drove home, but it was hard to do that and talk and drive at the same time. I thought about the list I'd made a few days before of "Things to do before baby comes." I hadn't really done any of them. That was the next backwards thing. All these years of always hoping my babies would come early, and now here I was thinking, "Argh, wait, already? I thought I had another week or two!" I'd had big plans of having everyone help me clean the house, and putting together a new dresser for the kids' clothes, and various other tasks that had been waiting around for awhile. I felt sad that my room wasn't even very clean. I had told Sam all I wanted before the baby came was "empty surfaces everywhere," but he'd been way too busy with a sudden rush of freelance work.

When we got home from the airport, I decided we'd dispense with school for the day, and I started sweeping all the little odds and ends off of dressers and counters, and tidying away clutter. Sam, who was working from home that day, asked if I was cleaning in preparation for…a baby? Or just cleaning? I said, "I think it might be a baby. But we probably have awhile." I assumed the contractions would slow down at some point and then maybe pick back up again at night, as that had been the pattern for the other six kids. (My other babies were born around midnight, 1 a.m., 11 p.m., 4 a.m., 4 a.m., and 3 a.m.)

Once our bedroom was clean and empty, I felt much better. I sat on my exercise ball and breathed and read. I tried to stop thinking about how none of this was according to type, and instead just go with it; I felt surprisingly calm. Although I didn't mind the kids being around, I did need to concentrate, so Sam tried to keep everyone quiet and out of my way. At one point I went downstairs and asked everyone please, please to be quiet and not fight with each other, because we needed the house to be calm and full of love to make a safe place for the new baby to come. I'd like to say that that little speech inspired them and they responded perfectly, but they didn't; I still heard them arguing and complaining from time to time. But they were pretty good, and the rest didn't really reach me. I felt like I was wrapped up in my own little world and everything outside was muted and far away. I only spoke in whispers and so they only spoke in whispers too, when they came into my room. Junie kept coming in and whispering "The baby didn't come yet!" and going out again. Daisy and Junie were SO excited. They could hardly wait, and I kept telling them it might be a long time yet; it might not be till tonight, or even tomorrow. But they kept giggling quietly and shivering with excitement every time they came in the room.
I walked and swayed back and forth, and took a shower, and rolled around on the ball with my head on the bed. I could feel some sort of bubble sloshing inside me, like when you are burping a baby and you can hear the tiny air bubble inside. It made a tiny little *blip* each time I rocked back and forth, and it made me want to giggle. Abe, pleased to be given an important job, inflated the birthing pool for me. There was a feeling of anticipation in the air which even Goldie could sense. She kept coming in and whispering incomprehensible words at me, and grinning. I took some pictures of her in these last hours of her being my baby.
At some point I asked Sam for a blessing, and he accidentally started to give me a NAME and a blessing, which was definitely backwards! After we stopped laughing, he resumed, and I felt great peace and comfort knowing that all was in Heavenly Father's hands. In my head throughout the hours, I kept repeating the verse from Isaiah 40 that says, "He shall feed His flock like a shepherd: He shall gather the lambs with his arm, and carry them in His bosom, and shall gently lead those that are with young."
It was strange, strange to be laboring in the daylight hours, with Sam working downstairs and the children playing outside and coming in and out. It felt surreal. I kept thinking things would surely slow down and not pick up again until it got dark, but eventually the surges were getting strong enough that I thought I should call Cathy, who had a bit of a drive to get here. Sam filled up the pool for me and I happily got into the warm water. As the surges came I bent over the side of the pool and breathed deep. Another midwife, Cathy's daughter Christine, arrived and started helping with counter-pressure on my back. Then she left the room for awhile and I was alone. When I bent over the pool again, I suddenly felt a tiny, cool hand on my back. It was little Junie, quietly pressing against my back as she had seen Christine doing. No one had told her to do it and it almost made me start crying to think that she had thought of that all on her own. After a few more surges, still without a word spoken, Daisy came and took over putting her hand on my back. They took turns like that for nearly the next hour, solemn and quiet as little mice, pleased and proud to be part of this hushed, warm, cocooning space. "I love you," I whispered between surges. "The baby will be so happy to see you. Maybe by tonight we will know who it is!"

When Cathy arrived she checked on the baby's heartbeat. It took a surprisingly long time to find it, but we weren't really worried, since that had been the pattern for this whole pregnancy. My bag of waters was low and bulging, so there was no way to feel the head. Cathy felt like we should let things go as slow as they needed to, so she didn't break them, but had me walk around and squat occasionally, trying open up my hips. Sam was close by, but as he wasn't seeing/hearing the usual cues from me that meant labor was progressing quickly, he was trying to get some work done for an approaching deadline. "Call me when you need me," he said, and I said I would. I felt so quiet, inside and out. It was like every breath increased the airspace around me, and I wondered why everything seemed so muffled. I felt the definite urge to push, but it felt so far-off and different from the desperate imperative that usually comes with that feeling, it confused me. I asked Cathy about it and she said to just do what felt best, so I pushed with each surge, but gently, and with no real urgency. It was so strange. And so quiet. Usually I hum or moan, low in my throat, but this was all space and breathing and white sky through the windows, light inside my head and on the backs of my hands, and small cold fingers on my back holding me in, spreading the pressure out and down until it, too, floated up into the white sky.

I don't know how long we stayed like that. We were a circle of women, like something out of an ancient story. The midwives, Cathy, Christine, Sara, gathered around the pool, and my Daisy and Junie, close together, and all so calm and still, every now and then leaning over me to rub my back or touch my hair. I looked at the backs of my hands, noticing how calm and still they lay on the carpet as I rested my head on the side of pool. I felt like I had always been pushing and resting like this, pushing and resting, and perhaps I always would be.

At some point I must have asked for Sam, because he was there when I felt a sudden exhaustion. I tried to let the fear go, held his warm hand with my cold fingers, squeezed and breathed and pushed, and after another eternity I felt the bubble inside me suddenly release, and instantly that cushion of silence released too, and I was humming and moaning and letting the surges wash over me like constant waves. The energy in the air was changing too, as everyone else felt the shift come. There was still quiet, but it was slightly charged and electric now, and I felt that large, soft stillness compress down into a little core of determination inside of me, where it stayed in spite of the quiet bustling of people moving into new places; Sam calling the other children; things being unfolded and laid out and unwrapped.

The surges got stronger and my humming got louder, until it was truly yelling, and I kept forcing myself to breathe through it and make it lower, pulling the sounds back down every time the fear broke through and I started to get shrill; yelling and yelling like you'd be embarrassed to do, unless you knew better, knew how beautiful and calming and relieving those yells are, when the time is right.

The pushing and the low yelling went on and on. I can't remember much of it, except flashes of light as I closed and opened my eyes, and the burning in my throat as I yelled, and the pure, searing agony when Cathy had me lie back so she could check the baby's heartbeat. I barely made it through a surge before leaning up again gasping, feeling like I would die right there unless I was back on my knees. I wanted to be lower and lower in the water, pushing my legs so far apart I was practically doing the splits, which I can't do, but it was the only position that brought—not relief, but manageability. Everything felt so different from what I remembered from other births. I was expecting that desperate, burning, give-everything push, ending in release and relief, but somehow I kept feeling the first part but not the second. The feeling of, "This is it, this is all I have, this is the end." And then I'd feel things moving and shifting, but no relief. And I'd push again, thinking, "This is it, this time it's really all I have—" and more shifting, more movement, more urgency. Several times I thought I must have pushed out the head by now, but the surges just kept coming, and I kept pushing. At one point I almost gasped out, "I can't do it!"—but I knew as the words caught in my throat that it was the wrong thing to say, so I called out for help instead: "Please help me." And immediately, like a burst of fireworks in the air, I heard voices from all sides, full of warmth and hope. You can do it. You're doing this. You're so strong, Marilyn. Almost there. It was like there were more people there than I could see, surrounding me, filling the room. So many voices, so much hope. It settled around me and I breathed it in and thought how much I loved this baby and pushed again, and I pushed and yelled so long I thought I would never breathe again, and then finally the release came, and everyone was laughing and crying and I felt a warm, wet body being guided into my hands, and I pulled it up between my legs and into my arms, and collapsed back to sit against the side of the pool, clutching that warm baby like it was the most precious thing in the world. And it was. Our new little baby boy.
As I sat there repeating, "We did it, little one! We did it!" against his tiny, slippery head, and feeling that tidal wave of love and joy and relief, Cathy told me the thing that suddenly explained everything. "He came out backwards—feet first!" she said. "He did?" I couldn't believe it. The other midwives were smiling and shaking their heads and saying, "Of course!" and "So that's why—" and I was dong the same thing, slowly thinking back through the labor and saying to myself, "Of course, of course!" It all made sense now, and I couldn't stop asking about it. "I wish I could have seen it!" I said. "It was so funny!" said Sam. Then hastily—"of course, it wouldn't have been funny if I'd been worried about you—but no one else seemed at all worried, and you were doing so well, and there were just these little feet dangling out of you, and then a body with no head, and it was one of the funniest things I've ever seen!"
That opened the floodgates and everyone was talking at once then, the little girls laughing and saying, "He came out backwards!" and the boys asking how big he was and the midwives retelling it all now that it was all over, and Sam's arm around me as I kept stroking the baby's head and whispering to him, in my raw, almost-useless voice: "What were you doing, sweet boy? Don't you know that's the wrong way; totally wrong?"
For a few days, I was like a little kid who wants the same bedtime story every night. I wanted to hear it again and again, every detail, from Sam and Cathy. We thought he was a "footling" at first, but later Cathy said it's called a complete breech, the way he came: first his little bottom started coming out, and then as I pushed his feet fell out instead, and next came his body, and then Cathy helped his one little arm come, and then the other emerged, and last of all his little head. It makes me laugh and laugh to imagine him standing there inside me like a little soldier or something. I can imagine (with no evidence whatever, but just that it catches my fancy) my dad, up in heaven, calling out some final instructions as baby Theodore began to make his way to earth: "And wait, one more thing! Whatever you do, you must remember to turn head down! Do you hear me? Head down! Don't forget! Okay? Okay?!"… as Theodore hastened his merry way here, too excited to listen to a word of it. Or maybe, as someone I was talking to surmised: "When you're the seventh child, you have to find some way to stand out!" There's certainly no danger of me forgetting this labor: the daylight; the long, silent, gentle pushing (as he maneuvered his funny way down the birth canal, little rascal); the difficult but radiant finish, ending with me lifting him triumphantly out of the water like I just caught a prize fish.
The hours after a baby's birth are always so dreamy and wonderful. There's the relief and the excitement; the feeling of total, bone-draining exhaustion; and of course the joy of being hungry again, and Sam getting me all kinds of delicious things, and everything tasting so good! (There's nervousness and crankiness and overwhelmed-ness too, of course, but that usually stays in the background for me until the first couple days have passed.) I think it has taken me a while to work through the emotion of it all, and I still keep returning to it and reliving it in my memory.
It wasn't the birth I was expecting, for sure. It was all backwards; a day full of surprises. But as I look back on it all, I'm just so grateful, so happy. So glad I had that strong, secure circle of midwives around me, including my brave and gentle little girls. So grateful for Sam's warm hands and calming voice, steadily giving me strength and laughing for joy to see his funny, backwards baby jumping eagerly into the world. So glad for my helpful, grown-up boys: Malachi carefully and soberly cutting the umbilical cord, and Sebby gently settling towels over us to keep the baby warm, and Abe kissing his baby brother on the head and then running downstairs to make a smoothie for me as I sat, exhausted and happy, in the birthing pool. Grateful for little Goldie, running in and out of the room full of awe and excitement—knowing without having to be told that something holy had just happened and she must whisper—whispering "Baby, baby, baby!" over and over, and patting her little hands on my shoulders and baby Theo's head.

And I can't help feeling that through all the unexpectedness, everything somehow happened exactly as it should.

5 comments

  1. Here, in the very middle of the night, dragging myself out of the genealogical research that has consumed the last two years of my life so that I can go to bed, bed, bed - I grabbed the link, instead of shutting down and read this story. My bedtime story - about one of my favorite families in all the world, all the very history of the world. How I love you all.

    I have never in my life heard before of a complete breach. Never heard of feet coming first, but it's the way little horses come - their front hooves coming out first that way. So maybe Theodore is actually a sort of pony. Certainly, if he belongs to the eight of you, he will be something dear and special and surprising. And I rejoice that it all happened as it did - and it reminded me of those four times I did this thing, which always makes me cry a little.

    There are few mother-girls in this world that I feel this way about: that a child coming into these arms is a child blessed among all children. I hope I live a while longer yet - for the business I have not yet finished, but also, I want to see what happens to these children - these magical, normal, wonderful children as they grow.

    Much love to you all.

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  2. You absolutely could not have written this more perfectly or beautifully. Truly. What a gift this will be to Theodore. And,you'd mentioned it on the phone, but I was struck again by that feeling that you shouldn't say you couldn't do it but that you should ask for help -- and then that feeling of the room full. It's really powerful. Almost as if they were all standing anxiously on the outskirts -- not wanting to intrude or overstep their bounds, but then, your plea somehow freeing them all up -- opening the floodgates -- so they could rush to your aid.

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  3. What a story my friend!!!!!! I was transfixed. Lovely writing, crazy happenings.
    Have you seen this painting by Brian Kershisnik?
    http://kershisnikprints.com/images/galleryImages/qrj0g123.jpg
    It's totally what you made me think of.

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  4. And congratulations. What a sweet adorable little guy. He's so lucky to get to come and be your #7.

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  5. I was thinking you could use him as an ornament this year. He'd be at least as popular as your knitted guys and Sam's ball.

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