Sunday, March 22, 2015

The unbearable cuteness of being

Do you see what I have to contend with around here? Do you?? You can't swing a cat in here without hitting someone who's cuddling with a baby. Or a bunny. Or both!!
Nutmeg thinks Sam is another bunny. He may be right.
Other times, Teddies get buried in bears. 
And there is a great deal of (wild and stagger-y) hugging.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Why Midwives Matter

Every once in awhile I notice that someone has downloaded the "Home Birth Reasons" document I wrote up way back before Daisy was born, to set forth some of the thinking behind our decision to have her born at home. I keep thinking I ought to update that document, as it was all still hypothetical then, and the subsequent four births at home have given me new insights into why some of us make that choice. And, I guess I'm a little bolder about discussing it now than I once was. But I didn't get around to writing anything until I got asked to speak at the graduation gala for the Midwives College of Utah on the topic of "Why Midwives Matter." It was really enjoyable to have a reason to think these things over again; to ponder what it is that I am so drawn to about birth and midwifery; and to attempt to set forth my thoughts in a comprehensible form. I'm posting the text and slides from my talk below.

I hasten to state, as I often have before, that I hope no one will mistake my enthusiasm for proselytizing—or, worse, for disdain toward those whose circumstances and wishes surrounding birth are different from mine. I feel strongly that in an ideal world, mothers would have some choice about how they give birth, but those choices can and should vary just as personalities and situations vary. This is an explication of personal experience, and perhaps a plea for mutual understanding; no more.


Why midwives matter

The anticipation of birth is often used as a symbol that shows the triumph of life over despair and entropy. Gerard Manley Hopkins used it this way in a poem1 that first laments the modern world's lack of connection with nature and the spiritual, but then reminds us that amid darkness and alienation there is always hope for spiritual renewal. Hopkins uses the image of a mother bird, waiting, watching, and protecting potential life, to convey this hope. He writes:

"Generations have trod, have trod, have trod; 
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil; 
And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil 
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.
Yet for all this, nature is never spent; 
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things; 
And though the last lights off the black West went 
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs— 
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent 
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings."

To me, midwives embody this brightness and this watchful hope. The midwife's work is to stay steady through uncertainty and darkness, leading the way through it to light and rebirth. There are many ways that midwives matter to women, to society, and to the world at large, but though I've read and become convinced of many of those matters of public policy, I'm not an expert, and there are other, better, sources for that. So instead, I want to talk more personally about how midwives have brought life and light to me.

When I was 37 weeks into my first pregnancy, I became suddenly uncertain about the obstetricians I'd been seeing. This OB/GYN clinic was busy, efficient, and impersonal, and I was afraid they might not respect my wishes for an unmedicated birth. So I called around and found a group of CNMs that would accept me. Though I didn't ever get to know my midwife well, she was supportive during my labor, and I was grateful to have made the switch. There were aspects of this birth I found less than ideal: the sudden increase in difficulty after having my water artificially broken, the way I had to lie on my back to push, the hurried cutting of the cord and my excessive bleeding that made me pass out in the bathroom. But though I didn't know which of those things I could have avoided, my midwife was a comforting presence in the hospital. And of course, at the end of it all I had perfect little baby Abraham.

A few years later, after taking a hypnobirthing class from a different midwife, my husband Sam and I both felt better-prepared for our second birth experience, and I was more ready to be assertive in stating my preferences. Again, though, when it came time to push, I was put into a lying-down position that made things very difficult.
This baby, Sebastian, was posterior and his hand was up by his face as he came out, and the cord was looped around his neck a couple times. The attending nurses, perhaps unaware of how alarming they sounded, were yelling out scary-sounding medical terms like, "We've got a nucal hand!" and "The heart rate is dropping!" and telling me to push harder, or stop pushing.  Sam and my midwife spoke calmly in my ears, trying to counteract the panicky feeling from the nurses; telling me it was okay, I could push when I was ready, I was doing a fine job. That feeling of being trusted, at least by someone, and the preparation I'd had through hypnobirthing, mattered to me greatly during that birth.

My third child, Malachi, was born six minutes after we reached the hospital. I changed into a hospital gown, knelt backwards on the bed, and pushed him out as the hall nurses came running in, frantic and shouting commands. Then they took him away and banged him on the side with a little hammer while I said over and over, "Is it a boy? Did someone say it's a boy?"

That was the first birth where I thought, "Hey, I did that myself." I was so surprised that I had known what to do without anyone telling me—and that the pushing had been so much easier when I could position myself the way I wanted! I felt like one of those African women you hear about who squats down and gives birth in the fields and then picks her baby up and keeps on working. Later, when we got the hospital bills—thousands and thousands of dollars for no one attending the birth, no medication, and one night in the hospital room during which I tried to sleep while the nurses woke me up to check my vital signs every hour —Sam and I began to wonder if there was a better way. I began to research home birth. For Malachi's birth, I suppose midwives mattered to me mostly because of their absence. It was the speed and cost of this unassisted hospital birth that made it even occur to us to look for other options.2

Sam and I researched the idea of home birth the way we made most decisions: with a strong emphasis on rationality and fact-finding. I read everything I could find on the subject, positive or negative. If a study was referenced, I read through the study itself to see if the methodology was sound and convincing. I told Sam what I learned, and we made spreadsheets of pros and cons, ranking different considerations for their relative importance to us.

As I studied, though my appreciation for the advances in modern medicine remained unchanged, I became less likely to believe someone's assertions simply by virtue of their M.D. or their insistence that "safety comes first." I realized that differing viewpoints about what was "safe," or how many trade-offs to make in pursuit of safety,3 existed even among doctors, and that no one else was actually as good at determining our family's needs and priorities as we were ourselves! It wasn't that I had lost respect for the medical/technological model of care, but more that I was no longer willing to endow it with a godlike omniscience that really, it had never deserved.  

I learned that the midwifery model of care, with its emphasis on families, maternal choice, and wellness—and for all its reputation of new-age hippie spiritualism—was very evidence-based and, in fact, had a strong rational component to go along with its touchy-feely reputation. I knew it wouldn't be the right choice for all women, but it certainly wasn't an irresponsible choice. Thus, through these discoveries, I found myself changed in many ways going into the next pregnancy—a little less worried about what people might think, and more willing to consider things out of the mainstream.

When I was expecting our fourth baby, I interviewed a few different midwives before meeting Cathy Larson. I knew immediately that she was the right choice for us. I respected her experience and her intellect, but we also connected on a spiritual level, and I felt from our first meeting that she would be interested in not just me as a client, but me as a person. This impression was soon tested after I went for an ultrasound and was told I had placenta previa. Cathy told me optimistically that the placenta will sometimes shift position, but the ultrasound technician said that with the placenta this low, he hadn't yet seen a case where it moved enough.

Without saying anything to anyone else, Sam and I prayed about what to do next, and both of us felt that everything would be okay. When I told Cathy of our desire to go ahead with plans for the home birth, she showed total trust in our feelings. She informed me of the various possibilities and outcomes and expressed confidence that as this baby's mother, I would know the right way to proceed. In fact, she seemed a lot more sure of that than I was myself!  

During that pregnancy I felt supported and listened to as never before. Cathy talked to Sebby's monkey at prenatal visits, she put her hands on my belly and said hello to the baby before finding the heartbeat, she lit candles and I lay on a bed instead of an exam table. I marveled at how calm and peaceful I felt, in spite of the uncertainty about the placenta previa.

When we went in a few weeks before birth for one more ultrasound, what surprised me was not that the placenta had moved, but how inevitable that outcome felt. It still felt miraculous, and we were full of gratitude, but in the past I hadn't been used to trusting my own intuition, and it felt good to have it confirmed in such a tangible way.

My fourth birth was like a gift from start to finish: a peaceful day of quiet labor, a bike ride, trailing my fingers in the water as Sam rowed us around the lake in a canoe, fields of sunflowers, a rising flock of blackbirds into an orange sky. Cathy and Briana were there when the moon came up, staying just involved enough, as Sam and I labored in our own lamplit bedroom, and through that quiet night. 

As the sky grew pink over the mountains, Sam and I breathing in that sunrise together, our little girl, Daisy, slipped out into the peaceful world. She stared up at me with her bright clear eyes, a kind of knowing, steady gaze I'd never seen from our other babies, who were always squinting and bleary from the eye ointment the hospital required as a matter of course. The house was suddenly a holy place, and I realized something: I'd come to home birth for all the logical, practical reasons, ready to defy the stereotypes and proclaim the utter rationality of this choice—but in the end, it was the spirituality, the intangibles, that made the most difference of all. 

It was not that my other births had lacked holiness. Quite the contrary. As Ida Darragh said, 4

"At the moment of birth, there is [always] a rare and brief glimpse of the connection between this world and another, of before and after, of mortal and immortal, of spiritual and physical, of known and unknown.”
But here in my own home, where I was truly myself and truly free, my eyes were opened to the sacredness in a way that the distractions of the hospital had prevented. I felt that, rather than simply glimpsing the intersection of heaven and earth, we had invited and welcomed it, and were allowed to stay and drink it in for a time. Of all the miracles of Daisy's birth, that feeling was perhaps the most miraculous thing of all.

Even if that had been my last or only birth, I would have felt forever changed by it. But I want to address the idea I've sometimes heard, that we risk overemphasizing the birth experience when we discuss how transformative it can be. This may be an important day, this argument goes, but it is just one day, a day that will fade with time, and that the baby remembers nothing of. Surely the days and years to follow are much more important, so why elevate the birth to such a position? Of course, there is truth in this: all births are unique, women have different goals and seek different things from birth, and even a negative birth experience doesn't mean the baby or the mother is less transformed. My hospital births were as important to me, in their own ways, as was this first home birth, where I sought a more active role and a more involved midwife. But because I have now seen both, I strongly believe that there is value in seeking out more meaning through birth, and in making empowered choices rather than accepting passively the default options. 

When I have run marathons, I realize that race day is not everything, and that the way I race doesn't negate my training before or afterwards—but knowing the physical commitment and the mental fortitude required, few people would say, "Why are you making such a big deal of this? It's just one day in your life." They would realize that the race is important to me for reasons larger than the finite and physical. And indeed, the marathons I have run have left me changed in ways that went beyond just "getting into shape." Birth, because of its position between two worlds, is inherently significant—and so I think a deliberate, intentionally chosen birth has even more of a chance to inform, and transform, a family, far beyond the hours where labor is literally talking place.

To illustrate, I will tell you briefly of my three births that followed that first home birth. 
Before my fifth birth, I labored with contractions that neither stopped (so I could rest) nor intensified (so I could progress), for nearly five days. I was alternately exhausted, terrified, discouraged, and confused, unsure why this was happening or what it meant. While I felt like I was wandering, only half-real, through a world of mist and shadows, Sam and Cathy kept me anchored. They were full of strength and optimism, full of trust in me and my body, infusing me with a calm I no longer felt for myself. There were no ultimatums or lectures, but simply the peaceful path of confidence they made for me, a safe trail that I could follow as I made my way through the uncertainty and self-doubt. 

And once I had reached the end of that path, I became aware of how much beauty there had been in those days of preparatory labor. Because I had been allowed to experience an entire spectrum, rather than rushed through it or pushed to choose a quicker path, I felt grateful and transformed by where I had been. And the bond I felt with baby Juniper, who made that long journey with me, was deep and strong from the very start. I felt, as one author put it, the "sense of autonomy [which] culminates after birth in an embodied sense of power."5

As when Cathy had trusted my intuition in the last birth, she trusted my body during this birth, and her confidence built and bolstered my own. That "embodied sense of power" has carried through to my mothering and my decision-making in all aspects of life. That is what the care of a midwife meant to me.

My sixth pregnancy went to 41 weeks, and though I was trying to be open to the baby's timing and not attach too much significance to the due date, I still felt discouraged. It was Cathy's calm and matter-of-fact suggestion that I could choose to view this extra time as a gift that helped me change my viewpoint. I found gratitude and peace during that long week, and when the birth process began, I knew the timing was exactly right. The labor progressed quickly, and before Cathy arrived, I remember Sam's hands on my back, and him saying with total calm, "You're getting really close." Cathy walked in just in time to catch baby Marigold bare-handed as I knelt in the empty birthing pool. Sam's confidence and my increased patience—these were gifts from a midwife that mattered, long after the birth itself was over.

Three weeks ago, I started the journey through labor again. And in spite of the things I've learned and the ways I've grown in confidence since my first birth, I've found that babies always have the capacity to surprise you, and birth never becomes routine. And so after a pregnancy where the baby remained somewhat mysterious to me, and a labor that seemed to break all the conventions I'd come to expect, my midwives gave me another gift of love and trust, encouraging me follow my body's instincts and reassuring me of their confidence, in spite of the non-textbook way the labor seemed to be progressing. 

There came a moment in the midst of the labor, as there always does, when the task ahead seemed too daunting, and the words came to my head, "I can't do it. It's too difficult, I can't go on." But even as I formed this thought I knew it was the wrong thing to say, so I cried out instead, "Please, help me!" And almost before I had the words out, I felt an almost tangible wave of love and strength from the circle of people around me—Sam, my midwives, my children. There was a whole roomful of voices—coming, it seemed, from many more people than were actually present—calling out, "You're doing it. You're strong. We're with you. We love you." And as I pushed through that small eternity, in and out of time at once, I felt their love flowing through me, giving me the literal strength to continue.

When at last I sat holding sweet baby Theodore, my midwives told me about how he had come: breech, with his feet falling out and then his body, his little arms and at last his head. We talked over all the little mysteries that were suddenly clear to us, and Sam told me how funny it had looked to see him dangling out feet first like that, and my girls giggled, "Baby Teddy! Why were you backwards?" I had a strong conviction that all was well, everything was as it should be. And I realized, again, how grateful I was to be cared for by these strong midwives, who believed in my instincts and theirs, who trusted me so much more deeply than a liability or a medical release form could capture, who brought to an unexpected situation their gifts of calm and love instead of knee-jerk reactions and panic. Women who were prepared for complication, and thus not ruled by it, and who had not just knowledge, but also wisdom and patience.

The Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz wrote a poem which affirms the possibility of the miraculous, even in our modern and disbelieving world. It's called "On Angels."6 He writes:

All was taken away from you: white dresses,
wings, even existence.
Yet I believe you,

There, where the world is turned inside out,
a heavy fabric embroidered with stars and beasts,
you stroll, inspecting the trustworthy seams.

Short is your stay here:
now and then at a matinal hour, if the sky is clear,
in a melody repeated by a bird,
or in the smell of apples at close of day
when the light makes the orchards magic.

I have heard [your] voice many a time when asleep
and, what is strange, I understood more or less
an order or an appeal in an unearthly tongue:

day draws near
another one
do what you can."

In my association with midwives, and at that sacred intersection of earth and heaven, I have come as close to angels as perhaps I ever will in this life. I have seen how the work of a midwife, in both the small and the large things, is indeed the work of helping "day draw near"—of "doing what we can." Ultimately, it is the work of delivering life and light to a dark world. I hope that there will always be midwives, watching over that crossroads with "warm breast, and with ah! Bright wings.

1 "God's Grandeur," Gerard Manley Hopkins, 1918.
2 I always feel like someone is going to think it's crass to mention money when talking about the advantages of midwives—like you're putting a price on the mother's and baby's lives. But as I studied, I found that it wasn't so simple (see this, for example). First of all, there wasn't really a correlation between spending more and saving lives. In fact, for most pregnancies, having fewer of the expensive interventions during childbirth actually seemed to lead to better outcomes. And as economist Thomas Sowell points out, "[We often hear] the pious statement that "if it saves just one life, it is worth whatever it costs. People say things like that when they want to puff themselves up as caring or when they want to win votes from those who don't bother to think through what they are saying. In real life, nobody acts on that principle. People don't give up boating, skiing, or rock climbing, even though they know that many people lose their lives in these recreational activities every year. You probably wouldn't buy a newspaper that was fireproof, because it would cost too much, even though [any non fire-proof] paper…could catch fire and end up burning down your home with you in it." In a reality with limited resources, it would be irresponsible NOT to consider the different ways of best allocating those resources, and childbirth is no different. Spending lots of money for a technology-heavy birth does not eliminate risk, but simply shifts which types of risks you are willing to face. Conversely, choosing a home birth may mean families give up certain types of benefits in exchange for other benefits they consider more important.
3 For another good discussion of this principle, see this post:
4 "What Matters to Women, Matters to Midwives:13 Essentials." From Into These Hands, Wisdom from Midwives, published by Spirituality and Health Books. 2011.
5 Mainstreaming Midwives: the politics of Change. Edited by Robbie Davis-Floyd and Christine Barbara Johnson. 2006.
6 "On Angels," Czeslaw Milosz.

Saturday, March 7, 2015

Belgian Sugar Waffles

When I was in high school, I got to go on a trip with my family to Belgium (after my brother's church mission there). Before we left, our neighbor Sister Hickman gave us $20 and told us to buy ourselves some gaufre. Gaufre are the famous Belgian waffles, which you buy hot and fresh from carts on the street all over Belgium. The first time we tasted them (right outside of the airport, I think), we were amazed. They were utterly unlike any waffles we'd had before. They had these little bursts of crisp caramelized sugar throughout, and a soft, light inner texture. SO good. Every time we saw another waffle cart we'd stop and buy more of them, saying, "This time we will use the money from Sister Hickman!" We must have bought "Sister Hickman's waffles" five or six times over while we were there. 

After we got home I thought I'd probably never get to taste something as good as those gaufre again. But many years later, we tried the waffles at this place in Salt Lake, and they tasted almost as good as the ones in my memory! I started thinking of finding a recipe to imitate them, but I read that you needed some special ingredients, and since we didn't have a Belgian waffle maker anyway, I never got serious about it.

Then for Christmas last year I got this double waffle maker (I love it! It keeps up with the mouths and mouths we have to feed around here!) and I knew it was time to pursue the Belgian Waffle dream.

It's true, you do have to order one special ingredient: this Belgian Pearl Sugar (not to be confused with the Swedish Pearl Sugar you use for these lussekatter—the Belgian version is in bigger pearls). Sometimes it goes on sale and then you should order lots of it. BUT—there is also an alternative. This blog suggested using sugar cubes rather than the pearl sugar. You just smash the sugar cubes up into large chunks and stir them into the batter. We tried this, and it tastes great, although I should warn you that the sugar cube chunks seem to melt a little more quickly than the pearl sugar, and so will make a bit more of a mess in your waffle iron. Nothing too terrible, though.

I'll get right to the point: there are lots of recipes online, some more time-consuming and pretentious than others, and all claiming to be the truly authentic, the superior, the time-tested. I suppose tastes vary, and perhaps the overnight rise or the special waffle iron really is essential for some people. But we have been happiest with the very simple recipe on the back of the box of pearl sugar. I think these waffles get closest to my memory of the waffles I loved so much in Belgium (and remember, in my memory they were a shining and golden and heavenly thing, so finding a recipe that lives up to the memory is a pretty impressive feat). And Sam chose these for his birthday dinner this year, so that tells you how much HE likes them. :)
These are yeasted waffles, so they need rising time, but it's a gentle rise, so it doesn't elevate quite like a loaf of white bread. The batter will be thick and not very sticky (because of the butter in it), and after you wait 45 minutes to an hour, it will be nice and puffy. At that point, you stir in the pearl sugar (which deflates the batter a bit; don't be alarmed) and then you make little billiard-ball-sized patties and put those into the waffle iron. As they cook, the sugar melts and then gets shiny and caramelized, making those little bursts of sweetness I remember so well from when I first had them (the batter itself is not otherwise sweetened). They are delicious warm, but they keep their crispness and are good all day, cold or reheated in the microwave for a few seconds. We've even put leftover batter into the fridge overnight and baked it, brought to room temperature, the next morning.
In Belgium we didn't eat these with any toppings at all, though I'm sure we could have. They are so delicious plain! But with fruit and a bit of cream they are superb.
Here's the recipe (which is also on the back of the box of Pearl Sugar, if you get the Lars brand) with a few slight modifications. We scaled it up for our family, but even if you're cooking for fewer, you won't be sorry to have more. :) We make the pearl sugar go a little further by using 1 bag per 1 1/2 batches, rather than 1 bag per batch as suggested.

Belgian Sugar Waffles
Makes about 12-14 (smallish, but filling) waffles

12 oz. softened butter (3 sticks)
3/4 plus 3/8 cup lukewarm milk
1 T. instant yeast
3 eggs
3/4 tsp. salt
1 1/2 tsp vanilla (optional)
5 1/4 cups flour
1 bag (about 8 oz.) Belgian Pearl Sugar

Put the butter and the milk in a plastic bowl and microwave on half-power for 2 or 3 minutes, until butter is softened and milk is lukewarm. Add yeast to milk. Add eggs, salt, vanilla, and flour, and mix until smooth and combined. Dough should start to pull away from sides of bowl and form a ball. Let dough rise until it is puffy and almost double in size. Add Belgian pearl sugar. Divide dough into small patties and bake in heated and greased waffle iron.
One last note: It's hard to beat these waffles with strawberries on them, but my latest favorite topping is lemon curd and a bit (must one use the word dollop?) of whipped cream. To me, the sweet waffles with the slightly tart lemon curd and barely-sweetened cream are perfect.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

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.