Settle in with a good cuppa, I'm starting at the beginning...
This birth story begins long before I actually gave birth to my sweet baby, Wren. This story is not separate from the experiences that led me to birth-keeping, autonomous pregnancy, wimyn’s circles, sacred sisterhood, and the goddess herself. This story is a culmination of all that was, all that is, and all that had to be.
Eight years ago I enrolled in a doula training: a twelve week course offered by a volunteer doula program. This was my first introduction to birth beyond a few stories from my mother and some other female relatives, basic sex-ed in Catholic school (ha!), representations in movies and books, and a general sense from being a womyn myself. From this training I went on to volunteer and then work as a doula. All of these wimyn had doctors or licensed midwives. Some had “natural” births, some had pharmaceutical interventions, some had supportive partners and families, some were more or less on their own. I didn’t turn anyone away. I had no prerequisites to work with someone and I always worked with people’s individual budgets (if I was being paid at all). I witnessed C-sections, epidurals, nitrous oxide gas, shots of Demerol, continuous fetal monitoring, threats of timelines, medical professionals moving in and out of rooms, attempts at making sacred the hospital rooms we were assigned, sometimes apparent oblivion on the birthing woman’s part to the chaos around her, sometimes irritation from it. I witnessed joy, disappointment, fear, strength, immense love… Ultimately what I witnessed in those three years resulted in my quitting that gig. While most often these wimyn were seemingly pleased with their experiences of birth, I didn’t want to witness anymore babies being manipulated as they emerged into the world, anymore wimyn having their vaginas intruded upon by nonchalant hands, I didn’t want to witness anymore wimyn be convinced of the vulnerable doubts they expressed, I didn’t want to witness any more shift changes, fumbling students, jaded doctors, hoity nurses, or terrified partners. I was done.
Or so I thought and proclaimed.
*** Disclaimer: I did encounter some lovely individuals working within the medical system, but their hands were tied by protocol and hierarchy, and the vast majority of medical staff were downright irritated by any questioning of their role as an authority figure in the birth room. ***
I knew in my bones that something else existed.
I felt that wimyn could give birth peacefully, I suspected that there were midwives out there who completely trusted birth and babies and mothers, that there were souls being born at home surrounded by only their family and welcomed witnesses, but I didn’t know where to find it. This world didn't revealed itself to me until I was connected to a womyn now near and dear to me, a mother pregnant again, who had already given birth in peace, at home, with traditional midwives by her side, in a foreign land, and who would do so again here in my city, with help or without. And she was requesting my help now. I was called. And we all know when we’re really being called. So, I said yes. From this experience I was invited into what I had dreamed existed: a world where wimyn have help and are trusted, where wimyn are listened to and are not attached to any machines, where herbs and food are medicine, where relationship dynamics are taken into consideration, and ceremony and community are integral in prenatal care. My world became whisking away in the night to backroads and city streets throughout the province, of cleaning up birth pools and preparing simple meals, burning umbilical cords, and making breakfast, buzzing, at the end of a night of work.
And then even more opened up.
Wimyn’s gatherings, large and small, deepening friendships with incredible wimyn, strong wimyn, brilliant wimyn with a few babies, with lots of babies, with businesses, with small farms, with enormous opinions. Late night talks, weekends together, losses, triumphs, transitions... growth, lots of growth happened, and lots of shit disturbing was discussed, sometimes acted on, but mostly just discussed.
And then finally, after learning from and alongside these wimyn for five years, I found myself with a wonderful, loving partner and pregnant. And from there it was simple. I know what the medical system is about. I know what regulated midwifery looks like. I know what “prenatal care” and birth and postpartums within that model look like. I am not interested in anything the “professionals” have to offer, so I never sought them out. I never considered an ultrasound to “prove” I was pregnant or to “confirm” my dates. I never wanted a doctor to check my blood pressure, or test my urine, or draw my blood. I felt healthy, I tracked my cycle, I hadn't bled, and my belly was changing, this was telling enough for me. I was pregnant, I’d become pregnant all on my own, and unless something unsettling arose, I knew I was fully capable of continuing to care for myself throughout my pregnancy, just as I care for myself every single day. I never considered trying to get in with the midwives (as if they’d have me) “just in case”. I certainly had no interest in involving anyone who I wasn’t already in a loving, trusting relationship with in my pregnancy and birth. I called on two of my closest friends to be by my side, wimyn who know me, know my life circumstances, know my history... not a stranger with “qualifications”.
All of this just made perfect intuitive sense to me.
It felt right.
I did make sure to take good care of myself. I swam, and practiced gentle yoga, and walked in the woods and on the beach. I ate a diet mostly consisting of whole foods, grown nearby (when I had an appetite), and lots of chocolate. I drank nourishing herbal infusions and bone broths as “prenatal vitamins”. I continued eating raw dairy and drinking coffee and enjoying the sweetnesses that I love. I tightened my circle; I hung out with people who fill me up, people who honoured my heightened state of sensitivity and understood when I had nothing in me to give because everything was already going into not vomiting on them (literally, not figuratively). I slept. A lot. I gathered with wimyn, and sang, and travelled, and also spent a lot of time alone. I had sex when I felt like it, and didn’t when it wasn’t appealing. I rubbed my belly all the time, and got massages, and took a million baths with heaps of epsom salts and lavender and rose oils. I meditated and talked to my baby, who was always my baby, never a fetus, and I wrote down my dreams. I had a beautiful mother blessing where friends filled my freezer with meals, and massaged me, and sang, and created beautiful art to decorate my birth room.
Now, I realize a lot of this is the luxury of pregnancy without having other children to care for, but I indulged hard, because (presumably) it would never happen again. Why not enjoy it? Why not honour that by taking the best care of myself that I could?
Not that every moment of pregnancy was a complete joy (hello first trimester nausea, swinging emotions, moving homes in subzero temperatures…), but overall I felt great, mentally, physically, and spiritually, right until the end of my pregnancy.
The day I went into labour was Saturday. I went to two farmers markets, and a craft show that happened to be on that weekend, and was told by numerous people, “Oh, you won’t give birth anytime soon, you’re going to be begging to have that baby, you’re too happy, walking all around town, too comfortable”. I shrugged and said, maybe she wouldn’t come for another month, maybe she’d come tomorrow.
I was 39 weeks and 5 days from conception.
I went home, ate a snack, made love with my husband, and afterwards felt like I had to have a bowel movement. I sat down on the toilet and felt my baby move way down in my pelvis, her whole body dropped, I think I said out loud, “whoa!” and grabbed the towel rack on the wall beside me. I didn’t have to poop, I got up, and immediately started having sensations. That first one made me pause, I carried on, five minutes later another, ouf, five minutes later again and I was on hands and knees on the living room floor while my husband packed the car to go surfing. He stopped and asked if he should still go. I said yes, because surely it would subside, it couldn’t come on this quick, right? First baby. Besides, I had dinner plans with the friends who were on-call to come to the birth and I didn’t want to cancel, and I didn’t want to dwell on early labour if that’s what it was. It was my plan to go on, live life until I absolutely couldn’t anymore. So, Sean went surfing and I was picked up by a friend and driven out to St. Margaret’s Bay to have dinner.
A third friend was in town, the womyn who had welcomed me into her birth-work circle in the early days of my work. Us four wimyn hob-nobbed, ate a delicious meal, and all the while I continued to have tightening sensations across my belly. They spaced out a bit, maybe they were every seven or eight minutes apart, I wasn’t timing them, but they were steady. I started washing the dishes after dinner, I stood at the sink, still trying to pay attention to the conversation, but being pulled by the increasing intensity of my body’s sensations. I was breathing deeper, and eventually I just stopped, dried my hands, and told everyone that they should get some sleep because I’d likely be calling them that night, I couldn’t stand there anymore, I needed to focus and wanted to be in my own home. I went pee before leaving, and realized my mucus plug had come out, just a small brownish blood spot on my underwear and on the toilet paper. In that moment a few tears fell from my eyes, it was really happening, and I was a mix of scared, excited, nervous.
My dear friend who had driven me out to dinner drove me home, about a thirty minute trip, and now I did watch the clock with each sensation, five minutes apart. It was harder to maintain conversation. Just breathe deeply, I thought, rub the belly, get home. As we were leaving the dinner party I had called Sean to make sure he was out of the ocean, he was almost home and going to skateboard over to a pub to grab a beer. Good thing I had called - I told him I had other plans for the night. When I arrived home it was 9:30pm and Sean was doing dishes, had laundry on the go, was tidying up the house, and making an electrolyte drink all simultaneously. I started tidying up the living room and almost immediately stopped and decided to get in the bath. The bath felt good. I totally relaxed. Everything slowed down, sensations spaced out to ten minutes apart. I love the bath, I was in my happy place. After forty minutes or so the sensations got closer together, seven minutes apart. Then six minutes apart. Then five minutes apart. I called for Sean to be by my side. He dropped all the tasks he was juggling and came and sat by the tub. By 11:30pm my sensations were fluctuating between three and four minutes apart. I had a few in a row that were two minutes apart and so strong that I was moaning loudly and feeling like I needed to change locations. I asked Sean to call the wimyn, whom I wanted present for the birth and for care afterwards, to ask them to make their way over. Even at this point I remember hoping that I wasn’t calling them too early (ha!). I got out of the tub and wanted to sit on the toilet before going to lay in bed. It was there, again, just as when I saw my mucus plug, that the emotions hit me. Sean was sitting on a stool in front of me and I broke down crying, I leaned on his shoulder, wetting his shirt with tears, and told him I was scared. I was. I didn’t know what would come, how much longer it would be, how much more intense it would get… I believe fear to be a normal emotion present in birth, but that there is a healthy fear born of reverence for the mystery, which stands in stark opposition to fear that is damaging, that stalls labours and seeds doubt.
Eventually I got up and walked to my bedroom, climbed on the bed and lay on my side, wanting Sean behind, spooning me. I moaned and breathed and clenched my toes and softened my brow, and eventually started shivering. Sean covered me with a blanket and I kicked it off, I was hot. The wimyn arrived around 1am, all three who had been at the dinner party with me. I told them that I wanted to get into the birth pool and they busied themselves preparing it. I remember them each coming into my room, one at a time, sitting at my feet, rubbing them, sitting by my head breathing with me, their presence was so palpable and comforting, even with my eyes shut and my focus inward, I could feel their loving attentiveness.
I tried getting into a puppy pose on the bed, I was less and less able to find any comfort. I felt nauseous and threw up a few times. The sensations were so intense and I was continuing to shiver and shake. Looking back, I suppose this was transition, but in that moment I didn’t think about “stages of labour” or “progress”, or have any “midwifey” thoughts in my mind, I was just in it, right there, trying to keep my breath steady and moan it out. When the wimyn told me the pool was ready I got up (slow as a tortoise, I’m sure) and made my way across the hall to my spare room, a total of sixteen feet from where I had been lying, but it felt like it was miles away. I stuck one foot in, too hot, a contraction slammed me, I hit the floor. I remember thinking at this point that I would never make it into the pool, that I would inevitably give birth on the floor beside my altar, because I was never going to be able to move again, the sensations were so intense, so on top of each other. The wimyn cooled the pool water and opened window, and I did eventually make it in. Oh, it felt sooooooo good; that water was just what I needed. It was somewhere between 2:00 and 2:30am at this point.
In the pool the sensations continued, close together, and intensifying. About thirty minutes after getting into the water my body started to push with my contractions. At first for about half of the contraction and then eventually through the whole thing. It was uncontrollable. I was exerting no “pushing” effort, but my body was bearing down with ferocity. The closest comparison to the bearing down that I can think of is dry-heaving, except out your butt. I felt for my baby and she was just about a finger’s length inside of me. Such reassurance! I continued on, leaning over the side of the pool, Sean there in the water just behind me, not touching me much, but a steady protective presence.
This was when things got really trippy.
In between contractions I was star travelling, having visions of celestial travel, moving through space, surrounded by stars, and in the distance a bright orb, white and golden, glowing, coming closer and closer as the visions and my contractions intensified and progressed. I would proclaim to everyone in the room that I was going to pass out in between contractions, but it was this starry vision that I was swimming in, I didn’t pass out.
I was loud, I made animal noises, I gripped the pool walls, I swayed and circled my hips, I tried a half squat on each side, and always seemed to come back to my knees, leaning over the side of the pool. I didn’t want to eat anything and I only wanted to drink cold water. I remember thinking this experience was insane, that I was nuts for getting pregnant, wondering how long I could go on, but I was always reassured by the fact that all of the wimyn in the room with me had also done this, in their own homes, they had given birth, and if they could do it, so could I.
That deep comfort carried me.
At one point I got a huge sensation and felt the baby drop into my birth canal. I let out a huge sound and crawled, like an animal, around in the pool, eyes closed, and stopped in the farthest corner I could reach, with my back to everyone else in the room. I got a bit of a pause here. Then it started up again, huge sensations, body bearing down, baby’s head coming closer and closer. I felt again and realized that it was her fore-waters I was feeling, not her head. The bag of waters started bulging out with each sensation, eventually remaining out in the breaks between. I wanted her to come down so badly, wanted to feel her head. I broke the bag of waters with my fingernails on one big contraction. She came down further. Now her head was peeking out with each contraction, then retracting in between. Down and up. Down and up. Down and up. I’m not even sure how long this went on for, but her head did continue to come out more and more with each bearing down. I was getting better breaks in between contractions at this point and the celestial visions stopped. I suddenly felt very much present in that room, aware of my surroundings, I opened my eyes. Soon after this notable shift in my consciousness her head came halfway out of me with a big sensation, then it retracted again, just a bit, and I decided to get behind the next sensation and pushed for the first time. On that next sensation, with my push, her whole head came out. WHAT SATISFACTION! There was a pause, I asked that someone make sure to record the time (astrology! important to me!). I felt her whole body rotate inside of me, and another sensation, I pushed again, her shoulder came out, and then her body slipped into the water at 4:12am.
Two intentional pushes. That’s it (plus everything that led to that moment).
She floated in the water below me, I took a breath and then reached down to scoop her up. She was pink, no vernix, small, squish-faced. She opened her eyes and looked around and then gave a squawk, coughed up a little fluid, and cooed in my arms. She continued to open and close her eyes, checking out her surroundings, looking right in my eyes, alternating between crying out, gurgling, and cooing. She moved her hands around, stretching her fingers and squeezing her fists. I nuzzled her right in and she started nursing almost immediately. I leaned back and let out a huge sigh and the words, “holy shit” came out.
She was perfect. She is perfect.
The three of us, Sean, baby Wren, and I just sat there in the water amazed. The wimyn all left the room and we got to be alone.
I had a pause before getting a few more contractions, I got up into a squatting position and felt inside myself for her placenta, and you know, even with all of my experience, even feeling for exactly what I found, I let out a gasp and a “what the hell is that?!” when I felt the placenta inside. It was so hard I was convinced for *one brief moment* that I was about to give birth to another baby. The placenta came out easily, about twenty-five minutes after Wren was born, and I calmed right back down, reassured that I was only having ONE baby.
The wimyn drew us a bath, I climbed out of the pool and into my tub. I was all sweaty and it felt so good to get clean. I held Wren in my arms, her placenta in a bowl beside us, and eventually handed her to Sean so I could rinse off under the shower and get dried off. We all climbed into bed. My feet were rubbed with oil, wool socks pulled on for warmth. We burned the umbilical cord and I nursed Wren some more. Around 6:30am the wimyn all left and as the sun shone brightly we tried to get some sleep. It was easy for Sean and Wren, but I was so high, I just stared at her. Look at what I had done! She was on the inside the morning before, and now she was out.
The first week was quiet. We stayed in bed almost all of the time. I took a bath everyday with epsom salts and healing herbs. Wimyn came and checked on me, a friend came and gave me a massage and a closing of the bones treatment, Sean took care of everything around the house. I got up to meditate and move my body gently on day two and in my meditation immediately went back into the celestial journey visions I was having in labour. It was even more vivid in this meditation, the orb was of course Wren, coming closer and closer. This psychedelic experience wasn’t the only one I experienced in pregnancy. Throughout my third trimester I was seeing small faeries out of the corner of my eye daily, flying around my house, hiding when they caught my attention. When I was walking in the woods I could see faces on trees and the colours were more vivid than usual. I was entering an altered state of consciousness for quite a while before “going into labour”, all a part of the birth process. In that week after the birth I didn’t see any faeries, but I did see larger, adult sized beings walking my hallway several times. Again out of the corner of my eye, but enough times that it was clear to me. While I was pregnant I had sat in meditation and prayer many times asking the ancestors for visions and dreams of guidance. I didn’t really receive any that I recognized though. In my non-pregnant state I’m quite a vivid dreamer, but in pregnancy I had very few dreams, and only a few that really stood out. I have to admit that this was sort of a sore spot for me. So many wimyn had told me about the amazing pregnancy dreams they had and I felt a little shorted not having any. But in that week after Wren was born, seeing these beings walk my halls, protectors making sure that everything was as it should be, I realized that the ancestors had of course been with me all along, that I didn’t need visions and dreams of guidance. Birth would unfold, my body knew what to do, my spirit was on board, my mind was clear and determined.
No dreams were necessary. It was in me.
Birth is so complex in the layers of the self it peels away, yet requires such simple acts of care to be supported; it’s so beautiful, while sweaty and raw; it’s such an expression of power and strength, and so delicate, vulnerable to interruption; so divine, but completely of this mundane world, happening every single day.
Wren Moira Mae was born at 4:12am on May 6th, just the way I dreamed it into being.
Kate Varsava is a Halifax, NS based lover of wit, whimsy, and word-play. Late-nights, mid-morning coffee, quiet meditations, and the elements of nature inspire her sentiments and observations.