It’s 3:45 a.m. as I walk up the pathway to the home of my friend Patricia. It’s very dark on her street, but the moon is big and full. It casts a gentle glow on the trees, houses, and cars around me. Everything is calm and quiet, which feels impossible since something so incredible just happened. As I approach the door, I can see that although the blinds are closed, the house is ablaze inside.
I give a gentle knock on the door. From inside I hear Patricia’s husband’s voice. “Come in,” he says.
I don’t know what I’m expecting to see. Blood, mayhem, chaos? But there is nothing. The house is impeccable as always and Sam is in the den zipping his 21 month-old son Ashton into a fuzzy farm animal onesie.
My friend, Patricia, is nowhere to be found. “Oh!” says Sam. “The paramedics already left with her and the baby, just minutes ago.”
I follow him into the bathroom, where we gather Patricia’s deodorant, shower gel, and contact solution for her stay in the hospital. Behind me is the tub, which is already spotless and clean. “Is this where it happened?” I ask, wondering if he will want to share the details.
“Yep.” Sam replies, looking much more composed than I would imagine for a man who just helped his wife deliver their own baby unexpectedly in the bathtub. And then the story comes rushing out of him, like water over a cliff. The details, suspended in mid-air, take my breath away.
Just hours before, Patricia began to feel what she described as “menstrual cramps.” Of course, at nine months pregnant, she was not having menstrual cramps. But her description offers an idea of how minor the pain felt to her. Sam and Patricia didn’t even begin timing the contractions until 10 p.m. when they became somewhat regular. They had even called their doula, Amy, to discuss whether she was really in labor or if these contractions were just Braxton Hicks.
Amy told them she believed Patricia was in the early stages of labor. She asked them to keep timing the contractions and told them that she would be happy to come over just as soon as Patricia felt they needed her. But Patricia wanted to sleep. The contractions were barely noticeable as she dozed in and out of them.
At 2 a.m., the contractions began to get a little more pronounced. By 3 a.m., Patricia was no longer sleeping through them and they decided to call Amy and ask her to come over. They wanted Amy to arrive in plenty of time so Patricia could labor at home peacefully before leaving for the hospital. They also wanted to leave time for me to come and pick up Ashton before things began to get hairy.
At 3:20, I received the call from Amy. She told me to come on over and get Ashton. It was time. “Do I need to rush?” I sputtered, still slightly confused from being woken from a dead sleep.
“No, take your time. Brush your teeth. Get a drink of water. But go ahead and come on over. I think Patricia is further along in her labor than she might realize. She handles pain really well.”
Within five minutes, I was already in my van driving toward their house. A few minutes into the drive, I called Amy for a status update. She answered the phone breathing heavily. “Oh my God! She already had the baby!”
“What?” This news seemed inconceivable to me. I had left my house just minutes before. Was Amy kidding?
“She had the baby in the bathtub. It just came out. Oh my God! I feel terrible.”
I could tell that Amy felt awful. As Patricia and Sam’s doula, she was in charge of helping them to have the most ideal birth possible. The birth they had been hoping for.
But Patricia and Sam are the last people on earth that you would expect to have a home birth. While a bathtub birth might be appealing to some couples, it was certainly never Patricia and Sam’s intention. Nor was I getting the impression that the tub was full of warm water and surrounded by incense and candles.
“What do you mean she had the baby in the bathtub? We were just on the phone five minutes ago.” I was still trying to wrap my mind around how this had happened.
“I don’t know! One minute they were telling me to come over. The next, the baby had already been born.”
I studied the tub as Sam spoke, wondering how it was already so clean and where all the birth mess has gone, while I tried to assemble the pieces of the story in my mind.
Sam was still talking. I returned from my own thoughts and focused on what he was saying. “After we spoke to Amy on the phone and asked her to come over, Patricia got out of bed. It was just after 3 a.m. When she stood up, she felt a sudden enormous pressure and went to the bathroom. A minute later she called me into the bathroom with her and pulled down her pants. ‘Look at this!’ she exclaimed. Her water sack was bulging out of her like an enormous teardrop. ‘I think we better call 911. The baby is coming.’”
The next few minutes flew by. Sam got both the obstetrician and the EMT on the phone simultaneously, balancing one phone at each ear. At this point, Sam could already see the baby’s head crowning. The EMT told him to have Patricia lie down. Despite the fact that Patricia appeared to be in a state of semi-shock, Paul noted that she was very careful as she stepped gingerly into the tub so as not to bump the baby’s head against the edge. By the time she laid back and put her feet up, she could feel the baby descending. She gave one small push and the baby slid out into Sam’s open hand. “Like toothpaste,” Sam said. “The baby just squirted out like toothpaste.”
Patricia was already reaching for her baby when Sam handed him to her. As she cuddled him to her chest, Patricia began to experience the extraordinary weight of everything that was happening. She later told me that she thought she might have been hallucinating and wondered if she was going to wake up and find that it was all just a dream.
At the same time, her instincts guided her as she skillfully unwound the tangled umbilical cord from the baby’s legs. It was surprisingly thick and sturdy, like a bungee cord. Sam handed her a towel and was instructed to find a shoelace to tie off the cord. He was still talking on both phones as he dashed into the garage where he thought they might have a new package of shoestrings.
By the time the cord was tied off, the paramedics arrived and loaded Patricia onto a gurney. “I’m going to need to take your baby now,” a kind fireman told Patricia.
It was cold outside and Patricia was wearing just a T-shirt and flip-flops as they loaded her into the ambulance. They wrapped her in blankets and cranked up the heat, but she shivered furiously the whole way to the hospital. The kind fireman holding her new baby sat close to her head so she could still see the tiny bundle that had just erupted from her own body. He was still covered in blood and vernix—but he was beautiful and he was hers. This was not the birth she was anticipated, but her was baby was healthy and safe. And that was all that mattered.
Patricia and Sam’s story hit me like a ton of bricks, helping to clarify my thoughts about birth. Several of my close girlfriends are pregnant right now and I had been thinking about birth a lot lately. Within our culture, birth is often viewed as a medical experience. Something that can be regulated with artificial hormones, anesthesia, fetal monitors, and other high tech equipment. We are encouraged to trust the nurses and doctors over our own instincts.
But even if we view birth as a natural process, we still want to dominate it. In birthing classes, we are taught to choose our intended birth. We write birth plans. We practice birthing positions and proper breathing. We study the stages of labor. We do Kegels and exercise our vaginal muscles. But as much as we try, we cannot always control the mystery that is birth.
Birth is nature. Primal, primordial, mystical, divine. Birth teaches us that we are not in control even when we make the most fastidious preparations.
I wanted a home birth. I hired a midwife. I read books. I signed up for Bradley classes. I was a devout believer in the religion of natural childbirth. But I ended up with a C-section. Patricia wanted to birth naturally, but in a hospital with medical attention close at hand. She gave birth in her own bathtub, her baby shooting out of her like a rocket.
Birth is the universe speaking to us. It is the first lesson in the school of motherhood. When we slip into the tangled haze of birth, our bodies take on a supernatural quality. They lead us confidently down a bewildering path that is both humbling and miraculous. We are inducted into the body of myths and mirage. We are helpless. We are legendary. We are mere animals. We are mothers.