From start to finish, it was a 35-hour labor. But it was everything and more my husband and I could have hoped for: unmedicated, intuitive, at the baby’s pace, and in the comfort of a relaxing non-clinical environment. Here’s our family’s story…
The clock read 2:34 a.m. as I rolled out of bed, grimacing from the sharp pang that reverberated through my womb. It was April 25th – my late grandpa’s birthday. And already, the day had started off with purpose. For two hours, I allowed the sensation of cramping to pulse through my body. By 4:30 a.m., I felt as if I could finally return to bed and dozed through the strange and subtle cramps. We slept in that morning until about 7 a.m. when the sensations returned, and I decided to let the day bring what it may.
After our morning routine of matcha tea and coffee, Aaron and I parted ways as he tended to our farmstead – feeding Matilda the pig, Merry and Pippin the dwarf goats, our three dogs – Artemis, Damon, and Apollo, and the two bossiest cats, Midnight and Ariel. I took the opportunity to “knock out” some work even though the cramps continued to come and go every 20-30 minutes. At the time, they felt to be about 3-4 on the pain scale. Now having gone through what I have (unmedicated birth for 35 hours), I can see they were just getting started and probably didn’t even reach a .5/10 on my new pain threshold.
The morning had come and gone, and I was starting to get annoyed. My willingness to match other peoples’ stress levels with work was causing me to get anxious, and as a result, was delaying labor. So, with the encouragement of my midwife consultant Day – who lives in Oklahoma and is amazing, I decided to cancel the remainder of my appointments and surrender to the process. It wasn’t easy as I’m a bit of a workaholic. But, it was necessary, and as soon as I decided to tune out and let other people solve their own problems for a while, the cramps returned.
By 4-5 p.m., the cramping was coming on regularly. I started to time them: 6-15 minutes apart, all lasting at least 45 seconds long. Oh boy, I thought. This really is it. My “comfort” craving was to watch Dirty Dancing and curl up in bed. Don’t ask me why but it did the trick and casually diverted my attention while allowing the process that was building to unfold. As you can see, I wasn’t alone. Arial the cat insisted on cuddling with me, providing me a sense of peace and comfort with her presence.
By this point, I was well into the first phase of labor. 7 p.m. rolled around and Aaron and I made the same decision: Yes, it was time to hit the road. My contractions had been at least 6-8 minutes apart lasting 1 minute each for over an hour. Because we live one hour away from the midwifery clinic in Rapid City where we’ve been planning an intentional, unmedicated birth, that was our queue to get the car ready and head to town. My mom, one of my best friends and life-long supporters, graciously agreed to join us, so we picked her up in Sturgis on the way.
8:30 p.m. rolled into focus as we pulled into the midwifery center. Diane, another wonderful midwife, greeted us and took me into an exam room. I was 4-5 centimeters dilated, just a little early to be admitted. But, she agreed, “You’re in labor! You’re going to meet your baby boy soon.” With a smile, she gave me an affectionate, motherly embrace. This was it.
We decided to wait out the 2 centimeters of dilation at a nearby Holiday Inn hotel. Firstly, we soaked our toes in the hot tub. Then, while Aaron cooled off in the pool, my mom and I attempted to slowly walk on the treadmill. I made it .10 miles and through three contractions before I decided to be done. The clock read 10:30 p.m. and baby boy was coming. At 11 p.m., we reunited with Diane. I had asked to be admitted, so my body could relax and prepare for the environment he would be born into. She agreed and confirmed that I had reached 6 centimeters. Thank God.
We chose the dark room of the two birthing room options and quickly settled in. Over the next 10 hours, I’d relax into deeper contractions in many different positions – all uninhibited and tenderly watched over by Diane, my mom, and my husband, Aaron. The large bathtub was nice and provided some buffer from the strain that was pulling at my low back and uterus. Gosh, that hurts! I thought. Oh, man, it was just the beginning…
The evening turned to early morning and Diane confirmed that I was 9 centimeters along, but that there was a “persistent” lip in my cervix that needed to continue opening. It was blocking the baby’s head from lining up correctly. That was around 1 a.m. We decided to be patient and let my body progress at its pace. By 6 a.m., little had changed except for the intensity of my contractions. I was now into active labor – almost near transition, and baby Leon’s head wasn’t lined up with the birthing canal due to the “lip” on my cervix. Here’s where the truly painful parts began. Diane kindly advised me of an option, which I agreed to…, and while I was propped up on the bed, she reached up and held the cervix open as I attempted to push my son’s head through the opening. That didn’t work and left me clutching myself, shuddering with shakes and yelling, “Ow, ow, ow, ow – I’m so sorry but ow! I can’t!” I reeled for several minutes on the bed in shock at it all. So, we decided to wait some more.
It was 7:30 a.m. when Diane’s shift ended and Kiersta took over. From the minute she entered the room, Kiersta was cued into me and the process. I was spaced out yet lucid from the non-stop contractions and pain of my body trying to push my son through. “I can’t do this, I can’t do this…,” I mumbled. Every time I doubted, my team reassured me I could. But, in all honesty, I had no idea how I was going to do this. My perception of level 10 threshold pain had come and gone. “Is it too late for drugs…?” I looked pleadingly at my mom and Kiersta. They gave each other sorrowful expressions and said, “Yes, sweetie. It’s too late.” To that, I responded: “How about Ibuprofen?” Now, that concept is laughable. It wouldn’t have had any effect even if it had been safe to take. Knowing this, they kindly declined my request and explained why. Oh, well, I thought. The only way past this is through it. So, time to buckle down.
Everything became way more intense after that point. A second attempt to push his head past the cervix failed and once again, left me shuddering in the deepest discomfort I could imagine. I can’t pinpoint the times exactly, but I know that due to the pain, I projectile vomited at least four times and rotated around the room to try and find some comfort. From the “dilation station” (the toilet where you sit backward and just let whatever happens to happen) to squatting in the shower and holding my husband’s hand, I tried to surrender to it all. But the same issue was preventing labor from progressing. As Kiersta put it, Leon’s head was “cattywampus” and needed help lining up. So, we did some exercises to get him into position. One required me to lie on the side of the bed, the bottom leg stretched out and the other relaxed slightly over and draping over the side. Lemme tell you, the pain = 25/10. We attempted to work through this position on each side through three contractions each. I couldn’t complete the circuits entirely and threw up after each one due to the shocks that radiated down my low back and hips.
Perhaps by 9-10 a.m. (guessing as I had no concept of time at this point), we decided to try for a third time to eliminate the lip that was holding Leon back. The bed exercises helped, and now we just needed to get his head into the birth canal, so the painful bearing down of my uterus helped propel the labor. There’s no way past this but through it, I reminded myself. And so, I mustered even more strength and succeeded on the third try. Now, the real work began.
Let me skip some of the details and simply say it took three hours to pass his 15-inch head. Many times, I’m told, my mom and Aaron thought they were going to lose me. But amazingly, my blood pressure remained stable and Leon’s heartrate remained between 140-150 bpm the entire time. He might have been tightly trapped in the canal, but he wasn’t going anywhere. While we had hoped for a water birth, the angle of him coming through my pelvis demanded ingenuity along with a position that allowed for rest. I was exhausted and could barely remain squatting through the pain. In the water, the midwives couldn’t assist the way they needed to. So, bare to the world and ready for a babe to emerge, I pushed on the bed
I’ll say it repeatedly – birthing a baby is the toughest thing I have ever done. Doing it without medication may have been insane (like many of my female friends told me). But, after the fact, I’m still glad that I did. With my entire body and primal screams that likely resounded throughout the clinic, I finally welcomed my baby boy into the world. My mantra to make it through the sensations was I will heal, I will heal, I will heal. He matched my cries, and before I knew it, was free. Unmedicated, he was alert and attentive to the world immediately.
Now, for the moms reading this memoir, you know the immense relief that follows baby boy/girl finally emerging. There is nothing like it. And even though everyone was traumatized and tired, the joy of his arrival could not have been measured. The pressure of the canal also releases endorphins for baby, which is part of the reason it can be good for women to endure the pain: we create endorphins for our bodies that are passed along to baby through the placenta and through milk production when it comes in. Nature knows what she’s doing.
He was here! Finally.
Leonhart Arthur Froelich arrived at 1:23:34 p.m. (perfect affirmation for letting babe choose his perfect timing) weighin 9.0 lbs and measuring 22 inches long. .
The 4 golden hours
Unlike a traditional hospital setting, the practitioners don’t take the baby from you immediately and begin to clean them up, measure them, etcetera… Instead, the midwives placed Leon on my chest for us to bond. They recommended skin-to-skin contact for at least one hour while they helped the placenta and blood clots exit. I was examined, and amazingly, I did not tear. This is primarily a result of slow, controlled pushing, regardless of how painful it was. Halleluiah.
Every thirty minutes or so, the midwives checked our vitals, which continued to measure perfectly. Once a full hour had passed, I switched off with Aaron, so he could begin bonding with his son skin-to-skin. We opted for a delayed cord-cutting to allow all the stem-cell-rich blood to flood into his body. And then, baby Leon’s daddy had the honor of cutting the cord.
While they bonded, I showered the last 36 hours away. Having lost so much blood, barely having eaten, and being exhausted, it was a feat. But again, I had a great team who supported me through it.
Over the next couple of hours, the midwives gave Leon a full check-up and documented his height (22 inches) and weight (9 lbs). His head also measured a whopping 15 inches. Let’s just say “ouch” and leave it at that.
After a few hours, we felt ready to leave. And once again, unlike a traditional hospital setting, we were allowed to with a 24-hour follow-up appointment scheduled for roughly one day later. They insist on the family returning home because statistically, that is when everyone is going to get a nice, deep sleep to begin the recovery process.
So, how was our experience at the AppleTree Midwifery Birthing Center?
On a scale of ten, it was a million, amazing, and worth it. From the appointments throughout pregnancy at the adjacent Black Hills OB clinic to the incredible delivery facilitated by such compassionate and knowledgeable women, it was the best choice we could have made for our family.
Sadly, we were informed during our follow-up appointment that the center — the only one in the state of South Dakota – is closing its doors due to financial reasons. As a result, Leon was the LAST baby (#69) to be born there. It is honestly heartbreaking, because I know that had we received our primary care at the local hospital, the following would have happened:
- I would have felt rushed.
- I wouldn’t have felt as safe.
- I probably would have had a c-section and the long recovery that accompanies that.
- I wouldn’t have been able to birth on my terms, doing what felt right until it was time to bear down and push.
- …and on and on
Receiving the news was so heavy, but it has inspired me and my family who witnessed such a different birthing experience to become advocates for these midwives and centers, such as this one. They are needed. Birthing experiences matter. The way in which we facilitate the emergence of new life and nurture the mother (and dad) matter. Don’t worry, this isn’t the last you’ll hear from me on this topic. A fire has most definitely been lit.
In conclusion, Leon’s birth went mostly according to plan (that’s amazing as well) and was far more painful than I could have ever imagined but has been the most beautiful and worthwhile accomplishment of my life. Every day, we fall more and more in love with Leon’s sweet energy, heartwarming snuggles, and little personality.
Thank you, Kiersta, Diane, Megan, Cassie, and Day for helping me welcome my son into this world. Thank you, Aaron, for being the best partner, support system, and father to Leon I could ask for. Finally, thank you to my mother, Tere, for being a part of the experience and helping me through it. I honestly don’t think I could have done it without you or the rest of the team.