“It is not only that we want to bring about an easy labor, without risking injury to the mother or the child; we must go further. We must understand that childbirth is fundamentally a spiritual, as well as a physical, achievement. The birth of a child is the ultimate perfection of human love.” ~Dr. Grantly Dick-Read, 1953
When I had my first baby at the tender age of 24, I had already attended over 20 births as a doula and childbirth educator. I wholeheartedly believed in my body’s ability to give birth, and I was fortunate that because of my work I already had amazing connections to create the ideal team of supporters. I still wrestled with overwhelming doubts and fears as much as any first time parent, and my expectations for this birth experience were huge. I also trusted my deep down instincts. My body knew what to do.
At nearly ten days “overdue,” my husband Bob and I decided to squeeze in as many before-baby date nights as we could. The night before Ruby was born we had a perfect evening of enjoying our little city of Troy - pizza dinner at The Red Front, and a slice of rather mediocre pumpkin pie from Flavor Cafe and then an evening stroll around the Russell Sage campus where we had dated and become engaged. It was such a sweet way to celebrate as “we” became “Three”.
After Bob had already conked out for the night, I felt the first stirrings of early labor around 10 or 11pm. I was accustomed to waking up in the night multiple times to eat a snack, so I sat in the dark kitchen and ate a small cup of yogurt and sipped raspberry leaf tea. When the radiating pressure sensation around my back and belly grew in intensity, I rocked on a birth ball in the dark until the rhythm of the movement made me sleepy again. I laid down in bed next to Bob but decided not to wake him until I was “sure.” I dreamily dozed on and off through the night, knowing that solid rest would be my best bet for endurance and energy when I really needed it. I woke again around 4am and took a warm shower and then KNEW for certain that today would be the day. I labored on the birth ball, listening to my playlist of special music, letting oxytocin and good thoughts flow, while Bob filled up a massive labor tub in our spare bedroom. I called for my dear friend and neighbor in our apartment building, Susanne, to come join me, but I insisted that this must just be the beginning and we didn’t need to wake up our doula, Betsy, just yet.
Just before I had become pregnant, I had travelled to Germany to visit my dear friends and attend a Midwifery Today conference in Bad Wildbad, a spa town in the black forest. I had taken a beautifully inspiring workshop with Mexican Midwife Naoli Vinaver from Xalapa. She shared a recipe for herbal chocolate tea that she served to all of her women in labor for endurance and comfort. It was an incredible combination of ginger, cinnamon, hot peppers, fresh rosemary, other spices and thick dark chocolate - a sensual, aromatic hot cocoa. I was SO excited to have all of the ingredients and even a special pot and ladle set aside for Susanne to prepare for me in labor. I wanted to partake in a special ritual for labor and think about all of the women who had journeyed through labor for generations before me. The fragrance of the bubbling chocolate drink invaded all of the space in our tiny apartment and as I sat in the hot tub, laboring heavily, I begged for Susanne to get that horrible steaming smell AWAY from me. The aroma was so overwhelming that I asked her to just take the entire pot outside. So much for that whimsical idea.
It wasn’t long before I was feeling overcome by the intensity of my labor and I began to cry and ask for my mom (a two hour drive away). Having attended so many long, gently unfolding births with other first time mothers, I thought it was really just the beginning. I thought I still had so much longer to go, and needed to reserve my strength. Through my tears and shaky moans I insisted that we still didn’t need to bother the doula until sunrise. Susanne called Betsy anyway, smart girl.
A wave of relief washed over me as Betsy walked into the room with a big smile less than a half hour later. The sun was coming up and I felt instant peace in my trusted mentor’s presence. She would know what I needed. Betsy heard my laboring moans for only a few moments and said “Sarah, are you pushing?” “YEEEEESSSSS!!! Well, I don’t knoooowww!!” Thankfully, Betsy was not only a doula and my trainer, but also a competent homebirth midwife in her own right. I asked her to please check my dilation. I braced myself to hear something like two or three centimeters. I was in full denial that my labor could have moved along so quickly. FULLY DILATED with a bulging bag of waters. This baby was coming, and soon. A homebirth with Betsy had been my heart’s desire all along, but for our first birth Bob and I compromised and had agreed on a hospital birth center birth with Michelle, a beloved midwife I had worked with as a doula for some of my very first births. I felt confident in my decision and my team. Betsy very calmly informed me that if I wanted Michelle to catch my baby at St. Mary’s Hospital, we had better get in the car NOW. It was torture getting out of that warm tub in my own cozy little apartment. I distinctly remember a sweet moment when the waves of my contractions made it impossible to pull my own clothes on over my wet body. Susanne gently dressed me and we locked eyes and she met me with such tender empathy. “She will be an amazing doula,” I thought.
Somehow in all the chaos and confusion of our departure, Bob and Betsy miscommunicated and he pulled our car up to the front door of our apartment building on the River Street Arts District, while Betsy, Susanne and I took the elevator downstairs to the back door. While we waited for Bob to pull the car around, I was comically doubled over, hands on my knees, HOWLING, trying to avoid that persistent and growing need to push that baby OUT of me. Just then, one of our dearest friends, Lauren, just happened to be taking an early morning walk along the Hudson River behind our apartment, and in between my howls I called out a cheery, “Oh, Hi, Lauren!!” Lauren is the father of two of my first precious doula babies and husband to one of my dearest friends, Erika, who was the first person on earth to know that I was expecting. His cameo appearance in our birth story is a sweet memory.
Bob, and Betsy and I piled into my little green Saab and headed up Hoosick Street towards the hospital in MORNING TRAFFIC. I was on all fours in the backseat and my head was resting against the music speaker. The CD that was playing in the background was Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong duets - one of my favorites - but as they sang “Dancing Cheek to Cheek” I yelled for Bob to “TURN THAT SHIT OFF!!!” I had a job to do…. TRY NOT TO HAVE A BABY IN THE CAR.
I had been teaching childbirth classes for almost 4 years at a local crisis pregnancy center at that point, and in my classes I always referenced the way birth is portrayed in films as a cartoon-like, chaotic, mad-dash to the hospital. “It’s never really like that in real life,” I’d always chide. WELL…. Unless you are me, and you are fully dilated and on all fours in the backseat of a car trying not to push while your doula is sitting in the front seat cursing out other drivers. Just before we made the turn to the hospital, traffic backed up and brave Betsy jumped half-way out of the passenger door and yelled at a truck trying to cut us off, “SHE’S HAVING A BABY!!!!” Imagine a mashup of the Three Stooges and a scene from Seinfeld…. That was our car ride to the hospital.
We made it to St. Mary’s. That 7 minute trek had felt like an eternity. We stepped off the elevator and in the hallway of the maternity wing my team had already assembled, waiting, having already heard from Betsy that we were coming in quickly, ready to push. I cried with relief to see familiar faces from my doula work at St. Mary’s… Lisa, Nicole, Colleen, and my kind and calm midwife, Michelle. They ushered me into a room, I leaned into the bed with two hands, caught my breath, did a semi-squat by the edge of the bed. I angrily batted someone away from doing bloodwork or placing an IV. Just - Bye, Felicia. I asked, “I can push now??!” I didn’t wait for permission. I just got to work.
I remember Michelle and Betsy being right by my side, stroking my legs and my back and my hair. Bob was a steady companion, and so sweetly excited, but I also needed the presence of these other women who had walked this kind of road before me. Michelle let me know she would catch my baby in any position I wanted to be in, but that standing and squatting would wear me out. I suddenly felt sleepy and just wanted to crawl into bed. I closed my eyes in between contractions and rested and allowed them to space out while I caught my breath in between. It was a time warp. I delivered Ruby laying on my side, and Michelle handed her up immediately onto my chest. She took a moment to make her transition from her cozy womb space to this world and then gave a mighty ROAR and turned bright red head to toe. She was just a Ruby through and through.
We named her Ruby for all the amazing songs that beared the name - from Ray Charles, Johnny Cash, Rolling Stones, the list goes on. Ok, also maybe a little bit because my pregnancy cravings demanded copious amounts of Strawberry Rhubarb pie and Bob had gotten into a habit of referring to my growing belly “Rhubarb.” We gave her the middle name Lorelei, for the mythical goddess sea nymphs who used their powerful voices to lure sailors to their doom in Greek Mythology. We wanted a strong name for a girl who would always know her voice mattered in this world. We knew even then that this girl would be full of song.
”The wisdom and compassion a woman can intuitively experience in childbirth can make her a source of healing and understanding for other women.” ~Stephen Gaskin
Sarah Eiley Cowherd
Sarah is a mama to 4 wild things and a doula in Charlotte, NC with over 10 years of experience in supporting families of all kinds. With gentle hands and a humble heart, she guides women to experience birth without fear and move forward into motherhood in confidence.