It has taken me 4 years to sit down and write up the story of Silas’ birth, and I think much of that is because he was born during what became one of the hardest years of my life, and reflecting on his birth also requires revisiting that dark time. Thank goodness this happy boy has brought me so much laughter and light.
When I found out I was expecting our 4th baby, the timing came as quite a surprise in the midst of a new life experience for our family. We had taken a huge leap of faith, left our little suburban home and moved our 3 young children into the South Side Valley neighborhood of inner city Syracuse into an 1830’s “Farmhouse”. The ½ acre plot and barn hardly made it an official farm, but we did our best to restore the perennial and rose and herb gardens, raised a flock of backyard laying hens, filled the pond with a dump truck load of play sand to make a dinosaur pit and built fairy houses at the base of “Mother Willow”. It was a country oasis in the midst of what some considered the city’s scariest neighborhood. We moved there intentionally, naively, bravely, willingly, with our hearts on a mission.
I had taken on an official staff role as coordinator of YoungLives, Young Life’s outreach ministry to teen moms. Every week, we hosted regular dinners and bible studies and playdates for teen mamas and their babies. I was homeschooling my older children, and living life in the city, orienting our whole family life around hospitality and ministry made for an incredible living education, but it also took a tremendous spiritual, emotional and physical toll on me. It was an easy choice to opt for a planned home birth for our 4th baby. Our first two babies were born in hospitals with midwives and doulas, and our third had been born at home, in a pool of water, surrounded by important women in my life - our midwife, her assistant, my sister, my mom and our doula Danielle, and my oldest daughter, Ruby. I had worked as a birth doula for several years and planned to pursue midwifery.
Working in my ministry job had made me feel like my life had somehow become more public than ever, speaking at fundraising events and churches and women’s bible studies on behalf of my program for teen moms. I felt like all eyes were on me - would this experiment of living out radical faith and social justice-oriented Christianity be a success?
Because of this lack of personal privacy, and because my children were with me 24/7, I began daydreaming about running away to give birth all on my own. I had loved having a full house of women cheering me on joyfully at my 3rd birth, but for this one, I craved autonomy and intimacy. I chose to see my midwife Meredith for prenatal care and planned for her assistance and watchful eye at my birth, but I think deep down, I knew I might need something different than I could put my finger on. I went about assembling my support “team” - because that’s just what I felt like I should do. I asked my mom and sister to be present again, asked our sweet babysitter Quinn to be our photographer, and invited my friend Julianne to be my doula.
Our baby boy was due sometime around September 14th, and I busied myself getting my kids set up for our homeschooling year. My mom camped out at a friend’s home nearby so she could be available to help with my children when the new baby arrived. I planned the last few events for my teen moms and then we just… waited. And waited.
I was so uncomfortable and so done growing babies - this was definitely the last one. I had worked hard to fight the chronic anemia that plagued me in all of my pregnancies, getting intravenous iron and eating a healthy diet to be strong for birth - but I was depleted in every way. When I look back at the pictures of my pregnancy, I am astonished by how exhausted I was then. Our old house wasn’t stable enough to support the load of a huge birthing pool of water in our upstairs master bedroom, so for weeks, our kitchen table was missing and a birthing suite was set up, complete with twinkle lights.
At my 41 week check up, a full week past my "due date", I asked my midwife to sweep my membranes to help stir up labor and get things moving. It was a long, bumpy country road drive home, and almost immediately when I got out of the car and up to the top of the stairs, I felt a big gush of fluid and ran to the toilet. I felt pretty certain my waters had released. My other babies had always come pretty quickly, so I called Meredith and she made plans to head my way. I can’t remember what errand I had sent Bob out on - perhaps a “sleepy drive” to get our littles to fall asleep easily, but somehow I was in the house all alone, blowing up my own birth tub. When I squatted down to put more air in the tub, I felt a trickle of more fluid - definitely clear amniotic fluid.
The whole team assembled in my living room around the cozy fireplace - my mom, sister, Meredith and her assistant Deb, my husband Bob and Julianne. I climbed into the warm tub and Julianne massaged my shoulders. Her presence was so comforting. But I started to feel like a watched pot that would never boil - the mild contractions I had been having started to ease away. I had my custom playlist of labor music, children sleeping upstairs, helpful hands, a warm soothing tub of water - just NO labor. I was feeling pressure in my cervix and heaviness in my belly that felt like impending labor - but no steady contractions. I had had a similar pattern of progressing into the 4-6cm range and then stalling in my second and third labors, so it seemed like it might just be a matter or time.
Everyone encouraged me to go lie down. The entire birthing team crashed in my living room, waiting for contractions to pick up. My midwife Meredith is as hand-off as she can be, and hadn’t done a vaginal exam since I had just seen her in her office hours before and was about 3-4cm already. I had consented to antibiotic treatment for my GBS positive status in spite of the fact that I had struggled with months of thrush after having antibiotics during my second labor and really did not want them again or believe that they were necessary. Still, I wanted to honor my midwife’s protocols and procedures because she was giving me the option of a safe home delivery and it was a compromise I was willing to make.
We all mostly slept all night, and then in the wee hours of the morning, Meredith offered to do an exam - NO cervical change, and a paper strip test to determine if the fluid leaking was indeed amniotic fluid - NEGATIVE. I still don’t believe it to this day, and I believe strongly that a small forebag of water did leak. It made for great jokes for the next week about how I must have just peed my pants, assembled the birth team, and hosted a great big sleepover party just for fun! I was so disapointed.
Three days later, repeat scenario. After a long day with the kids, I started to feel STRONG, definite waves of contractions just before bedtime. They were right on top of each other quickly moving from every 5 minutes apart to every 2-3 minutes. This time I was hesitant to call everyone over and just asked Meredith and Deb to come. They did, and got me set up once again for a round of IV antibiotics. It took a long time and several pokes and blown veins to get the IV going, and my labor STOPPED. I was so angry at the invasion of required antibiotics into my system. I wanted to be left alone. My contractions had been so strong and convincing that once again, Meredith and Deb spent another night camped out on my couch, only to leave disappointed again in the morning.
At 41 weeks and 5 days, I went for an ultrasound in the morning to check everything out and confirm that the baby was well and we were safe to keep waiting. Everything looked wonderful, measurements all good. I truly wanted to trust and embrace nature’s timing, but the incessant worry from friends and family when your baby is “Overdue” can drive a person crazy.
I was DONE waiting. With my midwife’s blessing, I decided to take a small amount of castor oil in orange juice and start a routine of taking black and blue cohosh and red raspberry leaf tinctures. I followed a specific protocol but I can’t remember it. I must have started around noon, and began to have mild but predictable contractions around 3pm. I told my mom that I thought I was finally in real labor but still unsure, and she left my house to go visit a friend. My contractions continued to pick up but I didn’t tell anyone as I spent the next hour quietly rocking on my birth ball in my living room while my kids played around me.
Then my mom called. “I’m going to swing by with my friend Beverly. She wants to see you and your new house and the kids.”
“Mom, I’m like - in labor.”
“Oh, that’s ok! She had 4 kids of her own! She understands! You won’t mind!”
...I WON’T MIND?!
“No, mom, I’m really in labor.”
“Oh that’s fine, we will just stop for a minute. We will be right over.”
Knowing my mother, I believed her. I may have become a bit irrational at this point (ahem: TRANSITION.) I resisted the urge to just leave the kids and run to the nearest hotel to go have my baby ALL BY MYSELF. Everybody leave me the fuck alone. Instead I yelled, “EVERYBODY GET IN THE VAN!!!! WE ARE GOING FOR ICE CREAM!”
I packed the kids into the car, and drove down the block, because lord knew I couldn’t waddle that far, to Gannon’s Ice Cream. I pulled up to the ordering window, threw a wad of cash at my 7 and 5 and 3 year-olds and told them to get anything they wanted. I called my husband and through tears told him he better come home and that I had left the house as my labor was escalating because I didn’t want to see ANYBODY. I Insisted that he leave work and go to our house to tell my mom and her friend that I would not come back to have the baby until they left. And it was FOR REAL this time. And then I sat in my car, sobbing and eating Peppermint Patty, in the middle of TRANSITION (somewhere between 7-10 centimeters dilated).
When I pulled into my driveway I saw my mom’s van and I sent my little ones to find her, then beelined upstairs to my bedroom. My husband got the little ones ready to leave with my mom (who never did bring her friend over after all, believing me that I was in serious labor). In the bathroom, I checked my own cervix and could feel it around a bulging bag of water, maybe 8-9cm-ish.
The midwife had about a 50 minutes drive from her country home into the city. Bob started to fill the labor tub in the kitchen downstairs, and then came up to find me at the very top of the stairs, gripping the railing and in a deep squat, moaning, "I AM NEVER DOING THIS AGAIN". I don't remember this labor as painful as much as it was blindingly fast, breathtakingly intense, HARD WORK. I took one look at the walk down the stairs to where my cozy pool - "the Aquadural" was waiting and knew I couldn’t make it to the bottom of the stairs without this baby just falling out. Bob asked, “Did you call Meredith yet? Is she on the way?” and with crazy eyes I shouted, “NO!!!! It’s not time yet!!! I'm not sure if this is it yet!” Bob always jokes he knew that this time was the real deal because I got really mean. Mean? For sure - I turned into Mama Bear and all I wanted was my cave and my baby. Everybody leave me the fuck alone.
I crawled into my bed, Bob called the midwife. Our 7 year old, Ruby had been present for her sister’s birth and she pranced about happily grabbing towels and drinks for me, my little Doula. Bob laid down in bed next to me and held my hand, then ran down to check the water in the tub. I knew I couldn’t move from that bed. Then all of a sudden, while laying on my side, I felt a Pop and a Whoosh and a BIG splash on the bedroom wall behind me. “OH MY GAWD, THE CASTOR OIL….” I moaned, calling for Bob. I thought for sure I had dramatically shat all over the wall but I was so overcome by the need to continue bearing down that I couldn’t turn my head to look. (I hadn't pooped after all, it was just a big burst of amniotic fluid. Still hit the wall. Still hilarious.)
My contractions brought on gutteral groans and I couldn’t control the urge. I didn’t push, he just came. Bob got Meredith on speaker phone - 7 minutes away. “It’s OK, He’s coming now,” I said. “I think his head is out, is his head out, Bob?” I couldn’t twist and see for myself. Bob was standing behind me by the side of the bed, holding my leg up and in catcher’s position. “Yes… the head’s out… I think… I CAN’T TELL, IT DOESN’T HAVE A FACE!!!” I reached down to feel the head and it felt more slippery and smooth than I would expect. I shouted, “He’s in the caul!” As I eased his shoulders out, Meredith calmly instructed Bob to peel the membrane back off the baby’s face and just hand the baby to up onto my belly. Bob handled the whole thing like a seasoned pro. And then, there he was! My slippery, warm, crying baby in my arms! We did it!
To birth “en caul” means the baby was born with a piece of the amniotic sac remaining over his face. What Bob saw must have looked something quite like a bank robber with a stocking pulled down over his face. There is all kinds of marvelous folklore about babies who are born in the caul, and it is a very rare occurrence, usually only happening in completely undisturbed, natural birth. The baby sputtered and cried right away but his color took a minute to transition from a bit gray to purple to pink. I knew Meredith was still on her way, and I wasn’t worried. He was attached to the placenta and the umbilical cord was pumping life giving blood volume and oxygen, because it was still attached to my womb inside.
Normally a mother and baby enjoy a few minutes of skin to skin time before initiating breastfeeding, but I had a strong instinct to try nursing him right away, to stimulate contractions that would release the afterbirth and help stop postpartum bleeding. I had worked so hard to manage my anemia to stay a good healthy candidate for homebirth and I did not want to bleed! Meredith and Deb walked in and exclaimed, “You are already nursing?!” and “We had a feeling you would go this fast when the time came!” They were there just in time to help deliver the placenta, monitor our wellness, help clean up and tuck us back into bed with fresh sheets.
My mom brought Story and Clayton back home and we all piled into our king sized bed to welcome this new baby. We hadn’t been certain about his name - family names and baseball heros and musician references had been tossed around like Clyde, Joseph, Abner, and Rhodes, Caedmon... but we quickly settled on Silas Gibson. Silas is a Greek name that means “Of the Forest” and Gibson is a nod to his father’s favorite guitar maker. Just right for the littlest Wild Thing.
Ultimately, I had everything I absolutely needed from this birth experience - my autonomy and privacy, my amazing supportive family and friends, and hands-off midwifery care to ensure all was well. There is no place like home. May all babies be welcomed with so much love.
“Imagine what might happen if women emerged from their labor beds with a renewed sense of the strength and power of their bodies, and of their capacity for ecstasy through giving birth” — Dr. Christiane Northrup
“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
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.