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“Maybe we should make a plan.”
At my suggestion, my cousin Lorie’s eyes widened in surprise. She’s had three children, so she knew exactly what I was talking about.
I had arrived the day before. We were gearing up for an early Christmas celebration. Guo Jian was going to get a tree-decorating, stocking-stuffing, big-family-dinner experience that he’s never had at Christmas time, and I was going to have some help with Echo in the second last week of my pregnancy while Guo Jian fought his jet lag.
But the twinges in my belly the next morning at 8am, the tightening around my middle and subtle menstrual-style cramps all triggered doubts that I had made the right choice to drive the 80 minutes south to King City (Newmarket). I had a chat with my bump before I emerged from my room that morning to join everyone at the breakfast table.
“I hope you’re just kidding, little guy,” I said. “Your daddy won’t be here for almost 2 days and you can’t come yet!”
(That was the beginning of his independent thought. I wonder what he’ll be like as a teenager?)
Around 10am, Lorie was sitting on the floor playing with Echo while I had a cup of tea perched on my basketball belly on the couch. Three of their four big dogs were lying down on the floor playing with them too. In less than twenty-four hours, I had watched my toddler go from afraid of the animals (who are all bigger than she is) to pushing them away and saying “beep beep!” when they blocked her path. Amazing.
That was the moment I chose to tell my cousin what was happening. After I spoke, she and Echo both looked up at me from the pile of puppies and puzzle pieces. There was a moment of stunned silence. Then, the planning began.
We decided we’d wait a couple of hours to see if the cramping continued or if it increased in intensity. Then, when her fiancé, Peter, got back for lunch we would see if he’d be available to drive me back up to Norland. She could hang onto Echo until Guo Jian arrived the next day and then take them both up to join us. Besides, Norland was where I’d arranged for the midwives to be and, as disappointed as I was to have just arrived, I knew that I couldn’t give birth in my cousin’s home, nor had I any connection to the hospitals nearby.
Noon arrived and the cramping started to hurt a little. I took a bath and felt better, but still paged the midwives to give them the heads up that I might need them in the evening. I also confess that I wasn’t sure if what I was experiencing was indeed early-stage labour or just “Braxton Hicks” (sometimes known as “false labour.”) When one of the midwives from my team phoned me back, she said that I should phone when I’m back in Norland and let me know whether my contractions had progressed or if the cramping had gone away. She urged me to return, however, saying it was not worth risking it, yet she ended with this:
“Sometimes you can have those early stage cramps for several days, even a week,” she said. I started to wonder if I wasn’t over-reacting.
I could still talk through the contractions, but they were coming every five minutes after lunch. Just like with Echo’s labour, my early contractions were quite close together but not especially intense. So, despite being in a social group situation, they were invisible—just background noise in the quiet of my own body.
Nevertheless, I didn’t like the odds. I heeded the midwife’s advice and knew that I was too far away from where I’d planned to be for the birth for my own comfort. My cousin read my uneasiness and it wasn’t long before her fiancé urged a hasty departure and even arranged for someone to follow us in my car. We left the car seat and the rest of Echo’s things and by 2:30, we were on the road: a winter caravan back for a possible birth that was surprisingly early.
Better safe than sorry.
By this time, I’d tried in vain to reach Guo Jian but he was not answering either the house line or his cell phone in Beijing. There was no other option for an early flight—this I discovered later—but I still wanted to tell him what was happening. My friend, Julie, who is also Echo’s (and Paz’s) godmother, offered to come and join me for the birth. She was my back-up for Guo Jian’s absence, but I was awkward to ask her in the middle of her work week—not to mention the fact that she would have to drive in from Montreal. I also wasn’t sure it was really happening. When she insisted, I wanted to cry with relief. That was the precise moment I realized that I didn’t want to do this alone.
Throughout the drive north with Peter, my contractions were coming every 3-4 minutes. I didn’t want to tell Peter that (didn’t want to freak him out!) but they were getting more intense with every kilometre. Our conversation was smooth, but I was gripping the safety bar above the window in the last stretch, breathing quietly from the passenger seat. Thank god I wasn’t behind the wheel!
Funny enough, when we stopped for a bathroom break, it was at a Tim Horton’s. I could see the status update clearly in my head, which made me laugh:
“You know you’ve returned to Canada to have a baby when you find yourself gripping the bathroom counter at a Tim Horton’s, rocking through an early-stage labour contraction.”
He dropped me off by 4pm. He and his young work associate who had driven my car pulled out of the driveway almost immediately to return to the city. I waved from the front door.
Their truck out of sight, I was flooded with a feeling of safety to be back in my parent’s home and so I paged the midwives to let them know I had arrived but that I was doing fine. When they phoned me back, I was instructed to notify them if or when the contractions intensified.
I felt rejuvenated. I unpacked the food and loaded the fridge. I turned up the furnace and filled a bathtub full of water. The contractions were manageable. I just had to hum through them and rock back and forth. I started to repeat a soothing melody and each wave only interrupted my actions for about 20 seconds every 3 minutes or so. I built a fire. I set up my computer and looked up a few Christmas presents. Then, I took a bath.
As I slipped into the water, the grief come out of me like ice melting into steam. I didn’t want to do this without him. When I’d booked his flight several months earlier, he had asked me to move it by one day fearing his band may have a weekend festival that would make leaving on a Monday hard for him.
Oh, that one day!
Just one day earlier and perhaps he would have arrived for at least the final moments… but, it was too late for travel changes. Unless these contractions slowed down and disappeared, I was pretty sure he was going to miss his son’s birth, not to mention miss experiencing a home birth in Canada. Worst of all, I was without him. I needed him. I wanted him there.
Two hours later, out of the bath and back in front of the fire (that had gone out while I was in the bath), the intensity folded into a new level. I couldn’t concentrate on getting the fire to re-catch. I had to put my head on the carpet, down on my knees with my butt in the air, and rock my hips back and forth through each contraction.
I closed my computer. I spent the next half an hour trying to reach him again between contractions, willing him to pick up the phone, and he finally did. He was groggy with morning fuzz (it was only 7am for him) but I shocked him alert with the news that I was in labour. I could only speak in short intervals and had to put the phone down during each wave. He could hear it was real.
By about 6:45pm, I knew I didn’t want to be alone anymore. I had entered “the zone” and this was something I was grateful to have been able to do on my own, but I had reached my solo limit. I paged the midwife again and told her that my labour had definitely progressed. She could hear it in my voice and said she’d get on the road right away. The next forty-five minutes were spent in a blur, first in front of the fire (that was still refusing to catch) and then in the shower, and finally, when the first midwife arrived, I was sitting in the bathtub sideways, knees bent and to my sides with my feet touching at their soles, rocking through the contractions while holding my belly with both hands, eyes closed.
At this midwifery clinic, it’s a three-person team practice. Two members from the team attend every home birth. If there are two home births in action simultaneously, an RN steps in for one of the births. Yet, because I had only entered their care at 36 weeks, I had only met two of the three midwives at the clinic. The one who entered my bathroom that night was the only face I had never seen. She arrived with a smile and warmth that I felt instantly, which was fortunate, considering my vulnerable, naked state. She said, “I’m so glad to meet you and so happy to be able to attend your birth.” She met my eyes and we both smiled.
In between contractions, she checked the baby’s heartbeat right away. It was strong. She helped me out of the tub and even helped me dry off. I discovered that Julie had arrived at the same moment as the midwife—had even carried in some of her things—so I got dressed immediately and then ushered her in for a hug. I was so glad she’d come.
Midwives are amazing. After she’d examined me and discovered I was indeed in active labour at 4cm dilated (yeah!), she set up her equipment efficiently, moving some things around in the room I’d chosen as the birthing space. All the while, Julie held my hand through contractions. The place became transformed into a professional (but comfortable) birthing center, flanked by family photos of many ancestors, observing.
I was in and out of the experience—taken away by the waves—but when the second midwife arrived, I was flashed another smile of greeting and felt surrounded by strong female energy, protected and safe. There was no more space in the experience to lament Guo Jian’s absence.
One of the midwives suggested I walk around rather than labour on the bed on my knees as I had been doing in front of the fire earlier (that finally did catch, by the way!) and so I began to walk around, stopping at places to lean into the wall and rock through the intensity of the contractions. Eventually, I was in front of a blazing hearth leaning into the stonework around the fireplace, feeling blessed to be in such beauty while welcoming life into the world.
“Don’t fight it,” one of the midwives said. “If you tense up, it hurts more. Think of it as a wave.”
“I always wished I could surf,” I said, before diving down again to battle the elements of labour. I heard Julie chuckle at that comment.
Then a quiet voice above cut through the din of the storm: “You can.”
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This post first appeared on Ember Swift’s site on December 21.
Ember Swift is a Canadian songwriter, musician, writer, cyclist, green thumb, cupcake fan and proud mom living in Beijing with her husband, Guo Jian, and their daughter Echo (born January 2012). They are expecting a second child at the end of 2013. Ember writes professionally for several print and online publications (including beijingkids), as well as three blogs through her own site: www.emberswift.com. She is also an internationally touring musician and performs regularly in China with her all-girl local band. She has released 11 independent musical albums over the years but, these days, prefers to be with her family rather than on the road touring. She continues to release her music online and hopes to have completed her memoir project by the end of 2014.
Photo courtesy of Storyvillegirl (Flickr)