ANTIGRAVITY Senior Editor, freelance writer, rescue dog aficionado, and hobby baker Erin Hall previously penned the column Writing for Two, which focused on her experience navigating pregnancy and parenthood for the first two years of her first son’s life. She now coordinates and oversees our Raising Louisiana column and is passionate about giving voice to the diversity of parenting experiences.
If you followed Writing for Two back in the day, you already know quite a bit about me and my experience becoming a mother. If you’re newer to these pages, I’ll give you a brief overview. Almost immediately after getting married to my boyfriend of over ten years in February of 2017, we unexpectedly conceived our first child. Our son Emmett was born after 41 hours of mentally and physically grueling labor on December 8th that same year. Just ten days later, my father fell into a coma from which he would never emerge. We buried him when my son was a month old, just days before my 34th birthday.
What followed was a herculean effort to balance becoming a new parent with the intensity of grieving this shocking and unexpected loss. When our son turned two in December of 2019, the air finally felt like it was clearing. We had always wanted more than one child, so my husband and I began planning for baby number two. We had no idea how much harder things would get.
When The River Meets The Sea
My mom was sick for more than a decade. In many ways, I’d been preparing myself for her death for a long, long time. I even wrote about it in these very pages way back in 2012. She had a complex set of rare autoimmune disorders, and to say she suffered emotionally after my father’s death is the understatement of the century. And yet, it somehow came as a surprise to me when, just a few days after my 36th birthday, my phone screen lit up during Sunday evening dinner, displaying my uncle’s name.
“Erin, I’m at your mama’s house. She’s passed.” Such a simple set of words. But held within them was a finality I simply could not abide. A stream of desperate “no”s came flooding out of my mouth. I crawled to the staircase weeping and begged my husband to call my therapist. I sat on the floor of our half bath and emptied the full contents of my stomach into the toilet. I terrified my toddler so much that it would be a solid 24 hours before he felt comfortable coming near me again.
I’ll never forget waking the next morning, the sun peeking through the curtains as the realization dawned on me: They’re both gone. I don’t have parents anymore. At that moment, I wanted nothing more than to join them. The idea of having to get out of that bed and function was more than I could handle.
But function I did. Because there was a child in the next room who needed me. As we were quickly packing up to head to Alabama and set arrangements, I also had to explain. I had to sit down with my two-year-old and tell him that his grandmother was dead. The idea of death and its permanence is hard for adults to grasp sometimes, so you can imagine how hard it was to relay to such a tiny little brain and heart as Emmett’s. He was barely two and death had already cast such a huge shadow over his life.
That same day, I called my doctor and asked to be put back on the antidepressants I had finally weaned myself off of after my dad’s passing. She had them called into the pharmacy in my hometown. The day before we buried my mother—in between selecting the flowers for her casket and meeting with the funeral director—I picked up my prescription. I was checked out by someone I went to high school with, who couldn’t help commenting on the fact that my purchase consisted of only two items: Zoloft and a pregnancy test. I was three days late.
The test I took in January was negative. The stress of losing my mother so suddenly had thrown my body off, it seemed. My husband John and I talked about whether we should put our plans on hold. Was it wise to keep trying for another child in the wake of what had just happened? Ultimately, we agreed that putting things off wouldn’t help, especially considering the anxiety I was feeling about the possibility of secondary infertility.
Just a few weeks later though, cases of the novel coronavirus began surging and before we knew it, everything was upside down. Our son’s school was closed and just a few days later, I woke up feeling like I’d been hit by a bus. Sure enough, the test I took that day was positive.
I would go on to spend my entire first trimester quarantined with an increasingly manic toddler who desperately needed interaction with other children. I was nauseated every day until 2 p.m. I still had freelance work to do. Pregnancy is never a walk in the park, but pandemic pregnancy is a special kind of isolating hell.
As we adjusted to life in quarantine, we began to think about what our goals were for the birth of our second child. COVID precautions prevented my husband from being present for the dating ultrasound at eight weeks, so I sat in the room alone, breathing into my cloth mask, praying to hear our child’s heartbeat.
While we were happy with the prenatal care we received from the midwives at Ochsner during my pregnancy with Emmett, his delivery left a lot to be desired. Due to staffing issues, we were unable to birth in the Alternative Birthing Center as we had planned. I did not have the option of a birthing tub for pain management, and the midwife on call was so busy, I only saw her twice during nearly five hours of grueling back labor. We did not have a doula, so my husband and I were left to handle labor virtually alone.
I ended up opting for an epidural, which slowed down my progress significantly. I then had to be augmented with Pitocin for hours upon hours before I reached full dilation. After two hours of pushing, I suffered a hemorrhage. My birth story isn’t unique, and it’s not nearly as traumatic as many women’s experiences, but it’s not something I wanted to repeat either.
We approached this second pregnancy in a more purposeful and intentional manner. After discussing what we wanted from the experience and how COVID-19 would affect those goals, we began to look into the possibility of having a home birth. Like many people, we didn’t really know anyone who had birthed at home. It seemed exceedingly crunchy and we worried about how safe it was.
As we began to do more research, though, we became confident that it was the right decision for us. We spoke with Effie Michot from New Orleans Midwives about the process, and were so encouraged by her expertise, kindness, and empathy. We were concerned I might have heavy bleeding again, and she presented us with a detailed plan to manage all possible scenarios.
We also secured the services of a doula. Thanks to Raising Louisiana contributor Malaika Ludman, I was connected with Rea Keith of Birthmark Doula Collective. We clicked instantly and she was in regular communication with me throughout my second trimester.
She encouraged me to work with my therapist to process Emmett’s birth as well as the compounding trauma of losing my father immediately after delivery, not to mention also losing my mother right before I fell pregnant this time. I underwent months of EMDR to get into a healthy headspace for labor. I confronted the trauma and pain I’d endured, and worked to reframe those experiences in a way that put me in charge of my feelings, rather than allowing them to take the wheel.
My pregnancy progressed without complication, so I stayed qualified to birth at home. We chose not to share our plans with very many people, however. A big part of my preparation for labor was staying in a positive headspace, and we were sure that if we shared our intention to birth at home, most people would meet it with either derision or anxiety. I felt that this birth had the opportunity to be very healing for me, and I was committed to staying in the right frame of mind to make that happen.
The Nearly-Veiled Child
The third trimester of pregnancy is never fun. In second pregnancies you tend to show earlier and get bigger faster. I felt clumsy and sore and tired 24/7, and I still had a toddler to chase. As my due date approached, I was working hard to remain positive. I was having a lot of signs of pre-labor, so I knew my body was getting into gear, but it’s always a question mark when the festivities will really begin.
It was the Monday morning of Thanksgiving week. Emmett’s school was closed for the holiday and I had promised him we would ride the ferry across the river for some breakfast beignets. When I awoke at 5:15 in the morning, I knew something was going on. I’d been having Braxton Hicks (“practice contractions” they’re called) for months, but the tightening I was feeling in my lower belly this morning was a different beast.
I spent about 90 minutes tracking the contractions to see if a pattern would emerge. It became clear that this was the start of labor, so I woke my husband up. He headed downstairs to juice lemons from our tree and mix up a batch of “labor aide” for me to sip on. I got into the shower to see if warm water slowed things down at all. When it didn’t, I texted the midwives and my doula to give them a heads up. Everyone was excited and they told me to touch base if things got more intense or if the contractions were consistently one full minute in length. It didn’t take long for that to happen.
I let everyone know that things were speeding up quickly, and they all headed on their way. I remember having a moment where things shifted and the contractions became more than I could speak through. A wave of nausea overcame me and I rushed to the bathroom sink. As I was standing there, I heard voices. The birth team had arrived and instantly sprang into action. Rea pulled a bottle of peppermint oil from her bag for me to sniff as I swayed in the dark of the bathroom, willing myself not to vomit.
A few contractions later, I asked to move to the birthing space (a.k.a. our bedroom). Leaning over and swaying seemed to be the best way to manage the pain, so I found myself hunched over my dresser, moaning low and trying to focus on my breathing. I was vaguely aware that things were happening around me, but it wouldn’t be until after the birth that I would realize how much the midwives and my husband were accomplishing as Rea helped me walk headfirst into the most intense experience of my life.
As I stood there, a small trickle of amniotic fluid ran down my legs. I asked if I could go to the bathroom. Rea warned me that sitting on the toilet would make my contractions more intense, but that it was also a very productive way to move labor along.
As soon as I sat down, I felt the most insane pressure. In that moment, fear seeped in around the corners of everything. I had known it would come—how could it not? Every time a contraction began to build, Rea would remind me to “Take that first deep breath” before telling me to walk towards the pain rather than trying to escape it. I whisper-whined “no no no no” with every contraction, as Rea countered with, “Yes, this is where we have to go.” Nausea swept over me and no amount of peppermint oil was keeping it at bay. Looking back, this was likely the start of transition.
The midwives were still working to fill up the birthing tub, but I was desperate for the relief I was certain being in the water would bring. I swayed with my hands on the bathroom counter for a few contractions, but they were coming so hard and fast that I began to lose the script. I cried and begged to get in the water and finally the tub was full enough for me to do so.
Hitting the water felt amazing, but I had maybe 15 seconds before the next contraction was on top of me, and the pressure that I couldn’t imagine getting any worse was steadily increasing. I’d had music playing in the background the entire time, but I have a crystal clear memory of being in the tub between contractions and hearing Dolly Parton’s “Hard Candy Christmas” come on. The hilarity of Dolly singing about getting drunk on apple wine while I felt like my body was being torn in two will probably stick with me the rest of my life.
Just when I thought the pedal was all the way to the floor, my body found another gear. I will not sugarcoat what happened next: I was scared shitless. I repeatedly said “I can’t do this! I can’t do this!” to everyone in the room. When they replied “but you ARE doing it!” I just whimpered, “I don’t want to.” YouTube is full of beautifully-shot natural births with majestic women marshalling their pain to bring new life into the world. Mine was not such a birth. Nobody would play my delivery in a childbirth class to inspire parents-to-be.
Rea suggested a position change and frankly I’d never wanted anything less in my whole life, but somehow I moved from sitting to get on my hands and knees. At this point, I felt an inescapable urge to push. There were a lot of tears. A lot of me looking desperately between my husband and Rea and crying “It hurts.” I begged for a break, but it wasn’t coming. Audrey, one of the midwives, was supporting my perineum as she monitored the baby’s progress in a mirror laid on the bottom of the tub. Effie continuously checked the baby’s heart rate to ensure he was safe.
As the baby began to crown, I felt the infamous “ring of fire” and knew the journey was nearing its end. Audrey mentioned that the bag of waters was somehow still intact around the baby’s head and that he very well may be born en caul. I looked up at my husband and sobbed “he’s a veil child!” I’m sure my collapsing into tears at this revelation confused the midwives, but John understood.
My father had been born en caul and had spent my entire life telling us he was a “veil child” and that his having been born this way allowed him to see the future. He didn’t use this great power for much other than accurately guessing the correct answer to the multiple choice quiz that popped up during commercial breaks of National Geographic on Sunday nights. But as this child was set to carry my father’s name, I couldn’t help being overcome by emotion.
On the next push, our son’s face was born and the amniotic sac burst. The cord was wrapped around his neck, but Audrey was able to slip it around his head. Effie then reminded me about how she might ask me to do things that felt impossible during delivery, but that I needed to listen to her. She asked me to pull my right leg into a lunge. At that point, she may as well have requested a back handspring—that’s how impossible the mere idea of moving felt to me in that moment. But somehow, I grabbed my leg and pulled it forward. This made the space needed for his shoulders to emerge, and in one smooth push from that position, our son was born. I felt a surge of relief the likes of which I had never known.
Suddenly, underneath my leg, a little face popped out of the water. I reached down to pull my son to my chest, and I gladly settled back against the wall of the tub, in complete shock at what I had just accomplished. We noticed the cord was wrapped yet another time, so we slipped it over his head quickly. The midwives covered us both in warm blankets and checked everyone’s vitals as the umbilical cord slowly stopped pulsing.
John didn’t cut Emmett’s cord and he hadn’t intended to cut this one either. But since this is likely our last child, he had a moment of impulsivity and decided to go for it. As soon as the cord was severed, the midwives set about getting me out of the tub to deliver the placenta and get my bleeding under control. They handed the baby to John, who held him skin-to-skin, with Emmett tucked lovingly under his other arm.
For the next few hours, the midwives attended to me in the most amazing fashion. I was incredibly weak and feeling so dizzy I couldn’t even sit up without immediately feeling the need to vomit. They checked my vitals constantly, gave me remedies both natural (Yunnan Baiyao) and medicinal (Pitocin) to help stop the bleeding, and helped me get cleaned up and dressed. They examined me and discovered that, amazingly, I didn’t need any suturing. I’d had a mild tear with Emmett, but this time I had managed to avoid tearing altogether.
They performed a newborn exam on the baby to ensure all was well. When they placed him in the cloth to weigh him, the entire room was shocked to hear that I had just given birth to the largest baby the New Orleans Midwives have delivered in all of 2020. Our guy clocked in at a whopping 10 pounds 6 ounces!
During this time, Rea focused on making sure our entire family was fed and cared for. When I couldn’t sit up to eat the soup she had prepared for me, she crawled into bed and spoon-fed it to me. I felt weirdly ashamed by that level of vulnerability, but Rea didn’t miss a beat. I apologized to her for my lack of grace during the hardest parts of labor and her response was a defiant and immediate, “Fuck grace. We all do what we must to get through it.” It was exactly what I needed to hear.
Vincent Floyd, 10 pounds 6 oz.
As I write this, I’m three weeks out from delivery. My recovery this time has been so very different than it was with Emmett. Back then, even before my father fell ill, I was already showing signs of postpartum depression, and I was pushing my body beyond its limits. My milk was severely delayed coming in due to birth trauma and high doses of Pitocin in my system. I therefore struggled to establish a supply and Emmett had to nurse around the clock to get what he needed.
This time around, I was very focused on giving myself the rest and space I needed to bond with my child. I spent the first two days after delivery not leaving my bed. We had “picnics” for every meal and John and Emmett would join the baby and me in bed. We curled up and watched movies. We took restorative naps.
The midwives came to check on me and the baby twice in the first week and have been back twice more since. They’ve been reachable by phone 24/7 and have helped me troubleshoot everything from nursing issues to the baby’s sleep patterns. After Emmett’s birth, I went seven weeks without seeing my care providers. The way postpartum care for mothers is overlooked in the traditional hospital system is criminal.
My body went through something amazing and terrifying when I gave birth to both of my sons, but the difference in the fallout between my hospital birth and my home birth couldn’t be more pronounced. Despite this baby being nearly two pounds heavier than his older brother, I did not tear at all during delivery. I needed zero stitches.
With Emmett, I spent weeks applying deadening spray and using a perineal bottle every time I went to the bathroom. This time, I didn’t need the spray at all and used the bottle for maybe four days total. I’ve been able to establish breastfeeding with little issue and my supply is more than enough to keep my baby satiated.
I am not the kind of mother who will say that hospital births are in any way inferior to home births, or that women who end up with cesarean sections are inferior to those who birth vaginally. The reality is that all mothers fight like hell to get their babies earthside. But I do believe the medical system has a tendency to pathologize pregnancy in a way that does a disservice to many women. I know had I been in the care of an OB or even hospital midwives, this birth would have gone very differently. Google “cascade of interventions” to get an idea why. I think they would have panicked because of my “advanced maternal age” (I’m 36). They would have panicked because of my BMI (plus-size women are treated like ticking time bombs for complications during pregnancy). They would have insisted on increased scans and tests. They would have estimated the baby’s size to be so large, they would have wanted to induce to get him out earlier. When induction didn’t work because my body wasn’t ready, they would have insisted on a c-section.
And while I would never resist any measures needed for the safety of my child, I gave birth to a nearly 10.5 pound full-term baby boy in a tub in my bedroom with zero complications, no perineal tearing, and manageable blood loss. I had a textbook pregnancy with no issues of high blood pressure or high blood sugar. There was no reason for me to be treated like I was ill. Pregnancy is not a sickness.
If I had it to do all over again, I would choose a home birth every time. The New Orleans Midwives are consummate professionals who only accept low-risk patients. I trusted them implicitly to transfer care if it became necessary for my safety or the safety of my child. Their support, combined with that of my doula and my husband, allowed me to have the most healing experience of a natural, unmedicated birth.
Emmett was present the entire time and was able to be in or out of the birthing space as he chose. He is an incredibly curious child, and I was happy to share with him the beautiful realities of childbirth. He was in the room when his brother came into this world. He heard his first cry. He saw all the blood, but never showed an ounce of fear. To him, it was just the natural order of things.
I got to labor in my own space, in my own clothes. I did so unencumbered by monitors, wires, or catheters. I played my own music. On top of my mother’s vintage vanity in the corner of my bedroom, I burned her favorite candle next to a picture of us as a way to invite her into the birthing space. After delivery, I slept in my own bed. I was cared for in a nurturing fashion, without the drawback of someone bursting in at 2 a.m. to check my vitals. And I have continued to be carried and supported in the sensitive postpartum period.
We took a few days after the baby’s birth to decide on a name for him, but finally settled on Vincent Floyd. His middle name honors my father, and his first is a nod to a saint best known for his charity and compassion. While we haven’t completely ruled out having a third child, it’s pretty unlikely. I require space and time for my body and soul to heal after labor, and I can’t imagine going through pregnancy again.
If this is the way my childbearing journey ends, I am fully at peace with it. I ended things on my terms, with a labor and delivery that was restorative and helped me to realize that, regardless of how imperfect I may feel, I have been party to a miracle not once, but twice. I sometimes think we forget how mystical birth truly is, and how sacred each of us is in turn. I’ll never be able to forget that now.
illustrations Victoria Allen
photo courtesy of the author; taken by Rea Keith