When I heard about women who, in the age of epidurals, chose to have a natural birth, I thought they were crazy. Why would someone choose to undergo that kind of pain when they don’t have to? Particularly when the media portrays childbirth as nearly barbaric, with women screaming and uttering terrible things to their partners, who wouldn’t be afraid of childbirth? Even very strong women I know had shared birth stories that made me squeeze my legs shut. If women whom I knew and looked up to, who were both mentally and physically strong, seemed to suffer so much, how was I supposed to bear it? With these ideas and birth stories in mind, I had a lot of fear surrounding childbirth. So, I wanted whatever made it fast and as painless as possible.
That changed when I read Mary Haseltine’s incredible book, Made For This: The Catholic Mom’s Guide to Birth. Don’t get me wrong—I still was hoping for a three-hour, painless labor (one can dream, right?)—but my mentality around birth completely shifted. Haseltine unpacks everything a mom needs to know about pregnancy and childbirth—from practical advice such as what foods are best to eat, which exercises help prepare you, and what the stages of labor entail, to the emotional and spiritual side of pregnancy and birth, such as addressing preconceived notions of birth (like I had) and the beautiful theology of birth.
The theology of birth, Haseltine explains, allows women to participate in Jesus’ suffering, death, and gift of new life: “Just as Christ first offered His body and blood in the Eucharist at the Last Supper, so a woman offers her body to the infant in her womb at conception and throughout pregnancy. And just as that first Eucharistic celebration culminated in the great sacrifice of the Cross, so a woman reaches that culmination of her bodily offering in the great sacrifice of birth.” What a beautiful and profound reality. Mothers have the unique opportunity and privilege to unite with Jesus in His redemptive suffering, to literally bring about new life. Yes, in birth there would be physical suffering, but through it I would be able to share in a small piece of how Jesus lovingly gave up His body for me, as I would do for my child.
As I read this beautiful description of how mothers get to share in Christ’s cross in a special way, the different stages of labor and birth, and how God so perfectly designed the female body, I was truly in awe. Slowly, I felt the fear turn to wonder, the nerves turn to excitement, the bloody images turn to beauty, the chaos to peace. It was while pouring over these pages, that I got what I would have previously thought of as a crazy idea: I wanted to give birth naturally. Yes, it would be work (that’s why it’s called labor) and most likely not pain-free. But reading about the delicate interplay of a woman’s hormones, organs, and her baby during labor and birth, I found myself wanting to experience that perfectly designed cascade of events myself. After all, I was made for this.
Once I realized that a natural birth was my goal, I needed positive stories about birth that would encourage and empower me, rather than leave me filled with more terror and anxiety about birth. I share my birth story that it might be a source of hope, empowerment, and a tribute to the strength of all mothers that I needed when I was pregnant. Regardless of how you choose to or end up having a baby—through natural delivery, use of epidural, C-section, or adoption!—it is equally worthy of praise. You are made for being a mother to this baby, and how you bring them into the world is nothing short of a miracle. After my birth experience, I was even more amazed by and in awe of women. I felt physically empowered—I could do anything! Through this miraculous event, I had just given birth to a tiny, perfect human being. I felt strong, loved, and perfectly made, and I hope my story helps you feel that way, too.
“No matter what kind of birth you have, there is opportunity for grace and growth, and an offering of self.” -Mary Haseltine
My Birth Story
The weekend before Lucy was born, at 38 weeks pregnant, I had finally picked up some diapers and wipes “just in case” the baby comes early. The day before Lucy was born, I spent the whole day at a coffee shop finally working on a blog post I had been wanting to finish for months. We had a routine appointment with our midwife on Tuesday morning, and she said everything looked normal and there were no indications of labor, as we expected. Anthony had suggested that we go on a date Tuesday night, since Tuesday had been the night we went to our birth class for the last five weeks, so we finally had a free evening. Hilariously (or with a mother’s intuition…) I suggested he finish the final coat of the hardwood floors he was refinishing “just in case” the baby came early and we would go on a date on Wednesday night. Tuesday night, Anthony finished the floors, I finally set up the changing table, and we hung the “Baby” sign that my mother-in-law made in the nursery before going to bed.
Well, at about 3am that night I woke up to find the sheets beneath me completely soaked. I had recently got up to go to the bathroom, so I was pretty sure I hadn’t just wet the bed. Nervously yet excitedly, I leaned over and shook Anthony, “Anthony! I think my water broke!” (He claims he woke up to a sharp elbow in his side, but I beg to differ.) Anthony, still dazed from being aggressively awoken in the middle of the night, looked at me for a moment then asked if I was sure. (Unlike the movies would have you believe, only 10% of women experience their water breaking before contractions start—so we were a bit surprised.) I was sure. We called our midwife to let her know, and contractions started within minutes after hanging up. They weren’t yet painful, only like mild menstrual cramps; nonetheless, I couldn’t sleep! I was too anxious and excited. We were going to get to meet our baby so soon! The moment I had long awaited was finally here.
Contractions quickly ramped up (once the water breaks labor is usually more intense and can progress more rapidly) and Anthony began timing them. He brought me snacks in bed so I could fuel up for the work ahead. As contractions increased in frequency, I found myself shaking (apparently “the labor shakes” are a thing) and getting more anxious. Around 6am, I called my mom to let her know my water had broken; I just needed to hear her voice.
After about an hour more of getting in the shower and trying to relax in bed, I decided it was time to go to the hospital. I wanted to labor at home as long as possible, but contractions were only one to two minutes apart, and I didn’t know how fast things would progress. Around 7am, we left for the hospital. Every bump and pothole on the way to the hospital made me very glad we were headed in sooner than later.
Climbing my Calvary
Anthony dropped me off, and I walked carefully to the labor and delivery triage. I responded slowly and quietly as the nurses checked me in, taking deep breaths, keeping my eyes half closed so as to block out the bright fluorescent lights. They finally took me to a room, where Anthony met me soon after. He dimmed the lights while I changed into a gown.
Now, my cousin Caroline (who just wrote a beautiful post on spiritual preparation for birth) had given birth to her daughter a month before, and she was already eight centimeters dilated when they checked her in. So, around 8am, when it was time for my first cervical check, I was hoping to be pretty far along, too. Well, I had a feeling I wasn’t quite an eight when the nurse let out an exasperated sigh.
“Is it good news or bad news?” I asked nervously.
She looked up at me, “Honey, you’re at a one.”
My face fell as I couldn’t believe what she just said, given my discomfort and the closeness of contractions.
“It’s gonna be a long day,” the nurse said as she patted my shoulder and walked out.
"Dang it!” I was so angry and felt so stupid. Immediately, I began to doubt whether I could give birth a naturally if I was only one centimeter dilated after five hours of pretty intense labor. Anthony, reading my thoughts, reminded me how quickly I could progress, especially since my water had already broken. Our midwife, Sarah, arrived and discussed our options; I could go home and come back when I felt labor had progressed more, or I could go to a labor & delivery room. I did not want to get back in that car still pregnant, and I could feel that—despite my lack of dilation—things were ramping up, so without hesitation we decided to stay. She asked me if I still wanted to use the natural birthing suite—a room in the hospital in which mimics a bedroom rather than a hospital room, reserved for women who want to deliver naturally. If a woman wants an epidural, she has to leave that room, so even though I thought an epidural might be inevitable at this point, I said yes and stuck to our original plan.
By 8:30am we were settled in our room. I had been having back labor, which meant the baby was “sunny side up” rather than facing my back, which is optimal for birth. My L&D nurse, Julie, had me lean on the end of the bed, wrapped a blanket around my belly, and shimmied it back and forth, to get the baby to turn. Contractions continued to be close together, and I felt like I couldn’t get much reprieve between them, as I anticipated I would in the early phase of labor. Julie suggested that I get in the bath, so by 9:30am, I was laboring in the tub. Julie placed a wet towel over my side and a “peanut” (a giant peanut-shaped yoga ball) between my knees to help with dilation. After Anthony let our families and prayer warriors know that Baby Chun was definitely on the way, he sat by my side, holding my hand. All I really remember from that time was clinging to Anthony, my elbow around his neck as he hunched over the side of the tub, his forehead pressed against mine, and hearing him whisper exactly what I needed to hear each moment.
After quite some time (hours?) spent in the tub, I moved to various positions in my room, squatting or using the peanut to keep progressing. Anthony was my rock throughout this whole time—providing counter pressure to my hips, offering me water, speaking affirmations to me, rubbing my back, and gently reminding me to breathe. I was literally and figuratively leaning on him near-constantly.
I am not afraid, God is with me, I was born to do this. -St. Joan of Arc
This is my Body, Given up for You
I’m not sure what time it was—sometime around noon, I’d guess—I looked up at Anthony and verbalized the fear I’d been harboring since that first cervical check, “I don’t know if I can do this. I think I might need it…”
“Need what…” He asked, lovingly yet knowingly.
“...Medication…” I couldn’t even say the word “epidural” for fear that speaking it aloud would cement the fact that I had given in mentally. He squeezed my hand and whispered, “I’ll support you in whatever you do, but I know you can do this.” Searching for an out, I looked at Julie, and asked what she thought. In that moment, Julie confidently spoke the truth I needed (but didn’t want) to hear, “You can do this, Kelsey! You’re strong!” Despite my own lack of self-confidence, I also knew that if I wanted an epidural, I’d have to get up and change rooms, and getting out of the bed was the last thing I wanted to do. Reading my self-doubt, she asked, “Do you want me to do a check?” Having been only one centimeter dilated just a few hours ago, the last thing I wanted was to hear another disheartening number. “Let me get through a few more contractions,” I responded hesitantly. After a couple more contractions, I had to know where I was at. I knew that if she said four or less (four is the beginning of active labor) I would opt for an epidural. As soon as she checked me Julie perked up, “You’re at a seven!” Seven! I breathed a sigh of relief. I knew the imminent phase, the transition phase, would be the hardest part of labor, but I also knew it was supposed to be the fastest. I felt there was no turning back now—I was so close to meeting this baby! Julie cautioned, “Your head’s gonna start spinning.”
And spin it did. As I entered transition, I became even less aware of my surroundings. My eyes were fully closed except to look at Anthony. He continued to whisper encouragement to me, “Kel, you were made for this!” The little time between contractions, I worried about the pain of the next one, as they continued to mount. As soon as I felt a contraction kick in, so would my fear of what I knew was next. Anthony reminded me to inhale and fill up my belly with each contraction, rather than tense up, as I was inclined to do. I started to cry as the contractions got worse; I felt like Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, I just wanted this cup to pass away from me. I just wanted someone to take away the pain, for someone else to do it. I whimpered as I knew the truth: this was my cross, and no one could bear it for me. Anthony and I had been praying together throughout the day, but at this point I told him to pray Hail Mary’s; I couldn’t verbalize prayers any longer.
As the contractions got worse, I started to unintentionally push at the end of each. I don’t know how long I was in transition; it probably took 30 minutes, maybe more. But by 12:45pm, my midwife checked me and exclaimed, “You’re at a 10, Kelsey! You can start pushing!” I was too focused to realize that that meant I had dilated nine centimeters in less than four hours. I looked directly at Sarah and asked her how long the pushing takes. She hemmed and hawed as I saw her calculating the answer she would give a mom about to start pushing. Before she had a chance to answer I added sternly, “Tell me the truth.” She paused, “Well, it can take 30 minutes to an hour for some moms, but it can take up to three hours for new moms.” I didn’t say anything, but all I could think is that this was not going to last three more hours!
Unlike the previous stages of labor, I was finally able to get some decent time between contractions, which gave me time to recharge and regain some lucidity. Anthony held one of my legs, and nurse Julie held the other as I pushed. As planned, Anthony named prayer intentions at the beginning of every contraction/push. That was so motivating, because I felt like I was pushing for something (or someone). After some time, Sarah exclaimed, “Your baby has hair!” as she could finally see the top of Lucy’s head. Anthony kept looking at the baby then returning to my side, his eyes lit up with his obvious excitement, “You’re almost there, Kel!” I guess I got too excited by all this because I thought she would be out any minute, and I was tired and frustrated that it seemed to be taking so long.
After almost an hour of pushing, I knew birth must be imminent because Sarah set up a light at the foot of the bed with plastic mats under me. I asked Sarah how many more pushes before she thought the head would be completely out, “Not this one, but maybe the next one,” she responded.
“I’ll take that as a challenge,” I declared competitively. Well, Sarah was right, because about two pushes later, it was happening. I gave one solid push and the baby’s head started to more fully emerge. Immediately, Sarah cautioned, “Easy, easy, easy, little pushes—’huh, huh, huh, huh’.” I took short, shallow breaths, and almost instantly some of the pressure was gone as the baby’s head popped out. “What do I do now?” I asked
“If you want to go ahead and push the baby’s shoulders, go for it.”
“Yeah,” I responded before she had even finished.
I gave another big push with everything I had. This was it. “Baby’s top shoulder is out,” Sarah said.
I gave one final push to get the bottom shoulder out. Immediately, I felt relief as the rest of the baby literally slipped out at 1:45pm.
“Whatcha got?!” Sarah announced as she held up the baby.
There was a pregnant pause as Anthony and I tried to see behind the umbilical cord hanging between the baby’s legs.
“It’s a girl!” We half-whimpered, half-exclaimed, at the the same time. I couldn’t believe it! Since the moment I found out I was pregnant, I held fast to the belief that I was having a boy.
She let out her first cry as they laid our girl on my chest and I wrapped my hands around her perfect body. “You did it!” Julie and Sarah cheered. Anthony leaned his forehead on mine as we melted into a puddle of tears. I looked down at her through glistening tears, “Hi, Sweetie.” I turned to Anthony, “That’s our baby!”
The next hour truly felt like heaven, as we got to know our sweet girl face-to-face for the first time. No phones, no hospital staff, no interruptions, just Anthony and I and our love incarnate.