"This story comes to us from a previous client who, despite several obstacles, had an amazing birth. This story highlights in detail what it is a doula ACTUALLY does. Stereotypes and preconceptions aside, this is how we as doulas help support families to feel confident in themselves. We are not there to do it for them, we CAN'T do it for them....we are there to make sure they are informed, loved, and feel heard every step of the way without our own agenda. Even when things don't go as planned, a doula helps you to find your path and feel confident in the decisions you're making."
At the time, she was dubbed “Baby Poptart,” and no one but God and my very precocious 3 year old knew she was a girl. We were, of course, already in love with her, but worried a bit too. Not about her health, no, everything seemed on track and we had no reason to expect anything was off - and I’ll save you skipping to the end - nothing was, she was perfectly healthy. No, we were worried because we ended up in the middle of a situation in which we had far less control than we should have we had. Let me start at the beginning, 3 years prior.
Our first child, Lily, was born in a fairly typical American way. We had the typical prenatal care at a large office who knew me by records only and still couldn't pronounce my fairly simple last name correctly by 6 weeks postpartum. They didn’t know much about the endometriosis I carried, nor the Factor V Leiden discovered while searching for the hemophilia that runs in the family (but has apparently, and thankfully, skipped me). They told me when I needed what, and I did it. I was fairly content, I didn’t like it anymore then dentist visits, but it was all I knew. Even postpartum, when they prescribed the wrong medication twice - medications that nearly killed my breastmilk supply and medications not considered safe for nursing - even then I wasn’t thrilled with it, but I just figured I’d have to make sure to ask three times the next time, instead of twice.
During my pregnancy with her sister, Lily asked me to tell her birth story over and over. She was curious about the coming of Baby Poptart. “My sister,” she would say. This is what I tell her:
On the morning you were born, I woke up very early. I knew something was different, but we were already scheduled to go to the hospital later, so we waited. When we got there, no one was helping us and I was mad at Daddy because he was watching the TV - there was a big storm somewhere. I was uncomfortable, but I knew you were coming, and I was happy about that. I kept saying to your Daddy, “Don’t watch the TV! Help me! Hold me!” And Daddy kept watching the TV, but he held me too. Finally some nurses came and took us to a room, and got me setup in bed, and your Mema was there too, and she read me quiz questions while I felt you getting ready to come. My contractions kept coming stronger and stronger, and I would stop, and sometimes I would yell, like this, and then it would be ok again for a little bit. It hurt, but I was excited because I knew you were coming. Pretty soon I wanted to push, but they told me to wait. Then, finally, you were ready, and the doctor was ready, and Mema was there and Daddy was there, and I pushed, and yelled, like this, and then I pushed and yelled again, and pretty soon, you were born. And then I heard you cry for the very first time, a brand new cry. You were the most beautiful sound I ever heard. And I was naked, and you were naked. Later, they put you on my chest, and do you know what you did? You opened your mouth like this, and you wiggled your way up to my chest, and you latched on and nursed for the very first time.
That is what I tell her. It is the best parts of the story. I do not tell her about how my Mom and my husband held my knees up past my shoulders, hard, just as they were instructed. I do not tell them about the agony and the way I looked at her father, pleading at the top of my lungs, over and over for someone to help me. I do not tell her about how vulnerable I felt, with my knees held high. How everytime my husband let off a bit of pressure to stop and console me, someone interrupted him and told him to press my knee up there, harder, firmer, to not let up. These are the things you do not tell, the feelings of helplessness you hope your daughter will never experience. I want to tell her instead about the sound of her voice, about her very first latch, about how everyone raved about her hair, even when I was still pushing! About how much we loved her, even then, before we met. I didn’t tell her about how I was in pain for almost a year after she was born. So much pain. I had horrible tearing, my pelvis was terribly out of alignment, and the emotions I suppressed because everyone around me told me to “snap out of it” were devastating. But we were so excited to have her in our lives. It was worth it, we said. And we knew we would eventually try again.
This pregnancy was different. We had tried for so long, it seemed. When I did think I was pregnant, I went to the local pregnancy clinic. I had no insurance. I didn’t tell my husband, I didn’t want it to be another let down if I wasn’t pregnant. But I was. And then I couldn’t tell him, because I’d not told him already. So I waited until I was far enough along to return for an ultrasound. No baby, they told me. We’re very sorry. Prepare for a D&C, but you can go to this doctor to get an ultrasound to confirm and see how things are progressing - in a week. My toddler was with me. She understood too much, but she was just taking it all in. She didn’t talk about it. And so I waited, for a week, not telling anyone. Between Lily and I, there was a great sadness. We nursed a lot. We shared a secret a toddler should not have to share. I didn’t know how to save her from it. But I held out hope. Perhaps they were wrong.
On March 26th, she was again with me when we went for the ultrasound. We waited over an hour, my toddler standing by my knee, my hands sweating. The office was filthy. There was barely any paperwork, and they scrawled handwritten answers to questions on paper that I was sure would never be entered anywhere. But this was the doctor who could get me on MomCare, the insurance I needed no matter the results of the day. The equipment was old and basic. The doctor was curt. There’s a baby, there’s a heartbeat, you’re at 7 weeks. I should have been at 9 weeks dating my by last menstrual cycle. I took the good news. Lily took the small ultrasound picture she was handed. “It’s a girl,” she said. “I know.”
I’d tell my husband then, I promised myself. But I waited. Finally, we went out for dinner, sat in a huge corner booth, just the three of us. I slipped Lily the ultrasound picture, and she gave it to Eric. He looked at it and said, “What’s this?” I wanted to crawl under the bench and disappear. Lily didn’t say anything. I knew I had surprised him, and his anxious apologies should have melted me right away, but it was too much. I left it at that for a while, I didn’t tell him more.
Finally, I calmed down. I held Lily tight. I ate my pizza. We were silent. “Baby Salad Dressing?” Eric asked. Lily had dubbed herself “Baby Crouton” one feverish night, and it had stuck. I gave him a look. Not going to cut it. How about Baby Poptart? I asked. Yes, Baby Poptart it was. “Baby Poptart is a girl!” Lily said.
It was much later, without Lily around when I told him the whole story. We started to feel good about things, grateful ready, excited. The birth center was nice, Lily was comfortable there, things seemed much better. Still, there were tiny issues that I overlooked because I figured it was what it was. I kept thinking about all the families I knew that had experienced wonderful home births, how they raved about their experiences, how I wanted to be able to feel that way. But I figured I would settle for what I could get. We had a tiny rented condo. The birth center was going to be great. Then, around 20 weeks along, the day before I left for a three week trip out of state, I got a call from the birth center. I was hoping they were calling with the update from the doctor. They were, I had been told, waiting to see what else the doctor might want them to do in regards to my Factor V Leiden. Probably extra ultrasounds, as I had with Lily. The voice on the end of the line was brief, “I’m sorry, we cannot continue your care.” I was shocked! I had never been told this was a possibility!
I left home in shock, and tried to figure out what I was going to do. Everyone suggested homebirth, including Eric. I was surprised but encouraged. If he wanted to do it, I wanted it too. So at about 30 weeks pregnant, we started care with in Lakeland with a midwifery office. But they too were concerned. I had to wait on them to contact doctors, and doctors to contact them, and for appointments to go and find out if they would be able to deliver my baby at home.
I had a horrible appointment with a doctor who laughed and me and told me I was crazy for wanting a home birth. She told me the only way to keep my baby safe was to deliver at her hospital, and to have my remaining prenatal care done through them. I called my midwives. This must be a mistake! They set up another appointment with another doctor. Meanwhile time was ticking.
Finally I had a good appointment with a doctor, he admittedly didn’t like the idea of a homebirth, but he said it was really up to us at that point, it seemed like a very healthy pregnancy and the risk was very low. But there was something odd, the paperwork he had listed my condition as “homogenous” which doesn’t apply - it’s either heterozygous or homozygous. Things seemed off but between my nervousness, excitement at having a doctor who seemed positive, and wrestling a toddler who didn’t like being in a doctor’s office, I didn’t catch the huge issue. I would later kick myself for not stopping there and calling my midwife for clarification, but it was done. On paper, I was deemed homozygous, the higher risk version of Factor V Leiden, which routinely calls for prophylactic doses of serious anticoagulants. In reality, I have heterozygous FVL, which is a significantly lower risk and does not routinely call for prophylactic anticoagulants. However, the paperwork mistake was going to be a road block, the midwives told me. They put in calls to the doctor’s office to get things corrected and to try for a change of recommendation. I called the doctor’s office daily. We waited, hoping that we’d get an ok for homebirth in time.
Throughout all this, I continued my prenatal appointments with the midwives. We prepared for both home birth and hospital birth. Lily watched home birth videos with me. She talked constantly about our homebirth and how things would work and what she would do. We didn’t want to think about the possibility that we’d be forced to go to the hospital, but knew we had to prepare for it anyway.
At the very wise advice of many friends, we hired a doula. Charlie from Barefoot Birth was the best thing that happened to us during our pregnancy. She brought a calm confidence to our home, and while we held out hope for our home birth, we felt more confident in our preparations for a hospital birth. I knew that even when Eric didn’t remember the words to say, Charlie would be there. I knew if Eric needed to be with Lily, Charlie would be there. And if I flipped out and started screaming bloody murder, Charlie would keep both of us from completely losing our minds.
But we didn’t even need rescuing. Instead, we arrived at the moment with that same calm confidence and strength, sure of the things Charlie had helped prepare us for in just a few short weeks. I was sure of myself. We were ready for labor, even when things started way before anyone guessed, while our kitchen was full of the supplies I had purchased for making post-baby freezer meals.
It was Monday, and the next day was the presidential election. Eric wanted to go to bed early. I wanted us to make 80 freezer meals and clean the entire house with a toothbrush. I hadn’t eaten much all day, even passing on my traditional 3 dinners (nursing a toddler while pregnant is a wonderful thing in many ways!). We should have known something was up!
I made Eric get up and run a bath. He started to go back to bed, then thought better about it and stayed by my side. I asked him for music, and I think at that point he started to realize this was not just trouble sleeping. I relaxed in the tub, listening to music, sipping homemade laborade. Charlie had told us to call her if we had even a hint of labor, but I wanted to be sure. It felt so calm, so easy in the tub, that I thought for sure it was just the Braxton Hicks I hadn’t yet experienced this pregnancy. I had been meaning to download a contraction timer, but hadn’t gotten to it yet. So I sat in the tub and waited for one to download. By 1pm my contractions were consistently 45-50 seconds long and 3 minutes apart. Eric called Charlie. Then, as instructed, he called our midwives. We still didn’t know if we’d be able have them deliver our baby at home.
No, they said, they couldn’t perform our home birth. We breathed a big collective resolute sigh, and we held hands tightly. OK, we said, lets do this.
Charlie arrived and helped Eric with things, checking in on me but letting me labor on my own. I enjoyed it. Really enjoyed it. I joked, I breathed, I moved around when and how I wanted. Charlie helped us get ready to head to the hospital. We had nothing ready. “That’s on my list for next week,” I joked. It was. I went into our room, climbed in our family bed, and nursed Lily for as long as she wanted. She stayed sleeping, half awake but not enough to process. So I just whispered “I love you” and told her I would see her soon. She had never been without me all night before. I held her tight one last time, worried but confident she would do well. Nana, her favorite neighborhood grandma, would stay until she woke and then bring her to meet us when we were ready. With a few last moment instructions to Nana - she can’t say “scary,” it sounds like “sarie” and she can’t have milk, and she gets scared at Strawberry shortcake - we left, and Charlie followed us to the hospital. I had already been in active labor for around four hours or so, the times blur.
Charlie kept reminding Eric what to do, keeping him calm. He was oh so much more helpful then he was the first time. He’d look frazzled, and Charlie would say something reassuring, and all the sudden he was reassuring too. I suddenly wished I could hire her for everyday life. I kept checking that Eric had packed my camera.
I threw up in the bathroom, and Charlie came in and checked on me. I remember thinking, if she wasn’t there, I would have been in there alone, wishing Eric would think to come check on me but knowing he was probably outside freaking out.
We were assigned a room. I let Charlie answer the questions that annoyed me. I looked to her for answers when I wasn’t sure what something really meant or what my options were. She kept Eric breathing, the nurses moving on quickly, and me left alone to labor at peace as needed, or given a hand or a backrub or a word of encouragement exactly when needed.
I think it was past 4am by the time we had a room, and so far I was delighted that I’d been allowed to move around, stand, mostly shut everyone out. I longed for my tub, but I felt pretty good.
From there it was a bit of a blur to me. Charlie told me over and over that I was “almost there, almost there,” to the point that I, mid labor, started joking about it. The labor made me ready and eager for pushing, but the pain of pushing was one I had never truly known. It was raw, real, painful beyond what I was ready for - but I felt my body embrace it. Charlie reminded me, over and over and over, to let it out, breathe through it, push hard, bear down if I needed to... she was my watchdog, making sure the doctors and nurses let me do my own thing, answering questions that I couldn’t even understand so that I didn’t have to break my concentration. I’d hear them ask something, and I’d look at her, and I’d see her answer, and I’d nod, or she’d rephrase something for me, and I’d answer simply, half out of breath, and she would rephrase my desperate gasps to an answer that worked for those attending. For the most part, they didn’t disturb me.
I finally crawled on the bed, half on my side, tired of hearing the nurses tell me not to have the baby on the floor. I kept thinking, really, how many babies just slide right out with no notice? I remember being a bit amused at their worry. I did my thing until I was ready, really ready. Even then, I wanted to be on my side because it cut some of the pain that was radiating out my hip, but they wanted so badly to have me on my back, hips flat on the table. Charlie held my hand and let me know I could do what I wanted to do. At one point they tried to put my feet in the stirrups and I nearly jumped off the table, but Charlie put up her hand and informed them strongly that that I did not want that, not one bit, and they looked at her like kids told to “sit down!” and put the stirrups away and didn’t mention them again. I remember thinking, that’s past, that’s a huge hurdle passed, and I will have this baby on my own. I will stretch my legs, I will wiggle, I will writhe in pain. And it will be good. And it was. I screamed through the pain, but I didn’t scream in broken agony. I screamed in determined pain. And then, she was here, welcomed home. We cried together.
Baby Poptart was born naturally at 6:50am, while devastating winter storms shut down the NorthEast and Obama gathered the first votes that would lead to his reelection. But at the moment, all we knew was her. We held her, her umbilical cord still attached and pulsing while my we waited patiently on the placenta to emerge. It was so calm. No one took my baby, cleaned her, put her under a warmer. I was her warmth, and she was allowed to be, natural, naked. A nurse came by and wrapped her up and stuck a little hat on her head that stayed on for all of 30 seconds. I told her we didn’t need it. She said she must - but when it came off, we left it off, and if anyone cared, I didn’t hear. When she was ready, we nursed. And in a few hours, when her big sister came to meet her, they nursed together for the first time.
Lily was excited to point out that Baby Poptart was a girl, afterall. She was Baby Poptart for three days before she became Thea Jayne, her first name a distant cousin to the winter storm Athena that brewed in our home states as she was born. It wasn’t a name on our list, but it was perfect for her. She was here, and she was ours. Her birth, tho not the home birth we had dreamed of, left a fantastic taste for natural birth. I said right away I’d do it again. And I would. Maybe next time at home, but even if my blood conditions prevent that, I know I can have a peaceful, amazing birth without compromises. I know now just how much my body can do and how peaceful birth can be - no matter where.
Jessica is a wife and mama to two sweet girls. She is also a fantastic photographer here in the Tampa area. You can see her work at www.jessicaschaeferphotography.com/
A special thanks to Lee Anne Roquemore of Remarkable Photography for sharing these beautiful pictures from Jessica's birth with us. You can see more of Lee Anne's work at www.whatisremarkable.com