Without so much as a Tylenol

In which we meet the end result of our Contrarian, Part Deux project

Homer, Alaska.  Tuesday, 30 August, 2011.

It was already three days past her due date, and when Cathy woke up about 11:30pm, she pretty quickly recognized the early labor for what it was.  You know, the benefit of experience and all.  (Our first child, Sabre, had come so early that we didn’t even realize Mom had been in “real” labor until it was essentially complete…making both for a pretty interesting story of its own, and also for a greater degree of confidence at subsequent self-assessment.)  Cathy lay down on the couch in our little apartment and tried to relax, not sensing that the need to make the call was immediate.

At some point in the early morning, Kevin made the call to the midwifery, and all agreed that we should come in when we could, but that there was probably no need to rush.  (Keep in mind that the midwifery was 75 miles away, up the road in Soldotna.  In hindsight, the fact that we handled the mental gatekeeping of that logistical risk as coolly as we did, actually seems sorta impressive.)  So, we decided to wait until 5am to call Cheryl, who had agreed to take 2½-year-old Sabre when the time came, to strike the right balance between polite and prudent.

Go-bags checked.  Cooler of food assembled.  Call made.  Car prepped and pulled to the entrance foyer of the little apartment building, on account of the non-trivial overnight rain.  Sleepy Sabre carried, in PJs, to the car.  Cathy in.  Bags in.  Dad in.  (At least, I’m pretty sure of that last part.)  And we were off.

First, up the hill just a bit to drop Sabre at her friend Maddie’s house;  this went smoothly with a very gracious and understanding Cheryl.  The kiddo was clearly a bit bewildered, but she did remember that this was the plan, and between the known comfort zone, the excitement, a few hugs from Dad, and her own sleepiness, she was a trooper about it all.  Cool!  So:  back down the hill, through town, up and over Baycrest hill in the now-truly-pouring rain, and on the road north.  Breathe.


You know, it is an interesting thing, to settle in for an hour-and-a-half drive, in the dark, in the pouring rain, with your wife in active labor.  Ordinarily, I quite relish the sense of being a captive audience while driving, unable to do much other than listen, chat, or think—because the situation essentially frees me up to enjoy doing those simple things.  Let’s just say that the psychology is a little different with the knowledge that the ride is almost certainly distinctly uncomfortable for your passenger.

I’d figured I’d have to beware of my tendency to chatter—you know, that point where “occupy her mind elsewhere if possible” becomes “will this well-intentioned idiot ever just shut up?”  I’d want to be careful to keep the balance on the constructive side of annoying.  After all, I’m essentially trying to be a doula here, not sound-for-the-sake-of-sound.  I had car music ready, but initially put it off, not wanting to try and compete with the rain for background noise.  I verbally checked in with her about half as often as I thought was prudent (which was about half as often again as I’d want to), and managed to keep the bulk of my other comments about the rain and the road.  It must have been okay, and after a bit of trial-and-error, Cathy even seemed to find an acceptable sideways-sitting-reclining position in our trusty little electric-blue Jeep Patriot.

And my mind was certainly occupied.  Once on the road, I couldn’t help but recall the story of a KBC coworker’s middle son, who apparently decided he couldn’t wait long enough to make it all the way to Soldotna for his own birth;  once they realized he was coming right now, they were able to pull off the road and successfully deliver him…at the Ninilchik solid waste transfer station.  (Yes, you read that right.  I do wonder what that poor boy must have to put up with, from his four brothers and parents, about his being born at the dump.)

So here I am, driving through a driving rain that requires even more concentration than usual (not a trivial consideration, considering the number of annual moose collisions all those signs remind us of), head filled with all sorts of nonconstructive what-if thoughts, desperately wanting to be at least reasonably calming, wondering every five seconds or so if I should check in and see if there is something needed…you get the picture.

So really, I thought it was quite considerate of her when Cathy fell asleep.

I became aware of this gradually, as we started to come out of the heavy rain and I could hear a soft snore.  Really?  Holy smackers, that’s awesome!  (I’d remembered hearing that Cathy’s mom had fallen asleep in one of her labors at one point, but sure as hell wasn’t anticipating that here!)  At first, she’d sleep just until the next contraction hit, but she quickly got so deft at surfing them calmly that at some point she just started snoring right through them ad seriatim.  (At least I can’t believe that they somehow stopped for…at least a good half-hour.)  Then we drove out of the rain completely, and it started to get light in the sky, first through the clouds and then as the clouds broke apart.  This made the ride suddenly seem very quiet, and I found myself extremely preoccupied with not being the thing that would wake her up—Rule #1 in problem solving being don’t create one.)  Unfortunately I must have started relaxing a bit myself, as I started to get sleepy—and when I get sleepy while driving a car, my secret weapon is music.  Gah!  Switching on music, even to the relatively low level at which my peripheral brain can chew on it as a background task, is just the sort of change that can wake her up…but on the other hand, I had no interest in taking risks at that exact moment.  I started resorting to little tricks, from seat-shifting to low-grade self-flagellation, and taking lots of little sips of the water bottle.

These minor-caliber shenanigans worked long enough that she woke up on her own, just before I was going to have to resort to the music anyway.  She rolled her eyes at me when I told her this, as if to say of course, silly man, I know you’re better with tunes for your brain to chew on;  and the last bit of the trip was very nearly what I might have expected in the first place.

And so we arrived, in good shape, at Woman’s Way Midwifery and birthing center in Soldotna at about 7:30am on Wednesday August 31st, for the first time using the bottom entrance instead of the main one.  (The things you remember.)  As Cathy got situated with Andrea and Eva, I got the food and music set up, and we all settled in for the long haul.

The music was the same mix of newgrass music—Bela Fleck, Tony Rice, and a whole lot of Sam Bush—that we had used at Sabre’s birth;  we had both enjoyed that experience so much we felt no need to change it.  The food incorporated a decent general raid into our refrigerator, and so there were a number of options available, but what really worked for Cathy on this occasion seemed to be light, watery foods—grapes in particular.  Very well then, this outfit aims to please.  Who knows, on a different occasion it may have been something else!

It was “normal” labor for a good while, with an occasional hint of back labor but nothing like the harshly painful experience of Sabre’s early labor.  At our most recent prenatal appointments we had sometimes noted that the baby seemed to be turned for back labor, but somehow by this point the kiddo seemed to have decided to line up properly after all.  The first manual exam showed everything proceeding normally, and Kevin even found some of his doula mojo in providing Cathy with a steady supply of cool rags, food and water, and just enough encouragement to be helpful without smothering.

At some point we tried the tub for a while.  (The possibility of a water birth still intrigues us both;  not only does it seem to have some nice possible advantages for the mother, but it is absolutely fascinating that there is almost no risk of drowning for the baby:  it seems that the kid somehow knows not to try to draw anything into its lungs until air hits its face.)  This felt great to Cathy at first, but after a while Andrea suggested we abandon it—it may have been that it was so relaxing that it actually started to slow things down!

So, back out and at it again.  More cool rags, water, food, hands on shoulders, move around as appropriate.  Cathy remembers less walking around here, than with Sabre before.  The midwives continued to rotate in and out over time, always being available but not necessarily being right there with us at every moment.  At one point after using the bathroom, Cathy actually heard her water break with an audible pop;  again, very different from the tablespoon-at-a-time experience with Sabre.

It was Kevin who noticed when a change began to happen in the contractions—really, it was a shift in Cathy’s attitude.  It wasn’t so much despairing as it just seemed a bit weary, but (contrarily) with a sense of her being ready to help it along now, in the interest of moving things forward.  Kevin fetched the midwives from upstairs, and before long the suspicion was confirmed:  full dilation and effacement, and ready for pushing.  Time to have us a baby!

As with Sabre, the final delivery came on the bed, and the midwives very graciously and supportively set Kevin up with the catcher’s role.  The pushing segment was short, only sixteen minutes, with the same rhythmic sequence of digital perineal support during the push, a hold and encourage while keeping everything oiled up and running checks on mom and baby, and then breathing for the next hit, that we’d first done 2½ years prior.  It works!

Sabre had come out across two pushes:  one crowning and delivering the head, and then a rest before delivering shoulders and body.  This baby, though, did it all at once, and when it came, it came out fast.  Kevin wasn’t quite expecting the full kid that fast, and Andrea had to assist with a large, slippery baby.

Still, here she was!  At 1:01pm Wednesday, August 31st, 2011, after 13½ hours of labor and just 16 minutes of pushing, we had us a baby girl, Cordelia Janelle Wilmeth.

(Neither of those is a family name.  We just liked Cordelia, figuring on Delia for short, although in the end we usually call her simply Dee.  Janelle is after “The Countess”, Janelle Cooper, the rock of the late Jeff Cooper’s life and one of the most impressive people I have ever met.)

We got her up onto a happy Mom, but the umbilical cord was just short enough to prevent nursing.

And here began the scare of the day.

After the delivery, there was quite a bit of blood—more than Andrea was expecting.  (In hindsight, Cathy notes that midwives made the same observation at Sabre’s birth.)  Given the amount of blood and the elapsed time since the delivery, Andrea became increasingly worried that the placenta had not yet been delivered.  Ordinarily, a placenta will follow the baby relatively quickly, closing off its blood supply before sloughing off naturally inside the womb and coming out;  this makes it possible to start massaging the uterus, to encourage that organ to reduce its blood flow and begin shrinking back to normal size.    You don’t want to rip the placenta off before it’s ready;  there are lots of blood vessels hooked into Mom’s body and the potential for dangerously excessive hemorrhage is significant.  And so, Andrea was understandably concerned by seeing lots of blood before seeing the placenta come out:  this probably looked very much like it might if only part of the placental interface had sloughed off, and without closing up properly—a double-whammy problem in that blood is leaking now, so you have to do something;  but you can’t do what you’d normally do (uterine massage) until the placenta comes out.

There was some sort of disagreement between Andrea and Eva about whether all this rose to the level of calling the paramedics, and at some point Kevin, having been tending to Cathy and new baby, began to realize that there might be a real problem with Mom’s health.

Quite an adrenaline rush, that.  Not really recommended.

Neither midwife ever really declared an emergency, but the paramedics were called anyway as a precaution;  they are essentially right across the street at Central Peninsula Hospital, and things happened fast.  The funny part is that it was right around that time that Cathy’s brain started to put it all together as well.  Once she realized that all this fuss was happening just because she hadn’t yet delivered the placenta, she remembers thinking, “Oh, here, let me push that out for you.”

And she did.

There it was!  Placenta looked healthy, uterine massage began, blood flow went way down, and everyone was looking much relieved about the whole thing…when the strapping young lads arrived at the door ready for an emergency transport.

Much credit to them, for handling a situation that must be at least a bit awkward and even risky for them, with an admirable grace.  They made quite sure we were all clear on what we were doing by “refusing transport”, all the while obviously understanding that it was our choice and respecting that;  it seemed evident that they had seen this sort of precautionary false alarm before, and understood it even if they could not officially recommend the course of action we chose.  And the looks on their faces made it clear that they could see that we were okay.

So we signed their papers, thanked them for their work (it truly was impressively fast, even being across the street) and sheepishly got them on their way.  Cathy, in great spirits, noted that getting such immediate attention from a team of young men is never entirely an unpleasant experience!

With that cleared up, we cut the cord, continued the uterine massage, and started the measurements.  She was clearly a big girl.  Length was 23 inches, 15½  in the chest, and 14 around the head.  I got handed the brass hand-scale to do the honors for weight, and we trussed the poor girl up.  I started lifting, and watched the needle climb past eight pounds…nine…ten?…wait, is this right?…eleven pounds on the nose.  Naw, that can’t be right;  let me do that again.

And I did.  With others watching.  Then someone else did it too.  Eleven pounds even.

Andrea even tried using a different, electronic scale, but she didn’t entirely trust it without its recalibration weight, which was missing.  That one said ten pounds fifteen ounces.  Since both Andrea and Eva trusted the hand held scale, we used the 11lb 0oz figure on the paperwork.  One way or another, a big girl indeed!  At that time, that made her the second biggest baby born at that birthing center.  (Cathy simply said, “I think I’m just happy I didn’t know about that ahead of time.”)

In the end, Cathy came through it all marvelously, and again without so much as a Tylenol.  Despite Cordelia’s size there was no tearing, but as with Sabre they put the question to us about whether or not to button things up with a couple of stitches.  Cathy elected to have the stitches and those went in without incident.

Paperwork.  Three hours’ wait before the possibility of discharge.  At some point—neither of us remembers exactly when or why—we decided to stay the night and do the 24h check onsite, rather than go home and have someone come down to Homer the next day.  Clearly this must have been okay with my work, and with Cheryl, and with the midwifery (i.e., no imminent births expected to follow ours);  it may also have facilitated the extra attention that some places like to give to 10+lb babies (checking for diabetes), and may have been conspicuously convenient for the midwives as well.  Either way, it worked well.  We had soup for dinner, called family and friends, stayed the night without incident, passed checks the next day, and headed home in the sunshine—with a stop in Ninilchik to avoid having the newborn in the carseat for the whole time.

Once we arrived back at the apartment, we got Cathy and Cordelia installed and comfortable, and then I went to pick up Sabre separately.  Once we got back home together, I asked her if she was ready to meet her new little sister.  She was, and aside from all the cute of a 2½ year old meeting a newborn who recognized her voice, there was a funny moment when we told Sabre her new sister’s name.  On hearing “Cordelia,” she paused a moment and then said, “Cow!”.  We had to laugh at that one.  (We had just recently had a book called Hortense from the library.  The book is about the adventures of Hortense Hen, Robinson Rooster, Pamela Pig, Graymore Goose, Charmaine Cat, and…Cordelia Cow.)

Amazingly enough, we had the presence of mind to capture some of this on video.


And so—you know, just like that—we had us a family of four.

The adventure continues!

As a dad, I continue to find myself absolutely awed by this process of giving birth.  One might presume that the second experience would somehow be less astounding than the first, simply because one has been there before and “seen it” already, but that is just not the way this works—at least not for me.  The whole spectacle is still far and away the most astonishing thing I have ever seen;  right out there at the limits of both my comprehension and my imagination—and I am not known for having a particularly limited imagination.

It’s hard to express how deeply I appreciate being a part of the process, too.  I think I may understand a little better, now, just how important a dad actually can be during the delivery, but I still have a nearly overwhelming sense of it being more a privilege than anything else.  To this day I remain acutely aware of just how recently I even became aware that dads could participate;  generationally I seem to be on the tail end of a cultural tradition that deliberately separated dads, and in general treated birth more as a managed medical event than a facilitated natural process.  (That is not to judge or rant, by the way;  mostly my amazement is that I myself failed for so long to realize that other options even existed.)

And of course there is the humbling realization that I am witnessing some physical feats of which I am absolutely, utterly incapable.  Metaphysical feats too:  the interactive participation of both baby and mom…the simply astounding way all these complex parts not only perform, but naturally know both how and when to perform…  The design of the whole system is just gobsmacking, both to the engineer and the artist in me.

Just how on earth does one find his place of value when all that is going on?  One could easily be forgiven for feeling like an outsider, or at least feeling unable to contribute on any level even remotely close.  And yet I can now see that a dad does belong;  I took that on faith in the beginning (on the encouragement of both Cathy and various midwives) and if it somehow still doesn’t feel adequate to me, I can still see that she means it when she says she considers it essential.

If I had to guess—and believe me, that’s all I got here—I suspect that being so far out of my league may actually be part of what makes a dad valuable after all.  In general, the birthing process does not seem to feature a lot of needs that men are known to be good at…so what is it about us that would elevate us above just being a good gopher?  I imagine it’s gotta be something, and the best thing that I’ve come up with so far is that being in over one’s head can produce a strong “whatever it takes” reaction.

Maybe there’s something to that.