I. One year ago today, labor began in earnest. After three weeks of false starts and grief induced contractions, an ugly fall on some ice followed by a day spent monitored in L&D, contractions finally began to come regularly and powerfully. It was time to welcome this new life as I grappled with the loss of one of my most dear.
I remember a day at home, worrying and laboring in the quiet of my bedroom, the place that had become my sanctuary during the scariest moments of my grief. I watched “Song of the Sea” with my girls, rocking and breathing on a yoga ball. The mother whispers to her child, “Remember me in your stories and in your songs. Know that I will always love you, always.” Tears streamed down my face in recognition.
The house was full of anticipation and yearning. My father’s watchful eye. The strong, assertive kicks from within. We all craved the arrival of this baby as a distraction, a celebration, a reminder of joy. And yet, his very arrival signaled the fierce reality of time plowing relentlessly ahead. While a part of my heart is forever trapped in February 14, 2016, this baby would not allow me to wholly stay stuck.
James and I departed for the hospital earlier than we would have under normal circumstances. But my world was upside down and nothing felt normal. How could I welcome my child into a world without my mother? So we headed for the security and comfort of my midwives who were an integral piece of my survival team during that hideous three week purgatory. I needed their presence and reassurance. I could do this, even without my mother. I could do this. I would do this.
II. After my mother’s death, I spoke at length with my midwives and James about how we were going to get me through labor and delivery.
The deepest, darkest, hardest moments of my grief were akin to the deepest, darkest, hardest moments of labor. That visceral, uncontrollable pain I’d only ever experienced while giving life and letting life go. It was terrifying and utterly breathtaking in its magnitude. I worried about how I would manage in the face of the two slamming together at the height of labor.
We decided that an epidural upon arrival at the hospital would allow me to not be so focused on the physical pain. I could have as many friends and family and caregivers in the room with me as I needed to help distract from the emotional pain as I dilated to baby’s arrival. While I’d always been anxious about the thought of a needle in my spin, I agreed that given the circumstances, this was the best plan.
And so, shortly upon admission to L&D, the chief of anesthesiology administered the epidural.
III. My right side went numb quickly. I lay on my left to try to help the medicine distribute more evenly throughout both sides of my body. I did not like feeling so disembodied, so disconnected from what was happening inside me.
My doula and James tried to get me to focus on my breathing. I was okay. The numbness and tingling were normal.
We waited for my sister and dear friend to arrive.
It was 7pm. I was dilated to 4. My cervix had some work to do.
IV. I kept waving my arms in the air like a fool to reassure myself that I was indeed still connected and in control of my body. My right arm was feeling numb and that made me feel frantic and worried that something was not right.
Everyone reassured me that I was okay. I was doing great. So I threw my arms in the air and willed myself to believe them.
V. Kimmy arrived. She told me the girls were happily sleeping and my dad was curled up with his phone by his side.
Somehow the Universe would align such that she would be present for the birth of all three of my children.
VI. I told Kimmy that I did not like the epidural. Why was my whole body so numb and tingly? I was feeling scared.
The nurses checked everything. My vitals were normal. Baby’s vitals were normal. I was progressing well. We were doing great.
Breath, Ashley, breath.
VII. Kimmy, James and my doula settled into chairs across from me. We talked quietly as the sound of baby’s heartbeat pulsed in the background.
It had been two hours since I’d received the epidural, and I had dilated to 6. Things were moving along. Everyone was assembled.
I suddenly felt horribly nauseous and lightheaded. I called James over to my side.
VIII. I came to with the strong, urgent words of my midwife echoing in the room. “Ashley, I need you to talk to me. Tell me what’s going on.” There was a sea of faces around me. James and Kimmy clutching my hand. An oxygen mask on my face. The stench of vomit in the air. My midwife’s hands inside of me. And nurses scurrying about.
I have absolutely no memory of the two minutes prior to that moment. As James relayed the story later, I had gone unconscious shortly after calling him over, and seized and vomited. My midwife had come flying in the room assuming I had dilated to 10 and baby’s imminent arrival had caused me to faint. I was still at 6cm, and despite passing out, baby’s vitals had stayed steady during the whole episode.
I was in a panic. How could I have no memory of what had just happened? How had my sister handled that moment on the heels of my mother’s sudden death? Why had it happened?
I wanted the baby out. I did not want to die. I hated the epidural. I wanted my mother. Everything felt completely out of control and overwhelming.
As I whispered over and over, “I don’t want to die. I just want my mom. I don’t want to die like her,” the nurses cleaned me up and tried to get me to relax and breath into the oxygen mask.
The anesthesiologist returned and was not happy that this had happened. He either wanted the baby out or the epidural off. He couldn’t explain what had just happened so thought it best to stop it.
And this is where I applaud and champion midwife care because Amy, my midwife who had held me every single day of my grief, coaching me to this very moment, stood by my side and said to the anesthesiologist and me, “Ashley has had a lot going on. She just needed to check out for a moment. I will be by her side every moment for the rest of this labor, and if it happens again, baby comes out and epidural is done. But I think her mind just needed a break. She’s back. And baby is doing awesome.” And with that, the anesthesiologist left. And I got my very numb feet back under me.
IX. Turns out, a panic attack can do quite a number on a person in the throes of labor and grief.
I’m so grateful I had a skilled, experienced ally and advocate by my side caring for me and my baby in that moment. I am forever indebted for the thoughtful, informed, sensitive care that I received from my midwives during that three weeks and the weeks following. I could not overstate their import.
X. Only minutes after that episode, I’m smiling. I can’t believe I was smiling, but this is where my gratitude for my amazing friend and talented photographer Kate comes into play. Her images of that evening and these moments are a concrete reminder of my own strength and the resilience of the human spirit.
XI. And with the arrival of my dear friend Geraldine, the last of my birth team had arrived. And with that scary moment behind me, and my anxiety subsiding, we settled in for the final hours of waiting.
XII. This is love. This is support. This is how you keep going.
XIII. This is where hashtagsquadgoals feels appropriate. These humans, these unbelievable humans, who held me in my grief and laughed with me in my joy, they are who dragged me through that purgatory and out the other side. They are my family.
XIV. Since I didn’t like the continued numbness from the epidural, there was a rotating crew of “feet rockers” whose job it was to simply keep their leg pressed against the bottom of my foot and allow me to rock them back and forth. It was grounding. And comforting. And kept me connected to my body and that moment to avoid further anxiety or panic.
XV. Interestingly, despite not feeling any pain from the contractions, I instinctively lifted the oxygen mask to my face any time I was experiencing one. I wouldn’t know it at the time, but then the monitors would confirm that I was indeed mid-contraction. So while I was less connected to what was happening inside my body than I was for my previous two births, this was a small reminder that I was still very much present with my body and baby.
XVI. For a few hours, I was able to settle in to the scene I’d imagined when I thought about this baby’s birth. Talking. Laughing. Contentedly anticipating the arrival of my child with those I love.
XVII. And then, shortly after 1am, I hit 10cm. With three strong, determined pushes, I brought my son in to the world.
He pooped on arrival, so we were both coated in a sticky, black goo.
He arrived sunny side up, like his eldest sister, and so made a squished face appearance to those present.
James announced he was a boy, and with that he was placed on my chest.
XVIII. Hello, sweet baby. Welcome, Sanderling.
XIX. I cannot adequately capture the range of emotions I experienced in those first moments with this boy. The relief. The gratitude. The love. The sorrow. The joy. The beauty. The exhaustion. The exultation.
He brought a part of me back to myself.
XX. “I’m so proud of you,” he whispered, “and I know she is too.”
XXI. The “I fucking did it” face
XXII. “He has mom’s nose.”
XXIII. Team Sanderling.
XXIV. And like that, we were parents of three.
XXV. Father and son.
XXVI. Meconium toes. Strawberry blonde hair. 9lbs of squish.
XXVII. Born March 7, 2016 at 1:11am. 9lbs 1oz. 20 inches long.
XXVIII. Healthy. Safe. Here. That is all I had been wanting. It was all I needed in that moment. My anchor in the storm.
XXIX. “He is exactly the poem I wanted to write.” Happy Birth Day, my sweet boy. We are so glad you’re here.