by Toni Olson
I spent a great deal of time researching the type of birth I wanted for my first baby. After learning everything that I could and giving it careful consideration, I thought I had the perfect birth planned. We would stay home as long as I could, with our doula arriving for support once things picked up (a birth doula is a woman that assists the laboring woman); leave for the birth center when it was really time (not to be confused with that early, this is going nowhere fast, get sent home labor); then climb into the tub and blissfully birth my baby in the warm water. It was my ideal birthing experience and completely do-able, I assumed ahead of time. It was, in fact, a far cry from what actually happened. Minutes before my daughter was born, I realized my beautiful dream of a water birth was not going to materialize.
Bearing little resemblance to my birth plan, I gave birth to my daughter while squatting over the toilet in my apartment with no midwife present. In an unexpectedly fast (home birth midwives like to call it precipitous) labor, I did not make it to the birth center in time. After my water broke I walked unassisted to the bathroom to clean up and change so that we could leave. A few killer contractions later and I called my husband and doula in for help. The unofficial record has me saying, “There is something coming out of me and it is NOT the cord!” My husband walked in and appeared to be in shock; my doula immediately asked for her cell phone and called the midwife. It was the proverbial moment of truth when, crouched on the floor in front of me and seriously studying my lower half, she confirmed to the midwife that she saw some “bulging”. Her poker face was admirable.
Being well-educated on normal labor and trusting the process of birth, I believed that my body knew what to do. I had had a complication-free, low-risk pregnancy. So when it was offered, I declined the option to call an ambulance. This baby was coming now — my wonderful birth plan or not. I hadn’t wanted a planned hospital birth; I certainly didn’t want an unplanned, arrive by ambulance one. My daughter was born minutes later and as I held her in my arms I was still caught off guard by the turn of events, but was so happy. It was an amazing experience for a first birth.
Fast forward 14 months. When I found out I was pregnant again, there was little to consider in terms of a birth plan. I already had a great birth plan, but would make just one minor adjustment: skip the birth center and have a planned home birth. I knew that there was nothing medically that could be done at a birth center that could not be done at home. Besides, having previously experienced the security and comfort of laboring in my own space and knowing how important it is for a woman to feel safe in order for labor to progress, it made sense that we would only go somewhere else if safety dictated it. Another low-risk pregnancy made me a perfect candidate for the home water birth I desired.
My home birth midwife did not own a tub, so I looked into rental options. There was not a local source to rent a birthing tub, and although I have heard of other women using blow-up children’s pools, I wanted the real thing. Purchasing the tub from a national retailer seemed like a wise decision; I could use the tub for my baby’s birth and then the tub could be rented out to other women (new liners are used for each birth and the tub is disinfected between clients).
A few days before my estimated due date I began to experience some back pain and contractions. We brought the tub in and got it set up, although we did not fill it with water. I knew from our trial run that we would have plenty of time and hot water and could wait until labor really picked up to fill it. Two days later I was in active labor. After a few hours, my doula arrived and it wasn’t long before it was time to fill the tub. I didn’t want to get in too soon — I wanted the contractions to be strong enough that I needed relief from them.
I got into the tub just when the contractions started to feel as if there was no break between them. My midwife and her assistant arrived and I was unable to acknowledge them as the laboring had become real work. I was in the tub around an hour when it became clear that the baby was coming. He was a big baby and it was hard to push him out. But soon enough there he was — being lifted out of the warm water and handed to me already kissably clean (another benefit to water birth: your baby is gently cleaned and there is no need to rub that gentle skin). We sat together in the tub, me and my new son. I held him against me and tried to take it all in. The cord stopped pulsing and was cut. I delivered the placenta in the tub. When I was ready to get out of the water someone helped me out of the tub, with baby Max in his father’s arms. My mom and the women attending me took care of everything with the tub. I only had to take a few steps to lie down in my bed. My son was wrapped up in a blanket and tucked in next to me to nurse for the first time. This is bliss, I thought to myself. And really — I know of no other moment filled with such exhaustion, such wonder, such contentment.
The benefits of water birth are becoming well known: pain relief without using medications that can be harmful to the baby or a hindrance to breastfeeding; relaxing support for the laboring woman; less tearing; a gentle birth for the baby. I appreciated the warm water and the ability, as much as I could in those moments, to be soothed and comforted. In my experience, one of the best parts of laboring in water is the buoyancy. Feeling gentle support without people’s arms or furniture in my way was good. To actually have the birth I dreamed of was beautiful and an experience I am grateful to have had.
Toni Olson earned her BA in Women’s Studies from UWEC and is a work-from-home mom to two home-birthed children. She recently wrote a children’s book about home water birth that will be available this summer (“Mama, Talk About When Max Was Born”) and she owns a home birth tub rental business. Toni lives with her children in Eau Claire.