The day before Cora was born, after a morning of strong, steady contractions died down to a big fat anticlimactic nothing, I opened up Mary Oliver’s Felicity for the very first time. I was greeted with her poem “Don’t Worry”:
Things take the time they take. Don’t
How many roads did St. Augustine follow
before he became St. Augustine?
I closed the book with a snap, simultaneously snortlaughing and smiling one of those smiles that permeated my heart. The cruel irony! But also, in so many ways, how perfectly apropos. Although I had yet to name it, this feeling of traveling a road steadily, of putting one foot deliberately in front of the other, of staying calm, remaining (mostly) unruffled, allowing Cora to drive her birth, to let me know when she was ready, and remaining open to all possibilities… that feeling is what characterized Cora’s birth story more than any of the other details.
But there are other details and I’m sharing those too, starting with choosing home birth, a bit about the pregnancy, and of course the birth itself– because in the end it all feels too intertwined to skip over any one bit, and, what the hell, I’m writing this mostly for Cora and for myself anyway. (Sorry not sorry for the 5k word count that follows.)
TLDR: Cora Abigail Guimarin was born at home on Thursday, September 13th, 2018 at 3:39pm. She has rocked my world every day since.
A Hospital Birth Costs WHAT NOW?
Cora’s birth story started with a well-timed Facebook post that made me rethink everything.
A fellow San Francisco mama’s hospital bill showed she owed a whopping $6500 out of pocket for her daughter’s completely uncomplicated, unmedicated birth. She had switched insurance providers since her previous birth (for which she paid ~$2000, similar to what we paid for Ali’s birth) and had failed to recalculate her out of pocket costs before popping the baby out in the in-network (!!!!) hospital.
Having recently switched insurances ourselves (to the “best” plan we could buy from the exchange… which isn’t saying much), I started to do some research and quickly realized we were in a similar financial boat. Or possibly. No one from the insurance company nor the hospital would give me a clear answer when I asked how much things would cost should everything go according to plan.
This was my opportunity! In the back of my mind, I had always wanted to birth our babies at home, allowing my body to do what it knew it needed to do, surrounded by people we cared about and who cared about us, resting in our own bed that very night, unbothered by well-meaning nurses and unsolicited advice-givers.
Michael was decidedly uncomfortable with the idea, but I convinced him to take a few meetings with home birth midwives using three critical data points: One, home birth is possibly significantly less expensive given our current insurance situation. Two, the outcomes are better for mother and baby. Three, this is what I want.
Over-organizer that I am, I lined up meetings with five San Francisco midwives, all of whom came highly recommended from my birth worker friends, and all of whom had the happiest, most fulfilled set of clients I’ve ever seen on Yelp or otherwise. Each woman’s birth story was more powerful and profound than the next, and even the women who ended up transferring to the hospital couldn’t help but sing the praises of home birth midwifery care. I tried not to grow attached to home birth, but I couldn’t help myself. I wanted this.
Sue Baelen was the first midwife we met, and I knew almost instantly she was “the one.” She came to our home and stayed for nearly an hour, giving us her undivided attention with not a hint of urgency about where she was headed next. She did a lot of listening– listening to what I wanted, to Michael’s concerns, to the stories we had told ourselves about birth and parenting and some of the in between stuff that had nothing to do with either of those things. And then, with this magical combination of head and heart, she addressed each of our questions with wisdom and warmth, logic and empathy, facts and stories.
Michael tentatively crossed over to team home birth the moment he discovered Sue had a keen awareness of and low tolerance for excessive risk. She listed out all the reasons we might need to transfer to the hospital. She gave us a number–4%– of home birthing second-time mamas who eventually do transfer to the hospital. “There is risk in a hospital birth [namely the cascade of possible interventions] and there is risk in a home birth,” she told us. “It’s just a question of which risks you are comfortable taking on.”
That, and once Michael realized he would be able to sleep in his own bed the night of the birth– all while his wife and baby had the best possible care– he became a complete home birth convert. (Muahaha! My plan had worked!)
At the end of the visit, Sue gave me a deep, oxytocin-releasing squeeze– the first of many great hugs– that low key made me fall in love with her.
We met with one other midwife as a point of comparison (she was also lovely, but she wasn’t Sue), and then I canceled all our other appointments. We agreed that home birth was the right path for our family. We agreed that Sue was the one.
Cora’s time in the womb was wonderfully straightforward, and all the tests and ultrasounds we did before we started care with Sue showed nothing short of a very healthy mother-daughter duo. Given my pregnancy with Ali and her birth, we expected no less. Given a couple very early miscarriages before Cora, we worried a bit anyway, especially during the first few months of my pregnancy with her.
About a week after we met with Sue for the first time though, I finally felt confident enough to announce the pregnancy on Facebook. I was 22 weeks along, clearly showing, and something had changed that allowed my heart to shift from a place of “let’s pretend this doesn’t exist just in case” to “I’m ready to get to know my second daughter.”
Turn, Baby, Turn
Around 30 weeks, we learned that Cora’s head was still firmly lodged in my upper ribs… aka, she was still breech. This threatened my vision and I went into obsessive problem solver mode, a strong deviation from my “peacefully walking the path” vibe. I wanted solutions.
Sue gave me some things I could try, but mostly she emphasized the importance of allowing baby to turn when she was ready, of talking to her and gently letting her know where I wanted her to go. Cora and I had some chats, but for good measure I also did inversions (I do love me some inversions), I stuck ice packs on her head, I continued with acupuncture, and for good measure, I saw a massage therapist to address any possible imbalances in my pelvis and hips that might be physically preventing Cora from turning.
The day after my massage (if it can be called that because holy hell it was wonderfully excruciating) with Inbar Sarig, this petite Israeli with fingers of steel and a healer’s intuition, Cora turned head down. Discovering hiccups in my pelvis was one of the greatest reliefs.
Not Now, Cora
You may have read my post about Ali’s hospital stay at UCSF while I was 38 weeks pregnant with Cora. I failed, however, to mention that while I was resting on the hospital bed in the ER with Ali, awaiting her results, I started to have strong contractions every 20 minutes or so.
Not sure what else to do, I spoke with her. “Hey, Cora, I really need to focus on your sister right now,” I told her. “Now isn’t a good time.” And she listened. The contractions stopped, and she temporarily turned into the posterior position (spine to spine), protecting herself so I could focus on protecting Ali.
Also, please take this moment to appreciate the comic absurdity of the fact that I had planned a home birth so that I could avoid a multi-night stay in the hospital… and there I was… doing a multi-night stay in the hospital. Ironic gold.
Making Space Again
After Ali got discharged from UCSF, there was a good deal of psycho-emotional healing that needed to happen. Ali had been through a lot, and we spent a few days focused on helping her rebuild her resilience and confidence.
The day she started preschool, a couple days after she got out of the hospital, I had a total mental breakdown and realized that I had also been through a lot. Cora and I both. Michael too. We had all been entirely focused on Ali. I had been keeping my head down, doing hard thing after hard thing, because it was easier to charge forward than it was to take a moment to look at my surroundings… and to acknowledge just how crazy and scary things were.
But finally, when Ali went to her first day of school, I admitted to myself, “okay… that was a lot.”
I had a little (big) cry, and I made a game plan to focus on myself and Cora. We went to prenatal yoga, a class which despite usually boring me to tears was exactly what my heart and soul needed. I meditated on presence, on being fluid and strong simultaneously. I dropped my judgement and squeezed the goodness out of the simple prenatal poses. I focused on my breath while letting everything else fall away.
I got another massage, where Inbar the body working magician lulled me into a deep, relaxing slumber. And acupuncture too. I kept up with the yoga and the meditating.
I was refocused and rebalanced. “Cora will come when she comes,” I told myself. “And when she does, I am ready.”
Due Date “Do Date” Traditions
On September 10th, Cora’s due date, there were no signs of anything exciting. As we did with Ali, we took a handstand photo (#stillgotit) and went out for sushi at Wayo, our favorite San Francisco spot. Apparently this is now a tradition and we must have more babies to prove it.
She Will Come When She Comes
The night before any real contractions started, I noticed that I felt… different. My mind felt watery and hazy. I could feel Cora’s head pressing lower and lower. Despite never feeling anything similar with Ali, I knew this was Cora’s signal. She was gearing up for her grand entrance.
Around 3am on Wednesday, September 12th, I started to have some consistent cramp-tractions. They were strongish but not strong enough to take too seriously, and they came every twenty minutes or so. Then every seven to eight minutes.
I had been told by numerous people that Cora’s birth could be rip-roaring fast, and that I should reach out to the birth team at the first sign of anything serious just in case. I texted the team at the ungodly hour of 4:21am, not knowing whether this was serious enough to merit a pre-dawn wakeup text or not. (Spoiler: It was not.)
Around 6:30, Ali came into our bed to nurse, and all of a sudden the contractions took off. They came every three to five minutes, and they were strong enough that I had to yogic breathe my way through them, gripping the headboard with each surge. The contractions continued to hit me, wave after wave, as I got her ready for school.
I buckled Ali into her car seat, gave her a big kiss and snuggle– certain this would be the last time I’d kiss her as my baby– and Michael took her to school. I promised not to have the baby while he was gone.
With the house empty and quiet, I got to work preparing myself and our space for the big day. I cleaned the kitchen. I took a shower, put on some makeup, and blow dried my hair (what? why?). I think I might have vacuumed. And then I realized the contractions were now manageable again, and coming only every fifteen minutes or so. Reverse progress.
Around 10am, I decided to do nothing but be restful for the remainder of the day (not that I had much choice… I had nothing on the calendar, my brain was too watery and loopy to do any real mental work, and the house was already clean). I watched an episode of Shameless and had one lousy contraction. I switched things up and watched an episode of Call the Midwife to inspire my body to birth a baby. It didn’t work. I had three contractions over the course of two hours, and then they stopped entirely.
This is when I picked up Mary Oliver’s Felicity, read “Don’t Worry” and accepted our fate. She will come when she comes. And that might not be today.
Sue and her apprentice Christalyn came for my regularly scheduled prenatal appointment later that afternoon, where I learned that the labor pattern I had experienced is called “false labor” or, more compassionately, “warm up labor,” and is especially common with second-time moms. This was apparently common knowledge to everyone but me.
Labor is such a crazy mind game and exercise in patience and presence. No one knows where the finish line lies– and really, the birth isn’t the finish line anyway. There is no downtime between birth and newborn care, after all.
Around 4:30pm, four or five hours after the contractions had stopped altogether, I decided to go pick up Ali from preschool. Her teachers were surprised to see me (they had been informed her grandparents would likely be picking her up), and an older preschooler rubbed my belly and said unabashedly, “wow… that’s a big baby in there. When will she come out?”
Hopefully soon, kid. Hopefully soon.
Baby Cora, Come Out!
On the drive home, the contractions started up again. They were easy and manageable, well spaced, but definitely present.
As bad a rap as contractions often get, I truly welcomed the surging pain. I knew it was bringing me closer to meeting our girl, and though this may not be the case for many, I happen to find early labor contractions to be pretty awesome. These neatly packaged pressure waves grow in intensity until they peak, then cascade down and eventually vanish into nothing, disappearing and leaving little trace that they were ever there in the first place. How glorious that some types of pain can come and just as easily go, disappearing as though it had never been there at all.
When we got home, Ali pressed her face against my belly and yelled, “Baby Cora, come out!” I have literally no idea how she came up with this, but nonetheless appreciated her sisterly encouragement.
Before bed, I switched on a hypnobirthing track Sue had given me earlier in the day entitled “Come Out, Baby.” I didn’t and still don’t know what hypnobirthing is, because I fell asleep five minutes into the track. (Maybe that’s how it’s supposed to work? Pretty sure not.)
The gentle contractions continued throughout the night, coming every 20-40 minutes or so. I would partially wake, breathe through the discomfort, feel grateful that it was over and that they were still coming, and go back to sleep immediately.
When Ali came in to nurse around 6am, things picked up again just as they had the day before. Suddenly, however, the contractions were not as easily manageable as they had been. A couple of times, I asked Ali to get off of me so I could get on my knees, bury my head in a pillow, and breathe deeply through the pain. (“Mommy? You okay???” she would ask.)
The contractions continued to be long, strong, and pretty close together, so we decided to call our doula, Alli (two “L”s) Cuentos, for backup support while Michael dropped Ali off at preschool.
As I helped Ali put on her jacket and shoes, I took a contraction standing over the couch, head buried, breathing deeply and slowly. Ali grabbed my leg and shook me. “Wake up, Mommy!!” she yelled, somewhat fearfully. I couldn’t believe there was ever a point during my pregnancy when I wanted to have Ali around for the birth.
After Ali and Michael left, Alli and I hung out in the kitchen, mostly shooting the breeze. I stood bent over the kitchen counter while Alli buzzed around the kitchen– cleaning dirty dishes, placing water and snacks in front of me. We talked about all sorts of things–her son’s budding circus career stands out amidst the noise– and every five minutes or so I would put up my finger, bury my head in my hands, dive into watery labor land, and breathe through another contraction. When the pain receded into nothing, Alli and I would pick up exactly where we left off.
We sent Alli home when Michael returned from preschool drop off an hour or so later. We all had a feeling it could be a while longer, and Alli was only ten minutes away if things picked up quickly.
Clarity and Haze
From the point Alli left until the moment Cora was born, things got pretty blurry. I remember some moments with complete and utter clarity, but most are shrouded in haze.
At some point, I moved upstairs. I’m pretty sure I took a shower.
I took a ten minute nap, woke up to a contraction too strong to take lying down, forced myself to get up to ride it out, and decided naps were no longer in the cards.
I took a few contractions bent over the bed, but decided the bed was too low and the carpet too white if my water broke… and these contractions definitely felt strong enough to burst just about anything.
I moved into the bathroom, which is where I stayed until just before I pushed Cora out, leaning over the counter and staring at my reflection in the mirror, intermittently seeing myself clearly and not really seeing myself at all. I took a mirror selfie, the last shot I’d have of my pregnant belly.
Michael checked in every twenty minutes or so. He’d appear at the bathroom door, smile enough to exude warmth but not enough to annoy me, sometimes place his hand on my back, sometimes not, sometimes ask me if I needed anything, sometimes not. He showed up in exactly the way I needed him to each time. I like to labor in peace, I guess, but I also like to know he’s there.
Around noon, I updated Alli that things had continued since breakfast and had picked up. Most of the contractions were forcing me to breathe super deeply, raising me up onto my toes as I bent over the bathroom counter. I was surprised my water hadn’t broken yet. The pressure felt intense enough to crush a watermelon. (This watermelon-crushing image is one that popped into my head, but I later discovered that crushing a watermelon is maybe not all that hard? #watermelonchallenge)
Alli had me time my contractions, and when I described them as “really intense… like how has my water not broken yet intense,” she responded with “sounds like a good time for me to come!” She arrived within 15 minutes.
Walking the Path
From there, I had this distinct feeling that I was walking along a path, putting one foot in front of the other, totally fine with the fact that I had no clear understanding of how or when that path would change… or really where exactly it was going. My only focus was on the step immediately in front of me.
I have a tendency to muscle my way through hard things, and it’s a strategy that typically serves me well in the moment but leads to big crashes after the fact. During labor though, there was no muscling and the work somehow felt easy. I had no fear. No qualms. I had somehow surrendered to the process and was allowing things to unfold as they would– fluidly, flexibly, openly.
Cora was going to be born, and I was going to help her on her journey. I’ve never felt so present and so at peace in my entire life.
I was vaguely aware that Alli believed that things were progressing quickly. She was texting or speaking with Sue every ten minutes with updates. She had Michael put the second set of sheets on the bed, set up all the stuff for the midwives, and generally stayed out of my way so I could labor. (She had tried some touch and counter pressure earlier, but I wasn’t into it.) She sent Michael downstairs to boil water for the warm herbal compress. That Michael was sent to boil water completely tickles me. So Call the Midwife.
At some point, my water broke… sort of? Maybe? It was a tiny trickle, and when Alli and I tested it with the swab that came in my home birthing kit, the results were entirely inconclusive. The yellowish swab was supposed to turn dark blue if it was amniotic fluid. It turned a splotchy black. Alli relayed the update to Sue, and decided, despite the inconclusive result, that Sue should make her way to our house.
I remember hearing this information and disbelieving that I was far enough along in the process to merit Sue’s presence. I felt like I could still be laboring for hours. I felt like I was still able to labor for hours. I briefly compared my current state to my experience during Ali’s birth (and pretty much all my other life experiences)– I lacked my characteristic impatience. I’d never felt this open to things taking forever… ever. Weird.
That Was Fast
The very next contraction after Alli told Sue to make her way to our house, I felt the urge to push. I had forgotten what that felt like until it happened to me again– a little like the uncontrollable urge to yack and the subsequent relief when you do, but stronger… more primal. Alli called Sue again and encouraged her to hurry. I imagined Sue racing through Noe Valley in her little Scion toaster box. I vaguely wondered what she’d be wearing when she arrived.
Sue was at least 15 minutes away, maybe more, so Alli and I dove into the routine we had practiced for three hours during Ali’s birth when I had the early urge to push. Every contraction, instead of pushing, I hissed and Alli hissed right along with me so baby Cora would stay put.
“When will Sue get here?” I asked after a particularly intense contraction.
Alli responded with a plan. She told me not to worry. (I don’t remember being worried. Thanks, Mary Oliver.) That if the baby was coming, I would lay down on this pilates mat in the bathroom and she would help my baby be born.
I remember thinking she was being ridiculous. I still felt like it was going to be hours before Cora arrived. That I could do this for days if I had to.
I had probably hissed my way through five contractions (maybe more… I’m no longer a reliable narrator at this point in the story), before Sue, Christalyn, and our backup midwife, the wonderful Michelle Welborn (that’s actually her name), arrived, shortly after they were called.
I remember the way the sun beamed through the skylight when Sue came into the bathroom. She touched me lovingly and told me I looked beautiful. She listened to Cora’s heart tones and told me they sounded perfect. She went into the bedroom to set up her office while I continued to labor over the bathroom sink.
The Real Work
Despite my reluctance, Alli convinced me to move over to the bed for the actual pushing portion of labor. “You’ll be so much happier to be there once baby arrives,” she reasoned. I still didn’t believe baby was arriving anytime soon. And I really didn’t want to move. But move I did.
I crawled onto the bed, got onto my hands and knees, and with Michael sitting beside me holding my hand and the midwives behind me, we waited for the next surge. An eternity passed, and all at once everyone was seized by the awkward silence as we waited– the feeling of being a watched pot comes to mind– and I sent someone to grab the white noise machine from Ali’s room, lacking the creativity to conjure the perfect Spotify playlist for the occasion. Then boom, another big contraction and instinctual push.
As my body started to get into the rhythm of pushing, I remembered just how physically demanding this part of labor was. “Ah yes,” I thought. “This is why they call it ‘labor.'”
I felt like I was doing minute long tabata sprints, using every last ounce of energy and effort to push, then relaxing and replenishing completely for the next interval. But unlike tabata sprints, I felt like this entire process was happening to me. I didn’t have to summon the gumption to get off my ass and work that day. I had no choice but to allow the work to happen, to continue moving forward, to continue giving each effort everything I had. It was also clear to me that Cora was driving the process as much or more than I was.
About five minutes into pushing, I got too sweaty and hot and took off my shirt a la Brandi Chastain (though I had yet to be victorious). I briefly recalled how insane my hair looked after Ali was born and considered trying to do something with my hair now. I could feel it getting matted and frizzy and gross, but then another contraction hit and I forgot about my stupid hair.
Sue had been listening to Cora’s heart tones every other contraction or so, and after a particularly forceful contraction and push, all of a sudden she couldn’t find Cora’s heartbeat where she expected it to be.
“You must’ve pushed her down a lot on that last contraction,” she said, as she searched calmly for Cora’s heartbeat. I knew I had, so I wasn’t worried. It wasn’t until Sue located Cora’s heartbeat in my pelvis that I finally started to believe the birth was imminent.
Birth of Squawk Box
Within a few more minutes, Cora’s head was born, and she squawked a little squawk– the first of many and the genesis of her first nickname that has stuck, “Squawk Box.”
“This one has hair, Megs,” Michael informed me.
Apparently this is also when… TMI alert… the rest of my bag of waters gushed out. Cora’s head had been so low in my pelvis it had been acting as a cork, until that cork had popped.
Her head out, all of us waiting for the next contraction, unbeknownst to me, Cora’s face started to turn blue. Sue checked to make sure the cord wasn’t restricting air supply (it wasn’t), provided a bit of counterpressure, and with the next contraction, Cora was born.
Michelle helped pass her through my legs, and I picked her up and embraced her immediately, kissing her on her wet hair. It was so different to meet Cora than it was to meet Ali. I wasn’t afraid to hold her. I wasn’t afraid to love her.
I did, however, have a moment where I looked at her– really looked at her– and realized I didn’t know her at all. This is embarrassingly illogical, but I was expecting to see Ali’s two-month-old twin– a big round head, the tiniest amount of blonde peach fuzz hair, bright blue eyes. Instead, Cora had a long, slender face, a head full of dark hair, and beady newborn eyes of indeterminate color. But she also had Michael’s pinched ears. And my ridiculous upturned eyebrow. She was ours, alright.
I realized– for the first time in a non-theoretical way– that my daughters are different and the way I love them will always be different. I realized that I would have to get to know Cora the same way that I had gotten to know Ali– over time, by listening to her and discovering who she is. I realized it was okay that the bond I felt with Cora in the moments after her birth was both strong and real, but not as deep and nuanced as my bond with Ali two plus years into our relationship together. Time would change that. Time has already started to change that.
I asked what time it was– what time Cora had been born– and when Christalyn told me she was born at 3:39 and it was now just about 4pm, I was thrilled. I had successfully birthed a baby while Ali was still at preschool, and without having to pull an all nighter. I had also successfully birthed a baby within 45 minutes of the midwives showing up.
“You’re welcome,” I told Sue.
As I sat in our bed, Michael beside me, cuddling and nursing our littlest love, I was struck by how incredible everything felt. I felt so grateful to be where we were, in our bedroom with the light streaming in, in our bed, surrounded by familiar faces and the smells and sounds and textures of home. I felt so fortunate to have four incredible women bustling about, taking care of us, cleaning up the mess birth makes, feeding us, healing me with herbs and tinctures and never offering me ibuprofen because they knew me well enough to know I would say no thanks anyway.
When everyone had left the room, I turned to Michael and the same words I had said to him after Ali’s birth slipped from my lips: “That wasn’t so bad.”
And it really hadn’t been. There was never a moment of doubt, never a moment of fear that I had made the wrong choices, never a moment of pain too great to bear. I was proud of our little team. Proud of Cora for deciding to come out and for doing the work it took to get herself there– her first great test of resilience. Proud of myself for helping Cora on her journey, all while staying uncharacteristically present. Proud of Michael for being there for me in exactly the way I needed him to be. Proud of my birth team for being so damn wonderful and knowledgeable and warm.
When people ask me how the birth went, I gush with a single one liner, “ugh, it was so perfect.” People I don’t know well think I must be joking. Those who have known me for a long time assume I’m being sarcastic.
I guess most answer the “how’d the birth go?” question with the war story– the water breaking at an inopportune time, the frantic race to the hospital, some data point about cervix dilation or hours spent laboring or pushing or all of the above. It’s usually the strange/bad/hard/crazy stuff that comes up first.
But for me, at least this time, the details mostly fade away. I’m left feeling grateful. Grateful for my people, for my process, and most of all, for the opportunity to travel down that road, to stay present, and to become Cora’s mother along the way.