birth story - milo
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Birth story of Milo Willhelm
- Saturday morning -
I love arriving at work early on a Saturday morning; the office is still
dark and empty when I open the door. Work flows easily in solitude, and
the time passes quickly.
This day, though, is not so smooth. I am thirty-eight weeks pregnant.
The baby has been posterior for the entire pregnancy. I have had
contractions for weeks. Nagging, achy cramps radiate up from the bottom
of my belly. When I stand, both hands go to the table for support; when I
take a few steps, the fingertips of one hand go to the small of my back,
pressing there. Another graduate student arrives in the office. My
privacy lost and my concentration broken, I decide to walk across campus
to the engineering library. There will be others there, but early on a
football Saturday they will be scattered and few. I will spread out my
papers on a wide oak table under a sunny window. I will be able to see
all my variables at once and not miss any when I rewrite my tables of
I walk very slowly, not to enjoy the leafy campus and the October sun, but
because my hips feel like the joints of a boiled chicken. My
late-pregnancy waddle attracts sympathetic glances from strangers. I take
the elevator in the library to the second floor. The chair I choose is
extremely hard and I shift my weight from one buttock to the other; I
reach down, grab the cuff of my maternity pants, and yank my foot up to
the chair before I can curl one ankle under me. I get up, ostensibly to
fetch a journal from the stacks, really just as an excuse to stretch my
legs; I lean on the banister to get down the stairs, and take the elevator
up again. After a while I waddle to the phone, call Mark, and ask him to
come pick me up.
- Saturday evening -
Energy returns as I walk in the back door of our home. I am hungry. I
fry bacon, saute onions and tomatoes, boil pasta, grate cheese. I eat two
helpings at dinner with Mark and three-year-old Oscar. I push
my plate away and announce that I am going to take a hot bath.
I settle inch by inch into the steaming tub, and the tension in my back
and abdomen releases. I lean back; the water cradles me, but my belly
rises out of the water. I experiment with sitting, leaning forward a
little to immerse the belly; with lying on my side, one hip hot and one
hip in the cool air; with kneeling, leaning on my elbows, tilting my head
back to keep my nose out of water. It all feels good. I lie back and
open a book, but instead am entranced by the visible rolling and kicking
of the baby in my belly---the relaxation or the buoyancy has woken the
little one and he or she is letting me know. I watched for a long time
before settling back with my book. I soak for forty-five minutes before I
relinquish the cooling tub to Mark, whose back is sore from yard work and
carrying Oscar. He gives me his hand and as I pull myself dripping to my
feet, a strong contraction starts.
I nurse Oscar to sleep-a rare occurrence these days, but he is very tired
and falls asleep quickly-and I am relieved to get my sore nipple out of
his mouth. I find Mark downstairs in his bathrobe, reading a book, and
tell him I might be in early labor. We stay up too late talking in bed,
politics, not babies, until I slip off to sleep in his arms, the
contractions fading. So the baby does not come this night.
- Sunday morning -
Five o'clock in the morning: Liquid flowing out of me startles me from
dozing to fully awake. I put a hand to my vagina and bring it to my face
in the dark; liquid coats my fingers, thin but slippery, like blood or
like vegetable oil. I touch my tongue to it; it is not blood, it is not
urine, it is not sweet like amniotic fluid is supposed to be, but acidic.
Still, what else could it be?
"Mark," I say.
He starts. "Wha-"
"I'm not sure, but I think my water just broke. Only a little bit. Get
He brings me a towel and follows me into the bathroom. Fluid streams
thinly out of me, like syrup, like oil, and pools on the tile in a small,
slick puddle. Then it stops. The stuff is cloudy and colorless. It
doesn't look like how I remember amniotic fluid. Could it be some
forewaters? Mixed with mucus?
Mark wants to call Jeanne, but I tell him to wait. "Let's just go back to
bed," I say. "There doesn't seem to be any more." So we lie down, and I
try to rest even though I am aware again of painful contractions. I ask
Mark for his watch. They come every three to six minutes. I put the
watch down and try to sleep. At seven o'clock I am hungry, so I get up
and shower. I ask Mark to come with me; he thumps down the stairs, groggy
and sullen-looking. I keep glancing at him, hoping he'll say something
light and ordinary, and finally I tell him that his grumpiness distresses
me, and I feel as if he's blaming me for picking a bad day to go into
labor. He apologizes, tells me that he's feeling stress from caring for
our three-year-old. Oscar senses that something's up.
I start some bean soup in the crockpot for later, and the two of us clear
away the vegetable peelings and make coffee. Every few minutes I stop and
breathe through a contraction. I tell Mark we should skip going to Mass
this morning; if the contractions peter out we can go in the evening.
Instead we go to the co-op to buy labor food. The dashboard clock tells
me the contractions are nine or ten minutes apart. We buy fruit and
crackers and yogurt and juice and cheese. I lean on the cart and breathe
through contractions. At home I eat, and then realize that I haven't had
a contraction for half an hour. I rest. They do not return. I suggest
that we try taking a walk, and the three of us start for the playground
six blocks away. We hold hands and chat easily. It's warm and sunny.
Oscar races about, climbing and jumping; Mark, who loves playgrounds
almost as much as our son, shinnies up a pole and catches him by surprise.
I laugh even as I pace around restlessly. We walk home, having tired the
boy out; Mark takes Oscar for a drive "to the hardware store" and brings
him back asleep. The two of us lie down together and doze. No more
contractions. I am disappointed. We watch a Monty Python movie, eat
fruit and crackers and yogurt and juice and cheese instead of dinner, go
to Mass, come home and go to bed. I wish alternately that I won't have
any more days like this, and that all our days could be like this one.
- Monday morning -
Contractions wake me throughout the night, but I sleep between them and
awake refreshed at eight-thirty. Mark is already at work and Oscar is
only a tuft of blond hair poking out from a pile of blankets. I go to the
bathroom and when I wipe, a handful of mucus comes away on the tissue. It
is the plug: thick, yellow, streaked with pink. OK, I think: Baby
will come in the next couple of days.
I feel great. We have an appointment with Jeanne at eleven, so I get to
have lunch with Mark, and I look forward to it. I sit cross-legged on the
bed in the sunny room and tell Jeanne that I have a ton of energy, more
than I've had in weeks. She palpates my tender belly very gently. It has
softened, and we can almost grab a little foot through my abdominal wall.
The baby has turned anterior, she tells me. On the way home our family
stops for cheeseburgers, but I have a fruit 'n' yogurt parfait instead.
Mark tells me he'll stay late at the office, getting his desk ready in
case the baby-and his paternity leave-comes soon.
- Monday evening -
Around four-thirty the contractions return, infrequent, irregular, but
surprisingly intense. I pace in the darkening sunroom, unable to attend
much to Oscar. By the time Mark gets home at six, the kitchen is a mess,
with milk poured on the floor and a few toys soaking in the puddle. Mark
is tired and flustered, and gruff at Oscar as he cleans up the mess. His
voice and expression grate on me and dismay me. Am I going to have to
labor with everybody in a bad mood? I snap at him. He makes a joke, a
self-deprecating apology. We laughed, and I feel the tension lift a
little. Mark calls Jeanne to report the contractions; he returns telling
me she'd said to call back with an update before we go to bed. Fine; I
don't want anyone yet but my family. I want to be pretty far into labor
before we call the midwife to come.
We eat yesterday's bean soup and a spinach salad. The intense but
irregular contractions continue. They painlessly squeeze the top of my
belly and then radiate down to the bottom, where they burn and tighten,
then release. Oscar seems to sense them, too. He is positively manic, as
he has been ever since I had started concentrating on laboring. I can
feel Mark getting tense again. At nine o'clock I send him to take Oscar
for a drive to put him to sleep. It is a relief to be alone, but I want
someone to talk to. First I call Jeanne back and tell her we plan to go
to sleep and see if the contractions go away. Then I call Hannah and she
chats with me until I see Mark's car pulling into the garage. He comes in
carrying Oscar asleep on his shoulder. We lie down together in the dark,
much calmer, but too tired to talk or do anything except lie silently
holding each other. I doze between contractions, but I can't ignore them.
At midnight I tell Mark to call everyone and tell them that the baby will
come tonight. He calls Jeanne first, then Hannah. He tells them both
that he'll call back when we want them to come, which is definitely not
Twenty minutes later I suddenly am sure that if we are going to call them
at all, we must call them right now. I don't know where the feeling comes
from, but it is strong. So Mark calls. I pace, put on a bathrobe, look
for a place to be. It's not long after midnight.
- Early Tuesday morning -
Hannah arrives first, with one-year-old Silas on her back. She finds me
in the upstairs bathroom. The soft green light is on. She complements
me on my comfy-looking bathrobe. She is quiet but clearly happy and
somehow radiates serenity and energy at the same time, or maybe she is
reflecting mine back at me. I have found my place to be: next to the
bathroom counter, which I lean on to get through the contractions. The
counter is unusually high and I never knew till now that, although I have
to stand on my toes to spit into the sink, it's the perfect height for
leaning on during contractions. I put my cheek on the cool tile and rock
my hips until each contraction passes, and in between I can talk. After a
while I experiment with sitting on my birth ball, and that works too, and
Hannah and I agree that it will enable me to rest between contractions.
We are both thinking, perhaps, of the exhaustion I felt in my labor three
years ago, how I could barely rest at all after eighteen hours, and how
there'd been eighteen more hours after that.
Jeanne and Vanessa, the apprentice midwife, arrive. They stand outside
the bathroom and talk to us through the door. Mark is downstairs
somewhere, digging out birth supplies. I move out of the cool glow of the
bathroom to the red easy chair on the landing so that Jeanne can check
heart tones. The fetoscope presses into my belly and I hope she finds the
heartbeat before the next contraction. I wish she'd brought the much
faster Doptone instead. But then she is done, and I retreat to my spot by
the bathroom counter. Jeanne tells Mark softly outside the door that my
contractions are still quite short, and suggests we all try to get some
sleep while we can. I am surprised that she thinks it's still early, but
I am also thinking of that long and tiring labor from before, and so I
leave the bathroom and go with Mark into the dark bedroom while Hannah and
the midwives go downstairs to the spare beds.
We lie down together. Oscar sleeps a few feet away. I moan through three
or six or ten contractions and seem neither asleep nor awake. Then
comes one that startles me awake. I cry out, and before I can say WOW I
feel a pop and a wave of warm water rolls out of me, and I say, "Oh shit"
-I never made up the bed with the rubber sheet, and things are going to
get really intense right now and I'm not ready for this-"the water broke!"
Mark mutters, "Wha? No it hasn't." He is not very coherent when awoken
suddenly. Then he says "Oh-oh, yeah," and runs for towels and for Hannah.
I lie on my right side in the cooling puddle and try to marshal my wits.
I am naked and wet, and in a minute everyone will come in and turn on the
lights. Silhouettes of Vanessa and Hannah eclipse the light in the hall,
and now Mark is sitting or standing by me. A light comes on. Briefly I
am only naked and exposed, and suddenly I am shaking too. The muscles in
my legs twitch and shudder. I look up at Mark and say, "I don't know why
I'm shaking so hard," even though I do know. "I'm not cold," I say,
although I am, a little. The next contractions are powerful ones, like
nothing I had with Oscar. I sense them coming before I feel them. They
still start on the top of my belly (so small now!) as a painless
tightening and radiate down and around where they now burn in the
ligaments on either side of my pubic bone. And there is something else
too, a tiny little sensation, but intolerable anyway, the way a paper cut
or an itch or a burned fingertip is tiny and yet nearly intolerable: a
little twinge in the center of my sacrum. I hate the twinge intensely.
It gives me a sense of urgency, drives me, but it doesn't tell me what it
urges me towards, and I can't stand not knowing what to do with it.
The contractions kept coming.
*Bam.* I shout, "What the fuck am I doing laboring on my side in a bed?"
*Bam.* I tell Mark, "I don't like this position but I'm scared to move."
I stare at my knees, shaking, fearing the next one. I hear Jeanne: "When
you think about moving, what position do you think of?"
The answer is right there, and I mutter, "Hands and knees."
Hannah's voice: "If you don't like it, we can move you back."
OK. That makes sense. I get up on my hands and knees in the wet sheets.
The next contraction comes and goes. "OK, I can do this," I say, rocking
back and forth. The shaking has stopped. Maybe I've finished with
transition? I rock through another contraction. I sneak a look at the
clock for the first time. It is three in the morning. I think, That's
all? Hasn't it been hours and hours? And then the next one comes and I
wail with pain and dismay because it is so much stronger than the last
two. I was wrong before; I can't handle them better in this position.
Oscar stirs; Mark leaves my side, goes to put a hand on him, and he
At the peak of pain I remember to open, loosen, relax, not fight it, and I
drop my shoulders and deepen my moaning and let my body open. The pain
turns on its edge, sharpens, but I hear drops of fluid patter onto the
"I want to change the sheets," I say. Someone suggests I get up and go to
the bathroom and try to pee while they change the bed. I start to move
and a wave of mild nausea sweeps over me. "Someone bring the dishpan-I
think I might throw up." In the bathroom doorway another contraction
comes. I order the pan placed on the floor between my feet, and I lean on
the familiar spot on the counter. I yell, remember to loosen my vocal
cords, shift abruptly to a low moan. I open my body and again hear
fluid pattering into the pan. The sound encourages me.
The bed is made up with new clean sheets and neatly square, fresh chux
pads. It looks inviting and I head for it, but powerful contractions stop
me at its foot. They seem to take me over. At some point I crawl up on
the bed on hands and knees again. At some point I ask for my birth ball
to be put on the bed so I can lean on it instead of on my hands. At some
point I crawl backwards off the bed and stay leaning on the foot of it. I
cry out during the contractions, as if casting about for some kind of
incantation that would make it all stop or else help me get through it.
Some of the things I think are only inside my head, it turns out, are
actually coming out of my mouth. I think, or whisper, or moan, or hiss,
"No, no, no, I can't do this"
"I don't want another one, not now"
"I want a break, just a little break"
"I want to pray, I want to pray"
"Help me to help you, help me to help you"
"Oh my God I can't believe this"
"One two three four five six seven eight nine ten eleven twelve thirteen
fourteen fifteen sixteen"
"Hail Mary full of grace the Lord is with thee blessed are you among women
and blest is the fruit of your womb Jesus"
"This is really hard"
Hannah looks back at me and agrees, "It is hard."
At one moment I am angry, filled with rage at my body for doing this to
me. At another, it seems that there is nothing else in the world at all
but this sensation, and no purpose, no goal, except to get through this
one to the other side of it. And then there is another one to get
through, and then another one. Still, whenever I remember to let go I
feel and hear a little gush of fluid. It hurts more when I let go but the
sound rewards me. I see blood on the pads on the floor, just a tiny spot.
Oscar wakes up, confused. Mark holds him. I tell him to take Oscar
downstairs. Mark will hold him in the rocking chair and they will watch
I look up at Hannah and ask her, "What can I do about this ligament pain?"
I barely hear her answer, if she answers at all. I am thinking of the hot
water in the tub and how it takes the pain away. I tell her maybe I will
try a hot shower. Someone turns the shower on. Vanessa comes to my left
side and Hannah stands at my right to help me up, or to help me get to the
shower, and I put an arm over each one's shoulders.
Suddenly I am hanging from them, squatting down, as a contraction comes
over me. In surprise I shout, "Oh my God, I'm pushing!" My body surges
deep inside, and I feel the baby descend. I have barely recovered when
it happens again. Here comes the contraction, and I sink down, hanging,
and at the bottom of it the baby drops through me just a little farther.
And again. I can nearly see in front of me my own pelvis, not like a
photograph but instead some internal mind's eye picture of it, a fantastic
hinged cage of ivory opening up (an ice cream scoop's halves sliding one
inside the other, an arcade's claw game unclosing, a bracelet's clasp
retracting into itself). Each flex reveals a glimpse of a round red fruit,
releasing it heavily inch by inch.
Mark hears the shower running and running and comes upstairs with Oscar in
his arms. They appear in front of me, on the bed sitting, a few feet
away. Oscar watches me with round, unfrightened eyes. I say to him in
between, "Mommy's fine. Everything's okay." And again, down, down, open,
release, there it is pushing inside me again. Still there is pain, but if
I just open up the pain intensifies and gives way to the pushing. I am
pushing through the pain. I remember I've done that before. I feel my
vagina fill up. There is a small burning in the middle of the enormous
pushing. I notice it, and turn my attention back to the
I hear someone call to Mark. Mark moves out of my field of vision. There
is a bulging and a releasing and a new sensation.
Someone says, "Erin, reach down and touch your baby's head."
This distraction irritates me and I say "No."
Down, down again. Another release and the pressure disappears. Someone
says "The head is out." This is a fact without consequence or meaning.
Suddenly I am confused. The pain is gone and there is nothing left to get
through. My hands are on the bed now. I say, "I don't know what to do.
What am I supposed to do?"
I don't hear Mark say "Push!" I don't hear the midwives say "Push!"
either. I only hear Hannah, who is saying "Your baby, Erin, your baby!"
Then I remember that I am giving birth, and that the head is out and I am
almost done and there won't be any more contractions. I push for the
first time with my own conscious strength. I make a bony slithering
happen. And then there is a baby being put forward between my thighs, a
pink and gray baby supported by hands under chest and chin, its legs and
arms dangling. The baby's eyes are wide open, as if it is surprised. I
take the baby in my hands and turn around and sit on my bed. The cord is
short and I hold the baby at my navel. The baby cries loudly, gurgles,
cries more. I think, Oh, I'm so glad that's over. I lift the baby up a
little bit and as my hand slips between the baby's legs I feel a little
scrotum-so he is a boy. He is turning pink before my eyes. Beautiful.
It is 3:45 in the morning.
After a while Jeanne suggests we cut the cord to get him to my breast. I
can't even get a good look at the cord to judge for myself its color, so I
look up at Hannah and ask, "What do you think?"
"The cord's done," she says, "it's not pulsing at all and it's white," so
I agree. I lie back and Mark cuts the cord. Oscar perches behind me with
his knees on either side of my head, and puts his hands on my cheeks and
says, "Mommy feel better? Mommy has a lovely baby?" I look up at my
little boy's very serious gaze and know I have never seen anything
The baby is soon in my arms, after some time on his dad's chest. When it
comes time to push the placenta out, I start to get up, thinking I will
have to squat again, but then I try pushing a couple of times on my back
and it comes out easily and painlessly. Jeanne checks me for tears and
finds a first degree one in the same old spot. But that is it, no skid
marks or bruising, and I feel normal everywhere else, especially up front.
I even examine the tear in a mirror Vanessa holds for me (after Oscar's
birth I was terrified to look at myself, thinking I'd be horribly mangled
or something). It looks fine. I offer my breast to the baby; he nuzzles
and licks and latches on hard.
Around sunrise everyone leaves. I doze on my back, the baby on my chest.
Oscar is wide awake, however, and Mark reads him stories all morning,
trailing off into nonsense syllables in his exhaustion. Finally Oscar
naps, Mark heads downstairs to catch a snooze, and I call friends and
family with the news. It is a few more hours before we decide to name our
son Milo Willhelm Arlinghaus. Willhelm is my mom's maiden name, and since
she passed away earlier this year I've wanted to choose at least part of
the baby's name from her family. Milo isn't after anyone, but we like its
ds Oscar born 8 Aug 2000
ds Milo born 21 Oct 2003