This is presented as a part of our series featuring tales of birth at Willow, told in the words of those who experienced and were involved in the story.
It was the first prenatal appointment of my third pregnancy, and Cheryl was telling me that while she and her team could not guarantee a specific birth experience, they could offer a healing journey. I’d been telling her, tearfully, the story of my second birth, which had taken an unexpected and scary turn, and I was surprised at how vulnerable it felt to share this story 19 months later. I didn’t just need reassurance that things would probably be better this time. I needed to know that I was at a place, and with a team, whom I could trust fully as I reckoned with the baggage of birth trauma while planning for and growing our newest baby.
By the middle of the third trimester, I felt accomplished that I’d controlled my gestational diabetes with diet and was happy to make it to the 36-week birth center eligibility date (our first baby had arrived early). But a birth center birth still felt like a mirage. I expected to go into labor 7-14 days after my last progesterone dose, shots I’d been taking to avoid early labor again, but 7 days passed, and then 10, and then 14… and then … 21. As I approached 39 weeks, I was looking for labor signs everywhere while also trying to be at peace with waiting. I also began to feel the weight of the out-of-hospital birth I was planning. I never really questioned whether it was the right choice for me, but I had a wave of unsettling doubt, remembering the last time I had a baby.
My second birth had deeply disrupted my sense of confidence and empowerment around giving birth. Complications emerged late in labor, when I was naked, fully dilated, and too shocked to process what was happening. I felt myself disappearing as I wondered if I would ever meet our baby. The moments after she was born were not those of joyous relief, but of confusion and loneliness. Ultimately, she was fine and her birth was called “a good outcome,” and I looked fine, but I was not. I managed to function through day-to-day life, but I struggled with PTSD symptoms for well over a year, despite attempts to rationalize and situate that sudden turn of events. My brain kept searching for missing pieces. I wanted nothing more than to just get over it, to be “myself” again. I wanted people who heard the story to know that feeling broken and angry about my birth didn’t mean I was ungrateful to have a healthy baby, that I loved her more than anything even while feeling haunted by the way she entered the world. And so, as I approached 39 weeks in this third pregnancy, I felt acutely that I was straddling two modes: envisioning the birth I wanted, but not getting attached to any specific outcome; holding multiple, conflicting feelings about this major life event I was undertaking once again. I see it now as a lesson in the fundamental contradictions and juggling act of parenthood itself. Babies are always teaching us, even before they arrive.
Then shortly after midnight on a Sunday, at 39+2 weeks, I was awoken by contractions and timed them for an hour. My gut told me it was the real thing, so we called the midwife line. Nicole told us to wait a little longer until contractions were stronger and closer together, and I figured it would be no time at all (my previous labors were 5 hours and under 3 hours, respectively). But the time between contractions started to stretch out. My husband, Dan, eventually went back to bed, and I tried to as well, although I could only doze for a few minutes at a time in some of the longer intervals between contractions.
The morning arrived with a vibrant sunrise that gave me a hopeful pause, but overall the day felt like a time warp. Contractions continued without getting stronger or more intense, but they came consistently every 3-10 minutes. I mostly retreated from everyone. I walked and did lunges and walked more. I did hip circles on a yoga ball while pinching my nipples and watching back-to-back episodes of the Great British Baking Show (a funny image in retrospect!). At the suggestion of our doula, Olli, I wrote a letter to the baby (sex still unknown) about how we were working together to bring him or her out. The baby’s head would help my cervix to open, and I would do my part. I told the baby that I was so ready to meet him or her, and that this was all worth the wait. I read the letter out loud to my belly between contractions.
Around 5 o’clock that evening, I called Nicole and we discussed the possibility of a sedative to help me sleep through the night. She told me Ashley would be coming on next, and that it was encouraging that the longest intervals between contractions had shortened to 6 or 7 minutes. When I called Ashley at around 8pm to follow up about the sedative, getting worried about another sleepless night, she said we could talk about it but that she first wanted to hear more about my contractions. When she said that, it was like someone had opened a window and let more light and more air into the room, disrupting the sense I’d had all day of being stuck in a loop. Ashley made a plan: I would call back in two hours with an update on my contractions. And if they still hadn’t changed and I was able to sleep through the night, I would go to the birth center in the morning regardless. I felt grateful for the trust she seemed to have in my body’s process, trust that had been wavering for me.
Right after that conversation, I took a shower during which I had much stronger contractions than I had had all day. They were getting hard to talk through, and Ashley said it was time and we should go in. Dan’s mom was at the house and the kids were in bed, and our bags had been by the door all day, but even as we drove away from our house I worried my labor would stall again. Then as we drove along the north side of Bde Maka Ska, I finally realized I could stop worrying. This was really happening.
When we walked into the birthing suite from the back entrance, I got goosebumps. It was so still and serene. The lighting was dim and warm, and the only sound was the tub filling with water. Everything was clean and inviting, and I felt safe. I thought I might cry with gratitude at being there at all, even if we ended up having to transfer.
Ashley, Clare, and Ariana were already there, and Olli arrived shortly after we did. Ashley asked if I wanted to know how far along I was and checked my cervix, which was at 3-4 cm. I labored on the stairs and then on the yoga ball, still pretty easily able to converse between contractions but grateful for Olli and Dan’s counterpressure on my back and hips. Ashley suggested I try hanging onto the rebozo in the hallway during contractions, but I could only take 10 or 15 minutes of this before it became too intense. Soon I went to hands-and-knees on the bed and breathed through contractions that were getting a lot stronger.
After less than an hour in this position I started feeling rectal pressure and moved to the tub. Quickly I went from talking with Dan and Olli between contractions to inhabiting that familiar but otherworldly labor space, eyes mostly closed, only half-aware of where other people were or what they were saying, both deep inside and at the very edge of myself. Breaks became minimal, and contractions vibrated my whole body. I started saying “this is really hard!” in kind of mantra-like repetition. Once I started whimpering, and Ashley reminded me to keep my vocalizations low, and that kept me on track for those last few minutes. I realized I needed to say something more self-motivating and said, “I can do this” and “I want to meet my baby.” Ashley asked if I could feel the baby, and I tried but couldn’t feel anything. My water finally broke (a strange sensation while already in the water), I had a few more really intense contractions, and Ashley asked again if I could feel my baby. This time I could feel the head! I had one big push after that. I practically roared through it; I still can’t believe how long and powerful a single push it was. I opened my eyes and looked down and could see our baby’s head right there. With one more contraction, I pushed again and the baby, a girl, came out at 12:56am. After a brief pause for Ashley to unwrap the cord from her neck, I pulled her up onto my chest, with Dan next to me outside the tub, and it was like a dream. I felt so present and flooded with gratitude and relief looking at her little face, her body slippery and soft with vernix, her cord pulsating. I kept saying to Dan, “we did it” and to the baby, “look at you; you’re perfect.”
Our daughter briefly opened her eyes and then, content with us, didn’t open them again until late the next day. I thought of our second baby’s birth as I sat there and had a moment of being overcome with a strange mix of grief and joy: at having missed this intense, messy, vital experience with our sweet middle daughter, yet also feeling so thoroughly that we were here, safe, on the other side of pregnancy now with this newest child.
Dan held the baby skin to skin while I moved to the bed to deliver the placenta. I didn’t have any tearing that warranted stitches. After Clare took a few vitals, the team left us alone for a while. Our baby latched and fed well while Dan heated up food for me, with carbs--what a treat! After an hour, the team came back to do the newborn check and take a weight (7 pounds, 4 ounces). The baby looked a little shaky during the check, so they tested her blood sugar, and I was nervous we might be heading to the hospital, concerns about gestational diabetes still on my mind. But it was totally normal.
After another hour of rest, Ari started the shower for me. I remember worrying about getting blood in the spa-like shower, and she was so kind, saying, “you’re supposed to be bleeding, and you aren’t supposed to clean anything up!” It was incredible to occupy a beautiful and comfortable space as a family for a few hours with only a few breaks for necessary vitals checks and discharge instructions. We left the birth center promptly at 5am and were home less than an hour before the girls were going to wake up for preschool and daycare. How amazing, considering we left for the birth center after they were already in bed the night before.
My second birth will always be a part of me, and I will always have complicated feelings about it, yet I realize that in the broken places I have actually discovered resilience, deeper empathy, and a reluctant belief in the strength in vulnerability. When I say that this third and final birth experience was profoundly healing, I don’t mean the erasure of an old wound, because that’s not how healing works. Scars remain but can soften with time and care (even while hurting unexpectedly sometimes). It feels important to say that I don’t believe a peaceful birth necessarily makes early motherhood easier. This is still hard work, harder than I remembered. But this pregnancy and birth with Willow helped me to integrate both the old and new birth experiences into my life with gentleness and trust, in a way I’m not sure I could have found in another setting. I never felt like I was navigating this journey alone. And of course, our baby girl was with me too, through it all. Months later, even on the harder days, I marvel at her and at the new story she has brought to our family.
Kristen Griffin is a Willow client who works in pediatric health care research as a science writer and has three daughters under the age of five. When she can fit it in, she weeds her garden, sings in a community choir, and soaks up the seasons along the creek and under the big oaks in South Minneapolis with her husband and children.