The birth of Thomas James

I keep saying this birth has been filled with sweetness, compassion, and redemption. It’s not that my other births weren’t special—on the contrary, they are marking moments in my life—but this birth was, by the grace of God, everything I’d ever hoped for. And when your dreams come true, it’s pretty magical.

The first thing we did to help make this a reality was switch care to a midwife group at a freestanding birth center. I realized that walking into the hospital felt like gearing up for a fight, but reading the Minnesota Birth Center’s standard of care felt like coming home. Additionally, I saw our doula Stephanie throughout pregnancy for craniosacral therapy to help balance my pelvis and create conditions for optimal baby positioning. Without the care of my midwives, the set-apart atmosphere of the birth center, and ongoing care from Stephanie, I do not believe we would have the same story to tell.

On Saturday, June 11, I woke up to some crazy baby movements around 2:00AM. (If you’d told me then I’d be holding my baby in 14 hours, I’d have laughed in disbelief!) After going to the bathroom and settling Grace who’d woken up, I noticed my practice contractions were beginning to spread around to my back and down my legs. I recognized these as early labor contractions and laid in bed, smiling that this was the beginning of my birthing time. Jon woke up and asked, “How you doing, mama?” as he’d been asking in the middle of the night for weeks. This time I said, “Good—we’re having our baby today.” At 3:45AM I texted Stephanie that I couldn’t sleep through contractions but was still able to rest between them.

The kids woke at 6:15AM and came to join us in bed. When we were all together, I told them today was the day I would push our baby out (how we’d been talking about and preparing them for birth). Gracie clapped gleefully and said “Woo hoo!” They were both excited to go to Papa and Gran’s house still in their jammies (their favorite thing is to stay in jammies!). Papa arrived at 7:00AM and we took a quick picture together before loading them up.
I’d hoped for a more meaningful goodbye moment as a family of 4, but grateful they were excited to go instead of sad to leave. Contractions intensified again after the kids left and I could no longer talk through them. Jon encouraged me to eat breakfast since food still sounded good, and I enjoyed an over-easy egg on a bagel.

We went back upstairs to get more rest, figuring we were still in for the long haul. I gave a heads-up to the on-call midwife, Brigette, to let her know I was in my birthing time. I was happy it was Brigette—I had just seen her the day before for my 40-week appointment and she had been so warm and encouraging. She reminded me again to not wait too long to come in to the birth center, and I mentally shrugged it off, thinking, I’m a slow birther—this is going to last a long time. I wasn’t able to rest well in our bed and got up to use the bathroom where I noticed some bloody show—a great sign of cervical change—then laid down on our guest bed. Contractions were about every ten minutes, and I was sleeping between them, just long enough to start dreaming before waking with a contraction!

Around 9:00AM, I started to get hot and went back to the cool darkness of our bedroom. Jon woke a bit later and I suggested a walk to get things moving. We finally made it out the door at 10:30AM and walked once around the block. I pushed my back up against a tree and a retaining wall for counter pressure on my sacrum during contractions and drank my homemade “laborade” electrolyte drink. I came back in the house to pee, fully intending to go back out, but the AC was so nice and it was so hot already (80! at 10:30AM!), I just decided to sit on the birth ball, watch an episode of Orphan Black with Jon, and eat a nectarine.

After a little while I felt utterly exhausted and went back upstairs to lay down, sometime in the 11 o’clock hour. I was anxious at how tired I already felt and wanted to conserve as much energy before the marathon began! Just before 12:00PM, I experienced three strong contractions that made Jon suggest we call Stephanie. She said she’d head over and encouraged me to get in the bathtub since that sounded good. With Grace, I’d experienced the fading of early labor upon getting in the tub, so I expressed concern that it could happen again. Stephanie was confident it wouldn’t, so into the tub I went.

Contractions became easier to work with, and for the first time, I felt like I understood what that meant: the work of labor is forcing your muscle groups to not fight the pain of contractions. My fight-or-flight response makes it instinctive to retreat, seize up, or pull away from pain, but I found myself holding very still to not tense up anything while my belly turned to an iron ball! It only took three labors for me to really internalize that concept, but you know what they say about charms and third times.

Stephanie arrived while I was in the tub and made great suggestions for coping. Contractions seemed to decrease in intensity and duration while in the tub, but increased in frequency: about 5 mins apart for an hour. Looking back, it could have also been that the water made contractions easier to endure. I began to weep a lot at this point—I wanted to crack a joke about all the hormones, but I just cried and cried! I asked Jon to bring a framed family photo to the bathroom; I was missing my kids so much!

At 1:00PM, Stephanie offered to call the midwife to let her know things were picking up. She stepped out and I looked at Jon, puzzled. “It’s too early to go to the birth center. Brigette will send us home!”—my greatest fear—”Am I even in active labor yet?!” Jon chuckled, “Oh yeah, honey. For sure.” I was in such denial—so certain we had hours of work ahead of us! Stephanie returned and assured me that Brigette wanted me at the birth center so that when things got really intense, I was already where I needed to be.

I got out of the tub, dressed in my nightgown, and shuffled toward the van; Jon and Stephanie had finished packing up everything we needed. I had two painful contractions in the car, but we only live 15 blocks from the birth center. At 1:40PM, we arrived on the doorstep as another wave came over me. Brigette opened the door and told us to take our time coming in. The Elsa birthing room I’d selected was cool and dark and quiet, like a B&B room! I felt calm and at ease and slipped off my shoes. Brigette began filling the tub, took my vitals, and listened to baby’s strong heartbeat. I got in the tub but struggled a little to find a good position, being extra buoyant and all!

I noticed Jon and Stephanie setting my handwritten affirmation cards up all over the room, including along the perimeter of the tub. Jon also brought over the framed family photo and set it right in front of me.
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My cousin and baby’s godmother Jennifer arrived around 2:30PM to take photos for us. I have photos of all our babies’ births and they are absolute treasures to me–plus it was so special to have Jen there for the birth of her godchild!

Stephanie suggested my music playlist and Jon got it started. The free version of Spotify only lets you shuffle play all and I had 40 songs on the list, but wouldn’t you know, the very first song was the one that had been stuck in my head all week, “Mercy.” The next song was another hymn, and I remarked, “Why did I make a playlist I knew would make me cry?!” Sometimes during the space between waves, Jon and I would sing along. Almost all the songs were either hymns we’re teaching the kids or songs we sing in church. One thing is for sure: the name of Jesus was lifted up in that birthing room!

After working a while in the tub, I got out to pee and try some other positions. Any time I sat down on the toilet, I felt an instant contraction, so I started squatting over it just to avoid the waves! At one point, I muttered to Stephanie, “That damn toilet!” I hated it, but knew that emptying my bladder made more space for baby to descend.
Brigette returned and listened to baby’s heart tones while I was standing in the bathroom. I remember taking a wave arching my back and looking up to the ceiling, as that helped alleviate some of the pain. I also ground my fingers into my own hips for some counter pressure.

After she listened to baby, I asked Brigette for a cervical check. In my mind I was selling myself short—unable I believe I might be as far along as I actually was. Brigette said I was doing a great job but she would check me if I really wanted. I laid down on the bed and she checked but didn’t say anything. As I sat up, she said, “Maggie, you are doing a beautiful job of softening and opening.” Crap, I thought, I’ve read that’s what midwives say when the number isn’t great! She continued, “Do you want a number?” I stopped to consider: Of course I wanted a number, but what would my reaction be if it was a three? Would the discouragement undo me? Brigette smiled, “It’s a good one!” I felt relieved; I was desperate for encouraging news. “Seven,” she said. I laugh-cried. I had been doing a lot of crying; it felt good to smile!

Stephanie reminded me that seven to ten can go quickly, and suggested we try some waves in a standing position. I braced myself against the countertop and Jon applied counter pressure to my back. Three waves came right on top of each other while I was standing there; I felt unmoored. I cried out, “Why won’t this one end?! They’re coming too close together; I can’t do this.” Jon texted my mom and best friends, asking for prayer. Almost immediately, I got a four-minute break between waves, which felt like eons and provided exactly the rest I needed to refocus.

Stephanie suggested I return to the tub and its warmth felt very good. I was able to sit with one leg forward and one behind to keep my pelvis open.

When Brigette returned I asked for nitrous oxide, desperate to take the edge off. Laughing gas has made a big comeback in Minnesota’s birth scene since Grace was born, and I had planned to keep the option in my back pocket, counting on it to provide relief when I most needed it. Brigette and nurse Dana began setting up the tanks and hoses while I worked through more intense contractions. I leaned over the outer edge of the tub and began breathing through the mask. I didn’t feel a thing for a while, but a contraction came right as I reached peak concentration with the gas and I felt sure I was about to pass out. “Am I supposed to feel tingly?” I asked Brigette. “Tingly, dizzy, a little fuzzy,” she said. I hated that feeling! As someone who has a lot of experience with fainting, that feeling was unwelcome—and it didn’t distract at all from the intensity of the contractions! I gave it one more try, but my body was already beginning to push at the peak of my contractions, and I found myself grunt-screaming into the mask. I dropped the mask and hose and I think it was at this moment that my body began to truly take over.

One of the ways I prepared for this birth was to read and watch other women’s birth stories (Birth Without Fear and Ina May Gaskin’s Guide to Childbirth). On several occasions, Jon found me in bed weeping. In all my reading, I knew women insist that their bodies knew exactly what to do and they just let their bodies “drive.” I was unfamiliar with this feeling, I think because of my previous epidurals. As I moved through transition, I had an “aha!” moment where I thought, This is what they meant. I am not in control right now—my body is just doing its thing. This was an empowering feeling, not frightening in the slightest. I spent this pregnancy preparing for my body to do what it was created to do, and finally in the thick of it, I was delighted to let my body do this work.

I began pushing in this position, facing out into the room with Jon sitting on the back of the tub applying counter pressure. Physical touch was necessary at this point; I remember reaching out for reassurance during one wave and Stephanie and Jon were always there to provide it. I pretty much zoned out; I could hear others and was open to suggestion, but I wasn’t paying attention to anything but the work.

 I remember Brigette’s sweet voice floating in, “Maggie, you’re in a great position for birth, but if you needed help, I wouldn’t be able to help you here. Can you turn around and face Jon or move to a different part of the tub?” I moved into the corner but couldn’t get my stance wide enough, so I turned and wrapped my arms around Jon’s waist, my head resting in his lap, crouching on my knees.
I love that this was the stance my body chose—it never occurred to me to choose another—and made great use of gravity. It also shut out all other sights and visuals but my husband and my affirmation cards still set up around the perimeter of the tub. I could still hear Jon and Stephanie encouraging me, telling me I was strong and doing good work.

I closed my eyes, gripped the waistband of Jon’s shorts, and vocalized as I joined my body in pushing through every contraction. I wasn’t self-conscious about it, but knew there would be no silently “breathing the baby down” for me; I roared this baby out. At one point, Brigette asked me what I could feel, and I expected to feel much of the head, but it was still a knuckle or two in. I felt a little disappointed, but mostly motivated to push my baby out! Another contraction and I began to feel a burning sensation, but nothing close to the ring of fire I was expecting, likely because I was in water. I pushed longer the next wave and felt the head emerge. Jon said, “I can see it!” I knew to stop pushing and let my tissues stretch as that contraction faded away. I heard Brigette’s voice again: “The next contraction you’re going to push your baby out!” One more long push and Brigette said, “Reach down and bring your baby up slowly and gently.” I wasn’t listening for it, but I know now that “Blessed Assurance” by Elevation Worship was playing when my baby was born—specifically the bridge which repeats, “Oh what a Savior / wonderful Jesus / Death could not hold You / You are victorious / Praise to the risen King.”

I reached down and lifted my baby up under the arms and brought him right to my chest. I sat back on my knees. “Purple?!” I asked, alarmed by his coloring. Brigette assured me it was normal and okay. I had forgotten that some water-born babies don’t pink up as fast because of the warmth of the water. I moved my legs out in front of me and laid back against the tub. I asked Jon, “What is it? You tell me.” He moved the cord and announced, “It’s a boy!” his voice full of surprise. So many people had guessed we were having a girl—Thomas James was already shattering expectations!

At this moment, I realized our son was earthside, healthy and safe, and I had accomplished the hardest work of my life, strong and capable. I sobbed aloud, exhausted and relieved, and accidentally made everyone think I was sad because it was a boy—not so! I looked up at Jon and saw him crying, too, which made me even more emotional. I exclaimed, “We did it!” because truly, we had. Together, we’d brought our boy into this world and I was so, so proud. Jon leaned forward and kissed me.

We let the cord stop pulsing, then Jon cut it and took Thomas for skin-to-skin. Brigette and Dana helped me out of the tub and to the bed where I delivered the placenta and had a superficial tear repaired. Jon laid next to me and Stephanie held my hand I gripped Stephanie’s hand during the exam and stitching.

After it was over, I initiated breastfeeding and Thomas latched like a champ! Stephanie went to the upstairs kitchen and heated up the chicken wild rice soup we’d brought. The birth center also baked us homemade bread, which Dana brought us with butter and local honey. Bread is pretty much my love language, and chicken wild rice is my favorite soup, so I felt so nourished, loved, and energized by the meal.image

Dana returned to draw me an herbal bath. When it was ready, Brigette came to do Thomas’s newborn exam while I soaked. I was astounded to learn that Thomas weighed just shy of nine pounds (8lbs 15.5oz—”You can round up,” Brigette told Jon). Jack and Grace had each weighed 7lbs 10oz., so this was unexpected! Thomas received a Vitamin K shot while snuggled close to Jon, and hardly made a peep. I got out of the tub on my own and got dressed and Dana returned to find the three of us snuggled on the big family bed, nursing and resting. “Yeah, this is definitely your third,” she smiled. We were excited to go home and sleep in our own bed, and finally were discharged around 8:15PM. It felt a little crazy that we were headed home not seven hours after we’d arrived, but we like crazy!

A nurse came to visit us at 24 hours and both baby and I passed all our checks and screens with flying colors. A very slight tongue tie and shallow latch made breastfeeding incredibly painful at first, but I met with a lactation consultant on day six and it was a game-changer for me. Thomas continues to gain weight and we are already seeing a double chin!

This experience was incredibly empowering, and because of the team we assembled around ourselves, I was given options, and I felt supported and respected. Our friends and family were also incredibly supportive—at no time did anyone question whether or not I could give birth naturally, so all doubts were banished from my mind. I could, I would, and I did! When I think back on Thomas’s birthday, I remember it as one of the best days of my life, full of the hardest work, most intense pain, and sweetest joy. I am grateful for his healthy, quick birth, and the chance to test what my body is truly capable of!

When he was eight days old, Thomas James was baptized at our worship gathering, The Table at CPC. We were joined by our families and godparents, Brandon and Jennifer. Our friend and pastor, Matt, did the baptism and took us back to the account of Jesus’ baptism in the gospel of Mark, where the voice of God declares, “This is my Son, whom I love, whom I am very well pleased with”—before Jesus said or did anything as the Son of God. Matt reminded us that baptism says, “This child belongs to our tribe long before and regardless of what he may someday believe.”

Matt baptized Thomas “in the name of the Good Father, in the name of the Servant Son of Love, and in the name of the Spirit that descends on you” and prayed that Thomas “would grow up, be brave, courageous enough to stay in the questions that your faith asks, and show compassion.” That’s our prayer for him, too.

Matt then asked our community to promise to surround our family, walk with, grow with, and love Thomas, and be an echo of that first Voice that says he is a child of God, well-loved, and brings God the fullness of pleasure. I assure you, I was not the only one openly weeping! It was a holy, sacred moment, made all the more special by the presence of those who will play such an important role in our son’s life.

To Grace on her 2nd birthday

Gracie girl,

It’s a couple weeks past your second birthday, and we marvel at you. You have such spunk, such sweetness, such vocabulary!

You narrate your life as it happens and sing your way through your days. “Jesus Loves Me” is a common favorite, as is “My Lighthouse” by Rend Collective. Other songs you know include “Holy, Holy, Holy,” “Great is Thy Faithfulness,” and “Be Thou My Vision,” plus the usual “Twinkle, Twinkle,” the ABCs, and several Daniel Tiger songs.

Jack is your best friend. “That my bwuddoe. I his sistoe,” you say. Now that you’re sharing a room, you like to keep tabs on him even when you wake in the night. “Where Jack?” you ask sleepily. “He’s in his bed,” I whisper back, and that’s all it takes to reassure you.

  You follow Jack and try whatever he’s doing. We’re convinced that your drive to keep up with him is part of why you talked so soon, knew your colors so early, etc. We are totally reaping the benefits of having you two so close together—what terrific playmates you make. Sharing toys, imagining together, helping each other, tickle and wrestle parties are part of our everyday life. Nothing makes my heart sing more than hearing you two giggle together.

We are all getting excited for baby 3 to join us in June. We talk about this pregnancy in terms of seasons—since we told you about the baby in the fall and waiting through winter and spring—and you and Jack talk about how the baby comes in summer. You both change your minds regularly about whether this baby is a boy or a girl (I just asked; today you think it’s a girl). We are so excited to find out; I am so excited to see you as a big sister. I think you’re going to do great. And when it’s hard, I feel peace knowing you can communicate your feelings to us using words.

Your ability to communicate has really changed how we relate to you. You are free to describe situations, express frustration and delight, and show affection. We hardly ever wonder what you’re thinking—you make it plain. You’ve been dealing with some chronic ear infections the last couple months and on the practical level, it’s so helpful that you can tell us (amidst your tears at 3:00AM) that your “eeh hotes.”

You have such incredible relationships with others: little friends from childcare, caregivers in the nursery, our church community. On Ash Wednesday, we sat in the Great Room as people came in for the service and you pointed and called out names: “Mitch! Sawah! Rich! Jody! Jeni!” and “Cwobby,” our senior pastor John Crosby. You have so many friends and are already so good with names. What a fun discovery about how God has wired you!

  We see the gift of encouragement in you—you use your words and physical affection to encourage us. You regularly give compliments like “I like your ______,” “You’re byooful, and “Pwetty _____.” You tell us that you love us (and how much—”THIS much”) and give full-body hugs and kisses to just about everyone, even the unexpecting! Your compassion is deeply felt, Peanut. Just this morning, Jack was having a hard time while we were preparing breakfast and you observed, “Jack crying.” You went up to him on the kitchen floor, hugged him around the neck, took his hand, and said, “Come wiss me, Jack. Come here,” trying to lead him to his spot at the table. We just marveled at how you tried to help him through a time of really big feelings. You are a perceptive, sensitive little one.

You are also incredibly patient, and have been since birth. We’ve mentioned previously how you just slid right into our family and pretty soon, we could barely remember life before you. You’re still just as easygoing and longsuffering, and in this family, what a gift that is.

While we’re talking about gifts, it should also be noted that you easily transfer from the van to your crib for naps. Talk about a gift (to us)!

  Around the time I last wrote, we finally pieced together that you are slow, deliberate eater. A testament to your laid-back personality, you had never protested when we removed you from the table to move on to the next thing, but as it turns out, you weren’t finished—not even close. We’re so sorry, sweet pea! Once we figured out that you need way more time at meals than the rest of us, you began to pack on the pounds: 4 in the last 6 months! You developed a double chin and toddler tummy, and jumped from 2% to 25% in weight percentiles. Way to grow, Grace Amelia! It is now not unusual for you to eat 1-2 eggs at breakfast, and to eat two rounds of lunch at daycare (one before and one after your nap).

We saw changes in your napping, too—from about 35-45 minutes to 1-2 hours. You still wake in the night (at least once or twice), and don’t usually settle for anyone but Mama. You weaned right around Christmas (We made it 21 months, baby! Way to go!), but still love to be rocked to sleep, preferably with a hand down my shirt! I don’t mind, but I have to remind you not to pinch.

  You are becoming more comfortable with the toilet, happily giving it a try whenever your diaper comes off. You’ve become aware that your diapers are different from Jack’s underwear, as well as other pieces of clothing. As it turns out, you have quite the fashion preferences! Nana Audrey took your shopping recently for a birthday dress and you came home with two complete outfits plus a pair of gladiator sandals you apparently insisted on! You show a preference for shoes, and have 6 pairs you have somehow accumulated from which you like to choose! You and I are different in this way, sweet girl!

You love to read all books, and especially our family photo books, where you can point to people you recognize and say their names. You do the same with our family calendar and ask me to take it down, saying, “C’I see it?” In general, you’re a curious little girl, asking questions like: “What that? I hold it?” or “What doing? C’I watch you?”

We love seeing you grow, Gracie, and discovering how God has made you uniquely. We love having you part of our family.




Paperback Inheritance

My mom saved a stack of papers I’d written in high school and college, and I got them back yesterday. Jon and I had a good laugh over some (teen angst much?), but a couple have potential. I’ll be editing and sharing them here as I’m able. These days, writing time = naptime.

This piece was an object study for Advanced Creative Writing in 2007.

My father is not what you’d call a man of few words, but he does choose them carefully. Except when he’s watching Fox News—then he’s prolific. When he reads, he prefers political pieces, historical biographies, theories on the biblical exodus. I’d seen books by C.S. Lewis around the house and since he was the patron saint of Wheaton College, his works were practically required reading for an effective faith. After my first year, I came home inspired to catch up. I leaned my head against the doorjamb of Dad’s office. “Dad, if I wanted to read C.S. Lewis, where should I start?”

“What do you mean, ‘start’?” He crinkled his nose at me under his reading glasses. “Haven’t you read him before now?”

“No, but I figured it’s about time, yeah?” I smiled sheepishly.

“Well, start with the basics, sweetie. Mere Christianity is a good place; I think I have it laying around somewhere.” He stretched out his arms to the piles on his desk. Surely, it had been years since he’d read Mere Christianity, but Dad searched as though it was buried under the bank statements and budget worksheets. “I wonder where I put that,” he whispered as he rose from his desk chair. I anticipated his next move.

“In the basement bookshelves, maybe?” Dad and I often seem to ride the same train of thought, and sometimes I get to the next stop before he does.

“Oh, yeah—why am I looking here?” He gave a goofy grin. The older I get, the more transparent Dad is, and I love this about being an adult.

I bounced downstairs to the metal army-issue shelves in the basement, the ones whose retractable glass doors I always pinched my fingers in. I tilted my head to scan our collections of children’s books and bible studies. I landed on a little black volume: The Screwtape Letters. I remembered seeing it as a kid in the backseat of Dad’s Buick. Back then, he told me it was about demons and I was fearful, but now I was intrigued.

The book itself was nothing special: black jacket with white type. The cover image showed a small flame curling up from the tip of a feather pen of the same fiery orange. Fanning the pages released the smell of every basement bookshelf it ever inhabited. Damp, dust, Grandma’s moth balls, the sweet souring of time clung to the pages. Memories of basements all feel the same way: like a forgotten book resurrected into meaning and memory.

Even though this copy was 41 years old, the pages appeared untouched. When Dad read this book, he obviously didn’t sit with pen in hand, adding margin comments. My reading would have resulted in a dog-eared, inked-up mess. We’re different in the unnoticeable things, but similar in other ways.

I brought the book up to Dad. “You know, I think that came from the house in Downer’s Grove,” he told me. “I must have taken it years ago.” I could still recall my grandparents’ basement, freezing cold like 5AM and smelling like a hundred years. It was cluttered with relics of postwar suburbia: team pennants, mortarboard tassels, and a dusty vibrating belt machine. Dad told me he and his siblings left behind all kinds of junk when they moved out and Grandma stopped Grandpa from getting rid of anything.

“When they finally decided to clean out the basement,” he continued, “I came to claim what I wanted. I poked around the bookshelves and found that. I don’t even know who it belonged to, but no one cared that I took it.” He paused. “Hey, I think those are the same shelves we have now.” We each discovered that book in the same shelves. I smiled at how much alike we were becoming.

He recounted how this book opened his eyes to the diabolical world. It was The Screwtape Letters, not some heady academic book, that taught him the dangers of mediocrity. “You have to be careful, Mag,” he warned sincerely. “The devil has no stronger foothold than when you stop caring.” It struck me that he took so much away from this little piece of fiction, when it usually takes a precise, systematic argument to convince him. For some, this book picks at their perception of their own sin. I wondered if Dad felt it, too.

My good intentions to share Dad’s experience of the book never resulted in much: The book sat on my nightstand all summer, a coaster for countless glasses of water. In good faith, I packed it up for the move back to college, where it sat on a shelf all year because English majors don’t have time to read for fun. I’ve lost track of the book since then, but I hope it eventually lands on a basement bookshelf for Jack or Grace to find.