Birth Story

Our baby girl was due on Tuesday, August 29. I was hoping she would be a September baby since fall is my favorite season. But as the date approached, I was showing no signs of labor and starting to get nervous. My pregnancy had been easier than I expected–no morning sickness or other complications—and I was convinced I would have a difficult delivery to make up for it.

On the day she was due, Chris and I went to Dr. Stradtman’s office for my 40-week ultrasound. I asked the ultrasound tech to double check that she was a girl. At that point we hadn’t decided on a name, though we had a couple options we were both happy with. While the ultrasound looked fine and so did the non-stress test, doctor said I wasn’t dilated. I left that appointment feeling spooked and out of control. We decided to wait another week and see if labor would begin on its own, even though we were already discussing the possibility of induction.

Chris and I had met our doula, Aimee, early on in the pregnancy. I liked the idea that Chris knows me, and Aimee knows birth, and so the two of them together could support me well. I imagined that labor would begin at home in the middle of the night, and that Aimee would join us and we would all make the decision to go to the hospital together. I listened to many, many hours of The Birth Hour podcast throughout my pregnancy, so despite my planning I knew that everything going accordingly was unlikely!

Very early on I knew I wanted to aim for a non-medicated labor. I liked the idea of working with my body’s own pain-relief abilities. I’ve never felt very comfortable around babies, and wanted help from the bonding hormones I heard were triggered during a natural delivery. Once when I was explaining my desire for an unmedicated birth to Chris, I used a Lord of the Rings analogy (not surprising to anyone who knows us). Many have asked why Frodo and Sam couldn’t have ridden the eagles to Mount Doom right from the beginning. Why go on such a long and difficult journey? (There are several good answers that I won’t go into here, much to everyone’s relief!) Without the journey and its dangers, there would be no story. When it came to birth, I wanted the opportunity to face the pain and, what’s worse, the fear of pain as part of my journey.

After that 40 week appointment when I got scared, Aimee and I stayed in touch more or less daily. At this point my goal was to get labor started on its own as I desperately wanted to avoid induction and the “cascade of interventions” that I believed would make it much harder to have a natural birth. The 40-week ultrasound revealed that our baby was in the occiput posterior positon, meaning she was “sunny side up” facing my front. Aimee explained that position can indicate a slow start to labor, back labor, and other less-than-ideal birth situations, so I researched ways to encourage baby to flip over. I started off with bouncing on an exercise ball and trying my best to always lean slightly forward. Aimee also suggested a massage, and two days after baby was due I had a lovely massage with Adrian Ward and she gave me a sheet to take home with some pressure points to work on. Chris helped me with those, and in the meantime I drank double-strength Red Raspberry tea and ate pineapple. We joked about it being Labor Day weekend and the perfect time to have the baby, but no signs of labor were forthcoming!

That Sunday, my grandfather arrived in town on a cross-country motorcycle ride that had been planned before we told him about my pregnancy. He stayed with us on Sunday night, and on Monday we explored some of Birmingham together. With my mom, grandpa, and in-laws, we had a houseful for dinner that night, and to celebrate my in-laws’ anniversary we had cupcakes from Publix and watched Father of the Bride Part 2. During the scene where Steve Martin’s daughter Annie is in labor, I remember my mother-in-law saying “you chose this movie!” But it just felt like the right thing to watch, and it’s always been a favorite of mine. As it turns out, that was the last movie I saw before giving birth myself.

Tuesday morning was our 41 week appointment, which started out with another ultrasound and the good news that baby had indeed flipped over and was now facing my back. We celebrated that and were not too discouraged when doctor checked me and found out I was not dilated any more than the previous week. Aimee had prepared us to ask good questions, and when we decided to schedule an induction for Thursday morning, September 7, it felt like our choice. When we got home and Chris had gone back to work, I researched what happened in history on September 7 and was pleased to discover it was the birthday of Elizabeth the First. I texted Chris “that’s good enough for me” and took it as a good sign that even though things were not going according to plan, all would be well.

Because I was not dilated enough for the induction, I was instructed to come to the hospital on Wednesday the 6th at 4:00 so I could be prepped. That afternoon I walked to mom’s house to have lunch with her and grandpa. The night before I had been lying awake praying and thinking, and the idea came to me to ask grandpa to give me a ride to the hospital on his motorcycle. Earlier during his stay, he told us the story of getting my grandmother to the hospital in Germany when my dad was born. It involved an army ambulance breaking down and grandpa having to flag down a passing car, which turned out to be the military police! My dad owned motorcycles too, and though he died two and a half years ago, when I had this idea it seemed like a special way to include him and his dad in the birth of their granddaughter/great-granddaughter.

When I asked grandpa if he would mind taking me to the hospital that afternoon, my mom was none too pleased and asked if it was OK with my husband! I had asked Chris about it first, and since he and grandpa were fine with the idea there was nothing to stop us. As grandpa said, “I don’t know as we need your permission!” Maybe as a mother I would feel the same in her place, but compared to what was ahead of me, a 10 minute ride on a Harley Tri-glide didn’t seem frightening in the least. So that was settled, and after a good talk and prayer with mom and grandpa I walked back home to find Chris working in the yard.

I set about doing my final packing for the hospital, when I started to feel something like cramps. It was about 2:00 and I started timing the contractions. I began texting Aimee updates and was excited and relieved to see more signs that labor was beginning on its own. The contractions continued, but I wanted to stick with my plan to ride the motorcycle and I made Chris promise not to let on that I might be in labor. So I put the helmet on, got on the bike none-too-gracefully, and grandpa and I set out following mom and Chris driving our Hyundai.
It was a perfectly beautiful fall afternoon, and the fresh air felt wonderful as we rode through Homewood. At the intersection of Greensprings and Lakeshore, we stopped at a red light and a couple young guys admired the bike but tactfully didn’t say anything about the huge pregnant person on it. The rumble of the engine felt great on my back, and I felt so peaceful. I had no idea I was only about eight hours away from holding my daughter, but sensed this was a good start to the story of her birth.

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Arriving at the hospital on Grandpa’s Harley.

Once we arrived at Brookwood, we spent a bit of time in the waiting area, and I was glad for all the childbirth classes we took since by that time I was very comfortable around the hospital. Before too long we got settled in our room and met our nurse, Kerri Ann. We had brought a laptop and selection of DVDs thinking we may have a long night ahead waiting for the induction, but my contractions continued to progress. I got changed into a hospital gown, and we started trying to watch an episode of West Wing. Dr. Stradtman checked me and confirmed that I was indeed in labor and there was no need to proceed with the induction.

Chris would help me by counting aloud through each contraction; sometimes we would count together and sometimes I just listened. I would look at and squeeze a Weeble toy that my dad had had during his cancer treatments and remember him saying “Weebles wobble but they don’t fall down.”  Around 7:30 my water broke. I went to the bathroom to change and realized the pair of the fuzzy socks I’d brought from home were ruined. The amniotic fluid had meconium in it, which meant a respiratory specialist would need to be present at delivery to make sure baby’s lungs were clear. As I continued to labor, Chris gave me sips of water from a fancy bottle he’d just purchased at the hospital gift shop. We decided to call Aimee and ask her to join us, still having no idea how long I still had to go. At one point I threw up, and right after that Aimee walked in the door around 9:30. She just took it all in stride.

From that point I don’t know exactly how events strung together. Both Aimee and Chris were calm and matter-of-fact, and helped me feel like I was doing hard but normal work. Aimee paid attention to the noises I made during contractions and encouraged me to make low pitched sounds rather than more frantic sounding higher ones. I leaned on this advice through almost every contraction and, while it was a little embarrassing, the groaning helped me do something in response to the pain. I was connected a monitor that allowed me to move freely while the hospital staff could keep an eye on how baby was coping.

For a while I leaned over the bathroom sink and ran warm water over my hands every time I contracted. I also sat by myself, with the door mostly closed and Aimee and Chris out talking in the main room. This was how I wanted labor to go, with life happening around me and no one fussing over me every minute. I don’t know how long I was in the bathroom, but when I came out it was hard to walk and I got down on all fours right there on the floor. Aimee said afterwards that she thought I had gone through transition (generally considered the most intense phase of labor) there in the bathroom. I said I felt something hard. Aimee asked what it was and I said “baby’s head?” like I didn’t believe that was possible yet.

Not knowing how long the contractions would continue and how much worse they would get was the hardest part for me. Aimee encouraged me several times with “that contraction is over. You’ll never have that one again.” I was more or less on all fours again, this time on the hospital bed, when I said I didn’t think I could do it. Aimee said that’s what she often hears right before the baby arrives. Someone checked me, and I couldn’t believe it when I heard I was about 9 centimeters and it was almost time to push. I got scared again because I was sure pushing would hurt worse. Dr. Stradtman was there, and soon they put an oxygen mask on me because baby wasn’t responding well to the contractions. I remember being afraid that I would throw up while wearing the mask, but I didn’t. I have a clear memory of locking eyes with Chris like he was a rope I was holding onto to keep myself from drowning.

Soon everyone was telling me to push. Remembering what I’d learned about September 7th being Elizabeth I’s birthday, I asked what time it was and they said 11:40. I didn’t want my daughter to be born too soon and miss having September 7th as her birthday.  I remember Dr. Stradtman saying that this could take a while and feeling discouraged. Someone asked me what pictures I wanted taken but I didn’t answer—I was too focused and at that point couldn’t imagine wanting any pictures of this gruesome process! Soon doctor was asking permission to do an episiotomy, which was something I had wanted to avoid but knew that it was the right decision in the moment. Then it seemed like no time at all until I suddenly saw my baby. She was born at 12:21 a.m. on September 7th. My first impressions were that she had a lot of brown hair and looked like Chris’s dad! They handed her to me and she almost immediately began to nurse. I felt such a combination of relief that labor was over and disbelief that this person—all 8 pounds 9 ounces of her—had been inside me!  Aimee took photos of those first moments and stayed with us until we were feeling settled. I don’t think she left until after 2 a.m., and I was so grateful for her dedication to us throughout that night.

One thing I’d spent a lot of time on during pregnancy was assembling a labor playlist on Spotify. I called it “Chapter 1: I am Born” after the David Copperfield quote I’d recently seen on Etsy. The first song Chris and I remember hearing after our daughter was born was Bruce Springsteen’s “The River.” All Bruce’s music is special to me because of my dad, but that song in particular is one of my and Chris’s favorites. Later I found out that while we were preparing for the motorcycle trip to the hospital, my mother in law had been to Walgreens and decided to get a Coke – a rare treat. She reached into the case and without knowing it pulled out a bottle with my dad’s name, Randy, on it. She saved the bottle, and I have it in the nursery as a reminder of how God brought about every detail of baby’s arrival in a beautiful way only He could orchestrate. He even included my dad.

I have such fond memories of our entire stay at Brookwood, from the little things like the plastic cup full of graham cracker packets to the overall cozy feeling that settled around the three of us in that recovery room. It was there that we not only introduced our daughter to her grandparents and saw her anointed by our rector, but that we finally, hours after her birth, decided on her name.

Welcome, Elanor Alice! Your story has a wonderful beginning.

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Gardens

When my husband and I bought a house with a large-ish backyard last year, I didn’t really know what I was getting into. I loved that the yard included hydrangeas and gardenias, favorite plants of each of my grandmothers. On my last trip to Washington I happily purchased a packet of Northwest wildflower seeds to bring back to our yard.

But I know almost nothing about caring for plants, and usually skip over the gardening portion of shelter magazines. When a drought hit our area, it took away what little interest I did have in what was happening in the ground outside.

One day about a month ago my husband surprised me by buying all kinds of vegetable seeds at Lowes and beginning his own garden plot in one corner of the yard. His joy in tending these little plants brought me back outside just to watch. Simply being out there helped me realize that the yard is not something to feel guilty about, but to enjoy and be creative in, even if I don’t know what I’m doing.

Before work one morning I went poking around the rose bushes and pulled out a clump of weedy groundcover. It came up much easier than I’d feared—instant gratification. The next Saturday we spent several hours together pulling weeds and raking up pine straw. (I listened to Watership Down on audiobook the entire time—a perfect accompaniment. More on that book in a future post.)

There’s nothing like a bit of hard work to give one pride of ownership. Yes, many of the flowering bushes still look dead, but we made a difference in just a few hours. Would it make me feel more comfortable to have some expert come in and do a yard makeover? Maybe, but then it wouldn’t feel like ours.

Waiting for Spring

Addisons-WalkFour days until Spring, or so Google tells me. Yet two nights ago my husband and I sat huddled by our wood-burning fireplace while working on taxes. I’m sitting in Starbucks in my puffy winter coat and keeping track of the warmest spots in the house to work.

This is the South, after all, and soon enough the outside temperature will make up for our older home’s lack of insulation. Spring and summer are both headed our way, and this year, the summer months hold special promise for our family: we are expecting our first child at the end of August. We laughed on our hospital tour when the nurse told us that no matter how sweltering it is outside, my husband will want to bring a coat to wear indoors. The last months of pregnancy, let alone birth, are difficult to imagine without air conditioning!

Though I’ve heard my baby’s heartbeat on two different doctor’s appointments, and even seen a little smudge on an ultrasound, it’s a little like waiting for winter to pass. There are signs that Spring is coming: a bright cardinal who knocked on my window and quickly flew away and new twinges in my body that alert me something is changing. But I can’t quite grasp that it’s new life yet, or what that life means for the rest of mine.

“Making the decision to have a child – it is momentous. It is to decide forever to have your heart go walking around outside your body.”

—Elizabeth Stone

Many of my friends know the story of how I read far too many Christian marriage books before our wedding. The problem was not so much that I read books, but that I thought I could understand marriage from the outside. I thought I could study it like an academic subject and prepare as you would for an exam.

As I prepare to become a mother (or rather, grasp that I already am one), I instinctively reach for books. I put probably a dozen parenting and baby care books on hold at the library yesterday, and toyed with the idea of setting myself an assigned course of reading for each month remaining. As if I could arrive at the hospital to give birth with my mothering degree already in hand. Absurd.

Pre-baby reading might make more sense than my pre-wedding studies. After all, keeping your spouse alive is generally not one of the first tasks of marriage. We will need some technical knowledge when we welcome our baby, and I’m grateful there are so many books to choose from. But let me not fall into the trap of thinking there is any way to “learn parenting” other than experience and prayer.

After all, the best reading for baby may come from entirely different sources.

I heard in Addison’s Walk a bird sing clear:
This year the summer will come true. This year. This year.

Winds will not strip the blossom from the apple trees
This year, nor want of rain destroy the peas.

This year time’s nature will no more defeat you,
Nor all the promised moments in their passing cheat you.

This time they will not lead you round and back
To Autumn, one year older, by the well-worn track.

This year, this year, as all these flowers foretell,
We shall escape the circle and undo the spell.

Often deceived, yet open once again your heart,
Quick, quick, quick, quick!—the gates are drawn apart.
—C. S. Lewis, “What the Bird Said Early in the Year”

This poem stands at the entrance to Addison’s Walk in Oxford (pictured above). You can read more about the poem’s background in this article, also the source of the photo. 

New Year Rhythms

Yesterday someone asked what my New Year’s resolutions are. I didn’t make any resolutions, but on the first day of the year my husband and I sat in Starbucks and decided on some weekly rhythms we want to establish or continue in 2017.

I like rhythm more than resolution when it comes to new year goals. A rhythm can be a living, flexible thing whereas a resolution seems brittle, held up only by my own willpower. If I get out of step with the rhythm, it’s still there waiting for me the next week. (The Sacred Year and The Life-Giving Home influenced my ideas about living rhythmically, especially when it comes to spiritual disciplines.)

“There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens.” So begins one of my favorite passages, Ecclesiastes 3. Creating a rhythm for the new year involved discerning the priorities for the season we’re in, as well as the enduring habits we want to form in our family.

Both The Sacred Year and The Sabbath: Its Meaning for Modern Man inspired me to practice a form of Sabbath in our own home. It’s as simple as lighting some candles and gathering around a loaf of bread (fresh baked, preferable) and a glass of wine. That moment marks the beginning of a rest, even a brief one, from all the activities that occupied us during the week. Ideally, Saturday evenings and Sunday afternoons remain free of screen time and housework. Instead of watching a movie, we may read together or go on a walk. This year, we also want to begin incorporating prayer more deeply into our Sabbath.

Prioritizing rest on the weekends means I need to be more efficient at getting “life admin” work done during the week. Establishing bi-weekly family business meetings has helped us do this. I found myself seeing our evenings together as let’s-get-work-done time, cluttering them with “honey-dos” and lists of decisions to make. Now, I try to save anything non-urgent until our next family business meeting. We use Trello to keep track of things we want to talk about and also sort through any papers that have accumulated in the last two weeks.

Other than that, our rhythms remind us of the goals we’ve made and can help each other towards. We set a goal of going to the gym together on Wednesday mornings. Thursday morning my husband reminds me to get up and blog, and Thursday evenings I encourage him to spend time on his own writing projects.

For me, rhythms are that extra push to do something that doesn’t feel good at the time (getting out of bed to blog, working out, or choosing to read rather than put on a movie). But inevitably it feels good when I do.

 

The Best Books I Read in 2016

It doesn’t feel like the new year has started until I’ve logged into Goodreads and reviewed my Reading Challenge. I set a goal of reading 52 books in 2016, and ended up with 54. A good number of those were rereads, but here are my top picks among the books I read for the first time in 2016.

The Sacred Year by Michael Yankowski

I recommend this as one of the best books on Christian spiritual practice I have ever read. It inspired me to begin new habits this year, including the Daily Examen and Sabbath prayer and rest times. I wrote a longer review too.

Passionate Marriage by David Schnarch

I read a ton of Christian marriage books before our wedding, but oddly enough the most helpful books I’ve read since then haven’t been explicitly Christian at all. Shy readers beware; heady clinical language abounds in this book. But if you can push through that, Schnarch presents a radical shift in what it means to support and be supported by your partner. I’ll do it the injustice of this summary: a bracing call to “grow up” and own yourself.

Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson

Stevenson gives a sobering look at the justice system in America, and opened my eyes to some of what is happening in my own backyard. Above all, this book showed me how truly complex questions of imprisonment and capital punishment are both in practice and long-term effects. There are no clear or easy answers here, but seeing those involved as humans is a powerful first step.

Hunting the Divine Fox by Robert Farrar Capon

Reading this was like discovering a whole new country. I can’t remember the last time I’ve been so delighted with a new-to-me author, or have enjoyed a “theology” book so much. My husband and friends had to put up with me reading many passages out loud, prefaced with a “sorry, you have to hear this,” or “just one more!” Why Capon isn’t more widely known, I have no idea.

Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card

Proof that you shouldn’t neglect the classics! And I do consider this a classic in the vein of 1984 and Brave New World. One of the most stunning pieces of fiction I’ve read, and completely unforgettable. (I actually am guilty of getting the previous two books mixed up. No danger of that with Ender’s Game!)

Honorable Mentions

The Wise Man’s Fear by Patrick Rothfuss
The Sabbath: Its Meaning for Modern Man by Abraham Joshua Heschel
The Giver by Lois Lowry
The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

A Tale of Two Grandmas

fullsizerenderYesterday we hosted Thanksgiving for the first time. I’m blessed with a husband who is a talented cook, and he took expert charge of the turkey along with several other sides. Our moms both contributed to the feast too. One of my chief tasks was setting the table, using for the first time pieces I’ve inherited from both of my grandmothers.

My mom’s mom passed away in 2002. I remember the date because it was also the day The Two Towers released to theaters. Two friends and I had been looking forward to this for months. My grandma was living in California and we were in Washington. Mom and I were home together that morning when she got the phone call. I hugged my mom, but the only thing I remember saying was something like, “You don’t need to take me to the theater.” It makes me cringe a bit now, especially because we DID end up going to see the movie.

Not long afterwards we traveled to California for her service. In those pre-iPod days, I recorded snatches of The Two Towers soundtrack on a cassette to listen to on the trip. (I guess I didn’t have a portable CD player either.) At my grandmother’s service I read a passage from the end of C. S. Lewis’s The Last Battle. I don’t know if my grandma liked the Narnia books or had ever read them. My memories of her are mostly second-hand, but I know she had a sharp wit and loved words. She would buy Cinnamon Toast Crunch cereal for me when we came to visit from Hawaii. And she called me Renie, a nickname I thankfully managed to evade growing up.

For about fourteen years I had her gold and white china in storage at my parents’ house. This month it made the 2,500-mile journey to Alabama in time for Thanksgiving. My mom says it’s the first china she remembers.

The silverware we used came into my keeping only last year, when my dad’s mom passed away. Sometimes I think about texting her and remember she is gone. When I was growing up, Grandma Lu boarded horses at her property in Washington. That made her royalty in my book. Along with horses, she had a goat, two cats named Snowball and Teo, and what seemed like a vast amount of acreage to a kid who lived in an apartment in Hawaii. Visits to Washington felt like homecomings, and I was thrilled when my parents told me we would be moving back.

When we lived in Washington, grandma made a point of having me over about once a month. She would always have some activity planned: bowling or a local theater production or (my favorite) going to the racetrack, sometimes accompanied by her sister, my great Aunt Vi. It strikes me as hilarious now that I had a grandma and aunt who would take me to the track so I could salivate over the horses, while they stoically placed $2 bets on each race. (Sometimes we would split the winnings over dinner at Denny’s.)

I’m grateful that I got to spend so much time with them growing up, and I regret that I didn’t know my other grandma as well—for my mom’s sake as much as anyone else’s. But there was something healing in seeing my Grandma Lu’s silver and my Grandma Irma’s china together on our first Thanksgiving table. Yesterday morning I was very lonely for the people and places that seem to be gone forever. But right as I was standing in the kitchen struggling to pull it together, Aunt Vi texted me from Washington to say “Have a great Thanksgiving with those you love.” With those simple words she reached across all those miles and lifted up my heart. It’s what a grandma would do.

Fall and Horses

fallandhorses

When I hear someone say fall is their favorite season, I feel a kinship. In my stereotype of the seasons, summer welcomes the athletic and beautiful and the outdoorsy. Fall, on the other hand, brings the bookish folk into their own. Though we now mark it with a profusion of Pumpkin Spice, to me fall is the most thoughtful season, where joy and loss come together in “the time between times.” I was born in the summer, but I feel most at home in the fall.

A few weeks ago, when the first signs of fall were just appearing here in Alabama, I was out in the country visiting a friend’s horse. It happened that I had recently read The Alchemist for my book club. While I did not love the book overall, one thing that stuck with me was the idea of following what the author calls your “Personal Legend.” You might also describe it as a calling or abiding passion. I’ve had a few passions over the years, some growing out of others, but my original obsession was with horses. In the most joyful childhood dream I can remember, I was about to train a horse of my own (no doubt influenced by multiple viewings of The Black Stallion). I took riding lessons sporadically and collected Breyers, but strangely enough I don’t remember asking for a real horse.

Horses faded into the background in my teens when I was obsessed with all things Lord of the Rings. Soon enough I went to college, and now ten years have gone by. But I look back and see a few connecting threads, among them Tolkien’s own love of horses reflected in the books and the films. England drew me largely with the Tolkien/Lewis connection, but sitting in an Oxford pub  I met a young man who said one of his dreams was to ride horseback across Ireland. (I married him.) And last year, shortly after my father died, an old friend of my husband’s asked if we could look in on her horse over the summer.

When fall began a few weeks ago, I was visiting that same horse and had just turned him loose after a short ride. As he was wandering away under falling leaves, I was struck by a feeling I’ve had perhaps only once before. Anyone who has read Surprised By Joy knows something of it. I had the same sensation once on a walking tour in Oxford, an almost audible impression of I know you. You might call it a feeling of perfect harmony with your surroundings, that it is deeply right for you to be in that place at that moment. For me, I sense the hand of God gathering all the scattered threads of my life and giving me the briefest glimpse of the tapestry He is creating.