Eight years ago, May 20 was on a Sunday. I'd begun my maternity leave (from teaching English to immigrant kids at a nearby high school) about two weeks earlier, knowing that, in fact, I wouldn't be returning to the classroom at all; instead, I'd happily be staying home with my new baby. As much as I'd been called to classroom teaching for nine years and as much as I loved my job, the Lord had called me to a new role that I longed to embrace.
I'd been sleeping for weeks on one of the living room couches because my back cried out for extra support; to support me, Jeff had taken to sleeping on the other couch. But when I woke up shortly after six on the 20th, Jeff was already showering. As I cleared the cobwebs from my brain, I remembered that he was slated to lead the prayer time at church that morning. So I maneuvered myself off the couch, stood up and stretched...and felt an odd little "pop" in my back. Seconds later, a contraction swept through my abdomen, and I sank down onto the couch. Not concerned or afraid, but wondering. Because I'd experienced Braxton-Hicks contractions a few weeks earlier. So now, though I was overdue and scheduled for induction in just two days, I wasn't sure if this was really "it."
Jeff seemed to take the longest shower on record, during which I had several more contractions. So, when he finally came into the living room, I said, "I think maybe you won't be leading prayer today. But call them and have them pray for us 'cause I think we're gonna be having this baby."
After he made the call, he started timing the contractions - most of which were pretty tolerable because of my high pain threshold. Once, though, I was driven from my spot on the couch down onto my knees as it felt as though I were being ripped apart.
Around 11:00, the contractions got to be five minutes apart so we called the doctor - not my doctor, John, who was away at Notre Dame for his daughter's college graduation, but his brother, Tom, with whom he was in practice. He told us to head up to the hospital - just six blocks from our house - at about noon. We called my in-laws so they could make the hour drive up and packed up the car.
Two years earlier, we'd lost our oldest daughter, Anna Vivian, to a second-trimester miscarriage, and I'd been petrified of it happening again. But this pregnancy had been "textbook" - in fact, Dr. John, a high-risk OB I chose just in case, often joked that I was his boring patient. And so, too, with this labor.
When they checked me, the nurses asked several times if I were managing the pain all right - because, apparently, the monitor indicated that the contractions were "off the charts" in intensity. But, thank God, I was handling it just fine, and everything progressed just as it should have.
At one point, they asked if I wanted an epidural and at first I agreed because I'd not any illusions of doing a completely natural childbirth; as long as I could avoid a c-section, I was okay with pain meds. But, as they started to prep for that, I saw the size needle they'd have to poke into my back, and I nearly fainted. So I changed my mind, feeling that even the worst contractions wouldn't be as scary as that. Surprised, they suggested a dose of Nubain to help me to doze for about half and hour. That I could handle, as it went into the IV drip, and - after that short, blessed rest - I was good to go.
At around 5:30, Dr. Tom said I was ready to start pushing. And then I panicked, as I didn't think I knew how to do that! We'd taken Lamaze, but the instructor had gone off on so many rabbit trails about her own birth experiences that the lesson on pushing had been squeezed into the last few minutes of the last class, and I was certain I had no idea now how to do it.
Besides that, I realized at that moment that I couldn't manage one aspect of labor that I'd hoped to enjoy: I'd planned to ask for a mirror so I could see the baby being born, but the intensity of the contractions was such that I had to close my eyes - shutting out all other stimuli as much as possible - to get through it.
But, unlike what I would experience with Rachel's little sister, Abigail, a year later, I did not feel an overpowering urgency to push. Instead, Dr. Tom and the nurses had to coach me through it so I'd push at the right times. I dutifully did what they said and kept expecting to hear them proclaim that the baby had been born; after about an hour of hard work and no result, I got frustrated and scared. "I can't do this," I said. And only to myself I thought, "Oh, God, is everything okay?"
Finally, though, shortly after 6:30 and just two pushes in the three-push cycle, Dr. Tom said, "Okay, stop. The head is out. Don't push more yet." Of course, that was the one moment in the entire labor when the urge to push became overwhelming, but I somehow resisted and waited, even as I was sure I'd burst into tears at the pain. Jeff later reported that, while we waited - just Rachel's head protruding from the birth canal - she lay there looking around as well as she could, blinking at what was undoubtedly an overwhelmingly bright light to her beautiful blue eyes.
A few minutes later, I pushed again, and - at 6:46 pm - out slid the baby. And as soon as he saw her, Jeff crowed, "It's Rachel!"
But then they whisked her away to the warming table instead of giving her to me, and terror filled my heart. Why are they doing that? Was that a hole in her lower spine I'd seen? Is she breathing?
Turns out, that was just Dr. Tom's method, and she was perfectly fine. And in a few more minutes I wrapped my arms around my 21-inch, eight-pound-four-ounce little girl. She blinked up at me, and I marveled at the beauty and perfection God created in this child. Eight years later, I'm still doing that.