Dear Eleanor,

Your birth story in a word: joy! But first, the peaks and valleys that brought us to you my sweet 11 lb baby.

We conceived in the midst of a great personal trial, which probably wasn’t the smartest thing to do. It was hard. Our marriage felt tenuous. A series of difficult family conversations were ahead. We were signed up for a season of therapy and personal grieving, the extent of which we will share with both you and the world when the time is right. But I wanted you to be 2.5 years apart. My heart was still bound up in Plan A for our lives and child spacing was in the center of that plan. I wanted to be (deathly, debilitatingly) sick during the months of my choice when we had little obligations or things to miss out on (January and February). So conceive we did - I charted again which I always find interesting and empowering. Body-knowledge forever!

December was okay. The first few weeks. Telling family and friends. Not the fireworks of explosive happiness that came with Vivian’s announcement, but a genuine “hooray!” from all sides. I told Matt in the middle of the night and he smiled deeply. I had spent months researching “morning sickness” (a misnomer in my case) and buying things to try to keep it at bay. I bought Pink Stork Solution products, which are specifically made for hyperemesis mamas. I cleansed and fasted as much as I could while still breastfeeding. I bulked up on nutrition and supplemented. I got a nausea-reduction sound app which actually took the edge off sometimes. I prayed and dared to genuinely ask for this to be lifted. I made a spiritual plan to try to stay focused. It hit on December 31st exactly when expected at six weeks.

I’ve been trying to write this next sentence for ten minutes. Trying to describe the sickness in a way other than the word that keeps floating to the surface of my mind: rape. Held down by a force intending harm that exceeded my personal power to control or combat. Brutality; towering waves of nausea that pulled me under by the throat and tumbled me in their tide leaving me unsure that I would make it out. If I have ever had an encounter with Satan this was it. Memories like this: bent over the toilet with a bowl of dry cheerios, chewing, gagging, vomiting bile, unshowered for a week, hugging dirty toilet, voices downstairs I can’t call to, falling down naked and waiting to be found, no strength to move. Vomiting on the floor, choking, dizzy, helpless. For two months.   

As I write this I feel sharp fear and then numbness. To re-enter that space and remember how my brain activity stopped, how talking made me puke, how moving my head made me puke, how showering physically hurt (oh, and made me puke). How I couldn’t make decisions - I would panic and breath fast. Not enough calories to power the functions of the mind. Complete dependence on Matt for food, for cleaning, for setting Vivian up with a movie next to me and hoping for the best until someone could arrive later in the day. Family and friends with quizzical looks - “why isn’t she trying harder?”.  At 14 weeks I could chew and swallow again. Calories brought back my mind. I stuffed the trauma down.

I re-entered the human race as a showing pregnant woman. Target trips. Baby name lists. Church. Vivian was overjoyed to have her mama back; we played. She nursed. She nursed through the sickness despite my milk supply disappearing. It hurt like hell, but felt like my only connection to her. Reaching out from the black of my body and feeling her next to me. And it kept her occupied and supervised for 20 minute stretches, sometimes more. I bought maternity clothes. I walked. I googled stuff that worried me. I ate every hour and a half and hated it. I worried about the anatomy scan and pictured worst case scenarios. Sometimes in my projections I was brave; at other times I cursed God. I followed home birth accounts on Instagram and listened to Hypnobabies. We found out you were a precious girl. I felt tired, so tired most of the time.

At my 28 week appointment we discovered that I was anemic. Low enough to almost disqualify for a homebirth, so we started working on that right away. Food wasn’t enough. My numbers dropped lower. I started supplementing aggressively and after taking the first ones, felt a powerful rush of blood to my head. My eyes got bloodshot. My mental clarity returned. I didn’t wake up tired. I could recover after taking a walk. I could discuss films and the news and the budget with Matt and not get confused and overwhelmed. We were so incredibly happy to be clear of the worst of it; we held each other and cried. Cried out those weeks and also the concurrent psychological landscape that we were navigating. We planned a day trip to breath some fresh mountain air.

We went to Sedona for the day and played in the creek. Dear God how I relished every sensation like a woman raised from the dead. To walk on a path with my girl. To feel the smooth, mossy rocks under my toes; coldest creek water cupping my feet like socks. Taking photos. Tiny kicks within making their way to the surface -- Eleanor! It was on that trip that I began to love you. I took a walk by myself and spoke to you. I sat on a rock in a bikini and felt the sun on my face. We ate a big, expensive dinner and headed home, hands out the window. We needed that day.

By the third trimester we started to suspect that you were big. People were sure that I was due “any time” to which I responded with a tour de force of passive-aggression. My third-trimester-only wardrobe grew. I wore birkenstocks with every outfit, transgressing my personal integrity on the matter. I photographed three births and with each, got deeper and deeper into the end-of-pregnancy mindspace. This is coming. Nothing else existed. I nested. I bought you a wardrobe with care and intention, all soft, neutral whites and peaches and pinks, feminine and comfortable. Cheyanne told me to expect you to be around 9 lbs (ha!) and to embrace it. I remember her body language well: raised eyebrows, hand out like holding an imaginary bottle of wine from the bottom. Reading big-baby birth stories became my new thing to worry/becoming empowered about.

I had two exceedingly lovely shower/sprinkle/celebrations, one with family and one with friends. The love of other women during pregnancy and postpartum is extremely moving to me. I lean on their experiences and feel strengthened by our sisterhood. It feels good to validate the spectrum of their stories; the growth, the trauma, the unresolved pieces, the boundless joy our babies bring to us. I cuddled the newborns that were born a few months before you in an insane pregnant-lady manner. Feeling their soft skin and tiny, curly-twitchy movements made my heart skip a beat like a letter from a lost lover. This was to come for me too, in time, in time.

Oh those last days. I was kind of carrying twins. The sheer girth of you, my child. Matt helped me out of bed, in and out of the car, rolling over from one side to the other. So pathetic! Oh my gosh. Everything ached from head to toe, but it barely mattered. Eat, rest, repeat. I felt blank but happy. Doing time. My “due date” passed. My lack of belief in the importance of it did nothing to assuage my complete grumpiness. Not because I felt like there was something wrong but because of the physicality of carrying a child past 40 weeks. Ohh the protein. Ohh the feet that felt like a jumble of pinched nerves. I turned into one giant eye roll. How are you? Eye roll. Are you hungry? Eye roll. Burst into tears.

I thought about “doing things” to try to facilitate labor, but never acted on it. Do you want me to break your membranes? Eye roll. Shrug. No. Because labor with Vivian began and progressed with ease, I had a bodily trust that it would happen again. Though I also believed you would never come and I would be pregnant forever of course. At 41 weeks and three days (thank you to every soul who pretended like I wasn’t pregnant at all for that last week, bless you) at 2:30a.m., stuff started.

Stuff! Stuff! Stuff stuff stuff. I had gotten a little bit of sleep. I was reasonably well-fed and stable enough emotionally. There were some breakdowns for the ages during that last week and I was grateful not to birth in that raw, despairing state. Like with Vivian’s labor it began with my bowel emptying. Not the most pleasant thing. Though my mental space was consumed with longing for any sign of labor, when I woke up my first thought was “I don’t want to do this right now.” I went back and forth to the toilet all night, resting in between and zoning out, contractions picking up. I was still me - relatively fussy, uptight and aware. I rocked, I stood, I didn’t wake up Matt in typical second-baby fashion. I texted Cheyanne and told her to come over when she woke up. She came around 7:30 a.m. and I started to get that feeling that home birthing women know: I want to get in the water.

Once immersed everything changed. This moment is a birth in it’s own right; the entrance into a truly primal space. I was no longer me but became the physical reality that was acting through me. Between contractions I was woman, but during them I was animal. The water held my huge body like the fluffiest bed in all creation. I felt light, which at 50 lbs over normal weight was a wonderful feeling. Music playing, fans whirring, candles burning, this is birth… Mindy arrived and I greeted her through my hazy, unslept space of labor land.

Birthing time. In Cheyanne’s words, “the good stuff.” Deep, effective contractions. Matt got into the tub and between waves I rested on him and slept. I played the relaxation music that I listened to while pregnant. As with Vivian I used a vivid circular visualization that would come to me during my meditation practice. Not an image of a circle but an intensely felt circular feeling. In the words of Hypnobabies: open, open, open. During waves I opened my arms out like worship and sung deep, loud, diaphragmatic oh’s. Matt applied counter-pressure on my hips. The extreme power of birth was like a huge, heavy, leaden vehicle going 100 mph; the sound was my steering wheel.

Hours and hours in the tub like this. The sun rose. We chatted between waves. Mindy and Cheyanne took a selfie which perfectly captured the mood in the room: joy, anticipation, sisterhood, work. I held Cheyanne’s hand for a few minutes as an expression of gratitude. Here we are, you and me. You and me, Cheyanne! I f*cking love you. Mindy faithfully gave me sips of water and coconut water and took these photos and encouraged me with simple words. Matt followed my grunted commands and smiled relaxedly when I looked his way.

At about 12:30 I knew I was complete; the circle had opened. There is no other way to describe this than to say I felt like my cervix was a wide open circle of muscle. The warm water continued to be deeply, deeply comforting. Too comforting, perhaps! I went to sleep. I know this sounds beyond insane, but it happened with Vivian as well. I never experienced transition, just complete openness and then the waves spaced out. For my entire labor they never exceeded 45 seconds. I drifted into a legit nap.

Coming in and out of consciousness, I asked Matt to sing “Only Alive,” the song he sang out our wedding. I smiled and listened. Minutes passed. Then I started to feel impatient. What are we doing here? C’mon. Cheyanne suggested we break my waters; I think I said “sure” in a whimsical way when she asked if I wanted to. Why not. It sounded and felt like a knuckle pop and then gushhhh, like peeing you can’t control. And immediately the fullness of a human baby filling the birth canal! There she is! My bellows became guttural and pushy. Time to work.

I had the advantage of being a second time birther here. And being 41+3. When I felt like I was about to experience the biggest most intense bowel movement of my life, I leaned into it with all the force and aggression of a mother bear. I was DONE. DONE. DONE with being pregnant, rectum be damned. I hope that made you laugh. That really was my mental state! I couldn’t care less about the pressure, whereas with Vivian I was a little precious about it. You want me to, eh hem, push? There?

The bellows turned into chesty yells as loud as my voice has ever gotten. I smiled at the close of each contraction, a certifiable witch woman, possessed. Mindy remarked later that she felt for me during a time of agony. Although it appeared as agony from the outside, internally I was full of relief, determination and happiness. The end is near. I pushed for an hour, ever so slowly, ever so slowly. I had 2-3 pushes a contraction because they remained short. They came on subtly as an invitation; I didn’t have the more common experience of them being a power out of my control. I had to decide to push. And when I did the force accelerated like pushing the gas hard on a car. I could feel every descending inch.

Pressure. Not pain, pressure. This was my experience. Holding onto a chair outside of the tub, number 2ing my baby into the world. I can remember the burning as I write this. My body with a body descending from it. I am amazed that I experienced this; amazed that a woman can do this and recover. I felt your hair, but felt pragmatic about it. Good, fine, hair. Cheyanne coached me with directions; the perfect blend of believing in my strength and reprimanding me as only the oldest of 9 can. “Push, Anastasia! Push. ANOTHER.”

Then I heard these words and felt Matt’s arms under my body: “Stand up and catch your baby.” I stood up and out you came. RREEELLIIIEEEF. I held you. Cheyanne held you. Mindy held you from behind, I think. You were passed through my strong and shaky legs to my arms. Your movements against my naked body I will never, ever forget, for they were the first words you spoke to me in a language all our own. Tiny hands now against my chest that I had felt above my hips for months. You blinked, you cried, you breathed and filled with richest pink.

The reason Cheyanne had me stand up is because of what homebirth midwives affectionately call, “tummy dystocia.” This means that your chest and belly were so big that you essentially got stuck around your belly! After you were born my right hand held you by the small of your back, and that is the moment of my meeting you. Not with eyes or heart or ears but with my hand. Feeling your velvety, wet body there. My entire consciousness localized there. Oh God I can feel it now, the same way I felt Vivian’s head. Those two moments are the greatest gifts I have been given in life. God’s love in tactile form, filling the palm of my hand.

I looked at you, stunned. No neural pathways yet for this child I objectively adore. My body breathed, all was silent, still. Paused. I was dazed beyond description. I looked up at Cheyanne and Mindy, searching their faces in the same way a child does. How do I react? This is good, right? Yeah, this is good! Okay, really good! Me human, me happy now. My nervous system latched onto theirs; they lived for me. I said a few things I think, something like, “it’s over!”. It felt like we had just survived a ship-wrecked trek across the ocean and although we had now reached land, my first and only instinct was to reconnect with them.

Sounds re-entered the room. You came into focus. Eleanor! My baby! Matt! This is wonderful! I felt emotion again. I kissed you, my lips at once numb and over-feeling, pulsing. A mixture of adrenaline and exhaustion. Technical things happened; we cut the cord, we talked about where I would deliver the placenta (don’t remember), I rested in Matt’s neck, Cheyanne listened to your heart. You looked around unfazed like, “Hello. Now I’m here.”

Oh my little love. Now to nurse you. I had only let myself actually worry about nursing once. It was a fear so cold and black that I pushed it away and refused to acknowledge it. I had so much experience now. And no hospital-visit PTSD like I had with Vivian (another story). I nursed V for two years, and the entire thing had become astonishingly simple to me. Suck and receive milk. I latched you and immediately knew we were in the clear. The force of your suck and instinctual intention to nurse were gut-wrenchingly cute. Tiny, naked you, arms around me like a hug. Well, not tiny, but tiny to me. There was an aura in the room like, “holy sh*t…” regarding your size that I vaguely picked up on. You looked like a three month old! But moved entirely like a newborn. I took you in, your toes, your hands, your hooded eyes, your blonde-red hair. And I fell in love. Deeply, drunkenly, romantically in love.

After nursing you laid on the bed and watched us. You were awake for two hours just looking around, peaceful, curious, demure. We weighed you. The moment of all moments! 10 pounds 14 oz! And really, birthed very easily. So let this be an encouragement if you need it. No tear. This team of us brought you forth.

You second born have changed the game. My body has morphed in permanent ways: loose skin and stretch marks that I so feared. Posture and core strength returning slower and with more difficulty than I would like. The identity shift complete; not a young girl with a baby, but a mother of two. A mom on the brink of 30. Your birth was a peak in my life, a space where I learned in my body what I have been accepting intellectually for my 20's: that it’s only through suffering that the new emerges, that work is necessary and good, that support from the people around you is a holy force, and that the most beautiful thing in all of creation is the cycle of growth unto life.

“When a woman is giving birth, she has sorrow because her hour has come, but when she has delivered the baby, she no longer remembers the anguish, for joy that a human being has been born into the world.” John 16:21