This is the story of what happens at homebirth. Not of the birth, of a baby’s eyes opening, for the first time, in his parents’ bedroom. It isn’t about the labor, even though this one, a third baby born with his arm raised after a long, dark night of work was “the hardest.” And it isn’t about the baby’s father, his murmured words of encouragement, the contraction-timer app that, over hours, became a running joke, his strong hand to hold. On the first day of the new flower moon, I attended my dear friend’s homebirth. Her big, healthy son was born an hour and a half before dawn, his brother and sister sound asleep in the guest bedroom. He came into this life, into his body, held tightly in his mother’s arms and surrounded by joy. When the sun rose, his brother and sister bounded up the stairs and burst into the bedroom. They knew he would be there. He knew their noise and their voices. They loved him right away; he had always been theirs.
And that is the last I am going to say about mother and baby, because this is the story of what happens at homebirth, but outside the bedroom. In the early evening, early in labor, my apprentice and I arrived at the house, as we arrive to every house: sideways through the door, calling out greetings, bags bumping over the threshold. There was unpacking, talking, looking and listening. A plan was hatched. We went our separate ways, we to town for supper and they on a walk, through the neighborhood, at the close of the day. Later, after supper, after driving around the city on other business, we returned to the home. This time we enter quietly, climb the stairs in stocking feet, conjure a quick and ancient heartbeat, and slip back down into the kitchen. The table is ours now; we unpack our textbooks, articles, needles and balls of wool. The lights are low, a huge pot of soup simmers on the stove. We wait.
But not for the birth, not yet. Headlights shine through the window, we hear a car in the driveway, the engine cuts out. The women arrive, through the side-door. Two good friends, neat-handed helpers who drove from nearby towns. We are glad to see them again. The baby’s grandmother, who had been putting the big children to bed, comes upstairs to join us in the kitchen. We have the table covered: books, ipad, mugs of tea, a colorworked hat streaming yarn. Hours go by. We talk of travel, births we have attended, our children, both babies and mothers. A daughter’s sweet sixteen party, a son’s christening. A new house, and packing the old one. Past days spent in far away places, plans and schemes for days to come. As the night winds on, with one ear listening to the floor above, we weave the story of who we are and what we know. We take turns going upstairs, slipping into the darkened bedroom to listen to a tiny, beating heart, to bring ice, to lay out clothes, pressed and perfect, and wrap them in the heating pad. A tray of supplies is organized silently and by touch: gauze, flashlight, Kelly clamps, cord scissors, Berman airway, syringe, the tiny vials of pitocin. I leave it on the bureau, walk out of the room and close the door.
And then, downstairs in the kitchen, we start to hear footfalls above, voices, a moan. A friend goes up, carrying a bowl of ice. The door is opened and not shut again, we hear the mother’s voice. “Don’t go.” The kitchen quietens, we drift upstairs one by one and take our places. A circle of women, surrounding a family. In a white house in Concord, a dirt yard in the Caribbean, a drafty cave at Lascaux, before we watched the clock. This pattern is inside us, always and ancient, sleeping in our brains and cells. The baby is coming. We know what to do and what to leave alone. We know it will be soon.
The circle is born at home, it is the other birth, the one that happens in the kitchen, or on the porch, or in the family room. It is initially a patchwork of personalities and experience that meld, during the labor-watch into a cohesive, if changeable, whole. This is community-building at its most primitive, and most enduring. Forever after, there will be five women, who can say to this little one, I was there when you were born. I saw your mother’s work, your father’s joy, your first breath. When we tell him his birth story, we will tell him how his mother baked muffins and bread, enough to feed an army, and left it all piled on the counter. That we picked out his clothes, matched hats, and smoothed them on the bed. That his dog kept sentinel on the landing outside the bedroom door, head up, eyes watching. If he is sixteen and belligerent, we will all remember, behind our wry smiles, when he pooped unholy chaos all over the blankets, his father and the scale. This baby will know, and knows already, that he was born with a place in the world: into a home, into a family, into a community. We were all waiting for him. His experience has taught him this already, and we will teach him more, with our stories.
And there are the women. What does it mean, to a mother, to have that experience of giving birth at home? To be given the space to do the work she was born to do, knowing that, nearby, a reservoir of help and encouragement is waiting; all of us eating cornbread and trading tales around the table. What does it mean to the women? Birth is transformative, even in the kitchen. The women present know each other’s stories now, have shared a vigil, and will always remember this night, spent together in watching. The veil will lower and the memories will fade, but this experience, shared, binds us together. Here is a place during homebirth, one of many, where the esoteric intersects the practical: we become a community through nothing more magical than time spent together. Birth in the home gives us that time, stops the clocks and holds us all, in the kitchen, with a common purpose. In parenting, hard days are inevitable. Life brings grief and hardship, celebration and surprise. But the women who birth at home, and those who wait outside the door, have help inside of them. Out of the past, and, I hope, the present, too, the circle calls them to pick up the phone or knock on a door. To ask for the help and companionship they know is right downstairs.
This is a preprint of an article accepted for publication in Midwifery Today Copyright © 2011 Midwifery Today, Inc.