I came to a different and awed understanding of what life is. It’s not what you think it is. First, what you call your life is not yours at all – not yours to plan, manipulate, or control, at least not very often. That’s a staggering realization. I was humbled to see that the maturity and serenity I thought I had achieved was simply the result of having things my way all the time. If life wasn’t mine, what was it? In fleeting moments of deep satisfaction and insight, I saw the absolute truth of life…love that is no mere word, love that goes beyond feeling, love that is life itself. I was filled with a rush of respect for all mothers everywhere. This was how we all got here. What miracles, what sacrifice, what love! I never knew, nor could I have, before now. Can you imagine this love? Can you anticipate it, fabricate it, measure and evaluate it? No, you can’t, you can only be love, and your child will release its magnitude within you. -from Momma Zen, by Karen Maezen Miller
Where do I start?
The time honored advice to writers is to start at the beginning and go until you’ve reached an ending. But this birth story doesn’t begin with a birth. It begins with a doubt.
Actually, a lot of them.
If you’ve followed my journey then you know I was afraid to have a fourth baby. (I wrote about that here.) I was afraid to be pregnant again. I was afraid to labor again. I was afraid to add one more child to the family.
Despite those fears, I chose to say yes to the desires of my heart. I chose to say yes to one more baby.
Throughout my pregnancy I faced so many fears. I chose not to go on the weekly progesterone injections that I had been on for my past two pregnancies (more on that in another post). So for the first half of my pregnancy I faced the fear that I had made the wrong decision, and that I could potentially have a baby far too early.
Then, at our first ultrasound at 20 weeks, we were informed of some irregularities in our baby’s head size, as well as some issues with seeing some of the baby’s organs. We were scheduled for a follow up visit at Akron Children’s Hospital to determine whether our baby had a birth defect called microcephaly. As a result, I faced more fear; fear like I’ve never known before.
And then, as someone who values a completely unmedicated birth experience, I had all this little fears. Fears that our baby wouldn’t be head down. Fears that I wouldn’t be Group B negative and would have to be hooked up to a drip. Fears that I wouldn’t be able to have a water birth. Fears that my midwife wouldn’t be able to attend. Fears about how pushing would feel – because at this point, with unmedicated birth number four, there is no getting around it. I knew what was coming.
You get the picture. I had some fears.
I don’t quite understand why I struggled with fear so much this pregnancy. I know we all have fears, and I’m no exception. But the amount of things I worried about this pregnancy was unusual for me. And honestly, I think there is only one explanation.
This baby, has always been a gift. From before he was even born, I knew it. He was a wonderful, gracious little gift to me and our family – but I had to choose him. I had to be willing to acknowledge my fear and say yes anyways. And sometimes when you are really afraid, choosing not to let that fear stand in your way doesn’t mean that you defeat the fear all together. Sometimes you just have to keep refocusing your eyes on your faith – because our natural human tendency is to return to our fear. Sometimes you have to do that over and over again. Sometimes you have to acknowledge that fear and faith will be co-companions on your journey. Sometimes you have to keep reminding yourself that only one of them gets a voting voice.
As I look back on all the things I was afraid of – especially our birth defect scare – I’ve asked myself what was the point? I know you can’t squeeze a lesson out of every experience, but I also don’t want to miss the refining points of this pregnancy. And so here is what I’ve learned:
You can’t control everything. Nothing teaches us about how little control we have over life like motherhood. No matter how good our intentions, how spot on our research, how carefully calculated out actions, some things are simply out of our control.
The only thing we can control, without exception, is our response.
Time and time again throughout my pregnancy, I was given an opportunity to wallow in fear, or focus on faith. To be honest, I’ve never felt such gripping, ice cold fear as I felt when while we waited to find out if our baby had a birth defect. There were so many times that I felt swallowed whole by fear. Choosing how I was going to respond in that situation was my lifeline. I had to choose faith. I had to remind myself of truth. Most of that truth is incredibly personal and dear to me, and not something I wish to share in this space. But I will share this – I believed so strongly in the things that God had told me about this baby, that in my darkest hours I returned to the things God had spoken over me and my baby’s life, and I chose faith.
At 38 weeks pregnant, my dear friend and doula left the country for a mission’s trip to Costa Rica, and I was devastated. I thought for sure this meant she would miss our baby’s birth. She came over the day before she left to give me a hug and leave me with her doula bag. I didn’t mean to, but I cried. There was still so much uncertainty, I wanted her there as a trusted friend and advocate. I started to have doubts about the kind of birth experience that I would have.
I began having contractions a day or two after she left.
On Wednesday night of that week, I knew I was having early labor contractions. They were strong enough to stop me in my tracks and take my breath away, but sporadic. We told the boys that mommy would be having the baby soon, and told them what to expect. That night at bedtime, Theo told us that he wasn’t ready to meet his brother.
Thursday was a beautiful day. It was the Summer Solstice, the first official day of summer. The sky was a brilliant blue with perfect fluffy clouds drifting lazily across the sky. There was a gentle breeze that blew through our trees, keeping the temps warm but pleasant. My contracts were strong but still inconsistent.
My sweet friend, Natalie, came over with her two girls at my kids’ nap time to henna my belly. We spread out a blanket in the grass and I lied back, looking up through the branches at the sky. Natalie placed her hands on my belly to speak a prayer of welcome and blessing, and at that moment the baby kicked (which of course made us both cry). Then she applied a beautiful henna to my belly that celebrated life and summer and birth.
After Natalie left, I felt a little discouraged because my contractions had stopped. Pregnancy and labor is challenging physically, yes, but mentally it can be much harder. The constant struggle of pregnancy is to stay present in a situation where there is very little control. This, of course, can also be pregnancy’s gift – it teaches us to simply be.
That afternoon, with the help of my friend, I allowed myself to simply be. Be pregnant. Be with my friend and family. Be a part of an experience. Be beautiful. Be loved. Be cherished. Be exactly as I was.
I went on a walk later that day and my contractions picked up again after I returned. I busied myself with cleaning the house from top to bottom – partially to distract myself and partially because this time I knew it would be soon, and I wanted to bring my baby home to a clean house.
After dinner, Mike took our kids to my parents’ house. Theo told him he was ready to meet his brother now.
It had started to rain after Mike returned home, but I wanted to walk a little bit to get through the discomfort of the contractions. We shared an umbrella. We held hands. We’d stop to let a contraction pass, with the rain falling softly around us on the quiet streets, and then start our slow walk again after it passed.
It was midnight when we got back to the house, and I wasn’t ready to go to the hospital yet. I chose to rest, even though I was frequently woken up by contractions that were getting stronger and stronger. Finally, at 4 am, I woke up with contractions that were one minute apart.
I sent a message to Katie, our doula. She had arrived back in the country less than 12 hours earlier. She was going to be able to meet us at the hospital. She would be there for our baby’s birth.
At the hospital, I was informed that the doctor on call that day was a doctor who doesn’t do tub births. After our doula mentioned that I had a note in my chart from my midwife stating that she wanted to attend the birth, the doctor on call graciously switched duties with my midwife for the day. She would be there for our baby’s birth.
While on the phone with my midwife, we were also informed that I was Group B negative. I wouldn’t have to be hooked up to a drip.
My midwife arrived shortly thereafter and the nurses started filling up the tub. My contractions were intense, but started spacing out a bit. Once I got in the tub, they slowed down even more. This is partially just how my body labors – my contractions always slow down right before the very end. But also, what they say about water births is true – the water really is a natural pain killer. It instantly relaxed me in both body and spirit.
One reason why I love an unmedicated birth so much is how aware and present you can stay during labor – even in the most intense moments. In the water, as my contractions intensified, I was able to go quiet and still despite what was happening to me physically. During one particularly strong contraction, I remembered what my baby had already taught me during his pregnancy – I can’t control, but I can choose. I get to decide how I respond, even in painful moments.
I remembered how I wanted to birth this baby – in malasana pose – a pose that resonated with my body during my pregnancy. I came into malasana, and closed my eyes. I returned to my breath. With every contraction, I imagined that my breath could squeeze out the pain. I allowed them to wash over me, and then when they faded, I rested.
But then, I knew it was time to push, and my fear returned.
My midwife had stepped out of the room and Katie asked if I wanted her back with me. I hesitated. Katie, who can always sense what a momma is thinking, saw my hesitation. “I know you are worried about calling her back in here too soon,” she said. “But this is what midwives do. They stay with you.”
Katie must have also said something to my midwife, Richele, because when she came back in she asked if I wanted her to break my water (I still can’t believe it hadn’t broken yet!). I said yes, and so she broke my water while I was still in the tub (midwives are so awesome), and I instantly knew I was about to meet my baby boy.
With one push, I could see my baby boy’s head. With the second, he was completely out. I reached down into the water and pulled him to my chest. He let out the tiniest little peep, and fell back to sleep. I instantly burst into tears. He was perfect.
Montgomery Loren Shipper was born weighing 7 pounds, 7 ounces, 20 inches long, and a perfectly round, perfectly sized newborn head.
I was on a walk the day after Katie came to visit me and say goodbye before her trip to Costa Rica. I was frustrated and confused and feeling a LOT of feelings. As I usually do, I was listening to a podcast. This particular day I was listening to someone talk about how we need to be careful in what we give control of our joy and how we tend to get so focused on one particular expression of our joy that we tend to miss it in other forms. I paused the podcast and thought, “God, what do I give control of my joy?”
Almost immediately, God impressed upon me these words in response: “Timing. You believe in the things I’ve spoken over your life, but then you put me on a timeline for when you expect to receive them.”
Again, as in the time I prayed about my initial fears in having one more baby, God couldn’t have answered in a more truth-startling way.
I want to know. I want certainty. I want things to happen when I want them to happen. And when I feel like I don’t know or can’t be certain or things don’t happen on my expected timeline – I get frustrated, and I lose my joy. Notice, I didn’t say that good things stop happening. It’s not that God stops blessing me, it’s just that my petulant attitude over things not happening the way I see best causes me to miss the goodness all together.
I thought back to Katie’s final words to me before she left.
“Enjoy these final days of being pregnant,” she said. “This chapter of your life is about to close. Cherish it.”
Those words were such a gift, especially in light of the lesson from the podcast I listened to later in the day. Timing steals my joy far too often. And so, I was able to choose my response to those final days of being pregnant. Yes, I was tired of being pregnant and tired of battling fear, but each day was a new opportunity to choose well. I chose to cherish the time with my kids. I chose to slow down and take care of myself. I chose to savor the special parts of being pregnant.
And then, because God is so much better at being God than I am, our little boy was born at just the right moment. When all the things that I had hoped and prayed for came together to create a truly wonderful, and beautiful birth experience that I will cherish for the rest of my life.
Montgomery means “man of power,” and in many ways, he offered his strength to me time and time again during his pregnancy. There were so many times that my faith faltered, yet when I stilled my body and my mind, I felt him telling me that he was ok, and that everything would be alright. He has been a comfort and source of strength to me from the very beginning.
Loren, is Mike’s middle name.
The kids call him Gummy.