I wrote these words especially for my beautiful boy Beineán, so he would always know the story of how he came to be born into this world, if he wanted to. I share them now for anyone who likes to read birth stories as much as I do.
I dedicate this to Colette and to Colm.
Four years ago on the 28th of November a massive cold snap brought snow and ice and my son Beineán. At twelve minutes past four in the darkening afternoon, he was born in our home on Saint Jarlath’s Road in Cabra.
He was blue.
He was moving but for his first minute he didn’t breathe. My midwife Colette worked rapidly to assist him. Colm watched at the bedside. I knew he was suddenly badly afraid, but I felt deeply serene. The massive rush of prickling energy I was experiencing through my entire body, in the wake of giving birth, meant that I couldn’t even speak.
“Don’t move” Colette said to me. And I didn’t; I only turned my head to see him, looking over my shoulder from where I was positioned on hands and knees, which is how I had given birth to him.
Maybe it seems strange to say now, but I almost couldn’t understand why Colm had fear. Just wait, I wanted to say to him. I felt sort of other-wordly, the intensity and pain of labour suddenly vanquished. Afterwards Colm would say that it was like I was suspended in some kind of hormonal high; to me, it was like being more pristinely awake than I had ever felt in my whole life. I had this supreme confidence that our baby was perfectly fine.
I looked at Colm and tried to tell him with my eyes: All we have to do is wait.
But Colm wasn’t looking at me. He was staring at our son. Willing him to breathe. Willing my midwife to do her thing.
I don’t even really know what Colette did to get him breathing. At the time I was just focussing on my own breath: keeping it steady. It was cooling and expansive after the enormity of giving birth. The umbilical cord was still connecting our boy to me; though it was the that same cord that had wrapped his neck one-time-round and made him blue, through it my body was still sustaining him.
And Colette had done it.
4:13 PM. He breathed.
I think Colette said,
His blue colour was already turning to purple-pink. He gurgled quietly, opened his eyes, and looked around. Colette picked him up and placed him in my arms. He was wiry and strong and sturdy, and he had deep sparkling blue eyes and long dark eyelashes just like his Daddy and his big sister.
And I held him with deep gratitude: to Colette; to all of us; to the process of childbirth.
Colm cut the cord, and Colette tended to me. I had yet to deliver the placenta.
Wordlessly then, Colm lifted him from my arms. He sat on the edge of the bed by the window, snow falling thickly against the outside of the glass now. Lifting his T-shirt over our new baby, he cradled him skin-to-skin against his chest. Still he didn’t speak, but gazed down at the tiny face which was scrunching and un-scrunching inside his shirt collar. They sat like that in silence, for I-don’t-know-how-long.
The nights leading up to the birth, I was restless yet couldn’t move. The Saturday evening, I was strewn on the stairs in the dark trying to find a comfortable position. I went to bed, and at midnight I woke to find that the waters had broken, or were beginning to. I rolled my sleeping almost-3-year-old daughter Aoife away from me and went downstairs to tell Colm, who was still up watching television. (When I told him, he immediately thought I meant the pipes had broken; a cold snap was issuing in outside, and we’d had experience of the pipes freezing the previous Winter.) Nervous excitement set in and I texted the midwife, who told me to see if I could get some sleep and keep in touch. I went back to bed, and my daughter settled herself back to sleep half-sitting up against my back, which is how she slept at that time. Mild contractions were setting in but I managed to sleep. At 6AM I came downstairs and tried to sleep through the contractions on the couch, with our little dog Molly curled up at the back of my legs.
Before 8AM I arose and went to wake my sister Alicia, who was charged with taking care of our daughter throughout the birth. The baby’s due date wasn’t for another four days, but fortunately she had cancelled her plans to attend a birthday party in Limerick that weekend, just in case. I looked around her bedroom door and told her cheerfully, “it’s baby day!” Colette rang and said she’d be over at 11. I rang my mother in Galway to tell her what was happening. I recall that Mam took a moment to process the information and then she said that she and Dad would get on the road to be with us. Colm phoned his parents in Wexford to let them know, and got baby clothes out of the wardrobe before leaving to stock up on food. I knew all of the grandparents were anxious about our decision to have this baby at home.
Contractions – or “surges” – were still manageable when Colette arrived. I had set up the ironing-board up because I felt I needed something to lean over during the surges. Colm came back, and he and Colette brought me upstairs to our bedroom. They settled me on a chair with the curtains drawn. I felt like being on my feet but they were worried I’d get tired. The contractions were beginning to get very uncomfortable, but I was coping. They set up the hypnobirthing tape. It seemed like I had a long way to go still, so Colette popped home for lunch – she had asked me if I’d rather she stay and though I’d said, no, I was fine yet, I realised when she’d left that I felt uneasy without her. She came back pretty quickly in case of getting stuck in the snow, which was beginning to pile up quickly outside.
I stayed in the chair, or walked in the room, or swayed my way through the surges. I felt myself drawing more and more inwards, as I concentrated intensely on breathing and let all sense of time and space fall away. At one point I spotted my sister and my toddler standing on the landing to peak at me. I couldn’t speak at that stage so I just nodded back, and tried to smile. Aoife laughed aloud at the sight of me – hanging by my arms from a tall set of drawers, swaying from side to side. With her long labour, I’d been able to ride the waves of surges, all of them, with gigantic breaths, in, out. That time, inspired by the antenatal classes at the Rotunda Hospital where I’d had Aoife, I’d felt able to greet contractions as “friends”, repeatedly visualising a warm mist settling every muscle from the top of my head to my toes, again and again and again.
But these surges were rawer, even more hardcore, and they were happening stronger and faster, and I didn’t feel “on top” of them as I had with Aoife. By 3PM, they had taken charge. I moved to the bathroom, to sit on the toilet or cling to the sink during surges. I felt despondency setting in. I began to wail in despair and Colette came into the bathroom to give me a pep-talk.
I felt out of control. I should have recognised it from all the birth stories I’d read, that this was transition.
Rippling Surges … Raw, long, close together … Anguish … Hang over sink … Tippy-toes … Whimpering …..Won’t hear…… No speak…. No listen….. Go away everyone …. Anger…. Beyond control…..Strip clothes….. Shower …. . Crouch on hands and knees …… Water on my back ….. Marginal relief …….Remedies on a spoon ….. No to food …. No to water …… Go away everyone ……. Rocking side to side ……. All meaning lost ….. . Body in possession …….. Surrender
Colm held the shower-head over me as I crouched in the bath, spraying my back with warm water. He told me later, recalling the birth of our daughter, that he’d recognised from the way that I seemed to insist on positioning myself in the bath – on hands and knees – and from the sounds I was making, that birth was imminent. They got me out of the shower, and brought me to the bedroom and onto the bed, which had been covered with protective sheets and towels. It was about 3:45PM. Colette asked if I wanted gas and air. I barely managed to gasp out the word “YES” and Colm went to get the bag with the equipment. Even the thought of gas and air relaxed me suddenly.
By now I was only marginally aware of the others in the room. In fact I was barely aware of the room itself. I felt wide-eyed and electric and could perceive almost nothing beyond what I can only describe as a ‘fog’ around me – like a kind of trance.
Colette suggested checking me, but my body wouldn’t lie down on the bed. I immediately vomited when I tried to make it. (I remember that the hardest thing about labour at the hospital with my daughter, other than the sheer length of it, was being encouraged to lie down on my back with a trace machine hooked up to me). I think my body wanted to push now. I found myself turning onto all-fours, and at that moment felt a connection with my grandmother Kathleen whom I knew, from talking to my mother, had likely given birth this way too; at home, for four of her five births. Colette checked the baby’s heart rate.
Colm came back with the gas and air.
“Baby is coming!” Colette announced suddenly.
No time for gas and air now. Colette got ready. The pain fell away. Just like that, I was pushing my baby out. Colette continued to check the baby’s heart rate quickly. I pushed with all my might, my voice ringing out heavy with the effort. I thought I was howling, and that the whole avenue of St Jarlath’s Road outside could hear me, and could hardly believe it when my sister told me later that they’d heard nothing downstairs.
“This baby will be blue,” Colette declared then, in a matter-of-fact way, as she worked fast to unwind the cord. I remember feeling surprised to hear that, but didn’t let it distract me from the business of pushing him out. During my pregnancy, because of a case of this experience once before in Colm’s family, I had read lots of birth stories about the cord getting wound, about babies being born blue; I even had spoken to Colette about what she would do if it happened to us. She had told me that she would have the necessary equipment and would know what to do. Right now I felt a deep trust in her, which in turn supported the calm I was experiencing in the midst of the rawness of what was happening.
It was all happening so fast all of a sudden.
It took five or six pushes. And he was here.
CABRA’S NEWEST RESIDENCE
Once the intensity of the birth had settled, and Colette had tidied up and settled me comfortably, Aoife and Alicia came upstairs to meet Cabra’a newest resident. Colm was still sitting by the window, holding our new and as yet nameless baby. I felt eager to feed him, so Colm brought him to me then and helped me place him to my breast. He latched fine. A new nursing journey had begun. Alicia took our first family photo, he and I still wrapped only in towels and blankets.
My parents arrived from Galway about an hour after the birth, reaching us just ahead of a blizzard. Colm took the new baby downstairs to meet them. We still hadn’t dressed him or even put a nappy on him yet. I had a shower, and Colette came into the bathroom to confirm the baby’s weight, muttering the numbers to herself in her native French as she converted from kilos to pounds for me. I could hardly believe his size. He weighed 8 and a half pounds, so much bigger than Aoife who had been 6 pounds and 15 ounces at birth. Colette checked to see if I needed any repair stitches, but I didn’t. Alicia made me the best tea with toast that I’d had since the tea and toast I’d had after Aoife’s birth at Dublin’s Rotunda hospital. For some reason I then insisted she stay to watch Colette inspect the placenta in its stainless steel bowl. She observed silently and respectfully before going back to entertaining Aoife.
I went downstairs to greet to my parents, and only then, standing in the doorway between our kitchen and living room, did Colm and I confer about the baby’s name.
(It’s pronouced ben-awn). (Both Colm and Alicia tell me that I insisted on his name here). I had loved this name since first I heard of it via a friend of a friend. I also loved that it had an association with my homeplace, Tuam in county Galway – the town of Tuam has its patron in the fifth century Saint Jarlath, which name is quite popular there, and of course we happened to live on a road in Dublin named for that man – but not many people know of Saint Jarlath’s teacher, saint Beineán (associated with Kilbannon early monastic site, outside of Tuam). It’s an unusual name, and in choosing it and its spelling we challenged ourselves with the task with getting our families and friends used to it.
Outside on the day that Beineán was born, Ireland was brought to a standstill for the second time in 2010 due to blizzards, snow and ice. Our house was so cosy we didn’t even notice the cold outside. After the big freeze of the previous Winter, we’d got in a new boiler, new back door and added insulation. My parents booked into a small North Circular Road hotel for a couple of days, and as it turned out, were snowed in at Dublin for the entire week as the roads in Dublin became impassable. Like most other schools in Dublin that week, the Tallaght school my sister teaches at was shut due to snow, so she was home with us that first week too. It meant that we had plenty of helping hands to take care of the house, entertain my daughter and bring food.
Colm had become a stay-at-home Dad to Aoife some weeks previously when the archaeological consulantancy company he worked for had closed down. This meant that throughout my maternity leave from the National Museum of Ireland, we could all be at home together – first in Cabra, then later in the Wexford countryside where we still live now since my contract at the Museum concluded too.
Colm’s parents and his almost 90-year-old grandmother Julia got from dangerously icy Wexford as soon as they could manage, a few days after the birth. (When they got stuck in the snow just five miles from home on their return journey, Colm’s Granny offered to get out and help push the car). Our Dublin-based family – Colm’s brother and sister and their families, and my cousin – managed their way through the snow and ice to visit us the next day. My brothers and other family and friends would have to wait until our travels for Christmas, which was still very cold and snowey, some weeks later.
Colette journeyed through heavy snow and ice for two weeks following the birth, to take care of the baby and me. (I regret that many of the photos we took around the time of his birth are lost, because my hard-drive broke and because my sister’s phone was stolen, meaning I have no photograph to share of her with Beineán). She made sure I was getting loads of rest and that I stayed upstairs and in bed with the baby as much as possible to let my body recover and to ensure breastfeeding established itself. I had breastfed my daughter for 30 months, with incredible difficulty at the start. This time I knew what to do, and I had support, from Colm, from my family, from Colette, and from a whole online and real-life community of other breastfeeding mothers that I’d built up since my daughter was born. I had a whole new nursing experience to look forward to with my son.
Aoife was bemused by her baby brother at first, and then proud of him, and when she’d had enough of waiting for her turn to cuddle in my lap, she came to me purposefully and commanded me firmly to “put that baby down.” She did bristle at him absorbing my attentions, but when I wasn’t feeding him he was invariably in Colm’s arms.
It would be months and months before Colm and I could speak sort of openly about that first minute. We introduced our son to the world without telling anybody else that he had been blue, not for years, not really till now, as I write this blog post. Firstly, we weren’t really able to speak of it ourselves, to agree a shared version of events – how could we, if he had been so shocked and I so serene?
Secondly, we’d already been in the practice of keeping our decision to homebirth to ourselves. Most people were unsupportive of the very idea, so we had kept negative attitudes at bay simply by not talking about it beyond amongst the two of us and Colette. In the lead-up to the birth and all the way throughout, I felt strong, capable, trusting of my body and myself and the process. I had the support of Colm, who believed unquestioningly in me and in the process; and the support of my experienced, trusted and capable midwife, who knew what to do.
For those first two weeks of our Cabra babymoon, the rooms of the house glowed white from the snow outside. All that time, I did not go outside the door, not even to the front yard. It gave all the more reason for me and my new baby not to leave the house, but stay in and snuggle and get to know this brand new little person in our lives.
Beineán is now our busy, articulate, forthright little boy.
Colm still soothes him to sleep in his arms every night.
My wonderful midwife Colette Donnelly is a homebirth midwife based in Dublin.
NOTE: This post was initially published privately and has been made public on 29th November 2014