I was sure I’d single-handedly ruined the holidays.
Christmas Eve was a hard one for us this year. The surprise pregnancy, our fourth child, had a predicted due date of December 12, and so the day before the biggest holiday of our year, I was a full 12 days late.
This might not have made me so nervous if it hadn’t been for my third child’s birth, in which my midwives mismanaged my care and sent me to the hospital. There, the staff pulled the “your baby could die” card (he and I were both perfectly healthy, just past the due date) and used a full arsenal of pressure, coercion, and unnecessary c-section threats to induce labor and force him out before either of our bodies were ready. (For the record, nobody is arguing that hospitals aren’t a Godsend for high-risk births. It’s when they interfere with low-risk births and create complications that weren’t there before that I worry.) I was terrified of a similar experience with this baby, even though I knew I’d chosen a much more attentive midwife this time.
On Christmas Eve, we hiked through the woods as a family, but I’d been walking and doing yoga every day, in addition to all the other methods of natural induction, and so I no longer had any illusions that this would be the thing to spark labor. Still, when it didn’t, I broke down and had a good long cry on my husband’s shoulder, so ugly and snotty and uncontrollable that we missed the mass we’d planned on attending and had to find a later one. It wasn’t just that I had to face the fact that I might have to give birth in another cold room, in a stiff hospital gown with strangers who knew nothing about unmedicated birth—it was that I’d spent the weeks leading up to Christmas with nothing but labor on my mind, and now most of our special holiday traditions had been sacrificed for this baby who obviously wasn’t going to show anyway. I felt like I’d ruined the holidays for everyone with this deficient body that somehow still didn’t know what to do with a fully-grown fetus.
But we soldiered on, and went to mass. In his homily, the priest brought up the story of The Velveteen Rabbit. He reminded us of the conversation between the rabbit and the skin horse about becoming real, and it touched me in that special way only stories can. He drew parallels to looking beyond the Hallmark version of Christmas and making the day a real celebration, but I also took it, for myself, to mean embracing a messier side of life—the beauty of the uncertainty, the authenticity of the present moment. It was the first time all day I’d felt at peace with this long wait for a birth, and it made me feel more connected to the Christmas story.
At home, we baked cookies for Santa much too late, and got all the boys all snug in their beds. Ryan and I put together a power wheels car for the older boys in the garage. I wondered, briefly, if I should make the breakfast casserole, just in case I went into labor, but decided not to. After all, I’d been doing “just in case I go into labor” chores for almost five weeks now. Might as well get some sleep instead.
When I woke up with contractions, I regarded them with deep suspicion, and then, when they became more intense, jubilation. I was so grateful that I said “thank you” every time a new one was beginning, not ending, like I have in the past. I woke Ryan up, and we called in his parents (who had been at midnight mass and hadn’t been to bed yet) and our midwife, Jennifer, who said to call back if anything shifted.
I told Ryan to try to sleep as much as he could while I laid in bed, screaming THANK YOU in my head whenever a new contraction hit, and resting between them. At around 4:45, I realized I was going to have to make that casserole after all, since I’d probably be preoccupied in a few more hours. I went downstairs and made a braided puff pastry egg wrap for the family, and jotted down some instructions in case I wasn’t around to bake it.
Wilder, our one-year-old, woke up and kissed me, and while his grandmother took him downstairs, I labored upstairs on a birth ball, falling down onto pillows with each contraction, so thankful that they were getting longer, stronger, and closer together. Ryan and I were talking, laughing, and feeling light and happy. At the end of a very strong one, I heard my six-year-old, Finnegan, say to his four-year-old brother, “Clark! It’s time! It’s Christmas morning!”
Ryan and I followed them downstairs and had a beautiful morning opening presents by the tree. I told Ryan each time I felt a contraction coming on—they were about five minutes apart now—and rode each one out with a grateful heart there on the couch while the boys shrieked their thanks to Santa Claus for their new lightsabers.
After about an hour, I went upstairs, I thought, to throw up. I ran a bath for myself and got in, feeling a bit of a change in the contractions now. Was that a push?
Finnegan came in to show me his new Pokemon cards while Ryan filled the birth pool.
“This one’s Jigglypuff,” he was saying, “and this one’s Onyx…”
“Cool, buddy!” I told him, “Hold on just a sec now.”
He waited patiently beside the tub while I moaned through another contraction. It wasn’t my imagination—they definitely felt pushy now.
When it was over, he turned a page of his card catalogue and lowered it down to me. “And this one’s Staryu…”
He’d also brought up a present for me. I was in no position to open it, since I was in transition at the time but didn’t know it. He opened it for me and showed me—a holiday paint pop set! Could we do it now?
“In a little while, honey,” I said. “That does look like fun.”
He moved to the door, and I heard him ask Ryan in a whisper about the “scary noises” I was making. Ryan told him that Mama was just helping the baby come out, and it feels good to make that sound; no need to be scared.
Not long after that, I asked Ryan to scoop water onto my back and belly as I changed positions in the water. There was a baby-sized bulge in my lower belly, and I knew what that meant.
“Tell Jennifer to get here now,” I told him.
He did, and then he helped me from the bathtub into the birth pool and kissed me again. It felt glorious—soft and safe and familiar. I was still embracing the intensity of each wave, still so thankful that this was finally happening and I wouldn’t abandoned and placed at the mercy of hospital policies and procedures and arbitrary time limits after all. And it was here, rocked with these intense contractions erupting all over my body, that those lines from The Velveteen Rabbit floated back into my consciousness:
“Does it hurt?” asked the Rabbit.
“Sometimes,” said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. “When you are Real you don’t mind being hurt.”
“Does it happen all at once, like being wound up,” he asked, “or bit by bit?”
“It doesn’t happen all at once,” said the Skin Horse. “You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t often happen to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.”
Even at this stage—and I knew I was close to the end now—I felt so connected to God, to my baby, my family, and Ryan that there was no room for any feeling beside gratitude. Childbirth marks the opposite of most beauty standards for women—big bodies widening, no thought wasted on make-up or hair or nails. But welcoming this process into my heart and letting the power of birth flow through me without a struggle, I felt more real than I’d ever been before.
Ryan walked out of the room for a moment to get some boiling water from the stovetop, since we’d emptied the hot water tank, and I draped myself over the edge, facing our bathroom window, where the rain pounded heavily outside. My uterus pushed for me, hard, and when I reached down, I was surprised to feel a head crowning. I knew I could push it out on the next contraction if I wanted, and so I did. The head emerged easily, and I felt the soft, wet hair on the back of my baby’s skull. A lightning bolt of joy shot through me.
“Head!” I called, hoping Ryan was close by. “Head!”
He opened the door and reached into the water. Once I knew the baby was safe in his hands, I pushed out the body, feeling legs slip out as Ryan lifted the baby up and out.
The cord was draped around the baby’s shoulders, and so Ryan and I did a little dance to gently unwrap it before hugging the little wet body against my chest. Ryan got towels to cover the baby, and handed me the suction bulb. I suctioned a tiny nose and mouth while Ryan rubbed their back, but it wasn’t really necessary—within seconds, the baby’s little body was pink and in search of something to suck.
“Hi, Baby!” we both said. “Hello!”
Ryan put his hand in my hair, kissed my forehead, and told me through tears the he was so proud of me. I told him the same thing
“Is it a boy or a girl?” he asked after a few minutes, since neither of us had thought to look yet.
“Let’s look together,” I said.
“A girl!” he said, and I raised my face up to the sky while he buried his in my neck and cried. We kissed and cried and trembled in that ecstatic joy that only comes from giving birth to a new baby. Reese Noelle was the name we’d decided on just a few days before, and we said it over and over to her as she nursed there in the water.
“She was born at 9:49,” he said after a few moments. “And Jennifer should be here in ten minutes.”
Sure enough, Jennifer and her assistant, Tara, walked in shortly after that with a big midwife bag and cheery “Merry Christmas!”
They helped us with the cord and placenta, and then guided us over to get settled on the bed. Ryan’s parents brought the boys upstairs to meet their new baby sister. They all clutched candy from their stockings in their hands that they intended to share with her.
And that’s how we came to have the absolute best Christmas Day of our lives. Jennifer inspected the placenta and did Reese’s newborn exams while I ate a slice of that egg pasty there in my bed—I loved how gentle she was with our new baby. She and Tara cleaned up my bathroom and let Ryan and I relax and give our newborn a billion kisses. They left to go spend the holiday with their own families, and Ryan’s parents and sister came in the room to visit. Our older boys were in and out of our bed all day, showing us their new toys and bringing in gifts for Reese.
“Isn’t it weird,” asked Ryan later that night, “knowing we’ve already had the best Christmas we’ll ever have?”
It is weird, I guess, but these are the blessings we’re given from time to time. Just the day before, I’d been convinced that the holidays were ruined, and that it was all my fault.
We allow ourselves to do this—to get grumpy because our own expectations aren’t being met, but we forget that our expectations can be puny. When we release into life’s swirling chaos, sometimes gifts drop into our lap that exceed all imagination. Our family was given the gift of Reese Noelle, and the firm assurance that Christmas is real.