Updated: Oct 16
By Alison Milan
I was born female. To my parents and those in attendance, I was a new baby girl who would someday grow to be a woman. While I have grown to be something, “woman” has never fit me. I’m not a man, neither title is comfortable. I just felt like me, queer. There is every chance that my whole life will be a journey in exploring my queerness, and I see more value in that journey than in a gender label destination.
In conceiving a child with my cis male partner, Cameron, I knew that what lie ahead would be emotionally challenging. The perceived femininity that came with pregnancy frightened me, but labour did not. I couldn’t wait to take on the greatest physical challenge of my life and see what my body was capable of.
At some point in my third trimester I remarked: labour seems to start when a person is sick of being pregnant. After all, if you were so done with pregnancy that you would do anything for it to be over, then you could handle whatever labour throws your way.
Cleaning up after a celebratory dinner for a housemate’s birthday, I bookended the night by crying on the kitchen floor with Cameron: hours shy of 38 weeks pregnant, I felt I would never have my baby.
My day started before sunrise by waking in a damp bed. Confused, I waddled to the bathroom with tissue between my legs and upon inspection noticed the fluid was clear, faintly pink. For days I had felt cramps and today was no different. I paged my midwives and promptly heard back from Rosie. When I explained, she instructed me to meet her at the clinic first thing (at a reasonable time). I threw on an adult diaper and caught whatever rest I could get.
About three hours later, I headed to meet Rosie to seek the thumbs-up for a homebirth. She noted that Cameron would have to wait in the car, a familiar COVID directive, and warned that the elevators were out. In the thick of COVID’s third-wave and in early labour, I trudged up to the seventh floor solo to meet my midwife.
Fluid clear? GBS negative? No fever? Baby responding well to contractions? All checks, and we were given the go-ahead to proceed with homebirth. Knowing I would need as much strength as I could muster and that this could be a long process, I went home to rest (after descending those seven flights, of course).
My day ticked away lounging in bed with Cameron, contracting at intervals from six to twenty minutes apart, from day into night. Cameron emailed Pia, our doula, alerting her to be on standby while I basked in my baby belly. “I may never get this again,” I kept saying, treasuring my final moments with it. While the world saw me as overtly feminine because of this round belly, to me it simply meant for these short nine months, my baby was all mine. I didn’t have to share and I loved that.
After a day with no sign of progress, I worried that my body was wasting energy, nothing was productive, and that I may end up in hospital.
Cameron and I woke early for another visit with Rosie. Again, I summited the familiar stairs to the clinic. Rosie ran me through the checklist and all was still a-go for homebirth. This time, she suggested castor oil. “The last mama I had in the same situation took castor oil and had her baby four hours later.” Sold!
After stopping at the pharmacy to gather the necessaries, I took a short nap. I guessed (correctly) that this would be my last chance at rest before the arrival of my baby. I awoke recharged and with fingers crossed for a boost into active labour. I downed the castor oil smoothie and bounced anxiously on an exercise ball in baby’s to-be playroom watching the movie Moana. Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson singing “You’re Welcome” served as a perfect distraction to the surges, which were increasing in both intensity and duration.
Castor oil didn’t take long to work. Over the span of an hour, surges went from six down to 2-3 minutes apart. Cameron prepared the birth tub and summoned Pia and Rosie: showtime!
When the women arrived I was elated to feel that things were really happening. With the team present, roles and rhythms emerged: Cameron handled the tub, Rosie and Pia supported me.
The tub was full but since the hot water tank ran out during the fill the pool was frigid. With all stove elements blazing, Cameron rushed from the kitchen to the bedroom and back with pots and kettles, dumping hot water into the tub. In haste, he set a pot down on the stove with a cork trivet stuck to its bottom, which burst into flames. He quickly doused the fire and while a crisis was averted, the smell of smoke permeated the house for the remainder of the night. We agreed it was best for Rosie to take tub duty and give Cameron’s nerves a rest.
Pia suggested that I walk the stairs. I agreed reluctantly, feeling like I had climbed enough stairs for one labour. Walking up and down repeatedly was hard, but it built my confidence. I was already stronger than I imagined, but stronger than I knew yet. Rosie performed a vaginal exam, revealing I was 4cm dilated with baby at -1 station. The work was paying off.
Our little herd migrated around the house. I roamed, trying positions in different rooms both at the team’s suggestion and following my own instincts. I went deeper into my body and thought less about my surroundings, growing more assured and relaxed in my labour.
I loved the intimacy of baby’s playroom for labouring. With lights dimmed, Cameron sat on the sofa and I swayed on the ball holding his hands. With each surge, I leaned in for him to soothe me with his words, voice, and touch. We connected on a level we had never before.
The bathroom was hit and miss. I made frequent visits (castor oil works, folks!) with Cameron’s accompaniment. He sat at the edge of our bathtub, close and safe. It was nice having moments for just us. While surges on the toilet were intense, I enjoyed the rest times in between and reassurance from Cameron. “You’re doing it! You’re bringing our baby here!”
My bed both hit and missed more so than the bathroom. I kneeled, lay on my side and on my back, but each position was terribly uncomfortable. Late in the night, Pia constructed a “nest” of pillows for me to lay in and it was just what I needed. It felt like floating, every body part supported without using a single muscle. While I vocalized through surges until this point, the nest soothed me. I was quiet and breathed deeply through each wave, sharing stories and building trust with my team during the rests. At my most vulnerable, I felt safer than I could have imagined with two people I had only met a handful times before.
Rosie worked for hours heating the tub, but discovered that the heaps of boiling water had made the tub too hot. Drats. Again, nearing midnight, the tub was partly drained so cooler water could be added. Rosie promised to try her best to get the tub right before my baby’s birth.
Oh, the tub. I left the nest periodically to use the toilet. On one trip back to the bed, Rosie remarked that the water was still too hot. When I asked to check the temperature myself, suspicious that it just needed mixing, Rosie said the water was too hot to put a hand in. Bracing myself, I thrust my arm to the pool’s bottom. I was right—the top few inches were scalding, but everything below was ice cold. Rosie was extremely apologetic. “I don’t know if I can warm it in time, but I will try.” She drained cold water (again) and began adding boiling water (again). I laughed, assuring her that the tub would only add drama to this eventual story!
The only time during labour that I struggled was transition. By some miracle, the tub was finally ready—almost twelve hours after beginning to fill it—and I was certainly ready for the tub. My body was trying to push, trying to cross from transition into the homestretch. Rosie noticed a change in my vocalizations and had me leave the tub to be checked. She noted that I had a cervical lip, meaning I was fully dilated save for a small section of cervix that had not retreated. “On the next contraction, I will reach in and to move the lip. I need you to push as hard as you can.” I tried to stick with it, but hit my limit and retreated. I began dreading the arrival of every surge, felt stuck in a painful purgatory: as my body pushed I could not manage to relax, but I also could not effectively lean into the pushing. I was battling with my body and it was miserable.
With the water offering some relief, I returned to the tub and struggled to get comfortable, drifting between floating, laying back, and kneeling. Who knew a tiny lip of tissue could cause such agony! Finally, I managed to get into a semi-squat and few surges later the agony was gone and I was pushing with my body. Suddenly, I could shut off my mind and be present with my baby. When I roared my next contraction, the whole team cheered. They knew something had changed, they knew baby was on the way.
“It won’t be long,” I thought. With my next push, I felt baby move down. What a rush! I reached down to feel with my hands what I had felt inside. “It’s the baby’s head!” With only one or two pushes, my baby’s head was already emerging. I marvelled at my body, that I had nearly conquered the physical feat of birth when only minutes before I was suffering through what felt like an impassable transition phase.
When my final surge began climbing to its peak, I panted to allow baby’s head to emerge slowly. There was stretch, pressure, and incredible power, and I was devoid of fear or hesitancy. As the head was born, I instinctively leaned back from my semi-squat and floated in the water, caressing my nearly-newborn’s peach fuzz hair and talking with them. I treasured the moment, acutely aware that it would be the last time they were all mine to hold.
The next time I bore down, I gave it my all and my baby was born into the warmth of a finicky birth tub in my dimly lit bedroom surrounded only by me, their daddy, Pia, and Rosie. They grasped my finger and took their first looks at the world from my chest. “Hi Parker!” I said. “I’m so proud of you.” 49 hours after waking in a wet bed, I was a mama.
I have struggled with my body post-partum. There are days where I hardly recognize myself; the large breasts and curves are uncomfortable and, frankly, make me unhappy. The world around me sees me as a woman, but more than ever I feel I’m not one. The waters of gender are ones I will wade through for a long time to come, but there is one thing my birth experience made clear: from the time I laid eyes on my baby, I knew I was their mama. No matter what other peoples’ connotation of the word means, it just feels right to me. And for that, I am grateful. I don’t quite know who I am with regards gender, but I know who I am to Parker—I will always be mama.
Alison Milan (she/they) lives on unceded, unsurrendered Algonquin Anishnaabeg territory with their partner, daughter, and two cats. Her interest in birth and desire to empower to-be parents of all sorts sparked a desire to share the story of her daughter’s birth. Alison loves to explore food and the great outdoors, studied Geography and Education at York University, and works as a Policy Analyst with Natural Resources Canada.
Don't miss the virtual Birth Sharing Circle 2021 on Zoom on October 30th at 2 p.m. (EST)
Come meet the winning writers, including Alison, who will share their birth and writing experiences. Many of the jurors and readers will be there too! It will be a heartwarming Zoom event!
Tickets are available on Eventbrite by donation.
More moving birth stories
All the winners of the Birth Story Writing Contest are announced here.