Updated: Sep 15, 2021
By Tanya Bellehumeur-Allatt
“We live at the edge of the miraculous.” -Henry Miller
The sun hadn’t yet come up when Brian and I arrived at the birthing centre. Jean, my midwife, suggested we all sit down to a hearty breakfast, to build up our strength for the day ahead. Her apprentice midwife, Annaliese, prepared scrambled eggs and hot buttered toast for the four of us, served with steaming mugs of tea. We sat at a round table in the kitchen, enjoying each other’s company. Jean had been my midwife for each of my four pregnancies and had been present at all the births. We had a long and colourful history together. I felt grateful to have her at my side, knowing how one look from her could give me strength when I needed it most.
I wondered how this birth—perhaps my last— would be different from the others. I’d birthed Jacob on my hands and knees, in the middle of a November night. Weighing only five pounds, he’d been the smallest baby on the ward, but strong enough not to need incubation. Two and a half years later, at the end of May, Emma had arrived at high noon, a surprise to all of us, at only thirty-five weeks gestation. Like her brother, she was tiny but strong. When Emma was only eighteen months old, Micah was born, on the cusp of the winter solstice, in the birthing centre’s fire-themed room. At thirty-seven weeks, he was my biggest baby, not quite seven pounds.
What might this fourth birth reveal about the child to come? What might it reveal about me?
Until my first pregnancy, I’d felt that my body had often betrayed me. It wasn’t especially strong or fit or reliable. I’d never been an athlete—never scored a single goal or won a race. As an academic and a writer, I had lived my life mostly in my mind and emotions. My body was a subordinate part of myself, sometimes made to go without sleep or food for periods of time while I was working to meet a deadline.
This was something Jean and I had discussed. She was concerned that I’d grown so divorced from my body that I might not be able to have a vaginal birth. She challenged me to consider that I might need a caesarean, but I told her that I was determined to give birth naturally, as my mother had.
All my life, I’d heard my mother tell the story of how I’d almost been born in the car; how she hadn’t had time to change out of her dress. My father had left the car running while he’d escorted her into the British military hospital near our home in Germany. He’d left her in the care of the attending nurse and gone back to park the car. Once he returned, the nurse congratulated him on the birth of his baby girl.
I told Jean I could do it. I would give birth the way my mother had. She encouraged me to visualize the way I wanted it to go: not too quickly, which could lead to chaos, but not too slowly, either. I added prayer to the visualization, a process which brought me comfort and built up my faith.
During that first birthing process I was amazed by what my body was able to achieve without a single drug. Rather than folding in on itself in resistance to pain, as I’d feared it might, it opened with each contraction, to make space for the baby. The endorphins it released made me feel as if I were high. I’d heard about this “runner’s high” from friends who were endurance athletes, but experiencing it for myself was an unexpected gift.
My second and third births were physically more challenging than the first, but just as empowering. With each one, I grew more sure of myself, more connected and reconciled to my body.
My births were wonderful, but my pregnancies were hard. With this fourth one, I’d been on bed rest for several months because of nausea, extreme fatigue, early contractions and an effaced cervix. Yet in spite of all the challenges, I’d carried this baby the longest—for thirty-nine weeks.
With the other births, I’d called Jean from home, my labour well underway, but this time I’d called her because my water had broken. Since an ultrasound at twenty weeks had shown an unusually low placenta, Jean asked me to meet her at the birthing centre right away, even though I wasn’t yet in labour.
Nighttime was the easiest time to leave the house; Jacob, Emma and Micah—aged six, three and half, and two—were sleeping peacefully. Brian’s mother came over to watch them and we slipped out the door. This first part of the process was just as I’d prayed it would be.
But after we’d finished our breakfast with Jean and had a second cup of tea, I still hadn’t had any contractions. The baby was high in the uterus. My other births had been quick, but Jean said she expected this labour and delivery to be longer than the previous ones.
She told me that often women who’ve birthed many children will hold onto their last child in the womb and delay the delivery, not wanting the pregnancy and this unique aspect of motherhood to end.
It made sense to me. I loved coming to the birthing centre for my hour-long appointments. I had come to rely on Jean’s wisdom, knowledge, and experience. Her presence brought me strength.
Over the last six years, through pregnancy and breastfeeding, I’d inhabited my body and my sexuality in a new way. I’d become part of a community of women. All of these experiences were both physical and deeply spiritual. I didn’t want them to end, but four pregnancies in six years had taken a strong toll. At thirty-three years old, my body was tired. Jean was encouraging me to take a break. I needed to give myself ample time to recover before becoming pregnant again. I acknowledged the truth of her words, but wasn’t sure I could give this up. I’d settled into this identity. I wasn’t ready to move on to a new one.
Knowing that I liked to labour in the water, Jean suggested that I settle into the birthing centre’s gigantic tub. Once I’d transitioned into active labour, I’d move to the bed in the birthing room.
Brian lit a few candles. We chatted softly. Jean was the oldest and most experienced midwife in our region and a champion of midwifery in Quebec. She had assisted at over six hundred births and had many stories to tell, especially about the early days of her career, when she’d done house calls all over the rural Eastern Townships.
She told us about women she’d worked with in northern Canadian communities who, at ten centimetres dilation, with their cervix fully effaced, would sit down to eat a feast. Once they’d built up their strength and celebrated this last moment of pregnancy with the women of their village, they’d bring their baby into the world.
“It’s the mother who decides when to let go and release her baby,” Jean said.
This was so different than other birth stories I’d heard from women around me, about unwelcome inductions and interventions, decisions made by medical personnel often without consulting the birthing woman. Jean’s words enveloped me like the warm water I was soaking in.
Soon the contractions began. They came steadily at five-minute intervals. I closed my eyes with each one, inhabiting my body in greater measure and thanking God for this baby about to come. Each contraction came like a wave, reaching a peak and then subsiding.
A few minutes before 9nine a.m., Brian slipped a worship CD into the stereo. Cello and piano vibrations filled the room, accompanied by the chorus of my favourite song: “Your mercy awakens my soul.”
I felt a push against my ribs, as if my baby were diving down in response to the song. Then came a burning at my cervix and a strong, undeniable urge to push.
Jean reached into the water. “Bébé est là,” I heard her say to Annaliese. Baby is here.
We were all taken by surprise. I’d skipped the relentless transition phase, when the interval between the contractions thins until the next one begins where the last one ended, like a snake eating its tail.
“Should we move her out of the bathtub?” Brian sounded worried. We hadn’t planned on a water birth.
“We couldn’t move her if we tried,” Jean answered. Her voice held its usual confidence and calm.
A Belgian midwife who specialized in water births had just arrived at the birthing centre for her 9 a.m. clinic. Annaliese ran to get her.
The word ‘mercy’ filled my mind. It was as if the baby were responding to the song that swirled around the room. Your mercy awakens my soul.
Jean had said that it’s the mother who decides when to let go and release her baby. But I felt it was my baby who’d decided, in that moment and in that way, to be born. I just needed to cooperate. Open. Yield.
Jean lifted my baby out of the water and placed her on my chest. “It’s a girl,” she said softly.
An ecstatic feeling unlike anything I’ve ever experienced before enveloped my body, mind and spirit. I felt transported by joy—lifted out of myself.
Our baby, Priscilla-Ève, was my winter rose; desire fulfilled. I held her small, miraculous body against mine and let this new beginning sing its song of mercy over me.
Tanya Bellehumeur-Allatt’s stories, poems and essays have been published in Best Canadian Essays 2019 and Best Canadian Essays 2015, The New Quarterly, Grain, EVENT, Prairie Fire, Malahat Review, subTerrain, carte blanche, Antigonish Review, Room, Crux, The Centrifugal Eye, Qarrtsiluni, Queen’s Quarterly (forthcoming) as well as several anthologies, including Chronicling the Days: Dispatches from a Pandemic (Guernica, 2021) and Emergence: Contemporary Female Poets of the Eastern Townships (Studio Georgeville, 2021).
Tanya has been nominated for a National Magazine Award as well as a Western Magazine Award. She holds an MA from McGill and an MFA in Creative Writing from UBC. Her poetry collection, Chaos Theories of Goodness, is forthcoming with Shoreline Press. Her memoir, Peacekeeper’s Daughter, will be published in September 2021 with Thistledown Press.
Read more about Tanya and her writing at https://tanyaallattbellehumeur.com/
Don't miss the virtual Birth Sharing Circle 2021 on Zoom on October 30th at 2 p.m. (EST)
Come meet the the winning writers, including Tanya, who will share their birth and writing experiences. Many of the jurors and readers will be there too! It will be a heartwarming event!
Tickets are available on Eventbrite by donation.
More moving birth stories
All the winners of the Birth Story Writing Contest 2021 are announced here.