Stephanie and I knew we wanted kids - it was one of the earliest conversations we had after that first kiss, comparing notes to make sure we were on the same page. We were, then and now. While I hadn’t spent much time around babies, the idea had grown in importance to me and was one of my few concrete goals by the time we met; having grown up in a large family, I’m not sure if Stephanie had ever doubted having kids herself, but she’d been through a lot and at times I’m sure it felt like maybe it wouldn’t happen. In any case, we were in love and in agreement, except that one thing…
I may have made a casual quip that night about having lots of kids. Six, to be exact. Apparently that comment stuck with her and months later we ended up having a serious sit-down when she confronted me about it, fearing it might be a dealbreaker for both of us.
With that out of the way we settled into being in love. A couple of years later, we married on July 4, 2015, on the Blakeslee Farm outside of Spring Valley, Minnesota. Hundreds of friends and family were there, a massive fireworks bonanza, and a bonfire on a scale reminiscent of natural disaster. The stage was set.
We returned from wedding bliss and intended to start a family fairly soon. All those jittery questions of “are we ready?”, “am I really adult enough to have a baby?”, and “do they have tutorials on YouTube?” were settled quickly by the simple and expedient realization that throughout human history most people are simply not ready, and they were almost always younger than we are. That might seem like a low bar, but it really just came down to the comforting sense that we’ll never feel ready, but we’d make it work, like everyone else does and always has. So we started trying; or, at very least, stopped trying not to.
There were still so many things we wanted to do before we had a baby, and near top of the list was getting Stephanie’s knee fixed. She’d long been nursing a torn meniscus, so we got her surgery scheduled, expecting her to be off her feet a few days, and perhaps a few more weeks of limited lifting. I would take a few days off to take care of her, and then she’d be all fixed up, knees good as new.
On September 21, 2015 we went to Kaiser in Bellflower at dawn for preop. Her doctor had two surgeries that morning, and we were first. She stripped and put on her gown and cap, and the nurse came in to take vitals, blood, and urine, S.O.P.
We waited a bit, nervously talking, aching for coffee - she for some, me for more. She was worried about any negative reaction to anesthesia, and having to resist the inclination to push herself faster than she healed. She was ready to get it over and head home for some first class pampering, and I was ready to oblige.
After what seemed like an hour, the nurse came back in and cautiously told us that she was having trouble interpreting the pregnancy test they performed with one of the urine samples, and she wanted to try again. She explained that it seemed to be showing a faint positive, but that it was a new type of test and they hadn’t seen a positive yet in that office to compare it to. She asked us to hold tight, and left the room.
A few more minutes passed and she came back in with another nurse - the test again showed positive. We were in shock and more questions began to form.
What did it mean for the surgery?
Would the anesthesia pose any risks for the fetus?
Was there a safe way to have the surgery that day?
Could we postpone?
What the heck should we do?
All the answers were vague and non-committal - they really couldn’t promise anything. The anesthesia should be safe, but it would statistically increase our risks in several ways, particularly in the first trimester. We could postpone until later in the pregnancy, which would actually lower the risk, but at the same time a miscarriage later would be more devastating than one earlier. Her knee could be fine for another several years, or it could blow out tomorrow - and the pregnancy, and a newborn, could aggravate the condition due to the extra weight on it, and all the other biological changes happening.
So, really, we were stumped.
The nurse wanted us to be 100% informed by taking more blood and waiting for the lab to open to do a proper test. That meant letting the other surgery jump the line while we continued to wait, which was fine with us.
We played cards for the next hour or two, sharing frequent WTFs and, mostly, trying to stay calm. At some point we called Stephanie’s mom for advice and, whatever she said, we were encouraged to put the baby first in our minds, and everything else became secondary.
Finally, the lab test came back: POSITIVE. It was very real. We had decisions to make right then and there, so we asked to consult again with the anesthesiologist and the surgeon. No one pushed us, they were all quite joyous about the whole affair - not what they had expected that morning either - and just wanted us to be well informed and make up our own minds.
In the end, whatever medical conversation went on back and forth, we made our first parental decision and cancelled the surgery that day, knowing that it meant at a minimum another month or more before it could be rescheduled. We had some time to process things, at least.
The rest of the day was a blur. We ended up seeing a very dark and violent film, Black Mass, to slow our racing minds. When the film was out, there was a mysterious message from one of Art Du Vin’s bartenders. We called her back, and got the story.
My father, whom I’d not seen or heard from in years - four? five? more? - had picked that day, of all days, to drop by the wine bar. Stephanie had not met him before. He had a glass of wine outside with a friend of ours, discussing wine, and wood, and dogs, and briefly inquired whether our friend knew the owner. He said he had, and my dad let him know that he was her father in law, and left it at that. He eventually went inside, paid his tab, and left. That was that.
I was in no state of mind to process this event, and I don’t want to let this story digress into a history of my relationship with my dad, but it just added to surrealness of the day.
The next few weeks were a blur. The amplitude of joy was ever increasing, but it had nowhere yet to reverberate. We couldn’t tell anyone - too soon, they say - and there wasn’t much to do about it yet but daydream. So early.
We bided our time, mostly planning to plan. We finally got a storage unit and made a push to clear out the garage.
Sometime around the end of October we made the announcement. The secret out, we could begin moving forward, figuring out what the hell we just got into.
How do we have a kid?
I mean, literally, how does this work?
How much will it cost?
Where are we having it?
Are we having a boy or a girl?
What about special needs?
Is our house big enough?
How will we raise the child?
How many are we going to have?
Who do we involve, in what parts, when?
How many books, therapy sessions, products and servides is this going to involve?
How to plan a birth…
One of the first things we really began to ponder was the mechanical and logistical side of birth - what kind of birth did we want, and where did we want it. I was extremely careful not to impose my views too early, but was deeply relieved when we found time to watch The Business of Being Born together - this documentary had a powerful impact on the way I thought about birth ever since seeing it in 2008, and it had deep resonance that day with Stephanie as well. We both watched in tears, in love with the beauty and the joy and engagement of Ricky’s second birth as much as we were in horror of the powerlessness so many families felt from their own experiences.
We didn’t quite know how, but we knew we wanted control, ownership, engagement, hands on the whole way. Being such a common function of life, there is a massive industry - for better or worse - catering to every value, to every kind of experience for those who are engaged and can so afford, as well as to the default experience of hands-off mass production that is the default for most families and doctors alike. What we knew is that we didn’t want the latter.
Although we were insured through Kaiser, a birth at one of their hospitals was almost instantly seen as a last resort. Stephanie had a deeply traumatic experience with Kaiser long before we had met, so every visit for even a minor checkup brought up ancient anxieties that would not be conducive to a happy and safe birth. Also, in spite of many Kaiser facilities being relatively progressive when it comes to birth, it’s still a massive, bureaucratic, and entirely impersonal healthcare provider. We were looking for something different.
One of the first decisions we made was to check out birthing centers as an alternative to a Kaiser hospital birth. Quickly we found Beach Cities Midwifery within a few miles of home that seemed a good fit. We soon visited and toured their facility, and they promised to be able to support our birth at their well-equipped and professionally staffed center, or at our home, at our discretion. Because we were maintaining our Kaiser insurance and OB checkups, we did not have to start checkups with them until much later, so we took their paperwork and promised to reconnect at 30 weeks when we’d have to make the first payments and have our first checkups.
Enter Dr. Bradley…
Now that we knew where we would have the birth, we started thinking about exactly what kind of birth we wanted, and how we would prepare. Memories of this period are murky, but there was a lot of Internet reading, YouTube videos, documentary screenings, and general confusion. We needed focus and more handholding and answers than our OB could possibly provide.
Around the end of the year, Stephanie found a class in Naples she thought might be helpful, and asked me if I’d be willing to take it with her. I agreed, but neither of us really knew what to expect, what it would entail, or how much it would change our lives.
As it happened, we had stumbled into the world of Dr. Bradley’s natural birth method, also known as “husband-coached birth”. The Bradley Method is, at its root, focused on delivering healthy babies through a mix of hands-on involvement and advocacy by the partner, the preparation for birth through proper nutrition, lifestyle and other factors, and the use of natural methods wherever possible for pain management, laboring, and delivery.
For months we got together every Sunday morning for several hours to learn about every aspect of childbirth - eight couples, only one of which had a baby previously, with little in common except a shared interest in being as prepared as possible for their births. All but us planned for hospital births - none of us were planning to go out in the woods, burn sage, and let the moon do her thing, but everyone was inclined to want to minimize drug intake, resist unnecessary caesarean sections, and, most of all, to be equal partners in the process. There was never any intention to forgo necessary medical intervention, but instead to become “knowledgeable consumers of birth services and to take responsibility in making informed decisions regarding procedures, attendants and the birthplace”.
Lia Fletcher spent three months patiently wrangling us from topic to topic, as passionate about making sure we had a well-prepared and healthy birth as we were. Throughout the process I became ever more aware how much I was learning, and how terrifyingly little I would have known without both Lia and Dr. Bradley - whether or not we had a home birth or in hospital, medicated or natural, had we not found Lia we would have been flying almost entirely in the dark up to the moment of birth and beyond. As warm and friendly as our Kaiser O.B. was, our semi-regular appointments with him amounted to a few minutes a month, largely concerned with taking basic vitals - something we were already doing at home. He and the rest of the Kaiser obstetrics staff were functionally unable to spend enough time to impart anything but the most basic instruction to us - largely, directions to which facility they expected us to show up at, and how to count fetal kicks.
From Lia and Dr. Fletcher we learned about how to build a diet that would optimize for the best results. We learned in depth about what a broad range of conditions can be considered normal, taking much of the fear out of every little burp. As a coach, I found I had many useful roles to play, and took the training seriously - I wasn’t about to stand around limp and helpless when my wife needed support from someone she trusts and who knows her every tick.
Birth plans change…
At about 26 weeks we went back to the birth center to make final plans. In the months since we had seen them, we had set our hearts on having a home birth, supported by a midwife from the center. We walked in with a draft birth plan, excited to nail down particulars with the team that’d be helping bring our baby into the world.
Our appointment with them couldn’t have gone worse. This visit, we talked with a different member of their staff. From the start she struck us as cold, and as the conversation developed we were crestfallen. When we explained we were going to opt for a homebirth, something we thought they enthusiastically supported, instead we got resistance. The push back came to a head when she bluntly told us that they couldn’t do a birth at our house because we only had one bathroom, and wouldn’t even consider my offer to rent a bathroom trailer, or ask our neighbors. No, this was a hard no, without any consolation or understanding at what this meant for us. Stephanie was devastated, in tears, an obvious crisis which barely registered on the staff - policies aside, the cold shoulder we experienced in that moment was exactly the opposite of what we expected from them. We left, and never talked to them again.
As we left the midwifery we immediately began to wonder what to do and resolved that we weren’t going back - there was no way I could ask my wife to set aside her fears and frustrations in this moment. After a few deep breaths, we considered our options and decided to try to find an independent midwife.
Quickly, we had several recommendations for Candace Leach, and we made the first call. With Candace on speakerphone, she wanted to get to know us and, especially, understand what we were looking for. We were well prepared and self-aware, and this made it very easy to connect with Candace. We setup our first meeting with her a few days hence, while continuing to research our options.
We met Candace at her office, and we instantly knew it was a perfect fit. She was warm and sweet and loving, and experienced and practical, everything we wanted. We both felt immediately at ease, and there was no question she would be helping deliver our baby.
In the coming months we saw Candace at least once a week, and spoke to her even more frequently. She was very focused on us and the baby - something in retrospect that was missing from almost every other professional aside from Lia that we had dealt with throughout the process. Every time we saw or spoke with Candace it felt like we had known her for years, like we were as special to her as an aunt might feel. She was always available to answer questions big and small, to help us understand what was happening, and as a result she understood our rhythms and the natural pace of our birth. We felt confident and prepared, and in exceptionally good hands.
The Big Day
The following was written by Stephanie:
On the morning of May 25th I woke up and knew it was the big day! I woke up around 6am and I informed my husband Roger that today was the day. We spent the morning just relaxing and finishing up some business. I texted our midwife, Candace Leach, and mentioned that I thought today was the day and she said to keep her posted. I called my Mom and Step-Dad, who live in Minnesota, and let them know that they might want to change their flight for today instead of the 28th. They were at a doctor’s appointment in Rochester, and they would fly out after that. I thought once labor really got started I would have at least 24 hours so there would be plenty of time for my mom to get here in time for the birth. I really wanted her there with us.
Around 1 pm I started having some serious contractions. I didn’t really time them, because I had gone into “false” labor three times prior. (Once at the Getty, once at the Ace Hotel, once at Long Beach Pride Parade) I didn’t want to get too excited, but I knew this time was different. As the contractions started getting a little closer together I made sure all the birthing stuff was ready and available and that Roger knew where everything was. I tried to stay as mobile as possible. We took the dogs for a walk, I danced, swayed, and did yoga to help me through the contractions. Roger started the laundry and kept it going all day!
Around 4pm the contractions started getting very serious. I couldn’t move through them anymore, and they started happening kind of randomly. Sometimes they would last almost two minutes and only have a thirty second break between them, and sometimes they would be about eight minutes apart. At some point I was able to relax to the point of taking a nap between them. I slept for about four minutes, woke up for a contraction, passed out for four more minutes, then woke up and it was go time. I tried transitioning from the chair I was laboring in to the birth ball on the floor and I couldn’t even move. I just started grumbling some not-so-nice words and fought through that one. My husband noticed my emotional signposts had changed dramatically and called Candace.
She came over right away. She lives pretty close to us so it was only a few minutes before she arrived. When she got here at 5pm she asked if I wanted her to check me. I hadn’t wanted any cervical exams for multiple reasons but one of the big ones during labor was that I didn’t want to be disappointed if I hadn’t dilated very far or “fast enough”, but when she asked I was like, “NO. Maybe. YES.” in rapid succession. She had me lay on the bed and I found that being on my back was the single most painful and uncomfortable position I had ever been in my entire life. She looked at me and said, “Oh you’re so lucky! It took me thirty-six hours to get to this point. You’re three centimeters and sixty percent effaced!” I was pretty crushed. I figured I would be in this amount of discomfort for the next twenty plus hours. Immediately after she checked me I started vomiting.
Roger and Candace set up the pool in the living room. While the pool was filling Roger ran me a bath and Candace went home to relax and leave us to labor in private, also figuring we had until at least tonight until the baby came. From here on out is pretty much a haze for me. I spent a lot of time going back and forth from the toilet (which was my favorite place to labor-sitting backwards using the tank with a pillow as a place to rest) to the birthing ball. The vibe in the house was pretty mellow. We had a jazz station on, the dogs were chilling on the sofa, lights were dimmed, and the laundry was still going. When I got into the pool I was so relaxed! It felt so amazing! Roger got in with me and just held me and I felt like I was exactly where I was meant to be. After a while I got the urge to poo.
I had Roger help me to the bathroom and when I sat down the urge to push completely overcame me! Roger called Candace back at 8:20pm and while he was standing in the door to the bathroom he asked, “Stephanie, are you pooping or are you pushing?” My response was just a primal yowl. Candace was there in three minutes. When she got back they helped me back into the pool where I found that hands and knees was most comfortable for me. I don’t say that “I” pushed, but more that my body pushed. My body knew what to do, and I trusted it. After two or three pushes Candace told me to reach down and feel my baby’s head. He was still in the sac, so it was kind of like poking a bubble with a head in it. Very surreal. At this point a very annoying song by Frank Sinatra came on, and in one of my only lucid moments, I yelled to Roger to change the song. The next song was one of my favorite songs ever: Dance Me To The End Of Love by Madeleine Peyroux. I had one more contraction and the sac broke and his head came mostly out. Candace wanted to check the pulse, but he was so low we couldn’t find it. She had me flip over onto my bum and I pushed like crazy. He came out so fast! It was so amazing! He came out eyes open, and curious about the world. I held him at my breast in total shock for a very long time. I couldn’t believe that it was over, and we had a baby! I have never loved my husband so much. I had never felt more proud, more like a warrior, more like I can do anything in my life. What a moment! As I held him to my breast and he latched and suckled I explored his little body with absolute wonderment and gratitude.
Little Wesley Morris was born at 8:48 on May 25th, 2016 in the safety and comfort of our home in Lakewood. At this point I can’t imagine having a hospital birth. This was so natural, and felt like this was how it was supposed to happen for us. We crawled into bed and the three of us cuddled for hours and hours. After and hour and a half Roger cut the cord and we weighed him. He came to us at 7 pounds, 14 ounces. We didn’t have to leave to go anywhere, fill out paperwork, or deal with doctors or nurses. It was just us, and it was perfect.
My Mom arrived around 2am, and when she walked in the door I don’t think I had ever been so proud or felt so connected to her. She was absolutely beaming. It’s a moment I will never forget. I also have a new fondness for belly buttons. Every time I look at mine I think of how it’s where I was attached to my mom, and every time I look at my son’s I know it’s where he was connected to me. They are definitely my new favorite body part. =)