Wisdom of My Body: The Birth of Tobin Teale Chalmers
On September 9, 2013, I gave birth to my second son. After a multi-day rollercoaster labor process and in the relief of bringing his slippery little body up to my chest, I barely registered that something was wrong. As my midwife, Aleks, handed him to me I saw his face. My first thought was “Oh, that’s odd.” Dumbstruck, I stared at this little being I knew so well, but had never seen before. Why did his nose look like that?
He gasped for air and sputtered. He made crying gestures, but no sound came out. I held him to my chest, rubbing his back vigorously, trying to energize his little body into breathing properly. I reassured him with my voice, gently telling him that he is here and needs to breathe. He tried again. Some sounds but more sputtering again. His nose. Why did his nose look like an elephant seal? Then I realized that the strange thing on his face wasn’t his nose; it covered his nose! He couldn’t breathe properly. He wasn’t getting enough air.
Within less than a minute, the pediatric team entered the hospital room. They calmly suggested that my baby needed help breathing. In agreement, I asked Chris to stay with him and keep talking to him. I watched as they placed him in an incubator and hooked him up to machines. With my husband at his side, they took my baby somewhere. I collapsed back onto the blood stained hospital bed, arms empty. My hands looked for something to hold. Sensing this, Kelli, my doula, grabbed one hand, Aleks, the other. They held me as I shook.
Four days before Tobin was due to arrive; I felt a gush of water. I called Chris, then called Aleks and Kelli. Bracing for contractions and a fast labor at home, I started preparing the house and periodically resting. When Chris arrived, he finished gathering our birthing supplies and talked about what we would do if the baby came before Aleks, as she had a multi-hour drive from Los Angeles. About an hour passed, with only a few mild contractions. When Kelli got to the house we ate some food and she massaged my feet with essential oils.
It was a lovely evening, we lit a fire in the fireplace, made space for the birth tub and relaxed. We chatted and listened to music, with aromatherapy candles and low lighting. I had a few contractions, but nothing uncomfortable. Aleks and her beautiful four-year-old daughter Juno arrived just after midnight, spending hours in the car rushing to get here on time. Suspicious of the mellow atmosphere, she said, “While this is very lovely and enjoyable, this does not look like labor.” She sent us all to bed, anticipating a potentially long night.
To my disappointment, I awoke well rested in the morning. We had a filling breakfast, let the kids play in the yard and began talking about how to encourage labor, as it had been more than 16 hours since the first gush of water. That afternoon Chris and I went for a couple of walks, I took herbs, tried nipple stimulation, ate spicy food and every other natural method for labor induction we could think of. I would have a series of contractions and think; “ this is it! Here he comes!” Typically after an hour of mild contractions, my body would relax and I would fall asleep, napping for an hour or so.
Aleks and Kelli both stayed at the house, nurturing me, feeding me and monitoring both baby and me. The bond between mama, midwife and doula is amazing. It is the way birthing should be. It felt safe, natural and loving. I was so incredibly supported and loved during that time. I had visions of being old with these two women and caring for them in old age sickness. Each one needed breaks, during which Chris would take over.
On the third night, Chris and I went in for a non-stress test at the hospital and to double check that the sac had ruptured. The very sweet OBGYN confirmed that the sac had ruptured and gave us the standard speech “. . . while Kaiser doesn’t recommend homebirths, I’m not worried about you and support your decisions . . .” essentially giving an “ok” to continue our homebirth plans with a midwife. We slept well that night and the next day started getting even more serious about birthing.
The morning of the fourth day, we called a couple of my close girlfriends to hold a welcoming ceremony for Tobin. Perhaps, we hadn’t properly welcomed baby Toby into the world and he was waiting for his “Birthday party.” My dear friend Melissa, left her young children with her husband and mother and drove hours to San Francisco. Also, my dear friend Emily who was grieving the loss of one of her closest friends who passed only a few days prior, joined us and we lit a fire in the backyard and held a beautiful ceremony to release fear and welcome Toby into the world.
The fifth day arrived. I woke up feeling refreshed with only periodic mild contractions. I decided to do what I had said I would never do again: Drink castor oil. In my first son’s birth, I used castor oil to induce labor. It worked – perhaps too well. In my first birthing experience, I had a miserable night of back-to-back contractions and vomiting. Only to have labor completely stop when I was fully dilated. We ended up going to the hospital for Pitocin and I pushed for four hours delivering our 8.4 lb healthy Theo. I think a part of me felt like I “didn’t do it right” the first time, by allowing my OBGYN to pressure me into inducing labor and vowed that I would never use castor oil to “evict” another baby before he was ready to arrive.
But this time was different. My waters had broken days ago. Maybe castor oil was what I needed. Perhaps I needed to face my fears and let go of any absolutes. Also, more importantly, I was READY. I was done being pregnant. I drank castor oil. It was disgusting. It passed through me as it is meant to do. But, I didn’t have any contractions. I took another dose. Still, no contractions only frequent bathroom use. While waiting for labor to start, I got out our camera and Melissa started taking glamour pregnancy photos in the back yard. We were cracking up and having a blast.
After a few hours, Aleks finally said, “I have tried everything in my ability to help bring this labor on. I’ve never had someone go this long with a ruptured sac and not go into labor. I think it’s time to call labor and delivery and see if we can get some stronger stuff to bring this labor on (ie: Pitocin).” We called labor and delivery. The beds were full, but they told us to come in an hour or so. Meanwhile we packed our bags and called my friend Inna, who generously offered to watch the kids for the night.
We were in day five of waiting. I was ready to see my baby. As we drove to the hospital, I felt giddy with excitement to know that I would finally get to meet this person who I had been sharing such intimate space with for 40 weeks. I could finally hold him in my arms. I kept thinking about holding him. I imagined what it would be like.
When we arrived at the hospital, the nurses set me up with an IV bag and started a small dose of Pitocin. Within an hour, labor kicked into high gear. I couldn’t stay on or even near the bed. Finally, the nurses unhooked me from the IV and helped me move to the shower. Kelli brought the rebozo and hooked it over the curtain rod. I held on for dear life. She and Chris took turns standing with me and massaging my back as I rode the waves of labor. The rushes came hard and fast. I moved my hips and held myself up with my arms. The weight of the baby pushed against my cervix as I felt myself opening up. It felt fast; too fast. It scared me.
My first labor went slow. It took 12 hours to open up. This time, it felt like 15 minutes (although probably more like 45 minutes). I felt the baby coming. We moved back to the bed. Aleks woke up from a short nap. The nurse called the OB, and I felt my body start pushing the baby down. My body just did it with out my control. I couldn’t stop it – it felt like being on a freight train going 90 miles per hour. I was on all fours growling and holding onto the bed rails for dear life. The baby worked his way down. The OB asked me who I wanted to have catch the baby.
“Aleks,” I said. “I want my midwife to catch my baby.” The OB and Aleks had already established a good connection and the doctor seemed excited to see a midwife in action. Alex put on gloves and guided me through the pushing. As Toby started to crown, Aleks said “I see blonde hair!” In two more pushes his head was out. Then the next push came his body. As I was still on all fours, she handed him to me through my legs underneath my belly. As I brought him up to my chest and laid him next to me, I saw his face.
About three months before his birth, I started having vision-premonitions that my baby would need urgent medical attention after birth. When I have strong visions like this, I pay attention. In my experience, these types of visions have an uncanny way of becoming real. The strange thing about this particular premonition was that I always saw Aleks catching my baby, but in a hospital. “This must be just fear from what happened last time,” I thought. “I’m having a homebirth. Plus, hospitals don’t let out-of-network midwives deliver babies in the hospital.”
When I saw Toby’s face, I immediately understood the premonition and knew why my body wouldn’t go into labor. My body is wise; it knew what my mind didn’t. It knew that my baby needed immediate care. It knew that I needed my midwife and doula for the care, love and emotional support, but the hospital was where my baby needed to be. During the pregnancy, there were no indicators that he was anything but healthy. Because of the visions I had been having, I asked for extra tests and ultrasounds just to be sure the baby was okay. In all of the diagnostics, the tumor in his nose never showed up.
Toby was born with a “benign dermoid mass” growing out of his nose. It was attached at the top of the sinus and blocked his nasal airways. Babies are nose breathers, in that they learn to breathe through their mouths later in life. A blocked nasal cavity is very dangerous. The neonatal doctors at the Kaiser in San Francisco didn’t have the equipment to determine the nature of the tumor – whether it was attached to the brain or even if it was benign. They transferred him in an incubator via ambulance to Santa Clara, an hour south of San Francisco, where they had a pediatric ear nose throat surgeon available to do a CT scan and to operate. It took four days to get an operating room, as a number of critical surgeries took priority. Meanwhile, Toby remained in the NICU, hooked up to tubes, one for breathing and another was a central line for nutrition.
The hospital transferred me to Santa Clara as well so I could be close to my baby. Unfortunately the ambulance company and the hospital staff had some miscommunication and only hours after giving birth, the ambulance drove me to Oakland, across the Bay Bridge in Monday morning rush hour traffic. It was very surreal to be in the back of an ambulance crossing the new Bay Bridge for my first time, only hours after giving birth and not knowing where my baby was. I felt disconnected from reality. I couldn’t cry; I didn’t know how. During the ambulance ride, my friend Elizabeth called to find out how the birth went. She cried for me. I made her laugh. It felt good to talk to her.
Once they figured out the mistake, they took me back to the birth recovery room in San Francisco, while the hospital in Santa Clara found a room for me. During my ambulance joy ride across the bridge, Chris had gone home and picked up our four-year-old son Theo. They met me at the hospital. My childhood best friend Jhaya and her husband Adam brought us lunch from Green Chile Kitchen. I held their chubby four-month-old Dylan for a little while, hoping for comfort. Then I held Theo. Neither was the baby I just gave birth to that morning. The one I wanted to hold – the one I needed to hold. I finally cried.
I ached to hold my baby. I let the fear seep in. I knew that there was a good possibility he wouldn’t survive. One of the concerns was that the mass protruding from his nose was a brain hernia, requiring brain surgery, with unknown consequences. I couldn’t imagine what that would mean for a baby only a few days old. Yet, I knew he was strong. Despite his nose being blocked, he kept trying to breathe. He was a feisty one. I held onto the thought of his strength, yet I grieved the loss of those first few hours. I would never have those first few hours or even days of bonding with him, like I did with my first son.
They took me in another ambulance, but this time I slept. My mom and dad both flew in the next day. They met us at the hospital. I accepted all the painkillers they offered me. I didn’t want to feel anything. I just wanted to hold my baby. I sat in a still-backed wheelchair in the NICU just watching him, until I felt like I would pass out from the afterbirth pains. The afterbirth pain felt ten times worse than before.
The surgeon met with us that first evening in Santa Clara and informed us that the CT scan indicated that the mass was not connected to the brain, only to the sinus. This meant that Toby’s surgery would be less complicated and that as soon as an operating room came available she would perform the surgery. We waited for two days, as more critical situations too priority. I finally melted down. I felt helpless and guilty. I wanted them to prioritize my baby, but knew that other people were in worse situations. The hospital staff met with me and tried to help find solutions.
On the second day, Aleks visited, bringing hugs, kisses, food and our son Theo. She and Kelli had been taking care of him at Kelli’s house next to the beach in Santa Cruz, where he could play with Aleks’ daughter Juno and not feel caught up in our emotions. After dropping Theo off, my parents took over care of Theo so that Kelli and Aleks could return to their lives. They both had spent more than a week, fully dedicating themselves to our family. As I said goodbye to Aleks, I faced the post-birth unknown.
On the third day of Toby’s life, and two days into postpartum recovery, Kaiser discharged me from the hospital. Because we live more than an hour away, we were given a room at the JW House, a non-profit that provides families with children in hospital care a place to stay adjacent to the hospital. It was hard to walk, so my parents and Chris took turns pushing me along the sidewalk in a wheel chair so I could go back and forth to the hospital to visit Toby.
The five days visiting the NICU felt like an eternity. I could only imagine what it is like for the families who spend months with their baby in the NICU. I watched the courageous parents make their daily routine of coming and caring for their baby and then going home at night. I observed them with compassion and admiration. Their strength and dedication gave me hope. I knew I would get through this, but I felt so raw.
Once we were settled in at the JW house, the surgeon said that they had a window available in the operating room schedule and she was going to perform the surgery. I could barely focus on anything. I tried to keep myself occupied with anything, but those couple of hours lasted what seemed like forever. Finally we got the call. The surgeon said that the surgery was successful and that he was recovering but very groggy from the anesthesia.
I felt like running to the NICU. When my mom wheeled me in, I saw my baby for the first time without tubes since he was born. The nurses lifted him into my arms and my body released the stress I had been carrying in the tears that streamed down my face. He was ok. I offered him the nipple and with a few tries, he quickly latched on. He hadn’t ingested anything yet, so the sensation of milk was strange to him. I had been pumping and saving colostrum. I fed him the mama’s gold through a syringe and continued to nurse him.
24 hours after the surgery, the doctors confirmed that he was nursing well enough to go home a day earlier than expected. My parents had already taken Theo to our house and were waiting at home for us. They reported that on top of all the loving generosity from Aleks and Kelli, they baked us a cake and cleaned our house!
Finally home, everything finally felt right. Our life with Toby began. His recovery was smooth. My mom stayed for a month to help us adjust to life with two kids. My dear friend Laurie moved in a few months later. During her time with us, she helped Toby and I process the trauma of his birth. Today, he is a bright, healthy and beautiful 18 month old. Toby adores his brother and follows him around the house, saying “Eee-ooo,” his name for Theo. He loves to dance to house music and sings little made-up gibberish tunes all the time. He wakes up every morning and greets the dog with squeals of delight and “do, do” (meaning dog). I can’t imagine our life without him.
His nickname is Toby Toes, born with an unusual nose, this boy reminds of the Hindu god, Ganesh . . . the creator and remover of obstacles. His obstacle forced me to remove the obstacle of my own stubbornness and taught me to trust my body. His beaming love brings so much joy to our family. I am eternally grateful he chose me as his mother.
I am so grateful to the amazing people who supported our family through this experience. In feeling so vulnerable, with our hearts blown open, the support from our friends and family were essential. Firstly, I want to acknowledge our amazing birth team: Aleksandra Evanguelidi, our midwife and Kelli Rosenbloom, our doula. I couldn’t have done it without your love, wisdom and support.
To my mom and dad, thank you for all that you do, supporting me when I need it most. My dearest friends, Melissa, Emily, Inna, Jhaya, Elizabeth and Laurie, thank you for being there for me – your friendship means the world to me. Most importantly, I thank my husband, my life partner and best friend. You are my mountain. Your loving strength, commitment, patience and gentleness are what anchor our family. You hold me when I need it and make me laugh at the most inappropriate times. I am so blessed to have all these incredible people in my life. Thank you for all your love. I love you.