Just after my cesarean with Summer, knowing how disappointed I was with how things had turned out, my midwife looked me in the eyes and said “next time you’ll get the birth you wanted”. From that moment on, I had HBAC (home birth after cesarean) on my mind, and this past September, I finally got there! It was one of the most exciting, redemptive moments of my entire life, and changed my perspective on my first birth in ways I never could have expected, but most of all it gave me peace. Here’s how it all happened:
I wasn’t sure I’d ever have a second baby; in fact, for the first couple of years with Summer I was confident I was one and done. Then I met Jonnie, and the more I fell in love with him and watched him become the most amazing parent to Summer, the more I felt like our little family wasn’t quite complete. After a lot of back and forth, we agreed on a timeline, and the first month we gave it a try, I got pregnant with Penny!
This pregnancy was really hard for me. Physically I felt it so much more – I was sore and achy pretty early on, and baby moved so much that it became really painful in specific spots. While Summer was breech all along and never really descended into my pelvis or moved much, Penny was head down and really low early on, so I had lightning crotch and lower back pain that struck randomly and often stopped me in my tracks long before my due date.
But if I’m being honest, it was the mental game that I struggled with the most.
A lot of birth trauma that I thought I had worked through came up full force, and I was extremely anxious that something was going to go wrong and derail everything I was working toward, just like it did with Summer. While knowledge is power in the world of birth, I found myself almost too aware of all the little problems that could come up, and even my earliest appointments with the midwives I was skipping ahead to all of the worst case scenarios. In the space between my first birth and my second pregnancy I had become a total birth nerd, constantly absorbing every bit of knowledge I could get my hands on, but at some point the interest turned into a full blown obsession, and the pressure of getting it “right” took over.
For those prepping for their own VBAC, here are some of the ways I prepared for mine (aside from the constant worrying):
I was very aware of positioning my entire pregnancy. I sat upright in the car with my legs apart, watched tv from the birth ball instead of the couch, and perched on the edge of every chair or stood if it was an option. I really wanted this baby to be head down!
When it came to interventions, I felt less was more, so I skipped almost every test that was offered, including the NIPT test, gestational diabetes, a third ultrasound to confirm position and non-stress testing when I was overdue (I did test for Group B strep, but with the understanding I’d likely decline IV antibiotics if positive, and opt for close monitoring of baby after birth instead).
I regularly went to chiro, massage, pelvic physio, and at the very end to help induce naturally, acupuncture one time. I also walked at last half an hour every single day without fail.
I planned for a hands-off home birth, not only because it was the place I felt most comfortable after having such a sterile medical experience the first time, but also because the data on avoiding cesarean and medical interventions is overwhelmingly in favour of avoiding the hospital when possible.
And most importantly, I found the most amazing supportive provider who never made me feel “different” or high-risk in any way as a VBAC. No matter what irrational fears I had, they remained calm and confident, and my midwifery appointments always helped settle my nerves.
Looking back, so much of my anxiety was based on a desire to control something so important to me, while knowing deep down I could do everything under the sun and still have little control over what my body and this baby ended up doing. I was convinced she would come early, so when my due date came and went, I really started to spiral into a bad headspace. I was in a constant state of “maybe this is labour!”. Indigestion? Could be labour. Lots of energy? Probably labour! No energy at all? It’s got to be labour. I was doing the miles circuit every day, constantly checking in with my doula (who was living in Calgary and planning to fly in for my birth!) and trying every gentle natural induction trick in the book, but nothing seemed to make a difference. I’d been having Braxton Hicks contractions for months, but they never seemed to escalate, and by week 41 I was starting to feel pretty hopeless.
No one really talks about how hard that overdue space can be: excitement can easily fade to restlessness, and the constant unknown waiting for something to happen can be crushing. I knew from everything I had listened to and learned that the most important thing I could do to get the physiological birth I wanted was give my body patience, surrender control, and let things happen without interference, but actually being in that situation was unbelievably difficult, especially with my type A personality. Every night Jonnie and I would lay in bed and say “Maybe it will be tonight!” and by the morning I’d feel so crushed I’d had another uncomfortable, sleepless night, and nothing had happened. There were so many days where I was tempted to ask for a stretch and sweep to get things moving, but with the support of my team and lots of pep talks from our doula, I held off on any interventions. The only step I did take was to come up with a plan for what interventions I might consider if I went past 42 weeks – knowing 75% of women give birth by 41+2, I booked a non-stress test and placenta health check at the hospital for 41+4 (spoiler alert… we never made that appointment!)
It’s hard to pinpoint exactly when early labour started, but if I had to guess I’d say it was about 24 hours before active labour got underway, at 41+2. Summer, Jonnie and I went on a walk around one of our favourite parks as the sun was setting. It was one of those perfect East Van evenings – we stumbled upon some live music just off the park where the 3 of us danced together on the grass. Shortly after I had to pee, and when I did I noticed a fairly intense contraction followed right after. Nothing more caught my attention, so we went home to bed as usual.
The next day Jonnie went off to work, and Summer and I got started on what would end up being our last day just the two of us. Instead of the exhaustion that had dominated most of my days, I felt energized and jittery, and together we made pancakes and did a bit of tidying around the house. In the afternoon we set off on a big walk and I was having a lot of light cramps – I even texted Jonnie joking that I wasn’t sure I’d make it home. He must have tapped into some dad intuition, because he insisted on loading up on groceries on his way home from work so that we were fully stocked, “just in case”.
When we got back to the house I was feeling really uncomfortable super low in my pelvis and in my actual vagina, so I did a bit of self examining, and sure enough, I could feel baby’s head through my vaginal wall! I’d never heard of that happening, and I started to worry I’d had some kind of prolapse, so I called the midwife and she offered an exam in-clinic (the first of my entire pregnancy) to ease my mind. About an hour later Jonnie was home, and we headed into the midwifery clinic to figure out what exactly I was feeling. The internal exam confirmed what I had suspected: baby’s head was so low you could feel it bulging through my vaginal wall a few inches in! I had been confused about how that was possible when baby’s head should have been resting on my cervix at the top of the canal, so I asked the midwife to locate my cervix, and it was high and forward (as labour progresses, it moves back and lower to meet baby’s head, which I didn’t know until that point!) Because we’d already gone this far, I went against my birth intentions and asked how dilated I was. Our midwife confirmed she could fit one finger in my cervix at that time, and asked if I’d like a stretch and sweep to get it to 2 fingers, but I declined, as I didn’t want to push my body before it was ready. But as soon as the exam was over, I had my bloody show!
Sunday nights are usually spent having family dinner with my mom, dad, sister and her partner at our place, so we headed home to host as usual, but as they filtered in I felt more and more crampy. By the time we served dessert, I couldn’t take another bite, and I suddenly had the urge to get everyone out of our house immediately. Looking back I was straight up rude! As I shooed them out the door a contraction hit, and my mom, dad and sister all started insisting this was IT (especially when I lifted up my shirt to show my mom how hard my belly was getting). By the time they had left, I was stopping to lean against the wall every time a wave hit, but even then I was in denial. I think there’s a lot of doubt for second time moms who didn’t experience labour the first time they gave birth – I was so afraid to be wrong, to get caught up in the mental game of false labour, that I refused to believe it was really happening for me.
Jonnie and I decided to get some rest “just in case” – it was only 9pm, so we settled into bed and queued up our show of the moment, Winning Time. A few minutes in, as the theme song started to play, I got hit with a contraction so hard I couldn’t sit through it in bed, and right away said “NOPE, no we are not watching this show”. I got into the shower shortly after to test if the contractions would slow or die-out, and when they didn’t, I finally let myself feel what I’d been waiting so many years to feel: elation and joy! I was actually in labour! I let happy tears stream down my face as I soaked up that moment alone in the shower, letting the relief that I had gotten to this point sink in. Then I got myself out of the shower and told Jonnie to call work and let them know he wouldn’t be there in the morning: we were having a baby!
Things intensified very quickly from that point, and sneaking in a bit of sleep so we were well-rested for all of the hard work ahead went out the window. I experienced my contractions most in my hips and lower back, and wasn’t able to lay down in any position without being in excruciating pain, so I mostly stuck to all fours, standing while leaning on Jonnie for support, or leaning over the birth ball (which very quickly became very exhausting, especially with no sleep!) Jonnie and I had really wanted some time to labour alone just the two of us, and for a short time we did, but my contractions continued to pick up speed and were less than 5 minutes apart less than an hour in, so we decided to call my mom to come back for support in case Summer woke up, and call our doula Shania, who had magically just gotten off her plane from Calgary to support my birth.
When our support people showed up, I was still coping really well, but the contractions had definitely gone from uncomfortable to painful, and all of the knowledge I had about positions and counter pressure had completely disappeared from my memory (thank goodness for our doula!) As the contractions came on stronger and stronger, my body only wanted to move more, so I tried to lean into that and listen to what it was telling me to do. I started to feel the tiredness setting in, so our doula worked really hard to find a position I could rest in, but every time I laid down it seemed to almost bring on an extremely painful contraction, so we decided to move me back to the shower for some comfort and I sent Jonnie for a power nap so he could continue to support me through the night and be mentally present when baby arrived.
The shower was glorious as contractions got harder to breath through – my mom and our doula took turns supporting me by using their arms like a bar I could hang off of or lean into, and eventually we moved the birth ball in so I could lean over it on the ground with the hot water hitting my back. I’m not sure where I got it from, but as every contraction hit, I visualized hiking up a mountain, the terrain getting steeper and steeper until the peak, and then the downhill would come as the contraction started to taper back down, and that was really helpful for me. Around that time I lost my mucus plug, which gave me confidence things were moving forward well.
We had agreed not to call the midwife until contractions were back to back with no break in-between, because once your midwife arrives they stay until baby is born, and for some birthing people that pressure can cause things to stall or slow down. I could feel myself getting to that point in the shower, the point where I could no longer control myself and started to moan, so I asked to call the midwife to come, and also had my mom wake Jonnie up because I needed his support. In my mind that time in the shower was only 20 minutes, but in reality it had been over two hours (!) and everyone started to register that if I didn’t get out of the shower, we’d have no hot water left for the birth pool. I *very* slowly and reluctantly got out of the shower, and it was definitely one of the hardest moments for me. At this point it felt like my pelvis was splitting in half, with unbelievable pressure in my hips, and almost no break between contractions to catch my breath and regroup, so getting out of the comfort of the shower and back to our room where I couldn’t lay down was difficult to say the least. There were also some issues with getting the birth pool hose connected, and I could hear Jonnie swearing from the other room while Shania tried to find a solution, which looking back was a hilarious detail (I love Jonnie so much, but he’s definitely not handy in the least, so this was pretty typical)
By the time I was back on the bed, I started to get really loud, and as a result Summer woke up and my mom went into her room to support her (something we had planned and discussed at great length with our team, and with Summer herself). Shortly after the midwife arrived, and though I’d been quite clear about my birth being as hands-off as possible with minimal fetal heart checks and cervical checks (because both can be so inaccurate and cause more harm than good in many cases), I decided to move forward with both because I was craving some information, even knowing it could mean very little. Baby was doing great, and I was already about 6 cm dilated after only 6 hours, so I felt reassured everything was happening how it should be. That said, I was really struggling to manage the pain, and despite not being fully dilated, I went into the transition phase shortly after being checked.
As much as I had learned everything I could about labour, and knew transition was often the part where all bets are off, nothing could have prepared me for how it would actually feel. I totally lost control and my vision of a calm birth disappeared: I went from moaning to full-on screaming, crying, and begging for help. When a contraction hit, I physically couldn’t stay still, and started writhing around and clawing at Jonnie and Shania like an animal. It was around this point I let myself say out loud “I don’t think I can do this”, and so we decided to move to the birth pool to give me some comfort. I don’t remember being moved into the birth pool, but I do remember how good getting into that hot water felt – such a massive help, if only for a moment. And then I started to feel the urge to push…
The urge to push hit me long before I was fully dilated and ready to actually push baby out, which was a big challenge mentally and physically for me. It was around this time that I completely zoned out – I remember looking up from the wall of the pool into Jonnie’s face and thinking “Oh, I’m still here” and then going right back into an out of body experience as contractions rolled in on top of each other. I started repeating “I just want this to be over, I’m so tired, I need it to be over”, and asked the midwife to break my water for me to speed things up, which she calmly told me she didn’t do without a significant reason (something I’m so grateful for looking back). I even half-heartedly asked if it was too late for a hospital transfer, and while no one overtly said “yes, it’s too late”, I didn’t use the safe word I’d agreed to with Jonnie and Shania, so the team knew I wasn’t actually asking to go.
Eventually my water broke with a big gush from the pressure, and the pain intensified even more, but I felt like something wasn’t quite right: as much as I had the undeniable urge to push, baby’s head wasn’t descending, so I asked the midwife to check for a cervical lip. Sure enough, there was a lip holding baby’s head up, and the midwife offered to try and hold it to the side so I could push past it, which I agreed to. Unfortunately even getting through the check trying to lay back was so unbelievably painful for me, and I couldn’t bare to sit through the contraction while she held the lip (it was pure agony!) so I asked her to stop. At that point I knew I needed to try and slow down my pushing to avoid swelling until baby had passed the lip, but it was SO HARD. I did a lot of self checking between contractions, waiting to feel the head move downward, and after what felt like forever, it did!
After writhing around and begging for mercy for hours, the midwife finally gave me the go ahead to push, and instantly the mood in the room completely changed. I called out for someone to get my mom and Summer, and as soon as they walked in I surrendered entirely to my body – it was such a relief to feel like I could start using the pain instead of just finding ways to get through it. Suddenly it was like I had woken up from a trance, and after hours of screaming and feeling totally out of body, I “came back” to myself and even started joking around. I pushed way too hard too fast, knowing I’d likely cause a tear, but I was so eager to be done, to meet this baby, and to FINALLY be able rest on my back (or at least sit down).
I wanted to watch our baby come into the world and catch her myself, so I tried to lay back just for the final few pushes, but it continued to be too uncomfortable, so I went back to all fours as everyone around the birth pool cheered me on and Jonnie held my shoulders, switching between encouraging words and shouting profanities. I dug deep as I felt the ring of fire, gave one big roaring push, and her head (along with one of her hands) came popping out! I had hoped for this stage to be completely hands off, but one of her shoulders was pretty stuck, so our midwife did a bit of maneuvering (which in the moment I didn’t mind, I just wanted her OUT). And then there she was – I laid back against the pool wall in Jonnies arms, and brought her up to my chest. Penny Lilah Garrison Carfrae, my little lucky Penny, was here, and I’d done it. I went from complete shock, to smiling so big, to sobbing, and everyone in the room sobbed along with me. It was everything I had ever wanted, and more.
In the end I had pushed with so much intensity that I caught our team off guard, and the second midwife only walked through the front door at the same moment Penny was born! She got herself setup while Summer came over to the pool to officially meet her baby sister. It was the sweetest moment, and instantly those difficult 9 months melted away. Every single second had been worth it.
The final stage of my labour was a bit of a wild ride: I had asked to birth the placenta naturally, with no oxytocin shot and no traction. Unfortunately the pool had gotten really cold, I was completely exhausted and the contractions were so painful, so I just couldn’t get relaxed to nurse and cuddle Penny the way I’d hoped. I honestly felt like I could hardly hold onto her at all. 45 minutes later, the placenta still hadn’t made an appearance, and knowing bleeding can get dangerous if it’s been over an hour, I asked for some help to get out of the pool and make my way to the bathroom to warm up in the shower and let gravity work it’s magic.
Long story short, the chord wasn’t as long as the midwife thought, and as the lifted Penny to pass her to Jonnie, it started to pull. I was so panicked the chord would break off inside me or the placenta would tear, that I reached up to grab the chord instinctively, and it ripped in my hand! The majority of the blood had already transferred to Penny, but the residual blood in the chord spattered everywhere, including onto everyone in the room. Though ripping the chord in the middle had avoided a possible emergency outcome, the shock of the blood and the fear of the moment really affected me, and even after Penny had been safely passed off to Jonnie for skin to skin and I got wrapped in a towel, I still felt really shaken (plus, I was actually shaking). The midwife ended up having to apply some traction to help get the placenta out, and in retrospect I wish I’d made a better plan for that part of the birth so I could have been resting and bonding with my baby in bed a lot sooner.
When I finally did make it to bed, I had to have about 5 stitches for a second degree tear (which I hadn’t even felt until that moment), and then I finally got my chance to relax. Summer, Jonnie, Penny and I all piled into the king size bed and basked in the warm morning light, fighting our sleepiness to savour the moment together. It was an incredible feeling and I still have a hard time believing it really happened.
I learned so much from this empowering, life-changing experience. For one, no birth is perfect or predictable! I may have had my “dream birth”, but that doesn’t mean it was easy or smooth by any stretch of the imagination. Both my vaginal birth and my cesarean had moments of pain, of fear, of joy and of beauty, and both presented their own unique challenges. My VBAC also helped me accept and even appreciate more aspects of my cesarean: having a scheduled delivery was definitely easier on my anxiety because I had some sense of control, and being forced to rest in bed with nothing but cuddles and naps postpartum was a part of my first time becoming a mom that I took for granted. Having a vaginal birth this time with much less obvious damage to me body, I didn’t really allow myself much rest time (especially with an older kid to chase after), and it ended up making bonding with Penny a lot harder than it was with Summer. My cesarean also meant my support system was airtight – my mom stayed with me for a few weeks while I was healing, and that time just the two of us with newborn Summer holds some of the most precious, special memories of my entire life.
Overall, I’m so grateful for the peace I finally feel about both of my vastly different, but equally beautiful births.
I’ve listed some of the resources that helped me below:
SERVICES & RESOURCES //