Santa Fe Homebirth
by Adam Perry for Midwifery Today, Issue 95 (Autumn 2010)
Driving home to the southern hills of Pittsburgh from a day in the city with my family as a child – generally spent watching a baseball game at old Three Rivers Stadium or wandering downtown with my quiet grandfather, a notoriously avid walker – I always became awestruck at the sight of towering billows of white smoke filling the sky as we left the South Side. Near where Carson St. meets Beck’s Run Road, in an area now dominated by the six-time Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh Steelers’ massive practice facility/embassy, I would arc my little head to watch the oddly beautiful display of pollution make its way from the muddy banks of the Monongahela River up to what I thought was heaven.
The towers of smoke I saw then were incredibly small compared to the industrial waste that covered Pittsburgh when my parents were growing up, and in fact I was actually witnessing the final gasps of my birthplace’s reign as Steel Town USA.
Still, I was stunned when I moved to San Francisco at age 21 and breathed the cool, fulfilling Northern California air. I wasn’t only overcome with emotion at becoming the first member of my family to live outside southwestern Pennsylvania, arriving with no job or apartment and only a few hundred dollars; more consciously and powerfully at the moment, I was enlivened by the alien taste of fresh early-morning San Francisco air.
By contrast, my daughter Sidney’s birth in December of last year occurred in her mother’s childhood bedroom just outside the Santa Fe city limits, in an adobe-based home built by Sidney’s maternal grandparents twenty years ago. The first fresh air Sidney breathed was the nurturing winter chill of New Mexico; her first trips outside in the warmth of her mother’s arms were in the mysteriously soothing arroyo less than a hundred yards from the house where she was born; and the sky Sidney first strained her formative eyes to see was clear blue, save for heavenly mountains and raw desert in the distance and the powerful eruption of rainbow swirls when the sun sets.
My partner Irene’s childhood home in the Arroyo Hondo section of Santa Fe is oriented 28° east of south so that winter morning sun, low on the horizon, begins charging the south-facing glass with solar heat, according to her father, the blacksmith Tom Joyce. He designed his family’s home so that its south section, which features a glass-paneled greenhouse that provides fresh fruit and vegetables year-round, receives the first and best helpings of sun during New Mexico’s high-desert winters. Thus, much of the house stays warm without gas or electricity no matter the temperature outside. In addition, the thick adobe-based walls that cover most of the home keep the inside very cool during intense summer heat.
When I first visited Santa Fe in the early stages of my romance with Irene, I asked Tom where one begins when taking on a project as daunting as building a (partly) solar-heated home made mostly of adobe. “You start drawing,” he replied, and later took me down to his custom-built blacksmith shop (which is just 150 feet from the house) to show me his initial sketches, begun a few years before the house was finished in 1991.
The wonder, admiration and all-around comfort one feels after spending just a few minutes in the Joyce home, which is surrounded by juniper and pinion trees and vast mountain views, made it an easy choice when Irene and I conceived Sidney last year and deliberated on the issue of choosing a gentle, spirit-filled home where she might be born. Irene and I interviewed numerous midwives in Santa Fe last summer, and after I finished my writing and literature studies at Naropa University in Boulder in the fall, we moved into a small casita in the City Different and excitedly awaited our first child’s arrival.
In July of 2009, Irene and I decided on Seva Khalsa, who has been practicing midwifery in Santa Fe for several decades and delivers at least three or four babies a month. Irene felt an instant connection with Seva, who is a strong-willed, knowledgeable and stoic woman; however, it wasn’t until the day our daughter was born that I got over our midwife’s seemingly emotionless personality and realized that a dynamic, outgoing and motherly woman isn’t necessarily what you need in the fragile and reverential event of childbirth.
On Saturday, December 12th, 2009, Irene started feeling “different” and, as Sidney’s birth seemed imminent, we cut our morning walk around the Plaza de Santa Fe short to find our way onstage at the Lensic Theater and interrupt Aspen Santa Fe Ballet’s morning warm-up for that evening’s performance of the Nutcracker. “Excuse me,” Irene said as we halted the intense concentration of the company she danced with from age 17 to 21 before being hired as a lead ballerina for Sweden’s Gothenburg Opera Ballet, “I’m sorry to barge into rehearsal like this, but I just wanted to say that Adam and I won’t be able to make it to the show tonight because I’m going into labor.”
Gisela Genschow, a long-beloved local dance instructor who started working with Irene when she was in grade school, hugged both of us closely and was moved to tears, along with ten or so ASFB dancers who Irene used to tour with.
It was then, on the Lensic’s big, dark stage where Irene performed countless times as a ballerina before moving to Sweden and then eventually Boulder (where we fell in love), that both of us realized “it” was really happening. Though we’d read dozens of books on birthing and parenting; enjoyed and appreciated diverse wisdom and support from truly amazing mothers among family and friends across the country; and meticulously begun preparing Irene’s parents’ home for the arrival of our daughter, the reality of what was actually about to happen – and what it would mean for both of our lives from that point on – had only begun to sink in.
Irene’s mother, Julie, arrived in front of the Lensic shortly after we called her to say “it” was happening, and Irene called our midwife during the car ride to Arroyo Hondo.
“Hi Seva, it’s Irene Joyce,” she said. (Irene, like her father, is humble enough to frequently assume that if you’re not related to her you might need to hear her last name to remember who she is.) “The practice contractions are getting more intense,” she continued hurriedly, “and I’ve been counting the minutes and they’re still a little inconsistent but closer to the two-to-seven minute range than the fifteen-to-twenty-minute range.”
Seva, sensing tension in Irene’s voice, serenely replied that it was “pre-labor” and could go on for either hours or days. Seva hadn’t slept for about 48 hours because of a very difficult birth and had just returned home; she was on her way to the relief of her bed and seemed almost uninterested, from what I overheard. The life of a midwife is one of incessant precipices: Irene was just one of three women who had hired Seva as their midwife and were near or past their due dates. Still, we had visited Seva’s office off of Cerrillos Road in Santa Fe the day before and she was surprised to see that Irene’s cervix was already more dilated than a client of hers who was over a week past her due date. “Call me if anything changes,” she said before hanging up and quite literally passing out.
Irene called her older sister, Kate, a photographer in Chicago who had a flight booked for Sidney’s due date of Wednesday, December 16th. As Irene and I set up a shrine overflowing with gifts, pictures and notes that friends in Boulder had given us at a November “Baby Bath,” Kate got on the next flight to Albuquerque to make sure the entire Joyce family would be present to witness and support our daughter’s birth.
On the day of Irene’s birth in February of 1983 in Santa Fe, 3-year old Kate – who at the time voiced her annoyance at the “loud noises” coming from the next room – was entertained by a family friend reading her a story while her little sister came into the world with the help of her mother’s wonderful midwife Laurie Holmes, now a keystone at Rio Luna Family Care. As for Sidney’s birth, Kate vowed not to miss a thing. While Irene’s parents drove to Albuquerque to pick up Kate, we made love – our midwife told us it was safe and might even create a smoother birth. Kate arrived that night and slept in the living room as Irene wandered in and out of our bedroom (where she fervently practiced ballet on a makeshift bar as a preteen) feeling her contractions get bigger and closer together throughout the small hours.
By 7am Sunday morning, I was shoveling a path in the snow between the house and Tom’s workshop so that Seva and her assistant, Myriah, could walk safely from their car to the back of the Joyce home, where a birthing pool was being set up just outside the room where we expected Sidney to be born. Hearing Seva say “she’s already six centimeters” in a hushed voice soon after her arrival created a sense of joy and momentum in the house as Irene continued splitting her time between walking around focusing on deep breaths and sitting alone in the blue plastic tub of warm water. Soon, I proceeded to text message dozens of family and friends to say “Irene is in labor and our daughter will probably be born today – I’m turning off my phone until then.” It was happening.
As many birth veterans could have predicted, both the plethora of scrawled notes of verbal support I’d prepared and the iPod “Birth Mix” Irene and I had culled together ended up being unnecessary when the day of Sidney’s emergence finally came. Smiling, laughing and attempting to unobtrusively comfort Irene with words and massages as she labored in the birthing pool, I simply tried to be myself and do whatever it took to help Irene and Sidney have a healthy, happy experience culminating in their first meeting, which would also in fact be a separation.
Kate glided around the house with the marvelous old German camera she’d used in years past to photograph Irene and I in idyllic locations like White Sands and Mesa de Cuba. She intermittently sat in a rocking chair next to the birthing pool holding Irene’s hand as the contractions became more noticeably painful. Bhanu Kapil, a brilliant author and professor of creative writing at Naropa, told me last year that the birth of her son turned out to be much less painful than she’d imagined because she succeeded in experiencing the pain as service, and Irene embodied that mindset perfectly during Sidney’s 100% natural homebirth in Santa Fe. Fitting, then, that our midwife’s name, Seva, could be translated as “service.”
The portions of Seva’s personality that I initially interpreted as her seeming “emotionless” or “uninterested” evolved into a comprehensive respect for our noble midwife’s unwavering patience, resolve and tranquility amid the natural excitement and anxiety of a homebirth. “She’s doing great,” Seva would say, breaking up the acute silence that sometimes hung over the house between Irene’s contractions, and quickly I realized how grateful I was for her expertise and erudition, how confident I was in her sagacious, cool-headed judgment.
While Irene and her sister enjoyed a few minutes alone together, Seva and I were sitting in front of the living room fireplace on wooden benches Irene’s father built when I told her about some fears I had, mostly stemming from a horror story one of the midwives we interviewed had told me. “Oh no, I can’t believe she told you that!” Seva said. “You don’t have anything to worry about; your baby is fine. You’ll see.”
Chatting with Seva just outside the room where my partner was in labor, I thought of Kate being distracted while her mother was birthing Irene in their first home. So many stories I’d read included statements from fathers who felt helpless and excluded when their children were born, even during homebirths. Irene’s father had just missed catching her – which ended up being fortuitous because she was born in the amniotic sac – and I wanted to be a part of as much as possible, although I trusted Seva to be the first one to grasp our daughter’s delicate body.
Around 11:45am, all five of us outside the den where Irene was laboring in the pool – Seva, Myriah, Irene’s parents Julie and Tom, and myself – quietly walked back to join Kate and Irene and get an update. The contractions were getting stronger, and almost constant. As Irene commented that her lips were tingling, Seva decided to give her a steady flow of oxygen through her nostrils to prevent hyperventilation and ensure that both mother and baby could breathe easily. Examining Irene on the couch, Seva noticed that the baby’s heartbeat had faintly slowed; it wasn’t a sign of danger, but it was enough for Seva to tell us all “I want to get this baby out as soon as possible.”
I stood up, pacing and shivering, and Irene’s father appeared behind me, massaging my shoulders in a rare, well-placed show of physical affection that was a perfect source of composure. Sidney was about to be born, and we were all there together to welcome her.
With Irene pushing on all fours atop the bed she was born on in the room she grew up in, I faced her; holding her shoulders and touching my forehead to hers as she pushed, I could see her family behind her, holding each other and smiling. The room where our daughter was about to take her first breaths was filled with noontime sunlight, the family’s two rescued dogs racing around the outside of the house as if they expected some huge event as well. This might sound trite, but it did feel like our daughter was about to genuinely be born in nature, and later Irene’s father told us “one day Sidney will learn just how auspicious the timing of her birth, into our high desert world, really was.”
As Irene, naked, went into active labor and we gathered around her in admiration, affection and solidarity, I thought how strange it would have been to welcome Sidney into a hospital, with strangers potentially coming in and out of the room and a sterile, bleak atmosphere surrounding us. I pictured unknown nurses taking our baby away as soon as she was born, cleaning her with unknown chemicals for unknown reasons, hearing her cry in an adjacent room and waiting in suspense until she could nurse for the first time. We had heard about great experiences with hospital births and knew they were possible, but nothing could convince us that our baby was not meant to be born on this beautiful land, in this hand-made home, into the care and comfort of this wonderful family.
“Kate, no more photos,” Irene strained to finally verbalize between pushes, and everyone laughed. Kate put down her camera and put her arms around her mother, both of them standing next to Seva and Myriah, who were kneeling behind Irene and offering her soft words of advice and support.
“I feel so vulnerable right now,” Irene said, and the sounds of her moaning became deeper and more primal, yet we never heard an ounce of fear.
“You’re safe here,” her sister replied.
Irene’s pushing, and the sounds she made, became more extreme. Irene cried out “hello!” as the top of Sidney’s head popped out – “there’s your baby,” Seva said – and then was quickly inside the birth canal again. I kissed Irene on the forehead and went around to kneel down next to Seva and hold onto Irene’s right ankle, voicing my love, encouragement, excitement and reverence as I looked up in astonishment at the miracle in progress.
Quickly, the top of Sidney’s head was poking out again, and with one long push from Irene our daughter came flopping into Seva’s hands in the fresh New Mexico sun at 12:37pm on December 13th, 2009. Irene and I still marvel at how fast the next hour or so went by – Sidney clearing her lungs, being held and nursed by her mother for the first time and then carried into the greenhouse’s radiance in my arms – and how much Sidney’s first flopping sounds hilariously reminded us of a fish out of water. She was tiny, curious and beautiful, and we were instantly in love.
“We got to see each other transform, and in the midst of that transformation unite,” Irene recently told me when we recalled the moments before and after our daughter was born.
Originally just 4 lbs, 12oz, Sidney was almost shockingly small, but entirely healthy. Like her mother and aunt Kate before her, Sidney hasn’t received any medical treatment or shots and she was not washed after her birth, thus her skin wholly received the extremely valuable fluids her mother’s body provided her on her journey into life outside the womb. She’s almost ten pounds now and progressing wonderfully in every conceivable way as Irene and I simultaneously respect, enjoy and make sense of parenthood and life partnership.
While I was born with dark skin into an otherwise pale family on a bright August day in 1980 – my birth prevented at six months with morphine and then induced one day after my due-date with pitocin – Sidney is fair-skinned and stormy-eyed like her mother. Sidney’s birth and Irene’s pregnancy were 100% drug free, and Sidney was fittingly born on Santa Lucia Day, as a Swedish friend of our family pointed out. Like St. Lucy, our daughter came with incredible light into the darkest time of the year; coincidentally, Sidney was also born the day after Irene and I finished getting certified as respite care providers through an organization in Santa Fe called Santa Lucia. Sidney – now happy, healthy and crawling – has a gentle and intrigued personality, sleeps long and well most nights, and (in the words of Irene’s father) “makes one’s heart melt.” I’ll never forget the day she was born.
I was honest about my nervousness that day, but thankfully didn’t project it onto anyone. Many fathers worry about feeling “outside” of the experience of their child’s birth, feeling like they can’t offer any help or can’t be a part of what’s happening without being a walking, talking interruption, and until Irene’s active labor I had similar worries. Still a little self-conscious, I surprised Irene the other day with a tape recorder and a simple question: “how was I during Sidney’s birth?”
She replied “I think you started to get a little bit of nerves coming up saying ‘hey, I’ve never done this before and I don’t know what’s gonna happen and I’m not sure I’m ready for it.’ But when I was going through contractions you were just there. You would put a hand on my back or my belly or my head and let me know that you were present.”
“I was starting to go into a deeper internal place and you were maybe in some sort of process similar to that, of some internal seeking, but without the deeper connection to nature that I was experiencing through the pregnancy and this other being, knowing how to bridge these other worlds and come through.”
I told her “I think I felt that more when you were on the bed in active labor and the sun was coming through the windows and everyone was in there together.”
“Yeah,” she said, “because the energy was coming out of me then; it wasn’t just inside me. When you started seeing the intensity, to me what was happening for you seemed to be this realization. I really felt you go through your own process of going from the ‘oh my gosh’ place to ‘I’m right here; we’re doing this; it’s happening.’”
“I think you started to feel her, to feel her presence come, and that’s something that was really reassuring for me on some conscious level. When I was in active labor you were amazingly gentle and motivating and beautiful and clear. I knew you were having an experience that was life-changing.”
Perfectly summing up where we are now as lovers and new parents whose first child was born naturally in a gorgeous and peaceful Santa Fe home, Irene – a mother, dancer and partner whose strength and creativity are beyond description – concluded “we’re slightly different, but we’re still ourselves.” And that’s really a huge portion of what we can hope for.
Parenthood and partnership are the crux of what’s happening in our lives right now, but as we move forward and Sidney comes along, Irene and I both feel that viewing our daughter’s birth as a new dawn for all three of us is important. We’ll try to stay honest with ourselves and each other as we love and accept who we are and nurture who we can become, and Santa Fe – with its coyotes playfully howling in the star-filled night and its many artists embracing three cultures and infinite inspiration – is a great place to start.