In the United States, the first time most women experience the birth of a child, it’s happening to them. My two daughters are an exception to this rule. When they were three and five years old, they watched me labor and give birth to their baby sister.
I gave birth to all three of my daughters at home. My first daughter was 22 months old when my second daughter was due. I felt that she was too young to understand what would be going on, so at the first signs of labor, I had my mother pick her up and she had a fun sleepover at Grandma’s house.
By the time my third daughter was due, though, her sisters were fully capable of discussing what was going to go down. At this point, they had both heard their birth stories many times so they had a good grasp of the basics. In my third trimester, we read some children’s books about birth and watched a few home birth videos on YouTube.
The most useful tool for helping my daughters understand what to expect when I went into labor was role-playing. They spent many an afternoon with their favorite teddy bears stuffed up their t-shirts while taking turns clutching their swollen bellies, staggering around moaning, and groaning before squatting and pulling their stuffed animals out with a flourish. They would immediately hike up their little shirts and start nursing those teddy bears while they giggled hysterically and started the whole process over again.
By the time my contractions really got going, my daughters were well versed in the behavior of a woman in labor. As it turned out, it would be a quick show.
At 7 p.m. on the night my third daughter was born, I called my sister, who had wanted to be present for the birth, and told her that unless she got on a plane right now, she was probably going to miss it. I had to stop talking when a contraction came, and as soon as I hung up, my husband called our midwife.
At that point, he had begun filling the birthing tub that he’d set up in our dining room. I was slumped over the back of a chair, moaning as I swayed back and forth. My husband, who’d been present for two full labors and births prior to this, recognized the unique pitch of the animal sounds I was emitting and decided to abandon the birth tub to instead concentrate on a contingency plan in case the baby didn’t wait for the midwife.
Thankfully, our midwife rushed in soon after to check and pronounce me fully dilated. Forty-five minutes had passed since I hung up with my sister. While I was a bit distracted (breathing my way through contractions) during those 45 minutes, I do remember my daughters excitedly running around the living room chanting, “Mommy’s in labor! The baby is coming! Mommy’s in labor! Yay!”
While my midwife prepared her equipment and supplies, my husband settled the girls down in our bedroom. The birthing bed was in the guest room across the hall, so they had an excellent view of the show. My daughters sat together, their little legs hanging over the edge of the bed, with a big bowl of chips and a juice box each, ready for the grand finale.
A few minutes later, my water finally broke and it was time to push. Every time I beared down and let out a guttural moan, I heard my three-year-old mimic the call back to me from across the hall. We went back and forth like this a few times – me mooing and grunting, while my daughters laughed and tried to answer me with their little, high-pitched groans that sounded more like roosters than the cow-ish sounds I was making. I describe this scene to illustrate just how comfortable my children were as they witnessed the birth of their sister.
At 8:20, I gave one more push, and Violet was born. My midwife scooped her up onto my chest and covered us with a blanket. I looked into my husband’s teary eyes and smiled in relief. My daughters ran across the hall and came to investigate their new baby sister. They were curious and gentle, excited and in awe.
In that moment, holding my healthy baby, while surrounded by my husband and daughters, with my midwife watching over us, I felt tremendous love. Certainly, part of that feeling was due to the cascade of birth hormones pumping through my veins, but it was also because I felt so supported by my people and connected to life.
Having my daughters present for their sister’s birth was a great experience. Their excitement and energy helped support me through labor. I hope the memory of seeing their sister be born will stay with them as they grow from little girls into women. I hope this memory – of childbirth as a powerful and beautiful experience – will give my daughters strength if they decide to give birth someday.