Benjamin was born on the longest night of 2007. It was the night of the Winter Solstice, the night before a full moon, and one of the two proudest nights of my life.
Throughout my gigantic second pregnancy, I referred to my child in utero as my little bird. It wasn’t exactly a practical decision; Benjamin was so enormous that at one point my midwife thought I might be carrying twins. But little bird flew onto my breath one day and just stayed there, calling to him in whispers, through summer months, through holidays, into December. When I entered my delivery window, my friend and henna artist stained my colossal belly with a little (huge) rust colored bird. I created a birth playlist in homage to his nickname—songs from The Be Good Tanyas, Elizabeth Mitchell, Gillian Welch and more, all about little birds. It just fit.
Benjamin’s birth story began in the room where his brother Banyan was born, in the summer of 2004. My labor with Banyan had been a long, slow, hyper-anticipated process, powerful and filled with soul—every smell and every sensation was intensified. There was no playlist. I had queued up Ray Charles before the big day, thinking that’s what I might like to hear; but when the contractions began I wanted none of it. I needed quiet, and dark, and solitude. I needed to focus. The United States Army could have been in the room with us. I wouldn’t have known, nor cared.
When Banyan emerged, with his giant brilliant eyes and his dense shock of black hair, he was placed on my belly, arching his head up toward me, and I was instantly in love. In awe, and in love. But there was fear in the room. I could sense it from my midwives. His breathing was too fast—tachypnic—and when it didn’t regulate a couple of hours after he was born, we agreed to transfer him to the hospital, where he would stay in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit for five of the longest days of my life. He sustained test after test after tube after poke after prod. It was finally decided that there was absolutely nothing wrong with him. He just needed a little more time. Bringing him back home was such a wonderful moment. As soon as we walked in the door, his eyes widened and his whole little body relaxed. He was home. We were home.
Three and a half years later, I sat in Banyan’s room, reading him stories and singing him to sleep, when I felt the first trickle of early labor that would bring our son a brother. I hugged Banyan close, giddy to tell him that he’d meet his sibling within the next day or two. His eyes widened in that way they still do, that way that I love. I went to sleep, excited and ready, waking every twenty minutes or so for an intense contraction.
Second babies come more quickly, every seasoned mother knows that; perhaps I should have expected that my midwife would find me in transition when she arrived the next afternoon, December 22, 2007.
“Laura? I want to be sure what I’m feeling here before I tell you this,” Harmony said, with a strange, sparkly smile on her face. “Yes. I’m sure. You’re eight centimeters dilated.”
This was shocking news, and I reacted in a fit of hysterical laughter. “What!? How? I don’t feel like I’m in transition,” I said, my voice oddly high. “I feel like baking a cake! What should I do now?”
“If you want to bake a cake, go bake a cake!” Harmony giggled. So, at eight centimeters dilated, that’s exactly what I did.
GROANING CAKE (from Ami McKay’s The Birth House):
The tradition of the groaning cake, or kimbly, at a birth is an ancient one. Wives’ tales say that the scent of a groaning cake being baked in the birth house helps to ease the mother’s pain. Some say if a mother breaks the eggs while she’s aching, her labor won’t last as long.
- 2 ½ cups flour
- 3 eggs
- 2 tsp. baking powder
- ½ cup vegetable oil
- 1 tsp. baking soda
- ½ cup orange juice
- 2 tsp. cinnamon
- ¼ cups molasses
- ½ tsp. ground cloves
- 1 1/3 cups sugar
- 1 ½ cups apple (grated, no skin)
- 1 tsp. almond extract
Sift dry ingredients together. Add apple. Beat eggs. Add oil, orange juice, molasses and sugar. Add to dry ingredients. Mix well. Add almond extract. Bake at 350 F. for 35-40 minutes. Makes two 9″ x 5″ loaves or 18 muffins.*
*or, as we discovered, one perfect bundt.
When the house smelled warm with the oven’s winter spices, and the Solstice grew dark and quiet, my birth team began to gather. Midwives. Mothers. Sisters. Aunts. My belly heaved with wanting. The “Little Bird” playlist was waiting in my home office, along with the inflated kiddie pool, for its cue. I wasn’t quite ready for them yet. I was feeling festive, ebullient even; I wanted bluegrass. Holiday bluegrass. And I wanted to dance.
I swayed in the strong arms of my six-foot-four husband, leaning into him with each contraction, feeling a strange bliss I’d never experienced before. I don’t think I ever stopped smiling. And Banyan—well, my sweet little boy never looked so beautiful to me as he did when I was in labor with his brother. Even at three years old, his light shined so brightly, reflecting the love of everyone and everything around him.
When the moon rose, so close to fullness, we went outside for a walk. It was a splendid idea. The air was cool and crisp and clear, and Banyan led the party with his trusty flashlight. I looked at that moon and those bright stars and felt guided, lifted, by the energy and wisdom of the universe. I felt like I was part of a miracle.
By the time our walk was over, things had changed in my body. I was only in the house a few minutes and a few contractions before I decided it was time to get into the water. My midwife and her assistant filled the pool, with Banyan’s help. He couldn’t fight sleep much longer, and soon went with his aunt to read stories in his room, where he dozed off almost instantly. I allowed myself a tiny moment of sadness, then let it pass. I had envisioned our older son watching his sibling’s birth for so many months. But I understood. I trusted Banyan would fall into the rhythm that was right for him.
With the kiddie pool full and the temperature just right, I took off my clothes and sank in. The water felt amazing. It wrapped me up in its solace and warmth. Michael knelt right beside me, giving me every bit of his strength. I had several contractions in the pool before my water broke; not with a trickle this time, but a massive, unmistakable explosion. It burst forth in huge white ripples through the water. Harmony said, in her sweet, calm voice, “Okay Laura. The next contraction is going to feel a little…different.” I braced myself.
She was right. The next contraction came and I felt my body being tunneled down by a freight train, ripping through me faster than I felt ready for. I remember screaming, “Slow down! Slow down.” Benjamin’s head had crowned almost immediately, and stayed there for the next few minutes. I reached down and felt the sweet fuzz covering the dome of his skull. I could hear voices—“I can see an ear!” “That’s the nose!” I needed to see his face. With one more contraction, his head was born.
Michael was ready and excited to catch our second baby, but instead he stepped aside. Harmony knew already what I didn’t yet know; Benjamin’s broad, strong shoulders were stuck. My midwife and my husband helped me out of the tub, a feat that defied every law of physics and maternal instinct, but I trusted my midwife implicitly. Harmony needed space, and gravity, to help this baby be born.
As Harmony worked her magic and freed Benjamin’s shoulder from my body and the umbilical cord from his neck, I stood, clinging to Michael, trying with all of my power not to bite my husband as I gave a final push, and watched my little bird tumble out, into my midwife’s hands, on the floor beneath me–and there he was. Benjamin Wilson Gilkey. All ten pounds of him.
Harmony knew that Benjamin would need some oxygen after his shoulder dystocia birth. I felt so helpless then, watching her place a mask over his tiny face, then abandoning the awkward contraption and giving him breath from her own lungs, whispering words of welcome in between. I knew it was possible that we might transfer this baby to the hospital, as we had done with his big brother. But I also knew we wouldn’t need to. I watched his color turn from plum to pink, and I exhaled with every liquid organ inside my body.
“We’re not going anywhere,” I said to my newest son. “This is our home.” And we didn’t. Benjamin breathed, and then cried, for the very first time.
A few hours later, while Benjamin was taking to breastfeeding like an Olympic medalist, a sleepy Banyan tiptoed into our room and climbed up into bed. Banyan stroked his brother’s soft, new face. Benjamin wrapped his tiny hand around his brother’s fascinating finger. Just like that, under the twinkling lights of Christmas, our family of three became four.