Caroline Sharkey’s Birth Story

Life works in mysterious ways. Last week I was pining after birth stories, and this week, through an unexpected turn of events, I’ve got three amazing stories to share! Miriam Axel-Lute, the reporter from Metroland who wrote last week’s feature on homebirth in the capital region, has talked to some of her sources to see if they’re willing to share their birth stories with us here, and they are! These are transcripts of the woman’s own words, and they are just incredible. My goodness, I love birth stories! I remember reading Ina May Gaskin’s Spiritual Midwifery nearly all in one go, because it was nothing but birth stories, and I was absolutely eating them up. I’ll dole these stories out one at a time to stretch the beauty. First up is Caroline Sharkey, who birthed her baby at home with homebirth midwives in the capital region, all of whom are sadly working illegally, and none of whom can be mentioned by name. Even so, their caring, and the grace and joy of the birth shines through, even during a necessary transport to the hospital afterwards because of a retained placenta. Caroline, thank you so much for sharing your birth story with us!

Caroline Sharkey’s Birth Story:

Culturally, home birth is exactly what people where my family is from are doing. My mother was born and raised in South Africa, but we’re British and Maltese. My grandmother and her sister were born at home, my grandfather too, he was one of 11. My mother was born in a small cabin in a village outside of Johannesburg. My grandparents relocated to the United States after various countries in between in 1963.

A few years later my grandmother found herself pregnant with her second child, and immediately began looking for midwives, and was told very clearly that wasn’t done here. My grandfather urged her to be less British, more American. So she signed on with an OB, a really lovely man, but in an environment she was totally uncomfortable with. She had a [hospital] birth that totally put her off childbearing and she refused to have any more because of it, and made it very clear.

When my mother entered into motherhood, she was eager to work with midwives. It was the early 70s, and she really found no option. So she worked with the exact same OB my grandmother had gone to, and loved him quite dearly, but had two very negative hospital experiences, and one very positive, which she was always very careful to mention so we didn’t get a biased view.

In 2000, my husband and I found out we were pregnant, here in Albany. We had just relocated to Albany from Ireland. I hadn’t really allowed my brain to think about home birth in any way. I was eager to just take care of basic prenatal care, because it was sort of a surprise to find that we were 12 weeks along.

We sought out prenatal care, and found that extremely challenging. We hooked up with a childbirth class in a local hospital—it was a very uncomfortable environment. I wanted to learn more about my own body. They were teaching that pregnancy was a situation to be managed rather than an experience. I eventually was told that it was far too early to worry myself with needing a doctor and doing anything except pelvic exams and ultrasounds, neither of which I was comfortable with and couldn’t get any answer about why I was being asked to go through medical procedures. At 20 weeks I discovered I miscarried.

In 2002, we got pregnant again, with our son. I had already gone through a year’s worth of family planning and basic childbirth classes with a group of childbirth educators in the area, and I was very excited to see that their take on the mother’s experience and preparing for a family and grieving for miscarriage and seeing new ways for preparing my body and our lifestyle for a family was exactly what I was looking for and had been missing in every magazine and hospital I’d ever been in.

My husband and I very oddly attended these childbirth classes for about a year together with no pregnancy in sight, and people thought we were really strange. The women running the program thought it was great. It was absolutely delightful when we found out we were pregnant and started prenatal care immediately and no one pushed us away. They were very warm in taking us in. I was probably only six weeks along.

We had a slight hiccup in the pregnancy, I found myself in the hospital with a threatened miscarriage and worked with a wonderful woman in the hospital, who was a midwife and very much provided the exact same kind of care [as the home birth midwives] in the hospital. So I decided to keep her on the back burner as I started to process how I was going to choose between a hospital midwife and a home birth experience, knowing that a home birth for the women taking care of me was illegal in New York state, which angered me and confused me.

And then there was the weight of do I allow my insurance coverage to kick in and have a hospital birth. That decision was easily made when we found out how little our health insurance was actually going to cover. So I actually made the decision two weeks after the threatened miscarriage that I was going to have a home birth.

[During the threatened miscarriage], the home-birth midwives provided me with daily care, they came and brought me food, arranged for visitors, which helped me feel better. They really took care of me spiritually, mentally, emotionally, and of my husband. Him fitting into the equation was remarkable. In no way shape or form were my hospital experiences equating my husband into the picture as father, provider, birth partner, and he was very sad about it. So he was thrilled.

[What was it like having to be careful not to reveal the identity of your midwives?] It was definitely strange. I know that on more than one occasion I’ve had to ask my midwives about proper protocol, so I wouldn’t get them investigated. It was easier because my peers were all practicing home birth. As far as my family, my grandmother said, “You’re the smartest person in the family.” My mother was a complete nutter advocate for what I was doing and wanted to be called as soon as I went into labor, which the midwife recommended against, and we didn’t do, which was a really great decision.

My husband’s family on the other hand, we had to be very careful what was said. It was a very different cultural background, different economic background, they had more money than my family and were extremely put off by the concept that we would not reside in the safety and the cleanliness of a hospital. They referred to cleanliness on numbers of occasions, and were very bothered that we were not going to have an experience where they could wait in a waiting room and see our son through a piece of glass. It was difficult, we did a lot of avoidance toward the end of the pregnancy. We were very careful to never reveal the nature of our midwives. We actually got to a point where we were concerned that my father-in-law would call someone, because my husband accidentally mentioned that it was illegal for them to practice home birth in this part of New York state and that rang a very sour note with him.

We had a very successful experience. I wish I could tell you their names. It devastates me that I can’t tell you their names. These women educated us for all aspects of pregnancy. Nutrition, emotional support, allowing us space to grieve previous pregnancies, helping us come to terms where we didn’t have to be scared, providing us with a sense of community and support for actually becoming parents. So often childbirth education really ends at birth, and they were teaching us how to be parents, and how to cope. Learning massage, how to be comfortable—I have a very serious hip injury, I found myself frequently annoyed by it, and they helped. They prepared us for possible complications, [but] it wasn’t huge and heavy handed. They also prepared us for breast feeding. I was very excited to get that kind of support.

I went into labor on July 2, 2003, severely past my due date. We had the original due date of May 17, until we realized we were originally three weeks off. The new date was June 18, and I was three weeks late. I was perpetually pregnant! On July 2, at 11 at night labor started. I had had a good four weeks of serious activity, Braxton-Hicks, good contractions. My midwives were on target, completely supportive, on call. You never really know with your first baby what is labor. As I’ve learned, in the beginning those first contractions feel gigantic—and you learn later they really are smaller.

At 6 AM the next morning it was clear that labor was going to proceed and get much more serious. The midwives stopped by, but let us labor at home alone. I found that was great, I was able to eat and drink and pace myself, take cat naps, things I understand are not practiced in hospitals. It was a long labor—I labored through the next day and the following night. The midwives would come by and stay with us for periods of time. They had provided us with a kit that had virtually everything we needed.

I was in complete and active labor at the crack of dawn next morning. My amniotic sac hadn’t ruptured, so there were no tell tale signs, and there were enormous amounts of pressure. It was very relieving to having things so quiet in my own home, no monitors, no nurses, no noises, to allow myself naps between contractions.

I pushed for several hours, the midwives suggested positions, rubbed me, but also allowed me to do what I needed to do. I didn’t enjoy thinking about people telling me what to do, and I was very glad that they kept quiet until I said “What do I do?”

[What were some of the other good parts about being home?] Oh, the comfort. Labor is such a unique experience for every woman that goes through it. But for my own experience, the sheer oddness of it all, my body felt in ways in had never felt before. My skin was sensitive to warmth and cold and touch. To be capable of grunting and moving away from people, or furniture, or the cool tile floor that was suddenly driving me insane, was luxurious.

To be able to walk, squat and stretch my arms up and hang on the shower curtain so I could feel my back and all the vertebrae separate, which was hugely relieving, to lay on my bed on my side when I needed to, to lay on the floor, to get in the pool, to take a walk outside, to strip all my clothes off, lock myself in the pantry and moan for an hour with no worries that anyone was going to enter the room or that I would bother anyone.

To have my dog present, at times when I had grown sickened by the presence of other people, because in labor one often is sickened by many things, and to be able to stoop down and touch my dog who seemed to be the one [person] in the room who completely sympathized with what I was going through, was really quite nice.

Definitely being able to nibble on food. I was tremendously thirsty. I can’t even imagine being deprived of liquid and only being offered chipped ice. We had two cases of water and I drank a case and a half in the 37 hours that I labored at home. I considered it pacing myself and taking care of what needed to be taken care of on a 97-degree day, but those options might not have been available to me. To be free of any medical monitoring. I don’t know how I would have tolerated physically being bound to anything the way that I labored. And the freedom to move and change positions during the actual pushing, the last two and half hours was really quite nice.

For me, the ability to curse at the top of my lungs felt wonderful, and knowing that it didn’t matter one iota if anyone heard me, I was at home, it was my house. And of course, having honesty, being told “It could be a while.” Not having the shouts in my face to push to push to push, even being reminded from time to time that my body knew what I was doing, even if I wanted to run out the front door and hide from it all.

At 2:10 PM on July 4, my son was born, in a house we were in the middle of renovating. We were thrilled to have a birthing pool available—the most natural epidural one could imagine. It was an extremely hot two days I was laboring. I had two midwives and a doula as well as my husband. It was extremely nurturing.

After birth I had a major complication—the placenta refused to deliver. My cervix clamped down, my uterus refused to contract. It took a while for us to understand. It’s a rare condition. The midwives were by no means shy in telling us, “It usually takes such and such time and we think something’s up.” I preferred to stay at home, and they said they would see how it progressed. They called several other midwives around the country to ask for advice, and practiced some quick procedures to encourage the cervix to loosen up.

Finally, they very sweetly explained that we know that you want to stay at home, but we think you should consider transport because we think surgery might be necessary. They were wondering if scar tissue might be involved. They allowed me a quick two minutes to bawl my eyes out and then I wiped my face, stood up, and said “OK, find me a skirt and let’s go to the hospital, ladies.” I was thrilled with their honesty.

At 7 PM I was admitted into the hospital, and the hospital midwife stayed with me the whole time. My son was not admitted into the hospital, which was very pleasing. After two internal procedures that were just as painful as the birth, I was admitted into surgery for the removal of the placenta. The hospital midwife held my hand the entire time.

From the moment I entered the hospital to when I was released, I never stopped smiling, I never closed my eyes. I was so thrilled that the experience at home had left me feeling so comfortable and empowered that at no point did my confidence falter. I had complete trust in the midwives, but they had educated me enough that I trusted my body. So, I found the birth process nowhere near as painful as it was truly empowering. I think I said, before I went to the hospital, “I’m having every child at home!”

The next morning the hospital midwife was very comfortable [going] against the surgeon and the OB on staff [who wanted] to keep me in for an all-day blood transfusion, for all the blood I’d lost, virtually all at the hospital. She released me into the care of my husband and midwives. She knew that because of the community support, midwifery support, that I would be fine. I went home that day with my son—he had been allowed to stay with me in bed in the hospital. We went home as a happy family.

It was strange in the hospital after the birth, being particularly careful in what I said, making absolutely certain that I in no way put my midwives, myself, my husband in a position of having to explain that I had the baby at home with anyone other than myself and my husband present. I chose to lie and say that the baby came so quickly that I had no option to get to formal medical care, which after nearly 37 hours was a really tough thing to say because I definitely wanted the credit! You count every minute, you want that credit.

That was by all means the most trying point. The circumstances were very strange there. There definitely were a lot of questions, particularly from the surgical staff, not the surgeon, but his staff. They were also very bothered that I asked to keep the placenta, which in a normal home-birth situation would have been a very easy thing to have done. I was not allowed to take my placenta home, and the nurses were disgusted, and I very much wanted to share at that point, “Well, midwives would have let me,” and I had to reserve myself. It was tough through the pregnancy to deal with that issue.

In my condition, with severe anemia following as a result of the blood loss, I had very generous post-partum support, which was very much needed. I was incapable of walking, easily. I was told it was not a good idea to walk with my son, for fear of passing out and dropping him. I had the support of my friends and community, by arrangement of my midwives, for a month’s worth of dinners brought to my house after the birth, which I think every woman deserves and has a right to, beginning from the day I was released from the hospital, and I was welcomed at my doorstep with the first meal. It was really nice to have that kind of care.

And to have limited visitors. We discouraged any family coming to the birth. All of our parents are divorced, it seemed like a big mess. The midwives guided us through arranging a baby-welcoming party a few weeks later, where everybody could meet him, experience what we experience as new parents, have potluck, and go home. “They love you and you love them. You can send them home,” they told us. We didn’t allow ourselves to be bullied by our very aggressive parents. The parents liked [the party], and liked seeing each other, which turned out to be a lot nicer than we expected. That’s the kind of care we don’t see outside of midwifery.

We were thrilled to have these women in our lives, and I learned from them that birth is more of an experience than a situation. I’m very eager to have more children, more home births. I look back with great warmth at the entire experience, with no fear for what life brings me with the next pregnancy.

(Transcribing and editing by Miriam Axel-Lute,

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