Trigger warning: This story contains graphic descriptions of medical circumstances (including hospitalization etc.) that may cause distressing psychological or physical reactions, especially in people who have previously experienced a related trauma.
Ashley Brichter is a certified cooperative childbirth educator, birth and postpartum doula, and lactation counselor. She is the founder of Birthsmarter, which provides relevant and inclusive education for expectant parents around the world. With over a decade of experience, Ashley provides one-on-one support, group classes, lectures, and distance learning for the perinatal population and the professionals who serve them. Here, she shares her birth story, which ultimately led her to her career path.
When I found out I was pregnant the first time I was over-the-moon excited. I was 25 – young by NYC standards – but I’d wanted a baby (and been wanting to give birth) more than anything and it took a few months of trying before it stuck.
I had been working as a doula, lactation counselor, and birth educator before I had either of my kids, and had seen enough to be intimidated by the big hospital system in NYC. So, like a fish swimming upstream, I planned to give birth at home with my husband, my mom, and a licensed homebirth midwife.
Preparing for a home birth satisfied so much of my planner personality. We purchased a “birth kit” with all of the hospital-like supplies, rented an inflatable tub so I could float in water, bought a special hose and adapter to connect it to our sink. I made sure we had popsicles in the freezer, coffee, and snacks for the midwives. Covered my bed and pull-out mattress with waterproof liners and had stacks and stacks of clean towels in various corners of the apartment. Our playlist was ready to go!
I loved being pregnant. I appreciated my changing body. I didn’t have an easy pregnancy though. I threw up and felt nauseous until week 37. My back hurt, my hip hurt. I experienced all the fluctuating hormones. And had a lot of gas!
My daughter was born on her due date.
I experienced cramping from 8-10pm every night the week before I gave birth. On Saturday morning, I woke up at around 4:30 in the morning, took a shower, blow dried my hair (which is atypical for me), and deep cleaned my bathroom. I had this rush of energy.
That afternoon was my grandmother’s 75th birthday party, so my entire family was going to be in one place. As the evening was winding down I sat on my mom's porch in Brooklyn, shared a beer with my brother and felt a distinct contraction. It was time to go home. My husband and I walked the few blocks to my apartment and by the time we got in my contractions were a minute long and five minutes apart.
I tried to watch Veep, rest, shower, and distract myself but baby was on their way! My midwife came between 2 and 3am. My labor was textbook and beautiful. I still smile thinking about it. I was so elated every time a contraction came. I kept thinking, “I can't believe I get to do this.” And besides two moments of overwhelming fear and panic when I got into positions that didn’t work for me, I labored happily from 10:30pm until around 7am. I spent the vast majority of time in my birth tub.
The whole vibe changed when I saw the sun come up.
My contractions got a bit more “pushy” and after trying to work with them, instead of breathing through them, my midwife asked me to get out of the tub. I wound up standing in a small corner between the edge of my sofa and the living room wall. I remember my midwife told me that women typically find the most bizarre place in their house to deliver. “Some dark hidden corner, like other mammals” she said. Pushing standing up was POWERFUL. But also when things became very challenging.
I felt like something was wrong. Pushing was too hard and I couldn’t feel the sensation I’d imagined of having the pressure from the baby. I was having huge surges of contractions, but with each one felt severe pain in my left leg and hip and nothing between my legs! I started making noises that I’ve never even heard in movies. It was a very dramatic two hours.
I did it though.
My daughter was born over 8lbs. She was giant, rosy, so cute, and so beautiful. She breastfed right away. On paper, it all looked really good.
Then, I fainted while walking to the bathroom for the first time.
My midwife said it was not that uncommon to faint post-laboring. The baby was fine and my placenta looked good. I wasn’t bleeding-out. But then I fainted again, just laying on the sofa.
I think I started on an IV. Magdalena breastfed again. About two hours after the actual birth, I could tell that I was going to faint again and asked someone to hold the baby. My midwife began making calls to obstetricians and midwives to get a second and third opinion. No one could figure out why I was fainting because my bleeding was under control. I passed out again and someone called an ambulance.
We had six people sitting on the porch of our building waiting to come upstairs to meet our baby when the ambulance pulled up. Birth stories happen to a whole family.
The very moment I gave birth and looked at my daughter I felt like she had grabbed a part of my body on her way out and was holding onto it. The connection, bond, tether between us was, and still is, almost indescribable.
But, my midwife was clear: “I need you to transfer to the hospital because we need to figure out what's going on. If we take the baby with us in the ambulance, they're going to admit her as a patient. And then they're going to take her to the nursery.” Part of why you had a home birth was to protect the first few hours and days of her life. To keep her with us, and follow her lead.
She nursed aggressively for hours. She was so strong and healthy. I knew I wanted her to be home instead of admitted to the hospital. I handed her to my mom, (told my mom to not be sad for the sake of the baby) and left.
I got to the hospital, and there was a team of people in scrubs standing there waiting. I felt like I was in an episode of Gray's Anatomy.
I got wheeled into a tiny room alone as they prepared me for surgery. An anesthesiologist needed me to sign a consent form for general anesthesia. They didn’t know what was going on and they were going to do whatever they had to do to find out.
I remember having enough agency to look at the anesthesiologist who was with me when we started the surgery. I said, “I don't know what's happening. Can you tell me what's happening?” I remember him introducing himself and talking me through the team, but then I don't remember anything else.
They wound up doing a full D&C (dilation and curettage) procedure, but I had no retained placenta. Instead, they found a large blood clot called a hematoma on the inside of my vaginal wall. I had been bleeding quite a lot, a postpartum hemorrhaging, but the blood was pooling inside. They made an incision on the inside of my vaginal wall to extract the hematoma and stitched me back up.
I was in the hospital for three days getting blood transfusions. I don’t believe in God, but I felt like I had angels surrounding me the entire time. My postpartum nurse when I got out of surgery was a retired La Leche League Leader and doula. She worked one day a month at this hospital. What are the chances? I overheard her on the phone talking to postpartum nurses, reaming folks out for judging me for my home birth. She reminded them that this didn’t happen because I had a home birth. It would have happened no matter what. In fact, when I got pregnant with my second child, I interviewed about seven OBs and at least a dozen midwives. Everyone agreed that a vaginal hematoma is incredibly rare and unpredictable. My husband, baby, and our extended families rotated through 24/7 with food for us and the nurses and so much love.
The first night home was surreal. That’s one thing I’m always in awe of. No matter how intense childbirth is, it’s followed by having to parent a newborn. Like, damn why is there no time to process? After having so many hands, in the hospital and at home, by 11pm everyone left. I can’t believe I didn’t plan that better and ask someone to stay. But, I think we felt ready to just be our little family.
I’d had so many fluids in the hospital and I was so, so swollen. I knew night sweats were a thing postpartum, but did not understand first hand just how much fluid had to leave my body. By the time I finally got in bed that night, of course I had to poo. If you don’t know, this is a big thing after giving birth when everything’s so sore and you haven’t been moving. I was sweating profusely and on cue my daughter started crying to nurse. My husband was in over his head and I felt all desire to hold and comfort her.
I just sat there, naked, nursing, trying to poo, sweating so much and thought to to myself, “what just happened? What is this?”
My first birth taught me that you never just have just two choices. It's not about having a home birth or a hospital birth. I had my baby at home exactly how I wanted to, and I got to take advantage of the medical system exactly how it was best set up to support me in emergency medicine. It's also not either breastfeeding or bottle feeding. It's not one or the other. How can we take a judgment and the binary thinking out of all of this and just help people to start thinking more creatively about what we want our health care system to look like and what we want parenthood to look like?
I launched Birthsmarter in 2019. We’re actively building the most comprehensive and nonjudgmental library of classes, support groups and curated resources for new and expectant families. It’s mix of live classes, On-Demand classes, and a video library to help people really navigate this time in their life so they don’t have to lean on Dr. Google. We’re hoping to bridge the gap between our own personal lack of information and our healthcare system’s lack of understanding.