The birth story of Benjamin Gregory Hubert began long before he joined this side of the world on November 13, 2015. It began with the longing for a child that God placed on our hearts, continued with reminders of God’s faithfulness to that desire, and concluded with an incredible consolation in the midst of labor.
I was so thankful for a healthy and relatively easy pregnancy. In fact, pregnancy was perhaps the healthiest and most vibrant I’ve ever felt in my body. I was so connected to and conscious about what I was eating, how active I was, and marveling in how amazing and capable my body is. (These were all useful experiences for a woman who has struggled with both body image and healthfulness her whole life.) I had the typical challenges with food aversions in the first trimester, sleep struggles in the second, and achiness in the third, but other than that, there were no physical barriers standing between me and a positive pregnancy. Prenatal yoga was an essential physical, mental and spiritual practice for me during this time. Tree poses with “one hand on your heart and the other on baby” made me feel rooted in what was familiar and strong enough to reach for what was to come. I marveled in how strong and flexible I was in my pregnant body, and I had fun playfully exploring poses that challenged me and celebrated this stage of my life. I also would meditate there on my mantra that I would carry with me into labor: “I trust the wisdom of my body.”
Pregnancy was a busy season, though, as I wrapped up my M.P.A. degree with multiple online classes through the summertime. Matt and I decided to go away for an overnight to reconnect with each other before my final research proposal and other class assignments ramped up to the end in August. We had a lovely time, and (consistent with my pregnancy), I felt able to be present to each moment and savor it with gratitude. As we sat at Perkins eating an indulgent brunch on the drive back into town, I felt suddenly overwhelmed with God’s presence and proclaimed to Matt, “I don’t know exactly what the next few months will hold, but I know they will be very hard. But I do know that I’m so glad to be in it with you, and I know that God will get us through any challenges that we may face. It won’t be easy, but we are going to be okay!” At the time, I had no idea the significance of that moment and what a gift it was to feel that truth.
One hour later, Matt and I gathered with my parents and sister for a family meeting, where I learned the shocking news that my dad had been diagnosed with cancer. I remember dashing across the room after listening to him explain some of the medical details, including the many unknowns at the time, and hugging him around his waist saying, “What do you need? Do you need me to be angry? Do you need me to do something? What do you need?” We cried together, and dad told me that he just needed my prayers. My mom added that what she needed was for me to take care of our baby—a task that might be harder to do in the midst of so many new stressors.
[I am glad to report now that my dad, who approved me sharing this story, is doing very well. He had an extensive surgery and grueling treatments out of state, but he is now home, has returned to work and is healing beautifully. His healing process has also been marked with many tangible reminders of God’s presence and faithfulness.]
It was incredibly challenging for me to work full-time, take graduate classes and travel the hard journey with my family while being pregnant. But, in some ways, my mom’s loving (but challenging!) request to put myself and the baby first was a gift to us. I put my focus on staying healthy, minimizing stress and resting as often as I could, even though these were hard daily choices to make, knowing that my mom and dad were out of state going through incredible trials. I wanted so much to distract myself from my life and instead immerse myself in solidarity with my dad’s struggle, but instead, I honored my mom’s request and cared first for myself and the baby. I was able to travel to Ohio a few times to be with my family, which was wonderful, and Matt and I used technology to stay as connected as possible to my parents.
Late Pregnancy, Early Labor
Starting at about 37 weeks, I began to feel the physical demands of pregnancy amping up in my body. I experienced new pains, new achiness, new fatigue. I started going more slowly at work and even working from home on days that I could. People in my life sent me mixed messages (“You’ve definitely dropped!” “You haven’t dropped at all yet.”) and I couldn’t really tell how differently my body felt. I began to feel some Braxton-Hicks contractions, but they weren’t uncomfortable. Every day I went to work I was unsure if I’d be there the next day. When this was still continuing at 40 weeks, with no real active signs of labor (other than being 2 cm dilated and 60% effaced—so technically I was in early labor), each day felt like a gamble. Four times Matt and I packed our suitcases in the car, with the potential of going to the hospital for a scheduled C-section based on the results of that day’s biophysical profile and sonogram. Luckily, our baby passed all of those tests, and those suitcases weren’t needed those days. But, that meant we had to induce at the end of 42 weeks, which was on Friday, November 13.
That final week was an internal battle each day: Trying to stay relaxed while also doing what I could do to ready my body for labor (sitting and bouncing on a medicine ball, walking laps inside Wegmans nightly with Matt, taking time to meditate and be relaxed each day, etc.) Our doula reminded me that there was nothing I could do to induce labor, and that the baby would come when s/he was ready. My job was to treat myself to rest (hello, nightly movie marathons!) and wait. Matt’s parents would call and check in, and people would inevitably tell me each night “I think tonight’s the night!” but it never was.
I desperately wanted to go into labor on my own and not need to be induced. My intention, what I had been physically and spiritually readying myself 9 months for, was to have no medical interventions or pain medicine during labor. With no medical interventions I could live out my mantra, trusting the wisdom of my body, approaching birth as a natural biological experience rather than a medical one, while also minimizing my risk of C-section and any number of other complications. And, then I could have an experience of labor and delivery that would connect me to my own natural power and strength, along with the experiences of women around the world and for all ages. An induction on the 13th would start me on the opposite track of what I’d hoped for.
In an effort to relax and not spend every moment wondering when labor would come, I decided to pray to my deceased grandparents for their intercession. I asked them to hear this prayer and pray for it constantly. I received an image in my prayer of my deceased grandparents at a dining room table in Heaven, playing cards and drinking coffee, visiting with each other. They invited Mary and Jesus over to the table, where they joined the group in their community ritual. My grandparents then began what I imagined to be a constant dialogue with Jesus and Mary about my prayer request, and they invited passers-by to join in (“Hey, [deceased family friend], you know Jessie! Come here and join us in praying for her…”) It was an incredibly comforting prayer experience. And, as Matt told me, God might not give me what I wanted but would definitely give me what I needed. I trusted my grandparents would ask God to give me what I needed.
The incredible news was that my parents moved home from Columbus in early November, so they were able to be back in Erie during the last few weeks of my pregnancy. We didn’t have to worry about them being out of town for the birth, and we were so thrilled that my dad’s treatments and hospital stays were over. It was an emotional reunion, to be sure. And, they got to experience the joyous moment of seeing me in-person when I was “very pregnant!”
On Thursday the 12th, I approached the entire day like an early labor retreat. I went to mass at our church, Sacred Heart. I had been feeling so anxious the past few days, but when I walked into the church and saw the beautiful Thanksgiving decorations, I was instantly peaceful. I began to daydream about the baby being with us at Thanksgiving that year and how much I had to be thankful for. I felt such great consolation, but the blessings didn’t end there. The first reading of the day was one of my favorite readings of all time: Wisdom 7:22-30, a passage that has been important to me in my faith development, and one I’ve returned to many times in my adult spiritual life. What are the chances it was the reading of the day—the one day it was scheduled in the 3 year cycle! When I heard it announced, my jaw dropped and tears quietly streamed down my face. How beautiful to know that Wisdom herself, the very one that I trusted lived within my body, was with me and our baby as we awaited labor together.
Later that day, I received phone calls from Mickey and Dorothy in Kentucky, my cousin Paula, and other loved ones. I got my favorite lunch, an In the Zone wrap, from the Co-Op and enjoyed the walk to and from there, even though my body was tired and rain was on the horizon. I drove around Presque Isle listening to a mix CD I had made. At Beach 8, I got out and walked out the boardwalk, where I did my signature labor-friendly squats and watched the big waves roll in. I talked to the baby, saying that the labor experience would be so much better for them and for me if they would just come on their own in the next 18 hours. I prayed the Our Father in Polish—how I invoke the joined prayers of my deceased grandparents—and the Hail Mary. And I gave the experience over to God.
Before bed, Matt and I read the baby version of Oh, the Places You’ll Go to our child, still waiting inside me. The winds were wild and strong that night, and I sat in the rocking chair in the baby’s room listening to them howl. But, on the night of the 12th, labor still didn’t come. Our alarms went off at 3 a.m. as planned, as we got ready to leave and arrive at the hospital for my 5 a.m. check-in time.
Labor & Delivery
I enjoyed a breakfast of whole-grain toast with homemade strawberry jelly, a scrambled egg, banana, green tea, and lots of water. I ate by the dim light of a single living room lamp in the 3:30 a.m. darkness. As we walked out our front door, Matt and I remarked how different our life would be when we returned. It is a strange and otherwise unknowable feeling to be driving to a hospital where you know you will be put into labor to deliver your first-born child. As we drove to the hospital, I was concentrating on breathing and staying calm, hoping and praying that with every breath labor would begin on its own, and I wouldn’t have to be induced.
I was disappointed when my check-in at the hospital began with putting multiple hospital bracelets on my arm. I told Matt I was starting my labor feeling like a patient, not a woman doing something biologically natural, but I tried to resist my nervous temptation of making snarky remarks at every turn; it wouldn’t yield the peace and calm I wanted for myself. Some trashy entertainment news channel was on in the triage waiting room, which also didn’t really set the spiritually-aware tone I wanted for the experience, but Matt and I shared a good laugh about it.
By 6 a.m. I was in my labor and delivery room. The first nurse was upbeat and positive, which was helpful for assuaging me when the first things she did were put more bracelets on my arm (“FALL RISK,” “ALLERGY”—again, not the messages of empowerment I wanted to surround myself with) and start a Pitocin drip, which I didn’t even realize was happening until it had already begun. So, I guess the induction had begun. It would have been nice if they would have let me know. I asked if I could wear my own nightgown (a detail that would add to the comfort and control I wanted), and they told me it wasn’t a good idea. So, I slid into the stiff hospital gown and socks. The hospital was diving right into making my birth experience a medical event. To be fair, my midwife had allowed me to carry a full 42 weeks, hoping labor would start on its own, and she was supportive of waiting that long because the baby and I had stayed healthy. She told us that the statistics for likelihood of distressed labor spike after 42 weeks, so she couldn’t wait any longer than that.
My midwife came into our room around 6:30 a.m. I asked her whether once my body went into active labor, if it could be in labor on its own and off the Pitocin drip (an option I’d thought we’d discussed). She was stern with me and said that we had committed to Pitocin, so it was going to be cranked up all the way and be a fully Pitocin-induced labor. I was clearly distressed about this thought, and she was stern again, saying that I needed to get on-board with what my labor was going to be, because if I resisted it, it was going to be a lot worse. On that note, she left, and I felt fractured and deeply upset. I called our doula and told her it was time to come in. She did a good job of providing a level-headed presence in that moment, in-tune with my feelings but also saying she had some specific questions to ask about options to explore that could beget a more natural labor experience even if Pitocin had to be part of it. I looked forward to her arrival in the hour ahead.
At this point, between the clinical environment, multiple hospital bracelets, Pitocin starting before I knew it, being told it would be “cranked up all the way” with no option to sustain labor on my own, and the command to “get on board or else,” my peaceful demeanor was deeply shaken. I told Matt I needed 20 minutes to spend time with God in meditation and try to reset internally. He turned off the overhead lights so the room was comfortably dim in the pre-sunrise morning and sat in the chair next to me. I sat up in bed in a meditative posture so familiar to me from my prenatal yoga and other prayer practices. I then had one of the most consoling and healing prayer experiences of my life.
After settling into my breathing and returning to my pregnancy mantra, “I trust the wisdom of my body,” I felt God’s presence with me. Out of nowhere, I thought of my dad and became overwhelmed with a gift. My challenges that morning, going to the hospital, having multiple bracelets on my wrist and multiple lines in my arm, wheeling the IV contraption across the room just to go to the bathroom…those were simpler versions of the types of challenges my dad had been living with daily for the past 3 months. All at once, the guard I’d put up at my mom’s request on that July day to protect myself and the baby from the physical and emotional anguish my dad had been enduring…that guard collapsed, and I felt true solidarity with my father. I wept and felt mysteriously, even mystically, joined to my dad in his suffering of the past 4 months which I hadn’t yet felt physically or emotionally able to enter into. Though I felt his pain in a new and heart-wrenching way, I also was keenly aware of the gift that my dad was giving me: His gracious and trusting acceptance of his cancer battle was a new image to help me get through labor—a particular experience of labor I had tried so hard to avoid but now needed to graciously accept. And so I did: I accepted and embraced the labor experience I was about to have, and I didn’t feel like I was losing anything—only gaining a new closeness with my dad. It was an incredible gift.
When I had this realization in my prayer, I saw my grandparents smiling at me, and I remembered what Matt had said: “God may not give you what you want, but you’ll definitely get what you need.” I’d asked for a particular type of labor. Instead, my grandparents had interceded to help me feel the closeness and connection to my dad that I’d missed so much while he was in in Columbus for treatments, and I’d felt light-years away in time and space. As is so often true of our infinitely expansive God, answered prayers encompass things we didn’t even realize we were seeking. And, the paschal mystery so central to my faith became real to me: After suffering there is death, and after death, there is new life. This is the ultimate truth of any “natural” birth—any birth at all, really!—and the ultimate truth of what God can offer even through human suffering. I had to die to the images of the labor and delivery experience I’d hoped for, but I was being offered new life not just with my child but also with a new closeness to my parents, who had also endured suffering and emerged into new life of their own. I felt very humbled and grateful to experience this. And, looking back on it, it was the ultimate Truth I’d hoped to encounter during a labor/delivery experience, but I encountered it hours before my child was born.
I emerged at 7 a.m. on the other side of that 20 minutes as a refreshed person, with a peace about me that I can’t really explain other than saying it went far beyond the scripted deep breathing I was doing through anxious clockwatching for the past two weeks. Matt and I started to play cards—our favorite game, Gin Rummy, which I played hundreds of times as a little girl with my late Papa. Our doula arrived and was a peaceful presence in the room while we all waited for things to advance. I was surprised when the nurse identified the tightening sensations I was having as contractions, identifiable by the blips on a screen. Once I knew that’s what they were, I could say I’d been feeling contractions for weeks, but I always thought the baby was just wiggling around in tight confines. They weren’t painful yet, and I had no trouble talking through them, so I knew I was in early labor and not yet in active labor (thanks, Lamaze class!) I was fascinated and delighted by them. I didn’t even care that it was induced by synthetic oxytocin rather than my own supply; I felt the freedom just to be amazed and feel wonder.
The nurse started coming into the room more frequently to make adjustments. She said it seemed that the lap belt that measured contractions kept sliding around (or maybe the baby did), because she kept getting irregular readings of the baby’s heartbeat. She came in every 10-20 minutes to adjust the lap belt. After a while, I offered to hold it on my belly so she could try to get the reading she needed to get for our midwife, so I became a one-handed Gin Rummy player. It was a bit of a nuisance but wasn’t a major problem. She continued to try to get clear readings during her room visits to increase the Pitocin drip every 20 minutes.
At about 9 a.m., our midwife came back into our room for what I thought was a mid-morning check-in. Instead, she sat down next to the bed and had a very different demeanor about her from the last time. She asked the nurse to “pull the Pitocin,” which the nurse did. She told me calmly and gently that she’d been monitoring the baby, and the baby was not responding well to the contractions. Matt moved his hand from his lap over to mine on the hospital bed. The baby’s heart rate was dropping during the contraction—not necessarily abnormal in general. But in my situation, the drop was occurring at a point in the process which indicated that the baby couldn’t tolerate the contractions once they’d get stronger. The midwife told us this was a sign that the baby wasn’t going to tolerate me going into active labor, and therefore, I was going to have to have a Caesarian. She said, “This isn’t an emergency; it is early enough that we don’t have to wheel you down on a cart immediately.” She said we could take 10 minutes to process it, talk to each other and our doula, but that she would be back after that to start the process. I was so moved by how gentle, compassionate, and also in-command her presence was. It was clear that she was an advocate for me and for the baby. I felt Matt’s hand on me begin to tremble. The midwife and doula left the room to give us a moment to ourselves.
Amidst all of this, I felt remarkable peace and acceptance, a sure sign of God’s presence with me from within and beyond my prayer experience that morning. It didn’t bother me at all that I’d have to have a C-section—which is a miracle in itself, given that I’d spent my entire pregnancy trying to prevent induced labor, furthermore surgery. My peaceful heart was moved when I saw Matt shaking and wiping tears from his eyes. I was the one comforting him, telling him that I and the baby would be fine. I asked why he was crying, and he said he felt so bad, knowing that this was not what I wanted. And he also told me he was afraid for me and for the baby to go into such a big surgery. I kissed him, smiled, told him I’d love him and assured him I’d be safe. Seeing his care for me and for the baby was another deeply moving memory from this labor and delivery experience. Though I felt bad he was so scared and sad, I’d never seen him demonstrate his care for me in such a powerful way before. Again, suffering was used as a channel for life-giving love.
I took a minute to go to the bathroom with my trusty IV tower (for the last time in 24+ hours, given that I was about to have a catheter inserted). I looked at myself in the mirror: Deliberately no makeup, but still had recently gotten my eyebrows and straightened hair for a bit of polish. I told myself aloud in the mirror a few times, “I trust the wisdom of my body.” And I meant it. And I knew that the next time I saw myself it would be with our baby in my arms.
When I came out of the bathroom, not 30 seconds later the whirlwind of surgery prep began. The kind anesthesiologist came and calmly, expertly explained the method that would be used, what its risks were and had us sign consent forms. The nursing staff had sprung into action, from basic scrubs to surgery gear, and one nurse to multiple. The room was transformed from a peaceful sunrise date card-playing scene to a bustling hub of morning hospital activity. I felt like a peaceful pillar of capable birthing strength in all of it. It was an amazingly empowered experience—again, exactly the type of fortitude in myself I’d hoped to uncover in birth, which meant that the circumstances around it didn’t even phase me. It became clear later that Matt was the one shouldering all the anxiety and sadness for the two of us. Matt carried the heaviness gracefully and with a strength and resolve that was beautiful to watch.
Our midwife was also an expert advocate for both of us in this experience. She commanded the nurses to let Matt wear our prayer shawl under his OR scrubs, as a measure of comfort and personalization (even if a bending of policy). I laid down on the hospital bed and was wheeled down the hallway at 9:50 a.m., Matt a few steps behind us. I was struck by how bright the lights were, how stark and cold the room was. But all I could do was feel peace and complete delight in every moment of the experience. The spinal block went in with no issues, and when I started to feel a bit woozy, the polite and upbeat PA made an adjustment, and from there I was comfortable. Soon after, Matt was standing next to me alongside my left cheek. The doctor introduced herself, and my midwife was allowed to assist in the cesarean birth, which meant a lot.
I couldn’t feel any pain, just a lot of tugging and pulling, which was a wild sensation. Matt kept holding my hand, telling me I was doing a great job. Within a few brief minutes, I heard a crying noise. “That’s our baby! Welcome to the world!” I said breathlessly. I saw the midwife hold our baby across the drape so Matt could announce the sex as we’d planned. “It’s a boy!” he said. “So, Benjamin Gregory?” I asked. Matt agreed, as it was the name we’d chosen for a boy—his middle name chosen for my father. Our midwife, such a good advocate in the moment, then said “move her blankets and get that baby skin to skin.” Our baby was put on my chest, and I felt a single tear fall out of the corner of my eye. It was bliss. “Benjamin Gregory. Welcome to the world. Who are you going to be?” I kept saying. The only discomfort was that my right arm had been hanging out to the side of the hospital bed and gone numb, so I could really only hold Benjamin with my left arm. After I was stitched up, they told me they needed to take the baby to be checked, but Matt was able to go be with him. In my research I knew this was standard practice for c-sections. Even though it is not ideal to have the mother and baby separated so early (for so many biological and spiritual reasons), I was still so peaceful that I delighted in Matt getting some special father-son bonding. Thankfully, Benjamin looked perfectly healthy, and I was told he would meet me in the recovery room. We were probably only apart for 5 minutes, which was another sign of what I experienced as a very family-centered caesarian birth.
In the recovery room, our nurse helped Ben latch on and breastfeed for the first time—one of my major priorities. Again, sometimes the drugs and trauma of surgical birth can interfere with foundational breastfeeding moments, but Benjamin was awesome. The staff called him a “barracuda” because he had not grown drowsy at all and instead had a very strong suckling reflect. I came to feel that breastfeeding for me was instinctual but not intuitive. I struggled with his latch a lot over the next few days; it was painful, and my spinal block meant I had to stay reclined back, which made it very hard to learn the muscle memory and positioning of how to feed my son. But, we stuck with it and had great resources in the hospital. I’d also done my share of research about refusing standard hospital practices like pacifiers, formula, the separation of nursery stays, and nipple shields in order to build a strong foundation for a good breastfeeding relationship. I’m thrilled and thankful to say that all went well on that front.
A few minutes into the recovery room, the nurse had to press down on my abdomen to prevent hemorrhaging. WOW that was the worst physical feeling I’d ever felt—and I didn’t expect it, because I thought I was still numb there! I guess not! I moaned out loudly and was glad when it was done. Then, the adrenaline wore off, and I was so exhausted I could barely talk or keep my eyes open. Ben on the other hand had his eyes wide open the whole time in the recovery room. It was a blissful, sacred hour together as a family of three.
From there, we moved into the hospital room where we stayed for the next three days. The first person we called was my dad, to tell him he was officially a Dziadziu and that Benjamin Gregory had been named for him. It was an emotional and beautiful call. Then we called our other parents and siblings and asked them to spread the word. We welcomed visitors who brought gifts for Ben, takeout food for us, and old family photos so we could decide who Ben looked like more. I didn’t get out of bed for the first 24 hours, but after that, my recovery went rather smoothly (though still never fun to recover from a major abdominal surgery). For the most part, I felt deeply peaceful and deeply happy, not even crying except for once during an intimate 4 a.m, feeding when I felt overwhelmed by the beauty of Benjamin and motherhood and so many unknowns ahead of us. I delighted in watching Matt be a first-time father. He was a pro with the “Benjamin burrito” (and sweet sing-song way he said it while swaddling), diaper changes while I laid in the hospital bed, and meeting whatever my needs were, too. I’d never felt so in love—with Ben, with my husband, and with the shape of my life.