"It's the ring of fire!" I hiss-growled through my teeth as I bore down for a push deep enough to turn my insides out. I knew I was in the most painful stage of birth, when the thickest part of my baby's head was emerging. I heard a chorus of celebratory laughter and relieved moans around me, the same voices that had crooned and chanted through the last 16 hours of my labour. By this point, I was naked and exhausted, my legs splayed, my hair matted to my forehead.
I had been falling asleep between contractions that were less than 30 seconds apart. When I opened my eyes, the gathering of people I had invited to watch me give birth for the first time was still packed into my living room. I hadn't wanted a hospital birth or medicine; evidentally, I hadn’t wanted privacy, either. I had invited a dozen people to the birth party and most of them came, including my best guy friend from high school, my two younger sisters, and a collection of friends from various stages of my life. Two of them had hopped on planes when my contractions got strong enough to keep me awake.
Being a single mum, I felt it was especially important for my son to enter the world surrounded by friends and family. I didn't want to be alone in my pain, but, more importantly, I wanted others to share the experience of his birth. I wanted a village around him. I wanted it to be a party.
I sent invitations on burgundy scrapbooking paper stamped with a field of poppies, and told each person why I wanted him or her there. I asked for flowers and takeout food. I needed yoga coaching and someone to fill and empty the birthing tub. I demanded ocean sounds and pictures. I asked for everyone to brush their teeth and skip the perfume. I warned that there would be nudity.
I wasn't sure who would come. But even as the temperature rose to 30 degrees in my apartment with no air conditioning, everyone stayed and became intimate participants in Jessey's birth. They stood with me while I was on the toilet trying to poop to help get Jessey down. They blended a cod liver and orange juice drink that's said to help bring on stronger contractions and watched as I slugged it down. My friend Rebekah helped a midwife wrap my belly in another friend's scarf for rebozo sifting. Between contractions I swayed with my high school friend Josh like an awkward middle school slow dance between two gay friends. They all took turns holding an electric breast pump to my nipples trying to stimulate my contractions when they weren't strong enough.
After hours of this, the critical moment finally came.
"You can do it, Katy." My midwife, Kimm, pointed her index and middle fingers at her eyes then mine, then back to hers, as my coach. "This is it. Home stretch. Come on, push!"
Josh pushed against my bare back as I sat reclining on a mattress. Each of my sisters held one of my legs firmly, giving me the physical and emotional support I needed to dig in for another push. My college friend Samantha had a camera rolling. Joyce crouched down trying to see how far the baby's head had emerged. And Rebekah was somewhere close saying "you've got this" while wetting another towel for my head.
"Now! Now! Now!" came Kimm's voice. "I want you on your hands and knees, now!"
It took me what seemed like a very long time to register she was talking to me. With my baby's head halfway out, my muscles shaky with fatigue and adrenaline, my friends helped me turn from my back to my hands and knees.
"Reach down and catch your baby," Kimm said.
Bracing myself with one shaky arm, I reached down and felt the warm mat of his hair coated in amniotic sac. Then his body slipped onto to the mattress beneath me. A purple-gray baby.
"Thirty seconds," said Michelle, the birthing assistant, counting the time that passed without an audible breath from my baby. Kimm put her mouth over his mouth and nose and sucked.
He was going to be all right. I could tell in his expression, in the feeling of him. I rubbed the palm of his spindly left hand. "It's okay, sweetie," I whispered. "You're in the air. You can breathe now."
Before anyone noticed, I could see his colour turning pinker. Kimm rubbed him gently with a towel. Finally, I heard his first sound of life, a soft wheezing like a stuffed toy with a noise maker. As my friends encircled him, Jessey began to mimic their moaning sounds. He became part of the community. He joined the party.
This all may seem wildly unconventional, but the truth is that my son's birth was more traditional and more nurturing than standard hospital births. This is the way it should be: A labouring woman at home, surrounded by a devoted team of friends and family, each person bringing fresh and familiar energy; a baby born into the world surrounded by love instead of the glare of florescent lights and masked strangers. Being at home meant the data collection could wait until we bonded for a couple hours. My sister Annie weighed him in a cloth sack after we all made estimations. My midwife tucked us into my own bed before she went home.
It didn't matter that I was naked or that my friend tried to stuff my hemorrhoids back as I pushed harder. It didn't matter that at first I had on my bottom-of-the-drawer ugly underwear and puked into my sister's hands. The more I let go, the more they came in. There was nothing to feel shame about. I well up with a mix of awe, pride and gratitude thinking of the remarkable friendships I have.
After the birth, my sisters drove four hours home, Rebekah walked the few blocks to her apartment, and Joyce laid down. Samantha, Josh and I sat at the table, with the baby, eating take-out Thai food at midnight. Then Josh fell asleep on the couch and Samantha fell asleep face-first horizontally across her bed, my blood smeared and dried on her calves. I walked around the apartment with a fizzy alertness. For more than a decade, I had tried to conceive through various methods. This round of intrauterine insemination with a donor's sperm had finally been successful. Since childhood, I had wished for this moment, for the magical appearance of a baby. I finally had one – and a wonderful community for him to call family.
Katy Chatel is a single mum by choice caring for her son, Jessey Willow, and her grandmother with dementia in New Hampshire.