It was late summer 1979. I lived with my partner, Richard, and my 4 year old son, Joseph, in the coastal hills of northern California, about 100 miles north of San Francisco. We were back-to-the-landers. We owned 40 acres of land on a 2000-acre ranch called Navarro Ranch, which a group of us had legally sub-divided in 1974. Navarro Ranch was one of 3 subdivided ranches in the area. The other two were named Sea View and Gualala.
Richard, Joseph and I lived in a mostly completed one-room cabin with running cold water and no electricity at the end of a 2-mile dirt road. It was situated on a large, natural meadow that sloped down into a wooded canyon. The canyon was bordered on the opposite side by a wooded ridge, which rose to 1,500 feet and down the other side to the Pacific Ocean. Until recently, this ridge had been covered in a thick forest of second growth redwood, fir and madrone trees. But an 8,000-acre wild fire - which started on Sea View Ranch, then spread to Gualala and finally Navarro – had destroyed almost all of the trees and our first cabin in 1978.
When I discovered I was pregnant for the second time I went to see my friend and Navarro Ranch neighbor, Sherry, a local midwife whose very first home birth had been my son, Joseph! She was eager to help again with this pregnancy. My due date was set at May 15th.
I had regular office visits with Dr. Donald S. in the town of Occidental in case I needed to go to the hospital. Donald believed in home births, but was no longer able to attend them because his medical malpractice insurance forbade it. I also stopped by to visit with midwives Shelly and Rhonda from time to time. They had a brand new midwifery clinic in the little town of Cazadero, 5 miles from our cabin. They would be available to step in if Sherry was attending another birth.
Time went by and the pregnancy progressed with little difficulty. The phone company put in phone lines all over Navarro Ranch. Our primitive off-the-grid existence now had one grid attached to it – a phone. This would come in handy when I went into labor.
I was about 7 months along in early March of 1980 when my doctor stated that the baby was breech. “You’re going to have to encourage this baby to turn around and be head down soon – or there’s no way you can have this baby at home,” he told me. “I’m not even sure you can have her vaginally in the hospital. You may be looking at a Caesarean. “
Whoa! I did not want this baby to be born breech or in a hospital via C-section, but I knew that she would soon be too big to turn herself around in the womb. I tried getting onto my hands and knees and letting my big belly hang down for 15 – 20 minutes several times a day, hoping that the extra room this position gave the baby would encourage her to move.
You might notice that I keep saying ‘her’. The reason for this is because I was at a party when I was about 5 months along, and a ‘professional psychic’ came up to me and said, “You’re having a girl.” I was also carrying all around my body instead of in front like I did with my son, Joseph. I figured the psychic must be right. We didn’t have sonograms in those days. The sex of the baby was a mystery until it emerged from the womb.
In addition to the hands and knees position I massaged my belly using circular motions while I talked to the baby, asking her to turn. No way! This baby was a (stubborn) Taurus-to-be and she liked her heads-up position and that was that. Well, I am an Aries, but I have Taurus rising and I know a little bit about stubborn! In late March I was visiting with Shelly and Rhonda in their clinic and I asked them to help me turn this baby.
Shelly had read about midwives turning babies in the womb. This was done by having the mother lie on her back, placing hands on the outside of her belly to locate the baby’s head and butt and slowly pushing the baby to the desired position. It was not without risk. The umbilical cord could get caught or looped around the baby’s neck. The baby could feel distressed by the external pressure to move. We decided to give it a try and go very slowly, stopping every few minutes to monitor the baby’s heartbeat.
The procedure took about 45 minutes. Slowly but surely, Shelley pushed the baby’s butt up and her head down. It was a magical process. The baby’s heartbeat remained steady. I entered an altered state of consciousness as Shelly and I and the baby worked together to change her position. When it was all over the baby was no longer breech, and she remained head down for the rest of the pregnancy.
A few weeks later the women on Navarro Ranch gave me a surprise baby shower. I got lots of little dresses for ‘Sara’s little girl’. I was nesting heavily by that time and was quite sure the baby would be coming early, though I had no medical reason for my feelings. I wanted everything to be ready weeks before my due date.
Three weeks before the baby was due on April 23rd, Richard, Joseph and I were invited to dinner at the home of our friends and neighbors, Jack and Karen. Like all cabins on Navarro Ranch, their cabin was a work in progress. Jack had planned for five steps leading up to the front door, but so far had built only four of them. You had to step up twice as high from step four to the landing. This was no problem going up. Going down later that night to go home, I completely forgot about the missing fifth step and my big belly made it impossible to see below me. I put my foot out expecting to meet a step in about eight inches and found nothing but air. My foot finally landed about 16 inches down, but I was then off balance and I fell backward (luckily) and sat down hard on my bottom. Big jolt for me and the baby!
That night I awoke about 3 AM and felt wetness underneath me. “Oh no, I’ve wet the bed! How weird!” Then I realized what had really happened: my water broke! The fall must have damaged the membrane. Ready or not here comes the baby!
Labor did not start even though my water was broken. I called Sherry about 7:00 AM to learn that she was away in San Francisco for the day. So I called Shelly and Rhonda and they arrived soon after 8:00. “Let’s get this labor started – we don’t want infection to set in.” First they gave me a Fleet enema. Did I mention that in addition to no electricity, we had an open-air outhouse for a ‘bathroom’? This was not pleasant. Shelly was hoping that by cleaning me out, labor would start. It didn’t.
Next she suggested that I go for a hike. Joseph stayed with Shelley and Rhonda and Richard and I set off through the woods, up and down hills, through green meadows full of wild irises. Everything looked and felt surreal. I could see waves of energy shimmering off the wild grasses, flowers and trees. My perception was hyper-keen as if I had taken a psychedelic drug. I knew labor was about to start and my baby would soon be born.
At about 3:00 in the afternoon – 12 hours after my water broke – my contractions started. They were about 15 minutes apart. We called some of our friends and neighbors who started drifting in to be present for the labor and birth. My 4-year-old son Joseph was with me through out the day and into the evening. My contractions remained steady but did not get closer together, nor did my cervix dilate beyond 5.
People came and went, dinner was made and served to those who could eat (not me). Joseph went to sleep. Richard, Shelly and Rhonda slept. Around 10:00 PM Sherry (midwife #1) arrived full of apologies for not believing me when I said the baby was coming early. Tired out from her trip to San Francisco, she also settled down to rest.
I sat up in my bed in the dark. I was the only one awake. Around midnight I called out, “Is anyone awake?” Sherry woke, came to my side and said, “I’m here, Sara. Let’s birth this baby!” She held my hands through the contractions, lending me her strength. The contractions began to speed up and increase in intensity. The people who were still around woke up and others were called to come back for the birth. Richard pushed on my lower back to ease the pain of the back labor. We let Joseph sleep until I was ready to push.
Sometime after 2:00 AM my cervix was fully dilated. Transition happened more easily than with my first birth, but it was still extremely intense and painful. This time my body knew what to do and I was more able to move through the birth mentally and emotionally. Plus, this baby was smaller. We estimated between 4 and 5 pounds and hoped for 5. Three weeks early meant a smaller baby.
Smaller or not, it still took an hour of pushing to birth this baby. As the head began to crown, Joseph was sitting on Rhonda’s lap right in front of me, eyes wide as he watched the baby being born. As the head emerged, Sherry told me to use the Lamaze puffing breath to back away from the urge to push. “I’ll only puff if everyone else does, too,” I said. By this time about a dozen people were crowded into our little one-room house. And everyone puffed and blew along with me as I looked at each person in turn, daring someone not to puff so that I could push this baby out! Everyone puffed.
Soon the head was out, but something was wrong. The cord was wrapped around the baby’s neck – twice! And the baby’s color was blue. Sherry worked the cord away from the baby’s neck carefully and then the rest of the body began to slither out. “Put your hands down and catch your baby!” Sherry said. And I did. As she slid out from between my legs I caught her in my hands and lifted her onto my stomach, warm wet and with a penis! Psychic prediction be damned, it was a boy! Gabriel Hamlin was born at 3:14 AM, April 25th 1980.
What an amazing peak experience! I was laughing and crying and – wait – he still wasn’t breathing. The midwives started scurrying about, setting up emergency equipment on the kitchen table. “We need to take him for a while. We need to make him breathe.”
I looked at my friend and land partner, Patrick. He looked back at me and nodded. His look said to me, ‘You can do this.’ “No,” I said to the midwives, “He’s just not in his body yet.” I began to rub his back and say, “Come on, little guy, you can come in now. It’s time to come in to your body and breathe.”
Almost two minutes after he was born, Gabriel took his first breath, called into his body by his mother. I watched with relief as his little body turned from blue to pink. As we predicted, he was small – 5 pounds, 4 ounces. But his breathing, once started, was good and he nursed readily.
About 20 minutes later the placenta was delivered. I sat back happy and exhausted. Everyone was milling about, high from the experience of witnessing a birth. Joseph was sleeping in the bed next to his baby brother, who was also asleep. It had been 30+ hours since I had anything to eat, and 24 hours since I had slept. I was depleted from the 12 hours of labor and the strenuous hike I took before labor set in.
“What do you want to eat?” Patrick asked me.
“The placenta!” I blurted out. And so Patrick made placenta stew. He chopped up the placenta into little pieces. It resembled liver in texture and color. He fried it up in olive oil and soy sauce with tofu and onions and garlic and carrots and served it over rice.
It was delicious! Though a bit grainy in texture, the taste was like a really good steak – and I was a vegetarian! Everyone who was still there and awake had a taste. Now – 24 years later – it seems a bit bizarre, even to an old Earth mother like me. But at the time it felt exactly right and I have never regretted the experience or the choice. In that era in that moment on that 40-acre parcel of land in the coastal mountains of northern California, placenta stew hit the spot!
It would be five weeks before I ventured down from our little mountain with Gabriel. I wanted to wait until he put some meat on his little bones. He was my little Taurus baby, my tiny one, my love. Gabe is now a father with two children of his own. I was present for both of their births. The wheel of time spins on and I am grateful for this ride on it and for this journey of birth and birth and – eventually – death.
I look back on his birth 24 years ago and I am proud of how I turned him and birthed him and caught him, and especially proud of the moment when we all shared placenta stew.
Heat the olive oil on medium heat in a large skillet. Add the garlic and onions. When onions are transparent, add the placenta and brown. After a few minutes add the tofu and carrots. Cook for 20 minutes on medium to medium low. Add the soy sauce and pepper in the last few minutes. Serve over brown rice. Enjoy.