The first birth I ever attended took place on September 25, 1994. I wasn’t there in any professional capacity, as I was all of 11 years old. My stepmother had a home birth attended by midwives in our rented house in Nanaimo, BC (a town our blended family would live in for less than a year before returning to Montreal, though not all at the same time … but that’s another story).
Although I was young, I remember my stepmother’s pregnancy quite vividly. My little sister Zoé and I were allowed to sit in on some of her prenatal appointments and we were excited when her primary midwife let us “measure” my stepmum’s growing belly. (I was also quite impressed with the odd-looking gadget she put to her forehead and pressed on that same belly to hear the baby’s heartbeat – a device I now know is called a fetoscope.)
When my stepmum’s labour began with a big gush of waters at the top of our stairs, I was given three simple duties: first, I would get warm water and clean washcloths when the midwives asked. Second, I would keep my little sister occupied if she woke up. I took these responsibilities quite seriously, but none more than the last one – when the time came to deliver the placenta, I would bring in the enormous, Costco-sized Hellmann’s mayonnaise bucket from the kitchen to “catch” it.
Of course, Zoé did wake up and we popped our heads in and out of the room throughout the night, taking breaks to play when things got a little too intense for us.
To this day, two things still stand out for me about that birth: I remember noticing that the sounds my stepmum was making were loud and deep (and powerful!) as she roared through her contractions. I also remember my surprise when, just as she began pushing, the midwives held her outstretched hands and pulled her upright into a squatting position. (I’d thought you had to lie down to have a baby.) Just about five hours after the midwives had arrived, our little brother Sam was born, weighing a whopping 11 pounds!
I was overjoyed (I’d been hoping for a baby brother) but I also knew I had a job to do: I went to fetch the Hellmann’s bucket, which the midwives did use to catch the enormous placenta. However, in all the excitement, no one thought to remind me to put the bucket in the refrigerator and so I left it out on the counter, spoiling the placenta and dashing my stepmother’s hopes to eat it later. (I felt bad about this, of course, but also relieved when I learned of her plans for it. Let’s just say I was a very picky eater and nothing about it seemed appetizing to me at the time.)
Still, even considering my afterbirth error, I would say that witnessing my stepmother’s pregnancy and my brother’s birth had a profound and positive effect on me. I grew into adulthood with the knowledge that birth was a difficult process, but one that wasn’t to be feared. With support, my stepmother had done it, and I saw how strong she was in that moment. Birth, for us at least, was also a family affair.
In a pretty cool postscript, the very first birth I attended as an apprentice doula was also on September 25 – many years later, of course, but I noted the date. It seemed to have special significance.
Not everyone is comfortable having older siblings attend their births, of course. I myself chose not to have my eldest daughter present at the birth of my second child. She was barely two years old, and I found it very distracting to reassure her that Mummy was OK while I was in early labour. We did always make an effort to include her in other ways during the pregnancy, though, feeling the baby kick, looking at pictures of how the baby grows and develops in the womb, and “helping” to wash and fold the newborn clothes. We talked a lot about breastfeeding and what to expect once the baby came out. We also had her “babywearing” her dolls with a mini carrier, which she enjoyed.
Last month, the great Penny Simkin (doula, childbirth educator, author and physical therapist extraordinaire) released a video about older siblings and birth that I’ve shared below. The video touches on so many important points, but Simkin highlights one thing that resonates with me in particular, given the lessons my sister and I learned as kids about birth: a subsequent baby is a wonderful opportunity to help foster positive attitudes and expectations around pregnancy and childbirth for our older children. It certainly made all the difference for this doula and big sister.
Are you expecting another baby? We’d love to hear how you’re preparing your older kids for the big day in the comments below!