Here's Why I Decided To Give Birth On A School Bus

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During the summer of 2016, my husband Seamus and I bought ten acres of land in the hills of Ohio. The property was nestled between two hillsides, and natural springs ran into a field of wildflowers; some nights, the rich purple and golden tones seemed to be a mirror image of the setting sun. It was a raw, untouched place. There were no man-made structures, no well or septic system, no real driveway, and no electricity.

My husband Seamus and I had always dreamed of taming the land and turning it into a simple homestead. This place was our first real home together, where we dreamed of growing our family. Often, we drifted off to sleep while picturing little children playing in the pond during the summer heat, or imagining family dinners gathered around the wood stove.

I also had an unyielding yearning to give birth on the land that held so much promise for us as a new family. Simply enough, it just felt right. Our dreams and desires for our family seemed to be almost physically imprinted on the property, inscribed in the bark of sugar maples or sung aloud by the wrens and mockingbirds.

Three days after we signed our names on the dotted line, I learned I was pregnant. I knew very early on that I wanted a home birth, but things didn't quite work out that way. That's why I ended up giving birth on a school bus in the middle of the woods.

Courtesy of Hannah Spencer/Milk and Hannah

Before I got pregnant, I’d spent hours researching and talking to women who had home births. I loved the idea of getting the personal attention and care of a midwife (especially during the postpartum time), but the main reason why I chose an unmedicated home birth was simply because I believed my body was capable of it, and I wanted to experience the entire process while being alert and in control.

I also had an unyielding yearning to give birth on the land that held so much promise for us as a new family. Our dreams and desires for our family seemed to be almost physically imprinted on the property, inscribed in the bark of the sugar maples or sung aloud by the wrens and mockingbirds.

My due date seemed an eternity away that summer, but as the months passed, we slowly came to the realization that there would be no time to build an actual house before the baby came. My plans for a home birth started to look distant and hazy.

I read about Ina May Gaskin, the famous midwife who started out traveling the country by school bus. She even helped deliver 11 babies on the road. I started toying with the idea of giving birth in a bus or trailer on the land. Amy, my midwife, and my husband continually encouraged me, reminding me that women around the world gave birth with much less, and that I was strong enough to adapt.

Courtesy of Hannah Spencer/Milk and Hannah

At the time, we were living in Virginia and saving our money for the move. Originally, we had planned to move into a trailer on the land, but most of the trailers in our price range were dingy and dark. So we decided to buy a school bus. Design-wise, it felt like a blank slate: it was 250 square feet of living space, watertight but flooded with light because of the 23 windows. The bus had been our “plan B” during my pregnancy, a reassurance that I could still have a home birth if we couldn’t build a house on the property before then.

So when I was eight months pregnant, we moved a 45-foot yellow school bus from Virginia to Ohio. We bought the bus for $800 from a man who had taken it across the country and back with his friends. Seamus drove it, pressing his foot to the gas pedal for the entirety of the 10-hour drive. I followed him in my car, white-knuckling the steering wheel and wondering if the bus would break down on the way. Sure enough, we made it to our property without any complications.

I smiled at the absurdity of it: a yellow school bus parked in the middle of the woods was where my whole world would change forever.

Seamus and I spent an afternoon ripping apart the seats and tearing up the floor. We deep-cleaned every surface, and soon the summer camp smell disappeared. I knew we would replace it soon: bundles of dried herbs from our garden, fresh springtime air, and the scent of our newborn daughter.

When I was 37 weeks pregnant, we moved into the school bus. It started off as a shell, a steel frame to protect us from the elements and nothing more. We unpacked slowly, and piece by piece, it came together: my record player, our queen-sized mattress pulled out of storage, Seamus’ rock collection, mason jars full of teas and beans and rice, our favorite fruit bowl, and a little yellow dresser, filled with soft swaddling blankets. It was home, and I would have my home birth.

Courtesy of Hannah Spencer/Milk and Hannah

My water broke at 7:00 a.m. on a bright May day. The second my contractions started, they were five minutes apart. I called my midwife and informed her of my progress, and by the time I got back down the hill, Seamus had tidied and vacuumed the bus, and was cracking some of our chicken’s eggs, the bright orange yolks sliding down the bowl. Somehow, over the next hour, he managed to feed me an omelette and toast, apply counter-pressure on my back during each painful swell, and time the contractions. After another hour, we called Amy and told her to start driving.

I spent the next hour or so walking in the shady forest, focusing on the unfurling ferns and leaning against the trees. Soon, the sunshine and sounds of the outdoors became too overwhelming, and I wanted to be in the bus. By the time Amy got there, the contractions were pretty much on top of each other. Shortly after, my other midwife, Lora; my sister-in-law, Sarah; and my photographer, Hannah, joined us inside the bus.

The air was jovial and familial, busy but magical. It reminded me of cousins, aunts, and sisters, preparing Christmas dinner in the kitchen together.

I was confused. My first-time mom friends had labors that lasted for days, but it seemed like I had progressed quickly in just a few hours. I thought I had to be timing the contractions wrong, or worse, feeling them wrong. I had Amy check my progress, meekly mentioning that I hoped I was at four or five centimeters, trying not to get my hopes up. She reported that I was at eight centimeters and would be ready to push soon.

I had worried about laboring in the bus with five other people. We were sharing less than 250 square feet of space —what if it started to feel crowded as the hours passed? But the restriction of space turned out to be incredibly useful, both emotionally and practically. I was never out of reach or alone; instead, Seamus and the women formed a protective cocoon around me. I labored on the bed, the midwives assisting me, while Hannah and Sarah brought me water, towels, and little bites of food. The air was jovial and familial, busy but magical. It reminded me of cousins, aunts, and sisters, preparing Christmas dinner in the kitchen together.

Courtesy of Hannah Spencer/Milk and Hannah

During most of my labor, I had been laughing and talking with everyone, only stopping when a contraction hit. When I started to push, however, I became extremely discouraged. It didn’t feel like my baby was moving down at all. The task seemed impossible. The women gathered around my feet, looking at me with sympathetic and encouraging eyes. Each time I pushed, they told me they could see more and more of her head — she had a lot of hair, but I told them not to tell me the color until I could see it myself. The excitement in the bus grew as the minutes passed, and several times I smiled at the absurdity of it: a yellow school bus parked in the middle of the woods was where my whole world would change forever.

The midwives and I had a short time to make a decision: if they didn’t get my placenta out and stop my bleeding within minutes, I could die.

My daughter’s body suddenly shifted, and I could feel that it was time. Amy gently suggested I push on my back, since I had made a lot of progress that way earlier. For some reason, I couldn’t bring myself to get back down on the floor. I listened to my body and knew I needed something else, so I stood up. I swayed and leaned, but my feet held me.

At 2:30 in the afternoon, standing in the middle of my school bus home, I pushed my daughter into the world. Seamus caught her and she gave out a beautiful, piercing cry, her lungs swelling with air for the first time.

Courtesy of Hannah Spencer/Milk and Hannah

I knew what I was signing up for when I chose home birth (or a bus birth, as the case may be). I knew that with the support of a trained midwife, home births are quite safe, particularly for women with low-risk pregnancies, as mine was. However, there is always a chance that things can go wrong, and if they do, a home birth means that you are further away from possible life-saving or pain-reducing measures. In the majority of home births with a trained midwife, emergency situations do not occur, so most women who give birth at home don’t have to transfer to a hospital.

I hope my daughter will look back at the photographs and see a woman determined to give birth in the space that we called home — all four wheels and ten acres of it.

Unfortunately, that was not the case for me. After delivering my daughter, I was bleeding more than the midwives thought was normal, and a half-hour later, my placenta hadn’t come out. My contractions should’ve been continuing, but they had stopped. I was feeling weak. Amy gently put traction on the umbilical cord in an effort to get the placenta out, and we both heard the cord snap at the same time. The placenta was now stuck inside of me, resulting in a medical condition called a retained placenta, which can lead to infection and life-threatening blood loss.

The midwives and I had a short time to make a decision: if they didn’t get my placenta out and stop my bleeding within minutes, I could die. We were a solid half-hour away from a hospital and my life was in immediate danger. I had done my research. I knew the gravity of the situation, and that made it much easier to accept what had to be done.

Courtesy of Hannah Spencer/Milk and Hannah

Amy reached inside me and manually removed my placenta. The pain was worse than childbirth, almost unbearable. I remember concentrating on Amy’s face, her mouth a tight, determined line. Despite having never had to perform the procedure before, she was done in less than thirty seconds. The pain dissolved quickly and the midwives were able to stop my bleeding. When I saw the placenta, the massive extra lobe was readily apparent, which is why I think I bled so much. I didn’t want to look at it then, but now I find myself studying the photographs from time to time, amazed at the organ that sustained my daughter’s life for nine months, but almost caused me to lose mine.

There’s a small dull spot on the carpet, the remnants of a bloodstain scrubbed out with hydrogen peroxide. Other than that and the squirming, smiling baby I hold in my arms, there's no evidence of my home birth in the bus. Maybe when my daughter gets older, her birth story will be a talking point, a bit of interesting trivia about the way she came into the world. More than that, I hope she’ll look back at the photographs and see a woman determined to give birth in the space that we called home — all four wheels and ten acres of it.