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Episode 270

Jerusha Sutton

In today’s episode and in honour of #HomebirthAwarenessWeek, I chat to Jerusha Sutton about her two home births and her work as a doula and birth photographer. Eloquent and educated, Jerusha tells a beautiful story of pregnancy and birth and emphasises the importance of trusted and supportive midwives and doulas in the birth space. She also talks at length about her recent documentary, Birth Time, which has won a slew of international awards and is now available to stream online. It’s essential viewing for everyone but especially for those currently pregnant and preparing for birth.

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Image by Anna Todd Photography

Jerusha comes from a strong maternal line and has always had open and honest conversations about birth and motherhood. After training as an actor in her early twenties, she studied to become a doula and then spent many years working in the UK, supporting women in the hospital system and at home. She took her little point and shoot camera to each birth and was astounded by the beauty unfolding in front of her.

“I was drawn to supporting women and being with them on their journey. I’ve always loved hearing stories of birth; there had always been free and positive conversations around birth in my family so I’ve always been drawn to that. When I was supporting women in birth I was blown away by the contrast between what I was seeing and what we commonly see on television and in movies. There was a lot of birth photography emerging from the US and I was really drawn to those images so I trained in photography. Not long after returning to Australia I started photographing for Heartfelt, an organisation of photographers who volunteer their time to photograph stillborn and terminally ill babies. It’s the deepest honour to serve in that space.”

Jerusha did a lot of doula and birth photography work in Sydney and started working closely with the homebirth community. She had found her people and knew exactly who would be supporting her in her own pregnancy and birth.

“I was feeling really proactive about conceiving and after a few months of trying I started working with a Chinese medicine fertility expert. The day before I started my treatment I found out I was pregnant. I had a dreamy pregnancy, to the point where I had to keep quiet about how good I felt. I had no tiredness and no inkling of nausea. I attended my last birth when I was 33 weeks because it got to the point where the midwives were caring for me as well as the birthing woman and I knew it was time to step out. It wasn’t long after that I filmed the first interview for Birth Time.

Jerusha had been friends with homebirth midwife, Jo Hunter, for years and they had been talking about making a documentary for most of that time. She admits that they didn’t have a plan for making the documentary; it unfolded organically.

“We asked Hannah Dahlen if she would be our first interviewee and she said yes so we went for it and it unfolded from there. She was hosting an international birth conference in Sydney when I was 37 weeks pregnant so Jo, Zoe and I set up a room and we had a steady stream of professors and midwives from around the world on camera. It was such a wonderful start to the documentary and a beautiful end to my pregnancy. I planned my mother blessing for 38 weeks and then I presumed I would have another month to go…I dreamed of restful days and ocean swims but two days after my blessing I woke in the middle of the night and got up to go to the toilet and left a trail of fluid along the hallway. I was in deep denial because it wasn’t what I had planned. I had no contractions at all that night so we got up the next morning and we got the pool blown up and ready and busied ourselves with the final things. I went to bed at 11pm and then at midnight I woke up to a thumping contraction; three minutes later another one came and then another.

“My plan was that I didn’t want to doula myself; I was very conscious of that. I’d done lots of preparation to dig into the recesses of my mind and prepare myself to switch off. I didn’t want to be assessing when to call Jo, my midwife. By 2am my birth team – five beautiful women to guide and support me – started trickling in and they filled up the pool and things were going really beautifully. I got in the pool at 4am and I had a feel of my cervix and I was quite disappointed to feel that it was still thick and closed. My contractions started spacing out and everything was very slow; I looked up and the birth team were sleeping on the floor and the couch.

“Jo got me out of the pool and she said: you look really tired, do you want to go to bed? and I said: yes! Then she said: or do you want to get out and have a baby? So she got me dressed, put dark sunglasses on me and she marched me around the block and I walked through the contractions. I went from having one every eight minutes to having eight in twenty minutes. It hurt like buggery but it was working so I just kept going, stopping to vomit under trees and ignoring all the cars doing the school run. I got to a point that I wanted to go home so we got home and I was on my hands and knees and everything slowed again. So I had to stay upright and I just walked up and down my halfway; that’s how I pushed my labour along.”

Jo checked Jerusha and she was 9.5cm with a bulging bag of waters. Jerusha felt like breaking them was a good choice and her first contractions afterwards brought her to her knees and she immediately felt the urge to push.

“I put my hand down and I could feel my baby’s head so I got back in the pool and over the next 40 minutes I pushed my baby out. It was the most intense 40 minutes of my life. The intensity of pushing that baby out was extreme. It was just that gradual descent of the baby coming down and going back up and I even said to Jo at one point: he’s not going to fit. Of course, he did. Once his head was out and his body was in it was like time stopped. I had my hand on his head and I could feel him moving inside me and it was magical. He came swimming out into my arms and it was just magnificent and the pool was surrounded by all these beautiful people that I loved so much.

“I’d always pictured staying in the pool for a while but it very quickly filled with blood so I had to get out and onto the couch so it could be monitored. I felt quite detached from that, I didn’t feel invested in any danger because I had an amazing team around me. I’d just gone to the stars to get my baby and I was drifting around in space somewhere while all of that was going on. Jo managed it beautifully. I needed a shot of syntocinon after my placenta was birthed and after that and some of those uterine palpations but I was fine. Homebirth midwives are so equipped to deal with those things.

“Rudy was born just after midday and my team stayed for hours. We had a magnificent birth party; no one wanted to leave. I so desperately wanted that birth, I had such a clear idea of the outcome I wanted but I also knew that anything is possible and birth is unpredictable.”

Covid interrupted the release of Birth Time as well as Jerusha’s conception plans for her second baby. There was a lot of planning involved in the conception and the release of the documentary but it all worked out rather perfectly in the end. Jerusha was 30 weeks pregnant at the premiere.

“My second pregnancy was a bit more uncomfortable and I had really intense braxton hicks throughout; they would wake me up in the night and I would have to breathe through them. At 39 weeks and 1 day I’d been to a personal training session in the day and then I’d seen Jo in the afternoon and I admitted that I had no signs at all apart from the braxton hicks. My baby was low and in a good position though so I was comforted by that. I was making dinner at 6:30pm and I had a tiny twinge of period like pain and it was the first inkling I got that labour may have been close. Sitting at dinner I felt like I was a thousand years away, I couldn’t concentrate on conversation. The braxton hicks just started to feel a bit lower so I put Rudy to bed and I had a few more twinges and messaged my team because I’d promised them I would.

“I was folding sheets and tidying the house and things were getting sharp and I couldn’t get anything done. I wandered over to my birth altar and lit my candles and then another contraction came and I lent over a chair and my waters exploded everywhere and this contraction went on for several minutes. That was at 9:30pm. I went into the shower and washed my legs off and then another contraction came and I got on my knees and then the next contraction came and I was pushing. And I thought, this can’t be happening. I put my hand down and my vulva was full of my baby’s head. It was just so fast. I was in absolute denial. My head shifted and I knew if I didn’t refocus I would miss it; suddenly I thought about all the things I desperately wanted for the birth and one of them was having Rudy there and the other was having it documented on camera.

“I was assessing everything around me but my brain had also shot off to the stars to collect my baby. There was a big break of seven minutes and then the next contraction came and her head eased out. And then there was another break, I was on my knees and I couldn’t decide whether I wanted my hands on the ground or to feel the head. The next contractions came and I remember Jo’s voice from my first labour telling me to place a bit of pressure on the head till the shoulders release, so I did that and then she was born. I put her on the towel under me and at that point I heard Jo’s keys on the kitchen bench and she ran in and knelt down beside me and I picked Boadicea up and she let out a big cry. That was 9:53pm. I sat there in absolute shock. How was I lighting candles and 23 minutes I was holding my baby?

“I felt sad, I’d been dreaming of this birth, drifting off into labour land, I’d predicted it would be quicker but I just loved having people around and I just wanted my beautiful team around me, I wanted the memories being captured, I really wanted Rudy there and he was so ready to be there. I did feel a bit ripped off that it was over before it began. I didn’t have any significant blood loss or any of the discomfort of my first postpartum. I think blood loss can really scare second-time mums so I’m pleased to share my story – things can be different the second time around.”

Topics Discussed

Birth time, Doula, Heartfelt, Two home births

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