Snacking on vegetarian pizza as she snuggles her beautiful baby boy Jake in the lounge of their Auckland home, Westside actress Esther Stephens looks every inch the natural mum, but she doesn't want to seem too smug.
"With motherhood, I've learnt to be grateful for the small victories and just roll with the challenges," says the star, who plays spiky Ngaire Munroe on the hit Three drama. "You can't get too comfortable. For example, he's a really good sleeper now, but Murphy's Law means he'll be up for hours tonight. We make sure to count our blessings and never get too ahead of ourselves."
Indeed, Esther, 32, and her husband Todd Beeby, 37, are incredibly grateful they experienced an "easy, straightforward pregnancy", followed by a home birth that was equally relaxed. But in the weeks after Jake's arrival, the actress struggled to produce enough milk to feed their wee man, which left her feeling inadequate.
"I went through a grieving process," she admits. "I'm a mother and I'm supposed to be able to feed and nourish my baby – that's my function! Luckily, we had some good support around us, including our incredible midwife."
Encouraged by an actress friend's experience, Esther opted for a home birth.
The star explains, "I never in a million years thought we'd go down that route – I just assumed you went to hospital to have your baby, but the midwife encouraged us to consider it because we had an uncomplicated pregnancy and we were only 10 minutes away from a hospital if things got hairy.
"I did a lot of reading, and it seemed like going through the delivery in a place where you feel comfortable and relaxed removed a lot of the stress, so we hired a birth pool and set it up in the living room."
Four days before her baby's due date, Esther felt some light cramps and as she went to bed that night, she thought, "I'm going to have a baby tomorrow."
The contractions became impossible to ignore the next morning, and by the time her midwife, an assistant and their student arrived at midday, she was ready to climb into the pool and begin pushing.
Esther recalls, "It was all going like clockwork, but then I had some trouble getting his head around the birth canal, so the midwife said, 'There's one sure-fire way to remedy this and that's to sit on the edge of the toilet.' So we went in there, did a few more pushes and he was into the right spot.
"She asked, 'Do you want to go back to the pool?' but by that point, I was like, 'No, let's just get it done.' I ended up on the edge of the toilet, my arm propped up on the sink, with three midwives, my mum and Todd all crammed into our tiny bathroom while I had this feeling like an earthquake inside my body."
After a couple of pushes, Todd caught the newborn Jake and cut his cord.
The graphic designer grins, "I'm glad I didn't drop him because it was so overwhelming. Esther didn't cry, but I did. Witnessing the birth was like seeing nature at its finest, watching my partner go through this intense physical transformation. Then at the end of it, we had this new person who lives with us now – a new flatmate!"
Esther laughs, "I do remember feeling like a Transformer! It was one of the craziest experiences. In the fog of labour, you almost forget there's a baby at the end of the process, then they hand you this tiny, soft, pink, wrinkly, little human and it's incredible.
"Afterwards, Todd had a cuddle with Jake and then we all climbed into bed to chill out, which was one of the nice things about being at home. It was such a massive life experience, I felt a little numb, but as we moved into the bedroom, I had the chance to look at this little creature and it really started to sink in."
Unfortunately, from the start, Jake was a fussy feeder and by week three, he wasn't gaining enough weight due to low milk supply, so the midwife presented the option of milk donated by mothers who have an oversupply.
Esther smiles, "It took a while to get my head around it, but people have been doing it for centuries and we suddenly found ourselves in this community of mums who are really passionate about doing whatever they can to ensure babies get a good start in life."
Todd adds, "I started getting a flood of texts from women saying they had a freezer full of breastmilk and offering to drop it around, along with cards and baking. It was amazing to experience that generosity."
As they both gaze lovingly at their sweet son, the actress concludes, "Every minute, hour and day that's gone past, I've learnt more about him, and fallen more and more in love with his personality and quirks.
"He's starting to smile and chat now, and he's a pretty laidback little dude, which is lovely. We've speculated that this might be because he had a very relaxed birth. I'm not saying it was a walk in the park, but I feel really blessed we had this wonderful, rewarding, drug-free, at-home experience."
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