Polly McCourt was no stranger to quick births. Her firstborn, 6-year-old son Conor, came into the world after four hours of labor; daughter Adele, 4, arrived after just 10 minutes of pushing. So in February, with her due date for baby number three quickly approaching, McCourt prepared for the possibility of another rush delivery.
“I had my bag packed, and I’d arranged for a babysitter to come at a moment’s notice to watch my kids, so my husband, Cian, could take me to the hospital, which was 10 blocks from our apartment,” recalls the stay-at-home mom, now 40.
She was extra careful about having a plan in place because the McCourts had no family in the New York City area to rely on, and her obstetrician was new. Originally from the UK, the couple had relocated to Manhattan after Cian’s law firm transferred him three years earlier.
So when McCourt “didn’t feel 100%” on the afternoon of February 24—five days before daughter Ila was due—she calmly sprang into action. “I was at Conor’s school helping with the spring benefit, feeling a bit off, and then I began sensing contractions,” she says. When school ended at 2:30, another parent took Connor, and the babysitter brought Adele to the playground. McCourt said goodbye to both kids and excitedly told them Ila might arrive today. Around 3 pm, the contractions started coming on strong.
“Despite the urgency of the situation, I didn’t panic,” says McCourt. “At my apartment, I called my obstetrician and told him the contractions were already four minutes apart, and he said to go to the hospital. I phoned Cian, hoping he could get back here and come to the hospital with me. He was stuck in traffic. I waited five minutes before telling him to just meet me there—this baby wasn’t going to wait,” she says.
She was right. As she hurried out of her building, her water broke. “I felt this trickle down my leg in the lobby and realized I really didn’t have a second to waste,” she remembers.
Outside in the cold, her doorman, Anton, walked her to the busy corner of Third Avenue and 68th Street to flag a cab. And she almost got in one—but another woman jumped in instead. “It was a lucky break—if I’d gotten in, I would’ve had my baby alone in the back seat,” she says.
Anton helped her hail another cab. As she was stepping inside, she could feel Ila start to crown. “I wasn’t pushing at all; I was still standing,” marvels McCourt. “Thankfully I was wearing leggings, which could act like a hammock to catch her.”
Anton helped McCourt drop to the street in front of a bank branch, with traffic whizzing by and bystanders crowding around. “I was sitting up, with Anton supporting my shoulders, vaguely aware that people were taking photos and a news crew was shooting video,” she recalls. “I blocked it out the way I blocked out the pain and the cold; I think my hormones kicked in and helped me focus on delivering.” At 3:50 pm on a 37-degree day, Ila was officially born.
As she brought Ila up to her chest, McCourt recalls being struck by the kindness of the 50 or so onlookers who had gathered around her. “Strangers were reassuring me, offering their coats and scarves to keep Ila warm,” she says. “I especially remember one young woman who took off her shirt and sweater and was left wearing only a camisole. She thoughtfully put her coat over my legs.”
Minutes later, Cian arrived. “When he saw the commotion, he thought the worst. What a relief for him to realize that I was fine and Ila was too,” she says. An ambulance then came and took the McCourts to the hospital. “There, my obstetrician asked me why I didn’t get to the hospital in time,” says McCourt, who is still taken aback by the question. “I tried—it was Ila who didn’t want to wait.”
Ila was found to be perfectly healthy, weighing in at 7 pounds, 6 ounces. McCourt, however, needed time to recover. “I was very fatigued and had some tearing because of how quickly Ila came out. I spoke to the media from my hospital bed, but then I wanted private time with my family.”
Now nearly 6 months later, Ila is smiling and sleeping through the night. “I will tell her about her amazing birth—I’m reminded of it every time I leave my building!” says McCourt. Ila’s middle name is Isabelle after Isabel Williams, the young woman who gave McCourt her coat and sweater out on the sidewalk. The McCourts were able to track her down and thank her a week after Ila was born. Isabel, 20, has since visited the family and will be at Ila’s christening.
McCourt is happy to tell her story months after that miraculous afternoon, if only to remind other moms-to-be that, though rare, a rapid-fire delivery can happen—and they can handle it. Her advice is to keep calm and comfortable: “If you can’t make it to the hospital, lie down somewhere warm, put towels or coats down, remember to breathe, and don’t push unless you have to. Pushing is tiring.”
It’s also smart to find out if quick births run in your family. “After I had my first two so fast, my father told me that my mum delivered me so quickly, she barely made it past the hospital lobby,” she says. “There might be a hereditary component to it, and it’s good to tell your obstetrician so everyone is prepared.”
And if you’re ever in a situation where a woman is giving birth in a public place? McCourt advises doing what Isabel Williams and the other bystanders did—offer a sweater or shirt to keep the baby warm, hold the mom’s hand, crouch down and reassure her that everything will be fine, and call for medical assistance. “Everything worked out for me, thanks in part to the people who gathered to help,” says McCourt. “I wanted a natural birth, and I guess you could say I got one.”