"I consciously made the decision to not freak out," Emily Geller Hardman tells PEOPLE

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Emily Geller Hardman after giving birth in the car
Emily Geller Hardman and baby Rosemary, minutes after the birth
| Credit: Travis Hardman

Emily Geller Hardman was in a Pennsylvania hotel room following a wedding and three hours from her New York home when her water broke around midnight on May 15. With no contractions and 37 weeks along, Hardman figured she'd go back to sleep so she and husband Travis would be rested in the morning for the drive back, and the start of what she thought could be a long labor.  

"With my first, it was a planned C-section, so I never labored before," the professional opera singer tells PEOPLE of the birth of son Wesley in 2018. "I figured most first labors are significantly longer than mine turned out to be."

Just hours later at 5:47 a.m., following a dash out of the hotel with intense contractions, Emily was lying in the backseat of the couple's Honda Accord as her husband was driving east on a major New Jersey highway to the hospital. She had no choice but to deliver her own daughter, Rosemary Claire. 

"She was like, 'Pull over,' and I said, 'I can't pull over here. It's a deathtrap,' " Travis says, remembering the narrow shoulder of the busy road. "And then almost immediately after that, she said, 'There's a head.' "

"I was just feeling a lot of pressure," adds Emily. "So instinctually, I just put my hands down and then I felt the head and immediately after that, she flew out in the next contraction. I caught her and brought her up to my chest and I said, 'There's the baby.' "

Emily, Travis, Wesley, and Rosemary (The Hardman Family)
Travis Hardman holds Rosemary and Emily Geller Hardman holds Wesley
| Credit: Phyllis Garito Photography
Emily and Travis Hardman
Emily and Travis Hardman at a wedding hours before the surprise birth
| Credit: Emily Geller Hardman

While the circumstances of the delivery were unexpected, Emily had spent the last three years determined to deliver her next child unmedicated and vaginally (a vaginal birth after cesarean, or VBAC). She listened to podcasts, read books, did exercises and worked with a supportive team of midwives to deliver the baby at Danbury Hospital in Danbury, Connecticut. 

"I was doing a lot of work to prepare myself and my body," she says. "I was looking forward to being in labor and I was looking forward to having the opportunity to push my baby out."

The family wedding in Pennsylvania the night before the birth included a lot of dancing — and nothing indicated a baby was on the way. Back in the hotel room after Emily's water broke but with no contractions, she fell back to sleep.

"I really wanted to make sure I had rest," she says, "in case this was a very long labor."

But at 3 am. she awoke with contractions, and she and Travis — the CEO of Cantata Media, where their account of the birth was first published — began packing the room to go home. By 4 a.m. the contractions were so intense that Travis and Emily hopped in the car and left without his sister, who was also staying at the hotel and expecting a ride. 

Emily and Rosemary Hardman
Text exchange between Emily Hardman and her sister-in-law, and Emily in the ambulance with Rosemary
| Credit: Emily Geller Hardman

Emily was using the GentleBirth app, which features a soothing voice that talks laboring moms through each contraction. After about an hour and a half, Travis pulled over so that Emily could get out of the car and stand up. As she put her wrists on top of the car, "I remember my legs were shaking," she says. "I was thinking, 'I'm bearing down too early. I'm pushing too early.' I had no control over my body at that point."

"But, I willed myself back into the car at that point because I just thought, 'Well, we have to make it to the hospital.' "

Minutes later, however, a baby girl was born. 

"We knew to keep her warm and to try to stimulate her, and if there's any kind of mucus or gunk in her mouth or nose to try to get that out," Emily recalls. "We rubbed her down with some towels and she was breathing."

"At some point I held her kind of upside down to try to get any fluids out from her mouth or nose," Emily continues. "But she seemed fine and Travis called 911 but she didn't need anything. She was good."

Emily credits her training and performing as an opera singer for helping her keep calm during the back-seat labor and self-delivery.

"I wasn't looking at birth as something scary," she says. "I consciously made the decision to not freak out. I was focusing on relaxing my jaw and doing long exhales, lip trills and low moans rather than high pitched screaming or tightening. I knew that panicking would not be helpful."

An ambulance came in 10 minutes and took Emily and Rosemary to St. Peter's Hospital in New Brunswick, where they stayed for 24 hours. 

Emily and Rosemary Hardman - NJ state troopers and EMTs
Emergency medical workers helping Emily and Rosemary Hardman
| Credit: Travis Hardman
Emily and Rosemary Hardman
Emily and Rosemary Hardman
| Credit: Emily Geller Hardman

While both Travis and Emily felt "generally pretty calm throughout," looking back weeks later, Travis thinks they should have left when Emily's water broke.

"But at the time, it seemed pretty reasonable," he says. 'Like, 'Well, this could be a 40-hour labor. It's your first labor. No contractions. Let's make sure we get some rest, and we'll head out.' "

Still, Emily finds that birthing her own baby was uniquely eye-opening. 

"I think I'm really lucky in a lot of ways, but I do view birthing babies as a natural process, and that for the most part it doesn't need a lot of intervention," she says. 

"I think no matter how you give birth, it's a journey, and with my C-section, the recovery was certainly harder," she says. "So for me, this recovery has been great."