I follow a blog called Birth Without Fear. Besides the obvious implications of the title, this site provides support for women who have given birth under all sorts of circumstances. Most women know how they want the birth of their child to go and can feel extremely disappointed if, say, a natural birth turns into a C-Section or an epidural. When I was pregnant I was told over and over again that no matter how meticulously you map out your birth plan, you never know how it will go and it’s important to stay open minded – however it happens is how it was meant to happen. And that’s okay. I wholeheartedly agreed with this. I know a few people who have shared their birth stories with me and none of them went exactly (or even at all) the way they thought it would. I wanted a natural birth but I knew that if it didn’t work out I didn’t have to feel like a failure.
Here’s where my story turns ironic. I had my natural birth – but I still felt like a failure.
I wish I could say that those feelings ended with the birth, but they didn’t. I also wish that before becoming a mother I could have understood that it’s not just your birth that can go against your plan.
I’ve been afraid to sit down and write my story. Don’t get me wrong – it’s not all bad. But the parts that were bad were…really bad. No one likes to feel vulnerable, and even though I’ve written plenty of depressing, self-analytical blogs, this feels different. It’s so much more powerful and I admit that I’m hesitant to relive the pain. But, in the spirit of Birth Without Fear, this story is something I need to write and maybe even celebrate. It will be, I hope, an exorcism of fear.
February 24th was Oscar night and we got home from watching at a friend’s apartment close to midnight. Around 1 am on the 25th I started having some contractions that felt a little….different. I wouldn’t describe them as being painful, but they were definitely uncomfortable and woke me up. At that point I’d been having so many Braxton Hicks contractions that I didn’t know what to think of them. The contractions continued through the night and the next day. By noon they were getting stronger, although still irregularly spaced. When I had one I had to be quiet and breathe through it but still – very easy to deal with. I honestly think I spent most of the day breathing deeply and playing Candy Crush Saga on Facebook. Tom and I took a nap and after that the contractions seemed to be slowing and so we both chalked it up to false labor. Tom left for work around 4 and I was ready for a chill night at home. Of course, not long after Tom left the contractions started up again. Some were worse than others, and I was still having regular, non-painful Braxton Hicks contractions mixed in with them. That confused me, so I decided to shoot our childbirth educator an email.
She wrote back to me pretty quickly and seemed convinced that I was in labor. She suggested I ask Tom to come home if he wasn’t home already. Fortunately, since we were a little less than a week away from my due date, Tom had an exit plan. I texted him and he was home within 30 minutes. At this point I was feeling a little nervous and Tom suggested I have a glass of wine. (A glass of wine and/or a warm bath during early labor can help you to relax and sleep, ultimately helping to move your labor along! We went to the liquor store a few days prior and I ceremoniously chose a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc…YUM.) I wish I could say that I really enjoyed that wine and it helped me relax but alas…it did not. We decided to go to bed around midnight and I kept my phone nearby so I could time my contractions with an app. It wasn’t long before the contractions were coming about every 15 minutes. I was able to sleep in between them but now they officially hurt. Not a lot, but they hurt. With each one I had to focus on my breathing. (Remember I said I was playing Candy Crush during the day? In my semi-conscious state I started mentally matching candies during contractions. It weirdly gave me something to focus on.) By 3 a.m. they were 10 minutes or fewer apart and I decided that this was officially happening and it was time to get up. I woke Tom, we turned on the lights, and he began helping me.
At this point I realized how calm I was. I experienced a pretty decent amount of anxiety about labor during my pregnancy. In the beginning it seemed so far away, and as it got closer it was still difficult to imagine. I was really happy that I was handling it so well. I was reminded of the morning of my thyroid surgery – the days leading up to it were torture, but when the actual day arrived I was ready to go. I felt ready and excited to welcome my baby into the world.
As the contractions continued to get stronger I started figuring out ways to get through them. What worked best was resting my hands on a hard surface (i.e. the kitchen table), rocking my hips back and forth, and vocalizing/breathing. Don’t worry, I didn’t sound like one of those crazy laboring women on TV. It was more like the sounds of someone meditating loudly. Close to 4 a.m. we decided it was time to call my sister, who was also acting as my doula. After Anne arrived she and Tom took turns applying pressure to my hips during contractions. She was so calm and supportive and I was instantly happy she was going to be there for us.
During this brief period at home I kept recalling different things from our childbirth class. One thing we learned is that many women find laboring on the toilet to be very helpful. Makes sense, right? It’s somewhere you “let go”. WRONG! The toilet was the worst place ever. Every time I sat down it started another contraction, no matter when the last one ended. The pain was much more difficult to manage sitting down. Another thing that Tom and I were laughing about was the presence of my “social self”. We were taught that one way to know when active labor begins is when a woman starts to become less her normal self and more internalized. That just didn’t seem to happen to me. In between contractions I was joking around and completely normal. Maybe a little fatigued, and maybe not always with a smile on my face, but definitely normal.
I knew that at the hospital I wouldn’t be allowed to eat but I was really having trouble getting food into my stomach. Anne suggested that I really try to eat something to keep up my strength. I remembered the jar of peanut butter in the fridge and thought a few spoonfuls of something high calorie like that would probably be good. Just as the peanut butter entered my mouth a big contraction caught me off guard and I felt like I was going to choke! When it was over I joked with Anne that that was the worst thing ever and to please get the peanut butter as far away from me as possible.
At this point we had reached the 5-1-1 stage (contractions 5 minutes or less apart, a minute in length, for one hour), and we decided it was time to call my doctor. We quickly learned that our doctor wasn’t there and that another one of the obstetricians in the practice was on duty and would be delivering our baby. We were completely comfortable with that, and this doctor would have been my second choice anyway. She told us to head on over to the hospital so we got ready to go. Our hospital bag was packed, we had the car seat installed, and this was really happening. I felt a little nervous, but I was mostly excited. I was doing so well! Maybe this labor thing wasn’t so bad. Maybe I was just a rock star. Tom pulled the car around front and as I walked outside the air was crisp and clean and the sun was just starting to rise. It was beautiful. I was so happy that the night was over and that I would give birth to our little baby in the sunshine. The drive was quick and on the way my sister called my parents to let them know we were on our way.
My contractions did slow down a bit en route, which I expected to happen, but they didn’t stop. When we arrived at the hospital Anne went to park the car and Tom and I walked into the 24 hour entrance. The man at the desk looked up at us expectantly. I smiled and said, “What’s up? I’m in labor.” He directed us to the left and we walked up to another desk to check in. It was the early morning and the hospital was completely quiet. I found that comforting. Within a few minutes a nurse arrived to walk us up to the labor and delivery unit. Right before we got there I had to stop for a contraction, and she waited patiently until it was over. We arrived in L&D right as a shift was changing over, so it seemed to take a few minutes for it to register with everyone that there was a woman in labor that needed attention. We filled out the small amount of paperwork, handed over my insurance card, and then we were ushered into triage. (Anne had to wait outside for this part.)
Tom helped me change into my hospital gown and get up onto the bed they needed me on. While they were strapping fetal monitors onto my belly Tom stepped out to give Anne some of our stuff – we looked like gypsies with all our bags. The monitors determined that everything looked good. And then, the moment of truth – Dr. Torres, a resident, came in to check my cervix. I was……………
NINE centimeters! Nine!! I WAS a rock star!! I could hardly believe it and felt so proud of myself. Tom came back a minute later and I told him the news. And then we high fived. It was awesome. Another young nurse came in and asked me if I would be wanting an epidural. I very enthusiastically said that heck no, I was doing this naturally! (Let me just take a moment to let you all know that I am 100% positive that I was the only woman there that was having a natural birth. I say this not to judge the other laboring women, but to give you an idea of how I was treated by all the nurses on duty. Shock and awe could describe their reactions to me. At times I felt like an exhibit at the zoo.)
Things started moving a bit more quickly then. After all, I was nine centimeters and I would probably have this baby within the hour, right? Right? It was now about 7:30 in the morning. They brought us to a delivery room down the hall which I already knew was spacious and comfortable from our tour of the hospital a few weeks prior. As an added bonus, we had a beautiful view of the Brooklyn Bridge out our window. My nurse came in and we started chatting while she set up my intravenous and a few other things. She was my age, her name was Dominique, and she also happened to be a doula. I couldn’t believe our luck. I knew that since I was giving birth in a hospital we might encounter some opposition to a natural birth, but so far it was smooth sailing. Now I knew I had another advocate in addition to my husband and sister. It felt great. Dominique was incredible.
I continued laboring for a while and was allowed to walk around the room. I had to pee once or twice and I was told to be careful, since everyone was convinced that the baby could pop out any minute. Dr. Torres came in a bit later to check me and this time she said I was fully dilated. How exciting! They showed me how to get into push position. It was the typical on your back, legs pulled up unbelievably far, chin to your chest position. I didn’t mind. They explained that there was a bit of a learning curve while pushing, and that they’d coach me along the way. (This is another moment when I’d like to take a second and just say how incredible my delivery team was. They were so personal, encouraging, positive, and completely supportive of my natural birth. It was more than I could have hoped for.) When my next contraction started I began to push. I honestly can’t even remember how it felt, but it didn’t feel productive. I’m even a little fuzzy on what happened next, but eventually we stopped, they brought me back to the seated position I was comfortable in, and they left the room to assist other women. In other words, the birth of my baby wasn’t happening just then.
Time kept ticking by and eventually our obstetrician, Dr. Fong, came in. She checked my cervix and said that there was actually just a tiny lip that still needed to open up, so I wasn’t actually fully dilated yet. Now I started to feel discouraged. I thought that I would have had my baby by this point. At least, that’s how everyone was acting. We had to wait a little longer. The next time she checked me it was around 11:00. I was fully dilated, I was having consistent contractions, but not much else was happening. She offered me two options to help things along – one, Pitocin. No. Two, they could break my water.
I knew going into labor that this might happen. My mother’s water never broke on its own with all four of her pregnancies. As far as interventions go, I saw this as very benign and even thought it was a good idea. I agreed. They got me on my back again and got the hook ready. I knew it wouldn’t hurt and I wasn’t afraid. At this point the baby’s head was at station 0. Not too far up, but not really far down yet. Dr. Fong broke my water, I felt some fluid, and the baby’s head moved down a station. I screamed. Then Dr. Fong calmly and kindly said she wanted to stretch my perineum and showed me how she would do it and how it would feel. I said okay. And then I screamed again.
Everything changed. I felt fear for the first time. I felt real, intense pain. Things were moving. The team left the room and said they’d be back to check on me in about 15 minutes. My contractions had gone from manageable to increasingly intense. They peaked quickly and each time they did I felt like the wind was knocked out of me. Tom and Anne were right there with me, supporting me and reminding me to focus on my breathing. Anne’s voice was quiet and calm, telling me that I was going to meet my baby soon. 15 minutes came and went.
Everything from this point on is kind of a horrible blur for me. I lost track of time and now I’ve lost track of the details. I know that people did come back to check on me, but it always took longer than they said it would and it didn’t feel often enough. The contractions began to overpower me. All throughout my labor my contractions had been very long – sometimes 2 ½ minutes or more – and now they seemed impossible to bear. The waves just kept on coming. Just as I thought a contraction was finally over another would start and I had no chance to rest. I kept having 3 in a row. Before each contraction I felt a gush of amniotic fluid and I began to dread that feeling. I kept looking at the clock and anxiously wondering when the team would come back to save me. When would it be time to push? How much longer could I bear this? I felt like I was drowning.
Before long, I began to feel desperate. Now any movement I made brought on a contraction. I clung to Tom for dear life, clawing at his chest and squeezing his hands so tightly I absentmindedly worried about hurting him. I understood that an epidural was not possible at this point in the game – I’d never be able to sit still for one. I was trapped inside my body and completely terrified. I knew I wasn’t dying. I knew that things were happening as they should. I knew that eventually my baby would come out. It was just a matter of when. When?? It became an excruciating question. Dominique and Anne kept on trying to make suggestions. Would you like to walk around? Would you like to sit on the birthing ball? No. No. NO. Every move I made brought a fresh wave of agony. A contraction ended and I crumpled into Tom’s arms, begging for mercy. Begging for help. Someone, please. Help me. It seemed like an eternity had passed. I heard the doctors across the hall with another woman. She was pushing, and they were counting to ten. The team was never coming back. My desperation turned to despair.
I have no idea how long I felt like this. However long it lasted, it was long enough to break me. I was completely helpless and I was going to drown because no one would help me. Dominique, Anne, and Tom were talking to me, but I couldn’t respond anymore. They must have made an executive decision to try and get to me stand, because I found myself being lifted. When I was no longer sitting I could feel the full pressure of the baby’s head. Somehow, I managed to say that I needed to push. That message must have finally gotten through, because Dominique disappeared to get the team. Suddenly they were there and I felt some of my strength return. I wasn’t going to drown! They were pulling me out! It was enough to force myself to move quickly. They rearranged the bed, I got onto my back, and I pulled my legs up as high as I could. Tom and Anne each took a side and held my legs as well. As soon as a contraction started, I began to push.
Pushing was a relief for two reasons. One, it actually helped to alleviate the pain. Two, I was finally DOING something. It returned some tiny bit of control to me. My doctor smiled and asked me if I wanted a mirror. Somehow, I laughed and said no. I didn’t need to watch my own messy, bloody birth. As it turned out, I could see the reflection of what was happening in their visors.
My team began counting as I had heard them across the hall: “One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, niiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiine….TEN.” They had me pushing three times during each contraction, but because my contractions were insanely long, that turned into four times. If I stopped pushing before the contraction was over, the horrible pain returned. My obstetrician excitedly told me how much hair my baby had. Dominique was in my ear, telling me when to bear down more aggressively. Tom was on my right, and it was his voice that helped the most. He kept on saying things that not only encouraged me, but made me feel like he was in awe of what I was doing. After a short while my doctor told me I could reach down and feel my baby’s head. It was soft and squishy and felt nothing like a head. I breathlessly joked, “Gross.”
I pushed for almost 30 minutes, but it didn’t seem that long. Getting the baby’s head out took a lot of effort. It was burning, and at one point my obstetrician stopped me because I had begun to tear. She wasn’t happy with that and told me she wanted to do a mediolateral episiotomy. At this point she could have told me she needed to put on a chicken suit to deliver the baby and I would have been ok with it. Just make the cut! They numbed me and did it quickly.
I continued to push harder than I ever thought possible and I know I made some scary sounds. Eventually I felt a sort of pop and I knew that the baby’s head was out. The head was out!!! It was almost over. After only a few seconds I felt the stretch of birthing the shoulders, and then my daughter slid out.
RELIEF. That was the overpowering emotion. Relief that it was finally over and I had survived. Our baby started crying and Tom and I looked at each other. I can’t describe what I felt for him then. We said I love you to each other and I remembered two kids meeting in a church in Pittsburgh, and the moment was impossibly beautiful. They placed my daughter on my chest and she was so warm and soft and pink and perfect. Her crying turned to whimpers and she looked up at us. She had just been born and she was already trying to hold her head up. I couldn’t believe that this was the person I had been waiting so long to meet. Anne was taking pictures. Dr. Fong asked us her name. We smiled and in unison said, “Willow”.
They had Tom cut the umbilical cord and he laughed as he struggled with the right-handed scissors. While we were busy admiring our new baby, the doctor told me to give one more gentle push for the placenta. That was fast and easy. And gross – I saw the reflection! Too soon Willow was lifted off of me so that she could be checked out. I had to stay on the bed to be stitched up – not a pleasant experience. Willow didn’t have to leave the room and Tom stayed right by her side. She weighed 7 lbs. 1 oz., was 18.5 inches long, and got a perfect APGAR score. Before too long she was bundled up and back by my side. Her difficult journey into the world had made her face look like she had been in a bar fight, but she was healthy. My sister and Tom began texting our families about the birth of our little girl. I was already excited for people to come see her.
When things quieted down I announced that I needed to use the bathroom, so Dominique helped me off the bed. I ruined my socks with the amount of blood that came out of me, but at that point everything had been so messy I couldn’t care. I was able to use the bathroom without help, and then I stepped up to the sink to wash my hands. That’s when I got a look at myself in the mirror.
I had burst all the capillaries in my face and neck, and one blood vessel in my eye. My lips were dry and cracked from my frantic breathing. I looked like hell. I think it was in that moment that the magnitude of what I had just done really began to hit me. I was so, so tired. When I got back in bed we decided to try breastfeeding. Our first attempt wasn’t too successful. Willow had a shallow latch and wasn’t opening her mouth wide enough, which meant pain for me. In addition to this concern, there was blood in my colostrum. I knew I’d be seeing a lactation consultant in the hospital, so I was sure it would get addressed later and tried not to worry about it just then.
It wasn’t long before I was being moved to our recovery room and Willow was being taken to the nursery. I hated being parted from her so soon, but Tom stayed with her to try and speed up the process. As I was being wheeled out, I passed my Mother-in-law and Sister-in-law who had been anxiously waiting outside. I could only give them a tired smile and half a wave as I went by. Our room was all the way at the end of the hall. Anne was with me before long, and soon after Joy and Nell. They had seen the baby in the nursery and were so excited.
As tired as I was, I was happy to have visitors. The excited energy everyone brought to the hospital gave me just enough strength to stay engaged. It took way too long to get Willow back in my arms. Her body temperature was just a little low so they had placed her in a warmer. What I don’t understand (and still think is stupid) is that if they had just allowed her to be placed skin to skin on my chest, her temperature would have quickly gotten to where it needed to be. When she was finally brought back to me, tiny and swaddled, it all felt real. Watching my parents, in-laws and siblings meet her and hold her made me feel so happy and proud.
Eventually it was time for everyone to go home and Tom and I were left alone with our sleeping baby. It didn’t take too long for total exhaustion to take over. We decided to try and get some sleep before the long night began.
to be continued.