As I sit to write this, I take a deep breath and wipe my clammy hands on my jeans. I guess they wouldn’t call it labor if it wasn’t difficult, and not to say that I’m THE ONLY ONE WHO EVER HAD A DIFFICULT BIRTH but this is not one of the Ina May Gaskin birth stories, where we all sang kumbaya to *magically* open my cervix when it wouldn’t dilate at the optimal rate. (Not to knock Ms. Gaskin–she’s actually really great). This birth story is real. And it has a VERY happy ending. But it was definitely the worst and best day of my life. So there’s my disclaimer for any first time expecting moms who might be reading this. I hope that you have exactly the birth experience that you desire and expect (like my cousin who gave birth naturally, imagining herself a dolphin swimming up the wave of each contraction) but that is not my story.
The morning of July 30th, I woke up, 39.5 weeks pregnant. I got up, ate breakfast along with some tums and headed to my water aerobics class that I attended twice a week throughout my pregnancy. I packed my gym bag with an oversized t-shirt and some athletic shorts and figured I’d go straight from my class to my 39 week check-up.
Because my regular OB was out of town, I was seeing Dr. Cook for the first time. As I sat in the waiting room, I remembered how I had joked with people that I would definitely go into labor the week my doctor planned to be gone. But here I was at 39.5 weeks, and no signs of baby showing up anytime soon. As any woman who’s been pregnant knows, I did the usual urine sample, weigh-in, and blood pressure. Only this time, instead of the doctor telling me everything looked good, Dr. Cook basically said, “Hi, it’s nice to meet you. You’re going to have your baby today.” I was diagnosed with preeclampsia (like Sybil Crawley in Downton Abbey) and the doctor intended to induce me immediately.
I must have stammered a few questions because I was so completely surprised by this turn of events. I had thought I would go into labor at home; you know, have some contractions, bounce around on my birthing ball for awhile, take a long shower, etc. I do remember asking if I could go home first and get my things (I live only 5 mins from the hospital) and at first, they agreed. I don’t know why they changed their minds, but the doctor told me to call my husband and have him collect my bag before meeting me in the maternity ward.
Before I was escorted to my very own labor and delivery room, the doctor inserted a Foley ball into my cervix to begin the dilation process. After that, there was quite a bit of waiting around and answering questions of the nurse. My husband and later my parents arrived as they began the Pitocin drip. I don’t know the exact times of everything, but my appointment was around 10 am and I was induced in the early afternoon. My dad brought me a sub sandwich which I ate while waiting for the drugs to take effect.
One thing that sort of surprised me about myself in this experience is how determined I was. From the moment I learned that I would be induced, I made every effort to avoid any further interventions and to ensure that labor progressed at a reasonable pace. Over the course of my pregnancy, I read a TON about birth. I wanted to prepare as much as possible and I prepare through research. One of the things all the books recommend when you’re doing a hospital birth, is that you talk with your doctor about their expectations regarding time. The books say that OBGYNs (as opposed to midwifes) have a particular time-table for how labor should progress and that, if you exceed this time-table, you’re more likely to have a cesarean. And many doctors, like mine, will not say that they have such a time-table, but when you ask them how they determine when an intervention is necessary, they will say, “if labor is not progressing appropriately.” So, in fear of this unspoken race to beat the clock, I was determined to do everything I could to make my labor progress and avoid surgery.
Thus, during early labor, my husband and I walked the halls of the maternity ward, talking and laughing in between contractions, both of us excited to finally meet our son. At this point, I expected our baby to be born by dinner time, if not a little afterwards–after all, my mom’s first labor was only 6 hours and with me it was only 45 mins. When my contractions started getting a bit closer together, we returned to the room where I used the birthing ball for awhile. I told my husband that I couldn’t wait to have sushi the minute after Levi was born. My parents were in the labor room watching TV and visiting with us. The contractions seemed very bearable still, but were beginning to ramp up. The nurses turned down the Pitocin as they suspected my body had begun to take over.
However, a little while later, my contractions started to lessen in frequency. Things seemed to be regressing if anything. So they upped my Pitocin again. That’s when things really started to happen. My dad stepped out of the room for a minute and while he was gone, I went from talking and laughing with everyone to moaning from the intensity of the contractions (this was about 7 pm). At this point, I got into the labor tub and turned on the jets. I was beginning to have terrible pains in my back with each contraction and, at this moment, the anesthesiologist decided to do her consult with me. In my birth plan, I had stated my desire to use natural pain-management techniques, but that I was open to medical pain relief if necessary. I had discussed this, and my mild blood-clotting disorder with my doctor at length. So, to my surprise, the anesthesiologist said, “I’m so glad you’re planning to do a natural birth. We do not recommend you get an epidural as you’re at an increased risk of hematoma on the spine which could result in paralysis. This also means if you get a cesarean, we’ll do a general to knock you out.” WHAT?!? PARALYSIS?? I was already in active labor! Shouldn’t someone have mentioned this before? At about this time, the other doctors on-call (since my doctor was out of town) began asking me and my family all kinds of questions about the nature of my bleeding disorder. They seemed to be scrambling to get the information and the necessary drugs should I have a bleeding problem. Again, shouldn’t someone have brought this up BEFORE I WAS IN LABOR??? This incident definitely lowered my confidence in my own doctor and the professionals who were attending my birth.
So there I was, laboring in the tub, with this news that I really had no choice but to do a natural birth. I don’t know about you, but I like choices, and I probably would’ve ended up getting an epidural if I had had the option. Instead, I started cursing out the contractions. I never really swear, but it somehow felt good using every four letter word I know to tell the contractions that I was stronger. As a funny aside, I also asked Adam if I could bite him. (Imagine those old black and white movies where they do a medical procedure and the patient just has to bite down on a leather strap because there’s no pain-relief available). This happened apparently right when the jets’ timer ran out so my mom and the nurse who were in the room heard what I said through the door and had a good chuckle. After awhile, I couldn’t stand sitting still in the tub and I got out so I could walk the halls again. At this time, I realized I was having terrible back labor. In our birthing class, they taught the husbands to press on our backs as counterpressure helps manage the pain. I kept asking Adam to press harder (to me, it felt like he was giving a gentle love-pat to my back) even though he was using every ounce of his strength on top of his 175 lbs to push against me.
It was getting late when I asked the nurse for suggestions on labor positions to help move things along. I was reluctant to have anyone check my cervix as I had also read that sometimes just checking things makes dilation slow down. Plus, I honestly was afraid of hearing disappointing news that all these contractions weren’t really doing anything. So I did squats while contracting, and lunges on a chair. Yup. Think about that for a minute. And I did hands and knees and everything that the nurse told me to do. When they finally did check my cervix and said I hadn’t dilated as much as they expected (I don’t remember the details now) they wanted to rupture the amniotic sac (“break my water”) to initiate more progress. This news made me distraught as I again, remembered from my research that once your water has broken, the time-table is even more strict as there is a higher risk of infection for mother and baby. I asked them to hold off and take a wait and see attitude.
At some point, I transitioned to labor positions on the bed using the bar. I began to feel the urge to push but the nurse said I was dilated 9.5 cm and that I should hold off from pushing or risk tearing my cervix. Sometime around 5 or 5:30 in the morning I started pushing. My water broke with my first push. At that point, I was too exhausted and inwardly focused to even tell anyone until 5 or 10 mins later. After I had been pushing for an hour or so, I asked if I was going to die. It sounds really pathetic, and it wasn’t because of the pain. I honestly feel like at some point, I got over the pain. Yah, it hurts, but the main thing was the exhaustion. I felt like I couldn’t keep going and obviously, the baby had to come out so somehow, in my mind, it seemed logical that I was going to die. Of course, everyone immediately reassured me and then had me change positions.
Finally, at 8am the hospital had it’s shift change. Sweet, empathetic (and helpful) labor nurse left and no-nonsense nurse (and make-shit-happen doctor–who happened to be the one who induced me) took over. They turned on all these bright lights and another team of people came in preparing to take care of the baby (there was meconium in my amniotic fluid). I had been pushing for nearly 3 hours and Dr. Cook quickly saw that I would not last much longer. He kept telling me to push when I thought I was done pushing for each contraction. Adam and my mom said they could see the top of the baby’s head and that he had a lot of hair. “Is he out, yet?” I asked. “Not yet,” I heard in response. After some excruciatingly long pushes, Levi’s head finally emerged. The rest of him was a piece of cake by comparison. The whole latter half of labor I had my eyes squeezed shut, and so now Adam told me to open them and see our son. I looked up and Adam and my mom were crying and the doctor was holding up Levi–it was sort of surreal. Someone pulled down my hospital gown and put Levi on my chest. I remember feeling so relieved that I was done. I was just done. And I was upset because I didn’t have that instant “falling in love” moment when I saw my baby. I just felt relieved to be done delivering him. I was also upset because they put him so high on my chest, he was in my face and I couldn’t really see him. The next thing I knew, the doctor started pulling out the placenta and I protested, “I’m done! Stop touching me!” And so they gave me some drugs and stitched me up, and the other doctors took Levi to clean him up and check him out. And so suddenly, all the attention was on Levi (rather than me) and I just closed in again, so relieved to be done.
Tired and happy
Levi was born at 8:23 am on July 31st after 22 hours in labor with a total of 3 hours of pushing. He was 9 lbs and 22 inches and had lots of hair–not just on his head, but a fine dark down all over his body. He was healthy and for all intents and purposes, so was I. I just had a lot of pain for the first 2-3 weeks, then some pain for another week or so and then, after awhile, I stopped even noticing it. But remember all that back labor and counterpressure I mentioned? I couldn’t stand up straight for 4 weeks after the delivery because my back was so bruised. But my nurse (the sweet one who labored with me all night long) happened to have another shift the second morning we were in the hospital and told me that Levi was probably posterior (not breech but facing the wrong way if that makes sense) which is why I had all the back labor and that doing all the labor positions that I did likely saved me from having a cesarean. Who can ever really know?
Brand new Levi
For the first 8 weeks post-delivery I would have said that Levi would be an only child because I never ever wanted to do that again, but now that I’m fully healed and I’ve seen how quickly babies change and grow, I know I have to have another one. And I have no qualms about it. I mentioned earlier that I didn’t experience “love at first sight” with Levi, but, that little boy has since stolen my heart in a way that I can’t describe–couldn’t even fathom before he was born. And I loved him then too. Ultimately, I believe that God gives you what you need when you need it. Strength and determination to persevere. An empathetic nurse to guide you through the long, dark night and a take-charge doctor in the morning when you’re ready to give up. Of course, the biggest blessing–your child. His smile brightens my heart after every frustrating night when I don’t get to sleep as much as I need to. God has also given me a partner to share in the burden of childcare too. So, that is my happy ending. Joy in the midst of pain. It is a most potent life to live.