Consistently, one of my biggest issues is my high expectations. Despite understanding that there are some circumstances where I have zero control, I still become unbelievably frustrated when things don’t go the way I want them to. This problem typically manifests while on vacation, but I had set some extremely high standards for giving birth, an event which most people seem to agree: you just have to let it happen the way it’ll happen.
This wasn’t satisfying to me. I felt convinced that if I read books, hired a doula, saw a chiropractor, did exercises, extensively prepared, I would have the all-natural birth I wanted. I’d decided way back in the first trimester, after my midwife told me birth would be easy for me because I was tall (I’ll come back to this in a bit). I thought, hey, if my body is truly built to do this, I’m going to lean all the way in. I would scoff at women who told their stories on /r/babybumps (a wonderful forum for mothers and soon-to-be mothers), saying they had designs on a natural birth but got the epidural in the end and ladies, get the epidural!! NO, I thought. You won’t pressure me into an epidural!
After our first birth prep class, I walked out even more confident I wanted a drug-free birth. There are natural ways to cope, and plenty of women before me have done it. The epidural is scary. It numbs your entire lower half, which seems tempting, but you’re confined to your bed afterwards, hooked up to a bunch of machines. There’s a greater risk of your labor ending in a C-Section. It can slow labor down. There’s the (miniscule) risk of paralysis. Sometimes it doesn’t work and you deal with the pain of labor anyway. My plan was to accept that there would be pain, but to get in front of it and try natural comfort measures to cope. I had full confidence in myself.
As you’re probably surmising at this point, I did get the epidural.
On October 25, I was 41 weeks and 4 days pregnant; 11 days overdue. I was becoming anxious at the thought of having an induction. It didn’t sound pleasant, and I heard Pitocin can make labor much more intense. I really wanted to be able to labor at home until active labor started, and then make our way to the hospital where our doula Jennifer would join us.
After determining that I wasn’t progressing in any sort of meaningful way, the doctor gave me a few options for inducing. The hospital we were planning to birth at only had midwives Monday through Thursday and as I had done most of my prenatal care with a midwife, I wanted to try to stick with that, so I chose Thursday the 27th, thinking that I would go in right at 6am, be started on Pitocin, and deliver that day. There was some concern that my cervix wasn’t “ripe” enough yet, and that maybe I would need to go in the night before to get started on a cervical ripening agent (if your cervix isn’t deemed ready yet, Pitocin can have harmful effects and lead to a C-Section). The doctor I saw on Tuesday talked to the Midwife I would see on Thursday and together they decided I would just come in Thursday morning. I saw this as a good sign that labor could be swift and we would have a baby on the 27th.
The night before we went to the hospital I slept terribly. I wasn’t nervous or scared, but it was impossible not to be anxious about what was going to be happening in a matter of hours. That morning I got up, showered and got dressed. I noted that I felt like I was getting ready to go into battle. I had a breakfast of avocado on toast with a fried egg, and we drove in darkness to the Mother Baby Center at Abbott Northwestern. We arrived, a little nervous but excited, and got brought back to the room where we would eventually meet our baby.
“So what’s the plan today?” the nurse asked.
“Uhhhh, we don’t know? I think we’re getting started on Pitocin?” Weren’t they supposed to know what the plan was?
We settled in to our room, and I got hooked up to some monitors that would stay on me the entire time (and would more or less confine me to the bed, something I adamantly was against). Because of a shift change and an early morning birth, we didn’t see the midwife on duty until almost 8:30am. She decided that I wasn’t ready for Pitocin and would need to be started on Cervidil, which needs to be left in for 12 hours. And the midwife would be off duty at 8PM.
You kidding me?
It was the first of many disappointments. Why didn’t they have me come in the night before? All this momentum came to a screeching halt. I tearfully texted our doula with the plan and she confirmed it was a crappy situation, and that I could tell them I wanted to go home and come back at a different time to start the drug, since I had expectations of laboring with a midwife. I didn’t want to do that, because it felt like going backwards even more. I thought about how Alan was starting his paternity leave that day and the more time we were not having a baby was time off wasted. I thought about the cat guiltily because it meant we would be away from her for longer. I just felt sorry for myself.
After 12 hours on the Cervidil, even though I had been having contractions, which was encouraging, I was still stuck at 1 cm dilation as I had been for weeks. The new doctor now on call suggested we try a balloon catheter, which manually stretches the cervix out. Discouraged yet again by my lack of progress, Alan called our doula Jennifer to ask about it, as I was too distraught. I was tired, I was feeling urgent for a lot of silly reasons, and it was scary to be alone in the hospital trying to make difficult decisions. We didn’t know the right answers.
So we tried the catheter. The pain of insertion was excrutiating and I had to opt out. I was so grateful that Alan was by my side for all of this, treating my concerns with the utmost seriousness, and advocating for me when I felt too weak or scared to stand up for myself. I hated feeling so feeble, but we’d been thrown a lot of curveballs already.
That night I wasn’t on any medications and my contractions stopped cold. The next morning we were met with a kind and compassionate nurse, who encouraged me to take a long shower, eat some breakfast, and we would meet the new doctor and make a game plan. The doctor turned out to be one I’d seen before at a routine prenatal visit. She was cool, confident and encouraging.
I would be put on Cytotec, another cervical ripener, which can take effect very quickly. They thought I might have a strong reaction to it, so I needed to have an IV port established in case I needed fluids. 3 failed sticks and they had to bring in a fancy IV specialist who used an ultrasound to find a vein. I was overwhelmed at this point by all the interventions my intervention-free labor and birth was having to take.
After round two of Cytotec was looking not so promising, the doctor came in and recommended a balloon catheter plus Pitocin to get labor going. I practically had PTSD from trying to have it inserted the night before (seriously, it was so painful). I broke down in tears for what felt like the hundredth time since we arrived at the hospital. I tried to use the time to rest before we would know for sure if that was the path to take, but I was a ball of anxiety. The kind nurse gave me some lavender aromatherapy and gave me a foot massage with lotion. Later on, the doctor came back and said that if we really wanted labor to get going, the best option would be the balloon + Pitocin. I explained my concerns, and she said my cervix was probably much better suited than it had been the night before to have this done, but she also wasn’t pushy, and respected that I had reservations about everything.
So we called the doula again. She stressed over and over that we didn’t have to take any action, but if we truly wanted to get things moving, I could ask for Fentanyl to take the edge off during insertion. It was a drug, and I wanted a drug-free birth, but by this point, wasn’t I kind of already not having the birth I envisioned? The 45 minutes I was on Fentanyl were some of my chillest and happiest moments of the entire hospital stay. The balloon catheter went in with little effort. Alan and I had some toast and jello and gatorade as I wouldn’t be able to eat anymore on the Pitocin. I met the new nurses would went over my birth plan and respected my wishes to not push any pain medication on me. I would be dictating if and when I would need it.Contractions came on slowly at first, and I thought Ok, I can handle these. I tried a comfort position that worked great but unfortunately interfered with the dumb monitors that were strapped to my belly. As I was so late in pregnancy, I was told I needed to be on the monitors that measured baby’s heartbeat and my contractions the entire time. I had the monitors and IV of Pitocin at this point. Suddenly I felt a much more intense pain that coincided with having to go to the bathroom. On the toilet I felt my water break, and from there the contractions came fast and furious and it was finally time to call the doula in. The contractions were coming faster than I could manage them, so I got into the shower and had Alan spray water on my lower back. I’d hoped that the white noise of rushing water would soothe me, as it always does, and the hot water on my back would act as a compress of sorts. I was in agony though. I told Alan it was time to start thinking about pain medicine.
The first thing he suggested we try was the Nitrous Oxide, or gas. This was an appealing pain intervention because it leaves the system very quickly and is self administered when you need it. I had to lie on the bed for this part and hold the mask to my face. The Nitrous smelled weird and it was difficult to breathe deeply with it on. The contractions were essentially happening on top of each other, so I kept breathing in the Nitrous and I got too high, and then I vomited. I had the shakes. I was essentially in transition, which is the hardest part of labor, but I wasn’t even 4 cm dilated.
It’s difficult now to remember this part, being in so much pain and feeling defeated and knowing I wouldn’t be able to continue without the epidural. So I asked for it. I demanded it. They said it could take another 20 minutes for the anaesthesiologist to arrive, but he was mercifully quick. I had to sit up and lean over a table and try to manage the contractions while the guy – who was super capable and reassuring – got me all set up. I remember so clearly hunched over the table, moaning through the contractions, that I just no longer cared how this baby came out. It took nearly 48 hours, hell, 42 weeks, to just let go and let it happen.
The relief was almost instant. I could finally, fully relax after all this time. Shortly after, the balloon catheter fell out, meaning I was at least 4cm. I was put on my side to rest with a big peanut ball put between my legs so they could get the baby into optimal position. The room went dark, and Alan went to sleep, and the doula went to sleep. An hour later a nurse came in to turn me over to my other side. Then they came back in because baby was in a bit of distress so I had to be moved back. Not too long after that I felt pressure in my… Well, my butt. I was told that when I felt this I should call up the nurse. Shortly after, they came in with all the birth stuff. Whoa! Was this really happening already?
She checked me and I was at 10cm finally. The epidural had worked so beautifully that I relaxed that baby all the way down and I was nearly ready to start pushing. I suggested they wake Alan up. He went to sleep in one universe and woke up about to be a dad.
I tried a practice push. They stressed that it could be a couple hours of pushing, and that just because I was far along now, didn’t necessarily mean baby would be coming out any time soon. I was so mother effing determined to get this baby out of me, though, so I used all my focus and concentration on pushing him out.
I wanted an all natural birth because I thought it would empower me. But what hadn’t really occurred to me until this point was that the entire process of growing a human was empowering. It didn’t matter how I birthed him – what mattered is that I made him. After hearing encouragement from the nurses and Alan and the doula, I kept pushing with all the strength I could muster. I was crazy sleep deprived, I was hooked up to a million different machines and medications, and I was also kind of thinking “who actually takes the baby out?” Because, the thought of actually pushing this baby out sounded so impossible, even though I was doing it.
After 48 minutes I felt like I was close. With every contraction I would push hard 3 times with 3 big breaths. For the last one I just thought he was ready to come out so I pushed a 4th time and against the bright lights shining down on me I saw this little body come out of me and he was put on my belly. I broke into sobs. Alan did too. Finally. Finally, after the longest pregnancy, and what felt like an eternity in the hospital, we had our little boy.I didn’t know what Alex looked like yet, because he was on my chest for the first 45 minutes or so. I just held his little butt and kissed his little head. Everybody in the room was in awe of how big this baby was. The most recent ultrasound I had had estimated him at 9.5 lbs, though with a margin of error of 1.5. The doctor had felt my belly and guessed maybe in the 8 range. But he was 10 freakin pounds. When my midwife had said so long ago that being tall would be advantageous, I guess this is what she meant.
Pushing was the most empowering part of birth. It felt like action. It was active participation. And I didn’t find it painful. It was hard, certainly. But I barely felt any pain. And plus, I couldn’t believe that I had actually produced a baby. The idea of giving birth was always so abstract, even as I was actively giving birth. If I’m being perfectly honest, when I finally did see his face, it was all squished up and puckered from the pressure of being pushed out of the birth canal. His head was so strangely cone-shaped. I thought he looked like an alien. It was certainly emotional but I can’t say definitively that it was love at first sight, and that’s OK. I mean hey, I was exhausted. They’d turned all the lights on in our delivery room post-birth. The entire time we’d been in there, it was dim and quiet. With all the drugs and changes that had happened so quickly, and then the whirlwind delivery, it suddenly felt like we had been teleported to a different room. A different Universe. We were parents all of a sudden. Once we got ourselves fed and I went to the bathroom for the first time (a slightly horrifying ordeal), we got taken to our postpartum room, which was cozy and calm. I held Alexander in the wheel chair and really looked at his face for the first time, now that he was asleep and cleaned up. I thought he looked like an adorable little gnome. His rosy cheeks and Royce eyes were very familiar to me.The first night with him was brutal. He wasn’t a talented feeder right away (some folks want to tell you that breastfeeding is totally instinctive and babies know what to do. That was not quite our case). So we had a howling newborn all night with no respite and when they came in early the next morning to take him away for some 24-hour tests, I was like, yes, please, take my baby.
I still don’t totally feel like “a mother.” I expect once we fall into a routine and Alex’s habits are a little easier to pick up on, and I can actually do stuff with him, instead of just feed him and try to get him to nap, I will feel like I’m a mom. For now it’s all about survival. My survival, Alan’s survival, Alex’s survival. Very shortly after he was born, I started to think “Would I actually do this again?” And if I had to make the decision right then and there? I would say probably not. If I had to make the decision during the first wave of cluster feedings? I would say probably not. But they’re right when they say these phases pass. It does get a little easier day by day. You do heal. You remember the good parts of your labor experience. You forget the truly terrible parts of pregnancy. The privilege of being there for the start of someone’s life is incredible and indescribable.
Plus, I would have a thousand babies just for that first shower post-birth. Oh my god it was amazing.