Writing this has taken a while, since I’ve spent most of my time lately with a toddler-sized infant on the boob and/or trying to sleep when he lets me. Breastfeeding is amazing, but I also feel more than a little chained to his newborn schedule-defying cluster feedings. But that is another post. As a pregnant pre-mom I wanted to hear every gritty detail about my friends’ births, and now every mom I know has been asking me the details of how ours went, so this is partly for them and partly a way for me to organize my thoughts about our birth and its divergence from our “plan”. (note: the more I’ve learned about birth, the more I think “birth plan” is a well-intended oxymoron) (another note: this is a very long story. be forewarned.)
A week or two before my due date I started having strong warm-up contractions in the evening — but not every evening, and they wouldn’t last more than a few hours. At their strongest they would just keep me up half the night and I’d wake up disappointed that it wasn’t real labor. We were encouraged that my body seemed to be getting ready for the real thing, and every day I’d try combinations of a long walk, a spicy lunch, & having sex to get things moving… and although enjoyable, they didn’t seem to do much in convincing Samuel to move south. In the days after the due date, the nighttime contractions seemed to get a little stronger and more regular, but would still fade away by morning. One night they were so strong I told Vince that he should stay home that day, but once we were through breakfast they had obviously stopped. I remember feeling so frustrated that something so huge and life-changing was waiting to rear its head, and that there was nothing we could really do to make it happen sooner or later. It’s even more frustrating to look back and realize that I wasn’t able to fully enjoy those last days of free time and open schedule before everything got crazy. I wish I could go back and make myself relax and just wait it out in style.
When Samuel was 2 days past-due, a couple we know had their baby boy (9 days early). She had been carrying super small, so I was surprised that he showed up so soon. I went to visit them and held their tiny 6.5lb baby in my arms, thinking “so little, but so big! I guess this could fit inside me.” It was both terrifying and awesome to realize that all these months have been leading up to this: a real baby. There’s not a mechanized toy robot kicking my ribs, it’s a real little boy. I think I shed some of my residual fear of parenthood that morning; not that I am completely without fear now, but more willing to accept it as the price of an exciting & wonderful event in life. We joked about getting the newborn to send messages to our baby (“all clear; safe to exit”), and the rest of the day and evening played out uneventfully. Vince and I had ramen for dinner (a late pregnancy indulgence), played a round of Carcassonne and watched an episode of Planet Earth in bed before turning out the lights a little after ten. Mellow.
Vince fell asleep first, as usual, and I lay in bed with sleepy random thoughts, feeling the baby wiggle. In the last week I had noticed his head moving more, trying maybe to settle into a better position as things were slowly loosening up for him to move on through (he had been head-down for weeks). I could feel his head turn slightly, feel his arms and legs adjusting. This went on for a little while until at about 11 o’clock I felt a ‘snap-pop’ low in my belly and a sudden rush of impending fluid. Luckily we have a half-bath just around the corner from our bedroom, and I made it there before making much of a mess. It was pretty clear that the waters had broken — this was no freak loss of bladder control. I called to Vince to wake him up, and told him to call the birth center to page the midwives. I swaddled myself and lay back down with him for a few quiet minutes while we waited for them to call us back, slowly realizing that we weren’t going to get much rest that night, and more importantly we would have a baby in the next 24 hours or so (since the risk of infection goes up once the waters are broken, they like birth to follow pretty quick). We’d been so impatient for this, but I remember just wanting to go to sleep. It wasn’t the way we’d expected labor to start — i.e. by not really starting. Where were the contractions? How was this baby supposed to come out in 24 hours without them? The doctor on call told us to come in to confirm that it was the bag of waters and not an incontinent mama, so we got ourselves together and schlepped to the birth center. We were pulled over coming into the hospital parking lot by the Morrisville PD for speeding, but the officer was nice enough to believe the “we’re going into labor” story given our location.
Once there, they confirmed what we already knew: yes, the waters were ruptured; no, there were no contractions. We agreed to try to get some rest and see if any contractions picked up overnight. Once we were in a room this seemed like a cruel joke: I had an IV in one arm that wouldn’t let me curl up comfortably, we were sleeping in separate beds, and there was a nurse checking my vitals every hour, just as sleep seemed possible. In addition, I did start having some contractions – the same warm-ups that I’d had for the last couple weeks, but they never came more than every ten minutes apart (just enough to keep me awake), and they had stopped by morning. I was uncomfortable, tired and discouraged. Our friends were still across the hall with their newborn, but I felt like our baby was so far away.
Our midwife came in around 9am and told us that since labor wasn’t starting on its own, and I was still only dilated at 1-2 cm, she wanted to start me on Pitocin. I knew that this was the next logical step, since they wouldn’t let us wait indefinitely with a ruptured membrane, but as soon as she left the room I started crying. It was the last thing I wanted, and it made me feel totally inadequate that after coming this far with such a healthy pregnancy, my body couldn’t get things moving for birth without intervention. If only we could wait a few more days! If only my water hadn’t broken. Everything I’d read about Pitocin told how the contractions are more painful, how it blocks the receptor sites for your body’s natural painkillers, how you are more likely to want/need an epidural or end up with a surgical birth, how you are at a higher risk of postpartum hemorrhage. I had felt confident in my ability to keep up with my body during a natural birth, but an induced labor terrified me. Our midwife came back in and, with Vince, was able to calm me down, but I still felt trapped and ineffective.
They started the Pitocin drip around 11am, 12 hours after my water had broken. By noon the contractions were 4 minutes apart and easy, but they escalated quickly. One minute Vince and I were chatting, laughing, while I rocked on a birth ball and he flipped through a book of baby names – and with the next contraction I was doubled over, needed him rubbing my back, unable to speak. They were coming faster and more painfully, and by 2 o’clock I got in the tub seeking some relief. The contractions didn’t hurt any less in the tub, but I was able to relax between them a little bit better. From 2-4 I was able to breathe through them, although they were increasingly strong and exhausting. I felt terrible but also like I was getting some good work done – I must be progressing. The contractions were so strong and close they cut back on the Pitocin for a short while, and at 4pm we asked Marje to check my cervix, which was still at a disappointing 3-4 cm. It was progress, but by then the contractions were so painful the thought of another 7cm was incredibly daunting. By this time I had completely tuned out everything happening in the room outside of my body and my grasp on Vince’s hand. I knew there were nurses in the room and was vaguely aware that there had been a shift change, but I couldn’t open my eyes to see what they looked like or what they were doing.
The hours from 4-8pm are a blur (thankfully). The pain was so strong that I couldn’t breathe through it without groaning – and it took every ounce of my strength to maintain a low moan without whimpering or screaming. It was nearly impossible to relax and catch my breath between contractions, even when back in the tub. I started to feel an incredible urge to pee – but I couldn’t! I sat on the toilet for a while trying to relax between the pains, but no go. I was having more substantial bloody show and Marje told us that it might not be long before I started to feel like pushing – a moment of encouragement. By 8pm I was shuddering uncontrollably and the contractions felt like they would tear my body in half at the uterus; I could feel myself bearing down inadvertently and it was harder to keep my moans from turning to screams. I asked to be checked again (this time sure we were close), but was still at a pathetic 4-5cm. We were told that to fully dilate, they’d have to continue upping the Pitocin to get the contractions stronger and closer together – I felt sure that if things continued that way, something horrible would happen – either I would die from the pain (it could happen, right?) or we would end up with a surgical birth somehow. I struggled on for maybe another half hour before I asked for the epidural. I’d been grappling with the choice for hours — this pain was too much, it felt unmanageable, but I was committed to a natural birth with no interventions, right? Except that this was already an induced birth. This was already a different scene, different rules. I had no basis of comparison to tell whether this pain was really worse than the pain of a natural birth, but I knew that I desperately wanted relief. I finally let go of my resolve and asked for help. And amazingly, nobody second-guessed me, nobody made me repeat myself, nobody tried to convince me to stick with my original plan (because it was already out the window). They went to alert the anesthesiologist and fetched Marje to check me one more time. Vince told me he was proud of me for advocating for myself, and I felt a huge rush of relief that was almost as effective as the epidural. I wasn’t fucking up! I was still doing OK. He didn’t think I was less of a woman (although I did) for asking for help. Marje warned me that once we started the epidural, she would raise the Pitocin to make sure that I continued to dilate, but assured me it would be much less painful than what I felt then. I think I would have done anything at that point to get to “less painful”.
Putting in the epidural between contractions was no picnic, but it was a breeze compared to the previous hours. And once it was in — oh! I could open my eyes, see who was in the room with me, look at Vince’s worried face, see that it was about 9pm. The relief was immense. I could still feel & move my legs, and I could still feel the contractions – but they weren’t painful. I felt everyone in the room relax a little bit with me, and Marje pulled Vince out into the hall with her for a moment. I was worried – is she telling him terrible news? Has something gone wrong? Does she think we need a surgical birth? It turns out they were calling for chinese food and she wanted his order. Mateo had also stopped by at some point that evening and dropped off a bag full of snacks, and I watched jealously while Vince devoured a bag of potato chips (no eating on Pitocin, definitely no eating w/ an epidural). I felt terrible for making the day so hard for him, let alone how hard it had been for me. Maybe it’s silly but I really didn’t want him to suffer as much as I had to, and I felt guilty for dragging him through it all with me.
I was able to rest for a few hours, but as the contractions continued strengthening I had to focus to breathe through them, although it didn’t feel more painful than any I’d had since 1pm. Around midnight my monitors reached the numbers Marje had been looking for and she checked my cervix one more time. I was prepared for another disappointing answer, but she announced that I was 10cm and ready to start pushing my baby out. That moment was a little surreal for me; the day had felt so long and disappointing, it was hard to believe that I could really just push him out right now and we’d be done with it all. One of the nurses had been about to go home, but stayed on for “the good part”. It took a while to get the hang of pushing, made difficult by the epidural but helped by the fact that I could feel my contractions — I was telling them when I needed to push, not the other way around. This was the point in my labor where I had felt the most effective, which was hugely gratifying. Although it took an hour and a half to push him out, it wasn’t painful until the last few contractions, when the pressure of his head in my pelvis made my hips ache and when the final pushes pulled some very sensitive tissues apart. Suddenly they were telling me to slow down, use shorter pushes, which burned beyond belief (this was the tearing). Then one more push for his shoulders, and suddenly with a gush there was a warm baby thrust on my stomach that seemed impossibly heavy and large.
It turns out he was impossibly heavy, at 9lbs 11oz even bigger than Marje had guessed the week before. He was also packing an extra-large placenta and an umbilical cord nearly twice as long as average (at 39″). The extra cordage had been wrapped around his neck twice, but not tightly. It was probably another half-hour while Marje put in my stitches and cleaned me up, but I really have no concept of time once he came out. Vince and I were both dumbfounded, amazed that we could see and touch our baby and that he was right there, half of each of us. And so incredibly soft! He was crying and rooting into my neck, holding on to Vince’s finger with a surprisingly strong grip. The feeling of holding our healthy son in my arms, after such a physically and emotionally painful day, well that feeling is the very best medicine. After so many diversions from our “plan”, I was so glad to be able to deliver vaginally that I really didn’t care about the broken blood vessel in my eye or how many stitches I needed. Our midwife told us later that I had a “great pelvis” and that subsequent births would probably be very different experiences (better, easier). It was great to be told that yes, it was harder than usual but that we’d done well and weren’t cursed to this kind of labor for the rest of our lives. I felt surprisingly OK about getting the epidural, although before birth I had really seen them as a weakness and a symbol of medicalized birth. Aside from the pain relief, it had given me a choice over part of my birth – the first one I was really allowed to make on my own. In retrospect, I think I’d withhold all judgments about childbirth until going through it. There is really no way to imagine what it’s like until your body takes you there.
So in the end: at 5am, settled in our room and alone for the first time as a family, watching Vince’s face falling in love with our son: what a feeling! That’s really the part I’ll remember.