At the advice of my doula, I’m writing down the story of my first child’s birth. It’s been four and a half weeks since the most precious gift I ever received entered the world, and the details are already starting to get a bit fuzzy, so I know it’s time to write before they leave me completely.
It was the evening of Friday, December 2nd and I was at circle ME, the store where I used to work, for their Christmas Collective: a nice gathering where fans of cloth diapers, natural parenting and birth could come together to celebrate the season. Plus there were all the whoopie pies and peanut clusters you could eat, so I was pretty stoked. I was hungrier than usual that night. As I was stuffing my face and chatting with friends, the Braxton Hicks I’d been feeling since week 23 of my pregnancy started coming, but this time they felt a little different. The pain started in my back and wrapped around my front, and it hurt a little more than usual.
I guess I looked like I was in pain because the women I was chatting with told me I should sit down, they could tell I needed to breathe through my “practice” contractions. I winced in pain and breathed deep through each one, but was convinced they were nothing more than Braxton Hicks. My friend Anna said this could be it, that I might be in labor. “There’s no way,” I said. “I’m just shy of 38 weeks and I still have finals next week.”
“I had my baby at 36 weeks,” she replied. “Babies don’t really care about our schedules, and she certainly isn’t going to wait for you to take your finals if she doesn’t want to.” Nevertheless, I convinced myself I had a polite fetus who would wait until I was ready. I continued chatting with friends, when about an hour later at 7pm, I had to stop and breathe through a particularly strong Braxton Hicks. The lady running the Pampered Chef table interrupted my breathing and said, “Sorry to interject here, but I’ve been timing your contractions for the last hour and they’ve consistently been coming every 7 minutes. I think you should go home and call your midwife.”
I was still in total denial, but since I was starting to hurt quite a bit, I followed their advice. Except for the part about calling my midwife. That would make it too real. I just went home and told myself a hot shower and a big glass of water would put my practice labor to rest.
Well, one hot shower and two liters of water later, my “practice labor” was getting more and more intense, and I thought, “Holy Hell, if this is false labor how am I going to make it through the real thing?!” I went to the bathroom, thinking that would relieve some pressure, and as I turned around to flush I was greeted by a toilet full of blood (sorry for the graphic imagery here, but if that bothered you I would suggest you stop reading now. It’s only going to get worse). This was it. “Joooeeeeee!!! I think it’s go time.” At that moment a huge surge of way too many emotions flooded every inch of my being: Fear, excitement, ANGER! I wasn’t due for two more weeks and the place where we had planned on giving birth, Nebraska’s first and only freestanding birth center, wasn’t going to open for another 10 days. We had a back up plan to birth at Bellevue Med Center with the same midwife who would attend our birth center birth, but still, in between my throes of excitement and joy, I felt sort of pissed. But when I felt that way my contractions hurt more, so I decided to stop that and focus on the excitement of it all.
By this time it was about 11pm. We called our doula. We called our midwife. We quickly packed our hospital bags (we later realized how disoriented Joe was by the whole event: he packed 5 pairs of underwear, two pairs of socks and no shirts or pants). By midnight on Saturday, December 3rd, we were in the car and on the way to Bellevue, a 50 minute drive.
By the time we arrived at the hospital, I was writhing in pain. I had to sign a million forms, none of which I could actually read through my intensifying contractions, but once we were done with that the party got started. And by the party getting started, I mean a nurse checked my dilation by sticking her entire hand up my vagina. I dropped the F-Bomb at the top of my lungs. My midwife doesn’t believe in internal exams and that was the first time I had been checked my entire pregnancy. It sucked, and all it told me was that I was at 4 centimeters dilation.
I wanted to go natural, which to me meant no constant fetal monitoring, no IVs, freedom to move around the room and labor in the water, no pitocin and, of course, no pain meds. This definition is different to every woman and I believe that as long as a woman gets to have the birth she wants (whether it’s under the maximum legal amount of drugs or on the floor of her kitchen) it’s a beautiful, empowering experience. These things just happened to be important to me, and I’m happy to say that every one of those nurses not only respected my wishes, but did everything they could to help me achieve them.
It certainly wasn’t easy. I had these visions of laboring gracefully and breathing, humming and moving through my contractions like a warrior woman. In reality, I screamed, I cursed, I whined…they told me labor hurts but honestly, this was INSANE. At one point I remember thinking, “Why the hell am I doing it this way?! Nobody cares if I do this without drugs, why the hell do I? WHAT THE F$%* AM I TRYING TO PROVE?!” Zero grace. I’m not sure what time it was, but it felt like it had been an eternity since the last time they checked me. I said I felt “pushy,” so they checked me again (AGGHHHHH!!!) and I was at a whopping 5 centimeters. Despite my knowledge that dilation truly means nothing, I was livid. One centimeter was it?! I told myself right then and there that when my midwife arrived, I would ask her to check me and if I was at anything less than 6 I would get the epidural.
I was screaming and shaking and basically losing my composure in really ugly ways. Things turned, however, when our amazing nurse, Darlene, reminded me that this was pain with a purpose; with every contraction she told me to visualize every part of me opening wide and my baby moving further and further down. The visualization helped. A lot. It was still painful, as I couldn’t get through a contraction without a team of at least two people pushing against my hands with all their body weight behind them, but I started focusing better. I told myself after every contraction, “That one is done, and I never have to go through it again.”
I was starting to get my confidence back. Then transition happened. I only knew that’s what it was because I got the mouth sweats, got dizzy, and immediately threw up. There was officially no going back on my plan to have a natural birth. I tried every position, bounced on the birth ball, labored in the tub, swayed my hips, and leaned on my husband. That one was my favorite. I felt so safe in Joe’s arms.
Heather, our midwife, arrived sometime after I puked. She checked the baby’s heart rate every now and then with her Doppler, but other than that she just sat back, told me what a great job I was doing, and never once touched me. I felt like I was in charge of everything that was happening, which was simultaneously empowering and terrifying.
At some point sitting felt best, so I was given a birth stool and sat on it facing a row of cupboards. I sat there with Joe to my right and Kathie, our doula, to my left. Heather and Darlene were somewhere behind me. Suddenly, that urge to push was back but this time it was far more intense and excruciating. I calmly whispered to Heather, “Heather, you have to come check me. I feel pushy.”
“If you feel pushy, go ahead and push.”
Wait…what?! “You have to check me to make sure I’m 10 centimeters so I can push. I can’t push unless I’m at 10!” I cried. I wasn’t so calm anymore.
“Women gave birth long before there was any concept of 10 centimeters. You and your body know what to do. If you feel the urge to push, push.”
Who was this woman who expected me to trust myself so much and why did I hire her?! I felt a sort of terror I’d never experienced before. What if I just wanted to get this baby out of me and the urge to push was all in my head like it had been earlier? What if I wasn’t really ready and I hurt myself or my baby?
I knew had to put my doubts aside. I couldn’t stay pregnant forever, and if this woman wasn’t going to tell me what to do, I had no choice but to trust myself and leap into the unknown. I started to pray. “God? You have got to help me. Please. I’m so scared and this hurts so much. I can’t do this without you. Please hold me in your arms and help me do this.” I began to focus in a way I never have before. I felt like if I didn’t get serious about all this I would die…but somehow, in the midst of all this urgency, I felt safe. Incredibly safe.
‘Alright Penny,’ I said to that amazing little girl still inside me. ‘Let’s do this together. I can’t wait to meet you any longer and it seems like you can’t wait to meet me either.’ I bared down and pushed with all my might. That was a new sort of pain…much more intense than any measly contraction…and I could feel my precious Penny’s head move further down. I waited for a moment and pushed with all my might again and “POP-SPLAT!” It sounded like someone threw a giant water balloon against the wall. I looked up and on the cupboards and floor in front of me was what appeared to be gallons of water and chunks of blood. I would have laughed had I been in the mood, and what I remember most about the moment my water broke exploded was hearing Darlene shout, “Oh sweet Lord!” and my doula giddily whisper, “That was friggin’ AWESOME!!!”
It was a whirlwind after that. Instinct took over and I wasn’t me anymore. I was some primitive form of myself, grunting and roaring through every push. I stood up and moved to the bed—I needed to be on my hands and knees. I wasn’t thinking anymore, just doing. Pushing was the worst pain. I’ve heard women say they like the pushing phase because they feel so in control, but I hated it. The only reason I kept doing it was because it hurt not to push too, and at least with pushing I knew my baby was coming closer to being in my arms.
Suddenly, Heather was asking if I wanted to reach down and feel my baby’s head. I violently shook my head no. I was in the only position I could be in and moving my arm down felt like it would compromise everything. Feeling her head wasn’t good enough anyway. I wanted to feel her whole body. “God, help Penny and me. Help us. Help us. Please. Give us the strength to get through this quickly!”
Ask and thou shall receive, I guess. With the next push I felt my daughter kick the top of my uterus with all her little-legged-might and then a huge release of pressure. God, Penny and I worked together and got her from crowning to completely out and on the hospital bed in one push. I couldn’t believe it. We did it.
It really is like they say in the movies: I held her in my arms right away and everything else stopped. The pain and exhaustion were totally gone. Nothing else in the world mattered: where I was, what people were doing, what I looked like. All awareness of anything else faded into the background and I had my precious, slimy, absolutely perfect little girl in my arms. I never felt so completely in love. “Joe, she has your ears!” I looked up at my husband and saw tears in his eyes and a look I had never seen before: he was head over heels in love with another woman, and I couldn’t have felt more overjoyed. Penelope was finally here. All the pain was worth it; going through labor unmedicated was the hardest work of my life, but it made all three of us rely on one another and really work together as a team…as a family.
She was born at 7:01 am on December 3rd, after 13 hours of labor and 40 minutes of pushing. Even though she was two weeks early, she weighed 8 lbs, 2 oz and was the picture of health. She was just an eager beaver and ready to take on the world. Joe cut her cord after it stopped pulsing, about 10 minutes after she was born, and she didn’t move from my chest for hours. She nursed right away like a champ, and never left our room except to get the hearing and PKU tests the next day (which we accompanied her to).
Everything about Penelope’s birth was a total surprise. Nothing went as I had planned, but it was all so perfect. From what I hear, the rest of my life is probably going to be one unplanned surprise after another…and I couldn’t be more pumped. ~Vanessa