“It is appropriate that I started writing this story on the anniversary of the loss of my first pregnancy. Life, it seems has come entirely full circle and for that, I am one of the lucky ones. It took my body nearly a week to let go of the life that was growing inside of me. On the final day, I was subjected to the worst hospital experience of my life. I sat in the waiting room of my local ER for 2 hours with blood dripping down the legs before I was even given a bed (in the hallway, not a room), the nurses busted my veins attempting to draw blood which resulted in a heplock in my hand instead, the doctor was crass and lacked any sort of bedside manner. I remember how he entered my room, nose stuck in my chart and announced I was miscarrying before he even had a chance to shut the door behind him and without even looking up to introduce himself or even make eye contact with me as I sobbed and mourned the loss of the child I had wanted for so long. He insisted on a pelvic exam-which I declined, but was somehow conned into- during which I could have sworn he was trying to rip out my insides. I screamed and pulled away, but his hand moved with me and without emotion or sympathy or narrating what he was about to do, he told me to lie still and reached further inside of me.
After the exam, I felt used and told the nurses not to let that man back in my room, but he snuck past them and insisted on giving me the results of my exam and blood work, even though I demanded he leave the room immediately. I refused to hear the results from him and had my records transferred to the midwife practice where I was being seen for my well-woman check-ups. The news wasn’t good- I was 2 cm dilated when I went into what was diagnosed as a spontaneous abortion as well as a UTI and I was left with some pain medications and a few days off work to recover.
Needless to say, it took my heart a long time to catch up with the healing my body had been doing all along. As part of the healing though, I delved into learning about pregnancy and childbirth. I read more than 30 books and spent hours researching online. I learned about a term called “birth rape,” which I am convinced that even though I did not end up with a wiggly, warm baby in my arms, is exactly what I experienced that day.
And I vowed not to allow anyone to take my power of choice away from me again. I vowed I would never be as vulnerable at the hands of a heartless doctor again in the face of what was supposed to be a beautiful, empowering experience. I told myself that when I got pregnant again, I would give birth with the strength and courage that I certainly lacked the day of my miscarriage.
So by the time I discovered I was pregnant approximately two months later, I was prepared. I knew I would see midwives for my prenatal care, I had chosen the best hospital in the state for natural birth advocacy, I had chosen the doula I knew I wanted by my side. My pregnancy went perfectly, aside from a few nagging fears of again suffering a loss. I got butterflies in my tummy when we finally (after a few attempts on different occasions) were able to hear a strong heartbeat. I fell in love when I saw the baby do flips on the ultrasound screen (which was also the day we found out we were having a son- my husband was so proud!).
I went to prenatal yoga once a week and we took a labor workshop with the instructor, I saw a chiropractor regularly for my back pain, I read beautiful, natural birth stories on various blogs. We took a breastfeeding class and I continued reading and researching. I was ready to give birth and be a mother.
The day before my due date, I began losing my mucus plug and continued to do so for a few days. Finally, at 40 weeks 5 days (the exact time my own mother had given birth to me), it happened. My day ended with the nightly misleading Braxton-Hicks contractions and I went to bed miserable and feeling sorry for myself. I cried to my husband (and he gently reminded me that waiting for the baby to initiate labor was the healthiest choice for everyone). I just wanted to meet my baby boy.
About three hours later, I awoke as I did every night to relieve myself. On my way back to bed, I took one step off the tile floor and felt a huge gush of warm fluid. I said loudly to Chris “Babe, I think you should wake up now!” as I flipped on the light to see bloody show (My first thought was of the newly steam-cleaned carpet that was now stained. Somehow it hadn’t hit me yet that it was finally time.)
I didn’t feel contractions right away, so after cleaning myself up I crawled back into bed. It wasn’t long before contractions came on and immediately they were too intense to sit still, so I ran a warm bath and decided to let my hubby get some rest while he could. The water felt amazing. I tried to relax into the surges as they came, embrace the pain for what it had to teach me- that I was strong and capable and I was about to become a mother. The confined space of the small tub made it difficult to relax though. I got in and out of the water a few times, partly due to the urge to urinate and partly out of general discomfort.
I went into the living room, wearing nothing but a towel and wrapped in my favorite fuzzy blanket and bounced on my birth ball. I was moaning loudly and bouncing through the surges, rolling my hips in circles, figure eight’s, deep breaths, counting, concentrating on everything I had learned in my prenatal yoga and birth classes. It worked for a while, but I was cold and lonely sitting on the opposite side of the house from where everyone was sleeping. I got back in the bathtub. My moans echoed loudly off the tile walls and finally when Chris woke up, I told him to call our doula, Taryn.
On the phone, Taryn suggested to Chris that he try to make me a snack, but I couldn’t get more than one bite of peanut butter toast down before I felt nauseous. As Taryn made her way to our home, I alternated between laying in the bed, trying to get comfortable in the bath tub and bouncing on the ball. Chris timed my contraction and I remember warnings popping up on Chris’ app saying the contractions were less than three minutes apart and we should make our way to the hospital immediately. I was annoyed because it was too early for those kind of warnings and that just couldn’t be right.
When Taryn arrived, I was moaning and laying on our bed, still naked, next to one of our dogs who had become extremely protective of me since labor began. Taryn timed my contractions and asked if she could check my “bottom line” (the purple line that appears from the anus up the natal cleft in exact correlation with dilation), but she wouldn’t tell me what she saw. She asked what my intuition was telling me and I told her, as I had been repeating all morning, that it felt like it was too early for the contractions for be so strong and close together. So after 4 hours of laboring at home and after getting my vomiting under control, we packed up between contractions and headed to the hospital.
The ride to the hospital was uncomfortable, but not as excruciating as I had heard other women describe. I remember desperately wanting to stretch my legs and being extremely aggravated with our roommate who was kind enough to drive us. He kept asking if I was alright and other various questions which required answers, in the height of contractions. I know it was out of concern, but in the moment I am certain I actually did the “talk to the hand” hand-in-the-face move a couple of times to him and I may or may not have actually growled at him. (In his defense, I’m sure he had never been around a laboring woman and had no idea how to react).
At the hospital, I walked all the way to Labor & Delivery on the fourth floor, stopping at various chairs in the hallway to breath through my contractions, because my legs were shaking too badly to stand. I don’t remember much about check-in or triage, except that the pelvic exam (the first my entire pregnancy and required for admission), was extremely painful. My contractions were so close together at this point that there was not enough time to check my dilatation in between. The nurse said my bag was bulging and she couldn’t feel one side of my cervix, but thought I was 7-8cm dilated and they were preparing my birthing suite. I begged them to call my midwife, Leanna, who came in just for my birth, even though she was not on call that night.
Walking to my suite was a haze. My nurses were in the room waiting to introduce themselves to me, but all I could hear was the running bath water- I couldn’t hear anything else. I blew past everyone and I began stripping and beelined for the bathroom. I didn’t even get my dress off before I was sitting in the tub (just hiked it up to my waist and sat down) What an amazing difference that tub had made from my own tub- it had enough space to spread out my arms and legs and switch positions with my big belly.
I stayed in the tub with Chris and Taryn by my side- the only light casted from battery operated candles, soft music playing- for about four hours. It was the ideal labor experience. Until I started vomiting and my body began pushing involuntarily. I remember people around me talking about transition- that they had started a long time ago and vomiting was a sign the baby was coming soon. (It’s hard to tell when transition actually began for me. You know those “OMG I can’t do this” moments everyone speaks of just before they are handed their beautiful babies- I had that feeling for what my team estimated to be close to six hours. That’s right six hours of transition). I kept reaching between my legs to see if he was crowing. I could feel him moving down, there was so much pressure, he had to be crowning. But every time I checked, I never felt that fuzzy little head I kept expecting.
I think my water broke somewhere around this point, not a gush but a slow trickle that was often blocked by the baby’s head. (It’s hard to pinpoint the exact moment it happened because I was in the bath water for so long, but I remember the trickle from this point forward whenever I was out of the water). I wondered how my body was physically able to vomit, contract and push all at once, but somehow it was happening. Later when I told one of my friends my story, she asked me why “they” would “let me” push if I wasn’t fully dilated. I wish I could say I had had any real control over my body at that point, but it actually hurt more not to push and sometimes that’s just the way it goes with natural and undisturbed labor. I said I had to pee and my team helped me onto the toilet.
Leanna asked if she could check my dilation when I was finished, but she wasn’t able to get a good read so we moved to the bed. The pelvic exams were absolutely the most painful part of my entire experience thus far and I felt like she would never find what she was looking for. Finally, she said she thought the baby had moved sunnyside-up, presenting with his left brow and ear first and that I had still not progressed past 8cm. I felt discouraged and betrayed by my baby at that news because I had actively avoided semi-reclining my entire pregnancy (which is known to prevent the baby from optimal positioning) and he had been in the perfect position since I was 23 weeks pregnant. How could he flip now?!
Leanna also said she felt a lip on my cervix and tried to tuck it behind the baby’s head after repositioning him to give him room to descend. I smiled when she said she could feel his full head of hair.
After the exam, we decided to labor more on the bed and I got on my hands and knees, leaned across Chris with my face buried in his chest and cried. We tried every position- I did pelvic rocks, swung my hips in circles and side-to-side. I gasped for air, I pushed with all my might in hopes of bringing my baby closer to my arms. I tried to breath through the sensations but they were back to back and I could never catch a break. Someone suggested I try to use the squatting bar, because I was already squatting off the side of the bed. Leanna and Taryn helped me squat as low as I could during each surge, which was excruciating with the amount of pressure I was feeling. I could feel warm liquid flowing down my legs. It hurt, but I was convinced the baby was almost here- my body had taken over.
I was squatting and moaning and crying and pushing. I felt tribal, I felt strong, I felt like I was part of a bigger worldwide sisterhood. I had never felt more like a woman in my life. I am certain they heard me roaring on the other side of the hospital. I pushed and pushed, tried to breath, tried to relax but I never got any downtime. I remember at one point looking up at Taryn, who was holding my hand, and I swear she was surrounded by heavenly light as she said “Let’s breathe together.” And when I could catch my breath, we did and in that moment, she was my angel.
Later, I whimpered to Chris with my face buried in the bed that I needed “the medicine.” I wasn’t handling the pain well and I needed the relief, but even with the pain I was in, I refused to use our code word. It didn’t matter much though because sometime not too long after that, Leanna presented the idea of a sort of “emergency epidural.” Due to the abnormally intense contraction pattern I was exhibiting and lack of progression, she explained she suspected I had what’s known as placental abruption (when the placenta separates from the uterine wall too soon). I didn’t fully understand what abruption was at the time, but I wasn’t scared because I trusted Leanna and she was respectful of my birth plan from the moment I presented it to her, even if the anesthesia meant we strayed from the plan.
Taryn agreed it would be more beneficial than continuing without the help of pain relief and I gladly accepted the change. After all the research I had done before pregnancy, I was convinced there was no such thing as “failure to progress” and they never called it that, but we just needed me to progress faster before I lost too much blood.
Once the decision had been made for the epidural, Leanna and my nurses surrounded me to hook up so many cables and cords that I looked like a siborg when they were done. Then the anesthesiologist came in as my contractions were rapidly progressing and I was so fixated on the pain that I didn’t even feel the needle or spinal catheter. It’s amazing I was able to sit still long enough for him to do his job and yet. When the drugs finally kicked in and I could breathe again, I was able to actually introduce myself to the nurses I had blown off on my way to the bathtub eight hours earlier (their names were Sam and Meegan and they were wonderful). I asked what time it was and someone answered before Taryn had the chance to remind them that there was no such thing as time in Laborland. I was able to make jokes, smile, be myself, kiss my husband like I meant it, thank Taryn for being so supportive and wonderful and even take a little nap (which I definitely needed).
Soon, I was awoken from my cat nap by Leanna, Sam and Meegan rushing in to review mine and the baby’s read-outs- and the news was not good. The epidural had effectively managed the pain of my contractions, but they were no longer effective enough to cause any real progress and about half as strong as they had been before, although just as close together (a side affect I was well aware of from my research before allowing the epidural, whether I had forgotten in the moment or not). And to top it off, the baby’s heart rate had dropped, which required me to wear an oxygen mask for his sake. Meegan also appeared with a catheder kit.
“Great!” I thought, “two more cords to add to my Bain-like appearance” (from the new Dark Knight movie). Even after all this, I still was not scared. I refused to feel sorry for myself, I refused to give in to fear. I didn’t feel trapped because I was surrounded by loved ones. I had promised myself I would accept changes to my birth plan with an open mind and I accepted that each decision brought me closer and closer to meeting my beautiful baby boy. I could still feel my stomach contracting on its own and I knew my baby and I could do this. But Leanna wanted to start a low dose of Pitocin to help us along (2 drop doses increased every 20 minutes). Taryn suggested we also try nipple stimulation to keep from upping the dosage of Pitocin to the average level of 24-30 drops (we knew from a prior accidental experience of nipple stimulation during my pregnancy that my body responded well to this with strong contractions).
I had been so determined to avoid Pitocin, so we tried the breast pump between contractions (after 60 second rest). My contraction pattern didn’t allow for much nipple stimulation, but when the opportunity arose, we were able to increase the effectiveness of the contractions slightly. However, it wasn’t long before Meegan came in and told us to stop because even if I couldn’t feel the sensations, we were causing the surges to be non-stop and too close together.
That’s when I started getting scared and I didn’t know what decision to make. How was I suppose to trust my mother’s intuition everyone kept talking about to make the right decision when that very same intuition had just betrayed me? I thought I was doing the right thing- rocking and pressing to get this little guy to descend. I thought we were a team and we were making progress. How can I trust myself to decide whether I should continue laboring with the Pitocin turned off- even with the blood loss, even with the abruption, even with the meconium, even with my blood pressure and the baby’s heart rate dropping- versus all the risks of a c-section. I wished for someone to just tell me what was the right thing to do, but only I could make this decision.
I asked Leanna to turn off the Pitocin and allow me to rest before making my final choice. She and the nurses left the room and in that moment, I forgot about birthing without fear. I forgot about my vow to do this as a beacon of hope for those women who weren’t lucky enough to have a supportive team like mine, for those women who had their birthshappen to them without their consent. In that moment, I felt selfish and I was scared and I told Chris and Taryn that. And I cried. I mourned the loss of that perfect birth experience I dreamed of, but they reminded me how strong I had been and that without all the complications I would’ve been able to have that experience. I would have already birthed my baby naturally if I had had a “normal” labor- before the epidural, before the cords and oxygen and Pitocin.
I cried because of all the research I had done, all the books I read, all the time I spent online- I never spent any of that time learning anything but the basics about c-sections because I never actually believed it was a possibility. I regretted it. I didn’t know what to expect and I didn’t know how to decide.
Taryn offered to walk me through a typical procedure and I tried to control my fear. Afterwards, she told me to close my eyes and listen to my heart. I allowed myself to relax as much as I could. I put my hands on my belly and silently spoke to my baby like I had done the past ten months. I told him to kick my hands, make a movement if he was OK and he never moved. I promised him I would keep him safe no matter what if he just came out before something bad happened to us.
Then I fell asleep. I don’t know for how long, but I do know I dreamed about my baby. I saw his beautiful face, his little button nose and I saw his cord wrapped tightly around his chest. I didn’t think anything of it when Leanna came to ask if I had made my decision. I told her I knew a c-section was the right thing to do, but I wasn’t ready. So she sat on the bed and explained the difference between an emergency and routine procedure. She said if we waited too long, I may have to go to the OR without my support team, but if we made the decision now, Chris and Taryn could be by my side the whole time.
In one last ditch effort before the surgery, we attempted to push one more time. The team helped me place my feet on the squatting bar, read the strips and told me to hold my breath and push the pressure down and out- lithomy to the max. Purple Pushing. I was terrified this pushing would be effective and the baby would literally tear me in half on the way out. I was terrified this pushing would not work and I would end up cold and vulnerable on the OR table with some unknown surgeon cutting me open and robbing me of the birth experience I had worked so hard for.
I pushed with all my strength. I silently told the how important this was. I could feel us working together, I could feel his movement and our progress. I just knew this was it- it had to be. Just then, his heartrate dropped below 70bpm and we no longer has a choice (even though I was able to fully dilate and efface). We were heading into what Leanna referred to as a “semi-emergency c-section” (meaning the situation had become an emergency, but since they had time to prepare, Chris and Taryn could be present).
Leanna called the c-section team and Taryn reminded me to use the same relaxation techniques I had been using all along to keep myself calm when I got into the bright, cold OR. She reminded me I didn’t have to be afraid, that I had made the right decision, that my baby and I were in good hands. She and Chris donned their OR attire- bodysuits, hair nets and little booties- and tried to keep the mood light.
I think that was when I drew inward. I closed my eyes, tried to quiet my fears and silently spoke to my baby. The questions and consents required for me to sign before the surgery, the bright lights in the hallway and the operating room, the anesthesiologist testing my numbness with a very sharp and painful clamp (“Do you feel the cold?” “Is it a pinch or a pressure?” “Ow, it’s a pinch!” as he proceeded to crank up the painkillers)- they were all breaks in my concentration and I just pretended this wasn’t happening to me. In an effort to salvage what was left of my birth plan, Leanna insisted on finding a mirror so I could witness the exact moment of my son’s birth.
Finally, they brought Chris and Taryn into the room- Chris sitting on a stool at my head and Taryn standing on my left side- and I could’ve cried when I saw them. I was so relieved and reached out for Chris even though my hands were mostly numb.
The rest of the surgery was a blur. Once they made the incision, I remember feeling a lot of pressure all the way up to my throat. It felt like those really forceful kicks I was used to feeling toward the end of my pregnancy. I remember hearing voices all around me- the nurses counting the instruments. Finally, I know someone told me to open my eyes to watch my son come into the world. But more than anything, it felt like that voice had come from within me- like the baby was calling to me, saying “Ready or not, here I come.” And somehow through the drugs, I was able to open my eyes and watch my son being born. I was not able to catch him like I had looked forward so much to doing, but I got to witness the exact moment of his birth and it was perfect.
He was everything I dreamed of. I looked in the mirror and saw his little purple body as he emerged. He was covered in vernix and his cord was wrapped around his chest and one leg. And I cried- not fearful tears, but tears of total joy, unlike anything I had ever felt before. I knew I had done the right thing. My baby was here, safe and warm in his daddy’s arms. I repeated over and over “I knew it”and I did. Suddenly I remembered the dream I had before the surgery and I knew his cord was wrapped. I knew he had been presenting brow first all along for a reason, to prevent himself from descending and pinching off his only source of oxygen. I knew with it wrapped around him, his cord was too short to be birthed vaginally. I knew we had not come to this surgery unnecessarily like so many women and babies before us. Somehow I just knew.
Unfortunately we were not able to do delayed cord clamping as I had requested, but seeing that cord around his chest as a team of pediatricians took him to the exam table and surrounded him to check vitals only validated what I had not had the courage all along to trust- my mother’s intuition. I was finally a mother. And now I know I can trust that instinct inside myself.
At some point, I became acutely aware of my surroundings. I don’t know if I was feeling actual pain or just the restlessness of not having control of my body, but I began crying out. I moaned. My shoulder hurt!!! (Why does my shoulder HURT when there is a huge incision across my stomach?!) The anstheologist pumped more cold fluid into the spinal cathedar, sweet relief!
Meanwhile, Chris brought the baby to me. Later I was told he was very alert after birth and began looking around for me upon hearing my cries. I looked into is big, bright eyes. I wanted to touch him, to hold him, to kiss him. I did the only thing I could do through the medicine and I rubbed my cheek on his and he cooed. I tried so hard to keep my eyes open, to stay on this side of reality to bask in the beauty of the life I had just brought into this world.
I struggled to move my arms. I wanted to feel his soft skin, but I couldn’t stay awake. Later, Leanna and Taryn explained this was not due to the pain medications at all. I was in fact going in and out of shock due to a severe hemmorage. I now know the average amount of blood loss for a c-section is approximately 700ml, while I lost 1800ml (stage 3 out of 4 hemmorage). Those circumstances did not, however, prevent the skin to skin contact I requested in my birth plan. I am eternally grateful to Leanna to being so faithful to my wishes, even as I went in and out of alertness. When they laid him on my chest, I kissed him a thousand times and the rest of the world just fell away.
It wasn’t long before we were out of the OR and back into our birthing suite. I was still groggy and weak, but they laid Cael on my chest again. Taryn helped me encourage him to self-attach, which he did eagerly and had nursed perfectly ever since. It was like after all the hardship we had gone through together, the baby and I were made to work as a team and we have done so from that day forward.
In the end, Chris and I were able to celebrate our passage into parenthood and I believe Cael’s outstanding health has been more than a miracle. He received 9’s on both apgar tests and the nurse who tested his bilirubin count even thought her machine was broken because he measured twice at 0.0 and then a third time at .02. Our lactation consultant was so proud that he only had a 2.5% weight loss before we were discharged from the hospital three days later. Furthermore, Cael has slept soundly on my chest up to four hours at a time every night since his birth.
I’d be lying if I said a part of me wasn’t ashamed of my body for failing; That I wasn’t disappointed I never had a chance to snap that beautiful natural birth photo of a strong, fearless women- a black and white moment frozen in time that I could be proud to show off when I told my story. I struggled to explain my choices to well-meaning friends and family members who truly had no idea what natural birth was or what it meant to me and how important it was to my own peace of mind to maintain my sense of choice. Those friends who insisted I should’ve been in the OR much sooner, who claim I would’ve been “safer” with an OB. I was angry for having to defend Leanna, whose number one priority through the whole ordeal was empowering me while maintaining the safety of my child and myself.
When I look back on my experience, I am content in knowing I was never another victim of OB’s. I know I don’t have to be ashamed of my choices because I was educated about “normal” birth and knew when my birth had taken a turn away from normal. I knew about the possible interventions and when I actually needed them and why. I believed in myself and my birth team and they believed in me. I have accepted that this is my story, this is something I had to face, had to go through to get to the end- my perfect, beautiful son. And when my faith in that truth waivers, I remind myself that my journey into motherhood was a great, powerful experience, not a punishment for some unnamed shortcoming.
I look at my son, who is not just surviving, but thriving and I remember that what is considered “normal” isn’t always best. The choices I made on my birthing day were just the first steps in becoming the kind of mother I have always wanted to be, the kind of mother who sacrifices her own desires for the safety and well-being of her children. It’s like the saying goes: “When a baby is born, so is a mother.”
Birth Photography by Doula Taryn Goodwin and maternity pictures by hubby.