By the time I became pregnant with my second child, I knew the kind of birth I wanted. I had spent most of my life hating my body. For not being thin enough. For not being pretty enough. For not being good enough. I hated my body for its infertility and, most of all, for the miscarriage that I had suffered when we first started trying to conceive another baby. My first birth, an induced birth in a hospital with an epidural that gave me my beautiful first daughter, was nothing short of lovely. Though the induced labor was hard, everything went according to plan and I had no complaints or regrets. It was the perfect thing for me at the time.
But for my second, I knew I wanted more. I had heard talk of how wonderful it was to give birth naturally, without medicated pain relief. How empowering. How profound and transformative. Every birth has the power to do that. My first transformed me, certainly. But with my second chance, I yearned for a deeper, more transcendent experience. And so a natural birth, one without an epidural or any other intervention of the sort, was written into my birth plan.
And then, two days past her due date, my precious, unborn baby girl turned breech. And I was suddenly, between my sobs, signing papers to agree to a c-section because no doctor that I knew of would deliver a breech baby vaginally. And then a day later, on the morning of my scheduled c-section, my baby flipped again and suddenly I was begging to be induced. Another induction was not what I wanted and, in retrospect, perhaps I should have just waited for labor to begin, but I was scared. I was scared my baby would flip again and that would be that. I would have to have that baby cut out of me. A c-section scared me more than anything else and so we went forth with the induction.
It was a cool, overcast October day in 2013 when we dropped my daughter Sydney off at a friend’s house and drove the few miles to the hospital. It was my mom, my husband and I in the car and we arrived for the induction fifteen minutes late. We were out of breath, anxious, nervous, and excited. We had been waiting for this day to come for a very long time. And still, we waited some more. In fact, we spent the next eight hours waiting. Waiting to be checked in and taken to our room. Waiting to complete all the admission questions. Waiting through an hour of fetal monitoring. Waiting for my blood work to come back and my urine to be tested. Waiting for the doctor (not my OB, but one of his partners) to do an ultrasound. (The baby was still head-down, thankfully.) Waiting for my first dose of Cytotec to ripen my cervix (which I did not even get until 11 a.m. though I arrived just after 8 a.m.). Waiting through more fetal monitoring. Waiting for contractions to start. Waiting for them to get stronger and closer together. The waiting was endless.
Around 4 p.m., the few contractions I was having pretty much petered out. They were at least ten minutes apart and I couldn’t feel them at all. It was decided then that I’d be given a second dose, this time twice as much, of Cytotec. This meant at least another two hours of fetal monitoring. It felt like I would be tied to my hospital bed forever. I ached to get on my feet, to stretch my legs and back, but instead I had to be happy with switching from sitting to side-lying on one side or the other. The whole process seemed endless and I was beginning to worry if an induction would even be successful this time.
And then everything started to change.
Within an hour of my double dose of Cytotec, I went from having essentially no contractions to having them every ninety seconds. They weren’t yet strong enough to cause me the sort of pain that I would experience in the hours ahead, but they certainly were enough to make me stop and catch my breath. And they gave me hope that this thing might happen after all. That my body could and would respond to another induction and bring forth the baby I felt kicking away in my womb.
But then suddenly, the baby’s heart rate dropped. During one of many contractions, her heart rate dipped from the 130s to 80 or so. My nurse had me quickly recline and turn onto my side and the baby’s heart rate returned to normal, but I could tell the nurse was shaken by it and so was I. We waited and watched in the minutes that followed and while the baby’s heart rate did not decelerate again, it also didn’t show the variability (the up and down of a heart rate that often occurs with contractions or movement) that is considered a reassuring sign. The charge nurse came in to watch the fetal monitor alongside my personal nurse, but nothing changed. I became worried. They kept assuring me that my baby was okay and probably just sleeping, and I could hear her heartbeat and knew she was alive, but I suddenly felt so very vulnerable. We were in a hospital and well on our way to welcoming our long-awaited-for baby into this world, but she still wasn’t safe. We had spent a year, praying for her conception. I had spent nine months of pregnancy, in an almost constant panic, always afraid that we would lose her too. She was now about to be born and she STILL wasn’t safe. She wouldn’t be until she was in my arms. It was a frightening realization and the tears flowed quietly as I sat there waiting for her to move, waiting for that sign that she was still okay.
What was supposed to be two hours of fetal monitoring became two-and-a-half. Three. Three-and-a-half. I was so sick of lying in bed, but the nurses didn’t want me to get up until they saw a change in the baby’s heart rate and, in my fear and anxiety, I didn’t have the heart to protest. It was decided that the best course of action would be to administer terbutaline, a drug sometimes given to stop premature labor, but for me it would be used to slow down my contractions, hopefully giving my baby girl the time to catch her “breath” and bounce back after contractions coming too close together for too long.
Around this time, I also decided I was ready to text my dear friend Kim to ask her to come to the hospital. Kim birthed her second child naturally and feels passionately about women’s birth rights and the benefits of natural birth, and I knew her presence and encouragement would be a crucial part of my birth plan. With the contractions becoming painful, my body shaking uncontrollably, and my heart so full of fear for my baby, I knew then that I needed her, not only to help me through the contractions, but to give me the extra emotional support and comfort.
Kim arrived 45 minutes later just as my contractions were finally slowing down to a more manageable spacing of 2-3 minutes apart. The doctor arrived shortly thereafter to check my dilation (3cm, I think?) and try to tickle the baby’s head to see if her heart rate would respond to touch. I was also encouraged to go to the bathroom and, just as I climbed back into bed for more monitoring, our precious baby finally awoke and began kicking and wiggling away, which led to the heart rate accelerations we had all been waiting for. The relief in the room was palpable. I felt such a sense of calm flow through me and my shaking stopped almost instantly. So the terbutaline had done its job and the baby was rebounding nicely, but there was a new problem: my pulse was abnormally high. It was most likely a side effect of the terbutaline, but it was a cause for concern nevertheless and once again kept me from being free from all the wires. So I was monitored some more. Perhaps I should have fought them at that point and demanded the opportunity to walk around, but I had always known this was one of those unfortunate parts of being induced. And I also believed that having a good rapport with the nurses was going to be critical if I wanted this all to go as smoothly as possible. And so I stayed in bed and allowed the monitoring to continue.
Finally, though, after hours stuck in essentially the same position, I was able to walk the floor. I would still have to be monitored the entire time and kept hydrated with my IV fluids, but I could use the portable fetal monitor instead. So I walked about as the contractions grew in their intensity and my mom, Kim, and my husband took turns pushing my IV pole and holding my gigantic jug of apple juice.
After an hour of walking the halls of the birth center, I was ready for a change of pace. My contractions were back to being about ninety seconds apart and they were becoming more difficult to talk and walk through. We decided to try the bathtub instead, since the portable fetal monitor was also waterproof. That hot (so hot we had to add ice cubes to it) water was such a relief. The first couple contractions I spent there I didn’t even feel and the ones that came after were greatly reduced in intensity. I felt like I could have spent the rest of my life sitting there, immersed in that warmth. Unfortunately, the water made it difficult to monitor the baby and, given our earlier scare and my constant fears for our rainbow baby, I really wanted to be monitored, however cumbersome it was. And so back to the bed I went.
As the contractions continued to come very close together and seemed to become more painful with each one, and the back labor became nearly impossible to endure, we tried everything we could for natural pain management. A variety of positions, from all-fours, to side-lying, to sitting on a birthing ball while leaning on the bed (my favorite), and more. We tried massage with a rolling pin. Counterpressure from a rolling pin. Hip squeezing. A hot water bottle against my lower back. Cold rags on my face and back. Listening to my labor CD. The list goes on. We had quite the “toolkit” and yet nothing felt like it was enough. The back labor had me crippled with each contraction and, with the contractions so constant, there were no breaks. No recovery time. I felt like I was treading water. And sinking.
When my water broke shortly after midnight in a gush that soaked me and the bed, I got scared. Throughout my labor, I had been telling Kim, “I’m scared. I’m scared.” And I was. It was my constant mantra, this admission of fear. Fear of the pain. Fear for my baby’s well-being. Fear for my ability to endure. Fear of the unknown. And this time, I meant it more than ever. I was afraid. So afraid. Afraid because I knew the contractions would get harder without the cushion of amniotic fluid. And they did. Oh, God, did they! Ten minutes earlier, it had been hard to imagine any more pain than what I was experiencing in that moment. But now I knew…it could get worse. It would get worse. I still had a long way to go.
I will say this: I was really at my most vulnerable, my most primal, during my labor. The low, deep moans. The wailing and whimpering I couldn’t control. The wild hair that has me cringing when I look at photos, but that I didn’t even ponder when I was in the middle of it all. The cries for help. The farting. The peeing. The vomiting. I didn’t poop during delivery, but I did just about everything else.
And yet, I had never felt more present in my life. I had my eyes closed throughout much of it, but my senses of touch and hearing were incredible. I could tell who was touching me just by the weight of their hand. I heard every conversation even as I turned inwards to get through the worst of the contractions. I was able to respond to questions, able to hear my baby’s beating heart, able to laugh when Honey told a joke. I felt more empowered than perhaps I ever had. I was doing what female mammals had been doing for thousands of years. I was experiencing, fully, truly experiencing the glory and grief of womanhood at an acute intensity. It was amazing.
It’s a funny thing to feel so strong and weak at once. Strong because I felt completely and totally alive. But weak because I really was beginning to feel like I couldn’t go on. I was tired. And I was in excruciating, unbearable pain that was relentless. As soon as one contraction ended, another began, and it had been that way for hours. More than once, I wished that my baby had been breech after all and I’d been forced to have a c-section. And with those thoughts, the “e”-word also rose to the surface. Epidural. Epidural, epidural, epidural. The four syllables thudded through my head over and over and over. I wanted to give in and give up. I wanted someone to give me the permission to do so.
I started to feel some painful rectal pressure and I said so. It was about 2 a.m. The nurse checked me. I wanted her to say I was 7, 8, 9, 10 centimeters dilated. I needed to know the end was near. And I told myself if it wasn’t, I would consider accepting pain meds. I would admit my weaknesses and cry uncle.
I was then told I was 4-5cm along.
“Oh, god. I can’t do this. I can’t do this anymore!” I felt like crying.
The charge nurse, Debbie, knelt before me. She told me to open my eyes and look at her. She told me I had a decision to make. “You need to decide what you want to do,” she said. “Not during a contraction. Not immediately after. But in between. Talk to your husband. Decide what you can live with. And we will support you in whatever you choose.” She never said the “e”-word, as I had requested that it not be offered to me, but essentially, she was giving me the permission to give up that I so desired.
After another contraction, Kim gently asked me if I wanted to talk to my husband. “No, I want to talk to you,” I said. “I don’t want to let you down. You were so strong when you had your baby and I know this isn’t the kind of birth you wanted to attend.” Kim laughed. She said not to worry about her, that this had nothing to do with her. That each woman’s labor is unique and I had already been so strong, so amazing.
Another contraction gripped me and then I asked my husband if he would be disappointed in me if I asked for an epidural. Though I yearned for the permission to give up, a part of me was hoping he would say yes. That someone would require me to stick with it. Instead, Dan whispered loudly, “Honestly, I can’t even remember why we want a natural birth.” The nurses laughed. Mom and Kim laughed. So did I. “Why do we want to do this again?” he asked.
“Because it’s what’s best for the baby,” I said. And I did believe it was best for my baby girl AND for me, but with another contraction coming on strong, it was hard to feel much conviction. And so as soon as I caught my breath, I relented. I asked for an epidural. I was disappointed in myself, and for a long time afterwards I would hold onto that shame, but I was relieved too. And desperate for the anesthesiologist to come as quickly as he could. Fast would not be fast enough.
I kept asking for the epidural. Or rather, screaming for it. Begging for it. “Where is he? Where is he?” I asked over and over. “I need heeeeelllllp!” I could feel myself losing control, spiraling. I was a mess. A number of times, it occurred to me that if there was another pregnant woman walking the halls in early labor and if she happened to pass my room, I would probably scare that baby right out of her. My pain terrified me; surely it would terrify someone else too. But even while I knew that I had lost all grip on my pain management, and even though Kim worked very hard to guide me in getting it back under control, I couldn’t. I wouldn’t listen. I wanted no part in working with the contractions anymore. I just wanted pain relief. And I just wanted that baby out of me.
And then suddenly, I felt the most incredible, undeniable pressure. It felt like I was being turned inside out. Like I was being ripped apart. “I feel like I have to poop!” I screamed. But even as I said it, I knew I didn’t. I knew I just needed to push. I knew my baby was ready.
And when the nurse checked me, just fifteen minutes or so after my last check when I was only 4-5cm dilated, sure enough…it was confirmed that I was fully effaced, fully dilated, and ready to push. With no epidural in sight.
The problem? The on-call doctor was at home a half-hour away. And the other doctor on the floor was no where to be found.
“I have to push! I have to push!” I screamed.
“No! No, don’t push!” Everyone screamed back. My nurse ran to gather a team of nurses to help in the delivery while Debbie (the charge nurse) tried to convince me that I had to wait until the doctor arrived. And I did try, but only half-heartedly. I already knew that I couldn’t hold back much longer.
“I can feel her coming! I feel her head. I need her out! I need her out!” Phrases like that streamed out of me, over and over, while everyone kept telling me not to push. To wait. To hold on.
But there came a point of no return. The baby was coming, ready or not, and so I let go. I screamed and I pushed. One, two, three. Three pushes, one vivid ring of fire, and less than five minutes later, and then there she was, in the hands of Debbie and my nurse, whimpering. Not crying. It was 2:23 a.m.
“Is she okay?” I asked, straining to see her, already on my way to forgetting the intensity of the pain that I had just endured.
“She’s fine,” they told me and she was placed on my chest, warm and gooey and beautiful, and then she did cry a loud, perfect wail and the greatest weight was lifted from my shoulders. My second daughter was here, safe at last, and nothing mattered more than that. This was the moment I had been fighting for, crying for, praying for, waiting for, hoping for, yearning for, preparing for, for months and months and months. Perhaps my whole life.
Kim once asked me if I felt any trauma from this birth. I think my husband does. Seeing me writhing in pain has lingered in his head and heart for years. But me? All of the pain, all of the fear, the sense of helplessness and defeat, was buried by a mound of relief and joy the moment I held my Eloise in my arms. And time has only made the sweet moments sweeter in my memory and helped the rest to fade away.
I have since gone on to have another child, my first boy. He was born naturally as well, and was my first that didn’t require an induction. And though he helped me to understand just how different induced contractions are compared to natural ones and his birth was the ideal scenario, everything I had hoped for across the years, it is Eloise’s birth that was the most powerful for me. Her birth brought me to the brink. Stripped down. Raw. No other birth has made me suffer so much or empowered me so greatly. I found such healing in bringing her into this world. After so much pain, both in trying to conceive her and in laboring through such agony, and after so many years of hating my body for one reason or another, I learned just what my body is capable of. I learned what I am made of. I learned just how strong I can be. And for that, I will never be the same.