I wanted to take some time to reflect on the incredible event of the birth of our son. Positive birth stories can sometimes be few and far between, and I always appreciated a good birth story when I was pregnant (and still do!). In fact one of the best books I read to prepare me for birth was Ina May Gaskin’s Spiritual Midwifery, which is basically just a collection of birth stories. Anyway, without further ado…
The last trimester of pregnancy was actually really enjoyable for me. I generally felt comfortable (and mobile) even in the Charleston heat and had lots of energy… so much so, that I decided to take advantage of my free time and take a Maymester/Summer intensive Anatomy & Physiology class at our local community college! I loved the subject matter and did extremely well considering I haven’t been a student in quite a number of years. I was feeling relaxed, content and at peace – a good place to be leading up to labor. The second half of the course was due to finish about 10 days before my due date. I knew that I was cutting it a bit close, but I thought it was a risk worth taking (plus I had the permission of the instructor to take the final exam late in case the baby came early). All was looking good to finish the course with plenty of time to spare… that is, until the weekend before finals…
I had my 37-week appointment on a Thursday, the week before finals, and to my surprise I was 1cm dilated and nearly 100% effaced! The midwife assured me that it could be days or weeks before I went into labor, so I decided to try to remain calm and not worry about going into labor early. The next morning, however, I lost my mucus plug, and by that evening I was having irregular crampy Braxton-Hicks contractions. All my plans to remain calm, relaxed and worry-free went completely out of the window – I still had three days of class left (including two final exams), and I was desperate to finish before I went into labor! I spent the entire weekend in bed, trying to decide if I should be calm and let things take their course, or continue to freak out so that the adrenaline would put a halt on me going into labor. I sort of went the route of stress/adrenaline, although of course I’m not sure how much control I actually had! It seemed to work, however, because I managed to get through my exams without baby making an early appearance.
I went into the following week trying to enjoy being on “maternity leave” and making the most of my last days before baby’s arrival. David had planned to work a three-day week, finishing on Wednesday, and was telling everyone that I would go into labor on Thursday. Rather than rolling my eyes at him, I found myself expecting the same thing. And so did my Mom, who spent that week madly cleaning the house and getting everything in order! (I had already done my crazy nesting/cleaning weeks before.)
Early that week, I lost my mucus plug again – because apparently it can re-form – but I didn’t think much of it. The thing that was mostly occupying my attention was the fact that I managed to pull an intercostal muscle during a brief but intense coughing fit. I was in so much pain that it hurt to breathe, and I seriously wondered if it was going to affect my ability to labor. We went in for my 39-week checkup on Thursday morning, and I guess I was having some mild/crampy BH – enough that I remember leaning over the table when the midwife came in the room. I was still only about 2cm dilated, and baby’s head was engaged, but I wasn’t really thinking anything of the contractions – after all, anything was par for the course at that point.
As the afternoon progressed, I realized that my contractions were forming somewhat of a pattern. By 4pm they were about 10-15 minutes apart but still mild enough to where I could move around comfortably. I spent some time walking up and down the stairs outside. It was a cool-ish sort of day (for July at least), and it felt good to be in the humid air. We decided to go for a swim in the pool as swimming had been my favorite way to relax during pregnancy. It was early evening by this point and the wind had picked up, making the water feel a bit too chilly for me to relax. After a couple of minutes I got out and went upstairs to run a bath. The contractions were now coming around 10 minutes apart – definitely crampy, but I was feeling them all in the front, low down. I wasn’t sure if this was real labor or not, and I remember someone saying that having a bath/shower will stall the contractions if it’s false labor or speed things up if it’s the real thing.
The bath felt wonderful, and after waiting a while, the contractions seemed to be coming more frequently – maybe 8-10 minutes apart. It was around 7pm at this point, and we decided to text our doula to let her know where things were at. I wasn’t in pain, per se, but I was starting to need to breathe through the contractions to stay relaxed. I kept changing positions from the bath, to leaning over the bed, to being on my hands and knees. The contractions were definitely getting stronger and closer together, and I was starting to make some noise with them – low breathing sounds to try to relax my mouth and bottom. I know my parents could hear me – they were probably dying to know if I was okay, but they respectfully gave us privacy – and I tried my best to ignore them and not worry about the noise. Around 8:30 we asked Kelly, our doula, to come over. By the time she got here I was really having to focus and breathe. She arrived just as I was getting out of the bath, and I apologized for being naked and said I didn’t want to get dressed. Haha.
The contractions were coming stronger and stronger, still low down and a lot of pressure in the front, and I was not able to talk much while they were happening. Kelly rubbed my back for a while we debated when to call the birth center. They had told me to wait until contractions were 3-5 minutes apart, lasting at least 45 seconds, for 1-2 hours. David had been timing them, and they had been like that for probably about 30 minutes by the time Kelly got there. I was getting a little antsy about calling the birth center. I just wanted to get there as soon as possible, and I was dreading the 40-minute drive in that stage of labor! We called around 10:30pm, and they told us to meet at birth center at 11:30pm. David got everything ready, I put on my finest baggy t-shirt and Dale Jr. boxer shorts, and we made our way downstairs. My parents were waiting to see us off, looking a mix of worried, freaked out and awe-struck.
The car ride was rough, but I made it to the birth center without (a) throwing up, (b) waters breaking and making a mess in the car, and (c) starting to push. Thankfully the crew (midwife, student midwife and nurse) were already there when we arrived and were getting things set up. I walked in, leaned over the back of the couch in the foyer, and said, “When can I take my clothes off?” I think I proceeded to strip down then and there! I was in the thick of it at this point – contractions coming thick and fast, very focused and feeling tons of pressure on my cervix. I was relieved to finally be at the birth center where I could let things take their course. I was led to the birthing suite, which was like a spa or a cosy hotel room – large four-poster bed, lights dim, the sound of water filling the birthing pool. They had me lay on the bed while they checked me (6cm dilated) and monitored the baby’s heart rate for three contractions. Everything looked great, so they said I could go ahead and get in the pool.
I had been looking forward to this moment for a long time – the relief of being in the water during active labor – and it was one of the main reasons we chose a birth center birth. However, almost immediately after I got in the water, it felt awful! The water was really warm, as was the room – I was so hot and uncomfortable! I promptly got out of the pool, and the midwife suggested that I might like to sit backwards on the toilet instead. It wasn’t how I had imagined spending most of active labor, but the cool of the ceramic brought a little relief. I don’t remember much from this point as the contractions were very intense and I was very much “in the zone”. I do remember saying at several points, “I don’t know if I can do this anymore.” Each time, someone would encourage me saying that I AM doing it, that my body knows exactly what to do, and that when it comes time to push it will be a relief. When I made noise and groaned during my contractions, David literally growled along with me in the same way he play-growls at the puppy. It was funny, and surprisingly it kind of helped. Apparently he told me, “I love you so much,” to which I replied “Go away!… I’m sorry.” At some point, someone asked if I wanted nitrous oxide. I said yes please, but they wanted to check first to see how far I had progressed. 9cm – I was so relieved to have made it that far, but they said the nitrous oxide wouldn’t really do much at that point. So back to the toilet I went.
After a short while, the pressure was intense and down in my sacrum and rectum as well as on my cervix. I started to feel like I needed to poop… REALLY BADLY! Which was slightly terrifying, because it felt like I would poop out my entire insides if I let it go… let it goooo… (darn you, Frozen!). I knew what this was – I had always wondered what the urge to push would feel like. One of the midwives encouraged me to follow the leading of my body, so I let myself push a little. Apart from encouraging me to trust my body, the midwives gave me very little guidance (although if they were talking to me I was obviously ignoring them!). I don’t remember how long I was on the toilet, but one of the midwives came to check on me and gently asked if I wanted a Toilet Baby or a Water Baby – it was clearly time to push.
I got back in the pool despite it being uncomfortably warm, and David got in with me. With each contraction, I pushed, and could feel the baby start to move down the birth canal. Thankfully I had a few seconds to collect myself in between. Our doula helped keep me comfortable with icy towels and sips of water, and one of the midwives monitored the baby’s heart rate with a doppler. As baby’s head moved down I started to feel that “ring of fire” that everyone talks about. It was mighty intense… I don’t really have words to describe it, other than the fact that all of my focus was consumed in what I was doing. After what seemed like forever I started to feel increasingly panicky and could no longer stay relaxed. I also groaned loudly with each push. I was desperate to GET THAT BABY OUT! Apparently with each contraction I pushed twice, and baby’s head would move back up a little. David told me later that the midwife said, “This baby knows exactly how to be born”. He was gently stretching my tissues rather than coming all at once. Finally his head crowned, and it took all my patience to wait for the next contraction. With a huge, primal cry I pushed his head out. One more breath, one more contraction, I pushed with all my might, and out slid his body. The midwife said she was going to pass him under the water for me to bring out. I said, “I’m not sure if I can do that!” I was exhausted by that point and was afraid of dropping him back in the water! I brought him out of the water (with some other helping hands) – a boy!! 7lbs 3oz, born at 1:57am on July 4th.
We sat in the water for a couple of minutes while he took his first breaths/cries and they cut his cord. I think my placenta must have been coming out quickly, so they (or David… I don’t remember) took Sam to be cleaned up while they helped me out of the pool. I felt extremely weak and dizzy when I stood up and started shaking with chills. It felt like such an odd experience – here I just birthed my long-awaited baby, but I didn’t feel that rush of emotion like I expected to feel. I was just so exhausted, and also relieved that it was over. My labor lasted roughly 10 hours from start to finish, and I pushed for a total of around 30 minutes. Not bad for the first time!
My memory of the next part is slightly hazy. The nurse/midwives helped me to the bed where I delivered the placenta. They gave me a shot of pitocin (I think I had lost a bit of blood), and checked me out while David lay next to me cuddling Sam. They put Sam to my chest while they gave me a couple of stitches for a partial second degree tear. Sam was squirming and rooting around for quite a while. I remember saying something like, “Can someone help me here, I have no idea what to do!” Someone helped Sam get latched on and commented on how he was such a good eater and is going to love to nurse. While Sam nursed, David and I talked about what we should name him. We both knew that Samson was his name but were afraid to name him that (Samson is also the name of my parents’ golden retriever puppy). We just decided to have some courage/balls and go for it, as it was a name we had been thinking about for a long time.
I was still feeling pretty unwell. They suggested that David go get us something to eat as we hadn’t brought much in the way of protein. Funnily enough the only place open at 4am was Waffle House! I remember thinking, “I just pushed a baby out of my vagina on the Fourth of July, and we are celebrating by getting Waffle House at 4am!” (hashtag America) While David went to get us food, they swaddled Sam so I could close my eyes for a bit. After David got back and I forced down a few bites of egg, sausage and hashbrowns, the nurse had me get up to try to pee. I thought, “I am never going to be able to push anything out of any opening down there again!” She encouraged me that I would feel better once I peed (as well as hydrated and ate). After waiting patiently on the toilet and trying to forget that I just pushed a baby out of my vagina, I was finally able to pee and indeed feel a tiny bit better. We spent the next couple of hours in bed resting as well as going over important information like what to do with your baby when you go home, of which I remembered about zero. Around 6:30am I was feeling a bit better, having drunk a lot of electrolyte water and eaten what I could of my all-American breakfast. David collected our things and put Sam in the car seat, and we were given the okay to go home. I’ll be honest, I was a bit terrified of taking home our newborn baby, partly because I was still not feeling 100% and also because I had no idea how to take care of a new baby. I knew that I would feel better once I was home in my own bed and could get some proper nutrition into me. I also took comfort in knowing that they send a nurse to your house the next day, so I only needed to keep Sam alive for at least a day. 🙂
We got home, were greeted briefly by the thrilled grandparents, and went upstairs to our own bed. It was a beautiful sunny day, and David tucked me into bed with a sleepy Sam at my side. I was desperate for a snack with some real/nourishing ingredients, so David made me a smoothie… with a small piece of my placenta we had taken home with us. Now before you spit out your coffee/tea, ingesting the placenta is actually a relatively common practice in other cultures as it is loaded with nutrients and other good things and is perfectly tailored to your own body. And no I couldn’t taste it. After my smoothie I felt amazing – whether it was the fresh fruit/yogurt or the placenta, I don’t know. I felt like I was coming back into myself, and I no longer felt dizzy or weak, just energized and sleepy (if that combination is possible). Those first few days were spent tucked up in bed, sleeping when Sam slept (which was a lot – we had to set our alarms every 2-3 hours), learning how to nurse him, and generally marveling in disbelief that we had a son!
Looking back, the birth was a very special and wonderful time for me. It was my own personal liminal space, that period of time between worlds. It was the saying goodbye to myself in the form I had known my whole life and becoming a new form, a mother. Also it was truly awesome to experience what the human body can do without help from medical interventions or from the rational part of the brain. Let your body do what it already knows how to do.
When people ask how the birth was, they do so with negative presumptions: “Was it hard? Was she okay? How bad was it?” And I love smiling and saying, “Actually, it wasn’t bad or hard!” It was certainly intense, and for the first several days afterward I was still a little shocked/traumatized by the intensity. But that faded quickly, and I was able to reflect on the birth with gratitude and realize that it was actually a calm and peaceful experience. It was painful, yes, but it was a different kind of pain… one that leads to good, that means that your body is doing exactly what it is made to do.