A year. It's been exactly a year since that crazy, overwhelming moment when they handed me a floppy, slimy, wrinkly baby and I beat my husband to the punch by gasping, "It's a boy!" It was specifically written in our birth plan that Daddy would announce the gender. But, well, by that point our birth plan lay in tatters on the hospital room floor.
Sometimes all the preparations and planning can't keep labor and delivery on the path you'd hoped and dreamed of. So what's a brand new mama to do when she didn't experience the birth she'd hoped for? In honor of his first birthday, today I'm happy to share Rowan's birth story with you (at least the parts I remember clearly) and how I make peace with a birth that didn't go as planned.
Grief, Stress and Insomnia in Pregnancy
Well, that's an upbeat way to start a birth story, isn't it?! The truth is, after a breezy, happy pregnancy the last month got ugly.
My dad's long-standing battle with cancer ended 11 days before I went into labor. Family gathered several hours away at his home while I waddled the aisles of my local Target buying Depends and pain relief spray because I didn't know what else to do.
Insomnia had been my dominant pregnancy symptom since the day I peed on that stick. But in the last month I was lucky to get 2 hours of sleep each night (total, not in an uninterrupted stretch). I endured two weeks of nightly "prodromal labor," which means painful, real contractions that just never get their act together and progress into actual labor. Stress and grief undoubtedly didn't help. I was beyond exhausted and barely functional. "Sleep now before the baby comes!" people would say. I didn't have nice thoughts about those people.
And then I fell off a curb. And then I got a cold. There were a lot of tears, painful coughing spells, phone calls to my mom and proclamations that, "I just need a BREAK!" It wasn't pretty, people!
The Surprise Party That Put Me Into Labor
Okay, so I can't be sure that it started my labor but the timing is very suspicious. We have a friend (my husband's climbing buddy) who decided to have a going away party for himself on a Monday night. At our house. Without letting us know.
My husband and I both arrived home around 9pm from our respective jobs and meetings to find our street lined with cars. "Oh, someone's having a party!" I thought. And then I saw a dude with a six-pack turn and walk down our driveway. Folks, I couldn't make this up if I tried!
I tried my best to be polite when I got out of my car but promptly announced that I was going to bed. I laid in bed coughing and FUMING mad. I furiously texted my husband downstairs to wrap.it.up. and come to bed. And then I felt my nightly labor starting.
Just As We'd Planned
On this night - Monday, June 2nd - at 11pm I got the sense that this night's labor was different. I tried to rest like our Bradley instructor had taught us, but I'd basically given up on ever sleeping again anyway. So instead I took a shower and then binge-watched Parenthood on Netflix while rocking on all fours on our living room floor. I woke Eric several times to let him know that "it was happening" but I let him sleep for a few hours. By dawn, I was working hard through contractions and he was by my side for the long haul.
The rest of that day was uneventful - labor progressed as we'd been taught and as we expected. I walked and snacked and stayed hydrated. I got in our tub. Eric rubbed my back and hips. The only sign that anything was off was that if I laid on my side, my contractions got much further apart (8-10 minutes instead of the 3-4 I was usually having), very long (at least 2 minutes) and absolutely excruciating. I'd get back upright and keep moving and all was back to "normal labor". At 1:00pm our midwives told us to proceed to their office before heading to the hospital. "Oh, you're in active labor alright! I can see it in your eyes - you have 'the look'." The OB/GYN on call said. (For the record, I believe the look he was referring to was the one that meant "don't come near me or speak to me until this contraction is over or I will claw your eyes out"). 4 cm dilated and we were on our way to the hospital.
After a few laps of walking the halls to keep labor moving, I labored in a big jacuzzi tub for several hours and in my head I looked and sounded just like the glorious moms-to-be in the natural birth YouTube videos I had watched. I could almost hear Ina May Gaskins cheering me on from The Farm. I was DOING IT!
The Train To Crazytown
18 hours into labor, I got out of the tub and promptly lost my mind. Something had changed very suddenly. I lost the ability to speak coherently, I was shaking, and whatever noises of glorious woman-power evolved into shrieks of panic. I started having intense crazy thoughts and visions and asking not so subtly for an epidural. Eric assumed (as he was trained to do in our Bradley class) that this was "Transition" - the super-intense part of labor just before a woman is ready to push and he did his best to comfort me and reassure me that this was good - it meant progress!
In so many of the natural birth stories I've read, labor is described in this ethereal, magical, spiritual, other-worldy way. And I have to be honest, I definitely think that unmedicated labor pushes you to some really raw, sensitive depths of your soul. The problem was, instead of "one with the universe," I felt that I was dying and all alone. I felt grief about my dad with crushing intensity. The punishing physical pain began to mix with emotional pain and exhaustion and I was mentally unraveling.
I love Doulas
To be clear, we didn't hire a doula. But when one arrives at your bedside when you're losing your mind in labor, you don't ask questions. Nurses changed shifts and our new Labor & Delivery nurse, Kimmery, came in to introduce herself. Except that she found me in that unraveling state. So she swooped in close to my left ear and with the most calm, reassuring voice I've ever heard (sorry, husband) talked me back down to some level of awareness of myself and what was going on. I was begging for an epidural and she told me that was an option that we were going to talk about. We later found out that she's a certified, practicing doula when she's not a L&D nurse. I'm pretty sure she also moonlights as an angel and the tooth fairy. We were her only patients that night. Hallelujah!
I think she very quickly realized I was experiencing back labor (which is a nice way of saying the baby is trying to push its way through your lower spine) and helped me through several contractions with a heating pad on my back. Between contractions she asked me questions: Why had I wanted a natural birth? What had changed now? What was most helpful at managing the pain? How important was a natural birth to me at this point?
And then she asked the question of all questions:
"Are You In Pain or Are You Suffering?"
My response was immediate: "I am suffering, mind, body and soul and I need to give myself a break." It wasn't a cry for help or a plea. It was a declaration of self-care.
Cue the anesthesiologist. Tuesday, June 3rd at 8:00pm. 21 hours into labor. Once given the epidural, I had to go from the intermittent doppler monitoring that we wrote in our birth plan to continuous fetal monitoring. Once hooked up to the monitor it was discovered that baby was really stressed during contractions, particularly if I was in any position other than my left side (later it was determined this was probably due to cord compression). Then during an exam, it was revealed that our baby had turned "Sunny Side Up" during labor (I believe I can pinpoint the moment he accomplished this gymnastic feat - Choo Choo! The moment the train to crazytown left the station).
I was able to rest somewhat comfortably in the dark for several hours while my body labored and baby managed to turn back around. Whenever they changed my position, things got very tense and I recall thinking in the foggy haze of exhaustion and epidural meds, "That baby heart beat sounds really slow." When it was finally time to push, a team of neonatalogists crowded the room. I was warned that immediate skin-to-skin and delayed cord clamping might be impossible if baby was showing distress at birth (bye-bye remaining shreds of our birth plan). At around 4:45am, with baby already crowning, I started pushing. With the help of a mirror (which totally freaked me out at first but turned out to be AMAZING), I got the hang of pushing and Eric and I both watched as Rowan made his way into the world with eyes wide open and immediately was placed on my chest - healthy, loud and perfect. Wednesday, June 4th - 5:20am. After 30+ hours of labor.
Finding Peace When Birth Doesn't Go As Planned
Here's the thing - I really, really wanted a natural birth. I never even considered it going any other way. I knew I could do it. And then I wound up begging for an epidural, grateful for the rest it gave me and the fuzzy headedness that kept me from panicking when everyone in the room got very quiet and serious about the signs of distress from the babe my belly.
Plenty of women would feel like a failure. I could have felt like I let down my coach/husband, my Bradley instructor/friend, and all the women who I'd become close to in our birth class who delivered naturally before me. I could have felt ashamed, weak, like less of a woman. I could have felt like I didn't experience "real birth." I think plenty of women feel that way and silently carry those feelings with them for years.
I feel so fortunate not to feel that way at all. Another nursing shift change meant that Kimmery wasn't with us at the moment of delivery but she stopped by the next day to see the baby and talk through how I was feeling about his birth. I truly think that having the support of a birth assistant/doula who helped me be fully present and to really process my decisions in the moment and then soon after birth was essential.
In the same way that I thoughtfully made choices that we wrote into our birth plan, I thoughtfully made choices in response to labor. Mothering begins before your baby makes his or her debut - the supreme flexibility, the responsiveness to your own child's needs, the need to take care of yourself while taking complete care of another - it all started before I heard his first scream and smelled his glorious smell. Any woman who gives birth - in any way possible - is mothering during the arrival of her baby - yielding and flexing, enduring and responding to the situations as they arise. There are moments you feel swept away and out of control and then you're back.
Ultimately I realized that my own plans for how our baby's birth "should go" were wonderful, helpful intentions that I was happy to release in order to keep my baby and myself healthy and whole.
Happy birthday to my sweet boy who pushes me to grow and learn and reflect, every single day. I love your birth story because it is ours. You and me. We did it.