The day of January 2nd, 2015, like all of my days, was mapped out on a sheet of printed “to do” paper: work on embroidering the hot air balloon mobile for the nursery; watch TED Talks while embroidering; complete iPad and iPhone updates; read; watch House of Cards. I had apparently planned to have lunch around 12:45, walk the dog, and get ready to go “up North” with Dawn. (I don’t actually remember much of this. I still have the piece of paper.). These things represent the essentials of holiday break while pregnant — the first break where I wouldn’t be going back to work the next semester, though that didn’t feel real quite yet — and nesting. Around 2pm, I was sitting at my desk, “working” on the previously mentioned “to do” list items when I felt a kind of cramp — almost like the baby had kicked me but in a (slightly) painful way. The feeling was light, not necessarily worth mentioning, and nothing I felt certain was a contraction.
Those painful “kicks” or slight cramps continued on through the afternoon. Not at regular intervals but here and there. I headed “up North” with Dawn after she got out of her first job. She cleaned her buildings (her second job), and we went to her mother’s for dinner –something that at one point in our lives had been a Friday evening tradition but was now a rarity. We didn’t know at the time, but this was actually a special occasion. It would end up being my last meal for the next 48 hours. Dawn’s stepdad made burgers — the fact of him doing the cooking another exception to the norm. They were delicious and, apparently, quite hearty because they ended up getting us through the more than 40 hours of labor that followed. I hadn’t mentioned to Dawn’s mom and stepdad anything about the possibility of contractions, but Dawn knew.
When we got home, we decided to go for a walk around our neighborhood. It was a brisk January evening, but in my ideal birth plan I was out walking during contractions — both to enjoy the extra intense beauty that the outdoors could bring during labor, but also to move the contractions along. Plus, I felt full from dinner. So walk we did.
During pregnancy my “go to” text was Ina May Gaskin’s book, Natural Childbirth. I love the birth stories and this book is full of them. In so many of them the women describe taking these lovely, peaceful walks in the early stages of their labor. They describe the intensity of being amongst living, breathing trees and flowers — the connection they felt to the aliveness of the world in the moment of bringing new life into it. This too was always how I envisioned my labor starting out until I remembered that late December/early January due date. Brrrr!
Despite the chill in the air, the walk was pleasant, if difficult. We have HILLS where we live. Major hills. And while I tried to act like this was just like any other walk, I felt that it wasn’t, and I wanted to know — like know with absolute certainty — what was going on! Was this it? Should I get excited? Should I be scared? I felt the best thing to do was keep walking in order to help move the contractions along, but it was cold, and I was tired and nervous.
Once we got back to the house, we turned on Jeopardy, and I poured a glass of red wine, as had been advised by all the midwives and birthing experts along the way. I tried to focus on my favorite show, but kept getting distracted by trying to figure out whether or not I was officially in labor or now. The intensity of the contractions was increasing, but they were still super far apart and seemingly a bit irregular. Still, I thought, I should probably call my midwife. I did, and she was at another birth. She was all business and asked in a very formal way for me to state my last name. This freaked me out and made me feel really uncomfortable. She was very calm (as she should have been, but I think I wanted more of a reaction), and basically said that I was doing fine: drink the wine and go to sleep. When I described the call to Dawn, we both felt a bit ill at ease. Our very familiar and comfortable relationship with our midwife suddenly seemed cold, distant, and possibly non-existent. She appeared in no hurry to show up on the scene and check things out.
We headed up to bed with the glass of wine in hand. I tried to drink it, but the contractions started becoming more regular and frequent — about ten minutes apart — and very painful. The idea of eating or drinking anything (especially red wine) gave me an incredible feeling of nausea.
I made Dawn call Kelly, because I was scared. And I knew if Kelly were there, I wouldn’t be anymore. After wrapping up her other birth, Kelly did come to the house. I told her my pain level during the contractions was a 9. At that point she checked my dilation (ouch!) and told me gently but firmly that I still had a long road ahead of me. Kelly doesn’t tell you dilation measurements. In fact, she’ll be the first to tell you that dilation is overrated in terms of being an indicator of when the baby will come. That might be the case, but she knew for sure my cervix wasn’t even close to ready. (After Levi arrived, she let us know that I was at only .5 cm dilated on Friday night).
Of course this kind of thing would happen to me because when I read the book Bringing Up Bebé while I was pregnant, the author went to the hospital super early because the contractions were causing her so much pain. The nurse told her plainly that no one actually comes to the hospital that early in the process; she was hardly dilated. I had read this scene with a good laugh, and thought she was a bit crazy for showing up at the hospital when she was hardly in labor. Life lesson: Don’t laugh at the seemingly crazy situation of others; you might (probably will) totally end up in the same one yourself.
What was also happening was the “worst case scenario” we had discussed at my home birth planning session. I am so not a night person. In fact physically and mentally I just go completely downhill in the evening. I need cozy pants, a bowl of cereal, a book, bed, and SLEEP. I NEED sleep. Mornings — even super early mornings — I can tackle anything. But not at night. I realize that all people need sleep, of course. But some people (like my midwife, clearly) do better on irregular or little sleep. I am one of those people who get totally crazy about getting my sleep: having all the right conditions (silence, darkness, two pillows, blankets so heavy they feel like concrete lying over me). So going into painful labor at 9pm was the thing I feared most.
Speaking of fear, upon Kelly’s arrival, I started getting severe chills, my body was shaking uncontrollably with tremors so big and hard that my legs were jerking wildly. I only wanted to be in my bed under the covers. Everything from birthing classes went straight out the door. Don’t touch me. Don’t attempt to get me out from under these covers. No, I’m not walking around. We will use that physio ball for workouts a year from now.
I guess not everything from birthing class was useless. Many of the things they told us were true: I lost all sense of time. I did not want people talking to me, asking me questions. I needed to focus on managing the pain and talking myself through the experience.
Kelly asked me if she needed her continued support through the night. She wanted me to get some sleep for the “long road ahead.” I didn’t want her to leave (see fear above), but Dawn (wisely) knew we would want a well-rested midwife and sent her home. For the next twelve hours or so (see no sense of time above) I laid awake, taking too long to recover from each contraction to fall asleep before the next one was on its way. They continued to be a solid ten minutes apart.
As promised, Kelly came back the next morning. To find me in the same spot, in the same state as she had left me. I was not progressing. Between Saturday morning and Levi’s arrival at 6:53 on Sunday morning, I took two hot baths, had my cervix adjusted twice (and if I thought contractions were painful, they had nothing on that experience — think of a cow being branded), screamed wildly every ten minutes for what seemed to be a lot longer than it actually was, had my water broken by Kelly, said between two and five times that I didn’t think I could do it any more, contemplated going to the hospital over and over (meanwhile an ice storm had developed. Anyone read Midwives? I did — during my pregnancy). I experienced intense back pain, but any time that someone would attempt to massage me, it only made the pain worsen. I screamed some more.
At one point, early Saturday night, Dawn (I learned this after the birth) took Kelly out into the hall, and angrily asked her, “Are we going to have a baby tonight or what?” She was scared, and scared makes her angry. She told Kelly she didn’t think I could do this any more. It was too much. Kelly was convinced I still had it in me. She later joked that she thought for a minute that Dawn was going to punch her!
But eventually, in the night on Saturday my screams became even more primal, and I did switch to hands and knees position in the bed, and then a more upright position holding onto the bed’s headboard. At one point I remember saying, “I think I’m pushing??” And Kelly responding, “I think you are too.” Eventually I was on the toilet with Kelly on a birthing stool in front of me, holding my feet up. I was definitely pushing (along with other bodily functions…). I tired of the toilet after awhile and just wanted to be in my bed again. Preferably sleeping.
We returned to the bed where our baby boy arrived at 6:53am. We didn’t know what sex the baby would be, but Kelly had pronounced her belief that the baby was a girl when she had arrived on Friday night. So for nearly 40 hours I had listened to everyone refer to the baby as a girl. I felt a twinge of shock when Kelly called out, “It’s a boy!” (although only a twinge, as I had no energy left for feeling much of anything at that point). While I was excited to hold my baby, the lack of energy combined with the general feeling of extreme relief at no longer being in labor made actual feelings hard to muster in that moment.
The first words out of Kelly’s mouth were, “Next time it won’t be like this, I promise.” I thought she had clearly lost her mind. There would never ever be a “next time.”
Looking back on it now, however, that moment makes me want to do it all again.
I will say that it has taken me 20 months to be able to say that last part. Not only did I find the length and intensity of my labor a little traumatic, but I had an incredibly long healing process. After six months, I still had pain while standing up or walking (I had granulation tissue among other issues that caused this chronic discomfort). It took about a year for me to move with almost complete comfort (although I don’t think you ever fully get your pre-baby body back again). I have photos and video footage of the delivery, for which I am grateful; however, the video footage is still difficult to watch on account of the pain filling my screams with each contractions. (I needed throat lozenges all day on Sunday, as I had nearly lost my voice at that point and had a very tender throat).
I guess on some days I wish that I had one of the magical home birth stories that I have read or heard along the way. I also try to see it from the perspective of my midwife who has seen so many births — long and complicated (and even dangerous) ones — that mine doesn’t seem that out of the ordinary or particularly difficult. (Once the labor was over Kelly asked me if still thought the pain on Friday night was a 9 in comparison to the pain of later labor. I did. And still do. Honestly the pain did increase a bit over the span of those two days but not a whole lot). I understand this perspective, but the perspective most alive and real to me is always, of course, my own. I spend my life thinking about getting outside of one’s perspective to understand things more deeply, to expand that perspective. Everyone’s birth story is different. That’s part of the beauty of it. I am okay with not seeing mine as beautiful, or joyous, or lovely, or any of the other words I have heard other women use to describe their birth experience(s).
Ultimately though, my story too is magical, as my son came at the end and since that time each day feels — kind of like the journey of his arrival — both difficult and magical, both scary and exciting.