*Novel is more like it. Make sure water is nearby, get comfortable, and read on.
Charlie, born on January 3rd at 9:16 AM, 7 pounds 3 ounces, 20 inches
I love birth stories. I’m one of those weird people who has no qualms talking about my labor experiences or hearing all the nitty-gritty details of other women’s births – even near-strangers. There’s no such thing as TMI when it comes to pregnancy and childbirth.
Birth has been on my mind a lot lately. Not only because, as I write, I have a baby who’s just over a month-old sleeping, snuggled up to me, but also because my sister-in-law Rachel just gave birth on Super Bowl Sunday with the same midwife group I used, so we traded our battle stories. And labor, while beautifully miraculous in many ways, is most definitely a battle, especially if you’re having a natural childbirth. Both Rachel and I talked about how just before we welcomed our babies into our arms we both were mired in self-doubt, lamenting, “I can’t do this.” We were engaged in a battle against ourselves, unaware of the strength we possessed to make it to the finish line.
I foolishly assumed my fifth labor would be a breeze. After all, I didn’t have to endure any bed rest as I had during my past three pregnancies, and I exercised throughout this gestational fun and was fit and healthy (despite the nausea that plagued me almost the entire pregnancy). I also had been blessed with four other uncomplicated, natural childbirths and had never pushed more than 20 minutes. (Please don’t hate me.) Then again, I wasn’t planning on getting sick or spiking a fever just four days before I went into labor. I also didn’t figure in that delivering a baby when I’m on the cusp of turning 40 is a lot different than having a baby in your twenties or early thirties. Then there’s the fact that I’m a busy mom of four kids, and I’m always on the go and didn’t have any time to practice any coping with pain strategies. I remember with Madeline visualizing a crashing wave every single day before I went into labor, and then using this positive visualization strategy during labor. The wave would reach a crescendo, crash, and I would breathe and then it would ebb along with the pain. With Charlie, I had trouble focusing on anything during the really tough parts other than the terrifying thought that I might be dying, and there would be no Jon Snow moment for me.
Every single time I reach the final weeks of pregnancy after having dealt with prodromal labor the past three times, I worry I won’t recognize when real labor begins. This was quasi the case with baby #2. But thankfully, I was at the hospital when I told my midwife I had to go poop, and she corrected me that, nope, it was time to have a baby (and it was). After that easy-breezy labor where I only remember a handful of really painful contractions, I assumed the rest of my babies would pop out just as effortlessly. But nope. Each of my births has been very different yet also similar in many ways. Each time I reach that horrible, agonizing transitional phase and want to curse Ina May Gaskin for saying that the birth experience can be orgasmic. More like cataclysmic, Ina. Yet, when the pain is the most intense, my husband and midwife remind me Baby will be here soon. And it’s always been my saving grace that these statements prove to be true. Charlie’s birth was no different, but here I am getting ahead of myself.
Let’s start at the very beginning. That’s a very good place to start. (I just sang that aloud a la Maria Von Trapp.).
This is me in early labor on the day of Charlie’s birthday when I’m thinking, “This is it!!!”
Around 2 a.m. on January 3rd, I woke up with contractions. I wasn’t yet convinced this was the real thing because I had been having lots of regular and slightly intense contractions lately, but they always eventually stopped. This time they kept on going. By 5 am, I was pretty sure this was it, and I’d be meeting our little man soon enough. I texted my parents and asked them to drive over to our house to watch the other kids. Then I woke up Dave. I tossed a few things into my poor excuse of I’m-prepared-to-have-a-baby-hospital bag, and Dave felt like we should head over to the hospital. I wanted to wait a little longer, but he knows how quickly I can go and that I don’t even always realize that I’m on the brink of squeezing a human being out of me.
Case in point: With Thomas I was still delivering with my previous midwife even though we’d moved over an hour away. So to be on the safe side, Dave wanted to hang out at a hotel nearby the hospital once labor started. I’ll never forget the look on the young hotel employee’s eyes when my husband, standing beside a very obviously knocked up wife, asked if they offered rooms by the hour. (Dave is very fiscally responsible, but the answer was regrettably no and we had to pay the full fee even though we weren’t there for more than an hour or two.) I reassured the woman that I was “just in labor,” and we wanted to be near the hospital. But the phrase “just in labor” did not reassure her whatsoever, so I added, “Don’t worry. I won’t have the baby here.” However, if Dave hadn’t convinced me after I puked in a hotel trashcan that we’d better mosey on over to the hospital and call my midwife, I most certainly would have given birth at the Hampton Inn. Talk about an exciting birth story!
So given that quick birth experience the last go-round, the fact that even my first labor went far more expeditiously than a textbook labor should, and yes, the distant memory that I confused baby #2 for a bowel movement, Dave felt we should err on the side of caution. He’s the rational one in the family.
We woke up 12-year-old Madeline and asked her to just sit on the couch and be in charge until my parents could arrive. Fortunately, the rest of the house was all in a slumber. She was very excited and sweet and said she would hold down the fort.
We live only a couple of miles from the hospital, and I was thankful for that because coping with contractions in the car is unbearable.
We called the midwife on call, and before long we were in L&D. When I walked in, I saw one of my Pure Barre instructors. I had no idea she was also a nurse. She ended up being with me until her shift ended. She saw me completely in the buff in the birthing tub. I didn’t care one iota at the time. All modesty was gone, a definite sign Baby is on the way. But when I saw her at my first postpartum barre class, I did find it a little humorous, if not embarrassing, that the last time she saw me I was naked, squatting, and groaning in a gargantuan tub. But that’s just business as usual for an L&D nurse.
When we arrived at the hospital, I didn’t want them to check my dilation right away. I kept working through the contractions that were getting more intense. I was quiet and mentally telling myself over and over, “You can do hard things. This isn’t so bad.” I was also silently praying Hail Marys because that’s something I had always done during labor. I did miss my old Catholic midwife because she would pray with me, but the midwife on call was wonderful. She offered me ginger ale, which I gratefully sipped and she was a calming presence, along with my husband, who if being a doctor stops working out, would make an excellent doula. They did talk me into getting my first IV set up (I’d argued my way out of it the last four labors) since the risk of hemorrhaging increases with each labor. It ended up not being a big deal at all and was never used. This hospital also had digital heart monitors, so I never had to be still to be hooked up to check how the baby was doing. This was wonderful!
I used a stability ball for a bit before entering the tub. I was starting to have trouble getting comfortable. Still, I was quiet, focused, and breathing through each contraction.
At one point, the midwife asked Dave, “Is she always so calm during labor?”
“In the beginning,” he said. He had witnessed me in transition labor and knew things were about to get real.
I didn’t care that they were talking about me as if I wasn’t there. In some ways, I felt like I wasn’t. I was getting more and more serious and feeling closed off from the world around me. I was still repeating my “I can do hard things” mantra, but I was starting to wonder about exactly how long I could do those hard things.
My midwife decided she wanted to check me now because the bath was no longer feeling great, the contractions were becoming more unbearable, and my groaning more frequent and animal-like. Nothing is as primordial as natural childbirth.
“5 cm,” the midwife announced. “Paper-thin cervix.”
“Halfway there!” the cheery nurse/Pure Barre instructor chirped as if I was working my way through a 90-minute plank.
To which I gasped, “Only 5 cm?!!!?”
Lord, have mercy. I hate you, paper-thin cervix.
Why I even worried about my dilation/effacement when it has never been very indicative of when or how quickly labor would progress, I don’t know. Probably because for all that hard work and pain, I felt like my stupid cervix should be cooperating a little bit more. Also, with Thomas I was almost 8 cm when admitted and had him within an hour of being at the hospital. I’d thought I was at least as far along this time. This is why I don’t recommend a lot of cervical checks. They can play with your head and cause you to question your body when it’s doing just fine.
After she checked me, the midwife on call told me it was time for her to go home, and a new midwife was here. This midwife turned out to more business-like. She wasn’t touchy-feely, but that was okay because I was in transition now and probably was better left alone. My Pure Barre instructor said her good-byes as well, and a new nurse came in the room.
I was still coping with the increasing discomfort when the staff transition happened but within minutes, the pain was becoming really intense. Early labor often feels like I’m having “I ate something sketchy” GI distress or period cramps. Transition feels like a vise is clamping down on my uterus, and with this labor I was also experiencing awful back pain (I had back labor with my first as well, and it’s really bad). Dave was dutifully putting pressure on my hips and lower back, but I wasn’t finding any relief. I was no longer calm. I was tired and felt defeated. In my head, I questioned why I needed another natural childbirth when I’d already checked it off my bucket list four freakin’ times. Was I just trying to prove something? What kind of prideful idiot was I? Give. Me. The. Drugs. Now. I had tested the limits of my body. I knew my body could do amazing things. I already knew what childbirth felt like, and right now it HURT.
“I need drugs,” I told Dave.
Wise man never said anything like, “No, you don’t.” Instead, he reminded me, “You’re almost there. You’re doing great.”
Liar, liar, pants on fire. I was not doing great. But I was almost there, and I was the one with the fire in my crotch.
“I’m tired!” I groaned, and I was. “I can’t have this baby.”
“Too late for that,” Dave joked.
I didn’t laugh. (I just did now though, remembering and writing that.)
I also started saying things like, “Something’s not right,” and “This is taking too long.” In retrospect, these statements are also funny because we arrived in the birthing room a little before 7 am, and Charlie was in my arms at 9:16 am. Women who have had truly long labors are shooting daggers from their eyes right about now.
Then I started repeating over and over, “I can’t do this.”
But Dave and midwife reminded me, “You are doing it right now.”
During this tough part of labor, I started doing this weird thing. I would stand on my tippy-toes and then raise one leg in the air behind me as if I was performing Swan Lake. And my barre instructor wasn’t even there any longer to witness my impressive moves. I don’t know why it felt good, but it did.
Before long, though, I gave up the ballet poses and had the urge to squat. Then I let out a guttural moan.
Upon hearing my animal noises, the midwife asked, “Do you feel like you need to push?”
This is what was scary to me. I’d always known with my past labors when transition was over and the pushing phase was starting. But this time I said, “I don’t know” because I didn’t.
The midwife wanted to check and see where I was at. That was awful – having to be still but when she said, “You’re there! It’s time to have a baby!” I knew I’d been wrong to doubt myself. I could do this. I was doing this. I couldn’t wait to meet my baby. And eat some ice cream. I always want ice cream after childbirth.
(If you want an easier labor, walk, walk, walk, or move any way you can! The most painful contractions are when you’re sitting or still.)
Just three strong pushes later, Charlie was with me! At first I was almost in shock because the pushing phase was so quick. But within minutes a beautiful tranquility enveloped me and my baby. Dave later told me the cord was wrapped around his neck twice when he emerged and that he was a little blue, but Dave and the medical team handled it so well I had no idea and wasn’t worried about anything as they gently placed him on my chest with the cord still pulsing. He wasn’t crying much, but I wasn’t worried. I felt the steady rise and fall of his chest against mine, and his hummingbird heart was beating close to mine. I marveled at his dusting of golden hair – my first blonde baby at birth. The happy endorphins that come with natural childbirth rushed through me. I was a new mom once again. Charlie’s arrival into the world had exorcised my demons of self-doubts and of pain.
Before long, Charlie was rooting on my chest, and I was in awe of the miracle of birth and motherhood. He latched on well and began to nurse for the first time. The midwife had to remind me that I had to deliver the placenta. In my idyll, I’d completely forgotten about the afterbirth business.
The nurses delayed weighing him and all that other mumbo jumbo. My mom and mother-in-law were already at the hospital and had a chance to come in and see Charlie before he’d been removed from my chest. Dave was by my side as he always is, taking a few snapshots of those early, blissful moments.
Later I would peruse the photos and one would stick out as a reminder of why I so stubbornly pursue natural childbirth. I should title the photo “The Calm After the Storm.”
Here I am with my baby on my chest, the little one who had been my constant companion for 39 weeks (I had him exactly one week early), and I feel strong, beautiful, and peaceful.
Nothing, nothing makes me feel as beautifully strong as bringing forth new life. This is the kind of beauty that has little to do with aesthetics. I have no makeup on in the photo. I’d been up for hours. I’d hurled the ginger ale all over my neck and chest after my first push. No, this beauty has everything to do with strength and dignity. This is real beauty, the giving of self brand of beauty. Childbirth and all of motherhood, like nothing else, has made me aware of my femininity, my power to nurture and to love.
I choose natural childbirth – not because I’m standing on some moral high ground. How you welcome your child into your arms is your choice and not a sign of your morality. Nor am I opposed modern medicine when medically necessary. I’m married to a doctor, after all. But what I do hope for all women is that they know that birth is a story, and it’s a story they just might have more control over than they realize or believe or their medical team makes them believe. We can do hard things – not just in the labor and delivery room or during a home birth – but constantly in the trenches of motherhood. And when we do those hard things, when we suffer but somehow still make it out on the other side of the pain, we find strength and peace – that palatable peace that is communicated so well in this favorite post-birth photo of mine.
Natural birth is beautiful – not necessarily (ever? Bless, you orgasmic, birthing women) when you’re in the throes of it – but when you have made it through. Stories that have predictable endings aren’t nearly as exciting as ones that unfold organically. When a mama is left alone with her body, her strength as well as her doubts and fears, the end transpires in a more mysterious way. I love that mystery. I’m also an affirmation junkie and control freak, so I like to have my victory fist pumps at the end of birth, and I’m comforted by the fact that I feel the pushes and the stretching of myself physically, spiritually, and emotionally, and am more in control than the midwife hovering over my nether region.
So that’s how sweet Charlie arrived in my arms. I was blessed to have a quick – even though it did not feel like it at the time – childbirth. I did tear slightly and had to get about two stitches (“Not because you really need it, but it will look prettier,” the midwife said, which I later found hilarious. Thank you for keeping me pretty down there.). I hadn’t torn at all since the second degree tear with my first, but it was very, very mild and I didn’t even need a pad-sicle down there to relieve the pain, and I’m sure it’s a lovely masterpiece down there, although I haven’t looked.
A final note: I truly feel called to encourage women and mothers, and I never want my personal experiences as a mother to make another mom feel guilty or inadequate. I know several moms who longed to have a natural childbirth, but it just didn’t end up happening. Some of them are holding onto residual and completely unfounded guilt. I wish they wouldn’t. I never, ever want to contribute to any form of mom-guilt. Whether you love your births medicated, opt for a homebirth, never was able to physically birth a child and found your little love through adoption instead, or had crafted a birth plan that totally had to be revised and your own birth story ended up being completely out of your control, what matters is you are a mother (or you will be if you’re pregnant with your first right now). And so am I. That’s what binds us together – not the parenting choices we make or the ones that are made for us.
Yes, I want to empower women and make them aware that natural childbirth is an option – a wonderful option – not only reserved for superhumans or crunchy types. My husband has never stripped down to striped track shorts during the labor process a la the photos of husband-birth-coaches in my Bradley Method books. Nor am I some freak of nature immune to pain. Believe me, I felt pain, especially this last time. And I used to forget it immediately, but I haven’t forgotten this time. It hurt to have Charlie, but the pain was worth it and going through the pain – feeling it and accepting it instead of fighting it and trusting my body – made me stronger. I also happen to suck at pregnancy (I didn’t realize it until after I gave birth how lousy emotionally and physically I felt during this last pregnancy), but I seem to be built for labor and delivery. There are a lot of things as a mother I’m not so good at; childbirth happens to be one I handle fairly well (except during the transition phase; Dave tells me it’s always been the same – me losing my every shred of calm and during my first labor, also losing my #@$! – now that was embarrassing).
Here’s my takeaway message: Be kind to yourself, Sister. Know what to expect, but expect the unexpected. At the end of the day (labor), a new life is in your arms. The fun and the pain, I’m afraid to say, is just beginning.
Books I recommend on childbirth:
Your Best Birth: Know All Your Options, Discover the Natural Choices, & Take Back the Birth Experience; this book goes along with the documentary The Business of Being Born, which I also recommend.
Ina May’s Guide to Childbirth (but don’t feel badly, if your birth experience is far from orgasmic like mine have all been)
Baby Catcher: Chronicles of a Modern Midwife; this isn’t a how-to book but a beautiful memoir, sharing touching birth stories.
Active Birth: The New Approach to Giving Birth Naturally (In a nutshell, get moving while in labor!)
Here are the kids meeting their baby brother for the first time (Unfortunately, Mary E. didn’t make it into this shot.)
Madeline is so happy to have another baby in the family that she can’t stop headbanging.