Reflections on Our Birth Story

Julio and me a couple of hours before things got really real.

Sometimes, I catch myself feeling homesick for the most intense points in my life. For example, when I studied abroad in college and experienced acute loneliness or when I was depressed after a bad breakup in graduate school and lived on the couch. After my father died, I was not ready to be on the other side of his funeral. I wanted to stay in the protective bubble between his passing and the wake, because I sensed that when we had to go back to living, when we were no longer in the all-encompassing immediacy of our grief, it would be a difficult transition. In these periods, the experience was totally consuming, a terrible oasis from multi-tasking and the distractions of everyday life. The emotional rawness was transformative, and it is as though a part of my psyche stayed there while the rest of me moved forward with my life. In quiet moments, these parts tug on me with a feeling that is strangely like nostalgia. I have no doubt that I have left a piece of myself in the labor and delivery unit. This time, however, the experience was all-consuming but also joyful and empowering. 

In The Fourth Trimester, Kimberly Johnson recommends that women write about their birth experience within 48 hours of delivery as a way to process and incorporate the experience and what it means to them. I read her book after that 48-hour window had closed, but of course, my notebook was in my purse and I journaled about birth during sweet newborn naps at the hospital. Johnson also explains that after delivery, a woman may need to close her birth energy, which can be difficult if a birth experience was traumatic on one hand or exhilarating on the other: “Often if women have had a revelatory birth experience, there may be an inner hesitancy to seal their system back up, lest they lose contact with the bliss and transcendence that they encountered during the birth.” 

For a week after giving birth, I did feel hesitant to move on, because the experience had been so intense and ultimately positive that I felt a little stuck in that headspace. I was riding high on adrenaline and oxytocin. I was a little bit in love with birth and with the people who attended my daughter’s birth. “You were amazing,” I told the nurses, the midwife, my husband. I think I told the baby she was amazing, too. 

She was amazing—my silent partner in labor. In fact, many of the natural birth resources I used emphasized the role of “the passenger” among the four Ps of birth (passenger, passage, powers, and psychology). On Birth Kweens, a funny and informative podcast that helped me prepare, the hosts (a midwife and a doula) often remind listeners that birth never goes according to plan. In one episode, they half-jokingly assert that no one knows how birth is going to go except for the babies, and they aren’t telling us ahead of time. After our daughter’s delivery, I have thought a lot about what I read and heard about babies sending signals to get the birth that they need. 

Preparing for Natural Birth After Induction

As I noted in my post on our single umbilical artery, I had an induction of labor at 40 weeks. I tried every natural method possible to encourage spontaneous labor at home, because I felt very committed to having an unmedicated, intervention-free delivery and, statistically, having an induction increased my odds of some sort of intervention. When I discussed my concerns with the midwife, she was reassuring that having the induction was meant to prevent an emergency situation for the baby that would be a reason for a cesarean section. She cautioned me, however, that inductions tend to take a long time; commonly, when women opt for epidurals after induction, it is not because of pain, it is because they are exhausted. I did not want an epidural because I wanted to be able to move through my labor. To me, the nuts and bolts of delivering with an epidural actually sounded much less appealing than the pain. That’s just me.

So, I prepared my head for a long haul. I studied my coping techniques from the Birth Kweens and Natural Hospital Birth by Cynthia Gabriel. Julio and I talked about visualizations and using sports psychology to get through the tests of endurance and stamina. “I can do anything for one minute at a time,” became my mantra.

Our midwife’s illustration of a Foley or balloon catheter. It was not fun.

The induction was, in fact, slow. We intentionally took the gentlest route possible so that if the baby’s heart rate was showing dips with any of the methods, we could pull back. After twenty-four hours using first Cervidil and then a balloon catheter, I was still not in labor and was only at about 2 cm dilated. At that point, we started a Pitocin drip, again moving slowly, gradually increasing the dose. I asked our midwife and the nurse to be real with me, when did they think this baby was coming? “I’d say tomorrow evening,” the midwife said. “This is going to take some stamina.” At shift change a half-hour later, the nurse said she’d probably see us tomorrow. 

With Pitocin, I started to have regular, moderate contractions, but after four hours, I still wasn’t any more dilated and the baby’s heart rate was starting to have slight dips. Our new nurse called the midwife to have her look at the feed from the fetal monitor and the decision was made to stop increasing the dose of Pitocin. It looked like it was going to be another long night. Julio was resting, but my contractions were just strong enough to keep me from sleeping. I was starting to feel nervous that this process would outrun my endurance. I said some prayers and pulled up my notes on strategies for early labor. Then, I shifted my weight, trying to get comfortable, and I felt a pop and a flood of water. Although every book, video, and podcast had assured me that my water breaking would not be like in the movies, it was. From there, things accelerated beyond what anyone had expected. 

Sprinting the Marathon and Preparing for Pain

This abrupt shift is why I think about my “passenger” and how her birth not going according to plan may have been the best thing for her. After my water broke, the nurses checked my cervix. It had been less than an hour since the balloon catheter was last checked and they had estimated that I was still around 2 cms. Now, I was at 8 cm and almost entirely effaced. When our midwife got back to the hospital, she hypothesized that when the water broke, my daughter’s head dropped hard onto my cervix, radically moving up our timeline. From the time my water broke to her birth was exactly 2 hours and 20 minutes. Julio said it was like I sprinted a marathon. “Can we make a note that this is the fastest-ever Foley catheter to birth?” our midwife asked. Julio said that he watched the fetal monitor as we got closer to birth and the dips in the baby’s heart rate got bigger and bigger. Labor progressing so quickly meant that she got out of there—healthy and safe—and I got the birth experience I wanted, too. Our midwife told us a couple of days later that the nurse who had been with us on that day shift came in the next day and was so surprised to see that we were gone. “What happened!?!” 

I read several times that even people who plan on using pain meds should prepare some other coping skills for labor because you can’t know for sure that you will have time for the meds or that they will really work for you. I think my experience is a good example of that, actually. Before my water broke, there was no reason to think that I wouldn’t have been able to have pain meds if I wanted them, but my delivery happened too fast for IV meds and if I had wanted an epidural, I’m not sure that I would have been able to sit still for it. Of the comfort measures I had prepared, there was not much that I had time or energy to actually use. I knew several postures that I used to encourage the baby to roll face down when I was having back labor, and that actually seemed to work. Julio applied counter pressure and later spoonfed me ice chips. In the end, I was so so tired from 30 hours in the hospital that breathing low and slow and burying my face in a washcloth were the most comforting things. The pain never got to a point where I felt like I lost myself in it, though. I could feel a definite peak with each contraction, so if I focused on breathing to that point and could get through it, the way down was a relief. The angel of a nurse breathed with me. My midwife coached me through pushing, which came so fast that I could hardly believe it. “This baby is going to come before we even get good at the pushing,” she told me. It never got as bad as I felt like I had been preparing for, but I did feel wholly in it, if that makes sense. Even still, I felt incredibly vulnerable and I used my sense of humor as a cushion. Julio is still lightly ribbing me for when I said,  “Hello, everyone, welcome to my vagina,” when the room suddenly filled with nurses in the minutes before the baby arrived. Clearly, that was between contractions. 

When the baby came, there was nothing better. Seeing her face for the first time was powerful. I had worried over her so much during my pregnancy that to see her alert and healthy felt miraculous. The rush of adrenaline and oxytocin lasted for days.

The Baby Blues and a Need to Connect

And then I started to come down, and, girl, was I weepy. On a walk towards the end of my first week postpartum—a walk on which I cried three times over various sentimental thoughts—I explained to Julio about feeling nostalgic for birth like those other intense moments in my life. Julio posited that this newborn phase is likely an all-consuming bubble of its own. He said that a friend of his told him that he’d give anything to spend just five minutes with his kids at this age again. I think he’s right and I am trying to drink up every second of this time. 

I didn’t think that a birth narrative was a genre I would write, but during that week of weepy, sentimental baby blues I found that I really wanted to talk about birth. I had just had a monumental, unexpected, and empowering experience that was also the most vulnerable of my life. I craved affirmation and wanted to revisit the highs of the delivery, but it also very much felt like I wasn’t supposed to talk about it. I am fortunate that I have a partner who is very affirming and who keeps checking on my mood postpartum. And that I have a friend who was a labor and delivery nurse and wanted to discuss the details, but I still found it strange what a general void there is around talking about birth—how much it felt like I wasn’t supposed to say anything very specific. I can imagine that for a lot of women, maybe especially those who have disappointing or traumatic births, this void can cause a lot of the loneliness that often marks the fourth trimester. I understand now why Johnson recommends that women write out their birth experiences. So often, our birth stories are reduced to bullet points: epidural or no, c-section or vaginal, tears, poops, and if mom and baby are healthy and resting. But these stories are so much more complicated and so much of it is really beyond our control that it’s a shame that our culture tends to put these enormous, complicated moments in women’s lives in such boxes. Plus, Hollywood seems to have no clue how fertility, pregnancy, and childbirth really work. If men gave birth, it’d be an Olympic sport.

Considering how bad maternal health outcomes are in the U.S. and how overmedicalized birth is here compared to our peer nations, it seems to me that more attention to the fourth trimester and women’s experiences of their births would help. It’s true that the goal of labor and delivery is a healthy baby getting the heck out of you, but the experience is also transformative and potentially very traumatic for the mother. I read in several books about the “dead baby card” being used to pressure parents into medical interventions and, similarly, the “as long as the baby’s healthy” emphasis can be used to shut down a woman’s urge to process what she has been through. 

So, I’m asking what was your labor and delivery experience? 

(P.S. I got myself this labor and delivery gown and it was very comfortable. It had snaps at the shoulders, down the back, and from the empire waist down in front, which meant that I could have the fetal monitors adjusted without having to pull the gown up. It was modest and soft and I can’t imagine that I would have been comfortable wearing a hospital-issued gown for the 31 hours between when we checked in and when the baby was born. )

 

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