I debated whether or not to include my own birth stories in the Birth Matters! Series, and then I thought:
My births matter too!
So, here they are.
I’ve given birth twice. One experience was highly unenjoyable, the other was incredible.
Surprisingly, the unenjoyable labor was the one in which I had an epidural.
When I found out I was pregnant with my son (the first kidlet), I was pretty certain from the get-go that I would have a natural birth. It just felt normal to me. I’d been an athlete my entire life and felt very comfortable using my body athletically. A swimmer and distance runner, I knew what it was to push myself physically for long periods of time, to keep on working even when your mind and body want to quit. I felt like labor wouldn’t be much different
(In actuality, the pain of labor is more akin to having bamboo reeds shoved under your fingernails than running a marathon…just saying, they’re apples and oranges).
Not only that, but I felt very strongly that a natural birth, free from unnecessary interventions, was the safest delivery method for mom and baby.
I spent the better part of the second and third trimesters reading and researching; just devouring books on natural childbirth. Once a week for eight weeks we drove an hour each way to the home of the one Bradley Method birth instructor that lived in Montana. I had the knowledge. I had a midwife. I had a birth plan. I was totally prepared.
The only thing I didn’t prepare for was a labor that wouldn’t quit.
At my 38 week prenatal appointment I was checked by my midwife for progress: 1.5 cm; not great, but at least I was dilating a little.
One week later, I was 0cm dilated.
A couple days later I was heading to bed around midnight, and no sooner had my head hit the pillow, than I heard an audible <pop> and experienced what felt like a small lake gushing from my pants.
“Holy crap my water just broke…”
I’d always kind of expected it to happen at Wal Mart, so I was actually quite surprised.
Contractions came on hard and regular from the beginning, and since my water had broken I was advised to go straight to the hospital. Once in triage I was checked for cervical dilation, and was slightly nervous when the nurse asked me:
“Are you sure your water broke?”
If she had seen the flood in my bed I knew she wouldn’t have asked, but apparently I was still 0cm dilated.
This is when things started going downhill. Right from the very beginning.
Because my blood pressure was slightly elevated, I was immediately hooked up to the fetal monitor and blood pressure cuff. My first nurse wanted me to be continuously monitored, despite the fact that everything looked normal and I’d assured her I wanted to labor naturally. Contractions were uncomfortable while sitting or laying, but I quit protesting after she told me several times it was absolutely necessary (I wish I’d had a doula here).
I labored for about six hours this way, either on the bed or a cord’s width-distance from the bed, until my midwife showed up. She checked me, and I hoped for good news.
.5cm. Not 5 centimeters…<point> 5 centimeters.
In six hours I wasn’t even 1 centimeter dilated.
Still, I remained positive. My midwife didn’t stick around, but I was blessed with a shift change and was granted an angel of a nurse who unhooked me from all the doodads and offered me some much needed love and support. We walked the halls together, I spent time in the shower, and she even snuck in apple juice and some toast (this hospital didn’t allow any food and drink during labor, one of the WORST policies ever). Over the next eight hours, I listened to my Hypnobirth recordings, I read my birth affirmations, I walked, I rocked, I swayed, I relaxed, I did everything we’d practiced.
At 2:00 p.m., my midwife decided to show up again; the second time I’d seen or heard from her in 14 hours. She checked me.
I broke down. I sobbed. I knew my plans for a natural birth were over. I physically couldn’t take anymore. My midwife told me I should get an epidural so I could rest, which would hopefully promote dilation. So I agreed to the epidural (I wish I’d had a doula here).
Getting the epidural was horrendous. During the placement, I felt a sharp pain as the doctor wiggled the needle around, and then an excruciating pain shot up my spine all the way into my head. I screamed, and Tom almost passed out. I told the anesthesiologist what I’d felt, and her response was, “No, you didn’t“.
Really??? That was a bad sign.
Soon after, however, I felt sweet relief and passed out for a good three hours.
When I woke up I was checked again.
At this point, baby’s heartrate was starting to show signs of stress, so Pitocin was administered to get things moving. I was informed that if that didn’t work, a C-section might be in the cards. Less than an hour later though I was fully dilated and ready to push.
I pushed for half an hour, felt minimal pain, and then my baby was born.
I had a baby, but I felt almost nothing.
Who’s baby was this?
All I wanted to do was sleep.
The next day, I asked my midwife why my cervix hadn’t dilated, why had I failed to progress? And she told me I’d had an irregular contraction pattern.
Why was this the first I was hearing about this???
Apparently, I’d have several contractions really close together, and then a long pause, and then two more, in a coupling pattern. This irregularity produced contractions that were inefficient at opening my cervix.
WHY DID NO ONE TELL ME THIS BEFORE I LABORED FOR 14 HOURS WITH NO EPIDURAL?!!!!!
I was infuriated. If I had known I’d had some kind of funky contraction pattern I would have reevaluated and made some different choices. I would have gotten Pitocin (which was ultimately what my uterus needed to get things rolling) way sooner and maybe avoided the epidural altogether. I WISH I’D HAD A DOULA, or at least a midwife that gave a crap. Out of all the nurses I saw, only one offered me any support or made the effort to just check in on me. For the majority of my labor, my husband and mom and I were left completely alone.
And then, after labor, I began to develop an unbearable pain in the back of my head; it felt like a chisel was being driven into my brainstem. I told my midwife about it, and she assured me it was just strain from pushing. I didn’t go to medical school, but it seemed pretty clear to me after a quick Google search that I had a spinal headache from my epidural.
I was convinced, so I talked to one of the on-call OBs about it. He told me it probably wasn’t a spinal headache, but that I should just drink caffeine to make it go away (I wish I’d had a doula here). So I went home, sweaty and bloody and leaking milk, with a soggy tum and a baby who was so cracked out on caffeine he didn’t sleep at all his first night home. The next night though, my head hurt so bad that I laid down and couldn’t get off the floor.
A visit to the ER revealed I did in fact have a spinal headache, which required a blood patch.
Fast forward a couple of days and I noticed a hot, red streak running up my arm where I’d had blood drawn in the ER. One trip to urgent care revealed I’d gotten cellulitis from the needle. Two rounds of antibiotics left me with thrush in my breasts, which meant a course of Diflucan for me and 10 days of Nystatin for baby.
All of this, because of an epidural I didn’t even want.
Looking back on Cruz’s labor, I never felt disappointed in myself over how his labor turned out; I never felt grief or shame over needing an epidural or Pitocin. In fact, I was so grateful these options were available, because I knew I’d needed them.
But I was disappointed in my care, from the nurses to the anesthesiologist to the OB to my midwife to my ER fiasco; I felt like I’d been surrounded by the most incompetent care team known to man. I was angry that I hadn’t been able to eat and drink when I needed to. I was upset that no one had communicated with me or presented me with other options. I was mad that no one had listened to me.
I WISHED I’d had someone there who would have advocated for me, who’d been able to scream “This isn’t going right!” I wished I’d known more, but as a first-timer all you know is what’s in the books, and the books can’t prepare you for every contingency; I’d never in a million years have dreamed I’d have faced stalled labor. As a first-timer, you’re scared and compliant because you feel like that’s how you have to be.
It took me a long time to recover from my labor with Cruz, mentally and physically. I had back pain for several months where the blood patch had been performed. I started motherhood exhausted, angry, and with one minor complication after another. I suffered from what I think was mild post-partum depression. I struggled to feel attached to my baby for weeks. Many of these feelings I KNOW were directly related to my labor experience.
When I got pregnant with Mikki I knew I would go natural again (or attempt to. I knew this time around that flexibility and the ability to adapt were key). I found a great midwife that I felt confident would be an advocate and a support in the birth room. I did my usual preparation for labor. I told my midwife my concerns about long labor, and he was so understanding and assured me that each labor is different, that I needed to trust that my body would work just fine (yes I had a male midwife, how cool is that?). He also assured me that he would be in the labor room with me as much or as little as I needed.
My midwife was so amazing I decided to not hire a doula, although I still think they’re amazing.
At my 39 week appointment (which also happened to be my birthday) my midwife swept my membranes, and later around 10:00 p.m. contractions started; the best and worst birthday present ever 🙂 Around 1:00 a.m. we made it to the hospital and into triage.
Here it was, the moment of truth…
0cm. And my cervix was so far back the nurse could hardly reach it.
It was happening all over again! I wasn’t going to progress! And this time my water hadn’t even broken so they would probably send me home to suffer for hours or even days!
I called my midwife (who was in another delivery) and he spoke to the nurse, explaining that he didn’t want them to send me home because of my past history with stalled labor. Since I wasn’t far enough along for them to admit me, he asked them to give me more time to dilate in the hospital.
From the very beginning, he was fighting for me!
And here’s where my labor experiences differed:
My labor nurse, who knew I was wanting to go natural, unhooked all of the monitors and told me to get up and start walking. She told me to drink lots of clear fluids to keep myself hydrated and to eat light foods to comfort to keep my energy up. She said she’d check me again in an hour, and if I made any progress at all we’d move to the labor tub.
She made me feel safe and in control, and I quickly started to relax.
When I was checked an hour later, I’d progressed to 1cm, but my cervix was much more favorable. Not fantastic by any means, but it was progress, and it was enough to get me into a tub. I stayed in the tub for probably another hour, listening to my Hypnobirthing tracks. I felt good and like I was getting in a rhythm. My contractions were regular but manageable.
My midwife showed up around 4:00 a.m. and checked for progress. I was convinced my cervix was still sewn shut, but lo and behold, I’d made it to 3cm…3 freaking centimeters! I literally screamed with excitement! I’d never been 3cm before without Pitocin!
At this point he decided to break my water to get things moving, and yeah, it definitely did. He offered to stay with me but I felt like my nurses were excellent and there for me when I needed them, so I told him he could go home and get some rest, it would probably be awhile before I needed to push.
Contractions came on HARD after my water broke, to the point that I began to feel like I was really having to work to stay on top of them. The tub no longer felt comfortable, so I switched to standing and swaying or laying on the bed. At this point I was so deep inside myself, in my head, I can’t really remember anything else that was happening in the room. My husband was great at letting me just labor and reminding me to drink.
I distinctly remember a point where the contractions began to get way more intense, that the pain was starting to become unbearable. They were almost coming back to back, and it felt like I was no longer getting a break. Naturally, I started yelling at me husband “I can’t do this anymore, GET ME THE EPIDURAL!”
He was so supportive, reminding me that my labor was happening the way we’d planned. My nurse, who was in my room most of the time, took this as a good sign to check me for progress. 6cm. She told me that this was when the bulk of the hard work started, but if I could stay relaxed it wouldn’t last too long.
Nothing seemed to ease the pain anymore. The only thing that felt good was being on my hands and knees. I was kneeling by the side of the bed, seriously moaning, when all of a sudden my body just started pushing on its own. It’s a completely indescribable feeling, and it scared me something awful, feeling so out of control of my body. I also started feeling cold and shaky and like I might need to vom.
Again, my attentive nurse decided this was a good time to check my progress. 9cm.
I was in transition.
She could see I was starting to panic, and spoke to me quietly and confidently. Reminding me that I was almost done, that I had done a great job and was strong enough to keep going. That I needed to relax. Her calm reminders helped me to focus on my breathing.
My body continued to push for the next few contractions and I remember feeling so scared. I was beginning to fight the contractions and feel out of control. Before I knew it my midwife was there gowned-up, and my room had become a flurry of equipment. He checked me and told me I was ready to push.
I’d never done this unmedicated before, what was going to happen?!
I pushed on my next contraction and it felt so good to push. The urge that had originally scared me now seemed perfectly useful, and hardly hurt at all. In this stage, the breaks between contractions were much longer and I felt like I was able to rest and re-center myself.
A lot of women speak of the ring of fire during crowning. To be honest, I don’t remember the head being that bad. What got me were the shoulders.
I thought for sure that after the head was out it would be cake. Imagine my surprise when I felt like my undercarriage was being torn apart after being told her head had already been born. It was such an intense feeling of stretching and fullness I remember not wanting to push. I was sure she wouldn’t fit coming out…I sat there for a contraction, trying to decide if I could really get her out or if I should ask to have her shoved back up…
My midwife yelled at me to give one last big push, so I did.
And I remember hearing myself scream the loudest, horror-movie scream ever.
And then she was born. At 6:36 a.m. 8.5 hours of labor from start to finish.
And I felt so relieved. I went from feeling the most intense pain I’d ever felt in my life to feeling absolutely nothing except complete elation and satisfaction and joy! It was surreal. It was everything I’d imagined the birth high to be. And, surprisingly, I didn’t tear at all, not even so much as a skidmark.
Huh, I guess they do fit coming out…
When they placed Mikki on my chest I just kept teling her “We did it. We did it.” My husband, who rarely gets emotional, was even squirting a few tears.
I felt an instant connection to her. After this labor, I wasn’t tired or groggy; I actually felt amped up, like I’d been given a shot of adrenalin. About 15 minutes after she was born, I ordered breakfast and walked to the shower. A couple of hours later we walked to the nursery and watched her have her first bath.
Mikki’s birth experience was incredible. It was the hardest work I’ve ever done, and it was painful, but it changed my perception of what labor and birth could be; it was pure and unadulterated joy. It was one of the greatest experiences of my life. I felt empowered, I felt in tune with her and my body, I felt like we’d done something very important together.
Cruz’s birth was incredible in that it brought me a healthy, beautiful baby boy, but the experience wasn’t good; I don’t feel ashamed saying that.
I felt like my body had betrayed me and that I’d lost control of my labor, and I don’t think I would have felt that way if I’d had good care and support. Even if I’d still needed an epidural or Pitocin, if I’d been enabled to make decisions rather than feeling like my labor was happening to me, I would have still felt empowered. I would have still found enjoyment in the process that brought me my first baby.
Empowerment during birth isn’t about “not getting an epidural”, it’s about feeling supported and in control during your most vulnerable moments. It’s about feeling like your birth matters, and knowing that your team is doing everything they can to help make your birth a comfortable and positive experience. It’s about not feeling abandoned, and feeling like you are able to make the best decisions for you and your baby, in your own unique circumstances.
I know that birth matters. It shapes the way we feel about ourselves and our children in those precious and crucial early months. It can leave us feeling strong and capable, or frustrated and submissive.
My advice to you is: prepare yourself for your labor and birth. Arm yourself not only with knowledge, but find someone–a doula, your provider, an experienced friend–who possesses a vast wealth of knowledge on labor, who can be your voice when you and your labor coach are too tired or unsure to speak up.
If you think you’re not strong enough to labor without medicine, think again; we were made to do it. Birth is pain and struggle and joy and happiness all rolled into one, and I think it was designed that way for a reason, the highs and lows.
Wishing you and yours the happiest of birth days 🙂