I don’t expect you to read this; it’s going to be long. I’m writing it for me, and for the three people I know that devour birth stories the way other women devour 50 Shades of Vampires. So if you are one of those three…enjoy.
“I would never have a baby at home.” I’d said it plenty of times. I said it in a judgmental tone when my sister did it, when anyone I knew even talked about it. “I would never forgive myself if something went wrong. You just never know.” My 5th pregnancy started out like the first four (which you can read about here, if interested. The First Four), except it took longer to get pregnant with this one after auto-immune issues and I had already started researching pregnancy more than ever for my training as a soon-to-be-doula. The more I read the more I wanted a natural birth and the more frustrated I was with things that happened in my previous births that I don’t think should have. In the end, through a series of events that I won’t bore you with because it would be an entirely separate novel, I found myself not only choosing a home birth but actually really looking forward to it! Never before had I anticipated the labor part with such excitement and curiosity.
The pregnancy turned out to nearly kill me. Ok, not literally kill me, but it killed my joy, my energy, my will to live pretty much. Starting around month four I had the worst pelvic pain (symphysis pubis dysfunction) that escalated to the point that just rolling over in bed caused me to cry out. I needed help getting in and out of chairs, and I couldn’t sleep longer than two hours at a time because I had to stand up and walk around to relieve some of the pain. I had major sinus congestion, which also kept me from sleeping, as well as pregnancy-induced tachycardia, lots of swelling, headaches, and just overall misery. Pregnancy in your late 30s is definitely not the same as pregnancy in your early 20s. In fact, I think anyone having a baby after 30 should be nominated for some kind of prize.
My previous births had all been very similar, the first one my water broke at 39 weeks and 2 days, the second and third my water broke 17 days early, both times, super rare and random and odd but it happened. With the fourth, my doctor was leaving out of town after 39 weeks so I decided to induce before she left. All four labors resulted in 12 hours flat on my back with Pitocin and epidurals, with fetal distress from the epidural and from being on my back, and with me feeling groggy, removed, out of control, like I wasn’t present for the birth, that I just had things happening to me and I had no say. There were things my body wanted to do, things I wanted to try like walking around, but I was told no. Those babies were all early and I had never been 40 weeks pregnant. So, it came as quite a surprise when baby five wasn’t coming early. I mean, at this point shouldn’t it just fall right out of my over-used uterus? Guess not. So around 37 weeks I started trying the basic things the internet said would induce labor. Because the internet knows everything, right? Well, none of that worked. In fact, I got really depressed when labor was not starting and I was in THAT MUCH PAIN and had all my other babies come early. I could feel myself mentally heading somewhere I didn’t want to be so I had to take a break from any effort to induce and just accept it. That lasted about a week before the constant pain was really doing me in. I was in tears. A LOT. My kids were afraid of me and I couldn’t even leave the house because I couldn’t take the comments from strangers about how miserable and enormous I looked. So I started efforts to induce labor again. This time I got real serious about it. All efforts failed. As my due date came and went I was utterly in shock and entirely and quite frankly, I was a miserable, horribly…witchy…person and I had pretty much no tolerance for life. I made one last-ditch effort that weekend to induce labor. Nothing. I was incredibly stressed out that I was going to have to give up my at-home plan and be induced in the hospital, or have my husband pull the baby out with a shovel, that or the baby would just never come. I wondered what the record was for longest pregnancy ever? Give that woman a trophy. And two if she’s over 30. So I gave up and decided I would call the hospital on Monday and just get induced. As I had been led to believe four previous times, clearly my body just didn’t know how to have a baby.
But Monday rolled around and I got busy and forgot to call the hospital! Getting it off my mind to force an at-home induction helped me just accept where I was and I honestly forgot I was going to give up. That evening around 7 p.m., I had an annoying little cramp. Then a few more over the course of several minutes. I was surprised, I was pretty sure they were real contractions but they weren’t painful, just annoying, but I thought it was weird that they were so regular, pretty much only a few minutes apart right from the beginning. After about 30 minutes it became clear that they were there to stay and I got my doula and midwife ready to come over. Within another 30 minutes I was getting downright upset with the contractions and I told my husband I thought this whole thing was just stupid and I was stupid and we should go to the hospital where the drugs are. He laughed. Because sometimes men are a little….precious like that. I didn’t think it was funny. The doula and midwife and assistant arrived at about the same time. By then I was having to stop and squish my face up through the contractions. Somehow the squishing of the face seemed to be a pain relief tactic for me. I had no idea what I was really in for. My daughter, 11, put on her little scrubs and “mini-doula-in-training” shirt and got ready to be my helper. My 13-year-old son got the camera ready and then stayed out of the way. Well, one time he didn’t stay out of the way. He asked me something mid-contraction and while I don’t know what it is he asked me I do remember feeling like he should consider himself lucky to be alive and not ask me anything. Ever. Again. Then the contraction was over and I felt a little nicer but he had already learned his lesson and didn’t try to ask whatever it was at that point. He probably didn’t ever want to see the fiery laser darts come out of my eyes like that ever again. My husband was rushing around changing the sheets on our bed to crappy ones and getting the crockpot plugged in and filled with washcloths, and getting my basket of delivery stuff out of the closet and my doula was busy squeezing my hips and pushing into my back as the pain got worse.
The contractions had stayed consistently two minutes apart pretty much the entire night. I thought I was going to work up to that more, like they’d come and go and be 15 minutes apart and then get closer and then maybe back off for a little and so on. Nope. (I was hooked up to Pitocin and epidural with the first four before I ever got a real sense of what contractions were like.) We went from, “this baby is NEVER coming out,” to contractions every two minutes that lasted 45-60 seconds. And I screamed. Every contraction, from about 2 hours into the night, I screamed. I had read Hypnobabies and I was supposed to have a calm, peaceful delivery “without pain or fear of pain.” I even colored pretty pictures and birth affirmation cards and had them on my wall to calmly stare into and to remind myself that birth could be a serene and hypnotic event. Hmph. Screw that. I screamed my bloody head off. I screamed and I couldn’t talk and I could barely stand it and I wanted to die and I wanted to kill people and I had a lot of thoughts going through my brain but couldn’t really say anything out loud. I kept thinking, “Would it be worse to try to drive to the hospital in this much pain or worse to stay here trying to get over it?” I decided the thought of climbing into the car in my current condition seemed more unbearable than pulling up my big girl panties and staying home. So I kept screaming. Then I thought, “Do I really want to be a doula? I feel really bad for the people here listening to me right now. Am I going to be able to tolerate someone else screaming their guts out like I am right now?” In fact, if anyone had Duct tape nearby I would have taped my own mouth shut. I didn’t even want to hear me scream any more. I had an ear concussion at that point and wondered if I would ever get the sound of my screams out of my head or if I would have to cover the cost of hearing aids for the midwife or if that would be covered under worker’s comp. I’ll tell you something really wild and confusing about the screaming later.
Through all of this screaming nonsense, we were trying different positions, on the ball, off the ball, leaning, sitting on the floor, standing, I was all over the place. Nothing felt better. With each contraction I would squeeze my entire body in and up, I could feel me being my own worst enemy. Then my doula would lightly touch my shoulders and quietly remind me to drop them away from my ears, and she and my midwife and the assistant would all make low moaning sounds to try to encourage me to scream slightly less and moan a little more. In fact, at one point the sound of all of us women lowly moaning kind of didn’t sound like a birth was about to take place, but perhaps more like an adult film was being played. We could maybe invent a game show called, “Is it birth, a sex-scene, or murder?” I tried the moaning. It was hard. It was a lot harder than I thought. But it helped when I could force myself to listen to them. It helped a lot but it was hard. I knew I was the one making it take as long as it was. It was up to me to let this baby out. To relax both mentally and physically enough to allow my body to do what it was trying so hard to do. I knew I had to get under control. My darling little mini-doula had been doing her best to put cold washcloths on me to cool me off, I was dripping in sweat and dying of thirst. And my son continued to stay out of the way but took pictures throughout the whole thing. I think he actually did a pretty good job. And somehow, my 8 and 3 year old boys slept through all of it. I kept thinking they’d come in at any minute and want to know who was killing mommy, but luckily they were out cold down the hall and never woke.
At this point it had been about 4 hours. I did not want to have a cervical progress check the entire time, so I didn’t. I didn’t want something, and just like that, I didn’t have to have it! I didn’t want to know if I was close because even if I was technically close it could still go on for hours. I didn’t want to know if I wasn’t close. Because technically even if I wasn’t it could be over really soon. I just didn’t want to know. I knew it didn’t matter and wasn’t a valid prediction of anything so why do it? And I didn’t. I loved that I got to have a say in whether that happened to me or not. So on I continued, not knowing but letting my body do the work. Doing my best to open, to be receptive to the idea that this is what my body knew how to do and I COULD do it. After trying to sit on the floor for a little bit with my husband behind me, not getting much success in that position either, I suddenly remembered that I had a tub. A big, nice, jetted tub that had been thoroughly sanitized about 80 times in the last few weeks “in case this was the night.” And now it was the night and I had forgotten I had a tub! It was my own tub. I did not plan on having a water birth and did not want the midwife to bring a birthing tub. The way my brain works I would have seen that inflatable tub in my bedroom, on my carpet, and I would have been completely stressing that it would pop and flood my house. I also hadn’t planned on delivering IN the tub because visions of floating bowel movements and bloody red water didn’t really appeal to me. But in that moment that I got in the tub, I knew I was never getting out, in fact I could live and die in that tub and it would have been fine, so long as we could keep the water hot, of course. The relief it brought was wonderful. Not having the harsh air stinging my raw, stretching body was a major improvement over how the last few hours had felt. The water was so supportive and kind. It took off pressure and it dulled the pain. But I won’t fool you into thinking at that point it didn’t hurt at all. I still screamed, but things felt more tolerable. For the first time that night I actually truly believed I could get through this and I felt my body relax and the baby came down. I felt a very weird widening of my body, I could FEEL, for the first time while laboring, I could FEEL what was happening. And the water wasn’t all gross and nasty like I thought it would be. Much to my surprise, my squeamish husband got in the tub and sat in the corner with his feet in. I suddenly realized how smart I was for having a 6 foot oval-shaped tub put in my bathroom and gave myself a little mental pat on the back for the choice I had made, though I didn’t make it at the time ever thinking I’d be having a baby in it and that my husband would be sitting in the corner of it with my head buried in his chest and my hands twisting his shirt around while I screamed and contracted.
Let’s talk about my husband for a minute. He’s not a small man. Nothing against small guys but well, he’s not one. He doesn’t work out. He works. He throws hay bales instead of barbells. The first time I realized how strong he was, was when I needed a TV moved (you know those “old” TVs that were the size of a small couch because it used to be “bigger was better”). He started walking toward it, like he was going to move it by himself, as in, without help. I laughed a little, “Oh honey, it takes like 3 guys to move that thing.” (Well that’s how many it took when my ex-husband did it, so I thought that was a normal amount of needed-man.) He looked at me with a little wink in his eye that said, “Aw, you’re so cute.” And then he picked up the TV by himself and moved it. I about got pregnant right there. Ok. So, my husband is strong. Now I don’t want to make other guys feel bad, the guys who maybe their thing is something other than being strong…but this is kind of important to know about my husband at this point because I began ramming my head into his chest with the brute force and strength of a rhinoceros ice-skating down a road in San Francisco. Well, after hell freezes over anyway, since there isn’t normally any ice in San Francisco. If my husband had been one of those guys who had a different great talent than being strong, I think he might have gotten seriously injured and I probably never would have gotten through the pain. I felt like I was transferring the pain to him with every scream.
After a handful of contractions in the tub I decided this was it, this baby IS coming out, now! No more goofing off and taking it lightly (ok, that’s not what I was doing but…), it was GO time. I pushed on my own, never once did I have people all up in my face telling me “and push, push, push, push, push, push, and stop.” That’s really enough to make you want to punch a person. I got this. I can push. I don’t need to be told when to start or stop because I can feel it. A few big self-guided pushes, then the sweetest words a mom could ever hear…the head is out, and it has hair on it! I wasn’t getting much progress with the next few pushes though, and my midwife wanted me to get one leg up on the side of the tub to open more. I didn’t want to, I couldn’t lift my legs up due to the pelvic pain, but she knew exactly what was needed. They helped me stand and get my leg up on the side and with a little more pushing that beautiful baby came out and I was filled with a completely indescribable euphoric relief that is unlike anything I had ever before experienced. To go from that much pain to that much relief and that much joy, it was like a complete full circle of the ultimate experience of life. I was present. I was there. Birth wasn’t happening to me, I performed it. I brought a human being into this world. I felt the strength of all women who had given birth surround me and become a part of the experience. We had not found out the gender of our baby and it was at this point that my daughter, who we had donned the “gender checker,” was shown the baby so she could squeal out that she finally had a baby sister! (In a house of three brothers, after waiting 11 years, this was a much-needed boost of estrogen to our family!) I kept hearing everyone say how big she was, which couldn’t be right. My daughter was 6 lbs 4 oz, and my biggest son was 8 lbs 1 oz. I don’t have big babies. She was hairy though! I hadn’t ever had a hairy baby either. I also hadn’t ever had an overdue baby or wanted to die during a pregnancy and delivery so clearly this one is all about breaking the rules.
After the gender announcement they handed her to me and got her screaming good and I just sat there on the edge of the tub holding this little person in complete awe and amazement at what had just happened, and enjoying the break from the exhausting evening which was actually only about five hours as opposed to my previous 12-plus hour deliveries. After a little while the contractions started back up and the placenta was ready to deliver so I handed baby off to daddy for some skin-to-skin contact with him and finished my job. The midwife said she had come out with a nuchal hand, a hand up by her head, and after some quiet time and getting cleaned up and rested we finally weighed and measured her. I was completely shocked when they said she was 10 lbs. 2 oz. and 23 inches long. Ok, so that’s why I looked like a miserable elephant expecting quads. However, I don’t condone the general public making such comments to strangers, really ya’ll, the only thing you say to a pregnant woman is “you look completely beautiful.” Because she does. But really, did I push a baby that size out of me? Without drugs? Yep, I did. Obviously I can’t be certain, but given my previous experiences and the stories of others I think if I had been in the hospital flat on my back again I probably would have ended up in a c-section with the reason being that the baby was “too big” to push out. I needed three stitches for a minor tear, and I put up a little bit of a fight because honestly getting stitches at that point sounded like it would probably actually literally kill me. Luckily my patient midwife waited for me to feel comfortable with it, gave me some advice about it, and some how it wasn’t even bad at all and then I felt a little stupid for making a big deal. But it was my choice, I wasn’t pressured or rushed, I was advised and allowed to give my consent.
The next hour was spent with me resting, my son being the first to feed baby, the birth attendants cleaning up, and all of us just floating around in this calm, cloud-like atmosphere. I don’t even know how to explain it. Certainly an entirely different experience than anything I’d had before. I knew this was our last baby, but it made me sad to know it could have been like this all along and I had never been given the chance before. I hadn’t believed it could be like this and now I know and I wish they all could have been this way. I had so many people guide me to that choice and support me, even those that didn’t support it led me to that choice and I’m grateful for the role they each played. It was truly amazing and I think this experience not only changed me, but it will change the way I approach my role as a doula for others. I don’t believe it is the right choice, the only choice, I just believe it was my choice. Emphasis on that last word. Never before did I feel like I had choices. I hope as a doula, no matter the type of birth or the setting or the healthcare provider that a mom uses, I hope, that I will be able to help her know she has choices and can be an active participant in this beautiful process instead of having birth be something that is done to her while she passively zones out. I hope to open the door to a woman’s voice, be an advocate, making sure they don’t feel alone and unsupported. I am so grateful for this birth experience and so lucky and looking forward to the chance to be a small part of this for other women. And I think life is so funny that looking back on it only a few weeks later I can’t remember the pain being that bad that I really had scream so much like a drama queen. I mean, I even colored the pretty pictures to look at and then never looked at them because I was squishy faced with my eyes shut. Oh, and I promised you a funny (?) follow up to the screaming. I can hear it still, I hear it in my ears. Yet, in the video my son took there is NO screaming. WHAT??? I asked him why he cut the screaming out and he was like, “What screaming? I didn’t cut anything.” I literally hear the horrible sound of my own screams and yet…there is NO video evidence and everyone there says I didn’t! How bizarre is that!?
I’m being brave enough to include the photos that my son took. They are raw and real, something so intimate and personal to me that I have to share them which may not make sense, but they are art and life and love and strength and wisdom, they are images of hope and dreams and a future and change and choice and joy. This is birth.