Before I ever got pregnant, before I even got married, I had a vision of what I wanted my birth to be like. That might sound like an odd dream to have, but I was friends with a birth doula, and she shared with me books by Ina May Gaskin and other natural-birth advocates. The accounts of birth in those books were so beautiful. I found them fascinating, and I read as much about birth as I could, especially while I was pregnant. I wanted to be as prepared and knowledgeable as a woman could be. You know about the long list of books I read to prepare.
|I definitely do NOT miss being this pregnant!|
What ended up happening, though, was so far from what I imagined that I am still struggling to process it. I’ve experienced feelings of disappointment, sorrow, and guilt over the birth. At least I have peace in knowing that I did everything I possibly could to achieve my dream, and what ended up happening was genuinely beyond my control. Fortunately, there were three major victories along the way.
Before I tell the story, I want to emphasize that what happened to me was not the norm. My birth story is unusual and unlike any I had ever read about. I hope that this story won’t scare anyone or make anyone doubt her own strengths and abilities. Despite what I experienced, I still believe that birth can be beautiful and empowering. If you are expecting a baby, that’s what I hope for you.
My baby was due April 18, but he was born a full 15 days after that. I was working from home for the two weeks before he was born and going crazy from waiting. My midwife practice has a policy of inducing labor at 42 weeks, so when I still hadn’t gone into labor in early May, they scheduled me for an induction at 8:00 am on Friday, May 2. I was very disappointed, since an induction meant I would not be able to have a water birth, but I tried to look on the bright side and planned a celebratory “last dinner before baby” with friends on Thursday night.
All during the dinner, I kept having regular surges,* and on the drive home they picked up to the point that I had to focus to get through them. They were still pretty far apart, but once I got home, they really picked up. I labored in our tub for several hours, and the surges were so intense and close together that I became convinced my labor was happening fast. I kept thinking, “I don’t want to give birth in this tub,” so around 2:00 am we decided to go to the hospital. We called the midwives to let them know we were on our way.
*I’m using the word “surge” instead of “contraction” because that’s what we were taught to say in my birth class. Despite having a c-section, I’m still a hippie at heart. ;)
Unfortunately, the surges slowed down a lot on the drive. I called our doula, a sweet older lady who was still in doula training and so assisted at our birth for free. We were hesitant about having her there—it was the first birth she ever assisted!—but I’m so glad we did, because she was a godsend.
At the hospital, the midwife checked me and found I was dilated a measly 3 cm. We had made the classic rookie mistake and come into the hospital much too early.
“You have two choices,” she said. “You can go home and labor, or stay and labor at the hospital. You have to come back in five hours for your induction anyway.” I opted to stay, because we live kind of far from the hospital. Besides, I knew I wasn’t going to get any sleep that night anyway! Although I didn’t realize it at the time, this was actually the first major victory: I didn’t need to get induced. My stubborn body had finally, finally, gone into labor by itself.
The midwife had to leave to assist at another birth, so I labored in an empty labor & delivery room for the next five hours. Our doula brought me food, and I ate oatmeal and fruit to keep my strength up. I also listened to some of the birth relaxation tracks on my iPod. I was in a great place, hanging out on the birthing ball, breathing deeply, and managing my surges well.
The midwife on duty left at 8:00 am and another midwife took over. The new midwife was my favorite out of all the ones in our practice. I was thrilled to see her; I’d hoped she’d be the one present at my birth.
Most of that Friday is a blur. My surges kept speeding up really intensely for an hour or two, and then suddenly subsiding into nothingness for an hour. It was really weird. My mom joined us in the hospital to support me during my labor, and she and Frank and the doula helped me out by putting pressure on my back, and the doula diffused some lovely lavender oils to help me relax. Mostly, though, I handled the surges by myself, focusing on breathing and repeating positive mantras in my head, like I learned in yoga and birth class. The midwife broke my waters at some point that day, which didn’t hurt, but also didn’t do much to speed up the labor.
After many hours of this frustrating on-and-off labor, I decided to see if being in water would help. I wasn’t allowed to go into the water-birth room until I reached 5 cm, but I did have access to a shower in the regular L&D room where we were hanging out. So I stayed in the shower for the next few hours, listening to my awesome Frank Sinatra station on Pandora. The water was relaxing and helped a lot with managing the pressure.
The nurses regularly came in to monitor the baby, and over the course of the day, we noticed something funny. Throughout my intense surges, the baby seemed to be … spinning. First his back was on my left side; then his back was on my right side. It didn’t make any sense. We wrote it off at the time, but in retrospect, that was the first sign that something was wrong. He had never “dropped”; his head never descended into the birth canal. But we had no idea at the time.
Finally, around 6:00 pm, the midwife checked me and found I was at 5 cm. She said I could move into the water-birth room! This was the second major victory. I had labored for 20-ish hours with laser-like focus on making it to the water-birth room. I figured that once I was in there, the battle was halfway won.
Unfortunately, by then I was too tired to care much about this victory. My mom, Frank, the doula, and the nurses all told me, “You did it! You’re going to the water-birth room! You reached your goal!” But I was running on two nights without sleep, plus all those hours of labor, and I could barely register what they were saying. I was starting to get slightly delirious from exhaustion. Around this time, the midwife voiced her concern to Frank that I might be too tired to make it through the rest of the birth. She didn’t tell me that, fortunately, since it would have discouraged me. Instead she helped me move to the water-birth room, where I breathed a sigh of relief. Now that I was there, I was certain I would finally achieve the birth of my dreams.
The next four hours are even more of a blur. I wasn’t allowed in the birth tub until I reached 7 cm, so I killed time by hanging out in the shower. For someone who didn’t end up having a water birth, I sure spent a lot of time in tubs! The water helped a lot with the pressure. I remember thinking, “I am just going to stay in this shower and refuse to budge until they let me get in the birth tub.” Stubborn is my middle name, so I spent hours in there before the midwife finally coaxed me out so she could check me again.
The surges had become incredibly painful and concentrated in my lower back. I was no longer able to manage the pressure, and I began to think, “I just want this to be over, by any means possible—even if they have to do a c-section.” Finally, I told myself this: “If I’ve reached 7 cm and can get in the tub, I’ll stick it out. I can keep going as long as I’m making progress.” One of the nurses was ending her shift, and she gave me some words of encouragement before she left: “You’re doing an incredible job. Just hang in there and you’ll be so glad you did.” That helped me last a little longer.
But when the midwife checked me around 10 pm, I was still at 5 cm. I had made no progress whatsoever after 4 hours of very hard work. I was incredibly disappointed, and the midwife gently suggested that maybe I should get an epidural. “That would allow you to sleep and get some rest,” she told me. “It also will help to release tension in your body, which may help the baby come out.”
I sat on the bed with Frank and tried hard to think between surges. I wanted that water birth so badly and I would do anything to avoid an epidural. I had made it so far already, going into labor on my own and making it to the water-birth room. It seemed awful to give up on the water birth after all that.
But I had reached my maximum. I kept saying, “I would do anything to get some rest.” Without the hope that I was making progress, I had lost any willpower that remained. “Am I a wuss?” I wondered. “Why can’t I stick it out?” The midwife had told me that the surges were “not strong enough yet,” but I was pretty sure that if they got any stronger, I would die. And so with tears in my eyes, I agreed to the epidural and gave up my dream of a water birth.
Of course, we didn’t know at the time that my baby was stuck. He had twisted his little body sideways, so that the surges weren’t pushing him down but instead were pushing him into the side of my hip. He was almost transverse. No wonder I was in so much pain—and no wonder I wasn’t making any progress. But I didn’t know that, so I felt like a failure.
It took several hours for the epidural to get set up, and those were the worst hours of all. I didn’t agree to get the epidural until I had no energy left, so getting through the next few hours of labor taxed me to the farthest limits of my abilities. I began to cry during surges, which I hadn’t done before. Those hours are the ones my mom and Frank describe as “traumatic for all of us.” When they finally gave me the epidural, I exclaimed that it was “the best thing that ever happened to me!”
I tried to sleep once I got the epidural, but I was too anxious and excited. I kept watching the monitor that showed my surges and the baby’s heartbeat, and focused all my remaining mental energy on getting ready to give birth. Maybe I couldn’t have a water birth, but I’d be darned if I couldn’t push that baby out, I thought—especially now that I had some time to rest.
The midwife came in to check me around 2:00 am and I had reached an 8. Hurray! Labor was finally progressing as it should, and things looked promising. But the midwife noted that the baby’s heart rate was erratic, and there was meconium present—two signs that the baby could be in some distress. She mentioned the possibility of a c-section. “No!” I said. “I’ll do anything not to have a c-section. Just give me a little more time.” After she left, I prayed hard for my labor to progress.
When the midwife checked me an hour later, I had reached a 9! We were almost there! After 30-some hours of labor, I was finally in the home stretch. I cried tears of joy while the nurses clapped and cheered. They knew how long and how hard I’d been working.
“Should I get in a different position? What’s the best position for pushing with an epidural?” I asked the midwife. Knowing that I was making progress and that I was almost done had given me new energy.
But amidst the excitement, the midwife seemed strangely guarded. The baby was still incredibly high up (at the -1 station) which is not normal so late in the game. She could tell that something wasn’t right. She brushed off my questions about pushing and said she’d be back soon to check again.
When the midwife checked me at 5:00 am, I had actually regressed back to an 8. At this point, she pulled no punches. “This is not normal,” she said. There was thick meconium present, which is a bad sign, and regressing from 9 cm to 8 cm for no apparent reason was an even worse sign. “If you don’t get a c-section now,” she said, “in an hour this is going to be an emergency c-section.”
What a miserable change from the hopefulness of two hours before. I was so distraught I couldn’t form a complete sentence. “But—we want to have more children—many more children,” I tried to say, knowing that birth is more risky after a c-section, but I choked on my own tears. I asked her for half an hour to talk it over with Frank.
I wept bitterly as Frank and I went over our options. He was more realistic than I was and gently tried to make me see that I had to agree to the surgery, for the baby’s sake. I was so afraid. It didn’t help that I knew absolutely nothing about c-sections and thought that the doctors were practically going to cut my entire body in half. “Dear God, let this cup pass from me,” I prayed, hoping for some escape from this nightmarish situation. But then I remembered the words that come after that in the Bible: “Not my will, but yours be done.” I clung to that verse and found strength in it. Closing my eyes, I surrendered not just my dream for a water birth, but my desire to give birth naturally; I surrendered my fears for future births and my desire to have more children; I surrendered my fear of surgery and of what would happen to my body; I chose to pray, “Not my will, but yours be done.” Finally I took a deep breath, opened my eyes, and said, “I’m ready.”
The midwife came back in then, at 5:40 am, and did one last check. Everything was the same as before. She told me the OB was getting ready in the operating room down the hall.
“I’ll get some scrubs for you,” she said, turning to Frank.
“Um … what? You want me to go in there?” Frank turned white. There’s a reason my husband is a lawyer and not a doctor—he has a profound terror of all things surgical and bloody.
I whispered, “You don’t have to come,” even though I desperately wanted him to be with me for whatever lay ahead.
“No… I’ll come,” he said. As he put on the scrubs to go into the operating room, he whispered back, “Never doubt that I love you!” I knew he had to overcome his fears to go into the operating room with me, and I was grateful.
After that, the nurses wheeled me down the hall for the surgery. Frank tells me that the OB told him after the operation, “We maybe could have turned this baby if we had a few more days. But at this stage in the labor, one of them might not have made it without the surgery.” I don’t remember her saying that, but it makes me feel very grateful that I live in a time when c-sections are a safe option, and that both Frankie and I made it unscathed.
I don’t remember my son’s birth—that may be the most painful sentence I’ve ever written. All I remember is hearing the OB say, “We have a young man!” as she pulled my baby out. I turned to Frank and said, “You got your boy!” because he was really hoping for a son.
The nurses tried to give me the baby to hold, but I was so exhausted and doped up on drugs that I wasn’t able to wrap my arms around him, so they took him away. I didn’t meet my baby until he was two hours old, which still hurts deeply whenever I remember it. Thank God that Frank was there. He held our baby and talked to him and stayed with him while they finished my surgery. And I have done my best to make up for it by holding my baby as much as I can ever since.
I’d heard that c-section babies often struggle with breastfeeding and bonding, but luckily Frankie took to eating like a champ, and we bonded really well once we finally got to meet. This was our third victory: despite the late start, breastfeeding has been a great success. I don’t take that for granted.
My recovery went really well, and I felt back to normal very quickly. I was surprised to discover that c-sections don’t involve cutting a person in half! Nowadays, the doctors do a “bikini cut,” which is a tiny incision at the very bottom of the abdomen. You can hardly see it. That was a huge relief after all my fears.
The nice thing about having my mom there is that she was able to give me some perspective, since she had six natural, drug-free births and one c-section. When I voiced my fears over “giving up” and being a “failure” for getting an epidural and c-section, she said, “I saw how hard and long you labored. You truly experienced every part of labor. Nobody can ever say you took the easy way out.” That helped a lot, and gives me hope that I may have the stamina to successfully give birth without c-section in the future.
If there’s one thing I have learned in my short time as a mother, it’s that every mother bears scars, whether physical or emotional. I don’t just mean biological mothers, either; all women are mothers, and the scars of women who don’t have children, who can’t have them for one reason or another, may be the most painful of all. Last time I saw my sister Lillian, we were jokingly lamenting the toll that motherhood has taken on our bodies. My mom overheard us, and said, “You know how soldiers and military heroes get stars and pins on their uniforms to celebrate what they’ve accomplished? Mothers have those too, but they are on our bodies. Wear your scars with pride.”
I started writing this story to handle the pain of having a birth that didn’t go the way I wanted. But now, looking back on what happened, I’m finishing it with a great sense of pride in what I was able to accomplish. I went through a lot to bring my son into this world. It was a difficult battle, a sort of personal D-Day, and even though the terms of engagement changed on me halfway through, I managed to finish the fight and I came out the other side stronger.
And as emotionally and physically difficult as it was to go through 36 hours of labor ending in a c-section, I can also say that it was worth it. That’s the most important thing about this whole story, really. Every minute was worth it, for the sake of my beautiful baby, and I would go through it again for him if I had to.
After the birth, I couldn’t stop wondering what purpose there could possibly be for the birth to go so awry. I got my answer much more quickly than I expected. Three weeks after Frankie was born, one of my friends called me in tears. She was nearly 40 weeks pregnant with her first, and had just left an appointment where the doctor told her that her baby was breech. For her, a breech baby meant an automatic c-section. She was terrified and upset, and didn’t know where to turn. I was able to comfort her, pointing out the positive things about getting a c-section (there are a lot!), and reassure her that it wouldn’t be as bad as she feared. She said, “I feel a lot better after talking to you,” and—for the first time—I felt a little bit grateful that I had a c-section.
I’ve come to realize that, with motherhood, you never know what you’re going to get. Some of us plan to breastfeed, and end up suffering countless setbacks and having to switch to formula. Some of us plan to have big families, and find ourselves suffering from infertility. The more I talk to older mothers, the more I realize that this is true at every stage of childrearing. Whether we plan to homeschool and be stay-at-home moms, or to public-school and be working moms, or anything in between, we can all be certain of one thing: motherhood is not going to turn out the way we expect. I learned that lesson in labor, and I have a feeling I will learn it again and again as my baby grows up.
In the end, I think that’s the greatest blessing of my difficult birth (besides my baby, of course!). I didn't get the birth I wanted, but God gave me the birth I was meant to have. Before I had my baby, I had a somewhat snooty attitude about natural birth, convinced that “a c-section would never happen to me!” Now I know better. My birth gave me a needed dose of humility, and more than that, it gave me compassion. I know what it feels like to be frustrated with a body that won’t do what you want. I know how it feels to make choices you never thought you’d have to make, and to face fears you never even considered. I think that all mothers know those feelings.
As a mother, I feel as though I’ve been initiated into the world’s oldest and most universal sorority. I often say to my mom friends, “We moms have to help each other out!”, and the longer I’m a mom, the more I mean it. Motherhood is a difficult journey and sticking together, helping each other out, makes the journey easier. But as difficult as it can be, the graces and blessings that this vocation brings far outweigh the pain. I do believe that we are building cathedrals, and I’m grateful to be part of it.