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My natural birth story is not a fairy tale.
I look down at the beautiful boy wrapped against my chest, and I am filled with love as he sleeps peacefully. Last night was a good night and I had a mom and baby breastfeeding support group this morning, so I feel better than I have in awhile. But I also spend a lot of time feeling very bitter about how his birth went, and it gets worse when we have had a rough night or day of constant nursing and fussing.
So it has been hard to get up the emotional energy to relive that experience and write about it. But I know I need to. My birth plan was followed almost to a T; I got exactly the birth I had set out for. And yet it was slightly traumatizing and and left me feeling angry and scared. It wasn’t supposed to be like that, but I wouldn’t change a thing. And I want you to know that if your natural birth story also wasn’t the sunshine and roses people like to proclaim, that’s okay. You are not alone.
I was lucky enough to be allowed to go overdue, despite having gestational diabetes. Everyone was healthy, so they treated me like a low risk pregnancy for the most part. Just a bit of extra monitoring to make sure it stayed that way. I never really nested and got more and more anxious and the days ticked by over my due date. I kept saying, “Baby can’t come until I finish his blanket.”
Finally, Monday morning (40 weeks + 5 days) I did just that after several days of crocheting like a mad woman. I also took care of quite a few other things on my list as well – scheduling out blog posts, making homemade padsicles, making a tea to help heal after birth, etc. I felt very proud and productive.
Monday also happened to be my fourth day of prodromal (false) labor. Contracts would come on and off, and they were pretty mild. They intensified in the evening and I had a little pink-tinged mucus, but I was confident the baby wasn’t coming yet. The contractions came to a dead halt after a bathroom trip, and stayed quite mild during a bath and a small glass of wine.
Around 11pm my husband and I were trying to sleep, but the contractions were getting stronger and while they were short, they felt close together. I pulled out my phone to time them, and once again they came to a dead halt. Finally just around midnight, I could start timing them. Averaging 1 minute long and 5-6 minutes apart (no build up at all to that interval!), I wondered how long this would last. The contractions were terrible while laying down. The relaxation techniques I learned from the Bradley Method were not helping at all. But walking, rocking, doing things helped a ton. This time it didn’t stop the contractions, but reduced their interval to every 3-4 minutes. They “shortened” a bit, though, because the movement helped the pain enough that I didn’t feel the mild starts and finishes as much.
Around this time, I called the midwife on call at my hospital. She told me to labor at home as long as I could stand it, since I am much more likely to get an unmedicated birth that way. I woke up my mom, telling her I had lied when I said it wouldn’t be tonight. She started getting ready and I finished packing the hospital bag. My husband tried to get some sleep, and I did as well. At this point it was 3am, I hadn’t been to bed, and I was just starting labor. Unfortunately, laying down made the contractions so much more painful. I eventually gave up and decided I didn’t want to cope with this on my own anymore. We finished getting ready and headed to the hospital, arriving around 4am.
We checked into triage, and the baby and I were looking great. I was 4cm dilated and my contractions were consistent enough that they moved me into a labor room. I couldn’t have a water birthing suite because of the gestational diabetes, but I was still able to get into the big soaker tub in the bathroom, which was wonderful. I had to be monitored periodically – blood pressure checks, blood sugar checks, and heart rate checks. All of these could be done in the tub. Even when they switched me to continuous monitoring, they used waterproof and wireless monitors that allowed me to stay in the tub, walk around the birthing center, etc.
At least every 2 hours or so, the nurses had me try something different. So I went from the tub, to rocking on a birthing ball (where I threw up for the first time in 12 years, and throwing up is hard when you are 9 months pregnant!), back to the tub, to laying on my side with a peanut ball, back to the tub, etc. Each time I moved they had me go to the bathroom, which always triggered a terrible contraction. The bathtub was my favorite place to be since I could easily change positions and I think the water really did help me cope with the contractions.
As the day went on, I would actually doze off between the contractions. I was exhausted, but everyone was so encouraging. My mom was my main support person, and my husband was there the best he could be. Throughout the whole labor, everyone told me how amazing I was coping. My mom, my husband, the nurses, a volunteer doula that stopped in, the midwife, everyone told me how impressed they were. I didn’t think I was doing anything special; just going inward and breathing through the contractions.
Around 1pm (13 hours into labor), I was 7-8cm dilated, 100% effaced, and my amniotic sack was bulging. I hadn’t felt like I was making any progress at all, so this was great to hear. I was exhausted, though. I wanted it to be over.
Everything continued: switching between labor techniques, being monitored, trying to stay hydrated and keep my blood sugar stable so that I could avoid an IV. I still don’t know how I maintained my blood sugar through that whole process. All I had was sips of coconut water and juice for the entire labor. I had no desire to go anywhere near solid food, even though it would have been allowed.
I’ll be honest, I thought about asking for drugs many times. I had requested that I not be offered any pain medication during the labor, and the nurses and my midwife were great about honoring that. But I thought about it. Oh I thought about it. Good thing I’m as terrified of a needle in my spine as I am. Despite the pain and exhaustion, I never voiced that doubt in my ability to do this. But it was there. I wanted to cry. I just wanted the pain to be gone. I wanted it to be over. I wanted transition to be here because even though it would be intense, it would mean we were at least close.
At 7am that Tuesday morning, my favorite midwife had come on call. I was so excited, because she would be here until 7pm. I would surely have had the baby by then, and there is no one else I would have wanted to catch him. Well, 7pm came and we weren’t even pushing yet. But I was told things were so busy that she couldn’t leave, even though the next midwife had shown up. She continued to care for me throughout the late evening.
Eventually I did start to go through transition. I threw up again. As unpleasant as heaving with a 9 month pregnant belly is, I really did feel better after. I started to feel a need to bear down through the contractions, but it didn’t feel too productive. At some point they checked me and I was at 9.5cm, waters still intact.
Shortly after 10pm (22 hours…), we decided to have the midwife break my water in the hopes that it would finally put me into the pushing stage and help get this baby out. If they hadn’t, I’m pretty sure he would have been born en caul. It took her a very long time to get my waters broken, and she said it was the toughest amniotic sac she had ever had to break.
Before long I was fully dilated and the urge to push was becoming more intense. For the past few hours, I had no desire to move. Since my water was broken in the labor bed, this meant I was laboring in the bed. I couldn’t bring myself to go anywhere else. So my midwife (who was still there, coaching me) helped me get into positions that were still good for pushing a baby out. Eventually I had both my feet up on a bar and I was pulling on a sheet tied to it.
Each push was draining. I always thought that the pushing stage would be my favorite, because it would feel productive. But it didn’t. It just hurt. Everyone was gathered around me, cheering me on through the contractions. But every contraction that didn’t produce a baby left me wanting to cry. I spoke very little through my labor, and the only words I spoke during pushing were yelling, “I need him out now!” at one point after they told me I needed to stop pushing because the contraction was over even though I was still feeling the pressure. I never vocalized during the first stage of labor, but now I was screaming through many of the pushes.
I was exhausted and wanted nothing more than to be done. I watched the clock tick closer to midnight – approaching 24 hours of labor. Approaching August 10th, even though I had gone into labor on August 8th. It would take me several days to figure out what day of the week it was and how old my son was because of this.
My baby’s head began to descend, and I began to experience a whole new level of pain. First, it was just that “ring of fire” you hear about. I thought, “Great, he’s close, I’m almost done.” But it got worse. So much worse. It turns out that not only did my son have a 14.25″ head, but his hand was up by his face. I felt like my entire vulva was splitting open. Women say they don’t feel the tearing. I felt it. Hell, I felt tearing where there wasn’t any because there was just so much pain and pressure over an area that really shouldn’t be opened as far as it was. Around this point I wasn’t just yelling through the pushes, I was legitimately screaming in pain. I wanted to cry as my midwife told me to slow my pushing and just breathe. I needed this pain to be over. Why couldn’t it just be over?
My mom later told me that she and my husband, who were up by my head, were encouraging me and cheering me on at that point, but that I managed to ignore them and focus on my midwife and only listen to her.
Everyone touched his head as it came out except for me. I didn’t want to deal with any of that nonsense. I wanted the baby out and touching his head wouldn’t get him there any faster.
But finally he did come out. After the pain of his head and that hand, I felt the rest of his body slide out so satisfyingly. I was filled with relief and amazement that at 12:33am on August 10th, after over 24 hours of active labor, I was finally done. They brought my baby boy directly up to my chest and he was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. He didn’t look like a newborn. His coloring was amazing and he had the most beautiful face. There was no vernix left on him.
Next we waited for the placenta, which I was terrified of. I didn’t want to push any more. I didn’t want to feel anything more come out of me. But it was a very mild contraction and push, and a very satisfying sensation. Now the midwife, this amazing midwife who was there for me through everything even though it was 6 hours after her shift ended, was able to stitch up my second degree tearing. An amazing nurse who would be with me until the next morning, helped me begin my recovery from what honestly was a traumatic experience.
But I had done it. I had given birth to a baby without a single medical intervention. I had an amazingly healthy, 8lb 3oz baby boy that didn’t need any care. My mom would spend the next week calling me super woman, telling me how she is in awe of what I accomplished, etc. My husband would tell me that he could never have done what I did, and continually praise me when I was feeling bitter about my experience.
People refer to 12 hour labors as long. Mine was 24. People have babies in 3 pushes. I pushed for 2 hours. People have 10 pound babies with no tearing. I had 2nd degree tearing with an 8 pound baby. My baby was in the ideal position for an easier labor. I had an amazing support team. Why did my natural labor have to go this way, when all the stories I’ve heard from natural labors are positive? Yes, I did avoid drugs. I avoided pitocin. I avoided a c-section. I have a healthy baby. He is so healthy and relatively quite a good baby. And for all of that I am grateful. But that experience was so hard on me, and my recovery has been so difficult. I struggle a lot with negative emotions around my natural birth story and towards people who have better experience than I.
I don’t brush off the praise I get for going through what I did. I am proud of myself for surviving and for my strength. Many women I talk to would never dream of doing what I did. But emotional recovery has been as difficult, if not more so, than physical recovery. And that’s why I needed to share this. Because I’m not a failure for not being able to have the beautiful labor the natural childbirth world makes me feel like I should have had. I am strong. I am an inspiration to my support team who saw what I went through. And as much as I wish my labor had been easier, I wouldn’t take back any of the choices I made.
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