I can’t remember the first time I heard the story of my own birth, but by the time I was a teenager it was ingrained into my consciousnesses. My mother had gone a few days past her due date with me when her water broke. She didn’t experience any contractions but dutifully went to the hospital. I was born in the late ’70s – a bit beyond the darkest of the dark ages of American birth. My father was permitted to be in the room as my mother labored and gave birth to me. My mother wasn’t tied down or forced to be “delivered” of me via forceps. Even so, my birth was a miserable experience for her. Shortly after arriving at the hospital she was given a Pitocin drip to bring on the contractions – or so she thought. Turns out the IV had been hooked up incorrectly and so rather than flowing into her veins the Pitocin pooled on the floor under her bed. My father discovered this after 12 hours without my mother having so much of a hint of a contraction. Once the mistake was discovered there was much concern about how long she had been with her water broken and no contractions. As such she was given a large dose of Pitocin which immediately brought her into hard labor. Her descriptions of it were agonizing; screaming in the bed, told that she must lay down and endure it, without food or water for over 24 hours. As someone who has done a lot of laboring babies without painkillers I find it hard to believe how she was able to survive that level of pain without moving around. For me, moving around was the only thing that made it better. When it came time for her to push she was wheeled down the hall to the delivery room and lie on her back, again forbidden to move, while she pushed and was given the requisite episiotomy. After I was finally born she was so traumatized she refused to hold me or even look at me. When I hear this story I don’t feel sorry for little baby me, but I am filled with empathy for my mother. She was only 26, my father knew absolutely nothing about birth and babies, and my mother was in a new city (they had moved while she was pregnant) far from any of her family. Growing up hearing this story I learned that birth was something horrible that “happened to a woman”; something painful, and violent, and powerless.
Once Husband and I started talking about having children, in spite of, or perhaps because of my mother’s story, I started to read birth stories. Blogging was not yet a word but there were a lot of women who kept online journals and I devoured the birth stories they posted there. It was by looking through the windows into other women’s lives that I learned about how amazing birth could be eventually deciding to have a home birth myself when the time came. Birth stories are incredibly compelling. Joyous, tragic, difficult, and fast I imagine women have been telling them to one another for as long as we’ve had the capacity for language. After giving birth to each of my children, I wrote down each of their birth stories. For me, the stories, recall the feelings of that day (or days in the case of Older) more than any photograph or video could. When I was hugely pregnant with Baby, a few days before her due date, I re-read the birth stories I had written of Older and Middle’s birth and just reading kicked off a series of contractions that I think was the beginning of my labor.
I have a good friend who is due with her third baby; in fact one day past her estimated due date. I promised her I would send her Baby’s birth story; I decided to post it here for her. Maybe reading it will help kick-off her labor. Birth stories are a powerful thing.
I wasn’t sure when to start this birth story; did my truly labor start when I called our doula, C, and asked her to come over to help me through the contractions? Or did it start when I felt a series of strong and painful contractions the night before Older’s birthday while re-reading his birth story? Then there was the day, weeks before the birth where I felt regular contractions for about eight hours. I was reassured that an on again/off again labor pattern is typical for third time moms, and I wasn’t worried, but it did leave me with something of an inability to ever be convinced that actual labor had begun…
On Older’s birthday, I found myself feeling different. The occasional contractions were still infrequent, but had become noticeably stronger and more painful. I was queasy and I found my patience for everyone and everything wearing thin. I asked Husband to take the morning off of work (he had already planned to take the afternoon off so that we could all a museum as a family for Older’s birthday). After resting all morning we did end up making it to the museum but I was quite happy when Older decided that he would like to order pizza in at home rather than go out to dinner. I spent the next day, a Friday, running a few errands, enjoying lunch out by myself, having our midwife over for a visit/prenatal where we chatted over leftover birthday cupcakes and steamed milk, and making up pie crusts to slip into the last remaining crevices of our very full freezer. I did not sleep well at all on Friday night and happily slept in on Saturday morning while Husband took the kids to their gymnastics class. I had infrequent, but strong contractions, that felt real and productive. While Husband and Middle napped, Older and I quietly made paper chain decorations for Older’s birthday party the following weekend. I spent the rest of the afternoon playing Tetris, making a braided white bread, and generally just puttering around the house. At about 7:00 pm, as Husband readied the boys for bed, I began to suspect, although didn’t want to get my hopes up too much, that I was, in fact, in labor. I sent off a heads-up email to our midwife, E, our doula, and our neighbor who we had planned to watch the kids while I was in labor.
The kids went to bed about 8:00 pm and at that time I realized that the contractions were now actually regular – every 15 minutes apart. After the kids fell asleep my body seemed to sense that all possible obstacles to labor were out of the way and the contractions grew closer together, perhaps 5 to 10 minutes apart; with a pattern of a long, strong contraction alternating with a shorter, less painful one. About this time I was taking the bread out of the oven and mentioned to Husband that although the bread had smelled and sounded delicious to me earlier in the evening, it no longer interested me. I also started to feel really, surprisingly very anxious about labor. All the pain and work of laboring with Older and Middle came flooding back to me and I started to wonder if I really wanted to give birth at home; really wanted to go through all that pain without any possibility of medical relief. I decided to take a shower – more for calm than for pain relief. The shower was good, but I couldn’t stop wondering if I was really in labor. I thought that more distraction was a good idea so I decided to play more Tetris. I played one game for about an hour and half until I finally lost my Tetris mojo and the game was over with me getting a little over 5000 lines.
I thought that it was probably a good idea to get some rest and we picked up the house and got ready for bed. We talked as we lay in bed, pausing for contractions. I realized that I was hungry and Husband got up to make me some toast on the bread I had just made; first with butter and strawberry jam and then with butter and honey (and then another batch with butter and honey again). Around midnight I had the realization that regardless of whether or not this labor was going to stop, I would not be able to sleep for the time being; the contractions were simply too strong and painful for rest. About half an hour later I began to crave some more help through the contractions and decided to call C the doula at 12:32 am. C was clearly sleeping when I called and I felt, for a moment, a bit of guilt that I had woken her, but she said that if I felt that I needed her she would be happy to come over. I then thought that if I had called C that I should probably call midwife E and called her after another contraction passed. I was happy that E sounded awake and she asked me to stay on the phone through a contraction. After a few minutes a strong contraction hit and I handed the phone to Husband while I moaned and breathed slowly through the pain. E decided to come over and told me that in the event this was not the final act of labor then she would simply set up her equipment and go home later or nap on the couch if it looked slow, but promising.
A long, hot shower sounded appealing again and I thought it would be a good test of my labor; if the contractions slowed down then perhaps I would be able to relax and sleep and Baby was not quite ready to be born; but if the contractions kept coming (or got stronger – not that I was expecting that) then I must really be in labor. After what seemed like only a few minutes in the shower I was surprised when I quickly began to feel contractions very close together. As one would hit I would turn so that the hot water poured down over my back while I hung against the shower door. Although I didn’t feel any pain in my back, the hot water felt wonderful as a distraction from the contractions. The contractions seemed relatively short but quite closely spaced. Despite the pain, I truly took pleasure and satisfaction in this part of my labor. It felt good and productive to be up on my feet. I was excited that our baby was coming to us. And the wonderful, hot water of the shower really erased my anxieties or any lingering stress from the pain of the contractions. C might have been asleep, but she must have been all ready to go and arrived at our house just half an hour after I called her at 1:05 am. I was doing well in the shower so I just kept going. I wondered just how close the contractions were at this point and when I asked, Husband said, to my surprise, that they were only two minutes apart! They also seemed short to me and I asked if that was OK, but C said that they were about 45 seconds long. That sounded like real labor so and I decided to stay in the shower as long as possible as it was working so well. I began to feel hot in the steamy shower and asked Husband for some water. He brought my bottle to me quickly (I think he was very happy to have something concrete to do) and the water was deliciously cool and refreshing. I started to want company during the breaks between contractions and although I didn’t ask, Husband seemed to sense that I needed him and stayed in the bathroom from then on. The contractions grew more painful and we started a new routine. During a contraction I would close the shower door and hang off of it while grasping Husband’s hands tightly. After the contraction passed, I would open the shower door, take a deep drink of cool water, hold a nice soft towel up to my body and chat with Husband and C. I was still in the shower at 1:30 am when E arrived. After more than an hour in the shower I was starting to feel a bit weak in the knees and restless and at 1:50 am I decided to get out. I dried off and put on the same black nightgown I was wearing during Middle’s birth. I went out into the living room and after walking though a couple of contractions I sat down to rest for a bit. I kept expecting to have to get up at any moment to walk through a contraction but after several minutes none came. I worried that meant that labor had stopped, but E thought that it was only a break and told me to enjoy it while it lasted. E soon called over her assistant, N. I was surprised that she would do so already; I didn’t think I was that close to having a baby, but clearly E thought that the birth was coming relatively soon. Only five minutes after the break in contractions ended I noticed more pressure during a contraction. E told me she thought I would have the baby before the sun came up! By 2:30 am the contractions were coming long and strong. N arrived and E decided to start an IV for hydrocortisone (I need a “stress dose” of steroids during and after labor due to my rheumatoid arthritis) and fluids. It took her awhile to find a vein she was happy with in my left arm. I was starting to lose any cares other than labor and didn’t mind at all when she ended up placing it in the crook of my left elbow. I was sitting on a birth ball in the living room and rapidly starting to turn inwards. From this point on labor became something of a blur for me. I started to get loud through the contractions, yelling “Nooooo!” and “Owwww!” The shower had worked so well earlier that I decided to get back it. It was helpful, but I wouldn’t call it enjoyable like the second time I had been in. I still squeezed Husband’s hands with every contraction – but now I was squeezing a lot harder. Husband later told me he thought I might actually break his hand. I thought I was only in the shower a short time before I became restless and frustrated that it “wasn’t working anymore”, but C’s notes show that I was in there for 25 minutes – longer than I thought. I tumbled out of the shower onto the bathroom floor during a contraction. Someone brought the birth ball in and it felt good (or less bad) to rest on my knees leaning forward on the ball. I managed to gasp out that I wanted a towel over the ball as the surface of the ball was cold and slippery and that towel felt positively luxurious. We staggered out to the living room and E said that she was confident that I would have the baby by morning. E and C were trying to “coach” me through many of the contractions at this point saying things such as “Melt”, “Relax your shoulders”, “Soften your hips”. I didn’t find the coaching very helpful; I wasn’t sure what “Soften your hips” even meant and I was frustrated that they kept repeating the same things over and over. Sometimes two people would try to talk at the same time which was supremely annoying. I found it incredibly hard to focus on one person but two people talking was like trying to listen to the radio and TV at the same time – maddening. I also asked C to try counter pressure on my back and hips during a contraction remembering that it had helped for a time during my labor with Middle and it unfortunately felt wretched and I immediately told her to stop. I couldn’t stand anyone to touch me at all actually. I did want to hold Husband’s hands but it was vitally important to me that I be the one holding his hands (not him holding mine) and I would slap him away when he tried to grasp my hands. I remember very little detail from this time; save the feeling of the towel on the ball against my cheek. For some reason that towel felt like it was the only good thing in the universe. I was starting to feel caged, trapped in a never ending cycle of pain. I remember thinking, in a moment of seeming clarity, “What the hell am I doing here?”, “Why am I not in the hospital getting an epidural?”, “What was I thinking trying to do this at home!?!” My doubts finally broke free and I yelled “I want to go to the hospital! I want an epidural!” No one, including myself, really took me seriously though. I just needed to say it and then the urge passed. What I really wanted was the labor to be over with. I felt so battered by the never ending waves of pain. I was so tired, I was starting to yawn in between contractions. I just didn’t see how I was going to make it through what lay ahead and I had no idea how long it would take to get there. My new all consuming thought became “I just want her out.” I was getting very loud through the contractions, but it couldn’t be helped. I didn’t want to wake up the kids, but then I heard chatting and what sounded like giggling coming from their room – apparently they were already up. They didn’t seem distressed, rather, if anything, they were amused by my yells. I completely lost focus thinking of them though. Although I had hoped that they could stay and just be woken up right before the birth, it wasn’t to be and I asked Husband to bring them over to the neighbor’s house. The kids left sometime between 4:15 and 4:30. I worried that it might take Husband awhile to get them settled in, but he came back within a contraction or two. I don’t know how far apart the contractions were at this point and I didn’t care enough to ask. At one point I do distinctly recall saying “Three kids is good. I am done. I am so done.” I began to crave rest like I have never craved anything before. The contractions seemed to be right on top of one another with no real relief. As one would end I would sit back and just try to catch a moment of respite; my knees were sore from grinding into the carpet. I remember very distinctly thinking of the contractions as a storm that would carry me out to sea, toss me around, and then wash me back ashore (the breaks in between contractions) bruised and battered only to carry me back out to sea all over again. Husband would remind me to think of the baby and I honestly could not think of her in any concrete way; I couldn’t think of anything but, “I want her out. I want this to be over. I am done.” I thought of the birth not as getting to meet my baby, but as the pain and exhaustion being over. Somewhere around this time I spontaneously moved from yelling words to moaning which in some part of my brain I recognized as a good thing. I heard the word transition being discussed by E, C, and N. My water hadn’t broken yet and E asked Husband if we cared about the rug in the living room. I didn’t say anything, but I thought, “I don’t care about anything other than getting this baby out!” Husband, however, said quite sensibly, that he did care about the rug and the ladies (I have no idea who – my eyes were closed much of the time now) built a nest of chux pads under me. I began to feel some desire to push; not a strong urge; it was more that pushing made the pain somehow more tolerable. E said to go ahead and push and kept subtly checking my progress. E began to get energized and kept saying that as soon as my water broke that this was going to go fast. I asked for a promise that this was going to be over soon. A little past 5:30 one of the ladies suggested a change of position and we moved into the hall to try squatting with the chin-up bar for support. The bar was too high and someone placed a towel over it to hang off of but it didn’t feel comfortable. After a few minutes C suggested that I sit on the toilet and that sounded good – I knew that babies were often born at home on the toilet – so I shuffled the few steps to the bathroom. I sat on the toilet, exhausted, pushed and my water broke with a big splash right into the toilet – quite convenient! I had a moment of happiness and excitement flood through me at my water breaking – only a moment of respite, however, as I then felt her head begin to crown. I gave a mighty roar and pushed one, twice, three, times. It hurt, but it was a good hurt; a really good hurt. I knew that this was finally, truly the end. I stood up, moved forward a bit, pushed two more times and she was out! I sat back in relief as she was handed to me; warm, wet, and very slippery. It was 5:44 am. Words fail me but I remember thinking how real and intense this moment of my life felt. My senses were overwhelmed. I held our just birthed baby girl in my arms and I could hear her whimpering, feel the pain in my body and the heat between us, see how she was quickly turning a robust, healthy pink. We rested and someone began to rub baby girl with a warm flannel blanket. I just sat there not really thinking, relived and talking to our baby girl, telling her that I was her mama, that I was so happy she was here, that everything was going to be OK. I think that in some ways I was comforting myself as much as I was comforting her. The next few hours were a blur of quietly soaking up the perfection of our new baby girl, intensely painful after-contractions, introducing our daughter to her siblings, and eating a delicious meal of cinnamon rolls and scrambled eggs.
Someday my daughter will ask me to tell her about her birth. It would be easy to tell her that giving birth to her, at home, was the hardest thing I’d ever done. It’s a truthful statement. I can still vividly remember how I thought “I don’t know how to do this!” as I labored with her, battered by wave after wave of agonizing pain. But it’s not the whole truth. The whole truth is that is was the hardest but also the simplest, most powerful thing I’ve ever done. I can hardly wait to tell her the story.