Birth stories are a funny thing, aren’t they? Some focus purely on the circumstances and resemble a play by play at a sports event. Others are more emotionally and sensory based, more of a subjective three dimensional plane you’re invited to stand on and look around at. It depends on who’s telling the story and to whom, I guess. And it also depends on how we see birth. Is it a series of medical occurrences that ultimately results in the birth of a baby? Or is it more of a cultural event, rife with symbolic significance? Or is it more spiritual, sensual or emotive?
I guess the question is really what is a birth about. What is happening there? it’s a question that has really defined my life lately. Thinking about human life, where it comes from, what it means and how it progresses, from the earliest moments of conception and how that defines who we are as individuals and also as a community and a society of people. What influence does a birth story have on the person being born? The person giving birth? And the greater community that they are both a part of? How does how we see birth affect the start of our lives as parents and the start of our babies lives? What tone is being set?
Clearly I want to write to write a birth story here. But I don’t seem to know where to start. What to focus on. The things I experienced are all sort of clanging around in my head, untethered and free-flying, just a jumble of emotions, thoughts and images. But something happens once I write them down, put them in order, rank their importance and give you the narrative. i risk taking a stance on my own story. of seeing things I might not want to see. And I also risk losing parts that are left out. Does that make sense? That’s perhaps why I have gone so long without writing anything here (that and the fact that clearly with three kids and shoddy internet, where is the time?)
Anyone seen the movie “Big Fish”? I did a while back and I thought it was ok. Recently I’ve really come to appreciate its message that our lives are not really made up of an objective reality but rather a series of subjective stories we tell to ourselves and others.
Ok, you’re thinking. Tell the story already. But again, it’s complicated. When does the story actually start? (and no, I’m not going to rehash the age old debate about when human life begins, abortion rights and all that). What I mean is in some ways, I feel like my labor started about three weeks before he was born and really the last few hours just finished off the job that my body had begun many days earlier. You always hear these stories about births that snuck up on people and just took hold and before they knew it, they had a baby in the back of a cab. Well, I feel like these people must just not be paying attention. For me, at least, it was just a real gradual progression of physical preparation and changes that ended on the day he was born.
And, as anyone I’m friends with on facebook probably knows, I was waiting for his birth mentally for many days also.
So…should I write about all that, what some might call “prelabor”, waiting? Preparing? Or should I just fast forward to the day of his birth? After all, you’re a busy person. You clearly don’t want to relive my entire pregnancy with me. You just want the juicy details.
Well, I will say that I really was anticipating his arrival for three weeks. I was stupid enough to actually think that my third baby was bound to come early. I think that’s the common wisdom, right? Every baby comes earlier than the last? Well, that’s just simply not so. I also thought for some deluded reason that prelabor was mostly just a first baby thing…you know where you have contractions that are actually painful, somewhat regular and then they go away completely? Well, I felt like that happened to me nearly every night. I would go to bed sure that I was going to be woken up in a few hours in labor, then waking up the next morning feeling nothing. I was heavily nesting: cleaning the house every night, packing and repacking the birth center bag, washing clothes like a mad man so there was never a pile on the floor getting moldy (unheard of around here). I couldn’t walk without sciatic nerve pain shooting down my leg, making me limp like a war veteran. My hemorrhoids were the size of a small country. I had to pee so many times in a day I stopped flushing (the water bill would’ve bankrupted us).
If there is one thing I’ve learned from this pregnancy and birth it’s how completely physical of a process it is. I know this may sound strange but he conceived himself (ok, I had a small part in it) without my permission or even any emotional input from me, and was born in much the same way. He and my body did it. My brain really wasn’t involved this time. Having a baby this time was as normal and as physically unconscious as taking a giant shit, pardon my French. I don’t mean that in a derogatory way. No matter how much I willed Miles to be born and for my body to go into labor, it very much had its own timing separate from everything that I was thinking and feeling. And when it was ready, there was nothing that would have stopped it. It was really all Miles and my body. My brain was just along for the ride.
The day Miles was born was a grey, stale day. June 30th. The last day of June. Eight days, what seemed like 8 years, late. My mom said over the phone, “I guess he just wants a July birthday.” Yup, guess so, I said. “Should I stop by for a visit?” she asked. “Nah, that’s alright,” I replied. I knew that I was going to have the baby either that day or the next and Greg and I were just kind of in a state of sitting around waiting to see how it would all go down and when.
I paced around, doing every day things, getting a few last minute things ready, feeling a little bit like I was teetering over the edge of a very steep cliff face, feeling a little bit like I was about to go careening quickly down the slope.
The day before I had gone in to the midwife’s office for a “mandatory” NST. For those non-pregnant people, that’s an acronym for non stress test, which is where they hook you up to a fetal heart monitor and give you a hand buzzer like a contestant on Jeoprody and you’re supposed to hit the button every time you feel fetal movement so they can make sure his heart rate is “responsive”. This is all because I was “post dates”. I was 41 weeks pregnant, god forbid. A ticking time bomb of legal responsibility in the medical world. My midwife stood by my side and buzzed Miles with a little tool meant to startle a sleeping fetus to get the heart to respond. His little heart started thudding up to 160 beats per minute. She nodded her head. “Looks good,” she said, “but we technically need three good “responsive” episodes for your file.” So I had to sit there hooked up to the machine for another fifteen or so minutes. More hoops. Always more hoops. Then she informed me that they were required to measure the amount of amniotic fluid around the fetus before they could give the ok to go a few more days without an induction. The fluid looked good. But none of these reassuring signs did much to comfort my midwife apparently, who had begun to show her true colors as my pregnancy went from average run of the mill to “post dates”. Before I left, she urged me with a bit of desperation in her tone to “take my blood pressure every day”, “do the fetal kick counts and if it seems like he is AT ALL less active than usual, PLEASE don’t hesitate to come in and get monitored”. Then she practically begged me to let her sweep my membranes, which I declined, having read that it introduces bacteria into the cervical opening which can possibly lead to a higher likelihood of infection and even risks accidentally prematurely rupturing the membranes. Plus, from what I had read, it was not a proven way to encourage labor to begin any sooner than it would naturally. Clearly, this woman thought my body was a lemon. That it was broken and that it needed help to have this baby. She did not trust in the process.
Then, the last thing we did was to schedule our “natural induction” for the following Friday (she tried to get us to agree to Thursday) where I was supposed to drink 4 oz of castor oil in the morning and then come in for further measures if that didn’t work.
I left feeling a little panicked to have people freaking out so bad over my body’s apparent inability to birth this baby. Though it seemed unlikely that after birthing two normal healthy full term babies, my body would somehow fail to go into labor on its own and release the third one, I had started to doubt myself and my body about a week earlier and now I really felt broken. Greg kept the faith, tried to cheer me up and restore my confidence.
As his parents had kept Ruth and Joel while we went to our appointment, we went out to lunch, stopped at a historic mansion and walked around the grounds, got some ice cream, and then parked in a neighborhood near his parents house to take a walk. It was a beautiful summer day, hot but not humid and with a nice strong wind. We strolled together and talked like we used to do when we were younger, holding hands and looking at peoples houses and yards, talking about our plans, the kind of life we want to live. It was surreal. We were going to meet our baby. On Friday, at the latest (this was a Monday), possibly Saturday. We were both feeling the same jumble of emotions. Excited. Scared. Nervous. And just surreal. In a nutshell, it is a surreal feeling to be past due by eight days with a baby. Because any hour, any second labor could start and change your life forever.
The next day was June 30th, a Tuesday, the day I had that conversation with my mom. But I was secretly thinking while she said that thing about the July birthday that he was going to be born today. After using the bathroom in the morning, I noticed “bloody show” which had been the sign with both other kids that I had less than 24 hours before this baby was probably going to be born. And I felt at once great relief and also anxiety set in. My body wasn’t broken. I was so happy that I hadn’t let the midwife sweep my membranes because then I probably would have attributed the “show” to her intervention and I never would have come to trust my body as I have during this pregnancy and birth. But I was also anxious. How long did I have? And how was it all going to go down?
We spent the first part of the day in the normal fashion, just playing with the kids and hanging out. But after a couple hours, I started to feel what I will call “real” contractions, the kind that grip your back and cause a sharp stabbing sensation at the base of your abdomen that I now recognize as the feeling of my cervix being pulled open. But they were weird. They only happened when I moved, they didn’t have any regular pattern and they only lasted 10 seconds or so. “I don’t know how to read my body right now,” I told Greg, wondering if we should send the kids to his parents or just wait, not knowing how long this might go on for. But my body didn’t care that it was breaking the rules of labor progression or that it was confusing the hell out of me. It was just doing its thang.
I sat in the living room watching the bachelorette ( a terrible show) and doing the cat and cow yoga posture during the few contractions that I did have to encourage him to NOT be posterior while Greg helped in the only way he knew how, by doing something really useless and random, organizing a desk drawer downstairs that no one had touched in over a year while the kids played down there with him. I was still wondering if this was just prelabor at 3:30 when I laid down on the couch because my back was aching and a particularly sharp and painful contraction hit me. Greg and Ruth were nearby and I had Greg rub my back as it went through me when suddenly I felt/heard the familiar “pop” of the amniotic sac and felt the warm gush of amniotic fluid. “Oh shit,” I said, “my water broke!” and I stood up right away, afraid of the cord getting swept down into the birth canal.
This was my cue to panic. I was hoping to just have contractions for a while before dealing with my water breaking. Actually, I was hoping not to have to deal with it at all this time around. I felt like, with how fast Joel’s birth had gone, things were about to be slammed into third gear. I kept saying, “Oh shit. Oh fuck.” And probably scaring the shit out of Ruth who was milling about at my feet as I struggled into the bedroom to change my clothes and find my giant sanitary napkins as I yelled to Greg to call his parents and tell them to get here NOW and then to call the ABC and tell them we were coming in. This part I really regret. I wish I had either sent them away earlier to Greg’s parents house or that I was better able to keep my composure because the last thing I wanted was for this to be scary or traumatic for Ruth. She, adorably, tried to reassure me and then packed me a bag of stuff to take to the birth center. Heartbreaking when I think about it. In the meantime, I was still franticly trying to get everything that we needed ready. Greg was on the phone with the nurse and asked me as I passed how far apart my contractions were to which I just threw up my hands, as if to say, “I don’t freaking know!” Because, to tell you the truth, I wasn’t having any. But I just knew that I was going to have this baby soon and that I needed to get to where we were going. Fast.
His parents arrived and we practically ran out the door to the car and started towards the birth center. “This is better than last time,” Greg said. I asked what he meant, still kind of shook up from my water having broke. “You’re not in terrible pain as we’re driving.” “I guess so,” I said. But about 2 minutes out from the birth center, I felt a painful wave build to the point of what was bearable, and I felt another little wave of panic, and I half thought, “It’s happening again, what happened with Joel.” I looked at the clock in hopes of timing some of these things so that I could say something useful to the nurse when we got there. I had maybe two or three more like that, ones that had me gripping the handle above my seat again and holding my breath as I frantically tried to remember how to relax and breath like I had practiced and failing. They were 2, 3, 4 minutes apart, I don’t know. Then, as we rounded the turn-around, I had a terribly painful one that gripped me internally and absolutely took my breath away. Well, not took my breath away I guess, because I think I screamed. Greg said, “Just remember that lady!” “What lady??!” I asked furious that he was trying to make me think of anything but this terrible pain I was feeling. “The hypnobirthing lady!” he said, “From the CD!” I think I told him to shut up or something. But we had made it. We pulled up to the ER entrance and I got out and immediately into a wheelchair. Greg took the car and parked it while I was wheeled inside the door by someone and parked basically amongst a bunch of sick and injured people in the ER who were all staring at me as I sat there, eyes closed, somewhat writhing in agony. A real pleasant experience, let me tell you. And right where a person about to have a baby should be, right? Amongst a bunch of sick people. I still wasn’t really feeling “contractions”, more like just general pain.
Greg finally came after what seemed like an hour, with all of our stuff in his arms and had to go through the security check with all of it like at the airport before they would let him come in. More red tape.
Someone wheeled me to the elevator and we breathed a sigh of relief as we made it to the ABC, the place we picked to have our baby. A safe haven of peace and comfort. We were greeted be the nurse who asked me, “How far apart are your contractions?” in a somewhat snarky tone. “Kind of all over the place,” I said. “Well, it sounds like you’re in early labor. You can go into the room.” She gestured behind her, then she said, “And I don’t appreciate how rude you were over the phone,” to Greg. I felt like someone slapped me in the face, I honestly felt like the wind had been knocked out of me. “Who?!” I asked. “Him!” she said, pointing at Greg. I couldn’t believe it. And I think I’m at a loss as to describe how I felt coming in there to have my baby only to be greeted so rudely over something as stupid as being short over the phone when we needed to get here and didn’t have time for technicalities over the phone. This lady clearly had no idea. Just another example of why the medical model doesn’t work with childbirth. My body was running the show. Not this lady’s protocol. And, being in my body, I knew what this lady didn’t. That I needed to get here or I was going to have this baby at home or in the car. I got up and walked into the room like a pupil having her wrist slapped, feeling a little bit out of body that this was happening to me after everything I had hoped for this birth. After all of the articles and statistics I had posted online about empowering yourself during your birth and all that. And here was this random stranger who was going to ruin it all. And I had no power to stop her.
I stumbled into the bathroom, shakily, just feeling so hurt and disbelieving at the situation I had found myself in. Then the nurse stuck her head in again and snarkily made some comment about me being in early labor, when I shrilly and desperately told her, “I know that I am in active labor!” and then I started sobbing. It was pathetic, in a word. Here I was sitting on the toilet, being scolded by this stranger just as I am about to give birth to my baby, supposedly one of the most awesome moments of my life, just sobbing like a little child. Out of frustration that this situation was out of my control, that this person was able to get into my moment and shit all over it, make me feel like shit and detract from the birth of my baby, something I can never go back and undo. And just sadness. That this was the reality. After I had had such high hopes for this moment.
I got up and continued sobbing. That was when her tone changed. She said something like, “Well, maybe you’re further along than I thought. Why don’t you get up on the bed so I can check you.” I did as she said, the pain subsiding for the moment. She quickly checked my cervix and said, “Well, you’re complete. You’re at a ten and the baby’s head is right there. The midwife isn’t here yet but there’s a doctor on the floor who can catch your baby if we need him.” And I just layed there, feeling a bit numb from the emotional assault from this woman, relaxing from the break in contractions that I had been granted again before pushing contractions started and just surprised and grateful that I was fully dilated and that it was all almost over. The midwife walked in just as I felt the first pushing contraction, I gripped Greg’s hand as I felt the familiar sensations that I remembered from Joel’s birth.
A word on pain. I can sum up childbirth in a single word: excruciating. But that’s the nature of it. We don’t have to fear it. After all, you can have childbirth without pain. But you’re missing a characteristic part of it. What is childbirth without pain? What is life without pain? Sure, we can numb it in various ways. But then we’re missing the full picture, aren’t we? I’ve read that a common misconception is that pain is the opposite of pleasure, when in reality pain and pleasure are the two extremes of feeling and the opposite of both of them is to feel nothing, to be numb.
Some people say that pushing feels good. I will never agree with these people. Two thoughts I had while pushing Miles out that broke through crystal clear. One: I am never doing this again. And two: if I asked for an epidural now, could I still get one. That’s how much it hurts. In retrospect, what are a few moments of physical agony to the utter bliss when you hold your newborn baby? And also, what are a few moments of physical agony to the lifetime of emotional and mental turmoil having children opens up on you? Really, it’s hardly worth mentioning. Except to say that there has to be a threshold of pain that a single person can feel, when all of your pain sensory perception sites are flooded. And childbirth is without a doubt, a ten on the pain scale. It is the most pain, I’m convinced, a person can ever feel. There’s simply no way to feel more. I remember Greg being next to me, holding my hand and just biting the shit out of his fingers. It wasn’t until afterwards that I realized I did that and then I was really concerned about his hand actually being hurt.
As I was pushing, I tried to ignore the midwife and the nurse telling me to do this or that, except to roll to my side. That ended up being a good suggestion, because I didn’t tear. For the first time with a birth, I didn’t tear, and I can tell you, it makes a big difference. I really wish I had written in my birth plan that no one was allowed to talk while I was pushing. It was really important for me to feel it and to do what I felt like doing, unencumbered with other people’s input. I am really satisfied to say that I was able to feel the urge to push much more than I ever did with Ruth or Joel, something that I really really wanted to experience this time.
Then, the midwife said, “Your baby’s right here.” Greg reached over and “caught” Miles as he came out and then my vision was all red. He was red all over. And wet and hot on my chest. And covered in wax. And just one word sticks in my mind as I remember him on my chest and still to this day is a good word for him: velvet. Not like the material. But the ultra soft fur on a caribou’s antlers, warm and pulsing with blood underneath. That’s Miles. Velvet. And red. He didn’t make a sound. In fact, I think he fell asleep on my chest, just laying there warm and newly born.
He was born at 4:36pm. About an hour after my water broke. Less than half an hour after arriving at Providence. Twelve minutes after I got up to the birth center.
And that’s it. Sure there’s more I could say about the follow up care and the rest of the birth center experience and maybe I will in a later post (though you don’t know what I’ve had to go through to have time to write even this post).
My biggest impression of his birth is just profound respect for my body and the ancient process of childbirth and really just how much it doesn’t mesh with any kind of hospital experience. I’m really kicking myself for not having a homebirth because it would have been so perfect. And I can’t, for the life of me disconnect Miles birth experience from that nurse who treated me like shit. I can say that Miles experience was great. I think he got a really good experience, the best start. But my personal experience was lacking and has left me feeling somewhat wounded and bitter and regretful. And truly, if his mother is not treated with the utmost respect and made to feel beautiful, appreciated, and powerful, maybe we can’t really say he is getting the best start.
His birth was as normal as a rhythmically contracting heart muscle, just as everyday and amazing as that.