I was kind of iffy on the power of visualization before I gave birth. I mean, just because I imagine something doesn’t make it so, right? That’s a load of hooey.
Of course, when my due date came and went without fanfare, I started getting desperate. The last weeks of pregnancy are just terrible. Like, I cannot adequately get across the encompassing discomfort, coupled with the looming question: “Is this it?” Seriously, I found myself googling the most ridiculous things. “Is ankle pain a sign of labor?”
Fun fact: everything is a sign of labor, which means nothing is a sign of labor.
My baby was due on December 19. When the 19th passed, and then the 20th, and then the 21st, a Christmas baby became a real possibility. I got very nervous, very frustrated, and extremely desperate.
And then… I couldn’t be any of those things. Sometime late on December 21, it occurred to me that I couldn’t control when my labor happened. I don’t know why it took so long for this little thought to surface. I mean, I was doing everything I could: I drank pineapple smoothies by the gallon. I had my membranes swiped. I was doing yoga and timing Braxton Hicks and begging my husband to get it on with me.
Nothing, nothing, nothing.
I had to consciously choose to relax and let it all go. It finally occurred to me that I couldn’t control this, no matter how much I wanted to puppet every bit of it – you don’t get to decide when you go into labor. Well, pitocin can decide that for you, but I wasn’t there yet.
December 22 I found myself relaxed in a way I hadn’t in weeks. I put finishing touches on the nursery. I watched Buffy the Vampire Slayer, my latest Netflix binge. I felt more energized than I had in a while, which still wasn’t much. That night, to get out of the house, Husband and I went to P F Chang’s, my favoritest restaurant. As I squeezed my butt into that booth, scarfing down all my favorites like hot and sour soup and lettuce wraps, I mentally timed contractions between bites.
Fun fact about pregnancy: contractions do not mean labor. What the hell, right? In fact, a woman can experience contractions for literally months before real labor happens. Most of these obnoxious quote, unquote contractions are called Braxton Hicks contractions, which are basically fake contractions. They don’t particularly hurt, they are at worst mildly uncomfortable. The whole belly goes hard, as though “practicing” for the real deal. Of course, those fake contractions start to come on harder and get closer together before labor.
The 4-1-1 rule helps a woman know if she’s in labor. When the contractions come every FOUR minutes for ONE hour and the contractions are ONE minute in length, then maybe you might be in labor. If not, suck it up buttercup.
During dinner, my contractions were six minutes apart, lasting roughly 4o seconds.
I didn’t tell my husband. Why worry him, right? Besides, if I could keep eating, then it probably wasn’t “real” labor, right?
At home, my contractions were five minutes apart, lasting 40-50 seconds. What the hell, I thought. I had just eaten my body weight in Chinese food and I was tired. If it was “real” labor, I wouldn’t be able to sleep through it, right? So I went to bed.
I managed to completely underestimate my sleeping ability. If sleeping were a sport, I could compete on a national scale. I can sleep through anything. Earlier this year, I literally slept through an earthquake. It’s a gift, really. Both the husband and the dog snore like it’s a competition. Doesn’t bother me. I am also not hindered by location: futons, floor, cars, airplane, I can sleep on anything. And sleep right through it all I will.
I cannot, however, sleep through pregnancy peeing. I woke up on December 23 at 1:00 am, and had to pee. Story of a pregnant girl’s life. Three steps from my bed, I felt a sort of tearing sensation on my left abdomen. Could it be…? Thirty seconds on the toilet confirmed it–my water broke. Gushes of reddish water came out of me. I got up and called over my husband. I didn’t realize that water just keeps coming. Yeah, those clothes and the bed sheet were eventually thrown out.
While Husband flew into activity, I noticed that the contractions of the Chinese restaurant were clearly NOT the contractions of 1:00 in the morning post water-breakage. They started pretty immediately and there were definitely harder than all the Braxton Hicks I had felt.
The plan was to labor at home for as long as possible. Stay in a safe spot, avoid being sent home from the hospital (literally my worst fear about labor *insert hindsight eye roll*). I sat in the rocking chair and focused on breathing through the contractions. Husband, meanwhile, was doing the anxious things that husbands do when the wife is definitely in labor. Packed the car, made phone calls, and generally freaked the fuck out.
The contractions quickly intensified, like really quickly intensified. They went from, “Okay, I can do this,” to “Holy shit what is my body doing” in about 10 minutes. Right along with that intensity, my anxiety climbed. Stories of women forced to give birth at home danced through my head. On the phone, the midwife said to stay at home as long as I was comfortable, which didn’t last long. Particularly when I started vomiting.
Yeah. Vomiting. Apparently some women react to the extreme pain of labor by blowing chunks. There went my Chinese food. Over and over and over… Every time I had a contraction, I puked. No one had prepared me for this possibility, the throwing up, so I basically decided I was done. Less than an hour after waking up and experiencing water breakage, I demanded we go to the hospital.
Husband didn’t argue. Protip: never argue with a woman in labor.
I held to Husband as we walked haltingly to the car. It was very cold, and snow was starting to fall, so he insisted I walk through the contractions. Like I was even thinking about the cold. In retrospect, I feel like a damn Amazon warrior for walking through contractions. Never mind that I was clinging to Husband with one arm and a pot of vomit in the other. In the car that I started to realize the severity of the pain. I mean, I knew it was bad. What I realized in the car is that it was so bad I was basically losing awareness. When I would come out of a contraction, I’d look out the car window into the snow-dusted streets and I had no recollection of the last several blocks–the pain blocked my ability to comprehend events around me. Like, damn. That’s painful.
At some point during the car ride, mid-contraction, Husband asked, “Are you hot or cold?” I was thoroughly irritated. In a sounder mind, I might have punched him. Protip: only ask a woman in labor yes or no questions. The kind of questions that she can either nod or shake her head at.
The roads were empty of people but coated in snow. The hospital was so bare it almost looked closed. We were met at the door by security. They offered me a wheelchair, which I gratefully took. It felt like a movie-moment: a security guard wheeling the cringing pregnant lady to labor and delivery. Rest assured, that was the only movie-moment of this whole affair. On the third floor, a nurse made me stand on a scale before she directed me to a room. I resisted the urge to call her a nasty word. Who makes a pregnant woman stand on a scale? Whatever. I made it all the way to the door frame before literally vomiting on the floor. I was so embarrassed, but unable to apologize, already conserving my energy for the next wave of contractions. I just shuffled into the bathroom and followed a different nurse’s orders to change.
From here, things are somewhat of a blur. I remember pieces but everything is fragmented, broken, I assume, by the contractions. Husband later liked to described it as an “endorphin hole,” where I was basically unreachable. The contraction would rise up, overtake every part of me and consume me, and when it receded I could communicate like a normal human. Well, an exhausted somewhat terrified human in the midst of child labor.
The birth plan I had written months before specifically stated SEVEN pain management techniques before I wrote the words, “I am not opposed to an epidural, but I would like to wait as long as possible.”
I never even tried those seven other methods. I asked for the epidural within half an hour of getting to the hospital. Why beeline for the epidural after alllllllllll the careful planning? Let me explain. After literally puking on the hospital floor, I sat on the toilet of the hospital bathroom, naked, holding a new puke bag and my brain piped up: “Remind me again why we don’t want the epidural? Like, what is the benefit of fully experiencing this debilitating pain?” And then I puked into the stupid bag. “Literally, why opt out? So you can tell people that you did all this without an epidural? You know there’s not an award, right? Seriously are bragging rights really worth this shit?” I puked again. “Fuck that!” Husband was surprised. The nurses were surprised. Husband quietly suggested one of my seven planned “natural” techniques. I not-so-nicely told him to can it.
After wrapping me in the barest of hospitals gowns, the nurse directed me into bed. THE bed. The one in the movies. The one that moves in all the different ways, with the stirrups and the nice warm sheets. The quiet little nurse informed me that she needed 30 minutes of continuous monitoring and 30 minutes of an IV before I could get my epidural. Thirty minutes until that sweet, sweet pain relief.
Of course the word “continuous” means “without stopping.” My thirty minutes kept getting pushed back because I kept vomiting, which made me lurch forward, and off came all the monitoring equipment. Which the nurse would try to put back on before the next wave of nausea materialized. And because I had been vomiting for a good hour at least, I was incredibly dehydrated, which meant that my IV line couldn’t get in. My quiet little hospital room started to fill with nurses as they stuck my arm once… three times… five times…. New nurses kept coming in. Each one made a special point to tell me her name. Like, really? I’m vomiting my guts out while breathing through unmediated contractions, I don’t give a shit about your name. At one point, six nurses surrounded my bed, poking my arm and calmly discussing the options. Purple-green bruises popped up on my arms. Meanwhile, I’m STILL throwing up and breathing my way through contractions. The labor and delivery nurse kept trying to coach my breath. “In through your nose, out through your mouth.” Which really pissed me off because I was doing the breathing from my damn labor class. But every time I made up my mind to slap her, someone would stick my arm or I would hurl.
An hour (more? less? time is strange when you’re in that much pain) later, I’m still vomiting, the IV isn’t in, which means pain relief is still far away, I start to feel panicky. The L&D nurse is contradicting what I learned in labor class about breathing, so I started to lose control of my breathing.
Basically, I started to lose my mind.
Which is really the last thing that a woman in labor wants. You already feel like your body is moving without you, so the few things you do have control over (like your breath and your thoughts) are really precious. So pain, plus vomiting, plus anger at this stupid nurse, PLUS I can’t fricking talk to her because the pain is so bad annnnnnnnnnd I had all the ingredients for…
A panic attack.
I am no stranger to panic attacks. I have experienced those frightening little suckers since adolescence and they are NOT something to be taken lightly. My main go-to for a panic attack is to crouch into a dark little room (AKA a closet) and breathe it out. Usually with lots of tears. Yeah, not happening when I am in bed surrounded by nurses trying to get an IV into my damn arm, contractions coming on top of each other, and my belly wrapped in equipment.
I started to feel extremely claustrophobic and overwhelmed, the pain started to feel unbearable. Bad things were happening. Very bad things. But how do you tell everyone to shut up so you can have a panic attack? You don’t. I lay back in bed and imagined the horror of a panic attack in labor. My breath quickened, my pulse started to pick up, my fists clenched.
At literally the best possible moment, right as a panic attack started to become a very real possibility, the door swung open and my midwife walked in the room.
I cannot sing the praises of midwifery accurately. My group of midwives had led me through pregnancy in a way that made me feel like a fertile goddess. They helped me feel confident and educated, answered every stupid question and assuaged all our ridiculous (and sometimes extremely valid) fears.
Jenn the Midwife hit my room with a wave of calm, she sauntered in and silently demanded the room to calm down with just her strut and her eye balls. The hospital would have knelt before her had she demanded. In she walked, right past my anxious Husband and the congregating nurses, straight to my bedside. In her cold but so comforting hands, she took one of my hands and she started speaking.
To this day, I have zero recollection of what she said. I remember only her tone–firm, calm, confident, real. Somehow, in a couple sentences, she restored my confidence in myself. I felt calm and secure and in charge but also cared for. She coached me through the ensuing contraction, her attentive and loving focus on me, and then Jenn the Midwife took over the room.
The IV got in. Anti-nausea and anti-anxiety meds were administered. The extra nurses cleared out. A soft man came and administered an epidural. My fears about the epidural had long been replaced with an overwhelming desire for pain relief. Finally, someone got a hand up me and checked. I was 6 centimeters dilated. Six centimeters is a long way to go in just a couple hours. It was no wonder I was overwhelmed. As the epidural kicked in, I was instructed to rest and relax. Apparently, people can nap while in labor. Nurses changed shifts. I listened to music. The pain hung around me. Occasionally I would have to breathe through a contraction, but it was no longer all-consuming, penetrating everything.
I thought about the baby a lot, through all of this. He brought me a great deal of comfort. Not because he was the “prize” at the finish line (I detest that turn of phrase in regards to labor) but rather, he and I were in this together. I was not alone, nor was my pain for naught: every contraction we were both working towards meeting. I mean, I knew him–I grew him. We had been communicating for 9 months, by touch and by energy. But now we would look each other in the eye, see each other, hold each other. I imagined every contraction pushing him down, widening the cervix. Despite the pain, I refused to fight the contractions; instead, I channeled them. I focused my attention and my energy towards working with those contractions, I leaned into them, I let them overtake my body but not my mind and I embraced them. Of course, all of this was a whole lot easier since I wasn’t throwing up or getting coached by an idiot nurse.
Around this time, as I focused on relaxing, my best friend Michelle came. I’ve known Michelle since high school. Where I am a straight-laced rule-follower, Michelle is a sort of nomadic hippie who literally lives life on highlines in the air. I remember talking to her through sleepy blinks, describing what had happened so far. She seemed uncomfortable at first. I wondered vaguely if she was disappointed in me for getting the epidural, she’s definitely in favor of the natural side of life. Occasionally, a contraction would break through my haze and I would have to breathe through it. I had discovered that holding a hand was helpful. It made me feel less alone, and it gave me something to focus on. I grabbed Michelle’s hand. That seemed to give her a purpose and she embraced the supportive role.
Which had really been her role from the beginning. She was one of the first people I told about my pregnancy. I occasionally waffled with the idea of her presence at my delivery, however. It’s an extremely intimate event. Bonding. Of course my husband was there, but should someone else be there?
A note about Husband. He’s a bit of a sideline in my mind for this event, but he was present. And he was his best self, as best as he could be. But the simple truth is this: Blood freaks him out. Pain freaks him out. He wanted (and I know he wanted) to be as supportive as possible, but he was also becoming a dad and totally unsure of how to support me. So he did it as he knew how to do it: he controlled the environment (who could be in the room), he did all the contacting (so that I wouldn’t have to worry about anything outside my hospital room), and he had EXPLICIT orders to leave the room if he started to panic or get woozy.
Michelle was my back-up plan. Michelle was to take over Husband’s role should he freak out. In his heightened state of protection, Husband double-checked to make sure Michelle could be “allowed” in the room. Nervous, I said yes, with the caveat that I could change my mind. I never did, although she would have been gracious. Thank goodness for Michelle. She offered the perfect counterbalance to Husband–where he was a sort of masculine anxiety (in a terribly loving way, of course) she was a feminine calm. They complemented each other, both provided two sides to what I needed.
The urge to push came far sooner than expected. Around 9:00 am (remember my water broke at like 1:00 am) the contractions broke through the epidural barrier and I felt myself “leaning into” them.
Some women describe pushing as “a relief.” I hated it. Hated. It. Like, I literally remember laying there between contractions, staring at the ceiling, thinking, “Okay, I’m done. Let’s go home.” Of course, that’s not how labor works, and I was too exhausted between contractions to actually say anything, but damn. If I could’ve sat up and walked out, I think I would have tried.
Determined (and painfully aware that there wasn’t any going back), I worked to channel the pushing and not fight it. Jenn the Midwife coached me. I clung to her words desperately, hanging on them and soaking them up like my survival depended on it. It wasn’t like the movies–no screaming, no cursing. Lots of careful breathing and low moaning, encouraging words, and a marked increase of movement and activity in the room. I ignored almost everything. I focused on listening to my body, on implementing Jenn’s instructions, on breathing. Michelle, who held my hand and massaged my leg, kept saying, “You’re so brave.” I didn’t feel brave. I felt strong, though.
Due to the pain and exhaustion, I was unable to communicate more than a nod or a word. My labor and delivery nurse moved my leg. For some reason completely lost to me now (was I pushing the leg into her? Maybe?) I really liked the feeling of my leg held like she had it. When she went to put it back down, I meant to say, “Hey, could you keep doing that? It feels nice and is really helpful.” Except, I didn’t have the energy for all that so instead I sat up and pointed and said, “No!” She held my leg for the rest of the delivery. At one point, between pushes, I overheard Michelle and Husband debating eye color. One said he would have green eyes. The other thought grey or hazel. I wanted to tell them, “Blue! They’ll be blue!” I didn’t have the strength to speak.
I knew things were picking up when people starting saying, “There he is” and when Husband started gasping. He stood by my head, a hand in my hair, and he counted with Jenn the Midwife. I found all of those things extremely annoying, but I didn’t have the strength to say, “Knock it off!” My baby boy was getting close; we all knew it.
And then… the urge to push ceased. I leaned back, chest heaving. Everyone was silent. My rest in between stretched double, then triple its normal amount. “This is a big one,” the delivery nurse said. The room held its breath. I lay on my back and panted.
The push contraction, when it came, was dizzying. And then, all at once, Jenn the Midwife said, “Molly, look down.” I did. And there he was.
Everything fell away. Everything. There were no nurses, no hospital, no sound. I reached out for that baby, that naked, blood-coated baby, and pulled him to me. I felt a small pop as I did so, but I only had eyes and focus for that beautiful baby. He started crying. My heart fell into little pieces: crying meant life. He was alive and breathing and here.
“Hello, beautiful,” I said. Then I said it again and again. Slowly, the crying calmed and he blinked those big eyes open and looked directly at me. He had the darkest blue eyes. Beautiful, alert eyes. My heart assembled itself larger and softer and it ached with all the love. My beautiful child, my son.
Dimly, I became aware of the activity of the room. There was talk about blood and the nurses kept asking me to adjust and move so they could look at these big patches of blood on my gown and the hospital sheets. When did those get there? It seemed like a lot of people were in the room with us.
Ten minutes into holding and talking to my perfect baby, a nurse told me that they needed to take him. She spoke softly and reassuringly and insisted that it was just to be sure, that there was nothing to worry about. I said it was fine, as long as Husband could be with the baby the whole time.
Then the room cleared. Just me and Michelle, and Jenn the Midwife and a nurse. Jenn the Midwife stitched me up (not as horrifying as it sounds after you’ve just pushed out a baby and you’re still under the epidural) while Michelle talked to distract me. I was shockingly okay without my baby there. I mean, I missed him, I wanted to be with him, but I wanted him to be healthy more than anything.
I later learned that his cord had ruptured on delivery–an extremely rare occurrence (none of the nurses, midwife, or pediatricians had seen it before) and it resulted in quite a lot of blood loss to my son. Luckily, Jenn the Midwife was on top of it and clamped the cord before too much was lost, but his blood pressure sky rocketed, prompting a visit to the NICU where they ran some blood tests to ensure his health. There, Husband loved on him, holding his hand and talking to him.
After I was stitched up and Jenn the Midwife had shown Michelle and me the placenta (soooooo cool, by the way) I started to get anxious to see my child again. I just… missed him. How can you miss something you literally just met? Nurses and Husband ran back and forth to give me updates, so I knew he was stable and interactive, they were just running tests. My mother in law preceded him when they brought him back. She gave me a hug and said something, but over her shoulder I could see him being brought into the room. All I wanted was to hold him. The mother in law moved, they handed me my baby, and literally the entire world was perfect.
Of course, the “fun” had only began, but it was my beginning. And in that moment, I was thrilled.