(There’s so much I want to say about the labor, but Henry’s sleeping and I have two hands to type so I’ll just have to write more later as it moves me.)
On January 5 at 3:30 in the afternoon in my appointment with the midwife I was 1 cm 50% effaced — which is what I had been two weeks before. This was discouraging news, and because I was already three days past my due date they made an appointment for me to have an ultrasound and they scheduled a day for me to be induced.
Not twelve hours later, on January 6 at 2:30 in the morning, I awoke and knew I was in labor. I called the hospital because there was a lot of blood, and by 7 in the morning we were in the hospital and they had a funny belt strapped to me and could see I was having contractions. At that point I was 4 cm 80% effaced, but really I could barely feel the contractions the screen said I was having – it just felt like cramps. They asked if I wanted to be admitted then, but we chose to go out to breakfast and wait to come back until the contractions were too much to stand.
At breakfast at 8:30 I suddenly felt the beginning of what would be a day of pain. I could feel it in my back–the beginning of almost twelve hours of back labor. I stayed in the house with Steve and together we got through the day, which went surprisingly quickly, first with me on my side and then standing, then pacing, then leaning over the birth ball, then on the kitchen floor, then on the toilet, then on the bathroom floor, then back to leaning over the birth ball. I was trying not to go into the hospital until the pain became too bad (in order to prevent me from having to be induced), and I couldn’t talk through the pain for a long time but still I stayed in the house until finally Steve fed the dogs and put the birth ball and our bags in the car and Rosie, too (she had come home from school and found the house filled with another sort of energy, and through it she was polite and tried her best to keep her father in good spirits). I fit myself in the backseat on my hands and knees and we drove a very bumpy-seeming road to the hospital.
As soon as we got through the two-contraction hallway and then the three-contraction hallway and made it to our room, that’s when I started feeling the need to push. I was 6 cm 100% effaced, a discouraging number after a day of labor, so I got in the tub and an hour passed and then my water broke. Water does break, I didn’t break it. The action was in the water itself — it’s astounding the pressure of that bursting.
The midwife had me get out and found I was ready, 10 cm 100% effaced. There was no way to not push, I could not have stopped myself anymore than I can stop any other impulse to eject something from the body, and I pushed first on my hands and knees and then on my back and then on my side while Steve put a cup of water to my lips, then five more, and in an hour I pushed out a head and then the body popped out and there was a baby underneath my left leg.
What I know:
Over the day I kept a post-it note and marked the minutes each time I felt pain, but the contractions weren’t regular – 6 minutes, 5, 3, 4, 5 minutes. Everything online said that these were Braxton-Hicks contractions, not real, and so it wasn’t until after 2pm when we called the midwife again could I actually believe that this would be the day, that I really was in labor. The midwife assured me that everyone experiences contractions differently and that I would know when to come into the hospital because the pain would be too great. That is what happened. In the post-it note the written time becomes increasingly illegible.
At first I needed Steve there, in our house. I wanted him right beside me on the bed, right with me on the kitchen floor, I wanted him timing the contractions for me and writing them down. I wanted him to know when I inhaled the word pain what I meant. And then the pain got so bad that I just wanted to be on my hands and knees on the bathroom floor all by myself. I went into a cave in my mind, and in between contractions it seemed that I was asleep. My brain would shut down, my body would go limp, I would somehow intuitively store my energy. And then another wave would start and I would be awake again, though very rarely with my eyes open. There were no sights, no sounds, no smells. I was my breath and a dark space with a lightning bolt of pain at the base of my spine that I could not find a way to move away from. But then in the hospital I needed Steve again. Maybe it was a new phase, or maybe because the place was strange, maybe I felt vulnerable around people I didn’t know, and the lights were so bright – but each contraction in the hallway I needed to bury into his chest. The bath was warm but he wasn’t in it. I liked standing and burying into him best. The contractions were getting more and more painful and there was so little time in between to come back to reality.
You’re really beautiful right now, he said when I was on the table and pushing, in between pushes. Your lips are red and your eyes are dark.
I thought I would be more modest. I was naked and groaning and the lights were bright and at 7pm, the shift change, there were maybe ten people in blue in the room with me and I didn’t know or care.
While some say the pushing is the best part – you get to take the pain and act on it, use it for an end that is in sight – the pushing was the worst. The pain in my spine was so great I couldn’t bring myself to push into it. I could barely raise my legs let alone hold my knees and push into the pain like the midwife asked me to do. Apparently just one hour of pushing is very good for a first labor, but I’m not sure if I could have pushed much longer. It was in this phase that I thought to myself, Could I do this again? and felt like I couldn’t, I couldn’t imagine having another child knowing that I would feel the intensity and duration of this kind of pain again. Now, of course, I’d do it again as soon as possible. Perhaps I lack empathy for even myself, but I can’t remember what the pain was like, I can’t imagine that it really hurt that bad.
The midwife who caught our baby was the only one we had said we didn’t want – there were seven others that might have been on call that night, but she was the one. She’s the more talkative one who jokes a lot; I wanted someone more reverent and official. I feared my parents would meet her and shake their heads at my choice of a midwife. I didn’t notice her, though. Anyone could have been there delivering my baby and I don’t think I would be able to tell you a thing about that person. Except this about this midwife, this incredulous detail that is probably too much information: when the baby’s head was coming out, as the baby’s head was being pushed out of my body with all my might, the midwife said, Oh look, he has so much hair, and she made gleeful sounds as she twirled it. Look, you’re giving him his first hairdo, the nurse exclaimed while I went back into the cave of my mind to prepare for another wave of pain.
You’re doing so good. He’s almost out. You’re doing so good. You’re beautiful. Steve said all these things and held one of my legs when I pushed and held my hand and put me to his chest and gave me water. He got to see everything in this way that even I couldn’t. There is so much love and awe in that, and the reverence of birth, of witnessing, it lingers in our house.
In pushing out the baby’s head, I tore through skin and muscle enough to warrant lots of stitches afterwards. But I did not feel that pain at all. Not at all. There was too much else going on, too much other pain with the baby inside of me, I had to get him out. It’s amazing to me that the body can tear through its own skin and muscle and not even notice.
When my water broke, there was meconium, which means the baby might be under some distress, so at the birth they paged pediatricians. I had wanted the cord to pulse for some time before it was cut and I had wanted the baby to rest on my chest as long as possible to keep him warm and to help him know that he was home, but they put him on my chest and asked Steve to instantly cut the cord, then they put a blanket over him and took him to a table and drew fluid out of his lungs and put drops in his eyes and checked him over for any distress. There was none. They brought him back to me for another short time, then they took him away again for too long. I was in a daze. He’s been gone for a long time, I remember saying to Steve and staring at the heat lamp under which I could hear him screaming, and then they brought him back to me.
I was afraid of so many things for his birth – that I wouldn’t be able to take the pain, that I’d ask for an epidural, that some distress would warrant a C-section, that he would be born with only one leg or a cleft lip or a face distorted in a way that the ultrasound couldn’t detect, or he’d be born and I’d know that they’d put the wrong embryo in me from the start. Everything I feared dissolved. There was a baby screaming underneath my left leg. He was born and cried instantly and he didn’t stop for a long time. I knew at once that he was strong. He looked unbelievably sturdy curled up there at the base of the bed screaming his heart out, his skin already the color of mine, not blue. His hair looked much darker than I thought it would. His body looked bigger than I pictured. I didn’t get to see his face, I saw a screaming mouth and then the top of his head when they put him to my chest, and he turned his head on his own so he could breathe. As vulnerable as he was, he was intent on keeping himself alive.
I wondered about the rush of oxytocin that the body experiences after a natural birth, but I didn’t feel it so strongly. They injected me with pitocin after he was born so that I wouldn’t bleed from the afterbirth, and then they were back between my legs shooting numbing agents and sewing me up. I was shivering and the pain of the stitches was too much after the climax of pain of labor, but through this I felt exquisitely calm. Maybe that’s the experience of oxytocin: I was calm, and I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that my baby was fine.
What my mother saw:
I called her at 8:30 in the morning and she and my father and brother drove all day from Pennsylvania. They were in the waiting room by 7pm, and at 7:30 my mom walked down the hallway to my door and the nurse said, I don’t think you want to go in there right now – this was less than half an hour before the birth. They watched “Modern Family” in the waiting room while Henry was being born, my mother most likely chewing nervously on the inside of her lip. They saw a man crying on the ground — he had lost his baby. His mother was crying next to him: I didn’t even get to hold him. They talked to a set of young parents whose baby was born at 24 weeks, 1 pound 4 ounces, and the man had just lost his job. At 7:45 my mother saw nurses wheeling in the bottom half of the birthing table. Then she saw them wheel in a crib. Henry was born, and two nurses walked out and as they passed my mother they said to one another, When a baby’s crying like that you just give him to his mother. That’s how my mother knew that we were fine.