Sweet Sophie Jane: September 29, 2011

Warning: what you are about to read is a “birth story.” You have my solemn vow that I will not be featuring pictures of my hmm-hmmm, nor will I provide graphic details about the baby crowning. That being said, it is still a story about a baby being born, so if that is not your particular cup of tea, feel free to change the channel. We’ll catch you next week for our regularly scheduled programming. If you are a pregnant woman who is wondering whether it is a good idea to read this, be assured, this is not a tale of being in labor for five days only to have an emergency C-section. It’s a relatively empowering, feel good birth story.

On the spectrum of intended labor interventions and pain relief options, I lay somewhere in the middle between “I want my epidural in the parking lot” and “I prefer a drug-free, unassisted birth in my living room.” Yes, there is a lot of gray area in there. I had an intense desire to experience what my body was capable of doing naturally and wanted to get as far as I could without drugs. Perhaps it had something to do with the fact that I had a mysterious medical condition during my pregnancy that left me unable to properly swallow and caused me to throw up at least a dozen times a day. I desperately wanted to “prove” to myself that my body could do something right. That being said, I didn’t put it past myself, after a few hours of contractions, to grab the nurse by her scrubs and growl, “Give me the drugs!”

During our childbirth class, our instructor, who later became our doula, urged us to try to keep an open mind about our vision for birth; she told us that often people who had their heart and mind set on a very specific experience didn’t get what they had planned for. I had no judgment toward moms who went the epidural route; I was induced with my first child and had the epidural before I felt any pain at all. My primary complaints about that birth experience were that it was boring, I was tired of laying down, and I was starving and desperate for a Coke. That being said, I was hoping to avoid induction and at least dabble in the natural childbirth experience, even if I was unable to make it to the finish line drug-free.

Due to my aforementioned unexplained medical condition, (still unexplained at that point; a week after the baby’s birth I had an endoscopy that revealed a condition known as achalacia, causing my esophagus to require dilation so that I could swallow again) I was pretty much incapable of drinking water, keeping any significant amount of solid food down, and gaining weight. Not a great combo when one is nine months pregnant. During the last month, I went into the hospital weekly to get fluids, had a few ultrasounds that revealed baby girl was oblivious to my barfing, and spent the day waddling back and forth to the bathroom to get sick. I had strayed so far from my ideal image of my pregnant self, doing prenatal yoga, reveling in my ice-cream induced weight gain, and radiating serenity, that I could do little more than recline on the couch watching 6 straight hours of The Closer.

Though it was determined that my unborn child was still thriving in my uterus, literally sucking every last calorie and drop of hydration from the exhausted, vomiting shell of my pregnant body, my OB wanted to get her out the week of my due date. While I liked my OB practice, they were certainly a far cry from the “let nature take its course” philosophy of many midwives, and I think they were utterly baffled by my disinterest in induction via Pitocin. As a compromise, we decided that my water would be broken the morning of September 29th, 2 days before my due date, and we would wait a few hours and see what happened.

Off to the hospital!

On the morning of the 29th, we arrived at the hospital with our suitcase. Shortly after the water-breaking was complete, my doula, my husband, and I began our 50,000 laps around the labor and delivery unit. For anyone not well-versed in labor techniques, walking is supposed to help get contractions going. I was definitely contracting somewhat regularly, though I was easily able to remain upright and breathe through them.

Two hours later, my OB checked in. I was eager to share with her that I had been experiencing regular contractions since she left, but she took one look at me sitting happily in bed and laughed dismissively. “You’re not in labor,” she chided knowingly. “You wouldn’t be smiling if you were actually in labor.” Never before had I been so strongly compelled to punch a medical professional in the face. How dare she belittle my labor experience? Hadn’t she ever heard of early labor? That was typically the stage where women putzed around their house, tidying up and occasionally pausing to breathe deeply. Though I was certain my OB practice would love to just stick in the IV and eliminate the stage of early labor all together, I knew that that was what I was experiencing. One had to walk before running, right?

“Can you please give me two more hours?” I requested respectfully, exchanging poisonous glances with my doula and biting back the profanity-laced retort playing in my head. “OK,” she begrudged me, “but I really think you’re going to end up needing some Pitocin.” After that condescending slap in the face, I firmly believe my anger and sheer force of will propelled me into active labor. Not fifteen minutes after Dr. Patronizing’s departure, contractions picked up and things really began to progress.

My doula was a hero; she knew exactly when to suggest a different posture or technique, and she always knew the perfect thing to say to coach me through each contraction. As it turns out, I spent a good portion of my labor in the jetted Jacuzzi tub, allowing me to fully relax between my contractions. When my doctor returned several hours later, presumably to start my Pitocin drip, I was contracting away in the tub, and couldn’t be bothered to even acknowledge her presence.

Three hours after active labor began, the nurse pronounced me five centimeters dilated, and we decided to call my mother to tell her it was time for her to head to the hospital. She had been there during the birth of my oldest child, though watching me take two naps and zone out during a Monk marathon was not exactly the same scene she walked into this time. I’m sure it is difficult to watch your child experience pain, even as an adult; it was sometime near my mom’s arrival that I realized I was doing this without drugs, and I had no intention of requesting an epidural. Luckily, she didn’t have long to observe before her granddaughter entered the world.

My stylish hospital gown proved to be a wise investment

I remember learning about “transition” in my childbirth class. Transition is the third phase of labor, and it is the stage usually depicted during sitcoms by the woman hissing, “YOU DID THIS TO ME!” at her bewildered schlump of a husband while simultaneously attempting to get dressed and head for the nearest exit. It is the stage where women generally freak the f-ck out. Having some information on this, I was cognitively aware of what was happening when I hit this particular part of my labor. I was in the tub for the second time, and it was the first time I began to cry since going into labor. Contractions, while by no means pleasant, had seemed like a tolerable, productive experience up until this point. All of a sudden, I was done, and I KNEW that I couldn’t stand one more second of this agony. I grabbed my doula’s hand and tearfully pleaded, “Please help me.” At this moment I became aware that I was nauseous and shivering. A small voice inside my head said, “Oh. This must be transition.” Though I must have realized the end was near, when I told my doula I needed to get out of the tub immediately, I didn’t realize how close I was. I just knew, similar to the angry sitcom moms-to-be, that I hadto get out of that tub pronto.

As soon as my feet hit the tile floor, I was seized by the most powerful biological impulse I had ever experienced. Not fully processing what was happening, I turned to my doula in horror and informed her that I was pushing my baby out right there in the bathroom. Here’s the funny thing about pushing when you are un-medicated: you can’t stop. My doula calmly crouched at my feet lest my baby come sailing out ala I Didn’t Know I Was Pregnant, and shouted to the nurses to get in here and bring the doctor. I have no idea what my poor mother or husband must have been experiencing during this frenzied few minutes- perhaps I should ask them someday. As soon as that overwhelming contraction passed, a small army of adults managed to get me into bed without delivering my new baby in the bathroom. A perky young nurse was now at my side, replacing the older Earth mother nurse who my doula informed me, “loved natural childbirth.”

“Grab your legs, hold your breath, and push to the count of ten,” perky nurse instructed me. Was she effing crazy? Panic-stricken, I looked to my doula for help, and she quickly dismissed this preposterous suggestion. “You don’t have to do that,” she murmured reassuringly, and my body just took over. I felt terrified by the all-consuming tremors rippling through me, but my doula kept whispering to me, “Your body was made to do this.” She was smiling, marveling I believe, at the natural ability of my body to push this baby out, and I found myself inexplicably relaxing a bit.

At some point, that small knowing voice in my head piped back up, and I realized that though I was completely overwhelmed by my body’s primal pushing instincts, I could actually help the process along with some more intentional pushing. This combo proved to be very effective, but nearly intolerable, and I screamed at my doctor (who had unbeknownst to me materialized at some point) “Get her out now!” Just two contractions and less than fifteen minutes later, my team of birth assistants urged me to open my eyes. “She’s here!” somebody told me. I was fully enveloped in the ancient flood of sensation happening within me, and could hardly believe my baby had actually been born as a result of my efforts. I am not a runner, but I can imagine that the famous “runner’s high” is dwarfed by the experience of being inundated with childbirth hormones and the accomplishment of delivery behind you.

The first glimpse of our beautiful daughter
Introducing the sisters to one another
The proud big sister
Though euphoric, I did not cry. My husband, however, had tears streaming down his face, and I have never seen him look at me that way before. He was in awe of me, his sensitive, hypochondriac wife who had just given birth to his baby without any drugs, and he was in love with our new daughter. My perfect, beautiful baby began to nurse within minutes of the start of her life, and almost immediately our family poured in to meet her. My father came in with our five year old, sweetly anxious to meet her new sister. The uncles came soon after, and a bottle of champagne was opened.
I wish I could remember the exquisite toast my tearful husband made, but the exact words are lost in that blur of emotion and chemicals. What I do remember is him thanking me for making him the happiest man in the world. I remember his pride and wonder at witnessing my seemingly insurmountable feat of natural childbirth. I remember thinking that he would never forget his amazement and gratitude, that I was forever changed in his eyes. The remarkable thing was, I was forever changed in my eyes. My body truly was made to birth my baby- I now knew what it was capable of, and my trust in myself was renewed.
While I do not believe my birth was “better” because I avoided an epidural or a C-section, after a physically challenging pregnancy, it had given me the gift of restored confidence in my body’s abilities. And at the end of my journey, my healthy, 7 pound baby snuggled contentedly against my skin, now an integral part of our family, about to write her own incredible story.
Happy Family: big sis, baby sis, mom, dad, and Eddie Van Halen
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