We tell our stories to share, to process, and to heal. Before giving birth myself, I read and watched many birth stories of other women, stories that helped me come to terms with the enormity of what I had signed up to do, and simultaneously the normality of it. I needed this, because for a long time I worried that natural birth was for someone else, someone stronger, with a higher pain tolerance. I wanted the benefits but doubted the process. My mind is overactive; it will surely get in the way. My body is used to health and strength; surely it can’t accomplish the task, or I can’t endure being ‘broken’ in this way. But I signed up all the same, marvelling at how actually being pregnant, having no choice but to go through with birth, somehow had a calming effect. In the early days I couldn’t stomach watching a birth, couldn’t even see pictures of big bellies, and I wasn’t ready to read the birth stories of others. But later on I read Ina May’s Guide to Childbirth and Carl Jones’ Mind over Labor. I borrowed the Hypnobabies CDs from a friend. Even while fretting that there was no meditation or prenatal yoga or Bradley Method classes in my city that I might use to get ready, I marvelled again at how any knowledge of pregnancy and birth made me feel powerful, aware and enlightened. I did the best I could on my own, using the experience to develop my inner strength. I consoled myself with knowledge of babies born in the countryside, without classes or hospitals, either. I cultivated the journey towards this big change and I enjoyed the quiet days. In my final months of pregnancy I felt strong, mindful, and ready, and maybe just a little naive. Not a bad combination, really.
Today is exactly one month since I gave birth to my son. I remember the phases and stages of labor in hindsight, as if I was climbing a staircase towards the destination all along that eventful night but at the time, I hadn’t realized how close we were getting to the end. The memories of labor still bubble to the surface when I least expect it. I feel proud of what I did, as in, I actually did that, but also cowed, as in, does this mean I now must have no fear of anything else? I feel empowered by the birth, as in, I actually f*cking did that, but also unnerved, as in, that crazy thing happened to me and made me lose control for a while. I felt so many things in such a short time and the early days at home with an infant do not exactly lend themselves to slow, mindful processing. So, I’m writing to relive, to reveal, to share and in the process, to heal. This is my birth story.
At first, I am alone in the silent dark night with intermittent back pains, breathing, walking, resting, leaning into child’s pose on my yoga mat. The blackness and silence are comforting. I have no idea what’s to come but this I know I can do. I listen to a Hypnobabies recording, pausing to breathe through the waves. In practice, the voice on the CD had relaxed me, often making me fall asleep. Not now. It seems to hurt more if I’m lying down, as though the motion inside begs for my own purposeful movements, restoring balance.
Later, I wake Sean and I am grateful for his company. He puts pressure on my back as I sit on the ball and lean on the bed. We debate the ‘realness’ of the labour; we use a simple, pink app to time without textbook results. Then we are tired, and don’t talk much. We lay down to rest and do a sort of dance for a while: roll off the bed, squeeze and breathe, press stop on the timer, roll back on, rest. Contractions are 4 minutes or so apart by now; it’s amazing how many 3-minute sleep intervals you can accomplish in the middle of the night.
When the sun comes up, I think to myself: we certainly seem to be getting somewhere.
Katie is our doula. We call her, and she listens to my breathing, offering positive affirmations over the phone. She wonders if she should go to work. We don’t know. Sure, we say. Could be a while longer, right?
Suddenly, the first contraction with ‘teeth’: more than one peak. It catches me off guard. All I can do is cry and yell, why won’t it stop?! It stops eventually; but not for long. Now we try the ‘slow dance’, leaning on Sean’s knowledge from Penny Simkin’s The Birth Partner for counsel. I am rocking in his arms through the waves, back and forth, up and down, holding just some of my own weight. I try to climb him at the peak, lifting my knees as high as I can, desperate to block out the sensation. I cannot concentrate enough to breathe with, ahead of, or through it; I am lost in the ocean now.
Katie arrives just in time and takes charge, timing two contractions then calling the midwife and mobilizing us for the car. She is quick and decisive and I am more than happy to follow her lead. Straight down the stairs, beating the next contraction to the sidewalk. Sean drives up from the parking garage and we get in. I am backwards in the reclined front seat, howling and moaning, skinning my knees each time I turn from the short rest position on my side to writhe in agony, hips high, through the wave. My eyes are permanently closed now; I don’t see the city even once the whole way.
Pause for a quick shoutout: Somehow, my husband is driving a car in rush hour traffic through all of this, concentrating on the road for an entire half hour with my agonized voice as soundtrack. He changes his route on the fly, shaving precious minutes off the drive and getting us safely to the birth centre. What a superstar.
At the centre, I beeline out of the car and up the stairs, ignoring everyone’s pleas to stop along the way and beating the next contraction to the bed. I kneel at the edge, sore knees on rough carpet, my face buried in the comforter. Electrodes briefly send vibrations along my tensest muscles, until the feeling dissolves into annoyance and I beg for them to be removed. When Hannah, our midwife, uses gloved fingers to check my cervix, I am making deals with the devil in my mind. I know that if she announces, ‘2 centimetres!’ I will completely fall apart. But she says, 9, would you like to get into the tub? And I am undressed much faster than I thought modesty would allow.
Pushing takes more than two excruciating hours. My faith begins to waiver. I begin to believe that this is not, in fact, possible, that baby just can’t fit. I feel no motion when I push. Pain, and pressure, but not progress. Exhausted, I keep letting the breaths out through pursed lips instead of holding in to push. When I tell Hannah, near despair, I can’t do this. What happens if I can’t do this? She replies, You can, and you have no other choice.
I am so tired that I am sleeping against Sean’s chest in the tub water between waves, too drained now even to dread the next push. As each contraction nears I heave my heavy body upright, feet flat, knees bent, preparing to try again. I push against Hannah’s fingers, grateful for the help, dimly aware of the energy surrounding the tub, the support, hope, dedication and love that pours from the faces of my birth team. A soft hand brushes the hair out of my eyes. A warm touch relaxes my shoulders. Finally, there is movement. I reach down to touch the head, feel the hair. Now I am impatient, braced for action, resigned, at last, to the inevitable. A few more pushes and I am waiting in the ‘ring of fire’, wishing for the next contraction like I’ve wished for no other, willing it to come and, with palpable hope and progress finally on my side, willing myself calm through these most intense moments of pain. I stay still, eyes squeezed shut, the body of a tiny person inside, head out. The agony is other-worldly and I am suspended in time. As the pressure builds one last time, having gathered all the energy of the room, my body, the love of my life and maybe even the universe, the body of this new soul slides out in one long, gloriously slippery gush. 12:15 PM: Baby is here.
I am crying and shaking, happier, briefly, that it’s over even than that baby made it. My son, nurtured inside of me for the better part of a year, worried about, cried over, daydreamed into existence, is on my heaving chest. The idea and sensations of what I have done are too great: I am sobbing, not in control of my body or my breath; I cannot contain myself. I f*cking did that. I pushed my baby out. Like millions of women before me, like millions to come. I won’t have the strength or calm to get out of the tub for over an hour. I have no idea how we’ll get through the first night home alone, or how on earth I’ll walk down the stairs to the car. But in that moment of stopped time, placenta still inside, stitches yet to come, nursing agony a distant, vague idea, swelling and hemorrhoids not yet considered, so much so much so much left to worry about, I am through this one, big challenge and on the other side.