It was October 24th 2012, and I was technically 42 weeks pregnant.
It was a gorgeous, warm day, and I was scheduled to be induced at 8pm. My husband had decided to spend the day at home with me, and it was both lovely and surreal. We sat on the porch in the sunlight and drank beer. I propped my feet up on the concrete wall and we watched trucks pull in and out of the Devon Market receiving area. We may have talked . . . or perhaps not much. All I can remember is sitting in the glow of the afternoon sun with that strange feeling of “my life is about to change forever” surrounding me like a cloud.
I kept hoping I’d go into labor naturally, but even though there had been a few evenings with patterns of contractions, they died out after an hour or so. Time was running out, and I had tried all the methods of natural induction I could think of (except for acupuncture and membrane stripping). Pressure points on the heels and wrists, using a breast pump, sex, spicy food, and long walks home from my appointments at Swedish Covenant Hospital, where they were monitoring my baby with nonstress tests since I was overdue. But nothing seemed to kick labor into gear.
It started getting dark, and we packed up the last few items into our hospital bags. I had a huge duffel bag, and my hubby had a roller bag. I had insisted on packing everything we might possibly need—not just things for labor like a comfortable nightgown, sleep bras, CDs and heat pads, but also things to entertain us since induction could take a long time: I wanted the computer, movies to watch, books to read, snacks—anything I could think of that would make this experience a better one.
We drove to the hospital. I remember walking in by the same doors I used to walk into for my checkups with the midwife group, and feeling like I was in a dream. The hustle and bustle of the day that I normally saw had given way to an eerie silence.
We walked into the birthing unit and I checked in at the desk. They weighed me: 153, exactly 20 lbs from that first appointment. Then we went into the room where I would be giving birth.
The room was large, with an unassuming bed in the center. Next to it was a station with multiple screens, a fetal monitor, an IV, etc. By the window on the far end of the room was a big chair that could be turned into a bed.
The nurse handed me a hospital gown. “Here, put this on,” she instructed.
“Do I have to?” I asked “I mean, can I just put on my pijamas?”
“Oh, sure, I guess that would be okay,” she said.
At that moment, I realized that I would actually have to be my own advocate and spokesperson, even for small things like this. I didn’t have to blindly obey: I could express my preferences.
The midwife on duty came in to check me. “Checking” sounded like such a small, routine thing, but man did it hurt. I was only 1 centimeter dilated, and I shed my first tears of the night. “I’m sorry I’m such a wimp,” I apologized. Wow—labor hadn’t even started and I was already crying.
Next, the midwife gave me cervadil, a medication that they put up like a tampon, right under the placenta, and during a period of 12 hours it’s supposed to soften the cervix. Since I was being induced, they had to put in an IV lock and strap the baby monitors to my belly. As the needle went in and the straps were cinched around me, I held my husband’s hand and let the tears stream silently down my face. This isn’t what I had envisioned, I thought.
I had pictured labor starting naturally, working with my hubby at home to get into a rhythm. Arriving at the hospital and giving birth like a free spirit, with no apparatuses connected to me, no monitors, no needles. I knew this wasn’t a tragedy, and that the point was to have a healthy baby, but I couldn’t help suddenly realizing that my plan wasn’t happening, and I was being carried away by what felt like a roaring stream of medical procedures. I felt helpless and sad, and forgotten by God.
The nurse came back in and said it was time to hook me up to the IV. “Do I have to?” I asked.
“We normally do, for hydration,” she explained.
“Can I just drink lots of water instead?” I asked, feeling panicked. The nurse talked to the midwife, and thankfully she overrode protocol and I didn’t have to get a drip that night.
The midwife encouraged me to get as much sleep as possible, because lots of work was ahead of me the next day. She offered me a sleeping pill, but I decided to try to go to sleep on my own. However, when the nurse informed me that she’d be checking my vitals every hour, I wondered how I was supposed to get sleep if I kept being woken up. I talked to the midwife about that, and thankfully she interceded and the nurse was instructed to only come in once, at the halfway point through the night.
I could hardly believe I’d already had to “fight the system” on three counts—about my wardrobe choice, the IV drip, and the hourly vitals check. This was definitely unexpected, but I was glad to have found my voice and used it.
Next, I slept, and pretty well at that considering I had tape on one hand and straps around my mid section.
They took out the cervadil around 11am the next morning—more pain and more tears. I was up to 2 centimeters, so at least a second dose of cervadil and 12 more hours of waiting wouldn’t be necessary. “We’ll come back in and start the pitocin drip in a little bit,” the midwife said. I swallowed my feelings and said “Okay” in as calm a voice as I could muster.
The midwife now on duty was Rachel, whom I’d heard had the lowest rate of C-sections in the entire midwife group.
Our friend from church Heather just happened to be at an appointment that morning for her 2nd baby, so she stopped in to visit us. I told her where things stood, and she prayed. It was so encouraging. After having felt abandoned by God, her prayers were a reminder to me to connect to my loving Father, who had a plan, even if it wasn’t mine.
Enter Awesome Nurse. We had been talking and bonding over music (she’s in a folk band, I was in a folk band), and she was very sympathetic about the whole experience not going how I’d planned thus far. I’d been told that I couldn’t be disconnected from the monitors at any time, but Awesome Nurse must have said something to someone, because next thing I knew she came in and said, “Would you like to take a hot bath?”
Off the monitors I went, and into the tub. And there, by God’s grace, my labor started. I had a contraction. Then another. Then another. My husband grabbed a notepad and started recording them—we were looking at between 3 and 5 minutes apart. I couldn’t believe it! Things were happening. At this point, the contractions were exciting. Uncomfortable, but I could talk through them. The midwife came in and checked out the notepad. “Well,” she said, “why don’t we give you a couple hours and we’ll see where we stand.” In the bath, my hubby poured cups of water over my belly. It was lovely. God had heard our prayers (and Heather’s!) and set things in motion.
For the next couple hours, we timed contractions. I ate lunch. The contractions started getting more uncomfortable and more intense as things progressed, so I started hugging my husband when they happened. He sang to me, read some Scripture—it was lovely. They checked me again (ouch) around 2 or 3pm and I was at 4 centimeters, so pitocin was no longer on the menu. Score! Things were progressing at a good rhythm, and it looked like after all I was going to have a natural labor. As the afternoon wore on, contractions were getting more and more painful. I went to the bathroom alone around 3pm and realized while I was in there that I was about to be at the point where I needed my husband with me constantly. I could barely handle being alone even on the toilet, and I could sense it was about to become emotionally impossible.
We had requested a volunteer doula, and at this point I thought “oh man, I wish we hadn’t asked for a doula. We’re managing okay, and it will be weird to have a complete stranger come into the mix.”
My husband was great about keeping me hydrated, which helps labor keep progressing well. In between every contraction, he gave me water to drink—I had to take at least one gulp.
At this point in the evening, when I felt a contraction starting, I would grip my man tightly and he would count back from 30. This was all I wanted—no more singing, no more Bible—just counting and stillness. The midwife and nurse came in again at some point. I could no longer talk through contractions, and was visibly working, so they suggested that we put the back of the bed up into a vertical position. Then, I could drape my torso over the upright part of the bed during contractions and sink back onto my heels during rest periods. This was great, and this was also when it started getting really hard. I was sweating, and I was starting not to be able to think very clearly. And I was starting to feel really nauseous. This was the first time I started feeling really miserable. During contractions I still wanted to grip my husband tightly and hug the bed—no movement, or caresses, or swaying—just stillness. He had to remind me to breathe during my contractions, because my impulse now was to hold my breath and not move at all. Finally, I knew I was going to throw up. My husband grabbed a basin and as a contraction hit, I peed and threw up at the same time. Shortly after, the nurse and a midwife came in, along with the volunteer doula. I had enough of a sense of humor to pant out, “Ha ha—you just missed the exciting part where I peed and threw up!”
The doula, Giselle, was amazing. She and my husband kept hoisting me up to lean over the back of the bed for every contraction, and helping me back down to my heels to rest in between. She had a little battery-operated fan that she held over my sweaty neck, which was divine. I started saying that I wanted pain meds during contractions, but then in between I would say, “No, I didn’t mean that.” My husband read out loud the list of reasons I’d written explaining to myself why I didn’t want an epidural, and at this point hearing those reasons was actually helpful. My hair by now was a sweaty mess and totally falling apart, so Giselle retied it for me.
At 8pm or so, they decided to check me again. I had to get on my back, and I was terrified to do this. “What if I get a contraction while I’m on my back?” I asked in a panicky voice. Everything hurt so much more lying down. I was 6 centimeters by now. The midwife in training said something about pitocin, and I remember crying, “No! No pitocin!” (The thought that the pain could be any more intense was terrifying) But Rachel told my husband (as I heard later) that was never going to happen–the student was just a little overenthusiastic about intervening.
Someone suggested another hot bath since that first one had worked so many wonders, so they took me off the monitors again and I headed to the tub. By now it was maybe 8:30pm. Giselle had the overhead lights off and the room was lined with battery-operated tealight candles. It looked like a haven of peace. I thought it would be a relief to be in the hot water, and that it would take the edge of the pain. However, exactly the opposite happened.
The next 40 minutes were probably the worst part of labor. The contractions were a good 4-5 minutes apart, and my husband remembers me having plenty of rest time in between. However, the pain was so bad at this point that my rest times were filled with anxiety, fear, and panic. This is when I really started losing it. During contractions I would lean forward. Only Giselle and Adam were in the bathroom with me, and I would grab their arms during the pain. At one point I was hugging Giselle as hard as I could, with my head buried in her bosom. I started asking for an epidural in earnest—I was desperate. I couldn’t stop thinking “how much longer do I have to suffer?” Despite the training in our Bradley class which instructed me to get out of my mind and just let my body take over, I couldn’t stop thinking. I couldn’t let go mentally. “How many more?” was my refrain. Instead of dealing with each contraction as it came, I looked ahead and saw an infinite amount of pain in my future. It seemed it would never stop—all I had to look forward to was pain, pain, and pain again. I can’t even say I was hanging on by a thread—the thread had snapped and I was falling into mental chaos and what I can only describe as delirium. I was desperate for relief.
I was crying and saying, “Please, please give me an epidural. Why isn’t anyone getting me an epidural?” At one point I said to my husband, “If you love me you’ll get me an epidural!”
Both my husband and Giselle were at the point of asking for one, but there was no one to ask. With 7 births going on simultaneously, the midwife was elsewhere. And I needed both my husband and my doula there just to get me through the contractions, so neither one could go far to look for help. During this time I repeated the same things over and over again: “f**k,” “I hate this!”, “when is this going to stop?”, “I can’t do this anymore,” and “help me!” Giselle kept reminding me to breathe and helped me breathe a mantra of “f**k, f**k, f**k” that had us both laughing a little.
Finally, I couldn’t stand the tub anymore. The pain, the sweaty heat, the moisture—I had to get out. “I’ve got to go,” I said, wild-eyed, starting to stand up. I had to flee the scene if it was the last thing I did.
And suddenly, I felt the first urge to push.
Little did I know, those 40 minutes in the tub were the phase of labor called “transition,” the height of pain during labor. And no wonder, since it took me from 6 centimeters to almost 10! It doesn’t get any more intense than that. If I had known that going in, I would have surely dealt with it better—but that’s the thing. When you’re in the midst of it, you don’t know. I had no idea transition had me in its grip—for all I knew, I had hours and hours of the same ahead of me. The other thought that had haunted me was “if I can’t handle this, there’s no WAY I can handle transition!” If only I had known!
Once I felt the urge to push, they checked me again. I was naked from the waist down at this point, but I didn’t care. Modesty wasn’t anywhere on my radar. I was 9 ½ centimeters. This time it didn’t hurt at all when they did their thing, and I remember joking and saying “That feels kind of good,” because it did.
They gave me the go-ahead to push.
I started on the bed, on my hands and knees, completely unconcerned that my naked butt was in the air. At this point I remember feeling relieved: a new phase was starting. My water broke on the 2nd or so push—a huge gush onto the bed. It engulfed my knees. I remember saying, “Can someone please clean this up?”
I pushed for about 2 hours. I was definitely delirious by now. My memories of it feel like a dream, or rather a nightmare. I remember saying “oh no!” every time a contraction started. After a while on my hands and knees, someone attached a squat bar to the bed, and for each push I hauled myself up to the bar with the help of my husband and Giselle. I yelled a lot. “F**K!” I screamed over and over.
The midwife at one point barked at me—I was wasting energy yelling and not using enough energy to push. I remember feeling like I had to shout and curse. There was no other way. I couldn’t be quiet—I had to let it out or die. I remember that at the beginning of each push I was afraid, fighting against myself. “I don’t want to do this anymore!” I yelled. But during the last few seconds of the push I was able to find the place I was supposed to have been all along and really grunt and bear down in the right way. At some point they had me lie down on my side, with a leg up. There was a small ring of cervix still in the way that was blocking Alice. Once Rachel pushed that out of the way, everything went much faster.
As I was lying there on my side with a bright light shining on me I remember opening my eyes and seeing a ton of people in the room, and I had no idea who they were. I thought about saying “Who ARE all you people?” but a contraction took over and I never got the chance.
Unbeknownst to me, at this point (maybe 11:40pm or so?) Alice’s heart rate was dropping and she had to come out. An OB had come in, and if I couldn’t push my baby out quickly, they were going to do a vacuum extraction. They talked to my husband about this—I was completely unaware at the time. All I knew is that there was what seemed to be a multitude of faces around me shouting, “PUSH! Come on Jenna, PUSH! COME ON!” The night shift nurse chided me, “You’re not trying hard enough!” and the midwife shushed her. That wasn’t what I needed to hear.
But I did need the yelling–even my gentle, normally mild-mannered husband was yelling.
“Push like you’re pooping! A big old poop!” shouted the doula. When the nurse said, “I can see her head!” everything got easier. Knowing that the end was right there in front of me, I could deal with the pain in a new way. With another push, her head was almost out—and then it was out. Pushing that head out felt so good. The next push, and her body came slithering out too.
I don’t remember what I felt at that exact instant—I think I was an emotional blank. There was a sense of relief, but a blank relief. I was too exhausted to feel much more. Alice went straight onto my chest, with the umbilical cord still attached. “This is NOT a 42 week old baby!” the midwife exclaimed. I had known that all along, so I wasn’t surprised. I had never felt overdue. Alice was covered in that white substance, vernix, and had some gashes on her head. I never did find out where those bloody scratches came from, but I suspect the OB was either attempting or getting ready to do internal monitoring right there at the end.
I started shaking violently. Someone wrapped a blanket around my head and shoulders, and Alice started crawling towards my breast, bobbing her head on that strong little neck. A nurse helped us, and Alice latched on to eat for the first time.
Someone cut the umbilical cord. With the next contraction, I pushed out the placenta.
But that wasn’t the end. For the next two hours, with my legs still spread, they stitched me up. I had a tear that was, in the words of the midwife, “as deep as they go,” and it hurt like heck. The OB gave me anesthetic multiple times, but the pain didn’t stop. It seemed like the anesthetic wasn’t working, and I felt like they were pulling out my rectum with a meat hook (sorry for that mental image). Add to that that I couldn’t stay still. My thighs were shaking hard, which is not ideal when they’re trying to stitch you up down there. Those two hours were pretty miserable, as they come.
“When is this going to be over? Why can’t I rest?” I asked over and over, in tears. I didn’t feel brave—I didn’t want to cope anymore—I just wanted to be left alone.
Around 2am, it was finally time to rest.
Our doula, who had stayed that entire time, finally headed out. Alice was asleep in a bassinet next to me. I put on a hospital gown and went to sleep.
Unfortunately, I had to pee really badly. In the middle of the night, maybe around 4am, it became unbearable. My husband was sleeping on the other side of the room, and I was determined not to bother him–I knew he had just gotten the emotional and physical workout of this life. But I felt so, so weak, that I knew I couldn’t even get out of the bed alone, so I called the nurse. She helped me out of bed and to the toilet. Everything hurt. I sat on the toilet, but I couldn’t figure out how to pee. My bladder was crying for relief, but it’s like I couldn’t find the button to activate the release. And suddenly, I knew I was going to faint. “I’m going to pass out,” I said to the nurse, hoping I wouldn’t crash to the tile floor. The next thing I knew, I was on the floor of the bathroom, naked. There was blood everywhere, and faces upon faces were peering down at me. “Jenna! Can you hear me?” Rachel was saying, but it sounded like I was underwater. I passed out again. Someone had ammonia, which they waved under my nose to revive me. I made it into a wheelchair, and then passed out again, slumping over the side. By now, they had an IV in me (thank God for the IV lock!) and were giving me fluids, because I was dehydrated.
By the time I made it back into bed I realized that, despite the hoopla, I had never been able to pee after all. I spent the rest of the night with agony in my bladder. Which is why, after they served me breakfast the next morning, when I realized I could let a little urine out, I went ahead and just peed in the bed. My husband was standing next to me and I said “Baby, I just want to let you know that I’m peeing in the bed. And it feels so good.” There was no way I was passing up that opportunity!
A nurse came in later and helped me to the shower. I touched my belly, and it was so strange. It felt mushy and soft, like a lump of dough—not at all like my body should feel like. The nurse helped me put an ice pack (layered inside a giant pad held in place by mesh underwear—sexy!) on my nether regions. As soon as I was clean and dressed in a fresh hospital gown, I felt invigorated with new life. Everything was going to be okay. And now I could focus on Alice.
Even though I had felt abandoned by God at the beginning of the process, that first night when we checked into the birthing unit, and even though I can’t say I felt close to Him or even aware of Him during the delirious parts of my labor, looking back I can see his hand at work: Alice was born healthy. She latched on to breastfeed immediately. I was able to labor naturally, with no pitocin or pain meds, just like we planned and wanted. He sent Giselle at exactly the right time, just as things were starting to feel unmanageable (and my husband and I both agree that we couldn’t have done it without her—and we mean that). He gave my husband strength during what was the most difficult experience we’ve ever been through. And though the pain I went through was unbelievable and recovery really sucked, recovery was also very fast: by the sixth day of Alice’s life not only was I back in my skinny jeans, but I could walk pretty normally again. By day 14, I was spending the day downtown with my mom, shopping at Target and Macy’s and using my nursing cover in public for the first time. At this point, besides slightly wider hips, I look almost like I did before pregnancy (I think my long torso helped with the no stretch marks thing). I know it to be true: God has blessed us immensely.
The rest of our hospital stay went by so quickly. I remember bonding with Alice in wonder in the middle of the night as I fed her while my husband slept. I remember how hard it was to even move from side to side in the bed. Getting up to go the bathroom required amazing amounts of energy—I even needed help getting my legs over the side of the hospital bed. I remember how our pastor came to pray for us, and (I was still pretty out of it) suddenly I realized I had been aggressively picking my nose the entire time. I remember how it hurt to feed Alice, how soothing the lanolin was on my poor deformed nipples, and how the lactation consultation explained I had to flange her lips by tugging down her chin and opening up her lips, which helped enormously. I remember how Alice would start snorting when she got excited about eating, and how precious those little sounds were.
And when we were ready to go home and I had been wheeled into the lobby, I waited by the windows holding our tiny tot while my husband pulled up the car. I was still in pain, but I felt so peaceful. We were going home—and I was ready.
P.S. I hope I didn’t traumatize anyone. Love, the Screaming MadWoman of Birthing.