I never thought I would be posting a birth story on the internet. Having read several stories in preparation for my own birth, I knew that most were a dissertation-length recounting of every single detail I didn’t need to know. Being pregnant and exhausted, I would make it through a few paragraphs before concluding that I’d rather be in bed sleeping than reading about a stranger’s vagina.
Then a few things changed my mind. First, I learned about the unnecessary loss of life associated with birth in the U.S.—both babies and mothers. NPR has a great series of articles on this topic. When we educate ourselves about birth and how to advocate for ourselves and others, we are more likely to have safe and empowering births.
Second, I had a labor that was unlike any I had heard about before. Part of me is honestly curious if there are other women who had similar experiences. Third, my baby just turned one and I’m feeling sentimental. I also plan to train as a doula in the coming year and have accepted that the details of birth will be a steady part of life from now on. But really, I promise not to drone on about my sacred connection with the placenta. You’re welcome.
I will also apologize in advance, because it is really hard to tell a four day birth story in brief.
I went to bed early, as usual. I was only 38 and a half weeks along, betting on another week to finish a last few thank you cards for baby stuff. While in bed, I started feeling small, painful spasms in my pelvic area, though I assumed they were just another weird pregnancy symptom.
I woke up feeling good despite waking several times to the same shooting pains. Like any good millennial, I posted about it on one of my facebook mom groups, asking if anyone knew what was going on. Within an hour or so, internet mom wisdom (and my doula) had confirmed that I was experiencing pre-labor. For reference, many women experience pre-labor that starts and stops in the weeks leading up to birth.
Because life is funny, I had scheduled two much-overdue appointments that morning. Just as I started to experience contractions every 5-10 minutes, a nurse arrived for my life insurance physical. Then a couple electricians showed up to replace our bathroom heater. I remember asking them to hand me the Tylenol from the medicine cabinet because our bathroom could not fit two grown men, their tools, and a giant pregnant lady. My contractions were very distracting at this point, much like bad period cramps. I took deep breaths and pretended everything was fine, knowing that rescheduling house visits with a newborn would be worse.
My friend Martha and I had planned to get pedicures that afternoon. After almost backing out, I decided to go—might as well distract myself, right? For the record, pedicures are much more relaxing when not in labor. We had fun nonetheless, and I spent the rest of the afternoon admiring my pretty (swollen) feet while using my phone’s contraction timer to decipher what the heck was going on with my body.
A great piece of advice from our doula is to rest as much as possible once you experience labor symptoms. Per that advice, my husband arrived home and ordered us teriyaki takeout while we vegged on the couch. The contractions continued. By midnight, the pain was intense and lasting longer—I would grip the closest piece of furniture every time one would begin. After a quick phone call to my doula, we headed to the hospital.
Our hospital was small and dark, so our arrival was quite anticlimactic. We pushed a little buzzer so that someone would let us in the front door, but no one came, so we drove back to the ER entrance. The guy at the desk gave us directions and we hobbled through the dim, deserted halls until we reached the birth wing. This took a while because we were pausing every 20 steps to breathe through contractions. They set me up in a room and put a couple monitoring devices on my huge belly. I opted not to have an IV placed so that I could be more mobile. Instead, I ate a protein bar and drank water.
It is important to note that, as a patient, you get to choose what drugs you receive, who examines you and how often, and so forth, even if it goes against typical hospital procedures. Our hospital happened to have a great record and respected my wishes, which I had typed out and gave to each nurse we met. I suggest bringing a list of questions to ask when you tour a hospital or birth center early in pregnancy. This way you have time to choose an alternate location if you don’t feel comfortable and supported there.
Back to the story…the nurse checked me for dilation and found that I was at 3.5 cm. I spent the next several hours working through contractions with Taylor and our doula. Bouncing on an exercise ball was my favorite coping strategy, though the shower was also nice. At 6am, the nurse checked me again. I was still at 3.5 cm. I couldn’t believe it. They told me that my best bet would be to labor at home and hope for additional progress. Because I had been awake for 24 hours, they consulted with my doctor and offered me a drug cocktail of strong pain killers plus something to induce sleep. And so a few shots in my butt later, I ended up at home in my own bed. It was all very confusing.
I woke up almost 2 hours later, feeling the contractions again as the drugs wore off. We were living a block from the WSU campus at the time, so I gathered up my motivation and started walking laps with Taylor—down the street, up the long staircase to campus, past the dining halls, and back through our neighborhood. Walking, especially stairs, is known to speed up labor. I was wearing the same ratty old tank top I would eventually deliver in, and looked a bit like a homeless person. I had also been using a portable TENS unit since the previous night; these are typically used in physical therapy and consist of several electrodes placed on the back, the wires running down to a remote that controls the intensity of nerve stimulation. So if you happened to see a disheveled pregnant lady waddling down the street with wires poking out of her shirt, clutching her husband and taking deep breaths, that would be me.
My goal this time was to stay home from the hospital until I felt I was near transition, the last phase of dilation before pushing begins. By dinnertime, I attempted another walk but could barely stand up the second a contraction hit. My doula had come over and we continued exercises to move labor along and turn baby into a more optimal position. (William was head down, though facing forward rather than posterior, which can stall labor and make delivery more painful.) By 10 pm, my contractions were at an 8 or 9 out of 10 on the pain scale, so we drove to the hospital again.
The first time we arrived at the check in desk, I was able to tell the staff, “Hi, I’m in labor.” This time, I couldn’t even get the words out and just clutched Taylor while they got the same room ready again. Now here comes the really great part…I was still at 3.5 cm. Two days of consistent contractions, zero progress.
I remember the people around me saying I should just try to make it another hour and then reevaluate. At this point, I could not imagine another hour of pain—maybe 30 minutes, tops. Feeling discouraged, I pushed through with Taylor’s support. I could tell he was exhausted and struggling emotionally because he had few ways of comforting me at this point. Still, he helped me move forward when I felt like giving up. He held onto me and prayed for me. The takeaway here? Find a support person who will build you up and be your voice when you can’t find yours.
The nurse checked me around midnight. 3.5 cm, again. I want to die. They got in touch with my doctor and suggested that I try laboring at home again. This was a joke, right? I could not imagine my contractions getting any stronger than they already were. Aside from a single nap, I hadn’t slept since 6am on Tuesday. We asked for a few minutes to talk in private and concluded that there was no way we were going home. I was exhausted on every possible level and knew that prolonging labor would likely result in a C-section, as I would have zero energy to push when the time came. The nurse returned and I asked about an epidural. I was shocked to hear they would need my doctor’s permission, which would be hard to get, given that I was still at 3.5 cm.
Some explanation here: determining whether someone is in labor is typically a question of whether their contractions are getting stronger, longer, and closer together (check), coupled with increased dilation of the cervix (no luck here). In other words, from a medical standpoint, I was probably just in pre-labor, also called prodromal labor. In my case, generalized medical definitions failed to account for my experience. And so we pushed back. Taylor politely told the nurse that we were not interested in going home, and to please call my doctor back to ask for more options. We waited a few tense minutes until she returned to let us know that my doctor had agreed to a “voluntary induction.” See, because I wasn’t technically in labor (LOL), I would need an induction. Voluntary (i.e. not medically urgent) inductions are not allowed before 39 weeks, at least at our hospital. As it turns out, I was 39 weeks pregnant as of exactly one hour ago!
We breathed a collective sigh of relief. I wanted to pass out then and there, though the anesthesiologist was home in bed and needed to be called. He arrived just before 3am and was very friendly and professional. 29 hours after our first arrival at the hospital, I stopped feeling my contractions.
I woke up around 7am and felt amazing. Taylor had gone home to check on our dog and sleep a few hours, and was flabbergasted at the sight of me sitting up in bed, talking as if everything was normal. Another nurse came to check me and I was now at 4 cm. Who knew half a centimeter could be so exciting?!
They had started me on an IV of pitocin to induce labor, though William’s heart rate dropped, so they kept me on the lowest dose for most of the morning. My doula helped me use a peanut ball (basically an exercise ball shaped like a giant peanut) to help William shift to a better position, with the hope of moving labor along as well. My water broke during my next cervical check, and before I knew it, it was time to push. My pain meds were turned down and I remember feeling that my body was expanding in a way it shouldn’t. Even with an epidural, I could still move my legs somewhat and feel a LOT of pressure—much like intense pain but slightly dulled. Our efforts to turn William seemed to have paid off and he was now facing sideways. After an hour of pushing, I knew I had little energy left. I gave everything I had into the last few pushes. Our nurse actually had to yell for my doctor, who was in the hallway, to come catch William as he descended so suddenly.
The next moments were filled with relief and the surreal knowledge that I had made another person with my own body. William was placed on my chest and immediately started breastfeeding (and crying a whole lot.) Within a couple hours, I was walking around and felt much better than expected.
I opted to stay in the hospital both Thursday and Friday nights, though could have left sooner. I enjoyed having time to focus on my new rhythm with William while the nurses brought me food and offered advice. We were at a small, rural hospital and were the only family in the birth wing at one point.
On postpartum life…
The three weeks after leaving the hospital were an uphill battle. William lost too much weight and we ended up back at the hospital every few days to see their lactation consultant. It was extremely stressful, though after several weeks we were able to transition William from pumped milk in a syringe to regular breastfeeding. After the first month, feeding and sleeping improved so much (at least until the 4-month sleep regression 😬).
In closing, a few things I learned:
- Do your research and ask plenty of questions before choosing where you will give birth. Evidencebasedbirth.com is a great site to reference. That said, don’t assume the doctors or nurses are out to get you. They can be your best allies at times.
- Discuss your birth plan and preferences with your labor partner. They will be your advocate when you are overwhelmed and unable to speak up for yourself.
- Hold plans loosely. I planned a “natural birth” but knew it might end differently. That said, I never expected to labor for so long! Know that your body is capable of much more than you know. Also know that the newborn stage can get ugly. If you feel depressed and anxious, don’t hesitate to call your doctor and ask to be seen sooner than your routine check up.
To those who made it this far without falling asleep, thank you. I hope you were able to find something useful in all the odd details. And yes, I would do it all again because I have the best baby around and he’s totally worth it.