This is the story of my first birth, with every piece of detail I can recall. More than anything, I am writing it for myself to document this incredible life changing experience before the fog of time blurs the memories any more.
I had no fear of birth. None. My only fear was that I wouldn’t know I was in labor until it was too late to call the midwife and fill the birth pool. I thought I would love birth. I grew up in an environment where birth was normal, especially unmedicated home births. My older brother was born at home in 1984, and I was born at home in the bathtub in 1989, before water births were even a thing people did. My mom taught childbirth education and began studies to be a midwife. Birth was talked about. It was normal. It was nothing to fear. It was painful – I knew that – but it was a pain with a purpose, with the purpose, so there was no reason to fear it. While I was pregnant I watched birth videos on YouTube. I read birth stories on Birth Without Fear. I felt confident hearing these women’s stories and watching their births.
I was so confident that I didn’t prepare well enough. I thought that just knowing to “let the pain move through” me was enough to actually do it. I thought, as many women probably do, that my labor would be easy. I had an exceptionally easy pregnancy, so I figured I’d have an exceptionally easy labor and birth. I let this belief get the best of me. I kept thinking about doing something to actually prepare myself, but then I would put it off. After all, people always say, “your body will know what to do!” I was too sure of myself, and of how I thought things would go. Even though I knew I couldn’t predict what my labor would be like, at the same time I really did believe it wouldn’t be that bad. I was sure I’d a baby well over 8 pounds, I was pretty sure I’d have a girl, I was sure I’d go into labor early, I was sure I would have a fast labor, I was sure I would be totally blissed out afterwards, and I was sure it would be relatively easy. I ended up having a beautiful 7 pound 11 ounce baby boy, I went into labor one week after my due date, I was in labor for 11 hours with three hours in transition (I know many labors are much, much longer than this, but I thought mine would be shorter), I had really difficult baby blues in the first week or so postpartum, and I had a very, very difficult and traumatic labor and birth. Lesson learned. Birth is unpredictable!
Five days after my due date, I went to see my midwife, Linsey. She asked if I wanted her to check me to see if I was dilating and effacing. I did. So we went up stairs and felt for my cervix.
“Oh my god!” She said with a huge grin and a look of amazement. “Baby’s head is at, like, +2 station!”
If you don’t know what this means, do a google image search of “baby head station chart.” Then pick your jaw up off the floor.
“I’ve never felt a head so low outside of labor. It’s past the cervix. Do you want to feel?”
I reached down and felt my baby’s head no more than a couple of centimeters from the outside world. It was right there. It was amazing. Linsey moved the baby’s head back a little so it would be resting on my cervix so the pressure would help me dilate. I was about 2 ½ centimeters dilated and maybe 50% effaced. The baby was coming soon.
After this I walked a lot, wiggled my hips around, and tried various methods to bring on labor naturally. Finally, on the night of Sunday, December 15th, 2013, I lost my mucus plug. I was ecstatic. I wanted so badly at this point to just go into labor. I knew it would start that night, and I got a rush of endorphins in excitement. Linsey had sent me a text earlier that evening asking me to give her a heads up when things started happening that evening. Not if, but when. I sent her a text to let her know I’d lost my mucus plug.
I knew I should go to sleep early to get as much sleep as possible to have energy for the work ahead of me, but I was too excited. I stayed up until about midnight reading Rumi poems (which I’d never read before, but I thought was fitting). At 4 am I woke up with what felt like menstrual cramps. I got up and walked around to make sure it was real and consistent. It was. I woke up my partner, Zach, and my mom. I was staying with my mom to give birth at her house in Missouri, as I live in Illinois where midwives are not legally able to get licensed and practice.
At around 4:30 I called Linsey to let her know I was having contractions. She told me to call her again when things got going more and to try to rest more if I could. I was too excited to go back to sleep. I mostly paced around the kitchen. The contractions changed pretty quickly from cramps to a very different feeling. I couldn’t describe what it felt like. I can’t entirely remember what it felt like. Right around the time of this change I started having aches in my back. The contractions started coming in distinct intervals, and I downloaded an iPhone app to time them. They were never more than 6 to 8 minutes apart. I called Linsey again to let her know that things were progressing. She told me to call her back in about an hour and to get something to eat.
“Have some bites,” she said. I didn’t have much of an appetite, but I knew I would need fuel for the journey ahead, so I ate a sliced banana in yogurt. It wasn’t much, but I couldn’t really stomach much at that point.
Zach came and sat in the kitchen with me. I stood up to move around some, and it was around that time that thing went from, “I guess this is a contraction,” to, “I’m having a contraction.” I started feeling the need to lean on the back of the kitchen chairs, just as my mother had done in labor with me, and I breathed through the contractions. Slow, deep breaths. In and out. I started the infamous deep, slow moans on the out breaths to ease me through.
At some point I decided to go lean back in bed propped against pillows and keep timing my contractions. An hour came and went and they were still 6 minutes apart, so I decided to wait until there was some progress to call Linsey back. Another hour passed, and the contractions were getting longer and closer together, about five minutes, so I decided to call Linsey. It was sometime around 8 am. Linsey listened to me while I had a contraction, as midwives like to do to gauge how things are going, but it was a lot more mild than they had been. I barely had to moan my breath out. I told her it was a lot milder than they had been, not wanting her to think I was progressed less than I actually was. She said that she thought they should go ahead and come over. She just had to get some coffee.
Linsey arrived about a half hour later, some time around 8:30 am, and her assistant Bianca was there shortly after. I was leaning back against a stack of pillows on the bed still, and Linsey said, “Isn’t that uncomfortable?” I told her it was the only comfortable position I’d been able to find. Linsey and Bianca sat with me to observe some contractions, but they essentially stopped as soon as the birth team arrived. This is pretty typical. Whether at home or in a hospital, labor often stops or stalls when new people arrive. Sometimes the effect can be so strong, particularly in the hospital, that women will stop labor altogether and not start back up until as much as a few days later. Again, I was worried they would think I wasn’t progressing as quickly as I knew I was, so I told them that things had really slowed down. Linsey said, “It’s probably because we got here.” I agreed. She said, “I think you’re not quite in active labor. If you want to, try to get some rest. Maybe you guys could watch a movie or TV or something, and we’ll hang out in the other room so you can relax.”
After that everyone (including my mom and Zach) went into the kitchen. I could hear them quietly chatting and laughing, and it was sort of comforting in a way, but at the same time I felt like saying, “Hello! Don’t you know I’m in labor in here!?” After everyone left the room my contractions quickly picked back up again, but were still pretty mild. I dozed off a little in between them. At some point I layed down more and turned onto my side. I was drifting off a little when I felt a big *POP* and a rush of warm fluid. I happily yelled “My water broke!!!” It was, without a doubt, one of the coolest sensations I’ve ever experienced. It literally felt like a water balloon popping between my legs. It was also exciting because I knew it meant labor was really underway! Everyone exclaimed things like “ooh!” and “yay!” and ran into the room. I said something like, “I got the bed all wet,” and Linsey said, “Oh, that’s not bad.” I was wearing leggings and a flannel shirt, and asked someone to find my nightshirt to change into. I asked Linsey if I should put on one of the adult diapers I had bought as per my sister-in-law’s suggestion (thanks, Kourtney!), and she said, “Eh, if you feel like you’re leaking.” I can’t remember if I decided to put one on or if I just got fresh underwear. I think after my water broke was when I asked for the birth pool to be filled.
Bianca told me after I’d changed, “Things are probably going to pick up a lot more now.” Boy, was she right! My contractions intensified very quickly after that. The next thing I remember is getting on my hands and knees on the bed and asking someone to make a stack of pillows for me to rest my arms on. My back pain was getting to be even more intense than the contractions themselves, and would get worse with each contraction. I was going into transition. I think it was Zach who asked if I wanted my bed buddy (like a rice sack) heated for my back, and I said yes and asked for my mom’s herbal heating pad as well. Once I had heat on my back from those I felt so much better. It was still incredibly painful and getting worse by the minute, but the heat helped. I kept having whoever was around reheat them over and over, because they needed to be really hot to help. I can’t remember if I asked or if someone offered, but at some point I had someone put pressure on my lower back on top of the heating pads. I think it was Zach.
Somewhere during this period of being on the bed is when I remember crying for the only time while I was in labor. If I cried later on, I don’t remember it. The pain was getting incredibly intense.
I kept asking if the pool was ready, but it was filling slowly. Then I found out we’d run out of hot water, but more was being boiled. I wanted so badly to get into the water.
My mom’s blue heeler, Nya, came up to me and licked my hand, and I smiled and pet her. She laid down on the bed next to me, keeping a worried watch.
When I was starting to feel like I couldn’t bare it any longer and had to get into the water, my mom came and said quietly to me, “I hear you can get in the pool now.” I asked her to put my slippers on my feet. I was worried about getting dog hair in the pool. Turns out the desire to keep the water dog hair-free was all in vain! I remember plucking out floating dog hairs during moments of lucidity when I was first in the pool.
I finally walked into the living room where the birth pool was set up, and asked for someone to get my tank top. I wanted to have something on so I could have pictures that I could share with people. I climbed into the pool with my nightshirt hiked up while my mom and Zach brought one tank top after another into the room. “No, not that one,” “That one is white, that’s useless!” “I want the black one with spaghetti straps,” “No, that’s a nursing shirt.” Someone brought in a black tank top. “That’s not spaghetti straps,” Linsey said quietly. Finally someone found the right shirt. I put in on and relaxed more deeply into the water.
It felt so nice to float around in the water. It was cool, but it still felt so nice. The only drawback was that I couldn’t have the heating pads on my back anymore. I think my labor may have slowed a little for the first few minutes I was in the pool. Either that or I was just distracted by the change. But I remember a lot more from the first few minutes than I do about later on, and it seems like the contractions were farther apart than they’d been on the bed. That didn’t last long, though.
Before I knew it, I writhing in pain. I felt like I was going to die. Truly. That’s not an exaggeration. I honestly thought I would not be able to keep living through this pain. Especially the back pain. I was not at all prepared for back labor, because my baby was anterior. I was so happy to have an anterior baby, because I thought that would mean no back labor. Ha! I was not so lucky. Pressure on my back helped, so I stretched out in the pool with my fists balled up under either side of my lower back, pressing in as hard as I could.
Around this time is when I slipped into another world. I’ve heard labor described by more than one woman as being both an outer body experience and the most fully in your body as you have ever been. I understand what that means now. All there was in those hours in the pool was my body. It consumed the whole world, and the pain consumed the body itself. There was nothing but the pain. I felt outside of my body because that’s all there was — pain. No body, just pain. No world, just body. When I would open my eyes and look around it seemed wrong that there could be this room still here, so calm and so unchanged. These happy dogs still dancing through a painting hung on the wall. This fisherman still paddling his canoe home through the swamp. These people I knew, silently watching me, seemingly so normal, expressions of empathy on the crests of their brows. It seemed like none of that should be there. How could it be? The whole world was my body, and my whole body was pain. If there was anything around me shouldn’t it be hellfire, or a vast angry ocean, or an empty, expansive dark space?
At this point I want to express how happy I was, in this moment and every moment before and after, to not be in a hospital. Think again about everything I described in that last paragraph. Now imagine all of that happening in a hospital. If I felt that way in my mom’s living room, I can’t even begin to imagine how horrible I would have felt being in a bright, noisy hospital room, filled with unfamiliar sights, sounds, smells, etc. I honestly can’t imagine anything worse. In a hospital I would have no control of who entered the room, and I would have to fight hard for any control of what they did to me. That’s the beauty of midwives and home birth — in most cases they don’t do anything to you. They monitor you and the baby. They help you with anything you need. But they don’t intervene unless they need to. They know what to do if they do need to intervene. They’re trained the same as obstetricians except that they aren’t trained in surgery. But they take a completely different approach. They work for the mother, not for the hospital. I could go on and one about how amazing home birth is and how much better it is than hospital birth for low-risk women, but I want to save most of that for another post.
Back to labor. At this point, it was all a blur. The only thing I remember clearly is pain and thirst. I was so thirsty. After every contraction I would say, “Water.” This is another benefit to being at home – I was allowed to drink water! The cool water filling my mouth and running down my throat felt so nice. The pool water was warm now, as they kept filling it with pots of boiling water, and I was sweating, so the cool water was refreshing. I loved the warmth of the pool, though.
In another moment of lucidity I recall reaching up and feeling the bun on top of my head, a tangled, sweaty mess, and saying, “What in god’s name happened to my hair?” Everyone laughed. My mom told me later that it was reassuring to see that I still had a sense of humor through all the pain.
I kept changing positions, and I moved upright so that Bianca could rub my back. The pressure felt incredible, and although I don’t think it actually changed the intensity of the pain, it added another element that was relieving. I never wanted her to stop. That was my lifesaver. Zach was sitting by the side of the pool, and I would squeeze his hand through the contractions, which were back to back. I felt like I had no rest.
Linsey’s presence was so quiet and calm up to then that at I remember thinking I was alone in the room only to open my eyes and see her sitting in the chair right next to me, watching over.
I kept thinking “I can’t do this,” but I didn’t want to say it. I felt like it would damage my pride, make me less strong, to say it out loud. I finally felt like I had to say something, so I said, “I… I… I… I…,” while shaking my head. Linsey knew what I meant and said, so calmly, “You can do this.”
After I’d been in transition for two hours (a period of labor that can often be as short as fifteen minutes), Linsey asked if I wanted her to check my dilation. I did. I learned later that my mom took her out of the room and asked her to check me because she was worried about how long I’d been in transition and how much pain I was in. Linsey said she was just about to ask if I wanted to be checked. So she checked me in the pool and said, “Molly, I think you’re ready to start pushing. I can’t feel your cervix,” meaning I was fully dilated. I suspect I’d been fully dilated for some time. I said, “Okay,” and felt some sense of relief, because I thought I’d be able to push my baby out easily because of how low the head was two days earlier. Again, I was wrong.
I have always envisioned giving birth in a squatting position, so I pulled myself up and had someone stand behind me to help hold me up from my armpits. I needed the help — I was getting tired. I began pushing. Linsey, Bianca, and Zach were on the opposite end of the pool. Almost immediately they could see the head. I tried to push with every contraction, but they were so close together that I couldn’t even distinguish a break any longer. So I would push and push, then rest. Push, then rest. Linsey kept saying, “Good,” “Great! That’s great!” Zach soon joined in with the encouragement. And it really was encouraging. It was encouraging coming from Linsey because she was experienced and knew what should be happening, and it was encouraging coming from Zach because he didn’t. I couldn’t really feel any progress, and I think Linsey could tell. Or maybe she just knows from experience that it helps mothers to feel for themselves. So she asked if I wanted to feel my baby’s head. I reached down and felt this squishy, velvety bulge just barely coming out of me. I didn’t understand how that could be the baby’s head. I thought surely it must be my insides coming out.
I kept pushing and pushing. I started to feel like it would never be over. My sounds got more and more intense until the point where I was actually screaming in pain. My birth team could tell I was getting exhausted, so either Linsey or Bianca suggested tying a knot in a sheet and having Zach stand above me holding it for me to pull on. This really helped me bear down and push. I kept getting annoyed, though, because there was too much slack in the sheet. I kept asking Zach to hold farther up on the sheet, but he didn’t understand what I was saying and would hold the sheet higher in the air. Bianca understood and finally stepped in and showed him.
Linsey had me feel again and there was a decent amount of progress, but I felt what seemed like way too much of my perineum stretching with the head bulging beneath it. I didn’t see how the head could come out without tearing straight through the entire thing. “I just feel a lot of me,” I said. “Like there’s too much pressure on my perineum.” “Hm,” Linsey said, “I think maybe you should flip over.” So I flipped over onto my knees and leaned against the edge of the pool. At that point Linsey told me, “Okay Molly, when you feel the burning I want you to only do gently pushes.”
It wasn’t long after I flipped over that Linsey had me feel the head for the final time. She said, “It’s almost crowning.” “HOLY SHIT! That’s almost crowning?!?” is what I’m told I said, although I remember saying, “Oh my god,” and not “Holy shit.” The head was seriously bulging out. It seemed to me like it should have popped right out from that point. I couldn’t believe that was almost crowning. It was at least a quarter of the way out! From that point I should have done gentle pushes. But I was so eager to meet my baby and so close to being totally exhausted that I didn’t think I could make it if I just pushed gently. And it had been so difficult to push the head out to that point that I didn’t see how I could possibly push gently and get the rest out. So I kept pushing as hard as I could. Even harder than before. I had felt how close I was, and I wanted to be done NOW.
A few minutes after the last time I felt the head, I suddenly felt a quick burst of head finally leaving the birth canal and an immediate and incredible relief of pressure. “The head is out!” I yelled. “Get the camera!” Bianca ran and picked up my digital camera, and started taking pictures. The camera takes very blurry pictures without the flash, which I turned off, but I like that they’re blurry because, as Linsey later pointed out, they match the memory. I thought that once the head was out it would be easy peasy and the body would just kind of slip out like it did in all of the countless birth videos I’d watched. But as with everything else, it wasn’t what I expected. It was by no means hard, especially after what I’d just been through, but I did have to push a few times before the rest of my baby was born.
“Here comes your baby, to your front!” Linsey said as she caught and quickly passed my baby between my legs.
I lifted this new life out of the water and said exactly what I was thinking, “It’s a real baby!” Everything is a blur, but I remember holding this tiny little baby up, turning that tiny little body around to get a better look, and saying, “It’s a boy!” Zach said, “Floyd!” We had chosen to not find out the sex of our baby, and it was an amazing moment to find out we had a boy the first time we saw him.
I asked someone to take my shirt off so I could have the all-important skin-to-skin contact, and held him to my chest. It was a brief moment of bliss.
But then, in what felt like an instant, everything changed. I’m not sure if this is what actually happened, but I remember Linsey saying, “Oh my god,” and taking ahold of his cord. “The cord is snapped. Get me a clamp, hurry.” Bianca got a clamp, and Linsey clamped the few inches of cord that were still attached to him. “We need to get you out of the water right now,” Linsey said to me. “I need to take him.” And just like that, we were all terrified for what this would mean. It was clearly not good.
I was helped out of the pool and into the bedroom, then onto the bed that was prepped with chuck pads. I had my legs bent around me and I looked down to see then streaked with blood. The next thing I remember is Linsey saying, “I think we need to take him to the hospital,” and then a moment later, “Actually, I think we need to take both of you to the hospital.” I was so focused on trying to figure out if my son would be alright that I didn’t even realize I was bleeding too much.
We started trying to figure out what I would wear to the hospital. Zach says after he heard the word “hospital” he had his jeans and coat on within twelve seconds. I really, really didn’t want to have to go to the hospital.
It’s all such a blur that I don’t remember when they were attending to Floyd and when to me, but I know he was the focus. Linsey said a colleague of hers had just experienced a cord snap, so she would call her for advice. After talking to her and other colleagues, it was determined that if his Apgar scores were otherwise high, if his vital functions were normal, and if he gained color quickly, he would be just fine and wouldn’t need to go to the ER. And all of this happened. He went from being very pale when he was born to perfectly pink within a very short amount of time. After that the focus shifted to me and getting my placenta out.
As I continued to bleed in sudden gushes, Linsey tried to locate the other end of the umbilical cord inside me. She couldn’t feel it. She had Bianca check the birth pool twice to make sure the placenta wasn’t in there. It wasn’t. Finally she felt the cord. It was so short that it was still deep inside. It had been while since Floyd was born, and the placenta showed no signs of coming out. Linsey said she needed to help get the placenta out by pulling on the cord. I was worried about this, because I’d read that manual separation can cause hemorrhaging, which I was already experiencing. She said it was vital that we get the placenta out ASAP. So I gave the OK and she began pulling on the cord while pushing down on my uterus from the outside. It hurt. She apologized. She said she was pulling very gently. It still wouldn’t come. More time passed. It became clear that I needed Pitocin, a synthetic form of the hormone oxytocin, commonly used in hospitals to induce labor. I was okay with this. I was aware of Pitocin as a vital drug for stopping hemorrhage after birth by helping the uterus contract, which would also help get my placenta out. So I got a pitocin shot in my leg. Still nothing. Then Linsey said, “I think we need to give you some Cytotec.” I told her I didn’t want Cytotec. It scared me. I had heard horror stories. She asked me if I was worried about uterine rupture, and I told her yes. She assured me that uterine rupture was only a concern before birth when Cytotec is used for induction. It wouldn’t happen after the baby was born. I was still not comfortable with it, but if it was between that and going to the hospital, I would take the Cytotec. It was given in suppository form, but after everything else that was the least of my concern.
After having both contraction-stimulating drugs I still wasn’t feeling any contractions. It was suggested that squatting over a bowl might help deliver the placenta. So a great big stainless steel salad bowl (or “puke bowl,” as I’ve always called it) was brought in and Linsey and my mom (I think) helped hold me up in a squat over it. My bladder immediately began emptying, and didn’t stop until I was sitting in at least a liter of my own urine. I said that I was just sitting in pee and that my legs couldn’t hold me anymore, so they helped me lay back down. Linsey tried more to manually remove the placenta, but it still wasn’t working. She suggested that sitting on the toilet could help. We were just getting ready to go to the bathroom when I finally felt a contraction. “Wait!” I said. “I think I can do it.” With the contraction I beared down and Linsey pulled, and just like that, out flopped the warm, squishy placenta. At the very moment the placenta was born poor Zach walked into the room. He’s a little faint of heart when it comes to blood, and when he saw the placenta coming out his eyes rolled back in his head and he leaned onto my mom. I thought he was going to pass out! When the placenta came we saw why the cord had snapped – it was only about 8 inches long! He couldn’t have been born without it snapping, which caused the placenta to partially separate, leading to the hemorrhaging.
There was a great sigh of relief in the room. After two hours the placenta was finally born. My bleeding stopped. Floyd was doing great, and I was going to be okay. We’d made it through the worst.
After that it was important for me to empty my bladder again, but I was too weak to walk to the bathroom. My mom suggested putting a lasagna pan underneath me on the bed, but I was not having that. Linsey said sometimes mothers will crawl on their hands and knees to the bathroom if there’s a concern of them fainting, so that’s what I did! I got really faint when I was on the toilet, so Linsey had me put my head between my legs while she rubbed my back. She thought it would be a good idea to give me an IV, and I said I’d like to lay down in the bathroom before going back. She said, “That’s fine, we can run the IV in here,” so I got an IV while laying on the bathroom floor! They brought Floyd in and laid him on my chest, and I was finally able to rest and take in my new son.
Linsey and Bianca waited to make sure we were both stabilized, then they did the newborn exam. Floyd surprised us all by being just 7 pounds, 11 ounces. We thought he’d be over 9 pounds, and at least 8. He was 21 inches long. His nose was a little smashed to one side, and he had a big bruise on the top of his head. As it turns out, his head was cocked at a weird angle in the birth canal. This is what caused my back pain.
After a while Linsey gave me stitches to repair my second-degree tear. The shots hurt like hell, but once I was numb I didn’t feel the sutures at all.
I think it was after that when they had me try nursing him, but it may have been before. *Update: I’m told I first nursed him when we were trying to get the placenta out, to help stimulate contractions.* It was really challenging at first. I thought it would come naturally and he would know what to do, but it didn’t and he didn’t latch right on. Bianca was awesome and helped me get him latched on the first time. She was so calm and knew exactly what to do. She made me feel less hopeless and like a failure. Once she got him latched on the first time, he nursed well.
My birth team stuck around for a while longer to make sure I was okay. My mom popped a bottle of champagne and everyone celebrated!
And that’s how my first child, my son, Floyd Jonathan was born. It was difficult. It was traumatic. I didn’t feel strong. I didn’t feel like my body knew what to do. I never had the urge to push. But looking back on it now, two months later, I know that I was strong. I went through an extremely painful labor and a very scary time immediately after birth. When I talked to Linsey a week later about how I was feeling about the birth she told me that I really did have an exceptionally painful labor and long transition, which lasted for three hours. She said she thought I was breaking my tail bone because of the severity of my back pain. It felt good to have this validated by someone who has seen hundreds of births. I knew I wasn’t just weak and unable to cope with the same pain that every woman has in labor.
The postpartum period was very difficult for me because of the physical and emotional trauma of the birth, and I will write about that in another post.
But now, exactly two months after welcoming my precious baby boy into the world, as I sit here with him sleeping peacefully in my arms, I know that we are alright. We are thriving. And I love him more than anything in the world.
This photo by Kourtney Howard-Crow of Howard-Crow Photography. See more at http://www.howardcrowphotography.com/.