Photo by Caitlin Smith
I’m typing this right now with a sleeping baby on my chest. The way my life has changed in the last week is simply incredible. I keep thinking back to Friday, which was without a doubt the best day of my life, and wishing I could relive it over and over again. I’m holding on to these memories tightly. I want to always be able to recall all of the beautiful details. We had a perfect birth experience. Absolutely perfect. It was fast (once it actually got going) and easy, filled from start to finish with love.
Here is the short version: totally natural, no epidural, 48 hours of pre-labor/early labor contractions, three hours of active labor, arrived at the hospital complete, pushed for one hour, delivered the baby with no tears, and had a quick recovery.
Here is the long version:
On Wednesday, May 18th, I had an appointment with my midwife. She stripped my mebranes and told me that my body was absolutely ready to go. I had a few contractions throughout the day, but never in any sort of a pattern. I woke up around midnight early Thursday morning with steady, mild contractions that ranged from 10 minutes to 6 minutes apart. I contracted all day, but it was easy to deal with. I was never in much pain and felt completely normal. Andrew stayed home from work with me and we walked and bounced on my exercise ball and spent the entire day trying to get the contractions closer together, but to no avail. By the evening they had completely stopped. I was so sure when I woke up that morning that I would have our baby by the evening, and when the contractions ceased I cried long and hard in both desperation and frustration. I don’t know how to put into words how badly I wanted Eleanor to come and how upset I was Thursday night. Because I was unemployed during my pregnancy I had literally spent the entire nine months doing nothing but thinking about and preparing for her arrival. My life had already been consumed by her, and holding her in my arms was my heart’s only desire. Giving in to the realization that she would not be joining us that day was very difficult.
Andrew did a wonderful job of calming me down. He had me take a long hot shower, then he put on several episodes of 30 Rock and we laid in our bed and cuddled and told each other bad jokes. It was our last night as just a couple, and it couldn’t have been more perfect.
We went to bed early in case labor picked back up during the night. We wanted to be well and rested for whatever Friday would hold. I woke up several times during the night to use the bathroom and was dejected each time when I realized the contractions were still gone. I spent a while laying there awake and tearful, wishing I could will my body into labor. I woke up again around 5am to renewed contractions, which gave me a bit more hope. They were coming about 4 minutes apart, and I started to get excited. I called my mom around 6am and she left for the airport. I let our doula know that things finally seemed to be progressing. I was maybe a bit premature in making those calls. By the time my mom arrived at around noon they were down to about every 7 minutes. At this point I was still feeling completely fine, aside from my frustration. I had gotten a good night’s sleep and life was continuing like normal with the occasional spasm of slight pain. We decided to walk down to our favorite taqueria after my mom got to our apartment. I ate about half of a taco salad. I’m not sure how close together the contractins were at this point, but they were painful enough that I would have to stand up out of my chair when I felt one coming on, but not close enough to constitute active labor. My behavior got us a few odd looks from fellow diners, including a table of 4 cops who looked very concerned.
After the taqueria we decided to walk down to CVS to get some castor oil to try to get the show on the road. As we walked along I told my mom how completely normal I felt between contractions. It was just like any other day. While we were walking the contractions were still mild (or at least what I considered to be mild). I could talk and walk through them, although I preferred to go a bit slower. Toward the end of my walk labor might have been picking up. I didn’t feel like the contractions hurt any worse or were any closer together, although honestly I wasn’t paying that much attention to the timing, but I suddenly felt a very strong urge to go home.
We got the castor oil and headed back home at about 4pm. Andrew mixed the oil with a scoop of mint ice cream and some milk and I drank it right down. I was surprised at how palatable the ice cream made it. It’s not like it was delicious, but it tasted like a milkshake with a slightly oily flavor that reminded me of canola oil. I think it also helped that I never actually saw the oil. Andrew said it was really thick and gross. In retrospect, I’m not sure how much the castor oil actually helped. I think I had probably already turned the corner into active labor on my own, but the oil might have had a hand in how quickly things went from there.
I then went to take a shower. After being in the shower for only about 10 minutes, I told Andrew he should call our doula. I was starting to feel very, very different. I still didn’t feel like the contractions were very hard, but they were now closer together. The real indicator that active labor had truly begun to me, however, was my emotional state. I went from feeling totally normal to very serious and tired. I just knew something had changed. I was doing fine with the contractions, so we decided to keep laboring without the help of the doula for a bit longer. She had just attended a 48 hour birth that ended earlier that morning, so we wanted to let her get as much rest as possible. Little did we know that the baby would be born about three hours later.
After I got out of the shower the contractions started coming one on top of the other. Timing them went right out the window. I was laying on the couch when all of a sudden at the peak of one of the contractions I felt a really intense, sharp pain and then an odd pop. It was bad enough that I shot my mom a concerned look and said “Ow! Something’s wrong!” I stood up and realized my water had broken. By this time the castor oil had taken affect, so I was laboring in the bathroom. I was swaying through a contracting, leaning on my bathroom sink, when I happened to look at myself in the mirror. My cheeks were really flushed and I realized things were getting very serious. I told my mom that I thought we should go to the hospital. The doula hadn’t made it over yet, and the most important part of our birth plan was to labor with her assistance at home for as long as possible, but I realized at that point that even if I had several hours of contractions ahead of me, I was uncomfortable enough that it wouldn’t matter if they were going on in my own bathroom or at the hospital.
Andrew called the doula and told her our change of plans, and then he and my mom ran around getting our last minute hospital stuff together. I stayed in the hallway and would call out to one of them when I felt a contraction coming on. I would put my arms around their necks, and they would sway and breath with me. My mood switched again, and I went from being very serious to very loving. After each contraction I would hug whoever had helped me through it, and tell them I loved them. I think this was my favorite aspect of my labor. At the most intense part instead of feeling angry or yelling or acting crazy, I turned into a sappy cuddle bug who couldn’t stop letting everyone know how much I loved them and how grateful I was for their help. As I was entering the lovey-dovey phase (which was probably transition), I remember thinking to myself, “Okay, I see why someone would ask for an epidural,” but I was still doing totally fine and would have refused one if it was offered to me. I kept saying to my mom, “I’m doing good, aren’t I?” She assured me that I was, but reminded me that since this was my first baby, I might still have a long road ahead of me. She said not to feel discouraged if we arrived at the hospital and I was only dilated to 5. I prepared myself mentally for that possibility.
The one thing that surprised me most about labor was how clear headed I remained. Very intense things were going with my body, but my conscience mind was still totally myself. It’s a difficult thing to describe, but it was almost like an out of body experience. All of the physical intensity never affected my inner thoughts.
We threw our stuff in the car and headed to the hospital. As we walked out the door I glanced back at our apartment, thinking about how different things would be when I finally came home again. The car ride was absolute hell. I needed to stand to get through my contractions, and it is impossible to stand in the backseat of a compact car. When I felt a contraction coming on I would throw myself into different positions - on my knees on the floor, reclining as far back as I could on the seat, pulling up and lifting my bottom off of the seat using the handle above the door - but nothing helped. It’s mentioned many times that when a laboring woman starts to say “I can’t do this anymore,” that is when the end is near. I never said “I can’t do this anymore” or felt like the contractions were unbearable, but I did say “I can’t do this in the car.” I wanted my mom to pull over for each contraction so that I could get through them standing on the side of the road, but I knew that was impossible. It was only a 15 minute drive, and I just needed to find a way to deal with it. I rolled down the window and tried to focus on the air hitting my face instead of the contractions. I looked around at where we were to remind myself that every second brought us closer to the end of the journey. I would say things like, “Look, we are passing ______ Street, that means we’re half way there” or “We’re only a mile away now. Maybe I won’t have any more car contractions.” I was also being an awful backseat driver. We forgot to print out directions for my mom, and Andrew is really bad at them, so I was giving the instructions. I was demanding that my mom run yellow lights and change lanes if the car in front of us was going too slow or a bicyclist was in the way. We pulled up to the main hospital entrance just as a big contraction was hitting. I threw myself out of the car and put my hands on the trunk and moaned until it ended. There were several people gathered outside and I remember them staring at me.
Andrew and I hurried passed the onlookers and proceded to the elevator. It was a very short distance, but I had another contraction before we got on it. I held on to Andrew, swayed, and in the middle of it said, “This is so much easier to do out of the car. I feel better now.” We got on the elevator and I had another contraction. Then we walked up to the nurse’s station and I had yet another. Andrew was pretty frazzled and was having trouble answering their questions, but I was still clear headed enough to help him out. I could remember what time my water broke, what the fluid was like, my due date, social security number, and all of those other small details you might think would fly right out the window in the face of serious contractions. I also felt the need to give them unnecessary details. When they asked about my water I told them that it broke, and that I thought it was gushing out at the moment, but that I was wearing a pad and didn’t think I was leaking on their floor, so not to worry.
They lead us over to triage, which was a big large room with beds divided by curtains. All of the curtains were drawn. It was very full. They had us wait at the entrance as they checked the beds. There was one open in the far back corner. As a nurse walked us back to it she remarked that I looked very uncomfortable, and I said “Yeah.” Of course in triage no one actually believes you are in labor. It’s amazing they trust you enough to accept the fact that you are pregnant. I think I must have been pretty obviously in hard labor, but they treated me as if nothing at all was going on. They kept asking if this was my first baby and when I would answer yes I could see the dismissiveness in their eyes. They probably thought I was totally overreacting and being a big baby.
The nurse asked me to lay down to wait to be monitored, and as a contraction began I leaned over the bed and squeaked out that I would prefer to stand. She said that was okay, and let us know that they were busy so it might be a few minutes before someone comes in to check on us. I was feeling more gushing and I decided to go to the bathroom. We left our curtain area, I asked a nurse where the bathroom was, and Andrew went in with me. There was a lot of blood. I remembered that this late bloody show was a sign that dilation is complete or nearly complete. I looked up at Andrew and said, “I think this baby is coming now.” He ran to get a nurse. She asked to see the amount of blood, asked if it was my first baby, and reassured me that it was totally normal and that the baby wasn't coming yet. She said I could wait a few minutes longer to be checked. I figured she was right and felt a bit foolish for being so dramatic.
We went back to our bed in the corner to wait. Triage was so quiet. I knew that behind the rows and rows of curtains were other laboring women, but none of them were making a sound. None except for me, of course. I couldn’t help but moan loudly through the contractions that were hitting me one on top of the other. I remember at one point as I vocalized through a contraction, looking up at a sign on the wall that explained that triage was a shared space, and asked laboring women and their partners to please keep their voices down. I felt really self-conscious and guilty about not being able to obey that “Please Be Quiet” sign. And then it happened. A contraction came, but it was unlike anything else I had experienced. It felt like my uterus was clamping down like a vise, and I realized I was bearing down, and bearing down hard. I screamed out, “I’m PUSHING!”
That got the nurses’ attention. Several of them ran over to me immediately. They helped me on the bed. One of them checked me and yelled out, “She’s complete! By pass triage!” They unlocked the wheels of my bed and ran me down the hall. They were in such a rush that they kept banging the bed into things. Only Andrew was allowed to accompany me to triage, and my mom had texted him to let us know that security was holding her on the ground floor until we got a room. As soon as I knew I was going to a room, I starting begging for my mom. As they wheeled me down the hall I kept saying over and over again, “I want my mom, someone get my mom!” When we got into room #4, one of the nurses said to another one, “Find this girl’s mom!” They put my bed next to the delivery bed and asked me if I could climb on to it, or if I needed to be lifted. I told them I would prefer to stand rather than get in the other bed, if that was okay. I stood through a few more pushing contractions. Of course the nurses were telling me not to push, but there was nothing I could do about it, so I kept yelling out, “I’m pushing! I can’t stop!”
Luckily my mom and our doula, Caitlin, arrived soon. I was so glad to see them both. I really needed all of the support I could get. Caitlin and my mom started asking me if I needed anything. I was sweating something awful and asked for water, chapstick, and a hair tie. My mom asked if the lip gloss she had in her pocket would suffice, but I didn’t want anything sticky, and I said no. Andrew knew I needed my favorite grape flavored chapstick. A nurse asked if I wanted ice water, and I told her, “No. I don’t like it that cold.” I was being rather particular.
The pushing contractions kept coming, but they wouldn’t allow me to bear down with them until they finished their paperwork. I stood and rocked with my hands around Andrew’s shoulders. Caitlin instructed me to breathe out with “horsey lips” to help keep from pushing. They all stood around me and helped me breathe. I felt so loved and supported. But trying not to push was the worst thing ever. I kept yelling out during the contractions, “I can’t stop! I can’t stop!” and I could hear myself making these awful grunting noises as I strained. All the while I was answering questions about my medical history. They strapped some monitors to my belly as I stood and suddenly the room was filled with the sound of Eleanor’s heartbeat. I waited for a contraction to end and asked a nurse how she was doing. They assured me she was tolerating everything really well.
At some point it crossed my mind that we hadn’t given out our birth plan, but I also realized that it no longer mattered. Things had already gone completely according to the plan, regardless of the fact that the dozen copies we had printed out never left their manilla envelope. I wanted to labor at home for as long as possible, I wanted to wear my own clothes during delivery, I didn’t want an IV, I didn’t want an epidural, I wanted the freedom to move and find the best positions for dealing with contractions, all of which I achieved. The rest of the details either went according to plan in a similar fashion, or ended up not really mattering anyway.
When the paperwork was finally done the midwife came in to check me again. I had a slight lip on my cervix, but the midwife was able to easily move it out of the way, and I was given the green light to push. I was so excited. Most people love the pushing phase. They feel like they are able to finally do something proactive and bearing down alleviates the pain of the contractions. I’ll be honest, I hated pushing. I found it absolutely terrifying. The power of the pushing contractions scared me. They were so strong and overwhelming. My body was totally out of my control. This was the only point in labor where I started to dread the next upcoming contraction, but the rest between them was pure bliss. I was able to relax completely, and I even remarked at one point how good I felt when I wasn’t contracting.
I had hoped to try squatting to push, and at one point asked for a squatting bar. It was brought in, but I found that I really didn’t care what position I was pushing in. I laid in the traditional semi-reclining position. It felt like the only position I could have assumed anyway. I was too exhausted between the pushing contractions to stand or squat. When my body wasn’t working to move the baby out, it laid there on the bed, sweaty, limp, and thankful for the support of a firm bed. My mom and Andrew stood at the bed to my right and Caitlin to the left. They all told me how great I was doing and reassured me when I confessed that I was scared and couldn't do it.
I was so grateful for our doula. She gave me great advice that really helped me get the hang of pushing, like where to hold my legs, how to curl up and around, and to keep my vocalizations low. My vocalizations were something awful. I could hear myself screaming during a pushing contraction and I would think to myself, “Why are you making such an awful noise? Get it together! You sound like one of those stereotypes of a laboring woman from the movies. Stop screaming so loudly, you’re probably bothering all of the people in the adjoining rooms!” I was unduly embarrassed about the awful sounds come out of my throat, and I kept apologizing to everyone for makes so much noise. Of course I couldn’t help it though. I did try to make low moans as Caitlin suggested, but it didn’t always work out. Sometimes toward the end of a contraction I would give a long, low moan. Sometimes during the peak I would scream. Sometimes throughout the entire contraction I would let out a long, high pitched, drawn out siren-like screech. Sometimes I would hold my breath throughout a contraction and then groan loudly when it was over. They weren’t pretty noises. Then with some of the stronger contractions I started vomiting, which made it difficult to breathe. Luckily I only threw up a few times, and it was all the water that I was constantly sucking down between contractions, but the vomiting was by far the worst part of all of this.
My mom was holding up my right leg and Caitlin was holding up my left. Andrew was by my head, wiping me down with cold washcloths and giving me water. I don’t recall this myself, but Caitlin recounted how at one point Andrew leaned over and kissed my lips. I said “Thank you,” and he asked, “For what?” “For the kiss,” I replied. I don’t remember saying that, but I do remember how great the kiss felt. Andrew was a wonderful labor partner. He swayed with me and squeezed my hips during the hardest contractions. He knew how to help me without me even having to ask. He remained a calm touchpoint, my anchor. Just having my arms around him helped so much. Several times while I was pushing he leaned down and whispered to me, “Thank you. Thank you for doing this.” All of my labor support team did such a good job of taking care of me. They were constantly telling me how great I was doing and how strong I was. In moments of high clarity I kept trying to take in what was happening. I kept thinking to myself, “This is it. You are having your baby right now. This is what you have been waiting for.”
When the baby’s head slipped under my public bone, the beautiful rests between the contractions ceased. They were replaced by constant, painful pressure. At this point I started saying “It hurts” over and over again. Caitlin would get right down by my ear and say, “Don’t be scared, that’s just your baby that you’re feeling. Push hard so you can get her out.” Her words helped me so much. I hated the pain, but I used its presence to help me really focus on getting Eleanor out as quickly as possible. I pushed with everything I had. I wanted it to be over. She started crowning and I could feel the burning of my stretched skin and the midwife’s hands as she worked over my perineum. I knew this was the “ring of fire,” and that I was very close. After one contraction I asked the midwife, “How many more?” “Three,” she told me in a very matter of fact tone. “Three pushes or three contractions?” I asked. “Pushes.” Okay, I thought to myself, I can handle just three more big pushes. So when the next contraction came I pushed with everything I had. I gave three long, hard pushes, but there was no baby. The midwife said, “Okay, I lied. But you’re doing great. Reach down, you can touch your baby’s head.” I reached down and could feel her sweet hair. It gave me the last bit of encouragement I needed to deliver her head. It took a few more pushes, but after each one I would reach down and find that her head was further and further out.
Finally her head was born, but I didn’t experience any sort of relief. I don’t know why, but I expected to feel almost completely better once the head was through, since I knew that was the hardest part. I guess I wasn’t thinking about all the rest of the baby that was still lodged in my pelvis. The midwife asked me hold back from pushing because the cord was wrapped around Eleanor’s neck. She slipped it off and told me to push again. I felt a sort of popping senstation and knew that one shoulder was through, then another pop and the other shoulder. The rest of her tumbled out with a huge gush of fluid. She was born on May 20th at 7:53pm, about an hour after we arrived at the hospital and after only three hours of active labor.
They placed her right on my bare chest and my hands wrapped around her tiny body. I started crying heavily, saying “My baby has hair” over and over again. I babbled and sobbed. My hands ran over her body, feeling the amazing velvet softness of her perfect skin. Most of the vernix was removed, and she was the most beautiful shade of pale pink. I couldn’t believe how beautiful she was. I looked up at Andrew and he had tears running down his face. I told him I loved him so much and we kissed. I held our baby there against my chest and wept. I told everyone in the room that I loved them so much, even the nurses and the midwife.
I held her for close to an hour. She didn’t cry at all, she just laid there, calm and content. I kept remarking about how happy she seemed. We all marveled at her big eyes and adorable lips, her perfectly arched eyebrows and her ridiculously long eyelashes. I eventually apologized for hogging her and passed her off to her proud daddy.
The hospital staff were amazing to us. They never took Eleanor from my chest and after they finished their assessments they all left, giving us time to bond as a new family. They were very respectful of the sacredness of the moment and left us completely alone. A nurse came back in after a while and let us know that she would weight, measure, and bathe the baby as soon as we were ready. Throughout our stay the hospital staff never took the baby out of my room and always asked permission before picking her up or touching her. We appreciated their courtesy so much.
When we felt ready we called the nurse and she came back to finish up the tests and cleaning. Andrew assisted the nurse in giving Eleanor her first bath and dressed her. I was able to get up out of bed and snap a few pictures of the two of them. I was sore and a bit weak, but I hadn’t torn at all and was able to move around with relative ease only an hour or so after the birth.
I couldn’t have asked for a more perfect labor and birth experience. It was everything we had hoped and planned for.