I love a good birth story, even back in the day when I never thought I’d be writing my own.
Prior to my due date we had no birth plan. I made a deal with myself that if labor was relatively straightforward, progressed as expected and I was able to manage my pain well, I would not get an epidural. I knew I could do it physically, but I was concerned mentally that I’d break if I was one of those women who, after laboring for days, was only dilated 2 cms. My pregnancy had been so easy, textbook and predictable that I had a hunch labor would be similar. I was on track when, about a week before my due date, I began to have terrible hip and pelvic pain, which I was told was an indication that the baby was “moving down.”
And on my due date, Wednesday, April 25th I started bleeding and having what felt like menstrual cramps. My friend Delia came over that morning and brought me coffee, but I didn’t say anything to her, not sure what the bleeding meant. Later in the day the bleeding increased and I did tell my mom because she stopped by the house, who insisted “this is labor! You will have a baby by Friday.”
By the morning of Thursday, April 26th I was still bleeding and now passing plenty of mucous. The bleeding wasn’t slowing down, so I called the hospital, but they assured me this was all normal and just part of early labor. That evening, Ryan and I had dinner at a Mexican food restaurant. Sitting in the booth I got a very long, painful menstrual cramp. I couldn’t move or talk through it, but didn’t think it was a contraction because my stomach didn’t harden up and I didn’t feel a “tightening.” These mega-menstrual cramps very slowly started coming on, first once an hour, then more frequent. By the time I went to bed I was certain they must be contractions, so I started timing them on my app. Sure enough, they were lasting over a minute and were regular in their spacing. This must be it! I had told Ryan I was having “cramps,” but as he went to sleep I didn’t say anything, thinking I’d let him get a good night’s rest and would probably be waking him up at 4 or 5 am saying “it’s time!”
I was up most of the night as the cramps came on every 20 minutes, then every 15, then every 10. These were not mild or gentle contractions, either, but beasts. Every time one came on, I had to stand up and lean over the side of my bed, breathing heavily through it. I don’t know how Ryan didn’t wake up. But at about 3 am the cramps started slowing down to every 15 minutes, then back to every 20 minutes, and by morning I’d had a sleepless night and now was feeling nothing.
The next day, Friday, I told Ryan what was up. He had me call the hospital, who said this was normal and assured him he was safe to go to work out of town that day. I had a few contractions throughout the day, but otherwise felt fine and went about my day as normal, running errands. That evening, about 9 pm, the contractions started up again in an irregular pattern. Lying in bed was too uncomfortable so I sat in our tv room for hours, timing the contractions and watching Sherlock Holmes and other HBO late night tv. The only place I could get comfortable was on the edge of my husband’s big fluffy chair, leaning forward with knees spread wide. So that is where I sat, moving into a deep squat and swaying side to side during the contractions. At times my wailing was so loud it woke Ryan. He had me call the hospital again, but the nurse simply advised me to stay put until they were 3-4 minutes apart. This was infuriating since the contractions at times were one on top of the other, and at other times 20 minutes apart. No rhyme or reason. But again, at 3 or 4 am they started to slow down and eventually stopped, so I went to bed frustrated.
The next day, Saturday, I stayed home. I was confused and anxious to get the show on the road, and a little concerned that maybe this wasn’t labor after all, and I was just being a baby. The contractions started up at about 4 pm, this time milder and very regular. I took a bath, chatted with Ryan, and remained calm. It was a totally different experience than the previous two nights. At 8 pm they were 5 minutes apart, so we got in the car to go to the hospital. Unfortunately, as soon as we got on the highway the contractions stopped. I could have cried, I was so exasperated with the starting-and-stopping. We went to the hospital anyway, checked in, put on the gown and the nurse hooked my belly up to the monitor. I finally had a contraction, which the monitor would not read because my stomach would not get hard. But finally a victory – the nurse checked me and said I was dilated 3-4 cm! My body was doing something! I could not be admitted until I was 5 cm, so we opted to check out and got back home about 10 pm.
Something about leaving the safety of the hospital shifted my mental state, and the contractions started up like a nightmare. I could hardly walk out and wailed in the car all the way home. I tried to put my pajamas on but was so frozen in pain I stood for 20 minutes in my bedroom grimacing and heaving. Ryan insisted we go back to the hospital, but I was afraid the contractions would just stop again, so I said “let me take a shower first and try to calm down.” 20 minutes in the hot water and I was much more in command of my body. I got in bed to watch SNL but quickly realized I couldn’t just lay there. I spent a third sleepless night in our tv room, balanced on the edge of Ryan’s chair or in a squat, timing the contractions.
At 4:30 am they were still irregular, but anywhere from 7-3 minutes apart, and I couldn’t sit another sleepless minute in that room. I woke Ryan up and said “We are going back!” I was certain I must be up to 5 cm by this point. We loaded up, said good bye to the cats, and checked in again at 5 a.m. Back into the gown and belly band, and this time the contractions did not slow. When the nurse was asking me questions, a contraction came on hard and I suddenly felt a gush of warm water. “I think I peed my pants!” I told her. “That’s ok” she soothed me. I clarified “No, I really think I peed a lot, this could have been my water breaking.” She used a test strip on my wet gown and sure enough, I had ruptured. They didn’t check my dilation at this point but I was admitted. 3 sleepless nights of this business was not straightforward and I’d had enough; I asked for an epidural but said I wanted to wait as long as I could, fearful it would make the whole process slow to a stop.
Once checked into our room, I got comfortable on a birthing ball with the nitrus gas at my disposal. Ryan brought his jambox and got relaxing spa music playing in an effort to keep me calm. The nitrus was kind of a joke. The plastic mask smelled awful, and it did nothing for the pain, just made me a little loopy so I mentally bounced back from each contraction quicker. Ryan’s favorite part to tell is when I ripped the mask off post-contraction and exclaimed “this is bullshit!” In my defense, it was rather annoying to hear the nurses continuously say “just take a deep breath, breathe into the mask, relax,” when that stupid mask was no help at all.
I made it to about 9 a.m. when the nurses encouraged me to get up and walk around. However, standing up and the shifting of my body and organs set off a series of contractions so paralyzing I got stuck in the bathroom. I couldn’t move to get myself out, and I couldn’t talk or yell due to the overwhelming pain. When I finally cracked the door open, Ryan saw my face and told the nurses to get the epidural. Fortunately, the epidural man was awesome and came right away. In about 30 minutes I was feeling significant relief. And let me tell you, that epidural was the best decision I ever made. A total game changer. Once it had kicked in the nurses checked me and said I was at 8 cm! I was so glad I was close and felt proud to have made it that far. The nurses left Ryan and I alone after that, told us to get some rest since they knew I’d hardly slept in 3 days.
While we were “sleeping,” the nurses kept coming in and looking at the heart monitor. The baby’s heart rate was getting dangerously low during contractions; they thought maybe she was leaning on the umbilical cord. Since my waters had ruptured, their solution was to pump fluids up my vagina into my uterus to add some buoyancy. They also put an electrode on the baby’s head to better monitor her heart rate. All decorum and feminism mystique was officially gone with the catheter and these new additions to my lady parts. Labor at its finest. Ryan witnessed it all.
I didn’t sleep well during that “rest” period. Adrenaline had kicked in, and I was cold, and something in the epidural made me itch. I kept whispering over to Ryan “when are they going to come wake us up? Aren’t I fully dilated by now??”
At about 1:45 pm the nurses came back in to check me and said not only was I fully dilated, but the baby had began to descend down the birth canal. I was ready to push! The midwife gave me the statistics: a white woman with an epidural typically has to push for about 3 hours on her first pregnancy. But once they walked me through the first couple practice pushes, she said “oh wow, you’re really good at this! It won’t take 3 hours!” Worst encouragement ever, because it still tool about 2.5 hours. Pushing was reaaaalllly hard. I spent about 2 miserable hours pushing with my fever steadily rising. I got increasingly congested and discouraged. Finally, a stout, bossy nurse came in and put Ryan to work with holding the oxygen mask to my face and commanding me to push harder, telling me what to do and when, shifting my legs around. I got a second wind and thanked her for the motivation, and she said “the call me “the closer” around here.” It felt good to laugh and it was so true – soon after the midwife and several others came in with various equipment and suited up. At 4:23 pm on Sunday, April 29th, I finally pushed that baby OUT.
I heard her cries immediately in the dark hospital room, and a moment later she was on my chest. She was the tiniest thing I’d ever seen, screaming and pushing and rooting around on my chest. Later we’d find out she was only 6 lbs 2 oz, and nearly perfect, with APGAR scores of 9 and 9. They joked “We would have given her a 10, but only doctor’s babies get a 10.”
I layed in the hospital bed helpless for probably another hour with my legs spread eagle as they stitched me up. I recall them telling me I was getting Pitocin to birth the placenta, but didn’t even notice when it passed. We found out later she had the umbilical cord wrapped around her neck twice – this was why her heart rate was dropping during contractions and why she was so difficult to push out.
Ryan and I were hearing this all but were totally enraptured with the new life on my chest. She was soooo cute, with a perfectly round face, and her head covered in a dusting of copper-red hair. She looked nothing like me. Her eyes were large and wide-set, her miniature mouth wailing healthy cries beneath a little turned up nose. We named her Abigail Lake. Abby, Ryan’s choice of name, with my approval because Abigail in the bible is a noteworthy woman. Lake is my choice, a nod to an astounding thing of natural beauty. Ryan approved because he loves to fish.
She is 2 months old now, our baby girl, and she completes our family. It has been a hard couple months, but getting easier. For some reason I naively thought an IVF baby would make us love her so much the difficulty of the first few weeks would pale in comparison. But nothing can prepare new parents for a newborn, especially one who isn’t exactly an “easy baby.” Breastfeeding has been a nightmare, sleep has been scarce, and the stereotypical resentment of the wife feeling like she’s doing everything very, very real. But Abby is growing and thriving, and each week easier than the last. Seeing Ryan love her the way I knew he would makes the last 5 years of navigating infertility so worth it. We are getting the hang of things – all 3 of us.