In part 1, I recapped the events of pregnancy week 40, during which I was under a lot or pressure to induce labor. I managed to avoid an induction, but made a deal with my obstetrician that I would be induced on Sunday, October 30th if little Peanut hadn't arrived by then.
On Tuesday, October 25th, I awoke relieved. I didn't have to go to a hospital or doctor's office that day, or the next day, or the next day. I could finally enjoy my sister M's visit and work in some sight-seeing before the baby's arrival. The lower half of my body was recovering from the previous weekend's ill-conceived castor oil experiment. I was ready to enjoy my last several days of pregnancy.
Of course, I told myself the same thing I'd been telling myself for weeks - all that could change if little Peanut decided to emerge from the womb. But having been aware of that possibility for a whole month and having been through the medical interventionist wringer that was week 40, I couldn't help wondering if that was ever really going to happen. Maybe she just wanted to stay in her cozy, uterine clubhouse. With all the nonsense she'd be apt to encounter every day, I could hardly blame her.
After Dan left for work and before M got out of bed, I called my best friend S and recounted the events of the previous days. S is the father of twin toddlers and his knowledge of certain terms I used - like preeclampsia, for instance - made me realize that I was joining a special club called parenthood. I didn't know what "preeclampsia" meant a week ago. And I bet that two years ago, S didn't know what it meant either. But if you or your spouse has given birth, you just know this stuff. He knew about the castor oil trick, too. He laughed and groaned simultaneously when I told him of my effort. "I think if you want to avoid induction, it's probably best to avoid self-inducing, too."
"Yeah, yeah, yeah. But hey, it gave me a preview of coming attractions. That's something, right?" He laughed at me some more. I added, "For what it's worth, I'm having contractions right now. Who knows? Maybe today will be the big day."
If this were a movie, my water would have broken two minutes later. M would rush me to the hospital just in time to avoid an automobile birth at the junction of I-24 and I-75. But the mundane truth of the matter was that I'd been feeling contractions for days, even before the castor oil debacle. I didn't know at the time that what I was sensing was more than just a strong Peanut kick until I was hooked up to a non-stress test monitor. But there it was, registering a neat, little bell curve on the pink graph paper printout. Contractions are no big thing until they start coming hard and frequent, and even then they can stagnate. I met a woman who told me she'd had contractions six minutes apart for ten days before she gave birth. Now that's a bummer.
After I hung up with S, I drank coffee and nibbled some food with M. Though I was in a good mood and happy to have some mellow time at home, my appetite remained elusive. I can't eat when I get nervous or anxious, but what was there for me to sweat? Sure, those contractions were more intense than any I'd felt before; the castor oil contractions made my uterus feel like a balloon that's being inflated, but now I felt grinding cramps rising from the cervix. But these were still too infrequent to be taken seriously. I decided to think about other things. M and I made sight-seeing plans for that afternoon and eventually rose from the sofa to get ready.
When my obstetrician Dr. B described contractions to me around week 37, he said, "It's enough to stop you mid-sentence, if not to stop you in your tracks." I was walking Dulce when I felt the first one of those. I remember standing in the middle of the street, staring at my neighbor's yard, thinking, Oh, that's what he meant. Several minutes later, when I was gathering my purse and cell phone, I felt another one. By the time we had buckled our seat belts in M's car, I told her, "I've been feeling pretty regular contractions for a little while now. I'm going to start timing them." That was at 2:30pm.
We drove up Lookout Mountain to Point Park, a Civil War memorial that boasts the best view of the city. I reminded myself of the number one bit of advice given to women in early labor - just go about your business as usual. Buy your annual Point Park pass because the old one expired. Show M the beautiful view of the city. Go to the bathroom. Nothing to see here, move along! But I couldn't help leaning against a rock or sitting on a bench every time I felt that grinding cramp, and the clock sure wasn't lying. Seven minutes. Eight minutes. Ten minutes. Back to eight minutes. I knew I was a long way from the finish line, but it seemed like this might really be happening.
By 3:30pm, I gave up any pretense of continuing our sight-seeing tour, but I definitely had to eat. Doing that would only get harder as labor progressed. We headed to The Terminal, my favorite restaurant/brewpub in Chattanooga. Thinking with respect for my stomach and the work ahead of me, I eschewed the root beer and bison burger I really wanted and ordered a water and salad instead. We sat at a high table in front of the bar. The stools looked more inviting than low chairs or wooden booth benches, though I still had to stand up and stretch as each contraction rolled across my belly. I think I caught our waiter smiling excitedly as he passed our table. If this were a movie, they'd lay me on the bar while the brewmaster shouted at his minions to fetch the hot water and towels. What's with the hot water, anyway? Is it really going to stay hot throughout the entire labor?
I'd called Dan at the start of our meal, just to let him know that something might be happening. Like me, he was cautiously excited. "Oh. Okay... why don't you call me back in a little while and let me know how it's going?" Before we left the restaurant, I did just that, telling him he should meet me at home as soon as possible.
I found the remainder of my early labor hours very difficult. Trying to go about business as usual when you know you're about to give birth seems like trying to do your income taxes while tripping on acid. How does one focus on everyday stuff when your whole world is suddenly bathed in a fresh, strange light? I tried watching "Pootie Tang" with M. I tried tackling simple household chores. But by 7:30pm, I was sitting in bed, attempting to eat crackers and apple slices with my eyes closed, bracing myself for those ever-increasing contractions. I'd phoned our doula A earlier to let her know I was in labor. She said that she would come whenever I felt I needed her there, allowing one hour of travel time. The natural birth books say that you move to the next stage of labor when you find yourself getting "very serious". Was I there yet? I mean, I felt a little uneasy but I was still able to mock Alex Trebek as Dan and M watched Jeopardy in the other room. If I could still joke around, did I really need A to come over quite yet?
I held out until around 10:00pm. By then, my contractions were three to five minutes apart and I was starting to get a little freaked out. It wasn't the pain that worried me as much as the feeling that this was all suddenly moving way faster than I could handle. A arrived at 11:00pm, along with her young apprentice E. NOTE: When I hired A in August, she knew she'd be busy in October and asked if we'd mind her bringing in E, a doula-in-training. If another client's birth prevented A from getting to us in time (unlikely, but not impossible), E could step in. Otherwise, we would have two doulas instead of one. The latter scenario came to fruition, which is greater proof that I am the luckiest of bastards.
The first thing I said to A and E was, "I think it's getting serious, but it's so hard for me to tell because I make a joke out of everything!" A nodded in her sympathetic but not exactly agreeing way, and I suddenly felt calmer. She was carrying a Pilates stability ball and suggested I use it to make myself comfortable. I got on the floor, my knees resting on a pillow and laid my chest upon the ball. I rolled gently, back and forth, as I awaited the next contraction. A encouraged me to breathe deeply as she and E rubbed my back with silken fingers. After the contraction passed, I turned to them and said, "Thank you very much. That felt really nice."
I now realize that would be like taking one bite at the start of an exquisite twelve course meal and saying to the chef, "Thank you very much. That tasted good." Between A, E, M and Dan, I had people massaging and comforting me until we left for the hospital around 7am. Sometimes I had all four of them at my side. Other times they would work in shifts, taking turns to eat, go to the bathroom and nap. I spent most of those eight hours leaning over the stability ball, my eyes shut. But sometimes I would stroll around the house, pressing my hands against a wall as I slowly breathed my way through the steadily longer, harsher contractions. I took a bath at one point. I threw up a couple times, too.
I used to think that vomiting was the worst physical malady, but labor pains gave me a new perspective on that. Puking was just a big relief. Contractions are such a different beast. I kept in mind what I'd read in the natural birth books, that each contraction brings you one step closer to meeting your baby. The best thing to do is to not fight it, but just let it happen. Early in the night, A advised me to make low, deep grunting noises as the contractions occurred. I felt a little silly at first, and then I got scared. I whimpered and nearly cried, but A cut me off. "Tara, no. Breathe deeply. Low, deep grunting sounds." That shook me from my panic and honestly - no shit - I never lost my cool after that point. Making those noises gave me a focus. When I felt the pain rising within me, I knew exactly how I had to approach it. I just had to be like the dude from Crash Test Dummies.
Throughout the night, I kept thinking, If this were a movie, I'd be screaming and saying mean things to my husband. According to my witnesses, I was actually very quiet and polite. The movies make you think that the experience of childbirth turns every woman (regardless of her usual temperament) into a raging shrew, which is okay because she's giving birth. And really, if that happens it is okay, but it didn't happen to me. And I take some satisfaction in knowing that even in those most trying moments, I was absolutely myself.
Having an attentive entourage sure as hell helped. But it wasn't until 2:00 or 3:00 in the morning that I noticed the littlest helper of all. After a contraction passed, I lifted myself from the stability ball to take a sip of water and saw my cat Zenobia laying at the edge of the bed. She stared at me, with her front left paw outstretched, as if she were ready to rub my back. E said, "She's been at your side all night." And she followed me the rest of the night, too. Since then, Dan has referred to her as a Certified Nurse Midcat*.
Around 6:00 or 6:30am, I thought my water broke. I now know that it was actually more of the show that I'd seen on Saturday night (a lot more), but that's when we decided it was time to go to the hospital. I'd told A earlier that I was afraid of the ten mile car ride. I imagined every railroad track, bump and abrupt curve, and how the contractions would magnify those seemingly minor discomforts. She smiled serenely and said, "But in the grand scheme, it's not such a big deal, is it?" It wasn't. Again, I was calm. We left at 7:00am. The earliest glimpses of dawn and the cool, dewy October air was just the refreshment I needed as we slowly made our way to the car. Believing that my water had broken, I was slightly alarmed when I didn't feel any contractions on the way to the hospital. Shit, am I almost to the pushing stage?
Alas, I still had several hours of work ahead of me. The contractions resumed after I got to my room. The nurse verified that my cervix was 6 centimeters dilated and my water bag was intact. And as the long hours passed, I knew I'd stay in a holding pattern until that water broke.
Around 11:00am, I was sitting with my chest against the inclined back of the hospital bed, my arms dangling over the edge, waiting for the next grueling contraction. If I were to fulfill most people's expectations, this would be the moment I'd be begging for an epidural. Most women get to some point in their labor when they start to think, "I can't do this." It's usually when they're really close to the pushing stage (which is generally easier and more satisfying than the stage I was in). I wasn't doubting my ability to handle the situation, but I was starting to believe it would last forever. There was no way I'd ask for an epidural; after all my fussing for a natural, un-induced childbirth during week 40, my pride just wouldn't allow that. And I didn't think it would help anyway. I considered asking the doctor to break my water bag, but my experience thus far was that every intervention seemed to involve more difficulty. Every simple test involved marathon monitoring. Every quick IV injection of antibiotics led to an hour of being hooked to a machine. No, I was determined that little Peanut and I were going to do this together. Yes, I'd have to endure more contractions. So what? You've already been through a whole day of this. Pain is just a thing and you can put it aside. Why fear it?
Eventually, A convinced me that resting on the toilet would be the best way to get my cervix to open up. I was sitting there, leaning into Dan's arms, and I could feel Peanut pushing against the water bag. By this point I was no longer just letting the contractions happen. I was actively working with that pain to push baby Bernadette toward her destiny. I buried my face in Dan's belly, grunted and pushed, and then I heard the second happiest sound of my life. Splash!
A, E and M cheered. I exhaled and laughed. The nurse barked, "Okay, that was the water. Get up! I'm not having any toilet babies today." I begged for a moment to rest, but she wasn't having any of that. As I stumbled toward the bed, she called Dr. B and I readied myself for that glorious, much-touted pushing stage.
If this were my everyday life, I would be so embarrassed right now. Forget the fact that I'm not a particularly touchy-feely person and I shy away from massages. Forget that I tend to avoid being nude around anyone who isn't Dan. I'd been walking around half-naked, falling into other people's comforting arms for hours. But now I was expelling all sorts of liquids from the space between my legs. I didn't care. The nurse was of a much different opinion. "It's going to take me hours to clean this up!" she muttered. And though I usually take pains to avoid being a bother to anyone (especially workers), I didn't care about that, either.
When Dr. B arrived, I could tell he was uncomfortable with two doulas in the room, though I'd told him on several occasions to expect them. He seemed to have completely forgotten about my birth plan, too. "No stirrups - what?!" He just couldn't handle all of this previously discussed information, so he behaved like a douchey buffoon. Out of nowhere, this trusted professional started talking to me in this weirdly bombastic, too-loud tone. Occasionally he'd take a time-out to flirt with the nurse. How did my high school gym teacher get in the room? Is this guy actually going to deliver my baby? At one point, he looked at A's DONA shirt and asked, "What's a donna?"
"Um, it's DONA. It stands for Doulas of North America."
A blank stare and "Huh," was all he could muster. He turned to me. "Okay, Tara. Now you're getting ready to push. This is the one situation where I think it's better for a woman to not have an epidural". Translation: it's the moment when it's more convenient for him that I didn't have an epidural. "I need you to take all your energy and push where you feel pressure, right here," he said, reaching into my vagina. "Push like it's a bowel movement. Okay... now! Push!"
I took a deep breath and exhaled as I pushed, but the results did not please him. "No!" he said. "C'mon, like a bowel movement!"
I was beyond unembarrassed. I felt like taking a dump right then and there. Bowel movement? Here's your stinkin' bowel movement! Thankfully, A chimed in with other advice. "Don't let your breath out. Use it to help you push. When you feel the urge, you'll probably push a few times. Just make sure to get a deep breath between each one. And take a break whenever you need to. "
Oh, how I relished those breaks! This stage is supposed to be so great because you get to take control and really make that baby move. But it requires a lot of energy and I was oh so spent. I'd been awake for 30 hours, I'd thrown up everything I ate in that time, and here I was at the end of the most physically exhausting trial of my life, trying to push a baby through my vagina. Yet, when I felt that urge to bear down, I had no choice but to give it my all.
Dr. B saw some progress. When I got some good pushes in, he encouraged me to stick with the same technique. And then he started saying, "Push through the Bern!" Well, that's a weird way to refer to my baby. How does he remember her name is Bernadette when he can't remember that I have a birth plan? Then I realized he was really saying, "Push through the burn!"
That was actually helpful. Push through the pain. Don't hold back. Each time I did, my audience would coo with delight. "Oh my god, we can totally see her. She has hair!" they told me. I'd spurned the birth mirror - I had enough on my plate without having to look at the mess between my thighs - so I only had their reaction to track the baby's progress.
Even Dr. B got excited. "Yes! We can see her head. It's about the size of a dime."
WHAT?! This much pain and all they could see was a dime-sized bit of baby head? But my body was too busy for me to stew. I pushed some more. I pushed through the burn. As everyone got more excited, I was more eager to be done. And when I heard Dr. B say, "Here she comes," I took a deep breath, pushed into the most excruciating pain I've ever known and screamed in agony. And then I heard another scream. And that's the best sound I ever heard in my life.
At 2:10pm, I cried, "She's here! She's finally here!" And there was my little Peanut, Bernadette, dangling in Dr. B's hands. By that point, there seemed to be about 20 other people in the room. Though I had wanted to hold her immediately, they took her away for a cleaning since there was meconium in the fluid (apparently, Bernadette wasn't shy about pooping either). Since all I ever wanted was for this baby to be strong and healthy, I honestly didn't mind waiting for them to get her ready. But it felt like forever before the nurse laid her across my belly, where she immediately latched to my breast and began feeding. "Well, hello there!" I said. "You're just beautiful." And then I fell into her twinkly eyes. That's how I met my daughter.
So, yeah, giving birth naturally is definitely the coolest thing I've done in my life. It gave me a new perspective on pain and a new measure of my endurance. I felt enormous pride when A leaned over the bed and said, "You are a strong woman." I certainly don't think that anyone who chooses to use drugs during birth is wrong for doing so. Rather, I wish all women felt comfortable, sufficiently informed and empowered to make whatever decision suits them best. I'm just so happy that I got to do this how I wanted, especially since my moments-old baby looked like this -
Healthy and strong, just as I'd wished.
*Contrary to our fears, Zenobia has been an absolute sweetheart to Bernadette. She seems to regard the baby with a certain maternal awe, gingerly leaning in to sniff her head before shyly backing away. Z also continues to comfort me. For instance, there was a night during the first week when B screamed for hours. Dan offered to walk her around the house while I tried to get a few minutes of sleep. I was laying in the middle of the bed with the blanket pulled over my head when I felt Z crawl under the sheets. She used her front left paw to press my hand against the mattress. Then she retracted the claw in her right paw and used that to caress me. I had no idea she was so coordinated, or so sensitive! Well that just melted my heart into grateful, sleepy tears.