A new and powerful birth story today! With humor and insight, Mama Amanda shares the story of her journey to a natural birth with her first child at a local hospital. Amanda began her pregnancy staunchly in favor of an epidural, but as the time of her birth drew near, something unexpected changed her mind. Her story is a moving illustration of the value of knowledge, and of how empowering an informed birth can be!
Amanda, thank you for sharing your wonderful and beautifully-written story with us! Though Ethan is now a toddler, his birth-day is still so very worthy of celebration! Congratulations!
(And remember, you can read all of the birth stories in our Local Birth Story series here. Hospital births, home births, birth center births, births with OBs, births with midwives — all are represented!)
THE BIRTH OF ETHAN
My son’s birth really begins with my own. I was born at 8:40 in the morning, only an hour after my mother woke up after a night of pleasant dreams about rolling over waves in the ocean. The midwives, who had worked with my mother on hypnosis as a mechanism for dealing with contractions, made it to the Memphis hospital just in time to catch me as I flew excitedly into the world. I grew up hearing this story A LOT. My mom used midwives who encouraged her to create her own birth experience. She was in labor all night and managed to sleep through it. She gave birth completely intervention free. To my young ears, it all sounded charming, in a hippie-dippie sort of way. In my mind, I had my doubts. I’d seen the videos in high school health class, I’d watched sitcoms, and I’d seen many a baby born in movies. I knew from an early age that birth was going to involve a long stay in a hospital, as many drugs as I could legally get my hands on, and a lot of screaming. There was no way that birth could be the way my mother described it. I grew up with the distinct impression that my mother, while strong, smart, and supportive, was completely wrong about giving birth. If she was right, why had every other image about birth I’d ever been shown involve screaming women clawing into their husbands and begging for an epidural? In the battle of media vs. my mother, the media had won.
Fast forward to the June of my 29th year and my first wedding anniversary. After an intimate moment with a home pregnancy test, my husband and I found out we were going to have a baby. We had the entire range of typical responses over the coming weeks: elation, joy, excitement, fear, anxiety, and stunned amazement. Aside from a small blood clot in my uterus (which resolved itself before the 2nd trimester), the pregnancy was an incredibly smooth one. The biggest issue we had was choosing a boy’s name that we both liked. I spent the first 7 months devouring everything I could read about pregnancy and infant development in the womb. I knew a lot about babies, but was really learning about pregnancy and birth for the first time. I still had my own birth story in the back of my mind when my husband and I signed up for the prepared childbirth class at the hospital.
When we arrived in class, the instructor asked us to write down our current ideas about what birth would look like. My card read “minimal pain by whatever means necessary” and “shortest duration possible.” In the back of my mind, I came into the class knowing that epidurals were my best bet in achieving the birth experience described on that card. We spent the next 6 classes watching some very graphic videos of women giving birth without epidurals, learning about the phases of labor, seeing the possible outcomes of various birth interventions, and learning ways to cope with the physical and mental challenges of labor. I realized that there are certain indignities that one must be willing to endure, certain situations one may not be able to avoid, in labor. Sure, there would be a blood and fluids spilling from me; sure, I might be mostly naked in front of nurses and other people I didn’t know; and sure, I might expel the contents of my bowels while giving birth. These are all things that, given the time to mull them over, I could handle. There were certain indignities, however, that I came to realize I could not accept. When I realized that an epidural could involve a catheter, everything changed for me. To put it bluntly, I could deal with pooping on the table but there was no way in hell anybody was going to insert a tube into my urethra. I wanted more control than that. That moment, that realization, changed my entire perspective on my son’s impending birth.
For some, the idea of a catheter may seem like a minor, perhaps even trivial, thing to worry about in birth. Perhaps it is, but I really saw the catheter as the element most symbolic of relinquishing all control to the medical process of birth. If I decided on having an epidural and all that it possibly involved or led to, I realized I was going to be relinquishing a lot of my own involvement in the birth. I was going to give up my ability to move around freely, I was going to give up feeling the contractions, I was going to give up my body’s own timing during the pushing phase. While I would possibly be gaining exactly what I had written on my index card at the beginning of class, I would be losing a lot of the actual experience of giving birth. The catheter was the symbolic hinge that swung me around to realizing that I wanted to experience birth in all of its challenges and wonders. It was a subconscious line in the sand that helped me understand what I did and did not want out of my son’s birth. I knew that the best-laid plans are just that…plans. I knew that things can and do go awry during a perfectly planned birth, but I also knew that I could have some measure of control over how I go into and hopefully how I finished giving birth.
After 28 years of disbelief, the story of my own birth finally made sense. My mom had decided she wanted to be the one in charge of her birth experience. She had the strength, determination, and fortitude to create the experience surrounding the birth of her daughter. My birth finally seemed real, perhaps even impressive. Pain and duration weren’t the enemy that needed to be beaten or avoided at all costs. Pain and duration were merely two of the many elements of birth. They were two elements that could be acknowledged, prepared for, dealt with, and managed in any way I chose. My media-driven ideas of birth had been shattered; even more than that, my ideas of the limitations of my own strength had been dispelled. I could do anything I put my mind to.
With a firm resolve and a birth plan in hand, my husband realized he would really like a little help in making our birth plan a reality. While he totally supported the decision to attempt an intervention-free birth, he wasn’t sure how to help support me. He wanted help to find the supportive words, actions, and physical positions that could assist me in labor. A mere 5 weeks before my due date, we set out in search of a doula who could be there to help us both get through labor and delivery. We were lucky enough to find a local doula who was available and whose personality complimented both of ours.
My last day of work also coincided with my due date. It was a beautiful Friday and a half day for my elementary students. We were all dressed up as characters from our favorite books and there was a huge school-wide parade that morning. While lining up for the parade, I started to feel some tightening in and around my abdomen. About an hour later, after singing and dancing our way around the school, I noticed that some of the tightening was becoming a little uncomfortable. Nothing to stop me from teaching, but definitely noticeable. Standing at recess around noon, I started to squat when I would feel what I now know to be a contraction. At the time, I figured they were my first taste of Braxton-Hicks. At 1:15 PM, I hopped along the bubble wrap that lined our school’s hallways (in tribute to Dr. Seuss’ Hop on Pop) and waved goodbye to my class as they went home. I even posed for a picture pretending to give birth while hopping on the bubble wrap. I then tried to pack up everything I hadn’t yet and drop off important paperwork to the office. By 3:00, I seemed to be having a lot of contractions. I felt like they were probably 15-20 minutes apart and I started telling my colleagues that something might be happening. My pregnant co-worker felt one contraction as I passed by her office and she remarked at how taut my abdomen felt. Later, as I was standing in the office having another contraction, she came in. When I remarked that I thought they were getting closer, she said “yeah, you were only in my room 5 minutes ago and I felt one.”
At that point, my principal said it was probably time to get going. My husband and I were meeting at the OB’s office and by the time I got there, I really felt the contractions were getting a little too close for comfort. I was still walking and talking, so I figured I wasn’t yet in active labor. The OB checked me out and said she’d like to put me on the monitor for a little while, just to see what was going on. After 30 minutes of monitoring, she informed me that it did look like I was having contractions about 3 minutes apart, but they could stop at any point. She then added, “of course, this could turn into labor.” She gently suggested that I go home and get ready for a potentially long night and that she expected she might see me at the hospital later.
Driving home was uncomfortable and I was started needing to breathe through my contractions. We immediately called the doula with a cautious “I-might-be-in-labor-but-we’re-not-really-sure” message. She recommended eating something while I could and then taking a bath. She said the bath would slow down or stop the contractions if it wasn’t real labor and possibly speed things up if it was real labor. Dutifully, I went home, finished the Chipotle burrito bowl I had started at lunch, and got in a warm bath. That’s when the contractions went from being a few minutes apart to being what can only be described as continuous. It was like having 3-4 contractions in a row with a 30 second break afterwards. I could feel the waves coming and ebbing just a little before the next one would start. We called the doula back and she arrived a little after 7 PM.
My doula said she usually saw layered contractions like this with back labor. We talked about trying to get the baby to roll over so he wouldn’t be sunny side up, but after a few techniques, it was too hard for me and we just decided to embrace the idea of continuous labor. My husband was desperately trying to finish some software programming and emails because it was also his last day of work before a couple weeks of paternity leave. As the contractions became more painful, I remember saying “I don’t think you’re going to be able to finish that stuff tonight” in a rather pointed tone before urgently calling him over to help during a contraction. Luckily, the doula was there to help me while he tried his best to quickly finish.
Time starts to blend together during this period. I remember feeling like I was and wasn’t in the room. I remember my vocalizations getting really deep and throaty. I remember thinking the only thing that was doing any good was sitting on the ball, leaning forward, arms and head draped over my doulas shoulders while my husband pushed into my lower back with his fists. I remember thinking “I wish I could go to sleep, sleep would be nice.” I remember mustering enough consciousness to speak only a couple of times, at least twice asking “when should we go to the hospital?” She told me the same thing each time: “you should go when you feel like you can still handle the car ride there.” Around 11:30, I realized it was soon going to be too painful to ride in a car without the comfort of the ball and massage, so I exerted all the effort I could and grunted out “let’s go.” I remember thinking “I can’t imagine it becoming more painful than this, I don’t know if I can do this without some pain relief.”
Oddly enough, it was the unassisted car ride that gave me the strength to keep on my intervention-free birth path. As I breathed and moaned in the passenger seat with my eyes closed, I realized that I was doing it all on my own. I was getting through the pain without help from anybody. I also realized that once I got to the hospital, people would be able to help me again, so this car ride was probably going to be the hardest laboring time I would have. My mind really settled down and focused on the fact that I could do this and there was no need for doubt anymore.
I managed to walk myself into the emergency room but couldn’t bring myself to speak to the lady behind the check-in counter. The time for talking was over. All I could do was concentrate on the cool feeling on the pillar on my forehead as I leaned forward and tried to keep breathing/moaning at a socially acceptable volume. The hospital, of course, didn’t have my paperwork from the OB, so they had to get all of my information. Luckily my husband caught the wallet I managed to fling him and took care of it all. It felt like there was no break between contractions. It was just the peak and then the slightly-lesser tightness that surrounded the peak on both sides. I managed to walk to the maternity ward (quite a hike when I could only take steps during the lesser tightening periods). When we got to triage and I changed out of my clothes, the nurse was kind enough to inspect me and inform me that I was over 8cm dialated. I was ecstatic to hear that piece of information. I could make it two more measly centimeters, right?!
I spent the next couple of hours (time really had no meaning, though) squatting while holding onto the birthing bar, draping myself over the back of the hospital bed, and basically ignoring everybody in the room. The OB showed up at some point and said things were looking good. I was intermittently monitored (so I am told, I don’t really remember) and unconnected to anything. That statement is also probably a deeper metaphor for my mental state at the time. I remember that my moans had turned into syllables. At some point my doula had my husband gently suggest that I use the syllable “yeeeesssss” instead of “nooooooo.” I switched. I don’t know if it really made a difference, I didn’t even realize what I was saying, but it wasn’t long after that I felt the urge to push. Pushing felt AMAZING compared to contractions. It felt productive, it felt like relief. After 5-6 pushes, the doctor made some quiet comment about the baby’s heart rate and before any of us had a chance to process, she had given me an episiotomy and I saw my baby’s head popping out quickly followed by the rest of him. 4 AM has never been a more beautiful time.
My first thought was, “Holy crap, he’s gigantic.” My first words were, “I just shot a human being out of my vagina.” This made the doctor chuckle. She then quickly got to the business of sewing up what I learned was a 3rd degree episiotomy. I definitely didn’t hurt at the time, but it certainly would afterwards, I could see nurses trying to suction fluid from my son’s lungs. He has swallowed some meconium on the way out, but they were able to clear it quickly and soon he was wailing like a banshee. Looking at the umbilical cord, I was shocked at how alien it and the placenta looked, lying there on the end of the bed. I was absolutely in awe that this stuff had just been inside me.
Once the meconium was out and he was weighed, they brought my son to me. We were so ecstatic/shocked/awed/amazed/beyond words. He was 9 pounds, 7 ounces of his father. I know there’s no research that actually supports the theory that newborns look more like their fathers and perhaps it really was in our minds, but my son came out looking like a carbon copy of his dad. They let us delay the bath and other newborn stuff so we could just cuddle with our little guy. It was glorious and surreal and confusing and wonderful.
Are there things I would change about the whole experience? Looking back, I wish the doctor had asked my permission before going with the episiotomy and waited a little longer for the placenta to deliver before pulling on the cord. I know that I’ll be a lot more specific with my next doctor before my next birth. I understand now why she did what she did, but the lack of communication was very confusing at the time and left me feeling more than a little underwhelmed with the OB. Of course, this OB was only 2 months away from no longer delivering babies so I realized that very few, if any, women would be in the same situation again. That was something of a relief to me at the time.
Other than a few medical things that can be easily addressed in any future pregnancy, I was really happy with my experience. More than being happy, I have never been more proud of myself in my life. I felt like if I can give birth to such a big baby without any meds, than I can quite literally do anything else to which I set my mind. I gave birth. I did that. I produced another living, breathing thing all by myself. Ok, I really couldn’t have done it without the support, massage, and general help from my husband and doula, but I think we can all agree that, at least physically, it really was me doing all the work.
It’s funny looking back. I wasn’t very informed going into motherhood. I had written off my own mother’s experience and gladly accepted pop culture as my source of information. I chose the OB because of their proximity to my house and place of work. Thanks to a childbirth class, I got to figure out what I wanted from a birth (and what the possibilities really were). I realized that I could have whatever kind of birth experience I wanted, in theory, as long as it was something I actively sought. All I had to do was make the decision instead of passively accepting what I thought was the norm. I knew that all of the proactive planning in the world couldn’t prevent emergency scenarios or last minute changes of plans, but thinking through what I wanted in the birthing process really empowered me. I learned so much about myself, emotionally, mentally, and physically because of the way my thinking changed about birth. 28 years after the fact, I am still just beginning to understand what my birth had meant to and for my mother. I know that I now appreciate her in a way I never could have before.
Hospital: Sentara Williamsburg Regional Medical Center
Doula: Mandy Bealer, 757.272.2254, firstname.lastname@example.org