This week I wanted to share with my readers the birth story of Baby Oakley and the birthing story from my dear friend Suzanne. Her story is an important one. Sometimes things don't go as planned, but her story goes to show that an empowering birth is about trust, love, support, and the power of choice given to a birthing mother no matter what the birthing environment may be.
My son’s birth counts among the most difficult things I’ve ever done in my life. And also, my proudest. I worked impossibly hard for 31 long hours to birth him, though to be fair, the whole ordeal truly took 41 weeks.
The first thing I did when I woke up on that Thursday morning was call my chiropractor’s office. Though I’d been going regularly to correct O’Baby’s frequent acrobatics (one day vertex, the next breech, then posterior vertex, then transverse for a while, and so on and so forth), I hadn’t seen her in a couple of weeks because money was tight and her sessions weren’t entirely covered by our insurance. I spoke to the receptionist and begged her to squeeze me in for an adjustment. I explained that I was now overcooking my baby since I was approaching the 41 week mark and could I pretty please be seen a.s.a.p.? Thankfully, I got in only a few hours later and was pulled, tugged, and Webster’d into a much happier place and so, I’d hoped, was my baby.
I took Bee (the online moniker we'll use for my nineteen-month-old daughter) out to lunch at the local co-op market. I ordered a grilled cheese and tomato sandwich for her and a cup of spicy coconut soup for me in the hopes that some spicy food would finish off what the Webster adjustment might have started. It was a beautiful, sunny March afternoon, so she and I ate lunch outside for what would become our last mother-daughter date when it was just the two of us.
Labor “began” (I use that term loosely based on the three weeks of prodromal labor that preceded the real deal) that same day around dinnertime. My contractions felt exactly the same as they’d felt for the past three weeks and followed the same pattern, too. So I ignored them. I cooked, served, and ate dinner as normal, then watched an Elmo’s World DVD with Bee while we cuddled and nursed before her bedtime, which was at 7:30. The contractions continued, and I still ignored them, believing it to be the start of yet another evening of false labor that would go nowhere.
My husband, Mr. T, put Bee to bed and I started filling up the tub, remembering that my midwives had told me at my last appointment that if it was indeed false labor, a warm bath would stop my contractions. I wanted to see if I could keep them going rather than stop them, so I added some geranium essential oil that I’d bought at the co-op when we were there for lunch. (Geranium is rumored to be helpful in urging a stop-and-start labor pattern along.)
I soaked in the tub and tried to relax, but the waves kept coming. Eventually I moved from a lounging position to sitting straight up, cross-legged in the middle of the tub, aware that if this was the real deal then I would want to be sitting tailored-style to get baby into his optimal birthing position.
After my bath, I poured myself a half a glass of red wine and sipped it slowly — another trick that the midwives had told me about that would stop a false labor in its tracks. But the contractions kept coming and though I wasn’t timing them, I suspected that they were getting closer and I definitely knew that they were getting stronger. It was now about 9:00 p.m. and I decided to call the midwives.
Funny thing about O’Baby’s birth story: my labor began under the full Worm Moon and during an historical solar storm whose effects wreaked havoc on the nation’s cellular service that evening. As a result, I could reach neither of my midwives. And. I. Panicked.
I called the midwives’ assistant, Shanna, desperate to reach somebody who could at least come to my house and help us catch this baby who, at least at the time, seemed like he was on a rather quick route out.
Shanna listened to me describe my contraction pattern and then listened while I had one while on the phone with her, which required me to stop talking altogether so that I could focus on it. She agreed that I definitely sounded like I was in labor and said that she would call Liz's -- the midwife's -- phone since her cell phone wasn’t working.
Liz called me back soon after. We had a similar conversation and she agreed with Shanna’s assessment that it sounded like true labor. Liz had warned me throughout my pregnancy that, as a second-time mom, my labor would likely go quickly and that, since she lived rather close to my house, she would want to come check me as soon as labor started to move along. Apparently, there’d recently been a lot of second-time moms whose babies were being caught by husbands and partners rather than by the midwives because their labors were so fast, and Liz didn’t want me to fall into that same category.
She arrived around 11:00 pm. It was raining, hard. She hurried into the house, dripping and flustered from dodging the wind and the downpour. She asked me how things were going, and I didn’t really know how to answer that. I still wasn’t convinced that this was actually it, and I felt guilty for making her coming out in the rain so late at night in case it was a false alarm. I think I even apologized.
We chatted while I bounced on the birth ball, sipping some pregnancy tea. I had a contraction. It cut right through our conversation as I had to set my tea down, grip my hips, and sway with it, moaning and breathing. Liz looked at me after it had passed, impressed with how powerful it seemed to be. “That seemed like a strong contraction, Suzanne,” she’d said. “I’d like to check you if that’s okay.”
I was at 4 centimeters and very thin -- "butter-soft,” as Liz described it. She concluded that I was definitely in labor and that she was going to call the other midwife -- Nannette -- and Shanna to come and join us. I think she was still convinced that I would be one of those second-time moms whose babies would fly out before anybody even had a chance to place a chux pad down.
Mr T, at Liz’s instruction, began filling the birth pool. Since I would now be laboring overnight, we decided to move the birth pool into the dining room so that I could labor far away from Bee’s room, rather than in our bedroom which was right next to hers. My contractions were not yet unbearable and I could easily carry on normal conversation in between each one. In order to keep them manageable, though, I had to stop talking and grab the nearest stationary object to anchor me as I swayed or squatted during the peak of the rush.
Slowly but surely, everyone filled the pool while I swayed and stomped and sang and moaned and squatted about the house. Pots of water boiled on the stove, and as soon as those got dumped into the pool, new ones replaced them on the burners. Finally, I was able to get in and… ahhhhhhh. The weightlessness, the warmth… it was like sinking into a hug. I was instantly relaxed, and my contractions took note, as they ran away from me for a bit after initially getting in. I asked Liz, worriedly, if I should get out of the pool so that they’d come back (my previous birth with my daughter had stalled at 5 centimeters for seven hours, so I was terrified of a repeat performance). Liz assured me that I should take the rest that the water was offering me and use it to my advantage. So I lay my cheek down on the side of the pool and tried to doze. As nice as the water was, though, it was not a place in which I could comfortably sleep, so I got out and into my bathrobe. I was shivering from the temperature change, which almost instantly brought my contractions roaring back.
The midwives got comfortable on the couch and the recliner; I fetched some blankets for them so that they could get some sleep. Mr. T and I retreated back to our bedroom in an attempt to do the same, which proved futile for me. Lying down during the rushes was unbearable and my mind was too restless to let me even nap. I got up and began pacing through the house. Nannette heard me come back into the living room and looked up through sleep-soaked eyes, asking me if everything was okay. I told her that I just wasn’t sure what to do. I knew that we weren’t close enough yet for a baby to show up, but we were into the show far enough that nobody was going home. It was Birth Purgatory. Back into the tub.
As the night wore on, I toggled back and forth from the tub to my bed to the kitchen to the living room. As long as I was somewhere where I had a solid object to grasp during the contractions (a floor-to-ceiling post in our living room; the headboard of our bed; the countertop in the kitchen), then that was a safe place to ride them out. I don’t have many solid memories from the overnight hours. I do remember, at one point, asking Mr. T to play the birth playlist I’d made, and singing along to Greg Laswell’s “It Comes and Goes in Waves,” appreciating the irony.
I remember asking to be checked, being told that I was at 5 centimeters. I remember using the bathroom and how awful the contractions felt while peeing. I remember vomiting. Those contractions felt even worse.
I remember feeling him move. On all fours in the pool, I called to Nannette to tell her that I could feel the baby moving, that I felt lots of pressure on my rectum. She asked me if I felt pushy at all. I wasn’t sure; it was almost as though I felt like I should feel pushy because I was asked so. I told her I didn’t know if I needed to push or not, and she suggested I try a few practice pushes to see how they felt. And so, with the next contraction, I did, just a little bit. I half-yelled, half-growled that I could feel him moving. At that, the midwives sprang into action. One grabbed the Doppler, the other a flashlight. Suddenly, everyone surrounded me. The pressure, the intensity, the pain was all so low it felt like I had bricks stacked on top of my cervix and rectum. I could not discern where the pain stopped and where it started. I could not tell where my son was moving from or to. I just felt pain. Movement and pain. So when the midwives spotted me with my hand pressed against my lower back during the next contraction – rather than at my hips and pelvis, where I’d previously been gripping -- they were worried that the movement I’d been feeling wasn’t the baby descending, but rather him rotating from anterior to posterior.
They were right.
The “right” way for a baby to be born is head-down and anterior, meaning that the baby’s face is facing your tailbone, and the back of the baby’s head is born facing up. This is optimal because it allows the baby to tuck his chin down, creating a better fit for the crown of the head to fit into the pelvic opening. When a baby is posterior, it’s more difficult to tuck that chin and rotate, often resulting in the widest part of the back of the head that’s just below the crown to press up against the mother’s spine during labor. What’s more, this position doesn’t allow baby’s head to connect with the cervix because it’s like trying to fit an oval peg into a round hole. (See diagram from Spinning Babies here.) Pressure from the baby’s head is what helps dilate a cervix to completion -- without an anterior-facing baby, it can be extremely difficult to get mom to a full dilation without intervention. A posterior baby will stall labors, stop labors, and send moms to an OR time and time again.
So this is what I was up against. Or rather, what was up against me and my spine. Ouch.
Once the midwives realized, from this observation, that baby was posterior, they started suggesting different positions and things to do to try and get him to rotate. One such suggestion was to get into a horrid half-lunge, half-squat position during my contractions to help open my pelvis. I did this in the pool and it made me hate life. I was still giving tiny little test pushes during these contractions and during one, I felt my water break. So, for those of you who have ever worried about showering or bathing during labor and not being able to tell when your membranes rupture because of the water in which you’re already submerged: rest assured. You’ll feel it.
I remembered shouting, “My water broke! My water broke!” to the midwives. Then, I remembered crying because I knew now that my bag of water -- my cushion protecting my poor little cervix from O’Baby’s hard head -- was gone, the pain was going to get a lot more intense. I was scared. I was not embracing the moment, I was not calm, I was nowhere near Zen. I was tired and I was anxious and I was scared. But I was also ready to meet my baby, so onward we went. It was in this moment that I realized that the only way “out,” was through. It was now 6:00 in the morning.
If the night had been a blur, the morning hours that followed were a smear. Truly indiscernible moments and memories overlapped and folded backward on each other. I have no linear timeline in my memory from this point on. This marked the beginning of The Longest Transition Ever.
I remember the pain being so intense, so searing, that I actually thought I would die. The contractions were so powerful that they took my breath away. With each one I would find it hard to inhale, which panicked me. I had to keep asking for reassurance that I wouldn’t die. Shanna, a former doula, was an incredible ally during my transition. She continued to remind me that the contractions weren’t more powerful than me, because they were me. The contractions were my body. My body can’t be stronger than me because it is me. I really connected with the idea of this and latched onto it as tightly as I could in an attempt to cope.
During this time, I crossed a new boundary in my marriage. Here’s a fun little tidbit about laboring in a homebirth that you may not have read about in some of the other fluffier, rainbows-and-butterflies birth stories: You will pee. A lot. And once you’re barreling through Transition, you will not give a rat’s patootie where you do it.
To be continued...
Suzanne Terry is a birth doula and placenta encapsulator who could talk about birth, babies, and breastfeeding all the live-long day. Her 21 month-old daughter and 2 month-old son keep her plenty busy, but what little spare time she has is usually spent trying out a new vegetarian recipe or reading a good book. She lives in Brunswick, Maryland with her babies, her husband, her two adopted dogs and a rescued cat. This story originally appeared on her blog at www.suzanneterry.weebly.com.