It was a dark and stormy night. No really, it was. The night that I labored through for Charlie's birth was a wet one. Rain drenched Austin, flooding roads and creating traffic delays throughout the city. The weather, coupled with my body's penchant for doing things her own way, resulted in a labor that was far from what I expected.
I had been having random contractions for a few days leading up to Charlie's birth. On the day before he was born I was having contractions every hour or two throughout the day. We kept busy, going on walks and running low-impact errands in an effort to get things moving. We called this "hunting for contractions". By the end of the evening they hadn't sped up much, so we decided to go for one last stroll around the block. I ended up having several contractions during that walk, and they continued to hit every ten to thirty minutes. Though they were definitely more intense than any of my prior contractions, they weren't sticking to a pattern. I'd have one, then twenty minutes later have another, then another in ten, then the next in thirty, and so on.
On our way we saw this, which I took as a good omen.
I wasn't sure what this meant as far as labor went, so I called my doula to get her opinion on what phase of labor I might be in. We'd signed up with ATX Doulas, a collective of doulas in Austin that offers a relatively affordable doula service manned by on-call doulas. While you can reserve a specific doula for your birth it costs an extra few hundred dollars. Scott and I opted for the on-call option, since we were on a pretty tight budget.
When I called in I was greeted by a friendly voice with a sing-songy British accent. She introduced herself as Jillian and listened as I explained how I was doing. Jillian told me that since the contractions weren't consistent that there was a chance that I wasn't in full-on labor yet. They were also still pretty far apart, so even if I was, I probably had a fair amount of time before I had to worry about heading to the birth center. She recommended that I get to bed as soon as possible and try to rest until the pace evens out or speeds up.
Scott and I got into bed around 10:30 where I did my best to fall asleep. The contractions had gotten fairly painful at this point, so sleep didn't come easy. Eventually I did manage to grab an hour or two, though the sleep I did get was broken up and not very deep. Around 2:30 the contractions had gotten too intense to sleep through, so I got up and started timing them again. Over the next hour they were coming between five and ten minutes apart. Again, they weren't consistent, but their intensity had increased considerably. I called the birthing center around 3:30 to check in. I was beginning to feel like I must be in real labor by now.
A sleepy midwife called me back after I got in touch with the answering service. I described my situation and again was told that since my contractions weren't consistent, my labor was probably not as far along as I thought. She recommended that I go back to bed with the help of a hot bath and half a glass of wine. Before we hung up she told me to call back when my contractions reached four minutes apart, and stayed that way for at least an hour.
The bath and the wine did help a bit, and I was able to get back to sleep for another hour or so. I woke up again at around 5:30 from contractions that were too intense to stay in bed for. The pressure on my middle was becoming really painful, and seemed to be exasperated by lying down. After going through a few I woke Scott up, telling him that I needed someone else to at least be awake and present as I went through this pain.
At this point the contractions were coming anywhere from four to six minutes apart. I began to feel overwhelmed by the pain. Desperate for relief, I begged Scott to go and find some of the hand-outs from our group prenatal sessions at the birth center. We'd been given this handout that showed a "road map to birth". It depicted ladies laboring in various positions for comfort through different phases of labor. Since I was still pretty confused about what phase of labor I was in, I picked out a position that looked easy to accomplish, leaning against a wall with one foot up on my bath tub.
I spent the better part of the next hour hanging on to my bathroom wall, focused on making it through contractions. As each one would start I would brace myself for the pain, then keep an eye on my timer. I consoled myself by breaking down the minute into seconds. I figured I could survive anything for a minute. Pretty soon my inner mantra became "it's just a minute – just one minute." Against the advice of our midwives I hadn't picked out a mantra before the birth. No matter how many times I tried to think of one, I just couldn't find anything that I thought I could take seriously enough for such an intense moment. Everything I thought up, or worse – read from another mother – made me snort and giggle like a twelve year old. All's well that ends well though – I could never have predicted what I ended up needing to hear in that moment anyway. "It's just one minute."
Around 6:30 I gave up on the bathroom wall and wandered into the living room. After trying a few different positions I had a sort of dark moment and just collapsed on the couch. Laying on the couch through contractions hurt like hell, but at the time I simply couldn't find a way to escape the pain. I started to wonder how on earth I would survive real labor if this wasn't it. After about twenty minutes of agonizing, I remembered that I wasn't completely without options. I shouldn't be laying here on my couch in misery, I should be in a hot tub at the birth center, or bouncing on a labor ball in one of their spa showers. What the hell was I doing rolling around on a sofa?
That was when I started getting bossy. I told Scott to call the birthing center and tell them I was coming, whether they liked it or not. I also told him to call the doula, and to get my shit together for the baby bug-out bag. We were going. NOW.
As grand as my exclamations were (and they were) the reality was that Austin at 7:00 am on a Tuesday morning after a major storm was not an easy place to get around. The birth center wasn't open yet, so we would have to wait for the midwife on call to get there in order for us to go. Our doula, Jillian, was similarly delayed, but promised to reach us as soon as she could. While I wasn't thrilled with having to wait, at least we had a plan. Jillian was on her way to our house, and we would all go to the birth center together at 8:00 am. This was enough to get me off of the couch and back onto a wall. Only this time it was the living room wall, and instead of resting my leg on the tub, I spent the next hour doing squats through my contractions – which, by the way were now coming between three and five minutes apart.
I should also mention that I spent my time in between contractions texting my sister who had just had a baby last year. My texts were mostly complaints about how much having contractions sucked. Hers were words of encouragement and commiseration, accompanied by a key piece of advice. "Try not to fight the contractions", she said. "It will hurt less if you just let them happen." If only I had understood what she meant at the time! It wasn't until much later that I figured out how to relax through a contraction. When I did, the pain lessened by leaps and bounds. Stupid me.
Jillian arrived at about 7:50. We exchanged hellos, mine bleary and muddled, her's gentle and optimistic. She seemed to know her stuff, and immediately went to work massaging my hips as I leaned and squatted on the wall, now moaning through what had become rather excruciating pressure. Also, she smelled like oatmeal cookies, which I found oddly comforting. Scott loaded my bag into the car and we were ready to go. Just as we were about to go out the door the phone rang. It was the birthing center letting us know that there was a delay. We'd have to meet at 8:15 instead.
People, that was the longest fifteen minutes of my life. I'm not even kidding. I was having crazy contractions every two to four minutes at this point. My legs didn't want to stand anymore, but sitting or lying down meant so much more pain. I desperately wanted to let them go limp, to let everything go limp. In order to do that I would need help – a tub, a ball, anything! And all of that stuff was fifteen minutes away.
As you may have guessed, I did survive that fifteen minutes AND the subsequent car ride, which was extremely unpleasant. Like I said, sitting down was awful, and now I was sitting down, strapped in, and being driven over potholes. Thank goodness the center is only a mile from our house.
We arrived at the center at 8:15 on the dot. I rolled out of the car and braced against the hood as another contraction rolled in. While I was visualizing the seconds in that minute ticking away I heard the bad news. We couldn't get in yet. The person with the keys was stuck in traffic! I began to wonder if the universe was playing some kind of trick on me. I labored against the car for another fifteen minutes or so, with Jillian rubbing and encouraging me as we waited.
Traffic rolled by down William Cannon Blvd. and I felt dumbly amazed that the rest of the world continued to spin on while I was in such a state. I wondered what they must think if they happened to look over and see a pregnant lady in a hippie-dippie birthing gown leaned up and moaning against her electric car in the parking lot. I certainly did my part in keeping Austin weird that morning.
Finally the doors opened and we started making our way to the door.The contractions were coming so quickly now that I had abandoned the task of timing them completely. On the way inside I had to stop over and over again as another rolled over me. Scott and Jillian held me up as my legs went weak, replacing my bathroom wall, living room wall, car hood, with flesh and blood. This was when I finally understood my sister's advice. I let Scott and Jillian hold me up as my legs and middle went limp. Instead of bracing against the pain I relaxed and let it wash over me. It was like lifting a whole layer of pain away.
As we entered the center I felt a huge wave of relief, but also trepidation. As far as I knew, I was looking at god knows how many more hours of this. I took a deep breath, accepted where I was in that moment, and released my anxiety for what would come next. I was a leaf on the wind.
The birthing room was ready for me by the time I waddled inside. I was led to the bathroom and asked to pee into a reservoir (I'm assuming so that they could check my urine for protein – a symptom of my impending preeclampsia.) I did my best, but despite the sensation of really having to pee (and poop – my god did I have to poop!) only a little came out, and what I did manage to squeeze out missed the container entirely. "Sorry!" I said, which made the midwives chuckle.
Jillian asked me then if I was feeling "at all pushy". I explained that having not had a baby before, I really wasn't sure what feeling pushy felt like, so maybe not? After that, the midwife, Heather, asked me to lay down so that she could check to see how far along I really was. Just as she was about to check me out another contraction hit and I screamed out "OH MY GOD. I HAVE TO PUSH!!" So THAT is what feeling "pushy" is like. Aha – an undeniable urge to bear down on a part of your body you never really physically recognized before. The closest thing that I can compare it to is feeling like you REALLY have to poop – like when it is coming and there isn't a god damned thing you can do to stop it, bathroom or no bathroom. It's an explosive poopy pants kind of feeling but multiplied by one million and centered deep inside your lady parts.
After the contraction passed Heather finally got in there. She looked at me and said "OK. You are having this baby – NOW". She told me it was time to break my water, and asked if I was ready. The contractions were about to get much more intense, and pretty soon I would be pushing. After another deep breath, I said "OK, ready." We waited for another contraction to roll by, then she used a little hook to break the membranes that held in my waters. A huge warm gush escaped through my legs, flooding the bed with clear, brown fluids. I don't know how I expected it to look, but it surprised me.
Within moments the next contraction was on me. Scott got behind me and held me up. Jillian took my hand and kept cheering me on with gentle affirmations. It wasn't long before I started pushing. The birth assistant took hold of my left leg and Jillian held the right. When the next contraction came , I felt the urge to push and bore down. I let out a huge "Yeahahhehhehehearrgghhh!!" Heather explained that while it was totally OK to make noise, my energy would be better spent by holding my breath and using it to push. It worked. Though I felt like my eyeballs were going to pop out of my head, I succeeded in transferring the energy from that breath into powerful pushing.
It took me a few pushes to figure out where exactly I was meant to BE pushing. Again, Heather helped me figure this out. She asked where I felt the pressure, what I felt like I needed to push out. I sort of pain-laughed and said "well, I really feel like I need to poop."
"That's it!", Heather cried. "Push right there."
The next hour or so went by in a flash. Between contractions I caught my breath, rested, and sucked on an oxygen mask. When the urge came to push I would sit up, spread eagle, and bear down once again. Pushing was a much different experience than having contractions. It's easy to feel overwhelmed and afraid while you go through contractions. A force beyond your control is doing something extreme to your body, and you have no power to stop it or even slow it down. When you are pushing, however, you get a little bit of that control back. You decide how hard to push, letting you feel like you are finally setting the pace. While contractions felt like something was being done to me, pushing made me feel like I was doing something myself.
It wasn't long before you could see the baby's head coming through. Heather used a mirror to show me the little patch of hair that was peeking out. I reached down to touch it and said "whoah". There really was a baby down there, and it was almost here! This is the point when things got really intense. The ring of fire started to burn as the baby's head stretched open his exit. I remember, even after everything I'd already experienced, being shocked by the pain. The words "Holy shit that hurts." were uttered.
I was pushing so hard by then end that I absently wondered whether the blood vessels in my eyes had popped. Each push was finished with a spitting, gurgling growl as I pressed every last iota of energy into getting my baby out. When my lady zone had stretched to its limit Heather asked me to stop pushing so that they could reinforce my perineum. I tried my best, breathing in short, shallow breaths, but it was no use. My body was set on a path by then – one I had very little chance of stopping.
Tearing has always been a fear of mine – and not just in regards to childbirth. There is something about the idea of ripping flesh that got inside my head at some point in my childhood. I can't remember what I saw or heard that planted the seed, but for some reason I am terrified of my skin ripping. Despite my best efforts to not push, I pushed, and when my skin tore open, I felt every millimeter.
I've had women tell me about how when this happened to them they didn't care, being too preoccupied with the pain of pushing and the overall experience of birth. While I can see how that might be true for some people, it certainly wasn't true for me. The burn of my skin ripping sent chills down my spine – and the memory still makes me cringe.
Long story short, I survived that bit, and shortly after I heard someone say something like "here comes the head" or "one more push and the head will be out". People, let me tell you, I wanted my baby bad at that point. I grit my teeth, held my breath, and pushed with everything I had. The head came out – along with the rest of the baby.
Suddenly this tiny little wet person was thrust onto my chest. I remember blathering "Oh my god. Oh my god." over and over again as I explored every last inch of his itty bitty body. When the palm of my hand found itself cupped around his rear end I laughed. It was the same little butt that had been poking out of my belly for the last month. "I know that butt." I said.
While the midwife and birth assistant fluttered around doing a million important things (like delivering the placenta and getting vitals on Charlie) I lay there staring at my baby. He wrapped his tiny hand around my fingers while my other hand sat on his back, observing the miracle of his chest pumping up and down. People always say how babies are miracles. I guess I kind of took that statement for granted, because I never really understood it until then. Even after fertility treatments, 40 weeks of pregnancy, and birth, I could hardly believe it – how this brand new person had been created inside my own body.
Speaking of that body, it turns out that my placenta was super small, which accounts for Charlie's svelte little body. Apparently my blood pressure had been on the fritz for a while, which shrunk the placenta and cord, limiting Charlie's access and stopping him from bulking up. He was just 5 pounds, 6 ounces when he was born, but fully developed and tall – 19 inches long. Scott jokingly requested a paternity test for this tall thin child. The midwives also think that high blood pressure accounted for the unusual speed of my birth. They say that second babies come quicker than first ones. If that's true, I'm heading to the birth center as soon as my second kiddo says "boo". Laboring alone in your bathroom was for the birds. Next time there will be hot tubs and massages.
The rest is kind of a blur. Charlie nursed, our doula brought us sandwiches, and our little family spent the next few hours snuggled up in bed together, getting used to the mind-blowing reality of Charlie's existence.
We arrived at the birth center at 8:30, and by 10:00 am had a baby in our arms. Around 4:30 we headed home. When I tell people that the birth was quick, I guess what I mean to say is that it happened in the blink of an eye. When it was over, I remember thinking that it wasn't as bad as I had expected, but bad enough that I did wonder how I would ever muster up the guts to take it on again. Women often say that you forget so that you can have more babies. As of now I have definitely not forgotten, but I can tell you that I would do it all again in a heartbeat – because Charlie is that cool. Even with all the sleep deprivation, skin tearing, and bathroom laboring, I'm already (strictly theoretically) looking forward to baby number two.