I wasn’t at all scared to give birth. I’d spent most of my happily uneventful pregnancy feeling like a warrior goddess. My yoga teacher complimented my squats in the twice-weekly prenatal class I attended. I breathed deeply, grinning, with both hands plunged into ice during my mindfulness in childbirth and parenting classes. I’d read Ina May and Peggy Vincent and Natural Hospital Birth and Labor Day and half a dozen other titles. I was more than prepared; I was excited.
I have a unique relationship with pain. I’ve ecstatically subjected my body to intense sensations many people would find horrifying. I know something about endurance. I’d studied about how labor should go and ways I could help it along. I had an awesome doula who had birthed seven children of her own. I had a supportive partner with absolute faith in my ability to joyfully birth this baby.
A few weeks before my due date I re-made our little altar to focus energy from pregnancy to birth. As I had so many times in this journey of making and carrying this baby, I sat alone at my kitchen table, closed my eyes, took three slow breaths, and pulled a tarot card from my Osho Zen deck. The Master. Last card of the Major Arcana. I don’t believe in tarot, really, but I like it as a tool for self-reflection. I’d pulled some seriously powerful cards along this journey and now here this one was. I was going to rock this labor.
When I realized I was most likely in labor, in the early morning of Friday, August 21, I was giddy. We had coffee and breakfast at a cafe, gentle contractions coming steady. Back home, we tidied and washed dishes and laundry. I dismantled an old planter on our deck and replaced it with new ones we’d bought a few days before. I was hugely pregnant, 39 weeks and 6 days, and huffing and puffing and using power tools and feeling powerful and thrilled that I might very well be meeting my baby that day, sooner than I’d imagined.
It took me over an hour to fold two baskets of laundry, having to pause every few minutes for a contraction to pass, and I thought yeah, this really must be it. At 2pm we walked up the big hill near my house with a view of the whole city, and I stopped to close my eyes and breathe each time I felt my uterus tighten again.
Back home I really started to get into the rhythm of labor, swaying and humming. The contractions came just like a wave, like everyone had said. I could feel one coming on as I readied myself on all fours or draped over Simone’s lap or leaning over the bed, breathing as I went up and up in intensity, peaking for ever-longer stretches, easing back down the other side. In between I rested, feeling drifty and blissed out, enjoying the pause, letting the oxytocin bathe me in soft feelings as my body did the work of birthing this baby.
My water broke around 6pm, and I gushed fluid now and then during contractions. I felt glorious, making up songs to welcome our baby as I labored, “sounding” more intensely during the contractions, feeling increasing, though not unmanageable, pain. The doula arrived, and she and Simone pushed my hips together during contractions and fed me sips of water through a straw.
At 8:30pm, more than twelve hours since labor had begun and at least eight hours of 90-second-long contractions just a few minutes apart, we decided to go to the hospital. There is so much more that could be said about this decision and about what happened when we got there, but there we were at the hospital. One step closer to holding Tiny in our arms.
The best part of laboring in the hospital is UNLIMITED HOT WATER!!! I spent hours in the shower, gloriously hot water streaming over my aching back or tight stomach during contractions. The other best part is not having to worry about mess. When things really got wild I peed and pooed with abandon all over that hospital bed and clean dry things would just appear.
Our doula dimmed the room, soft lighting from LED candles, and drew baths and kept me hydrated. Simone was ever present, curating music as my mood shifted, loving and trusting me as only she can. The pain was intense, and I was belting gospel music at the top of my lungs, dancing in the shower, fully in it, surrounded by Sounds of Blackness singing, “Hold on / you can make it / hold on / everything will be alright.”
In the middle of the night the pain was nearly overwhelming, magnitudes greater than it had been at home. I had to get on the hospital bed for intermittent monitoring of the baby’s heart rate for 20 minutes of every hour. Stuck there, hooked up to a finicky machine, I felt a bit of panic rise every time I felt a contraction coming on. I had to immediately make sure I was in position, on all fours usually, bracing myself for the smashing waves of sensation. At some point the only way to work with the pain was to push into it with all my might.
I was bearing down with all the force of my body into the pain, imagining each contraction moving that baby down and eventually out of my body. I labored like this for a long time before the midwife said it seemed like I was having the urge to push. Seemed like?! Hadn’t I been pushing for hours already?! Each time a provider came to talk to me it took what seemed like forever, as they could only get about a sentence out before I went into another contraction. 90 second contraction, brief moment to get my bearings before the next one.
The hospital midwife checked my dilation. It was 12:30am, 4 hours after I’d been admitted at 4.5cm, and I was 6 centimeters dilated. Not at ALL close to the time when you’re supposed to want to push. Though no one said anything, my wheels were spinning. What was this premature urge to push about? What if I injured my cervix and then the baby couldn’t get out at all?! I’d read about how bad it could be to push on a still closed cervix, causing swelling that then prevents further dilation or even possibly a vaginal birth at all.
I was scared, but I found my resolve. I reminded myself I only had to meet each contraction one at a time, that all I needed to do was stay focused and visualize opening. That was my body’s job right now, to allow each contraction to soften and open my cervix fully so I could birth this baby. After how boisterous I’d been, this phase was intensely quiet. I was on all fours on the bed breathing as slowly and quietly as possible with each contraction, visualizing my cervix opening, using every fiber of my being to resist the urge to push. I needed total concentration to meet each contraction; this was the most mentally challenging part of my labor.
By morning I was pushing again, bursting a huge second bag of waters all over Simone at 7:30am. We all thought this would allow the baby to finally really descend. We were laughing and triumphant. By 10am it was confirmed that I had dilated to ten centimeters. I had done it! I was so proud. I pushed with all my strength in every position imaginable.
Tiny wouldn’t budge. A midwife realized Tiny was posterior. Only a few days before she’d been anterior; perhaps she’d rotated during labor, trying to descend. It’s harder to get a posterior baby out, the widest part of their head not matching the widest part of the pelvis quite as well. I was having double contractions, the second one beginning right after the last, with no pause in between.
More hours of pushing with zero progress, and the doctors recommended we try manually rotating her. I huffed nitrous as three times they inserted their hands inside me to try to turn her while I was blinded with pain. Tiny didn’t move. I pushed into the afternoon without progress.
I spiked a fever. My water had been broken for over 20 hours, I’d had at least four internal exams and several whole hands inside of me. Infection was highly likely. I’d been pushing in every position with unimaginable strength, doing everything right, doing everything I could. Tiny hadn’t moved an inch. The doctors gently recommended a c-section.
In one last hail mary pass for a vaginal birth, they inserted an epidural. Necessary for the c-section in any case, perhaps it would let my uterus relax enough for something to shift. I pushed for another hour, pushed so hard my vagina was swollen for days. Pushed so hard I burst several blood vessels in my eyes. The doctors thought it was time for a c-section. I agreed. Nothing had changed for many hours, no progress at all. It was time to get this baby out.
I had dreamt of holding my child for the first time. After the painful, glorious sensation of pushing her out she’d be placed, still slippery, on my chest, and I would weep tears of joy and gratitude and tell her how much I loved her. I would kiss her soft head and snuggle her tight until she settled down. It would, without a doubt, be the most beautiful moment of my life, welcoming this miracle in the flesh, examining every perfect inch of her, the tiny fingers and chubby toes, her pale eyebrows, her seashell ears.
The moment I met my child for the first time was nothing like I imagined it would be. There were no tears and no laughter. My heart didn’t burst at the seams. I felt nothing.
When she was removed from my body and Simone went to her, exclaiming “she’s here, beauty, and she’s so healthy,” I felt mostly nothing. Dissociated, a little sad that I could hear my wife in her joy and couldn’t meet her there. I knew I was supposed to feel happy, to feel relief.
But I wasn’t happy it was all finally over, wasn’t happy my baby was safe. I was on the brink of sanity, exhausted, wanting so badly to close my eyes but terrified simultaneously that I would just disappear if I did, missing my baby’s first minutes entirely. I so badly wanted to close my eyes, to float away, but I didn’t want to be gone.
The lights were so bright, all eyes on me, and yet none at all. I was already gone in a way, an object in the operating theatre. Increased risk of hemorrhage. Elevated temperature. Internal scalp monitor. Low transverse incision. This won’t be a simple procedure. A stuck, stuck baby and the anesthesiologist saying “just a few more minutes” over and over and over again while Simone begged him to give me something to ease the panic.
Tiny Dancer Jude was born on her due date, August 22, 2015. 8 pounds, 7.6 ounces, 21 inches long, and a 98th percentile head that was molded into quite the cone shape from all her hours trying to make it through, one ear totally flattened from being wedged some which way against bone. She was hearty and perfect, ready to nurse in the recovery room, gripping her tiny hands around our fingers. She was here.
I was traumatized by the c-section, and, perhaps worse still, the recovery. I said again and again to Simone that I would have pushed for several more days of unmedicated labor if I’d known how bad it would be. I felt swindled. This is a routine procedure? It was hell on earth. You have a lot of time to think when you have a newborn, up at all the darkest hours, replaying the events of the birth over and over again.
I wondered what would have happened if I’d been at home like I’d always sort of wanted. Could a skilled midwife have gotten that baby out? Was it something about the hospital environment, the constant monitoring and interference, that prevented me from having my baby vaginally? Did I give up, did I just not try hard enough? Could I have avoided this c-section?
Or was it the only possible outcome? Was I really one of those very rare cases where the baby just wouldn’t fit through, whether because of sheer size of her head in relation to my pelvis or because of her posterior position? A hundred years ago, or in a part of the world without access to a hospital, without access to antibiotics, I might have died. We both might have. What does it mean to have a body that couldn’t birth my baby? Was I a failure for lack of effort or by design? Which was more tolerable? Here I was again, just like after my miscarriage, realizing that sometimes it doesn’t matter how bad we want, how hard we try, how much we prepare and do everything “right.” Sometimes we don’t get to control the universe or the outcomes.
When my milk came in and I fell asleep with hospital heating packs on my breasts I woke up suddenly in terror, labor flashbacks replaying in my head. When it took me 20 minutes to get out bed just to urinate, I wept, unable to bear how cruel it was to be recovering from major surgery while taking care of a newborn. I bled all over the hospital floor, losing so much blood on top of the nearly two liters (a standard amount) I’d already lost during surgery that a transfusion was briefly mentioned.
I hated the hospital. I was angry at the attending who came by and told me I had maybe, at best, a 20% chance of a future vaginal delivery given the size of my pelvis and the fact that second babies are usually bigger. I felt hoodwinked and devastated by the seemingly insurmountable recovery I was facing. I couldn’t get out of bed to pick up my child. I couldn’t lay on my side. It was excruciating to sit up every time I had to nurse her. I couldn’t believe this had happened to me.
It took many weeks and so many haunting hours playing the events over in my head and many sessions with my brilliant therapist and all the support from my most beautiful love to begin to integrate what had happened. To mourn the loss of the birth I had wanted. To accept that I had made the very best choices I could in each moment for myself and for my baby.
It struck me that I was a parent now, and I had done everything I could to keep my baby safe. This was my job. With Simone by my side I fell in love with this beautiful baby — not in an instant like I’d always imagined, but moment by moment, over many hours, despite my intense pain.
At first I was obsessed with figuring out which was it — a failure of body or of will. But eventually “so what?” became my mantra. So what if I had had a vaginal birth, I asked myself, as I physically recovered day by day. What would be different now? Would this beautiful baby be any different, would my love for her be?
Many of us put a lot of emphasis on our child’s birth, on our story of their birth. It’s their entrance into the world and our transition into parenthood after all. It is questioned and repeated, shared in whispers and with tears. The story is told again and again and again. It reveals something about who we are. It is a peak experience for many, good or bad. But it’s only the beginning of a relationship that contains so much more.
As I allow myself to fall into the fullness of my relationship with my child, I allow myself the fullness of my birth experience as well. I remember with sweetness all the beautiful moments even as I cringe with recollection of some of the worst. I remind myself of all the pieces that went exactly as I wanted, as I reckon with the much unwanted finale. I hold onto the contradictions. They are what make up our lives.
When I got home from the hospital and looked at that Master card sitting on the altar, I was pissed. I had been promised the birth of a master. It took me some time to realize that this was the perfect card after all, not despite the fact that the outcome I was most terrified of happening had happened but because of it. Life challenges us the most when we don’t get what we want, when things don’t turn out as planned, when we are reminded, yet again, that we can’t control the universe. I had met and was meeting, day by day, that challenge.
I love this Tiny with every fiber of my being, and I have come to a place of gratitude. I am grateful for every moment, even the excruciating ones, that brought her into my arms. I am grateful that I live in a time and a place that allowed both she and I to survive and come home healthy. I am grateful for the providers that made this happen, for the nurses who were kind, for all the family and friends who came to our aid as I recovered slowly from the physical and emotional trauma of the events, for my therapist, and for my love.
I am grateful for my own resilience. After the birth I thought often of my miscarriage, of how devastated I was, how depressed. I thought I might have a long road to hoe with this trauma too. But I reminded myself, too, of my recovery from that loss. Of the relief that comes with accepting that I cannot control the universe. Of the power that comes with being grateful, despite it all. Of the deep knowledge that I would survive this too, that I would come out the other end, deepened by pain, more able, yet again, to contain huge wells of joy.
We named her Juniper, this big-headed baby of ours, and she is growing strong and tall like a tree. Her first week of life contained more ecstasy and agony than I’d ever experienced in all my days, and not in any of the ways I’d expected it would. A fitting welcome to parenthood, Juniper is here at last!