A Veteran of the Birth War

I’ve tried, unsuccessfully, to write the story of Lucy’s birth 3 times. It’s been too big for me to understand. A linear narrative of events felt wrong. So now I’ve parked myself in a coffee shop next to a lunatic man with five copies of the same newspaper that he keeps tearing into tiny pieces. We are all weird, and we all struggle. See?

The end of my pregnancy was so hard. I took leave of my job two weeks before my due date, hoping she’d be early. I was induced 9 days late, and she was born 11 days late. That means I had 3 weeks of sitting in my house alone, essentially snowed in, to worry about stuff (which is what I did).

My family has a long history of very late, very fat babies; Lucy was no exception. The midwives kept checking to make sure everything was fine (non-stress tests, regular visits, and then an ultrasound at 41 weeks). I’m ashamed to admit that I was secretly hoping my 41 week ultrasound would reveal some vague and not-actually-dangerous issue that would force me to an induction earlier than the planned one at 42 weeks, but she was great! Everything was fine! I got that news and sobbed into my husband’s shirt in a mall in New Jersey for a good 15 minutes. I wanted to stop worrying, stop waiting, (stop waddling), and meet Lucy.

When I was 41 weeks and 2 days in, I got a call from one of the midwives, who said they had a lot of births that week, and would I mind coming in for induction that night, a little earlier? I think my exact response was HELL YES, LET’S DO THIS. My bag was already packed and had been sitting by the front door for weeks.

In the 50 hours that passed between when we got to the hospital, and when I got to meet my beautiful little newborn raisin, everything basically went wrong. Weeks earlier, I sat in my dining room with the doulas we hired, and wrote a list of “birth wishes.” I wanted things like quiet, nice music (Bill Evans), no narcotics, no pitocin, vaginal delivery, minimal intervention (except an epidural if I wanted one, code word for “I am serious about the epidural give it to me right now” was “spaghetti”). I got the epidural, and did have some bonding time with Bill Evans, but everything else: not so much.

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I spent the first 36 hours having intermittent, excruciatingly painful vaginal exams, where they’d push various kinds of drugs above my cervix and let them sit there to induce opening and contractions. I labored in the bed, on the birthing ball, in the tub. I peed in a white plastic thing that looked like a Halloween costume pimp hat that was stationed over the toilet to make sure the vagina drugs didn’t fall out. I walked the halls over and over again with my husband, while clutching my lower back, slowly limping. I listened to other women in the rooms next door get rolled in, push, scream their heads off. I’d hear their babies be born, and I heard them cry for the first time. I saw them get rolled out to the other side of maternity, where women recover. They’d clean the rooms and bring in new women, and their babies would be born, too. I saw the newborns in tiny plastic bins, rolling on wheels around the floor, getting their tiny check ups. I asked my doula to shut the door so I wouldn’t have to see it anymore. I labored.

My doula told me to ask for narcotics. You need to sleep, she told me, so you’ll have energy to push. I had been laboring for 30 hours, and was 1 centimeter dilated (the same as when I was admitted). The nurses administered the drugs. I promptly told my husband I was on the moon with our dog, Donald, and passed out. I slept for 3 hours.

When I woke up, 36 hours in, the midwife thought it was time for pitocin. SPAGHETTI, I said. The anesthesiologist, my hero, gave me an epidural. For the next 6 or 8 hours, I was in absolute heaven: completely numb from the waist down, unable to walk or move my legs, peeing through a catheter, feeling like a paralyzed veteran of lady war. I slept, I played Candy Crush, I felt good. I sent my doula out to stretch her legs and return in the evening, when it’d be time to push. I sent my husband home to feed the cats.

I was alone when, pitocin cranked to high hell, the epidural wore off. I’d been positioned on my side (turning every 60 minutes in an effort to flip the baby, who was sunny-side up), and I couldn’t turn my body to reach the nurse call button. A contraction came on. I screamed.

After several minutes of screaming and texting, people came back. The doula I’d been laboring with had thrown out her back in the parking lot of the hospital and had to leave. A new doula came 20 minutes later, and my husband. The nurses came. Another anesthesiologist came and upped the epidural dose, again and again. I couldn’t get numb again. We turned the pitocin down and I labored (back labor) in the bed, not able to move my legs, but able to feel every contraction. I grabbed everyone around me and screamed my way through them. After hours of this, 10 hours after we started the pitocin drip that morning, the midwife checked me again. I’d made no progress. I was just as closed as I’d been that morning.

My choices were to continue laboring (I was 48 hours in, 5 or 6 cms dilated, and immune to the epidural) or have a C-section.  I opted for surgery. Another anesthesiologist came in, and administered 4 or 5 bolus epidurals to try and get me numb again. He poked me in the leg with a needle: can you feel that?

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They wheeled me into surgery around 8:30pm. I had to grip the metal table with one arm while my husband held down the other, I was shaking so violently. I was cold. I listened to Bill Evans on my headphones and waited while they cut me open.

When they pulled Lucy out of me, I lost it. I’ve never cried so hard in my life. I’m crying right now, writing this, and the guy who keeps ripping up his newspapers is looking at me like I’m nuts, crying into a laptop. They pulled her up into the air so I could see her over the sheet. She was healthy, safe, and alive. The midwife brought her over to me and pushed her cheek up against mine. I kept sobbing, and shaking, and listening to her cry. It’s impossible to explain that moment.

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It took them 25 minutes to sew everything back up. I listened to Lucy in one ear and Bill Evans in the other and tried not to think about what was happening to my body.

The thing I always hear about birth is that it doesn’t really matter, as long as you have a healthy baby. Like somehow, you’re not allowed to have real feelings about your birth experience because you were lucky and had a healthy baby.

I can’t fathom how difficult it would be to lose a child. My mother lost a child. I carried her trauma around with me my entire pregnancy; I was so scared I’d share her fate. I can’t think of anything that would be more devastating. I am deeply, deeply grateful that Lucy was okay.

But the truth is, for me, that labor and birth was a terrible experience.

I don’t regret any decision that I made, anywhere along the way. I don’t regret the type of care I chose, or the hospital, or the drugs, or the surgery. I made the best decisions I could every time I had to make another decision.

Giving birth was like going to war. Laboring was intensely difficult and painful. Seeing those other women give birth like it was easy, to healthy children in a matter of hours, when I couldn’t do it, was emotionally devastating. Choosing more drugs, more intervention, over and over again, made me feel weak. I felt like my body was wrong.

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Granted, birth is not easy for anyone. But there are women out there who can just let go of themselves. They can repeat affirmations about opening and actually open. Their bodies are not tightly wound, tightly controlled things. Mine is.

I see my weaknesses and faults, and how they played out in my birth. I don’t feel as brave as I should. I don’t give myself enough credit.

The good news is that at the end of it, you get a person: a tiny, weird little raisin. You get to hear her sigh while she naps, dress her in cat-print rompers, fake-feed her pizza for Instagram photos, watch her learn how to make sounds, hold her as she gently farts in your lap, and kiss her on the mouth over and over again until she starts crying because mom, you’re being really weird. I’ve never been so in love or so obsessed with anyone before.

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But creating a person, and then giving birth to them, is a physical and emotional shit show.

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It’s worth it, but holy shit.

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11 thoughts on “A Veteran of the Birth War

  1. Wow. Hugs to you, Mama. Thanks for sharing your story. My first birth was 42 hours. I’d planned a peaceful home birth with my midwife and got a hospital transfer for a birth with an unknown, difficult doctor. I had the pitocin, epidural, some sort of electrode screwed into her scalp. I literally had 20+ people in my room at her birth. And they cut the cord and wisked her away for observation when I so wanted her on my tummy letting the cord pulse. It took a loooong time to process, as much as I loved my baby (still do!), I’d have dreams of the birth over and over and if I saw someone who looked like the doctor I froze inside. However, I was blessed to have a midwife who WENT THERE and helped me work a lot of stuff out. I told my midwife that my first pregnancy I battled fear of the unknown, my second pregnancy I battled fear of the known. And somewhere in all of that I found peace and I learned how to let go of need for control and let my body do its crazy thing. I think births teach us about ourselves and life and God. If you never get to have that redeeming second birth I was blessed with, I hope you can take your deep insights into your first birth and find peace, forgiveness, and a better understanding of how you tick and how you can learn to be a better you. In my best moments, I clearly recall those lessons and put them into practice. Oh, and congratulations. It’s a wonderful ride

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  2. You’re such a good writer. I’m glad your blog is back – I kept coming back and refreshing the last few weeks. Hugest congratulations to you and Lucy

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  7. My god. Thank you for this. I had pretty much the exact same experience, except they had to put me under for the c-section because the epidural just stopped working, no matter how many more drugs they pumped in. I am not kidding when I say that I waterboarded myself with my own snot from crying so hard. Also, the anesthesiologist said “tell your wife goodnight” to my husband and I thought I was going to die.

    I feel like we should probably email each other. Our kids are the same age, we both have had really parallel struggles with pregnancy and stay-at-home motherhood, and, um, we have kind of the same aesthetic. That matters, right?

    Liked by 1 person

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  9. Thank you. I related to so much of this (induced at 41+1, 3 epidurals that didn’t work, section at 41+3 after days of labour, general anaesthetic so I couldn’t meet my son for 2 hrs after he was born, my husband wasn’t allowed in the room and subsequently thought we were both dead hearing the stat calls for help to the OR, etc…). He’s 2.5 now, and I still cry every time I talk about his birth story. It helps to know others have been through the same. We are so happy with our healthy, hilarious, firecracker boy who we love so much, but I don’t know if I’ll ever fully shake how traumatic his entry into the world was for all of us.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Same shit here in Europe where Emma was loved and cared for inside my belly for 9+ months while I felt like a freaking mother nature every day to then lay on the hospital bed with no sign of anything but a belly w/o enough liquid. Emma wasnt in the mood. And at the end of it, I carry my scar, just like you do. Emotional and physical.

    Liked by 1 person

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