During my pregnancy I read a lot of books on natural childbirth. I watched many videos of women giving birth in tranquil settings – appearing to be in ecstasy – their babies sliding right out of them. For my daughter’s birth I dreamed of a version of this, but I knew I wanted to give birth in a hospital, not at home or a birth center. Being somewhere that could easily manage complications if they arose gave me comfort, though I wanted no medical intervention, if possible.
My Doula Rachel coached my husband Aaron and I on labor positions and soothing techniques, mixing a blend of essential oils for the grand occasion. As we practiced – Aaron massaging his hands on my lower back and hips, adjusting the pressure and placement based on my feedback – I thought, “labor is going to be pretty great.”
I packed my birth bag with great attention to detail – mini bottles of organic soap, shampoo and conditioner, a brand-new hairbrush, makeup, nipple butter, clothes for myself and the baby, and a $90 birth gown handmade by a woman in India. I also made an extra run to Target to buy a specific type of disposable razor.
Yes, I was fully expecting to shave my legs at the hospital.
I kept a supply of all my favorite foods in the refrigerator so they were ready to take with us – unsweetened coconut yogurt, organic banana chips, rice crackers, vegan cheese, almond butter, dates, and very-expensive-not-in-season strawberries.
I created my Have-A-Baby playlist – 50 songs and 5 hours of music including Nina Simone, Stevie Wonder and Krishna Das.
I was ready to roll.
When I finally went into labor I was two weeks overdue and thrilled that I wouldn’t have to be induced. I hopped on my birth ball with glee and hip circled my way through contractions. Four hours later, around 10pm, my husband and I made our way to the hospital.
By the time we settled into our room it was all I could do to undress and climb into my hospital gown. I didn’t have the energy to fetch the handmade Indian one out of my birth bag. My contractions were strong, long and fairly close together. I thought for sure this would all be over by morning.
But when the nurse checked my cervix I was only 1cm dilated. We had a long way to go.
I had bouts of nausea and threw up multiple times. None of the food I brought sounded good to me. I was told I could only have liquids anyway, it was hospital policy. So I ordered my first of many cranberry juice cocktails that was probably 2% juice , 97% sugar and 1% food coloring. It was cold and wonderful.
At 3 AM I was writhing in pain, 3 cm dilated, and fantasizing about drugs. I asked the the nurse if I could get an epidural. She said I could, but I should wait until I was a little farther along. Also, she read my birth plan which clearly stated NO DRUGS. Damn it.
At 7 AM I was still at 3 cm. When Rachel arrived I was lying in bed moaning through contractions like a dying cow. She asked me, gingerly, “Um, Jen, is there a reason you aren’t up and moving?” Oh, I thought, you mean why am I not doing anything remotely close to what we practiced or what I spent countless hours reading about?
Because, Rachel, labor fucking hurts.
But I knew Rachel was right and, albeit reluctantly, I got up and started to move. Over the next several hours I slow danced with my husband (in silence – I had no interest in Nina Simone telling me she was “Feeling Good”), and got on all fours reciting a made-up chant as I visualized myself as part of some ancient tribe of women warriors. I even made it into the tub.
All of the above helped. But I was still only at 5 cm. Then my water broke and the contractions got really, really real. I screamed like I was in a dungeon being stretched to death.
This time instead of asking for an epidural, I screamed for it. No one questioned me. The anesthesiologist team arrived in minutes and it quickly took effect. It felt like the gates of heaven opened up, doves flying everywhere, harp music playing somewhere in the background. All would be well. I slept a bit.
But I started to feel pressure in my sacral area. It was intense, to put it mildly. My baby had turned herself posterior, meaning her back was pressing on my back, and there was nothing the anesthesiologist could do for me. The epidural helps with contractions, not pressure. I just had to deal with it.
And I did. But it hurt, almost worse than the contractions had. And I was exhausted. So when it was suggested – more than 24 hours in – that I try a bit of Pitocin to see if that could intensify my contractions to move things along (because apparently they were NOT INTENSE ENOUGH), I balked.
“Just give me the c-section,” I said.
But to everyone’s credit – my doctor calling the shots from wherever she was, the nurses, my doula, my husband – they all thought I should give it a try.
“Fine,” I said, “Fine. It’s not going to work, but fine.”
A little over an hour later, I was at 10 cm.
I felt like I’d been resurrected from the dead. This might actually happen, I thought, I might be able to do this. Reminding myself that my daughter and I were a team, I used what I had left to combine our forces – mine coming from this world and hers from one unseen.
I pushed for two hours, Rachel held one leg and Aaron held the other as they cheered me on. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done times 10,000. There was concern my daughter might break her shoulder on the way out so a NICU team was there, just in case. She had passed meconium in utero so there was also a NICU team to suction out her lungs. And I had developed a slight fever, most likely due to the epidural, so yet another NICU team was there to make sure she hadn’t caught an infection. In short, by the time I delivered there were about 812 people in the room. Luckily, it was a big room.
My daughter finally arrived. No broken bones. No infection. Just her perfect little cone-headed self, a little tired from her long journey, just like her mama. The feeling of her crawling onto my chest for the first time will be etched in my heart forever.
It was all worth it, times 10,000.
I tore 3 degrees and as I held my newborn I noticed the doctor sewing me back up. I felt a few gentle tugs. Thank God for drugs, I thought, thank God.
In the recovery room I ordered my 37th cranberry juice cocktail and a bunch of non-organic, GMO-laden hospital food. After two days of consuming only colored sugar water, it tasted amazing. I’m not sure what happened to the food I’d packed. It felt like a lifetime ago that we had left for the hospital. In a sense, it was.
My first post-natal trip to the bathroom looked like a murder scene in a horror movie. Blood was everywhere. It soaked right through my adult-size diapers. I never knew how good an ice pack could feel on my vagina.
The next day I was finally given the green light to shower. As the water hit my skin I saw doves again and heard that same harp music. I forgot about the organic soap in my birth bag as I reached for the Johnson & Johnson supplied by the hospital.
And I certainly didn’t hunt down my razor.
Nothing could have truly prepared me for my labor – no class, book, video, handmade gown (which I have since donated) or perfectly packed hospital bag. I had to have my own in-the-moment experience – my own not-so-natural but natural-to-me childbirth.
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