The following piece is not a condemnation or critique of any one birth method or philosophy. Instead, it is a story of how the current birth climate, my birthing complications, my ill conceived notions of myself, my people pleasing tendencies, and my anxiety disorder collided. This is my story. It’s not everyone’s. I’m still working through it, and I’m grateful to all the women who cared enough about me and Willa to share their experiences and wisdom across the spectrum of birthing methods. You are all strong. You are all brave. You all have a high pain tolerance. Feel free to also tell me that I have a high pain tolerance.
And again, for those who have struggled through much more traumatic birthing experiences, or those who would love to have a baby by any means, or those who have many stories of loss and waiting, and anyone else my story hurts unintentionally, I know I write this story from a place of privilege. Thank you for bravely sharing your stories and allowing me to share mine.
“Give me an epidural!” I yelled.
I felt like my nine year old self, sleeping over at the Doyle’s house — the night Mrs. Doyle told my parents that I seemed ‘demon possessed.’ My panic attacks sometimes manifest in anger, something I didn’t know as I banged on Samantha’s bedroom door till my knuckles turned pink. I begged to be allowed to call my mother. My mom could be dying, she could be gone, and I would be spending the night at a friend’s house unable to say goodbye.
Mrs. Doyle said she didn’t want to bother my sleeping parents. I assured her my mom picked me up at sleepovers all the time. Even then, in fourth grade, my mom would not hesitate to drive over after eleven o’clock in our brown Chevy Astro. She’d idle in the driveway, wearing a flannel nightgown worthy of Laura Ingalls Wilder. But instead, I’d been told to go to bed and wait for the morning to come. Then, as now, I fell apart; I couldn’t catch any air.
“Are you sure this is what you want?” The midwife asked.
To be fair, a few moments earlier I’d asked for the baby to be cut out of me with scissors, or something like that. I had a birth plan in place for this moment, a birthing class assignment I’d carefully adjusted to fit onto one page. The document outlined all the “no’s” for the hospital staff: no unnecessary inductions, no wires, no wiping the slimy vernix off the baby, no interfering with skin to skin contact. No epidurals.
A laboring woman asking for an epidural has become a cartoon image, one rehashed on sitcoms and movies. But it wasn’t hyperbole for me. I was slipping under the waves of my anxiety, drowning in the scary place my mind goes, where I bang on doors, or bang on my head, or fall to the ground, or… For a moment, I am clear, able to catch air and see my surroundings.
“Remember, you’re in control,” the midwife said.
My first au naturale birthing aspirations formed while I watched the pregnancies of respected mentors and friends. I read their birth story blogs like dime store novels, scrolling for the curious details of birth, of their bodies and mine. They labored arched across exercise balls and their babies entered the world in warm tubs at birthing centers.
I read their birth story blogs like dime store novels…
But it wasn’t just them. Natural births, birthing centers, home births, and midwifery practices have gained a popular influence. Just say the name Ina May Gaskin in a room full of females of childbearing age, and you will probably find yourself talking to a total stranger about the relation between the relaxation of your sphincter and vagina.
Gaskin has made a reputation for herself as the guru of natural birthing. Her book, “Ina May’s Guide to Childbirth,” is the manual for those who want a no-nonsense, non-medicated birthing experience. I devoured this text after watching the popular documentary “The Business of Being Born,” a film, by the way, produced by daytime television has-been Ricki Lake.
Ina May was a gateway drug to a whole new world of strategies and information that promised to make natural birth possible, even pleasant or orgasmic. I went to a weekly prenatal yoga class with a former Hypno birthing coach, and my husband and I attended training in the Bradley method, a partner-coached natural birthing program with a weird orange juice fixation.
But at every turn, my granola aspirations got waylaid. In addition to staying on a low dosage of Zoloft, I sheepishly accepted a bottle of pills from my midwife to ease my extreme nausea. Far from earthy, it’s the same pill that Kim Kardashian swore by during her turbulent pregnancies.
At 32 weeks, a second blood sugar test indicated that I had gestational diabetes. My midwives threatened to drop me as a patient if I could not control my blood sugar levels with diet alone, which landed me in the office of a nutritionist with food made out of molded plastic and empty yogurt containers.
“Now how many grams of carbohydrates are in the Activia?” she asked, “Is it a better or worse choice than the Dannon?” She held up the small plastic cup for my inspection and was delighted when I correctly identified that the Activia had less carbohydrates than the Dannon, the same way she’d praised me when I correctly identified how many slices of plastic bread were a serving (one, the answer is always one).
I began three times daily appointments with my blood sugar meter and finger poker. With each reading, my birthing ideals hung in the balance. In all of my books, each possible challenge could be met with my grit and determination to have the birth I wanted. There were checklists of questions to ask your potential birthing hospitals and exercises to be done each day. I often fell asleep guilty, knowing I’d missed a fifteen minute relaxation session or had neglected to meet every movement of my baby with joy, as Marie Mongan suggested.
Amidst all of these challenges, the natural birthing movement ordained Drew and I masters of our birthing experience. My intuition alone would nudge us to switch care providers when their approach seemed too medical. Willa’s birth depended on my preparation so that during our labor I could relax and tap into my inner zen. As my Hypnobirthing book preached, “…when the mind is free of stress and fear that cause the body to respond with pain, nature is free to process birth in the same well-designed manner that it does for all other normal physiological functions.” In other words, If I could relax properly, labor would be like pooping out a baby.
Amidst all of these challenges, the natural birthing movement ordained Drew and I masters of our birthing experience.
In our twelve week Bradley course, my teacher assured the moms that we were “badasses” no matter what happened, but I couldn’t help but notice the several page checklist in our class manual entitled something like, “Are you doing everything you can to prepare for a natural birth?” And so, I studied for birth like a final exam, rehearsing my birth plan to ensure that no one tricked me into pain meds or a c-section.
In The Business Of Being Born documentary, I remember the interviews with the moms who had medicated and/or cesarean deliveries. In each one, ignorance was the common theme. The moms didn’t know their options or didn’t know much about birth in general. They trusted doctors and hospitals over their own biology. If armed with the info and strategies they now know, they would have had natural births, or did on their second go.
I wanted to do better, to get it right the first time.
If I’m honest, I think natural birth attracted me because it was another avenue to finally feel worthy. I wanted to prove to others and myself that I was strong physically and emotionally. A high pain tolerance topped my bucket list of unachieved compliments. I remember one high school friend’s mom bragging about her daughter’s kidney stones, “I knew she must really be in pain, because she rarely complains, she has SUCH a high pain tolerance.”
While “funny” and “you never know what she’s going to say next” were frequent compliments, I wanted to earn some perceived strength from my friends and family. I wanted to overhear Drew talking about my high pain tolerance at a church barbeque and to pass on my crunchy knowledge to young friends, pressing Ina May’s book into their hands with confidence that it would be all they needed.
..the plan dismantled with alarming speed, following the quick logic of a mathematical proof…
My midwifery practice let me go long past the due date restrictions of other OB-GYN offices and had no expectation that labor would go fast. These omens assured me that I’d chosen my healthcare providers well. But when factors collided, the plan dismantled with alarming speed, following the quick logic of a mathematical proof.
If your water breaks and you have strep b, then you will have 24 hours to deliver.
If you have 24 hours then, things need to get moving.
If after eating a bowl of soup and piece of chicken from the hospital cafeteria, your contractions are unimpressive lumps on the tachometer screen, then, they will give you Pitocin.
So, I said ok to the medicine I was to avoid at all costs. I was to do anything and everything to get labor moving without it: drink castor oil, stimulate my nipples, make out with Drew, walk the halls. I chose to trust my midwife, a woman who shared my philosophies of birth. I’d tried countless holistic strategies, and Willa was still not engaged or ready for exit.
If you have a drip of Pitocin, then you will be hooked up to an IV at all times.
If you are hooked up to an IV at all times, then you will no longer be able to use the birthing tub in your state of the art birthing suite.
If you can’t use the birthing tub, then you will try to balance on a birthing ball in the shower still connected to the tubes giving you what a delivery nurse once told your mother was the “torture drug.”
I tried. I tried really hard. I draped my body over my hospital bed and did suspended squats from the arms of my assembled birth team till all of our bodies shook with fatigue. And as the timer ticked on Willa’s delivery, the midwife continued increasing my dose of Pitocin. She further broke my water with what looked like a crochet hook, and things finally started to progress.
This all happened over a period of many hours, hours that slid together and combine now in one foggy moment. I remember Christy sweeping my hair back into pigtails. I remember warm fluids and dark meconium spilling out of my crotch like it was an open Ziploc bag. I remember that my Dad was still there and that he looked scared and that I didn’t care about nudity or sweat or my hairy legs, I just wanted to rip everything away from my skin. In order to make it through contractions, I needed to tuck my tail bone under me just so. With each coming surge, I worried I’d forget the position, and I’d stumble frantically looking for it.
“GET OUT,” I moaned to Willa through my contractions. I kept the low register suggested in my books and videos, the “o
ut” modulating like the yells of George of the Jungle as the pain gripped me. My mom was praying or crying into my hair, imitating the deep sounds that would keep my body from tightening against the progress of the contractions. Drew was across the room, pale, and concerned.
The next hour of labor, the hour before I asked for the epidural, felt like being on a mechanical bull ride that I couldn’t elect to stop or get off. I had no choice but to let the thrashing ride rip me apart while chained to the bull. Transition extended far past its rehearsed time limits and I vomited into every container I could find till nothing remained in my stomach to nourish or give me strength.
“Cut her out of me,” I begged. “I need her to be out of me.”
“Don’t panic,”my midwife said.
“I have a panic disorder,” I said.“Give me an epidural!”
“Are you sure this is what you want?”
I am going under, I am sinking, I am not me, I am my fear, I am primal hormones racing through my veins to help me survive the attack of a saber tooth tiger, I am running, I am treading water, I don’t have much longer, I am banging on the door, I am trapped, but I know my mom will pick me up if I make enough noise, I am possessed by a demon, I am possessed by myself. I know how to stop it. I see for a second what I need. It is coming in a brown Chevy Astro. It is coming in a carefully placed needle.
“This is what I want.” And everyone in the room knew I meant it.