I’ve been trying to sit down and write this in increments for two months now, though I haven’t tried too hard since, one, taking care of a newborn is the most challenging thing I’ve ever done, and two, my labor and delivery of Iva Jane was so smooth and uneventful it kind of seems boring from an outside perspective. But I also believe that every birth story is important because every birth is important. And I don’t want to wait too long and then forget the finer details.
(Disclaimer: If you are squeamish, one of my male family members, or anything of that sort, proceed with caution. You might read some things you didn’t care to know about!)
On Thursday, February 27th I had just passed the 39 week mark. I had tons of Braxton Hicks contractions throughout most of the day but I didn’t think much of it. I hadn’t had many BH contractions during pregnancy and thought it might be a sign of labor coming in the next couple weeks, but nothing urgent. I kept reminding myself that first time moms with no “interventions” often have long labors with lots of starts and stops. I actually spent this whole day repainting our living room bookshelves by hand (!!!) and doing light decluttering, pausing during the more uncomfortable contractions as they came. Devynn came home from work early around 2:00 pm, as I started feeling more tired and uncomfortable and needed help around the house.
I think at one point he (desperate for a Leap Day baby) asked if it was still possible for me to have a baby by the end of the week. I told him, “Probably not, sorry. . .” as I was sure I’d have a drawn-out labor, and hadn’t felt any “real” labor contractions yet.
What I didn’t expect was to wake up around 2:30 A.M. that night with those first “real” contractions. I knew right away that they weren’t BH contractions because they spread around from my back to my lower belly, and were definitely painful more than uncomfortable. What really got my attention was that they seemed to wax and wane at a fairly regular pace. I didn’t panic – and didn’t wake Devynn – but spent the next half hour hunting down a good app for timing contractions. I drifted off between them but they woke me up each time, and I timed them casually. They were coming between every fifteen to thirty minutes, and always lasted just over one minute each. Remembering my midwives’ advice to rest and distract myself, I pulled my favorite wine out of the cabinet, took a few gulps straight from the bottle, and tried to go back to bed and keep sleeping. Eventually the sun came up on Friday the 28th.
Still thinking it could take anywhere from hours to days to weeks before anything progressed, I woke up and got to work around the house as usual. I had bought pansies and tulips at Lowe’s a couple days before, so I went outside in the cold to check on them. I keenly remember feeling surprised at the pain when another contraction hit me as I squatted down with the watering can. I went inside, feeling the need to empty my bladder, and stared down in surprise at the “bloody show” on my underwear. This was one of the more reliable signs that I was in true early labor, and it was on the list of symptoms I was allowed to text the midwives’ emergency/direct phone line about. I calmly updated them and my doula via text, but let Devynn (still oblivious) sleep in.
Around ten, he woke up. I wish I could remember how exactly the exchange went, but I think I said something like, “Don’t freak out, because it could still be a few days, but I’m definitely in early labor.” And to his credit, he didn’t freak out. Having planned to do the last of the pre-baby cleaning and organizing at home that day, I divided up tasks, made him a list, and we both got to work (me, very slowly and gently) on the last of our laundry, vacuuming, and organizing.
I think it was around noon, give or take a couple hours, that I was unable to keep going. I couldn’t successfully ignore or merely pause through the contractions anymore. The aching, stretching pelvic pressure with each contraction – now about 8 minutes apart – was becoming more intense. I finished vacuuming with our housemates’ cordless Dyson (because it only weighs maybe ten pounds) and made myself at home in our freshly-made bed.
Honestly, the next few hours are a blur, looking back. My doula wasn’t able to come to our home yet (and in the end was, sadly, not able to attend at all, as her first priority patient had also gone into labor the same day) and I couldn’t remember anything from birth class except to keep breathing, relax, and try to keep comfortable. I didn’t have the energy to think about different positions or methods for making labor progress. I curled up on my left side around my body pillow and continued timing contractions irregularly, whenever I noticed a change in frequency or intensity.
According to my texts with my doula, things ramped up around 3 o’clock in a notable way. I wasn’t able to talk through contractions without concentrating, and definitely couldn’t get through them (as in, holding onto my sanity until the end) without deliberately focusing and breathing. At one point I remember opening my eyes to look at the contraction timer in the middle of one, and being almost overtaken by the pain, having broken my concentration. It was a lot of work to get myself back under control as the contraction peaked. For the first time in the process I had a fleeting thought of changing plans and getting an epidural. From then onward, I kept my eyes closed unless I was walking around or on the phone.
This continued for a few more hours. I alternated between the bed and the toilet, feeling the need to go number two but not being able to bear down without wanting to scream in pain. We ate some delivered Panera for dinner around 6. I was really starting to feel truly miserable and physically taxed at this point, and I tried not to think about the fact that I may not be very far along yet.
My doula asked me later on, “What helped you the most? What were you thinking?” Honestly, the only phrase that stood out to me from all the education, books, and appointments was, “You can do anything for 60 seconds.” I don’t know if that is technically true in all contexts, but it doesn’t matter. I decided that so far it had seemed true in regard to labor. And even though my contractions from start to finish were all around one and a half minutes long, I spent all my energy focusing on the idea that every second and every breath was one closer to the end of that current contraction. As time went on, I found myself barely making it to the end of them, but I always made it – and this thought is what kept me going.
Around 7, I had a phone call with my doula and told her I was going to sit in the shower at home. I was in the shower by 7:30. Devynn adjusted the shower head and temperature while I leaned back against an exercise ball in the tub. At this point there was no comfortable position and I had my second moment of wondering, “Should I get an epidural after all?” He sat in the floor of the bathroom and timed contractions according to my cues (“Go” and “Stop”) and it wasn’t very long before he said nervously, “Ah.. These are all really close together.. Should we call them?” But it hadn’t quite been an hour yet, and the rule for calling the birth center for admittance was 5 minutes apart, lasting for 1 minute, for at least 1 hour. These contractions, he noted, were all coming between 1 and 3 minutes apart. I thought about telling him to wait longer, but suddenly I had another contraction that brought with it some intense nausea and rectal pressure. I couldn’t help but groan and whine through the pain now, whereas before I was only having to exhale sharply with each breath. I got out of the tub and proceeded to vomit.
He got the midwife on the phone handed it to me, and the midwife began evaluating where I was in the grand scheme of things. She suggested we wait one more hour before driving to the center – to avoid pulling everyone out of their homes unduly, in case labor still wasn’t far enough along yet – and I remember my heart sinking into my stomach when she said this. I responded, “Okay . . .” and we began to hang up. Then she said, “Does that sound good to you?”
I’m so thankful for this, because I would have pushed through on my own without the second chance to speak up, and I took it, saying that I’d like to just go ahead and come in. I felt embarrassed at this, but she didn’t make any further comments or ask further questions. We agreed to meet at the birth center in half an hour (the drive time from our home to the building) and Devynn loaded the car with our camera, clothes, diaper bag, etc. I wrapped up in his fluffy oversized bath robe before making my way sloooooowly out into the cold toward the car. We pulled out of the driveway at 8:30 and began the most painful car ride of my entire life. I felt every change in momentum and every bump in the road (including the eleven speed bumps within our neighborhood alone). And of course we encountered some slow traffic, even this late at night, because northern Virginia never stops being northern Virginia.
Anyway, when we arrived at the birth center around 9 p.m. the midwives were sanitizing our preferred room since the previous mom who used it had flu. We went to wait in the other birth room and I immediately went to sit on the toilet again, still feeling rectal pressure and convinced I needed to go to the bathroom. Devynn reminded me that this feeling is a symptom of labor having progressed pretty far, but I didn’t want to get my hopes up and so I told him I was pretty sure I only needed to poop. Ha!
One of my midwives, Leah, came to check Iva’s heartbeat during a contraction with the doppler, and I was really surprised at the intensity of the pain at this point. I started being much more “vocal” with each exhale, and the noises were sounding more unusual and involuntary – like something between a goat and a cow, and the thought of this was amusing but another contraction came quick enough to distract me and make me not care how I sounded anymore. Leah asked me if I could make it to the bed where she could check my progress manually for the first time, and I shuffled my way there with her help as Devynn finished bringing in our bags.
Man, was that cervical check an experience. I had another contraction in the middle of it and almost lost my concentration, like the time back at home when I opened my eyes to look at the contraction timer. I just desperately wanted it all to be over – and, lo and behold, it nearly was. Leah finished her check and said, “Jess . . . you are right there.” I was about 8 centimeters dilated! Music to my ears. I asked if I could get in the tub, now that I knew I was far enough along for the relaxation to not hinder labor progress, and the midwives went to get everything ready.
(Devynn, the smart man that he is, did not say “I told you so.”)
Still trying to be realistic, I reminded myself that lots of first time births without interventions can take a couple of hours even in the final pushing stage. Probably thinking the same thing, Leah and Lori calmly turned the water on while I sat in the massive birth tub and Devynn started setting up the camera. The midwives dimmed the lights and left to wait in the next room, still within earshot, so I could labor in peace.
They were gone less than five minutes when I suddenly felt another strong contraction that made me instinctively grind my teeth and bear down, letting out (against my will, which was a weird experience) deeper and more desperate-sounding grunts. Knowing what this signified, Lori and Leah ran back into the room to their positions by the tub, using a flashlight to see down into the water, and Devynn abandoned his work with the camera to put on his swim shorts in the bathroom. With each contraction – coming so quickly now that I barely had time to catch my breath in between – the midwives told me to bear down as though I was having a bowel movement.
Some women find the pushing stage to be the most satisfying part of labor, but personally I found it to be the most difficult. It felt like my body and mind were fragmented, everything from the chest down forcing me to push hard and everything from the chest up trying to convince me to work against this sensation because of the unbelievable pressure and discomfort it brought. The midwives could always tell when I was doing this, and they would tell me yet again, “Push right into that. Don’t fight it.” Every time I pushed now, I couldn’t help but throw my head back to wail along with the grunting and shaking. I knew I was supposed to be making deeper and more calming noises, but this was the only thing I could find to focus on. Every slight change in sensation and pressure was accompanied by a change in sound, producing in (well, out) of me a weird warbling mess of desperate noises. Somehow this had become my best coping mechanism – thinking about all the sounds coming out of my mouth – and no one told me to stop, as it appeared to be doing its job. And in between the contracting and pushing, there was a really profound quiet as I took heaving breaths and the warm water lapped gently against the side of the tub.
After only half an hour of this, I was crowning. Probably the worst but also the quickest moment of the whole ordeal. I remember a few seconds where I could feel the skin giving way and I shrank back against the burning sensation, struggling with the tension between physical instinct and mental self-preservation. But at Leah’s direction, I resolved myself to just give in and be over with it. I pushed and wailed and writhed and felt a weird pop – my water finally breaking – and Iva’s head was born into Leah’s hand. It was so surreal. In the quiet between that contraction and the final one, we all stared down at the back of her tiny head under the water and waited. It felt like it was taking forever but no one was in a hurry. When the pressure built up again, I tried to throw myself into it, and the rest of her body came out and up out of the water as Leah laid Iva, blue and warm and so velvety soft, onto my chest. I patted and rubbed her back as she screamed and coughed . . . and pooped (everywhere). I looked up to see Devynn laughing and crying as the midwives exulted, announced the time (10:11 p.m.), and hurried to grab towels.
Honestly, I had shocked myself. I never wanted to say it out loud, but I thought the odds were pretty good that I wouldn’t be able to go through with it. I don’t have a great pain tolerance threshold and I easily give way to anxiety and despair. But the advice and information had proved true – labor and birth was different than other painful experiences. It was not, in and of itself, a health crisis. It was both harder and easier than I expected. The sensations were far more intense than I imagined they could have been, but it was also somehow far more bearable and manageable than how the movies and horror stories had depicted it. I would absolutely do it again, Lord willing, and I’m grateful for His mercy in giving me such a positive experience and keeping Iva and I safe from harm.
(And of course, a thousand thanks to the staff at Tree of Life Midwifery for their knowledge, guidance, and care!)