Deciding on Natural Birth
Before my pregnancy, I never thought it was possible for me to have a natural birth. I knew myself too well–I had low pain tolerance, heightened physical sensitivities, and a body in which I was confident is too small to bear a child. Besides, my mother, stepmother, and nearly every woman in my family had c-sections. I figured that there was something in my bloodline that made it particularly challenging to have a vaginal birth.
However when I first learned I was pregnant in June 2014, I looked into the range of birthing options and ultimately decided to work towards a natural birth. I was displeased to hear how often medically unnecessary interventions are used during labor and wanted to embrace the possibility that I could have a gentle, comfortable birth experience. And so I decided to stick with the approach that I normally use to manage most of my health issues: start with more natural remedies (i.e. natural birth), use modern medicine (i.e. epidural) if they fail.
I enrolled in a hypnobirthing course and for the last four months of pregnancy practiced the techniques diligently. I appreciated how hypnobirthing can help make natural birth a reality for many women–however, I was well aware that every woman’s body is different and so is their pain tolerance. I’ve heard many women’s accounts of childbirth….everything from “it felt like I was being repeatedly stabbed by a knife” to “it was just a lot of pressure but not pain” to “it was orgasmic!” I wished for nothing more than to know ahead of time what it would feel like for me, but since there is no way for me to know, I knew tat pain relief would continue to be an option for me if I needed it.
How It All Went Down
I was fortunate to have had a relatively uneventful and comfortable pregnancy. However, I was physically and emotionally miserable in the last few weeks. I started my maternity leave from work on week 37, thinking (or hoping?) that perhaps my baby will come early. Week after week passed and I was surprised that she had not yet emerged from my petite body. It was very difficult to idle at home as I waited for her. My husband and I were becoming very impatient.
Before we knew it, week 41 was approaching. I had had mild signs of prodromal labor, my cervix was dilated about 2-3 cm, and I had bloody show. In the last few days before her birth, I had received 2 acupuncture sessions and spent the days self-stimulating labor-inducing acupressure points. I also walked several times a day and did many other natural forms of induction. Nothing worked!
On week 41 and 1 day, we decided to give my obstetrician permission to sweep my membranes. I was very conflicted about this because I read accounts that this procedure sometimes threw women into intense labor very quickl–or it didn’t work at all. I was hyper anxious about approaching week 42 and having to be induced with pitocin hence I opted for the membrane sweep.
The actual procedure was very uncomfortable. The obstetrician stuck a finger into my cervix and made circular motions to separate the bag of water from the walls of the uterus. This was supposed to trigger labor-inducing hormones within 72 hours. I had the procedure done on a Friday afternoon around 2:30pm. By the time I came home, I was feeling a mild back ache and abdominal cramping that came in waves. It was a gentle feeling, 3/10 on the pain scale, and lasted for about 4-5 hours. By 9pm, it had stopped.
Around 11:15pm, I was watching TV on my couch when my first REAL contraction happened. This was way more powerful than the prodromal labor contractions that I had felt previously. It was about a 6/10 on the pain scale. I walked over to my husband and told him “it’s happening!” The third one hit a few minutes later and I knew I was in for something much more intense than I had ever anticipated. I did not have a gradual progression of intensity as I had expected. By the fifth or sixth contraction, the feeling of pain was at a 7 or 8 and was coming about every 5 minutes and lasting almost a minute. At some point during the hour I was laboring at home, I started collapsing to my hands and knees every time a contraction hit me.
Every woman’s sensation of labor is different. The easiest way for me to describe what a contraction felt like for me was the fist of gravity trying to rip the baby out of me all in one pull. I tried to breathe through each one and use my relaxation techniques but to no avail. It was terrifying and I dreaded each upcoming contraction.
I asked my husband to pack up our bag to head to the hospital and I told him in advanced that I was going to ask for an epidural. We arrived at the hospital to be admitted to triage. I was thoroughly pissed that they would ask a woman in labor pain so many questions that they had in their system already. I also had to endure another 2-3 hours of contractions until a room was available. At this point, with each contraction, I had rolled up my husband’s sweater and bit into it with each wave. He seemed relieved that I stopped trying to bite into his leg!
Once the anesthesiologist administered the epidural, I was immediately relieved and laid back comfortably on my hospital bed. The next moments were hazy to me but my husband gave me his account of what happened. Minutes after I was given the epidural, my blood pressure dropped dramatically (my blood pressure is normally very low) and so did the baby’s heart rate. The nurses tilted my bed backwards to send blood flowing to my head and was squeezing the IV bag to get fluids into my system. Before I knew it, they were rolling me upstairs to the operating room as they explained to me that the baby’s heart rate had dropped for several minutes and that I may need a cesarean section. I was too numbed out to have an emotional response–I only knew it was serious because I was surrounded by doctors and nurses, and they were going back and forth on what they should do.
Finally, at one point, the primary doctor saw that the baby’s heart rate had stabilized to a normal level and did not see a need for a cesarian section at that moment. I was wheeled to another room and, seeing that I was 9.5 cm dilated and baby was not low enough for me to push, I was asked to wait until it was time for active labor.
I was immensely relieved at the news and rested comfortable for about an hour in my room as they monitored the baby’s vitals. All of the nurses on the floor were on edge because the baby’s heart rate continued to drop with each contraction. At one point, the nurses were getting ready to wheel me back to the OR before the doctor asked them to give me some time to try pushing the baby out. I was effective at pushing and they continued to monitor her heart rate with each contraction and push. Her vitals looked dire. Finally the new doctor told me that a c-section was the best option for me with the least risk.
Of course my husband and I consented to whatever the doctor thought would be best for me and the baby. This didn’t keep me from feeling very stressed and worried about the operation. I knew that most C-sections are uncomplicated but I still had a deep fear that something would go wrong and my body would not be able to tolerate it. I was shaking very intensely due to both the labor hormones and pure fear. I asked my husband for my headphones and music so that I could relax as they prepared me for the operation room. As soon as I started listening to music, I broke down, cried and told my husband that how scared I was. He consoled me and reassured me that the staff were going to take care of me.
They wheeled me over to the OR and hot tears were still pouring down my face. The anesthiologist stood by my side as they tested my pain sensation and assured me that I was going to meet my baby in about twenty minutes. Soon my husband was allowed in the room and they hung up the drape by my chest so that we could not see the operation.
Surely, after some tugging and pulling at my abdomen, we heard a cry. I saw her face and I was so happy to see that she was okay. Travis went over to the side as they cleaned her up. He then brought her over to me. I gave her many kisses. I was so joyful and relieved to finally meet her.
My Thoughts Now
My daughter Sky is two weeks old now and I am feeling almost fully recovered from the surgery. The recovery process and first few days of learning how to care for her were very difficult. I often found myself drifting back to day of her birth and ruminating on how scary the whole experience was for me. I also couldn’t stop wondering what I could’ve done to have made labor a better experience. If I didn’t have my membranes swept, would the contractions have been less painful? Would I be able to tolerate a second birth without an epidural? And considering that my body did not tolerate the epidural very well, would I ever be able to give birth again without an c-section? All questions I’m not able to answer unless I can travel back or ahead in time. For now, I can only absolutely grateful that both Sky and I made it through that experience alive and healthy.