Trigger Warning: My birth was a traumatic ordeal and may be upsetting to some readers.
When I was pregnant with my son, my firstborn, my one and only, I was entranced with romantic ideals of natural birth and blissful, effortless love. I was involved in online mothering and pregnancy communities that promoted unmedicated, home, and even unassisted childbirth. I heard exaggerated risks associated with birthing interventions, and rates of intervention use disconnected from any data reflecting how many of those interventions were needed. Beyond all that, I was born in an umedicated unassisted home birth myself, and had been raised with a deep, intentionally cultivated fear of doctors and medicine. I was an ideal candidate to get suckered into the birth story ideals.
And today it occurred to me that I never did write my birth story, more than 7 years ago. So today, I try.
My labor started early in the morning two days after my due date. I was excited, and ready to be done with pregnancy, which had been frightening and exhausting and hard. My alcoholic husband delayed our setting out by a few hours, needing to have a few beers first before I drove us, while having mild but frequent contractions, 45 minutes out of town to my OB/GYNs office.
She met with me and gave me an exam. Well, she explained, I was in early labor, but my cervix had not yet dilated beyond one centimeter, and she didn’t think I needed to be admitted to the hospital just yet. Deflated, we left and picked up some fast food at a clown themed local restaurant. Eating a cheeseburger and shake at the picnic tables outside, I started to worry about my labor.
I drove us home, and my husband grumbled about going to work. He left. I called my mom and sister, to update them on my lack of progress. I watched some movies from the rental store, though I can’t for the life of me remember what they were. I couldn’t get comfortable. I was having contractions every five minutes, over and over and over again, but not moving into active labor.
I spent the night sitting upright on the couch, the closest position to comfortable I could find, nodding off between contractions, and waking up again with every one. The next morning, after a few more beers for hubby, we were on our way back to the doctor’s office.
Again she checked me, and again she informed me, my cervix wasn’t doing its job. I felt shame wash over me in that moment. I wasn’t birthing right. I wasn’t performing on command. I wasn’t connected to ancient women before me doing something natural and beautiful. I was terrified, and I was failing.
My doctor sent me home again. My husband left for work again. I stayed home. I called my mother and sister again, to inform them of my lack of progress. Again. They came over with yoga balls to lean on, tea, and sympathy. My sister was a few months behind me in her first pregnancy, and watched on seemingly serene.
When my husband got home from work, and my mother and and sister had left, I dragged my whining mate along with me to the hospital, again driving for 45 minutes, again having contractions every five, but by now so exhausted I was periodically bursting into tears.
I went to the labor and delivery ward at the hospital we’d planned to birth in. An abrupt nurse took my insurance information, shoved a hospital gown at me, and drew curtains around the bed. I did my best to change myself, in my tired and weeping state. Someone else came in to put on a blood pressure cuff and a fetal heart monitor. After about ten minutes, a doctor – not mine – came in and gave me a vaginal exam. She told me that I was still at one centimeter. I had been in labor for two and a half days, and I hadn’t progressed at all.
She sent me home.
No rejection I have ever received – not from an employer, or audition, or romantic prospect, or friend – has ever made me feel so bad about myself as being sent home for failing to progress. They called it failure, and that’s what I felt like. Birth was supposed to be this natural thing, this thing that I as a woman could just do – and here I was, mucking it all up. I’d gotten the contractions part down, and failed to do anything beyond that.
The doctor sent me home with a sample packet of a sleeping aid, and recommended I have a glass of wine with it. I spent another night on the couch, not even trying to sleep, but sobbing into a pillow and petting the new kitten my husband had insisted on having, despite our inability to provide for ourselves competently.
My husband went off to the bar the next day while my mom and sister came over. I told them he was at work because I was too ashamed of his uselessness and obvious lack of respect for me. At this point, I got the brilliant idea into my head that I would just have a home birth. The hospital didn’t want me. I started looking up home remedies to make labor progress, and wondered if I could make it to the health food store to get any of them.
My mom was not pleased by the sudden change in plans. My sister, who was already planning a home birth with a midwife herself, voiced no concerns, but my mother did. She pointed out that all my planning had been around a hospital birth, that I didn’t have a midwife, and that she really, really did not want to serve in that capacity. I am grateful for her intervention at a time when my critical thinking abilities had been stretched to a breaking point by pain and sleeplessness.
When my husband came home and when my sister departed, my mother drove us both to the hospital. The same nurse who’d been abrupt the night before was almost sneering, You again? And my mother, a quiet, reserved, non-confrontational woman by nature, became my fierce advocate in that moment. She insisted I have a different nurse assigned to me.
I was admitted to a labor and delivery room – at last! My own doctor came in then to break my water, and agree on a time to start a Pitocin drip to progress the labor if necessary.
Finally, blessedly, after three and a half days, I was given my first bit of pain relief in the form of an IV of Staydol. The Staydol was necessary to get an epidural needle in, because by this point my body was wracking in convulsions with each contraction, and I couldn’t keep still enough for the anesthesiologist to give me an epidural without that pain relief.
I slept for a few merciful hours of labor I didn’t have to consciously experience.
Throughout the night, doctors came and went and examined me. At some point in time my mother-in-law showed up, determined to watch the show, though I am quite certain I don’t remember inviting her. Still, I didn’t progress. My goddamned cervix was going to be the death of me, and my son, I was convinced of it.
I hadn’t eaten in a few days by this point, and I was hungry, but even more so incredibly thirsty. The nurses wouldn’t give me anything to drink, just IV fluids, though my mom did sneak me tiny sips from a water bottle she had secreted in her purse.
The contractions weren’t so bad once I had the epidural, though I kept having to lean forward to get another and another. I had four epidurals in all, thanks to my non-progressing labor. Somewhere in there we started Pitocin, though it didn’t seem to do much either.
I drifted in and out of fitful, worried sleep. At 6 in the morning, four days after the start of my labor, my OB took my mother aside, having figured out for herself who my real birthing partner was, not that feckless husband of mine chain smoking outside, and told her it was time to start thinking about c-section. There was a limit on how many epidurals it was wise for me to get before the risk of side effects became a concern, she said, and enough hours had now passed since breaking my water that infection was a cause for worry. If I wasn’t dilated to ten centimeters within the hour, she’d begin preparations for transferring me to surgery.
At 7 o’clock when my OB performed her final exam, my cervix finally performed. I was elated. Sure it had taken me longer than any birth I’d heard of, but I was going to have the oh-so-goddamn-important vaginal birth after all. Hooray!
A lot of people I didn’t want anywhere near my vagina suddenly crowded down there. My doctor was having her elbows jostled by my mother, my husband (who by this point of the labor, I actively hated), my mother-in-law (who I have always hated), and a nurse standing there with a full length mirror so I, too, could witness the glory of my bloody crotch.
One problem though, the epidural was wearing off. I could definitely feel my legs, and everything else. These active labor contractions hurt a lot more than the contractions I’d been dealing with for four days. These took my breath away and left me without the strength to cry. Birth wasn’t something I was doing. Birth was something being done to me. And it hurt, horribly.
I started to lose the will to go on at that point, deliriously convinced it was my fate to be in labor forever, and to never hold my baby. The nurse holding the mirror encouraged me to look at my baby’s head starting to crown. Somehow that sight did provide motivation, and I pushed. I pushed with all my might. I pushed as hard as I could. I pushed so hard I dislocated my right hip, which was already prone to such injuries.
Three or four more pushes after that and the baby came out. And I was supposed to be happy. I wasn’t supposed to complain. I wasn’t supposed to tell anyone how horrible that was, and that while I LOVED my son, that was one of the worst experiences of my young life.
I never wrote my birth story, because I felt ashamed. I felt like I had failed at the essence of womanhood. I thought I was the one who fucked up, instead of the people who told me pretty, merciless lies about labor and childbirth. I’m amazed I got through this, and I have tears streaming down my face as I am typing now.
I’m glad I got it out.
Edit: I realized after writing this that I left two elements out of the story. The first was that my labor was back labor, and the second was that I had a first degree tear resulting from delivery.
I’m glad you got it out too, that sounds miserable. I had one birth that resulted in a c-section. Turns out my kiddo had the umbilical cord around her neck, which explains why she didn’t drop and why I didn’t go into labor. Good thing my doctor decided for me what to do and when, I was miserably over due and my child weighed nine pounds. I was ready to not be pregnant too.
I hope you no longer feel ashamed. It was absolutely not your fault. So many things are uncertain with our bodies. These narratives about how easy and wonderful childbirth and pregnancy are need to die a horrible death. They are rarely true for a majority.
Many warm fuzzies to you, if you want them. I hope you and your son are both happy and healthy now.
You did not fail, not at all. I am sorry all that happened to you. You’re right, the birthers do tell an idealized version. In reality it is painful, messy, and awkward.
Angie, I do not know what is worst, that you had to go through that in the 21st century, or that on top of everything you were led to feel embarrassed about it. Although, on second thought, it is probably that many women likely are still finding themselves in the same situation because of the same stupid flim-flam.
On the bright side, taking all this time to think about it, and waiting all these years to tell the story had at least one very positive outcome: I cannot imagine how it could be better written or a more clear, insightful and compelling way of telling the story.
“Birth wasn’t something I was doing. Birth was something being done to me.”
Yeah, this. Totally this.
What a lot of “natural birth advocates” seem not to be able to get is that the labour experience is very different for different people, and that a long labour can be particularly demoralizing. I was in labour for several days, but it was fairly low level and I could still sleep, run errands, etc. But I was in active labour (with contractions that were seriously debilitating) for about 23 hours, and that was more than enough. By the time they gave me my epidural, I was so physically and emotionally exhausted that I don’t know if I’d even have been able to push if the epidural hadn’t bought me a little relief (even so, it only froze one side of my body, and it wore off quite quickly – I was feeling everything by the time I went into the pushing phase).
But by far the worst part was the actual pushing. I’d push as hard as I could and feel my son coming through, but then he’d slide back in between contractions. It wasn’t even that it was the most painful part of labour (it wasn’t – my theory is that my son pressing on my cervix had been the reason why the contractions were so bad. And by the time I was pushing, he’d passed that part so it actually hurt less). It was just so demoralizing to be working so hard and to feel him slide back… Blergh…
Once it was over, it was over, though. I able to get up and take a shower right away, I was taking long-ish walks within a couple days, and I did get that huge flood of oxytocin. But, still, the experience of the pain and the fact that it was so outside of my control left me feeling symptoms that I can only describe as PTSD for several months afterwards. I’d just be doing something mundane, like washing dishes, and I’d suddenly collapse in tears and start hyperventilating. It’s not even that I was remembering the labour, but that the “feeling” of it would just wash over me, seemingly at random.
Then it happened less and less often, and then it finally stopped. And now I’m at a point where I’m feeling pretty detached from that experience.
But to tie it all into the abortion debate, as a young woman I’d often heard that I would change my mind on abortion once I had children of my own (sometimes phrased as “having had children, I really can’t see how anyone would want to kill their baby”). But if anything, the experience has solidified my position. I don’t want ANYONE going through labour – even what we call “easy” labour – if they aren’t looking forward to the reward of a baby at the end. It’s just not fair.
Oh man Angie–first, you are an amazing writer. Second, what a story and how awful that you were treated that way. I’m glad you had your mother there to serve as your advocate. WTF was your mother-in-law doing peeking in at your vagina? I can’t imagine!
So glad your story had a happy ending, but I’m so sorry you had to experience this. Never blame yourself or your body, though–medical staff have no idea how damaging their words or behavior can be. They were the ones who fucked up in treating you in such a way, not you!