While it’s so important to make space for and share the hard stories, the stories of births that weren’t what we’d hoped for or expected, it’s also important to find space for the birth stories that help us eliminate the fear associated with labor and delivery and normalize the process of bringing a human into the world. And that’s what my story is- an everyday miracle that has made me say ‘thank you’ aloud to my body every day since. It’s allowed me to be grateful for the soft pillow that is now my stomach, to find patience with the soreness and even the hemorrhoids and the engorged boobs and the varicose veins in my legs and the general sense that my face has aged a few years in only a few weeks – because my body did the hardest thing it will ever have to do and it SHOULD look changed and bare the marks of human life. We don’t always get to choose how our bodies perform during labor but we do get to choose how we think about our bodies afterward. I’m making a conscious effort to feel gratitude and patience.
It’s hard to pick a starting point to this story. I could start the story of Crosby’s entrance into the world back at the restaurant on Friday night, days before I’d actually lay eyes on him, when contractions came on with such regularity that I asked for our dinner to be packed up into cardboard containers to be eaten at home. Or I could start it at the children’s museum the morning before he was born, where my three year old son Luke sat on what remained of my lap during story time, his back pressed up against his brother’s who was gently being squeezed by my tightening uterus- an invisible seat belt strapped across my waist getting tighter and tighter as the minutes rolled on. I could start it at the restaurant where we ate lunch with my brother later that day, where the agitation of having to exercise patience with a new-to-the-job waiter was almost more than I could bare.
But, because Crosby’s birth story is also my birth story and I get to choose its genesis, I will say that labor started while I was taking my evening walk, talking on the phone to my oldest friend, Phoebe, and laid eyes on a baby snake slithering down into a drain as a contraction stopped me in my tracks. Then, a few blocks later as the evening light waned, a baby frog caught my eye. These newborn animal encounters, we agreed, must mean my baby was coming, too.
When I returned home, my husband and my mom were focused on an exciting Yankees game and I joined them in the living room. I announced that I thought maybe we should try timing my contractions for a little while. As we sat around watching the game I would have recognizable, but not very strong contractions every 10-15 minutes. Then, as the game ended (and the Yanks won!), they mysteriously stopped. This, dear reader, is when I was sent over the edge and morphed from an optimistic woman in early labor to a bereft, hysterical woman convinced I would, in fact, be the only person on earth to be pregnant for all of eternity. I stormed out of the living room and sobbed inconsolably on my bed for a few minutes, convinced that once again labor was playing games with me- that in fact this was not true labor and I would have to go back to the mentally exhausting waiting game that had tortured me for the last 4 days. Worse still, I’d have to face a room full of eager 5 and 6 year-olds the next morning, and I knew that in my current condition I was no match for their enthusiastic little selves.
After a few minutes of crying- a cathartic release of anxiety and frustration, Mike came in to check on me. He encouraged me to come sit with him on the couch and I agreed. As I lay in his arms feeling sorry for myself and pondering what materials I would need to set out for the first graders’ family portrait project the next day, a contraction took hold of me so intensely that I moaned. As soon as it was over I shot up and gleefully said, “That really hurt!” Mike had a nanosecond to process my change in mood (and apparent delight at intense physical pain) before I began giving him directives on how to support me the next time a contraction came (come over to me immediately and press on my hips). I sat on the yoga ball and decided we should listen to the hypnobirthing audio track called “Early Labor.” Once we got past an inexplicably hilarious opening line that went something like, “Welcome to your Birthing Day,” (I am positive ‘Birthing Day’ is capitalized in the text) I found the calm Aussie accent of the instructor, Kathryn Clark, to be really grounding and supportive. I ended up listening to her at home, in the car on the way to the birthing center, and while being hooked up to the fetal monitor when I first got to the birthing center.
As contractions continued at home and became closer together, Mike decided it was time to let the midwives know. We made a plan to meet at the birthing center at 11:45pm. As Mike gathered our things together, my mom came to support me by rubbing my back. Having the woman who gave me my life, who had labored to bring me into the world 32 years earlier, there to support me in early labor felt like a very sacred and unique blessing.
When we arrived at the birthing center (after a mercifully speedy drive including a few safely run red lights- a stark contrast to my drive through the Battery Park Tunnel from Brooklyn to Manhattan during transitional labor with Luke…), we met the midwife, Bridget. She checked my cervix in an exam room (I was 4 cm dilated) and hooked me up to a monitor to ensure the baby was doing okay. Once this was confirmed, we headed back into the birthing center which is essentially 3 hotel rooms at the end of the hall from the OBGYN office. Once in our room, Bridget was in and out setting things up–preparing the bath and taking notes–while Mike and I excitedly explored the space for a few minutes.
In between contractions I had him take my picture, I was just so excited to be there and in labor, finally, after days of waiting.
From this point on things got pretty “intense” as they like to say (“intense” is the ubiquitous word for “the most pain of your life” that people like to use to describe labor to people who have never been in labor). I lay on my side in bed between contractions and once I would feel one rising up I would climb off the bed and lean over it while Mike pressed on my hips. Eventually, though, I was unable to climb off the bed and I stayed on the bed and got into something like a child’s pose for each contraction. At this point the contractions were coming pretty close together, but I would still rest on my side in between, sometimes even falling asleep and dreaming for a minute or two. This is the point in labor where I feel like you are completely along for the ride and any thought that you might be in control is released so that your body can take over.
To be able to actually fall asleep for 1-2 minute intervals and have a dream seems physically impossible to me, but in labor superhuman things happen and when your body decides it wants a break it simply turns off.
At some point while on the bed I noticed the break I was getting seemed a bit longer than the others and while I was so grateful for a longer break, I instinctively knew this meant things were about to get even more intense. As I’d anticipated, the next contraction was longer and stronger than the others. I begged Mike to repeat to me, “it’s going to end” (the only mantra that feels supportive to me in labor) while Bridget massaged my hips and Mike stayed close to my head and held my hand. I made sounds that are impossible to replicate. I felt as though my pelvis and tailbone were gagging and grinding for an interminably long amount of time. I was sure I wasn’t getting enough oxygen even though I was breathing more intentionally and harder than ever before in my life. Days later when the muscles in my forehead ached I would remember this contraction and the way I’d stuffed my face into the pillow, scrunching my face up and squeezing my eyes shut as tightly as possible as I attempted to move the baby down with my breath.
At this point, Bridget suggested I get in the tub. It was 1:30AM, so about an hour and a half after I’d arrived at the birthing center. As I sat down in the warm water I experienced 5 seconds of true bliss. I was completely intoxicated by the feeling of the water. I think I said something like, “Oh my god, you guys, this water, oh my god, it feels so good” in a similar voice to perhaps your high school self stoned for the first time discovering Cheetos in your friend’s pantry at 2:00 a.m. But as soon as I got the words out a contraction of the highest order absolutely rocked me, reminding me that, in fact, while the bathtub did resemble a tub I’d seen once at a luxury spa, this was no spa day. I ended up sitting up on my knees and leaning over the edge of the tub, gripping Mike’s hand and putting my face into a towel, biting it and moaning as each contraction came over me with unrelenting force. At this point there weren’t really any breaks between contractions, just enough of a release to catch my breath, sometimes say something like, “No, no, no” as the tightening would rise up again inside me. Mike’s head was pressed against mine and he spoke reassuringly to me, reminding me they would end and that he was so proud of me. Bridget was with us, but she was quiet and observing, letting Mike support my mind and my body do the work.
After 15 minutes Bridget said, “Your water just broke.” I think because I was in the tub I really didn’t feel it happen and was too focused on survival to care or understand what that meant. Almost immediately after, I started to bare down uncontrollably. Bridget noticed and said, “It looks like maybe you’d like to start pushing.”
To which I think I said something like, “No. Maybe? I don’t know. I’m scared.”
The next contraction came and seemed longer and stronger than any others and I had no choice but to bare down. And as I started to bare down I could feel and remember that this was the way I was going to make the pain stop. And yet I also knew that I would have to choose to increase the level of pain to get to that point. Mentally, I remember that in labor with Luke this was a terrible contradiction that I really struggled with. I remember engaging in something of an argument with the midwife claiming that this would be impossible. This time, however, I fully gave in to this reality and as the next contraction came I pushed and breathed and begged and screamed and repeated and felt my body split open and my baby’s head come out and then I heard Bridget say, “Just one more and he’ll be out” so I kept going even though I was sure that I couldn’t, that there was no “more” left in me and that surely this level of pain could not be right but that I needed it to be over. As I considered this, I did keep going and I discovered there was in fact “more” and the next words I heard were, “Reach down and bring your baby out.”
And then just as it was in the fantasies I’d had at the end of pregnancy, I could feel his slippery wet skin, too much of it for his small body, pressed up against my chest and neck. I could feel with my own fingers the bones of his spine that just hours earlier I’d been watching press against my abdomen. His cry was clear and loud and desperate. I could feel and smell and hear my baby. I looked into Mike’s wet eyes and saw shock and awe and amazement and pride and bliss. I felt the deep, indescribable relief of a body that suddenly did not hurt, but rather was singing with indescribable ecstasy.