My decision to have a home birth was sort of a long and incremental journey. I can’t quite say when I concretely made the decision to birth at home, the idea just sort of solidified after lots of thought, accumulated knowledge and, quite frankly, fear. It started with fear, actually. As I entered my early twenties and women I knew began having babies, I noticed that many of the births happened by C-Section. I witnessed the painful recovery of some of those births and thought to myself, “Gee, I hope I don’t have a C-Section.” After both of my sisters ended up with emergency C-Sections, my paranoia that this was my future started to increase; thus the research began. Bear in mind, now, that I wasn’t yet married, pregnant, or even considering either option in the near future, so really I spent a good long while pondering this particular issue.
I discovered that having a doula during labor and delivery somehow reduced the number of C-Sections. Well sign me up! And explain that one for me, please? In short I found the reason usually came down to a decrease in requests for pain medicine and other interventions as a result of the support this labor partner offers. Okay, so I tuck that one in the back of my consciousness. Hire a doula and don’t get an epidural. No epidural = less chance of C-Section. No epidural. Hmmm. I can live with that. I mean, when you think about it, someone is putting an enormous needle into your spine. That sounds risky, right? What if they mess up? What if I were permanently paralyzed? Gasp! So my paranoia of a C-Section turned into paranoia of an epidural. And it was decided. No epidural. Years pass and I eventually fall in love, get married and wait a good six years before getting pregnant. During the year it took to conceive I researched birth centers in my area. As it turned out there weren’t any, not within reasonable driving distance to where I live. Disappointed, I continued my research into local midwives and met with two amazing and wonderful women that I absolutely adored. They directed me to their supervising physician/OB-GYN when I presented my fertility concerns, and gave me some great nutritional advice they believed would help increase my chances of getting pregnant. We also discussed home birth. I asked about how they handled emergency situations, specific things, like the cord being wrapped around the neck or hemorrhage, what their C-Section rate was and I finally concluded that if I wanted to avoid a C-Section and wasn’t going to get an epidural that it didn’t really seem necessary to give birth in the hospital.
Several months passed and I ended up watching The Business of Being Born and was happy to be able to share it with my husband to get him comfortable with the idea of me birthing at home. It just makes sense! Pitocin, epidural, interventions, impatient doctors and nurses…this all leads to C-Sections! Yikes! Okay, so now I am REALLY convinced that home birth is the way to go…
Fast forward to September 19, 2009, my due date. I received my fourth “labor prep” acupuncture treatment that morning and it was a good one! And by good I mean I experienced intense back labor during the majority of the treatment, which subsided when the treatment ended. The day went by pleasantly and I retired to bed at about 9:00 pm, which is about the time I felt those same waves of back labor I felt that morning, now coupled with abdominal contractions. This exact scenario occurred the evening before, starting at about 9:00 p.m. I had contractions every ten minutes for about two hours.
I remember thinking the contractions were much more painful than I expected them to be right from the start. The comparison that early labor can feel similar to “period cramps” is a bunch of bull, or so it was in my case. I attempted to sleep, but there was no way I was going to be able to sleep through the intensity, and 10 minutes was not nearly enough of a break to get anything close to sleep. I started timing the contractions at about 11:00 p.m., and tried wrapping my lower back with a heating pad to help with the back labor. Since that didn’t work so well, I asked my husband to push the pad into my lower back every time I had a contraction. That was more helpful and God bless him for staying awake most of the night with me doing this tedious routine. At around 4:00 a.m. the contractions were about five minutes apart for an hour straight, so I got up and called my midwife, and began preparing some things that needed to be ready for the big event. After asking me some details she told me to try and get some rest and wisely did not inform me that I was nowhere near active labor. I was able to stay in bed most of the night, but by 8:00 a.m. the contractions were too intense to be inactive so I called my doula and asked her to come over. I’m not gonna lie, I was starting to get a little freaked out about how painful the contractions were becoming. I tried attaching and using the TENS unit I borrowed from my Aunt, but alas it did nothing to relieve the intensity that I was experiencing and only added an annoying element to each contraction with the electrical sensation it produced. I had a lot of hope wrapped up in that little machine and was very disappointed to have it fail to work for me.
I trusted my doula’s experience as a labor partner so when she suggested we call my midwife again, I was hopeful I was at least at three cm dilated, if not a four or five. My contractions had been consistently five minutes apart for hours, and the back labor was getting really intense. It was 2:00 in the afternoon when Jake came for the first time. That put me at 17 hours of labor up to that point. Seriously, I must be getting close, right? I mean, my mother never went past 12 hours, including pushing. This was getting a little long in my opinion. I was so happy to have my midwife there and excited to know how far along I had come. After her inspection she concluded I was dilated two centimeters. TWO! I had no idea how I could possibly react positively to this news. I was shocked and disappointed to say the least. Jake was very encouraging, thought I was doing great, again wanted me to get some rest and said she was going to leave for a little while and come back later. I cried. Nothing says, “You’re not even close” like the midwife not finding it necessary to stay.
So, okay then. I’ll try and get some rest. What can I possibly do? I have no choice here. I must walk this path wherever it takes me ‘cause this baby has got to come out. I got in my bed and was able to almost sleep for two hours. I had maybe three contractions that first hour. The intensity started picking up again, so we got out of bed and back to the business of laboring.
My doula was absolutely amazing. She helped me keep my focus, massaged my lower back, breathed with me and kept me hydrated, fed and active. She also kept track of my contraction spacing, which was really great. We took two long walks. I marched up and down the stairs in my house, got in and out of the shower at least six times. I spent hours on the exercise ball. I threw up three times. I ate yogurt, part of an apple, peanut butter toast and drank the two quarts of laborade I had prepped and frozen weeks before.
I spent most of my labor vocalizing my exhale and trying to focus on keeping my face and body soft. By the time I was in active labor and on into pushing I found this task to be as easy as I imagine playing dead when being attacked by a grizzly bear would be. I always knew when a contraction was about to come as I had this strange feeling that would rise up in my chest like I was about to have a panic attack. It happened every time just before a contraction would begin.
On our second long walk as the sun was setting a neighbor came out to ask if I was in labor (she no doubt heard my very vocal exhale against the tree in front of her house along the boulevard), and said, “Good luck! It is so worth it!” I mentally wanted to curse her but physically didn’t have the energy to bother. I distinctly remember walking back to my house and gripping on to the brick wall of a building we were walking past and completely losing my composure. That contraction was so intense I broke down sobbing.
My husband and doula helped me back to my house and into the shower for some much needed heat relief. We called my midwife and she arrived at about 9:00 p.m. I was afraid what her inspection would reveal and for good reason. I was at a four. FOUR! I am 24 hours in and am just now ENTERING active labor. You MUST be shitting me. I fell apart. I buried my face in the blankets of my bed, cried and demanded we go to the hospital. I was too tired. I was in too much pain. At that point I didn’t think I could handle one more contraction let alone hours and hours more of the same. How could I possibly have the strength to push this baby out? I felt so weak and exhausted, helpless and desperate. I had all these loving people here to support me, but they could not save me from this misery. I had to face it on my own. I began thinking of what I would wear to the hospital. I imagined the fluorescent lights and the face of my doctor. I wondered how on earth I was going to survive the 20 minute car ride to Cedars Sinai. I thought of the disappointment of having failed at this home birth that I had so romantically dreamed about. But it had to happen. I had to get an epidural. I needed relief to get some rest and regain some strength to push this baby out.
My doula assured me that active labor goes much more quickly than early labor. While she was right and very supportive in that moment, the end to this ordeal could not come quickly enough. My midwife was very concerned about what was most upsetting to me at that moment. It was the back labor. I couldn’t get a break from the pain. It just got so much worse with the contraction but would never go away. She gave me a homeopathic remedy and wanted me to walk up and down the stairs to hopefully move the little dude’s head as it was most likely putting pressure on my back and causing the pain. No way. That was NOT happening. I could barely get out of bed at that point. I threw up when I tried to get upright to get out of bed. When I got up I wrapped my arms around my husband’s neck and just held on to him, rocking and swaying downward through the contractions willing this baby out. I clung to my husband for probably an hour in this way. I went into a kind of trance at that point where the only thought going through my head was, “Please God. Please God help me.” I never decided not to go to the hospital, I just never brought it up again and everyone just went about the evening as if I had never said anything about it.
Two more midwife apprentices showed up and went to work setting up the birth tub. I have no idea how long they had been there before I noticed, I was in such a haze of focusing on remaining calm and soft while really just feeling like I was surviving each contraction. My doula got me into my shower, then into my tub while I waited for the birth tub to be ready. Nothing was so wonderful during my labor as getting into that birth tub. It was inflated from the bottom all the way up the sides. It was so soft, warm and welcoming. The depth was also very wonderful and the handles on the sides were awesome. I could have spent my entire labor in this place. I was in there for hours. Being completely enveloped in warm water did so much to help my nervous system calm down in between contractions and give me a greater sense of peace while waiting for the next one to come. At some point, maybe around midnight, my midwife checked my progress and I was at a seven. SEVEN! Okay, enough with the centimeter exclamations already. I asked Jake why it was taking so long and she explained that sometimes when the water hasn’t broken the bag ends up providing a bit of a cushion between the head and the cervix so the contractions aren’t quite as effective. Well then break the damn bag, woman! It is time for this to be over! Okay, so I didn’t say it quite like that, but I had her break my water right then and there. I could barely breathe through my next three contractions, they were so intense. With the fourth contraction came an overwhelming and all consuming urge to push. Well I guess breaking the waters worked! I went from a seven to a ten in three contractions.
While I was enormously relieved to finally be entering the end stage of this labor, it blew my mind that the pushing contractions were even more intense than anything I had yet experienced. How could this even be possible? No matter, I had to set to work getting this baby out finally. I put everything I had remaining in my being into each and every single push. For three hours.
My husband got into the tub with me to provide support behind me so I could just rest on him in between each push. This went on for hours until Jake suggested I get out of the tub and try sitting on the birth stool. Being upright made a huge difference, and the oxygen they gave me at this point was amazing. His head crowned and he emerged all in the same contraction. His body was a breeze to get out in the next contraction. The Little Dude was finally out within seven minutes of sitting in a semi-squatted position. Hallelujah! It was over. The pressure was gone. My back was free!
Jake put the Little Dude directly into my arms. I couldn’t believe how huge he was! He cried and wiggled and was so slippery I was almost afraid to hold him. He was very gurgley in his cries so my midwives lifted him upside down and used a bulb suction to clear the fluid. My placenta dropped out within a minute or so, and Daddy got to cut the cord. The three of us got into my bed and snuggled up as my midwives went about doing their newborn checks, getting Little Dude warm and making sure I was all good.
And that’s when it happened, that quiet alert phase newborns enter into. He was on my chest and I was just looking down at him and he was looking up at me. His little hand was snuggled up to his chin, jerking unintentionally every once in awhile. His little tongue came pushing out. His eyes were so dark and his skin was red. It was the sweetest moment I have ever experienced. Pure magic.
I got a look at my placenta (which I had encapsulated to ingest later on, of course), received a few stitches, calculated the labor duration (31 hours total), was served some food which I didn’t have much of an appetite for and the three of us were eventually left to fall asleep. The most peaceful and joyful rest we have ever shared.
I have heard it said, and have read it in birth stories, that women who give birth sans drugs feel a great sense of empowerment and strength, like they could do anything after accomplishing that. Personally, I felt the exact opposite. I felt like I just barely survived. I felt I had made the ultimate sacrifice, short of giving up my life.
In those last hours of labor, and in the days following, I was enveloped by a great sense of quiet humbleness. Over and over I contemplated the sacrifice Jesus made on the Cross. The suffering He endured is hard for anyone to grasp; in my most desperate hour I felt I came just a little closer to understanding a bit of the sacrifice, the choice to suffer extreme physical and emotional pain for something greater. And I will never walk with a swagger for enduring what I consider to be the greatest sacrifice I have ever made. I know that it comes nowhere close to His.
My lovely midwife, Jake. She has since passed, and is missed.