At 39 weeks, I was starting to get miserable. I was walking around on giant, swollen mammoth feet and starting to have reoccurring contractions. Every night, around the same time, these contractions would wake me up in the middle of the night, last for several hours, and then taper off by morning. This went on for over 2 weeks. While I was extremely discouraged that these contractions felt so pointless and I was unable to achieve a decent night's sleep, my midwife told me I was just experiencing prodromal labor and my body was simply preparing for real labor. Basically everything was fine, normal, and I needed to keep living my life. But at 7 days past my due date, I was just about to lose my mind. Desperate for sleep and the "no baby yet?" texts to cease, I went on a long uphill walk with Andrew. Mammoth feet be damned, this baby needed to get out.
Several hours later, the walk seemed to do the trick. I began to have consistent and continuous contractions that were growing closer together. After 6 hours of laboring at home and timing contractions that were lasting for one minute, five minutes apart, and had been this way for over an hour, I finally called my midwife. To my dismay, she told me I should really wait until the contractions were closer to 4 minutes apart and then give her a call back. Why don't I just actually wait until Jennifer Aniston finally gets married? Seems like those two things are on the same time trajectory…
And wouldn't you know it, by about 9:00 a.m. that morning, the contractions had tapered off and I was back to square one. Fortunately for my sanity, my labor resumed that evening. It was a Sunday, and I began to have contractions around 7:00 p.m. By 2:00 a.m., they were pretty intense and finally four minutes apart. I was doing my best to breathe deeply and implement all the things I had read in Ina May Gaskin's birthing book and the Hypnobirthing book. After talking to my midwife, I decided to labor at home for another hour and then head to the birth center. Andrew took a shower and I mostly paced the upstairs hallway, wondering if I would actually have a baby today (spoiler alert: you will not). By around 3:30, we had all our stuff together and I was starting to feel nauseous. We took one glorious photo to remember my misery and swollenness and then got in the car.
Soo riding in a car when you're in labor is pretty much awful. Sitting in a small, confined space upright, while you have to drive over speed bumps or generally just be in motion is a recipe for the most vociferous road rage ever. Thankfully it was the middle of the night so there wasn't any traffic, but it was still a 25-minute drive to the birth center. I began to feel absolutely certain the baby was going to be born in the car, and as a result became very adamant that Andrew better drive a whole lot faster.
Surprised to have not had a baby in our Honda...because then we would have had to have named him Honda, we made it to the birth center around 4:00 a.m. It was apparently a special time in everyone's life 9 months ago because the birth center was nearly full, so I wasn't able to get the room I wanted and was escorted into the smaller, nautical-themed blue room. The fact that I remember this annoying me is a sign that things clearly weren't that bad in my labor, or that my dislike for ocean things is stronger than I realized. But I was completely dejected and shocked when my midwife checked me and matter-of-factly told me that I was at a 3. A 3? Seriously. As in just after a 2? After what felt like 2 days of active labor and 2 weeks of early labor? While she assured me this was completely normal and the stage most women come into the birth center, I was left feeling very discouraged and frankly a little embarrassed. Especially when she told me she would be back to check on me in four hours. Soo you don't think I'm having this baby anytime soon? If I could have known at that point that I was still 26 HOURS away from giving birth, I might have told her to come back tomorrow. Same time, same place. I'll still be here. You win this round, Aniston.
My time in the small blue room was the beginning of my difficulties. Almost immediately I began to have back labor. If you have never had back labor, I don't want to mitigate your labor (and if you’ve never had labor, I don’t want to mitigate your life), but I also want to go on record as saying that back labor is the worst thing ever. I mean, a baby is basically laying on your bones. Or at least that's how it feels—like the baby is confused about life and trying to be born out of your sacrum instead of the actual birth canal. For a majority of the first few hours, the only position that brought any relief was sitting on the birth ball, slumped over onto the bed. This position would cause me to lose all feeling in my feet because I was leaning so far forward and holding all the weight in my toes, but the loss of my feet seemed an easy sacrifice if it meant not feeling my pelvis explode. I started vomiting a bit at this point and shaking uncontrollably (which I was told was just a result of the hormones). I had mentally prepared for labor to involve pain in my uterus, but not for my back to hurt and feel like I had the flu all at once. Those were just added bonuses no one really talks about.
One strategy of dealing with back labor is to get on all fours and basically have someone bang your hips around. The point of this is to try and reposition the baby. So if I wasn’t on the birth ball, I was often on the bed, trying to move my own hips back and forth. Or, every 30 minutes or so, one of the apprentices would come into the room and basically beat on the sides of my hips like one of those bass drums in your high school marching band.
After 8 hours of labor at home and 4 hours of back labor at the birth center, I was pretty ready for some drugs. It's important to mention that I chose to give birth at a birth center in downtown Portland. As an advocate for natural birth, I figured I was best served at a center run by midwives who offered you tea at your appointments, let you sit leisurely on giant couches during your prenatal appointments and where, on the wall of baby names brightly displayed in the reception room, people named their babies things like Bonanza Jellybean. This, of course, meant there were also no drugs. Nothing. Because of course, adrenaline and oxytocin and stuff are released during your labor so you have natural drugs...
The birth center was also technically a water birth center, so it seemed like a good idea to try to get into the tub to alleviate some of the pain. One of the apprentices drew a bath and lit some candles and Andrew helped me in. I think I made it less than a minute before I demanded someone help me out. The theory of hot water sounded really great, but with back labor, I was constantly wanting to grip onto something to help ground the pain. So floating aimlessly on my back made me feel a little panicked and less able to cope with contractions.
Disappointed, I managed to get out of the tub and was asked to sit down on a tufted bench so they could listen to the baby's heart beat—something they tried to do every 30 minutes or so in lieu of continual fetal monitoring. Mentally, I was starting to hit a wall. All my birth visualizations and prenatal yoga and Ina May books had really focused on the power of breath—that the uterus functions as a muscle and we can breathe to create space within our body, we can breathe through contractions to help us relax, and we can breathe to focus our thoughts on something. Blah, blah, blah, breathe and your labor will basically feel like a Hawaiian vacation. But frankly, all my breathing methods went out the window with back labor. No matter how many deep breaths I took, or how low I moaned on the exhale or relaxed my jaw, the baby never stopped laying on my sacrum. I didn't have a game plan going forward. And so, as I sat on the upholstered bench still shaking from the weird hormone concoction going on in my body, I asked once more for the large metal bowl and threw up again.
And then almost instantly, in what seemed like the most wonderful thing to ever occur in my whole life, the baby seemed to change positions and my labor completely stalled out. I felt nothing! There was no more back pain or moaning or vomiting or people punching me in the hips. I felt completely normal and like myself again. Surely this was all over now and we could just go back home and the baby would magically appear on his own!
The midwives were happy to see a change in me and that I requested some food. They brought me some cheese and weird rice crackers (because of course there are no regular crackers) as well as some coconut water. Apparently, the woman across the hall who had been occupying the nice large red room I actually wanted had been sent home because she wasn't ready to have her baby. Sucker! Now I could waltz over to the giant suite and peacefully continue with my pain-free labor. So I dressed myself and walked down the hall and tried to mentally reassure myself that things were turning around for me.
I think I spent about 10 minutes in our new room, talking to Andrew, eating crackers, and checking in with my midwives, before I said one of the dumbest things you can probably say during labor: "I think the worst is over," I proclaimed to Andrew with a sigh. Oh do you, Lyndsey? Do you also think the baby is going to hologram beam into this room from your uterus, Star Trek-style? Because that is a really dumb thing to say when there's still a baby stuck inside you. That at least, is what someone's response should have been to me in that moment. Instead, Andrew just nodded and midwives prepared some more incense or herbs or magic spells or something and I sat down peacefully on a chair in the room.
Within a few minutes, I could feel things starting to change. The contractions were coming on strong. I took one or two hits while I was standing with my arms around Andrew's neck, and then the back labor returned, but this time even more overwhelmingly. And somehow, I ended up on all fours on the ground hunching forward, groaning, and remained that way for a long time.
Even for someone as unfamiliar with the birth process as myself, I was aware that something wasn't quite right with my labor. As I labored on the floor, my contractions no longer followed any type of normal pattern. In fact, they never seemed to stop. The pain in my uterus seemed completely overshadowed by what was gripping my back. So much so that one of the apprentices kept asking me to let her know when I was having a contraction so she could monitor the baby's heartbeat during and after the contraction, but I had lost track of what that even meant. Are you asking if I'm in pain right now? Then yes, you can currently check the baby's heartbeat. But I was someone who didn't communicate much during labor. I just gave cursory nods or head shakes and floated back into the labor abyss. People often ask me what Andrew was doing during labor, and frankly, I don't really know. I know in the beginning hours Andrew thought he was being helpful by constantly suggesting different positions or tactics I could try to lessen the pain. But that just made me extremely irritated. I also remember someone bringing him food at one point, at which my brain searched for some sarcastic comment like, "Sure, make sure he's ok!", but found none. Basically I just wanted to be in a dark room and for everyone to shut up and someone to rub really hard on my back. And also someone to cut the baby out immediately. Those were the things I most wanted. And for whatever reason, Andrew was physically unable to rub my back correctly. I still believe it might have been intentional so as to avoid giving me a back massage for a full day straight, but even with my head buried in pillows or in my hands, I could always tell when Andrew was the one applying pressure to my back. And then I would sort of screech and beg one of the apprentices to please push on my sacrum and not let Andrew try to help again. Basically, I was a gem.
And these apprentices, oh my. As a side note to my labor, there were 2 apprentices assigned to my birth and they were basically in the trenches with me from the first hour to the last. They often switched out and I'm pretty sure they both tag-teamed some naps in there somewhere, but they were my constant help. I am not exaggerating when I say someone had to be almost constantly putting pressure on my back, and I wouldn't let Andrew do it. So for over 24 hours, they knelt beside me, endured my groaning, knocked on my hips, forced me to drink water, cleaned up my vomit, and generally were uncomplaining servants.
I think we must have been at the birth center for almost 8 hours at this point because my main midwife returned to check the process of my dilation. Since there were other people giving birth at the center, my main midwife only popped in and out occasionally, as if to make sure I was still in labor, and then returned to another room where apparently some other woman was actually giving birth. I had been slouched on the floor or with my arms on a bench for some time when the midwife asked if I was able to make it to the bed. I was starting to go to a dark place mentally, and I told her I didn't think I could walk with my back pain. This was partly true, but the other truth was, I was scared of what she was going to tell me about my progress. As she somehow helped me crawl or drag myself over to the bed, I told her that if after all this time, she was going to tell me I was only at a 6, or some ridiculous number like that, I didn't think I could take it. She quickly assured me that "a 6 this point would be great. It would be great progress." This lady had to be absolutely crazy if she thought that 3cm in 8 hours was "great." Maybe let's temper our language a little bit at this point, midwife friend. "Great" can only be reserved for when I get the baby out and someone is bringing me Mexican food. For now, let's stick to words like a 6 would mean "you probably aren't going to die."
Though I had been checked for dilation once already in labor, for whatever reason, this one felt excruciating and lying on my back seemed so counterintuitive. But after just a few seconds, my midwife tried to quickly reassure me: "You're at a 6 and a half. No...you just opened to 7. I can feel your baby spinning. He's changing positions. You're at a 7 and he's spun back around."
A 7. Somehow that felt completely different than a 6. That felt a little more manageable. I had heard her say something about a 6 in the beginning and a little part of me died. But a 7? That seemed a lot closer to a 10. But why was my baby spinning? I had asked over and over again the week before my due date if my baby was in the right position. I had known someone a few months before my due date who ended up with a C-section because her baby was posterior ("sunny-side up") and I wanted to be sure that my baby was anterior and ready to be born. Just last week the baby’s position had been confirmed as ideal. But obviously that had changed early on in my labor and had led to my back labor. Since he had been posterior, it was putting different pressure on my back. He had likely flipped back to the "right" position when my labor had stalled out, and then spun back around. But now, after this examination, he had moved back to anterior position, and praise God. I felt the difference.
This was another point in my labor where things slowed way down and I experienced some much-needed relief. I confirmed with my midwife the questions I had about his spinning. And was reminded that babies have quite a tight fit and they've got to figure out how to make their passage. "He has some hair," she told me. "Not a lot. But I can feel the top of his head and he has a little bit of hair." I remember this exchange being a small bright spot in my labor. My baby had some hair. There was a real little guy inside me trying to make his way out. I'd never thought about whether or not he would have hair. And suddenly, he felt so real. I mentally held onto that detail. "He has some hair," I kept repeating to myself.
I tried to eat a few more crackers during the quiet time, and I told Andrew I was scared about what was going to happen. Last time my labor stopped briefly, it felt like it came back ten-fold, and I wasn't sure if I could keep doing this. But I was at a 7, so surely this couldn't go on much longer. Lots of people have a baby like an hour after being at a 7, or so I thought I remembered. Plus, my body was giving me this small window of time to regroup and prepare for what was ahead. So maybe I could do this.
And then, in what felt like a wave out of nowhere, my labor and my back labor came upon me like an anvil. It absolutely pummeled me. And how I ended up on the floor again, I don't remember. But for all the nice furniture in my room, slouched on the floor leaning forward on my stiffened arms seemed to be the only thing I could manage. I was crying out, clenching my teeth, yelling, moaning. I had no strategy. Mentally, I was starting to lose. Somewhere in the back of my mind, I kept thinking that if I just could have regular contractions, with any kind of a break between them, I would be ok. But I couldn't stay slumped on the floor in constant pain for hours at a time.
We must have been at the birth center now for over 12 hours because I remember it seeming like the afternoon. Somewhere deep in my subconscious, buried beneath my loss of modesty and animal-like noises, I was glad it was starting to become night again. The birth center is where you give birth, but it is also the location of all your prenatal appointments too. And since it was a weekday, some part of me was worried that some newly pregnant person was just down the hall for her first appointment and that my moaning and yelling were terrifying her into scheduling a c-section at the hospital immediately.
Because frankly, I was embarrassed by how much difficulty I was having. I had tried to think very positively about my labor experience: I had read all the right books, taken prenatal yoga, had my shin snapped in half before and therefore endured great pain in my life, so surely I would be able to handle a natural labor. And all the books I had read made a natural labor sound like such a magical, primitive, and ethereal process. And yet as I lay on the floor, I remember thinking that I was failing. I was failing to be stoic. Failing to remain calm. Failing to breathe. My midwife and I had both been Crossfitters and had often talked about working out at our appointments. Surely I did not resemble someone who was physically or mentally strong. And I remember thinking that she must not think I am strong. No one must think I am strong. I am progressing so slowly, require constant physical attention, and have been crying out in pain for the last several hours. Somewhere buried far beneath the immediate pain, I felt ashamed. I felt like I was losing a battle and there was an audience to watch me fail.
At some point, I was fortunate to enter into one those periods where my labor tapered off. But this time it was much briefer than the other periods. I was checked for dilation and I was told my water was about to break and I had moved to an 8. The options now were to wait and see if my water would break on its own, or my midwife could break it and we could see if that would move things along. As miserable as I was, I was so afraid of any type of intervention that might cause my labor to unnaturally progress. I asked my midwife if there was a chance if she broke my water that my labor might become even more intense, and she told me that was definitely a possibility. I didn't think I could handle any sudden changes, so I decided to wait and see if my water would break on its own. But after an hour or so of more back labor and moaning (have I mentioned I was having back labor?), I decided I was ready to try it. So she broke my water. Things remained the same for a short period of time, and then, whether it was a result of breaking my water or not, the labor intensified even more.
As some more hours passed and nothing was improving, I looked very seriously at Andrew and pleaded, "we've got to get out of here." And I absolutely meant it. We needed to go. I was 15 or so hours into labor and nothing was going right. I couldn't keep doing this. It wasn't so much that I wanted the epidural—I absolutely did. It was that I wanted someone to cut the baby out of me. I think I was mentally rebelling against the idea of labor and feeling somewhat betrayed by my body, and I wanted to bypass the whole experience.
"Seriously. We need to go." I repeated. And I think Andrew was somewhat torn. Later he would say that he was definitely worried at times (and an apprentice later told me he snapped at her that I was "losing all the color in my feet"), but that he was trying to follow the lead of the midwives and trust what they were doing (he also told me he set a midnight deadline—if the baby wasn't here by midnight, we'd head to the hospital). And the thing was, no one else seemed worried. At least not visibly. At a hospital, when you're in pain, people immediately respond and begin a plan of action to treat you: IV...drugs...more different drugs...etc. But even with three women in the room watching me writhe on the floor, there was no plan. Not at least the way I was hoping there would be a plan. It turns out, the only real plan is to wait. And to try to do things to ease the pain naturally. These women were obviously professionals, and though they were aware there were some abnormalities in my labor, nothing seemed to be signaling a red flag that would indicate the need for transport. And frankly, I resented that. I had wanted a natural birth without interventions and I had chosen the birth center for this very reason—that they trusted the natural birth process. But in the moment, I felt angry that no one had a tangible plan that didn't involve scented oils or trying a different position.
Things were starting to go bad physically for me at this point. I had had an elevated pulse of 120 for the last hour or so and it was clear I was dehydrated. "Good!" I thought, as I overheard them talking. If I can just be sick enough then they will let me leave. There was talk of starting me on IV fluids, but no talk of leaving for the hospital. I remember lying on the ground, slumped against the bed. I had been sweating and shaking for what felt like hours when I said again to Andrew, "We need to go." My midwife was sitting patiently across the room. "Lyndsey," she interrupted. "You need to understand what will happen if we transport you. You're going to have to get in the car again. You're going to have to fill out paperwork. They're going to have to do blood work. There isn't going to be immediate relief. You aren't going to walk in the door and get an epidural. It will be at least an hour and half before they can do something for you, but it's your choice."
And in that moment, another hour and a half felt like a lifetime. If I could have known that I was still 10 hours away from giving birth, I would have offered up a quick "peace out!" before wounded-soldier crawling towards the door. But I didn't know. I only knew I didn't want to go another hour and a half in this state. And so I felt like there was no hope. I remember looking at my midwife across the room, sitting with her elbows on her knees. It was night now, and the room was dim. Andrew was sitting on the bed, and I had a real moment of clarity where I came out of my labor fog and I realized there was nothing anyone could do to help me. And so, slumped up against the bed, I felt a wave of nausea return. But rather than call for help, or signal to someone I was going to be ill, I just stared at the comforter and threw up on the floor.
I've never understood the saying "fighting to live" when talking about a terminal illness or if someone is in a coma or something debilitating of that nature. But from my labor experience, some small part of me understands it now. All the fight had gone out of me, and I didn't have anything left. Mentally, I realized I was done for. The back labor had won. The uncertainty had won. The physical illness had won. I was no longer an active member of this process.
My midwife tried to encourage me and suggested that if I could just get into the tub, and get on all fours, someone could hold the shower nozzle of hot water over my lower back and it would likely bring some relief. Physically getting into the tub seemed impossible, and I had already tried the tub earlier in the day with no relief. But she was insistent. It seemed like she prodded me for an hour to try the tub one more time before I finally started moving that direction. I didn't really believe her, though, that the tub would do anything. But at least someone had a plan, and maybe, just maybe, she was right, and I could find a way to endure this. I found myself on the ground in front of the massive white tub and had some assistance standing up. This was a small victory. There was a wooden stool I need to step on before I could get into the water. I breathed several times before I lifted my right leg to step on the stool, and suddenly it felt like a knife was stabbed into the lower right side of my back. For the first time in my labor, I actually started screaming. Very little sound was actually coming out of my mouth because I didn't have much a voice and the screams kept catching in my throat, but I was absolutely trying to scream. I slumped back to the ground and called again and again, "My back! My back." This was something different than back labor, though—it was lower and more isolated and just on the right side. The pain was shooting down my leg and was incredibly sharp. "She's got sciatica," I heard my midwife tell Andrew while one of the apprentices pushed hard on the location of the pain. Well Mother F. If that isn't the anvil that broke the camel's back.
Some part of myself, the part that wills us to finish a workout or get out of bed in the morning, that part of me died for the next two hours on the floor. I had no self-will. Whatever waves of pain were crashing over my body, I was no longer on top of, but pummeled by again and again. And this was the darkest part of my labor. This was where I quit.
I heard my midwife use the word "hysteria" when talking to Andrew. And though I resented it even at the time and felt ashamed of my anguish, the word is likely an accurate description. I wasn't hysterical in the sense that I was screaming at people or shaking them to do something for me, but I was mentally undone. I was unresponsive and totally checked out and moaning on the floor, still with an elevated pulse. Like a flicker in the dark, I heard talk about giving me some kind of laughing gas. "THERE ARE FREAKING DRUGS IN THIS PLACE?!" I remember thinking. “And no one has told me about them?” My midwife crouched near me and told me that she had called her supervisor, who was the only one licensed to administer this gas, and this treatment would help me calm down and feel better so I could continue in my labor (as a side note, nitrous oxide can now be administered by any midwife at the birth center). It's strange how even in the depths of despair, I was worried about inconveniencing this woman who would have to drive here late at night to give drugs to a woman failing to give birth. But the mention of drugs brought something to focus on mentally. There was a new plan. Someone was going to do something. And so while I lay on the ground drenched in sweat with my eyes closed, I would slowly open them anytime I heard the door move and crane my neck upwards hoping to see an unfamiliar face who would help bring some kind of relief. I kept asking, "Is she here yet. Is she here?" And the waiting seemed to go on forever.
But she never came. The apprentices shuffled in and out. My midwife continued to check on me. But I never saw the woman who was supposed to administer the gas. My midwife knelt down beside me and when I asked again if she was here yet—the person who was going to help my pain—I was told that she had arrived, but when she observed me (I never saw her so I'm not sure if she listened outside the door or spoke with someone else), I now resembled a normal woman in labor and not a hysterical, dying person in need of intervention. So she had decided I didn't actually need any outside assistance and had returned home. “You've got to be kidding me,” I thought. After all this. After all this waiting, my one little light of hope was vanquished. The drugs were gone. And yet as mentally defeated as I felt, I recognized some truth in what they were saying. Things had slightly improved. My sciatica had subsided a bit and though the back labor persisted, it was the miserable moaning kind. The kind I was well acquainted with.
My midwife offered to check my dilation again, I think with the intention of offering me some kind of hope about my progress. But I didn't think there was any way I could back on the bed and lie on my back. She assured me she could do it where I was, in the position I was in, but I so fearful of people touching me or doing anything that might make the pain worse. The poor apprentice who was in charge of checking the baby's heart rate every 30 minutes likely thought I was the worst person ever. She was always near me with that blasted machine, trying to find the baby's heart rate, touching me with a cold nozzle and causing the baby to move inside me as he responded to the sound waves. I had tried to push her away several times, even once refusing to let her touch me. I only wanted people pushing on my back. No additional touching, moving, or prodding allowed.
I was eventually checked for dilation. I don't remember how long it took or how I got to the bed, but I made it there. "You're at a 10, and there's just a small ring of your cervix left!" my midwife quickly exclaimed. This was supposed to be reassuring and it some ways it was...and yet I still wasn't fully dilated. I still wasn't all the way there. But surely I was close. I had heard the number 10—the magical number where everything can finally change, so maybe the end was in sight. I know it only takes some people like 20 minutes to push out their babies, so maybe I was only 20-30 minutes away from this whole thing being done. And that's why I was so confused when a few minutes later, a woman walked in whom I had only met once before—she was the third midwife assigned to me (the last one I called if I couldn't get ahold of the other two) and my main midwife let me know that this woman would be taking over for her. The discouragement I felt as I realized my midwife was tapping out and a new midwife was taking over left me mentally numb. No one obviously thought this baby was going to be born anytime soon if a replacement midwife was needed. To be fair, my main midwife had already been here with me nearly 20 hours and had already delivered one baby next door. So I'm sure she was likely exhausted. But I had hoped I was almost at the end of this all and that everyone else thought that too.
I vaguely remembered my first meeting with the new midwife from several months ago: she was older, maybe in her mid-60s and had a daughter my age. We had talked about running at my prenatal appointment and I remembered she had called our meeting "delightful." But here she was now, very Portland-looking, with a long, flowing dress and homemade jewelry and her gray curly hair held up by a stick. "I don't even know this woman," I remember thinking. And as she came near me to reassure me that we were going to get this baby born, I had only one message for her: "This is the worse day of my life," I whimpered. At which she actually laughed. "Oh, honey," she sighed. "You just haven't met your baby yet! This is going to be a great day." To think about her saying that, even now, brings tears to my eyes. It meant little to me at the time; it only reminded me that I was so overwhelmed by pain to think about anything else. But she was right. I hadn't met Benjamin yet. He was a faceless being inside me, struggling to be born, and causing me immense distress. But his face, swollen and bright-eyed, that would appear just a few hours later, would color my whole birthing experience in a different light. I just didn't have that perspective at the time.
And so I continued on in my labor. Since I was nearly fully dilated, I was often asked if I felt any urge to push or bear down. Unfortunately, I did not. So we decided to move to the shower to see if the hot water could help alleviate any pain. They set up some weird sponge things to kneel on and I put my elbows on a small birthing chair and for some time, I lay crouched on the ground with the hot water running over me. Somewhere deep inside, the native Oregonian in me was worried about water conservation and since I was getting little relief, I eventually asked them to turn the water off and remained shivering and stiff on the ground. It sounds dramatic because it was. There I was, soaking wet, cold, with all the color drained out of my feet. My knees were underneath me and I was leaning all the way back on them. But rather than resting my upper body on the birthing stool, my arms were stiff in a kind of suspended push-up position and holding up the weight of my upper body. This took considerable effort to remain in that position for an hour or so, but it was the only way I felt I could manage. Everyone could see this was not an ideal labor position and I do remember Andrew at this point suggesting to me and to the apprentices that I move and try something different. But I was unresponsive. I was like Frodo in the heart of Mordor after the ring had killed his spirit and he was "naked and in the dark" and couldn't remember the taste of strawberries, or something dramatic like that (except he and I are talking about very different "rings of fire"...). I didn't see any way to improve my situation. And that's when my midwife, fresh on the call, helped to change the environment. Everyone else suggested, unconvincingly, that I should try something different. But my back pain kept me from believing I could have any relief, and it left me afraid to move or try something new. My midwife crouched next to me on the ground and softly touched my shaking arms: "Lyndsey, honey, I can see that you're really trying to do what you think is best. But I think you're using a lot of strength to hold yourself up and I really think I can get you in a position that will bring you some relief. We've got to get you to a position where you can relax. And you can't do that where you are right now." And I don't know if it was the use of a pet name, or because she smelled like cinnamon, or just a matronly presence, but I felt understood by her. If someone had asked me what kind of midwife I would have most wanted to help deliver my baby, it wouldn't have been an elderly, hair-touching, head-petting, soft-spoken woman. And yet somehow my spirit felt nurtured by her. She was physically touching me, not just to relieve my pain but to convey affection. It was like a mother's touch. And something in me needed that.
She was confident that if I could just get to the bed and lay on my side..."No, no no." I interrupted. I had tried to be on my side several times and it was horrible. I wanted to believe that she had a plan that could help but I felt paralyzed with fear to move and to try to step up on a bed. But she was adamant, in an encouraging way. And maybe it was the stubbornness in me that just wanted to prove her wrong, but she and Andrew helped me make the slow journey to the bed. My contractions had waned just enough that I was mobile and able to lay on my left side. My midwife lifted my right leg in the air and told me this might help relieve some of the sciatica. But within just a minute, I could feel a wave of pain barreling towards me, and I panicked. My instinct was to immediately roll over towards my stomach and try to push myself back onto my knees and hold myself up by my arms again. "I can't. I can't," I remember saying. But as I tried to cry out and roll over, my midwife restrained me. Not in a forceful way, but she asserted herself into the situation, holding my right shoulder in place and sternly telling me to breathe. And the contraction came and gripped my lower back like I feared it would and I'm sure I held my breath through most of it, but I was able to remain on my side until it subsided a bit. And here was one small victory. I could in fact, be on my side. Mentally I had believed it to be unbearable but I had survived a wave and it hadn't taken me under. What helped me most in this position was that being on my side allowed me to focus my strength and energy (whatever remained) towards breathing or trying to relax, and not on physically holding myself up as I had been for the majority of my labor. And however minor that mental or physical shift was, it was enough to move me to full dilation within the hour. And finally, finally, for the first time, I felt the urge to push the baby out.
I have read positive birth stories before where people talk about their "favorite" part of labor or what they "liked" best. None of those words seem appropriate for getting a human out of your body, but I will say that the pushing stage of labor was much easier to approach mentally. Finally I felt like I could actually show up for something. Whereas all the earlier parts of labor required a waiting process for something to happen to me, now I finally felt like I could do something.
And so for the next 4 hours, lying flat on my back, with Andrew holding my left hand, an apprentice holding my right hand, my midwife holding my right foot, and the other apprentice holding my left foot, I began the long journey of pushing Benjamin out. Another bright spot of this stage was that for the first time in nearly 20 hours, my labor resumed a normal pattern: I would have a contraction and I could push for 30 seconds or so, and then there would be a rest period of 4-5 minutes. At times, the pushing moved the baby into an extremely uncomfortable position in my body and it felt again like he was laying on my sacrum. During those times, the long periods of rest felt brutal and I writhed and moaned about my back while they put hot rags under me and I waited until I could finally push the baby again in the hopes of moving him to a position that felt more bearable. He would at times move into a position where I could no longer feel him along my back and I could fully and completely relax—almost to the point of falling asleep.
I had been scared to ask this question throughout most of my labor, but at some point, I finally asked what time it was, and frankly, what day it was. "It's 2:00 a.m." Andrew replied. And I realized it was no longer late evening, but early morning and we had been at the birth center for nearly 24 hours. That tiny part of my brain that was able to focus or care about anything outside of giving birth was relieved that my baby was going to be born on June 10th and not June 9th because then his birthday would include all even numbers (06/10/14) and I didn't like the mojo coming from the number 9. And if I had to do it all over again, my labor would be worth it for him to be born on all evens. Just kidding. He could be born on Hitler's birthday if it meant he was born earlier. But at least at the pushing stage, I knew his arrival had to be within the next few hours.
The room was completely dark except for a few candles and side table lamp. As I was pushing, my midwife offered lots of encouragement to let me know I "was moving the baby downwards" and that she could feel his progress. And yet it seemed to be taking forever. I have several friends who pushed their first babies out within 30 minutes. So though I continued down the tunnel I was in, knowing the end couldn't be too far away, I was exhausted and confused why this process was taking hours. I'm pretty sure I even asked in the very beginning of the pushing stage how long this process normally takes. Everyone seemed hesitant to give a definitive answer but I was desperate for some timeframe. I finally harangued one of the apprentices into spouting out, "usually at least an hour for first babies," which seemed like a lifetime at the time. "Somewhere under 5 hours for you," would have been the accurate response. But help a woman out. Lie to me with your "one hour" talk.
I felt like I was in the longest workout of my life—like I was doing reps with weights or sprints, only I had no idea how many more sets it would take to get to the finish line. My midwife also started talking a lot to the baby at this point, saying things like "it's ok to come out now" and "your mom is really excited to meet you." This was a little strange to me at the time, but it also helped remind me there was an actual person I was waiting to meet. I had so lost sight of the baby in all this. My desire for my labor to end overshadowed any anticipation or joy of meeting my child.
So I continued to push, sometimes apologizing that I would only be able to push twice during my contraction because my goal was three times (as if these people were my sprint coaches, or something). And I think, contrary to all the books I had read telling me that birth is (or at least can be) nothing like you see portrayed on American television, I resembled pretty much exactly someone giving birth on TV. There was a lot of drama when pushing, a lot of effort and exertion, and then great relief and exhaustion when the contraction would end and I would fall back onto the bed. At one point one of the apprentices was trying to explain to me that I was really hurting her hand when I would grip it to sit up and push. Ummm toughen up, sister! Are you Monica from Friends? If you think I care one bit about breaking anyone's hands, you haven't been present for the last day.
Things progressed slowly, remarkably slowly. But they progressed. Getting that freaking baby's head out my body was painstakingly difficult. And the ring of fire is aptly named and terrible. But the end was in sight. I was so close. The baby's head had finally emerged and there was great encouragement and excitement in the room. I could see him. I could feel him. We were at the finish line. I was concerned it was going to take as long to push the rest of the body out as it had taken to push the baby's head out. But when I asked how long I was going to have to keep pushing, I heard the most glorious words: "only one more push and you’re done. Just one more." And that was it—one more push. One more time to gather my strength and courage and this would all be over. And so I exhaled and sat up once more and she quickly pulled the baby out. He wasn't really breathing but I was mentally and emotionally following the vibes of the midwives and no one seemed concerned. He finally sucked in a little air and let out a tiny cry. She handed him to me and I took the baby to my chest. I was stunned. I was exhausted. I was overwhelmed. And suddenly I had no idea what to do with this baby. Of course I was happy he was here, and I was so relieved my labor had ended. And so I looked down and beheld what it was I had just grown in my body and gone through so much to be born into the world. "Talk to your baby," my midwife coaxed. "Let him know you're there." And so I did my best to pat him and hold him and as he let out some more muffled cries and squawks, I was relieved to know he was healthy and breathing and let him know in his crying that I understood him: "me too. I feel the same way too."
And those first few hours are a happy blur. The overwhelming and instantaneous relief of labor ending. The gut-wrenching gratitude I felt for all the women who had helped me give birth to my child. The experience of seeing Andrew hold our son for the first time. Amid the fear and trauma I was still experiencing, there was wonderful emotional highs in those first few hours.
After I had showered and eaten breakfast and informed our families of the baby's birth, one of the postpartum midwives came in to get some basic information for the baby's birth certificate. "What's his name?" she asked us. I looked at Andrew. He paused only for a second while he looked at me. "Benjamin Lewis," he replied. I didn't argue. We hadn't actually ever agreed on a name for the baby, but this was a likely choice. And the finality of Andrew announcing it for official documentation set the issue to rest in my mind. Yes, Benjamin Lewis, I thought. Baby Benjamin.
And there he was: 7 pounds, 8 ounces of new baby. Awake and bright-eyed basically from his first day on the planet. His head was slightly misshapen, though. And my midwife who had delivered the baby returned to check in on me and talk to me about my labor. My labor had been complicated and my pushing stage greatly extended because Benjamin had presented asynclitic—he had likely engaged in my pelvis early on and got his head a little bit off to the side inside of me and then continued to grow that way. Basically, he had to be born crooked. It was why he continued to spin inside me during the long hours of labor. He couldn't figure out how to fit through my pelvis. And it was why it took so long and was so difficult to push him out, because he wasn't coming down straight. He was born with the left side of his head emerging first. And it was why I endured so much back labor. He just wasn't aligned correctly. "That is a very strong baby," she congratulated me. "He figured it out." And it was true—throughout the whole long and difficult ordeal, Benjamin had always been strong. His heartrate had always remained steady and stable as he patiently tried again and again to be born until we both found a way to make it work. Putting a title, asynclitic, to the complications of my labor helped me to process a bit of what had happened. Because to be honest, I was mentally traumatized over what had just occurred. And I wanted to know why it had happened and what I could do to avoid it in the future...not that I was ever going to give birth again.
My midwife continued to help me sort through the experience of the last two days: "Your pelvis might also be a little small, but there's no real way to know. And you know, you might actually have been someone who might have benefited from an epidural. You were working so hard in your labor, but you were so tense, like when I talked to you on the shower floor, that an epidural might have helped relax things and loosen things up enough that it might have sped up the process." “Well isn't that just great!” I thought. An epidural would have helped me. Wasn't that what I had been saying all along in my "we need to get out of here" pleadings? And yet she reassured me, there's also a high chance I would have ended up with a C-section. At the time, all I really wanted was a C-section, but I tried to remind myself that now that the baby was out, my recovery would be much quicker and I was grateful to have not had surgery. "There's a chance that doctors might have told you that you are physically unable to give birth vaginally," my midwife continued. "But you proved today that you can do it. You proved that you can have your babies vaginally. And that is amazing." Of all the things I have wanted to prove to the world, this was not high on my priority list. Yet I tried to find comfort in the fact that though I felt shaken to the core by my experience birthing Benjamin naturally, who knows what the outcome would have been at a hospital. Maybe an epidural would have allowed me to shave many hours off my labor and for Benjamin to make his appearance sooner and save me hours and hours of back labor. But maybe I would have left with a C-section and the belief that my body is unable to do what it had just accomplished, both now and in the future. I had taken a risk on a natural birth and this was the hand I had been dealt.
We spent 2 more nights at the birth center under the gentle watch of the postpartum midwife angels. There was a massage, there was coffee and coconut water, lots of takeout and some visitors, and there was of course, getting to know the new baby. I had slept only an hour in the last 48, mostly because of my long labor, but also because I was afraid to go to sleep. What if the baby needed me? How do I know he is ok? Can he sleep on me or will I drop him if I fall asleep? And yet I was sustained by the most insane postpartum adrenaline/hormone rush. I hardly felt tired.
Those first two days at the birth center were a mix of giddy relief and pampering, along with new and overwhelming fears of being a mother, and the paralyzing inability to mentally process what had happened within my body over the last two days. I didn't know how to shake the feeling that something so terrible had just happened to me—that I had just experienced two of the worst days of my life, and yet I was supposed to feel great joy at the birth of my son and the newness of life.
But the truth was, giving birth to Benjamin tore my heart wide open. I really can only compare it to something traumatic because it was that—traumatic. There was intense pain with no relief, there was fear, there was screaming, there was sciatica for goodness sakes, there was blood and sweat and vomit. And I felt like I didn't know where to go from here. A part of me believed my birth had been a failure. While it had been natural and as a midwife reminded me, "success is just getting your baby out," it didn't feel successful. Benjamin had been asynclitic. I had given up along the way. My body still felt a mess. And mentally I felt like I couldn't quite catch my breath, couldn't quite relax, couldn't quite accept the narrative of what I had just endured. I could make light of the complications and distress to visitors when they remarked that they thought for sure I would have had the baby the day before. Didn't we all? Ha ha. Thanks for the flowers. Yes he is adorable and so alert. And yeah, it took 26 hours here and another 8 at home. Isn't birth so crazy?
But inside I was desperate to come to grips with my difficult labor. I was mentally groping for something redeeming about it. I wanted to feel strong and empowered by my natural birth and "draw on that strength in the future," as my midwife told me I would. But I felt weak and slightly embarrassed by how much trouble I had caused everyone. Even though this healthy child was sleeping in my arms, I felt like I had failed in some capacity. And I couldn't shake the heaviness and fear, and I'm sure the postpartum hormones, that followed me home.
And there we were, Benjamin and me. The only 2 people who had really experienced labor together. He was self-sufficient and content at times, but also afraid and weak and struggling to learn so many new things—how to eat, how to sleep, how to live outside the womb. I can only imagine that his entry into the world, delayed and difficult, felt somewhat traumatizing for him too. So I found comfort in the fact that we were both relearning a new way of life and recovering from a difficult process, but one that had brought us face to face. I was his mother now. I would help him when he cried and encourage him when he was afraid and clothe him when he was cold and I would teach him about the world. I could offer him the immediate comfort he needed outside of the womb at a time when I wasn't quite sure how to comfort myself. And in turn, my interactions with him helped give purpose to my labor experience. I felt like we were two survivors who would forever be bonded by this event. He wouldn’t remember it, but I would. And the love I would feel for him, so all-encompassing and overwhelming, that love was born out of my labor experience.
Surely one of the functions of pain during birth is to make us more vulnerable. Is there anything so vulnerable as giving birth? We have no defenses. It is a surrendered and raw process. But it is in that state that new love is introduced into our lives—a slimy, writhing, screaming, blueish, tiny body of love that is able to easily pierce the unprotected parts of our soul. It is the life we have tended to for many months, we have held parties for, we have sacrificed sleep and comfort for, that we have anticipated with both joy and trepidation. That life often begins at the finish line of something agonizing. Benjamin arrived in the world at the end of two of the worst days of my life, and I would prefer to never go through that same experience again. But now, months after Benjamin has filled up the broken parts of my story with his baby wonderfulness, months after he made me a mother, I can see that so many of the difficulties I experienced while giving birth would be eclipsed by the advice my midwife so graciously tried to offer me.
I just hadn’t met my baby yet.