Birth. Birth day. Birthdays. I always wondered what it feels for a mother to celebrate her child's birthday. I think I'll always look back at that day as "the day that everything changed". One moment I had a baby in my belly and the next, a baby in my arms! Whenever I look back at belly photos I find myself saying "You were in there, and now you're out here!" and it's a trip down memory lane.
I'm writing my birth story because I have the worst memory and I want to remember it in full. I'm sharing my birth story because even before I was pregnant I loved reading other women's birth stories. I found them to be some of the most raw, honest and unapologetic pieces of writing on the internet these days. Reading them shaped my expectations for my own labor and delivery, and they also affirmed that while women have been giving birth since the beginning of mankind, no two births are the same. Learning about the mysteries and magic of pregnancy and childbirth, I started to feel proud to be a woman.
As I add yet another birth to the ether-net, I want to write down certain aspects of my birth story that I feel were a) unique to my experience, b) things I wish more mamas elaborated on or at least mentioned in the birth stories I read.
Here we go...
Ryo himself slipped quietly into the world on a Friday afternoon, 7lbs, 20 inches long and with a full head of dark hair. It was an all natural birth which is what we wanted, but after spending a long labor in the hospital which is not what we expected.
Our "due date" passed by and all was calm. I truly believe babies come when they're ready and I wasn't about to rush him, but the fact that he was past due combined with our intention to have a natural labor had us facing many unexpected decisions in the days leading up to when we actually went into labor. Because we found out I had low amniotic fluid, we had to deal with fetal monitoring, twice refusing to be admitted to the hospital (if we hadn't educated ourselves and been prepared to stick to our resolve, I could not have imagined going against doctors' medical recommendation!), lots of natural induction tactics at home, a membrane sweep, and finally scheduling an induction at the hospital for 6am on Thursday morning.
Allow me to go backwards in time to recap the week up until this point:
Wednesday, our due date. Aside from the usual Braxton Hicks and general enlargement, no sign of labor yet, and none for another week.
Friday. Visit with my OB ("still pregnant?!?") and she scheduled an ultrasound and fetal monitoring the next day to see if everything is OK in there.
Saturday. Ultrasound shows that my amniotic fluid is on the verge of being a concern (I was a 6, and they want to see more than 5). Schedule a follow up ultrasound for Tuesday.
Sunday & Monday. Drank tons of water to try and increase amniotic fluid, and started natural methods of induction to see if we could get labor started. Acupuncture, spicy food, sex, walking the stairs... you name it.
Tuesday. I went to the hospital for another ultrasound, and it showed that I'd lost more amniotic fluid (down to 4.0). They wanted to admit me into the hospital and I really didn't want to be admitted into the hospital yet. I was alone, didn't have my things, afraid of how long I'd have to push back on induction since I had planned on laboring at home until I was practically ready to push. Our birth plan was already running off course and labor hadn't even started! I took a breather to sit in the car and charge my phone so I could "Phone-A-Friend", in this case, our doula. She talked me through the situation and what my options were, and made me feel confident that I could get what I wanted in this moment. As I looked out at the Berkeley Hills from the parking garage rooftop, I realized that although the external situation was hazy and unpredictable, my feelings never wavered from what I wanted. I went back in and told them I wasn't planning on staying, but I'd like my cervix to be checked so that I had another point of reference in making my decision. The doctor on shift was pretty firm about the risks she believed I was taking in not staying at the hospital and being completely unmonitored, even so far as saying my baby could die, sheesh, but after she checked my cervix and found that I was 4cm almost 5cm dilated, she visibly relaxed and was nicer about letting me go home. I'm happy that I listened to my body and intuition that the risk was not immediate, that my son's heartbeat was strong and steady through the frequent contractions I was already starting to have. We were close. I'm going home to prepare. All that before lunch.
Wednesday. Acupuncture, more water, then another OB appt. She sent us to get another ultrasound immediately, and found that my amniotic fluid levels had not improved and they recommended that I get admitted again. I got a chance to speak with my OB and ask her when the latest she'd want me to wait to be induced and she said 6am the next day. So I once again refused admittance and went home with determination because now I had until 6am to go into labor naturally.
Thursday, 8 days post-due and the morning of our induction appointment, I woke up at 4am with regular and mighty strong contractions. They slowed down a bit by 6am, but now I think my body wanted to prove herself, as if it wanted to say, I'm close, don't induce, I can do it myself, just give me a chance. Jason spent a couple hours on the phone with nurses trying to decide if we should go in for the induction appointment or not since we were starting to see regular and strong contractions, hoping maybe I could labor at home afterall. But we decided that since I was seeing the start of labor at 4-5 cm dilated, I was far enough along and we might as well go in to be monitored for the low amniotic fluid just to be on the safe side. Loaded up the car to the brim and off we went!
It was a bright day with a little bay area haze, we were cheery and made a little video in the car. We replayed it the other day and boyyyy I looked ready to pop. As soon as I stepped out of the car I had a contraction that hurt enough that I had to hold onto the ski rack.
Labor. Ohhh labor. On the timeline of my birth story I lump "Labor" as one chunk, and then "Delivery/Pushing" as the other chunk. Labor was intense. I labored for over 24 hours in the hospital before getting checked and finding out that I only progressed from almost 5cm to 5.5 cm. That's 0.5cm in 24 hours. HALF A CENTIMETER. How could I be 4cm dilated for weeks with no pain and then go through so many painful contractions to only progress 0.5cm? How did I think that there could be any logic involved in birth? Idiot!
I had hoped for a zero-intervention approach largely because I wanted to go slow and I was afraid of things progressing out of my control. But at that point of 5.5cm, I agreed to stop leaving things up to time and fate. Something had to be done. While she was still mid-exam, the doctor (whom I believe was the doctor on shift by fate–she was amazing) broke my bag of waters and did a membrane sweep and almost immediately shit. Went. Down. As in, the REAL intensity began. I'd thought things were intense already, but hahhahaha.
What do contractions feel like? Imagine a strong period cramp, but multiply the pain times twenty, and the duration times 5. The area affected starts from the bottom of your ribcage to your pubic bone, and it feels a little like you're possessed. I will say, though, that the contractions are gradual in pain, so take the time to get used to it and it isn't as scary.
The next 2 hours of contractions were as night is to day. I now know that I was entering active labor [cue collective realizing "Ohhhhhh..."]. I was gripping the bedside, punching the mattress, crushing Jason's hand and pretty much moaning at the top of my lungs like a dying horse. I would have been writhing had I been able to move but I was stuck between contractions that came one after another. Thank god for Jason, the amazing nurse and our doula. I'm not sure why but they would remind me to vocalize my contractions in a lower octave. They'd rub my lower back through a contraction and Jason would look me in my crazy eyes and tell me he loved me and that he was right there. You guys, those last few hours were intense.
If I play back the details of the 24+ hour labor prior to breaking my bag of waters, many different scenes flash before my eyes. I remember never knowing what time it was because there were no windows in the room. I originally thought I would want a room with windows because I find comfort in nature, but the windowed rooms didn't have a jacuzzi. Turns out the I wanted the lights dimmed the whole time anyway. I think it helped me focus. The main light source was from electric candles and machines monitoring my contractions and our baby's heartbeat. The soundtrack to my entire labor was Ryo's heart beating, an encouraging beat, and the Calm Meditation Radio on Pandora (we listened to the shit out of that station, I can't believe I didn't get tired of it, though I'm sure my doula and Jason did). We had a larger than expected room which is good because we brought a cartful of things from home. We literally needed a cart. I look around the room in my head and see literally every object as something to lean on in one position or another—many wonderful options of which I took advantage.
Back to the action.
I was moving the whole time. Pacing, leaning, bouncing. I don't remember when exactly we called our doula to come in, maybe around dinner so Jason could leave to go get food, but we started off at the hospital with just the two of us laboring for a good five or six hours, trying different positions we'd studied and some we'd improvised: standing with my arms draped over Jason's shoulders; sitting on the floor leaning against the couch with Jason sitting behind me; sitting on the arm of the arm chair; bouncing on the yoga ball with my head resting on the bed or on my arms up against the IV stand; or my absolute favorite, floating in the hot jacuzzi with candles and music. I had pretty bad back pain later in the evening which happens when the baby's head is pressing against the spine at the wrong angle, so my doula did an incredible belly massage with a big fabric wrap to help loosen the baby out of my pelvis and allow him to reposition himself in a different way. That helped immensely. I'd been told not to eat anything and I surprisingly wasn't even hungry (until after labor when I was FAMISHED), although they had to keep reminding me to drink water. Also, I'd been told by my doula and Bradley Method instructor to avoid the bed at all costs because it's too temping to stay on the bed when you're exhausted, and it's better to be on your feet and keep moving to encourage the baby to move down down down. By the 30th hour I'd used nearly every inch of furniture before moving to the bed because "I really just want to lie down and sleep". Exhausted, I got on the bed on my knees and leaned over a giant stack of pillows and attempted to close my eyes. My belly was large and the monitors attached to it were so uncomfortable that I didn't get much sleep. The contractions in that position suuuucked anyway.
So there's always a twist with these birth stories. Here's mine: I thought I was open to the possibilities of my labor experience, but I had no idea how much expectation I was actually carrying. I wanted labor to be peaceful and enlightening. I had seen a dozen videos on women having these blissful, ecstatically happy births, nothing at all like they show in the movies. I wanted that. I really really wanted that. I actually wanted to have fun, to not scream in pain, to be completely present and to have multiple epiphanies about myself, about life, about God, during my labor. I even made a list of affirming quotes from other women's labor experiences, what I hoped my labor would be like, like "It was the most beautiful pain I've ever felt." High expectations, much? I had no idea what to expect but wanted so much. I thought I was letting go and being open to the possibilities, but really, I was setting guidelines and actually fighting myself.
I remember another quiet moment, seeing an exhausted Jason sleeping on the couch under our heavy deer blanket. Our doula curled up on the armchair with her glasses off, resting her eyes. I was glad to see them taking care of themselves because I wanted everyone involved to be comfortable, warm and fed. I took a moment between contractions to tidy the leftover cafeteria food and drinks on the bed table because I have problems clearing my mind with a messy room. Also known as OCD. I kept cracking jokes between really painful contractions, all the way up until pushing! I am notorious for making really lame jokes so I don't know why I thought that was a good idea to entertain. But seriously, I think that level of concern for my external experience and how I was perceived really shaped my mental and physical disposition during labor in a way that I never intended or wanted. Tentatively watching the monitor to tell me when I was about to have a contraction instead of listening within, caring about how I was being perceived instead of looking within, comparing my strength to other birthing women instead of, yes, looking within...kept me on the surface, and I didn't go deep within to find the calm at the eye of the storm. Despite the disappointments, I own my labor experience as it was.
If I were to do it again, I would insist on no freaking monitoring. Watching the little line start to rise up gave me a false sense of security. Being able to anticipate a contraction and to see how strong it was less useful than being touch with my own intuition and my own senses. And I would probably try a water birth. I know the key is to relax through the contractions, and being in the tub immersed in warmth was the closest I got to "that place" I wanted. It was so relaxing and peaceful, I actually fell asleep in the tub. It was the only time I was able to fully relax during contractions in the way that I had wanted.
What did work for me, aside from the jacuzzi, was a mantra that I made up on the spot. I would repeat "One" as I exhaled through a contraction. Onnnnne, onnnnne, onnnnne. I don't know where that came from and I don't think others understood, but I was reassuring myself "just one at a time, one more, just get through this one". I also liked saying "Open, open, open" with every exhale.
I'll admit, toward the end I didn't think that I could do it. But as soon as I even realized the thought had crossed my mind, my body would give me an easier contraction to deal with. I noticed that happen a few times during labor: when I became doubtful, my body gave me rest to regain energy, whether it was a longer break between contractions, or a series of less strong one, or an entire hour of total relaxation (that was the hot jacuzzi soak; holy mother I cannot express how much I needed that).
When it was time to push, I was a hot mess. Like I said earlier, I was crying out at the top of my lungs, vocalizing the contractions while standing on my feet and leaning over the bed, making crazy eyes at Jason and cussing up the storm of the century. Those of you who think you know me, that might be hard to imagine, but my sisters and husband would probably wave me off and say, Oh, classic Milan, doing what she does when she's giving birth to a human baby.
But seriously, where was the doctor?! The nurses were coming in and out, getting ready, and I overhear that the doctor was in another room giving birth to another baby. In fact, when they called the doctor over their neat little tele-walkie-talkies around their neck, I could hear the other laboring mom screaming in the background as I was screaming through my own contraction. Not what I wanted to hear! (Funny story: a week later I came back to the hospital to take a lactation class and the only other lady in the class turned out to be that woman who gave birth to her son in the same hour that we did!) I also did not want to hear the doctor say that she'll be another 20 minutes. I had to push NOW.
It must have been less than 20 min when she came to the room. Everything was prepped, I was on the bed on all fours, the spotlights were on my nether regions and Jason was right next to me, calming the wild horse that was me. Come to think of it, he didn't have any scrubs or face mask like they do in the movies...hunh.
At this point, it gets a little TMI. It was about 45 minutes of pushing, which looked like me trying to make myself pass out by holding my breath. I pushed so hard that I busted capillaries in my cheeks and broke a vein in my eye. I originally wanted to push without instruction but in the moment I felt so crazed I didn't know what to do. I didn't know when it was going to be over and I couldn't think beyond the current contraction. The nurses and doctors and Jason were so encouraging, though. I let others guide me and went into beast mode, buckling and baring down when the doctor told me to. What does pushing feel like? It feels ...impossible. But when it's over, I felt so triumphant. I knew the end was near. He was about to be here. I could feel the top of his soft hairy head with my hand. I had to push. I had no other choice. It was the only way.
I've asked Jason a couple of times since that day, what do you remember seeing, did you see everything, were you traumatized? He's so sweet and he says it was the most amazing thing and that he was amazed by me (and also fearful for me). One second the head is out, and the next second the whole body slipped out. It did feel slippery for me and suddenly, no pain. That was the most glorious moment of relief. I remember squealing "oh my gooodddd look at him!!" and thinking that I needed to turn down my volume, worrying that I scared him as they brought him immediately to my chest. I looked up at Jason's shocked face and down at our new baby boy's face and we kissed and looked at him together and we grinned. Jason must have cut the cord, and I must have birthed the placenta, and apparently Ryo pooped on me, but I don't remember much else for the next hour. All I could feel was his body weight heavy on my chest and that he was warm and tiny and alive and here.
I do have to say, nearly 10 months since that day, that I am still proud of myself. I may not remember the exact feeling but I know that it was the biggest thing I've ever done. My body shows evidence of what it's been through and what it can endure. My experience was full of awe thanks to the kind nurses and doctors at the hospital for their genuine care and attention during labor, delivery, and three days of recovery; thanks to our doula who kept us rocksteady both physically and emotionally; and thanks to my husband, who changed the first diaper and every diaper after that, who quickly became a master swaddler, who barely slept because he was rocking our son to sleep all night long, with whom I could never never ever imagine doing this without.