(DISCLAIMER: this post contains graphic details and semi nude photos of labor and birth. If that makes you uncomfortable, please be warned.)
Birth is an incredibly personal, sacred experience. For that reason, I decided to give myself a year to process it all before sharing it or deciding which aspects I want to share in such a public way. I could tell this story purely through a timeline of physical events, but that is a incomplete picture. There are the logistics of birth as observed from the outside, but then there’s the mother’s birth experience itself. This is a very vulnerable story to share, but I hope you catch a glimpse of the beauty of the process and the awe of new life. I especially hope it gives women who have not given birth yet hope for their own labors.
I was reluctant about birth classes in the beginning, but I am so thankful for all that I learned, and the preparation, empowerment and mentoring I got from my teacher. (I talked about birth classes and my experience with midwifery- prenatal, birth, and postpartum here.)
I was a champion of a healthy eater, or so my midwife said, and I did my best to prepare physically with pregnancy friendly exercise like walking, squats, lunges, yoga stretches, etc. I was religious about prenatal vitamins, and I loosely followed spinning babies pregnancy recommendations to help baby’s positioning for labor. That said, I would say that most of my birth preparations were mental and spiritual. I’m sure I could have done more physical preparations that likely would have benefited me in labor, but for me, there was such a fine line of physical preparation and trusting God/trusting my own body’s ability to birth my baby. If something caused me more anxiety than help, I skipped it, and I don’t regret that call.
I made the choice early on that fear was not going to be my friend in pregnancy and labor. I’ve heard a lot of horror stories, but I was pretty intentional with what I let my mind entertain. Even if it was muting the sound of a birth video or refusing to absorb the details of other people’s traumatizing experiences, I kept boundaries in my heart to keep anxiety from making a home and to protect hope. At the same time, I made room in my heart for the unexpected and the compassionate use of intervention if necessary. This was covered in my birth class, and a hard, but important step was creating a birth plan/respectful perspective to share with doctors and nurses if I had to be transferred. Thankfully, I never had to use it.
I watched so many pregnant ladies become emotional wrecks after passing their due dates, so I mentally prepared myself to go overdue. I was not rushed. I wanted to meet my baby, but pregnancy was such a season of growth and worship for me, that it was bittersweet preparing to transition into a totally new season. I sensed that while it would be beautiful, it would be hard. I didn’t want to ask God to refine me in the fire early. 😉 I remember telling God that I wanted my daughter to be born exactly when the time was right. There was very little anxiousness.
Unfortunately or fortunately, depending on your perspective, chaos comes at the most vulnerable, inconvenient times. I don’t remember what triggered it, but I do remember an intense conversation, tears, and the pain of working through something personal in our marriage the night of July 19. It felt like such a brutal disruptive attack on our family dynamic after everything that was fought for and redeemed in our personal lives.
I felt something strange- a mother’s intuition, a nervousness and anticipation. I knew I was going into labor that night. Not now. Not like this. Here I was large with child and about to give birth to our first love baby and simultaneously having to make hard choices to communicate, to push through, and to love well when I just wanted to retreat into indifference and self preservation. This is not how it’s supposed to be. This isn’t dreamy.
Braxton hicks contractions or “practice contractions” were a daily occurrence at that point, but they were more painful and frequent that night. A change of position didn’t ease them like normal. I managed to keep it to myself during the intensity of the evening. I found myself praying and crying on the living room floor-just surrender and a cry up for help I guess. Help us. I want this to be beautiful.
Well, God did help. Our living room was a broken sanctuary knit together by tears and love and commitment in the end, and I knew the timing of that evening was perfectly orchestrated for the physical life that was about to be birthed. I went to bed with peace in my heart and heard the words, “She can come now.”
My sleep was short lived and miserable. At 3 am, I woke up in a sweaty hot flash and realized I was having regular, painful contractions. They were strong enough to make me catch my breath trying to get through them. I was also having weird pressure in my pelvic area and lower stomach- similar to menstrual cramps, combined with the constant urge to pee. I stuck it out for an hour or so, but it became harder and harder to be quiet, much less breathe lying in bed as the contractions squeezed painfully. I had excess discharge, and around 4 a.m. I lost a good portion of my mucous plug during what felt like the 20th pee break of the hour. I knew I wasn’t going back to sleep, so I woke my husband. The intensity of the evening basically forgotten, we entered the marathon of labor, and my husband was the kindest, most attentive support I could have ever asked for.
I didn’t really know what to expect, but I was pretty confident I was in early labor. It hurts a lot, and this never happened before so I guess this is what it’s like! I started timing contractions like a great patient. They stayed about 8 minutes apart consistently from 4 a.m. until at least noon. By mid morning, I contacted my midwife and kept her posted.
I wanted to go on with my day as usual-ignoring labor as long as possible. No sense waiting around until labor was progressing inevitably. That was my mental strategy. Waiting around is a setup for frustration. I settled in my mind that this is going to take a long time, so I tried to enjoy it as long as possible. I was excited! I told my family and talked with my sister off and on. I even published a post that had been setting in my drafts. My husband went to work at my request. I ate breakfast and lunch, did laundry, and made some protein snacks for labor, stopping to breathe or moan through the contractions. I felt fairly confident that I could do this.
I tried napping, but it was miserable to wake up every few minutes with knife-like pain. Being upright made the contractions manageable, as opposed to lying on my side, but it got tiring going through all that work on my feet. I leaned over the counter, the sofa, and also used my birthing ball a lot to try to relieve lower back pain during contractions. It was like menstrual cramps on steroids, pain starting at my belly button and wrapping around my back like a tight cinch, squeezing harder and harder until it finally released. A break and then another. On and on.
After noon, contractions became more painful, and it took all my attention to get through them. My birth class teacher told me that when I start burning cookies, it’s active labor time. That’s how it was. There was no room to focus on anything else any more. It was all about survival. I remember mentally working through the panic at the intensifying contractions that left me with little break or relief between contractions. The aching pain in my lower back was awful. I called my husband to let him know it was serious now, and he came home to be with me sometime after 2 p.m.
I labored kneeling/rocking in our bathtub for a while, and the warm water helped me relax in between the pain. Long contractions were now 6 minutes apart with shorter ones at 2-3 minutes apart in-between.
I had compiled a worship playlist to help me relax, but when my husband turned music on in the moment, it made me feel isolated, lonely, and weepy. It completely derailed my concentration and confidence. I didn’t have the energy to be hysterical and yell, so I did my pain coping until he came into the bathroom, where I calmly told him to please turn it off RIGHT NOW because it’s messing me up and making me cry. At that point, I think crying would have made me lose it because I knew I had a long way to go and needed to hold it together. He was quick to comply. 🙂
At 5 p.m., I noticed bloody discharge when I peed. While I was still on the toilet, my water broke. After that, the contractions really intensified more than I thought possible, of course. It was definitely more pain than I imagined. I often thought I couldn’t do it one more second, but then it would let up and I got a short break before the next one. People talk about “transition” in labor, but I never experienced that. From the time labor became active, it just got worse and worse and worse until she was born.
My midwife got on the road as soon as my water broke, and she told my husband to start filling the birthing pool. Her assistant got to the house before her, and she checked in with me even though I was really out of it- in pure survival mode. I was so sad that the doula I had met and felt so connected and comfortable with wasn’t able to attend the birth. I had never met the EMT assistant before, so that element made me a little uncomfortable at first. Who wants a stranger to see you moaning on the toilet nearly naked, right? I began to tense up, but realized it would hinder my coping and progress, so I just let it go. Birth was happening no matter what, so adjusting and coping were key. It’s amazing what all becomes “normal” in labor that would feel totally bizarre otherwise.
My husband was frantically trying to fill the birth pool because he realized labor was progressing faster. (He had to keep boiling water when the water heater couldn’t keep up.) When Alex came after 6, she wanted to check my progress before I got in the pool. ( I had opted for no cervical exams pre labor-partly because it made me uncomfortable outside of labor and partly because it felt unnecessary and invasive. I didn’t want to know my dilation progress pre-labor and risk impatience. Can you tell that my mandate was peace? :))
I don’t know what I was expecting, but I didn’t really believe my midwife or comprehend what it meant when her head appeared above my belly and she casually said,”Oh your a nine.” What?! I weakly laughed it off. “I am?” Yes, I was almost fully dilated, but I didn’t feel ready or equipped for the pushing stage. I was in pure survival mode, so it was hard for me to comprehend that my body was saying that the end was near.
Like I said before, without a clear transition stage as I expected, there was no relief or drowsiness in the pushing stage like I’ve heard about. It was like hanging on to a runaway train that was simultaneously running over me. It was utterly exhausting. I felt like I was dying, but apparently I was doing all the right things on my own.
Everyone bustled around me, getting me protein snacks and coconut water and cool cloths for my neck and head, but I was doing the work in my realm. I overheard my midwife tell my husband that I should be a midwife because of the way I was coping and laboring like a pro. That statement seemed totally ridiculous in the moment. 😀 Seriously, what are these crazies talking about? This is the worst!
As far as coping, simple breath awareness combined with just silently begging God to help me worked the best for me. No music or candles. Raw grit and mental fortitude, I guess. The other mental coping methods I learned took too much of my concentration and energy that I needed to just breathe in and out, so I stuck with my breath.
I labored in the pool for a while before I started feeling slightly “pushy.” Alex told me to listen to my body and wait for the urge to push. I pushed for probably close to two hours in the pool, but the pushing urge just wasn’t clicking for me. Contractions were so painful, and going with the urge to push made the pain so much worse. I think that held me back. I couldn’t feel the head with my hand, and eventually my midwife figured out there a portion of un-ruptured membranes in front of it. Every time I pushed, I was pushing against the bag. According to law, she wasn’t allowed to break it until crowning, so she got me to try different positions to help move things along, which was pretty miserable because I didn’t want to move. I wanted to stay perfectly still to cope, but I knew she was right in trying new things to encourage progression. She got me to stand out of the water and hang onto my husband for support to remove the buoyancy of floating in water and encourage gravity to bring the head down.
After a while, Alex was concerned that I was getting too worn out without progress, so in between a contraction I got out of the pool, and we went to the bedroom where I could lie down. I never imagined I would give birth lying on my back, but it ended up working well because I could rest between pushes. I was too worn out to support myself anymore. I made more progress in those last thirty minutes than the two hours pushing before.
Lying on my back definitely made it harder to breathe, and I kept having heartburn and throwing up in my mouth with every push, but the pushing urges were finally strong, and I felt the head descending. Pushing was finally working! My husband laid right beside me and held me the entire time. I know I cried some.
Alex broke the leftover bag of membranes blocking her head, and soon I heard voices saying they saw black hair. These details felt so surreal in intense moments of agony, concentration, and hard work.
Alex worked my perineum with olive oil, and the head crowned slowly and smoothly, although I was sure that ring of fire, stretching pain was going to kill me. Talk about bloody pain! There was no turning back though, so I just kept pushing. I thought I was dying, but suddenly, her head was born (what a weird feeling!) Seconds later, her body slipped out and her vernix covered body was put on my chest. She was born with the cord wrapped loosely around her neck and her little hand by her face, so it’s possible that prolonged the pushing stage as well.
I’m not a weepy person, but the transition from agony to the extreme happiness of holding my very own miracle was so intense and fast that my pain sounds immediately turned to sobbing, and I remember saying, “She’s so beautiful!” It was incredibly emotional, and we were both crying. There is nothing like it.
I had been so intent on survival the last 18 hours of labor (approximately 3 of those hours pushing) that I was shocked when a real baby was actually, finally in my arms. She was perfect and beautiful and breathing. She had quite a bit of fluid in her lungs so it took a bit to get her to pink up and give us good, loud cries.
One thing that was so cool to me was the way the vernix absorbed into her skin. She was white with it and somewhat sticky/slippery when she was laid on me, but within minutes, her skin was dry and silky. (We didn’t clean her. Vernix isn’t “dirty” but a natural moisturizer and protection for fresh baby skin newly exposed to the outside world.)
Their first photo together, she was looking right at her daddy, all alert.
I did tear a bit unfortunately, but it didn’t need stitches. Overall, I know it was a very smooth birth. Although from my perspective it was hell sometimes, from the outside looking in, it was a peaceful birth environment, and Caleb was right there the whole time, encouraging me, giving me water, snacks, etc. He was the ideal birth partner according to my midwife. He was amazingly calm and I think surprised how well I was able to breathe and cope as well.
Birthing the placenta was a breeze. (Probably 15 min later?) Like I figured, my husband was fine with everything except the placenta. 😀 I thought it was cool, but he needed some space from the bloodiness.
I was exhausted to the bone, weak, and sore all over from tension and straining for hours, but at the same time, I felt like I could conquer anything after that. Knowing I handled such severe pain made the afterbirth pains and soreness seem manageable. (Until the hormones and sleepless nights kicked in of course. 🙂 )
Alexandra Honor was born on Monday, July 20, one month after Daddy’s birthday as requested at 9:34 p.m. She was was 6 lbs. 12 oz. and 19 & 1/2 in. long.