I had just picked my family up from the airport. It was the night of the Winter Solstice, and it was raining in Seattle. An hour prior, I had held a small ceremony with my husband and son, Slone, in honor of this special night. We had honored the dark, welcomed the light, feasted and set intentions for the time to come.
Now, I was driving in the rain, my car full of my parents and my sister. I was chatting and happy everyone had arrived safely.
I was also noticing extra movement and something new–some pain–in my abdomen. It kept me preoccupied as we drove home through the dark.
We settled in for the evening. I told them of my plans for the week: plans made with the expectation that this child inside me would be born late, just like his brother, and that this week would be one of my last pregnant. I had lots of things for us to do and to keep a toddler occupied. I had a meal plan.
We said goodnight. I went to bed.
And then I laid there all night, having contractions that I couldn’t sleep through.
I didn’t have to move or do much to cope with them besides breathe, but they were there, loud and clear. Out of pure boredom and restlessness, I started timing them at 2am and found they were coming five minutes apart and lasting 45-50 seconds.
The first time I gave birth, this was about the time I was told to at least alert my doula, if not call the midwife. This pregnancy, I was given instructions to alert them a bit more quickly. “Things can happen more quickly the second time,” they all said.
Drew was awake, too, so I told him what was happening. At about 3am we called the midwife. She told us to come in. I woke up my sister, put her on call for our son, and we loaded the car.
The streets were quiet and the parking lot was fairly empty. We entered through the emergency room and they sent someone to take us to labor and delivery. They moved us to triage and the midwife came in to check me. Only 2.5 cm, she said. Not enough to be admitted, so she suggested we walk around the hospital for a couple hours and see if that helped.
Swedish Issaquah is a nice hospital. It reminds me of Bellevue Square, an upscale mall. Drew and I did laps in the quiet of the morning, the only sound my ridiculously squeaky tennis shoe and the start of Starbucks preparing to open. Ninety minutes later, at 7am, I decided to rest, and we went back to triage to lay down.
At 7:30am, the midwife checked us again. We were still not dilated enough to warrant a room at the inn. Because I’d been up all night, she suggested I receive a shot of morphine (mixed with something else that wards of nausea and acts like a sedative) and go home and sleep.
Um. . . yes please.
“If this is false labor, the shot will stop it. If it’s real labor, your contractions will wake you up and we’ll go from there,” the midwife said. “I hope to see you back tonight.”
I bent over for a shot in the butt, and was sufficiently loopy by the time I got home. I fell into a deep and heavy slumber that was so delicious it makes me nostalgic just thinking about it. I slept from 9am to 3:30pm.
My contractions woke me up.
But they seemed about the same intensity as before, and they were far apart – about 20 minutes. I figured there was a good chance I’d have another night like the one before. My family was gathered and we started discussing plans for dinner. “Let’s go get pho,” I suggested. “This will probably take a while, I can go.”
But by 4:30, my contractions were increasing in intensity. I had to stop and breathe to get through them. I stopped talking with others. I was a bit afraid to go back to the hospital too soon yet again, so I insisted that everyone else could go to dinner (my husband included) and just bring me some leftovers.
Drew called this bluff, and said no, absolutely not.
After the sixth intense contraction, we decided to head back to the hospital. It was about 5pm. I had four contractions in the 25 minutes it took to get there. I had two more on the way in and up to the second floor. We moved to triage and the same nurses were there to help me, glad to see me back again.
The midwife checked my cervix between contractions, and we were both happy to find that I was four centimeters, soft and well effaced. I had earned a room. The nurse asked if I’d like the birth tub filled, and I said yes. She went to get it all ready for me.
In the meantime, I started in on the most intense experience of my life.
Many women have tried to explain the sensations of labor. You see actresses screaming and cursing at their husbands, or hear of riding the waves of contractions, or of doing the hardest work.
For me, there was no energy left to scream or curse. There was no surfing the waves. There was only the intensity, sensations so powerful they had their own sound.
Contraction by contraction I was moved from triage into a birthing room. My clothes were stripped from me, the monitors they had on my belly removed and my breasts covered with a tube of fabric.
Whimpering now in anticipation of the next big rush, I gently lowered myself (with help from two others) into the large jacuzzi tub filled with warm water. Each change of position brought on a stronger contraction, and I used my breath, moaning a low sound on each exhale, to find a rhythm to pull me through the pain.
In my labor with Slone, I remember my doula saying that we needed to kick labor into high gear, that she wanted to see me really working, that things weren’t intense enough to be doing much to bring the baby into the world. At the time, I had thought, This isn’t hard enough? I AM really working!” But now I realize the difference.
With Slone, my contractions were hard, but they weren’t the tunnel of loudness that took everything I had to focus. There had been space in between, during which I could talk and listen and be tuned into the outer world. As these contractions progressed, I understood what my doula had meant by “really working.” Oh THIS is the work of labor, I thought.
As the nurses expertly administered anti-nausea medications just before I had one, unfruitful retch, I went into what I can only describe as the tunnel of labor. Perhaps like the birth canal that Alden was entering, I stepped through the threshold of my own parallel tunnel, which is where I stayed for the next hour.
The contractions were the most intense sensations I’d ever experienced. They had a sound. They came with visions. I was stomped by the feet of giants, shoved sideways by huge square blocks, driven into the earth so that it almost covered me, covered me.
Just a few days before, I’d been on my regular walk around a neighborhood lake. The water had been so still and glassy, and I’d thought, Hold this picture in your mind. Come to it during labor.
I could hold onto the picture of the calm lake in snippets only. Sometimes I opened my eyes and stared at the surface of the tub, but often that was too much. Eyes closed, it was all I could manage to keep my breathing rhythmic. I was reminded of the voice of my birth class teacher, Penny Simpkin herself, three years ago: “If her breathing has rhythm, she’s coping,” she’d told the class.
I was coping.
Voices would come to me. I knew they were from the nurses and my husband, but they sounded far away. Or maybe I was far away. Being tossed at sea, a small dingy in waves as tall as skyscrapers, holding on for all I’m worth. “You’re doing great, Anna,” the voices said. “You’re amazing.”
A part of me believed them, and I kept holding on.
The small rest between contractions wasn’t so much a rest anymore–it was only a small period of time in which to take slower breaths. Eventually, my eyes didn’t open between contractions anymore. I was trying to forge a new handgrip on the helm of the ship, to right myself and prepare for the next barrage of sensation, to gather myself for the next onslought.
The pain was everywhere. It was in my back, my stomach, my legs, my rectum, my sacrum. It was in my body, my mind, my soul. It was a threshold to another world and I wanted to cross, and I did a few times, and was held in the arms of the Mother herself. She began to rock me between contractions. She showed me that my ancestors were there, holding me, giving me strength, reminding me that I had everything I needed to do this.
I reached a limit an hour later, or ninety minutes. “I want an epidural,” I said. Followed quickly by, “I’m sorry.”
As if I was letting them down. As if their praises weren’t enough, I needed relief, and a part of me needed to apologize.
No one stood for that, of course. “You don’t apologize, Anna, you’re doing great. It will take about 30 minutes to get the anesthesiologist, so keep doing your awesome coping.”
Okay, okay, okay and into the abiss.
Then, at some point, I heard movement from around me. The nurse looked me in the eye and said, “We need to move you to the bed now. Let’s do it quickly, between contractions. You can do this.”
Despite myself, I was scared. I knew that when I changed positions, it would hurt more. Besides, it would be cold outside the bath, and more painful.
I was also aware that my husband had left the room and my sister had taken his place. She wasn’t moving forward to me, but was offering vocal encouragement.
The nurse helped me get up. The hormonal shivers overtook me, along with the cold shivers of leaving the tub. I stood up and shook violently as the nurses dried me off. Another rush overtook me, and I tensed up. “Don’t fight the shivers,” they said. So I let the contraction shake itself through me as I moaned in rhythm to my breath.
I was aware that my sister was seeing me like this. At the hardest stage of labor, with all of the forces moving through me, including the hormone shakes. Well shit, I thought, now she’s never going to want to have kids. The thought moved through me like a wisp of smoke and was gone as the next contraction took hold.
They held me as I moved to the bed. The anesthesiologist came in and started explaining everything to me in a very kind and matter- of-fact way. It was clear I was going to have to respond.
“Do you have any questions for me?” he asked.
I mustered some strength and tried to find my other coping mechanism, my humor. “How fast can you get it in?” I replied.
Only my husband seemed to understand that I was joking, and as I rested my head against him he explained to everyone that I this was a good sign, that I wasn’t as lost in the tunnel as it might seem, that I could find my way out, too.
I sat on the bed and rounded my back, following the anesthesiologist’s instructions. I held still, even through another contraction, while it was administered.
The next contraction was like a tulip on a cold spring day. And the next, a frothy beer at the lodge after a day skiing fresh snow. My husband massaged my shoulders to remove them from my ears. Tension lines released themselves from my face, a smile broke out. I cracked a joke. “Well, that was intense,” I said.
My sister had left, off to get my toddler to bed. My husband was jonesing for his dinner. “It’s okay to eat in front of me now, hon,” I said. “I’m doing great.”
And I was. There was a part of me that wanted to feel bad for seeking pain relief. For not making it all the way with a medication-free labor. But that part of me was small and was being over-ruled by the rest of me that was relieved I could rest and enjoy what would be just a couple short hours before I birthed my son.
Most of us think of epidurals as this thing that completely removes feeling and function from the lower half. Not so, if it’s done right and well, and if done in harmony with a birth plan and a hospital whose culture is around more natural ways of birthing. My epidural allowed me to move my legs, move around in bed myself, feel the pressure and some of the pain of contractions and, eventually, the urge to push.
In other words, it took the intensity out of the labor, but it did not take away sensation. It was just what I was hoping for.
The midwife came soon after to check my cervix again. I have gone from 4cm to 8cm in just one hour. “Well,” I said, “No wonder that was so intense.” In my labor with my first son, I had labored 24 hours and opened the same amount. I felt a bit redeemed, as if it justified my choice for pain medication (as if I needed justification).
While I’d been in the labor tunnel, they had brought in a delivery table. I remember now, overhearing the nurses say they thought this would go rather quickly.
The midwife came back about an hour later to check up on me. Meanwhile, I sipped warm pho broth, chatted with my husband, and texted my doula, who was driving over the mountain pass in hopes to get there before I gave birth. The epidural had spread out my contractions a bit, which was normal, so I wasn’t progressing at such a break-neck speed.
My doula arrived around 8:30pm. The midwife checked me again, indicating that it might be time to break my waters. As she checked my cervix, she said, “This bag of waters is bulging, and you’re at 8.5cm, so I wonder if we should–“
And that was that, my waters burst out and my cervix opened up, and all of us laughed. It was time to push.
The birthing rooms at Swedish Hospital in Issaquah are quite large–at least the size of my living room. The have huge windows, and ours looked up at Tiger Mountain. It was dark, and they had kept the lights in the room low.
Now, the turned one overhead light on, that shined on the lower half of my bed and allowed the midwife to see what was happening. They set a large mirror up at the foot of the bed, just to the side of the midwife, so I could see what was happening.
I was surrounded by loving caregivers. To my right, my nurse, also named Anna. At the foot of the right side of the bed, my midwife, Laura. To the foot of my bed on the left, my doula, Tiffany. To my immediate left, my husband.
With each contraction, I pulled my legs toward me and pushed. After just a few minutes, I could see his head coming down the birth canal. It was so helpful to see his head, which my midwife touched gently with her two fingers to both show me and allow me to feel exactly the spot I was pushing outward.
Between contractions, everyone was silent. There was no music. It felt sacred. They stood around me in the dimly lit room, waiting for my cue. No one tried to fill the silence with small talk. It was not awkward. It was quiet, and expectant, and calm. It was like prayer.
In those quiet moments, I reveled in the deliciousness of it. I responded to my ancestors, which I could feel again now, and I spoke with Alden. I readied his spirit the marriage with his body that would now firmly take place. I guided him with imagery.
Then the rush would start and I would push again, and I would push his furry little head further and further out of me, until I was crowning what the attendants were calling a “perfect, even crown,” and then his shoulders were a little tight, and I was pushing again, and then I was reaching down for him and pulling him onto my chest.
The nurses cut away my gown and removed wires, they allowed him to be placed, gooey and warm, on my chest. One nurse rubbed him vigorously on the back and Alden let out a stark wail; we all cheered. Tears escaped my eyes but a smile never left. I held his tiny, wet body and talked to him. I couldn’t see his face because he was nestled into my neck, but I didn’t have to, not right away.
With Slone, they had to take him from me and check him out. Alden was different, and he was left on me. No one fiddled with us. Eventually, he started rooting and I put him to my breast for his first drink. “I love your confidence with your baby,” my doula said.
So we laid there in our bliss. Suckling, cooing and talking to each other. We stayed in our little cocoon for a couple of hours. It was sweet.
Then I was able to get up and walk myself to the bathroom, and the nurse weighed and measured Alden. Funny that all the doctors were so worried about his size. Every ultrasound tech had to tell me that he was going to be huge. He was a very healthy 7 pounds, 14 ounces, 21 inches long.
With that, we moved to a postpartum room to start our first night together.
The fun was just beginning.