This is the third of a series of posts on pregnancy, labor, birth, and being a new parent. See intro and full list.
What we did to “prepare” for labor and delivery:
- We took an “open-minded childbirth class.” The first two weeks, we learned about the stages of labor, watched videos of women in labor, and learned about medical interventions (from suctioning to C-sections).
- At the class, we spent a few minutes doing a “pain management” exercise. Steve held an ice cube on my wrist; the idea was for me to practice breathing and focusing to help deal with the pain.
- It must be admitted that during the “baseline” ice-cube-on-the-wrist round, when we were told to focus on the pain, my entire body started shaking with pain and tears sprung to my eyes. Steve whispered to me afterwards, “Uh…. I don’t know if you’re going to make it!” Ironically, the next PowerPoint slide was “Tips for the coach: #1: Be encouraging and positive, tell her that she can do it!” We had a good laugh.
- I read Birthing From Within by Pam England. There were some good focusing/pain-management techniques and visualization suggestions that I found helpful as Steve and I practiced at home with ice cubes… which we only did once. I wasn’t very diligent about practicing pain-management techniques.
- I also read Ina May’s Guide to Childbirth. Both books are very pro-natural/non-medicated labor. Ina May’s Guide, in particular, really influenced my decision to attempt a non-epidural delivery; the many stories within really helped to communicate a “you can do it!” attitude.
- I asked one of my good friends about her labor and delivery experience. She delivered at the same hospital that we were going to be at and didn’t have an epidural (and had a bit of a hellish experience). I appreciated her honesty in giving us a detailed account of what happened, what she was thinking, what she was feeling.
- We did not write out an official “birth plan.” Our mental birth plan was something along these lines: “Labor at home until contractions are 3 minutes apart. Try to have a water birth in the tub. Try to not have an epidural. But if medically or emotionally necessary, be okay with it.”
- We took a weekend trip to Santa Cruz with the specific goal of laying by the ocean and listening to the waves. One of the visualization exercises (I think… doing this from memory) talked about thinking of labor pains as “waves,” with each wave bringing you closer to the birth. I wanted to absorb the sound of the ocean and keep it fresh in my memory.
The actual sequence of events* of my 75-hour labor**:
- Sunday night, 6 pm: Contractions start. Unlike previous “practice” (Braxton-Hicks) contractions, these don’t stop. They aren’t at all painful, though.
- Sunday night, 9:30 pm: Bloody discharge, or “show.”
- Monday morning, 4 am: Wake up because contractions getting uncomfortable. Feels like menstrual cramps.
- Monday, daytime: Frantically wrap up last bits of work. Go on walk with hubby. Go to [scheduled] prenatal appointment; find out that the contractions are 5 minutes apart and that I am 2.5 cm dilated.
- Monday, evening: More laboring at home. We don’t sleep; contractions are more painful.
- Tuesday morning, 5am: We call the midwife hotline to check in. They advise that I come in to get medication to help me get some sleep.
- Tuesday morning, 6 am: At the hospital, we find out that I’m only 3.5 cm dilated. They give me Visatril, which is supposed to be sort of like Benedryl in that it knocks you out. It doesn’t work at all.
- Tuesday, day and evening: I don’t remember much because I was soooo tired. I think it was more of the same.
- Tuesday night, 7 pm: Our friend Amanda (who is an ER nurse) stopped by spontaneously to see if she could give Steve a break. He thankfully took a nap on the couch while she sat with me in the bedroom for three hours and talked me through my contractions. In retrospect, my pain “peaked” during this time. Although I didn’t know that this was the worst the contractions would get, I do remember thinking, “I can do this! If this is what labor is like, I don’t need pain medication.”
- Wednesday morning, 5:30 am: My contractions are 3 minutes apart. We check in to the hospital and find out that I’m 8 cm dilated! Very exciting.
- Wednesday morning, a few hours later: I’m 9 cm dilated. The doctor suggests that they break the bag of waters to see if that speeds things up. There is meconium (early baby poop) in the fluid, which rules out a water birth. DIscouragingly, I actually go back down to 8 cm – breaking the bag of waters caused the cervix to “deflate” a little.
- Wednesday, 4 pm: Back up to 9 cm. They start a Pitocin drip to try to encourage more regular contractions.
- Wedneday, 6 pm: Fully dilated, start pushing. They have me go through various position changes. It’s incredibly exhausting.
- Wednesday, 9 pm: Baby is born!
Some thoughts in retrospect:
Hold all expectations loosely — that’s one of the main things I got out of the birthing class. Not out of the class itself, necessarily, but mainly from the emailed birth stories the other people sent out after their babies were born. One couple had a super-short delivery time; they labored at home for a while, then were in the hospital for only an hour before she was fully dilated and started pushing. Another couple was in labor for 40 hours before the woman finally chose to have an epidural. Another couple had a hard time figuring out when contractions started and ended, so they ended up going to the hospital perhaps earlier than they needed to. All the couples in our class had indicated that they hoped for a natural birth experience.
Steve and I had sort of hoped for a water birth, although we were sort of ambivalent about it and weren’t crushed when we couldn’t. I had definitely hoped to have skin-to-skin contact immediately after birth, but in reality it was close to an hour and a half before that happened because of the pooping-meconium-in-the-amniotic-sac thing. Neither of us ever dreamed that we’d have a 75-hour labor experience!
I don’t know how I got through 75 hours of labor and delivery. By the grace of God? I don’t feel like I was especially prepared. Steve and I kept having the best intentions of “practicing” breathing exercises and pain management techniques, but we really only did it once at home. We were slackers!
I think Steve was an awesome, supportive labor partner and coach. He was very encouraging, telling me verbally that I was doing a great job, touching me a lot, really trying to be there for me. It was exhausting for him, too, as he didn’t get much more sleep than I did. He also felt extremely lonely in the hospital when he was alone with me as I was pushing; I would conk out in between pushes, and Steve really felt at a loss.
Amanda said that I was an “easy person to coach.” I think I’m usually a rule-following, compliant kind of person, so maybe that helps. (I’m often concerned about “doing things right” and “following the rules.”) So when Steve suggested that I do something, or when the doctor explained how to push, I’d just do what they told me to do.
I think it was really helpful for Amanda to be there Tuesday night, especially as she was able to give Steve a break. I think I’m still glad that Steve was my labor coach for most of the time, but since he did need a break, Amanda was an awesome coach to have as well. One thing Steve said was that it was hard because he felt like he was saying the same things over and over again — “Good job, good job, good job. Breathe, breathe, breathe.” As someone who had gone through labor herself, Amanda was okay with this repetition, because she knew that each contraction had to be dealt with anew, and was incredibly patient. She also had a very calm and quiet demeanor which was very non-stressful. I would highly advise having someone like this as a backup person — I think that’s sort of the role that doulas play, but for me, it was important to have someone that I knew and trusted (instead of a stranger). I can also see that it may have been helpful if Amanda had been there to coach Steve as a coach, at least for Steve’s own confidence — I think that Steve did a great job!
There were some visualization and self-talk things that I did during labor:
- One of the books I read talked about imagining your cervix as a flower, slowly opening with each contraction. I had a much less poetic image! I thought about the sausages we get from the co-op and how at times I’ll squeeze the meat out to cook it in broken-up format. So I imagined squeezing the sausage at the top (the contraction) and the opening at the bottom of the sausage opening up and the meat coming out. Weird, I know, but it worked for a while!
- I did find myself muttering to myself, “Open. Open. Open.” during contractions. Other times I alternated between “Open. Relax. Open. Relax.” to help me with controlling my breathing while also envisioning my cervix opening.
- Amanda gave me the tip of imagining myself as a breeze blowing on a mountain lake and making gentle ripples to control my breathing (in contrast to violent waves).
- Amanda had me make low-pitched moaning sounds (as opposed to high-pitched keening noises). I forgot to mention before that the doctor also had me do this during contractions at the hospital as well, because the lower-register tones actually help your muscles to relax and allow the contractions to do their thing; making higher-pitched noises can cause the muscles to contract and be counterproductive.
I was happy that I got to experience a natural birth. Some of my reasons for wanting a natural birth from the books I read:
- Pushing is longer when an epidural because the woman is less coordinated or can’t feel her contractions.
- Initial breastfeeding often goes better without an epidural — possibly because the baby is more alert or something like that.
- Getting an epidural can often lead to more interventions. The midwife told me that if I had an epidural, I probably would have ended up with a C-section in the end because my labor was so long.
- Cutting out the pain of childbirth means that you also miss out on the endorphin rush at the end, and you may miss out on the “fulfilling” feeling of having completed something important.
However, I wanted to keep an “open mind” about epidurals, especially as I had no real idea what my pain tolerance level would be. It helped to have some friends who unashamedly encouraged me that there was no shame in requesting an epidural. It also helped to read the birth stories of the various couples from our birthing class to see how different all their experiences were and how getting an epidural was really the right choice for some of them.
Going into it, I was torn. I really wanted a natural birth, for my own sake as well as for the baby’s, and I wanted to be confident in that desire and not let others discourage me in that — but I also had no idea what it would really be like so I wanted to keep the option open for an epidural.
In the end, I’m glad that it turned out the way it did.
Some women talk about how the “pain of childbirth is washed away by the joy of delivery.” Well, I definitely got all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed as soon as Steven was born, which is pretty amazing when you consider that I hadn’t really slept for three days and had worked really really hard, but I can’t say that the memory of the pain was “swept away” by any means. Generally I think it’s impossible to truly “remember” pain of any kind in the sense that you can’t really “recall” the feeling, but I certainly remember the facts of how miserable I felt, how out of it I was, and the toll that each contraction took on my body! My whole body was really sore in the next few days, especially my arms, from tensing my muscles so strongly during contractions!
In conclusion… If I were talking to a newly pregnant woman about labor and delivery, I guess my main pieces of “advice” would be to hold expectations loosely, and, if she thinks it would be helpful, to listen to other people’s labor stories to get an idea of how different people’s experiences can be. If she were interested in a natural birth, I’d be very encouraging and recommend Ina May’s Guide to Childbirth.
Other women who’ve gone through this: Did you find anything helpful to prepare for labor? What kind of labor and delivery experience did you have?
* I have a REALLY long and detailed version. Email me if you’re curious and I can send it to you.
** I count my labor as when the contractions started and never ended, even though they weren’t actually painful at first.