I wanted to keep my pregnancy and our daughter’s birth as natural as possible. “Safety first, simplicity second,” my husband and I told anyone who asked. I was comfortable with my ob/gyn, a knowledgable, no-bullshit woman with whom I’d been through an earlier miscarriage. My hope was to avoid a C-section, skip labor-induction drugs like Pitocin, skip the epidural and any other narcotics, but if my safety or the baby’s was at risk we would adapt our plans.
Because of our doctor’s understanding, I never bothered to write up a birth plan, though I’ve heard of some, pages long, that sound more like diva’s concert riders. Mine would have read something like, “Please keep this simple. Try not to cut me open and help us avoid drugs. If I’m out of control, ask John. He knows what I want.”
I learned from others’ experiences, though, that the more expectations you have, the more ways you can be let down. Expecting parents who try to plan births with schedules and theme colors and specific songs to be played at specific times are ultimately disappointed.
Like, if during your wedding party you insist that no one play the Chicken Dance, sure as shit you’re gonna look up at some point to hear that damn polka, everybody shaking their tailfeathers and laughing at you.
Though I don’t really believe in fate, I still tried not to tempt it by being fussy.
I didn’t expect the birth experience to have anything to do with Johnny Cash, either, even though John and I are big fans, but The Man in Black showed up anyway.
On a scheduled doctor’s visit, we asked if we should take a class. Everybody we knew had taken classes, and they were all shocked that we hadn’t. The doctor – bless her! – said, “If you’re really nervous, take a class. But you guys read books, you’ll be fine.”
We’re not antisocial. Hyper-selectively social, maybe. Anyhow, we were relieved to be off the hook. Winters last long into spring in Northern Michigan and the closest movie theater is 35 minutes away, so our town fairly brims with pregnant teens. Huffing through Lamaze practice on the linoleum with a bunch of knocked-up sixteen-year-olds was not mandatory. Hooray!
Then, come birth day, one of the nurses was incredulous.
“You didn’t even take a class?”
Totally guilty, John and I looked around, looked at each other, neither of us wanting to meet her gaze. This nurse had borne all six of her kids naturally. She was a tough broad and she knew what was up. We didn’t; we hadn’t taken a class. She was disappointed that we hadn’t picked up breathing techniques, but the quickie demo she gave us helped.
Though a natural birth was important to me I never met with a midwife or doula. Many books and articles I read touted their powers of medicine and support, and the dog and I frequently walked past a van in the neighborhood with a pro-midwifery bumper sticker so I suspect one lived in our small town. Fact is, part of the appeal of a midwife or doula was that you established a relationship with them, and I already felt that with my doctor.
John trusted my decisions and backed me up. He was great, he was supportive, and he liked and trusted my OB. He was also relieved that he wouldn’t be hauling a portable birthing pool into our 120-year old 2nd floor walk-up.
I really, really didn’t want the baby to be born on drugs. There’s already the overwhelming natural high, the rush of hormones that facilitates bonding. I’d heard so many accounts, though, of babies who don’t take to nursing, or whose mothers reported struggles to bond after epidurals made them woozy, or after C-sections that required immediate, and sometimes extended, separation of mom and baby. When I met our kid for the first time I didn’t want us to be stoned except on the good stuff our bodies would make for us.
Also, I wanted to be able to walk, during early labor and afterward. The idea that my legs might be frozen after an epidural freaked me out. Delivering a baby should ideally make a woman feel like an incredible, super-accomplished badass, not like an invalid.
BREAKING AND BACK LABOR
You might learn in a birthing class that your water can break 12 days early with hardly any fluid loss and no contractions. The instructor of said class could have explained that the amniotic fluid might trickle rather than break, so lightly, in fact, that I blew it off when I felt it. An instructor might have said to not expect whooshing sound effects. She might have said, “Hey, even if this happens at ten pm, check in with your doctor.” Instead, I stuck a pad in my underwear, thought for the millionth time how weird pregnancy is, and I went to bed.
The next morning I phoned my mom, who made me realize I was probably having a baby and should get over to the hospital. We did. Thanks, Mom.
In the hospital that afternoon, about 18 hours after my half-assed water broke, I was still only dilated 3 or 4 cm with light contractions—not even halfway to 10cm go-time. When the baby is no longer cushioned in amniotic fluid there’s a greater risk of infection, so my doctor ordered Pitocin, a synthetic hormone delivered via an IV, to speed things up.
Pitocin mimics the naturally occurring labor hormone Oxytocin, helping contractions become stronger and with more frequency. It’s also reported to interfere with natural Oxytocin levels. Some hospitals have been accused of over-use of Pitocin to keep births on schedule and shorten labor and delivery times. There’s a stereotype of an impersonal doctor using Pitocin to hurry up births to make a tee time, and I was annoyed to have to take it. It wasn’t in my plan. Dammit.
But we weren’t being hurried for any reason other than our own safety; we were the only family in the ward that night. Shortly after the drug was administered, the baby flipped around to face my belly instead of my back and suddenly it felt as if she was head-banging against my spine. Hours of this “back labor” gave me something to focus on aside from the IV Pitocin drip.
Two fetal heartbeat monitors were belted tightly around my belly to check the drug’s effects. Quickly the belts became the new epicenter of my pain and they were cursed mightily, repetitively. If I have another kid, I will insist that if we need monitors they must be duct taped on my belly, ripped up and repositioned over and over rather than wear those damn belts again.
The drugs, the belts, the back labor—thinking about it now, my lower back aches with the memory. A year later, remembering it sends me to the bath with a carton of Epsom salts.
A few hours into back labor is when the nurse—the one we liked so much, who said we should have taken a class—said, “If you spent less time swearing and more time pushing we’d have that baby already.”
Another thing a pregnancy class might have cleared up for me, something I never read in “What to Expect…”
They’ll yell “PUSH!” exactly like every actor says in every filmed birth scene ever, but this ain’t the movies. That simple-sounding action of pushing, it’s more complicated than the monosyllabic command. Pushing is a bitch. There is no single machine or muscle inside you that pushes the baby out. Pushing is bearing down, and a tightening of the belly muscles, but the muscles are also contracting, doing their own thing. I was tightening up my belly while also trying not to tighten up the birth canal. As if there’s really a choice about that when a tiny person is forcing their way through.
I had assumed that when the time came, my body would know what to do. After nearly a day waiting to dilate enough to push, I was sore and exhausted and I found that I didn’t really know how to push.
Granted, I had imagined that pushing a baby out wouldn’t be totally different from pushing out a bowel movement. Having now experienced both pooping and childbirth I promise you they are not the same. Do they tell you that in a birthing class? I wouldn’t know.
THE RING OF FIRE
After our nearly full day in the hospital, and an hour or two of heavy labor in the very early morning, one of our medical pit crew must have noticed the intensity of my labor ratcheting up. She murmured something about “The Ring of Fire.”
Had we taken a class we might have known about this. Or maybe it’s something they don’t like to talk about until you get there. I certainly did not recall the phrase from my reading, but I knew what she was talking about.
During that final stage of pushing, as the baby makes it’s exit, it burns, burns, burns and you think real fire would be a relief compared to what’s actually happening to your vagina.
We were already thinking of naming our daughter June, not after June Carter but just because we liked the sound of it. When, during the most excruciating physical step of childbirth, the nurses invoked a Johnny Cash song, the deal was sealed.
I hope I have not committed a faux pas here by invoking the Ring of Fire, like breaking the first two rules of Fight Club or blabbing someone’s AA status in mixed company. But you know what? You kind of knew it was going to happen. You knew it was going to hurt, and that then it was going to hurt way worse before the baby popped out. You just weren’t picturing Cash’s big ole doleful face singing that song yet.
SO WORTH IT
No fire can burn forever, and soon we had a healthy, wonderful baby. June came out, John cut the cord like a pro (he’d been queasy about it the week before, but after a day of delivery he was battle-hardened and fearless) and let me see her. I delivered the placenta (plop!), the doctor stitched me up while a nurse checked out the baby, and quick as that, she was in my happy, exhausted arms, both of us high as kites, and John grinning ear-to-ear from the contact buzz.
In the end the Pitocin and three doses of a painkiller got me through without succumbing to an epidural. There was no C-section, though, no narcotics shot straight into my spine. So you can call me victorious. And old-fashioned. And stubborn.
Because an epidural would have made it hurt a hell of a lot less.
The pediatrician on duty called June “vigorous,” a description that still applies—to her disinterest in sleep (as if she feels she’s missing something), to her constant motion and early physical development.
I’m proud to have stuck to our simple plan, to safety first and simplicity second. We’re pretty pleased with the results. I’m not saying that it was the lack of drugs that resulted in such a wide-awake and perfect little babe, but it can’t have harmed her. Every day June gets a little bigger, a little stronger, and a whole lot faster, and I have to admit that sometimes—especially on those hectic days where it seems like she’s growing up before my eyes—I think maybe I should have taken just a little something to slow her down…