Nevermind the birth plan.
In part one of a three-part series about Nina and Matt’s birth experience, Nina shares the birth story of her first child, Arthur. Reproduced with permission from Nina and Matt.
Our baby’s due date was Tuesday, Jan. 19, the day after the Martin Luther King Day holiday. I left the office the previous Friday determined not to come back. I was going to have the baby that weekend, dammit.
The weekend happened to be one of those “polar vortexes” we’re prone to in Minnesota. The temperature hovered around 0° starting on Saturday, and dipped to -11° by Monday morning. My plans for walking the baby out were not going to happen, so instead I passed the time cleaning, coloring in my Outlander coloring book, bouncing on my birth ball, eating pineapple, drinking red raspberry leaf tea, and timing my Braxton Hicks contractions.
By Monday they hadn’t gotten any closer together than 5-10 minutes and were still very irregular. Matt and I were about to try the only other indoor activity you can do to get things going when I felt a trickle of something that was definitely not pee. I bounced out of bed and told Matt, “Um… I think my water just broke?” Then I felt another trickle. “There it is again!” I said. “GET OFF THE CARPET!” he yelled.
We had a composed a song for exactly this event to the tune of Robyn’s, “Call Your Girlfriend”:
Call your midwife
Tell her your water broke
Tell her the color
Odor, amount, and time!
Might have that baby soooooon”
The midwife on-call at the Minnesota Birth Center that day was Sarah, one of our favorites. We made an appointment to test the fluid to be sure it was amniotic and do a non-stress test to see if the baby was still doing OK. The results were clear: my “bag of waters” had indeed released! I triumphantly texted my boss to tell her I wouldn’t be coming into work the next day. Because I wasn’t yet in labor, Sarah told us to go home and try to get some rest, and to check in with her that evening. We made a quick pit stop in the ~*Donna Room*~, which is where we hoped we’d meet our little babe in the coming hours.
We decided to go to Brasa for lunch, which we assumed would be our last meal before the baby arrived. We were so, so excited to meet the little buddy who had lodged its foot in my ribs for the past several months.
We returned home and I resumed my coloring book/birth ball routine. Contractions got to be about 7-8 minutes apart lasting a minute, but they were irregular and not getting more intense. The midwife on call advised me to return to the birth center the next morning for another non-stress test if things didn’t pick up. The baby was still comfy as could be and healthy at that appointment. Midwife Courtney said they could only really give me another 24 hours to go into labor on my own, and then they would need me to go to the hospital to be induced due to the risk of infection. I was feeling very discouraged but determined not to let that happen.
I had spent months envisioning a peaceful water birth in the calming, spa-like ~*Donna Room*~. The hospital was not part of my plan.
I made an appointment with my girl Kennedy at Selby Acupuncture and told her to light me up like a Christmas tree. I waddled down the hallway for a pedicure appointment at Estetica immediately afterward. Matt then picked me up and we went across town to the Minneapolis Institute of Art to try to stimulate labor by walking. There we ran into Molly, a friend from Duluth. She was two weeks overdue and up to the same tricks. Matt and I wandered through the Asian art galleries, stopping every 10 or so minutes while I had a Braxton Hicks contraction. We had another evening of irregular contractions that didn’t add up to much. The midwife on call that night told me if I still hadn’t gone into labor by the next day they’d insist on a trip to United.
The next morning I tried acupuncture again, followed by some prenatal yoga at Blooma.
NOTHING WAS WORKING. After class, I returned a missed call from Midwife Katie, who told me my time was up: I needed to get my stubborn butt to the hospital that afternoon. Just then my yoga teacher came downstairs to find me sobbing, and I snotted all over her shoulder as I conveyed how devastated I was to have the birth I’d been dreaming about and planning for suddenly ripped out of my clutches. I should probably explain a bit about why I was in such a glass case of emotion beyond your usual pregnancy hormonal swings.
An abridged version: Matt and I decided to start trying t get pregnant on my 28th birthday in June 2013. I went off the pill but didn’t get a period for seven months. I finally saw a doctor about it in January 2014, and he diagnosed me with polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS), a form of infertility that basically screws with my ability to ovulate. He referred me to a fertility specialist, who started me on hormonal treatments that would force ovulation. Miraculously, I got pregnant after the first round, but I soon suffered a devastating miscarriage. I tried a few more rounds of the hormones until I developed an ovarian cyst. That made me want to try a different approach, so I started weekly acupuncture treatments in December 2014 that I continued through the following spring. In May 2015, I found out I was pregnant again.
Throughout that whole process, I felt like my body was failing me in the most basic, primal way. This delay in labor felt like yet another time my body couldn’t get it quite right. Every single part of my journey had felt completely out of my control, and having something yet another choice taken away left me feeling impotent. The one upside was that I would continue to be cared for by the birth center midwifery team.
Matt and I spent a sullen afternoon taking care of last-minute chores around the house and repacking our bags — what we had assumed would be an overnight stay at the birth center was now gearing up to be a multi-day sojourn at United Hospital. We arrived at my recently remodeled, space-age birthing suite at about 5:00, and I got outfitted with a belly band that would hold in place my two constant companions in the coming days: a contraction monitor and a fetal heartbeat monitor. If the latter got dislodged and couldn’t detect the heartbeat, it would beep incessantly until a nurse came in and adjusted it. Both produced piles of graph paper from a machine by the bed that tracked my progress.
*** Please note: shit’s about to get real/graphic/real graphic. If this stuff squicks you out abandon ship here!***
At around 7 p.m. (which I am counting as the start of my actual labor) I received my first method of induction: a prostaglandin called Cervidil. It looked like a small sliver of paper attached to a tampon string, and it had to be manually inserted behind my cervix. They wanted to start me on this one because if the contractions got too intense it could easily be removed. I’m sure my lovely midwife was being as gentle as possible, but, dear readers, there is only one way to describe how this felt: like being fisted by a lion. Because I had intended on birthing without pain medication, I had worked on creating a “happy place” I could go in my mind that looked an awful lot like a beach in Belize. The problem was, there was no scenario that visualization worked for me at that moment unless a crab had decided to climb up my hoo-ha.
I soon started to feel real, regular contractions. They weren’t particularly debilitating yet, so I tried to get as much sleep as possible before the party started. I was foiled by the steady stream of nurses in my room every two hours to check my vitals, the constant, irritating beeping of the fetal heart rate monitor every time I changed positions and it got dislodged, and the hip pain that had been a constant companion in the latter stages of my pregnancy and was exacerbated by the uncomfortable hospital bed. Oh, and our room was directly above a loading dock. It made me mourn the loss of the ~*Donna Room*~ so hard… with its real, comfortable bed, spacious tub, soothing color palette, and lack of bright, beepy things. At around 2 a.m. (Hour 7) they gave me a sleeping pill that allowed me to get a little rest.
When the next morning’s on-call midwife Courtney arrived at 7 a.m. (Hour 12), she removed the Cervidel and checked my cervix. I was still only 1 cm dilated, despite my contractions getting stronger/more painful overnight and more regular (3-7 mins apart). The decision to move on to Cytotec, a more powerful prostaglandin that looked like a tiny pill and also had to be manually inserted (but far less painfully). Each dose lasts about 6 hours. After the first one I was still only a few centimeters dilated, so at 1 p.m. (Hour 18) I had a second dose. Things were starting to get really painful, and my hips were NOT LYING.
A nurse told me they had a massage therapist on staff who was “part of the package” and asked if I wanted to see her. Yes. Yes, I did. She wafted into the room a few hours later on a cloud of patchouli. I told her that what I wanted the very most in all the world was to have someone squeeze my hips as hard as they possibly could because it felt like they were falling apart. “Hmm,” she said. “What I’d really like to try with you is some gentle acupressure.” Gentle did not sound fun, it did not sound good, it sounded infuriating, but I said, “Sounds good.” She had me lean against a wall while she put the lightest, most feathery pressure on my haunches. After staying there for a contraction or two, she suggested: “something a bit unorthodox.” She wanted to form a sling with her arms between my legs so she was cupping my bits and “breathe with me.” I believe I said something to the effect of, “Girl, whatever.” Matt and I avoided eye contact as we tried not to laugh. She left me with a cotton ball soaked with essential oils and took her leave as my saint, my savior, my beautiful French doula Justine of Midwest Doulas arrived at around 4:00 (Hour 21) and I immediately felt better.
Want to know why you should get a doula?
I’ll tell you why. Birthing, at least in my experience, gets lonely. The nurses flitted in and out and change every few hours, and I saw my midwives every 4-6 hours for a status check, adjustment to my care plan, or to administer the labor-making meds. A doula is your rock. She stays with you, she answers your questions, she gives your partner a break from being an emotional punching bag, and, most importantly: SHE SQUEEZES YOUR DAMN HIPS WHEN YOU ASK HER TO.
Justine took charge and was exactly the fierce mama bear I wanted her to be when we hired her. At 7 p.m. (Hour 24), Midwife Courtney inserted a Cook catheter, which has saline-filled chambers on either side of your cervix that is supposed to naturally force it to dilate to the point where it just falls out on its own. As soon as that was locked and loaded, Justine took me and my telemetry unit on a jaunt around the hospital floor and distracted me by having me tell Matt’s and my meet-cute story. Every time I had a contraction, she had me hold on to the wall and squat while she provided blissful counterpressure on my hips and whispered sweet nothings in my ear in French. (Just kidding; she was reminding me to breathe.) We eventually wound our way back to my room, where we found my nurse on the hunt for us; apparently, we’d gone so far afield that the telemetry unit wasn’t functioning. Le oops.
That night contractions got bad. Real bad. I wish I could describe what they felt like, but I honestly don’t remember (evolutionary amnesia?). I think I described them to Matt as having 10 bad periods at once. The nurses kept asking me to rate the pain on a scale from 1-10, which I found impossible to do. It was definitely the worst I’d ever felt, but I knew worse was coming so maybe it was only really a 6? Justine was by my side, letting me death grip her hand every time one came on while Matt tried to get some rest. I called the midwife when contractions were so intense I thought for SURE the catheter was about to fall out, but she gave it a quick tug and it was still wedged tight. They gave me some morphine at around 10 or 11 p.m. (Hour 27/28), which chilled me out enough that Justine decided to head home and sleep around midnight (Hour 29) since I wasn’t making much progress. She asked us to call if anything happened, but said her partner doula Staci would be on call and ready to head over the next morning. I did manage to drift off after she left but awoke as the morphine wore off and the pain got very extra awful until I projectile vomited all over my monitoring equipment and piles of graph paper at 2 a.m. (Hour 31).
I shakily pressed the call button, and the nurse that answered was, like, really disappointed in my aim. She huffed and puffed as she cleaned everything up. I hid in the bathroom while she changed the sheets and apologized to Matt for waking him up. He was able to get back to sleep after the commotion died down, but I was in a really bad way. Instead of calling Justine or waking Matt up or getting literally anyone to help me, I decided it was my job as a martyr from a long line of martyrs to suffer completely on my own and not trouble a damn soul until Staci was on call at 6 a.m. I remember closing my eyes between contractions and promising myself that the next time I opened them it would be *at least* a half an hour later. In reality, only two minutes would have gone by. I labored on my back, moaning as quietly as I possibly could. When that got too miserable, I crept over to the birth ball and labored on that. I threw up a few times. I thought maybe I was going to be in labor forever. I thought maybe I was dying. I fantasized about them just cutting the baby out of me so I could be done with it. It was the longest, darkest Dark Night of the Soul I have ever known.
Finally, at 5 a.m. (Hour 34) I couldn’t take it anymore and called Staci. “I’m so sorry,” I martyred, “But I need you.” She said she’d hop in the shower and be right on her way. Midwife Courtney stopped by before going off duty at around 6 a.m. (Hour 35) and checked the catheter. After the night I’d had, I was positive I’d be *at least* 7 cm dilated. Nope. Try 2. Staci, sweet, wonderful Staci, showed up as I started to spiral, and had the first good idea I’d heard in years: I should get in the bath. The bath! I forgot about the bath! I love baths. Baths are my friend. As I eased into the water I felt the best I’d felt in days. I was so relaxed I actually managed to fall asleep betwixt contractions. And then I threw up and had to get out.
By 10 a.m. (Hour 39) I was in was in The Dark Place. I hadn’t slept in days and I had absolutely no sustenance in my system. I tried so hard to rally and make jokes, but all I could do was quietly weep. I’ve never felt so weak and powerless. They were talking about putting me on Pitocin within a few hours to get things moving, and that terrified me. I had spent years consuming everything on medication-free childbirth I could get my paws on watching Ricki Lake documentaries, reading Ina May Gaskin’s books and listening to interviews with her, taking natural childbirth classes, etc., and my takeaway was that Pitocin is the actual devil and will send your body on a roller coaster of pure pain and evil. (Note: It’s not, and it has many useful applications, but LABOR DOES NOT A RATIONAL HUMAN MAKE.)
At this point, I put my pride (and birth plan) in the garbage and requested an epidural. I was already so weak I couldn’t imagine tolerating pain more intense than I was already experiencing. Because you can’t eat or drink while the epidural is in effect, they hooked me up to the biggest, slowest-dripping bag of IV fluids in America. While we were waiting for that to finish, a curious thing happened. Staci was helping me go to the bathroom when I felt something shift and water came gushing out of me. None of this trickle business I’d been experiencing all week. I really hoped my nurse would be proud that I’d managed to keep the mess contained in the toilet. Soon after, my contractions changed and became more… grunty. I wanted to push.
By this time it was around 11:30 or so (Hour 40.5). The midwife (this time it was Sarah again!) checked me again and I was 9 cm dilated. “Cancel the epidural,” I said, with what I want to imagine was a glint in my eye and a look of fierce determination on my glowing, maternal face. “I can do this.”
They made me wait another half an hour until my IV bag was done before I could start pushing. I started out facing backward on the toilet (which is actually a really good pseudo-birthing stool because of the way it positions your pelvis). I got some good pushes in before deciding I couldn’t let my child be born on the terlet, so they had me move to the bed. It felt the most natural to be on my hands and knees. Between contractions, I flopped over a peanut-shaped birth ball and rocked side to side while Matt fed me ice chips. When I had to push, I’d grab one of Matt’s hands and one of Staci’s, and bear down. I guess I was squeezing the life out of them because they soon threaded a sheet through the back of the bed for me to pull on instead. Pushing felt good. Like, really, really good. Middle of a great workout good. I hated feeling the baby’s head recede back between contractions, and I just wanted to keep pushing and pushing until he was out. When they wouldn’t let me I channeled my frustration by howling like a wounded animal.
At some point Matt asked,
“So how’s that beach in Belize?”
And I said, “SHUT UP!”
At some point one of the nurses said, “Mom and Dad and Uncle are waiting in the lobby!” and I said, “I wonder which uncle,” and Matt said, “Probably your Uncle Nate, right?” and I said, “The BABY’S uncle, IDIOT.”
Soon enough, I felt the baby’s head heavy in my pelvis. It was incredibly uncomfortable not to keep pushing between contractions, but they didn’t want me to tear. I fought my way through the Ring of Fire and then… the baby just seemed to tumble right out into the midwife’s arms behind me at 2:09 p.m. (Hour 43).
I took him – it was a him! — into my arms. He was warm and slippery and weirdly not at all goopy and perfect and smelled like the sea. I looked up at Matt, who was as completely ecstatic as I’ve ever seen him, clutching his hand to his chest and laugh-crying, not able to take his eyes off our son.
At that moment, nothing else mattered. Meeting my son was the strangest feeling of recognition and pure and total love. “That was you inside me, the whole time!” I marveled.
Those were your little feet
and your little hiccups!”
I have no idea what else was happening in the room because the universe had contracted to just our little triad.
During the whole labor, I’d thought to myself, “This is so horrible that when it’s over Matt has to give me whatever I want. And if this is a boy I want his name to be Oscar.” But I took one look at our little meatball and acknowledged that the name Matt had chosen was actually perfect. “OK fine he’s totally an Arthur WHATEVER.”
And that is Arthur’s birth story.