The journey as birth partner begins, as many do, with the births of my own.
On a cloudy November day in Arlington, Texas, three weeks before my twenty-fifth birthday, I sat in my doctor’s office, sharing the details of the mystery going on with my body. “I think I might be pregnant”, I explained, “but my cycles have been crazy, and I’m just really not sure.” My husband and I had been trying with no success to conceive for almost a year. A few weeks before, I’d had the long-awaited two lines showing positive on the pee-on-the-stick test from the drugstore, but within two days, began bleeding. I could only assume that the test had been wrong. I had already grieved through one miscarriage. I would rather believe that the test was wrong than to go through that again. I had an appointment already scheduled with my OB in just a week, to begin fertility treatments. Given the events of the past couple of days, though, I’d called to ask about coming in right away.
A few days before, while spending the weekend in an out-of-town hotel for a public speaking competition, I had spent the ten minutes before my turn throwing up into a wastebasket in the hotel hallway. A combination of “monkey nerves” and an oncoming virus, I figured. Embarrassed to be in such a moment, and grateful that nobody saw it happen, I ran down the hallway to the bathroom which, moments before, had been just a bit too far away to make it in time. Splashing my face with water and rinsing my mouth, I gave myself a quick pep-talk. “C’mon, Jodi-girl. It’s just a speech. You’ve done this a hundred times. Pull yourself together, here.”
Moments later, I re-entered the conference room as though nothing had happened, took the podium and gave my speech as planned. Then I returned to my hotel room, closed the curtains, turned off the lights, and stayed in bed for the rest of the day until the awards ceremony that night. My name was announced for first place, and my team eagerly offered cheers and hugs, but all I cared about in that moment was making the trip back home and crawling into bed.
For two weeks, I’d had a mild flu that I just couldn’t seem to shake, and was still so very tired. I was nauseous, and had perpetual circles under my eyes. Doing the mental “period math”, I calculated that I couldn’t be more than just a couple of days late, at most.
A quick test at the doctor’s office confirmed that there was, indeed, a baby in there. My doctor, hearing my symptoms, was certain that there was more going on than I knew. He led me into the sonogram room at his office, where he confirmed for himself that I was not a couple of weeks along as I’d suspected, but eleven weeks already. Eleven weeks? I’d gone through an entire first trimester without knowing it?
The positive test and miscarriage I’d had weeks before wasn’t the complete story, it seemed. The bleeding I’d had, he explained, may have been something as simple as the “implantation bleeding” that occurs when a fertilized egg attaches to the wall of the uterus. More likely, though, was the explanation that I’d originally been carrying twins. The sight of the little lima-bean-shaped body floating on the ultrasound screen was all I needed to see – no matter what his story may have been before this moment, this was real. My baby was alive and well. My baby was in there. My baby was coming. This was all I needed to know.
I was given a due date set for mid-June. That very evening, I called my parents, and my husband’s parents. I chattered excitedly and gushed with the news. Within days, all of our friends and co-workers knew. I did everything short of phoning complete strangers to spread the word – a baby! We were having a baby! In my entire life, I had wanted nothing more than to be a mother, and the long-awaited dream was finally on the way.
I began reading about pregnancy and early parenting. The book given by my OB’s office became my trusted companion, as I faithfully memorized all I should expect while expecting. The weeks flew by as I picked out all of the little things I thought I’d want and need. I learned that we were having a boy. A name, Zackary Charles, was chosen, and gender-appropriate room décor was soon picked out as I began referring to the bump in my belly by name.
The season for the job where I was working as a teacher came to an end, and in the summer of ’96, I had ample time to plan. I knitted little things, baked apple pies, sewed new curtains for the house, and did all of the motherly June Cleaver-ish things I thought I should.
Never, really, in all of this preparation time, did I think about the details of childbirth. I had attended the class at my hospital. I learned how an epidural was administered, listened to the lectures on medication, and watched the videos of women who, just as I surely would, went through proper hospital procedures in the process of getting a baby born. Of the twelve couples in my class, not one raised their hands when the instructor asked if anyone was planning to have an unmedicated birth. Why would we, I reasoned, when we didn’t have to go through the pain of that?
Two weeks before my due date, on the first of June, I began facing each day as though this may be the day my baby was born. I had learned, after all, that my baby should arrive between thirty-eight and forty weeks. Every evening, my husband and I would go for walks around our neighborhood streets, hoping to get things moving along. Every night after these walks, I would return home, frustrated to not be in labor. I told my father by phone one evening that I was certain that the baby would be born with running shoes on. Flowers, ordered by my well-intentioned Mother-in-Law, arrived precisely on my due date, bearing plastic markers proclaiming “Congratulations!” and “It’s a Boy!” I wanted to throw them against a wall. I rocked in the brand new glider in my expected son’s perfectly completed room, hoping to coerce my belly into action. “We’re ready for you to be here”, I said, “Aren’t you ready to come to us?” Impatience had set in hard.
The days began to drag in the stifling Texas summer heat, as one fruitless week passed into another, and yet another. Twice a week, I visited the hospital for tests that confirmed that all continued to be well. Twice in as many weeks, I went to the hospital having had contractions all day, sure that the baby was coming soon, only to be sent home with the advice that though yes, this might be very early labor, it was still a bit too soon to admit me. Go home, the nurses said, and surely they’d see me back in the morning, when things were more active. Both times, by morning, the “labor” had completely stopped, and yet another day passed in which I want to bed thinking “Not today. Maybe tomorrow…”
Two close friends happened to also be expecting June babies. Of the three of us, my due date was first. As my days crawled along, both friends welcomed their little boys as I continued to wait. The first one, I visited in the hospital the day after her birth. The second one, I couldn’t bring myself to do even that. I said I was happy for her, but I wasn’t really. I was jealous and resentful. I couldn’t set one foot in the hospital again. If I went in there, I was walking out with a baby, and at that point I don’t even care if it was mine or not.
The last week of June crawled along, and my OB began greeting me each week with a grin and saying “What, you’re still here?” He’d chuckle and rub his red beard and compare me to a “bad penny that keeps showing up” as one week after another he’d examine me and report, “Nope, no change in this cervix yet.”
“Doc,” I wailed, “I will name my next four babies after you if you will just get me in the hospital and induce me already!”
“Hmm. John is a fine name,” he laughed, “but there’s no reason to rush this baby”. He wagged a finger in my direction. “I’ve had two mamas this week that I’ve had to section after having them labor on pit all day”, he said, referring to Pitocin, the drug commonly used to induce labor. “You’re not about to be my third. Your body’s healthy and strong. Your baby is hanging in there just fine. This little guy will come when he’s ready.”
“Give it ‘til Tuesday”, he said, meaning the day that I would officially be 42 weeks along – two whole weeks later than expected. Four weeks later than I had thought he’d come. “If he’s not here by then, we’ll talk.” Tuesday was four whole days away. That was simply an eternity. I left, deflated and bewildered. My eyes began to mist with the frustration that any pregnant-and-done mama knows so well. Wedging my hugely swollen body behind the wheel of my little black convertible, I decided to drive home the long way, with the top down, hoping that the breeze and the countryside would cool my head and clear my thoughts.
Driving out of the city, I turned up the radio and began singing along loudly. As highways turned into state roads and then to farm roads, and office buildings and shopping centers gave way to suburbs, and then to farmhouses, and then to wide-open fields, my voice began to give way from songs, to sobs, and wails, and screams. With nobody around but cows for miles, I surrendered. Dropping fully into the powerlessness I felt, I let it all go – raging into the wide-open blue of a Texas summer sky, yelling at my doctor, and my body, and God, and whoever else I could think of who apparently just did not understand that I had waited my entire life for this child to be born. I deserved to have this baby in my arms right now! My life was ready, my heart was ready, and even my house was ready! The injustice of insisting that I remain pregnant for even one more minute was simply an outrage. I released with my bellowing every blaming, indignant, and angry thought I could possibly think, until finally, this wild energy had used itself all up. My mind finally became quiet. The chaos with me had burst into flame and had dissipated, until only the silent summer heat remained. I pointed my car for home, where I would continue to wait for Tuesday.
On Sunday morning, as the sun came up, I woke to the tightness in my belly that was by now so familiar. Never before, though, had contractions been strong enough to rouse me from a sound sleep. I sat up in bed, read for a bit, and watched the clock every time I felt my belly begin to tighten. Every ten minutes, it would happen again. I nudged my sleeping husband. We were soon out of bed, both feeling cautious and excited that soon our son would be here. After a good breakfast (because, of course, I knew that if it was labor, the hospital wouldn’t let me eat), we decided – what else? – to go for a walk around the neighborhood to get things going.
As the day progressed, so did my labor. With each contraction, I would stop, and sway, and breathe. My stance on “give me drugs as soon as possible” had shifted. During a conversation with Cheryl, one of my two friends who was due after me but had birthed before, I heard something that caught my attention. “After what happened to you”, she had said, meaning the two times I had been to the hospital only to be sent home again, “I knew I wasn’t going in until my water broke. I was very sure then that they weren’t going to send me home again.”
“Didn’t it hurt?”, I asked.
“Sure, some”, she nodded, “but really it wasn’t so bad. I wasn’t planning on having him naturally, it just wasn’t as bad as I thought it might be. Mostly, I took a lot of deep breaths and tried to stay calm. I walked a lot. It helped to get up and move around, and sit on the toilet a lot. Actually, after my water broke, it really felt a lot better. It hurt more before that happened. After, contractions were a lot stronger, but it was easier somehow. Cameron was born just a couple of hours after that.”
“But what about pushing?” I asked. “Didn’t it hurt when he came out?”
“Pushing was actually the best part. Then I felt like I could really do something. I didn’t have to push very long at all. I think it helped that I could still feel everything. The worst part out of everything was getting the needle for the local. I had to get a couple of stitches where I tore a little.”
Cheryl’s story hadn’t convinced me that natural birth was absolutely what I would do, but I was certainly open to possibilities I hadn’t considered before. My doctor, too, had said that he encouraged every woman to give birthing without medications a try – that it was better for mom and baby, both. If I was exhausted, he said, or reached a point where I was certain that choosing to use medications was what I wanted to do, he explained, he wouldn’t refuse, but in general, he thought I could do it.
So, on this Sunday afternoon, the last day in June, I walked, and moved, and breathed. I cleaned house, made lunch, and played with the dogs. I took a shower, and fixed my hair and makeup, pausing every five minutes to grab the bathroom countertop, breathe deeply, and rock. Finally, when contractions had been every five minutes for exactly an hour, just like the book said, I knew it was time to go.
We arrived at the hospital ten minutes later. As the rhythmic waves of tension and release continued, I walked in the hospital hallway and chatted happily with my husband and nurses during the rests in between, as the monitor tracking my progress reflected my steady contractions. After an hour, a gray-haired nurse came in to examine me. “Oh, you’re only three centimeters”, she said. Not sensing what she would say next, I lit up light a lightbulb. “Three centimeters? That’s wonderful! I wasn’t even one centimeter at the doctor’s office two days ago!”
“It means you’re not in labor”, she continued, as though I hadn’t spoken. “Maybe later, though, sweetie. I’ll give you something to help you sleep before we send you home”, she said, “and maybe in the morning you’ll come back to see us. Sometimes, if it’s false labor, the sleeping medicine will make it stop. Either way, you’ll get some rest, and we’ll probably see you in a few days.”
I left, crushed. I sulked in the car the whole way home. Three centimeters meant I wasn’t in labor? Then what had I been doing all day?
Home again, I retreated into the bedroom alone, where I lay across the bed. I waited for the sleeping pill to kick in – the one the nurse said would stop these not-real-labor pains I’d been having all day. My inner critic was in full force, as I chided myself with each continuing contraction for being a stupid, silly girl who obviously couldn’t handle much more than a hangnail without alerting the media. Meanwhile, the intermittent ache in my belly grew stronger. Convinced that I was simply feeling more uncomfortable because I was upset in addition to being a wimpy, foolish girl, I stayed on my bed, continuing to moan loudly every four minutes. My husband, the only one still sure that this was labor, persistently tried to coax me into going back to the hospital. I refused, wailing “But it’s going to stop! I can’t go back to the hospital before morning, the nurse said it’s going to stop!” I was certain that returning to the hospital would result in nothing but more shame and an annoyed nurse. The next contraction began to swell, and I submitted.
Arriving again at the hospital at half-past ten, I apologized profusely to the two nurses in my room, choking back tears while telling them that I was already told that I only in very early labor at best, and I didn’t know why I wasn’t handling it so much better. I held my breath during the now back-to-back waves to make my moans subside to whimpers, as I began stripping off my clothes to put on the required hospital gown. “Prima?” smirked one nurse to the other, who nodded as they readied the monitor belts. Prima, I knew, was the medical term meaning to indicate that this baby was a first. “Hhmph. Thought so.” As I’d feared, I was surely the weakest girly-girl the nurses had seen.
As I climbed on the bed, continuing to whimper and apologize, my water broke. Now, I’d heard tales of women being uncertain of when the fluid-filled sac surrounding the baby ruptured, or even if it did at all… this was absolutely not the case here. This was not a trickle, but a mighty splat that soaked the gown, my socks, the bed, and even a nearby nurse, getting the hem of her blue scrub shirt wet. “Well!” I exclaimed with relief, “I guess I’m staying now!”
With the validation from deep within my body that yes, this was indeed real, a settled peace washed over me. I began breathing deeply and easily. With the inner critic quieted, I was able to turn to the instinctive core within me as each wave came over me, and peaked, and washed away again. The nurse checked my cervix. “You’re a good six centimeters. Hmm, I’d say almost a seven.” Hearing that I had, in just the past hour, gone from very early labor to being well on the way to a complete ten centimeters of dilation, I felt both proud and relieved. I commented that my friend Cheryl was right. It really was easier after the water breaks.
“Don’t get too used to that”, the nurse warned. “It gets a lot worse”. I was shocked that she’d say such a thing to a laboring woman, and said so. “I just want women to know the truth. I’ve done this three times. I’m just going to be honest with you,” she countered, “If you think you even might want that epidural, you’d better tell me that you want it right now.” I said that I wasn’t sure – that I thought I was doing ok, and thought I’d see how I felt in a little bit. She shook her head and clicked her tongue. “Look, I know your doc, and if he hears that you’re close to seven centimeters, he’s not going to let you get one. With how fast you’re going, he’ll probably say no already, so I’m going to have to tell him that you’re only maybe five or six and that you’re asking for it right now.” Observing her poise and composure, knowing that she was by far more experienced, and assuming that her professional knowledge far outweighed my uncertainty, I agreed to get the epidural.
Within half an hour, just after 11pm, I remained flat on my back in the hospital bed, sure that my baby would be appearing soon. “We’ll see him right around midnight” the nurse assured me. Completely numbed from the breasts down, monitors ticking and beeping away at my side tracking my body and my baby, I reclined with an epidural catheter taped to my back, contraction monitor and baby’s heart monitor strapped around my belly, an IV in one arm and a blood pressure cuff on the other. I accepted the nurse’s offer for something in the IV to help me sleep – a narcotic – and attempted to take a nap.
My rest was short-lived. By midnight, my labor which had been progressing so quickly had stopped completely. Several people made their way in and out of my door. Pitocin, a synthetic hormone, was administered through the IV to make things start up again. For hours, I remained at the same six centimeters, and the amount of Pitocin I was being given went up, and up, and up. Slowly, slowly, change began to occur, and my body again began to open, little by little. The next several hours were filled with tension as one scare followed another – results of the stress my body and my baby were now experiencing. My blood pressure which had always been normal soared to a frightening 270/120, requiring a heavy-duty medication to bring it back down. The medication weakened my muscles, blurred my vision, slurred my speech and caused uncontrollable shaking. Several times, my baby’s heart rate began to drop unpredictably, requiring an oxygen mask to be placed over my face. I began to run a fever that did not go away with more fluids, so antibiotics were given. The words “possible c-section” began being tossed about. To get a better reading of my baby’s heart rate, my doctor reached inside my uterus with a probe to place a wire into my baby’s scalp. Another monitor was placed inside my uterus to get a more clear tracking of contractions. The wires connecting these devices to the machine next to me were secured with tape around my thighs.
Meanwhile, the anesthesiologist who had administered my epidural was called twice for the window of pain right over my tailbone that would not go away. He gave more and more medication, as he explained that epidurals do not always work uniformly, and that sometimes, such windows were not uncommon. Unfortunately, I would just have to cope with it as best I could.
Throughout the process, my husband, who had no idea what to do within the entire hubbub, continued to sleep in a chair, as hours passed. I resented him for not staying awake to keep me company. I thought of my mother, sleeping at home several states away, and suddenly missed her terribly. Feeling alone and worried, I closed my eyes waited for whatever would come next.
By 6:30 in the morning, now the first day of July, a new nurse came into the room at the beginning of her shift for the day. With a broad smile, she introduced herself as Karen, and explained that she would now be taking over my care. It was now a full six hours after the first nurse had assured me that my baby would arrive. It was time for another physical exam. Karen discovered that dilation was complete. Finally the next stage, that of pushing my baby out, could begin.
Metal stirrups were put in place to hold my numb legs. Following the nurse’s instructions, I took a deep breath, held it in, and “pushed like I had to poop” while she slowly counted out loud to ten. This I did for three times with each contraction, exerting all the force I could over muscles I could not feel. Then I would collapse, watching the nurse watch the monitor to know when the next one would begin. “He’s still stuck under your pubic bone”, Karen would report, “You’ll have to push harder.” I could see, but not feel, her fingers that stretched and pulled my skin tissue, massing my perineum with iodine so that I wouldn’t tear. I pushed so hard that tiny capillaries in my face began to burst from the effort, making it look as though my face were covered in little purple freckles. The skin around my right eye began to bruise and darken, like I’d been hit in the face. “Harder, harder! Get angry!” The pain that had remained in my tailbone, even with heavy anesthesia, continued to worsen as the medication now began to wear off completely. Still, I pushed.
Finally, after two long hours, the effort began to pay off. The baby, now past the bony sticking point, was crowning at last, and would be born in the next few minutes. It was time to call the doctor into the room to do the official catching of the baby. Just before calling him in, the nurse paused at the door. “Listen”, she said, “I’m just wondering if you’re intending to breastfeed. The thing is, you’ve had a fever. They’re going to want to take the baby to the nursery immediately to make sure he’s ok. The La Leche League women would tell you that it’s best to get him on the breast right after birth. I can’t tell the doctors what to do, but if you tell ME that you insist on it, I can hold them off for maybe five minutes. So, do you insist?” Her message in the moment was clear – that she could not tell me to do this, but was telling me how to tell her what I wanted. “Yes”, I answered, “Please. That’s really important to me. Let me hold him.”
The doctor was called, and within minutes the room filled with three more nurses, plus two nurses and a doctor from the neonatal care unit. I felt and heard the snip of scissors as the doctor cut a deep episiotomy to get the baby out faster. In one more big push, my son was born. Instantly, he was whisked away to a warmer, where his airways were vigorously suctioned before he was stimulated to take his first breath. The neonatal care team busily poked and prodded, surrounding the plastic isolette and obscuring it from my view, as my husband moved closer to see our son. “Zackary”, he crooned, “Hey baby! Hey, little guy!” Hearing the familiar voice of his father, Zack paused in his crying and turned his head toward his father’s voice. I beamed, knowing that my son knew his Daddy, and I took comfort in the moment that Zack knew we were there. “Don’t do that!” barked a doctor with a heavy middle eastern accent. “We need him to cry. Is good for his lung.”
The doctor pulled the placenta from my uterus as I gave another push, and countless stitches were used to sew my perineum back together. True to her word, my nurse spoke up. “You can’t take him to the nursery just yet”, she informed the barking pediatric doctor. “Mom says she has to breastfeed him first. Unless it’s an emergency, you’ve got to give her five minutes.” The doctor wasn’t happy to hear it, but reluctantly agreed.
Those five minutes were a precious gift. As the sun rose on the first day of July, finally, my tiny son was in my arms. I gazed at his sweet face, and stroked his velvety cheeks as my heart swelled with an immense, amazing love. I put him to my breast, and began to sing to him the song I sang to my belly as I had carried him. Soon, much too soon, it was time for him to go. I was assured that I could visit him in the nursery later.
Meanwhile, I was moved into a postpartum room. My husband went home, just five minutes away, to get a shower and a nap. The postpartum nurse smelled of stale cigarette smoke, and leaned close into my face to speak. She made it clear that I was, under no circumstances, to go to the bathroom by myself. Since I was likely to be unsteady on my feet, and would certainly fall flat on my face if I tried to stand, I was to call the nurses station first and ask for help. Within the first five minutes of my settling in, she refused to give me the medicine my doctor had prescribed for my still-throbbing tailbone (which we later learned I had broken in labor), insisting that it would make me too sleepy to hold the baby. She wasn’t listening when I tried to tell her that my baby wasn’t being brought into my room – that he was in intensive care. She refused to bring an ice pack for my sore bottom because I had already used one, and she didn’t want me to use up too many. Before leaving the room, she was certain to point out where the comment cards were stored that were used to award staff members free lunches in the cafeteria.
A few minutes later, doing as I was told, I buzzed the nurses’ station and waited. “May I help you?” came the voice over the intercom. “Yes, please”, I answered politely, “I need to pee. Would you send my nurse in?” Several minutes passed. I buzzed again. Again, asked that my nurse please be sent in, so that I would not break any rules by going to the bathroom by myself. Again, several minutes passed with no nurse. Tailbone throbbing with no pain medication, full bruised bladder aching with no relief, cut and stitched perineum stinging with no ice pack, I picked up the phone. I called home, where I woke my sleeping husband. Upon hearing his voice, I began crying so hard that my words could not be understood. Taking a deep breath and choking back sobs, I begged him to please come back to the hospital so someone could help me get out of the bed and into the bathroom. Fortunately, home was just moments away.
In our years together, my husband’s bull-in-the-china-shop approach to conflict resolution has not always been one of his more admirable qualities. There are, however, some moments in which it has been a blessing. This was one of those. I heard his voice in the hallway long before I saw him entering my room. He burst through the doors like a thundercloud, and told the first nurse in sight that his wife had called him at home crying, hurting, and waiting for help to go to the bathroom. He demanded that I get a new nurse and whatever help, medication, and other support I needed immediately. He was not quieting down until it happened. Within moments, a new nurse was in the room, and I was able to go to the bathroom and receive the medicine and ice pack I needed. He stayed until he was sure that everything was set to right. Finally, I would be able to get some rest. I had, after all, been up for two days.
Hours later, I woke. I called the nursery, and asked if I could come see my baby. I shuffled down the hallway, and through the nursery doors. I waited until the nearest nurse noticed me, and explained that I was there to visit my son. “Sure, which one is yours?” she asked. I looked around the neat rows of plastic isolettes surrounding where I stood, and realized that I was going to have to tell her that I didn’t know. I had only seen him for a moment. I couldn’t pick him out from a room full of matching blanket-wrapped newborns. Another nurse came along, and looked up my son’s name in the computer. Having found him listed in the NICU, she walked me to his spot.
I watched my son, who slept attached to countless wires connecting him to machines that tracked his breathing, his heart rate, and his body temperature. I didn’t dare touch him with more than a fingertip. A nurse informed me that she would have to ask the pediatrician before allowing me to nurse my son. Meanwhile, they would give bottles of formula, in accordance with the nursery schedule. It was a day later that I saw the pediatrician, who was surprised to hear that I wanted to breastfeed. At his insistence, the nurse gave me a manual hand-held breastpump without further instruction.
The following day, I was discharged from the hospital. My son, however, would need to stay a while longer while further tests and observations would be used to rule out the possibility of his having any infections. I was offered the option of renting an empty room in the hospital. I would have a bed to sleep in, but no further medical care. So, with no pain medications, a broken tailbone, no breastfeeding help, and no family support in the hospital, I remained for two more days.
But, through it all, I was happy. He was here. My long-awaited Zack was here. I had no idea yet how this journey had just begun, and how the beginning of his life would so permanently and significantly change my own, and the lives of hundreds of sisters who would come along after me.
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