Three months ago my daughter, Zelda, was born. This is my and Zelda’s birth story.
On the evening of June 6, I sat in my living room with Brad and my mom, contemplating middle names for Zelda, coming up with some pretty silly options like Bluebell, and laughing about how convenient it would be if I went into labor in the wee hours of the morning, giving us time to get to the hospital before traffic. Well. Zelda was listening.
At 3:30am on June 7 I awoke to the strange sensation of warm syrup pouring over my legs. It gushed, but gently like molasses, not violently like gushing water. I turned to Brad and whispered, “I think my water broke,” which interestingly mirrored the exact same way I told him I was pregnant—waking him up in the early morning hours and whispering, “I think I’m pregnant.”
We got out of bed and confirmed what I had suspected all the day prior, Zelda had decided to begin her journey into the world. I got myself cleaned up and went into the living room to try and get some more sleep on the couch, in anticipation of what would surely be a long day ahead. I should have been apprehensive that my water had broken, since it essentially started a clock on getting baby into the world. My birth wish was to labor at home as long possible and give birth without any pain medication or Pitocin, but with broken water you can only wait so long before you have to speed things up due to the risk of infection. How long exactly is up for debate, but according to my doctor they want you to come into labor & delivery immediately. If I didn’t start contractions soon I’d need to be induced, but for some reason I wasn’t worried. I had a feeling that Zelda had it figured out.
An hour later, around 4:30 am, I started feeling contractions. Thank goodness. Now I get to describe what labor feels like! Oh, goodie. If you’re like me, I was dying to know. At this stage, contractions felt like totally manageable waves of intense menstrual cramps. With some deep breaths I could talk and laugh through them. At 5:00 am Brad called the hospital to see what they wanted us to do, since my water had broken. I knew they’d tell us to come in; that was their policy. Sure enough, the nurse told Brad to get our things together and come in right away. Sigh. Okay. We took our time gathering our things and headed out the door at 6:30 am to go to the hospital. So much for laboring at home as long as possible. Little did I know, however, it was a blessing in disguise. If we’d waited longer, it would have been one ugly car ride, maybe one that involved the birthing of a baby. My body and Zelda were ready and raring to go.
I’d imagined that the car ride to the hospital would be excruciating, thinking I’d be much further along in labor, but this was quite pleasant. Brad and I couldn’t contain our disbelief and excitement. We counted my contractions. We talked about, things. I can’t remember what, though, but I know there were things talked about. Probably involved the wonder of bringing a human into the world. I wasn’t in horrible pain. It was fun. I was having fun. Hilarious.
We arrived at the hospital around 7:00 am. The triage nurse greeted me.
“You been better?” she asked.
“No, actually, I’m really excited,” I replied.
I was. I’d always been as curious about labor and delivery as I’d been about pregnancy and motherhood, and now here I was; I was about to find out. The nurse gave me a smile like she knew what I was in for even if I didn’t. (She was right.) They admitted me ,and soon I had my own room with my own pair of awesome nurses and it sort of felt like I’d checked into a hotel. One of those weird ones that monitors your food and makes you do activities.
My contractions, which at home were about 6 minutes apart, had already picked up to 2-3 minutes apart and it was only 10:00 am.
Tips for mimicking a home birth while laboring in the hospital. Essential oil diffuser, speaker and playlists queued up, things that you can touch that feel like comfort. In my case I brought my sketch book, pencils, and Kindle. I knew I wouldn’t really want to draw or read, but having them there comforted me. Oh, and snacks. If the hospital’s policy is to not allow you to eat, ignore them. Sneak in snacks. I didn’t eat much, but a handful of cashews when my energy dipped was a lifesaver.
Contractions got more intense as time passed quickly. They still felt like menstrual cramps, but with the added sensation that I was being squeezed around the lower abdomen by a belt that had been lit on fire. Still manageable though. I was able to walk around, lean against the wall, squat, and my favorite coping technique at this point was to essentially slow dance with my husband. I swayed to some new age music, leaned into him and vocalized. My Linklater voice training came in so handy at this point. Lots of deep, humm mumm mumm maaas. Thanks, Boston University.
Before you think my labor story sounds like a smug fairytale, don’t worry, I’m getting to the good stuff. The truth, though, was that everything up until this point really had been incredibly pleasant and manageable. The pain was indeed painful, but what I read was true, it triggered a steady rush of endorphins that made me feel a bit drunk on love.
At noon everything changed.
You know the library ghost in Ghostbusters? How she looks all peaceful and harmless?
To look at her you think, “Hey, ghosts aren’t so bad.” And then you get a little too close and she turns into this, and all hell breaks loose.
Yeah, it was like that. It’s called Transition.
I’d read about it. We learned about it in our childbirth prep class. Transition would be the time I’d want to give up, but it also meant I was so close to pushing that if I could manage my way through transition I could most likely make it through labor without intervention. It was all true. Still, nothing could have prepared me for that kind of pain. Nothing. Nuh. Thing.
Let me take a step back. At about 11:30 am my contractions had gotten pretty intense and close together—about one minute apart, sometimes coming in double and triple waves. I was having a hard time catching my breath and apparently so was Zelda. Suddenly about six or seven doctors and nurses rushed into the room, prepping equipment and looking nervous. I was a bit out of it but I knew it wasn’t good. A calm but firm OB came up to me and Brad and told us that the baby’s heart rate had dropped and wasn’t coming back up like it should. They needed to see the heart rate come up immediately, so I had to get in bed and be put on oxygen and hooked up to all kinds of monitors. I wasn’t made nervous by the sudden frenzy. Either I knew that Zelda and I would work it out, or I was just too distracted by pain to clock the gravity of the situation.
I got in bed like a good patient. They put a fetal monitor directly into the birth canal, the kind that screws into the baby’s skull. Poor baby. They gave me oxygen which actually was quite pleasant, and it seemed that in short order Zelda’s heart rate improved. The doctors cleared the room, but with strict orders that I’d have to stay in bed and could no longer move around at will. I feel strongly that this confinement increased the pain of transition. Perhaps more than any other time during labor, the transition phase is when it’s most crucial to be able to change position, get in the shower, lean on a birthing ball, whatever. But I was stuck in bed, laying on my side and doing whatever I could to survive the pain from that position.
How can I describe it? At this point I can’t remember it, thank God, but I do remember my reaction to it. I remember feeling like I was being sawed in half. A cramp would start in my midsection and then radiate throughout my whole body until I was no longer in control, the contraction was in control. It was like every inch of my insides was being wringed like wet laundry. I had to scream. I wanted to throw up, not because I was nauseous but because it felt like whatever was inside of me was going to be squeezed out whether I liked it or not. I tried to breathe through it, vocalize through it, even kick my legs up in the air like I was in a Jazzercise class, (that’s actually pretty much the only thing that helped) but ultimately there was no match for this adversary. The contractions were kicking my butt. Physically I couldn’t quell the pain, so I tried to do so mentally. Sometimes I focused on the pain, intensely. Sometimes I tried to distract myself by focusing on something else. The most effective mental trick seemed to be to focus on it so intensely that eventually I began to disassociate the pain from myself. I remember repeating the mantra in my head, “I’m being sawed in half. It’s okay. I’m being sawed in half.” For some reason, it helped. Other images that came to mind at the time were the end of Braveheart when William Wallace is disemboweled. That felt about right. Also The Exorcist.
I’m telling you guys, it was intense. It felt like, this cannot be a good thing. It felt like I was being broken—like I was going to die. My plan was to forego an epidural or any other drug. Brad and I had made a pact going into labor that if I asked for the epidural four times, he’d get the doctor to administer it, but before that he would try to talk me out of it by getting me to change position, giving me a massage, getting me in the shower, etc. Being confined to the bed, experiencing William Wallace torture pain? I begged for that epidural four times in quick succession. I knew that I was in transition, which meant that I knew I was close and should try to push through, but at the time the thought of surviving that pain for even ten minutes, one minute . . . I couldn’t do it. Let me rephrase that. I couldn’t imagine doing it, but doing it is exactly what I did.
At this point my designated nurses had been called to another delivery. The hospital was experiencing an unprecedented number of deliveries all at once, and no it wasn’t a full moon, just an auspicious Thursday. So when I finally begged for the epidural for the fifth time, my mom went to find a nurse, and since mine were otherwise occupied a new nurse came into the room to help me. Her name was Chanelle, and she was not a human but an angel. Something about her just calmed me immediately. She was real with me. She said the anesthesiologist was giving someone else an epidural (all those deliveries) and wouldn’t be ready for me for at least thirty minutes. I wanted to die. She offered me analgesics (loopy drugs) but she was straight with me and said, “Look, I can give you these and they may help, but they may not. And they’re going to make you sleepy and your baby sleepy and you’ll still be in pain, but you’ll be sleepy.” I knew going in that I didn’t want analgesics, especially this late into labor, and thanks to her candor I did not cave. At this point I just wanted Chanelle to stay by my bed and hold my hand.
I asked her if she could check me again to see how close I was. She didn’t want to because my water had broken and they avoid going up there to decrease any risk of infection. But I desperately wanted to know how much longer I was to suffer. So I was sneaky. I asked her how we would know when it was time to push, and Chanelle said I would feel an overwhelming need. Like I couldn’t not push. I’d heard this from other women, but so far I only felt the need to push a little bit. It was certainly not overwhelming. I was desperate to move out of transition though, so I lied a little bit and said, “Yes! I need to push!” Chanelle agreed to check me when I said that, and sure enough I was fully dilated and effaced. I knew it. No need for an epidural. They cancelled the anesthesiologist. Thank you, Jesus! Chanelle went to tell my designated nurses that it was pushing time and in short order they were back in the room with me. Chanelle, I didn’t get to see you again after that except for a brief thank you in the hallway as they wheeled me to post-partum. If by some fluke you ever read this, you are the angel that got me through transition. Your candor and your warm, straightforward energy, saved me. Thank you!
What can I say about pushing? It hurt but nothing like transition. I was so relieved to be out of that phase, like giddy relieved. I was talking again and even cracking jokes. I was glad to have an objective, something actionable to do besides just survive. It was nice to feel engaged, but yeah, it did hurt. The nurses had me push during contractions, which is the most effective thing to do but it’s quite uncomfortable. It felt to me as if I had a really bad bruise on my insides, and when I’d push it was as if someone was kneading into that bruise with all their might. Unpleasant, but manageable. Mostly it was exhausting.
My God it was exhausting. I pushed for three hours! Most of my labor progressed really quickly, except for this part. I don’t think most women push for that long. Maybe the pain was preventing me from pushing as hard as I could have, or maybe I was just exhausted from transition, or maybe I was a little scared that I was about to meet my little human, but for whatever reason my body did not respond quickly to pushing her out. Three hours. I pushed in many different positions. On all fours. Squatting. All the positions I’d read about in Ina May to let gravity help get the baby out. Ironically, the most comfortable position really was on my back. So there you go. It’s not only for the convenience of the doctors.
Brad, my mom, and the nurses were so encouraging and cheered me on as her little head made its way down the birth canal. At one point they got me a mirror so I could see her. Whoa. That was wild. First of all, because my lady parts did not look like my lady parts, and secondly because, whoa, there’s a human head. The mirror was cool, but I had them take it away because it actually messed with my mind. When I’d push, I thought I was making a lot of progress getting her out, but then I’d look in the mirror and still only see a tiny peek of her head and feel defeated. I preferred to close my eyes and envision her whole head popping out.
And eventually it did! Despite my pleas for the nurse to grab her by her tuft of hair and yank her out, or get a little lasso around her tummy and pull, I was in fact the one that pushed her out. At about 3:30 pm the nurses brought in a table with a bunch of medical equipment and a bright light, and then the midwife walked in and I knew that meant I was close. The OB or midwife only shows up when it’s time to catch the baby, and my midwife was here! Hurray! About three rounds of pushing later and crowning was happening. The midwife abruptly told me to stop pushing because I was tearing, and then told me to cough. I coughed my baby out. Oh, and the whole tearing thing? I didn’t feel it, at all. In fact, pushing Zelda out was completely painless. Not sure if that was all the natural endorphins rushing through me, or my body just numbed itself, but I really didn’t feel it. No ring of fire, nothing but excitement and sweet relief and a fair amount of pressure. I coughed and coughed, and out pops her head. To get the rest of her out the midwife had me blow like I was blowing out birthday candles. The rest of her, shoulders and everything else, squirmed out and it felt super weird. Not painful, but not numb. I could really feel this living thing wriggling out of me, and it was absolutely amazing.
I was completely overwhelmed with relief as the midwife pulled her out and placed her on my chest. I moaned louder than any orgasm I’ve ever had, so I guess that’s why they say childbirth can be orgasmic. It’s really just overwhelming, mind-blowing, universe-expanding relief.
And then there was this person on me, and my entire world shifted. They suctioned her nose and there was her first cry, like an entirely new sound had been invented in a split second. A new color that had never been seen before burst into existence. A new element for the table. My Zelda. My perfect baby. I held her to my chest and marveled at her pinkness, her warmth, the way she felt both stiff and squishy. Her hands. Those perfect hands. Nothing had ever been so perfect as those hands.
I wept, and told my Mom how much I loved her, and told Brad how much I loved him, and how grateful I was for their help. They truly were amazing coaches. Brad, you are my rock and my foundation, and you have a future as a doula if you ever want a career change. I was in awe of you, but also knew the role would suit you like a glove.
I kept saying to my mom, my husband, the nurses, God, whoever would listen, I cried over and over again how much I loved my baby. “I love her. I love her so much,” I said. I didn’t even see her face until several minutes later because of how she was placed on my chest for skin to skin. It didn’t matter. I didn’t need to see her face. I felt her warmth and the beat of her heart, and I knew everything about her instantly, and I loved her with enough power to create a new universe.
I caressed her back and sunk into the euphoria of the moment, smiling as the midwife stitched up my vagina. She kept trying to warn me about little pricks of pain here and there and I almost laughed. She could’ve done anything down there and I wouldn’t have felt a thing. One, because childbirth, and two because I was so drunk on love hormones and endorphins, I couldn’t feel pain if I wanted to.
Zelda is now three months old, and every day I get to know her a little bit better, all the while grappling with the paradox that I knew her all along. There is such a thing as love at first sight. And first smell. And first touch. I am a warrior, and I have been charged with protecting a most precious soul. I will stay at my post no matter the circumstances. My life now has purpose, for what can be more purposeful than complete and perfect love? My baby is in the world now. Zelda, whom I loved instantly.