When I found out I was pregnant, I did what everyone else does: bought a used copy of What To Expect When You’re Expecting, talked to Been-There-Done-That mamas, and took the free class at the hospital. But all the conversations and advice, the classes and homework – it was all like learning how to swim from a textbook. It wasn’t completely worthless, but it paled in comparison to the learning that happened when I was thrown into the pool.
So this week I decided to blog about some of the most unexpected parts of labor and delivery.
1. It would end with a C-section
I had a very go-with-the-flow attitude going into childbirth. Don’t expect anything, don’t try to control anything, just let nature take its course, I told myself. But somehow I hardly even considered the possibility that it would all end with a C-section. I barely skimmed those sections of my books. Not necessary, I thought, I’m not going that route. Somehow, subconsciously I had this sort of smug attitude about C-sections, partially transferred onto me by the natural and home birth movement. Women in the US have significantly more C-sections than elsewhere (by some estimates 30% of all births), many of which are likely avoidable. I arrogantly believed there was no way I would be one of those women, because I had (1) done better homework, (2) was more confident about putting my foot down when the doctor suggested it, (3) was tough enough to get through the difficulties of doing it the old fashioned way. I had this mistaken concept that a C-section meant the mother didn’t try hard enough, that she was weak, that she gave in.
Well, fuck. that.
Three days after the birth when I was wincing to stand in line for the pain meds from the pharmacy, the young pharmacist praised me for being out and about after having a baby “even though it was just a C-section.” I’m not normally prone to cruelty, but I would’ve loved – for a brief (or long) moment – to have been able to transfer the pain I was feeling (and had been feeling for several days) onto her. See if she thought of it as “just a C-section” after having her guts sliced open and a human pulled out.
In all my skipping through the C-section section of the pregnancy and birth books, I failed to consider that C-sections often come after battles much longer and more challenging than the average. I failed to consider that agreeing to the doctor’s suggestion wasn’t necessarily a sign of weakness, but a sign that the fight was going on too long to sustain, that if Mom is exhausted, then Baby probably is too, that sometimes enough is enough. Or whatever, maybe not, but point is, who was I (or a pharmacist) to judge?
2. My “Plan” Would Go Out the Window
Although I didn’t have a formally written “birth plan,” this was it in a nutshell: I’d feel the gentle pains. It would probably be just after brunch on a weekend. David and I would have an exhilarating several hours at home while the contractions (which would feel like mild cramps) got closer and closer. We’d pass the time snacking, making excited phone calls, taking a leisurely walk around the neighborhood, listening to music . We’d stand in wonder at our last moments just us two. Maybe I’d take a bath while the pain intensified, brush my hair, who knows, even put on a little make up. This would be a big, beautiful day, after all. It would all be very natural, beautiful, exciting. Finally, when the pain was starting to affect my natural, Earth Mama glow, we’d head down to the hospital, just in time for the doctor to congratulate me for making it to nine centimeters, David would kiss my forehead, and we’d take a few charming grimace-y photos before pushing. Of which there would be anywhere from two to five, before Baby came out. Without crying.
What I was not expecting? Just like in the movies (and like less than 10% of actual births) my labor started with my water breaking. Which, left unattended to, can be a serious risk of infection to Baby. The amniotic fluid’s there for a reason, and when it breaks before labor, whether you’re going natural or not, you’re advised to get a move on getting Baby out. No loving gazes between David and me. No strolls around the neighborhood. Shit, even the shower was a frantic scrub, and my last meal was a bagel (which 24 hours later, starving, and still pushing, I’d come to regret).
In retrospect, I wish I’d taken my time a bit more, seen what course nature would take. But the other thing about the water breaking that I wasn’t expecting (apart from that it would happen first thing at all) was that it just keeps coming. There were two Hollywood-style floods, but then for the next hour or two, every movement seemed to release more. No way I’d want to take a stroll around the neighborhood in that state. Even walking to the hospital room was uncomfortable. The peaceful, beautiful birth I’d imagined was quickly replaced with what birth really is: messy, uncomfortable, and completely fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants.
3. The Pain
So, I knew labor pains wouldn’t be a picnic. But no description I read/heard really hit the nail on the head for me in terms of what it really was. For that reason, I’m not going to try to describe it. I’ll just say it wasn’t like gas. It wasn’t like intense period cramps. It wasn’t searing, burning, sharp or dull. It was its own thing. For me, against my wishes, my labor was artificially induced with Pitocin, and the pain was so intense, it had me feeling a sort of pressure that made me double over and want to bare down and push when I wasn’t even close to fully dilated.
Eventually, the hospital staff would greatly minimize the dosage, as Baby’s vitals were not responding well to it. Pitocin itself is no different than the hormone your body produces, but because it is administered artificially (dosage and timing may be different than a natural labor), I don’t know how my labor pains compare to those of a natural labor. All I know was that it SUCKED, and I wouldn’t wish it on anyone…well, except for on men. Temporarily.
4. My Man Wouldn’t Be Enough
Hiring a doula is an increasingly popular thing to do. A doula is an experienced helper in all things birth (and perhaps newborn) related. She’s assisted in many births, she’s a caring nurturer and/or an empowering cheerleader, and she can help guide you through the battle. Births assisted by doulas are particularly popular on Maui because, living on an isolated island, many birthing mothers do not have the guidance of their own mothers here. Also, the L&D wing of the one island hospital doesn’t exactly have a stellar reputation.
Without exception, every single Maui Mama I knew that hired a doula did not regret the decision, and in many cases, the doula-free moms regretted not having one. Also, interestingly enough and entirely anecdotal, but all but one doula-assisted births were delivered vaginally. Every single doula-free birth ended in C-section.
We went back and forth on the issue, but ultimately, with our due date so close to the holidays, I couldn’t find a doula I liked willing to assist in my birth, so we went doula-free. In a way, I took pride in it. What a first-world, white woman luxury it is to hire a $1000 doula, I thought. The money could be better spent on a college fund for our little one. David and I can do it on our own, anyway. How bad can giving birth really be, it all ends in a day or two!
But as fantastic a partner as David is, I regret not having a more consistent female presence at the birth. Historically, births were not attended by men at all, but women, and now, having been through it, I understand why.
David was a partner in it all. He shared my uncertainty. But what I didn’t realize I’d need was a mentor, and he couldn’t be that. Throughout the whole experience, the underlying emotion was fear and insecurity. What would happen next? Is this pain normal? What do I do now? I need help! I need someone to tell me what I’m doing right! I need someone who’s got by back, and actually knows it!
Some people say that that’s what the nurses are there for. But in our case, our labor was so long that we went through four nurse shift changes, and although they were all competent and kind, every one was lacking the consistency and TRUE investment and consideration that, when the time came, I was craving. The problem is I hadn’t known I would need it until I really needed it.
5. The Surprise Would Be More Than Just a Bonus
We opted to keep the sex a surprise. Twenty-six hours after my water breaking, after three hours of pushing, I was lying conscious but out-of-it, completely destroyed and exhausted, and thinking the literal words, “I don’t care if I die right now” on a surgical bed. I was told recently that babies often enter the world just after mothers resign to leave it, and that was our case. Okay, I’m sounding melodramatic – I mostly trusted I wouldn’t die, but I wasn’t completely opposed to the possibility.
And that’s when David announced, “It’s a boy!”
I’d thought keeping the gender a surprise would be a nice, embracing of tradition, but it turns out it helped snap me back into the fight. He’s here! He! Now we can really meet this brand new human who had only been an idea. Welcome to the world!
That first meeting, an hour later, was full of wonder, and I guess in that sense brought me back to my “birth plan” and all the first meeting stuff you’re told to expect. But then came the road to recovery and newborn days and plenty of other things that all my preparation left me totally unprepared for. I don’t have time for the books anymore, and it’s probably better that way.