It has taken me a very long time to write my daughter’s birth story. Every time I thought about writing it, a flood of emotions would wash over me and I would quickly dismiss the idea. After a lot of time healing the physical wounds, and a ton more time healing the emotional wounds, I came to the conclusion that I had a responsibility to write this story. I distinctly remember the midwives at the Birth Center saying, don’t watch those silly baby shows on TV, they’ll only scare you. I don’t want to scary anyone, but I thought that it might be important if others heard the story, not just of how things can go wrong, but also the emotional toll it takes on you. I thought perhaps pregnant mamas might be better equipped to handle a similar situation should you find yourself in it and mamas who experienced a traumatic birth might feel some kind of confirmation that you are not alone and all those crazy emotions you feel are valid.
When I first became pregnant, I knew I wanted a natural birth. We started at a hospital-based practice but didn’t like the way my care was being handled. From the moment my husband, Nate, and I walked in the doors of the Birth Center at the open house, we were hooked. I immediately began imagining myself giving birth there (in the yellow room!) and couldn’t wait for my parents and other family members to be relaxing in the family room waiting for our first arrival. I had fantastic experiences with all of the midwives at my prenatal visits. We had our ups and downs with the pregnancy, including level two ultrasounds for some potential abnormalities and breech presentation until very late in the game. But with a few weeks left and everything going swimmingly, all that was left was to wait. And wait. And wait some more.
At 40 weeks I was fine, telling my bump, “Take as long as you need, little one, but hurry up!” At 41 weeks, I began to get nervous. The dreaded 42-week mark was looming just ahead of us. At my weekly appointment, ten days past my due date, we started planning for getting things moving. I wasn’t dilated enough to do a membrane sweep, but we talked about castor oil, and if all else failed, breaking my water a day before the 42 week mark. But first I had to be sent for a biophysical profile. The baby’s heart rate wasn’t responding like it should. My husband and I walked over to St. Francis, with not even so much as a thought that of what was to follow in the next 24 hours. During the ultrasound it was discovered that I had low amniotic fluid levels, and we knew what this meant. Hospital. Induction. Being stuck in a bed. It was 5:30 on a Wednesday night and I felt completely crushed. We tried to focus on the positive. We’d be greeting our baby very soon!
By 8 o’clock I was checked in to Christiana, had the fetal heart rate and contraction monitors hooked up to me, and was waiting on the oh so lovely Foley bulb. At one in the morning, a resident came in and inserted it, and by 5am I was 3 cm and starting on Pitocin. Things went great! I read books, listened to my ‘relaxing’ baby music mix, talked excitedly with my husband and my family, and although it was hard to pee in a bedpan and even harder to focus as the contractions became more intense, but I was handling everything really well. My husband was an absolutely amazing coach, telling me to breathe when I’d start holding my breath, telling me how awesome I was doing. The problem was, I had no break. I’d finish one contraction, and I could feel the next one gearing up deep in my belly. Pitocin made the contractions come very close together. Dorinda told me to call her when the contractions got really intense, but I knew there were other mamas back at the Birth Center in labor. I didn’t want to bother the midwives just yet. In hindsight, I wish I had just asked her to come. I wonder if an objective view might have changed the outcome.
By three in the afternoon, after being up for 31 hours, I was 5 cm. The nurse said that I was doing great! However, the doctor had other ideas. He gave the nurse a look, said that technically since I’d been at 5 cm for the last two hours, I was in what he called a ‘stalled labor’. The answer? More Pitocin. And a gentle prodding: “You might become more dilated if you could relax more.” The statement was dripping with the unasked question, “Are you sure you wouldn’t like an epidural?” And I caved in and got one. Let me tell you, as soon as those contractions disappeared, I didn’t feel at all bad about my decision. I closed my eyes and began to drift off. That is until five minutes later, when the nurse came in and asked me to roll over onto my side, the baby’s heart rate was dipping too much with each contraction. I did as she asked and tried to get comfortable again. Five minutes later, and the doctor came back in. Looking at the fetal heart monitor, and then back down at me, I’ll never forget his words: “I think we need to start talking about a C-section.” The nurse, who was so great and very much on our side, suggested stopping the Pitocin for an hour and giving the baby a chance to recover. The doctor didn’t like this idea too much.
Within a span of a minute, I had the doctor, two nurses, and two anesthesiologists staring down at me, waiting for a decision. My parents and my husband had pure fear written all over their faces. I will never forget the feeling utter helplessness as eight pairs of eyes looked down at me, asking me to make a decision. The doctor was trying unsuccessfully to hide his annoyance that we still hadn’t decided, as he had another C-section waiting to go that he was going to bump to get us in first. With all of these people in the room, my husband and I tried to collect our thoughts. I wish I had just told everyone to leave us alone for five minutes, but we didn’t.
We reluctantly agreed to the C-section. I cried and shook uncontrollably as simultaneously the doctor began explaining the risks, the anesthesiologists began increasing the epidural, and the nurse inserted a catheter. I cried as they wheeled me down the hall. I cried as they told Nate to wait outside and got me scrubbed up and put up the paper sheet divider. By the time someone thought to go get Nate from the hall, they had already started cutting. I couldn’t stop the trembling, not even Nate’s reassuring hand in mine and his words that we were going to see our baby soon could calm me down. And then I heard our baby crying and I cried even harder. They took the baby away and Nate left to go figure out the gender, as no one bothered to tell us. I lay there as they stitched me up, hearing my heartbeat dip on a loud monitor, feeling like I might slip into unconsciousness and never wake up.
I eventually heard someone say, “It’s a girl”. Nate came back with a picture, which I stared at blankly. It was too surreal. The whole thing felt like a dream. They moved me off the operating table and back onto a hospital bed, covered me with warm blankets, and put the baby in my arms. I stared at her weakly, feeling completely numb. They wheeled us to recovery and left us completely alone. Our baby girl, Evangeline Rose, was born at 3:55pm on June 9th, 2011.
I don’t want you to think that I wasn’t happy. I was. But I also know that I did not feel an immediate bond with Evie. I nursed her when she needed it, I fell asleep with her cradled in my arms, but it was a long time, and a lot of hard work and conscious effort on my part, to feel that fierce maternal love. It is so natural to me now, I love that child more deeply than I thought was possible. But in those first few days, I knew that something was missing. And looking back, I decided that what was missing was a feeling of control. I struggled, and sometimes still struggle, with the feeling that she couldn’t possibly have come from inside me. I didn’t feel it happen. I was lying, half numb, in a bed, and someone put a baby in my arms. Things were done TO me, and often without my full consent.
I struggled for so long with a case of the ‘what if’s’. What if we had just asked people to leave the room so we could make a decision? What if I had done more research on epidurals and known that decreased fetal heart rate is one of the possible side effects? What if we had outright refused the C-section? Asked them to stop the epidural? Asked for a different form of pain relief? What if I had asked the ultrasound technician to check the fluid levels again? Would the baby moving slightly yield different readings?
And I mourned acutely for the birth I didn’t have. I was confronted with the reality of it daily. People asked about my birth experience and I cringed every time I’d have to tell it and brush off how traumatic it was for me. I went to moms’ groups where women talked of their amazing drug-free, Birth Center births. I know that it was not their intention to offend, but it was just so difficult to hear. I felt judged (I’m sure, this wasn’t true, just my overdeveloped sense of guilt) that I chose an epidural. I was so envious and I was so very angry. And I felt like it was all my fault. Why didn’t my body want to go into labor naturally? What was wrong with me? Why didn’t I dilate quickly? I took it all personally, wishing I had done more in during my pregnancy. Taken more herbal teas. Gone for more walks. Done Kegels. Visualized giving birth. I thought that surely one of these would have let me deliver naturally. And if that weren’t enough, I was constantly reminded of the event with a permanent scar on my abdomen and the devastating thought that I will never be able to experience giving birth at the Birth Center.
And worst of all, although I know they meant well, were the times when people would say, “Well the end result is all that matters.” My blood boils when I think back on it now. A statement like this effectively tells you that all other feelings that you might have are invalid. This statement says, “How dare you feel sadness/anger/grief at a time like this?” Yes, the end result was beautiful. I have a perfectly healthy baby girl. But it is not ALL that matters. My struggle to feel nurturing toward my daughter is evidence of that. And why can’t I be a complex person, with complex emotions? Why can’t I feel a mixture of sheer happiness and complete despair when I think of Evie’s birth? Am I that one-dimensional that I can only feel all or nothing? I know now that I am not. I am a multitude of emotions. I can simultaneously love my daughter to no end and absolutely hate the way she came into the world. It has taken me a long time to be ok with the fact that I can feel both of these things.
In writing this, I have realized a couple of things. One being that it is extremely long (sorry!). Second, that it could be potentially terrifying to someone who is pregnant. And I do apologize for that. Third, that I was utterly EXHAUSTED holding all of these emotions inside for so long. It feels fantastic to finally write them down.
For those expectant mamas reading this, please take away from this story only that which you feel is helpful, and quickly forget the rest. Remember that you have the right to stop the events that are unfolding around you and think for five minutes. You have the right to be in control of what happens to you, your body, and your baby. You have the right to speak with the people who TRULY care for you and your baby’s wellbeing without medical personnel around. You have the right to refuse any and all treatments. I was told all of these things, but it is so, so difficult to keep in mind in the moment.
And for those mamas who had a similar experience, please know this: Whatever happened, you did the best you could, with the knowledge you had, under the circumstances you found yourself in. No matter what, you are still a miracle. You formed a baby inside of you, you carried that baby for months, your body gave that baby what it needed. You created life. Every time I think that my body should have done more, I try to remember this. I say these things to myself every day, and although it doesn’t feel quite genuine yet, I hope that one day it will stick, and I can say it and mean it. I hope for the same thing for you, too. And please, write down your birth story. The good, the bad, the ugly. I promise you, that although you will cry hysterically and want to stop, it will be worth it when it’s all out there. Then do with it what you want. Burn it. Share it. Forget about it. Flush it down the toilet. But by all means, just do it!
We women are beautiful, amazing, and have the ULTIMATE gift of bringing life into this world, no matter what events unfold before the moment our babies take their first breath. Never forget that.