On Max’s due date, I had my first inkling something had changed: a subtle tingling through my back during the regular Braxton Hicks contractions that had added excitement to the late weeks of my pregnancy. As the day wore on, I called my husband to let him know that we might be in business.
Over the course of the evening, things got more and more intense. In the early evening, we fed the kids and put them to bed. I texted my doula to let her know labor was starting. I tried to carry on with normal activities and hang out with my husband. Late in the evening, my husband gave in and went to sleep on the floor next to where I camped in the living room. Throughout the evening, my contractions remained irregular and came 10-15 minutes apart. I tried (unsuccessfully) to nap and so, I dug in for the evening: I got out my hypnobirthing supplies- the essential oils and music, but found that I really didn’t want to use either yet. I watched some Netflix (Madmen, if you’d like to know). I did some Spinning Babies gymnastics. And at some point, I turned on relaxing music and tried to get some rest.
Around 3 am, my contractions were still really irregular, but coming closer together, between 2.5 minutes and 6 minutes apart. I called my doula and asked her to come over. I called our wonderful neighbor, who would be staying with our kids, to warn her that we might need her soon. Within minutes of those calls, the contractions were suddenly 4 minutes or sooner and I once again called both our doula and our neighbor to let them know it was “go time”.
At the hospital, we went to triage. The nurse started the non-stress test, and then she left what we did next up to us. When I was in labor with my daughter (at a different facility), I had no choices. We were told what to do every step of the way. This time around, it felt comical to be hooked up to the non-stress test at 3 am, experiencing labor contractions and being asked what I wanted. I wanted to be admitted. I was ready to have a baby. The nurse then informed me that before I could be admitted we needed to wait for the midwife to determine if I was in labor (?!). This was the only time I was really frustrated with hospital staff, because I had no doubts I was in labor. And when I was checked by the midwife, I was already 6 cm dilated and totally effaced. I was given the midwife’s blessing to be admitted.
Once in the room- the L&D nurse called a stat nurse to start an IV required to administer antibiotics against Group B Strep; this was a very deliberate line-item in my birth preferences. I had a terrible experience with a heplock insertion during my previous delivery, and I had a lot of anxiety about getting an IV. The stat nurse used ultrasound guidance and anesthetic to make sure he nailed the IV stick on the first try. It wasn’t so bad.
At this point, I could no longer talk through contractions, which had become really intense. I focused on my breathing and my doula saved the day by squeezing my hips, the only thing that took the edge off.
The antibiotics were going to take an hour to administer and then they needed to be in my system for 4 hours, before one more dose. Since my labor had already progressed so far, we decided to try and slow things down a little bit. I got in the tub.
I sat in the tub for hours. My doula massaged my arm, which was sore from the penicillin. I listened to relaxing music. My husband stayed by my side. And I tried my best to use all my hypnobirthing skills to get to a spot of deep relaxation. This was probably the only place I found it and the hours passed quickly and believe it or not, quite pleasantly.
Once I got out of the tub, the contractions started again in earnest. At some point, I requested a cervical check because I wanted to know how far along I was. My midwife checked and told me I was at 7cm. I was crushed. Until this point, I had felt like labor was challenging but that I was managing it well. I was sure I was much farther along. My birth team remained optimistic and suggested some positioning exercises to move things along (and probably to distract me). They had me contort into a forward leaning inversion. We did a lot of side lunging. And then I hit the halls for an extremely uncomfortable walk.
All of the movement helped. Relatively quickly, I dilated to 10 cm. I was ready to push. For what felt like a long time, I pushed on my knees using a CUB pillow (a godsend, by the way). As things began to get really real, I began to have all the regrets about not using pain relief. When I laid out my birth preferences, I was very insistent that I wanted to breathe this baby out. That is to say, I was hoping to let my uterus do most of the work and not do much traditional pushing. I was terrified of pushing after a long and challenging previous delivery and subsequent pelvic floor trauma. During this pregnancy, I invested a ton of time learning relaxation-based strategies like Hypnobirthing. But, the urge to push was absolutely overwhelming. I fought it, but it wasn’t easy and at one point, my doula gave me two options- I could push the baby out, or I could scream the baby out (one way is a clear winner). Either way, it looked as if my visions of a chill no-push delivery were behind me.
While I pushed Max out of my body, the two thoughts running through my head were:
“I can do anything for a minute”.
“I’m doing this for Max”.
As Max crowned, the midwives had me stop pushing. We waited for my body to relax and stretch. And then Max made his entrance.
Max was born early in the afternoon – his volume cranked high. My husband caught him and placed him on my chest. And the intensity just stopped. I felt Max’s warm and slippery newborn body pressed into my own; it is one of the most wonderful sensations I have known. And I watched him. His tiny body. His wide eyes that worked to make sense of new surroundings.
This labor was still hard. It was still long. My birth team was amazing. The delivery was, in the grand scheme of things, much much easier on my body than my previous delivery.
And I could still smile at the end.
My plan for Max’s birth was not much different than it was when I delivered my daughter. I wanted to deliver in a hospital. I was aiming to birth without medication. The major difference between the two experiences came down to where I chose to deliver and the way I prepared emotionally and physically for birth.
When I selected my birthing location for my daughter’s birth, I chose a university teaching hospital. I felt safe in a hospital if anything went south. I knew that particular hospital well because I worked nearby on campus. I knew nothing about their intervention rates, their specialty in managing high-risk pregnancies or the role my birth team would play in achieving the kind of birth I wanted. I ultimately delivered my daughter without medication but it was more a testament to my hardheadedness and the amazing support I received from my husband and doula. By choosing the hospital and providers I chose, the deck was stacked against me.
When selecting my birth team for Max’s birth, it was a no brainer to work with midwives. I wanted to work with providers that were comfortable with physiologic birth (i.e. a “natural” childbirth, although I’m not a fan of the term) and would work with me to minimize damage to my body. I also prepared differently. I invested much more time and effort in practicing birth preparation exercises and pelvic floor down-training, learning Spinning Babies principles, and exploring relaxation based childbirth methods (through Hypnobirthing classes as well as private hypnosis for childbirth coaching).
This birth story is admittedly (and thankfully) unremarkable. It is mine, which makes it special to me. But I think the real story in it is how much the birth plan matters. Where you give birth, who attends to your delivery, what your expectations are: these details matter a lot. The physiological details of Max’s delivery were very similar to his sister’s. The experience was very different (and much more positive).
Ultimately, every pregnancy, labor and delivery is unique. Each one is an independent coin toss. It’s impossible to say with certainty if I had a better experience the second time around because I prepared differently or if the stars (and little Max) were in better alignment. But it was a better experience. And a lot of the things that made it better resulted from lessons I learned the first time around. In this case, there was no substitute for first hand experience.
As I reflect on my first year with my little boy, I love looking back on the pictures from the hospital on the day he was born. We didn’t get many pictures in the delivery room when my daughter was born. That was one of the many lessons I sought to correct this time around. We have oodles. And I love them.
Penny Simkin, a well-known birth doula and doula educator, teaches her doulas to consider “How will she remember this?”. It’s a lovely reminder that a healthy baby and healthy mom are wonderful outcomes but they aren’t the only important outcomes. The memories made as baby is born last a lifetime and they matter too. I’m so grateful for the wonderful memories I have of my baby’s birth.
Take a deep dive into HOW to dial in your breathing strategy to feel stronger and more supported in your exercise, kick-start your postpartum recovery and manage pelvic health symptoms. Download a copy of The No B.S. Guide to Breathing for a STRONG Pregnancy and Postpartum.
My mission is to make sure that having a baby is not a reason why you can’t do all the things. Contact me if you have questions about exercise or pelvic health pertaining to pregnancy or postpartum. I work with people locally (Seattle’s Eastside: Redmond, Bellevue, Kirkland and surrounding areas) and online to develop personalized pregnancy and postpartum personal training plans.