I knew there was only so much I could do to prepare for the birth of my child. I read the books, I hired a doula, my partner and I were on the same page. But what I still didn’t know is what it would feel like, and this whole idea of the unknown scares the ever-living crap out of me. I often need to feel a sense of control, and this impending unimaginable pain was anxiety-inducing. However, the mantra I held close to my heart, that I repeated whenever I started to feel worried, or anxious, or out-of-control, was “This is what I’m going to do today.” I don’t have anything else to worry about, or think about, or stress about. The only thing I have to do that day is give birth to my child. And let me tell you, it helped a lot.
Our cat, who is a chronic vomiter (stay with me, it’s related), decided he needed to start retching and throw up somewhere in the apartment at 2:30 in the morning. My husband and I both woke up immediately and got out of bed just at the sound of it – if you know, you know. He cleaned it up, while I went to the bathroom for the 100th time. I noticed some pain at this time, some tightness in my belly, but I was able to breathe through it, and more importantly I was able to lay down and fall back asleep. *Sleep is HUGELY important in the early stages of labour, which I was definitely in at this point.*
I woke up again at 6:30am, and I was uncomfortable enough with the pains in my belly that I had to get up and walk. The tightness increased, and I felt regular contractions every few minutes. I decided at 6:55am that I didn’t want to be alone anymore, so I shook my husband awake. I said “Hey, um, I think I’m in labour. I could use some company.” At this point, everything felt like it was in slow motion as the reality of being in labour crept up on me. Slow motion that is, except for the contractions, which were becoming more regular and more intense. I sat bouncing on the exercise ball while eating some yogurt with granola and watching Kim’s Convenience. We called our doula at 7:30am after my husband did an excellent job of timing the contractions. She told us to continue timing them for one hour, call her back, and then it would be time to go to the hospital. *5 minutes apart, lasting 1 minute from the start of one to the start of the next, lasting for an hour.* Sure enough, it was go time!
We captured a photo of me in the parking lot mid-contraction, which we both look back on and chuckle. Perhaps this was the start of my birth photography journey, and I didn’t even realize it!
I’m going to try and describe how it felt to me…and even now I may struggle because it has been over 3 years since I gave birth to my son. (In hindsight, write the story sooner after birth.) It started out feeling like strong Braxton Hicks, where your entire belly feels tight and goes around into my back. It felt like my whole belly had turned into a hard ball that was squeezing and was going to pop off my body. It felt like the most intense poop-induced stomach ache I had ever experienced. (Yes, here it is, the first mention of poop – get used to it, this is an open, judgement-free space to talk about our stories, and poop is often involved).
Triage seemed to take the longest. I was put in a bed at 9:15am, clearly in labour, and having to breathe deep through each contraction at this point. The thing that helped the most was putting my arms around my husband’s shoulders during each contraction. This helped to release oxytocin, which is the feel-good hormone, which comforted me. I had to wait for the doctor to do a cervical check and hook me up to heart rate monitors to make sure I was in labour. 5cm dilated, 90% effaced, 12:50pm, a room is ready!
The exercise ball that worked so well at home would have probably served me well at the hospital, had I not left it at home. The ball that was in the room was too small for my height, AND the biggest problem was that it needed to be inflated. The second I sat on it I hopped back up and said “Nope, nope, that’s not going to work!”
And that’s the thing about labour, you never know ahead of time what is going to work for you in the moment. As a Certified Birth Doula, I can tell you frankly there isn’t a ‘one size fits all’ treatment when it comes to pain during birth. What worked for me may not work for you, or won’t work for your sister or cousin or friend. Childbirth is painful, yes, but it is manageable. If you’re like me, then having multiple techniques for pain management up your sleeve is going to help you feel a sense of control for something you can only prepare yourself so much for before you’re in the thick of it. This can include an exercise ball, a rebozo, towels or blankets, tennis balls, sentimental items to focus on, a shower or tub, nitrous, or an epidural. Get honest with yourself about the birth experience you want, learn about what other options may be presented to you in certain situations, and figure out how far you’re willing to deviate from your plan should the occasion call for it.
You know how on TV a woman’s water breaks and is immediately followed up by intense contractions? Yeah, it doesn’t happen this way in real life. Sometimes your water will break like a gush, sometimes it’ll be a trickle over a longer period of time, sometimes it’ll break in the tub (like mine did), sometimes the doctor will need to break it for you, and sometimes it won’t even break at all! Every body is different, and there isn’t a wrong way for your water to break. It’ll break at some point, but it’s definitely not the only sign of labour.
The afternoon seemed to drag on, but flew by at the same time. I remember my nurse telling me over and over again something like “20 more minutes, then it’ll be time”. Perhaps she noticed me looking at the clock constantly, wanting to know when my baby was going to be here. Again, this goes back to me being a bit of an anxious person and wanting to know when exactly things are going to happen. That sense of control. She realized I was fixated on the time, so she kept giving me small amounts of time that I could work with. I could get through the next 20 minutes because that would mean things were going to change. They didn’t, for the record. I distinctly remember seeing 2:45pm on the clock after I had been in active labour for a few hours, and she told me another 20 minutes. Well, I was able to continue on through labour even if I didn’t notice the time 20 minutes later, or even 20 minutes after that. It was something that was only meant to help me in that moment.
Contractions were the most intense as I rounded the corner of active labour as they were stacking on top of one another with no rest in between. This is when I had to go inside, to the deepest part, and wrap my arms around myself. I stayed on my side in bed in the fetal position, holding my husband – or my doula’s – hand breathing so deep and so slowly. Slow and controlled. None of that “heeheeheehoohoohoo” crap you see in movies. If I had done that, I would have hyperventilated! Slow, methodical breathing. This lovely stage is called Transition. The last couple of centimetres before it’s time to push. Suddenly during my contractions, I felt my body’s urge to push. Much like pushing out a poop, my body took over and started telling me what needed to happen next. This is called Pushing.
I was told once the nurses turned on the lights for the baby warmer and started to get it ready, it would soon be time to meet my baby. Another signal of change, and that the end was coming. At this point, it didn’t matter to me how long it took – THEY were telling me that it was almost time, and that was good enough to keep me going.
I loved the idea of pushing on my side, but in that moment it felt like the most uncomfortable thing, so I vitoed pushing on my side. I ended up pushing on my back with one foot in Dr Barrett’s hand and the other in my nurse’s hand. I was directed to put my chin to my chest, hold my breath for 10 seconds, and push down low like I was pushing out a poop. I had to repeat this as many times as I could during a contraction. Thankfully the contractions were less frequent, so I was able to rest slightly in between.
Dr Barrett was very good at comforting me during pushes, and held that foot with confidence. He manually stretched my labia to fit around baby’s head, and I began to experience the “Ring of Fire” that people talk about. Ooooh yes, just like Johnny Cash put it, “It burns burns burns, the ring of fire”. It felt like a hot 10cm circle was stretching my vagina, because that’s essentially what it was – baby’s head was putting immense pressure on my labia and was stretching it to full capacity. Very uncomfortable, but not much to do in terms of pain relief. I remember one moment very clearly during all the commotion of legs in the air and medical personnel coming and going with trays of medical supplies: I didn’t feel like I could keep going. I said “I can’t do this anymore”, and from my perspective several faces popped into my line of sight – my husband, my doula, the OB, my nurse, and a couple more staff near my feet all encouragingly shouted “Yes you can!” at the same time. Well, a few pushes later, and my boy was here.
After he was born, my uterus stopped contracting. It had worked so hard to push this baby out, it felt like its job was done. However, the placenta still needed to be delivered. Baby was placed on my chest, and I was immediately injected with oxytocin, which I was told would burn a bit. Holy crap it radiated through my whole leg! Burn a bit, psh, yeah right, more like electrocuted all the nerves in my leg. But we had to get my uterus to start contracting again. Dr Barrett had to manually massage my uterus from the outside, and the sheer amount of pressure put on my freshly emptied belly was enough to make me feel sick. After the placenta was delivered, I started to feel woozy, a bit daydreamy, and what I didn’t realize was happening was that I was hemorrhaging. Medical staff were flooding in and out of the room quickly, but my focus was kept on my new baby on my chest with the help of my husband and doula. The OB tried to freeze my vagina slightly so they could try to stop the internal bleeding and sew up a first-degree tear – I could still feel the tug of the sutures going through my skin weeks later. The bleeding wasn’t from the placenta, as it came out in its entirety. My theory is that I was in an ineffective pushing position (on my back with legs up in the air), and even though I only pushed for an hour, the amount of pressure I was putting on my uterus and vagina was enough to increase the amount of bleeding postpartum. After I was cleaned up and the medical staff had cleared out for the most part, I could have some quiet time with my baby, my husband, and my doula.
If you’ve made it this far, I just want to say thank you for reading my birth story. Your birth story may not be as long, or it may be longer. It might be as detailed as mine, or it might not. The beautiful thing about your birth story is that it belongs to you, and the moment you decide to share it, you open yourself up to the possibility of relating and connecting to others. Birth is incredibly common, completely normal, and it is a huge event to go through in life. Having a safe space to sit with and process your experience is important to every single birthing person, and I hope to create that safe space for you.