If you’ve been reading this blog, you know that my interest in prenatal workout videos wasn’t purely theoretical. Workout and dance videos were a way for me to keep moving — albeit gently — throughout my pregnancy. In fact, they made it a beautiful one, since I had never before paid so much attention to my body’s needs. I never pushed myself incredibly hard, since I wasn’t looking to lose weight or set any records, but I did use exercise to deal with back pain and to work on my flexibility and endurance. They say, after all, that labour is like a marathon, so I thought I would train as best I could!
Marathon, eh? Well, if the average marathon time is 4:35 hours, I could have run over seventeen marathons in the time I laboured. Because, dear reader, while my pregnancy was a dream, labouring to bring my son into the world was all kinds of funky. When I write “funky” I don’t mean “life-threatening” — both he and I were pretty resilient throughout the four days I was in labour, and I’m well aware of how important that is. But all kinds of little things made my hope of giving birth in the traditional way difficult and, eventually, impossible.
Now, beware — this is one of those revealing, personal blog posts full of Too Much Information. It’s the kind of stuff I don’t always feel comfortable talking about, much the writing about it online. But it’s my blog, after all, and a few people have asked me how things went. If you don’t want to read this — just click somewhere else.
I started to labour on a Friday morning, in the car on my way home from an appointment with my ob/gyn. By Friday evening my contractions, which were not yet very strong, were 2-3 minutes apart and lasted anywhere from 60 to 90 seconds. Our wonderful doula came over, and she judged it was time to go to the hospital. Once there, my contractions almost immediately stopped. I was kept under supervision for several hours, and since nothing was happening, they gave me an Ambien and sent me home. And that, my friends, was the last full night of sleep I had.
On Saturday, I continued labouring at home. This was the lovely part of the labour, despite the pain getting worse. I had Middle Eastern music playing on my iPod speaker, I did hip circles and chest circles and what have you, and my husband applied warm packs and gave me massages as things got progressively harder. Inspired by the outdoor bits of Maha al Musa’s Dance of the Womb, we went outside to the park behind our apartment and walked over the hills, using the inclines to get through contractions. Because of the way the baby was positioned, some basic movements like cat-cow stretch were extremely painful, but there was so much else I could do, and I still felt quite positive and hopeful about the experience.
Saturday night we did not sleep.
Sunday morning, thinking my waters had broken, we went to the hospital and called our doula again. They hadn’t broken, but this time they kept me in. Now, I had worried about the hospital’s openness to natural childbirth. Everyone I knew who had given birth there had had a c-section, a prospect I found terrifying. And, in fact, the hospital staff were so unaccustomed to any woman actually being mobile enough to walk through the halls, as I was, that some of them didn’t think I was in labour yet. Everyone else there was hooked up to an epidural as soon as they got in! However, to my surprise, both nurses and doctors were incredibly supportive. They took our birth plan seriously, I was allowed broth and water (against the usual hospital policy), no one rushed me or came to bother me, and aside from the bare minimum of precautions and checks, things were allowed to progress naturally.
Moreover, I had brought my iPod player with me, so to the surprise of the nurses, we had Middle Eastern music playing in our room and I often danced through contractions, at least during the early part of the day. I found to my surprise that the most useful moves for me were undulations, which helped with the back pain, and that I would often naturally do a shimmy just as a contraction was wearing off, as a way of relaxing my body out of it.
Which was, it turns out, incredibly slowly.
At this point I also had back labour, and certain things — like going to the bathroom or being on all fours — were excruciating. I had progressed so little, and the baby seemed to be malpositioned, so we tried all the natural methods to turn him. We figured there was a chance, since my waters still hadn’t broken. I spent almost an hour on all fours moving from side to side in a haze of pain (I actually don’t recall most of it), my doula tried shifting my hips with a scarf, the whole enchilada. This did nothing. For much of Sunday evening I thought I was going through transition, as I was showing the typical signs according to my doula. I was, it turns out, not going through transition.
Sunday night we did not sleep.
At some point during the night, I did get some painkiller though, through the IV, so at least I had two hours’ break from the pain. On Monday morning I agreed to have my waters broken, at least to move things along. What followed was pain so horrible that I thought I would die pregnant and in that hospital room. All the breathing and relaxation exercises I had done until then were quickly losing their effect. Aside from having contractions that were 2-3 minutes long, with back labour, the contractions were also not the usual kind — they would generally start at the peak of pain and either wind down, or not. They were, in short, unmanageable. And the worst part was that this pain had brought us almost no closer to the end.
My doctor walked in, found me screaming on the bed with my husband on one side and the doula on the other, and said, “This woman needs an epidural and a few hours of sleep!” Seriously, I would have asked for an epidural myself if I could have remembered at this point that they exist. The pain and fatigue were so overwhelming that I truly didn’t know there were options for me. I was focused on survival. But when my doctor said those magic words, I yelled, “Yes!” and the magic happened.
Now, I have nothing against epidurals. I don’t think women should have to suffer. But I had wanted to avoid the epidural because it so often leads to stalled labours and c-sections. In my case, the epidural helped me get a few hours of sleep and relax to 10 centimetres. The doctor gave me a few extra hours to bear down, and I was ready to push. All was going well again, and the finish line was in sight. Or so it seemed. My nurse came and taught me how to push, and I started doing so, with various nurses and my doula giving me advice. At this point the epidural was wearing off on one side, so I could partially feel my contractions (and back labour, my old friend), and was basically mobile. I pushed and pushed and pushed. I pushed on my back. I pushed on my side. I asked to push on all fours, which the nurses didn’t want to allow because they thought I couldn’t move my legs. But my epidural was weak enough that I was still mobile, so I pushed on all fours. Again, I lost track of time. I remember the period as very short, but my husband tells me I pushed for two hours.
And then my doctor came in, gave me the kind of examination that belongs on a specialty video of dubious respectability, and informed me that the baby had not progressed one bit.
This was, after four days of labour, and moreover, after four days of constantly thinking we were almost there, that the baby was going to come, extremely dispiriting. I asked what the options were, and she said she could have me push some more, use forceps to try and turn him, and then have me push, but that it might not work. In that moment I knew it wouldn’t. I barely had any more strength. I hadn’t slept in three days, hadn’t eaten in two, the epidural was no longer masking the pain — and I could no longer handle the pain. And although I know forceps can be fine and so on, I just didn’t want to subject my baby to the risk. He had been so strong over four days of labour, and I just didn’t think it fair to put him in danger because of my desire for a vaginal birth. I looked at my husband, said something like, “I don’t want to do this, I want the c-section,” and we agreed on the decision in a moment.
The sight I remember, the sight that stays with me, is seeing my husband and doula crying at this point. I thought they were crying because they were upset, but he later told me they were both relieved for it all to be over.
Once I made the decision, I became calmer, although I was still terrified of the surgery. I started chatting to everyone, fiercely trying to keep my mind off of it. My nurse later told me that on the way to the operating room I commented loudly that I was afraid my husband would never look at me sexually again. In the room, I remarked that it looked like a public bathroom, and then asked my anesthesiologist if he played the guitar and if not, why not. And after they got the curtain up between me and my about-to-be-sliced-open belly, one of the doctors on the other side sweetly asked, “What are you going to say to your baby when you see him?”
“FUCK YOU!” I replied.
A clip of time later, they held a monstrous-looking, squawling, bloody baby above the curtain and then whisked him away to suck a bit of meconium out of his lungs. I somehow remember him being purple and green at the same time, though I know this can’t be true. I was already shivering uncontrollably, and now I started weeping uncontrollably. When they brought him to me, I started crying even harder, and I said what I’d said I would say — but lovingly, softly, and in my native language. He was 8 lbs 7 oz, and he was finally out, thank goodness.
So that, dear readers, is my birth story. To be honest, it was quite traumatic. And yet everything was the opposite of what I expected. I was worried about the medical establishment, and in point of fact they made me feel totally empowered and respected my wishes. I tried so hard to avoid the epidural and the c-section, but by the end of the marathon, both of them were massive sources of relief. I was traumatized and detached from the baby for quite a while, but it wasn’t because of the medical aspects of my birth — it was because for me and my body and the position of my baby, natural childbirth just sucked big time. (My mom had a similar experience, so I guess it may be partly genetic.) The two good things were that I had a healthy, sturdy boy, and that I don’t feel guilty about the operation — I really know I did everything in my power to give birth vaginally. Any more would have been, in my case, stupid.
So to return to the topic of this blog… did all that exercise, the yoga and the pilates and the dancing help? For a while I thought they didn’t, that they were a bit of a big joke. They certainly helped me a great deal to enjoy my pregnancy, but I felt that they didn’t bring much to my labour. (All of those exercises you’re supposed to do to put your baby in the right position? I had been doing them for months. Much good it did me.) If I had given birth on Sunday evening I still would have had a long, three-day labour, but it would have been a dream birth experience in many ways — time spent at home, music, free movement, no meds, deep breathing, and a rather satisfying series of foot rubs from my husband. But the intensity, fatigue, and frustration of Monday were what made the experience hellish.
And yet, as time has passed in the intervening month, I’ve realised the exercise did help. On the one hand, the videos made me feel I could have a natural, vaginal birth, and for me the fact that I couldn’t wound up being sad and almost a bit angry-making. Why couldn’t I, after practicing all those squats? Still, most of my labour was manageable and under my control, and movement — especially bellydance — was a big part of that. Moreover, someone pointed out to me that I had the bodily strength to get through four days of labour, three of them without any pain killers. Since I’m not usually the fittest person, this had to have been due to all the workout videos I did. The fact is, try as we might to do everything right, some of us will not have the dream birth experience. But even though my birth didn’t go the way I pictured it, most of it did, and those parts really are beautiful.
And, in the end, what can I say? The kid is damned cute.