Contractions started early on Saturday morning – 8 days before my due date. Since I’d convinced myself that this baby was going to be late, I wasn’t even sure they were real contractions. But they were getting me out of bed every hour. Sergio woke up and we made a plan for the day – eat a lot, stay home, call the family, and make applesauce. I had bought 20 pounds of apples at the market the night before and – thinking I had a full week before the baby would arrive – was planning on making a big batch of apple sauce. Before I could even think about getting the water bath canner down, my contractions got bad enough that I decided I couldn’t handle it and should try to sleep as much as possible. I called my mom and told her to go ahead and come – but told her I wasn’t sure if this was false labor or not. When I got off the phone, Sergio told me, “I don’t think this is false labor – if it were false, you’d be making apple sauce.”
By the time mom arrived, it had already been 15 hours since those first waking pangs. But I couldn’t have told you then how long it’d been. I was trying my hardest to ignore the clock; I thought that knowing how long I’d been laboring would only make it worse. If I could trick myself into collapsing all notions of time, maybe I’d be less prone to fatigue. Maybe that worked; maybe not. But the bathtub worked – for sure. As did the exercise ball. Both of those helped soothe the pain when the contractions had gotten so strong I could no longer rest.
Sergio was all abuzz all day – fixing me breakfast and a smoothie, prepping the bag for the hospital, installing the car seat, helping me with distractions at first, then helping with the contractions when they got stronger. He could hardly sit still.
As the day progressed, the weather turned weird – a storm came through and turned the sky green. I was sitting on the exercise ball in my living room, enduring a contraction while loud claps of thunder echoed outside. It was exactly the surreal backdrop that the day called for. I couldn’t believe it was all really happening. I couldn’t believe I was really living the thing I’d been preparing for so much. I couldn’t believe the baby was coming. I couldn’t believe I was finally going to find out if it’s a boy or girl. I couldn’t believe it was still a week before my due date. I couldn’t believe the pain! There was so much to process…
After one final call to the midwife,
we decided it was time to head to the hospital. It was about 10 pm. The downpour of the afternoon and evening had tapered off and we took the chance to make a run for it before the storm picked up again. At the hospital, Sergio signed all the paper work while I worked my way deeper and deeper into the trance that sustained me through the rest of the process. I had already begun heading towards “planet birth” – by the time I was admitted and set up in the labor room, I had fully migrated to this other world and I wasn’t coming back for a long time.
I had to switch to some new mantras and visualization techniques as things got harder, faster, more intense (such weak words to describe what I was feeling). I gave up on the gentle, peaceful rowing visual and the kindergarten-ish mantra of “Can’t go under it; can’t go around it; can’t go over it; have to go through it,” that had worked so well at home. I had been doing a great job of focusing on the things that felt good – how relieved I felt in the fading seconds of each contraction, knowing relief was on its way – how good I felt when I could rest and relax between the contractions – how good it felt when my mom or Sergio applied pressure on my back. At first I could work past the pain if I fixated on what felt good. But by the time I got to the hospital, it was a new game and the pain had eclipsed all other sensations. So, I switched to a new visual – each contraction was a big knot and the first half, the rise, of each contraction was me trying to loosen the knot; the second half, the fall, of each contraction was me pulling the knot apart. I began some new moaning and groaning techniques – continued the horse lips or ‘raspberries’ that Ina Mae Gaskin recommends, made some cow noises and low growls, did some sing-song moaning, sometimes singing in tune with the jets of the giant tub, sometimes humming a descending string of notes over and over again. For a while I tried to will the contractions to let go of me – or maybe I was willing myself to let go of the contractions, to let go of my body enough to not feel the pain – I just chanted “let go, let go, let go, let go…” This worked for a while … but eventually I devolved into mantras like “No no no no no…” and “I can’t, I can’t, I can’t, I can’t, I can’t.” When it was time to push the only mantra that was left was very frank, clear-cut, and firm: “Pain equals baby.”
I also devolved into a sort of dark place, which surprised me. At varying points in the hardest times of the night, I took turns hating everyone I know who has had a baby recently – I hated the friends who have done this naturally, the friends who chose to get c-sections, the ones who had no choice but to get a c-section, the one that had no choice but to deliver naturally, the woman whose first labor was only 6 hours, the one who only had to push eight times, the woman who endured a long labor, etc. This feeling was so strange. Prior to my labor, I would have expected that the experiences of others would have been motivating or empowering or encouraging. And maybe they were in the beginning. This was how I’d prepared – I’d sought after everyone else’s birth stories and indiscriminately absorbed every possible scenario, and that was good for me then. But when it came time for my own story, none of those people could help me any more. So maybe it wasn’t that I hated them, it was just that there was nothing left for them to do for me. I had to let them each go – one by one. The deeper I got, the more I had to accept that the only one who could do this was me.
The other thing that surprised me is that I never hated Sergio – he was diligent, firm, and positive in his support and, somehow, not annoying. So much of what I’d read said that you’d likely get frustrated with your support people. Not so with me.
I was mostly so far entranced that at certain times I could barely tell who I was reaching out to for help – whose hand I was holding – who was washing my face with a cool rag – who was feeding me ice. It could have been the man from the moon for all I knew. I was nothing but a big writhing sensory receptor by then – very little cognition.
I really wonder if – when I’d begun the contractions at 4 am on Saturday morning – you’d told me it was going to take 28 hours, I’d have been able to go through with it. I’m not sure I could have. Although my mom says I could have. I don’t know if it was the pain that got to me in the end as much as it was the fatigue. I was so desperate for sleep and contractions are a very rude way to wake up, especially when you’ve only been asleep for 5 minutes. By the time I started pushing I was scraping the bottom of the barrel and running on fumes right at the very time I needed to do the hardest work of my life. I was so exhausted during one particularly long break (“long” as in like 7 whole minutes) between contractions that I fell asleep so quickly and deeply that I snored (so they told me later). I was totally wrung dry.
And perhaps literally wrung dry, too, as I had nothing left with which to even cry. I spent about an hour pushing – one hour, approximately 8 separate contractions, 3 different positions, a lot of strange noises, pain like nothing I’d ever imagined, and such slow progress. Or at least it felt slow to me. How could something so excruciating not get the job done? Every push was the hardest, most painful experience of my life and each one was harder than the last. Finally – FINALLY – after what seemed like eons, the head came out. Suddenly, time sped up and in just a sliver of a fraction of a split nanosecond the whole body was out. Sergio caught the baby and with the midwives’ and nurses’ help, put it on my belly. It was writhing and wailing already and with the umbilical cord lying between its legs, I thought it was a boy. Until Sergio investigated and said, “We have a Julia!” And I couldn’t believe it. She was a dream come true.
I wanted to cry buckets from all the relief and joy I felt. But I couldn’t. All I could do was moan and howl with happiness, delight and disbelief. I wanted her close to me and to see her face and to inspect her perfection – as soon as Sergio cut the cord, they brought her up to my chest. When she eventually stopped crying, her eyes were wide open, looking all around as if to say, “What in the world is all this!?” Mom was standing over my shoulder saying that I’d had that same expression when I was born. And I just stared right back at her and said over and over again, I can’t believe you were a girl this whole time.
In the days after delivery I found those wells of tears that had finally filled up again. I was on a euphoric high for the first 12 hours – then I cried when they took my baby to the NICU. Then I was euphoric again when they let me see her. Then I felt stable again. Then one morning in the NICU, with no prompting whatsoever, I hit a gusher. Something triggered one tear and the next thing I know I’m bawling. All the stored up emotion made manifest at once.
Every day since the delivery my memory of the experience has changed. At first when I thought about it, I felt only fatigue, and when postpartum contractions and cramping would remind me of the pain, I would shudder at the memory, in a post-traumatic stress disorder sort of way. But with each day that passes, I feel more pride, relief, and joy, and I remember less pain. With each day, I find myself wanting to relive every moment of those 28 hours, believe it or not – to relive precisely how Julia came into the world. And with each day that I spend with Julia, I still can’t believe that I did it, and that she’s here, and that she’s ours.
Julia and me, at home