Arthur's Birth Story
It is almost the one year anniversary of Arthur’s birth, also known as a first birthday! Over the past year, I’ve frequently thought about writing his birth story, but never felt like I had the time. So this little birthday gift I am taking for myself. The first few months postpartum, I noticed I thought about his birth and the time leading up to it almost every night, replaying it in my mind before I fell asleep. I recognize my own slowness in processing trauma--my tendency is to ignore and numb the painful things. But I also know this leads to festering and resentment. One year out, I feel much more at peace with how everything went, though I know on some deep level I am still processing and healing. I hope that sharing my story might help other soon-to-be or new mothers have perspective.
My first trimester sucked. I felt constantly nauseous, tired, and like my life force was zapped out of me and into this blueberry shaped bundle of cells. But my second and third trimester were smooth. I felt strong and healthy. My back felt good, better than pre-pregnancy (what hormones can do!). I felt beautiful and proud of my curvy body in a new way. I walked every day, did little exercises like squats, went to a pelvic floor therapist just to check that everything looked good - it did! I read a ton about birth and was really into the trippier side of it, from books like Spiritual Midwifery. I wanted birth to be a spiritual and psychedelic experience - to witness the veil being crossed, the miracle and mystery of life. I knew it would involve pain, but also thought of myself as someone who copes well with pain.
I was introduced to hypnobabies, which felt really right to me. The idea is that, through daily audio tracks and affirmations, you can learn to hypnotize yourself into producing a medical grade kind of hypno- anesthesia. Pain begins in the brain, after all, and with enough practice and faith, I still do believe you can trick yourself out of it. At least in some situations. So every day of my third trimester I spent an hour listening to these audio tracks in a dark quiet room, often falling asleep or being lulled into a trance, visualizing an orange light of hypnoanesthesia moving up my body. Every day I listened to affirmations: my baby’s birth will be easy and beautiful, I have no fear about birth, that kind of thing. I distinctly remember the affirmations saying, what you fear often has a way of coming to pass, so you have to face and clear all your fears.
Also hypnobabies encouraged you to actively visualize your perfect birth. I decided, since I was fantasizing anyway, I would imagine it taking place in the forest under perfectly dappled light, in a natural hot spring surrounded by birds and friendly woodland creatures. Obviously I knew it would take place in a hospital, but literally this is what I envisioned.
My due date came and went. No big deal, most first time moms go long. But then the days kept going by. Every night I would think, it will come tonight. But it just didn’t. I started to see an acupuncturist every other day. I had a non-stress tests where they check the babies reactions to contractions. It was nice for a couple of days, laying on the couch, anticipating, watching tv, drinking hot chocolate, finding new little cleaning projects to occupy me, writing notes to my future baby. But by five days or so past my due date I started to feel like I was going crazy.
I did ALL the things: Eggplant. Dates. The Miles Circuit, over and over. Homeopathic pills. Nipple stim with a breast pump. Curb walking. Actually there are no curbs on my street so I walked with one flat shoe and one platform clog, which is supposed to have the same effect, though look even funnier. I listened to a specific hypnobabies track designed to induce labor. I was trying to avoid a hospital induction, knowing it would make labor harder, more painful, and I wanted a “natural birth”. The only thing I did not do was the castor oil - talking it over with my doula, this sounded worse than an induction in a hospital.
All this time I would occasionally notice Braxton Hicks contractions, but I often didn’t really feel them from the inside, if that makes sense. More like, I would notice my belly getting really hard for a minute, but only when my hands where feeling it. I kept hoping to feel more, for them to become regular, to even become painful, but that never happened. At one point I ate a whole habanero pepper, eyes and nose streaming, hoping to kick my uterus into labor. I marched up some super steep hills by my house, having heard that walking up hill can induce labor. I felt like an ox, my body and my baby unbudging, just healthy, strong and huge. People, myself included, started to make little jokes like, he’s just too comfy in there! He doesn’t want to come out!
12 days after my due date, I went in for my second membrane sweep and my fourth non-stress test. This time the baby’s heart rate decelerated during the test. They told me to go straight to labor and delivery at the hospital, because this was not a good sign. I was a little in shock and not sure I understood them correctly, but we called our doula, who seemed to think they were being too adamant from just one decel. We decided to go home for an hour to pick up the our things, eat a quick dinner, say goodbye to our dogs, and then head to the hospital. At this point my induction was scheduled for two days later, at 14 days past my due date. So going in two days earlier didn’t seem like a big deal.
At the hospital I asked to not be hooked continuously to the monitors, but they said I had to be, because of the decel that happened during the test. I was one centimeter dilated, probably due to the membrane sweeps, but didn’t feel contractions. The OB came in and we discussed the plan, and everyone was very hopeful because of how far along I was, and that I was already slightly dilated, that I just would need a little nudge to go into labor. I had my birth plan printed out and everyone was game for me to have a natural birth, without pain management, unless I changed my mind. I wanted midwife care as much as possible, but at they only stay there until 5 pm and it was already past 9 pm at this point.
The first step of the induction was a foley bulb. This was supposed to be the least intrusive/smallest step in the induction, but in many ways it was the worse. The insertion hurt, a lot. I remember trying to call on my hypnoanesthesia, but just ended up focusing on my breathing. It caused me to bleed quite a lot. I asked if this was normal, but no one seemed concerned. But every time I went to the toilet over the next 24 hours, it was pink with blood, and sometimes depending on how I moved in the bed I would feel more bloody watery liquid dampen the sheets (spoiler alert, this was probably my water breaking). I spent the night with the foley bulb in, getting some fitful sleep, starting to feel contractions and pain. It was like period cramps x 3 or x 4, there was never a distinct ending or beginning, but I would feel pain for a little while and then it would go away for a little while. This is probably the closest I came to feeling contractions. When they removed the balloon, I was at 3 cm, but the pain went away and the contractions stopped.
In the morning they started me on Pitocin. This was what I dreaded, but I never really felt anything. They kept increasing the dosage. Eventually I was at the maximum dose, and barely felt my contractions. It was honestly confusing. I kept hoping to feel them, to feel the pain, and the nurse would come in and show them to me on the monitors, here is the graph, here are the contractions, and I was like, okay now I think I feel them, but never knew for certain.
Andrew and I walked the halls. We bounced on the ball. We did all sorts of weird positions with the peanut. There was about an hour when I had the peanut between my legs, laying on my right side, where I started to feel those period-like cramps again, and they got intense enough we called the doula. It’s happening! But then I moved and they went away. Almost a whole day had gone by at this point. The midwifes came in and didn’t say much. The nurses were the most present, helping me try new positions. There was one or two more brief baby heart decelerations during this time. It was enough the doctors were a bit worried but also it didn’t seem too urgent, just something they were monitoring.
I was texting and calling with the doula Evan the whole time but we didn’t want her to come in unless I was actually going in to labor. She told me to try this special side-lying position. We told the nurse we wanted to try it, who seemed reluctant for a moment, but then relented. She actually pulled up a video on her phone about how to get in to the position - it was complicated! I got myself into that position, and pretty quickly there was another decel - this one was longer and more concerning. They had me get on my hands and knees, to take pressure off the baby, and it stopped.
Around this point that a different doctor came in. She wore a fanny pack and emanated boss energy. She was the OB for the complicated cases. She told me she understood I wanted a natural birth, but it might not happen, and I should consider getting an epidural, so that in the unlikely event that they had to whisk me away for an emergency c-section, I could still be conscious for the birth. If I didn’t get an epidural and this became necessary, they’d have to sedate me, and then I’d miss everything.
I had mixed feelings. Part of me reacted against her bossiness, even though I knew she had attended thousands of births and knew what she was talking about. I still felt fine, still wanted a natural birth, still did not truly register that I could actually need a c-section. All my reading about birth leading up to this stressed how so many c-sections are done unnecessarily, that there is a “cascade of medical interventions” that are often unnecessary. Plus with my focus on hypnobabies, I had never thought about cesarian births, because I was so focused on envisioning my perfect natural birth.
Because Arthur had a bigger deceleration, they took me off the Pitocin for a bit, thinking it was stressing the baby, because it was at a very high dose. They started it again at a lower dose and were gradually increasing it again. Around now Evan came to the hospital because we were deciding about the epidural and we wanted her help weighting the pros and cons. In the months leading up to birth, even in my first trimester, I knew I wanted to try without the epidural. But I also thought it foolish to be too adamant about it - like if my labor stalled or if I was getting in my head with the pain, I knew it might make sense to get it. And when faced with it in this context, I thought it made sense to get it. I remember joking to Andrew and Evan and even the anesthesiologist as I was getting it, though, that it like trying out a new recreational drug, but not so good for parties.
After I was good and numb, the doctor with the fanny pack came in again. Now we agreed they would break my waters, as the next step to urge labor along. They thought too that the decels could be caused by the babies position putting pressure on the umbilical cord, and that breaking the waters could shift this. The procedure was gnarly and I was glad I had the epidural for this, I could tell the doctor was having to dig around. But there was no big rush of fluid like I was expecting. The doctor seemed puzzled. She called for a quick ultrasound and it showed very little fluid. She could feel Arthur’s head, apparently he got very excited when she touched it. But there was no water to break - we agreed it had likely been leaking all day.
They decided to have me try going on my side, the position where earlier in the day I had actually felt some contractions. As soon as I did that, everything changed. Arthur’s heart rate had decelerated and was now staying down dangerously low. Everything got suddenly very serious. Did an alarm of some sort go off? Andrew remembers the nurse hitting a button. Suddenly the room was filled with lots of people, including a male surgeon who was all business. He looked like a jock and I found that annoying. The nurses wanted me on my hands and knees, since that was easiest on the baby. But the anesthesiologist said he needed me on my back because he was upping the epidural. I started crying and was having a hard time catching my breath. Turns out I was getting a c-section after all.
Amazingly this was the first time I actually worried about Arthur. He had been so active and healthy, as had I, I never thought to worry. But now the possibility of a brain injury from lack of oxygen entered my mind. The surgeon was barking questions at me: when did I last eat? Had I ever had abdominal surgery before? Did I have a dental bridge or retainer? That question confused me. I said, I have a crown. Next these two men were running me down the hall. I remember them taking some corner really slickly. I saw a clock on the wall read 11:55 pm, and I wondered what day my baby would be born. Evan was running with me too, having me smell some essential oils. In retrospect this is almost funny, because it seems so unimportant in the context of the surgery that was about to happen, but it was a nice touch in an otherwise sterile institutional environment. Andrew was not there - he was getting outfitted in surgical scrubs, booties and a shower cap. Months later thinking about this race down the hall, I realized that part of what was so extremely jarring about all this, was how quickly I went from a dimly lit, relatively cozy, very feminine environment, to these two muscular dudes yanking me into the operating room. They were running so fast, it seemed to me at the time like they didn’t have to be quite so fast, and that maybe they were having a bit of fun; but I also was still in some denial about everything that was going on. I feel like this is where my mind left my body. It has taken months for it to come back, and is maybe still not all the way back.
We went into a very very bright room swarming with people. They lifted me up on to the operating table. There was a count like on TV, “one, two, three, lift!”. Nurses and doctors were telling me their names and what they were doing to my body (Hi, I’m nurse so and so, I’m going to insert a catheter). There must have been twenty people in there, it was hard to focus on anything. The anesthesiologist was testing how numb my body was with little electric paddles. I said I felt them. I was very scared that I would feel the surgery. He asked, is it pain, or pressure? Apparently I would be shouting in pain if I was actually feeling the paddles, and I was just feeling the pressure, which you can still feel while under an epidural. But he gave me some morphine on top of the epidural top-up, so I was really very numb. Then I started to feel some very weird sensations. The pressure but not the pain of something going on deep inside. I weirdly felt intensely hungry, and imagined my guts were being jostled about. It was sickening and nauseating. Even though I didn’t feel pain, I just felt very bad, and I remember wishing I had gotten the general anesthesia instead of the epidural, so that I could be unconscious. I dry heaved some. Then I heard a baby cry. It was startlingly loud. I knew instantly that Arthur would be okay - I didn’t think a baby could cry that loudly if he was hurt at all. But I also did not feel any surge of attachment or love. The doctor with the fanny pack said I would be a great candidate for a VBAC. I guess I did well at getting a c-section! I did not want to think about another birth or another baby at that point while they were still sewing me up, and was sort of mad she mentioned it at that moment. I'm sure she was just trying to cheer me up, I felt and looked miserable. My arms started to shake a bit. Then a bit more. Then they were basically flapping on the table. Something about the sudden release of hormones. I did not care about holding the baby, and I didn’t think I had enough strength in my arms. But then I saw Andrew holding Arthur, and it made me gasp. They looked so much a like! I had no idea! This is where the love and sheer sense of wonder began. Someone held Arthur to my breast and he was already trying to suckle. They said he was born hungry. They put us in a recovery room. Was I loopy on morphine? I remember making some jokes, like saying it felt like an alien abduction. Arthur kept crying and a nurse kept shushing him really loudly, and I thought that was so strange. I overheard another nurse, the one that had pushed the emergency button, talking to Evan, and saying that she couldn’t stop shaking. So even for her that was an intense situation!
Recovery over the next days and weeks was smooth. I felt achy deep down but never much pain. I fell in the deepest love of my life with Arthur. It was incredible. And also so much new stuff to process, I think that contributed to me squirreling away the trauma of the birth for later. I didn’t sleep well or deeply for months because that’s how it is with a newborn. I felt higher highs than on any drug. Then some low lows that I think were the baby blues, were I would just cry and feel like my life was ruined for ever. I was disappointed and somehow embarrassed about the cesarian. I didn’t want to tell anyone, I didn’t feel like I owed it to anyone, and it was so raw and fresh feeling. We delayed our birth announcement and then kept it vague. I also felt very reluctant about posting any photos online, like doing so would dilute the sacredness of this new life, this pure love.
When I was in the recovery room immediate after surgery I asked why his heart rate was decelerating, why it turned out we needed a c-section. Was there a reason? Or did I get sucked down that cascade of interventions? My nurse and Evan said the umbilical cord looked twisted and very thin, and like it was missing the wharton’s jelly which protects it from the pressure of contractions. I wish I had gotten an answer from a doctor during this period in the recovery room too. I believe the nurse and Evan but feel like I am still missing some justification about why everything unfolded like it did. At my 6 week recovery check up, I asked the OB, who (luck of the draw at this practice) happened to be the doctor with the fanny pack that delivered Arthur. She told me the umbilical cord was wrapped around his neck, twice; but when I asked about the wharton’s jelly, she looked confused and didn’t seem to know. I got the sense she was telling me what I wanted to hear, and have decided to believe the doula and the nurse about the missing jelly, and maybe also about it being wrapped around his neck. I believe that we needed the cesarean. That without it, it may have been a stillbirth (just typing this makes me cry). Andrew looked it up later and the lack of wharton's jelly is a common cause of stillbirth. But I still still feel some lingering question about it, and wish I knew for very certain that it was the right call.
Two weeks after giving birth I was talking with Evan about the whole process, I expressed regret that I didn’t get to experience the mystery, the veil. It was so clinical and quick and completely out of my control, it did not feel special at all, just sickening and frightful. But she did point out that, there was some mystery going on. Some communication between Arthur, my body, the placenta, that made it so that I never went into labor, and that this may have saved his life. She said she had never seen anyone with that high a dose of Pitocin not go into labor. She also had never attended a birth quite like mine where the mother is rushed so quickly into a cesarian - even in “emergency” situations it is not usually so fast. That did make me feel a little less crazy, thinking about how intense it was. Even for birth professionals this was a doozy. I like to think of those last few days before birth, when I was eating hot peppers and charging up hills, one high shoe and one low. And think of Arthur inside of me, curled up and comfortable, hanging on and knowing that the time wasn’t right, and that he would wait until it was.
About 3 months postpartum I threw out my back while changing Arthur’s diaper in the backseat of my car. I had just gained the confidence to go on a short roadtrip with him to see friends, and this was actually quite crushing to my sense of independence (as is basically everything about becoming a mother, turns out). For a week I was in serious discomfort. I could not pick up my baby without pain. It was miserable. But also I am grateful for this wakeup call. It made me realize how numb I still was inside my body. Sleep deprivation, the early discomforts of breastfeeding, guarding myself against pain in the early days after surgery—I had blocked out my body as much as I could. I still feel that having this is due to the extreme shift during the stat c-section, going from a state of attunement with my body, feeling so closely for contractions, for baby movement, appreciating the work my body was doing—to stark and sudden numbness and a feeling of betrayal. It took a mild back injury to make me realize I was still in a place of bodily numbness. Not to mention that the postpartum body is such a different one to become reacquainted with. I’m still struggling with this, to some extent. My tendency to ignore my deepest feelings is linked with a tendency to block out my body. Having the stress of opening a small business this first year has not helped. I know eventually I need to do some serious work, to begin and maintain a practice of some sort of self reinhabitation. It will come.