Giving birth is hard work; it is called labor, after all. And it's scary too. Those late-term discomforts, of which there are many, must become so extreme that expectant mothers can push past their fears and into the emotional territory I call "get this thing out of me now." At least that's when I knew I was ready.
I was fast approaching this last phase of my first pregnancy, when I learned a valuable lesson from a friend of a friend — a woman I had never met before that day. Perhaps Linda could see the fear in my eyes, because she didn't go into the details of her labor as she chased her toddler about the cafe. She did, however, tell me she had felt bad about her labor, that she didn't do it right. "I had every intervention but a C-section," she said.
In our community of Berkeley, CA, women have lobbied for homebirths, midwifes, and doulas and fought the medicalization of birth. Natural birth is celebrated, and medical intervention like epidurals are frowned upon. Yet, this empowering movement can, at times, be overly judgmental. Moms who don't have a natural birth start second-guessing themselves, which is something new moms are bound to do anyway.
"You're in labor for a day, but a mom for the rest of your life."
Somehow this empowering movement can, at at times, be overly judgmental, which is unfortunate because it starts new moms second-guessing themselves, something that new moms are prone to do. Linda explained that she had worked through her guilt of not having a natural labor by reminding herself of one important fact: you're in labor for a day (or two or, if really unlucky, three), but you are a mom for the rest of your life. That simple ratio of 1-to-forever resonated with me, and I had no idea how much it would help.
A couple of weeks after our conversation, the moment arrived! But that sounds too precise, too specific, because my labor did not begin with my water breaking. Instead, I stumbled into labor with my body ramping up slowly. I had days of false labor, sometimes euphemistically referred to as "practice labor." I call it "not sleeping night after night." Also, my labor was what's called "back labor," which was physically confusing to me; I actually never felt contractions in my uterus until my second child.
When the "contractions" became stronger and more regular, my husband and I realized we were ready for some outside supervision; we went to the hospital and called the doula. Like Linda, my first mothering mentor (I've picked up additional mentors over the years as my kids have grown), I had almost every medical intervention aside from a C-section. My water was broken by the OB (this made the back pain really intense, like a T-Rex gnawing on my spine); fentanyl for pain, which did not decrease the pain but made me more apathetic toward it for a brief spell; and then an epidural. With the epidural, I relaxed and my husband took this photo, which is one of my all-time favorite shots of me. More importantly, I started finally to dilate. And I slept a bit. When I woke, it was push time.
After about 20 minutes of pushing, the labor nurse confidently told me that I would be done soon, the baby was so close — literally, she could see the head. But the next three hours made a liar out of her; at every contraction, I was still pushing with all my might. Suddenly, there was a lot of muttering among the medical staff, and our cozy laboring room was rapidly transformed into a something like a operating room. Lights came out of the ceiling, and the student doctors (I was in a teaching hospital) were replaced by doctors with experience: a white-haired pediatrician in scrubs with an entourage and an attending obstetrician with an expensive haircut (that detail comes from my husband, who was slightly more observant of the subtle details than I was at the time). The baby's heartbeat was dropping; we were going to have to vacuum her out.
I can't tell you how many attempts there were to attach the suction to cup to my baby's head while stuck at the end of the birth canal, or how many collaborative pushing and suctioning events happened. But I remember the last try vividly. The attending obstetrician came close to my ear and she said, "This is the last try. After this, we will have to do a C-section."
As I Pilates instructor, I had worked with countless women who, after having C-sections, couldn't feel their abs or had difficulty engaging them and suffered back, hip, and leg pain due to this. My connection to my abs was my livelihood. I made the last push work. She came out. I was a mother! But the baby made no noise. The white-haired pediatrician whisked her away. Who cut the umbilical cord? It was not the baby's father. The cord, like in 25 to 40 percent of births, had been wrapped around her neck like a tether, pulling her back up the birth canal with every contraction, with every push.
Suddenly, her little cry pierced the tense room, followed by cheers and tears. I was a mom! My baby girl was healthy; she was breathing. She was beautiful. I know I am partial, but she was the most beautiful baby I had ever seen, especially considering she had a suction cup was attached to her head to pull her out. She looked elfin with long elegant fingers and eyes so alert she seemed to be taking inventory of the world.
My labor did not go as planned. But no matter, I had a baby — a healthy, beautiful, sweet, cuddly bundle. I was a mom! There were moments when I would wonder how my labor could have gone differently. I questioned decisions we had made in the process. I would start down the road of blaming myself and thinking I did not have a good birth. But Linda's words would come and soothe me. They would help stop the madness. I labored for a day, but I would be a mom for the rest of my life.