It was around 4 PM when they started, the achy pains that swept across my abdomen, down my thighs and around to my lower back.
I am not someone who welcomes pain. I don’t push my body to do CrossFit or regularly run long distances. In high school, I was on the cross-country team but was notorious for starting out really fast then getting winded and pained halfway through the race. But, with every 30 second contraction, I found myself smiling. There was ample time in between to send a few text messages (I am having some contractions, mom!), to throw my toothbrush into the bag I had packed for the birth center. After so many days of anxious waiting, I hardly dared to let myself believe this was finally it.
If you’ve never been in labor, imagine that you are running hill intervals. You start at a slow jog, then kick up the intensity as you sprint up the hill – your legs and abdomen cramping underneath you, your breath shallow – until, at last, you crest the top, and plod down the hill to the other side. Now picture yourself doing those intervals once every 10 minutes for a few hours, then every 7 minutes for a couple more, and so on. Imagine that the hills get gradually higher and longer while your rest time in between gets shorter. Imagine not knowing if you have one more hour of hill intervals or 10 more hours until you can finally stop. No, wait. Not stop. Until you can PUSH A HUMAN out of a very small hole in your body. It’s crazy.
When the contractions started, Josh ran out to get pizza while I puttered around at home. I remember thinking: I better get some calories in now, I might have another 54 hours (the length of my first labor) ahead of me. When he got back, we ate pizza right out of the box, grinning like fools, daring to hope we would have our baby soon.
A few days earlier, we brought home a $10 live Christmas tree from Menards. It was lopsided and spray-painted green. We propped it up in the corner of our kitchen, though it still crashed over onto the kitchen table a few times. As the hours of early labor went on into the evening, I laid down on the couch with the overhead lights off, staring at the crooked strand of twinkly lights on our tree. It was calming, watching the soft glow. Josh lit candles. The contractions were becoming more intense, but there was plenty of time to recover in between.
But they kept coming and, at around 9 PM, we called Melanie. She said she would come over in an hour.
Labor. Looking back now, it’s hard for me to really remember it. I know that it got more painful, that I needed Josh and Melanie to rub my legs and lower back during contractions. I took a bath. I tried to rest by lying on the couch upstairs. I sat on the birthing ball; Melanie gave me a foot massage.
The contractions hurt, they did. But they weren’t getting any closer together, still just 5 to 7 minutes apart. Because my first labor was so painfully long, I began to anticipate hours and hours ahead. I was anxious and tired. At 2 AM, Melanie suggested that we go to the birth center. “Maybe,” she said, “once you’re in the place where you know you will give birth, your labor will pick up.”
We piled into our car and drove the 10 minutes to the birth center. It was 2:30 AM, so there were hardly any cars on the road. The 35-W bridge took us over the Mississippi river; I remember looking out over to the historic Stone Arch Bridge, the old flour mill ruins cast in an orange haze from the street lights. I had one, maybe two, contractions in the car. Melanie leaned over the seat to help massage my legs while I concentrated on my breathing.
Josh drove into the alley behind the birth center. Martha, one of the midwives, was waiting for us at the back door, her arms wrapped around herself for warmth. It was a clear, cold, snow-muffled December night. There was no one else at the birth center.
We entered the birthing suite: a large room with a king-sized bed, a couch, a rocking chair, and a giant water-birth tub. I had decided earlier not to have my cervix checked to see how dilated I was during labor; I was afraid that if I wasn’t making much progress I would be easily discouraged. (Women who have vaginal births must dilate to 10 centimeters before they can push the baby down and out. In my first birth, I was stuck at 6 centimeters for 9 hours.)
I got into the birthing tub for a while, then moved into the shower. Melanie and Josh took turns feeding me small bites of cheese, frozen blueberries, spoonfuls of yogurt. I sat on a stool in the shower for what felt like hours. Melanie encouraged me to relax my face and shoulders, to groan downward — deep, low, out. Still, I was getting tired. My contractions were about a minute long and only 5 minutes apart.
I was sitting in the shower, naked, exhausted. I turned to Melanie and said, “I can’t do this anymore. I just want it to stop, it’s not working. Just take me to the hospital now.”
Melanie looked at me closely, her brown eyes locking with mine. “I know,” she said, carefully. “It’s really fucking hard. It fucking hurts. But you just need to get through the next contraction.”
I closed my eyes as I felt another contraction slowly coming on, I motioned to Melanie to rub my legs, I breathed down and low and deep.
I got back into the birthing tub; the water felt wonderful on my tired body. At one point I turned to Melanie, “My contractions don’t hurt as much in here. Maybe they’re not working?”
She encouraged me that it was okay if they were less painful, that I was doing great, that my contractions were doing the job they were supposed to do. All I needed to do was keep eating, keep resting in between contractions. I gradually started feeling stronger, fortified by the small bites of food and small sips of coconut water and gatorade that Josh and Melanie kept offering me.
The hours blur together now in my memory. I was in a trance-like state, my mind entirely present to the moment. I didn’t make eye contact with anyone; I felt entirely folded inward. We had sounds of ocean waves playing on our ipod; crash, crash, crash.
After a particularly hard contraction, I vomited all over the bed. It was one of the most encouraging moments of my entire labor. Finally, I thought, I must be really working hard. I must be getting closer. I was desperate for any sign that my labor was productive.
Martha, the midwife, had mostly left us to ourselves. (“You guys are such a great team!”) But after we had been at the birth center for 4 hours, she asked if she could check my cervix to see how things were going. She promised not to tell me how dilated I was. I agreed, and after the exam, she couldn’t stop herself from smiling widely.
“Stina,” she said. “You are so close. Your bag of waters is bulging, it should break during your next few contractions. After that happens, you can get back in the birth tub. You will be pushing this baby out soon.”
I didn’t really believe her at first. I was still having contractions at only 5 minutes apart, and I had it fixed in my mind that they needed to be coming every 1 or 2 minutes before I was fully dilated. But then I had a super painful contraction, one that wretched down my back, and I was forced back in the animal present of breathing down, low, out. After a few more like that, I felt a popping, then a rush of fluid. My water had broken.
Josh and Melanie helped me get up, supporting my arms as I climbed into the birth tub. After a few more contractions, there was a pause in my labor. Martha had alerted the labor nurse and midwife intern that we were close to pushing, so two more women joined us in the room wearing scrubs and long gloves.
Suddenly, I had an overwhelming urge to push. And by overwhelming, I mean absolutely uncontrollable. I would feel the beginnings of a contraction, then a crazy powerful rush of energy down, down, down. Josh climbed into the tub with me, he straddled my back and supported me as I pushed.
I distinctly remember thinking, in between pushes, I am having a baby right now. I am pushing a live human out of my body.
In the same pattern as before, I would push for a minute, then rest for 4 or 5 more.
“I can see the head! Reach down, you can feel it.”
I pushed again and felt a huge burning move downward, and then back upwards inside. With each push, I bellowed a loud, terrifying yell. I couldn’t have stopped it if I wanted to.
“That’s good, just like that.”
A few pushes later, and my son’s head was born into the water. I waited like that for a few minutes: my son’s head outside and under the water, the rest of his body still inside. He kept moving his head back and forth; apparently, babies have the instinct to move their heads to help navigate their way through the birth canal. It was the strangest sensation of my life.
One more giant push, and he was out. Born into water. Dark purple and mewling and slippery on my chest. I held his sweet head against my collarbone, barely seeing more than his sticky hair; Josh held me from behind, reaching around my body to touch his head.
My son, he was here, born at 8:43 AM. I had just finished the longest, hardest endurance race of my life.
This is Part Two of my birth story. Click here for Part One.