An introductory note: This story has been a long time coming. We weren’t writing here when Leigh was born five and a half years ago. But even when Ira was born and we’d been writing here for some time, we stopped short of a full birth story. This blog is quite public, and the experiences felt highly personal and private to our family, like they would lose too much power in the sharing. That said, I confess that I absolutely love everyone else’s birth stories. I eat them up in every last detail, and think all of you owe me a complete blow-by-blow!
When we placed our hasty call for NGP birth stories, I was finally inspired, convinced that I had an obligation to tell the story of my experience of Leigh’s birth. But when I sat down to write I struggled to find my voice. I could write what I had seen happen for Gail, but I felt an intense drive to discredit what I experienced myself, to take care emphasize that it was really nothing, it couldn’t have been all that arduous, because for goodness sake, I wasn’t birthing a baby. I felt a constant pull to minimize how hard it was, to emphasize Gail’s trials and successes, to disappear and take on the role of reporter, not participant.
But after reading N’s story of Cricket’s birth, something clicked. I found a focus on the thoughts that filled my head, my raw physical state, the intense emotions and obligations that I felt throughout Leigh’s birth. This story still feels hard to put out so publicly. Leigh’s birth was long. It was really hard. Ultimately everything was just fine and nothing really bad happened, but it didn’t feel that way when I was living through it. I fear that if I’m honest about the parts that felt grueling, hopeless, or tragic, it will only sound like whining. I fear that you will all be thinking just what it seems I’ve been thinking about my place in Leigh’s birth for years, that what was hard or exhilarating or meaningful for me was unimportant next to the real work and meaning of birth, that this isn’t a story worth telling. That I still feel these things after all these years reminds me that in truth, this is a story that needs to be told. We have several other NGP birth stories from those who commented and contacted us (please continue to do so! firsttimesecondtime at gmail), and we are collecting these, but first, I’d like to make my own contribution:
Gail was 8 days overdue when contractions started at acupuncture on a Friday afternoon. We tried not to get our hopes up, but as the evening progressed they got more regular. Maybe it really was time. We tried to ignore them. We walked to the grocery store. We drank a beer each. We went to bed to try and sleep but didn’t.
I felt excited, terrified, relieved, and confident. I knew we could do this.
Gail was up early with contractions on Saturday morning. They were coming somewhat irregularly, but on average every couple minutes. They were getting stronger, and starting to really hurt. She was retreating to her own world. Our (home-birth) midwife was on her way, and we talked to her off and on through the morning, but it seemed like she was taking forever. I couldn’t get much feedback from Gail on what was and wasn’t helping and felt like I was just guessing. I knew I was supposed to keep her hydrated, so I plied her with water and recharge. I was starting to realize that the “techniques” we learned in our “natural childbirth” class were utter bullshit.
Our midwife got there mid-day. I felt so relieved that someone else was in charge. She checked Gail, who was now officially in active labor. At that first check, I was amazed that a cervix check could hurt more than a contraction, and hoped we wouldn’t have to do that again for a good long while.
Gail spent a lot of time in the shower. I stayed with her — repeatedly offering her pineapple or applesauce. She would eat a bite of applesauce every now and then, but at some point hated the pineapple with a passion. The bathroom got really hot. I had an impulse to get into the shower and hold her, but (a) there wasn’t room and (b) it didn’t seem like she wanted me to. I asked later, and indeed, I had gotten that one right, she had not wanted me in there. Gail’s contractions were intense, more time spent contracting than not. I remember wishing she could get one of those breaks they talked about in birth class. Five minutes apart would have been awesome.
I forced myself to eat some soup and to drink some juice, but I didn’t want to be away from Gail, and I didn’t want to eat near her since it bothered her.
My most visceral and positive memory of Leigh’s birth is sound. Starting sometime on Saturday morning Gail began to sing through contractions. She sang these gut-wrenching songs from Jewish liturgy. She would start to sing as a contraction came on. Her voice would get more intense, and at the peak, the sound was beautiful and haunting.
The one way I felt like I could really connect with Gail while she was in labor was to sing with her, many of the same songs we’d been singing to the baby for months. We sang these songs over and over, sometimes harmonizing, sometimes not. I walked her around the house, me walking backwards holding her arms, her shuffling forward, singing our baby into our family together.
The second midwife came sometime later (afternoon? evening? I don’t know, but I think it was still light). Both midwives assured me things were moving along. We all thought we’d have a baby soon. Gail’s labor got more and more intense. She started to throw up between contractions. Sometime after dark our midwife set up the birth supplies in the bedroom and I changed the sheets on the bed.
We all thought this was happening.
Only then it didn’t happen.
The midwife did a check, and Gail wasn’t ready. She labored on. We all waited. We tried to get Gail to rest, to labor lying down on the bed, to close her eyes and relax between contractions, but she had a lot of pain between contractions. She never really got a break. We tried all different positions to reduce her pain. I reminded her over and over to relax her shoulders. The midwives tried to trade off getting some rest in our spare room. I tried to rest some while I lay with Gail on the bed. There was not much rest to be had.
Gail had been stalled, nearly completely dilated for hours on end, and we decided it was time to break her waters. Her contractions got much more painful and much more intense, which I hadn’t known was possible.
Gail stopped singing.
The midwife did a cervix check, and then sat, staring at a model doll’s head, fitting it through a model pelvis, looking like she was solving a puzzle.
I sat with the second midwife at our kitchen table in the very early morning; during one of the few times I left Gail’s side. The midwife had encouraged me to take a break, to eat, to do anything I found relaxing. I warmed up a bowl of soup (it was green gumbo. I have never been able to eat green gumbo again since that night). I got out my knitting — a small gray toy wool elephant. I tried to eat. I asked the midwife if everything was going to be OK and she told me that it would, that birth is hardest in the early morning, before dawn. She told me about her first birth, which was long at the end like this one. She said we were doing so well. That conversation, those few minutes with that midwife, who had such a calm and solid presence, was one of very few times during the entire labor where I felt deeply cared for and supported. We were supported as a family, and in particular Gail was supported, but especially once things got hard overnight, I spent much of labor feeling very alone.
The baby was asynclitic. The head was tipped such that it was not pressing evenly against the cervix. Gail had been stuck at about 9 cm, but unevenly dilated, overnight. Our midwife gently suggested it might be time to think about going to the hospital. The baby was doing great, but Gail’s labor was slowing down. She was utterly exhausted. It might be that an epidural and some sleep were what we needed for this baby to come. She said we didn’t need to go yet, but soon it might be time.
With mention of the hospital, a new wave of fears came flooding over me. If we went to the hospital were we walking straight into surgery? The whole reason Gail wanted a home birth was to avoid a c-section. The idea of surgery really freaked her out (I had some other reasons of my own). She’d been in active labor for so long, would they really let her labor longer? I willed our baby to rotate. I willed Gail to relax.
But there was nothing I could do. I could barely even remember why we were doing this. The idea of a baby, an actual child, was so far away.
In our last ditch attempt to stay home, I got Gail dressed in the early morning light. We went outside and she walked, with one foot on and one foot off the curb, stomping up and down our quiet city street. This was our last possible trick to get the baby to rotate. It didn’t work. Gail was getting less dilated. She was exhausted. It was time to go.
Partially on our midwife’s advice, we had not packed a hospital bag. What that now meant, was that after not sleeping for two nights under extremely high stress, I had 10 minutes to pack all the stuff that everyone else mulls over for months. I did a fantastically crappy job. I frantically ran around the house, dumping all kinds of stuff we didn’t need into canvas tote bags, only to realize when we got to the hospital that I had almost none of the things we actually needed.
On Gail’s last trip to the bathroom before we went out the door, we found the baby had passed light meconium. This confirmed our decision that it was time for medical help. The second midwife bid us goodbye. She said we were doing amazing, that we just needed to keep our good attitude at the hospital. I was sad she was not going with us. I think I had imprinted on her during that early morning conversation. We loaded into our first midwife’s car for the few-block drive to our back-up hospital and were on our way.
[Continued in Part II]