I understand that this post is not for everyone. Sorry to those of you who find this sort of thing a big, fat TMI. I give you my blessing to abstain from reading. Not that you need it.
For the rest of you, friends, allow me to explain why I would want to share my second labor with you when my first was never disclosed. In short, the first labor was so horrendously discouraging that I didn’t want to relive it or discourage any soon-to-be mamas. Bringing Little Girl into the world was a 47-hour process (I mean, at that point why not add one more hour to make it a round 2-day labor?). Delivering with a midwife, I had high hopes of having a non-medicated labor, but as the hours passed and my body did not progress, that goal fizzled into what felt like a failure. What is so incredible about labor is not just the acute-level of pain you experience, but the unceasing nature of it. You breathe a relief between contractions that is shadowed by the inevitability of the next one, like waves pummeling you into the undertow. Labor requires not a high pain tolerance, but a stamina to get hit again and again– a focus on what is to come, a stubborn optimism.
After Little Girl was born (and what a joy it was to meet her), I felt ashamed of my labor. I felt like my tapping out and requesting the epidural was a sign of weakness: I just couldn’t handle the pain. I felt like my body had abandoned me when I needed it most, failing to progress and bring my baby into the world without the help of pitocin. I felt disillusioned. I would have never applied the same feelings to anyone else who chose to go the less painful route. It was that I had decided I was going to go without and then when I became fatigued in that undertow, I drowned. I had to be rescued. And I hated that.
I think those feelings contributed to the postpartum depression I struggled through for several months after the birth. When we became pregnant again, I found myself having to confront my thoughts on how our first labor went. Would I dare set the bar so high as I did the first time? For the first trimester and much of the second, I pushed memories of labor aside. As the due date drew nearer, though, I realized how terrified I was. I was scared of the pain, but I was more scared of failing. Even if I told myself I was ok with having an epidural, I really wanted to try again to go without. Mr. P was crucial here. This time around, he assured me of his feelings: that he would try to help me accomplish whatever goal I set, but that all he wanted was a healthy baby and mama.
It’s funny how fear kept me from wanting to set any kind of goal for labor. How ironic when fear of failure immobilizes you completely like that. So in spite of my nerves, I moved forward and made a plan: I would aim to have baby #2 naturally. I set time goals, where if I had not progressed to a certain point by a certain time, I allowed myself to abandon ship and go for the meds. I went to a natural birthing class. I researched relaxation techniques and watched birthing videos on my own (which was kind of terrifying). At the suggestion of my marathoner husband, I even tried visualizing each stage of labor. I can’t say I felt prepared, but I knew I had prepared and that I had a plan. That helped me quell the anxiety that cropped up as labor drew nearer.
The due date came and went (ask for crazy and I will show you a preggo past her due date… side note: never ever ever text a pregnant woman asking if she’s in labor yet). The next night I woke up to my water breaking. Mild contractions followed as I called the doctor and got my bag ready (thank you friends who saved the day by coming over to watch Little Girl during this time). Once we got to the hospital, I went straight for the birthing ball. I wanted to walk around since the pain was so manageable at that point, but since my water broke, walking was a no-go (doctor’s orders). I played relaxing music and spent several hours just moving on the ball, but having almost no sleep prior to labor, I grew tired quickly. I finally decided to get some rest around 3am and laid down. Strangely enough, the contractions started picking up as I rested. After several hours, the nurse announced I had not progressed since starting labor. Frustrated and starting to tire of the pain, I began to resign myself to the fact that this might be just like last time.
Demotivated, I pushed ahead on the notion that it was just too soon to quit. Just a few hours later, though, the waves of pain began to hit with greater intensity and frequency and I thought, “if this is getting me nowhere, I’m done” (in hindsight, I’m pretty sure this is where active labor began, about 10 hours in). I called the nurse and asked her to check my progress. When she announced “5 centimeters,” you’d think I would have been ready to jump up and down for joy. Instead I realized that I had to keep going, and for that I was annoyed.
At this point we moved to the tub. Now before you guys go and judge me as some kind of freaky California hippie, allow me to explain the birthing tub. When I first heard that women delivered their babies in tubs, I thought it was the dumbest trend and why would a land creature like a human want to do something as unnatural as deliver in water. Many Southerners shared my thoughts on the matter. Years later when Mr. P and I moved to California, I found that many of my friends had their babies this way. Naturally, I asked them why. The answer: pain management. The warm water helps relax muscles, dull the pain of contractions, and lighten the weight of the baby. So I figured I would give it a go.
To all the mamas who have gone on walks while in active labor: power to you. Probably my least favorite thing ever. After the hour-long (false, it was 5 minutes or so) walk to the room with the tub, I sat in the water to find immediate relief. Night and day difference in my perception of pain. It was at this point that I felt like I had my sanity back and, naturally, asked Mr. P to play Ellie Goulding’s, “My Blood” (I dunno, it felt all hardcore and beautiful and everything that labor is).
Not every hospital is the same on this, but where I went, they don’t allow you to deliver in the water. This means that when you reach 8 cm, you have to get out of the tub. What is hilarious about this fact is that 8 cms is when you are in the stage of labor called “transition.” It means your body is getting ready to deliver. It also means that you go from being a rational human being in lots of pain to a very, very irrational human being in lots and lots of pain. All that to say, I went from 5 to 7 cm in the tub. The nurse made me get out to check my progress. She was hesitant to let me return to the water since I would have to get out after progressing just one more centimeter; although, she did finally allow it so long as I told her if I felt the urge to push. Being in transition (remember, irrational), I decided that, in fact, I would not tell her if I felt the urge to push and that I would deliver in the tub, even though it was against the rules. Yes. This is what desperation looks like.
This phase of labor was by far the most difficult. The idea of enduring two more centimeters was too much. Even making it through one more was unfathomable. Up until this point, I handled each contraction by focusing on relaxing my muscles and breathing. As labor progressed, that breathing turned to panting. By 8 cms that panting turned to crying out. Even so, it was extremely helpful to have something to focus on accomplishing during each contraction (breathe, relax, breathe, relax). This was the depth of my endurance at this point: one contraction at a time.
Eventually even the tub could not ease the exhausted pain of the contractions. Sweat drenched my face and hair and I found myself believing that I had reached the depth of pain my body could understand. Resigned, I obeyed the nurse and made my way out of the tub. I have a poor sense of how much time passed at this point. I know it was not too long (but felt like an eternity) until the urge to push overcame me. The nurse assured me that I was only 9 cms and had to resist said urge, as pushing too early could tear my cervix (um no thank you). After delivering Little Girl (with an epidural), I would have told you that the urge to push is very similar to a bowel movement, but as I got to experience it without the lens of medical pain management, I would compare it more with the “urge” to vomit. That’s about how much control I had. By the time the doctor came and announced I was fully dilated, what little resistance I had maintained was released. A scream erupted from me, a terrifying surprise, as I began to deliver the baby. While this phase of labor required the least mental stamina, it was certainly, by far, the most pain I had ever experienced. My mind went white with each contraction and when relief flooded me at the conclusion of delivery, I found myself almost confused to be handed a baby.
In the end, I found the experience to be the hardest, most painful thing I had ever done. And strangely enough I have found that after having done both natural and medicated deliveries, I have less of an opinion now of how it “should” be done or even what I want to do next time if we have more children. Even so, I am remarkably happy that I did it. What was so life changing about the experience of making it through the pain (when I could opt out at almost any moment) was learning, quite simply, that I could.
And then there is this beautiful little girl who we can’t get enough of. After a few minutes of holding her and remembering the joy that is the end of labor and the beginning of life, I looked at her in wonder and said, “you’ve just been born!”