click here to read BIRTH STORIES, PART 1: NORAH
Even in the haze of love-drunkenness that I experienced for Norah’s entire infancy, I was afraid to think or talk much about the labor process. I knew that there were too many voices in my mind, too many conflicting opinions about what had happened and what should have happened.
I only knew that I was terrified of getting pregnant again. I didn’t talk much about that, but I was rigorously careful with my husband during that first year.
My husband, when we did talk about it, spoke reason to me. I kept calling the c-section a worst possible outcome— “but that, Tilly,” he said, “that was very far from a worst outcome. You are fine; she is fine. Do you see that?” I saw that. I prayed for help with my mind and heart, not to be afraid. I was blessed to read some helpful Christian authors online, who talked specifically about c-sections and natural births with a measured hand.
Then I got pregnant again, rather unexpectedly. It was sooner than we’d thought—we’d tried for almost a year to get pregnant with our Norah, but our Agnes was ready for us before we had time to ask for her. One morning, about a month after Norah turned one, I carried a pregnancy test into the room where my husband was doing his devotions and asked, “Does this look positive to you?”
It did look positive to him.
So we were off to the races again.
This pregnancy felt harder to me; I think it was because of chasing down a little girl. I’d never felt desperate for rest during pregnancy #1, but this time around, I had a panicky feeling on several occasions that there was simply no way to survive this thing while also making regular trips to the local park.
I felt heavier, sooner. More stretched, more fatigued. More Braxton Hicks—way more. My diet was better this time around. A determination was building in me, and had been ever since I brought Norah home. This time, if we do this again, I must know that I have done everything in my power to successfully push out this baby.
There will be rest, good food, and good exercise. There will be training. There will be a doula (this was a later decision and one of the best I ever stumbled upon). There will be no misery or despair if the Lord sends things another way—but if I have given everything the old college try, I’ll be able to rest in that and manage my disappointment better.
I briefly, at the beginning of the pregnancy, tried to convince my husband to try a home birth. He understandably balked; I was a VBAC case, living an hour from a major hospital, who had been told by the surgeon that I possessed an unusually small pelvic inlet and that repeat c-section was fairly likely.
So when I knew that I’d be back in the same hospital as last time, I focused my efforts on preparation, and hiring a doula.
I hired Vicki Woods, and you guys, I would recommend her to anyone. I’m convinced that in human (rather than spiritual) terms, she was the main reason I ended up with such a good outcome. I knew, this time around, that the nurse midwives at Vanderbilt are great, but not able to be in-the-room support during most of labor.
Vicki ended up being exactly the person I needed. I don’t think she missed a single contraction.
We also made the decision, the second time around, not to tell every person on both sides of the family and expect them to wait in a hospital for over a day while I labored. This time, we made it clear to everyone that there was no need to come over until the business was over; in the end, this helped to give the labor an intimate and relaxed quality that just wouldn’t have been possible if I was trying to multitask, greeting people between breathing exercises.
Another random thing that I’ll mention, that you can take with plenty of grains of salt: I started eating 3-4 large medjoul dates a day in the last six weeks before due date, because of this article. And I started drinking several cups of red raspberry leaf tea a day in the last two months of pregnancy, because of these articles (here and here) and advice from the Vanderbilt team. The tea is supposed to tone the uterus and prepare it for effective contractions, and the dates were shown to reduce labor time by about half in one (admittedly very small) study.
I really hate giving random advice like that online because it’s just so hokey sounding, but hey, I did it, and hey, I had a great labor, so what can you say?
It was certainly a harder pregnancy the second time around. I had lots of aches and lots of Braxton Hicks. When more serious contractions started, a few days before real labor, it was very difficult to gauge how serious they were because I was so used to discomfort.
But one Saturday morning, I started having real, honest-to-goodness contractions. I went ahead to a Pampered Chef party that I’d been planning to go to; you have to pass the time somehow before you know if things are serious. The contractions never got closer together; all day I puttered around. That night my husband and I went out to dinner with friends; we sent Norah to spend the night at her grandparents’ just in case.
At church the next day, I had my contraction timer out during the sermon and clocked some as close as six minutes apart. But these went away completely in the middle part of the day.
At home that afternoon, watching a little show with my daughter, the contractions returned, and I started timing them again—they began to steady out at ten minutes apart. Nine minutes. Eight minutes. Soon I tracked a few that were seven minutes apart, and stronger. I decided to tell Justin. I took a bath to see if they’d subside.
They only got stronger. We packed Norah up, in her jammies and ready for bed, and sent her to grandmother’s house at about seven. Before she left, I suddenly realized that I hadn’t taken any pictures with her while pregnant—so we rushed into the living room and took a few. I hugged her and fought tears; she cheerfully put on her coat and little backpack.
We’d arranged to do some laboring at my sister’s house because she’s only a few minutes from the hospital. This is what we were trying to do last time when my water broke. This time, with bedtime coming on, she and her husband arranged to go to a friend’s house so that we could spend the night if things slowed again.
We arrived at about nine and put on The Office for old time’s sake. Contractions were getting longer and stronger but not terribly close together. I toasted a bagel and ate it between contractions. We called Vicki the doula and asked her to come on over. I took a bath.
When I got out, Vicki had arrived and my husband went to take a nap in preparation for a long night. (He didn’t sleep, and later confessed that what kept him awake was not the thought of me in labor, but thoughts about the sermon series he was preparing for.) Vicki started doing breathing exercises with me, and warmed up this wonderful heat pad thing that she had that ties around the belly.
I began to get a little fearful when the intensity picked up here. Some nausea was already hitting, and it seemed awfully early for that.
I guess it was midnight or so when I started to talk about going to the hospital. Vicki talked me through that decision—she knew I was determined to wait as long as possible. But despite the contractions not being quite four minutes apart, I was feeling the strength of them—I knew that things were getting serious. I was beginning to be worried about how to manage contractions in a vehicle, during transition from home to hospital.
After a little discussion, Vicki agreed that it was time to move, and we got Justin up. I brought the heating pad, and a container for if I got sick in the car. I remember one contraction in the yard, holding onto the roof of the car before getting inside. I remember telling Justin, as we drove through deserted city streets for exactly nine minutes to the ER entrance, that these had gotten as hard as when I was at a five in the last labor—right before begging for the epidural.
But this time, I was so far from begging for an epidural. I’d gotten it in my head—almost two years earlier—that if I could just get to the pushing stage without an epidural, I’d be home free. If I could just feel what I was doing while I pushed, surely the effort would be more effective. Surely I could walk away from that experience, even if it ended in another c-section, knowing that I’d done everything I could.
And I was just so much more prepared and determined. I had a slideshow of family photos set up in the room, and glanced over at it during the later stages. It was just a little surge of incentive, to see my sweet older daughter smiling and to remember that there was a sweet younger daughter coming. I’d also picked some bible verses and printed them, and Justin put them in front of me at crucial times between contractions.
I had a rhythm going—something I never knew about last time. I read about this in a very helpful book recommended by Vicki—The Birth Partner, by Penny Simkin. It was a strange technique that developed as the labor went on: I was using the word “ooookay,” spoken very low and gutterally, to ride out each contraction. And it just worked for me. A few times, I spoke to myself about what was happening—“Mooove down, baby, move on down,” I said once or twice. (I know this is weird stuff but for some reason, it made sense at the time.)
I prayed. I’d never prayed much during the last labor, but this time I simply prayed at moments when I felt like I was losing control. I asked simple things: Lord, please make this next contraction just a little easier than the last one. After that, they can be harder again, but I need one easier one. And I would be given just that grace or rest that I asked for.
Vicki was so helpful too because there was something about her soothing, and cheerleading, that made me feel like every wave of pain was witnessed and somehow more effectual. She also had me change positions when I seemed discouraged—because there’s nothing like a change of scenery to brighten one’s mood.
Once, leaned up at the foot of the hospital bed, on a birthing ball, I looked up at my husband and said, “I feel terrible.” I was doing an impression of Han Solo when he’s been tortured by Darth Vader in Empire Strikes Back. Justin had a look of shock on his face—She’s making jokes? Now? (But apparently this is a thing with me—during Norah’s labor, at one point I looked at him and said, “You did this to me! You!” And then I laughed drunkenly and said, “I’ve always wanted to say that.” Just like in the movies.)
At every point that I was discouraged, I would bargain with myself about timing.
“I’ll ask them to check me,” I would think. “If I’m not at an eight, I’ll get an epidural.” Or I would say, “Just make it to four-thirty. If you make it to four-thirty, you’re almost there, because you’ll be able to push by five.” Every time I asked to be checked, and hoped for a certain number, I was dilated to that number. I don’t think this is a luxury I could expect again, but this time, it was the particular gift I was given. When I got to the hospital at 1 a.m., I was already at a six—farther than I’d made it without medication last time. Two hours later, at an eight. Thirty minutes later, a nine.
I’d felt the need to vomit on and off throughout. Several times, I asked for a bag, thinking that this was imminent. At 4 a.m., it finally happened. I vomited quite a bit, and this was actually the force that made my water break—really fantastic timing. (I’d also prayed several months in advance for my water to stay intact longer this time around… and it sure did.) After the vomit finally came, I looked up at my husband, the doula, and the nurse, and said, “Oh man, I feel great now.”
The ladies around me just couldn’t have been more supportive. “You’re a rock star,” the nurse-midwife kept saying. “It’s like she’s done this a million times before,” one of the nurses kept saying conspicuously to the others, within my hearing. These comments were super helpful; like toddlers, ladies in labor don’t need subtlety. They just need to be told they’re rock stars now and then.
Soon afterwards, with a little bit of wishful thinking, I told them all that I was “feeling pushy.” This is a strange line they’d given me when I asked them when we were supposed to know when I was going to push.
So I decided that I felt “pushy,” sure that this would be a process of relief, an oasis in the desert of work and pain. They told me to go and pee, and while I was in the bathroom I remember saying to the nurse, “What are we going to do? What are we going to do now?” Like it was some kind of group effort and we needed to map out our next move and get it on the calendar.
“We’ll help you,” she said. “You’ll know what to do.”
They checked me, said I was almost a ten, close enough that pushing would be permissible.
I leaned against the back of the bed, knees on the bed, and began to push with the next contraction. I think I got about two of those in before the thing I thought had already happened actually began to happen.
The urge to push hit.
I’ve been told by various sources that the Urge to Push is a force that will not be resisted. It is powerful, urgent, and designed to tell women for thousands of years what to do, even if they haven’t read What to Expect When You’re Expecting.
Man oh man, my sources were NOT KIDDING.
Throughout the labor, I was pretty well under control. My husband told me later that it was hard to gauge what kind of pain I was in because I was so methodical in my vocalizations, so still and quiet. Just that same “Oooookay. OoooooooKAY.”
But when the Urge hit, I began to scream like a wild woman; I was completely outside of the realm of control. It was like a freight train. Apparently, the needle in my arm became jostled out of my arm at this point, and there was a moment when one nurse held this arm still in order to give the other nurse the opportunity to get it back in. I was unaware of any of this happening.
Between contractions, they got me moved around to a seated position on the bed, and here’s where I discovered that those beds are actually perfect for giving birth to a baby; the front part in front of where you sit actually sinks down and out of the way, so you end up setting on a sort of edge, even though you’re in the middle of the bed.
I was coached well at this point. I’ll make an aesthetic decision not to get more graphic here; all I can say is that they helped me to direct all that screaming energy in the right way, and the Ring of Fire, like the Urge to Push, is as real as a hammer. When I compare the two experiences of pushing, I can’t even put them in the same universe.
Pushing without sensation was like bringing a pointer finger to a cow tipping and trying to just sort of poke him onto his side. Pushing with the full aid of the Urge, with all my muscles on deck, was like tipping a cow with a bulldozer. It felt inevitable. She was out in twenty minutes.
I remember two things my husband did during this time. Once, he suddenly ran to a corner of the room, after seeing something that, I believe, shocked him. But soon after this, he was back next to the nurse, and it was the expressions on his face, as he watched his baby appear, that helped me comprehend what was happening. Our VBAC was about to be successful. Our baby was about to make her entrance. Once the head was out, the nurses told me what Justin’s face had already communicated: it was over. Seconds later, they put her in my arms, and my crying husband and my crying self and my crying baby were embracing.
Extra notes: I wanted to just get back on here and clarify a few things about these birth stories. 1) It’s important to me that these not be postured as a “terrible hospital story” followed by “success story.” My point in writing these is not anything like “Do this, and you too can have a successful birth… because what matters most is that you get what you want in your delivery!” The fact of the matter is, every birth is different, and these things are simply not under the control of us humans. Trusting God in labor is just as vital as trusting him in every other challenge that we encounter. 2) Remember, the fact of the matter is, first labors are always longer. And longer = harder. That’s just the way it is. I recognize that the biggest difference between one and two was that I didn’t have to do it as long.