I’ve been meaning for three months to write out the birth story of little Agnes, but somehow not gotten down to the job before now. I had three reasons for waiting this long. 1.) Most obvious reason: I have lately had an infant in my house. 2.) I realized that in order to write Agnes’ I’d have to also write out Norah’s, which I never did. 3.) There are three ways you can tell a birth story—funny, sentimental, or technical, and I didn’t know which way to go with it.
In the end, a few folks asked me whether I was planning to do these, and their inquiries made up my mind. So I’m doing them, but with some reluctance.
Because here’s what I think about birth stories: I’m not a fan of placing too much importance on them. Like a wedding day, it makes me uncomfortable to hear people say that the day their child was born was best day of their lives. The days that my girls were born were memorable, beautiful, hard, and unalterably life changing; the day I married my husband was all of those things as well. But none of these days were ‘the best day of my life’. I don’t want to put that kind of pressure on any particular day. That kind of pressure is usually aesthetically driven anyway; it belongs to the internet world of Pinterest and Instagram, not to the real world of experiences and decisions that change us over time.
I just feel the need to lead with these caveats, because I just don’t want to be misleading to some poor pregnant lady out there, who is googling “successful vbac story” to pass another nervous afternoon.
Not that I ever did that.
For the men out there, you may be asking yourself, “But why? Why write about this?” Well, you can just move along. This is something women in their childbearing years tend to want to talk about. I can’t tell you how many unsolicited birth stories from women—at work, school, church, the library, the street, and Walmart—I have been privileged to hear.
We’re just talking shop.
I was confident and relaxed about Norah’s birth. The pregnancy had gone so well, and I was young and relatively healthy. Plus, I’d been told for a lifetime that I had “childbearing hips.”
I was planning to have a natural birth at Vanderbilt Medical Center, but trying to hold the ‘natural’ part loosely. After all, I’d never experienced what was going to happen to me, and I didn’t want to be setting myself up for failure.
What I knew, absolutely knew, was that I emphatically didn’t want to have a c-section.
Labor with Norah started in the wee hours. I was eleven days overdue. Contractions got longer and closer together all day, without becoming very uncomfortable until my water broke in the early afternoon. I was at my sister’s house, around the corner from the hospital, when the water broke; I was watching The Office. It was the episode when Dwight is using excerpts of speeches from famous dictators to address a bunch of salesmen at a convention.
I was at the hospital by 2 p.m., and this is when labor began to get hard.
Here’s the thing about the word “hard.” It means so many different things—something different almost every time it is used. I could say, “Labor was hard when I realized that I was in the worst pain of my life, and it had been regularly hitting me at three-minute increments for five hours.” But I could also say, “It was hard when I was in labor for three more hours and I began to vomit, and I asked for my mother and she came in and concluded that I was in transition.” Or I could say, “It was hard when I had been through all of the above and then they checked me and I was only at five centimeters, and this made me believe that I was only halfway there, and I cried like a child.”
But another woman could use the word too; she could say something like, “It was hard, when I realized that there wasn’t enough water to last my family through the rest of the week and the well was dry, so I had to strap the baby onto my back and carry the water jug over to the next village, twenty miles one way.” And that, obviously, would be another kind of hard. But despite the many and various meanings of the word, I’m going to have to use it here.
It was hard. So at that point, at about ten p.m., I asked for an epidural. They gave me one and I was greatly relieved, though a little bit ashamed. Ashamed was not a reasonable way to feel, but that is how I felt. I’ve known a lot of women who gave birth naturally, and I wanted to know what it was like.
Then, the entire night passed as my dilation slowly progressed. My husband and I slept. In the late morning of the next day, they told me that it was time to push. Gamely, serenely, I began to do so. They had to tell me when to do it, to try to help me time my pushes with the contractions. I did this, without feeling any loss of energy or spirits, for four hours.
I couldn’t move any part of my body below the ribcage. I didn’t know what kind of effort or sensation I was shooting for, but felt totally comfortable as these four hours ticked by.
It was then that they brought in the surgeon to do a quick analysis of the situation, and it was truly not until then that I realized I might not be able to push her out at all.
The c-section thing was pretty much the only delivery preference that I was passionate about: I really really didn’t want one. Grateful as I am to live in a time and place where c-sections are an option, the first time I really clung to my husband in fear was when I was told that the c-section was the only option left. They wanted to try forceps, but they wanted to try forceps on the operating table.
I began to clamor for ideas when they said that. I asked the nurse if they could maybe just ease back on the epidural now so that I could feel what was happening and use my useless and floppy legs, and other important muscles. She said that my pushing had apparently been effective because baby had been progressing but then inching backwards again, over and over without progress. Also, she said, it would be cruel to hit a person with the full force of end-stage labor pain when they’d been feeling nothing; it would be inhumane. I didn’t know what to say to that.
This is one of the clearest memories I have of the entire labor: the conversation between my husband and I when the room cleared of all family and medical personnel so that we could discuss our options. I cried; I said that I didn’t want to be a statistic. He comforted me and said that this was a small price to pay to meet our baby. We wouldn’t have come here if we didn’t trust this medical team, he said.
I acquiesced, but truly, this was the first time I was really gripped by fear.
It was pure disappointment and trepidation and shame, tempering all of my maternal excitement, as they wheeled me into the operating room.
The team was fantastic and quick. I had no rational fears for either myself or the baby. Still, I shook visibly—my hands were vibrating like fish fighting for air next to my head as they strapped me down. (The drugs often cause shaking, but the shaking can sometimes retroactively generate more fear: usually, you shake when you’re afraid.)
The bright lights and ceiling tiles are branded into my memory, along with the sensation of having my body tugged with the full strength of two nurses to the right and the left, the sensation of instant emptiness as my stomach cavity was relieved of its then-largest organ, which was relieved of a screaming infant and then returned to its former resting place.
My husband was sitting near my head, reciting scripture to me in my weak and cowardly state. And by weak and cowardly, I mean that I groaned and cried during the operation without any feeling of control over myself. When Norah was lifted up into the air an instant after they pulled her out, and a plastic window was opened in the curtain at my waist, allowing us our first glimpse, we cried and clung. It was every bit as sweet a meeting as any you could hope for in a birthing pool.
Justin was holding her a few moments later, and I was touching her with my shaking hands. I couldn’t have been less aware that they were stitching me closed during these first moments of seeing and touching her.
Norah was placed onto my chest in another room just a few minutes after that, and she learned to nurse instantly. Love had a new name. She was everything in the world, and I was hers and she was mine; seven pounds and eleven ounces of human flesh, groping for her mother.
I never had trouble connecting with this child, as some women say they struggle to do after a c-section. If anything, it took me a few weeks to emotionally connect to my second child, and never to the same pitch of obsession. Like a first crush, something irretrievable lives in those first few months with Norah. But this is part of the beauty of having more than one; you must take each new little pair of eyes as they come, and acquaint yourself with them on their own ground.