After all of the unwanted interventions during my first hospital birth experience, I knew I wanted a different birth experience this time and a more supportive provider.
I finally settled on a group of nurse midwives who practiced under a doctor and could deliver babies in the hospital. Since I didn’t know I could get pregnant yet, I had no idea when my due date was. At my first prenatal appointment, the midwives confirmed by ultrasound that I was due in June… our little bambini (plural for ‘bambino’, which means ‘baby’ in Italian) would be 20 months apart!
I was so excited about my switch to the midwives. There were 12 of them in the practice, and all seemed to be naturally minded and supportive of unmedicated birth. I knew I was in the right place when they actually encouraged me to form a birth plan in advance so that all the midwives could read it before the birth.
Each prenatal appointment with the midwives was a learning experience for me as they encouraged questions and would actually take the time to answer them. Even though they were supportive of natural birth, I think I still threw in a few questions that caught them off guard such as:
Me: How many people do you allow in the delivery room?
Midwife: We usually do that on a case by case basis according to what the mom wants. How many people do you want to have?
Me: Well, at least my husband, my mom, his mom, his sister, possibly my friend who is in nursing school, and any of his brothers who might not have time to get out of the room before the baby comes.
Midwife: Let’s just talk about it when things get closer.
Me: Does the hospital have a birthing ball?
Midwife: No, but you are welcome to bring your own.
Me: Ok, Does the hospital have a squat bar?
Midwife, I think so, though no one has ever actually used it before.
Me: Does the hospital have a fitness center?
or (my favorite)
Midwife: Ok, so now that you are at 36 weeks, this is when we usually discuss birth control options for after the birth. (side note: I had made it very clear that we were not, did not, and would not be using any form of contraception, but this was a new midwife who apparently had missed the large handwritten note on my chart)
Midwife, confused: You will not be using any form of contraception?
Midwife: You know that breastfeeding is not an effective way to space pregnancy, right?
Me: I am aware that after six months postpartum fertility can return even if I am exclusively breastfeeding, yes.
Midwife (with the classic “light bulb goes on” look): Oh, so you are planning to get your tubes tied…
Me: Definitely not!
Midwife: Oh, so your husband is getting a vasectomy?
Me (angry at this point): NO!
Midwife (even more confused): You want to have more children?
At 20 weeks, the midwives wanted to do another ultrasound to check for abnormalities, which was common procedure in their practice. We decided to find out the sex of the baby since my MIL wanted to throw a baby shower and I thought it would be convenient to know what color clothes to ask for. On the one hand, I was hoping for another boy so that Bambino would have a brother close to his age, but I also really wanted a daughter. My husband, on the other hand, from a family of 5 boys, wanted another boy and jokingly said, “I only make boys.”
After what seemed like an eternity, the ultrasound confirmed, we were having a girl, our Bambina.
Unlike the first pregnancy, this pregnancy went by extremely fast because with an 18 month old running around, I didn’t have a lot of time to just sit and think about the baby. By six months in, I still hadn’t started researching natural birth, though I still had the same desire to have one. We attended a wedding in Baltimore, one of my husband’s friends, and the night before the wedding, we were talking to the Groom’s mother in the lobby of our hotel. She had nine children and had them all naturally. I talked to her for a while about wanting a natural birth and how I was preparing.
“I am so determined to do it naturally this time,” I said, “I will just grit my teeth and deal with the pain.” We talked more about my reasons for wanting a natural birth, including knowing the possible dangers of the medications and wanting to be fully aware of the birth of my child.
“That is where your difficulty is,” she said, “Birth is not a thing you can fight, and tension and fear will create the pain you are afraid of.”
What a novel concept! I had never though of birth in these terms before. To me, it was always an obstacle to be overcome, a challenge to bear. In that conversation, she talked with joy about her births, and about how although difficult, she enjoyed them. I had never even considered enjoying birth. Society had told me that birth was painful. Ever since my earliest memories of TV, birth was a horrible event that seized women by storm, bringing them to the ground, usually in public, and with immediate pain. According to TV, women in movies screamed, they cried, they leaked water all over the floors of department stores, but they certainly did not enjoy birth!
From this conditioning, I had always viewed birth as a chance for heroic display, the opportunity to prove that I was a stronger woman by fighting the pain and managing without medication. Groom’s mom explained to me that this outlook would cause me to be tense and to fight my body in labor, leading to pain that didn’t need to exist. She talked about relaxing and letting my body do its job, and about not being afraid of birth.
Before long, it was well past midnight, and with a sleeping toddler in my arms, I told her I needed to head up to bed. As we were saying good night, she recommended the book Childbirth Without Fear by Dr. Grantly Dick Read, which she said was instrumental in her attitude about birth.
The conversation that night led to a renewed interest in researching birth, and this time, I decided to try the library rather than the internet. I requested the book she recommended, as well as Ina May’s Guide to Childbirth by Ina May Gaskin, a renowned midwife from Tennessee, and the only midwife who has a medical procedure, the Gaskin Maneuver (used in cases of shoulder distocia) named after her. While waiting for these books to come in, I stumbled across a link for the Ricki Lake documentary, The Business of Being Born, and watched it online.
The Business of Being Born presented a new perspective on medical interventions and the importance of natural birth. It was also the first time I had seen a home birth, and I was hooked. I was fascinated by these women who gave birth and caught their own babies and were up and walking around almost immediately. It was such a beautiful version of birth that I had never considered.
Soon, my books came into the library, and I devoured them within a couple days. The one line that really struck me from Dick Read’s book was from a woman he had assisted in delivery early in his career. He went to her home late in labor and kept trying to give her medication, which she kept refusing. After the birth, he asked her why she didn’t take the medication, as she seemed to be working hard.
“It didn’t hurt, it wasn’t meant to, was it doctor?” she responded. This question from her shaped his career as a medical professional and gnawed at me for days. Was birth really not supposed to hurt? What about the movies? What about the social perception of birth? What about my own pain in my first birth experience?
I reflected on the events of my first birth and evaluated them earnestly. Certainly, I had been tense, and was certainly fighting the contractions. At the beginning of each contraction, I would tense up and prepare myself for the pain. Perhaps this had contributed to the pain and exhaustion I experienced. It made some sense.
Dick Read recommended later in his book different techniques for relaxation in labor, including relaxing the jaw, which he found to be connected to the cervix and when relaxed, the cervix would as well. I started practicing this, and working to visualize my perfect birth with relaxation techniques.
I also started reading Ina May Gaskin’s book and was captivated by the birth stories of the women in her group who lived at a place called “The Farm,” which a group of hippies had settled in Tennessee. These women seemed joyful in birth, and the pictures in the book showed women smiling in labor. They didn’t even call contractions by that name , but rather referred to them as “rushes.”
Those two books started a whole paradigm shift in how I looked at birth. I started to view birth, not as an heroic event, but as a beautiful, natural thing that I had to relax into and not fight. I also found that I started to look toward the birth, not with fear, but with excitement. All the stories of natural birth and the joy the women had for them gave me a whole new set or reasons for wanting one of my own.
I started to visualize my birth each day and to practice relaxing my face and my abdomen, so that I would not fight my contractions. I finally also felt confidence in my ability, and my body’s ability, to birth naturally.
We also decided that it would be a good idea to have backup team on hand in case we had a long, exhausting labor again and he was too tired to coach when I needed extra support. We eventually decided on my mom, my MIL, and his sister (because she was so good at massages!).
I also prepared a “birth bag” with several of my old soccer socks filled with tennis balls for counter pressure and relaxation, heating and cooling pads, essential oils, herbs, my own pillow, my own clothes to labor in, food and drinks (contraband!), and an iPod with my labor list or songs.
I also started taking an herbal tincture in the last six weeks to prepare my muscles for birth. I was relaxed, I wasn’t afraid, and I knew that this time would be different….
Sure enough, two days before my due date, I woke up with contractions around 4 a.m. I didn’t want to wake my husband, so I sat in the recliner and timed them for a couple of hours. By 7 a.m. I was pretty sure this was the real thing. We decided to head to an early Mass at our church, since we didn’t expect labor to progress too quickly. We went to Mass at 7:30, and I had about 20 contractions during the hour long Mass. We headed home and called my mom, his mom and his sister (our backup team) to be on standby. Since my mom was 5 hours away, she left right away and his family finished up a few things and then headed our way.
Then, the one complication I didn’t expect, and had not prepared for happened! I had prepared for hostile nurses, and dealing with on-call doctors, and relaxation, and not going to the hospital until late in natural labor to help prevent interventions, but I had not prepared for my brothers-in-law!
Apparently, my MIL expected labor to progress more quickly than I did, because when she heard that my contractions were 5 minutes apart, she expected to go to the hospital soon and she, my sister-in-law, father-in-law, brothers-in-law and a friend who was visiting, all headed to our cozy one bedroom apartment to assist me. On top of that, my brother, who was only in town for the weekend, decided to stop by. On top of that, my hubby’s brothers invited over some of their friends who lived in the same town as we did. Within two hours we had two in-laws, six siblings, three friends, our toddler and us in our little apartment, just sitting around waiting for me to pop a baby out.
Not surprisingly, sitting around our really crowded living room with 13 people watching me have contractions was not exactly the atmosphere I needed, and labor stalled. Luckily, I was undeterred, as I knew I could do it this time. My husband and I walked several miles around our apartment complex, then around the mall, anything to get out of the house. My labor never stopped but I continued to have regular contractions at about five minutes apart all day. We checked in with our midwife all day, and she said that as long as my water had still not broken, we could stay home until contractions got closer together.
I begged my body to speed things up, I relaxed as much as I could with that many people around. My sweet hubby tirelessly massaged my feet and shoulders, got me Gatorade, walked with me, but yet my contractions stayed five minutes apart.
By dinnertime, over 12 hours into natural labor, I was hungry and so was he, and labor was still holding at 5-minute contractions. I knew we needed to get out of the house again, so we got in the car and started driving. I wasn’t sure where we were going, but we stopped at a sports bar that had food, and hopefully sports on (It was Sunday, once again so Football was on!). I think I might be the only laboring woman I know who would have gone to a sports bar, but we did… alone… our last date before Bambina arrived!
I was hungry, but my stomach was uneasy from labor, so the only thing that looked good was chicken fingers with hot sauce. (Just thinking about this makes my stomach queasy now, but it was wonderful then!) In between contractions, I ate my greasy, fried chicken with hot sauce, and my hubby had a sandwich and beer. The food (somehow) gave me renewed strength (at least as much as can be gained from nutritionally devoid food) and contractions started to pick up again. We headed home and I walked another couple miles around the apartment complex. Contractions seemed to be strong by now, so we headed home to make sure things were ready for the hospital. It was around 9 by now.
Of course, as soon as I was around everyone again, contractions slowed back to every 5 minutes. This pattern went on for another couple hours until my brothers-in-law decided to head downtown and everyone was exhausted. I felt awful for making everyone come in town and then taking so long in labor and I was doing everything I could to will my body to speed up. I was actually doing well relaxing in labor, perhaps too well, and though regular contractions were really not painful yet, I could tell I was progressing slowly by the tension I felt in my lower abdomen.
Finally, at around 11:59, I resigned myself to the fact that this bambina was not coming that night (yes, it took me that long!) My mom, who had gotten there around noon, my MIL, father-in-law and sister-in-law all decided to rest, and I thought that was a good idea.
I figured since the baby as obviously not coming that night, I could hopefully get some rest before labor picked up, if this was actually labor (I was doubting by this point.) My husband and I cuddled in bed. Nothing made labor better than just lying there in the dark with his strong arms holding me in total relaxation. He fell asleep, and though I was still having contractions, I was able to rest some as well. I laid there for a while, thinking how blessed I was to be having our second child, to have such an amazing husband, and a wonderful extended family (as labor-distracting as they may be).
I was just starting to doze off, when true to what would be her personality, Bambina decided to pick things up (finally). I was awaken from my semi-deep sleep by what seemed like a different kind of contraction. It didn’t hurt, but I could tell my uterus was tightening much more strongly than it had been. It lasted about a minute, but after 20 hours of labor, I wasn’t convinced so I started to doze off again…
There was another one… definitely a contraction! I stayed there for a few more, concentrating on letting go and relaxing, and eventually needed to move. I got up and went to my bathroom. I was feeling the intensity of the contractions now, and while they were much stronger, they didn’t hurt so much as they required my complete focus to relax through.
I rocked back and forth on the towel rack with each contraction, moaning softly. I was exhausted, but had a new surge of energy, realizing that labor might finally be picking up. After a half hour or so (by about 1:30) I was vocalizing loud enough to wake my poor mom, MIL and sister-in-law who vigilantly helped me relax through each contraction. At the beginning of each one, each mom would grab a foot and my sister in law would grab my hands and they would massage me until the contraction ended. This alone made labor almost worth it!
Contractions continued to pick up and at about 2:30, my youngest brother-in-law came into the apartment briefly to pick up towels because they were at the hot tub. (Can I just say how excited I was that they got to hang out in the hot tub while I was having contractions and couldn’t get in myself… oh I love that!)
“You look terrible,” he said, walking through the living room and seeing me on the couch during a contraction. I found out later that he meant that to mean that the contractions looked painful, and was trying to show sympathy. The mixture of the way he said it, the fact that it was the middle of the night, and the fact that I was almost 24 hours into labor, made me laugh hysterically.
For anyone who has not laughed during labor, I highly recommend it! Laughing took my mind off labor, and relaxed my jaw (thanks Dr. Dick Read) and I felt my cervix dilate some. At this point, contractions really started picking up and were coming every couple minutes and lasting at least a minute each. I was still hesitant to go to the hospital, but I could tell everyone else was getting antsy, worried that Bambina might make her debut in the apartment (would that be so bad?).
I reluctantly agreed to start getting ready to go, but wanted a shower first. I got a quick shower, put on my robe and favorite sweats and made sure everything was in our hospital bag. My husband, who was pretty sleep deprived by this point, loaded the car and we set off. Just as we were getting into the car, I started vomiting. At this point, I was glad we were on our way, because I knew from my first labor that vomiting meant the start of transition. My wonderful husband held me thorough each contraction in the back seat and helped me breathe, while his mom, who was also a Lamaze coach, suggested some things for him to try with me. I found that saying “howth” helped a lot, so I said that every contraction.
We arrived at the hospital about 4 a.m. and began the wonderful check in process once again, which was my favorite part (note: sarcasm). Once again we had to go to the emergency entrance (Can’t my kids come during normal business hours?) and deal with the night shift nurses. We had to go through a metal detector and our purses were searched for who knows what. I vaguely remember muttering something about searches and seizures and how they just made my day after a full day of labor. (Then again, searching me for weapons at that point might not have been a bad idea).
We finally got into the hospital and then had to sign all the wonderful forms. No, I do not want to donate any tissues, fluids, etc. that may occur as a result of birth. No, I do not want my DNA used for research purposes, etc. Where do they come up with these questions, really? I distinctly remember asking the poor night receptionist if she was a member of the sadistic committee that created a 24-page sign in form involving such insane questions.
She retaliated by asking me if I was sure I was in labor and suggesting that perhaps I should sit in the waiting room to make sure. After I finished having a contraction, I gave her a look that I suppose was convincing enough, because she called a nurse to come get my in a wheel chair, which I was grateful for at this point.
I was in the middle of transition by this point and was starting to get to that wonderful semi-conscious state that happens during the pushing phase. I tried to remain focused and tell the nurse pushing me all the things that were in my (8-page) birth plan.
“It’s ok,” she said, “We all read it already.” Really? How wonderful. I finally trusted that everything would be ok, and just surrendered to the power of my labor and zoned out. Once we got in the room I peed, snuck a drink of Gatorade, and put the i-pod on. They wanted me to sit down and be hooked up to the monitor just to see the strength of my contractions and I was ready to sit down by this point, as the contractions were strong enough that I felt them in the top of my legs and they made me somewhat weak.
My midwife asked if she could check me, and announced that I was 8 centimeters. More good news! I knew that labor was progressing, but after my first labor, was afraid that I would only be at about 5 centimeters. I knew from reading that once transition started, it normally didn’t last more than about 2 hours at the most, so I knew I was on the home stretch.
My water still had not broken, and I was listening to my music, fully zoned out in the hospital bed. The midwife told me to tell her if my water broke, and left to get a drink of water. I labored this way for about an hour, though it seemed like less, as my perception of time was hazy at this point. At about 5:15 am, over 25 hours into labor, I felt a warm gush and knew my water had broken. At the same time, I felt Bambina’s head descend deep into the birth canal. I knew I needed to tell the midwife, but I was in that wonderful (and I really do mean it sincerely) hazy phase of second stage. (I am convinced our bodies do this so that we don’t remember any pain at this point, because I stopped feeling any pain at this point, and only felt an urgency to push, and a one track focus on this mission). It was at this moment that I panicked for the first time in labor and doubted that I could do this. Supposedly every women has this feeling at that point of no return, and I loudly announced I wanted medication….
The midwife came back in and decided to check me again. As soon as she lifted the sheet, she realized that I was pushing, and signaled somehow to the nurse. Instantly, the tiny room filled with nurses (who I later found out wanted to see natural birth, as several had not seen it before). No hope for medication now! True to my birth plan, they didn’t pull down huge lights, and the room stayed quiet. I was unaware of anyone but my husband’s presence. I really wish I could describe this part adequately. My first doctor once described this part as “birth is your ultimate reality,” and while I don’t like much else about him, this quote has always seemed appropriate. That stage of unmedicated pushing was a time when I was intensely aware of the reality of life, and yet, somehow out of touch with it at the same time.
I have no concept of how long the pushing phase lasted, it seemed like only minutes, though I was told later it lasted about half an hour. It was such a surreal feeling to feel Bambina coming down the birth canal. Pushing came rather easy, and it was not my body that I had to struggle with at this point but my mind. My body had every instinct to get Bambina out and to get her out fast, but my mind still held on to that little doubt that I couldn’t do it, and that held me back. I would push, but not hard, for fear of the actual birth.
All at once, convinced I was about to poop myself and that my rear end was going to explode in the process, I realized that if this intense sensation was ever going to stop, I had to actually push. I cannot tell you the fear of this moment, feeling birth for the first time. I consciously surrendered to my body, realizing that the final push would hurt, but doing it anyway. The best comparison I can make to this moment is when on a roller coaster, when at the top before the biggest drop, when you have a second of panic and want to get off (maybe just me!) but have no choice and have to let go. For me spiritually as well, this moment was a tremendous lesson in letting go at the times it seems impossible. As soon as I surrendered to my body and really pushed for the first time, I felt that infamous “ring of fire” and her head crowned. (Is this what that song was written about? “And it burned, burned, burned, like a burning ring of fire…”). With one more light push, she was out into the world, and true to my birth plan, lying on my tummy.
There was instant relief from the pressure and force of pushing. It took me a second to snap back to reality, and I was filled with the most intense surge of emotion. I can personally attest to the fact that this emotion is much stronger and more instant with an unmedicated birth than even one with an epidural. I instantly bonded and was instantly in love with our little Bambina. We announced her name to the family, as we hadn’t told anyone (though they had been taking bets). I got to hold her and nurse her, and the placenta delivered naturally about 10 minutes later. They waited to cut the cord until after it stopped pulsing and cleaned and evaluated her on my stomach.
Bambina was born not even two hours after we got to the hospital, and I never got an IV, an epidural, pitcoin, or any other intervention. Also true to our birth plan, she didn’t get a vitamin K or hep B shot and they actually asked before doing any tests or anything on her.
I looked at my beautiful little girl in my lap and cried with emotion. She was so perfect, my birth had been so perfect, and I felt that it somehow made up for the pain of my first birth experience. I also got an incredible surge of energy that I had not gotten in my first, medicated birth. I felt like I could run a marathon, though in reality, I only walked to the bathroom to pee on my own only 30 minutes after giving birth. (I am told this is a formidable accomplishment) Luckily, peeing also meant the nurses didn’t have to monitor me as much anymore, for which I was grateful.
Within an hour, we were moved to our room that we would stay in for the next 24 hours. I was slightly mad that I couldn’t just walk and I couldn’t carry her in the wheelchair, but Bambina never left my sight and I was too happy from the birth to get upset. Though I hadn’t slept at all during my 26-hour labor (that involved about 5 miles of walking), the mixture of endorphins and adrenaline was too powerful to let me sleep. I sat there in bed and held her for the first five hours after her birth, entranced with how wonderful she was.
Poor hubby wasn’t so fortunate to have the emotion surge, and he was exhausted after his 26 hours of coaching. His family came to visit right after we transferred rooms, and then had to leave to get back home. My mom was staying with Bambino at our apartment, and we were alone to relax. He fell asleep immediately, and I stayed awake, holding our little girl. I still remembered how they always tried to take Bambino to the nursery in the hospital after his birth, and tried to take him if I fell asleep, so I wasn’t about to sleep.
I realized again that I was starving, and luckily, just as breakfast was brought into the room. Bambina slept in my lap as I ate breakfast and got to relax. I was ready to go home then, but had to stay at least one night. We had friends come visit to meet Bambina that afternoon, though we didn’t let Bambino come visit to meet her, because we didn’t want him in the hospital ( I still didn’t like hospitals).
The next morning, about 24 hours after she was born, we left the hospital with Bambina and went home to have our little Bambini together for the first time. Though it was tough, I loved my natural hospital birth and knew I would do it again!
I became an outspoken advocate of natural birth and talked about it to anyone who would listen. I especially liked to talk to pregnant women in hopes of sharing a joyful perspective of childbirth in contrast to the ones they were probably also hearing at the grocery store from complete strangers.
Click here to read about the cesarean birth of my third child.