i love birth stories, and i know i’m not alone because there are COUNTLESS books, podcasts, and hollywood scenes dedicated to the topic. every woman has to fight the resist the urge to say “TELL ME ABOUT THE BIRTH” when we get the cute photos from our friends, announcing the arrival of their new baby. we want every single detail. did the baby come fast? did you get the epidural? we want to know, because it is the most intense experience that most of us will ever go through, and sharing that intensity feels good, even if every birth story is so completely different.
because i love birth stories so much, i started writing calum’s down during those first sleepless nights of his life. and because i am a strong believer that women DO NOT TALK about the ugly parts of pregnancy and birth nearly enough, i’m going to share it here.
warning: this is not a lovey dovey glowy birth story. calum’s birth was pure hell, and that’s what’s reflected here, no sugar coating. if that sounds fun to read, CONTINUE! if not, beat it!
every good birth story paints the pre-birth scene, so here’s mine: i taught zoom cooking classes every single day, sometimes twice a day, for the two months leading up to my due date. if i’m honest, i had sort of deluded myself into thinking that if i stayed incredibly active, maybe, just maybe, this baby would come out naturally and i would not have to be induced. i was induced with mattis, and it was absolute hell, my body did not respond quickly to the medications and it took a million (36) painful hours to dilate. but that’s a story for another day – what you need to know is this: i was doing everything to avoid induction. hiking every day, teaching classes everyday, and all of the old wives tales. i still have a bottle of castor oil in the refrigerator, because i’d been planning to drink the “midwives brew” (castor oil + apricot juice + other nonsensical things) on my due date. i was desperate to not be induced.
on september 8th, my due date, i headed down to monterey for my 40 week obgyn appointment. my doctor and i joked around about how the baby had not arrived yet (i told her emphatically at my 39 week appointment that the next time i saw her would be in the hospital, which she laughed at after having just examined my extremely UN-dilated cervix), and she pulled out the fetal doppler to listen to the baby’s heartbeat.
we usually chit-chat the entire time that she listens to the heartbeat, but she got quiet pretty quickly and started listening intently. i could hear the heart beating strongly, so i wasn’t worried, but it sounded different, almost like the doppler had low batteries. the heartbeat usually sounds so clear, and this time it sounded muffled.
very calmly, my doctor said that she thought my amniotic fluids (the fluid that surrounds the baby in the uterus) might be low, and she’d meet me in the ultrasound room. she took a few quick measurements and explained that my fluid levels were at a 2-3, when they need to be at a 5 for the baby to continue to safely hang out in the uterus. we’d just had a massive heat wave in carmel valley, with temperatures well over 100F for a week, and she said that could be why my fluids had dried up.
remaining calm and upbeat, she said “ok, let’s go meet this baby!” and left the room to go call the hospital and let them know that i was on the way. i had left the house that morning before mattis was awake because i had an early acupuncture appointment, and the idea of having the new baby without getting to say goodbye to my first baby made me feel completely panicked, so i ran after her to ask if i could please go home to say goodbye to mattis first. she agreed, but said i needed to be back at the hospital in an hour. our house is 20 minutes from the doctor’s office, which is right beside the hospital, so i jumped in the car.
i sobbed – hysterically – the entire way home. i truly didn’t feel scared for the baby, my doctor had reassured me that he was absolutely fine. but as many women will tell you, the inability to control one of the biggest events of your life, AT ALL, just feels so completely overwhelming. if i’d been in control, i would have spent the entire morning with mattis, going on a hike or playing with the chickens, or doing any of his favorite things with him for one last time as my only baby. i cried and cried thinking about how much mattis’ life, and our relationship, was about to change.
what i hadn’t mentioned to my doctor was that in addition to wanting to say goodbye to mattis, i also hadn’t packed my hospital bag. as in, not a single item. so i got home, tearfully explained the fluids situation to my mom, and grabbed mattis to come pack my bag with me. he was in such a funny, sweet mood and helped me quickly pack. george sped home from work when i called him, so we grabbed his hospital bag (which, of course, had been packed for weeks), my mom snapped a few photos of us, and we headed to the hospital. by the way – check out the sky behind me and mattis in the photo above. the wildfires were so bad all around us and the air quality was absolutely horrific. the next day, calum’s first day, the sun didn’t come out for a single minute, the skies were completely dark all day long.
george drove like a bat out of hell to the hospital, since we were now butting up against my doctor’s request for me to get there within the hour. we checked in to a lovely room and our nurse, danielle, got us checked in and comfortable and started my dose of cervidil – a device that is inserted behind the cervix and basically emits medicine into you to make you go into labor. the insertion was utter hell, but after that, i spent about an hour hanging out, feeling nothing.
before any contractions began, i looked at danielle and george and told them that i had an unbelievably low pain tolerance, and it was their job to help me get through the pain and not get my epidural until i was at least a few centimeters dilated. with mattis, after 8 hours of intense pitocin (another induction drug) contractions, i finally got an epidural at 1 centimeter dilated (you have to be 10 cm dilated to have the baby – women are typically advised not to get the epidural until 5 or 6 cm). it then took 24 hours more until i had the baby, since the epidural slows down contractions so much. i did not want this to happen again… i wanted this delivery to be a quick one.
about an hour after the cervidil was inserted (around 7pm), things started to heat up, to the point where every 3 minutes or so, i’d have a contraction so intense that i had to do some deep breathing, maybe squeeze george’s hand. they were intense, but manageable. my hospital had just introduced laughing gas as a coping mechanism for labor pain, so i told danielle to BRING ME THE GOODS and i started sucking that puppy down. other than making me feel like i was at a hookah bar, it did not help me manage the pain.
nurse danielle came in and, seeing my discomfort, asked if i wanted to go ahead and get the epidural. i said something along the lines of “WTF, NO, DANIELLE, REMEMBER WHAT I TOLD YOU?” and then she told me that the anesthesiologist was headed home, so if we had to call her back later, it could be an hour before I got the epidural. I very quickly changed my mind and said OKEY DOKE, bring on the epidural! danielle did a quick cervical exam to see if i’d made any progress and – NOPE. nada. still just 1 centimeter, which i had been for a couple of weeks, as most second time moms apparently are typically 1 centimeter dilated starting around 38 weeks.
my contractions changed very quickly, and by the time the anesthesiologist walked into the room 5 or 10 minutes later, i was getting absolutely crushed. looking back, i now see that i was going through a very quick “transition” from early labor to full blown labor, but at the time, i thought that it was just the induction drugs kicking my ass just like they had with mattis. i was sure that it was just the drugs making the contractions feel so intense, but that i wasn’t actually dilating, because that’s what happened for 8 hours with mattis.
when you get an epidural, they have you sit on the edge of the bed , hunch over, and stay completely still so that they have clear, safe access to your spine. for a woman experiencing intense labor pains, this is absolute torture. i was hunched over, grabbing onto george for dear life. the contractions quickly became completely unrelenting. as in, every 20 seconds, a new contraction. barely time to catch my breath. i remember crying “NO NO NO!” when i would feel another one start up. honestly, i was terrified, the pain was so completely unbearable. i thought that i was staying completely still, but apparently i was wiggling all over the place, so the anesthesiologist took FOREVER. like, 20 to 30 minutes. with mattis, it only took about 2 minutes to put it in, so i kept yelling at the poor doctor “WHAT ARE YOU DOING WHAT THE F(K IS TAKING SO LONG?!” i remember george telling me to stay still at one point, and just screaming all of my best expletives at him. he also kept trying to put a mask on my face, which is the current COVID protocol, but i kept ripping it off and telling him to go f*%k himself. I was completely, completely out of control of my mind and my body.
i experienced a lot of pain with mattis, but nothing that made me feel so completely out of control. i couldn’t really speak, i just sort of screamed “F^&K” a lot, and writhed around like a dying animal. i was also completely naked, i think, because any clothes touching my body felt suffocating. I kept screaming “IT FEELS LIKE I HAVE TO PUSH” and while my nurse stayed totally calm and cool, i also saw something switch in her eyes, she knew this wasn’t just my low pain tolerance.
when the epidural was finally safely in, about 30 minutes since my last cervical check where i was only 1 centimeter dilated, danielle made me lie down (i remember saying “I CANT LIE DOWN!!!!!!”) so that she could do another cervical check. cervical checks are usually really painful for me (really low pain tolerance, remember?) but this time i felt absolutely nothing. for women who have had cervical checks before and after having an epidural – this felt like an cervical check after you get the epidural and are completely numb below the waist. i felt nothing. as in, there was no pain, because she wasn’t hitting against my cervix, because i was COMPLETELY DILATED. I’d gone from 1 centimeter to fully dilated, 10 centimeters, in about 45 minutes. ouchie.
she told me that she could feel the baby’s head, and that i was ready to push. as soon as she said that, i realized that i had been resisting the completely animalistic urge to push, because i didn’t believe i could possibly be fully dilated. i had not been listening to my body at all because i was so determined to push through the pain and be stronger than I was during mattis’ delivery.
i screamed, for the millionth time, asking her, and the anesthesiologist who was still in the room packing up her gear, when the epidural was going to kick in. they exchanged glances, and i realized that the epidural had failed, and i was about to give birth without any pain medications. this realization was absolutely terrifying, i felt completely panicked. pain doesn’t even come close to describing what i was feeling at this point, and now i had to put myself in even more pain by pushing?
i asked more directly this time “am i never going to feel the epidural?!” and danielle grabbed me and looked me in the eyes and told me that the epidural was not going to work, and that it was time to push, and that i could do this. at this point there were several nurses scurrying around the room getting it set up for delivery, and the WEIRDEST on-call doctor sauntered in and started loudly asking where his booties were. i am on the bed screaming bloody murder, pushing, with no doctor at the base of the bed to catch the baby, and this guy is asking WHERE HIS BOOTIES ARE SO THAT HIS SHOES DON’T GET DIRTY.
looking back, george and i think he was stalling because he knew that my doctor had arrived at the hospital and he wanted her to be able to deliver the baby, because she came flying through the door moments later. for the record, i would have let a Starbucks barista deliver Calum if it meant that i’d no longer be in labor – i did not give a damn if my real doctor was there in the moment. when i saw my doctor i yelled “THE EPIDURAL DIDN’T WORK” (she knows how much I love epidurals), she laughed and said “I can see that!” and took position.
now, my nurse really jumped into action and became my full labor coach. she had me grab the backs of my own legs, curl up into a ball, and push. when you have an epidural, you’re numb below the waist so your legs are in stirrups. I thought I knew how to give birth, so doing it this way felt so wrong and different, although of course it’s the truly natural way. it was pure hell, i was experiencing something that i now know is called “the ring of fire”. THIS IS WHY EPIDURALS EXIST, PEOPLE. it was horrible, horrible agony. i remember thinking “there’s absolutely no way i can do this, i’m going to have to get a c-section, but the baby’s head is already out of my vagina, how the f*^k is that going to work?”
i think i said something to the effect of “I CAN’T DO THIS!!!!” and my doctor said “yes you can, the baby’s head is already out, you’re almost there.” i truly DID NOT BELIEVE HER, i thought she was just saying that to encourage me, so i reached down, kourtney kardashian style (remember when she pulled out her own baby?) and felt the top of calum’s head.
this actually really grossed me out, it was absolutely not a blissful “oh my god there’s my baby!” moment, and now my hand was all bloody, but it did give me the surge of confidence and momentum that i needed to keep going. i grabbed my legs for real this time, curled up into as tight of a ball as a 40 week pregnant woman possibly can, pushed two or three times, and out he came.
the incredible part about giving birth without an epidural is that the contractions and pain end immediately. like yes, I was happy that I had a healthy baby in my arms, but I was EUPHORIC that the contractions and ring of fire pain were over. they put calum up on my chest and OH MAN, that baby screamed and screamed. mattis screamed for a minute or two after he was born, but calum was nonstop for at least 20 minutes. he was as pissed about his unmedicated birth as i was!
i would never, not in a million years, choose to have another unmedicated birth, but here’s what i will say – the recovery was much, much easier. with mattis, i was pumped full of so many IV fluids from being on an epidural for 24 hours that i was incredibly swollen, all over, if you catch my drift. i couldn’t walk for several hours until the epidural wore off. after birthing calum i hopped out of bed (ok, hopped is an overstatement ) and took a shower by myself just an hour or so later. i hopped in and out of bed all night long to grab my own water, or change the baby, or whatever i wanted to do! that part was absolutely lovely – i didn’t feel like an invalid, and that really helped my postpartum psyche more than anything. i could hardly sit up for a week after mattis’ birth, the swelling and pain was so bad, but i had the same amount of tearing with calum and was much more mobile.
so that’s it! that’s how my little calum dumpling came into the world. if i haven’t mentioned it yet – it was absolute hell! i wouldn’t wish unmedicated birth upon my worst enemy! i have several close friends who have given birth this way on purpose, and i am both immensely in awe of them and constantly telling them that epidurals were invented for a reason.
i think that women fear that talking about the negative parts of birth will negate how much they love their babies, which is absolutely insane. we are allowed to be OBSESSED with our new babies and also be freaked out by the fact that our bladders are completely jacked up, we can’t walk or sit straight, and we have stitches in our damn vaginas! but instead of sharing the truths about birth, we email our friends carbon copy lines like “mom and baby are both doing great!” noooo. no, no, no. mom is not doing great! mom is going to be bleeding profusely for the next six weeks! mom’s nipples are scabbed over! mom’s hormones are convincing her that the baby is going to die if she doesn’t watch him to make sure he keeps breathing all night long!
i am so glad my tiniest beast is here, but i’m not going to wrap this birth story up with some glowy tale about how the pain connected me to women across time who have all given birth naturally. no, no. it was horrible, but now it’s over and i have a very cute baby to show for it.