Throughout my pregnancy, I was a huge birth story junkie. I listened to birth story podcasts religiously, read and reread favorite stories online, and tried my best to educate myself on all the possible interventions and outcomes that can occur when it comes to childbirth. I had my birth plan written in my head long before I was even pregnant - I wanted a natural labor....100%....with as little interventions as humanly possible. As someone who really, really dislikes taking any form of new medication, this was my comfort zone. I was leaning toward wanting a water birth and Porter and I spent a lot of hours the past nine months talking through coping mechanisms for natural childbirth and educating ourselves with online birth courses like this one from the Positive Birth Company (a personal favorite). Ultimately, though, just like my midwife warned me at basically every appointment, there's no such thing as a birth plan - births rarely go according to plan - there are only birth "preferences."
In the case of my labor and delivery experience, almost nothing went according to my original plan. There wouldn't be a natural labor, or the opportunity to employ the majority of the coping mechanisms I'd made sure Porter and I had down pat. There wouldn't be a birth tub, and we wouldn't be laboring at home for as long as possible (or at all) before heading to the hospital. But there would still be a labor, one ending in the safe delivery of our son, Oliver Graham, and even though there were parts of the process that still kind of scare me to think back on, this was ultimately all that mattered to us, and (I imagine) all that matters to most parents: a safe delivery ending with a healthy baby. Somehow, though, even with a good deal of interventions and some complications, the whole birth experience still has this kind of holy sheen over it for both Porter and me. It was still beautiful, still an out-of-body experience at times, still the kind of thing that made time stand still at different moments, the kind of thing that, in the moments right before Oliver was born, felt so crucially a part of being human that it was like you could feel this wisdom about the world that you'd never known was missing clicking into place in your own head. At risk of sounding cliche, for me, spiritually and emotionally, everything about life has made more sense after experiencing childbirth.
I'm not aiming to make this post particularly long, but it might be....because that's what my labor was: long. Let's start at the beginning: I woke up around six am on August 26th and headed into the city from my parents' house about forty five minutes outside of Boston. I had an eight am appointment with my midwife for my 38 week check up and decided to bring my sisters and my mum along to hear the baby's heartbeat and experience a pregnancy appointment all together (Oliver is the first grandchild on both sides of our family so everything is particularly exciting for our families this time around!). I figured it would be a standard, uneventful fifteen minute or so meet up with my midwife, like all my appointments had been up until this point. My mum had booked us to all get our nails done afterward, and because I was remarkably uncomfortable at this point, (after all, it was August in Boston and I was 38 weeks pregnant) I was grateful for as many distractions as possible. I was really looking forward to getting out of my appointment and trying out the various features on one of those big nail salon massage chairs....but God had other plans.
Every one of my midwifery appointments started with a blood pressure check, and on this particular morning the nurse taking my blood pressures typical silence at my usual (and normal, for me) low blood pressure reading was instead filled by a "hmmm, well that's odd. I'm going to tell Carrie to take a look at your pressures again at the end of your appointment." My blood pressure was high...not so high that preeclempsia or any other especially frightening complication suddenly felt imminent, but high enough that they were clearly concerned. Carrie went through the rest of my appointment with me while my sisters and mum looked on and heard the heartbeat and acted like everything was fine, but I honestly barely paid attention....I knew something was wrong and just felt that something had changed. I'd felt off and kind of sick all morning, and had kept having to adjust how I was sitting on the car ride in, believing that I was feeling funky because of the pressure I was putting on the artery that runs along the right side of your spine and can make some pregnant women feel dizzy if they lean against it for too long (which is why pregnant women are advised not to sleep on their backs). I wasn't thrown off when at the end of the appointment, my readings were still really high. I figured I would be offered some kind of blood pressure reducing medication, but instead I was a little bit dazed as Carrie explained to me that I was going to be sent up to labor and delivery to be monitored for another five hours. If my blood pressure never came down in that time span, I would need to be induced.
I didn't have our hospital bag, I hadn't showered that morning, and I hadn't slept at all well the night before. In simplest terms, I felt very underprepared to begin the process of having a baby and becoming a mum. Regardless, my mum and I headed up to labor and delivery, I called Porter, explained what was happening, and he headed to the hospital. He was by my side within twenty minutes, and we spent the next five hours watching The Office and waiting. I slept a little, he slept a little, the nurses took a whole bunch of readings, and my blood pressure (unsurprisingly) didn't change. It was five o'clock at night when the midwife on call finally came in and explained our two options: get induced that night or first thing the next morning. They didn't think waiting twelve or so hours was risky, and my body (unbeknownst to me) had actually been contracting all day long. All the nurses had been watching my monitors and were confident that, high blood pressure or not (which we by then had learned went by the fancier name of "gestational hypertension,") this baby was coming. By their estimates he would have arrived without an induction within a little less than a week anyway, and they were curious to see if I were to go home for the night, if my body might naturally just kick itself into labor. So we decided to head back to Beacon Hill, shower, have some takeout (courtesy of my sister who had left work early to watch our pup while we were in the hospital), and get ready to begin the process of having our son.
Going to bed that night was honestly kind of bizarre. I'd never imagined my own birth as an induction, one that I could pinpoint a start time to, so I was a little wigged out by the whole thing and also feeling off because of my blood pressure (and the somewhat more consistent contractions I was starting to have). I barely ate, crawled into bed, had Porter say a prayer that my body would naturally go into labor that night so that I could avoid as many medicines as possible (again, I hate taking new medicines, especially strong ones, and have a genuinely deep fear of dangerous side effects), and fell asleep. At one am, I woke up with more contractions and a bad case of the shakes. I was up shivering and shaking in bed for probably an hour and a half absolutely convinced that labor was starting on its own and so grateful that it was, when all of a sudden the symptoms stopped, I fell back to sleep, and I woke up six hours later, most definitely not in labor.
We arrived at the hospital Tuesday morning a little after nine o'clock. I was hooked up to a machine that monitors your contractions, had my blood pressure taken about every half hour, and waited for the midwife on call to come in and explain, as best she could, how things might unfold. She came in quickly to tell us that, due to the fact that my uterus was already contracting on its own about every three minutes (even though I could barely feel the contractions) they wanted to use a milder drug called misoprostol to see if my body would go into labor with just a little coaxing. I would take half of a misoprostol pill every four hours and could take a max of six pills. For some patients, one pill was all it took, for others the medicine did little or nothing. Everyone reacts to misoprostol differently, but they said for someone like me wanting to avoid stronger medicine if possible, it was a good place to start.
I took the first pill around ten am and we began the long wait to see what my body might do. Within the next twelve hours, by the time the third dose was in my system, my contractions picked up to about every minute and a half to two minutes. They weren't unbearable, but I could definitely feel them. Surely, I thought, this was working; I would happily avoid pitocin, and we might even have our baby by the morning. The nurses even put off giving me my fourth dose because my contractions were so frequent, and, by then, intense enough that Porter was using counter pressure points on my back to alleviate the pain (my entire labor was back labor) and helping me breathe through them. It felt like things were really kicking into gear, but I was initially surprised that the frequency of the contractions wasn't necessarily matched by the intensity. I had always thought contractions that were really close together had to be super intense, but that just wasn't the case for my labor. My contractions came close together for days with intensity that varied from not feeling anything to nearly cutting off Porter's circulation with a death grip.
Around 4 am that night the new midwife on call, who I absolutely LOVED named Jenny, decided it was time to do my first cervical check. I hadn't had a single cervical check my whole pregnancy but was estimating that I was at at least a three based off the frequency and intensity of my contractions and the fact that I'd had 4 misoprostol at this point. You can imagine how discouraged I felt when Jenny announced that I was HALF a centimeter. Half?! She explained that this wasn't a bad thing because I was completely effaced, but all I could think was that we'd been in the hospital for almost 24 hours already and I'd only progressed to a HALF a centimeter. As someone who considers themselves a very efficient person, this got to me big time. She walked out of the room and I promptly looked at Porter and said, "is this some kind of sick joke?" It wasn't.
Now, it was back to decision making time. Jenny said we could continue with the final two misoprostol, but that given the fact that my body's reaction to them seemed to be revving up contractions that were ineffective in causing any dilation, that seemed kind of a silly and torturous way to spend the next eight hours....The second option was Pitocin, but because that's a stronger drug, if I wanted to avoid it, she wanted to let me. And the third option was something called "The Balloon," or in medical jargon: A Foley Bulb induction. A Foley Bulb is a form of manual induction - basically it's a device that looks like a thin rod with two water balloons on the end. The balloons go on either side of the opening of your cervix, are put in place empty, filled with a saline solution once inside you, and manually dilate your cervix by slowly pulling it apart. Does that sound painful? Believe me, it is. But it's also the option I went with. Basically, I looked at Jenny and said, "What would you do in this situation?" and she said, "It isn't going to feel great but I think it will be the most effective and I know you can handle it - go with the balloon." So that's what I did, and even though if I could go back I wouldn't change that decision, it was no walk in the park.
Let me be the first to tell you, getting that balloon inserted was arguably one of the most painful things I've ever felt. It feels like it's doing exactly what it is doing - forcefully pulling open a part of you that would rather stay closed. On top of that, my contractions seemed to last an extra 30 seconds immediately once it was inserted, and instantaneously became incredibly more intense. At this point, Porter was helping me breathe by counting and I was looking at him like what on earth did I just get myself into. To make matters worse, the way a Foley bulb induction works is that the balloon falls out of you once you've dilated to a four or a five, which can take up to twelve hours. Ten minutes in, I was already living contraction to contraction, so the idea of making it all the way to hour twelve pretty much seemed impossible. I told Porter as much, and he told me to just focus on trying to make it one hour. They offered me some strong pain meds and I declined (again, not a fan of taking new medicine) and continued to just focus on the thirty or so seconds in front of me. You can imagine my surprise when, thirty minutes later, I got up to use the restroom and the balloon fell out. I instantly knew something had to have been done incorrectly...and I told Port that if they came in to put the balloon back in place I couldn't go through with it again. I was throwing in the towel on that method.
The midwife came in, agreed that it was odd that it had already fallen out, and said (just to be sure) they would do another quick check before deciding whether or not to reinstall another one. And guess what guys...I was a SIX! I had literally gone from half to a 6 in under 40 minutes, and suddenly the intensity of the contractions I'd been feeling made a wholeeee lot of sense. I straight up said to my midwife, if you had told me I needed to have another Foley bulb put in I would've told you to get out...I was only partially kidding.
At this point it was about midnight on Thursday. We'd arrived Tuesday morning, so it's safe to say Porter and I were both exhausted. Because I was pretty far along and my contractions were getting more intense, they suggested I start to think about an epidural. The natural forms of pain relief I'd planned on like pacing, bouncing on a birth ball, getting in the tub, etc. were all off the table because of my blood pressure. Essentially, I needed to stay in bed to labor to try to stabilize my blood pressure as much as possible, so an epidural it was.
Twenty or so minutes later the anesthesiologist came to our room. This is when I was told that your husband isn't allowed to stay with you while you get your epidural. I'm pretty sure this isn't a national rule but maybe is hospital to hospital or state to state (?) if someone knows, please chime in in the comments. Anyway, I was not at all excited about getting a massive needle in my back while Porter was down the hall, but protocol is protocol, and fortunately I loved the nurse that was with us for the majority of my labor, and basically bear hugged her while the epidural was put into place. The pain wasn't nearly as bad as I thought it would be. For me, it was more of just a weird tingling vibration feeling than a sharp or pointed pain, kind of like when you were a kid and your friends dared you to hold onto one of those electric flyswatters while they shocked you (are we the only ones that did this?). Would I look forward to another epidural? No. But it definitely wasn't anywhere near as intense for me as I was expecting based off some stories I'd heard. Let me put it this way, it was no Foley bulb.
Once the epidural was in place, they laid me back down and had Port come back into the room. It was around 1:30 am on Thursday at this point, and this is where things got a little scary. If you're preparing for your own birth, I'd say either skip this part or know that the chances of what happened to me happening to you are less than 1%. I personally don't think adding lists of things to possibly fear that have a very minimal chance of happening is healthy or productive for women preparing to be first time mums, but ultimately, everyone prepares for birth differently.
Right after Port came back into our labor and delivery room, I felt really funny. I have low blood sugar and have had blood sugar crashes in the past, and it kind of felt like that. I felt a little dizzy and shaky and my extremities and skin felt super cold all of a sudden. I looked at Porter and said I don't feel so good, and just as I was saying that the anesthesiologist was hustling to administer some drugs through my IV line. The corners of my vision started to go black and just as I was getting pretty frightened I started to feel better. I could overhear the nurses and doctor talking about how my blood pressure had just crashed and that they'd been able to stabilize it with a large dose of epinephrine, so I knew what was happening, but I still felt pretty shaken up and funny. The nurses put me on oxygen and everybody watched me just closely enough for the next hour that I knew I was justified in being scared. You know when you're on the plane and in turbulence if you look at the flight attendant and she's chill, you know you can relax? Laying in that bed the hour after my epidural, I felt like I was looking at the flight attendants and they were all avoiding eye contact with me and decidedly un-chill...I later found out that depending on how your body reacts to epinephrine the outcome of my blood pressure plummeting could've been a lot more terrifying....After an hour or so though, everything had stabilized, labor was progressing, and everyone left the delivery room except for that one nurse, Julie, who had been by our sides essentially the entire labor.
Porter and I decided this was where we could finally get some sleep. We were physically and emotionally exhausted. Based off of what our midwife said, the baby would likely be born late Thursday morning. It was 2:30 am at this point, and we both really needed some rest. I had Porter play The Office and fell in and out of light sleep for the next hour. Unfortunately, the rest didn't last long.
Around 3:30 am, I was woken up and told that our baby's heart rate was creeping toward being dangerously high. The epinephrine that had helped me come to after the epidural simultaneously caused an adrenalin surge in our baby that he apparently couldn't come down from. The next hour was spent moving me into various positions, taking me off of the Pitocin they'd added after the epidural, and watching the monitors very closely. When Julie briefly left the room, I had a minor breakdown. I'd been laboring for close to three days at this point, and the idea of it ending in an emergency C section or of our baby being in a dangerous situation in general, was overwhelming on top of the pain of the contractions and the exhaustion. This is where Porter, knowing me, comforted me the best way he knew how: he lied. He told me that Oliver's heart rate had significantly slowed down from its dangerous peak in the past ten minutes and that everything was 100% going to be fine. I said are you sure probably 10 times and each time he reiterated that he was positive. Twenty minutes later the midwife came in and said the repositioning had worked. Oliver's heart rate was a little elevated, but no longer in a dangerous range. Relieved is an understatement.
It was now around 4:45 in the morning, and we were both basically zombies, but just when I was starting to think about sleep, my contractions picked up and I started to feel a lot of pressure. I called the midwife in and asked to be checked, sure that I would be pushing this baby out before sunrise....and guess what, I was STILL a six....just as I'd been nearly 6 hours before. My progress after the successful Foley bulb induction had completely stalled. As you can imagine, I was crushed.
To make matters slightly worse, they realized while doing the check that I could still feel everything below my waist. The epidural had worked on numbing my uterus, but everything below that I still had complete feeling of. They offered to administer a different drug to help with the pain of the pressure and said I shouldn't be feeling any of what I was, but after what had happened with the epidural, I wasn't taking any more chances on new medicine and said the pain was "not that bad"....which was a lie. The midwife left the room, and I said to Porter that I wasn't getting checked or calling her back in until I was so sure the baby was coming that there was not even a 1% possibility of being told I hadn't progressed. For the next few hours, the pressure was incredibly intense and contractions were coming about every minute and a half. Between contractions, Porter was falling asleep, and I was doing my best to relax my body and concentrate on my breath. One hour passed, then two, then two and a half, then three....
Around 7:30 I looked at Porter and said, I can't do this anymore, I'm positive he's coming, get the midwife. My whole body wanted to bear down at this point and had for over an hour, but I was so convinced that despite everything I'd read about labor and what it feels like before pushing, I had it wrong - based on how my labor had gone so far, I was ignoring whatever inklings or intuitions I thought I had at that point.
Jen got ready to check me, put some gloves on and then stopped. "Your baby's head is basically out, Anna." I looked at Porter in disbelief, and they asked me if I wanted to see (I'm a little squeamish, so I just took her word for it). The nurses and an assistant midwife gathered in the room. It was time to push.
Porter grabbed his phone, put it on a table in the corner of the room and hit record. This is something I'm so indescribably thankful that we did....The final fifteen minutes of my labor from the nurses coaching me through pushing, to our son's first cry, to exactly what Porter and I said to ourselves and each other in the moments after meeting him are recorded. Even though I'm a photographer myself, the idea of having a birth photographer or even having someone I knew take some pictures or video during labor felt way too much like a violation of privacy for me (I'm an introvert). But the audio idea allowed us to capture the feeling of that room without having to have a camera or video camera stuck in our faces during those sacred moments when we didn't want to be at all distracted from focusing on every moment and each other. I've listened to the recording probably 10 times since and every time I get the chills and every time I cry.
Pushing, for me, was the relief that a lot of women describe it as. It didn't at all feel like "pushing something the size of a watermelon out of something the size of a watermelon seed" which is an actual quote from a birth story I came across during my pregnancy. It felt very automatic, like something my body wanted to do, and when I was actively pushing I felt more relief then when I was coached to stop pushing. This might be TMI - but I was also grateful that the midwife used oil on my perineum the entire time I was pushing to help avoid tearing (which worked - I didn't tear at all and have had such an easier postpartum experience because of that). I think that probably reduced the level of pain I felt, too, and after 6 or 7 pushes, there was suddenly a baby on my chest, our baby, our son, and it wasn't until then that I really realized that you don't fully register just how real the baby inside of you your whole pregnancy is until that exact moment. Nothing could have prepared me for it, and even having experienced it now, I already know I'll be just as floored the next time around.
I've only ever had an out of body experience once before in my life, when I was free diving while living on a sailboat in the Caribbean and went too deep in water with low visibility. That first situation was scary but had this time-bending, peaceful, floating feeling to it that, the moment Oliver was born, I felt again. Only this time I also felt my whole being absorbed by one emotion that outdid the rest: love.
I've always liked the phrase "love is an action verb," and in the moment I met our son, all the moments to come, the entire future this tiny baby was about to begin living out felt like a solid single thing that I was consumed by loving somehow, already, in the present. Every breath, every laugh, every day, every winter and every summer, every scrape and every fight, every hug and every high five, every loss and every win, somehow the energy of everything that would play out in his life felt there with us, in labor and delivery, while we gave ourselves over to loving it in its entirety, however it would go, a whole life that was beginning right then and right there.
I'm not going to say too much more, because it was such a sacred moment for me and for Porter and I've written some more feelings down just for Oliver in his baby book, but it was everything people insinuated that it would be, and a lot, lot more. Nothing prepares you for looking into the face of someone who is genetically equally parts you and the person you've chosen to spend your life with. And nothing prepares you for how humbled you feel as one small, sometimes seemingly insignificant person capable of this incredible act: to take part in creating a life. We're five weeks in and it still blows me away every time I look at him. The delivery journey wasn't exactly what we anticipated, but I would relive it every day of my life just to have him here. Just as the Uber driver who brought us to the hospital said to us the morning of our induction as we were getting out of the car, "Good luck, and don't forget - God is everywhere." He truly is, on that day in the delivery room and always.