For weeks after giving birth, I had a nagging sense of procrastination when it came to my birth story. Shouldn't I blog, or at least journal, about all that had happened to me? Because wouldn't I quickly forget the smell of amniotic fluid, and how cumbersome it was to weigh two hundred and forty five pounds (!!), and the unexpected postpartum bliss of effortlessly picking up a dropped razor in the shower? (Now that was a special moment). No, I see now, those things aren't easily forgotten. And I'm grateful because 'til now I could never make it happen to sit myself down and write about the whole thing. I was too busy staring at my baby, marveling at the magic of breastfeeding, spraying poo diapers, and sitting on my couch yakking with all the family that came to stare at him, too. But this past weekend over some mushroom and swiss-smothered burgers, we finally sat down with our doula and talked through me having a baby, the hospital experience and all the in-betweens. I guess in the back of my mind I've been waiting for that conversation with Dana to happen because now I feel like it's ready to come out. Two months later.
You could pretty much boil the story of any baby being born right down to the basics:
The baby was once inside, now the baby is outside.
(So freaking amazing) and I am drunk with love.
But there are so many details, so many soapboxes, so many moments that surprised me. Why glaze over all that good stuff, right? Hence, the birth story. Ah, birth stories. I started reading them even before I was pregnant, out of interest, and then while I was pregnant for education and inspiration. The stories I took the most interest in were the natural ones, since we knew we wanted our baby to come with as little interventions as possible. Many of the stories were home births. You know, the ones in which the main character is a big, blue pool and the woman describes the whole thing as really relaxed and sexy and painless because her baby just kinda s l i i i i i d e s out. (Maybe that will be me the next time). I'm really glad I surrounded my brain with positive, earthy birth stories like that, even though I knew from the beginning that we would have a hospital birth. When I first got pregnant, the thought of a home birth made me feel really insecure, and I was totally uneducated about how amazing the design of a woman's body is and how labor works, so I just wanted to see what my body was gonna do with labor. Also, we live above a martini bar, and Dustan was afraid the weight of a big blue pool might stress the floor, and we'd collapse into a pile of vodka and shards of glass (and that would not be natural), and I absolutely couldn't bear the thought of a home birth without a blue pool. So. Hospital it was. We settled on a hospital where a couple of friends had had successful natural births under the care of a nurse midwife.
I think the term "midwife" is unfortunate these days. It conjures up images of pleated calico dresses and dirt fields and and someone who has to handle every problem with a strip of cloth. Really a certified nurse midwife (CNM) does everything an OB does, except surgery. My 2 midwives wore white coats, drank diet soda, I'm pretty sure one of them was a smoker. Probably if you find a midwife who practices outside a hospital, you'll get the hairy armpit, fry-up-your-placenta kind of woman that most people envision with that word. But the closest thing we had to that in our life was our Bradley instructor.
Louise lives in a big old house in the historic district of Milwaukee and Dust and I met after work for weeks before the baby was born for her to teach us the Bradley method of childbirth. Her husband greeted us at the door. He wore the same thing every time: cargo pants, a black tee shirt that said something about the government, a flannel shirt and a fanny pack. Awesomeness. He was always surrounded by cats. Louise always wore Acorns and a shirt about multi-cultural prayer. She had this awesome New York accent and she could squat for hours. She always had a massive mug of lukewarm peppermint tea. Her passion for natural childbirth was contagious. We learned about everything from anatomy to delivery. We were pumped.
February 13th rolls around and we are supposed to go to a hockey game with friends but instead my body started showing all kinds of signs of pre-labor. We kinda looked at each other extra-long all the time. There was never a dirty dish in the sink because any minute could be the minute we dash out the door and don't come back until there's a baby with us, and we don't want him coming home to dirty dishes. Same for dog hair on the floor, dirty clothes, spots on the mirror - there was none of it. Dustan took time off work here and there that whole week, thinking with each day I'd wake up and say "Call Dana." (Our doula).
My due date (February 15th) came. And went. And more days passed. I went in for my 40 week appointment on February 17th and immediately my midwife started talking induction. I was crushed. There's nothing I fear more than Pitocin - an artificial hormone that causes your uterus to contract so violently very few people can withstand it without an accompanying epidural - a painkiller injected into the spinal cord, which totally terrifies me. You have to wonder, if that's what Pitocin does to you, what does it do to your baby? Now you have a labor-inducing drug and a pain-killing drug in your body and the cocktail has to be just right, otherwise blood pressure drops or spikes or the baby gets "stuck" or distressed and - bam - emergency C-section. Maybe that sounds extreme, but there are more C-sections today than ever, and they're only increasing. I fear a C-section even more than the Pitocin/epidural combo, but the bottom line is, they both seem like a pretty scary way to get a baby out. Those that have to go through that are warriors. So anyway my midwife tells me what day she "won't let me go past." I just kinda nod. At this point, I don't want to be a jerk, I have nothing to prove, I just want my baby to come when he is ready and I'm confident my body will produce a baby at it's own rate. Also, I'm thinking there's no way I will get to the threatened induction date (February 25th) because my body is doing so much to prepare. But hospital policy calls for a non-stress test, an ultrasound to check amniotic fluid levels and a consultation with your caregiver. We schedule it for the following Tuesday, thinking no biggie, my baby will be here by then anyway.
Tuesday comes. February 22nd. I sent an email to my sister telling her I had contractions but they were so lame they didn't count. I lost my mucus plug (what's a birth story without the words 'mucus plug' anyway?), my baby was still kicking like crazy, I felt great, I just didn't have a baby. There was a lot of ice on the road, so Dustan called the hospital and tried to cancel my appointment, but they got all bent out of shape. So we agreed to come in on Thursday, the 24th, thinking again that surely our baby would be here by then anyway.
Thursday morning there was no baby, but I walk into the living room with water trickling down my leg. "I think my water just broke," I tell Dust. We get a fresh surge of energy and excitement. The end of pregnancy is such a torturous waiting game, no matter how calm you try to be. Don't get your hopes up, don't pay attention, tack 8 days onto your due date, read a good book, it's probably not labor. But when you're past the due date you've been given, it's really hard to not let every little thing send you into a tizzy. We show up for the non-stress test with big grins. I can't wait to tell my midwife my water broke. Do you know what a TINY percentage of women have their waters spontaneously rupture with their first baby? Like 7-10%, something crazy like that. To me this means my body is doing its thing. Of course all our tests are perfect and baby boy is camped out, happy where he's at. When I sit with my midwife and tell her my water has broken, she confirms it. She checks me (I really didn't want to be checked because I knew that could introduce bacteria if my bag of waters was no longer intact) and I was 2-3cm dilated. She was not encouraging. Instead she launched into this big schpeel about infection and how I need to start Pitocin if I'm not in active labor within 6-8 hours.
Ok. I understand that she is liable, I understand that this is a hospital, not a dirt field, and I am grateful for the high-tech care I could receive in the event of a medical emergency. Only, this is not a medical emergency. Women whose water breaks spontaneously will most times go into labor on their own, but no one reminded me of that. No one said anything even remotely positive. Our midwife made us promise we would be back by midnight, regardless of if I'd started labor so she could monitor me for infection. We left, I got in the car and for the first time, I got scared that we were going to have to hook my happy baby up to Pitocin. I started crying.
Dustan was cool as a cucumber and started pulling out all the ammo we'd built up in our Bradley course. He said to me what I wanted them to say in the hospital. "Bets! You lost your mucus plug, you've had bloody show, you're having some mild contractions here and there, your water has broken and you're even dilated a little. You will go into labor. We're going home, we're taking a walk and eating some Subway and chilling out." Immediately my head was on straight again.
On the way home we talked each others' heads off about how hospital policy and liability trumps everything at the end of the day - even the timing of when and how you have your baby. This was the most frustrating part of hospital birth for us and it cast a dark shadow on an otherwise seamless pregnancy. Nothing about my pregnancy was high risk. Everything unfolded beautifully, the baby developed perfectly, all my vitals were spot on, every time. I was active and ate well and felt great. Yet, Dustan and I still had to fight to have a natural childbirth because my baby was "overdue." I never felt scared or anxious or uneasy about my baby, not for a second. But if I hadn't read tons about my body and a developing baby, if we hadn't taken those Bradley classes, if I didn't stand in awe of a meticulous God and his amazing design of how babies are made and born, I would have been covered up in fear and worry, thanks to the team at the hospital. Ridiculous. I'm not saying things don't go wrong (and go wrong fast) with babies and mothers. I know hospitals and medicine exist for the times when augmentation and C-sections are necessary, and become life-saving. I'm so grateful for those babies and those mothers! It's the one-size-fits-all prenatal care that I was trying to avoid.
So we went home, walked in the snow, had a fight, ate some subs and at 5 o'clock I went into labor. I was giddy. I had loads of people praying for me, that my contractions would be stronger, longer, closer. There are 2 things in this whole thing that I had zero faith for - contractions and milk. They happen miraculously, completely out of your control. No one really knows why a woman finally goes into labor, probably some perfect hormone concoction that your body releases and the baby releases and suddenly, it's time! Until then, I felt like it would never happen. But I finally got my wish and was bowled over by a juicy contraction so big it buckled my knees. I cried with relief that I'd dodged getting induced. I was washing dishes, Dust had just laid down for a nap. I woke him up and we stared at each other. We called Dana and she showed up and then we all three stared at each other. We started a game of Scrabble that we never finished. With each contraction I would get quiet and then say "That one hurt!" trying to convince them I was really in labor. I was in labor, but I was only playing games at that point (literally!) and had no idea how insane it would get.
We decided to go ahead to the hospital and be there by midnight since my contractions were consistently 4 minutes apart, and we'd promised to come back. That's when everything at the hospital did a complete 180. We pulled up, reached the L&D floor and they put me right into a room with quiet smiles. No paperwork, no flurry, no fluster. Our nurse was Gretta and she rocked it. We unpacked our snacks, someone started running me a big hot bath in a whirlpool tub with jets and I sat on the couch having contractions.
Contractions feel like this. All the organs in your abdomen and nether regions have a board meeting that you aren't invited to. They decide they are all going to trade places slowly, rubbing against each other in the process. Some say period cramps. I say board meeting.
They checked me when I was admitted but I didn't want to know the number. I hate those dilation numbers. They play mind games. Later Dust told me I was a 4. I'm so glad I didn't know that because I would have been devastated. I thought I was like a 6 or a 7. At this point, I'm in and out of the tub. Time stands still. I puke, I poop, I puke again. At some point I was back in the tub for good (this is when I wish Dustan or Dana was writing my birth story, because it turns to mush in my memory), and everything was silent as a stone. This was my Scientology phase. Tom Cruise would've been proud. But really, contractions were so painful I couldn't talk or moan or even breathe differently. And if I did I knew it would initiate another tired round of "Great job, Betsy"s and I was really tired of hearing that line. I would just open my mouth and Dana always had water ready for me. Dust told me later he would've been lost without Dana. I'm so grateful we had her there! The word doula actually means 'slave,' and Dana lived up to it. She was always thinking ahead for us, always kept a line of fresh ice waters on the edge of the bath tub, always kept my water hot, and very gently suggested the next good move to make. She intercepted if it wasn't a good time for me to be monitored, and the nurses got on really well with her (which was great because I know some people get crappy nurses and it makes all the difference in the world). Not only is Dana our friend, she had a home birth with her first baby and a natural birth with her second baby using in our midwife in this hospital. She reinforced everything we learned in Bradley.
The Bradley method is super simple. You basically play dead during every contraction. You relax your face, your jaw, your hands, your shoulders, your whole body. The point is to let your uterus - this big powerhouse of a muscle - get all the energy you have so you don't waste it on pointless things like gripping the rail of a bed or clenching your teeth or screaming. It's really, really hard to do that in the face of such agonizing pain. The board meeting is history. Now it feels like there is a rope tied around my insides and someone on the other end of the rope is trying to pull me into the center of the earth. It's hard to catch my breath. Did I already say time stands still? Cause time stands still. I felt like I might die and I was convinced I would never actually get a baby out of this process. I just wanted it to be over.
My midwife showed up and suggested I move out of the tub and she check me because she thought I was almost through transition and it would help me mentally to know. Getting up and stepping onto the slick floor of the bathroom and ending up with one leg in a half-squat in the bedroom was the longest walk of my life. Longer than Georgia to Maine. She checked me and I was a 9.5 (10 is the goal). I remember thinking at that point if they offered me a special kind of C-section that went from my knees to my elbows, I would've taken it. The sun rose. It was a new day and I was still stuck in the agony of time standing still. The baby's heartbeat dropped a little so they wanted me to get on my side. His head was turned in the wrong direction and this would help turn it. I couldn't bear to lay in bed on my side, so I hit the floor like a sack of potatoes. They totally worked with me. That was another aspect of the hospital experience that was a wonderful turnaround. I was in any position I wanted to be in, in and out of the tub, wore whatever, ate or drank whatever - and they were fine with it. Gretta left and my new nurse Maureen came on shift. Maureen had five home births, she was probably mid-40's and really attractive. She told me I was doing "a beautiful job." It was fresh wind in my sails right before the freakiest part of having a baby.
The Urge to Push. I guess my side-lying position helped turn his head and I dilated fully, because with the next contraction - completely without my control or initiation - my body instinctively curled up into a tight ball and I scream-growled the most animalistic utterance ever. That? Oh, that's pushing. Riiiight. In all my reading of birth stories, the pushing part seems to be the good part. The relieving part. The 'home stretch' part. Um, nope. Not for me. Pushing was nuts. I only pushed for 50 minutes but like I said, yeah - timelessness. Someone could've told me I pushed for 4 hours and I would believe them. (Don't dock points from women who have short labors. It still hurts like hell). I ended up on the bed, don't know how I got there, and pushed my baby out. Fifteen hours total.
Then all this cool stuff happens. Do you want to hear it? You've already made it this far so you probably do. Your baby hits your skin and gets really warm and starts rooting (looking for food) pretty much immediately. When the baby starts to nurse, your body releases oxytocin. This is the hormone that makes your uterus contract and clamp down so you don't hemorrhage. It's also the "love drug" that causes you to fall in love with your baby. The baby starts to get colostrum and that helps them pass their first sticky poo. It's this amazing chain reaction that makes everyone cry and take pictures. Only...that is not what happened with me. After my baby came out, all I could think was "I want the rest of the stuff to come out." I didn't think about my baby. He hit my chest and they started rubbing him down but I was totally out of it. I was like "Can...someone get this baby off me?" I know, so motherly, right? SO beautiful. *big fat eye roll* Dustan ripped his shirt off and put him right to his chest and held him like that for 25 minutes while I got stitched up and then a first-row seat to the Placenta Show (I was actually really interested in seeing the amazing organ that my body grew and used to sustain my baby for 9 months, so my midwife showed me the smooth side and the rough side and the little floppy Ziploc bag sack where my baby lived for all those months. Why don't we as a society figure out something useful to do with placentas? It made me sad to think about plopping it in a metal basin and chucking it. But I did chuck it, just after the Show. Don't worry, it's not in my freezer).
Dustan told everyone we were naming our boy Bear Balkcom. He came up with that name and so he got the credit by announcing it. People ask what it means. It means bear. We called our baby Cub Bear the whole time I was pregnant, we loved it and it stuck. Eventually, Bear came back to me. He nursed. All those magic chain reaction things happened. I even got my second thing I had no faith for. Milk. But it took us awhile to get a good look at each other. I was too preoccupied with this omelet they gave me, filled with swiss, tomato, onion and made with real butter. I ate it, and colors got brighter. And sounds became more acute. And the meaning of life deepened, that's how good it tasted.
By the time I made it to the recovery room hours later and passed out in my queen-sized bed next to Dustan, Bear was hours and hours old. My mom came. A day passed. FINALLY I took a shower (I will never forget the bleachy odd smell of amniotic fluid. It was dried onto my baby's head for days). I dried my hair and sat up in bed. And that's when I started to notice I had the sweetest boy. On earth. He had black shark eyes that darted around for about 12 seconds when he was hungry and peach fuzz covering his whole body. He was a little cub. He was a champion nurser. He was intoxicating. When we brought him home and tucked him in bed with us, it was so cold. Snow had fallen. My body was altered in every way. I would sit in bed, feeling the fragility of life press down around me. Wondering how it works that even one baby lives. I thought of all the cows giving birth in the snow, all the mama cats looking for the perfect spot under the porch, all the tiny babies that might not have love-drunk mamas to feed them. That was when I cried and held my baby with reverence and decided life officially started, and there were no omelets to interrupt me loving him.
A lot of those hormones have flushed out and I'm not quite so attentive in my sleep to every little squeak. With every bath he gets, I scrub some of the newborn off and now I have a plump two-month old with dimples in his elbows, eyes bluer by the day, and a broad, melting grin that he is so proud of. I memorize this baby. I drink him in every day. As soon as he falls asleep, I want him to get up again (unless I'm checking my email). He is my baby, the best baby in the whole world, and these are the sweetest days I've ever known besides when I first fell in love with Dustan.
I am drunk with love.