I’m going to tell you the story of how my daughter was born. And the birth story I’m going to tell you is almost the exact opposite of the birth that I hoped for, prayed for, and prepared for.
The birth story I’m going to tell you is simultaneously one of the best and one of the worst experiences of my life – and it’s taken me a long time to accept that it can be both. This story is one I’ve struggled with telling ever since it happened – one I’ve chewed on every single day, trying to break it down into digestible pieces. I’m not going to pretend part of me doesn’t regret how it went down, that sometimes I don’t wish I’d made different decisions, or that the universe had dealt me a different cards so I didn’t have to play the hand I’d been given.
But then I’m also going to tell you how I’m all right with what happened – how even though it was scarier than even I’d expected – parts of it were still so magical, so breathtaking. How I mourn the loss of that empowering, natural birth I worked so hard for – how I still struggle with guilt and fear and confusion – but how, on good days, I understand how every single step was necessary to get Ariadne here safely, and keep me safe, and how we did everything in our power to make her birth as spiritual, celebratory, and emotional as was possible under the circumstances – and how much I believe we succeeded, considering what we could not change.
This is a birth story, and it’s my birth story – meaning, I’m going to be as open and frank and detailed and long-winded as I want. You’ve been warned!
PART ONE: A Change in Plans
I find it important to note – I had an almost textbook healthy pregnancy. For 37 weeks, I was a healthy girl carrying a healthy baby. Aside from some anxiety and depression issues early in my first trimester (unrelated to being pregnant), and the typical pregnancy ailments – my baby and I were healthy and risk free, for almost our entire pregnancy.
I struggled so much with this; all throughout the pregnancy, but especially in the beginning. Part of me just didn’t believe that I was capable of being pregnant. It had taken us a little longer than expected to get pregnant, and felt such a shock when I learned I was — and some of that shock spilled over into the actual pregnancy. I doubted that I could do this, that my body could do this – for no reason other than that self-doubt that plagues us all. I believed all other women could have healthy pregnancies and healthy births with healthy babies, but I doubted myself. Surely something was wrong with me. Surely I would mess this up, surely I would find a way to ruin this. Surely I wasn’t good enough to be trusted with this gift. I’d wanted my baby so badly for so long – I was terrified something beyond my control would take her away from me.
For several months, we would drive out to the birth center for our midwife appointments, and I would be riddled with nerves. Sometimes we had to play calming music, I had to practice slow, relaxing breathing. Something was going to be wrong. I was going to have messed something up. I was going to have ruined this. One spring morning, we drove back into town, in great spirits after a totally normal, healthy check-up, and I realized how hard I was being on myself.
I swear, every time we finish an appointment, I told Shaun on that drive, I am so thankful. I keep thinking, oh my God, I haven’t messed this up yet.
It took a long time to let go of that fear. Even into the start of my final trimester, a little of that fear remained. I still felt vaguely apprehensive on the drive to our midwife appointments, and then a huge sense of relief on the drive back – a relief that lasted only as long as a week or two before I started thinking about the next appointment.
And yet – we were healthy. Baby Girl and I both were. Her heartrate was always perfect, she always measured right on schedule. My weight gain was spot on, really well managed – I didn’t gain any weight at all until my third trimester. I can tell you’re taking good care of yourself and eating right and exercising, my midwife told me. My urine samples were always negative for proteins, my blood pressure — and pay attention, because this is important for later — was always, always — and I quote my midwife on this — perfect. I taught and took dance into my third trimester until the recital year ended, I did yoga as long as I could, and when a classroom setting became too much, I stretched at home every night. We tried to take easy hikes as often as we could until I was too tired, and we walked up until my Braxton Hicks were too persistent in the final few weeks. I was negative for gestational diabetes, I was Group B Strep Negative. Our pregnancy was damn near as perfect as one could be.
Up until 38 weeks.
When I hit 35 weeks, I started to feel ready, or close to it. The waiting was hard for me, as it always was, but knowing that Baby Girl would most likely be healthy if she delivered once we hit week 35, I felt calmer. We were in fact on the home stretch. I had my apprehensions about birth, as even the most prepared first-time moms do — but I faced that fear daily. I stretched and did squats and lunges and tried to open my hips. I rested, especially when my Braxton Hicks (all day every day since 30 weeks!) felt like they’d never stop. I did my Hypnobirthing tracks and visualized my natural, vaginal birth. I practiced my contraction breathing, my relaxation breathing, and my push breathing. My Fierce Lady Tribe threw me a beautiful, empowering Blessingway to nurture me emotionally before birth. I talked out my fears and apprehensions with my doula and best friend, Emi. Shaun was so supportive, kept telling me, you’ve got this. You’re the strongest woman I know. I know you can do this. I have no doubt you can do this. I accepted that not everything would go according to plan, and tried to work on being flexible and adaptable. I knew that I would be challenged in my need to be in charge, and so I spent a lot of time working on letting go and not anticipating that I could micromanage every aspect of my birth.
The first test of my flexibility and adaptability actually came at 37 weeks, when my midwife warned me she might not be in town the week before my due date. Just not the news any first-time, expectant mama wants to hear. We had driven the thirty minutes to my midwife and the birth center all pregnancy long for one exact reason — her. Her natural birth support, her midwife experience. I didn’t want a typical OBGYN experience. I didn’t want to be rushed, I didn’t want to be pressured into taking actions I didn’t feel I needed. I didn’t want to make any decisions about out of fear. I wanted my body and my needs to be respected just as much as my baby’s needs.
But we dealt with that worry in the week in between appointments — I spent time accepting the worst case scenario, as well as really holding strong to the idea that this wouldn’t be an issue. I felt in my gut that Baby Girl didn’t want to be born before at least 40 weeks, and that she would probably choose to go overdue rather than early.
(For the record — I still believe that. If Baby Girl had gotten to be in charge, she would have gone at least 40-41 weeks.)
So, on our Wednesday 38-weeks-and-one-day appointment, Shaun picked me up from work about 12:30. To me, this was just another day. I had finally let go of that I’m Gonna Mess This Up fear. I remember feeling especially light-hearted that day — a beautiful, sunny, hot Kentucky summer day. I loved my big swollen baby bump with my belly-button poking out. I loved my bearded, man-bunned husband who sang along with the music as he drove me out through the countryside. I remember Snapchatting the big, puffy white clouds in the blue, blue sky over green fields of crops, and pronouncing, we do what we want because WE’RE ADULTS, and laughing.
There wasn’t a flicker of worry on my radar. Shaun was gonna drive us out there, we’d see the midwife, confirm that she’d be out of town next week, and that all was well with the pregnancy, and then we’d buzz back into town, drop me off at work, and go about our day. My goal was to work full days until Friday, I had one last weekend duty rotation, and then I’d start taking half days the next week so I could rest and prepare for my upcoming birth.
The appointment started out just as I’d expected. My blood pressure reading was slightly higher than usual, but only just — and I chalked it up the white coat syndrome I knew I had, feeling rushed into the exam room after doing my urine sample. Our visit with the midwife went normally too — Baby Girl measured perfectly still, her heart rate was great. We chatted with my midwife, she seemed chill and unconcerned about my pregnancy and its progression, not really thinking I was close to labor any more than I did. She didn’t even check me for dilation, as neither of us really felt like there was any reason to. I hadn’t had any real contractions, I hadn’t lost my mucus plug. Baby Girl was still riding high above my pubic bone.
But at the end of the appointment, she did mention: your blood pressure was a little higher. Let’s check it again and see.
I explained to her about the white coat syndrome (as I had before, even when it was a normal reading and I was just paranoid about my results because of it) and she smiled and said, well, let’s get real zen then.
Another blood pressure reading and — it was still high. Just a little. Just barely.
But, as my midwife explained, they monitor first time moms very carefully for preeclampsia, as it’s much more common in first pregnancies. It’s a very serious condition, and they like to be better safe than sorry. She asked if I was still working, and I told her I was, full time, and sometimes weekends too, and she nodded, looked thoughtful. It may just be that we need to put you on bed rest, she said, working is probably just too much for you right now. But I’d like to send you over to the birth center for some quick monitoring, just in case.
Even this didn’t really phase Shaun or me at first. I still felt pretty strongly that this slightly elevated blood pressure was a result of anxiety, and I expected we’d walk over to the birth center from the midwife’s office, have a quick 30-minute monitoring, and at worst, maybe be put on bed rest until I (naturally) went into labor. I still expected to leave that day under normal circumstances, most likely go back to work. I texted my coworkers, just in case, but I didn’t really believe anything out of the ordinary was about to happen.
I’d been inside the birth center before, three times total. Once, to be doula-in-training for Emi when she gave birth to Jude. Twice, to be amateur doula for another woman who wanted a doula but couldn’t budget to pay one. And the third time, just to visit Kristin on duty after a midwife appointment. I had thought I’d feel familiar there — I knew the layout, the rooms, the little kitchenette.
But as we walked in and checked in at the big nurses’ desk with two nurses I didn’t know then (but soon would), I started to feel anxious. Suddenly, being pregnant, 38 weeks, felt very serious and real in a way I hadn’t felt before. The nurses took me into one of the rooms like I’d seen babies delivered in. With the curtains barely cracked, it was dim and cool with only a stream of sunlight coming through and spilling onto the floor.
I peed in a cup for a urine sample, and then was settled in the bed with a blood pressure cuff, and two belts on my belly — a heartrate monitor for Baby Girl, and a contractions monitor. A phlebotomist came in and took a blood sample while I was being hooked up. My nerves started to creep in more and more. This was a lot, all of it was happening very quickly — and I hadn’t expected any of it. I expected to be back in the car, trying to decide what quick meal to grab for lunch on our way back into town. This didn’t feel right, being in the birth center like this – I didn’t feel at home here, like I had on my visits before. Some tiny worry planted itself in my mind, and took root.
At first, I laid still. Shaun was being so strong and solid for me. I could tell — because we’re so in tune with each other — that he was a little bit nervous, just as I was. But he hid it so well. He rubbed my back, checked in with me. I tried to lie still and just breathe and relax and do my time until they’d release me to go home.
Every ten minutes, the blood pressure cuff took a reading. I’ve always hated blood pressure cuffs, and not just because of my white coat syndrome. It’s just — unpleasant. By the year 2016, we should have a better technology to check blood pressure besides squeezing the bejeezus out of someone’s arm and forcing them to Hulk out. And now I was paranoid, scared that the readings would go high. Scared I would skew them high just because I was nervous and growing increasingly anxious.
The blood pressure reading continue to read a little high — they don’t like you over 140, and mine was 145ish for a while.
Then it started to go up.
145, 150, 155, once even 160.
Mentally, I started to feel a little unraveled. I was still convinced this was my anxiety messing up my readings, or at least that’s what I wanted to believe — and not warning signs for preeclampsia. We had been silent, listening to a Hypnobirthing track and trying to relax and breathe — but Shaun and I changed tactics after that 160 reading.
Talk to me, I said, calm me down, let’s just pretend everything’s normal.
So we talked — about the three Peaky Blinders episodes we had left to watch, about what we’d cook for dinner. I felt a little calmer, just because it wasn’t me pretending nothing was going on, trying to zen myself into thinking this wasn’t weird or unusual. We laughed a little as we talked, and even though this situation felt strange, I felt calmer when we were just being our goofy selves.
The blood pressure readings started to come down, back to 145, then 139, once even 129. I told myself again, this was just anxiety and nerves, and everything was fine.
After what felt like a very long time, the nurse came back, and let me off all the monitors. She explained my labs — the blood and urine samples — looked fine for now, but the high blood pressure readings had my midwife a bit wary — so they were putting me on modified bed rest; meaning I needed to be reclined, preferably side lying most of the time. I was allowed out of bed to pee, shower, and grab food/necessary items relatively quickly. And they wanted us to come back on Monday, for another round of monitoring, and that meant doing a 12-hour urine sample at home so they could run more labs when we came back.
That afternoon, as we drove back, and I texted family, friends, and coworkers to update them on the situation — I didn’t feel really worried, yet. Or else – I really pushed not to allow myself to be scared. I still convinced myself that this was a fluke, that I had been nervous and anxious and let that control my heart rate. I didn’t understand yet that what was happening to me was beyond my control, and way more serious than I could grasp at the moment. I felt certain, on that Wednesday, that I’d come back home, rest and relax at home for a few days, and come back on Monday to be monitored again and have totally normal results. I’d stay on bed rest through that week my midwife was gone, but nothing would happen until the week she got back, and we hit my actual due date and 40 weeks.
That feeling lasted through most of Wednesday, mostly because I think I was in shock. I had totally planned to keep working as long as I possibly could. The idea of not working baffled me, and as I turned off all the alarms on my phone, I kept saying to Shaun, this is so bizarre. He was so precious, as usual — encouraging me to relax, to take it easy, that he’d take care of everything so I could rest. Being as calm and supportive as he could to try and keep me from worrying.
And I really tried to enjoy it — I had at least four days where I had to do…nothing. I can’t even remember the last time I had that much time where I was supposed to do nothing. But as Thursday came and rolled into Friday, I had this deep feeling of unease that I couldn’t quite name, at first. I felt very unsettled, and worried about this new progression. I had concerned phone calls and visits from a few people, and they kept telling me, relax, enjoy! Just take naps and watch Netflix!
And sure, I did that — but that wasn’t what troubled me. I’ve talked about this with a few people since, and I realized that people expect you to enjoy that free time as just – free time. But when you’re 38 weeks pregnant, for the first time – all you can think about is your baby’s health and well-being. All those long hours with nothing to do gave me nothing else to focus on but the fact that something was out of the ordinary, that we were being extra wary in case a problematic situation was on the horizon.
As those in-between days rolled on, I lost that feeling of confidence I’d had when we left the birth center on Wednesday. I had an automatic blood pressure cuff at home, and I monitored my blood pressure a couple times on Thursday and Friday — but the readings continued to be higher than I liked. I was so convinced that I’d come home, calm down, and get nothing but normal readings; I’d go back to the birth center confident that there was no issue. But now — by Friday, Saturday, I was starting to worry that preeclampsia was a real concern, and not just something we should be better safe than sorry about.
Those days are one of the many moments I wish I could go back in time and hug myself, as me, now – understanding what was happening and what I didn’t understand. I wish I could tell myself then, so much earlier on, that this was real and this was serious, and I couldn’t do anything to make it stop happening. I wish I could tell myself to trust my gut, and not be so fearful I was messing up, I was doing something wrong. Because all I felt in those few days was guilt and fear.
Of course, I blamed myself. There was no reason to — but this was a theme with my pregnancy all along, and into the next few days — I just felt responsible. I knew the facts — that women of all ages and sizes and lifestyles can get preeclampsia. It had nothing to do with me personally, there was nothing I could have done to prevent it. Yet, I still felt like I had messed up. I knew that if I was diagnosed with preeclampsia, a whole host of things would change for my birth. I knew I would have limitations and regulations, and I worried that this would have a major effect on how my baby came into the world — and not for the better.
Shaun worried a lot about this too — he went to work Thursday and Friday, and came home tense. Meanwhile, I had spent a lot of time talking to Emi, a best friend and doula; as well as Kristin, a close friend and a labor/delivery nurse at the same birth center where I was to deliver. I had very real, honest conversations with these two women. As my suspicion that this was not a passing worry grew, I felt more and more unsettled. When I tried to just wish with all my might that all would go well, when I tried to tap into my power of positive thinking — it didn’t feel right. I couldn’t convince myself just to believe positive and all would be well.
This was the first time during this birth story that my instincts started talking to me, too loud to ignore. My gut started telling me I needed to listen up, and maybe hear something I didn’t want to hear. One night, after Shaun got home from work, we had a long talk, and we both agreed focusing on the best case scenario wasn’t really working for either of us. We wanted with all our might to get a clean report on Monday and be sent home to wait for Baby Girl for another week, but my Mama Instincts were telling me that wasn’t going to happen.
I felt we needed to be prepared for the worst case scenario, so to speak, and Shaun agreed. We talked about accepting the fact that I might be getting preeclampsia. The nurse had off-handed mentioned coming in early on Monday, in case your midwife decides she wants to induce. I hadn’t taken her seriously at first, but the longer my bed rest went on, the more I realized that was a likelihood, or at least a possibility. Shaun and I talked about preparing emotionally and physically to be induced on Monday morning.
I knew from talking to both Kristin and Emi that if I were induced, and had preeclampsia, my labor would be quite different than I’d hoped. I’d most likely be limited to the bed, and to a very few position changes. I’d most likely be on Pitocin — another one of my fears, as Pitocin can make contractions really, really intense (aka painful); really, really quickly — there’s no escalation and adjusting to being in labor — which was a huge part of my coping plan. So, first with Emi, and then with Shaun, we talked about the possibility of an epidural being necessary — another thing I hoped to avoid.
But being confined to the bed would take away the bulk of my coping mechanisms — all the counter pressure and position changes Emi, Shaun, and I had been practicing for months, the idea of using the birth pool (that I really, really, really wanted to use!) or even the shower. Maybe not even the birth ball. We three agreed we’d still go with my all natural plan, but we knew we’d be under different circumstances than we’d expected –we recognized we’d need to be open to the situation and steer ourselves depending on what happened.
And finally, we discussed the possibility for the need for a C-section. Yet another thing I did not want. I really, really did not want a C-section. I was legitimately terrified of having a C-section. I find the idea of having one’s stomach cut open, muscles cut, organs moved, baby pulled out, mama awake and aware all of this was happening — all of it just horrifying. Just too much for me to emotionally handle, I could not handle the concept of having that happen to me, and being awake during it. I’m not generally squeamish about medical stuff to this extreme — but a C-section seemed too extreme for me to cope with. It seemed so wrong, so unnatural. I think women who undergo C-sections are so brave, because it’s such a scary prospect. I feared it so much that in my original birth plan, I had told Emi and Shaun that in the event I had to have a C-section, I thought I wanted general anesthesia instead of a spinal. I didn’t think I could handle being conscious while all of that happened, I thought I would freak out and have a panic attack.
But with preeclampsia on the horizon, I knew a C-section might be necessary. I didn’t want one, I was scared of one — but it felt better accepting that I might need one to get Baby Girl here safely and keep me safe. It felt better accepting that instead of fighting off the idea, denying it might happen, hoping that if I rejected it hard enough, I could prevent it from happening. It felt like facing my fears rather than hiding my head in the sand and pretending it couldn’t happen.
I think that was a big lesson those four days I was at home, on bed rest, waiting. (And, spoiler alert, it was a lesson I learned even more deeply on Monday and Tuesday at the birth center.) I’m such a determined person. I tend to be a control freak but I’ve worked hard on this aspect of my anxious, nervous personality over the past couple years. I’ve had this idea that if I planned hard enough, worked hard enough, organized and prepared enough — I could prevent bad things from happening. One of the things I’ve learned is that first, that’s absolutely not true, and secondly, sometimes that fixation on using one’s determination to stop bad things from happening can actually make us feel worse.
In the Hypnobirthing tracks I did to prepare for birth, the fear release tracks always talked about how our minds can’t understand the concept of never, as in, I never want that to happen to me. Our minds can’t understand a future ending to a problem — so as long as we worry and we have to wait — we keep worrying because we can’t get that resolution to the problem. Until it’s resolved, the paranoid worry stays put. And so, I learned to try and accept the worst case scenario. Welcome it, try not to fight it.
With that in mind, Shaun and I had a long talk, and welcomed all of those things we didn’t want. The preeclampsia, the induction, the limitations, the epidural, the C-section. We still kept that hope alive that we would be surprised, that we would get that best-case scenario — but Shaun and I were both surprised how much better we felt once we prepared for the worst case. It no longer hovered like a storm cloud just out of sight. We felt better prepared, emotionally, to endure a situation we did not want. We felt stronger, and just a tad less scared.
We finally made it to Sunday, and I did my urine sample all day long.
I lay on the couch or on my armchair and footstool, and rubbed my hands over my belly. I tried to think about what it would be like to no longer be pregnant. I tried to think about what it would be like to have this child we’d dreamed and talked about for so long actually here, in our arms. To have her be a reality, and not just a hypothetical. For Shaun and I to be parents, really and truly. It felt unfathomable. I’d said for the last few weeks, as people reminded me how close our baby was to coming, that I’d still be surprised when she came. I rationally understood that I was pregnant with a real, live baby — but it didn’t feel real yet. I couldn’t believe there was an actual child inside of me. That she would come out, and belong to Shaun and me, and no one else. That we would love her more than we ever imagined was possible. I just couldn’t believe she was real; yet as her hour of arrival drew suddenly, unexpectedly closer — Shaun and I both tried to come to terms that all of this was very, very real, and we might be parents within the next day or two.