When I was pregnant with our first son six years ago, I was happy to stick with my regular OB-GYN, a man I’d been content to see for my annual exams throughout my 20’s. I trusted him and liked his two partners well enough, and our prenatal visit to the hospital where they worked was uneventful. That was about where my thoughts on the who’s and where’s of labor and delivery ended. If I hadn’t particularly liked my doctor, I would have looked for another OB who delivered babies at any number of hospitals in the NYC area. Homebirth just wasn’t really on my radar—my (rather uninformed) notion of it was that it wasn’t for people like me; it was reserved for hippies or… I dunno, just not me. Period.
In advance of my son’s birth, I did all that I thought I could to prepare for the best birthing experience possible. I hired a doula—and confirmed with my doctor that he was OK with the presence of one during labor; I made a birth plan; I looked carefully at all of the hospital’s rules about what patients were and were not allowed to bring with them in labor and (over)packed accordingly. But as is unfortunately the case for many women, what I had hoped and planned for and what I got were two very different situations. Yes, no doubt, some of what surprised me was due to my own naïveté as a first-time mom, but what I found was that no matter how special and unique this birth was for me, for much of the hospital staff, it was simply business as usual, and they wanted me to fall in line to make their jobs easier.
When my water broke late on a Friday evening, I immediately called my doctor’s off-hours service and was delighted to find that my favorite OB was on duty. He asked me to come into the hospital within three hours, as he? the hospital? now wanted me to deliver within 24 hours of my water having broken. We complied, heading there around 2 am, and things immediately went downhill. I had learned in childbirth class that laboring moms could ask for a Hep-lock (like a placeholder for an IV that would allow nurses to have things ready, should I need IV fluids or medication) in lieu of a full IV that I would be required to drag around with me, but when I asked for one, I got an eyeroll and the full IV (in addition to some pretty severe bruising as my nurse sucked at finding a vein). I was also hooked up to continuous fetal monitoring, which basically left me tied to the bed, since I couldn’t drag the full monitor around with me in addition to the IV pole. Again, I asked about intermittent monitoring (where nurses could check the baby’s heartbeat every 30 or so minutes but would allow me to otherwise walk around freely during contractions) but was told that continuous monitoring was “hospital policy” (I’ve since heard from other moms who delivered at the same hospital that that’s actually not the case, and that they were offered intermittent monitoring as an option). And when I told the nurse that I wanted to try laboring without pain medication, I got another eyeroll paired with a shoulder shrug and was told that I should go ahead and get the epidural now as I was surely going to want it just in time for a shift change—and then I’d just have to sit there in pain and wait. Ahem. I wish that I had been bold enough to challenge her or ask for another nurse or… something, but I was too shy and scared to say anything beyond those initial requests that were denied.
As it turns out, basically being strapped to a bed and not being able to move around to help cope with the pain of contractions did make me want an epidural—and yes, it was during a shift change (thank you, Nurse Ratched). The epidural slowed down my contractions (in addition to making me so numb below the waist that I couldn’t even move my legs when my doctor came to examine me), which necessitated Pitocin. After eventually pushing for two hours, during the last bit of which a nurse rather dramatically jumped up on my bed, prepared to push on my stomach to help get my son out, I ended up with fourth-degree tearing (note: do not click on this Mayo Clinic link unless you actually want an illustration of just the kind of pain and destruction that means) in addition to an episiotomy, which I begged not to have. Stitching me up took a good half-hour (yes, I was particularly thankful to have an OB at that point, given that they’re so well-trained in surgery), which meant I didn’t get to see my son right away. All of that in a mere 17 hours from my water breaking—and I was incredibly grateful that my OB didn’t push a C-section, despite how long it took for me to push out my son. Unfortunately, the pain didn’t end there—one of my stitches later fell out and had to be re-done in my doctor’s office, but it never healed quite right and sex was painful until I tore again during my second son’s birth and was re-stitched by my midwife by the light of a bedside lamp while my butt was propped up on the complete book of Bob Dylan’s lyrics. Yeouch. (As a side note, it drives me pretty crazy that a lot of people considered that a "good" birth because I ended up with a live, healthy child—but I know how good birth can actually be, and that sure as hell wasn't it.)
After the birth, I felt defeated and disappointed in all that had happened; in some ways it almost felt like I hadn't even been present as the laboring mom—like my wishes had been ignored and I hadn't been respected by the staff, despite it being my body and my requests being wholly within reason. Nursing was challenging (although after seeing THREE lactation consultants, we did get it figured out), and new motherhood was tremendously overwhelming. On such little sleep, I found it terribly hard to enjoy much of anything about being a mom, and was phyiscally repulsed by the idea of having more children until my son was a year old.
When I was pregnant for the second time, I chose a midwife who delivered at a hospital birthing center, but she changed hospitals halfway through my pregnancy to one without a birthing center, and I started to feel all kinds of anxiety at the prospect of a repeat birth experience. Luckily, in my search for a doula, I spoke with a woman who recommended that I consider homebirth, if I was that leery of being in a hospital again. It took me a couple of weeks of learning more about homebirth (including watching the incredibly awesome documentary The Business of Being Born), convincing my husband and family that I wasn’t making a rash or unsafe decision, and ultimately finding a practice that would accept me halfway through my pregnancy, but I made the switch to a pair of homebirth midwives (with whom I’m working once again this time around).
My second birth experience couldn’t have been more different than my first. Although we weren’t actually staying in the house where I gave birth (we’d had to move away when my husband lost his job, so we were staying with my dad and having the baby at my mom’s house a few miles away), it was still vastly more relaxing and less stressful than birthing at a hospital. I started noticing some regularity to my contractions in the early evening. Ben, my two-year-old, was feeling cranky and a bit feverish, so he went to bed early. We called my midwives to tell them that this was probably it, and they asked me to call them back once the contractions were longer and closer together. My husband and I sat down to dinner with my dad, his partner, and one of her adult daughters who was in town for some dental surgery. I remember that she just kept looking at me and saying through the haze of her still-lingering anesthesia, “I can’t believe you’re sitting here in labor, eating dinner with us!”
In the taxi ride to my mom’s house, my contractions picked up in intensity and my husband held the phone to my ear so my midwife could hear me breathing through one. She said that she’d head over right then and meet us at the house, arriving just minutes after we had. My doula also arrived shortly thereafter, and I settled into my mom’s massive tub (shown here) to labor in the water, surrounded by 40-plus birthing affirmations I had printed out and taped to the walls the week before. I’d been hoping for a water birth, but unbeknownst to us, the water heater was set rather low, and the hot water ran out fairly quickly, leaving me shivering. My midwives had me move to my mom’s bed (which had been in the family for generations, and where my grandmother was born in 1912). Lying in bed wasn’t particularly comfortable during labor, so I got up and walked around, leaning on the wall, squatting, or hanging onto my doula during contractions. A licensed massage therapist, she was a tremendous support during those difficult hours, but eventually I felt like I needed to be alone while I tried to get the baby to change positions. I sat alone in the dark on the toilet, with my doula and midwives right outside of the door, until I felt something change—my son’s head finally getting unstuck—and eventually got back into bed to push. Both of my midwives, my doula, and my husband surrounded me during the pushing stage, and my son was born just before 3 am. He nursed immediately while one midwife stitched up the small tear, the other midwife cleaned up the bloody stuff into the garbage and laundry and created an herbal something-or-other from my mom’s spice rack and loaded it into a peri bottle for postpartum healing, and my doula made me tea and a peanut butter and honey sandwich. I was too wired to sleep much that night, but instead of exhausted, I felt triumphant.
I felt so good that day that less than 10 hours after giving birth, my husband and I meandered down the street and had lunch out with my newborn son sleeping in a sling on my chest. And although I had some of the same struggles with nursing in the beginning, my attitude toward parenthood this second time around was completely different. Yes, motherhood as a whole wasn’t so new to me—but I felt really differently about myself and what I was capable of. I felt supported and trusted by my midwives—and I trusted them completely. They had full faith that my body was capable of birthing naturally, which felt like the opposite of the sentiment of the hospital staff. So this time around, instead of being scared of the birth process, I am genuinely looking forward to it. (It’s the having a third kid part of this whole thing that terrifies me!)
I want to hear your birth stories. Did you deliver in a hospital, birthing center, or at home? Did how you delivered matter to you? Leave a comment!