Six days ago, my son was born at our home in Maryland. The start of active labor to the moment he entered the world took slightly over 50 hours total, culminating in over two hours of pushing. The journey to delivering little Harrison is a miracle all its own, and so the race is on to capture the story of his birth before the details disappear and all I remember about it is how my life was forever changed. So before he wakes up, here goes...
Throughout the day on Monday (17 Sep), there were signs that labor was afoot. I woke nauseous and oddly anxious, as though the time needed to complete the tasks left on the to-do list had completely run out. I scurried to finish laundry, went out to get my flu shot, and cleared out my work inbox, hurried along by some unseen force until I felt sure I'd accomplished as much as possible and could reward myself with a nap. I laid down at 3:30PM.
Clenching pain around my lower back and midsection woke me from my nap. As I had been experiencing some more painful braxton hicks contractions over the course of the last several days, I waited to see if there was any regularity to the pains. At 5:30PM my contractions were 10 minutes apart... An hour later, they were 8 minutes apart and more painful... By 8PM, it was getting difficullt to hold a conversation through a contraction, a condition tested when we got my sister on FaceTime and she urged us shortly thereafter to get our midwives on the phone.
Mairi and Erin became my prenatal care providers after some back-to-back negative experiences with conventional obstetrics made me wonder if I should go ahead and pursue a homebirth. They were exceptional at restoring my confidence in my body's abilities to carry and deliver a healthy baby, which had been delivered a major blow last November when we had miscarried. That Monday evening, Mairi was on call, and was careful to make sure she came to our home at exactly the moment I needed her presence. Her arrival came just after my mother in-law came over; and by midnight we were holed up in my house holding vigil for Harrison's arrival.
Now, regardless of how many people tell you to be ready for anything when it comes to delivering a baby, you can't help but subconsciously get attached to visions of a perfect birth. So to make up for your preconceived notions, you halfheartedly arrive at birthplans that you pray you will never have to implement. I knew what I was going to ask for if I needed a Cesearean section, I knew I would tolerate pitocin but not an epidural, I knew what items from home I would bring with me if an emergency caused me to be transfered to the hospital down the block. All of the above would fall into the "medically necessary intervention" category - if I was okay and the baby was okay, I preferred to carry out my delivery in the comfort of home under the watchful eyes of my midwives and family.
I had no idea what I was in for.
I had gone into active labor at 5:30PM. By 8AM the next morning, my contractions were on top of one another and centralized in my lower back, feeling very much like back labor although Harrison was not technicallly faced the wrong way. They did an internal exam and my mouth gaped at the bad news. After 15 hours of labor, I was only 4cm dialated and 90% effaced. Mairi couldn't feel the sutures of Harrison's head (the seam that runs down the middle of a baby's head and compresses on the way out of the birth canal during pushing). Something was preventing the contractions from moving Harrison down into position.
The Diagnosis: My baby's hands were up by his face, positioned the way one's hands cradle one's head when one is side-lying and trying to fall asleep. This position would cock the baby's head slightly to the side, preventing his crown from making contact where it should. The pain in my back was likely a sign his elbows were making direct contact with my tailbone with every contraction. CHRIST, it hurt.
The Solutions: 1) Engage in a series of positions, movements, and strategies to encourage Harrison to move his arms out of the way. 2) Transfer to a hospital, a decision which would likely result in a C-Section given that no amount of pitocin would force Harrison to dislodge from his position. My midwives seemed confident I could coax Harrison to cooperate. I went with Solution #1.
15 hours became 24 hours, then 30, then 40. Dark clouds, wind, and rain from a storm system passing overhead made it seem like I was stuck in a time vortex - an eternal twilight. Sleepless and tearful, I thrived off of bursts of Rasperberry Leaf tea, small snacks, and barely minute-long rests. Contractions continued to assail me, producing sounds from my throat not unlike those of Westley on The Machine in "The Princess Bride". And yet, I was hard at work trying to move the baby, performing series after series of squats, going up and down the stairs, hanging in down dog and puppy poses, and floating in the bath. At one point, in a moment reminiscent of our miscarriage last November, Mike put on Michael Buble and slow danced with me in the hopes the rocking motion would dislodge our son's stubborn baby arms. We both cried.
A moment from the tub. It is now Wednesday morning, 40 hours into labor. I'm lying on my side, partially submerged in warm water, and Mike is sitting beside me pouring cupfuls of water over my shoulders and stomach. I nearly pry off his hands with each contraction.
"I don't know how much more I've got," I whisper.
He pours another cupful of water. "I know. You're doing so great. So strong."
"This has to end soon. I can't keep this up."
"Of course this will end soon. Harrison can't stay in there forever."
Another cupful of water. My eyes are full of tears. "I don't want to go to the hospital," I sob.
"No one seems to think you need to go. They would say so if they thought you needed to go."
"What if I think I need to go?"
This same moment happened multiple times, and always during a bath or a shower intended to give me a soothing break from all my dancing around. But before my final repose under the water, Mike told the midwives to do one more internal exam, and if I still had not progressed, to break my water. If that still didn't help, we would go to the hospital. (Mike later confessed that while he held my hand in the shower through my contractions, he was on the other side of the shower curtain crying.)
But they were adamant in their assertion that I was not in danger, nor was Harrison, and that however long this was taking, I was indeed making progress. Another internal exam revealed I had made it to 7cm, and as planned, they broke my water. I decided I still had something left to give.
Day three began with the sun shining high in the sky, which seemed like a good omen that Harrison would be with us, not tomorrow, but today. I thought of that scene in "Under the Tuscan Sun" where Frances Mayes explains that the Italian phrase for giving birth was dare a la luce: to "give to the light". Between each painful rush, I felt hopeful that Harrison would be born "to the light" on a beautiful September day like this.
Enter Claudia. She was called in to assist while Mairi left briefly to attend to the group of October mothers scheduled to receive Community Care that morning. Unlike the rest of us, she was well rested, sunny, full of humor, and came with a number of additional strategies to bolster what I was doing already. As I was bent over the side of the bed, choking on a squeal, she offered a piece of advice that may have been what finally tipped events in our favor.
"You need to teach your baby what to do. He's gotta go down. Use your breath like the North Wind blowing South. Down and out. Like this: Shhhhhhheeeeeeeeeeooooooooooooooohhhhhhh!
I gripped the baseboard of the bed and lowered into a squat as soon as I felt the next contraction begin. And instead of concentrating the pressure in my throat, I sent it South with a loud hiss.
And I felt Harrison shift. Another internal exam confirmed that he was in the right place at last!
The rest of labor came like a freight train after that, and before I knew it, I was on my back and ready to push. My mother in-law held me on one side, my husband on the other, and the pressure was so fierce that I began to hallucinate in what was clearly my body's attempt to focus my remaining energy on something productive.
As each contraction arrived, I imagined a stage coach in black and white entering my field of vision. When they told me to push, the horses reared up and kicked. As the contraction ended, the coach drove away. You'd think my psychotic episodes would be more entertaining.
This part of the story is best told in reactions. My son entered the world after 50 hours of labor including 2 hours of pushing. What I remember is this:
- My mother in-law and husband gasping in awe at something I couldn't see for myself
- Mike, eyes filled with tears, hand on mouth.
- Erin calling me back from beyond: "Venessa, reach down and take your baby!"
- Picking up Harrison for the very first time, startled at how beautiful he was.
- Falling to pieces at the sound of his little vocalizations, chittering as though he already knew how to talk.
- No more pain. Except the stinging in my waterlogged eyes.
My labor now ranks as "legendary" among the women in my family. And there is a part of me that does feel really accomplished at having survived such a long ordeal without pain medication or any other medical intervention. But I would be lying if I said that it made me special or different. Despite my flagging faith at times throughout my labor, the people around me understood that I was engaged in something timeless; like all women, I was born with the equipment to do what I had done, and if anything, the best intervention I received was being told I wasn't in danger, that the pain had purpose, and that a long labor did not mean a wrong labor.
I don't say this out of criticism for those whose experiences took them on a different path than my own - interventions exist for a reason, and many women have been saved by them. I say it because I wouldn't have pursued natural childbirth had not other women in my acquaintance assured me it's possible and given me confidence to make that choice while there was a choice to be made. So here I am on LJ adding my voice to the scores of women who have done this since the beginning of time to say: It can be done. Even when you think you've reached your physical, emotional, and psychological edge, you can go beyond it. In that place, I met my son... and myself.
Harrison Wilfredo Picard Kelley
Born: September 19th, 2012
Current Mood: relieved