When people ask me how long I was in labor, I like to tell them 4 weeks. – me
It was 8 o’clock on June 14th, 2016. Sprawled on the couch was a very pregnant, very tired, very frustrated woman. She was 39 weeks pregnant. A tearful phone call to her husband earlier in the day summed up her state of mind precisely. “I’m so tired of feeling like I could have this baby at any minute.”
That woman was me and at that time I’d been dilated 5 cm for two weeks. Before that, I spent a week 3-4 cm dilated. Mentally, I was exhausted. I didn’t know that it was possible to “hang out” at 5 cm for weeks. That wasn’t how it was supposed to go. There’s a natural sequence. You start to have contractions. You have enough time to be excited and call your family. Then the contractions get closer together and stronger. Then your water breaks. Then you have a baby. That’s the way it works. That’s what I was expecting. As I learned, that is not always how it works. Dare I say, that is almost never how it works.
My birth journey began well before I considered having a baby. A dear friend of mine shared her beautiful birth story with me. She had her sons at a birth center. She described a lovely comfortable room, similar to a hotel room. She raved about the brilliant midwife attending her. She emphasized the large garden tub she lounged in during labor. Both of her sons came into the world in a peaceful, loving way, free of florescent lights and hospital gowns. It was empowering for her. I wanted that too.
A year before I got pregnant I stopped taking birth control. When people asked my husband and I about kids, we’d tell them “we are not NOT trying” to get pregnant. But after about 6 or 7 months of “not NOT trying” I decided to download a cycle-tracking app. We were officially trying. When 3 months of “trying” did not work, I started to feel anxious. I needed to decide if we would see a fertility specialist. Or maybe we should consider adopting? Or maybe we just shouldn’t have kids? Or surrogacy? Or fostering? I started to panic.
“Look, take that app off your phone,” my husband encouraged, “and stop worrying about it. We’ll give it a few months and then we can decide what to do.” I deleted the app from my phone. A month later I stood in the bathroom staring down at a positive pregnancy test. We were having a baby.
Feeling the pressure to go to a “real” doctor, we made an appointment with an OB/GYN. Like cattle we were herded through that appointment. Here, fill out this paperwork. Here, put on this gown. First day of your last period? Legs up in the stirrups, please. Might be too early to see anything. Oh, nope, there’s the baby. There’s the heartbeat. Here’s an information packet. Do you want a flu shot? We’ll see you back in 4 weeks. It wasn’t personal or comforting at all. I walked away feeling more insecure than I was before. We tried another OB. Same factory-line experience. Those doctors made me feel no ownership over my own pregnancy. Nothing about meeting with the “real doctors” was empowering.
We toured the Austin Area Birth Center shortly after those two perfunctory OB visits. It was like going from a factory line, to a zen garden. From the quiet comfortable waiting areas to the intimate and soothing birth rooms, the birth center appealed to us immediately. We made our decision in the parking lot after the tour that we would have our baby at AABC. It wasn’t a hard decision.
After 39 weeks we were ready. We’d been through the birth class (called Centering) offered by AABC. I chatted regularly with the new mommy-tribe I’d met through classes at AABC, seeking encouragement and validation. We’d hired a doula. We were ready. Only, lounging on the couch at 8 PM on June 14th, I was utterly defeated. My back ached. My belly stretched to the limits. I was dilated, but our baby wasn’t ready. No contractions. No signs of impending labor whatsoever.
Just as I resigned myself to yet another day of pregnancy I felt a pop then heard a gushing sound. I leaped off the couch holding my dress to catch the water and hobbled to the bathroom. I stripped and stepped into the tub intending to sit down but remembered (from Centering) that I shouldn’t take a bath. So I yanked the shower knob up and jerked the shower head off its perch. Only I jerked so hard that the nozzle separated from the hose spraying water all over the place. Flustered and now soaked, I turned off the water and grabbed a towel. No contractions yet. I waddled into the dining room and mouthed to my husband who was on the phone, “my water just broke!” Within minutes of finishing his call, I was feeling contractions. We called the midwife and made a plan to meet her at 9:30. My contractions were strong but 3 minutes apart. There was still time. We called our photographer (I’d decided to have birth photos made) and we called the doula. It was all happening according to plan. We could hang out at the house for a little while, then I’d labor at the birth center. Maybe get in the tub. Maybe sit on the birth ball in the shower. It was all happening! And in fact, it was ALL happening, only happening much faster than anticipated! In the time it took our doula to arrive my contractions went from 3 minutes apart, to 1 minute apart, to right on top of each other. Her first words, “Whoa! We need to get to the birth center!”
The car ride to the birth center was brutal, for lack of a better word. I just knew I would end up having the baby in the car. At 9:15 we parked at the birth center as the midwife, Leo, also arrived. I slowly eased out the car and somehow we made our way into the birth center. “Let me get the room set up,” Leo said, “You can relax on the couch or walk around. Whatever you need to do.” I limped over to one of the couches. Before I could get comfortable another contraction swept over me. “I need to push!” I yelled. It was truly an indescribable sensation. The only way to describe it is to yell I NEED TO PUSH!
Leo rushed out to help me into the room and onto the bed. Things get blurry after that. However, there are several moments still fixed in my mind even through the fog of childbirth. I remember laboring on my side. Then I recalled reading that larger babies are easier to birth if you are on your hands and knees. So I got on my hands and knees. I also remember my doula offering to go let our photographer in the building and gripping her hand like it was my only tether to life while refusing to let her go. I remember feeling the baby move lower as I pushed. It was painful but strangely gratifying. I remember feeling so tired. So very tired and saying over and over that I was so tired. I remember Leo saying “You can rest as soon as this baby is out, mama.” I remember saying “I can’t do this.” and I remember hearing the response “You ARE doing it, mama!” I remember screaming as she crowned and I remember Leo telling me not to scream because it stressed the baby. I remember my doula whispering to me to take the scream and focus it downward. And finally I remember my mom telling me that during her labor she had to tell herself that millions of women have done this and so she could too. And so I remember calling out in my mind to all the women who’d done this before me, who were doing it at that exact moment. Calling out to all the mama’s and grandmas and great-grandmas to help me. To surround me. To hold space for me. I needed them. And then, she was out and Leo was passing her to me between my legs and I was holding her and kissing her head and she was crying. It was so much, so fast. And yet, those two hours felt like an eternity. The memories flash by me with such speed. Two hours. The longest shortest hours.
Then…it was just us. My beautiful baby girl. My wonderful husband. A quiet room. A soft bed. We snuggled. We kissed. We loved each other. It was perfect.
Looking back, it was empowering. But not because I did it without an epidural. Not because we didn’t need medical intervention. That was maybe just luck. It was empowering because of the women I met along the way. Because of the connections I made. It was empowering because the midwives foster self-reliance. They trust Mama and that gives space for Mama to trust herself.
The word precipitous means happening in a very quick or sudden way. I had a precipitous birth, indeed. My water broke at 8:30 PM and my daughter was born at 10:25 PM. A much different birth story than I’d envisioned. But precipitous also means impassibly steep. Becoming a mother, birthing a child, that can feel like standing before an impassibly steep cliff. Writing the story now, I feel only gratitude. Every birth is a fingerprint, unique and personal, but every birth should be empowered by a tribe. In two hours I felt almost every emotion a person can possibly feel, but one thing I never felt was alone.
Thank you to my husband. Thank you to the midwives. And thank you to my tribe for helping me through my precipitous birth.
All photos by Treat Photography