I had my daughter October 10, 2018. The experience of labour was traumatic and enormous. Friends who had recently been through it encouraged me to write it down before the memories fled, and they were right, it’s fading already. So here’s this, submitted flaws and all and with awe and gratitude for my mother and grandmothers.
Where do you start a birth story? I want to go back far enough; the years ticking into my late 30s with the chances dwindling for my body, and every social screen seems to stream with joyful fertility. And the men I let in my life somehow less and less fit to be parents: the addict, the weirdly cruel, the straight up conman. The rising fury at myself for getting conned, for wasting time. The years it took to make a reasonable living, and the haunting vast majority who don’t. The daily terror of a whole world gone mad selling our only, original mother down the oily jaws of profits for a sociopathic few. How to be a mother here? Even if I could?
Then suddenly luck changes – such a good man. Such a plot twist. The best possible person to believe in things with, to camp across the country pregnant with, to move to the woods together. To imagine that the dream of family, our own small sprouted world, a flare of hope in the dark, could be real. To make big plans. And we tried and got pregnant, another shot of crazy luck making things realer than before.
We made a birth plan with my sister Megan, my doula, and with our doctor. It was a dream for me to have Megan be my doula and we couldn’t believe our luck when her work allowed her to be in Montreal for a few weeks to be with us. My baby sister! We would have hired a doula though, even if Megan couldn’t have done it, the evidence on the positive impact of doulas is pretty convincing. Researchers found that people who have continuous support during childbirth experience a 25% decrease in the risk of Cesarean and the largest effect was seen with a doula – a 39% decrease. (Evidence on: Doulas)
We worked on our birth plan for a while, using some of the information from Expecting Better, and some input from my family doctor and from Megan. The first point across the top of our plan in bold was: “Our #1 Goal is healthy baby, healthy mom. Please advise us of any recommended interventions for the health of mom or baby.” Second point: “We are aiming for a low intervention pregnancy.”
I wanted the full hippie, earth mother, goddess birth, in the heart of a great hospital, just in case.
At 41 weeks, one full week past due date, at 10am, October 9th, we had an ultrasound appointment. The plan was to check on the amniotic fluid levels to see if we could keep waiting for baby May to come on her own.
Thing was, by bedtime the night before this appointment the contractions had started, and become pretty regular. They stayed between 5-20 minutes apart all night, and that morning before leaving they ramped up to every 3 minutes. We skipped the ultrasound and went straight to intake. On examination they determined I was 3cm dilated, that the outer membrane was broken and that there was meconium in the liquid. The meconium is a baby’s first poo and generally it comes after birth, if it comes before it can enter their mouth or lungs and cause complications. When they took her heart rate it was a little too slow, but it picked up when I drank some juice. We learned later that these were both signs May was already in some distress. But both are common enough, and no one seemed to be freaking out. They did decide to admit us immediately. We waited as they prepared our room, as Megan arrived, and the tide of contractions kept coming.
The next 12 hours were intense but beautiful. We stood outside for a while, riding contractions in the sun. I took off my shoes and dug feet in the grass, and my grandmother’s favourite bird, a cardinal, watched us in the strangely hot October sun. Later the nurses told us it wasn’t safe to go that far.
Megan led us in swaying walks up and down the hallways. Megan and Marc improvised a dance routine. The intensity of the pain grew but we moaned and hummed together and held hands. I thought we were doing it! I thought it was happening just like it was supposed to. But after 12 hours in the hospital we were only at 3cm dilated still. And there was the concern with her heart rate. Too regular and slow, but then fine, but then too slow again.
It was 24hrs now since contractions had started for me at home the night before and the doctor was worried about my energy for the next stages, and the baby’s. She had let us delay several times but now we needed to choose: either break the inner membrane with the knitting needle shaped hook, or start a low level of pitocin – a chemical that triggers contractions – which might be enough to prompt the body to dilate and break the inner waters on its own.
The doctor said frankly she normally would recommend breaking the membrane but these days she was increasingly convinced that a low level pitocin was a more ‘natural’ option.
I was already blurry. I couldn’t remember the recommendations from the books I’d read about this decision point. And I didn’t remember that starting the pitocin meant being on an IV drip from now on, and on permanent heart and contraction monitoring, both combining to mean that I couldn’t move much anymore. The pain and intensity of the contractions would augment chemically from here on out, with the amount of pitocin jumping every 30 min, and the dancing, the hot baths, the rolling on my side were pretty much off the table.
I also didn’t know how much more painful it is to get an IV than a blood sample taken. Especially if the nurse is out of practice and she misses again and again into the bone of your wrist.
I sobbed at this point for the first time in my labour. I hated this choice, and having made it the jabbing in my wrists was pain on top of the pain I had planned for. Both hands aching, and things feeling like they’re slipping out of reach. I wrestled with feeling like a failure, and feeling like I was way out into the waters beyond where I like to imagine I live with some kind of control.
I felt like a failure for needing medical intervention, crazy but true. So guilty I was almost apologizing to the doctor 10 hours later, telling her how long I’d tried without taking any pain relief, when she told me: you don’t need to justify this to me, I took the epidural after my third contraction. I’d like to say more about what I felt this guilt but I don’t really understand it myself. I know it affected me enough that I stayed on the pitocin without epidural for 6 hrs. Increasing amounts pumping into me every 30 minutes making my contractions stronger and stronger. For the last 2 hours I was at a point of constant contraction, I couldn’t see, and I thought I would die, or should die, or might like to.
Only then did I ask for the epidural, and sobbed again.
When the anesthesiologist came he spoke with my sister about her work in Uganda and Burkina Faso and Haiti, and told her he was going to Rwanda the next week to repair fistulas. Marc whispered to me: he’s a good person, this is a good idea, you’re going to be ok. The doctor asked my sister if she knew a Jack Someone. I couldn’t follow the conversation but Jack was my grandfather’s name so I held onto it like a talisman. I’d had chronic back pain for 10 years, I’d watched a video of an epidural during a birthing class and had a panic attack… but this was a good idea. I was going to be ok.
As the waves of the epidural started to come, the anesthesiologist asked me, what was your pain level at when you asked for the epidural? I said a 10, it’s been a ten for 2hrs. And he looked at me so kindly and so sad. No one in that time had asked me what pain level I was at. I had lived with chronic pain, I have a high pain threshold, I seemed coherent, no one thought to ask.
For the next 2hrs I lay in the dark and shook violently. Marc covered me with blankets, and then with all my sweaters. Slowly the shaking calmed and the medicine in my spine took the pain away as the IV pumped the contractions ever higher beyond the fog. I curled into the afghan my Great Grandmother Evelyn May had made me and heard her beautiful wild laugh, and saw my grandparent ghosts: fierce warrior grandma Maj, her husband Jack, gentle Grandpa Alvin standing in the shadows. Megan and Marc tried to get some sleep.
Later, when the epidural had brought me some rest and a blissful fuzz, my mother came to see me. She’d been sitting outside the room with my sister, Brianna, and my Grandma. She cried and said she was happy I’d finally taken the epidural. She told me she didn’t know what to do but be there. She said her mother had cried in the waiting room remembering when Mom had had me, and Grandma hadn’t come. Grandma didn’t know why she hadn’t come to be there for my mom when she lived through a labour much like mine – the best predictor of what your labour will be like is your mom’s with you – except that no one had ever came for her. Grandma was by herself for all three children and she was a tiny lady and very much afraid. Her husband didn’t even come in the room. Why was this normal? How did we get so broken from each other? Why did we leave each other alone?
After almost a day of the baby’s heart in distress and meconium in her system and pitocin pumping her little house at ever more shattering levels, and my system at constant contraction, it was time to push. My sister held one foot of mine and Marc the other, and all the beautiful strong women of the LaSalle hospital team surrounded me and I curled and brought every muscle in my entire body to its absolute utmost and pictured my daughter inside me choosing this moment. And we were amazing. We were a perfect team, I was a power, I would show them, and they were cheering, again and again I did it and they cheered. And then a little quiet. The smallest look on their faces to show, this isn’t working. The little baby is trying to crossover and getting pulled backwards. I am fighting the rip tide of all of life and death and everything I have isn’t enough. This goes on for ninety minutes. Push again. One More. You’re amazing. Try again.
The doctor says, I want to make a cut, this is too long and too much distress. This has been my late night fear for months. There is no time to choose. It’s the right choice and she says I’m going to cut and you’re going to push her out on the next contraction. I feel the cut, vertical, episiotomy, and the wave comes. I have to see the ripping in my mind’s eye and choose it. And she comes.
They had hoped to clean the meconium from her mouth when she is just part way out, she is all the way out and the umbilical cord is around her neck.
I think the relief of her coming out will be followed by the joy of her on me but they take her to the side and tell me about the cord on her neck. I see the specialist over her. She doesn’t make much noise. They show her to me briefly, she is white blue and quiet. I expect them to place her on me, this is the end of the movie, I hold her joyfully, this is the light at the end but instead, she’s gone. She leaves with Marc and the specialists and I can’t hear or see clearly after that. It’s just loss and void. Emptiness and terror and a flat line. They ask me to push out the placenta. The young doctor learns a new sewing technique on me. I just keep asking when she’ll be back. They keep saying we’ll get you stitched up and ready to be moved and you can go to her. This does not compute. I can’t go to her, I am split open, she has to be ok and come lie here with me. She and Marc are gone.
I think for not the first time that if she doesn’t make it I will never be able to look at or talk to anyone I’ve ever known ever again. I will have to leave and be alone forever. Later I tell Marc this and he says he had the same thought: that if he lost us he would walk into the woods with an axe and never come back.
People lose children and find a way to face the day, and those are the bravest, rawest, most beautiful people, balanced between worlds forever I think. That world with the outline of a child in it that they can almost see and this one. Both must exist for them, and they are here with us, they make toast and work in the garden. I can’t imagine the strength of their hearts.
I wait for news of May in the blur of the aftermath of the utmost effort, the most intense pressure on and in my body and my terrified nervous system. My sister Megan is leaning over me, but I can’t see her clearly. I’m full of a glowing rage and sorrow. I have been aware the whole of these hours of all the pain and joy of the mothers and children Megan carries with her from her time in rural Uganda, Haiti, Panama, Burkina. I am full of incoherent fury at the whole imbalanced world. Megan told me once of women on the floor, no one with them from their families, waiting to give birth in Uganda, dying from complications that we could have healed here as a matter of course. I see them like spirits with her now, so gentle with me and in such enormous judgement of the broken world system, and I am sobbing and sobbing in fear for May and at all the loss and injustice of everything. Everything is layers of loss and hope. A blur, not grey but the most painfully brilliant light and dark.
Marc comes back holding May high like a torch. The specialist behind him pumps her fists in the air and says ‘Elle est Championne!’ And I am holding her and crying, crying harder than I ever have as though now, officially, I’ve been broken all the way and turned inside out completely and here is my inside breathing and looking at me.
I write this holding her. May Marigold at 5 days, 11 days, 21 days old. I look less beat up now, and she is growing. And she is every platitude accurately and none of them are adequate: a miracle, the love of my life, my sudden purpose. She grunts and squeaks like a perfect mammal. She lies on my belly like she’s listening to the sounds of her hometown, and I cry missing her and so happy I get to see her face now.
I had a week of highs and lows after she was born. I needed to cry and tell this story more than once. I’m not sorry if it seems overdramatic, though I struggle with feeling allowed to take up space with this story when so many are so much worse. Good luck and bad – a predictor of life as a mother. Labour has happened to women for hundreds of millions of generations and I walked around near them and had no idea how every ancient story about a descent into hell was a retelling of this journey.
Monica Sjöo in Great Cosmic Mother (who I wrote about in Episode 4 of the Missing Witches podcast and thought about a lot during labour) writes that Woman is the original shaman. That each mother faces Death to bring life back from the other side. This is the most common terrifying miracle. I needed to get my version on paper and into the river with the rest of them to be able to move on the to the next stage of human that comes after, whatever that is. I needed to sleep holding her in the sun. I needed to sleep as my mother and grandmother took turns holding her and talked, and as Megan rocked her back to sleep, and as Brianna made me strong tea, and Marc made meal after meal, and cried looking into her sweet face and whispered: you are my family.
Thanks to Amy Torok for editing help on this. <3