photos by Julian Marks of Picture your Birth Photography
I’m sitting at my kitchen table, listening to the rain hit the pavement outside while my 3-month-old baby Jackson nurses. I hear his breathing, steady and rhythmic, with the occasional grunt or squeak mixed in. I’ve waited to write my birth story until it felt right, until all the dust had begun to settle and I could start to see it in the light of day. As you read it, please know that all birth is unique, and every birthing person’s journey is valid and should be respected. My birth was so many things - beautiful, strong, supported, and also one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. There were moments when I was grateful for modern medicine, and moments when I was scared for my life. I hope you read it and take away whatever you need to today.
Jackson is my second child, and my third pregnancy after an initial miscarriage before my older son Shea was born. Jack, like his brother Shea, was conceived through IVF, and he was our final embryo. If I hadn’t gotten pregnant with him, we most likely wouldn’t have tried again. A lot of emotion, hope, fear, and anxiety were wrapped up in the results of the pregnancy test. When we found out I was pregnant I remember feeling relieved, but still not allowing myself to fully accept it for a while, just in case I had another miscarriage.
We chose not to find out the sex of the baby, and didn’t even decide on a name until after he was born. It felt exciting to not know or care if we were having a boy or a girl, and we just knew that whatever being came into the world, they would be loved fiercely by their parents and older brother.
My pregnancy was pretty easy, and I enjoyed most of it, knowing that it would be my last time having to pull on the extra stretchy pants and oversized shirts. I was able to savor everything more, having already been through a full term pregnancy before and knowing what to expect, for the most part.
I knew I wanted to have a home birth with a midwife, and felt confident in my ability to have a VBAC (vaginal birth after cesarean). I had attempted a home birth with Shea, and ended up with a c-section (read his birth story here). I felt like this time would be different, faster, easier somehow. As the weeks ticked by and I got closer to my estimated due date, I was feeling positive and optimistic. And when, on the morning of my 39th week, I got up to pee at 1am and felt my water break, I was ecstatic that labor was starting on its own this time, and figured I’d have this baby sometime in the next 12 hours or so.
My labor started slowly, and I did lots of walking around the neighborhood with Spencer. I remember a chatty neighbor stopped us to say hi and talk, and I politely chatted back, breathing through my contractions and hoping he wouldn’t notice and ask me about it. He remained oblivious, and we continued our walk.
The timeline of my labor is very fuzzy, as it should be, since I was focusing on the work and not wondering what time it was. But I know that it was long. Longer than I had expected, and long enough that I began to feel discouraged. I felt duped, like I’d somehow lost the birth lottery - having a long labor with my first that ended in a c-section, and now having another long labor with my second. I thought second time births were supposed to be fast! Like, doesn’t the baby just slip out?
I also remember feeling like the contractions were controlling me, and I was never able to get on top of them. I would doze between contractions, then awake with dread as I felt another one coming on, thinking to myself, “I can’t do this. I can’t. This is too hard. I need it to stop. I want out.” For several hours, I felt helpless and afraid, just wanting someone to save me from it all. As I moaned on my hands and knees in my bed with Spencer beside me and my doula Ashlie on the floor, one hand reaching up to me to soothe me, I knew something needed to shift if I was going to be able to do this. When a contraction ended I asked Spencer, “remember when we used to do our long bike rides?” and we talked about the rolling hills of Palo Alto, CA, where we used to ride 20, 40, 75 miles in the days before kids. We talked about the vineyards, winding roads, and mossy forests we’d ride through, as we’d pass deer eating on the side of the road. “Remember how much I hated climbing those hills?” I asked Spencer. “And remember how you used to always keep me going?” I felt emotion well up inside me as I thought of him, my partner and best friend, always right there by my side when I felt like I couldn’t go one more inch, cheering me on and knowing that I could do it. I used to get up those hills by counting my pedal strokes. Focusing on the counting was the only thing that worked. I asked Spencer, “would you count for me?”
Everything changed with the counting. Like, immediately. Spencer would use a calm, slow voice to begin counting up when a contraction started, “one…two…three…” all the way up to ten. Then he would start counting back down even slower, “ten…nine…eight…” I knew if I could just make it to ten, then the contraction was half over and I could relax for the downhill slide. Sometimes he’d try to get clever and count further than ten, “fifteen…sixteen…” and I would snap at him, “JUST TO TEN!” because any change in the pattern threw me off and I could feel my body tense up immediately. I needed the rhythm and ritual of the exact same pattern over and over. This went on for hours, as my labor slowly progressed and I was able to keep marching on.
As the hours went on, 20 hours, 24 hours, 28 hours, we began to talk about the possibility that more intervention may be needed to have this baby. Adrienne gave me an IV with extra vitamins in it to try to give me a boost of energy, but my body was fading. I had begun to feel the urge to push, but I wasn’t yet fully dilated. Adrienne encouraged me to try to just breathe through the contractions so as not to push, but I couldn’t help it. She was concerned that my cervix would get swollen because of me pushing against it when it wasn’t fully dilated. We tried various positions to try to get me fully dilated, but it just didn’t happen. Eventually, we decided to go to the hospital and get an epidural. That way I could sleep and regain enough energy to push him out, and hopefully my body could relax and my cervix could finish dilating. When we made the decision to transfer, Spencer and I just held each other and cried. We were so sure we’d be having a home birth this time, we felt like we’d been defeated. But we took a deep breath and said “ok, this is what we have to do. Let’s go.”
The time in the hospital bed before I was able to get the epidural was some of the most excruciating minutes of the whole labor. Before that, I’d been able to move, walk, sway, and dance my way through each contraction. Now I was asked to lay on my back so they could get the monitors on me, and it was horrible. I moaned and clutched the side of the bed, just hoping the epidural would be there soon so I could get some relief. Once the anesthesiologist came in and the epidural began to take effect, I was once again reminded of the beauty of Western medicine and the mercy of pain medication when it’s really useful and necessary. I closed my eyes and drifted to sleep for I don’t know how long.
As is typical in the hospital, many different people floated in and out of the room - residents, attendings, nurses. The first attending doctor we saw sat down and told me matter-of-factly, “you have about a 20% chance of having a VBAC.” In my mind, I flipped her the bird and thought to myself, “you don’t know me. You don’t know what I’ve already done. I’m doing this.” After a while they checked my cervix and it had thankfully finished dilating, so it was time to push. We put on some music to get me pumped - 80’s and 90’s rock, 2000’s pop, Rihanna, Destiny’s Child, Salt-n-Pepa. I pushed with everything I had for 3 hours, with the attending (a different one this time) telling me that at the 3 hour mark they would give me a c-section because they were concerned for infection since my water had been broken for almost 48 hours at that point.
Around 2 and 1/2 hours into pushing, the attending suggested using forceps to help the baby out. She explained that she was very skilled with them, and would only use them if she was able to place them perfectly on his head. I agreed, knowing that the other option was a c-section. She and the resident doctor took turns attempting to place the forceps for a good 30 minutes while I silently thanked God that I had an epidural and couldn’t feel what they were doing to my poor nether regions, until finally she gave up and said she wasn’t able to place them perfectly, so she wouldn’t use them. She gave me one more chance, “I’m going to let you push for 30 more minutes, and I know you can do this. You can get this baby out.” I had them wheel a mirror over so I could see the progress I was making with each push. I dug deep and gave even more than I thought I had in me. With the doctor and nurses counting loudly as I pushed, and Spencer and Ashlie cheering me on, I saw his head emerge and exclaimed, “I did it! He’s so big!” as his body slipped out. They put him on my chest and I hugged him tightly. I felt his squishy, slippery body and announced to the room, “it’s a boy! I can feel his balls!”
Since my water had been broken and I’d pushed for so long, the NICU team was in the room when Jack was born, just in case he needed extra support. They took him to a warmer on the other side of the room, while the attending and resident began taking turns pulling on the umbilical cord that led to the placenta still in my uterus. I sat up and asked, “why are you pulling on the cord already? What’s the hurry?” and the attending replied that she “just likes to give it some traction to help it out.” Not more than a minute or two later, I heard her say, “oh crap” as the cord snapped, leaving my placenta still inside. She went in with her hand and began to (sorry if this gives you the creeps) pull and scrape the placenta off my uterine wall manually. Again, I thanked the stars above that I had an epidural, as her arm disappeared inside me. Suddenly, I began to feel weak, nauseous, and unfocused. I didn’t know it, but I had begun to hemorrhage.
At this point, everything changed. My thoughts slowed down, and although I wanted to say things, I couldn’t seem to get the words out of my mouth. I began to shake uncontrollably, I slurred my words, and my eyes got heavy. I vomited. I began to think, “something’s wrong. Something’s wrong. I think I’m going to die. This is how I’m going to die.” Spencer came to my side and I said “babe, I think I’m gonna die.” He told me, “you’re not gonna die, you’re ok,” but he later confessed that he didn’t really know what was going to happen, and was scared out of his mind. I heard the medical staff call in an emergency hemorrhage team stat, and lots more people flooded into the room. People were telling me, “ok we’re giving you an injection of this medication…” “we’re going to start a second IV….” “here, put this oxygen mask on…” and I just kept slurring, “I don’t care…do whatever you have to do….” I vaguely remember the doctor asking for a special balloon catheter to put into my uterus to stop the bleeding. At first she couldn’t get it to work, or a piece broke or something, because she needed a second one. Finally, she got it in and began to stop the bleeding.
The rest of the night is a blur, as I drifted in and out of sleep. People offered the baby to me but I hardly remember it, and I mostly just wanted someone else to hold him because I felt too weak. The next morning I woke up and felt like a truck had driven through my body. I thought to myself, “is this just how I’m going to feel now? Will I always be in this much pain?” But a few hours later the doctor came in to remove the gauze and balloon from my uterus, and I slowly began to feel better as the day went on. I breastfed my baby, who we had now decided to name Jackson David, and continued to sleep, eat, sleep, nurse, sleep…
Writing all of this down, it really puts into perspective just how much I went through to have this baby. There is a small part of me that feels like, “was it worth it to have a VBAC? Would it have just been easier to have another c-section?” and I don’t know the answer to that. I hesitate to even share those thoughts, because I don’t want any other parent to give up on the hopes of having a VBAC or think it’s not worth it. Everyone has their own birth journey, and everyone has their own reasons behind the decisions they make in labor.
I look up from my laptop, stretch my neck and take a deep breath. I look down at Jack, now fast asleep in my lap, as he emits a soft moan. I can feel tears, but they’re deep within me, not at the surface. I give myself grace. I realize that I have more strength, power, and determination within me than I ever thought possible. Birth and motherhood have broken me, broken me open, broken my old self into a thousand pieces that blow away in the wind so that my new self, made up of a blinding light, can emerge.