Photos and video by the amazing, fantastic, brilliant Julian Marks of Picture Your Birth Photography.
The Long and Winding Road
How do I put into words what was the single most transformative, spiritual, intense, difficult, beautiful experience of my life? I don’t think words can do it justice, but I will try my best.
Shea’s birth story starts before I was pregnant with him. My journey to getting pregnant was a long one, and consisted of lots of steps that many people don’t have to take. But as part of a queer couple with a trans husband, I knew that getting pregnant would take a little more time and effort. My husband and I spent two years trying - tracking my cycle, taking lots of medications, injections, and doing 10 rounds of intrauterine insemination (IUI). 10 rounds is a lot – most people get pregnant after 2-4 rounds or so. But we just kept trying, thinking that maybe this next time would be the one. We tried two different sperm donors, thinking maybe that was the reason I wasn’t getting pregnant. Finally we switched to a third sperm donor and started the process of doing in vitro fertilization (IVF). This was my first lesson of many in letting go of expectation, and learning to “never say never.” I had always thought I would get pregnant with no problem, on the first try. After that didn’t happen (ahem, ten times), I thought “well, I’ll never do IVF, that is too expensive and we will never get to the point where we need to do that.” I was wrong.
Through the IVF process we got three fertilized embryos, and ended up getting pregnant with the first one that was implanted. We couldn’t believe it, we were finally pregnant! I surprised Spencer at work to tell him the news, and we just hugged and cried in the hallway, so grateful that our dream had finally come true.
We spent the next several weeks in blissful excitement, telling our closest friends and family the news. Then at our 7 week ultrasound, on October 28, 2015, the doctor couldn’t find a heartbeat. I felt numb, shock, disbelief. This could never happen to me, right? Again, I was wrong.
We spent the next couple of months processing and grieving this huge loss, and then in January 2016 we tried again with our second embryo. I got pregnant again, and this time stayed pregnant. Our little boy Shea was finally ready to come into the world.
My pregnancy was relatively easy, and I absolutely loved being pregnant. I had wanted this for so long, that I was grateful for every moment. Even when I had morning sickness, I thought to myself, “I’m grateful for this, I wanted this, this means I’m still pregnant.” For the first several months, it still didn’t feel real. I was so afraid I was going to lose this baby, too, that I didn’t let myself fully believe it. I felt a little better after our 7 week ultrasound when the doctor heard his heartbeat. Then at our 20 week ultrasound when we could really see him and learned that he was a boy, I felt even better. As I began to feel him kick and move inside me, it finally began to feel real. I was really going to have this baby!
I knew that I wanted an unmedicated home birth, and I saw a midwife throughout my pregnancy (one of the best midwives in Salt Lake City, if I do say so myself: Adrienne Brown).
I am a pretty crunchy person, and I loved the more natural-minded approach of my midwife. For instance, when I had a headache during pregnancy, instead of telling me take Tylenol, she had me take magnesium, use essential oils, take a bath, and put ice on my neck. When she came over for prenatal appointments, she would spend a good hour talking to Spencer and me, answering all of our questions, and chatting. We felt like we were her only clients, and that she had all the time in the world for us.
As my pregnancy went into week 40, she emphasized that it is very normal for pregnancies to last 40, 41, even 42 weeks. She never made us feel like we were ‘overdue’ or that we should worry and get induced. She did give us suggestions for natural induction methods that we tried, such as acupuncture, massage, red raspberry leaf tea, eating dates, walking every day, nipple stimulation, and sex. When none of that got things going, she did a membrane sweep. 41 weeks came and went.
When I was 41+5, she had me start taking an herbal tincture of cotton root and black cohosh. That finally got contractions going, and they were strong! I was finally in labor. My mom had a short labor with both my brother and me, so I thought maybe I would have a short labor, too. Again, wrong! I didn’t know it at the time, but I was in for a LONG labor.
36 Hours, 3 Doulas, and Lots of Moaning
The details of labor are pretty blurry, and the timeline in my mind is totally off. I feel like I was in labor for 8 hours or so, and in reality it was about 36 hours total.
Here are things that I remember, in no particular order:
- Using the birth ball to move my hips and lean on
- Making lots of “aaaaaaaahhhhhhh” and “ooooohhhhhh” noises
- Focusing on my breath
- Listening to soothing, quiet, relaxing music
- Bursting into tears when my doula Mary showed up. I just felt so relieved to see her, and had a cathartic cry.
- Again bursting into tears when I stepped into the birth tub. The warm water was SO EXTREMELY HELPFUL. It felt so good, and I wanted to just be in the water forever. Like, really, for the rest of my life. I did NOT want to get out of that water. Ever.
- Feeling nauseous throughout the whole labor. I didn’t eat anything the entire labor, and at one point had a few sips of a smoothie. Other than that, I just drank water. I just couldn’t imagine eating anything. Eventually Adrienne gave me an IV with fluids to help me keep my energy up and stay hydrated.
- I had a little stainless steel vomit bowl that was my “security blanket”. I wanted it with me at all times, because I felt like I would throw up at any time. I actually didn’t throw up that much, but I needed that bowl! I remember saying many times, “Where’s the bowl? Give me the bowl!”
It’s hard to explain how labor FELT to me. I was surprised by how it didn’t feel painful, per se, it just felt HUGE. Like, all I could focus on or think about was the contraction I was currently having, and it took every ounce of mental, physical and emotional energy that I had to get through each one.
At some point during labor, Mary had to leave because she had a work emergency, and another hypnodoula, Melissa, came. She was there for about 24 hours, and then called in yet another doula, Ashlie. I didn’t know I would be so lucky to have not one, not two, but THREE doulas at my birth! They were all amazing in different ways, and having them there to support me was everything. Things I specifically remember:
- Mary holding me while I cried
- Mary using the rebozo, which felt so good during cotractions
- Melissa using light touch massage on my back
- Melissa using counterpressure on my hips and sacrum during contractions
- Ashlie gently touching my forehead and running he fingers over my eyebrows to soften and relax my face
- Ashlie fanning me with a cool washcloth with peppermint essential oil on it, which really helped with my nausea.
After laboring for probably about 30 hours, trying so many different pushing positions, getting in the shower many, many times, using the tub, walking around, and pushing some more (by the way, pushing felt SO GOOD! It was such a relief to be able to push with each contraction), Adrienne finally suggested that we may want to go to the hospital so that I could get some pain relief. She thought that maybe if I could just get an epidural and rest for a couple of hours, I may be able to push the baby out. I wanted to try just a little longer, and boy did I try! I used the birth stool, and finally tried sitting backwards on Spencer’s lap and hanging down between his legs, pushing with all of my might. Still, baby Shea was not coming out.
Never Say Never
We decided to go to the hospital to get the epidural (another thing I said I would NEVER do. Have I not learned my lesson yet?!). The process of getting the epidural was a little gnarly, especially when the anesthesiologist said “ok, you’re going to feel a little ‘zing,’ like an electric shock, in one of your legs. That means the epidural is in the right place.” A little ‘zing’?! I squeezed Spencer’s hand so hard, I think I almost broke his fingers!
But once the epidural kicked in? You guys. Heaven. It was just such a relief to finally be able to relax and sleep after being awake for over 30 hours. They gave me Pitocin to try and get my contractions stronger, and after I slept for a couple hours, they encouraged me to try to push the baby out. Well, I tried, but no go. At this point they began to see that Shea was having heart decelerations every time I had a contraction, which worried them. Eventually, the doctor said the words I never thought I’d hear, “we need to do a c-section.” Even though this was NOT the path I expected, I knew that it was what needed to happen. So, off to the OR we went.
The c-section was a weird, surreal experience. I’m not crazy about hospitals in general with their bright lights, cold surfaces, and people I don’t know all around me (hence planning a home birth with a midwife). Well, this was all of those things in one. I was laid on the operating table and my arms were stretched out to the sides. They draped a curtain down so I couldn’t see what they were doing. The thing that was the hardest and scariest for me was the uncontrollable shaking that was happening in my body, due (I think) to the large amount of epidural anesthesia I was given. I hated the feeling that I couldn’t control the shaking in my body, no matter how hard I tried.
Eventually I sort of zoned out, and I didn’t hear what the OR team was saying. Spencer later told me that they seemed to be having a hard time getting Shea out because he was engaged in my pelvis and so low in the birth canal. Eventually one of the nurses actually had to go in and push his head back up the birth canal while the doctor pulled him out of my belly. Gnarly! I’m so glad I didn’t know that was happening at the time.
Once Shea was born, they briefly lowered the curtain and held him up, before quickly handing him through a window to the NICU team. His cord was wrapped twice around his neck, and he was having trouble breathing. The NICU team gave him oxygen via a nasal canula, then a C-PAP machine, until he was able to breathe room air on his own. They would soon find that he also had an infection that needed to be treated with antibiotics, and he spent the next week in the NICU (a whole nother story, for another day.)
The doctor later told me that my placenta looked “kind of torn apart” and had some calcification spots. He seemed concerned about it and sent it to the pathology team, but in my midwife’s and doula’s opinion, it was just an older plancenta, having done it’s job and being around for 42 weeks. The bummer was that I was planning to encapsulate my placenta and take placenta pills throughout my postpartum time, but that went out the window (add it to the list of things that totally changed from my birth plan….birth plan?…. Ha!)
Learning, Letting Go, and Love Beyond Measure
This birth taught me so much about letting go. I had to let go of what I thought my birth would be like, I had to let go of any sense of control, I had to let go of expectations, I had to let go of my “plan.” I had to embrace the mystery, the vulnerability, the huge unknown that IS birth. I just had to go along for this wild ride, trusting that I was safe, my baby was safe, and everything would turn out okay in the end. And you know what? It did. It didn’t turn out how I thought it would, but it turned out okay. And now I have this baby, this being, this physical manifestation of god in my life. And he looks at me with those huge, dark eyes, and I can’t imagine things happening any other way. My heart has grown ten sizes, and it feels like it’s going to explode with love when I look at him.
As a doula, I thought I could plan my way into a perfect birth. I thought I knew everything there was to know about how to have a natural, unmedicated labor. What I didn’t realize is that I couldn’t plan for the mystery part. There is a mystery to birth that can’t be conceptualized with the mind. Something happens that is beyond any thought or words. It is the god part. The spiritual cracking open of the soul, to let this other soul come through into the world. And that is something that can’t be written on a birth plan.
Three Births For the Price of One
You know what is awesome, though? I got to have three births in one! I got to have an unmedicated, 30 hour labor at home with a midwife, candles, music, a birth tub, and all that my crunchy little hippie heart desired. Then I got to have a hospital labor with Pitocin and an epidural. Then I got to have a c-section. As a doula, this will help me so much to be able to empathize with future clients. As a mom, it helps me to see myself as the strong, resilient birth warrior that I am!