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Heidi, a first time momma

the only way out, is through {the birth story of Tristan Luke}

My fingers hover over the keyboard and I struggle to think of how to start writing. How do I describe the days that brought my baby into the world? There is part of me that knows – it was not just my son that was born after those many hours of labor. It was me.

Saturday night – after a not-so-healthy indulgence of a burger and fries from Five Guys, I started feeling ill. I thought it was a reaction to the food. I threw up twice that night – the only time in my whole pregnancy when I was sick to my stomach. The next day I still felt queasy, but was able to eat and rest. I couldn’t figure out why I still felt so strange if it was a food reaction, but it didn’t feel like the flu either.

Meanwhile, a weather system was moving through and a full moon was coming. I’ve always been susceptible to changes in barometric pressure, but I never really realize that’s what’s happening except in retrospect.

Maybe if I’d thought about that, I’d have been less surprised when – at 1:30 that morning after a trip to the bathroom, as I was climbing back into bed – there was a sudden rush of fluid between my legs. I quickly grabbed some kleenex from my bedside table and hurried back to the bathroom, struggling to realize what had happened. I sat down on the toilet and out came more fluid. I called to Mike and told him I needed him. He stumbled groggily into the bathroom, probably thinking I was throwing up again. When I told him that a bunch of fluid was coming out of me he looked confused, then worried. “What does that mean?” – “I’m not sure.” He asked if I was feeling any surges (contractions) – I was not. We tried to decide whether or not to call our midwife or wait til morning. I finally decided I would sleep better if I called her, so I did. She said to try to get some rest and just pay attention – it was possible that it was just a small leak that might re-seal. I was, after all, only a few days past 37 weeks.

Mike seemed annoyed – but really he was overstressed…he had so much going on at work that week, things he HAD to get done before the baby came. Neither of us felt terribly excited as I had imagined we would – just shocked, confused, worried. *I* was annoyed that my birthing time was starting with my water breaking – I had been doing a lot of supplements like alfalfa, Vitamin C, NORA tea, etc – all considered very effective in strengthening the membranes and delaying the water breaking.

We changed the sheets on the bed and made up the bed according to birth instructions – clean sheets, covered with a plastic sheet protector, covered with another set of sheets that could get dirty. It took us a couple hours to fall back asleep, and a couple hours after that Mike got up to go to work and try to wrap up all of the most urgent.

When morning came I was having very mild cramping, but nothing I could identify with starts and stops. It felt like menstrual cramps. I did some cleaning and put the cloth diapers in the laundry, trying to think of what I could do, what MUST be done, that was on my “to do over the next three weeks” list. Clearly I did NOT have three weeks. I laid down to rest and listen to my Hypnobabies CD’s, still trying to wrap my brain around the fact that this was happening.

I had my mom pick up some things at the store and she came over and helped with cleaning and laundry. The cramping was starting to get a little more regular but not anything intense. I rested a bit more in the afternoon. The surges would come and go, but very slowly they started getting stronger, more regular, closer together.

My dad came over in the late afternoon and set about putting together the birth pool, which we’d only just gotten from our midwife a few days earlier at my 37 week prenatal appointment.

Meanwhile, my friend (and amazing photographer) Kelly hopped on a plane from Charleston – we had schemed about how she could somehow make it to the birth to do birth photography, but I really never thought it would work out. But all the pieces came together, and she arrived Monday evening.

When Mike got home from work, the annoyance and stress of the morning was gone. He had wrapped up everything he needed to at work, and was ready to focus on becoming a daddy. I felt so much more relaxed and happy with him at home.

We headed to bed to try to get some rest, but rest was fleeting that night as the surges picked up in duration and intensity. About 4 am I started tracking surges on a “contraction timer” app on my iPhone to try to see where things were at. It had been more than 24 hours since my water had broken. If I’d been in a hospital, or even with a more medically minded midwife, I would have had my baby already – either with the help of pitocin or a c-section. But I knew the risks of infection were very minimal without an abundance of internal exams, and I felt comfortable waiting it out awhile longer, especially since at that point surges were 3-4 minutes apart and lasting about 1 minute. Things seemed to be picking up.

We slept off and on, and I noticed anytime I relaxed a lot or fell asleep, things slowed down again. Looking back I’m surprised I wasn’t worried about how long things were taking, but I felt very zen. I trust birth, and I trusted what was happening – slow as it was.

My midwife arrived on Tuesday around 1 pm. Baby’s heartbeat was good, my vitals were good, I didn’t have any sign of a temperature. Time to just keep waiting and trusting.

Mike and I spent quite a bit of time alone – I seemed to progress better when people weren’t in the room, and we spent a lot of time cuddling and kissing, pulling some “Ina May” as my midwife put it. (Ina May Gaskin, mother of midwifery, writes about the interplay between sexuality and birth. I certainly found this connection to be true in my case….those intimate moments with my husband were the only thing propelling my labor forward.)

By late afternoon things seemed to be going well but still didn’t seem super intense. I was experiencing the surges in my back – which surprised me, as baby had been anterior just a few days earlier and back labor tends to be a sign of a posterior baby. But with the help of my Hypnobabies hypnosis tools, and Mike applying counterpressure to my low back, I was not experiencing the surges as painful. Just very, very intense pressure.

Around 4, my midwife apologetically asked if she could check to see how I was progressing. She considers herself the “anti-cervical-check midwife” and in most cases doesn’t find it necessary to check, but given how many hours it had been since my water had broken she felt it was a good idea to know where I was and if I needed any herbal help to move things forward. Turns out I was almost 8 centimeters at that point – further than any of us thought. Mike and I took a walk outside – which was lovely, but didn’t help the surges any – and then spent a bit more time alone together. That did the trick, and the surges started piling one on top of each other and gaining in intensity. Finally! I was happy. Baby would arrive soon.

A few hours later I felt pushy. We felt it was a good time to get in the pool – it seemed like the time was close to having this baby. The pool was absolute heaven. We put on the Hypnobabies “pushing baby out” track and I squatted, floated, and just generally relaxed and breathed through the surges. Baby did great through it all with a nice strong hearbeat every time they checked. When it felt better to push a little bit, I did, just gently breathing down.

But it felt like nothing was happening – and after more than an hour of this my midwife asked if I’d consider getting out of the pool to help things move forward. She knew at that point I must have a little cervix left in the way, otherwise things would be more productive. After getting out of the pool things suddenly became very, very intense. There was no break between surges and the pressure in my low back made me feel like I was going to explode. Pushing no longer felt good and I started to experience that time in labor that everyone talks about – the “I can’t do this anymore” time. I started talking incoherently about going to the hospital. I don’t know why I thought that going to the hospital would make things move faster…like I said I was a little incoherent at that point.

My midwife asked if she could check me again, and I was desperate enough to want to know what was going on so it was a relief. Turns out that yes, there was part of the cervix still in the way. This would not have been a big deal, we could have just waited, but it had been almost 48 hours since my water had broken and time was not on our side. My midwife also felt that the baby’s head was ascynclitic – cocked to the side – and therefore applying pressure unevenly to the cervix, meaning it could take awhile…too long…to get that last half centimeter out of the way. So my midwife asked if she could hold the cervix out of the way while I pushed and hopefully got the head past the cervix. I was willing to try, but on the third push I felt like I was going to die, the pain was so intense. She said I could breathe through a few contractions without pushing to see if the cervix would melt away, but I think I only made it through two before asking her to try again to hold the cervix back…I just didn’t think I could do that for very long. This was when I would describe my labor as painful for the first time. When she tried the second time to hold the cervix back, I hung in there for several contractions and really tried. But that head wasn’t coming and like I said, I really felt like I was going to die…it felt like I was being split open.

It was sometime during this phase that my mind started saying on repeat “the only way out is through.” There was no going back, no quitting, no being rescued. There was no way out of this place but to walk through it. I was very emotional – I wanted to cry, but couldn’t, because the surges required all my attention. This was not the Perfect Birth I’d envisioned. It was clear I would not be having my long-desired water birth, and things were so intense at this point that I felt unable to fully utilize my hypnosis tools. I believe that pain in labor stems from fear, creating tension – and as unafraid as I had been up until now, fear began to creep in. I feared that my baby’s head would never clear the cervix. I feared that the intensity of the pain would swallow me up.

My midwife had me get into knees to chest position at that point and asked me not to push. This was the hardest point of the whole labor as my body was wanting to push and holding it back hurt so much. Again I started begging to go to the hospital – in my irrational mind, it would take 20 minutes to get to the hospital, and I thought if my midwife called on the way I could have a c-section in 30 minutes and this could all be over. At first my midwife didn’t really respond to my pleas, but I finally demanded to know – “IS THIS EVEN AN OPTION?”

So calmly, she told me that of course it was an option, that this is my birth and my choice. But, she said, I’d have to get to the front door and she wasn’t going to help me there. Then she described what would happen if we did go to the hospital. They wouldn’t just give me a c-section. They would hook me up to their monitors and watch the baby, and I’d have to do everything there that I was doing here. The only thing they could offer me, she said, was an epidural. It’s funny, that even in the state I was in, rationality broke through. If I couldn’t just get a c-section and be done with this in the next half hour, I didn’t want to go. An epidural didn’t appeal to me, as intense as the pain was at that point – I reacted very strongly to the idea of an epidural. Things I’d read about interrupting the hormone cascade came to mind. Indignation rose up in me…I didn’t want to do that to my hormones that I’ve worked so hard to regulate…or to my baby.

And then I chose. I chose to stay home, to do this thing, to birth my baby. I think that’s why I demanded to know if we could go to the hospital. I wanted to feel like I had options, that I was choosing this, that it wasn’t just something that was happening TO me. When I made that choice, things were different, even though they were still impossibly hard and I still felt like I was going to split into two…somewhere inside me something very primal happened. I knew that I could do this, even though I felt like I couldn’t.

I cried out that I couldn’t NOT push anymore, and my midwife said okay, let’s hold that cervix back one more time. She put ice inside her glove and helped the cervix to not swell. My midwife talked to me about the way I needed to push this baby out – she is a Hypnobirth practitioner, and similar to Hypnobabies, Hypnobirth teaches breathing baby down, or “ahhhing baby out”. No holding-your-breath-purple-face-pushing like you see on TV. But, she said, ultimately the point of Hypnobirthing is honoring the wisdom of the body and the baby, and in this case what baby needed to come out was NOT “breathing baby down” but rather “pushing with everything you’ve got.”

So I put aside my vision of breathing baby down peacefully in the water, grit my teeth, and pushed – on my back, in bed – NOT the position I wanted to be in to give birth, but I couldn’t even think about moving at that point. Finally – FINALLY – the head moved past the cervix. Now it was time to get baby out.

Bit by bit, baby’s head moved down. I would reach down between surges and feel the tip of the head…this got me through. Then another surge would come and I would dig my fingernails into Mike’s arm on the left and the birth assistant’s arm on the right – there was so, so much intensity in me that had to go somewhere. Then I would hear the wonder in Mike’s voice as he told me that the head was a little further out this time, that baby was coming. I kept asking if it would be soon, but of course no one could tell me how much longer. Then another surge would come and I would tuck my chin down and push three or four times, gasping for breath and almost crying because this wasn’t how I wanted to do this part. I was terrified of tearing, given the kind of pushing I was doing, but my midwife was gently supporting my perineum during each push, protecting the delicate tissue. I felt like I was crazy-pushing but apparently I was doing a good job bringing the head just a bit lower with each surge, rather than all at once which could have resulted in the tearing I was worried about.

Meanwhile a Hypnobabies phrase kept playing on repeat in my head:

I accept whatever path my birthing may take me, knowing that it is the right one for me and my baby.

I had not liked hearing that phrase in the CD’s. I didn’t like how it left open the possibility that things might not go as planned. But now, here, in the place where things were not going as planned, the words springing up from my subconscious were immensely comforting. I accept this. This is the path my baby is taking into the world. This is what needs to happen. This is okay. I was being washed with peace even in those impossibly difficult final moments.

I don’t know how long this part lasted. It felt like forever but I think it was less than an hour. I still felt like I was going to die, but at the same time there was a new feeling. Power. Power to birth my baby. Power to walk through. Every time I pushed I called out to baby to help me, to come to me. We were doing this together, this baby and I. My eyes were closed and it was like no one else was even there, except for Mike – like I said, every time the head came out a little more, the wonder and amazement in his voice carried me through the next surge, the next push.

And then, after forever and yet all of the sudden, my midwife’s voice cut through the other world that I had gone to within myself – “Mike and Heidi, reach down and receive your baby!” I didn’t even realize until she said it that I was feeling the shoulders and body slip out. I reached down and with Mike’s help brought baby up to my chest, half-laughing, half-crying, amazed that it was over, amazed that I did it, amazed that my baby was in my arms. I couldn’t see straight – so I tried to “feel” whether baby was a boy or girl, and at first I thought girl. It was funny then when I pulled him closer and saw that he was a boy – that Tristan Luke was here. He was here, and was so perfectly beautiful. He was so sleepy, so tired out from the birth that was hard work for him too. So he laid on my chest for awhile, and I rubbed the creamy vernix into his skin, and Mike cuddled up next to me and we just stared awe-struck at our son.

Everything after that was complication-free – the placenta slipped out a few minutes later, and it turned out that I didn’t have much of a tear at all despite all the intense pushing, just a small laceration, almost like a paper-cut, that didn’t even require stitches. The pain of the last four hours melted away in a moment and bliss washed over me.

You know what they say….”all that matters is a healthy mom and healthy baby.” I think that gets said a lot because obviously, in the end analysis, it’s true. But it’s not the only truth. My friend Stephanie wrote in her birth story, “In India they say that a woman fully present in birth is able to gain more insight than is possible in seven years of spiritual discipline. I was amazed when I read this that so much reconstitution of the soul could happen in so little time. I was amazed after the birth that anyone would think someone could achieve the transformation of birthing in only seven years.”

Even in those first few moments after Tristan was born, I knew what she meant. Over the next few days, as I struggled with flashbacks of the birth, struggled with the reality that it didn’t turn out quite like I’d envisioned or wanted, I realized that I had changed. I’ve struggled with my body for many years – first with the normal body image issues of the teenage years, and later with a myriad of health issues that made my body feel more like foe than friend. But in that moment of birthing my son, when I did the thing I could not do, something changed. My body – the one that has so often failed me – hung in there for every minute of a 48 hour labor. My body never gave up, never got too tired, never stopped doing what was necessary to bring my baby into the world. My midwife told me several times that there aren’t many first-time moms who could have done what I did. My husband looked at me with a new level of respect – he told me I was a goddess.

I’ve participated off and on in a fitness program known as Crossfit. Crossfit is known for driving people to the end of themselves physically. They like to say “If your workout doesn’t scare you, your workout isn’t hard enough.” The most “elite” Crossfit athletes – who are really just the ones who keep pushing through instead of quitting – are known in Crossfit circles as “Firebreathers”. I remember reading a blog post about Crossfit Firebreathers that was written in a way that made me want to be one – made me want that level of commitment to myself where I would never, ever give up even when, as the article said, “your heart feels like it’s going to explode, your knees are shaking, and you’ve lost your peripheral vision.”

“There is no difference between normal humans, and Firebreathers. They don’t have extra large lungs, or more ‘Type 1’ muscle fibers than the next person. They may not be very athletic, and they may not have played any sports while growing up. Hell, a lot of them haven’t even run a marathon or competed in an ‘Ironman’. But they do have something – something that any normal person can have, but most don’t want. Firebreathers have the ability to step across that mysterious line, and never look back. They know what’s coming and how much it’s going to hurt, but they run head first into it – ‘no matter what.’ When (or if) you get there – you’ll know what I’m talking about.”

In those first moments after giving birth, I knew. I was a firebreather. There was that moment of choosing this, when I wanted to give up, and didn’t. Then there was the “running head first” into each push, knowing how much it would hurt, and knowing that I would do it anyway, “no matter what.”

It took a few days of processing, of mourning the birth I didn’t have, but I slowly started recognizing the beauty of the birth I did have. I had seen so many beautiful birth videos that made me cry with how peaceful and gentle and quiet they were. I didn’t get that. But I think I got something else, something that maybe those women didn’t. I reached the complete end of myself. The place where I couldn’t go on..and yet I did. In experiencing that, I think I was given a gift that I wouldn’t have had if the birth had been easy. My birth didn’t happen quite as I wanted it to – but I think it happened exactly as I needed it to. My body has not always been my friend, but in that moment, my body came through. I rose to the challenge and I birthed my baby. I feel such healing in that. There’s a sudden respect for my body and its capabilities, replacing the disappointment and even loathing that I’ve felt at times.

There is much to be grateful for. I am so very grateful I was at home, and not in a hospital where my labor would have been managed with Pitocin, antibiotics, and very likely would have ended in a c-section for “failure to progress.” I’m so very grateful for my midwife – who didn’t insist on a hospital transfer just to cover her own ass (the environment right now is not friendly to midwives who don’t follow the hospital timelines), who respected and trusted me through the whole process, never dictating, always asking and supporting, never introducing fear into my birthing time, always trusting birth. I’m grateful that even when it came time to push in a way that I hadn’t wanted, no one was yelling at me to “PUSH!!!!!!”, no one was counting to ten, or any of that kind of craziness…I could still go with my body even then. I’m grateful for my husband, who always gave me exactly what I needed, truly the perfect birth partner. I’m grateful for the things that did go as planned – the peaceful, beautiful environment, the immediate skin-to-skin contact with my son, the gentle way he was treated after birth – no suctioning, no eye goop, no brisk rubbing with a stiff blanket, no bath to wash away the beneficial vernix, no cord cutting for a good two hours after birth.

I learned that I couldn’t “plan” birth, but that I could trust birth. I could trust my body to do what it needed to do to safely bring this baby into the world. I didn’t realize it until later, but it was The Perfect Birth – it was the birth that brought me Tristan, my beautiful perfect son. It is his story, our story, the story of being born again and for the first time.

For him, I would do it again, a thousand times over.