The Hospital Birth
At about noon, on the third day of my labor, I was fully dilated and ready to push. After 48 hours of waiting, it was incredibly surreal to actually hear someone tell me that this was happening NOW. I was excited, but couldn’t help but doubt that this was it—I didn’t feel any different. I knew labor so well at that point, and had enjoyed the respite from contractions, that transitioning into a new experience with its own set of foreign sensations (that I would not be numb to) made me a bit nervous. My husband, however, was pumped! An enormous smile took over his face as the long, drawn-out anticipation reached a new peak.
Annie*, the hospital midwife, told me this part was up to me. She backed away and instructed me to push when and how it felt right to me. Just then, she was called away to another birth, and was replaced by another hospital midwife. The new midwife was one that I had actually met earlier in my pregnancy, and when I met her I loved her. Not to mention, she knew my doula and homebirth midwife, as well. The energy in the room immediately changed with her presence. This was the point where I no longer felt like I was in a hospital. I felt empowered—I had the freedom to listen to my body and figure out how to give birth in my own way and I was now completely surrounded by women I knew would honor and respect my journey.
Those first few pushes felt great. I was finally able to do something about being in labor for so long—I could focus my energy and strength into bringing it to an end. I was joyful, still laughing and talking, while trying to figure out the mechanics of my body.
After feeling nothing but pressure for hours, thanks to the epidural, I began to feel more and more with every push. The anesthesiologist had warned me that once I reached the pushing stage, I would experience pain again. Thankfully, the pain grew in intensity gradually, easing me into the most overwhelming sensation I have ever experienced in this lifetime. The more effective I became at pushing, the more I could feel the tiny being inside me, making her way down. One of the strangest sensations, was feeling baby girl “helping” me. They say birth is a dance, mama and baby work together, and that is exactly what I experienced. Baby girl never stopped moving throughout my entire labor, and now that I was pushing, she was furiously hard at work with me. She constantly moved her head from side to side, and tried to work with the contractions to move into the right position.
Throughout the sensation-filled journey that was pushing, I knew I was not alone. I may have been the one who had to do all the hard work, but there were plenty of women (and my husband!) working with me. I was never quite sure who was attending to me, and at which end of my body, but there were always a lot of hands on me. Hands that wiped the sweat from my face with cold compresses, hands that placed lavender-infused cloths on my chest, hands that reapplied lip balm to my parched lips, hands that held mine. And hands that helped my body stretch open to allow my baby to emerge.
I mentioned that during active labor I began to slip in and out of a trance-like state during contractions, and that I visited a place where I simultaneously did not exist yet felt more in my body, and in my soul, than ever before. During pushing, I was back in that trance-like state, but fell deeper and deeper into it, until reaching a point where I could not be reached, and I did not return for hours. I would say that my trance was equal parts a spiritual experience, and a dissociation from my body to deal with the immense pain. Time did not exist, I could only think and experience in contractions rather than minutes. All of the meditative visualizations I had come up with during my hypnobirthing classes faded. Instead, I focused on the moment that my child would emerge, the way it would feel to have her small, warm body against mine. I needed a reason to move toward the pain instead of away from it.
And so I pushed.
There was more to childbirth than the physical experience, though—it was also a death. Once I began to push, I was no longer myself. It had begun during labor, but, now, as I pushed, I was in the throws of dying.
I’ve been trying to put this into words for a week and a half, to explain what I mean and how that felt. I’ve written several versions of this part of the story—pushing—and none of them felt right. I even had my husband read them because I haven’t been able to get it right and hit “publish” on this post, and I don’t normally bring in an editor to write my blog. Ultimately, I’ve realized that I cannot truly explain this experience. It was not of this world thus there are no words. It was unquantifiable, and as confusing a concept to describe as infinity. But, it’s even more than that. I’m still processing it, and I’ve found that a month later I am suddenly struggling with my story. That feeling just cropped up on me in the past week while trying to write this post, and failing, and not publishing it. Part of me feels self-conscious because this is not the story I thought I’d be sharing. I expected to remain in a peaceful place where I did not experience the pain as “pain,” the place I was in during my 30+ hours laboring at home. I am mostly struggling with my experience of the pushing phase, and to be honest, am a bit traumatized by it at the moment. But, I will continue my story now.
Time seemed to slow in a never-ending vacuum. Pushing became an extension of the long labor, seeming to be without end. Hours passed by, and I was both completely aware of it yet lost in the minutes, unable to perceive them. The only measure of time I could perceive was the intensity that built within my body, and the crescendo of my moans. I knew that I had started out virtually silent and composed at the beginning of pushing, I knew that my hair was combed into a neat ponytail and I could speak in between pushes. But now, I felt loud and primal, I was pouring sweat and my hair was beginning to knot. I could speak only in hand gestures for a time, and now, not at all. I felt my baby’s head butting up against my pubic bone for an eternity. And then I felt her crowning for about an hour, which catapulted me into an entirely new level of dissociation from my body.
At one point, I began to feel my baby’s facial features—her eyelids, mouth and nose—moving against the birth canal, and that feeling coupled with the top of her head stretching me open was more than I felt I could bear in that moment. I didn’t expect this pain. Not out of ignorance, but because one cannot expect or understand what it takes to birth a child until it happens. The reality of it was overwhelming. But, there was only one way out from under all that pain and upset, so I pushed as hard as I could, which fortunately, was pretty damn hard. The words of praise from the three midwives in the room, my doula, and my husband were my solid ground. I used them as fuel, and hoped with every push that I would soon meet my baby.
A side note on the pain: I never thought I’d use the word “pain” so generously when describing birth, but it ended up being my experience. I still believe it’s possible to experience it another way. But, I had a very long, 3-day journey, and some complications along the way. I also pushed for 3 hours, which is a long time to push, because my pelvis was really resistant and was not opening up. I say this, because I don’t want to discourage anyone who is about to give birth, or hopes to someday. Every birth is different, and despite all the “pain,” this was a truly amazing birth that I wouldn’t trade for the world. And the thing is, the “pain” was not a negative, it just “was.” I would still label this a highly positive, and amazingly beautiful experience. Side note over.
Childbirth to me felt like chaos, a sensation overload. There was so much to process at once—the pressure of the contractions, the pain of a child moving through me, the stinging of skin, overwhelming emotions, a spiritual awakening, voices all around me giving me instructions, guidance and praise, the hands of two different women helping my baby’s head find its way out, the flashing of cameras, the side conversations of the 8+ people in the room. Yet, somehow I was filtering it all, and felt incredibly focused. I was in the zone. Near the end, there was nothing but a continuous loop in my head saying, “get the f*$k out of me, get the f*$k out of me.” On repeat. For probably an hour and a half. That’s not very zen of me, nor is it the beautiful, magical phrase I anticipated hearing in my head, but hey man, that’s the way it went down.
At one point, I reached down to feel the very top of my baby’s head, which was still inside of me. But, that moment quickly lost its power of encouragement as the top of her head was visible for hours before it eventually came out. When her head did finally emerge, I was once again overwhelmed with sensation as I let out a noise that will forever be seared into my memory—a shriek, a moan, a scream, a cry? It’s hard to say. My midwife suggested that I reach down and feel my baby coming out of me, but I could not. With my next push, my baby’s arm emerged, with the next her shoulders. My husband reached down, as her body slipped out, and pulled her into the world, placing her on my belly. It took me at least 30 seconds to realize that my sweet angel was actually lying on me. I was still in childbirth mode and wasn’t entirely aware of what was happening. But, there was something incredibly slippery and warm against my skin.
Looking down and seeing my child for the first time was the most surreal moment of my life. I remember trying to connect the enormous belly I carried around for ten months, and the crazy ordeal I had just endured, to the baby staring up at me. It was a tough concept to understand in that moment. And it still is.
My eyes had been closed for hours during pushing, while I straddled the line between life and a place more expansive and inexplicable than life. After opening my eyes to see my child, I looked to my left and saw my husband’s face. In that moment, I felt a greater love for him than I ever have. It was like falling in love all over again, but at a much more intense and meaningful level. All at once I realized what he had endured for 51 hours, that he had been “in it” with me and rallied through sleepless hours, lots of tears (mine), emotionally taxing moments, and remained calm and encouraging for me. He had an injured hand on account of all the squeezing I did to it during contractions, but he never complained or took his hand away. He advocated and spoke for me when I could not. He held me when I needed to borrow some of his strength. He never stopped honoring my journey. His awe and respect for me multiplied with every hour of labor, and I could see it all over his face now. And we were now connected in a way so different than before—through this experience, and through our child, now lying on my chest.
I also suddenly noticed how many people were in the room when I opened my eyes. I had been completely unaware of my audience for hours, aside from the paparazzi-like flashes I continuously saw through my closed eyelids. But, when I saw all these amazing women surrounding me, I felt a love and appreciation for them, as well. There is nothing like the bond of childbirth. I will always think of all these women, and will always be in awe of what they do for birthing mamas. It’s pretty incredible, and downright impressive.
I did it. I gave birth. It was over and now I had a precious baby in my arms. I was also on a complete high thanks to the adrenaline and endorphins that flooded my body. In fact, I was bouncing off the walls, even after my insane three-day ordeal.
It’s amazing how everything just stops once you’ve given birth. You can be totally consumed with the experience, and with the pain, but in an instant, it’s over and life resumes. I had a lot of physical healing to do at that point, but I had never felt more elated, excited, full of love, proud or awake (wide awake!). I had the most incredible reward for all I had been through. And, as epically long as the entire experience felt, from conception to carrying baby girl beyond full-term to laboring for three days to pushing for three hours, it was suddenly folded up into a neat little box that immediately went up on the shelf in my memory file and was over. All of that instantly began to fade away, and made way for a new life. Life was an entirely new experience now, with my little one in it. I was in love, and enthralled in a way I could not have imagined.
*Names changed for privacy