A few years ago, my first advisee finished her dissertation on childbirth narratives (including birth plans and stories among other things), and went off to start her new job at the University of Rhode Island. I thought about--and talked with--her a lot when planning for Nora's birth, and then after I had her I knew I should write the story of her birth, but to be honest, I couldn't figure out how to write about its immensity (especially the part about physical pain). This of course reminded me of Elaine Scarry's book The Body in Pain, where she talks about how pain is difficult to talk about, especially while it's happening. So a couple months after Nora was born, I retrieved my copy of Scarry's book. But I still didn't write the story. Then last week I read my friend Jenny's story of little Judah's birth and finally was inspired to get it all down. I don't expect all that many folks are interested in this, but since this blog is a combination of personal and professional and whatever else, it seemed like a good place to post it. Here it is.
To write so eloquently about the inarticulability of bodily pain, I feel pretty sure that Elaine Scarry must have delivered a child, probably without medication.
Here is my birth story. On Tuesday February 9th, we woke up to several inches of new snow. My back was crampy, and I was a little on edge since the due date had come and gone and the baby was, at last check, at negative one station (which means in position). John canceled his class and stayed home. He shoveled the driveway, and Tillie ran back and forth on the path he made on the sidewalk. Everything was bright.
I slept that night. I woke up on Wednesday with more crampy feelings--this time from back to front, and light contractions (though to be honest at the time I thought they were significant). I spoke with the doula again, and since more snow was in the forecast, she decided to drive over the mountain from Philipsburg to stay with her mother who lives near us so that she would have an easier time making it to the hospital.
I spent Wednesday in early labor at home. It was such a relaxing day. We watched some episodes of “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” and lay around in bed with Jada and Tillie. I spoke with Corey, our doula, on the phone throughout the day. Each time she would ask me to describe what was going on and tell me to keep doing what I was doing. I talked with Christa on the phone and helped her with her job offer negotiations. A couple times I had to move the phone so she wouldn't hear me lose my breath.
We made dinner--pizza. I was too nervous to sleep, so I took a big bath and drank a glass of red wine and fell asleep around 10:30. At 1:30 the contractions woke me up--it was almost as if they made noise, deep and resounding--they were noticeably more intense. Around 2 we called Corey to tell her we were thinking of going to the hospital, and she said she would meet us there. The ride to the hospital was really painful for me because I had to be jammed up so close to the dash to allow room for the new car seat.
Corey met us in the lobby at three in the morning, and John wheeled me up to the fourth floor. It was a quiet night on the baby floor. We got a big room with a window. I changed into my robe from home and kept on my patterned smartwool socks. The doctor checked and said I was 3 cm dilated, and John and I set about using some of the pain management techniques we learned in our childcare class--walking the halls, grabbing hand rails and bending over, breathing, breathing.
The nurse did a fetal heart-rate check and the baby's heart rate dropped during a contraction, so they told me I would need to stay hooked up to the monitor. I was a little sad about that decision because it limited my mobility. I would ask to go to the bathroom when I needed to move around.
After some time, Corey suggested I get in the shower. The water pressure was disappointing and so I didn't stay in very long.
The contractions were coming hard and fast, and I was dilating more and more. I had to lie on my left side with the fetal monitor band around me--it pinched and squeezed during the contractions. I hated that thing. The sun came up, and Cory reminded me that today our daughter would arrive. She and John took turns getting their breakfast.
Corey coached me to "stay on top of" the contractions. I closed my eyes and repeated my mantra (adapted from Kim's):"I am strong. I feel calm. I can do this. And then we get to meet our baby." That mantra soon gave way to moans and yells. As the transition phase approached, I grabbed the bedrail and shook it during contractions. I think I even whacked it with my palm a few times. John rubbed my back and spoke in calming tones. Cory reminded me over and over to stay in front of the contractions and not let them overwhelm me. I yelled in a short-vowel pattern. I sounded like a dying animal. The fetal monitor also tracked my contractions, and the really bad ones raced off the graph. Between contractions, I breathed and pictured all the women I knew who had done this unmedicated--Tifani, Nancy, Sarah, Kim--their faces calmed me down. And then it was time to yell.
Then around 10, it was time to push. I knew this because I HAD to push--couldn't stop it. Corey got a little nervous because the doctor wasn't there and told me to breathe out in short sharp blows--this would prevent me from pushing. I did that but occasionally snuck in a push anyway--couldn't help it. The doctor was just outside changing her shoes (this made me think of blood), and soon I would get to push for real. Then the nurse came in and explained how the pushing would work. At the start of each contraction, I would take a deep breath, curl my chin over my abdomen, and push while she counted to 10, and then I would breathe and repeat twice. Then I would wait, rest, gasp for air, and brace myself for the next wave. It was hard. I felt like I was doing it wrong and nearly passed out from the effort and from holding my breath during the pushes. The doctor ordered an oxygen mask. She made inspiring pushing faces and shouted me through each contraction. Corey held my left foot and leg, John my right, and I dug my heels into their palms. John held my foot with one hand and with the other helped me curl up over my tummy, which was moving lower and lower. We pushed and pushed. During one long spell between contractions, the doctor commented on the enormous snow piles at the edges of the parking lot.
The baby's hair started poking out, and the doctor had me reach and feel it. It was thick, wet, and soft. After a few more good pushes--fifty minutes of pushing all told--out she came, all at once. The doctor cut her cord after John politely declined--"my training is in the humanities," he said--Dr. Hardyk bantered back: "then would you like to recite a poem to it?" She had the baby evaluated in the room next to my bed while helping me deliver the placenta. Then finally someone asked if I wanted to meet my daughter. Why yes, yes I did. The nurse toweled her off a little more and helped me get set up to nurse the baby. She latched on immediately. And with that, my breath made its way back, my legs stopped quivering.
Lovely little Nora unmade our world and just as quickly remade it.