Birth stories are their own genre. I have three so far, this one written just after it happened but then never quite finished, like so many things in my life of having three babies. But however long it takes I like to finish things, so here it is.
It’s raining today. Ransom’s second day, and it has been gray and beautiful and storming. Sort of like our life right now. Sort of like the last week, especially.
Let me tell you about it.
Ever since the day of the positive pregnancy test, January 24th has been Our Day. Due date, hurray! My sister said she could come to help, just needed to know when. We picked a nice big window: 2 weeks beginning January 20th. That way, maybe the baby would already be here and she could help! Or at the very least, she would get to be here for the birth, and that would be so fun. And she could help!
So. January 24th came but there was no baby. I’m sure you’re not surprised, with how I’ve been painting this canvas. I was going to be overdue again, like with Judah (induced at 41 weeks). But this time the stakes were higher. I planned the whole time to have a vbac (vaginal birth after cesarian) since Sarala was breech delivered via c-section. David and I both wanted this from the beginning since it carries lower risks overall and better chances of having more healthy births in the future. So beginning a few months ago, the conversations about natural childbirth started swirling in our house. I called my friend who had her 4th with no pain medication after breaking down and getting an epidural 3 times in a row during previous labors. I asked for Ina May’s book Spiritual Midwifery for Christmas. My friend lent me her copy of Ina May’s Guide to Childbirth, and I read through big sections of both late into the nights before and after the dreaded due date. I diffused lavender and poured over those crunchy birth stories. The thing about me is, I’ve seen plenty of natural births. It was the only kind available to women in the village. Their only pain relief was from changing positions (as much “relief” as that gives), and hanging on for dear life to a piece of bark looped from the ceiling and gripped during the worst of the worst. I watched all of this calmly as a child, having no idea I was witnessing some of the most intense pain a person might ever feel in her whole life.
Ina May and others talk about how a pain-free experience is possible, about visualizing yourself riding on the waves of the contractions, conquering the pain by calling it what it is: a mental response to physical stimuli. So. I was ready, sort of. Except I’d heard myself say to a few people (my doctor included) that it was “David’s plan” for me to have no epidural this time. I even told the nurse this when we were chatting through introductions the morning of my fated induction, the morning of February 2nd.
Let me back up. Before February came, before I realized I wasn’t going to have a January baby after all these months of waiting, my sister came! And it was great, mostly. As great as it can be to spend days waiting together for the Main Event, wondering which moment might turn every other moment into splendid color. Also while being 40, then 41 weeks pregnant, tired, and having 2 toddlers who are mysteriously fevering several days of the second week. But we pressed on! Played games, watched movies, cleaned the house together. She watched the kids while I went to doctor’s appointments every few days where my cervix would make every appearance of being Ready & Waiting. Hope! Then, nothing.
I realized I could not induce my body to labor. I started walking several miles a day, even running a mile twice, once on my due date, then again at 41 weeks, just in case the message to my body hadn’t been clear enough: It Is Time. I tried castor oil, tried every previously pregnant person’s trick that certainly was The Thing That Shot Them Into Labor at least once.
I went to more appointments, and we had to make a plan. Originally we thought there would be no induction possibility since I was attempting a vbac. Then we started to hear about the options. They could break my water. We could wait just a few days past even 41 weeks, as long as the baby was still looking good. We made a plan for Monday, 41w2d, to have my water broken. That would be The Day, only I told everyone it would not be since I was planning to go into spontaneous labor long before then. So I walked and walked, took more castor oil (I gag now just thinking about that vile liquid), woke up several nights having contractions, but still: nothing.
Then, something finally happened.
I developed a weird sore throat, out of the clear blue, on a Wednesday afternoon. By Saturday (week 41, 2 days before Induction Day), I was feeling pretty doggone bad. But I had the brilliant idea that we should pack the family up and drive to the zoo (30 minutes away) to give the kids something fun for the afternoon. The kids certainly had fun, but Cori and I did not. She had the same weird sore throat I did, then coinciding aching backs, soreness, and general awful feelings which were growing with each step past animal enclosures. By an hour in, we were miserable. David was literally jogging up and down hills while we hobbled to keep up. Finally we were standing in front of the tiger exhibit, two orange tigers and one rare white one, and the cats were restless. One of the orange ones had its sights on Sarala, and looked like he would eat her if only he could climb through the glass. We have never seen the cats pacing before, so at first this was exciting for all of us. But the longer we stood there, the worse I felt. Then David started to record the pacing tigers on his phone and I lost it. In the background of his tiger video are my immortal words: If you knew how I was feeling right now, you would be doing everything you could to get me home instead of videoing these stupid tigers.
Words of wisdom.
As we drove back to Harlingen, I started to take my temperature with the thermometer I keep in the diaper bag but never used before. 99.6… 99.8… 100.4. For those of you who don’t know, only a body temperature of 100.4 or higher is medically considered a fever (if you never knew before, you’re welcome). So, I had a fever. My mind was going through the options. Had I missed my water breaking and my fetus was infected inside me? Was I having some strange labor-fever? Was this a sign?
It certainly was a sign, but not of labor. Turns out, I had the flu. After a quick test at David’s clinic, I had a name for my misery (and knew my sister did, too). This was the splash that began our deep dive into the details of flu and pregnancy and labor and newborns. It was the twist I never saw coming, and 2 miserable days in bed with hot eyes, aching head, waiting uterus. Finally my overdue baby made sense to me. Maybe God was protecting our little baby. Maybe He knew all along. Maybe it really was for the best that I hadn’t found the magic potion to start my labor. Suddenly I was in no hurry to push my baby into a world infected with influenza. I had 5 days of Tamiflu, 2 days to become fever-free, and 3 days to wade my poor unborn baby into hopefully less dangerous waters for his first days of life.
So Monday came, February 2nd, Induction Day. After a few sunny, warm ones, this day was biting. My father-in-law told me I needed to wear my winter coat. I drove to the hospital with our three packed bags, even more questions and fears, and a shiver down my spine.
David had already seen a few patients that morning and met me in the parking lot. We used his card to take the back way to Labor & Delivery, checked ourselves in, met our nurse, and I changed into my backless green laboring uniform. My doctor came at 10 am, checked me and said I was 3-4 cm dilated and looking good, then used a long white piece of plastic like a crochet hook to rupture my sweet baby’s amniotic sac. I felt the warmth right away. We were off.
The problem with reading about natural childbirth is it is often written about with so much love and mysticism that it seems fairly impossible to a normal-to-slightly-neurotic person with over-thinking tendencies. I had asked David several times in the last weeks if there was maybe something “wrong” with my body (or maybe my mind?) that was keeping me from going into labor. To this day, I have never found myself in that blessed corridor, the place where pregnant people go from being pregnant to pushing out their own child without any human intervention. First I was induced with pitocin, second my baby was cut from my uterus with a scalpel. This time the ticket was the crochet hook, followed by lots of hope that magic would follow.
So the first hour was a little tense. We pretended to not watch the monitor too carefully, but were dissecting every pain. Was this it? Was I actually going into labor? I arrived at the hospital having only erratic, painless contractions. Was a little tear in an amniotic sac going to change that? At the same time, we were receiving kind but quite distracting visits from every medical friend passing by. They just wanted to say hi while I began to labor. This is how I knew I was finally having real contractions: I was no longer excited to see the shadows of a coming visitor under the curtain by the door. I just wanted to be alone with my husband and the pain, and for my cervix to open and let a baby out.
The first two hours flew by. I remember looking at the clock just before noon, nervous that time had passed so quickly and my contractions were still five or more minutes apart. Plus I was starving, since they told me I couldn’t eat after being admitted. Naturally I cheated just a little, but mostly because I knew I couldn’t labor an entire day without eating anything. David gave me a banana, small bites of a granola bar, and some applesauce. This was my last meal before meeting Ransom.
By 2pm, I was no longer afraid to hope for labor; I was in it, and I knew it. The pain was something I had hoped for so long that it almost felt good. Almost. David was playing our special birth playlist, so in the background of every memory I hear John Mark McMillan, Coldplay. When I started to get more uncomfortable, we tried to watch an episode of Downton Abbey. Our nurse interrupted us; we abandoned the show. I needed David to rub my back during every contraction and was already losing the “riding the wave” feeling and beginning to drown in pain instead.
I know it can be discouraging to be “checked,” so I was avoiding this. But by mid-afternon I knew there had to be some kind of good change. When our kind nurse came to see us we asked her to check. 4-5 centimeters. 4-5? What? I started to feel desperate. If I had hardly progressed in 5 painful hours, what hope did I have of reaching that glorious finish line unmedicated? I made a deal with myself (I do this when I run, too): I would wait all the way until 6:30. If at that point I was significantly dilated, I would go for it: have the natural childbirth of my husband’s dreams. But if not, I wanted that epidural.
The minutes ticking by until 6:30 were dramatically different than the first hours. This hurt. This hurt BAD. I had read about people closing their eyes to imagine their way through each contraction, but then my nurse came during one, saw this, and told me I needed to keep my eyes open. If I was going to control the pain, I had to be focusing on something or it would wash me away, she told me. I’m not sure if she was right, but I knew this was her job. She helped people like me every day. So I picked the painting on the wall, this strange picture of a child, and stared it down with each contraction. David faithfully massaged my back. These massages were my only hope; the pain of his knuckles in my lower back was just distraction enough to get me through.
Finally it was 6:30, that appointed Checking Hour. I knew I was getting close, knew it was going to be a much higher number. Then the pronouncement: 6 centimeters. Six. Verifiably higher than 5, but still: much further from the finish line than I was able to handle in that moment. Our nurses were changing shifts. The new nurse was so pleasant and calmly agreed with me that certainly an epidural would make me more comfortable. How could it not? Its one job is to completely remove the pain!
6:30-6:45 I spent begging David to not be disappointed in me, to let me have the epidural, to still love me. To still think I was brave. He told me I was a warrior princess galloping down a hill on a beautiful white horse. I was not comforted or inspired by this. My only hope was the nurse was going to get me what I really needed.
She came back a few minutes later with a bag of fluids. Because my blood pressure is already low and could drop with the epidural, I had to get the entire bag into my laboring body before they would call the anesthesiologists. WHAT?! I watched that terrible bag drip and drip, clawing on the bed with my contractions, moving from the chair, to the ball, to the bed, like a wild animal. The contractions were coming so hard and fast that I felt insane. At last the bag was empty and I made David RUN to tell the nurse. Call my angel of mercy! Get me an epidural!
It was about 7:15 when they told me: the doctor is with another case. She’ll come as soon as she can. I didn’t know how to keep going, but had no choice. Nurses started ripping open sterile packages for the anesthesia. It gave me hope, for a moment. I stood up so I could lean over during the next contraction, then turned towards the bed and the next one was already coming. There was no break. Surely I would die before the anesthesiologist arrived.
I started shouting, then heard myself screaming, “I need to push!” As I shouted, a calm Asian woman arrived, my sweet angel of mercy, but she was too late. The baby was coming, with his golden raisin head bulging outside of my body. It was nearly over.
I don’t remember how long it took to push little Ransom out. I just remember hearing David call our doctor, who wasn’t in our room, over and over. I can hear her voicemail message in my memory, telling us she wasn’t available, leave a message. He kept trying until someone just handed him the sterile gloves and gown. He would be the doctor in the room. And suddenly the atmosphere shifted as he turned from his primary role of kneading bruises into my lower back to delivering his own baby. Nurses began addressing him as “sir,” and then the hands lifting up our new baby were my husband’s, sore for massaging, but trained to do this. At 8:05pm, Ransom was born. He came out screaming, a trend he would continue for the first nights of his life. If only I had slept more in that last week! But that didn’t matter. All I cared about was that I had done it, somehow. I had given birth to my son without so much as a Tylenol. It wasn’t glorious, and I wasn’t strong, but I was the victor in spite of my own surrender.
Mostly that’s the end of the birth story. I still had the flu, had to wear a mask to hold my beautiful new baby. My sister’s flight left the morning after he was born, and she also still had the flu, so she came to admire him from across the room but never got to hold the baby that visit. It wasn’t what I had pictured, but so few things ever are. We named him Ransom Paid, a reminder to ourselves and to him of what on earth is important. He reminds us every day, too. The way babies are born, these birth stories, are part of our rituals as mothers. But the everything after that of having a baby, that’s what really changes us. I’m glad to have been changed so much for the better three times over. We love you, Ransom Paid!