When I first wrote my birth story, it looked more like a page of timestamped notes than a story. I recorded every minute that I could remember leading up to E's birth, because I knew I'd forget the details later. And, as I sit here re-reading it, I realize that I did forget those details. What really stuck in my mind were the feelings; the sensations.
Before I get into the details of the birth, I must first comment on the incredible timing of the whole thing. It was almost three weeks before my due date. TJ spent the summer in California, and he had just arrived home. On our calendar that week, we had plans to move into a new apartment, attend my baby shower, prepare cloth diapers, meet with our doula to learn comfort measures for birth, and attend my first breastfeeding class. Busy, busy week! But on Sunday morning--the day before our big move--I felt a trickle of water run down my leg. I brushed it off as normal, but the leaking continued into the evening, when TJ finally convinced me to call my midwife. We met her at the birth center, where she held up a red test stick and said, "Yep. It's amniotic fluid. We've got to get you ready to have this baby as soon as possible."
With those words, I felt the clock start ticking.
There was so much energy between the two of us, as we tried to prepare for the biggest day of our lives. It had never occurred to me that I would have an actual heads up before going into labor. But here we were, at Whole Foods, hurriedly gathering some last minute things-- knowing full well that we'd be holding our baby boy within the next 48 hours.
Early the next morning, TJ and I went our separate ways. He went to move some things into our new apartment, and I drove to the birth center to begin what would be a very long day of trying to induce labor naturally. My midwife Natalie was prepared to try everything before going to the hospital. I was, and still am, so incredibly thankful for that.
She gave me an herbal tincture to take while I used the breast pump to try to stimulate labor. 20 minutes left side, 20 minutes right side, 20 minute break--all day long. During those 20 minute breaks, I would get my headphones and take a walk around the neighborhood. I walked up and down the hills, rubbing my belly and breathing deeply to the familiar sounds of my "baby" playlist. I talked to E and told him what was going on; that we needed to work together to bring him safely and peacefully into my arms. The world around me seemed sharper, clearer. I saw life peaking through cracks in the sidewalk and felt a deep connection to everything.
But nevertheless, the day wore on without any sign of labor.
That afternoon I had an acupuncture appointment downstairs. All throughout my third trimester, I had been attending weekly acupuncture and chiropractic appointments to prepare my body for labor. This would be the last acupuncture session of my pregnancy, and it would be unlike any of my previous ones. I went into the room with one goal-- to induce labor.
After our session, she left a few needles in and told me to walk up and down the stairs 6 times. Nothing changed. So I went back to my room in the birthing center, where I resumed the pumping and herbs. TJ eventually joined me and we watched movies to pass the time. As afternoon became evening, I started to consider the possibility that this birth wouldn't be anything like I had imagined. My dream was to have a peaceful, quiet birth with only TJ and my midwife present. No hospital, no bright lights, and certainly no drugs. But if there were no sign of labor the following morning, I would get exactly that. My "nightmare" was about to come true. And yet, I felt oddly at peace with everything. Complete and total trust in the process.
At around 5pm, our midwife knocked on the door and offered us one last option before we went home for the night: Castor Oil.
"The theory behind using castor oil to induce labor is that it causes intestinal cramping and diarrhea, which stimulate the uterus, thus producing prostaglandins, which then cause contractions." source
Castor oil is a thick, unpleasant-tasting oil, so we mixed 4 ounces (double the standard dose!) into a bowl of vegan chocolate ice cream. I ate the entire thing in a matter of minutes and handed the empty bowl to her. She asked us to wait at the birth center for another hour or two, so that she could keep an eye on me while the castor oil took effect. And after a day of hard work, I left the birth center with nothing but a small tummy ache.
To celebrate our last night as two, we picked up our favorite meal (a vegan stir-fry from Bouldin Creek Cafe) and headed to our new apartment for dinner. On the way, I started feeling a cramping sensation in my lower abdomen. I didn't want to get my hopes up, but thought I'd time the cramps just in case.
4 minutes apart, lasting 1 minute each.
*For those of you who are unfamiliar, there are 3 "stages" of labor. In the first stage, contractions are typically mild and spread apart. As labor advances, contractions become "longer, stronger and closer together." During the second stage--active labor--contractions are strong, lasting 45 to 60 seconds and occurring 3 to 4 minutes apart. Was I already in active labor?!
My contractions quickly gained in strength and eventually moved to my lower back. They only lasted about 20 seconds though, and because they didn't resemble the "normal" pattern, we were convinced that I was still in early labor. This terrified me because it was already so intense -- I doubted my ability to withstand much more.
We tried to get some rest in preparation for the next morning. But every time I would try to lay down, the intensity would push me to my feet. I needed to be upright, moving around. At this point, I was crying and screaming and moaning without a care in the world. TJ was an angel. He whispered encouraging words and massaged my back. We kissed and hugged and he made sure that I always had a glass full of water -- something he still does to this day. Our love for each other felt strong and clear, and I am deeply grateful that we welcomed Elan into such a powerful energetic space.
Of course, I look back at those moments with fondness, but the reality is that things were getting pretty unbearable. I told TJ that I felt like giving up.. I wanted a "hospital, drugs, anything but this". I finally began to understand how a woman could go from a planned natural labor to a medicated one, and I even remember thinking something especially outrageous: "I want them to just take him out of me!"
Note: Just before the point that you begin pushing, the hormone levels are so high that you will see undeniable physical signs. Observation of these signs alert you to the fact that you are in transition. You will recognize transition by the desire to give up. This is when women claim they just can't do it anymore. Most women begin to doubt their ability to go on, and it is in this part of labor that most women ask for medication. (source)
I spent a great majority of the night on my birth ball, bouncing through the waves and listening to TJ remind me to breathe. I was quite inconsolable, though. I had expected this beautiful birth, where I breathed through every contraction with ease and grace. Wrong. I was shouting and hollering, and I can't imagine what that must have sounded like to everyone else in the house. I didn't give a shit about my breath, or about any of the things I had planned for this birth. I just had to get through each contraction.
One incredibly useful tool that my doula gave me was a rice sock. TJ warmed it up for me so that I could ease the pain in my lower back. And eventually, I found a sort of rhythm. I bounced on the ball, holding the rice sock to my back and actually focusing on my breath. Things got quieter, and TJ was able to slip into sleep while I labored alone. I took frequent visits to the bathroom, where I found the small, quiet, dark space oddly comforting. On one of these visits, I felt a strong urge to poop. I kept thinking that all of my contractions would feel more tolerable if I could only poop. My brain was telling me to PUSH for relief. So I did just that. Then, I felt something strange. I reached down and cried out, "Oh no!". I was fully dilated and could feel something gooey and fleshy... what I thought to be my baby's cord.
I was terrified.
I started bawling and panicking and telling TJ that we needed to get to the birth center ASAP. Maybe even the hospital. Fear had fully overcome me and I ran to the car without even bothering to put my pants on. On the way to the birth center, I kept feeling the irresistible urge to push -- the "fetus ejection reflex" that I had read so much about. It was so overwhelming that I was sure I'd have the baby in the car. Thankfully, at just the moment that I needed it, TJ reminded me to "breathe through it". Deep inhale, smooth exhale. I got through each wave this way and we finally arrived at the birth center.
My midwife led us into the birthing room and immediately got out the doppler to check the baby’s heartbeat. I remember hearing the heartbeat and feeling the most relief I’ve ever felt.
He was okay.
She dimmed the lights and began to fill the big jacuzzi tub with water. Inhale, exhale, inhale, exhale. With each breath, the moment of complete release drew closer. When the tub was full, I climbed in and felt my entire body relax. I could finally surrender and complete the process of birth.
TJ kneeled in front of me, outside of the tub, while I got on all fours and prepared for the next contraction. It was at this moment that I remembered something I had read in a book about syncing breath with body to prevent tearing. So each time that I felt a wave coming, I inhaled and pushed on the exhale. I didn’t strain too hard. I just pushed enough to get through the contraction. Elan was close to crowning, and I could feel him gently moving in and out with each push.
No one was telling me to "push!".
In fact, the room was quiet -- just as I had wished from the beginning. A dark, quiet, peaceful space where I could let my body do it's work. And finally, on the fourth "push", he slipped out into the water. My midwife caught him and swiftly guided him to me, at which point I scooped him up and brought him to my chest. He let out a short cry and then relaxed into me.
Time froze. 4:44 AM.
I looked up at TJ, we kissed and then both took in our new baby. Those few seconds, sitting in the warm water, holding my Elan for the first time -- those were the best seconds of my life.
Elan Abel Vaughn weighed 6 pounds 6 ounces at birth. He stayed connected to his placenta for over an hour and I kept him on my chest during that time, skin-to-skin. There were no baths. In fact, we left the vernix on for as long as possible and didn't actually bathe him until over a month later. He never left my sight and we were on our way home by late morning.
My birth experience didn't go according to plan, but I left that day feeling so empowered. I gained a deep reverence for my body in all of her strength, wisdom and femininity. And beyond that, I realized the importance of surrender -- of choosing trust over the desire to control. “To have faith is to trust yourself to the water. When you swim you don't grab hold of the water, because if you do you will sink and drown. Instead you relax, and float." - Alan Watts