My long-awaited baby girl, who we named Aurora (“Goddess of the Dawn”), arrived with the sun two weeks ago. The week leading up to her birth presented physical and emotional challenges I had not anticipated, but the two weeks since she was born have been more difficult than I could have imagined. I want to recount my saga in part because I have always appreciated those who are brave enough to share their birth stories, but more than that, I am writing this detailed account mostly for myself – as a way to articulate and let go of the disappointment and resentment I have been feeling.
Everyone (including my obstetrician) assured me that childbirth would be quick and easy the second time around. I did my best to shrug off such assurances, since if I’ve learned anything from the experiences of myself and my friends, it is that no pregnancy or birth goes exactly as expected. Just as it is impossible to choose precisely when you fall pregnant, whether you’ll have a son or a daughter, or if s/he will have blue or brown eyes, no amount of planning can guarantee a particular birth experience. My birth plan (used for both my son and my daughter) acknowledged as much up front. I was committed to pursuing a birth that was as “natural” as possible, but I also had great faith in my doctors so promised to be adaptable in response to circumstances and medical advice.
My due date came and went, and with it, my trepidation about being a mother of two. By the time a Biophysical Profile showed my daughter to be healthy but ready for birth, I could honestly say that I was ready too. So when I began having regular contractions that afternoon, I put the final items in my hospital bag, baked almond biscotti for the nurses who would be caring for me, and washed our sheets so that my parents could stay in our condo with our son while my husband and I went to the hospital. We were all set to go … except for my baby.
She was not born that day, nor the next day, nor the day after that. The contractions were every 4-5 minutes as long as I was moving around, but when I sat or laid down, they became less frequent or stopped altogether. So instead of sleeping those three nights, I stayed up to climb the exit stairs in our building, do yoga in the living room, or just pace while listening to music or watching TV. During the day, I visited my acupuncturist, burned herbs along the channels in my feet and legs that are connected to the uterus, ate spicy foods, had sex, went for long walks, massaged my pinky toes, and did everything else that is supposed to help induce labor. By Saturday, I was exhausted and frustrated. My obstetrician informed me that I was experiencing prodromal or prolonged labor, an early but unproductive phase of childbirth that can last for days, and encouraged me to just relax. Easier said than done.
I am a person who thrives on control and predictability. I do what I am told and expect to be rewarded accordingly. The greatest challenge of parenthood for me has been that there is not a clear set of rules to follow and that the only reliable constant is unforeseeable change. So even though I knew that I could not dictate how my labor or childbirth would go, I did my best to get my baby to come out on my timing and terms. Just like my son, however, my daughter was in no hurry and was impervious to my hastening tactics. My optimistic hopes for an intervention-free birth were evaporating as I contemplated a scheduled induction at 41.5 weeks.
Crawling into bed that fourth nights after my prodromal labor had begun, I knew I wouldn’t sleep but did not know what else to do. That’s when the tears started. Even though I felt more hormonal and suffered wider mood swings with this pregnancy, I rarely cried. But that night I had one of those full-body sob fests; all the fears and frustrations that had been building up during my entire pregnancy and boiling to the surface that week poured out onto my pillow. I cried, prayed, and surrendered to my body. I finally accepted the fact that I’d done everything I could do and now had to just wait and trust my baby and body.
No sooner had my tears been dried (by my ever-patient and compassionate husband), then my water broke. I decided to let everyone sleep as long as possible so snuck out to the living room to do the active labor asanas prescribed by The Yoga Birth Method (I’m not much of a yogi myself, but I liked the idea of using intentions and positions to keep me on track during labor and I was pleasantly surprised by how much relief I found by breathing through contractions in downward dog, crescent lunge, frog pose, etc.).
Once my contractions were three minutes apart and increasingly painful, I called my doctor and was told to come to the hospital. I woke my husband and parents, got dressed, and tried to keep my mother calm on the twenty-minute drive to the hospital. I was feeling pretty good when we arrived, but when the nurses made me get in bed for a thirty-minute monitoring session, I felt my baby rotate towards my spine, and what had been manageable pain transformed into unbearable agony. I was well-acquainted with back labor after spending nearly 15 hours trying in vain to get my son to turn around during his marathon birth. The only thing that finally worked on my son was an epidural, which allowed my body to relax and my baby to move. Hoping to help me stick to my intervention-free birth plan, the nurse guided me through a series of positions – on the birth ball, in the shower, and on the bed – to encourage my daughter to turn. After about three hours of this, however, I was feeling an unrelenting urge to push as well as physically and emotionally drained. I apologized profusely to my husband and my body for failing to achieve the unmedicated birth I had planned and requested an epidural.
Staying still while the epidural was inserted was the most physically-demanding thing I have done in a long time; I had seven contractions during that interminable process. When the relief finally came, I took a little rest, had a heart-to-heart with my mom, and meditated on the significance of the new life I was preparing to bring into the world. I had to push much longer with my daughter than I had with my son, in part because I was so tired from not having slept in four days, and in part because she was nearly a pound larger than my son. Even so, I persisted and managed to get her out without any tearing so was proud of my body for that.
Looking back on those first minutes with my new baby is like thumbing through a flip book. I recall the hub bub of the cord being cut, the placenta being delivered, and trying to get my daughter to nurse, but in the center of that unfocused noise, all I see clearly are my daughter’s alert eyes staring into my own. It was love at first sight. She was perfect – a 9/10 APGAR score, a hefty 8 pounds, 9 ounces, and not a bruise or a birthmark on her perfectly pink skin.
In deference to my wishes, my daughter was not bathed after birth, and was left skin-to-skin on my chest. When it was time to move to the maternity ward, I remarked to my mom that I had the worst headache I’d ever experienced, and asked the nurse if she could order me some breakfast so that I could take a painkiller. She did, but within the hour, I was in so much pain that I could not eat anything; I could not even sit up to drink water.
It was quickly ascertained that, due to an error when inserting the epidural, I was leaking spinal fluid, which caused what is known as a “spinal” or “post-lumbar puncture” headache. Basically, my brain was getting dehydrated. A few hours after giving birth, I got up to use the bathroom and the pain was of the same magnitude as my back labor – I was crying, cursing, and trying to breathe through the (literally) blinding pain just to get back into bed. After listening to the anesthesiologist present the various options for treatment, I made the difficult decision to opt for the highly invasive “blood patch” procedure, which would involve taking a large amount of blood from my arm and injecting it into my spine to plug the leak. I hated the idea of yet another major medical intervention (I generally avoid even Tylenol), but the doctor assured me the blood patch was 99% effective and would fix the problem and stop the pain immediately.
Although the whole procedure took less than half an hour, it felt much longer due to the delicate nature of the work being done and the need for absolute sterilization and precision. When it was over, I was instructed to relax and wait for it to take effect. I waited, and waited, and waited. By morning, my headache was even worse than it had been before and I felt betrayed by my body and doctors.
The next three days were a blur of faces coming and going – anesthesiologists persuading me to try a second blood patch (which also failed to slow the leak of spinal fluid), neurologists testing me for a brain tumor or other potential source of my extreme headache, nurses constantly taking my vitals and bringing pain medications, food services wheeling trays in and out, talking heads on TV discussing events that seemed to be happening in an alternate reality, and my anxious but compassionate mother and husband, who visited whenever they could.
Conspicuously absent from this parade of people through my hospital room was the angelic face I hold most dear – that of my two-year-old son. Due to the severity of the current flu epidemic, the hospital was prohibiting all minors from visiting. I spoke to my son by phone a few times a day, but hearing his little voice ask when I was coming home, telling me he loved me, and crying when it was time to hang up broke my heart so that I eventually resorted to just texting my husband when they were together.
When it looked like I would finally be discharged, my husband and son raced over to pick up me and our new baby, even though it was way past my son’s bedtime. After much back-and-forth, however, my doctors refused to let me leave the hospital due to blood work showing diminished liver function. I was devastated, but by that point, I did not have much fight left in me. It took everything I had to persuade the medical staff to discharge my daughter and let me take her down to the lobby so we could at least say hi to my son. He was very excited to see us both, and just wanted to keep hugging and kissing me and his new little sister (it was adorable to see how proud he was that he could say her name; he’d clearly been practicing at home!).
During this dark time under fluorescent lights, my goddess of the dawn was my constant sunshine. My daughter nursed well from the start, and like her brother, is a born snuggler, so she never left my side. Through the pain, sleep deprivation, and stress, my baby girl was the best medicine. Those long days and nights gave my daughter and I precious time to bond before coming home to the chaos of a toddler, cat, visitors, and a myriad of other distractions. Even in the depths of my frustration with my own condition, I remained grateful that it was my body that was struggling, not my daughter’s. She has been flawless from the beginning, and remains a healthy, happy, and easy-going baby – who could ask for anything more?
When I finally came home, I had to stay flat for the first ten days to minimize the leakage of spinal fluid and allow my body to heal itself, which was nearly impossible for me. It was an exercise in being vulnerable and asking for help, two things I have struggled with my whole life. Fortunately, I am feeling much better now, and am looking forward to enjoying both of my children fully over the remaining three weeks of my maternity leave.
In the end, I am extremely grateful to have had a near-ideal birth experience and a perfect baby. As the pain has eased, so has my resentment, leaving in its place a new-found respect for the general good health of myself and my family. I know the post-delivery complications will fade from my memory over time like stains on a much-washed burp cloth until all I recall will be that magical moment of meeting my daughter. Because that’s all that really matters. Though there were moments that felt like a nightmare, my daughter is a dream come true. Every birth story – regardless of how many unexpected twists, turns, and trials it involves – has a happy ending: the beginning of a miraculous new life.