The birth of my first child did not go as expected.
On April 8th, 2010, I was standing at our stove making breakfast when my water broke. I was forty-one weeks pregnant and I was READY. Joy filled my heart at the realization that the blessed day had finally come.
We had planned a homebirth in our apartment in Westchester, New York. We called the midwife who lived in Rockland County, a 50-minute commute from our apartment and we were surprised when she didn’t join us immediately. She questioned me a bit, gave me some instructions on walking (up and down stairs, in the park…), and said she would check in with us in a few hours.
I called my mom. She left work and drove the hour down to meet us. My dear friend in the neighborhood, who was also expecting the following month, came over. We went to Rye Town Park to walk and bask in the sunshine of a gorgeous April day. I hummed to my darling daughter, as we, my mom, friend and I, strolled along the park path, pausing to smile out over the Long Island Sound.
By 11:30 pm I wondered what was wrong. The brilliant sunshine was all but forgotten. My delighted humming had become clenched teeth and bug eyes with each new round of contractions. The birth pool set up in our living room didn’t have a working heater. “No problem” we originally thought. My husband bought a garden hose and attached it to the kitchen sink. But the possibility of filling a pool with warm water from our kitchen sink quickly became impossible. My mother and the midwives who had arrived that evening scurried in from the stove dumping pots of boiling water into the chilly pool.
It never really got warm. I don’t even know why I got into it. I wasn’t thinking clearly by that point, and everyone else was so focused on trying to make it warm that we never thought to just scrap that idea altogether. I recall goosebumps and dozing off between the tears and tension in the cool waters.
A few minutes before midnight my heart broke. The glorious April day had come and gone, and my baby still felt so far away. There is nothing unusual about natural birth taking a very long time, but in those moments there was no calm reasoning. There was just pain, fear, and disappointment that my blissful birth plans were no more.
Eventually, I was helped to bed. Everyone rested and I continued to drift in and out of consciousness. Crying, moaning, dozing, crying, moaning, dozing.
I’m not good with pain. Something about it makes me indignant. Whenever I get hurt, I feel anger swell up and intensify my physical suffering. I don’t know why, but it’s how I have always been.
When the midwives came to me around 5 am saying I should be transferred to a hospital, I stumbled out of my bed, and enjoyed a few moments of levity. Homebirth be damned, I was off to get an epidural.
On the street, the cold rain and dark sky confirmed my fears that everything was going wrong. Surely God has abandoned me, I thought.
We had a backup hospital and doctor in Rockland County, but the midwives informed us that they wanted to head to St Vincent’s Hospital in Lower Manhattan. The exact reason for the change was unclear, but my husband, mother and I never thought to question.
My husband drove, my mother rode shotgun, and I laid across the back seats. As we merged onto the I95, a parking lot of cars stretched ahead of us. 100% rush hour gridlock. I remember picking my head up to see why my husband and mom had gasped and caught my breath too. Panic clenched my throat as my body contracted. Someone turned on the radio for a traffic report just in time to hear a newscaster announce that “St Vincent’s Hospital in New York’s Greenwich Village has stopped receiving emergency vehicles and protesters are outside the closing hospital.” Our intended destination was in institutional death throes, literally days from closing its historic doors forever.
I sobbed. My husband and mother were frozen in panic, staring straight ahead, helpless at what to do. We were all comforted by the thought that at the very worst, we could pull into the breakdown lane and our midwives, in a minivan somewhere behind us, would come and deliver the baby roadside.
And then a cell phone rang. “Where are you guys? We can’t see you. We must have taken different routes. We’ll see you at the hospital.” They were on a different highway altogether.
Eventually, we made it to the back doors of the hospital that was no longer accepting emergency vehicles. Thankfully, they accepted emergencies delivered by private vehicles. My mom jumped out and ran toward hospital employees, “My daughter is having a baby!” she wailed, the strain and relief and panic causing her to burst into tears, “Aw, congratulations!” they tried to cheer her up. “No! Now! Help!” She cried.
A wheelchair was brought and I climbed onto it kneeling in the seat because I could not sit down. Into the building and up the elevator we went, passing hallways already eerily dark from the imminent shutdown.
Finally, in a delivery room, two nurses joined our midwives. It was now almost twenty-four hours since my water had broken, but I still at least two centimeters from fully dilated. I was due for an injection of a bag of fluid antibiotic, as well as two bags of saline if I was going to have an epidural. Strapping down my left arm, they injected the needle and began pumping refrigerated fluid into me at the fastest setting possible.
With my arm immobilized and being shot up with frigid liquid (think: the worst charley horse possible for two hours straight), the rest of me continued to writhe in contractions. The only option for everyone else was to wait. The midwives went down for coffee. So did my husband and mom. I grew bitter.
I didn’t know I was in back labor, I just knew I was in agony. My baby was posterior, with her face toward the ceiling and her head pressing against my spine. And I was dilating so slowly.
Finally, all the fluids were injected, and my arm was free again. The anesthesiologist came in to explain what happened next. Basically, “We will stick a big needle in your back and you must stay absolutely still or there’s a chance of permanent spinal damage…” Oh god, I cried, now believing that if there was a worst-case scenario, this birth was going to bring it. She finished her spiel and then left with a promise to be back in a few minutes.
As soon as she left the midwives shut the door that had been open the last few hours. The hospital nurse was Mary, a stern red-headed Irish woman from a generation of nurses that don’t exist anymore. She leaned in with the midwives.
They checked my cervix. Nine and a half centimeters. Good enough, they nodded between themselves.
“Rachel, you aren’t getting an epidural,” they said.
“WHAT?” Shock, desperation, and pleading in one syllable.
“If you get an epidural you will be more comfortable and you will fall asleep. Then you won’t have this baby for another eight to twelve hours. Oh no, that’s not happening.”
Mary looked between my legs, “I can see your baby’s head. You are going to have her right now.”
From everything I had heard about labor, I knew there came a primal urge to push. How could I have a baby when I had no urge to push? I was the most terrified I have ever been in my life. I knew I could not do it. Suddenly it wasn’t just the pain anymore, it was sheer terror. And it was the realization that I couldn’t do what other women all over the world have been doing for millions of years. What every woman in that room had done.
No. No way. Please, someone, help me. Please, I can’t do it.
Why? Why wasn’t my body working? Why wasn’t my cervix fully dilated? Why wasn’t this primal urge helping me with what was supposed to be natural?
And then a contraction began and Mary and the midwives all got into position.
“Come on Rachel! You can do it!”
I screamed. I pushed and I screamed.
It was pain and fear and indignation that I didn’t get the help from my own body that I desperately needed. The rage that God had abandoned me. That the rain and cold and traffic and agony was not how it was supposed to be. Someone screwed this whole thing up.
After the second contraction like that, Mary gripped my knee and looked me in the eye.
“Rachel. Stop screaming,” she ordered. “You need that energy down here. On the next contraction, close your mouth and push your daughter out.”
I really didn’t believe I could do it. But Mary scared me too.
On the next contraction I closed my mouth and pushed as hard as I could, and my daughter was born.
I wish I could say that I had been dignified in my suffering. That I had breathed deeply and held my composure, focused and brave in labor. But I was a screaming mess like even the hospital staff had rarely seen.
It quickly became a humorous story to tell. How silly I was to think I would birth a child on a sunny Spring day with all creation joined in the Hallelujah chorus. How every hour brought a further descent into labor hell. How my daughter’s head was so big it looked like a cucumber with two black eyes when she was born. How all the nurses came to check on my baby’s “headache” when we knew that they were all at the nurses’ station retelling the latest shift that the baby in Room 318 had the mother of all coneheads.
But in the last week, I have been thinking hard about that story.
I can’t get Mary’s words out of my head. “Rachel. Stop screaming. You need that energy down here.”
There are so many moments in the last few months and weeks that I have felt like screaming. In the last week especially.
Our nation is in the final stages of a re-birth and women everywhere are feeling the agony of pushing out the future we know is coming.
Many of us assumed we were about to have it last year. The day had come. We came so close, and then the day passed giving us the darkest possible outcome.
The glorious possibilities throbbing within us, suddenly seemed impossibly far off. Our own hearts have failed us at times, breaking and pleading to be released from our agony and indignation and disappointment.
Our screams, sometimes silent, sometimes digitally heard across the globe, accompany the pain. We are pushing and screaming.
But no one ever guaranteed that birthing would be easy. That is an assumption we would do well to let go of. We cannot anesthetize ourselves, go back to sleep, and leave this struggle for a later date. It is now or never.
I was born to lead the way into a brand new era; a new society of respect and compassion and wisdom. And if you are feeling the primal labor pain, you were too.
No more screaming. It’s time to give birth to the future.