This post is Part 2 of a two-part series chronicling my first birth experience. For Part 1 – visit the post, “Labour”.
Throughout my first pregnancy, the question of pain management during the inevitable birth was always at the back of my head. Would I get an epidural? How would I handle the pain? WOULD I be able to handle the pain?
Thanks to some unfortunate googling, as well as many years of hearing birth stories, I was pretty terrified of giving birth. There was so much unknown – except that it would absolutely, no doubt about it, be painful.
When I was in grade 7, I awkwardly tripped over my own feet while chasing a boy on the soccer field (*cringe*) and went shoulder first into the ground. I felt a change in my body instantly and my chest and shoulder filled with pain. I got up quickly, extremely embarrassed. I shook it off and walked away, only to quickly realize I couldn’t extend my arm, I could only hold it at a 90 degree angle. My 13-year-old self thought, No biggie, I’ll just walk around school with my arm held like this the rest of the day, it doesn’t look odd at all. For some reason, I thought this would be less embarrassing than admitting I broke my own collarbone from failing to succeed at… running.
I continued on with my day, going to class pretending nothing had happened, all while trying to ignore the dull throbbing throughout my shoulder. Eventually, and not surprisingly, the pain got to me, and I sat silently crying in my seat during English class. When my teacher noticed he took me to the office. Turns out, I had broken my collarbone. Instead of listening to my body, I just endured the pain, hoping it would go away on its own.
Years later, I broke it again while playing ringette, and I remember laying on the bench in the dressing room, eyes closed, feeling the pain intensely and just shutting out the rest of the world. The recovery time after the break was painful, but manageable.
Then, at 8 months pregnant, I experienced passing kidney stones. Very painful.
So as the due date drew nearer, I had just been through one of the most painful experiences of my life to date and had got through it. While the pain of my impending labour was a scary factor, at this point, my feelings shifted a little and it just wasn’t the main thing I was nervous about. I am not comparing a broken collarbone or kidney stones to childbirth (although some have), let me just make that clear, but I knew I had handled painful things before in my own way and I really hoped I could again.
But what I knew I couldn’t handle? Staying completely still and calm while a small catheter type needle was inserted directly INTO MY SPINE.
Even writing that makes me feel woozy.
I knew that would be a straight ticket to the floor if I had to endure it. Needles and me, we have a toxic relationship. We don’t mix.
Over the years we have come to an agreement – if I can lay down and not watch that needle come anywhere near me, I MAY be able to avoid losing consciousness. I did have a stretch where I was able to get through immunizations and bloodwork without fainting (if I followed my strict protocol) but then I ended up in the hospital after a bad sunburn turned staph infection when traveling down south (tip, don’t fall asleep on the beach on the first day of vacation with sunscreen everywhere but your face).
I remember watching the nurse put in my IV, feeling confident since it had been so long since I had fainted, and trying to look tough (or even just, normal?) in front of my new boyfriend of 6 months. I can do this sitting in a chair for sure, I thought. I didn’t ask to lay down. But even as she was doing it I started to feel gross. I tried to shrug it off but when the nurse left about two minutes later I started feeling the dark tunnel that precedes fainting start to invade my vision. I got up and quickly laid down on the bed. I remember the nurse walking by and it seemed like she smirked when she saw me lying on the bed. Or maybe not? Maybe I was just acutely aware and self conscious of my lameness. As I laid there, a guy walked in casually holding his hand tightly over an actual gunshot wound.
Meanwhile I’m laying there on my side breathing deeply over an IV line.
I’m not sure I ever felt more pathetic in my life.
Safe to say – needles and me, WE AREN’T FRIENDS. I know this from many fainting experiences over the years – mostly associated with needles. Although, I’ve also fainted after other things, like standing up too quickly after an injury, getting claustrophobic at concerts – hell, I’ve even experienced what I’ll call ‘secondary fainting’ – fainting after watching someone ELSE faint. Although, a needle was involved in that one too.
That occurred after a trip to a tattoo shop to get my bellybutton pierced with my sister when I was 15 or 16. I urged her to go first then stupidly WATCHED them press the needle through (*barf*) while also watching her face at the same time (*currently trying not to faint while I type this*).
I’ve never seen someone’s eyes widen so fast. I immediately started feeling hot and firmly said, “Mmmm no, I’m not doing that.” I started pacing back and forth (feeling the possible fainting coming on), glancing back at my sister every few seconds as she sat listening to their aftercare instructions. She slowly stood up, continuing to listen, but then, to my absolute horror, SHE FAINTED. The nerve! Didn’t she know I was about to do that? Many props to the lady with the quick reflexes who grabbed her on her way down. She yelled for another employee to come help her and in came a very large, heavily tattooed man who attempted to help hold her up. In my almost feral state I continued to pace quickly back and forth and screamed, “WHAT DID YOU DO TO HER?!?!”
Meanwhile, my sister was out cold, completely slumped into this stranger who was holding her up by the armpits, and hilariously, she was SMILING.
Eyes closed. Completely knocked out. Lips spread into a smile. If you know her, this is even more funny, as she is just one of those people that seems to always be smiling – apparently even while unconscious.
I love her so much – but that expression just added a whole lot of weirdness to the situation for me. Was she joking? Is this really happening? Slowly, she came too, and as soon as I saw even a semblance of consciousness from her, instead of rushing over and hugging her and reassuring her that she was okay – I bolted.
I still remember bursting out the door into the dark narrow hallway, literally ricocheting from one wall to the other as I attempted to move forward, feeling that dark tunnel of doom closing in fast. Like a scene in a movie, when I reached the waiting room the door to the outside was lit up – a bright, yet hazey silhouette – beckoning me to freedom. I pushed through the door with the tiny bit of strength I had remaining and I swear I passed out mid stride.
The tattoo place was across from Burger King at the time. I still wonder if anyone was sitting there in the glassed-in dining area, mid-bite into their Junior Whopper with Cheese, gazing out the window peacefully, only to see me across the street, flying out the door of the tattoo parlour and landing in a limp heap in the gravel parking lot. I also am grateful that there was not a car entering or leaving the parking lot at that exact moment.
When I came to, I heard several voices all around me talking SO loudly. “Leave me alone! Go away!” I remember mumbling. Is it my sister? The staff checking on me? I opened my eyes to see… no one. Not a soul was there. I was so disoriented I had heard voices. I managed to pick myself up and stumble to our father’s empty truck, where I sat with my face in front of the AC vents pumped on high for 25 minutes.
This was also in BC times (Before Cell-phones). I had no idea how my sister was – but I knew I’d just pass out again if I tried to go back in there. I sat there with guilt consuming me while I tried to work up the nerve and strength to go back in.
Then she came out, led by the same lady that had caught her, opened the passenger side and said, “Move over, you’re drivin’.”
I mean, I felt like the worst sister ever for leaving her there but also… I… didn’t have a full license. I told her I fainted too and we laughed together at the absurdity and embarrassment of it all – while having to hold our heads between our knees. I mean, I probably should have stayed there in the room with her, but flight kicked in hard. Also, just imagine! The staff would have had an even better story to tell. And I mean, a story is all I got out of it. No navel piercing. We both went through the fainting, but at least she got her piercing out of it! The only thing digging into me was pieces of dirt and gravel from my parking lot fall.
Twenty years later, I’m still dealing with this ever present possibility of fainting AND how to recover after doing so. When you’re pregnant, that light headed feeling can come and go quickly and often. I’ve gotten pretty good at recognizing the warning signs and acting fast, and have been fortunate that I’ve only fainted once in three pregnancies, while getting routine blood work during my first.
As soon as they took me in the room and I saw it consisted of multiple chairs with no privacy curtains, I knew I was doomed. No stretchers around to lie on. No way to avoid the others hearing me if I told the phlebotomist I might faint (which I often think truly helps so much, takes the power away from the anxiety a bit). So instead I gambled that I wouldn’t faint. The man beside me was telling a long, drawn out story (kinda like me right now). I focused on his voice but as soon as I felt that needle I started getting woozy. I still remember the phlebotomist cutting his story off to say, “You alright there darling?” to which I replied, “NOPE – think I’m gonna pass out.” As my head started to slump I heard her say, “Okay hunny, you go ahead” – as if I had a choice! I was going down and I knew it.
A few minutes later I woke up hearing the same man continuing on in his story and a sinking feeling realizing what had happened. She assured me that, “Sometimes baby makes that happen.” Little did she know I was a repeat offender. I just gave her a small, grateful smile through my tears, and sat there, a 31 year old woman drinking out of the little juice box she got me, feeling so infantile.
And the feeling you get upon waking up after passing out is honestly just awful. You feel desperately hot, like you are about to vomit, very dizzy, and so disoriented. Then there are also the heart feelings… shame, embarrassment, frustration, and regret.
So maybe it’s not needles that I fear so much, it’s actually the possibility of fainting. That I could lose control of my body suddenly. The knowing that something so minor can lead me to just lose consciousness with little warning.
And I can fear it so much, that I would rather endure birthing a child without pain meds than get a needle in my spine or anywhere else! It sounds ridiculous, I know. And while there were a few reasons why I hoped to go medication free, the thought of getting an epidural made me extremely uncomfortable and was my major motivator.
But even though I knew needles and I didn’t mix, I did NOT know what childbirth would feel like… I could start feeling the pain and after five minutes be begging for an epidural. I just didn’t know. So I went in with an open mind and gave myself permission to be flexible.
I’m going to do what I need to do to get this baby out.
But as they were wheeling me quickly down the hall to the delivery room, it became clear to me that there wasn’t going to be a lot of time to contemplate my options. The birth was happening – soon. “So, it’s too late for an epidural, right?” I said to the nurse.
“Yes, it’s too late now.”
Ok. That settles it. I was actually grateful and relieved for the confirmation, to know there could be no back and forth at this point. I was doing this without the epidural – no question.
Being wheeled into the delivery room and set up for the first time was such a new experience. I had no previous knowledge or experience to draw from. I was learning in the moment. I didn’t know if the baby would be born in two minutes or two hours. My contractions were amping up and a part of that is scary. Since they gain in intensity, each one you have is usually the most painful one yet – until you get hit with another one. But during that contraction you start to have a strong urge to push, and again, I had no idea how much pushing the birth would entail, so part of me was even afraid to follow that urge.
A couple labour nurses would come in and out of the room periodically, setting things up for the baby’s arrival and checking on me. At one point I recognized the one I’d seen earlier in the day.
“Oh, hello… guess I was wrong about the two weeks thing, eh? Bet you’re not liking me right now.”
I managed a smirk but I was honestly just so happy that she had been wrong. To be fair, how can they judge the severity of someone’s pain? How do they really know when someone is in the early stages of labour versus just uncomfortable in their pregnancy? Everyone’s pain threshold is different and maybe I should have said, LISTEN – I think I have a high pain threshold and I am IN HELLA PAIN RIGHT NOW.
But I’m actually so happy I was able to experience a lot of my labour at home, in my own comfort zone. It forced me to really experience it with limited distraction. I would love to be someone who could be comfortable enough to have a homebirth, but I knew that just wasn’t my way. I needed the reassurance of health professionals with me.
I will admit there were moments when I felt a little sensitive to the fact that people were coming in and out of the room while I was lying on the bed, completely exposed except for a small square of a sheet. It was hard not to fight the urge to cover up every time someone entered. I imagine that for labour and delivery staff, they have seen it all and are probably so desensitized to the whole situation. But I distinctly remember a random young woman coming into the room and up to one of the other staff very casually, with her hands in her pockets, looking around while saying, “What’s going on in here?”
Ummmm I’m sorry, who are you?? Can you kindly face away from my crotch region? Thanks byyyyyeee.
But of course, I didn’t say that. Instead I just gave Travis a look that I hoped conveyed these thoughts. It’s a funny thing – I know they see it every day, but this was a HUGE moment in my life. And it’s also extremely intimate. So when people show awareness of that and a little sensitivity – it means the world. Every single little thing about the experience was new to me and there is something so vulnerable about that. Yes, you are ‘only’ exposed from the waist down but that exposure can leave you feeling so bare and on display. However, this was also my first birth. By the third, even I was more than a little desensitized.
At one point one of them asked again what I wanted for the pain (there were other options besides the epidural) but I declined. I noted the raised eyebrows but kept my resolve. I was getting in the right headspace and yeah, I think there was a small part of me that wanted to see if I could do it. I think it can be revealing and encouraging to push your own limits, when possible, and give your body and mind a chance to surprise and impress yourself. I was fortunate that my pregnancy was low risk and I was able to choose. At this point, I felt I was already so far into the experience and I could feel the strength coursing through me with each contraction. It just felt possible. So I held off, even though I knew I may regret it.
I had no experience to draw from and I had no idea what was going on in terms of the progression of labour. Each time the nurse left the room I found myself panicking… when is she coming back? I had asked Trav to stay right beside me, up by my head, away from the action. But there were several times we were alone in the room and I remember looking at him and thinking I was going to have to ask him to jump up and catch the baby. To me, it felt like the baby could come at any second… but it turned out it would be at least another 45 minutes before the actual birth.
I kept wondering when the doctor would arrive. In the end I think he was only there about ten minutes before the birth. As I settled into the rhythm and routine of the contractions, I found myself wanting to not only escape the pain, but the situation…the bright room, all the people (even though there were only a few). A part of me just wanted to be alone. In hindsight, this makes sense to me…I’ve always been someone who retreats. I just wanted to deal with what I was feeling on my own.
Contractions are truly that, your muscles contracting back and forth in an attempt to move the baby down and out. And they are powerful. It’s a very forceful, uncontrollable, pressure building squeeze – from all sides. A few times I thought I was going to pass out from the pain, but when I said that they assured me I wouldn’t. I asked for a cold cloth for my forehead, which helped my nausea, but then I moved it down over my eyes and it also provided that potential for me to retreat into myself a bit, to escape my surroundings. I laid there, eyes closed, gripping the bedsheet with one hand and Travis’s hand with my other, leaning into the contractions and repeating my mantras in my head.
“Millions of women have done this before.”
“My body was made to do this.”
“It’s almost over. I can do this”.
It didn’t matter if that was true or not – I just needed to believe it.
The pain of contractions is really intense, but the fatigue is something I wasn’t prepared for. Near the end I know that I actually seemed to doze off in a way, if only for 30 seconds or so, in between them. I was SO spent. I mean imagine having every muscle in your body tensing up over and over again for hours and having to truly dig deep to scrounge up any ounce of energy to be able to make it to the end. I kept worrying that it was taking too long, that the baby just had to get out and I wouldn’t have the stamina to continue. But I’ll never forget opening my eyes and seeing my doctor sitting on the end of the bed, staring off into space in a daze, looking… bored.
For a millisecond I was slightly insulted. Exciting things are happening here Doc! But then I realized – bored is good. It reassured me that all was well.
When it came down to giving birth, my determination didn’t have much to do with it. It was like my body said, “It’s okay darling, you’ve done your part, I’ll take it from here.” That’s when I knew I was full on in labour, when the contractions really took over, and I could feel the urgent, yet somehow gentle, coaxing that came with each of them. It’s time to come out now, it’s time to be born. It felt unstoppable. I truly felt like I was being pulled along for the very bumpy and painful ride.
I had an incredible crew of nurses around me. I can still remember the earnest voice of one, her encouraging me, updating me, and supporting me. And Travis was coaxing me through each push, being comforting simply in his presence.
I remember hearing a noise that could only be explained as primal. It was a low, guttural noise that was completely uncontrollable and came from deep with-in me with each final contraction and corresponding push. I remember feeling slightly embarrassed realizing it was me that was making the noise, but I literally could not have stopped it if I tried.
Then suddenly, there was absolutely no doubt about it, I was experiencing what is called, The Ring of Fire.
Nothing to do with Johnny Cash, other than yes, it burns, BURNS, BURNS.
Ahhhh, THIS is the embodiment of the red faced emoji at the peak of the pain scale!
But even while experiencing that unfathomable pain, the exhaustion from labour forced me to stop pushing in that moment to give my body a moment of reprieve. Of pain filled rest. And a last moment to sit in the experience.
Labour is a constant give and take, a balancing of the physical push and the emotional pull of wanting to get this little human out into the world and into your arms, while also fighting a small part of you that wants to keep them in your womb, in the safe place you have come to know them intimately over the past 9 months. And throughout the conflicting feelings, you have to find a way to give your body a chance, even if only seconds, to rest and gain strength in order to quite literally, push through with the birth. If labour is the final dance of pregnancy, birth is the final step.
Your first hello, but also – a goodbye.
And it’s full of emotion and adrenaline and expectations and surreality. It’s a core memory if there ever is one. I won’t ever forget the feeling of giving birth for the first time, ever. It’s ingrained in my being.
I remember time seeming to stand still in those final moments. Breathing deeply, feeling that delicate hovering between what was and what would be, and experiencing a feeling of acceptance and surrender through that final push.
And with that final push my body was flooded with relief and the most incredible high as I saw my baby being lifted up to my chest, into my arms…my beautiful, black haired, 9lb 9oz, already tenacious, sweet baby. The most unbelievable reward.
We did it. We got through it. And we were both here. The disbelief flooded me. I was shaking from adrenaline, my eyes stinging with emotion.
“Do we know what it is?”
“Yes. It’s a boy.” I stated, matter of factly.
“Let’s just check…” the nurse said as she gently lifted the baby into the air.
“Nope…it’s a girl!”
Cripes. Ten seconds into motherhood and I’m already making mistakes. Guess that was the umbilical cord I caught a glimpse of.