Today is March 20, and Neva Rose Vera is 3 days old! As she sweetly dozed in her little bed, I used a little of my new-found energy and flexibility to straighten up our room – a little bit wistfully, might I add. Just before I went into labor, I had reached the pinnacle of my nesting-instinct-induced tidyness obsession – the me of last week would never have put up with this kind of chaos in our bedroom for more than an hour or two, let alone three days! The mess was like a sweet allegory of my birth story, and of Neva Rose’s first few days with us. Vases of flowers. Tins and pots and tubes of various soothing balms, creams and butters. Nursing pads, recieving blankets, tiny baby socks and hats. Plates and cups and bottles and bowls from the various snacks and meals that were served to me while I lay in bed, recovering. Things the midwives left behind – unused q-tips, an umbilical cord clamp, drinking straws, pads and wrappers and pieces of paperwork strewn all over. The antique ladderback chair I leaned on during some more intense contractions, positioned near the bed. Various wadded-up sweaters and shirts, all of which zip or button down the front, for easy breast access. A big heap of sorted-through “newborn” baby clothes that are way too big for my 6lb 14 oz little one. The fascinating strata of the laundry hamper – on top are a few soiled footie pajamas and cloth diapers with meconium on them. Under that are bloodied sheets and towels, and washcloths used for soothing compresses. Under that are maternity clothes I wore in the couple of days leading up to the birth – clothes that are suddenly too big for me, that I will wash and put in a bag to give to a friend who is expecting at the end of the summer.
My labor story is long, spanning 3 days, as you will see. For myself, I haven’t wanted to leave out any details of what I remember, so I will spare nothing. It’s funny – before giving birth, I heard people talk about their “48 hour labor” or whatever, and it filled me with unspeakable dread. I hoped I’d be one of the lucky ones who would have it over with in 3 1/2 hours. And it was discouraging when, as it was happening, I passed that 3 hour mark…the 6 hour mark…somewhere in the back of my mind, I was vaguely disappointed that I wouldn’t get to tell people a story of my miraculously short labor. But it was only for a moment, and I got my focus back, and just keep on flowing with it. And when it was all over, I realized that – like so many numbers and statistics associated with pregnancy and birth – the amount of hours it took could not have been less relevant to my overall experience. It took as long as it took, just as each birth is unique, and goes the way it goes.
My labor started at about 4:30 AM on Tuesday, March 15th, 3 days past my due date. There was a thunderstorm, and the soothing sound of rain falling on the steel roof above our heads had made it easier than usual for me to fall asleep. Something woke me with a start – thunder maybe, or whatever was happening inside my body, or both. Later, Denise told me that she believes, based on her experiences of multiple mothers having their babies on the same days as big storms, that a drop in barometric pressure can help trigger labor. I felt a little gush of liquid, and immediately thought that maybe my waters had broken. I turned on the light to see a watery blood stain on the sheet. I called Denise right away. She said she thought I might have a leak in my amniotic sac, rather than the waters having officially busted wide open. That seemed logical, but was a bummer, since it meant I wouldn’t be able to labor in the bath tub safely until towards the end, because of a possible risk of infection. Denise came out to check on me that morning and confirmed that it seemed things were rolling down the right path. I had bloody show and contractions, though they weren’t very regular yet. She left to await notice of changes, and we went on with our day. I don’t remember now what we did to pass the hours, but by the evening, it was clear that things were picking up – contractions were about a minute long and five minutes apart, and I was having a hard time focusing on anything else. We had thought it might be a good idea to go to a friend’s house and hang out for an hour or two as a distraction, but by the time I was getting ready to get in the car, I realized that I was too far gone to be comfortable for even a 10 minute car ride. Joe called Denise, and she and her assistant, Allison, and our friend Liz came out to the house and started to get things set up for the birth.
We all sat talking and snacking in the kitchen on cheese and crackers and egg drop soup for a while, as I paced around the center island having contractions, leaning on whatever was handy and swaying my hips, cracking jokes. Eventually, everybody got sleepy and dispersed to different parts of the house to get some shuteye. I kicked Joe out of our bed so I could flail around in pain, trying to rest, without the worry of disturbing him. I could not rest at all, and went to hang out in the bathroom alone instead, curled up in a ball on the floor, moaning. Denise and Liz came in shortly to check on me. They thought I looked beautiful in my white nightgown, wrapped up in my rainbow-patterned blanket, and were trying to get our new camera to work so they could take some photos of me. Hilariously, they never figured it out, though they did unintentionally take some nice pictures, and also several accidental 3-second videos, a couple of which were the blackness of the closed lens cap and the sound of them talking about how confused they were about the camera. Denise led me back to bed and showed me a good position to lie in, on my side with my knees a certain way, to help me relax and breathe through the contractions. It was difficult, but I did calm down after a while, and she rubbed my feet. She drifted off to sleep next to me, and for the next 4 hours I was alone with my discomfort and exhaustion. I’d have a couple contractions, get up to pee, come back, and do it all over again. The sun came up, and everyone else stirred. My progress seemed to have slowed. Denise checked me and said I was fully effaced, but barely dilated at all. So some important work had gotten done, but not what I was hoping for obviously. It also turned out my amniotic sac was still intact, which was partly a good thing. She declared the whole thing a very convincing false alarm. She sent Joe to the gas station to get benadryl and beer – what she called her “sleep aid” – to knock out my contractions and help me get some rest. I was extremely discouraged, to say the least! Everyone tried to pep-talk me and soothe me, and remind me that negative thoughts would not serve me in the task to come. But I felt pretty damned hopeless, and was not, unfortunately, finding their words particularly comforting or encouraging at that moment. Denise left, instructing us to call if contractions were regular again for a couple hours in a row, or if there were any other changes. She implied that it might be days before that happened. I do remember saying to the midwives, numerous times during that “false” labor, “I keep feeling like there’s something I should be doing that I’m not – or something I’m doing that I shouldn’t be”. Each time, I was assured that was not at all the case. However, it did turn out to be true in a way, since I wasn’t actually in labor but didn’t know it due to inexperience. Later on, when real labor began, I could tell right away – there was no quesiton in my mind whether or not I was “doing it right”!
I took the “sleep aid”, and promptly passed out for 7 hours. When I awoke, my contractions returned, but much milder, and irregular, and further apart. It was nothing more than annoying. Extremely crabby, I came downstairs to take it out on poor Joe. At first he gave me his “pull yourself together already” lecture that he often does when I have unproductive anxiety about performing in our band. That shut me up at least, and I went out on the porch to sit and ruminate for a while alone. I came back inside, and we had a very productive, play-by-play talk about how the previous day and night had gone down. I was able to articulate my feelings a lot better, so I could feel understood by him. We analyzed and strategized until I felt very much reassured and more confident, though still cranky because of the contractions. I was finding it hard to distract myself. I took a couple more cat naps and a nice long bath, which helped a little.
Later that evening, we settled into bed to watch our current TV show – a BBC detective drama called Foyle’s War. I took the “sleep aid” again, and it made me very loopy. I found it impossible to focus on the plot of the show, and kept pointing out funny details that were irrelevant to the story, like people’s crazy facial expressions and weird outfits. My contractions started to get more intense again, and we decided to turn the show off and see if sleep was a possibility. For me, it was not. I think I labored alone in relative silence, like the night before, for an hour or so. Eventually I was unable to hold back my moaning, which woke Joe up. He began timing the contractions and holding my hands through them. Though I didn’t really speak, I could tell that we both knew this was the real deal. I felt different – very inwardly focused.
We went on like that until the sun came up, and then he got up and ran me a bath in our new upstairs bathroom, which our landlord-friend Phil had finished installing just a couple weeks earlier. I got in the tub and felt instant relief! The pain was much more manageable – like, from a 10 to a 7 – and my body was able to relax a great deal more all on its own. Not to mention what a peaceful, beautiful room it is. It’s very large for a bathroom, and the window looks out on a big white pine tree in the back yard. It was a gorgeous sunny day, and the tree was glinting and waving in the wind, and crawling with fat blue jays. Throughout the day, the light reflected off the bath water and made dazzling, scintillating patterns on the walls and ceiling. We all marveled together many times, quietly, about how peaceful and lovely a setting it was.
Joe had called Denise while he was running me the bath, and she showed up again at around 10 AM. By the time she got there, I had already been laboring in the tub for at least 2 hours. A couple days earlier, when Denise saw the bathtub, she said “Oh – you could give birth in there!”. That was a surprise to me, since I had assumed one needed a special birthing tub for a water birth, and I hadn’t wanted to go to the trouble to set that up. She explained that all that is needed is a tub that’s deep enough for the baby to come all the way out while still underneath the water. Their face hitting the air activates their lungs, so if they bob up above the water before they are completely out, they might take a breath and inhale water and choke on it. I think many modern bathtubs are too shallow or small, while ours is of the long, deep, clawfoot antique variety.
Denise checked my dilation using a nifty external method, which involved measuring, with her fingers on my belly, how far up the top of my uterus moved as I had a contraction. She determined that I was about 3-4 centimeters dilated. I had mixed feelings at that news, but mostly positive ones. I labored like that, in the tub, for a while longer – Denise tried to chat with me about how beautiful and peaceful it was in the bathroom, but I couldn’t really talk because I was concentrating too hard. My legs wouldn’t stop trembling. She gave me some pointers about ways to sit and stretch and move, and productive thoughts to focus on. I have to say, knowing she was monitoring my body’s movements so closely to make sure I was relaxed kept me whipped into shape pretty well! Every time I felt myself tense up in one body part or another, I knew she could tell. She and Joe took turns sitting quietly with me, reading books as I moaned out “Hoooooooooo” or “Huuuuuuuuhhhh”, in the low register of my voice, as I was taught. I tried to keep my face from scrunching up, and tried to imagine my cervix opening wider, as per Denise’s instructions – though secretly, I wasn’t altogether convinced it was working. Sometimes, my syllable would come out as “Nooooooooooooo”, though I didn’t really mean it, per se. Denise would gently rub my temples and say “Yes…yes…yes!” when I did that.
I noticed very early on, too, that there was an “arc” to each contraction, and understanding it was very helpful in managing them. There would be the rest period, when I would have to let my mind and body relax as quickly and thoroughly as possible because I knew I wouldn’t have long to do it. Denise had advised me to find some object or point in space to focus on, or to close my eyes, which helped a lot. Once I was calmed, it took all the effort I had to stay that way until I could feel the “building up” again for another contraction, and that’s when I would start my moaning or vocalization. That part wasn’t painful or hard, but it only lasted a few seconds before the intense part, when the pain and the squeezing happened, and the good work got done. Imagine, trying to voluntarily loosen up every other part of your body when the entire middle section of it is involuntarily tensing itself up as hard as it possibly can! It seemed impossible, but I did it. My point is, though, that maybe only half the total time of each contraction was actually the hard part, and I knew deep inside that I could endure as many of them as I had to. Denise and Joe plied me continually with broth, yogurt, and a sip of water between each contraction. It’s very true that you don’t feel at all like eating or drinking during that time! It became a strategy of mine to accept as little off of the yogurt spoon as possible so that whoever was feeding me would just leave me alone!
After a while, Denise had me stand up and walk around to see if it would help pick up the pace of my contractions. It takes about 20 minutes to re-fill the bathtub, because the cold water comes out very slowly. That’s how long I paced around the upstairs part of our house. And things DID pick up! Contractions became about 3 minutes long and were 2 minutes apart. It was INTENSE! Swaying my hips helped a lot, but it was hard to do without Denise’s help because my muscles were so stiff. I knew I was getting some good work done walking around like that, but I didn’t really care – I was jonesing for the relief of the water! When I say I “didn’t care”, I really mean I was focused on my body throughout the whole thing, in a mindset which excluded goals or worries. I tried to let time slip away and lose its meaning, and not to think about when this or that specific thing would happen. It was really tough to do that, but extremely helpful when I could manage it.
I got back into the bathtub, to my intense relief, and was in there a couple hours more, I think. The contractions remained more intense than they had been before I had my walk-around, but again, they were more manageable in the water than out of it. They spaced back out to a minute long, 4 minutes apart. So, to all outward appearances, it was pretty unclear where I was at in the process. I think we all figured it was likely we wouldn’t be meeting the baby until that evening. It was during that time that I went into transition, which manifested itself in an interesting way that wasn’t what I had expected. I had been told that I would think, and say, “I can’t do this anymore!”. I had thought that would mean I wouldn’t be able to stand the pain anymore, but it wasn’t the pain that was the hardest part. It was the “monotony” that was driving me crazy. The same intense, challenging, and frankly pretty boring thing over and over again for hours. My mind started to drift to all the other things I would rather be doing with my time, such as…well, anything. Washing the dishes. Walking up to the mailbox. Getting a tooth drilled at the dentist. Doing my taxes. You name it. I wanted to press pause, to escape! I think I said something carefully and deliberately vague to Denise when asked how I was feeling, not wanting her to think I was being too negative. “I’m doing fine, but I’m having trouble in my mind right now”. She was not fooled by my wording, and gently reminded me that negitivity would do me no good.
It was at that time that she tried to get me to walk around again. The memory of how difficult that had been made me beg her to let me stay in the water. She reluctantly compromised, instructing me to turn around and get on my knees in the tub for a few contractions, and I obliged. Contractions became somewhat more intense again after that shift – Joe was there, holding my hands. After a few rounds in that position, to my surprise, I felt my body telling me to push! I couldn’t believe it, and neither could anyone else! At that time, Allison and Liz were already on their way. After a push or two, my waters finally broke with an unmistakable “pop”. It’s funny – it’s true what they say about pushing out a baby, how it feels like taking a giant poop. Denise was telling me things like “Oh, she’s coming through your pelvis!” and “She’s in the birth canal, I can tell!”, but I couldn’t. It just felt like pushing something huge out. Also, though it was the most intense thing yet, pushing hurt a lot less than the previous contractions, and the breaks in between were different. I felt completely alert and in the present, almost “normal”, as opposed to the drugged-feeling haze I experienced during previous breaks. There was a unique arc to the pushes as well, somewhat like the arc of the other contractions that I described above, though it wasn’t as consistent and was more within my control. The automatic push of my body would begin, and I found I could add to it with my own effort, which would create a GIANT push that felt as if it would turn my entire body inside out! I knew that that was when the real progress was being made. That’s the part women are talking about, I think, when they say that giving birth showed them a whole new level of power and strength that their body is capable of. I felt super-human. I was also screaming at the very top of my lungs, in a way I am pretty sure I never have before.
Denise was trying to monitor the baby’s heartbeat as it moved down the birth canal, and was having a hard time reaching down between my legs to do so with me in that position. Also, at one point, the heartbeat slowed significantly for a minute – apparently, it was when the baby was coming through my pelvis. This worried her, and she then had me flip over onto my back again, which was more comfortable anyway. After the next push, baby’s heart rate was back up to normal. It was at about that time that Allison and Liz came into the room. 2 or 3 pushes later (I did 8 or 10 total), Neva Rose’s head emerged under the water! Denise asked me if I’d like to reach down and touch it (though I could feel it, sure enough!), or see it in the mirror, and I declined. I felt it would be a distraction at a crucial time when I needed all the focus I could muster. I regret it a little now – it would have been really neat to see that, but I forgive and understand my past self for not wanting to. Though time had zero actual relevance to me, I heard Allison counting the minutes…one…two…three whole minutes before I felt the urge to push again! I was a little worried, abstractly, that it took so long, but nobody else seemed to be. As I said before, babies don’t breathe until their faces hit the air! Denise and Allison told me I’d have to put everything I had into the next push to get that baby all the way out, and I did. Finally, with one last gargantuan push, she was out and was placed on my chest, bleating like a little waterlogged lamb. “My baby!” I tritely exclaimed. Joe and Liz got all teary-eyed. I will never, ever forget that moment, of seeing her little face and body for the very first time. It was an utterly unique, astounding and surprising feeling. It was like opening my eyes from an amazing, completely fantastical dream that couldn’t possibly come true, only to find that it had! That good old rush of adrenaline and endorphins kicked in, and though I was beyond exhausted, I immediately started joking around. “It’s over, and I’m never doing it again, hooray!” I said.
There was a little while when everyone else was busy bustling around, and no one had checked her gender yet. We had had an ultrasound and were told there was “an 80% chance she was a girl”, but I had tried to prepare myself for the outside chance that the baby would be a boy. I was in somewhat of a daze and also had difficulty moving her to check, since I still hadn’t birthed the placenta and the umbilical cord remained uncut. I kept asking about her gender, and finally someone told me she was a girl. “Yay, I don’t have to pretend not to be disappointed!”. We had both been partial to the idea of a girl, but of course we would have been ecstatic either way. We even had a boy name picked out – Clarence Stanley. I know some people think it’s politically incorrect to prefer one gender over another for a baby, and I can see their point – I’m totally supportive of people who are gender-queer and/or fluid, and who might be sensitive to things like that. I even believe that, to some degree, everyone is gender fluid. It’s not like it was THAT important to me – it was a preference for sure, but a pretty innocent and intuitive one. There were a few other notable things about her at birth. She had an abundance of black hair, and I joked that the old wives’ tale had been true, about lots of heartburn during pregnancy resuliting in a baby with lots of hair! She also had perfect little manicured-looking fingernails. “I just want to paint them, and I’m not even the nail-painting type!”, I excalimed deliriously. Another thing we noticed were her big feet! Her cousin, Adam, who was born in December, also had big feet at birth and was almost the exact same weight and length as she was.
I’d also like to include the explanation of her name in this birth story, since that makes it feel complete to me. My dad’s side of the family are all Jews, and in Jewish culture there is a custom of naming a newborn child using the initials of recently deceased relatives. When I was born, my great-grandmother (my paternal grandfather’s mother) Neva, and her sister Rosina, had both just died, within a month of each other in fact. They had lived together their whole lives, and Rosina had never married. They were very special to my dad – he went over to their house every Sunday evening for supper during his childhood in Homewood, IL. So, I was named “for” them (rather than “after”) – Nikki Rachel. Joe and I share a somewhat unique cultural background – our mothers were both raised Catholic, and our fathers are both Jewish. Though we both had mostly secular, non-religious upbringings. Each of us has always felt particularly proud of and interested in our Jewish heritage for some reason, so a Jewish-sounding name appealed to us. We were into the idea of naming the baby after family members, and were also interested in a “double name” – like, a first name that is two names. So that’s how we decided on Neva Rose. Vera, her middle name, was a treasured babysitter of Joe’s in his early childhood, and with each of his four previous children he has lobbied for that name.
Now back to the birth story. The midwives cut the umbilical cord long, and gave Neva Rose a couple of little puffs of air to help her face get a little pinker, though she was breathing just fine and scored a 7 and an 8 on the APGAR scale. They picked her up and gave her to Joe so I could climb out of the tub and be helped to our bed down the hall. I felt awesome, and I didn’t care about a single thing in the entire world, except that it was over and my baby was beautiful and healthy and alive. I cuddled with her for a while and nursed her a little for the first time. She slept a tiny bit, but after that was very alert and quiet – wide awake and looking all around, mostly mesmerized by any lights or windows she could see. She looked and smelled very clean from being born into the water.
Denise and Allison checked my perineum, and I hadn’t torn at all! I was so pleased. I had a couple of very minor “abrasions” that ended up healing without a problem over the next 2 days. Though the birth was, obviously, over with by this point in the story, there is more that happened that is important to me to document because it was really intense, so that’s why I’m continuing. At some point they weighed and measured the baby – 6lb 14oz and 20 inches, my little peanut! – got her footprints, and checked her over. They monitored and assisted the shrinking/contracting of my uterus by pushing on the top of it really hard every few minutes, which was extremely painful. I would beg them, tearfully, to stop every time. They felt bad causing me pain, but it was necessary of course. They said that if I could manage to urinate, I would be a lot more comfortable, because my full bladder was impeding the progress of my uterus shrinking down. Right after you give birth, your brain has a lot of trouble making sense of what’s what down there for a couple of hours, so making myself pee by sheer will proved impossible. Finally, they squirted some warm water on me with a peri bottle and I was able to empty my bladder, which provided a degree of instant relief. When it comes to any sense of relief during labor, birth and postpartum recovery, it’s seemingly always by degrees!
Joe had gone downstairs to heat up the beef stroganoff and pierogies I had made a couple days earlier, specifically for our first meal after the birth. We were all starving and just about to dig in, when I started feeling light-headed and having some trouble breathing. I asked for assistance to sit up, since I thought that would help. Denise and Allison looked worried, and instead checked my pulse, which had gone way up to 140-something. My blood pressure was low. They felt my uterus, which they said felt “boggy” – as in, squishy when it should have been more firm. They theorized that I may have some large clots trapped in my uterus, which were keeping it from shrinking, preventing blood from coming out, and making it hurt a lot. I was showing signs of going into shock. Denise told me she was going to “do a sweep” and, that they would give me an IV. I said “No!”, and she said that they would have to, unless I wanted to go to the hospital. Obviously I didn’t want that. I did not quite comprehend what she meant by “a sweep”, which ignorance I believe ended up working in my favor. Before I knew what was what, she reached her whole hand up inside me, popped it (audibly!) through my cervix into my uterus, and scraped/ pulled the clots out. And I hollered! Though apparently not as loud as I thought I did, as Denise later noted that I stayed “relatively calm”. Relative to…other people she’d had to do it to, I guess! Though I must say, it was really more uncomfortable/surprising than it was painful. And once the clots were out, I felt instantly better! Though a little bit later, when they were going over the post-partum care with me, I needed a lot of extra reassurance that I wasn’t more susceptible to complications because of what had happened. They assured me I would be just fine, which I have been.
They gave me an IV to perk me up, and added some pitocin to it a little later to help my uterus clamp down faster. Everything was back to progressing normally, and I was feeling a lot better, but was too woozy to eat anything for quite a while. By the time I ate a plate of food, I was too exhausted to enjoy it very much, sadly. Before they left, they helped me to the bathroom, which was quite an ordeal! It took 2 tries, and probably took a good 15 minutes to get there and back again, though I was in very good spirits. They were very gentle and patient with me. I couldn’t help laughing about the juxtaposition of how they treated me after I had the baby as opposed to before. While I’d been in labor, if I’d had to get up from the bed and walk across the room and didn’t want to, they would have have firmly (but kindly of course) insisted that I do it. Whereas afterwards, they treated me like I was made of glass, and never compelled me to do anything I wasn’t ready for.
So that was it. It feels great to get the whole story down in such detail, and I hope others will enjoy it and learn from it! Now, when I see pregnant women or hear first-time moms-to-be talking about their pregnancy, it makes me feel very nostalgic and a little sad. I feel that it’s unlikely, for various reasons, that I’ll ever have another baby, but I’m so incredibly grateful that I got to do it at least once in my life, and that I had such kind, loving, knowledgeable and patient caregivers, who went above and beyond the call of duty to help me have the best experience possible! I couldn’t feel more fortunate or satisfied.