One Birth Story

There are two reasons for sharing my birth story in this particular way.

First, online discussions about birth are too often fraught with tension, either focused on quantitative details (length in hours, degrees of tearing, number of interventions, etc.) that can be used to compare/measure us against fellow moms; or devolving into endless debates with battle lines drawn on natural/medicated or vaginal/c-section grounds. Ultimately, though, we are all women who have experienced something at once unbelievably common and, at the same time, incredible: the growth of tiny people inside our bodies who are now real live people in the outside world. So I think we also need space for us to just share how that experience felt for each of us, without comparison or needing to identify our position on some ‘debate’ about motherhood.

Second, my central Scary Unknown the first time around was what labour would actually feel like, and I didn’t feel my childbirth ed class really covered it. Particularly, what might it feel like when the baby actually comes out, the precise moment when something that was the size of a beach ball under my shirt would actually exit my body? A reasonably terrifying prospect, but oddly, a memory which faded within a few months of the experience. I remembered all the quantitative and factual details that get retold endlessly to family, friends, and new fellow parent acquaintances, but I didn’t remember what the contractions or pushing actually felt like. Growing and delivering a child is the most awesome physical feat I have ever accomplished, and I imagine I’m not alone in this sentiment. It seemed a shame that I didn’t have any qualitative memories of what my body actually experienced.

(Heads up: The author knows she has a few friends who are uneasy with a lot of vag-talk, so if this is you and you don’t want to read descriptions of her reproductive parts, maybe skip this one.)
Pregnant mother

How is this supposed to go again?

So with these two things in mind and my second delivery approaching, I decided to journal about my experience of childbirth – during my labour: 

Labour Begins: March 31, 11:15am-3:30pm

I have a stretch and sweep in the morning, and shortly thereafter, start feeling some contractions: mild, gentle swells of aching in my lower belly. I feel pretty sure that this is labour, but I don’t want to mistakenly get too excited over Braxton Hicks, which I’ve had a couple of disappointing encounters with for the last three weeks. So I continue to move around and walk all afternoon. I get Thai food for lunch, walk in a department store due to the rain, and visit my partner’s kindergarten class to answer his students’ questions about pregnancy. The aches are minor enough that I can keep talking to the kids through them. They’re just slight twinges that rise and fall like the tiny waves at the edge of a calm beach: they’re so mild it’s difficult to note exact beginning and end points.

Once we’re home, I download a tracker app, and when I time them, I can see that these early contractions are fairly consistent, averaging about once every 5 minutes for about 30 seconds to one minute. They’re still mild and gentle, like an instinctual warmup exercise, and I can talk through them. It feels good to bounce a little and roll my hips on the exercise ball.

I’d recommend the tracker app I downloaded, Contraction Timer for Labor, should you be looking for one. You can see at a glance the average length, interval, and intensity of the last 3, 5, 10, or 20 contractions. It has a five-point intensity scale so you can track how strong each one feels. Granted, this would not have been a useful feature during my first labour, because until the experience was complete, I had no real understanding of the scale I was dealing with. Pains I pegged as a 7/10 in mid-labour turned out to be a 3 or 4 at most, all things considered in hindsight.

Early Labour: March 31, 5:15-10pm

I call the midwife, Katie, certain after an hour and forty-five minutes of tracking that this labour is going to continue. The contractions have also become more defined, and just a little stronger.  They feel like heavy period cramps that rise suddenly; each wave now has a clear beginning and end. Surprisingly, they don’t feel anything like my first labour, which was mainly characterized as severe downward pressure through my whole abdomen, pelvis, and bowels (so much so that I was distracted by thoughts of constipation throughout). I thought my body would ‘do labour’ the same way both times, but this is just more evidence that motherhood is unpredictable.

After I talk with Katie, the contractions increase over the next hour to about a 5 or 6/10, but the frequency stays consistent. Katie and her midwifery student, Olivia, come to assess me around 6:30, and find me 3 centimeters dilated. My vitals are all fine, and they leave again to get some sleep before things ramp up. We agree that I will call them when the intensity starts to pick up more, to about an 8/10. They’re less than five minutes away and can be here quickly.

Over the next few hours, the contractions invade more of my body, no longer limited to menstrual-like pain. Now I feel pressure in the general lower back and hip region with each wave of pain. Around 9pm, Katie calls me, wondering how things are going since I haven’t called her yet. I tell her the intensity has been steadily increasing, but that I don’t yet feel that it’s unmanageable or like I absolutely need the midwives to be here with me. We decide they’ll come by 10pm regardless of whether I feel it’s time yet or not – Katie doesn’t want things to suddenly accelerate without them here to assist me. My first son came out quickly, and it’s common for second babies to come even quicker.

Every time I go to the bathroom bloody mucous comes out. I’ve only eaten a little bit throughout the evening, but I’m drinking lots of water to stay hydrated, so I have to pee quite often. It’s difficult to stand back up when I finish; each time, my abs, hips, and thighs bark in pain.  John helps me with massage, arranges plastic sheets in the places I think might be good for delivering the baby, and gets a crock pot of hot water ready with clean cloths to use as compresses later on.

Heavier Early Labour: March 31, 10pm-midnight

The contractions continue to be wave-like, but they carry more foreboding in them now. They’re the waves of a rougher sea: the water is up to my chest in the calmest valleys and I have to jump to my full height to get my chin above each wave; sometimes they crash into my face, leaving me short of breath.

Each contraction starts with a feeling as if I have to pee, then quickly a heightening pain spreads through in my lower abdomen, through my pelvis and around my lower back. Deep breaths and very low, prolonged moans help to get through them and to keep my muscles as relaxed as possible; it’s what I did in my first labour and again, these sounds make me feel rather like a cow, but they’re what helps. John presses his palm firmly into my lower back. The warmth and pressure give me something comforting to focus on, too.

Eventually, when each starts to subside, I feel a gentle separation in my hips down by my tailbone. This feels oddly good, satisfying, as if it’s a reassurance that my body is doing what it’s supposed to.

Shortly after midnight, I lost my sense of time, and wasn’t in a position to even think about tracking contractions anymore. I also stopped recording how I was feeling, so the rest comes from memory a few days later:

Active Labour: April 1, approx. midnight-2am

The contractions continued to strengthen, the start of each wave inciting a slight feeling of panic into my chest. I instinctively found coping mechanisms like biting my pillow case, or clenching my fists around something. John found me a stress ball. I had a sudden realization that I absolutely could not wear pants anymore; my soft, cotton pyjamas suddenly seemed incredibly restricting, and nothing else in the world mattered to me until I was free of them. It was a ridiculous, almost laughably strong urge. I changed into my delivery dress.*

In each contraction, I tried to maintain the low, deep moans that had made it easier to relax during the earlier ones, but heard my voice getting higher as I struggled to keep my jaw and pelvis relaxed. I would realize mid-way through a contraction that I was squeaking in panic, teeth clenched, and would put immense effort into reaching for a lower register to try to calm myself. Instinct seemed to require the use of every muscle in my body to counteract the pain, and yet I also wanted to fight that urge to use my muscles; I wanted to save my strength for later and try to flow through what was happening as best I could.

I alternated between the bedroom and the living room for different positions, and eventually, when the waves started to exhaust me, John and I spooned on our bed.

*My aunt gave me a Dressed to Deliver gown as a shower gift with my first baby, and I was so glad to have this in both labours. (Looks like they have updated their products since I got mine in 2014, but the functionality still looks great!)

The Slow Down: Apr 1, approximately 2-4am

As we lay on the bed, the waves started to decrease in frequency, though the intensity remained, and I actually dozed between contractions. I was vaguely aware that the second midwife on duty had arrived as well. Katie explained after awhile that it was possible the whole labour would just slow down and stop. We talked about the options that would be at home and at the hospital for me, and decided she would try to break my water manually.

It took three attempts to break my water and was the most painful part thus far. I had to be on my back, which was uncomfortable, and they had to attempt the break during a contraction for maximum effect. In the past, I’ve had some difficulties with pelvic floor hypertension; as a contraction began and Katie attempted to insert the tool for breaking my water, some of my old reactions surfaced. I felt panicky. I couldn’t make my muscles relax. I could feel my body fighting her.

John took the lead and got me through it. He lay next to me, propped up on his elbow. He put his face so close to mine, almost blocking out the light and other people, and spoke in soothing tones, encouraging me. He repeated with me the phrases my health practitioners had given me for getting through pain: “I am sore, but I am safe.” “I can do anything for a minute.”

The midwife said later I had a very thick water membrane, which is why it took three attempts, but we got it in the end.

Transition: April 1, approx. 4-4:30am

The contractions picked up their pace again and were at their height, a 9.5/10 in my books. For the second time, I had a sudden, undeniable instinct: I needed to move to the living room so I could be on my knees more comfortably on the floor.

After only a few more contractions, I was sweating buckets. Someone filled a bowl with ice water and clean cloths. Having a cold cloth on my forehead or the back of my neck, or sucking the water out of one through clenched teeth was a disproportionate relief. The waves were now those of a stormy sea. Instead of standing securely on the sandy bottom, able to push myself up to get over each one, my toes barely touched now and I had no choice but to let myself go under each wave. The pain knocked into me and washed through me; I surfaced gasping for air from each.

I asked one of the midwives to take off my dress – wearing any clothes at all suddenly felt suffocating. I moved through these hardest contractions in two different positions: kneeling in front of the couch with my torso draped over the seat, then squatting in front of the couch, John sitting and holding me up like the arms of a chair. This is where I was when they started to see the head, and after a few more contractions, we moved so I was laying on my side, propped up on my elbow and some pillows, John holding my top leg up for support so my hips could stay wide.

Pushing: April 1, approx. 6 minutes just before 4:48am

This was the shortest part, and the hardest. Katie was telling me not to push, and that’s all my body wanted me to do. I have never before had to concentrate so hard on anything seemingly so simple – just breathing instead of holding my breath, relaxing instead of pushing. Each breath felt impossible before I exhaled it, and having successfully exhaled one did nothing to convince me the next one was any more possible. In both my labours, this was the only part where I truly felt like I wouldn’t be able to finish, like I was not capable of getting through (and the first time, I listened to my body instead of my midwife too early, which made for lots of tearing). The pain was heat and numbness, vaguely centred around my pelvis but more noticeably just an overwhelming presence through my entire body. My neck, shoulders, and upper arms ached. John held his hand a little ways in front of my face, giving me a target to ‘blow away’ with each breath. He would move his hand a little to encourage me with apparent success, and this trick worked wonders for me. My whole body shook with the effort of not pushing; I could feel my quad muscles trembling violently.

For the final time, I had an undeniable, instinctual urge, which was to change position so I could use gravity to get my little babe out. So it was back to hands and knees, this time with my torso draped over John’s arms for support, putting all my weight onto him.

Katie was still mostly telling me not to push, and I tried harder than I’ve ever tried at anything not to, but eventually I couldn’t. Something in my body took over control from my will, and every muscle in my body pushed. Then, there were a few more breaths where I stopped pushing again so Katie could physically turn the babe to face a smoother way for delivery, and handle his shoulders as they came out.

I distinctly felt the lower part of his small body slide out of me with a final push, and I felt the most delicious, overwhelming sense of relief, as if my body relished, right down to the fiber of each exhausted muscle, the knowledge that the worst was over.

Afterbirth: April 1, 4:48am

I knew he was out, but couldn’t see him because of my position, and I didn’t have the strength to move my own limbs to be able to do so. I heard myself saying frantically, “I can’t see him, I want to see him.” John helped me carefully turn onto my back so the midwife could place my wonderful, red, squirming little bundle of life on my chest. And he really was wonderful. Cradling that slick, small, spindly person, as with my first child, was the greatest mixture of relief, elation, and accomplishment I’ve ever known. I held the tiny new person in my arms whom I’d spent the last nine months growing inside my body, and even though I’d spent every day learning about him by feel, that moment felt like I was really meeting him for the first time. He cried a little, and I reassured him: “It’s okay, my love. I’m here, we’re still together.”

The placenta coming out felt like nothing after the exit of his body. When one of the midwives pressed on my stomach, it came out in one fluid motion with only a gentle push from me. I needed a few stitches for some minor tearing. Covered with a towel with my tiny boy on my chest, the hormones that washed over me helped to keep my mind off the midwives’ work, as did the local anaesthetic. Afterward, snuggled on our bed, John lay down next to us and immediately fell asleep. We’d both been up all night, but I had hormones and adrenaline coursing through my body to keep me awake even longer. I was ravenous and extremely thirsty. I held my new little person with one hand and with the other, happily stuffed my face with trail mix and juice boxes.

handsWhat about you: Do you remember how the experience of your child’s birth actually felt? We’d love to hear your memories. Even though each person’s experience can be wildly different, a variety of shared experiences could help other mothers-to-be with some ideas of what they might expect. If you want to peruse more unedited, diverse birth stories, the creators of the Birth Story Diaries website are also providing a space for this, so check them out as well!



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