Note: this is a real birth story. Some may find it graphic.
First off, I am no longer pregnant. Now I am a mother. Which means I have a birth story. As my pregnancy went on, I heard a lot of birth stories. Many women process their birthing experiences by sharing their stories with other women. Sometimes they gave me advice, sometimes they didn’t, but everyone who shared their story had been through a life altering event – childbirth. Moving, painful, gratifying, frightening, divine – whatever it was, it altered their lives.
My life altering event started at 5am on March 28 2016 and ended at 10:35pm when my daughter came into the world. We were in a suite at the Toronto Birth Centre, the only light coming from a wide gas fireplace, and I was seated on a birthing stool. My husband J sat on the bed behind me with his knees supporting me. Three midwives sat on little stools facing me and encouraging me. D – my primary midwife – calmly provided updates on the baby’s head as it gradually appeared. Z – whose role was to care for the baby once it arrived- was quietly encouraging me with “you’re amazing” and “beautiful” and “perfect”. And N – our student midwife and baby catcher – waited with gentle firm hands to be the first to touch our child.
That’s how the birth story ended. It started in a much more pedestrian way, when I woke up at 5am with mild cramping. I had been experiencing surges sporadically in the past few weeks, but this felt different, like something was getting started. One thing I felt sure about in approaching the labour was the importance of the set up – I felt that my state of mind in early labour would set the tone for the whole thing. A midwife friend had told me that preserving energy – mental and physical – in early labour was often the distinguishing factor for coping well towards the end. So when I woke with these surges, I started listening to some of my childbirthjoy recordings from the hypnobirthing class we had taken. I started with “pregnancy relaxation sleep” which sets up a meditative state and positive view of birth and “birth suggestions” which establishes a strong mind-body connection for birthing. I listened to these in bed, breathing deeply, as close to sleep as I could get.
At around 6:30am I decided to get into a warm bath where I stayed for about half an hour, continuing to breathe deeply and trying not to get too excited that this could be the day when we would finally meet our baby. When I came back to bed I downloaded a contraction timing app and started tracking the surges. To my surprise, they were following a consistent pattern of about 45 seconds each, every 5-6 minutes. This went on for over an hour. The intensity of the surges varied at this point but even the stronger ones were numbed by the very calm meditative state which I had created (thank you hypnobirthing!). Our midwives had told us to check in with them when contractions reached 1 minute each every 5 minutes. They also said to alert them as to any labour activity if it started in the daytime. At 8:45am I paged N and gave her a full report of the last 3.5 hours. I also ate a bagel because as usual I had woken up ravenous. N suggested I take half a gravol and try to get some more rest. She also warned me these contractions could fade away to nothing.
The idea that this might not be “it” was a bit of a blow, because at this point I was feeling overjoyed and grateful to be in labour and nearing the end of the pregnancy journey. I was ready to give birth. I somewhat reluctantly took the half gravol, stopped timing surges altogether, and continued to listen to the “pregnancy relaxation sleep” recording in bed for the next hour or so, cuddled up next to J. The surges did slow down – sometimes 10 or 15 minutes apart – but they didn’t stop completely. By 10:30-11am I was up again and sitting on my exercise ball during the surges because when they did come, they were more intense than before. I had started listening to the “deepening for birth” recording which is meant for labour and encourages a deeper meditative state specifically for labour and birth.
At around 1:45pm I checked in with N again to give her an update. We were trying to figure out whether my waters had broken. I hadn’t experienced the “big gush” that you see in movies, but I was definitely experiencing smaller gushes. Because I had tested positive for GBS, the timing of the waters breaking was a factor in how we managed the birth. With a GBS positive mother, the midwives advised that the baby should be born within 18 hours of waters breaking to reduce risk of the baby contracting GBS (we had also decided to have an antibiotic IV for me during active labour to reduce the risk of the baby contracting GBS). I had been told that smaller gushes could constitute waters breaking via a leak if they were happening every time I changed positions. This wasn’t quite happening, although they were becoming more consistent. The midwives suggested we meet at their clinic, the Midwives Collective at 3:30pm to do a test to determine whether my waters had actually broken.
As the afternoon went on I was feeling more and more confident that this wasn’t a false alarm. We decided to time some of the surges and they were longer and more frequent than they had been in the morning when they had first come in a pattern. Partly given the positive meditative state I had managed to cultivate so far at home, I wasn’t excited about leaving to visit the clinic. I was also quite certain my waters had broken at this point because the gushes were now coming each time I changed positions. I spoke with D at 3pm and shared this with her. She said she and N would come over at 4pm.
Around this time it hit me that we were really doing this – I was in labour, we were going to have a baby, and we were on track to do this delivery unmedicated. I had a moment where I felt scared of what was coming next, all of which I had read about but none of which I had experienced before. J held and comforted me beautifully.
Happy to not be leaving my house and feeling confident again about navigating this very new experience, I settled into a comfortable place leaning over my couch and bouncing on the birthing ball to manage the surges. I was still listening to “deepening for the birth” off and on. A mantra had surfaced for me that I hadn’t practiced or anticipated: with each surge I breathed deeply and slowly, opened my chest to the sky and repeated “surrender. send anesthesia” in my mind. Both were concepts from hypnobirthing that seemed to work well together for me.
When D and N arrived we went upstairs to my bedroom and they checked my cervix. They discovered I was 3-4cm dilated, signalling that we were now in active labour. It was 4:30pm. We went back downstairs and they suggested I eat something but before I could do that I started vomiting. This actually felt like a relief because I’d been feeling nauseous on and off all day. Now that we were in active labour it was time to put in the IV for the GBS prevention. Hilariously, it took five pokes to get it in, including calling in Z for backup support, all in all taking over an hour. In between tries we took breaks for surges. I managed a few bites of pizza but ended up vomiting a few more times.
Once I was properly IV’d, I decided to try sitting in the bath. N ran a deep warm tub for me and J came into the bathroom with me. The bath is usually my happy place and it was very relaxing in between surges, but not a good place for me to experience surges. Through the labour it felt good to be upright and forward during the surges and it was hard to do that in the tub. It felt unwieldy to change positions in there. My body felt different and much less mobile, probably because the baby was descending deep into my pelvis. There was more vomiting and eventually I got out and we moved to the bedroom.
I’m generally not a fan of getting out of the tub – going from being warm in the water to wet and cold out of the water and having to dry off and get clothes back on feels daunting. This is on a good day. In advanced active labour, leaving the bath and going into my bedroom and managing surges along the way as I figured out how to get dry and warm again wasn’t pleasant. The surges were also intensifying and I had trouble finding a good position to manage them in my bedroom. The midwives said they generally check the cervix every four hours, which meant we would check at 8:30pm, but we were coming on for 8pm and they decided to check me early. Between N checking and then D double checking I had at least three intense surges. It crossed my mind then: if their fingers checking my cervix feels uncomfortable, HOW is a baby going to come out of there in a few hours?? I tried to put this thought of my mind and regain composure. They told me I was 9cm dilated and in transition.
Around this time I believe a lot of my conscious training left the building – and the subconscious training took over. Hypnobirthing is all about training the subconscious mind in preparation for this moment. It was comforting and natural for me to have my conscious mind along for the ride when learning and practicing comfort techniques leading up to the birth, but for me there was no room for the conscious mind in the late stage labour and birth. This manifested in two ways – time distortion – the surges were flying by – and a move from consciously working with my mantra to simply breathing deeply.
It was time to go to the birth centre. J got my bag and prepared the car – towels, bucket. I was nervous about getting into the car because of the intensity of the surges and the limited positions available to me in the car – but I soldiered on. I got in the back seat and straddled my vomit bucket facing out the back window, clinging to the headrest with my eyes shut tightly – for me this felt like the only rational way to transfer to the birth centre at 9cm dilated and getting ready to give birth. The car ride was 15-20 minutes and felt like a roller coaster ride but I didn’t experience a major surge until the moment we walked into the birth centre and I breathed through it leaning over the lobby couch.
We were taken into the birthing suite and the midwives arrived shortly after us. They turned off the overhead lights and turned on the gas fireplace. The birth centre attendant brought me the most delicious berry juice ever, but I didn’t have much time to savour it. I could tell we were getting close to the birth but I didn’t know how close. Z arrived and started preparing an area where the baby would be examined – I remember seeing her do this and it felt surreal. D said “soon we’re going to have this baby”. This final stage of surges was challenging – but again, time flew. D offered the tub and I declined. She offered gas but I declined that too – the mask was too cumbersome for me to coordinate. All I needed was for my body to feel free. At one point I ended up on my back and remember saying “move me!” when I couldn’t get upright myself before a surge came over me. Firm midwives’ hands responded and got me to where I needed to be. J later affectionately compared me in that moment to a flipped turtle.
The “urge to push” that people talk about was just that. It came over me and there was no stopping it. D asked if I wanted to try the birthing stool and I said yes. It appeared beside the bed and I sat on it. It was the perfect place to bear down and use my whole body to push. J sat on the bed behind me and supported me. He was a completely non-judgmental presence, accepting the experience and supporting me fully. The baby heartbeat checks that had been going on all day every 15 minutes were now more frequent – and I could tell from where she positioned the stethoscope to hear the heartbeat that we were literally inches from birth. I needed to make noise – from low rumbling to all-out yelling. To my surprise, vocalizing really helped.
A lot of birth stories I had read presented pushing as the gratifying, energizing part of labour and birth, but I was nervous about injury. We had brought olive oil for the midwives to use on me at this point and I asked them for it. Before I knew it, I felt the head being born- it felt like an instant release of pressure. The shoulders came next but I was hardly aware of them or the body as it slid out. I remember pulling up the t-shirt I was still wearing – an old one of J’s – thick, and drenched in sweat.
And then there was a baby on my chest. I literally sprang up off the birthing stool and lay back against the pillows on the bed. J was there behind my right shoulder peering over. Time slowed right down. We both just looked down at this beautiful mess of dark hair. I could see there were tears in J’s eyes. I touched the baby – warm and slippery, helpless, and crying now, loud and strong. I thought I would be balling my eyes out at this moment but I just kept looking from J to the baby and back again. I was taking it all in – processing the birth, processing the newborn baby, our baby, on my chest. Then Z came over and asked “what did you get?” – she opened the baby’s legs a little and I could see it was a girl. We had a baby girl!
The next hour and a half passed more slowly – I delivered the placenta (a non issue, it felt like it just slid out), drank my berry juice, held my baby. The midwives monitored my bleeding and then weighed and measured the baby. 8lb 5oz of perfect. We tried latching her but mostly just cuddled. I was physically and mentally exhausted but wired with adrenaline and overwhelming love. I would bond deeply with my baby over the next few days, but in that moment I was aware of feeling closer to J than ever before and it was a beautiful feeling. From that moment on we would be partners in life and in parenting.
I am no longer pregnant. Now I am a mother. This is my birth story – mine and J’s and our daughter’s. Childbirth was a life altering event – it was everything in 18 hours. Moving, gratifying, divine, otherworldly, unexpected. And so it begins.
Special thanks to: the Midwives Collective, the Toronto Birth Centre, and Childbirthjoy.