From Nerdy to Daddy
When my wife’s labor started, I did not want to assume it would be a quick one. That seemed like wishful thinking and I thought it would be better to hope for the best and prepare for the worst. At the end of an early contraction I said “Only thirty-six more hours to go!” I was trying to set an unrealistic goal so that when we finally delivered after ten hours or so, it would seem much easier.
My prediction turned out to be almost exactly right. Her water broke around 6 am Monday morning. Milo was finally born 3:38pm. The next day. So total labor time was about 34 hours.
Our birth plan involved no drugs, mindful breathing and a hot tub. Unfortunately our son had his own agenda.
From the beginning, Jenn was a champ. She breathed through her contractions and did everything perfectly. By Monday afternoon our doula Michelle came over and stayed with us for a long, long time. She was great, applying comfort measures and suggesting position changes when they seemed appropriate.
For those who don’t know, a doula is like a birthing coach to help reassure the laboring couple about what is normal and offer advice for pain management and all kinds of stuff. Once things got really crazy she was probably underutilized due to the complicated labor. I also like to think I was more involved than most dads and didn’t really leave Michelle a lot to do. But maybe I’m just being proud.
[Update: In retrospect, Michelle did a lot even during the hot & heavy stuff. She was just really good at being unobtrusive. But she spent many, many hours massaging Jenn and applying counterpressure to ease her discomfort.]
We went in the late afternoon to the Birthing Center to get Jenn checked. She was only at 3 centimeters in spite of having regular, strong contractions for many hours. Our midwife suggested we go home and labor for many more hours until the contractions got stronger. Home was a little further than we were comfortable driving so we left the Birth Center and went to Chipotle. This was, to me, one of the highlights of the labor. I told the staff what was happening and they all freaked out. We got some free chips and guac out of the deal and gave them a shift they will talk about forever!
Having accomplished nourishment, Michelle suggested taking a walk as a good way to bring the baby down. Of course it was about ninety degrees outside so we needed some air conditioning. We settled on Toys “R” Us where we also freaked everyone out, though they were a bit more laid back about it. Michelle did a great job of keeping Jennifer moving and helping her through contractions when necessary.
From there we went to Jenn’s mom’s house which is less than 10 minutes from the Birthing Center. Jenn labored for a few more hours and around 11pm we returned to the Center. Her contractions were coming very fast then – every couple minutes. When we got to the Birth Center she was dilated only to 5cm. That really isn’t too shabby, but we still had a way to go.
The major concern during most of the labor was that her water was broken. Or in technical terms her “membranes ruptured.” When this happens the baby must be delivered within 48 hours or they risk infection. At the BC, because it is not a hospital, they want the baby out within 24 hours. The telling feature of oncoming infection is a fever and Jenn had a temp around 100 degrees. She wanted a warm bath to ease the pain, but with her temperature already so high, they did not let her in right away.
She labored for a million hours (I took my watch off, thinking that knowing the time would make it seem longer) in front of a fan with wet rags on her face and back. She was a champ and I’m extremely proud of her. When she eventually did get in the water, it provided some relief.
Time to Not Push
Around the time the sun was coming up, Jen’s contractions changed. They were coming with a gut-clenching grunt that sounded like a dry heave. This, it turns out, is the urge to push. Our problem, according to midwife Lynette, was that the baby was already so low in the cervix that it was giving her the urge to push, but she was not yet fully dilated. So she had to resist her urge to push. Lynette told her to make a puttering sound with her lips because it makes it very hard to push. She was in so much pain and getting so weak that she was barely squeaking out her little putts and sobbing. It made me cry. It was heartbreaking. I’ve never felt so helpless and I’ve never heard someone so tired and in so much pain.
After an eternity of not pushing, we were finally given the okay to push. After an eternity of extremely painful, unproductive pushing, we started to get the picture. Something was wrong.
We tried every position and every trick until we were all out of ideas. Everyone was exhausted and I was literally unable to stay awake, even as my wife pushed and screamed and cried. Nothing makes you feel like a jerk worse than trying to hide your yawn while your wife is laboring that hard.
As the sun came up, Jennifer and Milo’s risk of infection was increasing. Her membranes had been ruptured for 24 hours and Lynette suggested that we consider Baylor hospital as a plan B.
To the Hospital
We agreed to go, mainly because of the incredible pain Jenn was having in her lower back. She was keen to receive something for that pain. Our midwife Lynette also received some relief in the form of her business partner Danielle. Lynette had done all she could and was starting to fade after working through the night. Danielle was fresh from a recent sabbatical and had gotten a ‘regular’ amount of sleep.
Lynette and Michelle brought us to the hospital and Lynette got us checked in with a doctor that she knew and trusted. I made the decision to banish the family, doula and photographer to the waiting room. There was really nothing they could do to help and I was afraid their presence might be affecting Jenn’s ability to push. I also thought it might be depressing to them. And watching them fight sleep made me feel bad too. I probably hurt a feeling or two, but Jenn was in a delirious pain-world anyway and didn’t know who was there or where she was.
By this time, the pain in Jenn’s back was unbearable. She kept asking for pain medicine and when the epidural was offered she accepted it.
This was not at all part of our birth plan. But she was exhausted and hurting and her strength – incredible though it was – was dwindling. I think she was afraid of disappointing me and if I’m being completely honest, I was a bit disappointed for us to deviate so far from our plan. But we both knew we were running out of options, and I didn’t know how much longer I could watch her suffer.
Administering the epidural was – as expected – totally gross. I didn’t watch it and I was afraid to hold her hand in case she clenched up and moved. She took it fine and then felt nothing below her belly button. The little monitor next to her bed displayed her contractions on a graph. She could not tell at all.
With the baby stable and with Jenn finally numb, the doc told us it would be a good idea to get some sleep while she was able. I felt guilty doing it, but I slept for an hour or so. She might only have slept for 15 minutes if at all because her epidural started wearing off and the port that fed epidural juice to her spine was leaking. So before long she was feeling the pain of contractions again. Her sister Brandy brought me a double cheeseburger from Bottlecap and I wolfed that sucker down like nobody’s business. Thanks, Brandy! Feeling guilty but rejuvenated with burger power, I went back to my honey’s side.
We talked to the doc about getting her epidural re-administered, but the doc felt it might be a good idea to push this baby out while Jenn had feeling. Dr. Berzinskas was fantastic and she explained how the epidural can make pushing more of a challenge because of the numbness. Jenn reluctantly agreed to resume pushing. A little bit of pitocin helped her to have more consistent and strong contractions.
Her contractions and pushing were both still unproductive, and the pain in her back was returning and worse than ever. To help the baby out, the doc applied a vacuum. If you don’t know about this, a hand pump is used with a suction cup applied to the baby’s head. It sounds awful and was definitely not part of our natural birth plan. The vacuum in generally avoided except in an emergency. We discussed this option briefly and Dr. Berzinskas summed it up like this: “It’s the vacuum or it’s Cesarean.” So yeah. Try the vacuum…
A single yank told her what we were all thinking: “This baby is not coming out.”
So what started as a nice, peaceful water birth turned into a pushing marathon, then a trip to the hospital, epidural, pitocin, a vacuum and finally surgery. The word nightmare kept coming to both of our minds, though we didn’t share that until later. Basically, all the things we tried to avoid were becoming necessary. Was it karma for my own judgments? Did I really jinx us by announcing the birth would take 36 hours? No, I don’t really think that way. But as we became part of the 5% of births that absolutely can’t be accomplished naturally, it was difficult not to feel defeated and disappointed. Danielle reassured us that we were taking the best course. Jenn wasn’t able to bring our boy out. A brief, 5-minute procedure would get him out safely. They would numb her and she would not hurt anymore.
I kept thinking: why us? She did everything she was supposed to, took all the supplements, reduced her stress, relaxed, yadda yadda yadda. Why should she have such difficulty when so many fast-food honking couch potatoes pop these suckers out like it ain’t a thang? I never imagined our birth would come to this. And yet there we were, delirious and scared. It was surreal. I felt so disconnected from what was going on. It really did feel like a nightmare.
It’s an awful feeling watching the person you love most going through the kind of torture Jenn was. I could only do so much for her and by the time we got to the hospital, my words of encouragement and reassurance were sounding really hollow. All I could do was wipe her face with a cold rag, and that was about all she asked of me after a while. It felt slightly less bad to be doing anything at all, so I did it dutifully until they wheeled her out of room 220 and into surgery prep.
Even though our whole birth plan had fallen down around our ankles, it was a great relief to know it was all coming to an end. Danielle’s prediction of “five minutes” was an exaggeration. But not much. The whole procedure must have been ten or fifteen minutes. After a thirty-something hour labor it felt like an instant. They gave me a goofy, poofy outfit and mask and by the time I found the delivery room, she was already under the knife.
I’m really mortified by gore and needles and entrails. So I tried not to look directly at my wife’s guts splayed out under the harsh surgery lamp. But they were there. Her placenta, which we wanted to take home, was in a tray balanced on a garbage can. To them it was trash. To us it was a carnival prize we couldn’t win. In a few weeks it will be perfectly legal for hospitals to surrender placenta, but it could not happen for us. I know it’s gross but, as with natural birth in general, I urge you to save your judgement.
I stayed by her head and tried to keep her company. She was heavily medicated and surprisingly chipper, considering. I tried my best not to seem freaked out by her guts, though I think I did mention to her that they were digging around in her. She wanted help to keep her mind off what was happening on the far side of the sheet. They told her she would feel some pressure, then started yanking on our baby. Her whole body was lifting from the force they were applying. Her eyes were wide and I was babbling to her about anything and everything. Danielle was there too, taking pictures and providing commentary on what was happening. When I first heard a crying baby, I thought it was too soon and it must have been coming from the hall. But then I realized it was our own son. He was born at 3:38pm Tuesday afternoon.
When we heard Milo’s little newborn cries, we cried a little ourselves. Not as much as I had thought we would. Exhaustion had dampened our emotions. They asked if I wanted to see him, and Danielle pointed me his way. I floated by a steaming pile of wife-guts on my way to trim his umbilical cord. A nurse carried him to a scale – 8lbs, 6oz. A big healthy baby. He was swaddled like a burrito and handed to me.
As it turned out, Milo could not make it through the birth canal because he was transverse. Transverse lie occurs in 1 out of 2,500 babies, so Milo really is exceptional. His head and body were not pointed down, but toward Jennifer’s back. That was the cause of her back pain during labor. This combined with his above-average size meant he could not have gotten out without intervention.
Once he was born, he cried and cried until he was laid on his mom’s chest. Then he stopped.
For those who don’t know, immediate skin-to-skin contact with Mom and/or Dad is supposed to bond the baby to its parents. It encourages production of hormones and helps him to remember the parents’ smells. Sounds like more witch-doctor hoodoo to me, but once our son was placed on his mom’s bare chest his cries stopped. He looked at us. Yeah, I think we bonded. Danielle helped Jenn initiate breastfeeding right there while they were replacing her innards and sewing her shut.
I got to roll Milo back to recovery while they finished up with Jenn. I had a few moments alone with him and then a nurse suggested that I try skin-to-skin with him. I obliged, but I suspect she just wanted to see me take my shirt off. Typical!
One thing ‘they’ say is that witnessing birth gives you a whole new respect for mothers and that is true. The amount of pain and dedication required to deliver a baby vaginally with no drugs is astounding. I love you Mom!
I still believe, as my wife does, that natural birth is the safer option for the baby. We still believe that most medical interventions are unnecessary and most hospital-birth procedures are mandated for the convenience of doctors, not for the safety of moms or babies. The epidural does a great job of removing the pain of contractions, but it also removes the sensation of pushing progress and inhibits production of pain-triggered hormones.
Despite all that, we definitely understand the appeal.
I’m sure I will remember a bazillion other details later and forget them soon after. A lot of things happened over those thirty-whatever hours. Most of them terrible, but a few of them were truly fantastic. Jennifer has never looked more beautiful than she did the moments before her pushing-contractions began and I’ve never felt more in love with her than I did at that moment. For hours she spent her contractions on a bed with me. When the contractions began she would reach for my hand and squeeze and press through the pain. There were moments when she wanted to spend her contractions with her arms around my shoulders and pull or squeeze. My back is killing me now, but I felt so involved and so helpful and so in love. I will never forget that.
I’ve been told so many times that everything changes when you hold your baby and I suppose that’s true, but not in the way I expected. He’s in my lap as I write this and the love I feel is different from anything I’ve ever experienced. He looks at me like he knows me and he doesn’t even care that I don’t like kids very much. But this is not the strongest love or the biggest change. What I really felt – maybe the strongest feeling I’ve ever felt – was that incredible, intense feeling of love for my wife. I don’t think you can ever know how much you care for someone until you experience this kind of stress.
Jennifer is the most amazing person I’ve ever met. She is the most stubborn person I’ve ever met. She held back pushing contractions for hours, fighting against her own natural urge in spite of incredible pain. She exhausted herself to the extreme to evict this little dude from her uterus. And the whole time I wiped her face, she insisted that I be careful not to mess up her eye makeup. After each contraction she would issue a guttural belch (Chipotle again) as if from the pits of hell, followed by a cute little apology. She is the strongest and most beautiful person I have ever met and I’m not sure what I did to deserve her. But here we are. And now here’s Milo too. And I guess things turned out just fine.