A few weeks back, I stepped into our local shop for a few things after going for a walk on my own. It had been a calm, dark evening and the rain had only just begun. There I was, standing in the baby food aisle, grabbing rice cakes and apple juice sweetened biscuits, listening to my iPod on shuffle, when out of nowhere - the familiar first notes of a track I had listened to hundreds of times while pregnant, began to play. My gentle birth affirmations. I panicked. I swear, everyone around me stopped to stare. The store went black. Everything started to go hazy, I felt my face contort in pain and searing heat rush up from my chest to strangle my neck. I dropped what was in my hands and rapidly fished my iPod out of my pocket to press stop. Not here. Not now. I haven't heard those words since...since...since...I took my headphones out of my ears and looked around. No one was staring. The lights were normal, bright. I picked up my items, paid, walked back into the rain and stood there for a few moments. The pace of my heart quickened and I dared myself. Listen, listen. It's been nearly a year. So I pressed play. And as those memorized words began their familiar, repeated chant....I am calm, confident, and in control. I am having a gentle birth. I trust my body, I trust my baby...I felt my chest heave and my shoulders drop, my steps deliberately slowed despite the rain and I listened. I listened. And the pain of it all soaked me to the bone.
I trust my body, I trust my baby. So why did it all go so wrong?
I had always known I would one day have children. I thought about it often. I never really gave much thought to giving birth though, so when I did announce I was pregnant, a dear friend of mine asked if I had ever heard of Hypnobirthing. Originally, it sounded like a load of crap. So you take deep breaths...and it doesn't hurt? Right, sure. So millions....billions of women throughout history just had it all wrong? But the more I read, the more I listened to her story and so many others, the more I felt myself drawn towards the idea of a peaceful, calm birth. Our bodies are made to do this and there is science behind deep breathing and a calmed mind and positive thinking to back up the idea of hypnobirthing. So I dove in head first. I read the whole book in a couple days. I started listening to the daily affirmations and the practice birth session. I found a local woman that taught private hypnobirthing classes and took my somehow willing husband along to each three hour session. I made a vision board that hung in our bedroom that I stared at every morning and night while brushing my teeth. We did our own practices together at home, his words and hands and soft voice guiding me into such a relaxed state where I believed anything could be possible. Before I knew it, any fear I had about giving birth was completely and utterly gone and I found myself looking forward to and longing for the moment I would first feel my body go into labor. My hypnotherapist said in all her years, she had rarely seen such an enthusiastic, fully-believing, well-practiced couple. She knew we were ready. I knew we were ready. And as March 18th approached, my excitement and anticipation grew beyond measure. Any day now, any day now.
The due date came and went. It was a bank holiday Monday, after St. Patrick's Day. It was beautiful, sunny, warm...a rare day in March, in the West of Ireland. We went for a walk on the beach. We had fish and chips. We took pictures in the back garden of our house, of my gigantic belly. I had no worries yet. It's so unlikely for a baby to come on the actual due date. The Tuesday passed with no sign of her either and the Wednesday found me in the maternity clinic for my last check up. I mentioned to all the midwives, "I want to go naturally. I'm going to use hypnobirthing. No drugs. I want the homebirthing suite in the hospital. I'm so excited!" The doctor had me lay down for an internal examination. It hurt like hell. That's gotta be a good sign, right? "You're still very closed up in there," were her exact words. Very medically descriptive. As we sat at her desk, she pulled out a date book and started looking through the days. "So, I can fit you in on Monday for an induction."
My mouth dropped. I shook my head. I was utterly confused. "Oh, I don't want to be induced. I want to go into labor naturally. I'm going to use hypnobirthing so I want it to be drug and chemical free. That's very important to me." She told me that the hospital would only allow me to go 10 days past my due date and the Monday had the only opening that week for an induction. I asked if she could give me a membrane sweep to at least help get things started and she informed me, without even looking up from that date book, that that's what she had just done. I was shocked. She hadn't asked me. I hadn't consented to that. I wouldn't have said no. But they're supposed to ask. And that's when I first felt it...this tiny spot of darkness on my perfect plan, a wisp of doubt. This isn't how it's supposed to be happening.
My sisters would be arriving from the States to meet the baby in just a week. Did I actually have the time to wait for her to come on her own? They were leaving their own babies to be with me and mine and she had to be here. She had to come by then. So I sealed my fate. I let the doctor put my name down for that 2pm induction slot on Monday, March 25th, a mere week after my due date. And that wisp of doubt grew and grew until it was the size of a storm cloud, blocking out the peace and calm I had been feeling for the entire pregnancy, letting the fear run wild.
Thursday. Friday. Saturday. I scrubbed the kitchen and dining room floors on my hands and knees, that position being ideal for encouraging baby to move downwards. I listened to awful pop music at insane decibels and danced like I wasn't carrying around an extra 40 pounds. I nearly ate an entire batch of "labor inducing cookies" and then had spicy curry for dinner. There's still time, she can still come on her own. Sunday. And still nothing. That night, my friend that had recommended the hypnobirthing called me and told me, "Don't go to the hospital tomorrow. You don't have to do it. You can refuse to be induced." I was convinced. I knew it wasn't time yet. It didn't feel right. But my sisters...they were coming...
I have had a lot of internal civil wars in my life, but this one? This one was ripping me apart. My birth plan was fading away and I felt the urgency of my sisters' impending visit. It wasn't just that the baby needed to be there by the time they arrived, it's that I didn't want to waste any time in the hospital while they were here. So even if I waited to let her come on her own, I would be spending their holiday time stuck in a hospital with very little visiting hours and they would miss out on time with her anyway. If I went in for the induction, I could still be home within a day or two of them arriving. If I didn't do anything, who knows when she would come. I went to sleep that night willing my little girl to come. There's still time, my precious. There's still a few hours.
I woke up. Nothing. I called my mother and cried and cried. I took a shower and stared at my huge belly. And that's when I saw it...the tattoo on my arm...the words that had always helped me through these types of decisions, the words that allowed me to leave my entire life and family behind in America and move to start a life with my new husband in Ireland...
"let all go - the
big small middling
tall bigger really
the biggest and all
things - let all go
so comes love"
I was naming my daughter after this poet, EE Cummings. And I had no choice but to let it all go and give in. So we packed the car with our hospital bags, took one last walk along the promenade, and drove to the hospital.
And nothing went right after that.
If I went into all the details, you'd be here forever, reading. But the point of this is to get it all out. So bear with me.
I had been told to arrive at 2pm sharp. I sat in the waiting room till well after 4 before finally being called in to be seen. I was hooked up to the fetal heart-rate monitor but the midwife found it nearly impossible to get a consistent heart rate from the baby. She ended up standing there for over an hour, holding it to my belly, trying to get a straight 20 minute read without interruption. I asked if this was normal, for her to stay there like that. She laughed, "No. Definitely not." I mentioned to another midwife that my cycle had always been 35 days, not 28. "Couldn't that make my due date actually today, instead of last week?" She told me it didn't matter, they wouldn't let me go any later than tomorrow anyway, so might as well stay in and start the process tonight.
I was told there weren't any available beds, so I'd have to be sent back home. Then I was told they had a bed and I would be staying there. Back and forth, back and forth...Finally, back out in the waiting room, my husband joined me and we were taken to the bed I would end up spending way too much time in. It was in the post-natal ward. There were no available beds in the ward I should have been in, so I was put in a room with mothers that had just delivered their babies. I would get no sleep for the next two nights.
I was given four doses over the next 24 hours of a gel that was supposed to start contractions. I would have contractions for an hour or so, really painful ones, and then they would simply disappear. I was told to stay active, bounce on my ball. Then I was told, keep laying down, there's no point to moving around now. I was hooked up to the fetal heart-rate monitor for hours at a time, forced to drink water to keep the baby moving around, but not allowed to move so that they could get a decent reading...since the baby kept moving around. Twenty minute readings turned into three hours of laying and not moving. I thought I was going to go crazy. My wonderful husband became a professional at reading the print outs from the machine. He'd try and find a midwife to ask why I was still hooked up and if I could take a bathroom break. So I'd get up to use the toilet (all that water!!) and then have to lay back down to start it all over again. I will never understand why I was left for hours at a time hooked up to a machine that was supposed to take a 20 minute reading. It was torturous.
That Tuesday was a blur. I still had hope though. I was told the obvious, the gels didn't work, and they couldn't give me anymore. So Wednesday morning I'd be taken down to the labor ward regardless, and my waters would be broken. Finally, I saw a light at the end of the tunnel. Tomorrow. Tomorrow my baby will be born and all this waiting will be over.
I didn't sleep that night. I was brought my breakfast when it was still completely dark outside and none of the other mothers, or even the babies, had yet to stir. I quietly walked up and down the hallways with my husband, waiting to be brought down to the labor ward. Once I had arrived, I surveyed the room and finally felt a bit of peace, knowing here was where my baby would be born. My midwives were wonderful; smiley, friendly, cheery despite the morning hour. They broke my waters and I couldn't have been more excited. This had been what I was waiting for. Finally, labor. The contractions came fast and hard. I bounced on the birthing ball, breathing and chatting, closing my eyes occasionally to concentrate. My student midwife exclaimed, "You are doing an amazing job! These contractions are really strong, I can't believe you're just breathing and talking through them. The hypnobirthing can totally work for you!"
And then...the dreaded, awful, evil syntocinon drip. I will never forgive that drip. Once it was at its max, I felt like I couldn't see straight. The contractions were worse than I'd ever imagined. They came in clusters, one right after another and then another, and then a break for a few minutes. Then another cluster. I tried every position trying to find relief. I tried my breathing. Finally, standing against the bed, feeling like my legs were going to give out from underneath me, I knew I wasn't going to make it through. I asked to be examined in order to find out how long I had progressed.
"5 centimeters! You're halfway!" The midwife proclaimed. I took a few more breaths, looked at my husband, and then back at the midwife and asked for the epidural. I will always wonder if this was my big mistake...
Ahh, sweet, beautiful, wonderful, heavenly relief. Finally, after two days in that hospital, I felt my body relax. My eyes got droopy. I was exhausted. The midwives said, go ahead...sleep...you'll need the energy for pushing. So I nodded off, dozed in and out of consciousness, mindful of the midwife sitting right next to my bed, taking notes. My husband had gone for lunch. I was desperate for that sleep and I completely gave into it. I woke after a few hours and was examined again.
"Hmm, I think you're actually only 3 centimeters dilated," My midwife said. Well, that's not right. I'm supposed to be progressing, not going backwards. A doctor came in to examine me. "Yes, it seems you're only between 2 and 3 centimeters, you're closing up actually." Is that possible? Is it possible for one's cervix to so completely reject an induction that it closes up? I couldn't be hearing this. It didn't even make sense.
"Basically, your baby isn't going to come out like this. She's not even engaged in your pelvis yet, I can still push her around inside your uterus. So we'll have to take you in to surgery. You'll need a caesarean."
I remember crying immediately. I remember begging to be allowed to labor longer. I remember saying something about hypnobirthing, about my natural drug-free birth, about how this wasn't happening. But it was happening. The doctor told me he'd give me another hour to at least think about and accept the fact that I was going to be sectioned. Everyone left the room and it was just my husband and me. I felt powerless. I felt empty. I felt like a failure. My husband looked me in the eyes and said, "At least...at least this is all going to be over now. No more waiting. No more wondering. We're going to meet her so soon."
There were forms to sign ("potential side effects of surgery...paralyzation...death...") and then there I was, on a bed, unable to move from my epidural, being wheeled feet-first through double doors into an operation room I never thought I'd have to be in. And a feeling so distinct and clear came over me. I've never felt it so strong before in my life. Fight or Flight. Every cell in my body wanted to run, but I couldn't even wiggle my toes. Every limb wanted to punch and kick and get out of there but it was impossible. I have never, ever, ever in my life felt such fear. It completely enveloped me. To be cut open...sliced open..., my innards moved around, my baby tugged from my body. This wasn't me. This wasn't happening to me.
I remember closing my eyes and the anesthesiologist demanding I answer his questions and pay attention. I remember saying, "I'm totally freaking out right now so I'm trying to do my hypnobirthing." My midwife grabbed my hand and told me it was ok, to keep doing that, to stay calm. When the spinal took effect, they must have been moving my legs because I had the sensation of them sticking straight up in the air for the entire surgery. It was all so quick. Numbness, arms splayed out like a crucifix, my husband at my head, my face itched like crazy and he rubbed it for me. And then, "Hello baby girl!" I heard one of the surgeons say. They quickly dropped the sheet protecting me from seeing my own insides and showed her to us quickly, and then she was straight into the incubator to keep her warm. I was desperate for a cuddle, for one touch or a close up look at least. She stayed in that incubator for nearly an hour while I was stitched back up and then there she was, in my arms in the recovery room, a nurse tugging my bare nipple into Estlin's mouth and my husband taking pictures.
I don't really remember anything more after that, of that first night. Vinnie couldn't stay with me and I couldn't move, so Estlin must have been in bed with me all night. I remember around 3 am being forced into the toilet to "wash up" even though I could barely stand, carrying with me my own bag of pee and shuffling through the darkness like a 90 year old woman. I vomited once I got to the bathroom. Let me just say, vomiting after being cut open near your abdomen? Ha. Give me labor pains any day. I seriously thought I was ripping myself open from the inside out.
My sisters arrived that next day and I was so insanely happy to see them. But because of the caesarean. I was stuck in that hospital for five more days. The first five days of their trip. So I still missed out on loads of time with them. Those five days are a complete blur of pain medication dosages, check ins with the lactaction consultant, cuddles and nappy changes, no sleep and no husband overnight, and a few visitors. I still have yet to enjoy marmalade on toast with tea again. And I cried when my husband finally drove us away, a whole eight days after I had arrived. I thought I was never going to be allowed to leave.
But my baby is healthy, beautiful, perfect. So why...why does any of this matter?
Nearly a third of all first time mothers end up in the OR for a caesarean here in Ireland. A third. Why is this happening? What is wrong with the maternity system that doctors are so quick to cut a baby out? Where has the trust gone that we are capable and aware and in-tune with our bodies? I completely lost trust in myself. I did everything right during my pregnancy. I maybe gained too much weight but my baby was born under 8 lbs, she was not too big and there was no medical reason whatsoever for me to be induced a mere week after my due date. That induction led directly to an unnecessary surgical procedure that could very well define the rest of the births I might have. Once you have a caesarean, you have a less than 10% chance of ever giving birth vaginally. And this is why, for me, my section has caused so much trauma. I can't imagine never giving birth. I can't imagine never knowing what natural labor feels like. I can't imagine only ever being cut up to get my baby out. These things are unimaginable to me. Yet this is my fate now. This is what I am left with. For something I never really thought that much about in my past, I am now completely obsessed with. Sometimes, out of nowhere, I'll think back to the entire experience, I'll find myself picturing those double doors opening again at the foot of my bed and I get chills, a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach. To end up there again...I don't know. I simply don't know what I would do, how I would heal again.
I was pregnant, and I have a baby, a beautiful, wonderful, happy, smiling, social, adorable, playful, adventurous, full of laughter little girl but I did not give birth. I don't feel like I gave birth to her. She was cut out of me. I can't get over that. I can't get over that disconnect from pregnancy to motherhood. I missed a step. In my mind, I missed an incredibly important, fulfilling, and integral step to motherhood. I know I shouldn't feel this way. I know caesareans save lives. I know some woman are just as frightened of natural birth as I was of a surgical birth and I know many of those women choose their sections, and that is 100% ok by me. But this is the feeling I have been left with and I have yet, even now after a year has passed, I have yet to feel my wounds fully heal. Even my scar, still jagged and purple and ugly, mocks me every day when I unclothe myself.
It's Estlin's birthday tomorrow. I have tried to distract myself this week with planning an over the top party that she will never remember. I want so desperately to not look at this date as the worst day of my life every year. I want to say to myself, "It was one day in your baby girl's life. One day. Why let it hold so much weight over you? Why let it remain so scary and sad?" She is more than I could have ever asked for. I wouldn't change a thing about her. And there's no way I could have loved her any more if she had come to me in the way I had imagined. I need to make my peace with something that went way out of my control. I need to find solace in the fact that I will demand and receive another chance next time. I need to let go of the past and realize that I am not my birth trauma. I am Estlin's mother. And I'm really good at it, I was made for this job and when I look at her, when she laughs at me, when we catch each other's eye across the room in the morning when I'm making breakfast and she remembers that I'm there with her and waddles over to me as fast as her tiny little legs can take her, throwing her arms up in the air to be picked up by me, me, that my most important job as her mother is to be an example. I have often spent so much time thinking of how I could have done things differently in the past, or what I am looking forward to in the future, instead of being in the here and now. I want Estlin to see the importance of every moment, that there is always another chance, that we cannot change the things that have made us who we are today, and that it is so important to let go of our burdens, to not carry them everywhere, and to trust ourselves, to love ourselves fully, and unconditionally.
Because in the end, despite it all, I would do it a thousand times over to call her my own.