Birth is beautiful, even when it is not pretty. And giving birth to Ivy wasn’t pretty.
It has been just over 4 months since she was born, and I still haven’t completely processed or come to terms with how things went down. It wasn’t a traumatic birth, but it was hard. So, so hard. I had a fairly typical first birth with my son Tristan (very long and hard), a fairly typical second birth with Fiona (short and easy), and they say third births are wild cards – so I guess I had a “fairly typical” third birth as well because it was nothing like what I was expecting.
Neither of my first two births were what I would describe as especially painful, despite giving birth at home and unmedicated. I did Hypnobabies childbirth education, and gained a lot of tools and coping mechanisms for staying relaxed and in the zone. The theory behind hypnobirthing is that much of the pain of childbirth comes from tension – the “Fear-Tension-Pain” cycle. Learn to release fear and stay relaxed, and pain can be much diminished and even non-existent for some women/some births. With Tristan’s birth I would say that out of a 48 hour labor I really only experienced pain during the last 4 hours…it was totally manageable. Fiona’s birth was about 12 hours of (very easy) early labor and 4 hours of active labor – which was totally intense and yet, not what I would call painful. Lots of intense pressure, a crazy whirlwind pushing stage and then she was born. It was so easy I could hardly believe it, and it gave me a lot of confidence going into birth #3. I really didn’t feel like there was anything to fear.
Tristan was born at 37 weeks and 5 days, Fiona at 39 weeks and 1 day. When I was getting close to 39 weeks with Ivy, I was thinking “Just a couple more days and I’ll be able to say this is the longest I’ve ever been pregnant!”
And then, in the wee morning hours of the day I hit 39 weeks, my water broke when I got up to use the bathroom around 2 am.
My first thought was, “Well shit.”
My labor with Tristan started with my water breaking, and I’m not a fan. It took more than 24 hours after my water broke with him to get active labor going, and I hated the feeling of “chasing labor.” I’m not the mom whose water breaks and it immediately kickstarts active labor, and it didn’t with Ivy either. Hours passed and I had nothing more than mild contractions. I already had an induction massage scheduled at noon so Mike and I went to that. My amazing massage therapist Keri worked deep into accupressure points and applied essential oils. We drove home, and I had some lunch. Following Ina May’s edict that “What got the baby in, gets the baby out,” after lunch Mike and I went upstairs alone and….well, I’m not going to share details about that. 😉
I followed that up with about 15 minutes using a breast pump – something I’d seen work effectively to get oxytocin flowing with many clients of mine in a similar position. And work it did – by 2 pm I was having stronger and fairly regular contractions. By 3 pm my birth photographer Angie and assistant midwife Sam had arrived as it seemed like things were in full swing. My midwife for all three of my babies, Tammi, drove all the way up from her new home in Virginia Beach and had arrived earlier in the morning.
A few hours later, by around 5:30 pm, my contractions (or as we call them in hypnobirthing, surges) were very strong and I was moaning through them. I was welcoming their strength, so happy that labor had finally REALLY kicked in, and I was still not feeling any fear or resisting in any way. At this point things still felt much like they did with Fiona – intense but manageable.
I got into the birth pool around 6 pm and things were getting more intense. Tristan and Fiona wanted to get into the pool with me and so they did for a little bit – this was a super special time for me, my last time snuggling with just my two big kiddos.
I started to feel the surges mostly in my hips, low back, and sciatic nerve and they were getting surprisingly painful. Counterpressure helped but no one could quite do it right – so I was giving counterpressure to myself as much as I was able, pushing into my low back and squeezing my hips. I was feeling a LOT of pressure and my body was starting to bear down involuntarily by around 7 pm. I didn’t really actively push – trying to do the hypnobirthing thing of letting my body do its thing but not add any effort to it – but my body was definitely doing some pushing on its own and it felt good to let that happen.
Buuuuut when nothing much had changed by 8 pm, Tammi suggested she check me and see where things were at. I was SUPER discouraged to find out that despite the intense pressure, I was only 7 cm/-1/90%. Then began quite possibly the hardest 4 hours of my life…4 hours of resisting the urge to push, of completely fighting my body. The pain was intense, almost unbearable. I discovered that each surge lasted about 20 breaths, and the first 10 were the hardest and then they got progressively easier. I got through every surge of those 4 hours counting 20 breaths. I was totally inside of myself. Tammi and Sam were having me do all kinds of things…Spinning Babies Three Sisters, lunges, side-lying release, rebozo sifting. I did whatever they wanted me to do and kept counting my breaths.
1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, ok it’s getting easier I can do this, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18. 19, 20. Blow it away, that one’s done.
Sometime between 9 and 10 pm I seriously considered transferring to the hospital for an epidural. I was so, so, so tired, and the pain was so, so, so intense. I wasn’t sure how much longer I could keep going, and I’ve been a part of several beautiful transfers as a birth photographer, where the birthing mom got an epidural – slept – then pushed out a baby. It can be just what is needed in some circumstances, and it sounded like a good idea. But we talked through all the ramifications – my water had been broken almost 24 hours, so in a hospital setting they’d be really pushing for things to wrap up soon. In the end I just didn’t think it was a wise decision to transfer and we decided to stay home.
By a little after 11 pm I was 9 cm and had an OVERWHELMING urge to push. Tammi said she could hold my cervix back while I pushed and initially I refused – I had done this with Tristan and it was awful. But after quite awhile and no change I finally said yes, let’s try it. Thankfully it wasn’t as bad as I feared, in fact it felt better than continuing to resist the urge to push.
Finally, by midnight I was complete and pushing. And pushing, and pushing, and pushing. It was no short pushing stage like it was with Fiona. I changed positions every few surges. Hands and knees, sidelying, standing, lunging. You name it, I did it. The pain was intense. I was crying, and yelling, and every single surge I felt like there’s no way I could do another one. But I really had no choice. I had to just keep going. (Isn’t this such a microcosm of what motherhood is, in its most trying moments?)
Finally she was crowning as I was pushing standing next to the bed, leaning on the birth ball, and lunging. With both of my other two, once I felt the crowning sensation there was one more surge and then they were born. Not so, this time. She kept crowning, and crowning, and crowning for what felt like forever. Surge after surge. I started to wonder what was wrong. Finally and very suddenly Tammi had me get back on the bed into the McRoberts position – I don’t know how I climbed onto the bed with a baby’s head hanging between my legs but I did. It’s then that I realized she was stuck. Tammi reached in and swept Ivy’s arm free while Sam applied suprapubic pressure, quickly releasing the (short) shoulder dystocia.
Ivy Simone was born into this world at 1:12 am, all 10 lbs 4 oz of her.
She was a little stunned and had trouble transitioning, and Sam gave her mouth to mouth breaths while Tammi listened to her heart rate which stayed good throughout. 60 seconds later she cried.
So that is what happened. Those last 5 hours were the hardest, most painful thing I’ve ever experienced. I was sweating, and yelling, mascara was running down my face, I was a total mess. It wasn’t calm, or peaceful, or pretty. I wanted to stop and take a break, but you can’t do that with birth. You have to just keep going. The same mantras that helped me through my labor with Tristan came back to me – “The only way out is through”, and “I accept whatever path my birthing may take me, knowing it is the right one for me and my baby.” This one was also very important to me – “My surges cannot be stronger than me, because they ARE me.”
In my work as a birth photographer I have been privileged to bear witness to so many strong, badass mamas doing the impossible. I felt like they were with me during the hardest moments, their spirits cheering me on. In particular I thought of a client of mine who endured a 6 day long induction and 5 hours of pushing to bring her baby earthside. I channeled her strength, her power. I felt held up by the company of women all over the world who had done this.
This was not an easy or an uncomplicated birth. I’m so glad I was at home, with deeply qualified midwives who could handle everything this labor threw at them. I’m glad I didn’t end up getting an epidural, because as awesome as they can be for a lot of moms, I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have been able to push as effectively and it took some damn intense pushing to get this kid out.
I feel a lot of sadness over my hard/sweaty/loud/painful/complicated birth. It wasn’t the love and butterflies birth like I’d experienced with Fiona. The first several hours postpartum I was so completely spent and in a complete haze of exhaustion and I didn’t really get to enjoy that time like I did with my first two babies…those few hours can be so magical and I feel like I missed out on that.
And here’s why I am a birth photographer. I have gone back to my photos and video so many times as I have processed my birth. I have seen that even where birth isn’t pretty, it is beautiful. Because I have this record, I can see that when I came up against something that felt impossible, that felt stronger and bigger than me, I pushed through it to the other side. *I* did that. No one else could do it for me. I couldn’t delegate or outsource. I know deeply that I am someone who can do hard and impossible things, and that my body is amazing, and that women are incredible. I mean, seriously – “giving birth” is just this normal life event and yet it is more incredible and more insurmountable than Everest, and women the world over just quietly do this every day, without much attention or acclaim given to it. I have been in awe of my clients so many times over, and this birth made me feel that same way about myself. I was powerful. I was strong. I kept going when I couldn’t anymore. I know I will carry that strength with me always.
Ivy is four months old now, and her birth was only the first of several challenges. She had trouble nursing due to a severe tongue tie, and we ended up in the hospital for 4 days when she was a week old and severely dehydrated. After that we struggled with getting breastfeeding established again, and there were a lot of tears (mostly mine.) She is thriving now – exclusively nursing, gaining weight like a champ, sleeping 6-9 hours at night, rolling over both ways, playing with toys, and already trying to crawl. She is so, so precious to me and I would go through her birth experience a thousand times over to have her here with us. I really felt like our family was missing someone before she was born, and now she’s here.
I am still processing her birth and first few months, none of which were easy or the way I envisioned they would be. These words I read the other day really resonated with me and seem a fitting way to end this birth-story-that-doesn’t-have-a-bow-to-wrap-it-up-with-and-make-it-pretty:
“Mostly, I wish we could all to learn how to hold what is broken. How to honor what hurts, what is not perfect, without immediately moving on to the next thing. But also, I want us to know there WILL be a next thing. Some hidden miraculous talent, some surprising opportunity, some new relationship, some life that comes out of the ashes. We just have to sit there and leave it space.”“The Things We Break, The Dreams We Bury”
Photos and film by Angie Klaus ; photo edits by me.
password for film: babysis