At least, this was how it was with my first pregnancy. I gave birth 9 days after my due date. The meat thermometer had long ago popped on that turkey, I was very, very done with being pregnant by the time I finally gave birth.
This time things were different. They were different pretty much from the beginning of my pregnancy.
After two ectopics and a miscarriage that year, we needed serious reassurance that things were okay. So we started out with an ob at a different hospital in a different city than where we'd gotten the bad news on the previous pregnancies. I just couldn't handle going back to the same ob who kept giving us bad news, even though it had nothing to do with her.
Originally we had planned to transfer to a home midwife once we felt confident that things were going well. With the diagnosis that plan went out the window. After the cardiologist okayed us to go back to our original birth plan, but discouraged us from a home birth, I began researching options. I was delighted when the Boulder Nurse Midwives agreed to take us, diagnosis and all. Since they deliver in a hospital this seemed like a great compromise.
Then my 1 hour glucose tolerance test came back high. And so did my 2 hour test. Which meant that I had gestational diabetes. I was so angry. I felt like everything that could go wrong in this pregnancy was going wrong.
I was devastated. Natural birth is important to me. My mom is a nurse-midwife and I grew up with words like "cervix" and "vagina" bandied about the table whenever her midwife friends came over for dinner. My sisters had all had natural births that I had been present for, and I had given birth to my first son naturally. It was a very empowering, wonderful experience that I hoped to have again with my next baby.
My biggest fear is having to go into a hospital to give birth and one intervention after another leading to an emergency c-section. It happens all the time. Over 30% of births in the United States are delivered via c-section, a much too high number that reflects the medical mentality that medical intervention now is better than potential litigation later.
Being forced to deliver with an OB rather than a midwife put me at much greater risk for interventions, and it was terrifying to me.
I deliberated for a week about whether to deliver with a midwife group that could take me with my gestational diabetes, but was all the way down in Denver at the University of Colorado hospital, or if I should go with the obstetrics group and stay at the Foothills hospital in Boulder.
Finally I decided to stay in Boulder because I was so uncomfortable in the car already that the prospect of having to drive 45 minutes while in labor didn't seem possible. My sister's good friend Norma had already agreed to come to my birth as a doula, but she had a 6 hour drive to get here, so we also hired a local doula in case she didn't make it. Once I knew I had that support, my stress over the impending hospital birth decreased significantly.
In addition I had to get an ultrasound every other week to check for hydrops, a type of dangerous fluid retention that can be more common in situations like mine.
It was at one of these ultrasounds that the perinatologist told me that she was concerned that I hadn't felt as much movement lately and the baby's growth had slowed down. She thought that it would be safest to induce right at 39 weeks, which happened to be two days later. It was then that I started to cry.
I was nowhere near that turning point at which pregnancy is more uncomfortable than the prospect of labor. It seemed like the entire pregnancy was one medical crisis after another, and now it looked like the birth was going to end up the same way. It was too much.
Luckily my doula Lisa Waldo was there, and suggested that I let the doctor sweep my membranes to try to get my labor started. This is an uncomfortable procedure where the doctor sticks her finger through your cervix and removes the membranes above it. Not something anyone would look forward to, but if it worked it would be better than getting a Pitocin drip.
For the next few days I tried anything that had been even remotely rumored to help labor get started. Sex, pineapple, spicy food, nipple stimulation, enemas, bouncing on an exercise ball, flower essences, acupuncture...I tried it all. Even if it didn't work, at least some of it was enjoyable.
I had been having contractions for days even before the membrane sweep, and they had started to intensify after. The acupuncture I got the next day seemed to kick them into even higher gear. By the time my husband was snoring that night the contractions were ten minutes apart and getting more and more intense.
My mom was driving from the four corners area with Norma, my long-distance doula. I was worried that they wouldn't make it in time, and called to tell them my progress so they wouldn't stop for the night.
"This is good." my mom said when I told her that I kept seeing bloody show in the toilet and my contractions were getting intense and closer together. I could hear Norma cheering in the background. It takes a special kind of person to cheer over something like bloody show. (Bloody show, also known as the "mucous plug", is just as gross as it sounds. It's the mucous that plugs the cervix up to protect it from bacteria getting in, and it usually comes out right before labor starts.)
At this point I was very glad that I had opted to stay in Boulder. The one contraction I had during the ten minute car ride was so excruciating that I screamed and swore the entire time while gripping the door handle and attempting to raise my body up off the seat as much as I could. I don't know why, but sitting through a contraction was unbearable for me. I needed to be standing up, moving my hips. This was true throughout my labor.
As soon as we arrived I had another contraction in the hospital parking lot. We made our way to the emergency room, which was fortunately empty in the middle of the night on a Thursday. Someone brought a wheelchair over and asked me if I wanted to be wheeled up. "No!" I said emphatically and got a startled look. I couldn't imagine sitting when my contractions were starting to come so close together.
We slowly made our way to the elevator, stopping for a contraction along the way. Once we got upstairs the receptionist was expecting us and we were quickly shown to our room. The nurse told us she had read our birth plan, and would do her best to honor our wishes, but she was going to have to set me up on the monitor right now.
If they were just monitoring the baby I would have been able to move freely, but the blood pressure monitor for me only had a few feet of slack.
Luckily my sisters had arrived, and my mom and Norma soon after. My oldest sister Leise got to work decorating the room with tapestries and christmas lights. Norma put my birth playlist on, and she and my sister Josie danced next to the monitor with me, laughing at the appropriateness of the lyrics to "Push It". Every few minutes a contraction would hit me and I would grab my sister around the shoulders while Norma pushed on my back and helped me rotate my hips.
My local doula Lisa had another woman in labor in the room next door, so it worked out perfectly that I already had so much support. She came in and out throughout my labor, and also called in her partner Sarah Boccolucci, who took the beautiful pictures and video that inspired this post. What this meant was that I had three doulas helping out during my labor in addition to my two sisters and my Nurse Midwife mom. And of course, my husband Max, who was my rock throughout. I felt so supported and loved, which turned out to be just what I needed.
After awhile the nurse said she could monitor my blood pressure intermittently so that I could have more slack. I took advantage to take a little walk in the hall and a lovely bath, with low lights and lavender bath salts.
She had been the doctor we had interviewed when trying to decide whether to go with the ob group in Boulder. We had explained our desire for a natural birth, and asked questions about every possible scenario. Her straight forward answers and sarcastic wit had won me over. I knew she would stay out of my way unless I needed her, and I trusted that if she recommended an intervention it would be because it was necessary.
Unfortunately the bath had worked too well to relax me, and my contractions were growing further apart, though still very intense. I reminded myself not to worry about it, but to be grateful for the break. I took the opportunity to eat some protein and rest, which my body craved.
This was the part that I had known was coming. It was the most painful part, pushing the baby out. "Don't fight it!" my mom said, "push into the pain."
I had heard the rumor about ecstatic birth. These are women who experience pushing their babies out as one giant orgasm, and scream out of pleasure rather than pain. I decided to imagine that the pain I was experiencing was pleasure.
I had used this technique to psych myself up for going to the hospital. By telling myself I was going to a wonderful hotel where all of my needs would be taken care of I was able to overcome my anxiety about having a hospital birth.
So I told myself that I was about to have a giant orgasm. Lisa said "Breathe out fear, breathe in love", and I repeated this to myself as I imagined the pleasure I would feel as I pushed the baby out of my body, and the enormous relief once it was out.
"I can see the baby's hair!" Max said, lifting my spirits as I knew that meant I was close to done. There was a nice pause before my next contraction, and I let myself relax against the bed until the next contraction began.
Everyone exclaimed with joy at the sound of the baby's first cry. "It's a boy!" Max told me, and slipped the baby through my legs so I could see him for the first time.
"Be careful, his umbilical cord is short, he'll have to stay down here on your belly." my mom told me as she helped me turn over and lie down.
Max had been designated to cut the cord, and when it came time Dr. Shimoda talked him through it. The special care nurse we had met the week before was there.
"We're just going to take him for a moment and give him some oxygen." she told me gently. Max followed her over to the warmer while Dr. Shimoda focused on me.
The nurse came and gave me a shot, and soon I pushed out the placenta. It was just a little sting, nothing compared to pushing out the baby, but it was still a relief when it was over.
The special care nurse brought the baby over and handed him back to me to hold. "He needs a little bit of help, so I'm just going to keep this oxygen here." she told me as she held a plastic contraption near his mouth.
I had also worried that the joy of birth would be dampened by seeing the signs of Down syndrome in the baby's face. Max had been prepared that he might only see Down syndrome and not the baby, and had given himself a few months to learn to love the baby despite his diagnosis.
Later it would be confirmed, and looking back at the pictures I can now see the signs of Down syndrome in Benny's newborn features. But it doesn't matter anymore. Now that we can hold him and see how wonderful he is, the diagnosis doesn't hold such huge anxiety for us. It's just a little part of who he is, like his red hair and his sparkling blue eyes.
Without drugs in his system his natural instinct to breastfeed kicked in, giving us the advantage that we needed when over the next few hours it was determined that he needed extra help breathing and was put on a respirator and transferred down to a NICU in Denver. Thankfully, Dr. Shimoda kept her promise and released me from her care so that I could accompany him down to Denver.
We weren't allowed to feed him for over 12 hours. Luckily, when I was finally able to put him to the breast, he remembered what he had learned in those first few moments, and was able to breastfeed successfully. After only four days we were able to bring him home from the NICU.
We hadn't found out the gender of the baby ahead of time, and hadn't settled on a name either. So it was a week after he was born that we finally settled on his name.
Benjamin, for three important people in Max's life: his close friend who had been charismatic and kind before he passed away too young; his grandfather Benny who had loved his family and his career as a violinist in the New York orchestra; and his Great-Uncle Benjamin, who broke boundaries and cultivated tolerance as the conductor of the first racially-integrated orchestra in the United States. That we would wish our child to be charismatic and kind, to love his family and his career and to break boundaries and cultivate tolerance seemed very fitting.
And that is the story of how our baby Benny came into the world.