What I can call it is dark, and powerful, and a greater show of force than I ever could have imagined. I am quite simply not the same woman I was before having gone through it.
In writing and speaking about birth, the frustration lies in these limited Germanic syllables I have to describe something that is ultimately indescribable. And I’m having trouble even now sitting to write it with unsteady fingers three weeks later because I’m not sure I’m ready to revisit it, even through a keyboard.
What I have to say right off the bat is that frankly, I can’t believe I ever compared labor to running. I’ve had a few people ask me since, “So what’s harder, birth or a marathon?”
Well, it’s not like a marathon at all. If anything, it’s like running 400s, but on a track that is electrified so that every step electrocutes your entire body at a pain level that feels just short of fatal. And you get roughly a minute or two between 400s, and you do that for 16 hours straight. In running, you can push as hard as you can, douse yourself in as much pain as you are able to, but I’m convinced the body will give out LONG before you reach 100%. Perhaps before you even reach 50%. And in birth, the body simply does not give out as it soars to heights of intensity that are truly unfathomable in any other context of life, carrying an astonished mind along with it.
The following night, my sister Shannon and I sat on the couch and looked into each other’s eyes as the tears flowed. My whole pregnancy, as I compared labor to running and told her all of the tricks I’d learned as a doula, and how I planned to approach it mentally, she just kept her mouth shut and let me talk. And when I went into labor and let her know, she told me she cried because she knew what I was about to go through, and how I had absolutely no idea what I was up against.
On paper, everything went according to plan. 16 hours of labor, totally unmedicated, resulting in a vaginal birth with no complications and a healthy baby.
But just like the results page of a marathon never reveals the story of how a race unfolded, the medical chart of my birth cannot tell the tale of my journey through the fire to bring my daughter into the world.
The early stages of labor were powerful, but my body did not progress quickly. Dilation was slow, even with contractions coming every two minutes. Slowly, time began to lose meaning. I left the rational part of my brain behind somewhere in the early morning hours as I drifted away from the voices in the room, falling inward as my labor required more and more of my focus.
And then, from 5:10am to 7:55am, in the most intense two and a half hours of my life and ironically the same amount time it takes me to complete a marathon, I went from 5 cm dilated to holding my daughter in my arms. During transition, the final stage of dilation before pushing, I knelt over a bench in the shower, hardly seeing, hearing, or perceiving anything around me. I was just….gone. With each contraction that rose up inside me, I’d turn around, smash my head into the hard corner of the shower and press my face into the wet tiles with full force, letting as much of the pain as I could out through my mouth in guttural noises that came from somewhere inside my body I’d never accessed before.
I’d heard of many women having “out of body” experiences during an unmedicated labor, as their body produced a cocktail of natural hormones and drugs to cope with the intensity. I had no such experience save for a brief, 20-second image that popped into my brain as my body reached the peak of pain and sensation.
In any epic movie where there is a battle scene you can count on that classic shot where a lone horseman appears at the top of a hill, solitary, sitting tall in full armor, and then slowly, the hundreds then thousands of other soldiers in the army ride up behind him on the hill, darkening the early morning sky, revealing to the audience the full size of the army before they charge down the hill into battle.
I knew beforehand that at any given moment there are roughly 300,000 women giving birth around the world, and in my mind, I was that lone horseman, sitting tall in full armor, as 300,000 other women-soldiers rode up next to me and together we took that last steady breath before charging with reckless abandon down to whatever fate awaited us at the bottom of the hill.
It lasted only a moment, but there it was. There was the flash of strength my mind offered to me when just moments before I had been calculating how long a transfer from the birth center to the hospital would take. How long before I could have the sweet relief of an epidural in my veins.
I left the shower and sank into the tub, finding no relief except the change of scenery. Through a slit in the blinds, the first slivers of daylight appeared. Michael and my amazing doula Betsy spoke words of comfort to me as the sounds I was making shifted again. Each moaning contraction would rise in pitch and peak into a roar as all of the energy in my body began to channel itself downward. A few more contractions like that brought a very clear thought to the forefront and I realized… “I’m pushing.”
On an instinct I reached down into the water to check my cervix and instead found Charlotte’s head blocking the path. She had a ways to go, but she was coming. The end was in sight. I was going to do it.
With a calm that surprised me, I announced to the room, “I can feel her head.”
Michael and Betsy eased me out of the tub. Because of Covid, the birth center was not allowing waterbirth, and getting out of that tub was absolutely horrible.
I pushed in a few different positions, until things went from fine to urgent within the span of a few minutes. Charlotte’s cord was wrapped tightly around her neck and her heart rate began to plummet during contractions. My midwife Karin didn’t waste time comforting me as I pushed.
“Listen,” she said, “That pain you’re feeling, you have to go into that. You have to push directly into that and you have to do it right now.”
Let’s call a spade a spade here, the final moment before she was born felt like the final moment of unbelievable tension before an over-inflated balloon explodes. It was insane. But so is the human body in what it can do and I freaking pushed her out.
I will never forget the feeling of her body leaving mine. The relief was immediate and overwhelming. I felt like for the first time I was truly present in the room. Michael was crying and I had a wriggling purple baby on my chest and there were women around me who I hadn’t even noticed. My entire body was depleted, but If I'd had the strength, I would have lifted my fist into the air and held it there.
Four hours later we were home, dazed and exhausted. Turns out, after you deliver a baby and a placenta, there is no instruction manual in there that comes out afterward and you’re left with this little person and your raw instincts on how to introduce them to and protect them from the world.
At the end of the day, I don’t know if I’d do it that way again. If I had chosen to birth at the hospital I’m nearly certain I would have grasped at every single form of pain relief that was offered to me. But I’m glad to know what it was like. I’m glad to have taken the journey that millions of women have taken before me. And perhaps, like after my first marathon, enough time will separate me from the experience for me to actually desire a natural birth again someday.
When it became clear that I was in labor, Michael presented me with a surprise gift. A wooden box with handwritten letters from a dozen strong women in my life, meant to be read during labor. Some of these women are mothers, some are not, but I took strength from all.
In speaking to the women reading this who have taken this journey before me, and those who will embark upon it someday, I wish to tell you how proud, how truly, overwhelmingly proud I am to be among you.