Part 2: The Childbirth Minefield

Like all the posts in the Exploring Feminist Motherhood series (Part 1, Part 3: Tick Tock), this was inspired by reading Opting In: Having a Child Without Losing Yourself by Amy Richards. This was the second selection of the Sin City Siren Book Club.

On the subject of childbirth, I’ll admit I felt relieved when Richards’ skewed more toward my views.

I chose a doctor over a midwife because I’m generally wimpy about medical things: I always fear that the worst will happen, and I wanted to be overly prepared.

I hear that! And I would add that for myself, I wanted a doctor/hospital experience because I have a hereditary illness, which could cause complications. (And I did have complications.) And I wanted the peace of mind that if anything was wrong with my baby, that care would be available immediately. (In my case, it might have saved my daughter’s hearing and eyesight and possibly her life.) Another reason why I wanted to deliver in a hospital was because I am a survivor of sexual violence and wanted to be in a space I felt was safe. (More on that in a future post.)

In truth, sometimes in the feminist community it can feel like you are a traitor if you opt for the Western medicine version of childbirth. So for me, it was refreshing to see that another feminist out there not just validated my feelings but didn’t chastise me. Like so many aspects of pregnancy and motherhood, the childbirth experience can be a judgmental minefield.

But before you send me hate-mail because you think I am against non-medical childbirth, just hold up. That’s not what I am saying at all. I respect that there are many ways to go through childbirth. And I have many friends who have availed themselves of “non-traditional” (as defined by popular Western preference for hospital/doctor childbirth) experiences including midwives, doulas, water births, natural birth and so on. I am so glad that so many options are available. I get annoyed when I learn that my friends had trouble getting the birth experience they wanted. (Just because a doula is not for me, doesn’t mean I don’t want that to be an option.)

The main thing is, when it comes to childbirth: Always have a Plan B. You could say that is my motto in life. And that motto was never tested more than throughout the experience of childbirth. There’s a lot happening in that space and time. It’s best to be prepared for the reality that your “plans” might get thrown out the window.

I speak from experience!

In case you didn’t read Kate’s Birth Story, let me give you the Clif’s Notes: 37-hour labor; asked for pain meds but they didn’t take (I had 3 epidurals!); the baby was transverse with her skull lined up over my left hipbone (not an exit!); there was meconium in the amniotic fluid (baby poop inside, which can cause problems); fetal distress; emergency c-section. (Then my baby had to go to the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit, NICU, for 5 days, but that’s another story.)

Indeed, even though I had thought about my ideal birth experience — vaginally in a hospital with my doctor (and husband coaching) — very little of what I had wished for actually happened. Sure, I had listened to my doctor about possible alternatives. I had nodded conscientiously during the baby classes. Hell, among my friends and family I only know of two women who have given birth vaginally! That alone should have been a tip-off! And even though having the emergency c-section might sound like the worst part of that story (the recovery sucked), it was actually a relief by the time we got to that point. (And for those who say that having a c-section is “the easy way out”… Fuck you! There was nothing “easy” about my experience or the recovery and rehab afterward!)

To illustrate my point, let me illuminate the ways that my birth experience differed from my “ideal”:

  • My doctor was out-of-town. So I had another doctor from his practice. And I met him all of five minutes before the c-section. (He had been busy doing another c-section at a different hospital just before mine. In fact, after the determination was made to have the c-section, I had to wait an extra 45 minutes until he arrived at my hospital. No offense to him personally, but that sucked big time.)
  • The pain meds didn’t work! Holy Fuck! That was definitely NOT what I had in mind! I love all my au-natural friends out there, but that was not what I wanted for my experience! And when you have not mentally prepared for the pain-full version… let’s just say I lost my shit in a major way. I had some serious panic! (Many thanks to my main nurse — who just so happened to go to the same high school as my college roommate! Small world! She really gave me the verbal slap to reality I needed more than once along the way.)
  • Even though I was told many times and read in many books that first-time deliveries can take a long time, I was not prepared for the marathon 37 hours. It started Friday night and ended SUNDAY! It took me a whole weekend to have my baby! When I was preparing for childbirth I was thinking that the truly hard-core pain part would be, like, 4 hours. Tops. My hard-core pain part? 16 hours. (Plus 2 more hours if you count before my contractions got regular, but were already buckling my knees.) Let me tell you, that dial went way beyond 11.
  • I didn’t expect the c-section. I’ve pretty much gone over the main points of that. But let me add that when the time came to make that decision, I was half hysterical from pain. That may sound like a writerly exaggeration, but it’s really not. I over-heard people in the hall worried about how much I was screaming. By the end, whenever I opened my mouth the only thing that would come out was screaming. My husband would ask me something. I would think of an answer. I would open my mouth and SCREAM! It was like scream-diarrhea. While I was screaming, I would be thinking that I wish I could talk so I could tell him something. But my mouth just wouldn’t work. I had to nod or shake my head to yes or no questions. Luckily, my husband was there and I trust him completely. I know he was actually listening and paying attention to everything. And I know he would not have let me agree to something that would have been the wrong call. But still, it’s worth noting that when you’re in there, you might be compromised by any number of factors (pain, medications, complications…).
  • I wasn’t prepared for how long it would take for me to hold my baby. Since I had not prepared myself for the idea of a c-section, I had only done a cursory amount of reading on it. I knew the surgery took about 45 minutes. (It’s like clockwork. They are very good at it.) But I didn’t realize that once the baby was out, that my husband would leave with her to the nursery (or rather, the NICU, in our case). So, I didn’t see anyone I knew again for at least an hour. And, of course, it was a lot longer until I could see or hold my daughter. That took something like 6 hours. That was really hard to handle.
  • If you give birth in a hospital, your nursing staff might change. Right at the end, about 2 hours before I had the c-section, my lead nurse had to clock out. She actually seemed bummed about it because she had done so much work with me to get me through and ready and then she was going to miss the finale. I was a little upset. We had bonded. She helped me through so much of my delivery and then she was gone. Not that I didn’t like the crew that came on and helped me at the end. It was just another thing that surprised me at a time when I didn’t want any more surprises. (PS: If you are delivering at a hospital, pay attention to the nursing staff when you do the hospital tour. You will be spending way more time with them than your doctor. If you don’t feel like your vibe matches theirs during the tour, move on.)
  • You might have to do things or have things done to you that you did not expect. Case-in-point: We worked for a long time to try and get the baby straightened out and lined up with the birth canal. This included a nurse getting in the bed with me, kneeling over me and pushing on my stomach while I had contractions. That was horrible. She was doing her job. She was not trying to hurt me. But that was a horrible part of my labor experience.

These are just some of the things that surprised me along my 37-hour experience. Was I naive? Sometimes. But not for every part or every thing that happened. Despite my denial, I did know that my doctor might not be available and that an emergency c-section might come into play. I know that nurses are paid employees (my grandmother was an OB nurse at the hospital where I was born, in fact). I even knew that in certain situations pain medication doesn’t work (or there isn’t time). I knew that first-time labor could be long. I had been told or read all these things. And yet, they still surprised me.

The truth is, labor is a sweaty, intense, emotional, psychological, physical, exhausting, exciting, scary experience. It is the ultimate marathon! You go so far beyond what you think your body can do. You survive moments that you think, “I can’t go on!” And yet, you do. It challenges you to be your very strongest when you sometimes feel your very weakest and most vulnerable. (The upside is that pain does not frighten me very much at all now.)

So my advice is to have a Plan B. But not just a passing thought, like, “Oh, yes. I could have a c-section. But that won’t really happen to me!” Have a genuine Plan B. Think it through. Research it. (Not so much that you make yourself crazy.) Just be mentally prepared.

Now, that said, don’t go over-board! There is no point in having a super-detailed, Type-A birth plan. I know the comfort of over-planning. As a Type A, over-planning person, I understand that desire. It’s not going to happen like that. (See above.)

In my opinion, the best approach is what I think of as The Gravy Method. This is where you figure out your top five (or 10 or whatever number floats your boat) things that MUST happen, bar none. (For me they were: Having my husband present; delivering in a hospital; feeling comfortable with my doctor/nurses; having music; modern medicine/pain medication.) These are unwavering things that are non-negotiable. You figure out those top five things and anything after that is gravy. Even in my own scenario, I didn’t get all my top points because modern medicine failed me! But, then again, it saved my daughter. So, maybe we’re even.

Please come back for more in this series in coming days!

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