“My husband was holding my hands and trying to calm me down, rubbing my hair, as I started pushing. Her head came out with the ring of fire, which burned badly but was nothing in comparison to the release of pressure on my spine, and I was still in such denial that I could keep going that I didn’t even believe them when they told me to touch her hair. Someone placed my hand on her warm head, and that was enough motivation to push the rest of her out at 4:35am. To FEEL her slippery body and every limb come out, to feel her body against the inside of my flesh, to completely FEEL it – was an AMAZING experience. All I could feel was relief in that moment that the back pain was gone, and process that my husband was crying and saying she’s here. [....]
Baby was immediately placed on my chest, covered in thick vernix and warm slime and it couldn’t have been better. She had fluid in her lungs but gently and slowly worked up a cry and coughed it out on her own. Within 5 minutes she latched onto my right breast completely unaided, much to my shock. [...]
We kept rubbing her to coax her to cry out the fluid, and about 20 min later the cord stopped pulsing and my husband cut it. We had a beautiful picture of me holding her on my stomach, looking down at her, with all the assistants/midwife’s hands holding her limbs and the tools, and my husband’s hand cutting the cord – I love it. [...]
I didn’t have ANY tearing thankfully, so no stitches. About an hour later, we did the newborn exam, took her sweet little footprints down on the certificate and also into a “Im a Big Brother” book we bought for our son. I was helped into the bathroom, then cleaned up a bit and enjoyed a plate of my homemade spinach pie I baked earlier in labor. Then we snuggled into bed after some paperwork and my husband walked the midwives out the door.”
- excerpts from my daughter’s birth story that I wrote in 2011, one week postpartum.
Sounds beautiful, right? I have to admit, I haven’t read these words in three years until I started prepping for this post. I am so thankful that I captured details in writing that I’ve otherwise since forgotten. But more curiously, I hear so much in my words (especially the ones not shown above) now that I didn’t realize I was saying at the time.
The truth is, you see, these are the sugarcoated sweet parts. These are the things you’re supposed to say. These are the wordporn fantasies of mystical, natural birth that midwives and crunchy mamas feed pregnant women because it’s what we all want to hear. We are strong, powerful birthing machines and our bodies were made for this. And see how perfect an unaided labor and birth story can be without intervention or unnecessary treatments? See how perfect it sounds? Worth it, right?
Well, let me tell you something: Perfect does not exist. All that glitters is not gold. And there is another side to the movement of women being pressured into all-natural mothering and the do-it-yourself health culture. Did I do it, and am I proud? Sure. But am I doing it again this time? No way in hell.
Let’s back up a little. Stay with me.
I was 37 weeks pregnant. I do not have a birth story written for my son’s birth because, well, I just don’t. Believe it or not, there was a time when we didn’t all feel like every moment of our lives needed to be recorded via social media, 400 camera phone shots (I don’t even have digital copies of the birth), and a written memoir in case we ever need to share with online pregnancy forum nazis. Remember that time?
Ok, maybe it had to do with the fact that I was also nineteen, and living in rural Indiana, in the dead of winter. After working in Hawaii, meeting my now husband, and moving back to my mother’s house while he continued working on cruise ships overseas – I was alone until 7 months pregnant when he came to stay. I didn’t have Facebook, or wifi. I didn’t have a smartphone. I had a Myspace, but who used Myspace anymore? I did not have cable tv, and the world certainly hadn’t been introduced to 16 and Pregnant, or any TLC reality show pregnancy specials. I received weekly BabyCenter emails updating me on the cutesy fruits and uncommon veggie sizes my baby was supposed to resemble as he grew. But otherwise, I relied solely on my doctor’s advice. Remember that – before we all had Google-WebMD-Hypochondria and every mom was an instant well of medical knowledge thanks to pediatrics articles online?
My OBGYN was also a family practitioner, who had seen me as a child. No fancy high-risk offices with single cup coffee machines and 4D ultrasound equipment. Just a regular doctor’s office, with occasional visits to a WIC office for lactation classes. There were not dozens of informative posters about vaccines or links to autism, there was no circumcision counter-culture, and formula-feeding was still widely accepted. It was not instantly assumed that every mother wanted an all-natural birth or that they would fight to death before believing their doctor if it was mentioned that they may need a c-section.
This all seems surreal even as I type it, but the truth is that even 7 years ago, people trusted the maternity and medical system in this country. I certainly did, anyway.
So at 37 weeks, extremely tired of being pregnant, I did what I shouldn’t have done. I searched Google with “How to Induce Labor”, and unlike today when you will be met with thousands of comments from various years of women warning you to NOT do this, to let baby come naturally – in 2007 there was very little in the way of comment board horror stories. I tried spicy food, and pineapples, and sex. Nothing. Not even the March of Dimes, at the time, was yet campaigning that babies were best in the womb until 39 weeks when possible. 37 weeks was considered “full term” by the American Pregnancy Association, not yet “late preterm”. So when I read about castor oil, and that taking it could safely (as far as I understood) induce labor – I couldn’t have made it to Walgreens faster in my white snow boots and big blue Jeep. I picked up a carton of OJ, from concentrate might I add, and a bottle of castor oil, and headed home determined.
My mom and husband were both there, and nobody thought I was doing anything stupid or reckless. We didn’t even think to ask the doctor, or mention it the next day at the hospital, because it just wasn’t known to be dangerous in any way. The worst that could happen, I thought, would be severe stomach upset and no labor. I took it at 9:30pm (naaaasty) and woke up by 9:30am with contractions, vomiting, and diarrhea.
I’ll be honest, I can’t remember, nor will I ever know, if I was really having contractions. Pains, definitely. But we drove to the hospital anyway, and being that I was 37 weeks, I assume they thought it was full-term enough to not test and see if contractions were steady, and took my word about the pain. Maybe I really was in labor, maybe I wasn’t. I’ll never know. I do know that within a few minutes of being in triage, a nurse was asking me which pain meds I wanted. I had a vague sense that I did not want an epidural, just because I had always been a little bit into the natural side of things (way before my local grocery stores carried organics). I was not educated in any other way regarding childbirth or what a hospital delivery entailed – because again, I trusted doctors. She laughed and told me I didn’t need an epidural yet, but they could give me a little something else, so I had Stadol pumped through my IV and was instantly loopy – something I regretted years later when I learned about it.
I don’t remember much else from then on. I know I was given Pitocin, and I know the nurse on duty just kept telling me that I was going to feel better with an epidural. “There’s no reason to fight it, and everyone will be more calm if you are not in pain” she repeated, until I was in tears and clutching this stranger, begging for her to just make the pain stop. No one explained to me that the Pitocin was causing unnatural waves of contractions. No one explained to me that the Stadol had probably affected my ability to think clearly, or that it could’ve been what caused me to soon need an oxygen mask and help breathing steadily. The epidural was a relief, after the anesthesiologist had to ask my weak-stomached husband to stop pacing while he put in the needle, but everything is and was a blur after that. The photos I have scare me a little, because my eyes just look so empty.
I have no sense of when or how things happened. I only remember the cozy hospital suite transforming into a delivery room with a lot of blue paper and what seemed like dozens of people. I remember being told to push. I remember my knees being held. I remember my mom saying “Look at all that hair!” at 6:37pm, I remember baby being swaddled and handed to me for a moment, and I remember a photo being snapped of my husband crying as he cut the umbilical cord. Even those things are possibly just memories my mind invented because there is photographic proof.
After that, time was a concept I couldn’t understand. Baby was taken away. Nurses hurried and rushed to test him and said he was grunting. He was taken to the nursery to be monitored. Then the NICU. Hours passed. Maybe it was only 20 minutes, but I do not know. I had one stitch for a minor tear, and more pain meds. My abdomen was pressed strongly to help expel afterbirth and prevent hemorrhaging, but I didn’t feel anything. I was in and out of consciousness due to the drugs, and every now and then I would glance at the wall clock. A nurse came to me with a breast pump and showed me how to attach it. My mom went home. My husband kept coming and going somewhere out of the room. I, so perfect of a patient, never fussed “Where the hell is my baby?” or knew I even had a right to demand to see him. Doctors were not enemies.
I didn’t see my son until the next morning. I was wheeled to the NICU, and I got to hold him with tubes and wires attached to every limb of his whopping 8lb 4oz body. He had been given formula along with breast milk after he was able to feed without tubes, and he had been given a pacifier. I don’t remember ever being asked. We were told his lungs just weren’t quite developed, and that he just needed a little extra help. Fast forward two days to my release, and he had developed a staph infection and pneumonia. Fast forward a few more and he had jaundice. He spent eleven days total in the NICU. Every night was difficult without him, and we spent hours every day driving to the hospital to pump, hold him, listen to his progress. He was circumcised routinely, and on his last night there we were offered a parent’s room to get used to having the newborn in our care. Thankfully he came home a few days before Christmas, and although I am grateful for the staff that cared for him, those days, when later viewed through new skeptical lenses in 2011, shaped my mistrust for hospitals. At the time however, it just wasn’t something to be questioned. Why would a hospital or doctor manipulate or intervene when not necessary?
Today, my little pooh bear is almost 7, and entering first grade. He has suffered chronic ear infections and allergies which may or may not be related to his birth, but other than that, he is perfectly healthy. I donate often to the March of Dimes, whose volunteers decorated his little NICU bed with Christmas trees and gifted him a precious crocheted blue blanket. I continued to breastfeed with supplementation, only until our move to Florida when he was 3 months old, and I was never judged by doctors or even the lactation consultant for my choices. I was offered help in choosing a formula and bottles to help his colic and gastric distress. He was vaccinated on schedule, without question. Only in late 2008, when the mainstream organic movement really began to take place, did I begin to guilt trip myself. I started pureeing his baby food from organic veggies, frozen in glass jars that I purchased recycled from eBay. I bought a breast pump and several herbal supplements, studying how to re-lactate (and failed). I purchased a new baby carrier and began to baby wear, and allowed him to co-sleep more often than he already did. I jumped on the band wagon that so many moms were also beginning to do as well, the more we read forums online and joined “groups” that made our parenting public on Facebook. And while all of these things are great, it is the motivation, pressure, and guilt behind the actions that should have been a red-flag for all of us.
When I became pregnant with my daughter, the nearest hospital was Mt. Sinai Miami Beach, unless I wanted to drive over an hour depending on traffic to South Miami, which came with it’s own set of issues since my insurance would not cover a private hospital or private room, and we won’t even get into the Spanish vs. English situation.
I found a doctor that was accepting new patients (no, I didn’t have an OB previously, I know, I know..), but before my first appointment I was hospitalized with hyperemesis gravidarum, dehydration, and a bladder infection. I was miserable and had to quit my fast-paced job, finding unfortunately that I also had little support at home with a relationship that was becoming rocky. When I finally met the doctor, I was not initially happy with the run-down office or treatment of the staff, but living in Miami, I had become used to lower expectations of service in all aspects. Although I was really unhappy with the 2-hour wait times and 5 second impersonal chats with the doctor, I stayed until I was about 20 weeks along. At a routine exam, I was handed a prescription at checkout for a fetal echo-cardiogram along with a referral for the ultrasound. I wasn’t sure what that meant, but I figured it was routine testing. I was told to call a phone number and schedule the testing. When I called, the clinic told me they no longer perform them, but that it can be an emergency, so I should call my doctor back immediately. Confused, I google-searched what exactly a fetal echo-cardiogram was, and then immediately called my doctor’s office. The nurse on duty explained that it was noted in my chart that the doctor was concerned about an issue with the baby’s heart, and that’s why she recommended extra testing.
It was a Friday, and nearing 5pm, so needless to say I was frantic. Why would my doctor not mention this? Why hand me a cold piece of paper like I am not even human? When would they have even detected an issue – I suppose listening to the heart rate monitor at my appointment? Not surprisingly, the nurse never returned my call after claiming she needed to check with the doctor. That weekend was incredibly stressful and nerve-inducing. I wasn’t sure if it was a true emergency, or if I should go to ER, or what exactly was even going on. Monday I waited a few hours and still did not receive a call, so I called back. “Oh,” the receptionist says, “Turns out it was a just a paperwork error. You just need an ultrasound. We had your file mixed with another patient’s.” Oh. That’s a relief…I think? No! I question now if that was even legal.
That was all it took for me to call a midwife at the birth center, and research other options. I had no idea what I was getting into, but I knew there were no other hospital options nearby and I figured if that doctor’s office and hospital was so careless, I didn’t want to deliver my child there regardless of switching doctors. So the journey began.
Birth Center and Homebirth Experience
We attended an orientation at a local birth center (well, 30 minutes north of us) with very few expectations. I had a list of generic questions, which were all answered at the introduction before I had to ask. We sat with a few other couples and listened to the experienced midwife explain how her practice works, the benefits of natural birth and natural medical care including breastfeeding, and most importantly to me at the time – she bashed the medical industry in every way I thought I was imagining. It was music to my ears, hearing that doctors really could be insensitive and that medical interventions were not always necessary. I heard that I was strong, that I could do it like all my ancestors before me, without being a victim instead of a patient. She recommended we watch several documentaries before making our decision, one of them being the very popular Netflix hit “The Business of Being Born” which I immediately added to my DVD queue for delivery. (Remember Netflix before streaming? Whoa.)
I don’t think my husband had a clue what was going on, or why I was making the switch. He definitely didn’t buy into the idea of a home birth or what I assumed he imagined would be some hippy old grandma delivering our daughter while chanting in circles around candles under a full moon. To be honest, our relationship was not the strongest at that point. He was working a full-time party job in south beach and very removed from many aspects of the pregnancy. This I think is part of what made me seek out a different route of care – I needed to feel like someone was really there for me. After the orientation and watching the documentaries, however, he was quickly onboard with whatever I chose to do. At first, a home birth scared me to death. But as we learned about the birth center options and realized we had everything we needed and more at home, it became obvious that a birth center was an unnecessary middle place. If there was an emergency, I was told, I would be rushed to the nearest hospital. Looking back, I think I was so determined to do things naturally just to prove a point.
There was so much in my life that I had no control over at the time. And here was this group of women telling me that if all else failed in life, I was in control of my body. I could make my own choices. And I didn’t NEED to be dependent on anyone to be a woman, and do such a natural womanly activity as giving birth. I felt that by choosing the road I had, I would feel empowered and confident. I took pride in being different, and feeling like I was more educated than others – at first. Eventually this just became frustration as I was continually judged, or worse, grouped in with new “friends” who judged women with other birth choices.
“..here was this group of women telling me that if all else failed in life, I was in control of my body. I could make my own choices. And I didn’t NEED to be dependent on anyone to be a woman, and do such a natural womanly activity as giving birth. I felt that by choosing the road I had, I would feel empowered and confident.”
The appointments were amazing. The care was so personal, and I have wonderful memories of my then-toddler son being involved. He used the stethoscope to hear his sister’s heartbeat, and he would help measure my belly with the tape. Each time I had a scheduled time to arrive, I was seen immediately by my midwife, and her and an assistant spent at least 30-45 minutes discussing everything that was possibly going on with my body or in my life. They answered every question thoroughly. They helped me prep my home and body for a home birth, even accepting me at such a late stage into my pregnancy, and with serious difficulty getting my medical records since my previous hospital took weeks to send them properly. They recommended natural vitamins and helped me meet with a “backup” OBGYN who would ensure my care was natural should I become high risk and require a hospital delivery.
But there was a lot that I overlooked, or did not know to look for at the time. Minor frustrations began to pop up, like when my ever-present acid reflux was causing me to vomit yellow stomach bile and I could not keep down food. I was told to swallow a teaspoon of apple cider vinegar with water, followed by a teaspoon of baking soda mixed with water. When this didn’t help, I was recommended to sleep propped up. When I asked if I should take an over the counter antacid, I was met with a frown and reminded that I needed to do what was best for baby, and that the heartburn and acid reflux would not last my whole life. When I began to have severe hip pain and could not walk some days, I was told to do yoga and reminded that while Tylenol is considered safe, there have not been long term studies to show the effects on the baby. When I began to have severe panic attacks, one that resulted in me being rushed to the birth center at 8pm on a Sunday evening, I was given oral doses of Rescue Remedy herbal spray, hooked to an oxygen mask for a few moments, and instructed to lie down and visualize happy thoughts. It was mentioned that I should wear white as often as possible to block negative energy from entering my life. I was told to bathe in lavender oils and consider the yoga and massages offered at the birth center (which were priced per session way over what I could afford). When my panic attacks continued and I began to lose feeling in my hands and feet for sometimes an hour each, I was reminded that pregnancy is a strain on the body and mind, and that I needed to stay strong for my baby and give her life. Not once was it suggested that I should seek a professional psychiatrist or help in another form.
At the time, keep in mind that this was all wonderful to me. I was thrilled, amused even, that I had found such a wonderful care team that was not shoving pharmaceuticals and routine care down my throat like the mean doctors could according to all the documentaries. These women were warriors and I was thankful for their wisdom, and advice on homeopathic treatments that I could not find elsewhere. I loved my prenatal care.
But when I failed my one-hour glucose test, and had been complaining of severe fatigue and thirst for weeks, I was a little tired of hearing that “it’s normal in pregnancy” to be tired, or that being in Florida I needed to make sure I drank water nonstop, and that I would probably always still be thirsty. When I had to take my 3-hour glucose as required by medical standards, I was left in the waiting room with no AC, since a mother had just given birth and it was policy to shut off the AC in the birth center to acclimate the baby’s natural temperature from the womb. I loved this theory and respected what was going on, but I began to feel dizzy and nauseated as the glucose took it’s effect on my blood sugar, and I was less than happy. All of the midwives and assistants were busy at births, so the receptionist, also a nurse I assume, was helping administer my test. She told me the nausea and dizziness was normal, but that it was a result of dehydration. She told me that during a glucose test, “we have to make sure” to drink a LOT more water than usual. She reminded me that if I failed the test, I would possibly not be eligible for a home birth. Every time she came to check on me, she playfully nudged at me to “drink drink drink!” and kept filling up my reusable water bottle from the filtered water machine.
Needless to say, I passed the three hour glucose test with flying colors since my blood was so watered down. But my episodes of fatigue continued, along with so many symptoms of gestational diabetes that I never thought twice about until I was diagnosed immediately during my third pregnancy (now, 2014). I will always wonder if she made an honest mistake, or if I was made to cheat the test in a way in order to avoid an “unnecessary” hospital birth.
I need to stress, and continue to stress, that during this entire time – I could not have been happier with my care. As we neared the due date, and I was so happily determined to let baby stay in as long as she needed, and loved the novelty of getting everything ready for home – picking out towels and a bathing suit for the tub and plastic sheets. I even started freezer cooking and stored over a month of meals to make recovery easier, including smoothie mixes for when I froze and ate my placenta. No, that’s not a typo. The midwives strongly suggested that keeping the placenta, and ingesting it was beneficial for my health. Many women now encapsulate the placenta into pills, but remember, I was all wrapped up in being as natural and earthy as possible. If I was going to do it, I was going to do it all the way – raw. And I did, I stood there a day after giving birth, muscles aching, chopping up my own placenta that an assistant had placed in the fridge. I rinsed it and cut out the tough membrane parts, diced it up and froze it into chunks for smoothies. Without a sour stomach, somehow miraculously. My husband seems to have blocked this memory from his mind completely I think, but he could not even be in the kitchen to watch. He was not willing to help, but even still, I did it. I like to think it helped my bleeding stop sooner than usual (only 4 days of heavy bleeding then spotting for 4 more weeks) and helped me prevent postpartum depression despite all the stress and adverse life circumstances I suffered shortly after her birth, etc, etc. But will I ever know? Is there a test to prove it was worth it? No. No clue. And unlike the unmedicated birth, eating a placenta is not something you can even easily chat about with the most “natural” mamas. In fact, I’m not sure I’ve ever admitted it publicly, until now for the world to read.
Speaking of taboo, there was another issue I ignored with the midwives that I shouldn’t have. At my 36 week mark, when they came for a home visit to acclimate themselves with my condo and help me set things up for birth, I found myself being judged – mostly, probably, by myself. But the feeling was there. Before they came, I hid the container of formula I had on the baby’s shelf that I had purchased just in case. I put the disposable diapers in the closet, and even made sure I had only natural baby lotions and creams laid out alongside the cloth ones. I scoured my entire home making sure it looked “appropriate” for a woman that chooses home birth, and even created a photo mural of us as a couple on the wall, because a home birth mama needs a solid partner, right? What was I so afraid of? Was I really so insecure in my choices as a mother and running a household that I couldn’t admit that I use bleach to clean, and that my most-craved drink was orange Gatorade? Surely they had seen worse. Right? Or was I an imposter – a mom who previously formula-fed and *gasp* circumcised my male firstborn, now trying to act like I had the green lifestyle under wraps? I’m not sure what my motivation or fears were, but looking back I see so many ways that this was worse than just living how I wanted and trusting a doctor to care for me should the medical need arise.
When I actually went into labor, I was not nervous at all. I felt prepared. I will not post the entire birth story, because frankly it is a lot of details that were uneventful. My water broke in the morning, and as the day went on, I showered and dressed with full hair and makeup, cleaned my house, prepped the home birth kit of supplies, spent time with my son, and even baked a spinach pie. As evening fell, I became irritable and contractions began to be more painful and closer together. My son went to his grandparents when my husband came home, and the midwives were on their way by 10pm with large suitcases of medical equipment. Although I was 4.5cm dilated, and completely thinned, my cervix was still high. I was instructed to stimulate my nipples intensely, and with each contraction, squat into it holding onto a door knob on either side – this hurt, a lot, and I wanted to tell everyone to go to hell. The midwives gave me privacy, and sat on our balcony to enjoy the Miami skyline from our 25th floor condo. I became more and more irritated and cold, despite the AC being off. I mentioned that I had severe back pain, that I didn’t remember in my first labor. One of the assistants laughed and reminded me that I “had an epidural the first time, there’s no comparison”, which annoyed me because I had an epidural very late into labor and knew that even with pitocin-induced pain, I had not experienced this type of pain. I took a hot bath, which was not hot enough, and I felt like there were too many people in the room. (So much for that hair and makeup, by the way.)
Hours went on, the assistants and my husband all started dozing off on the dark bedroom floor. Someone was snoring. I was incredibly frustrated. What I didn’t realize until this birth was that the loopy out-of-mind feeling is not caused primarily by drugs. It can be caused by the actual phases of labor – I literally was not “present” through most of my transition. My feet were cold, my lower back was in intense non-stop pain, and I had wanted to call my mom to come over at some point. I was thirsty but too nauseated to drink, and after almost 14 hours of labor, I was exhausted but unable to ask for or hold down food (and remember, I had no nourishment of any kind through IV – I had no IV). None of this registered enough past my subconscious to actually speak and tell someone strongly enough what I needed or wanted. I felt helpless inside my mind, just trying to fight the nonstop contractions. I bounced on my exercise ball and rocked back and forth for at least two more hours, until I just started sobbing and clenching my teeth, telling them something was not right with my back pain. I said I couldn’t do it anymore, to please make it stop. While I fully understand 100% that a midwife’s job as a birth coach is to encourage a woman to complete the birth, to remind her she is strong, and to let her know things are progressing naturally – I felt, even then in that moment, a fear that I had not considered. I became terrified as I realized that no matter what I said, no matter how I begged, no matter what I felt inside was not right – no one would have listened to me if I said I needed to go to the hospital. Any protest I would have voiced, and did, would have been met with the assumption that it was just labor-pain speaking. No one was looking out for me and my intuition beyond what I was able to communicate.
Finally, the midwife checked me in the on-all-fours position to tell me I was fully dilated, and we all had a little laugh when I joked “thank god!” but then things did not get better, unfortunately. Back on the birthing ball for at least another hour, I was continuously asked if I felt pressure to push. Yes, pressure, I said. But it was wrong. It was pressure on my spine. I was pushing, almost with every contraction. It didn’t make sense. Someone was applying counter pressure to my back but not enough, not even close. Why the intense back labor, relentless contractions, full dilation, and yet.. no baby? Out of sheer exhaustion I climbed on the bed, ready to give up. The midwife said she was going to check me once more, and with her finger inserted, the amniotic sac burst all over the bed and floor. “I thought my water already broke!!!” I screamed. And all of the midwives sighed with almost an annoyance, and announced “Oh, well that’s why! We could’ve had this baby out hours ago!”I didn’t have time to ask what the hell they were talking about (later to find out it was a bulging bag, meaning the water broke at the top of my uterus but not fully, so with each contraction and push, the sac of fluid was coming in and out of my cervix but baby was pressing her head into my spine instead of straight where she should be without water in the way). As soon as there was no fluid, the pain gripped me intensely as there was no cushion of lubrication during contractions. I started screaming “I can’t, I can’t!” which was met with a sharp chorus of “Yes you can” but no one understood. I didn’t want drugs, nor was I giving up. What I couldn’t do was unclench my lower back. The pain was like a shark bite, and the muscles were so tight and twitching that I had NO control over them. I screamed and screamed hysterically, and was told bluntly to calm down for the baby’s sake… and it’s at this point that the beautiful description of my husband rubbing my head to calm me comes in. Which doesn’t sound so sweet after all the other details. Nor after it’s mentioned that she was a full 8lbs 6oz at 39 weeks, even though I thankfully didn’t tear.
There’s no denying it was incredibly beautiful. But there’s just so much I did not know, and couldn’t have known despite reading all the books in the world or having 10 previous home births. The unknown scares me now. If I had been attached to a fetal monitor, however uncomfortable the straps, would I have suffered so many hours? If there had been an ultrasound machine nearby, whatever the inconvenience to lie down flat, would I have endured an entire night of an unbroken amniotic sac causing me back? Had I been given an IV with fluids, despite the bruises later and being attached to the bed, would I have had more energy to push through those final stages? My daughter’s head came out completely blue. Her lungs had fluid. At the time, I remember thinking how wonderful it was that all we needed to do was rub her vigorously to get her to cough it up alone, and that my chest was the only place she needed to be to warm up. I remember thinking that the hospital where my son was born did things so wrong. Why didn’t they know babies could be ok like this? But now, my questions are different. Why was she blue? What if something had gone horribly wrong? To get down the elevator into the lobby or garage to get into an ambulance and to a hospital would have taken at least 20 minutes if everything went well. Would she have survived? I will never know, but I just can’t comprehend why I was not afraid of these things when I made my choice. And I know now that it is not about fear of birth but more about reassurance that there is a safety net should your body fail you, because after all we are mortal.
The newborn exam was so cozy, and we loved that she was never taken from my arms. I was propped up and they weighed her right next to me. We were asked before each procedure was performed, which was a little overwhelming after labor when I wasn’t fully educated on eye antibiotics or vitamin k or whatever else is routinely done at hospitals – things that I hadn’t even considered would be an option to refuse during a home birth. Baby was placed on my chest while her lungs were checked again with the stethoscope, and being able to lay in bed as the sun rose, with our cats cuddled close and the midwives leaving us in peace truly was beautiful. To be able to breastfeed and bond immediately was incomparable.
Family and friends were all so proud, and my husband was glowing. Everyone showered me in praise and “couldn’t believe” I did it all natural. I was such a wonderful woman in everyone’s eyes, and I had really accomplished such a miraculous task bringing life into this world. But in my exhaustion, I could’ve cared less. And frankly, I didn’t feel like I had any part in making it happen the way it did. If anything, I felt like I had played the lottery. Thankfully, it turned out to be the beautiful fantasy birth story I can tell to my gorgeous princess today and in the future. But it could have just as easily gone horribly wrong, at any given moment, and here is what gets me – I would have had NO control over the situation. No amount of breathing techniques or birthing class visualizations could have saved my baby from a true emergency that required immediate intensive care.
And beyond that, the number one factor I will not have another home birth: my aftercare. This is included in a list below, but in short – it felt non-existent. That’s probably not the word I should use. The midwife was back the next day, and a few days thereafter, to check on me and the baby. We took our little bundle of joy to meet our pediatrician at 4 days old. So it’s not like I was left in a bed of hay to bleed and suffer and heal alone. I’m not being dramatic, I promise.
But there are a few factors I definitely did not consider, or overlooked purposefully for the sake of avoiding hospital intervention. Firstly, the placenta is not a joke. After the baby is born, you are so wrapped up in joy that you forget it’s not over. The contractions keep coming, and a placenta is a large organ that you have to deliver again. Not the worst sensation, but something you don’t think about until it happens. After this, someone will massage your uterus vigorously to make sure you do not clot and hemorrhage. This ranges from uncomfortable to wanting to punch the nurse in the face, but is a routine and necessary procedure. None of this was really an issue except that there’s one problem – the pain was intense and I was not prepared for it at all. While I was willing to sacrifice myself for the health of my baby, after 18 hours of pure agony and in a state of sheer exhaustion, there was nothing I wanted more than something to help me relax. When I asked what I could take for the pain, my midwife looked at me as though I was crazy. “Advil, if you absolutely must,” she answered almost condescendingly, “But if you just breastfeed and let your hormones work, the contractions will help expel more and relax you.”
I had severely underestimated how badly the afterpains would hurt. It was not just my abdomen. I was sore everywhere from the exhaustion of labor and continuous contractions. Breastfeeding caused contractions but no amount of natural hormones erases that kind of pain. And at this point I am sure those of you who advocate unmedicated birth are thinking I am weak, which is fine by me. Maybe it is different for every woman. And I had hoped I would feel the tremendous rush of joy that everyone speaks of, that encompasses your being for days and consumes you with a flood of happy hormones and pride at having a “real” birth. But that feeling never came. I felt defeated. I felt almost neglected. What I really felt was post-traumatic stress, although I did not know that at the time. When my husband congratulated me and everyone told me “You did it!” I was confused. I didn’t feel like I did a single thing. I felt like it happened to me, and I endured it despite numerous cries for help that should have possibly been genuinely listened to at some point in my labor. I felt violated, like I had been lied to by all the documentaries that painted such a beautiful picture. I felt cheated, and less than a woman compared to all the mothers who have had seven orgasmic, blissful water births and breastfeed their tots while shopping at Whole Foods. I couldn’t put my finger on it at the time, but what I felt was that it was not worth it.
“I had hoped I would feel the tremendous rush of joy that everyone speaks of, that encompasses your being for days and consumes you with a flood of happy hormones and pride at having a “real” birth. But that feeling never came. I felt defeated. I felt almost neglected. [...] I felt violated, like I had been lied to by all the documentaries that painted such a beautiful picture. I felt cheated, and less than a woman compared to all the mothers who have had seven orgasmic, blissful water births and breastfeed their tots while shopping at Whole Foods. I couldn’t put my finger on it at the time, but what I felt was that it was not worth it.“
But I shook off that feeling, because how dare I be allowed to feel that! So many women would love to have an uncomplicated birth and healthy baby, and I should just be grateful for what I experienced. Who was I to complain? I was a martyr, remember? We as women are built to endure pain and birth babies. Who was I to say the pain was too much? That I really didn’t feel like I deserved some big golden trophy? Because guess what – I didn’t actually get a consolation prize or fancy badge to wear forever more. I’m not sure if you’re aware of this fact, but they do not actually hand you a trophy after an unmedicated vaginal birth that says “Hooray, you’re a real woman.” All you get is the self-awareness that you did it, and ability to brag about it for the rest of your life should you choose to do so.
Things to Consider When Choosing a Home Birth (that no one tells you)
Baby’s Demeanor – In my experience, my home birthed child was much more calm and alert than my son who had been in NICU. However, as much as I would love to attribute this to lack of drugs in her system, there are so many factors that are unknown. Maybe just different personalities. Maybe the bright lights and noises at the hospital vs. dim, warm bedroom at home with no flash photography allowed. Maybe the alignment of the planets at the particular moment they came out of my vagina. Who knows. Sorry. I can’t clearly stand behind this one. Especially at three years old now, when my daughter is the loudest, most overly-attached creature (that I love to death) who ever walked this earth.
Comfort of Your Own Home – It’s nice to walk down your own hallway, to your own bathroom, using your own towels, in your own shower. It’s nice not to have to pack and unpack a hospital bag. It’s nice to sleep in your own bed and not have to drive baby home in a carseat. It’s familiar. You can light candles, turn on fans, play music, cuddle your pets, basically whatever you want to do.
You can eat and drink – You will not have an IV. There will be no bandaid marks or sores from the IV preventing you from cradling the baby’s head in your elbow. You can have food and drink throughout labor, but I’ll be honest – you probably won’t eat or drink at all. If you do, you’ll probably throw up. But it’s good to have the option I guess.
So much control, in some ways – If you are very adamant about wanting to skip certain newborn testing, or wanting to hold baby for a certain amount of time, or get photos in a certain way – you have a lot more control than at a hospital when staff is on a strict schedule. You also are of course most likely to have your own midwife there, unless there is an emergency, she won’t be swapped out for an on-call doctor if yours is out of town or off-duty. You also won’t have to worry about hospital bracelets or ID tags or security checkpoints.
Aftercare – You will not have a team of nurses by your side. You will not have an IV to keep you hydrated or medicated. While these can be seen as peaceful positives, there are serious factors to consider, especially if you have other children at home, before deciding to birth at home. Even a loving partner or relative like a mother or sister, who you assume will be attentive to your every need, will be enamored by the newborn baby, and also exhausted from lack of sleep. Unless you hire a doula, you will not have someone to care solely for you. At a hospital, there is a team of nurses on call at any moment after delivery and during recovery, to take care of you so that you can take care of the baby. This may not seem important now. But when you need an extra blanket, or a glass of water, or help to go pee at 3am, and your partner is asleep next to you with a soundly sleeping newborn on his chest – you will feel helpless. Oh, did I mention you can’t go to the bathroom alone? You are not allowed to leave your bed alone for 48 hours, a condition relayed to your partner or relative staying with you upon the midwives leaving. This also comes with a fear that again, an ambulance is not immediate. There were times I was clotting (TMI alert) the size of eggs and golfballs the first two days. In a hospital, the ER, ICU, and OR are a few moments away at most. At home, there is only a midwife to call or text, that hopefully isn’t in the immediate throes of delivering another baby, so she can answer you – or it’s 911.
Aftercare Part 2 – I’m not talking basic medical needs. I mean the little things, like baby’s clothes and making sure nursing equipment is clean. There is an entire team of people on staff at a hospital to care for your baby and you to make sure you get the rest you need to heal, and don’t have to worry about things. I love my husband to death, but if I asked for a “glass of OJ, a clean diaper, some baby socks, and my iron tablets” – he was destined to forget one of them. I needed all of them. It matters. Having a team of people keeping track of what medicines you’ve taken while sleep deprived is helpful, and knowing there is someone there to help if you just ask is something that you don’t think about until you just don’t have it at home.
Aftercare Part 3 -Yes, I’m serious, part 3. I am talking about postpartum care this time though, through 6 weeks. Unless you saw a midwife who is also an OBGYN (those exist, right?), yes you will get a 6 week checkup and pelvic exam. But you will not be seeing your midwife again when not pregnant. You will also not be able to receive birth control after baby, if that’s an option you want. If consistency of care is important to you, this is something to consider. If you don’t mind having a gynecologist to see specifically when you aren’t pregnant, who may or may not know your history, and also may or may not be very understanding of your home birth, then it should be fine.
Food Service- No, I don’t mean someone like a personal chef. I mean, if you have a personal chef that can be there, by all means. But even still there are things you just don’t think of when planning a homebirth. Although hospital food is not always the most delicious, guess what? Someone made it for you. And they put it on a tray, that fit on another tray, that sat perfectly at the height which you can eat it from your bed. And then, someone comes to clean said tray. Even if you convince your husband and the nurses that you can have takeout, someone cleans it from the trashcan in your room. The takeout boxes, or paper plates if you thought to buy those, do not add up on your kitchen counter until your partner takes out the trash at the end of the week. And that’s IF you live nearby some good local delivery joints, because you cannot be left alone for 48 hours after birth – so that wonderful partner will not be running out to pick up something. You will not have energy to heat up food from the freezer that you so lovingly packaged months ahead. And again, yes, your partner can do this but if they are tired or you have other children to care for also, your needs are not always priority compared to a nurse whose job is literally to do one thing – care for you.
Laundry – Home birth is not the messy spectacle that some people envision. You will not be spraying blood at the curtains a la some 1970′s horror movie. But even with a relatively clean and simple birth, and plastic sheets, we were still left with 2 sets of bed sheets, 6 towels, 10 washcloths, and 4 baby blankets dirty from the birth that needed to be washed. Not to mention my clothes and gowns and underwear since hey, there was no hospital staff to bring me fresh ones or disposable pairs. Needless to say this backed up laundry until she was at least 4 weeks old. I won’t even lie. Also on the note of housekeeping – all those seriously, intensely used pads from the bed and yourself? They end up in your bathroom trash. Which in a hospital, someone cleans up. At home, again, it falls on your tired partner to remember. And I’m sorry but let’s be realistic – even if you’ve been married 15 years, asking your husband to bring you a new pair of granny panties, with blood clots running down your legs and the sheets as you maneuver off the bed is going to be awkward and uncomfortable. Period. (no pun intended)
The Recovery “Time” - Relatives, family members, friends… they simply will NOT understand that just because you are home does not mean you are home. You are still an “in-patient” and people will just not understand this – YOU may even forget this yourself. I know women that have issues with too many visitors in the hospital but at least there you can be 100% off your feet, for at least 24-48 hours, and there are restrictions on visiting hours. You can ask much easier for family to respect your wishes and allow you to rest before being expected to be social. Because I guarantee you this, if you have even one family member show up at your door (they will) – it will not be a short visit. And you will need rest, without being able to bluntly ask them to leave. There will not be a nurse to do the honors. I am also somewhat of a germaphobe, and while I support that the baby’s immune system is probably healthier from breastfeeding and being exposed to the home environment, etc. – it’s still nice to know that if your aunt comes in with a head cold, the hospital staff will sanitize everything she touches easier than you can in your own home.
The Paperwork – Maybe it’s just in Florida, but the paperwork side of things was way more complicated when birthing at home. If you are set on a natural, unmedicated home birth, this probably seems like a really stupid reason to consider a hospital birth to you. But filling out extra papers to apply for a social security card, birth certificate, (and because we were not married at the time) paternity affidavit, among other things – was really the last thing I wanted on my mind in the first few days. Worse, because our midwife was registered at the birth center in another county, we actually had to drive over an hour to that county’s government office to pick up her birth certificate. It was kind of a scary feeling knowing that we had absolutely no legal documentation on our infant for the first few weeks. Maybe this process is faster when you don’t live in large cities or metro areas.
Pain Meds – This may seem obvious, and you may instantly think “Is she serious??” but hear me out. I don’t even mean that duh, you won’t have pain meds available. There is no epidural-wielding anesthesiologist waiting in your living room, of course. But here’s the problem – because I was pumped with so much confidence in myself, and told so many times that I could do it natural, I had so much faith that I didn’t consider things going any other way. I had never heard of, or experienced, back labor. I did not know what it was at the time or how to deal with it. Maybe I could’ve been more educated, sure. But there will always be a situation you didn’t forsee. And the lack of pain meds, of not even having the OPTION, or knowing that if I truly could not do it, there was relief available – made things worse. I felt helpless, not strong. I actually feel like if I had the option available, maybe my stubborn side would’ve kicked in and reminded me that yes, there is help available, but that I could do it alone. I would’ve felt empowered maybe instead of just alone in my pain. There’s no way to know.
The Cost – I almost didn’t include this because I almost feel like having the birth you want should not be factored down to money. But the fact is that money does matter. And your particular insurance may not cover home birth (although you should check state laws, it could be required by the insurance company to cover you). If you are paying outright, yes, the cost of home birth is much lower than a typical hospital delivery (usually a flat fee in the range of $4500 that you pay in two portions, due before 28 weeks). In cases like mine now, my current insurance would cover it as out-of-network cost. Also, the birth center I spoke to explained that I would be paying upfront, even if I switched at 30 weeks pregnant, and then after the birth, the insurance would be billed at the out-of-network cost. Whatever they covered, I would be reimbursed. And having worked in HR, I’ve heard enough insurance horror stories to make me nervous about this option.
And on that last note, I want to conclude why I’m not having another home birth. Aside from the practical reasons I’ve explained, and my personal experiences leading up to my opinions, there is one big question that looms:
I consider myself highly educated on the subject of childbirth, having experienced it twice in two different settings, and having read probably every book on the market in regards to natural or unmedicated birth. I consider myself an ‘attachment parent’ if we have to use a label, and my kids rarely leave my side if I can help it, if they need me. I babywear because it’s comforting and feels right, I try to feed my family fresh healthy foods when possible because it feels good, and all of my kids co-sleep as infants (and the older two still continue to do so quite often). I cloth-diapered for about a week, and while I do very much prefer natural disposables like Seventh Generation, I will use what is easiest at the moment. I like to clean with vinegar and baking soda and essential oils, and I sometimes take probiotics and kale smoothies for illness. My kids are vaccinated because we live in a very international culture near Miami, and I don’t feel comfortable exposing them to so many people from different countries were diseases are still prevalent -my daughter’s schedule is delayed for vaccines. I breastfed both babies as long as I wanted to and felt bonded to them, and felt like I had the support to do it.
But guess what – I also take time off from being a mom. I like to drink wine (very often), I love my double espressos, I like to get massages lying flat on my breasts that aren’t swollen with milk, I like to wear swimsuit tops without nursing pads, and I like to go jogging or shopping for hours if I have my husband to watch the kids without worrying about pumping in a dirty Target bathroom – and I shamelessly take that into account when I say that I’ve also formula fed my children. I also don’t buy into breastfeeding melting off pounds – sorry, but breastfeeding makes me a ravenous piggy pig and I eat 10x more than I do when I’m not lactating. Sometimes we eat fast food, because it tastes good. I love Diet Coke, aspartame and all. I don’t think anything cleans better than Clorox bleach. And if I am near death with a sinus infection, doctor, please pump me with antibiotics and Nyquil. My kids are not vaccinated because yes, what I said is true but also it’s just something I tell people when I feel I’m being judged. Why do I really vaccinate my kids? Because I trust my pediatrician, and I have faith in scientists who invented vaccines for a reason. And I’m ok with that. Oh, and my daughter’s delayed schedule? Solely because we lazily procrastinated or forgot a couple of her well-visit checkups (which reminds me… she just turned 3..hmmm) and skipped a few shots here and there, so our pediatrician told us we can catch up a little more at each visit.
What is my point? My point is that I’m not perfect. And that NO ONE HAS THE ANSWERS. And more importantly, we need to stop judging eachother as mothers and feeling the need to explain ourselves!!
Education is a beautiful thing, and making informed decisions based on factual science or tried-and-true experience is absolutely a wonderful thing that should be encouraged. But shaming women into choices because it’s the right thing to do, or because it makes you more of a mother, is not ok. There needs to be a balance and grey area which blends together our strength as women and educational choices, and the safety net of hospital care to be available should we choose to accept it. It should not be black and white, team a or team b.
I tend to stay away from the forever-epic debates in comment forums and chat threads regarding hot topics like circumcision, vaccination, breastfeeding, and birth plans. They truly exhaust me in most cases. People bring up the past, and that women did it for hundreds of years unaided. Then the other side retaliates that yes, but a lot of women DIED and would love to have had the option of a pain-free scheduled birth. And so it goes, back and forth. There is so much misinformation spread across the internet, and I feel like even though I have experienced both sides of many of the debates - even I am not qualified to make choices that are right for you or your body or your baby.
When I found out I was pregnant with our third baby, right before we went out to celebrate New Year’s Eve, I immediately wondered how different things would be this time around. We live in a suburban area, next to some of the best rated maternity hospitals in the country. We also live in a house that doesn’t have an enormous jet-style bathtub like our condo did last time. And there are two small people wh