Aurora’s Birth Story
March 19, 2020 § Leave a comment
If going through childbirth taught me anything at all, it taught me that control is an illusion.
Truly. From even the first weeks of pregnancy, I knew I wanted to do an unmedicated birth. To me, birth wasn’t a medical procedure as much as it was a ritual, a rite of passage. I wanted the raw experience. I think more importantly, I wanted complete control over everything.
I bought all the books. For months, I read about unmedicated birth (whoever called it “natural” childbirth? All childbirth is natural, people) and read birth affirmations and watched YouTube videos of women talking about their unmedicated birth experiences.
Alex and I signed up for a three week childbirth class that taught us so much about the three stages of labor. That was another biggie for me. I wanted to know exactly what would be happening – again, the illusion of control. If I knew how childbirth worked I could control everything, right?
We did all the breathing exercises. We filled out the preregistration forms. We did a hospital tour. Over the last month I made a long checklist for our hospital bags and packed them meticulously. I went through everything in the nursery and checked boxes, crossed ts and dotted is.
Everything was in order. I had everything under control. Now all that had to happen was for me to go into labor. My type A perfectionist self was felt ready. My nine-month-pregnant, tired, hot, uncomfortable self felt beyond ready. Little did I know that my perfectly outlined birth plan was about to go flying out the window.
My last appointment with my doctor was at 38 weeks and was on September 12th. By the end of it, my doctor said he expected to see me back the following week, the 19th.
“Damn it!” I said, loudly, upon hearing this. I had no filter anymore. My doctor smiled apologetically.
“You’re about 80% effaced but not dilated yet,” he said, which means the cervix was pretty thinned out but not open to allow the baby to pass from the uterus to the birth canal. “We’ll see what happens over the weekend.”
Four days later, on Monday morning, the 16th, I woke up and went to eat breakfast and was sitting at the table as usual when I was struck with the uncontrollable urge to walk.
It was bizarre. I went outside and walked in circles in the backyard for something like thirty minutes. Lucy trotted at my heels while I walked and wondered if this was what it was like to go insane. I’m still not sure where the urge came from. But I wanted to keep moving.
The contractions started later that day, just before 7pm.
For those who don’t know exactly what a contraction is, by the way, its technical definition is when the uterine muscle contracts and tightens as it tries to push the baby out. When the contractions ebbs, it’s the uterus relaxing. And contrary to what movies depict, it’s not the water breaking that determines when a woman is in active labor – it’s the consistency and intensity of contractions.
At first it was difficult to discern them from Braxton Hicks contractions, which I’d been experiencing for several weeks by then. There was no rhyme or reason to the duller Braxton Hicks contractions, but these… these that started in my lower back like cramps then wrapped themselves around to the front of my bump like claws squeezing my insides… they were real. And they came about every twelve or thirteen minutes. They lasted about 60 seconds each.
Alex helped me time them and we determined there was too much time between them to go to the hospital yet. Janet, our labor and delivery nurse instructor who had taught our childbirth classes, had drilled into us that when the contractions had been coming at four minutes apart for at least an hour, thatwas when we were to go to the hospital. So we waited. Unfortunately this meant we had to wait through the night.
I didn’t sleep. I closed my eyes for a few minutes at a time but as the contractions progressed the pain did, too. If I drifted off for a minute, I was quickly brought back to earth by the steadily increasing pressure.
By morning, if I remember, the contractions were down to about eight or nine minutes apart. I was breathing through them but by midmorning I was walking all around our house and groaning with every contraction. We canceled an appointment we’d had with our financial advisor and prepared, with mounting excitement, to go to the hospital.
By about 1pm, my contractions finally hit the magic number. Four minutes apart. I was walking around, standing up, stretching, lay down, curling into a ball… anything to help with the pain. Alex took out bags to the car, texted our moms so they could raise the alarm amongst our families, and walked me out the door. So convinced we were that this was it, September 17th was going to be the day, that we stood and spent a few minutes with our heads together, soaking in the last time by our house as just the two of us.
We got to the hospital a little before 3. Contractions were still coming about every 4 minutes and we were so convinced that this was the start of active labor that Alex went to give the car to the valet and get our hospital bags. The front desk offered me a wheelchair but I insisted I could walk up to the maternity ward on the second floor.
They checked us in then handed us over to triage, where I changed into one of the famous hospital gowns and they strapped two bands around my bump – one to monitor baby’s heartbeat and the other to track my contractions.
A nurse came in and examined me. The exam was one of the most painful parts of the day, but it wasn’t nearly as bad as the words she said afterward.
Alex and I stared at her blankly.
“Not—not at all?” I stammered.
“Nope. 100% effaced but no dilation. What we can have you do is walk around for an hour then check back in here to see if you’ve progressed at all. But we can’t admit you unless you’re at 3 or 4 centimeters.”
Numbly, we found ourselves agreeing, then Alex helped me get out of the bed and buttoned up the back of my hospital gown. I felt dazed. Everything I had read, everything we’d learned at our class, indicated that when contractions were four minutes apart, a minute long, and that continued for an hour meant you were around three or four centimeters dilated and considered to be in active labor.
We walked, or rather Alex walked while I waddled. We went in circles around the maternity ward, Alex getting me ice chips as I needed them and taking my cup from me as a contraction would hit so I could kneel over and put my hands on my knees. There were tons of empty rooms, which we would remember as being incredibly ironic the next day when we’d spend two hours waiting for one.
After an hour (or so Alex said – time was not a factor for me then), we went back to the triage room. The nurse came back in, put the bands back around my belly, and said my doctor was on the way to check my progress. She left and when she came back into the room some time later she told me my contractions were beautiful, the best on the monitors in the nursing station with the high, even peaks. Even in my tired state I felt a tiny twinge of smugness. Surely that meant I was ready to be admitted.
My doctor came in. The nurses had contacted him to let him know I was in triage since the number we’d tried earlier was the wrong one (doctor handwriting for the win).
He checked me and said those awful words again.
“I’m afraid not,” he said. He looked concerned. “Did you sleep at all last night?”
“Go home and try to rest.” He offered to write me a prescription for Ambien, but, me being weird about taking anything stronger than Tylenol, I refused. He understood, but stressed that it was important that I get as much strength as I could before returning.
We packed up. Alex helped me change back into my maternity dress – just about the only thing I fit into at that point – and hugged me close. I can’t remember if I cried or not. By that point I’d been in labor for over 20 hours. I couldn’t believe we were being sent home.
We stopped at Sauce on the way home to pick up some food. It was around 6pm, and I hadn’t eaten since earlier that morning.
The contractions were still coming. And the night of the 17th/ the morning of the 18thwas one of the longest nights of my life.
By midnight I was starting to involuntarily curl up into a ball, or bolt upright, or jump out of bed to move, or do whatever I could to ease the pain. It got harder to breathe. I tried to think of Aurora, so close yet so far away from me, tried to imagine holding her, touching her, seeing her for the first time… and my visions of her would fade with every burning, crushing, agonizing contraction that overtook my back, sides, front… even my legs were weak and shaking after they would fade away. Poor Lucy followed me everywhere, licking my face, whining… she knew something was happening and tried to help.
Around three in the morning I sent Alex to the couch downstairs to sleep. I was waking him up every five minutes with my cries of pain and as he started to resist leaving me I said I was going to need him somewhat rested the next day. Looking back, I laugh at how the only time I’ve made him sleep on the couch was the night before our daughter was born. At the time, I remember being glad he could get at least a little sleep.
But only a little sleep. Before 5am, I’m convinced my water broke ever so slightly (sometimes it’s hard to tell). I was still timing the contractions and still, they came every four minutes, sometimes five. The pain, however, was intensifying.
I went downstairs to the couch and told Alex I think we needed to go. He got up immediately and put our hospital bags back in the car. I went and sat on the bed upstairs. Nerves, exhaustion… everything was getting to me and I went through the motions of throwing up out of anxiety – only there was nothing on my stomach to come up.
Alex rubbed my back and wiped my face, just as he’d done all those months of my morning sickness. I remember crying in self-pity as we sat together, and he comforted me.
Just before 6am, we got on the road to the hospital again.
“I don’t know how you’re doing this,” Alex said quietly as we drove away from our neighborhood, just the two of us, for the last time.
I was squeezing my hands together. “You can do anything when you don’t have a choice,” I said through gritted teeth.
I don’t remember much of the car ride. Each contraction took my breath away. My stomach was churning and pain was clawing, squeezing, burning my insides. Knowing I wouldn’t get to eat during labor, I tried to sip on a protein shake but couldn’t get anything down.
The sun broke over the horizon as we made the turn into the hospital. Alex left the car at the main doors and ran inside. There was some confusion at the desk about check in, I remember him saying later. I’m not sure of details. I just remember getting into the wheelchair from the car and being wheeled inside by one of the people at the desk, and Alex swearing angrily at them all as he took the wheelchair from whoever it was who didn’t know what they were doing. He got me up to the maternity ward and checked us in.
I was wheeled into triage where a horrible sense of déjà vucame over me as the bands were again wrapped around my bump. A nurse came in and – in one of the more painful exams of the day – checked my cervix for dilation. And then…
“One centimeter,” she said.
Everything fell and sunk inside me. “One??” I wailed.
“I’m sorry, just one,” she said.
By then I’d been in labor for almost 36 hours. “How is that possible?” I cried. “How am I not at least at three??”
She looked so apologetic. We hypothesized that it was possible that while Aurora was head down, as she was supposed to be in preparation for birth, she was facing outward instead of facing my spine like normal, or “sunny side up” as it’s called. Possibly, my body was in labor for so long, without progressing, because it was trying to flip her around.
Just like the day before, they released us to walk for an hour. I lasted twenty minutes. They let me have apple juice in addition to ice chips, to keep my blood sugar up, but I was so weak with exhaustion at that point and every contraction was taking more out of me than I could bear while standing. Alex supported me back to the triage room where I curled up into a ball on the bed and tried to breathe.
Things happened in waves. Another nurse came in to examine me. Alex asked her what the hell was happening.
“Well, we can’t admit you unless you’re in active labor, and these Braxton Hicks contractions—” I fought the urge to slap her then, “—mean we do need to wait for you to dilate more—”
Thank God my doctor came in just then, or the headlines the next day might have been interesting. Another contraction was coming and I was groaning in pain, squeezing Alex’s hand, imaging swinging my fist into that nurse’s face, when my doctor took one look at me and said, “We need to get you to a room.”
He did the cervix exam, confirmed I hadn’t dilated much more than an additional centimeter, then asked if I’d slept the night before. I said no and he looked concerned.
“So you’ve been in labor since Monday evening?”
“We need to get you to a room and get you some relief. You need rest. Do you want an epidural?”
I hesitated. Any control of the situation I had left was rapidly slipping from me.
“You need sleep,” my doctor insisted. “You still have a lot of work to do. You have to push that baby out. You can’t do that without rest. You’ve been in labor a long time.”
That was an understatement. I was nearly 40 hours in at this point. Alex was murmuring the same words to me gently, and I found myself nodding in agreement. I had no idea then what my doctor meant by my having work to do. Up until that point everything that I had gone through in pregnancy had just kind of happened to me. But I knew deep down nothing was going to change until I got rest. And with the contractions still coming every four minutes, rest was not something that would come to me.
If I remember correctly, by the time my doctor left the triage room I had actually progressed to about three centimeters, though I think he said that to make me feel better. But the fact remained that I had been in labor for too long.
At some point they put me on a penicillin drip since I had tested positive for B strep and I needed to be on antibiotics. And then we waited for a room.
For two hours.
Suddenly, everyone in the state of Arizona must have decided to have babies right then, because there weren’t any open rooms.
Those two hours we waited were a living hell.
In movies and TV shows, women scream in pain when they’re in labor. On screen, the directors show them having the ability to draw in a long breath through controlled inhaling then release a drawn out, perfectly pitched yell. They stop at convenient times to talk, or to breathe deeply, before screaming again.
Those movies and TV shows are bullshit.
The sounds I was making were involuntary, primal. More than screams. They burst out of me chaotically, sporadically as the waves of pain came and went. I don’t have a word for them.
The contractions were coming more quickly now, perhaps 3 minutes apart, and with each one I thought I was going to die. Pain – nothing like I’ve ever experienced – wrapped around my back and sides and the front of my bump, like hands of fire clenching my insides and twisting them, churning them, wringing them out like giant hands straining wet cloths of every drop of water. The hee hoo hee hoo breathing we’d learned and made fun of during the childbirth classes was the only kind of breathing I could attempt. And I realized during those two hours that no amount of reading or taking notes or watching videos could have ever prepared me for this. The birth plan I had written and the perfectly consecutive stages of labor I’d learned about seemed like a joke. I had no control over this. None.
“I can’t do this,” I remember gasping out at some point.
“You are doing this,” Alex told me over and over. “You’re doing this. You’re doing amazing.”
Finally, finally, they took us into a delivery room where I met my first angel of that day: a nurse with blonde curls who walked me through the door and sat me gently on the edge of the bed with calmness and confidence. I don’t remember most of what she said to me but I do recall her explaining gently what was happening as the anesthesiologist and his assistant taped up my back and began to work their epidural magic.
Right before the needle went in, I felt the beginnings of another contraction, and I panicked.
“There’s another one starting,” I said and the angel nurse gently put her hands on both my shoulders to keep me in the correct position for the needle. “It’s okay,” she said, voice soft and calming. “We’ll get through it together.”
Something happened at the base of my spine and sharp pain – along with the intensity of another contraction – seared through me. I screamed and both Alex and the nurse quietly soothed me, over and over: “It’s okay. It’s okay…” as the anesthesiologist said something to his assistant about redirecting the needle.
Then it was over. The nurse gently turned me to get my legs onto the bed before they went numb, and the anesthesiologists left the room, and Alex was by my side as the nurse examined me and made sure I was comfortable. Another contraction came, but it wasn’t as painful, and before long I was asking, “Is that another contraction happening right now?”
The nurse looked at the monitor. The bands wrapped around my belly charted Aurora’s heartbeat and my contractions, so anyone who looked at the monitor could tell when a contraction was coming before I would feel it. “Yep! How does it feel?”
“Duller. It doesn’t hurt.”
I lay in the hospital bed and gazed up at the ceiling. Out of pain, I felt I could do anything in the world. Alex had texted my parents, who were out in the waiting room, to tell them I had agreed to an epidural. I found out later that they both cried until they knew I had received it, knowing the amount of pain I was in. At one point my mom brought my poor husband lunch and I insisted he go out to the waiting room to eat while I rested.
My times here could be slightly off because at a certain point, I wasn’t looking at the clock anymore. Things happened as they happened – units of time were meaningless. Perhaps a half hour or so after the epidural I received another nurse, Sandy, the only nurse whose name I remember. She, like 99% of the nurses at the hospital, was absolutely amazing. Labor and delivery nurses are truly the unsung heroes of the medical field.
“I’d like to have a baby by 7pm,” she said as she checked me. I was about at three centimeters still. “We’ll see how the next few hours go. For now, rest.”
I lay on my side in the hospital bed, feeling the odd sensation of dulled contractions every few minutes. Alex rested in the chair/cot concoction next to my bed. I closed my eyes and didn’t sleep, but was able to rest without pain. Looking back, had I not had those few hours of stillness, I could have never done what I had to do.
What felt like a short while after the epidural, I felt it. Pressure. I told Sandy, who came in and out of the room with regularity, and she assured me that while it wasn’t likely I had progressed enough at that point, she would check me just to be sure.
But sure enough… I had gone from three centimeters to seven in just short time. She was astonished. It seemed like my cervix had finally caught up to the intensity of the contractions thanks to the epidural. She hastily went to let the doctor know and check on her other patients before coming back in to check on me.
Another hour passed, or maybe it was only a few minutes.
“I feel like I need to push,” I said out loud, not really to anyone in the room. It couldn’t have been more than a few hours after the epidural. But I knew. I knew it was time.
Sandy came in the room.
“She says she wants to push,” Alex said.
“I feel like I want to push,” I said.
“Let’s check again. You were just at seven but it’s possible—”
She checked. And then promptly yelped:
“Okay, I’m going to call the doctor!”
“Am I at ten?” I asked, blinking.
“You’re at ten,” she said as she ran out of the room. “Her head is right there!”
I lay in bed, still, breathing as I reeled in the knowledge that I was so close to holding our daughter. Alex stood at my head, holding my hand, beaming.
“She’s almost here. She’s so close. You’re doing such an amazing job.”
I looked up at him and asked what might have been the silliest thing I’ve ever said, but it was a thought that occurred to me – in the emotional moments before Aurora’s birth – as something very important.
“Do you think she’ll like me?”
Alex smiled and kissed my forehead. “You’re her mommy,” he said. “She’s going to love you.”
Sandy came back. It was just after 4pm. I was going on my 45thhour of labor.
“Okay. We have some time to do a few pushes before the doctor gets here.”
Somehow, in all of our childbirth classes and in every book I’d read, I hadn’t learned exactly how to push. I don’t think that’s something that’s taught, honestly. It has to be experienced.
Sandy told me that I needed to push with the contractions, and to do it in the way she was about to show me otherwise I’d risk breaking blood vessels or tearing. “Push for ten seconds, rest for three, push for another ten, rest for three, then push for a final ten before the contraction ends. Okay?”
“Here we go, here’s a contraction coming now. Put your hands behind your thighs, elbows off the bed—just like that, you got it—take a deep breath and don’tlet it out, head on your chest, bear down—and push.”
There is a quote that I found while looking up birth affirmations that makes me cry to this day, the only birth affirmation I remembered in the chaos of movement going around my room as I pushed.
“Women in labor leave their bodies and travel to the stars to collect the souls of their children, and they return to Earth together.”
And that’s it.
That’s how pushing felt.
I didn’t feel like I was in the room anymore. I was somewhere else, traveling to the stars like they said, and part of me really doesn’t remember details.
I pushed hard enough that I wouldn’t be able to stand up straight for three weeks afterward since my diaphragm was so sore. I remember them giving me oxygen between pushes. I remember my doctor coming in, and he and Alex and Sandy counting to ten together as I pushed with the contractions. At one point they told Alex not to count so fast; in his excitement he was running all the numbers together.
I was running on empty at that point. I’d had no food in almost 24 hours and next to no sleep in two days. The thing about pregnancy, I realized as I pushed, is that for me, the difficulty had clung to the last second. The only thing that got me through each stage of pregnancy and labor was the thought of meeting my little girl. And she was so close. So close.
“That one nearly had it,” my doctor said as a contraction ended. Something in his voice worried me, and I found out later that the cord had wrapped around Aurora’s neck twice on the way down. “Let’s do it on the next one.”
“Is she okay?” I asked, lifting my head off the pillow.
“She’s fine,” Alex said soothingly. Sandy told me, “You’re doing such a great job. She has so much hair.”
“Feel her, look!” Sandy said and she put my hand down where I could feel, to my shocked disbelief, a tiny little head.
And it clicked. Everything clicked.
I burst into tears. “Is she really right there?” I sobbed.
“Yes, she’s right there!”
The doctor looked at the monitor. “Here we go. Let’s do it on this push.”
They collect the souls of their children…
Movement was happening all around me. Another contraction was starting, building—
“Almost there. Get ready—”
…and they return to Earth together.
The contraction hit. Alex, the doctor, and Sandy began to count.
For the last time, I bore down.
And gave it everything I had.
Aurora Lisa Ferri, born 4:52pm, 19.75 inches, 7 pounds and 7 ounces.