Monday, May 10, 2010

Versions of My Birth Story

I’ve been trying to find the time to finish writing my birth story, but I sense that I will not be finished with it for a long time. So far, I’ve made a couple different attempts. The first one came in the form of a mass email I sent out about a week after Cedar’s birth, in which I spelled out the gist of what happened: my first contractions came around seven a.m. on March 24th; I was in active labor by around five p.m.; my water broke at nine; my contractions quickly escalated in frequency and intensity. Then, sometime around 1 a.m., I started to get an urge to push. But I was only dilated to six centimeters; it was too early to push. The baby’s head was positioned low and thus triggering the urge. It continued to grow, and I could not help but push at times. Eventually, my cervix got swollen. And after more than four hours of intense rapid breathing in order to repress the pushing reflex, I finally transferred to the hospital at seven a.m. for an epidural to hopefully allow me to rest and my cervix to unswell.

My cervix had since gone from six cm. now down to four and was still tightly swollen. At the hospital, I lay there for hours, poked and prodded at by the nurses, unable to sleep. Meanwhile, contractions had slowed, so in the afternoon, pitocin was started to try and get contractions closer together again, and the dosage was slowly increased over many more hours of waiting. But there was hardly any progress. And by seven p.m., 36 hours after I’d gone into early labor, I was advised to have a c-section. Told of all the potential increased risks of infection and stress to my baby if I waited. Plus, now there was meconium. And after 27 hours of active labor, I was exhausted, questioning how important a vaginal birth really was to me, and ready to meet my baby without worrying about putting him at greater risks. They had me prepped within minutes. Surgery took half an hour. Our baby came out crying and vigorous.

Cedar took to the breast right away, and the nurses who cared for me were wonderful, but after more than three days at the hospital, we were more than ready to come home. There were way too many people in and out of our room all day and night, and it was time for me to heal in my own space. I needed to sink into a nest with just my husband and my baby in order to begin to process what the hell just happened. This bare bones account I’ve just given you cannot do not do justice to the intensity, pain, gratitude, disappointment, resignation, relief, joy and awe that flooded through me during those days of labor and recovery. But there you have it, a two paragraph version of Cedar’s birth, in a nutshell.

About two weeks after I delivered, I was finally able to sit down and free-write a longer version of the story—eleven single-spaced pages of every last detail I could remember. The ‘spew out as much as you can while it’s fresh in two sittings while the baby is sleeping, and don’t worry about flow or grammar’ version. Inevitably, questions started to arise. Questions about what happened from hour to hour-- when I was checked, how far I was along, when I started to get the urge to push, why I was initially told it was okay to push by my midwife’s assistant, how low was my baby’s head in my cervix, how long did I breathe those rapid fire breaths, how much longer could I have afforded to put off the c-section, and what else might have been done to avoid it. I wanted to talk to, and get copies of my chart from, both my midwife who attended the home part of the birth, and the midwife who attended most of my labor at the hospital, in order to be able to see from a linear perspective how it all went down. During the labor, I was not aware of time and I could barely talk to others. But now, in trying to write about it, I needed to understand as much as possible and be able to relay the details with precision-- with a precision that could help me feel like I fully owned the experience. Like there were no questions remaining I had not asked, even if I already knew that many questions could never be answered.

During the first couple weeks following Cedar’s birth, any mention of the experience could bring tears to my eyes. And although that period already feels like a long time ago, the whole journey is still so intimate to me and not an easy one to convey. With the help of my midwife’s chart, and also through talking to my husband and to my friend, Amy, who attended the birth, I’ve started to write a more polished, concise and thorough version of what happened. I am writing this for myself, first and foremost, because I want to have a record before the details grow fuzzy and my motivation to record them less profound. I already largely feel at peace with what happened, but I know that just as my incision from my c-section may be healed on the outside, I am still healing in layers on the inside. And for me, writing out all these versions of my story, and beginning to share them with others, is an integral part of my healing process.

I showed the detailed, play-by-play, in-progress version of my birth story to my friend, Amy. What do you think? I wrote her in an email. I want to post my birth story on my blog, but I’m not sure I’m ready to yet, it’s still so intimate to me. She wrote back,

I feel like you got the story line, the this then this then this. It's all a bit fuzzy for me. Something’s missing though. Emotion? It was such a powerful experience Anne. You were a rockstar! There you were on the bed, Matthew at your side and me at your feet and the cat at my head for hours. And you were breathing through these powerful contractions (I like your train out your ass metaphor!) It was pure magic. The space was infused with magic because you and the baby and the universe were manifesting this baby to be born. It was the most amazing thing. I want to feel more of the power and enormity of the experience in your writing. The goddess incarnate breathing on the bed and in the tub while Matthew and I witnessed and supported and encouraged as the midwives slept… and how he said, as we all lay in bed: it's raining, cedars love the rain. and Miles meowed with you as you labored. And I felt the ancient traditions coursing through me as I poured teakettle and pot after teakettle and pot of boiling water in the tub (I know, that wasn't your experience and you do write about it but it was very ancient and maternal and remembered)…

I knew she was right. My version, so far, was lacking emotion. It was written, for the most part, out of my motivation to understand exactly what happened on the linear, physical plane-- how much, how long, when and where. It was about recording all the details, getting them out of the way, so that I could eventually arrive at the deeper questions and emotions—the mixture of disappointment and relief that I felt when I decided to have the c-section; what it really meant to me to want a home birth, an un-medicated birth, and a vaginal birth and what those meant to me now that I hadn’t been able to have them; and, of course, what it felt like to meet my son. I still need to explore these questions, to honor both the part of me that is disappointed and sad that it didn’t go “as planned,” and the part of me that had prepared myself for this possibility-- that nothing ever goes quite “as planned” and that it would be okay if I ended up at the hospital, and okay if I ended up with a c-section, even though I hoped I wouldn’t. People always say, “What’s important is that you have a healthy baby and healthy mama.” And although I ultimately agree and that’s how I felt in the moment of making the decision to go ahead with the c-section, that doesn’t mean that there still isn’t sadness and questions I need to process, and that these aren’t important.

So what about my friend Amy’s version? The one that honors the magic and power of the experience? Yes, perhaps I will in some other essay be able to tap into that too. But, of course, it can’t be the same version as the one Amy experienced. Because although I was aware of the things that she wrote of—our cat Miles on the bed with us, what Matthew said about cedars and the rain, the procession of kettles of hot water poured into the tub—and so very grateful that she was a witness and could remind me of them, those details were very much in the periphery of my experience. Everything besides concentrating on my breath in order to manage the pain and my urge to push was in the periphery.

My labor was such an ‘out of mind’ experience that I’m having trouble expressing all of its parts in one whole—the timed, chronological, charted part and the physical, painful, visceral part; the spiritual, magical, ancient part and the reflective, looking back on it, redemptive part. All I know is, it was the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life. And mostly I’m talking about the physical energy and effort it took. But even the pain I experienced was quickly forgotten once I moved into the next stage of the labor at the hospital, and the huge relief of the epidural. Then the long procession of I.V.s, catheters, monitors, heart beat scares, interventions and procedures. And finally, after so many hours, my son’s birth. Hearing, seeing, touching him, and bringing him to my breast for the first time. Sleeping with him close to my body those first few nights. The dreamlike fog of pain medication, sleep deprivation, and awe at this creature by my side. One life-changing experience on top of another without time or space to process each layer and shade of emotion on its own. No ‘time out’ after birth to pause and recoup before being launched into this huge responsibility and fierce instinctual drive called motherhood.

Maybe months, or years from now, I will be able to write one version of my birth story that supersedes all the others in grace, understanding, and scope, and thus puts all further attempts to tell the story anew to rest. But, for now, I won’t worry about trying to arrive there just yet. For now, I will just piece together whatever fragments I can while my sweet baby sleeps on my chest.


  1. Mmmm.....I love reading your words Anne, as my new baby is asleep in his crib. While our experiences were different, so much of what you say resonates with me - the desire/need to recapture the minute to minute details which are completely elusive when you actually try to write of them, and the memory that is fading of the intensity of the pain, emotion, breathing, fog, elation, fear and focus that labor was. Thank you for sharing your story and I look forward to the next version as it comes out over time. Love, Jessica

  2. I sometimes wonder if anyone really has the birth experience she thought she wanted/deserved/expected.

    Last year I met dozens of new moms through our hospital's new-parents group, and not one of them said, "Oh, you know, everything went exactly as we planned it." Even the moms who were gushing with awe and gratitude at the experience still always said, "Well, you know, there was this one thing that didn't go quite right ..."

    But then, that's life. I had a bizarre birth experience that I still grieve over. But I also feel fortunate every day that my baby and I are alive and healthy a year later.



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