Several days ago, I gave birth to a perfect little human. It was a whirlwind full of joy, fear, love, confusion, and blessings. As a result, I feel compelled to share my birth story, and to do so from two different perspectives – first, from a place of fear and second, from a place of joy. As fair warning, there is trauma in this post and there are some medical details. I believe this story is important to share because it highlights what birth can look like in our country, a country who has some of the worst health outcomes for birth mothers and infants. I also believe it can show how we can change that narrative.
In the United States, we put an astronomical amount of resources into healthcare – time, people, money. We spend more than any other country in the world. In fact, we spend more than most other countries combined. I live in the greater Boston area with some of the most superb medical care in this country. So, it’s incredibly surprising to know that our statistics for birth outcomes are so poor. On a list of the wealthiest countries in the world, the United States is often last or second to last for infant mortality (infant mortality is the probability of death to an infant from birth to one year of age). The same is true of maternal mortality. Many argue that this data is skewed from the overwhelming health inequities in our country with much higher rates among people of color. This is not untrue. However, if we break down this data by race, and look at rates for just white people, we only go up one spot. We still rank far worse than other countries. Yes, let me say that again, we white folks are very sick too. Our healthcare system isn’t serving us either.
I share all this, because my birth experiences have not been trauma free. In fact, both have included complications. Some minor, some more serious. But my story is not uncommon and I wonder how to get away from this typical narrative of childbirth. How do we move away from fear and embrace the love of birth? We can’t change our healthcare system today, we can’t remove oppression tomorrow, we can’t release the anxiety and stress that persists in our worsening sickness in this country by the end of the week. But as we work towards systemic change, how do we change our narrative today? How do I walk forward from last week and embrace the birth story that I want to carry with me?
For my first birth, nearly 5 years ago, my recollection of events…or really what I have embraced as my birth story…is quite different than others who may have experienced it or read about it in my medical chart. This time I want to do the same. Thus, I want to share both – the medical story as well as my story of love. They tell the exact same narrative, but they feel so different.
Thank you for walking this journey of healing with me. To move past the medicalization of my experience I need to share it. And sharing it with my voice over and over at this point feels really hard. Writing feels fulfilling, and is moving me through my grief. Thank you for grieving with me.
My birth story – from a place of fear
This is what you’ll find in my medical chart. The fear is what I am actively trying to flush from my body.
This pregnancy I knew two things: 1) I would likely grow another big baby as my first was 10lbs, and 2) as much as I was desperate for an uneventful vaginal delivery, I knew that this was the slimmest possible outcome for this birth.
It took 14 months to get pregnant. I even joke that a sure way to get pregnant is to make an appointment with an infertility specialist as it worked for us. I immediately experienced morning sickness and felt so sick until I was 20 weeks pregnant. It was bad enough that I chose to take daily medication to function throughout the day. My belly grew quickly which made others quick to comment, to even guess when I was ready even though they were off by months. In the 6th month, I was diagnosed with gestational diabetes and started daily sugar testing. Even though my sugars never spiked and it was incredibly under control, provider after provider referred to this baby as a “diabetes baby.” Thirty-seven weeks in, my midwife finally said, “This is not a ‘diabetes baby’ but a ‘genetically big baby.'” After nearly 9 months, I finally felt justified after sharing week after week that my partner was a 10lb baby and I was 9 lbs.
This baby sat breech much of the pregnancy, so I had an ECV to turn them, with success. My midwife decided to do one last ultrasound at 38 weeks and 6 days and the estimated fetal weight was up to 10lbs 13oz. I was called upstairs to consult with the midwife and doctor and they had surprising news.
The amount of amniotic fluid I had was too high. This likely meant that there was stress on the baby and that they weren’t either peeing or swallowing enough. They would not let me go to term. I had to decide on an induction or schedule a cesarean section. The doctor, midwife and nurse said induction could be a great choice here. I already delivered one big baby, thus it was highly likely my body could do it again. We decided to schedule the induction for the next morning, as the fear that something was wrong was too high for me to wait any longer. And if my water broke at home, there was a chance that the cord could prolapse (come out with the water and get squished cutting off oxygen to the baby) creating an emergency.
My parents flew in to help and we wrapped up all the chores around the house. We even got some sleep, although anxious to get it all started. The plan was still a vaginal birth but I could choose a c-section at any time.
I spent the day starting at 3cm dilated, 30% effaced and +3. This meant that my body still had a long way to go and at +3, the baby’s head had not really engaged in my pelvis in preparation. After about 12 hours of pitocin (the induction medication), active labor had not started and there were no changes to my body. Up next was some medication to take overnight to try to soften the cervix and make some subtle change. It was also an opportunity to see where my body was at in regard to being asked to go into labor.
The next morning, I was almost 4cm, 40% effaced and +2.5ish, a little bit of improvement. The provider thought she might be able to break my water during a contraction safely and she believed that this is what I needed to get labor going since the medicine was having little effect. But, I’d first have to have at least 4 hours of pitocin as I needed 4 hours of penicillin in me to combat the strep B in my vagina that put the baby at risk (this is a common thing among many women as vaginas are filled with bacteria to keep them healthy and thriving; strep B can be passed to a baby during birth and can cause unfortunate outcomes if not treated preventively).
With these next steps established, I took a shower and had breakfast in preparation. But I was really nervous. This meant I was going to do this. Before they started any medications, the team turned over and I met the new doctor.
He was direct and specific in how he would deliver this baby – with an epidural and in an operating room. He had success in delivering babies with shoulder dystocia before but was taking no risk. I haven’t mentioned this earlier because it wasn’t the leading concern until this moment. In my first pregnancy, my daughter got stuck during labor and I needed extra help to get her out. Shoulder dystocia is where the baby’s shoulder gets stuck behind your pelvic bone. Some women can maneuver and get the baby out by changing positions, some with some help from the providers, and others by an emergency c-section. Time is of the essence here because there is a chance that the cord is being compressed, etc. The longer a baby is stuck, the higher the risk for serious outcomes. In my first pregnancy, with some help from the midwife and doctor, we got my daughter out quickly and we both did very well.
Until this moment, we had looked back at this as a factor to consider, but were not leading with the notion that it was guaranteed to happen again. The risk of a repeat shoulder dystocia is between 12 to 17%. Most providers talked about how my pelvis is much softer now and I had a much better chance of avoiding it. We also had spoken about paying close attention to my body, looking for prolonged pushing, failure to progress, etc.
When this doctor came in and said these words, both leading and ending with fearful statistics, I was absolutely crushed. He walked out and I burst into tears, in witness of the nurse and midwife. I shared how scary that was and how confused I was because his take was so much more extreme that what others had presented. His plan also took away any chance to listen to my body, which I was relying on. This was how I knew I was going to be able to do this, because I could listen and know what I needed in that moment. This is what I wanted my labor to be. No matter how this baby came into our world, I knew I needed my body to lead this path, my choices.
Ten minutes later, it got worse. The plan had changed again. They spoke to the pediatrician who was on for the delivery. They basically refused the option of a vaginal delivery at this hospital because they wanted the baby to have direct access to a NICU (neonatal intensive care unit) in case something happened (my daughter was transferred to a NICU after delivery not because of complications of the delivery but because she breath held – holding her breath until she turned blue…breath holding is common among toddlers but less among babies, and at the time they didn’t know why she was doing it). My remaining choices were now 1) I could choose a c-section at this hospital or 2) try to deliver vaginally at a larger hospital with a NICU on site in case if emergency.
I cried…a lot. I told the midwife how disappointed I was in how the doctor presented the options and in the team for not consulting the pediatrician the day before. My body was tired, and I spent a day trying to go into labor when I likely didn’t have to.
I was also so baffled. Everything that had happened to date was slight and they were treating the combination of these factors as making me incredibly high risk for the extreme outcomes. I was diagnosed with diabetes, but barely and my sugars never spiked. The amount of excess fluid was just over the threshold. The ultrasound showed a bigger baby but the margin of error was huge. My last pregnancy happened 5 years ago and even the complications there were well treated and minor.
They explained to me that they were coming into this with baggage. That they knew these outcomes and had witnessed them. That a stuck baby is their biggest fear as providers, that they must be ready for all of it.
Well, I came in with my baggage too, one I had contended with. But my body, my baggage was overridden by their fear. They did not open themselves to the possibility that my body might just lead us to the best possible outcome. That if we all paid attention, my body would say that the baby was too big, or that induction was not going to work, or that small signals along the way would guide our path to a healthy baby. This birth experience was no longer my own. It was rooted in their fear, their experiences, even though my body, my experiences were actually what was sitting on the table in front of them.
We were cornered and had little options. Going home could be too risky because of the potential for a cord prolapse and I was not in this to increase possibility for harm. So, my partner and I talked comprehensively and choose the c-section. This was the hospital I knew, the people I trusted (yes even though they were failing me here) and I couldn’t bear the thought of going to the bigger hospital where the outcome could be much the same and I didn’t know anyone or anything.
At 5:46pm I delivered our baby via c-section. They were 10lbs 5oz and their head was big. It was apparent I likely would not have had a successful vaginal delivery and certainly not under an epidural on an operating table resisting the natural movement of my body.
At about 7:30pm, I said goodbye to my family and was wheeled over to maternity. Within the hour, a nurse checked me and all I heard was “that’s too much blood.” A team of several folks came in and dosed me with pitocin and some other drug they gave in my thigh, but the bleeding wouldn’t stop. I took a third medication and it started to slow down. My blood pressure had plummeted and my heart rate was up. I began to shake uncontrollably as the medications raced through my system.
On one side of the room, my partner sat and held the baby. Somehow, he stayed calm. All I thought was “I am going to leave them; my husband and baby are going to watch me die.”
The bleeding persisted for much of the night but was much slower. The providers kept telling me to get some rest but I couldn’t bring myself to close my eyes in case they never opened again. It wasn’t until another late-night request from them, I said to one provider that I was too scared to rest. It was then that I was reassured that I was safe.
The next day it was determined that I lost too much blood and had two blood transfusions. I had trouble nursing as I barely had enough fluids for myself let alone my new baby. He dropped more than 10% of his weight in less than 4 days. We stayed five days total and all recovered together. His weight steadied, my milk came in and slowly my cheeks pinked up.
I have only shared this story with my parents, two of my friends, and my doula. I am not ready to share it verbally out loud just yet. The fear is still too strong. Plus, this brings into existence why my eyes are still slightly sunken, my skin is pale, and I am still quite weak. It also invites all the questions and comments that keep me rooted in this pain. Many tend to offer words of support such as “well it all worked out for the better” or “I know someone that this happened to” or even “God has his own path.” Right now, I just need my experience to sit with me. There is nothing anyone can say that erases this memory or the fear attached to it. I told these few people just to have others bear witness to this pain, telling just those who I knew could hold it and therefore hold me in their living silence.
We are all now home and doing much better. We are all safe. But I feel so much grief and sadness. All I wanted was an experience to be in my own body, but I feel betrayed. No one let me listen to my body, interventions led the way, and I experienced the narrative of birth in the United States.
My birth story – from a place of love
This is the story you’ll find in my body. This is what I am actively injecting into my heart.
Getting pregnant this time took longer than I had hoped or anticipated. It was so quick with my first pregnancy that we were beginning to think that maybe the first one was pure luck. But then I traveled to a magical place in western Canada where I focused on me, my body, my heart, my connection to this earth. In this place, mothering spoke to me so loudly. It was in my heart, in my words, in my visioning of the world I wanted to live in. One day during a daily meditation, we were thanking the earth for things like nourishment, life, water, etc. The word “fertility” bubbled out of me loudly and with conviction. When having my tarot cards read, I was told that my only assignment for this month was that of the Empress, to embrace my connection to the earth, my own mothering.
It was here in this magical place that the tiny zygote did most of its work, finally implanting in my womb. Shortly after being home we celebrated with tears and joy, simply elated that we were on our way. I couldn’t help but to feel that this baby was a gift from this great earth, from the ocean I bathed in, and from the overwhelming love that consumed me and my family this month.
Early on I was in touch with this pregnancy. I sensed male body parts only a few weeks in. For whatever reason I was sure that this baby would have white blonde hair just like my partner did as a child. This baby rarely interacted with others in the world, going quiet when foreign hands touched my belly but talking back to my own as daily conversation.
I was much sicker this time but I knew that every wave of nausea meant growth, it meant life. I envisioned the experience like the ocean with waves that were bigger and smaller, but persistent. Persistent with power, with momentum, all working towards the shore.
My belly grew quickly which meant everyone knew but I was okay because people shared their joy in this with me. People told me how beautiful I was, how miraculous I looked. They shared their amazement in the capacity of my body to hold and show such growth.
My daughter was a big baby and I knew I’d grow another big one. Genetically I was destined to. Being diagnosed with gestational diabetes was a hiccup but it was clear from the start that my diet was solid, that the sugars were not contributing to growth as they were already managed by my diet and lifestyle.
I envisioned a vaginal delivery, really hoping for a birth experience with less intervention this time. But as I got bigger, I settled into all the possibilities for birth including a cesarean section. I knew that my body was and is strong and wise and it would guide me to the outcome it needed to bring this child into this world. So, I took things one day at a time, making decisions as they came up, staying calm and in touch with me. I knew that if I did this, my body would tell me what I needed, it would lead the way.
I was also blessed to have met my doula through a shared cohort of people. At a book club session, I met her for the first time in person and I immediately felt deep connection to her. She shares so much love, wisdom, generosity, motherhood through her eyes. I wavered as to whether or not to ask her to stand with me, as we had only just met. But I just couldn’t ignore how much I wanted her there. We spoke occasionally and she guided me by deep listening as decision after decision came up. She spoke wise words that stuck with me throughout the experience, that the people who would help me deliver this baby would be the best team for me. They would be exactly who they should be, centered in their medicine.
A few weeks from full term, we went through with an ECV when my body and the baby were clear they needed some help to prepare for birth. This little body inside of me preferred seeing the world sitting in my lap, looking outwards towards the light (which has been incredibly reinforced by their love of light in the outside world already). But it was a surprise when I was told soon after that I had slightly too much amniotic fluid. My body typically likes a challenge, as I often have some random events that are minor but telling in what I need. An option for an induction was introduced and I was actually relieved. Before this, I was told that they wouldn’t induce due to the size of the baby alone, so maybe this meant a vaginal delivery could happen since baby would arrive slightly early. I was beginning to believe that I could deliver this baby on my own, that it was a possibility to have a medically uneventful vaginal birth.
The next day, we started the induction and I listened closely to my body. It was not progressing. We had a plan to try again the next day, but I was feeling not so sure. His head was high and I was beginning to think he was telling me he couldn’t do it, that we couldn’t do this safely or uneventfully, that he was too big. They next wanted to break my water to get things going, but hesitations became profound in my heart as the idea of breaking my water came with the risk of intervening too far, and moving forward without trusting my body. It was moving away from the plan to listen again and again.
Then I had a visitor. A night nurse from the birth center came to say hi. It was the midwife who delivered my daughter. She had retired a while back but was doing some nursing hours here or there. It was a beautiful surprise and I felt grateful to see her again as I had not seen her in nearly 4 years. When she left, I felt tears of familiarity, of safety, of reassurance. After my last birth, I remember her coming to see me afterwards and her telling me how powerful and strong I was. She even said that she believed one more push from me and I would have had the baby out on my own. I will never forget those words from her.
Feeling motivated to get back into the game of listening and considering options, I showered, had breakfast and felt renewed. My partner and I decided that we’d do four hours of pitocin as the next step and then decide what my body told us and how I felt about breaking my water. We had to wait that long anyhow so it gave some time to listen.
Then we got the news from the providers and pediatrician that they wanted either a c-section or a delivery elsewhere to ensure access to a NICU. They were concerned about the safety of the baby in case this baby got stuck like in my last pregnancy. They were working from a place of protection and I could hear that in their voices. But I felt disappointment and sadness in their distrust of me, in my capabilities to also participate in this birth process. Regardless, they were the deciding providers, this was their territory and I knew that I could not force them into a birth that they were not comfortable with, which in turn that I would not be comfortable with. Sorting through the options, I shared my disappointment with the team, their communication with me, and their lack of trust in my body and my history. Supported by a loving nurse and midwife, they offered listening ears and reassurance that any decision would be mine to make. But we were at a standstill. For myself, I knew immediately that a new hospital did not guarantee a different outcome but instead a new environment, new stresses and a complete lack of familiarity. So, we leaned towards the c-section.
Our decision was finalized when I heard which provider would lead it. He was coming on at 5pm – the same man who co-delivered my daughter 5 years ago. He retired a couple years back and very recently came back to help occasionally when they were short staffed. This was Friday morning and I had only heard of his return three days earlier. One of my colleagues shared of his return and I remembered feeling a 50% reduction in my anxiety knowing that he was nearby. I even reached out via email, making a joke that if I was having a hard time, I’d be hollering his name down the hallway. I gave him an update on my daughter and shared a recent picture of her twirling in joy.
Five years ago, I had a dream during my first pregnancy that my daughter got stuck. In the dream, I yelled for this provider. I knew him through work, both as a person and as a skilled provider. When he walked in to deliver my daughter I knew that we’d be okay. Hearing his name this time again, did just the same – I was going to be okay.
Two connections to the two providers who delivered my first felt profound. The world felt circular and I knew we made the right decision putting this delivery into his hands.
He walked in shortly after 5pm and immediately went up to my daughter and made a joke about how she was just slightly bigger than when he saw her last. He made us all laugh and I felt at ease. It was time for round #2 and he was ready.
During the surgery he was his sarcastic self, working with another provider on delivering my beautiful baby who he referred to as a linebacker. He asked me if I knew the “flavor” of the baby and how big I thought this baby was, etc. I was never scared, just anxious to hold my baby and see my family.
In the operating room, I got to experience tears of joy when my partner and I heard his cry for the first time. The baby knew my voice immediately and I held him close cheek to cheek while he settled his cries. When we got back to the room, he latched right away, feeding voraciously. I got to see my daughter’s face when she came in and saw him for the first time. I got to announce his name to all this time without frantic intervention getting in the way. I got to have both of my parents, my doula, my partner, my daughter all participate in this overwhelming joy and love.
After saying goodnight to my family and doula, I held him close as we went to our next room. I handed him to my partner, watching him hold him close, breath in the scent of his hair, and I just reveled in their beauty.
Shortly after, things got a bit scary as I lost a lot of blood. A team worked quickly to stop it, in unison in their approach. It was incredibly overwhelming but I just kept looking over at my partner who was holding our new baby. Neither made a sound during the whole ordeal. Somehow, they both stayed calm. I tried to stay present in that. I knew my body and he knew his. The sense of impending doom was my side effect, not his. There was no way I could possibly leave either of them.
The provider team never panicked but simply worked with urgency. Their confidence in the result was evident as they came in to check less and less frequently and even encouraged me to get some rest. After some reassurance I obliged.
The next morning the provider who delivered my kids came in and explained that carrying a big baby with extra fluid can make it more difficult for the uterus to contract as strongly or as quickly after the surgery, but that it was doing its job now. I remember first wishing he told me about this increased risk, but then shortly after realizing that he likely hoped it was wasn’t a possibility.
He made a joke about me starting the zombie apocalypse with my paleness from the loss of blood, and then said he wanted to give me a transfusion. It was for my benefit and would ramp up my mothering in the days to come or I might be looking at a long, tough recovery. He reassured me in my recovery by sharing his own story of surgery and needing a transfusion earlier in his life.
Two transfusions later, I felt like a new person. And every day since I get that feeling again and again as my body fights its way back to itself. It’s incredibly hard to watch my daughter and see fear in her eyes and confusion as to why this recovery is so hard. But we decided the new blood has given me superpowers and were just waiting to see what they are.
Over the days following, many of the provider team along the way came in to visit. Some even apologized for the fear that was created in pushing me to make a decision about this delivery. I was grateful to be in a place with such honesty and humility in treating their patients.
My parents stayed with my daughter through it all, keeping her busy, informed, and they visited daily. My doula brought me delicious healing soup and tea. She held my words of fear and reality with a simple soft cushion of love. No one felt the need to commiserate, or offer advice, or tell me it was okay. Instead, they sat, they loved, they told me I was beautiful and we all healed together.
I now sit here with a sore scar reminding me of my baby’s journey into our lives, a body flowing with the loving gift of a donor who is giving me my strength back, and surrounded by a group of people who tell me how much healthier I look, how strong I am. I feel the aches with every movement in my body, see my sunken eyes, and feel the grief in my heart when I have to remind my daughter that I cannot hold her yet. But I know this is only days away as I am only getting stronger. A few missed days of this are painful, but the feeling I’ll have when I get to pick her up again will be so overwhelming, it will erase most of this.
This birth didn’t go as “planned,” not that it really ever is. But the plan for a family of four securely led by love and support never wavered. This is my birth story. Running my fingers through my newborn baby’s hair. Meeting my partner’s tired eyes in the middle of the night while we’re relearning night feedings. Watching my daughter adore and dote on her new sibling. Feeling bliss from the loving foot soaks made by my doula who is forever my family. Watching the overwhelming love pour from my parents’ hearts and eyes as their hold their grandbaby. Reveling in the circular nodes of life in having a birth provider team who was exactly meant to be there. Receiving an abundance of prayers, love, and messages from the second I went in to be induced and continuing through each morning since. Remembering that this baby is a gift from the earth, named for the earth, and a connection to our ancestors.
This, folks, is my birth story. Everyone wants to know the details of the first, but I choose the second. I do not dismiss the reality of the first, both stories are true. But I choose to inherit the beauty of it all, the love, the strength in my own body to grow a human, to survive. This second story gives me growth, hope, joy and love. It puts power to my truth, my voice. It does not strip me of my choices, my body’s brilliance, my life. It works to highlight that every birth is a journey and this journey was mine.
Maternity photo by Crabapple Photography.