It was 2:30 a.m and four days past my due date. I woke and wasn’t sure if what I was feeling was the real thing, as my first experience with labor had begun with my water breaking. I retrieved my phone, timed contractions alone in the dark before retreating to our back porch to call my midwife and my best friend, who was going to be with us for the birth.
I woke my husband. We’d agreed not to wait before heading to the hospital this time, given our first had arrived less than seven hours after my water had broken. It was safe to assume this labor would be faster, and I had no desire to give birth in a car.
We had to wait in the family lounge area for nearly an hour while they made room for me in triage, and then nearly again as long in triage while they tried to get enough time on the monitor out of a very wiggly baby. I breathed and breathed and chatted with my husband and my best friend in between. With my first daughter, I was already 8 centimeters by the time I got to the hospital, and they didn’t mess around. When I was finally checked this time, I was 5 centimeters, which was more than respectable, but still felt like a bit of a letdown.
Once in the delivery room, the midwife said something to me that I feel relatively certain is responsible for some of my bad feelings about my labor. She didn’t mean to, I’m sure, but she really psyched me out.
“You’re still able to talk normally between contractions. Telling jokes isn’t something I expect a woman in active labor to be able to do, so I think maybe you’re not quite there yet."
I told myself for the next few hours that I wasn’t “quite there yet.” I felt lucid and focused in between contractions that grew increasingly longer, closer together, and more intense. I didn’t let my support people support me because I kept telling myself that I didn’t need them. But I did.
A new midwife, my favorite in the practice, came on duty and rubbed my back. My husband let me squeeze his hands while I swayed from side-to-side on the birth ball. I was afraid to be checked for fear I wasn’t making progress, because instead of listening to my body, I was listening to the voice in my head that said it couldn’t possibly be that serious. I still felt completely in control. I still thought streaming some Star Trek might not be a bad idea.
My favorite midwife finally checked me. I was nearly 8 centimeters.
“Anything you need, just tell me,” she said.
“I don’t know what I need. I don’t know what I should do.”
“Well, either you’re going to tell me you need to push or your water’s going to break. And then you’re going to tell me you need to push.”
I had a shower then. The hot water drummed against my back and I pressed my forehead into the wall with each contraction, picturing a tide in my mind that swelled and retreated with each shuddering wave I felt in my body. I remember thinking to myself in the shower that I wanted someone with me just in case, that I just wanted someone with me, that it was strange to be laboring alone like an animal, kneeling on the ceramic tile like a bear or a cat on a slab of stone. I remember thinking that I was an animal, so maybe it wasn’t strange at all. I remember wondering how I’d write about this part of my labor.
I wonder now if I didn’t go through transition alone. That makes me feel like a boss but mostly just makes me sad.
I wriggled back into my labor gown in between contractions, my skin lurid from the too-hot water. I climbed into bed, the edges of the world blurring a little with each contraction now. The sun was up and fully, and I remembering thinking that this didn’t seem like the work of daytime. I thought that because I was still having thoughts I had some time yet, I was on top of this, it wasn’t nearly over.
But then it was and I wasn't. I was suddenly howling, and the midwife told me I needed to lie down and quickly. She felt the baby’s head. She said I could feel the baby’s head, too, but I didn’t believe her. With my first daughter, I pushed for two-and-a-half-hours. With my second, it was more like two minutes.
Likely this, too, is responsible for my strange and mixed feelings about her birth. I moved so quickly from masterfully breathing my way though every contraction to absolutely losing my shit to holding a baby that I can’t even process what really happened.
And I didn’t get to hold her straightaway. With my first daughter, those intense final few moments were followed by this beautiful calm, her serene little body placed on my belly, her cord ceremoniously cut by my husband, our doula smiling at my shoulder. I relaxed almost immediately.
My second daughter had the cord wrapped so tightly around her neck the midwife told me to stop pushing. I remember looking at her, panting, “I can’t, I can’t.” I felt like every part of me was stretched and ready to snap. My eyes and mouth felt as tight as my belly. She said I had to. She cut the cord as soon as my daughter's head was free, and only after could she finish delivering her.
There was lots of shouting, then, and I saw the slick little body in my favorite midwife’s hands as she rushed into the adjacent room. I looked at my husband. Our eyes had followed the baby who wasn’t crying. My legs were shaking and my hands, too, where I held his and the rail of the hospital bed.
“Is it okay?”
He didn’t know but he said it anyway. We didn’t know then, either, if our baby was a boy or a girl. With our first daughter, that announcement had been special, it had been his. Now it didn’t seem to matter. I was burning up to hold that baby in the next room, the baby that wasn’t crying.
It felt a lot longer than thirty seconds but it can’t have been more than that before she was. There were tears in my husband’s eyes. Even as he released my hand to move around the bed to go and see what we’d made, a nurse who’d rushed in and hadn’t been there for the delivery turned to look at us.
“She’s really mad now,” she said, and laughed.
We laughed, too.
I was holding her within a minute and I couldn’t get a good look at her, could only hear her damp little breath against my chest. She was gray and purple and red and I still felt like a maniac. I’d torn with my first daughter and I tore with her, too, but this time my husband had to gently remove my hand from her back as I was tightening my grip with every stitch. I was shaken and I shook.
Sobbing to my favorite midwife weeks later, she told me she’d left the birth thinking it had been beautiful, that I’d done a wonderful job. She said she’d been impressed with my ability to cope, that she wouldn’t have guessed I was ever as far along as I was, and that I’d performed as any other mother would have during a natural labor with such a swift conclusion. I couldn’t articulate to her then and I barely can now why I am still upset by my second daughter’s labor. I told her I’d felt like a crazy person. I was ashamed of unraveling the way I did, even though I know that unraveling is part of the process.
The first time I hadn’t known what to expect and so I hadn’t had any control. I’d surrendered to what was happening because there didn’t seem to be any other way to do it. This time, I was afraid because I knew just what to expect, and I thought I could stay on top of it because I’d done it before. And I did, for a really long time. And then I couldn’t, and it terrified me.
I had two natural childbirth experiences. Two short labors. I had no reason to expect they would be similar but they were more different than I could have imagined.
On the day my second daughter was born, I don’t believe I really settled as her mama until we were in the room that would shelter us during our hospital stay. After I’d had a shower and she’d had a bath, our skins were similarly flushed and pink. We both ate, and heartily. She drifted off to sleep and it finally seemed safe for me to sleep, too.