I arrived at the hospital in West Hollywood, ten days past my due date, contractions six minutes apart, ready to have my baby. I'd brought an overnight bag, two big pillows, my insurance card, and my husband, Greg.
I was pretty sure labor would hurt, but I'd manage the pain using the techniques I'd learned in Lamaze class. We'd signed up for an alternative birthing room, where I'd be free to move and labor without medication. Instead, on arrival in Triage, I was put to bed with an electronic fetal monitor strapped around my belly.
The test didn't come out as it should. The nurse said my baby might be in distress, or his head might be moving out of range. Two residents read the monitor strip, then ordered oxygen and an IV. A third resident -- without even introducing herself -- shoved my legs apart and groped inside to check if I was dilated enough for an internal fetal monitor. I wasn't, and she panicked.
Her fear was contagious. Then, before my obstetrician even arrived, my labor was derailed by the nurse's pronouncement: "Your contractions are hurting your baby."
Greg and I were terrified.
A short time later, my water broke and there was space for an internal monitor, which showed my baby was handling my contractions. But nobody told me this.
I was confined to bed, prevented from standing, walking, or kneeling -- which would have moved things along. I was denied water, or even an ice chip.
My labor had slowed, so my doctor ordered Pitocin, a synthetic hormone some nurses call a "runaway train" because it causes contractions to become overwhelming. I struggled to continue without drugs -- to protect my baby -- but eventually gave in to the nurse's exhortations to "Take the epi."
The pain gone, I realized how useless our Lamaze training had been. Nobody had told us we'd need to press for explanations or fend off staff who were clueless about the effect of their behavior. The "emergency" might have been avoided had the staff used a stethoscope to listen to my baby's heartbeat. Hospitals use electronic fetal monitors in case of a lawsuit.
None of the "help" I'd received so far had been aimed at helping me have my baby. Instead, I was fully connected to the hospital's process, by the wires hanging out of my vagina and the Pitocin dripping into my IV. "Active management," they called it.
Later, I'd learn that interventions set up women for more interventions. Pitocin often leads to an epidural, which can slow contractions, resulting in more Pitocin, fetal distress, and eventually, a cesarean. And that's what happened to me.
After 16-1/2 hours, my doctor told me my baby was in distress and I needed a C-section. "You don't want your baby to have cerebral palsy, do you?"
I agreed before the word "palsy" had left her lips.
While recovering, I struggled to understand how things had gone so wrong. Instead of delivering my baby the way nature intended, I'd exposed him to stress, drugs, and all manner of interventions. I adored him, but was deeply depressed.
I was furious with the hospital staff, but mostly I blamed myself. I'd chosen a famous hospital, assuming I'd get the best care. It was painful to realize I'd made a poor choice.
I wasn't the only woman to leave the hospital feeling angry and cheated. I found a support group, met doctors and midwives who supported vaginal birth after cesarean (VBAC), watched videos, and read books about natural birth.
When I learned I was pregnant again, I resolved to make my upcoming labor and delivery different. I found a board-certified obstetrician who used midwifery techniques at his birthing center, and hired a labor coach so Greg wouldn't feel pressed to be an expert. We took another birthing class--the Bradley method, this time--where we learned how to ask the right questions and stand up for ourselves.
The night my water broke, I decided to labor like a mother deer. She wouldn't worry about the task ahead; she'd just do her work.
At the birthing center, I walked as my baby jockeyed for position, bracing his feet against the top of my uterus and diving for my cervix. Every so often, the nurse checked his heartbeat with a hand-held Doppler.
As labor intensified, my coach suggested I relax my belly into a loose sack with each contraction. At first, it seemed impossible. After saying "This hurts so much" a few times, I grasped that only I could do this work. This recognition didn't lessen the pain, but it centered me. I visualized my cervix opening like a flower. It helped.
Stepping into the birthing tub, I felt the urge to push. I'd made it this far without swearing, begging for drugs or a cesarean, hitting my husband, telling him we'd never have sex again, or any other behavior commonly associated with the roughest patch of labor.
Lights dimmed, meditative piano music flowing, I squatted to push and rested in between. Half an hour later, my second son was born. I reached down and eased out his head, to a collective "Ohhh!" from the onlookers. I pushed again, then lifted him out of the water.
In the photo taken at that moment, I'm smiling down at my newborn. Greg leans forward to get his first glimpse, a look of wonder on his face.
Our baby made a little mewing sound, looked around, then lay quietly in my arms. I was healed.
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