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Jackson’s Birth Story: A Water Birth

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“I can’t not push!” I screamed to a room full of strangers.

A nurse I’d never met shoved her hand inside me. “Oh my god, his head is right here!” she shouted as she pushed back on my baby’s head in an attempt to keep him in (as if he might just slip out at any moment).

The lights were painfully bright, blaring down on me as I laid on my back in the hospital bed writhing in pain, wondering where my midwife was, pleading with them to let me change positions. Nearly a dozen nurses had convened in my room, and an annoyed on-call doctor stood near my feet, putting his gloves on so reluctantly I thought I might actually be watching this scene in slo-mo.

How did this happen?

Let me back up.

This is the story of my son’s birth, about 30 minutes before he made his debut into the world. It was the exact opposite of how I pictured it, as surely most first births are.

But still…the providers I had so painstakingly chosen so many months prior and spent countless hours with coming up with my birth plan were nowhere to be found.

I was supposed to be floating weightlessly in a warm tub, Christmas lights twinkling while the Avett Brothers crooned in the background and lavender essential oil diffused the air.

This couldn’t be right. Who was this strange man lording over me, his presence so powerful and frightening, and yet he hadn’t even said a word to me. That’s some skill.

So, again I ask, how did this happen?

Well, it all started around 3:30 p.m. the previous day. It was September 17, 2018, the day before my due date and it was a normal day just like any other.

I had been to the chiropractor that morning, met my friend Amy for lunch, and the grocery store to pick up dinner to make that night. I was working at my desk when suddenly I became overcome with fatigue and decided I would take a nap (the joys of working from home, amiright?!).

After lying down for a few minutes, I started feeling vaguely crampy, like I was maybe about to get my period. Impossible, seeing that I was 40 weeks pregnant, but it felt reminiscent of those uncomfortable aches I had once begrudgingly welcomed every month.

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I got up to use the bathroom, and noticed some blood in my undies. Am I in labor? I thought. No… this was all too… casual, easy. I was just at Kroger, for crying out loud. I can’t be in labor!

Still, I texted my husband and a couple close girlfriends to let them know how I was feeling…just in case. A few hours passed. No baby yet.

Matt came home from work, we went for a leisurely stroll through the neighborhood, and I cooked dinner. We watched Friday Night Lights and occasionally, I would say something like, “Hmm this feels… different…is this labor? No, it can’t be. I’m not the kind of person who goes into labor, that’s something other people do. Me? I’ll be pregnant forever.”

Around 10 p.m., we decided to try to get some sleep. By 10:30, I was on all fours, lowly moaning and squirming around during each contraction, and yet somehow still questioning if this was really it. “Look at yourself,” Matt joked. “When was the last time you did this? I think it’s safe to say you’re in labor.”

Ha! Looking back, I can admit it was quite the sight, although it was nothing compared to what was to come. We decided to get up, went downstairs and I began to bounce on my birthing ball while our FNL binge continued.

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By 11:30, I was convinced. These were definitely contractions and they were now coming every 3-4 minutes with an intensity that would take my breath away. Around midnight, Matt suggested we walk around outside in our backyard to get things going.

As I swayed from side to side, hanging from Matt’s neck like a drunken prom date, a gush of *something* soaked my pants. “Either my water broke or I just peed myself,” I laughed.

We went inside and sure enough, my water had broken. It really was just like the movies. As I cleaned myself up, I also had the joy of experiencing the aptly named (and uber creepy sounding) “bloody show”. We decided it was time for my doula to come over.

Things got really intense after that. I could no longer speak, the contractions coming every 2 minutes and lasting 60-90 seconds, giving me almost no downtime to catch my breath in between.

Not to worry, though. Somehow I managed to throw up several times during my few “breaks”. And I’d had to change my clothes half a dozen more times, too. Labor is messy, y’all.

Matt wanted me to eat something, but that sounded horrible, so we compromised on a popsicle, which took me over an hour to finish (and frankly, I only did because it had melted down my arm).

It was nearly 2 in the morning now and I felt in my bones that this baby was coming soon. It was time to go to the hospital.

But I was terrified of getting there and being turned away, although not quite as terrified as I was of giving birth on the side of the road. I literally said to my doula and Matt, “I just don’t want to get there and only be 2 centimeters dilated.”

“There’s no way that will happen,” my doula promised. “Your water has broken, you’ve passed your mucus plug, your contractions have been 2 minutes apart for several hours. You’re ready!”

Well, my doula was right. Being 2 centimeters dilated was impossible…

I was only 1.5! It was worse than I had feared.

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Crap! This is what 1.5 centimeters feels like? There’s no way I can do this without drugs if I’m already in this much pain. 

“Yes, but you’re 95% effaced and Station 0,” said the nurse. I had no idea what this meant, but later learned that it’s actually more important than dilation. No matter…

My midwife waltzed into the room and I took a sigh of relief…it was short-lived. She quickly informed me another mom was pushing in a room nearby and she’d be back at some indefinite time in the future to check on me. I don’t remember exactly what she said, but I know the words, “You’re just in early labor” were repeatedly emphasized, further trivializing the pain I was in.

Before I knew what had happened, she was gone and a nurse told me I needed to get into bed to get a strip of the baby’s heartrate and my doula would need to leave.

What? What do you mean? I said, more in my head than outloud, because…ya know, contractions are no joke.

Apparently, only 1 person is allowed in triage with you, and since my midwife wouldn’t officially admit me, it was either my doula or my husband. Matt stayed, I got into bed, and our doula went home to get some rest until we called her to let her know we’d been admitted.

This was just the start of my feelings of helplessness. The pain was just so much that I couldn’t even muster the energy to fight for what I wanted, for what I deserved, like my doula.

And so we were alone. The next four hours were a blur of vomit, pain, blood, and diarrhea. Like I said, labor is messy. I don’t think I had opened my eyes since we arrived at the hospital and it was all I could do to continue sitting up in bed as a nurse came in every hour to tell me my strip didn’t work and I’d need to stay in bed until they could get another test done.

WTF?! Why was I stuck in this bed? When would I be able to get up and walk around? Why wouldn’t a nurse just stay in my room long enough to ensure the strip was working properly? Why was this taking so long, where was my midwife and WHERE WERE THE DRUGS?! Screw unmedicated childbirth, this was hell and I wanted out.

At some point during these 4 hours, my midwife graced us with her presence long enough to recommend I get an IV with anti-nausea medicine to help with my vomiting. To it, she would also add a low dose of analgesics to help me get some sleep, which would help labor progress. I was in too much pain to think straight, so I agreed and the next thing I knew it was 7 a.m. and I was 7.5 centimeters dilated.

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My midwife finally agreed to admit me, but not before she let me know that her shift was over and she’d be leaving. A new midwife would be there soon, she promised.

Whatever, I thought, some help you’ve been thus far anyway.  

We walked across the hall to a different room and my doula was able to join us. I was desperate to walk around, to get some hydrotherapy, and maybe even an epidural. I couldn’t take much more of this. To say it hurt feels like the understatement of the century.

“We can’t let you get into the birthing pool until your midwife arrives,” a new nurse informed me. Wait what, where was my midwife? This question was beginning to feel like a theme.

Turns out, the midwife who was supposed to take over at 7 a.m. was “stuck in traffic”. She didn’t arrive until 9:30 a.m. Jackson was born at 9:32.

While we waited, shit got real. I got in the shower and my doula and Matt tried their best to make me comfortable, spraying the showerhead on my back and taking turns doing double hip squeezes to relieve the pressure. Oh the pressure! There was so much freaking pressure (was this the back labor everyone warned me about?) and I just could not get comfortable into any position that wasn’t excruciating.

My only reprieve came from the fact that my contractions had finally slowed down and were coming every 5-10 minutes now, allowing me short bouts of rest in between.

It was now around 9 a.m., which puts us into the scene this story started with. You know the one, the “I can’t not push!” debacle.

In case it wasn’t clear, I was still without a provider. The tub was filled and ready for me to sink into as soon as my midwife arrived, but nobody knew where she was.

Enter the bitter on-call doctor (and his army of nurses), who flipped on all the lights as he came into the room, never said a word to me (not a “hello my name is…”, not a “how ya feeling”, not even a smile, nothing!), but instructed my doula to get me on my back and stood in the back of the room, while I screamed about needing to push.

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“Give me the epidural,” I pleaded. “I can’t do it!”

“Yes you can, you are so close. You’ve gotten through the very hardest part and it’s all downhill from here,” my doula promised as she rubbed my feet. She was right. I was stronger than I realized.

The next thing I knew, the OB-GYN who oversees my midwife practice swooped into the room. He was serving as emergency backup and when he heard my midwife ditched me a few hours earlier and the new one never showed, he hightailed it to the hospital. My hero!

He turned off all the lights, introduced himself to me sweetly, told me I was doing great and would be okay, and asked me if I wanted all these people in the room.

I opened my eyes for the first time in hours and realized there were a dozen strangers standing around me. “Um…no thank you.”

“Alright everyone, Vamoose!” he said with a flick of his hand. Matt cried literal tears of joy, as the doctor took my hand and guided me into the birthing pool.

OH. MY. GOD. Sweet relief doesn’t even begin to describe it. I felt totally weightless, all of the pain was gone. I couldn’t believe it. I was never not having a water birth, it was pure ecstasy compared to the inferno I had been in. I reached down and felt my baby’s head between my legs. Holy mama! This is really happening.

I began to just float around, at once blissfully unaware and simultaneously petrified that another contraction was just around the corner. Sure enough, it came and I began to scream as I pushed with all my might.

“No, no,” my doctor gently whispered with calm reassurance. “Hold your breath when you push, like you’re swimming underwater. You can do it.”

And so I did. And Jackson came flying out in one push!

He’s here! He’s here! I couldn’t believe it. Shock, awe, joy, disbelief. All of the feelings. 

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They handed him to me and I held my son for the first time, a moment I will never forget. Matt kissed me and told me how proud he was of me, while the nurses began to jiggle, wipe and suction Jackson in an attempt to wake him up, clear his lungs and ensure he was healthy. He was. He was perfect.

Recovering from Birth Trauma

So, there you have it. Jackson’s birth story.

The short version: I had a beautiful unmedicated water birth that resulted in a healthy baby boy.

The long version, the not-for-Instagram version, obviously tells quite a different story, one I’ve really struggled to come to terms with.

While I may have waffled on whether or not I wanted an epidural, whether I should give birth at a hospital or a birthing center, whether I wanted to paint the nursery white or green… I never once thought the ideal way to give birth would be alone or amongst total strangers. I had chosen a small midwife practice because I wanted a certain level of support. And they failed me.

It left me feeling out of control, disappointed and with an overall negative memory of my son’s birth.

I think that’s why it has taken me so long to write Jackson’s birth story. To be honest, I had to work through a lot of emotions, many of which didn’t even come up for weeks after he was born. It’s a lot to process, and it’s not like you get to take a nice long vacation and sip Mai Tai’s on the beach after you’re done. You’re caring for a newborn, tending to cracked nipples, changing gorilla-sized, blood-soaked diapers on yourself and tar-filled mini versions on your baby. It’s A LOT.

And I felt guilty. “Most important is a healthy baby,” that’s what everyone says… and of course it’s what I wanted and it is what I got. It could’ve been SO MUCH worse. This wasn’t “birth trauma”.

And yet it was. I did feel traumatized, scarred, wounded by Jackson’s birth, literally and figuratively. And then I felt guilty for having any negative emotions when the end result was a healthy mama and baby.

“Perhaps we should raise the bar on what a healthy mama means–health is more than just survival,” said my new midwife at my six-week check-up. She was so right.

And so I sat on this story, my story. I turned it over and over in my head for weeks. I spoke to my new midwife about it. I spoke to my naturopath about it. I went to therapy about it, and I talked ad nauseam to Matt about all of my conflicting emotions.

It wasn’t until I read the book The Fourth Trimester that I really got it.

Between 25 and 34 percent of women report that their children’s births were traumatic, even though the staff and their support team may not perceive it that way. Birth trauma includes more than just danger of death to mother or baby; it also includes physical injuries and the perception of danger, as well as feelings of extreme fear, aloneness, disrespect, lack of control, or helplessness. When we only think of a major catastrophe, death, or accident as trauma, the smaller but also significant, undigested pieces are left untreated and dismissed altogether. In doing so, women may blame themselves for an inability to move on or to feel satisfied about a birth that everyone else thinks went great. 

YES! Exactly this. It wasn’t until I read this very paragraph that I realized the reason I couldn’t stop thinking about Jackson’s birth, wishing it had gone differently, regretting some of the decisions we made, feeling angry and abandoned by my midwives, feeling helpless to “fix it”, that I realized birth trauma was exactly what I was experiencing.

It makes sense–childbirth is the most vulnerable experience I’ve ever been through. The physical pain of unmedicated labor was enough in and of itself, but add to it the fear, the feelings of neglect, like I’d been forgotten during the most intense moments of my life, like I’d been stripped of my voice because I couldn’t think or speak through the pain. Nevermind the fact that you’re naked, on display for a bunch of strangers, and completely out of control. It was the perfect storm, for me.

It was never really what happened–on paper my birth was great–it was always about how I was treated. “On paper, [your birth may] look textbook. But if at any point during [your] experience, [your] sense of safety and security felt truly threatened, [you] can come out of it being traumatized,” said Kate Kripke, a clinical social worker and founder of the Postpartum Wellness Center of Boulder, in this HuffPost article.

And then everyone just kept telling me that “it all worked out in the end,” and “at least you have a healthy baby”. And they’re right. But still, I was left “unraveling a tangled knot of emotions, tightly wound with things [I’m] not “supposed” to feel, like anger, confusion, and deep, nagging sadness. Shouldn’t I really be over it by now?” (source)

No. In fact, it took me a while to own this experience as “birth trauma”, to accept that it was okay to feel what I was feeling and to learn that that very acceptance was the only way through, the only way to “get over it”.

And then I read this:

I wish there were a better word to use than trauma to discuss these issues. Trauma is a word that people tend to either under-identify or overidentify with. It becomes a label that we cling to or reject. The truth is that we have all experienced trauma in life. Not one of us moves through life perfectly able to process and digest every circumstance and event that comes our way. That unprocessed or undigested material gets stuck in our system. Afterward, we are on autopilot, often repeating thoughts or behaviors that we may not even notice have been ingrained from the experience. Many women realize that their birth experience was traumatic for them because they cannot stop thinking about what happened and continue to feel the emotion of it. Many other women experience postpartum depression or anxiety, major shifts in their self-image, sexuality, or relationship, and don’t realize that it is related to something that happened during the birth experience.

Once again, YES! In the weeks after Jackson’s birth, I became obsessed with thinking and talking about what happened. I couldn’t get his birth out of my mind. I felt different. I felt terrified of ever having more children (a fear that thankfully has dissipated the more I’ve worked through my emotions).

I’m now starting to feel better, stronger, prouder. I’m now owning my birth experience, and a big part of that is sharing it with you.

I hope in sharing my messy, beautiful, imperfect birth story with you that it might give other mamas hope, commiseration, confidence, that it might empower you to fight for the birth you deserve and help you accept the birth you may have gotten.

All of your feelings are correct. It took me a long time to realize that, but it’s true. And you, mama, you are amazing!

A Natural, Water Birth Q&A

And now for some nitty-gritty details. I started answering a few questions over on my Instagram account after Jackson was born, and I’ve rounded them up here below.

Q: What kind of preparation did you do for a natural/unmedicated birth?

A: To prepare for childbirth, Matt and I took a Birthing from Within class. It was incredibly helpful and gave me a lot of confidence going into labor, and tons of coping techniques for dealing with the pain. To try and shorten my labor and improve my chances of not tearing and having a smooth delivery with a baby in optimal positioning, I did a lot of prenatal yoga, Spinning Babies, Maya abdominal massage, mindfulness and meditation exercises, and Webster’s chiropractic care. I talk more about all of these in detail in my Pregnancy Survival Guides. Though the pain was more intense than I could’ve imagined, and my midwives left me to labor alone, I do feel like the actual birth itself was very smooth. From start to finish it was between 12-18 hours, depending on when you count the “start”. I didn’t tear (I think the water had a lot to do with this, too!), and there weren’t any complications. So from that perspective, I had a very successful birth.

Q: In practice, how did you successfully labor through contractions without medication?

A: Oh man, to call it successful sounds a little crazy because, well, I can’t emphasize enough how much it truly hurt. While I did so much to prepare for unmedicated contractions, honestly nothing can fully take the pain away in the moment. Some breathing techniques, mantras, sounds, counterpressure, and position changes helped, and the water was AMAZING, but at the end of the day, labor is just really freaking hard. I also wonder if Matt and I weren’t left alone in triage for 4 hours if I would’ve coped through contractions better with the support of my doula and the ability to walk around and move. Things got significantly better once I was admitted and my doula came back, so I have to believe that the added support really helps you get through contractions.

Q: What was your experience with hospital procedures both during and after birth like?

A: Quite frankly, terrible. I’ve often felt like I should’ve just had a home birth because we were left to our own devices for most of the experience, except for strangers telling me I had to stay in bed, on my back, which was the most uncomfortable way to labor. Hospital procedures are a huge pain in the ass and while I know they’re there to protect us, it definitely made me think twice about doing it in a hospital again. Ultimately, I felt safer in a hospital setting in case anything went wrong, perhaps naively so, but I didn’t enjoy any aspects of being in a hospital.

After birth, you have to make a lot of decisions about skin-to-skin contact, HepB vaccines, eye antibiotics, Vitamin K shots, formula or breastmilk, etc. and I was fortunate that the hospital where I delivered was very baby-friendly and supportive of all the decisions we made. But the nurses are constantly coming in to wake you up and check on you and the baby, and again, while I know there’s a great reason for this, I found it disruptive and annoying. As soon as we were cleared to leave, after 24 hours, we hightailed it out of there. I couldn’t wait to get home.

Q: What surprised you? What should we be talking more about? 

A: Great question! There were so many surprises, some of which were more obvious (the pain was worse than I imagined). But the biggest was probably how much my body just knew what to do. It was a shockingly natural process, everything from my water breaking and contractions starting and progressing, to the urge to push and how to hold your baby once he arrives. I didn’t really have to think much about how to do it, my body just instinctively knew what to do.

On the flipside, I think birth trauma and all of the emotions women experience during childbirth need to be talked about more. I found this great resource called Improving Birth that can help! 

Q: I’m interested in a water birth, too. Did you really like it? Was it gross? Did you still feel contractions in the warm water? Also, how does the baby keep from drowning?

A: I highly recommend at least laboring in warm water, even if you don’t deliver in the tub. I actually didn’t plan to give birth in the tub, but once I got in the water, I knew I could never get out because it felt so much better. You absolutely still feel the contractions, but mine felt much more manageable in the water and in between contractions was so much more soothing. The water takes the weight off everything else, so you lose a lot of tension in your body. And it was surprisingly not gross, but also at that point in the laboring process, I didn’t care about anything except getting that baby out. How do babies not drown? Babies don’t breathe until they are out of the water and the umbilical cord is cut. So during labor and birth, they continue to receive all of their oxygen via the umbilical cord. Once baby is lifted out of the water, they are triggered to breathe. It’s miraculous!

Q: Did you encapsulate your placenta?

A: Yes, I did. I figured that for $200 it was worth the risk of the worse case scenario, which is that it wouldn’t work. I got my placenta encapsulated into tablets that you swallow just like any supplement–there’s no taste so it’s really not as gross or weird as it sounds. And because the placenta is filled with so many nutrients and hormones, it’s known to be helpful in stabalizing mood, providing mamas with energy and much-needed vitamins and minerals, and regulating hormones, thus decreasing postpartum depression and anxiety. I took mine a few times a day for the first month and now what’s left is sitting in my freezer–I pop a placenta pill if I ever feel off kilter. Does it work? Hard to say if it was taking the placenta capsules or if I just got lucky, but I did not experience PPD and my mood and energy levels remained quite healthy during the fourth trimester.

If you have more questions about pregnancy, childbirth or postpartum recovery, please leave a comment below!

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Photo Credit: Heidi Geldhauser

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6 comments on “Jackson’s Birth Story: A Water Birth”

  1. Thank you for your story. I have felt all your feelings and had a very similar experience. (I have three children all birthed quiet differently)However,  My husband still doesn’t “get it” and my daughter just turned 5. Women need your story. They need to know it is ok experience and process in their own personal way. And the entire medical world related to birthing women can suck it! Thank you for sharing something so special, personal and enlightening.

  2. Wow, this is intense! I hate how you were treated, but I’m so happy you’re doing better now, Kate. This horrible system has to change. By telling your story, you’re helping to make that change. 

  3. I’m so proud of you for sharing your vulnerable and honest story! I agree that these things need to be talked about more, and love how you found your way to accept and embrace everything that you felt! That’s really the key to healing. I hope other women find this story and feel relieved to know they aren’t alone and find hope through your experience!