I can’t express how frustrated I was at that point, after two-plus days of painful contractions, to know I was just not progressing. I started to wonder if this was ever going to happen, if I’d need pitocin or a c-section, etc. The midwife suggested that we go back home *again* and go to a park or a movie. That was when we realized that she wasn’t taking me seriously, that she thought I was a first-timer who simply wasn’t handling the pain well. Luckily for me, there was a shift change in the late morning, and a new midwife came on duty, a wise woman with 25 years of experience. Deb came in to look me over and watch me through a couple contractions. I was standing at one point, and she had me lean into her while she hugged me through the contraction. It was the most comforting, human touch--it’s hard to explain how much tension it stripped out of me at that moment.
After watching me for a few minutes, Deb asked me why I was gasping and grabbing at a point on my lower abdomen during and directly after the contractions. I explained about the stabbing pain I was feeling, and it was like dawn had broken. She immediately said, “Your baby has his hand to his face. You’re getting an elbow to the uterus with each contraction.” That explained everything--the prolonged labor (it’s called prodromal labor, when you experience serious contractions but don’t progress) without dilation was because his stubborn little hand was keeping his head from dropping down far enough! (We have ultrasound pictures from throughout the pregnancy with his hand up to his face, and he still wants his hands up all the time!)
Deb presented us with a few options: Head home, stay and consider pitocin, or stay and reevaluate where we were in a bit, after I was “made human” again--get into a room with a window, rehydrate (more IV fluids!), try to eat something, etc. As she put it, I was currently looking and acting like a sick person, and we needed to fix that. We opted for option three.
We got to the L&D room and immediately Deb started us on Mission Move This Baby. Between bites of soup (which didn’t stay down long, sadly), I rocked on my hands and knees, hula-ed standing and on the ball, etc. Deb, my amazing labor nurse Melissa, another midwife and a Harvard Med Student all took turns massaging my back and holding onto me during contractions. I honestly don’t have a sense of timing from that point, but we moved to the room around noon on Friday, and Tucker was born at 9:39 p.m. Apparently my chart was lots of nothing, nothing nothingnothingnothing BAM, baby!
I do remember that the pain of that elbow never went away, even after we’d scooted his hand away enough for his head to engage. I labored all over that room, and spent lots of time in the bathroom. I had counted on the tub for the pseudo-epidural effect that I’d heard so much about, but I found it kind of uncomfortable--I felt like I was slipping around too much. I got out and found that the best place for me was hugging the toilet, literally. My contractions were really close together at that point, and I knelt on the floor in a ridiculous rhythm while Melissa massaged my back: I’d have a contraction, take a sip of water, throw it back up, flush the toilet, contract, water, throw up, flush... At some point I asked Melissa if this was transition, because while it seemed too soon for that, I really couldn’t imagine the pain getting worse. She said it was, and that I was getting through it great.
Everything is very hazy when I try to remember it now. Deb examined me again, I’d guess around 7:30 or so, and I was past 9 cm but the last little bit wasn’t going away. She ordered me back in the tub, and I went. A few contractions later, I felt the urge to push and freaked out because I knew I wasn’t supposed to push without being fully dilated. They moved me to the bed to check again, and I was good to go. I had been adamant about not pushing on my back because it’s the most closed position for the pelvis, but Deb looked at me and said “Have I steered you wrong all day?” In my case, she felt the best place for me was the bed--I obeyed her!
Pushing was insane. I was totally out of body, a crazy person. What an out-of-control feeling! Throughout, everyone kept reminding me to keep my noise in the lower register, instead of high, to keep it productive--something we’d been doing all day. Everyone who came in the room said “Ah, the Birth Goddess,” which I thought was hilarious (in a weak, distant way); I was still throwing up into a little pitcher between every contraction. Melissa visited me the next day and said she had literally never seen anyone throw up so much in labor!
I pushed for about an hour. By the time I was really pushing, Deb’s shift had ended and there were enough women in labor that she’d called for both backup midwives for the night. One of them happened to be my beloved Tamara, who had done all my prenatal care, so in the end she actually delivered the baby while Deb hung around to take amazing photos with Ben’s camera (she was a photographer before becoming a midwife). The midwives were amazing, applying all sorts of compresses and hot oil and easing the head out slowly.
Our blue, skinny baby was up on my chest at 9:39 p.m. But after a minute or two of dazed, amazed staring at him, he was whisked to the warmer because he was working too hard to breathe. The nursery nurse and pediatrician came in and did CPAP on him, puffing air into his lungs to help them inflate. It felt like they worked on him forever; Tamara was tidying me up at the time and soothed me by saying that if there was major concern he wouldn’t still be in the room, but I thought Ben was going to faint. Still, when he went over and talked to Tucker, that little head immediately swiveled towards his voice--the pediatrician said, “Wow, he sure knows you!” Tucker and Ben went down to the nursery to do some tests but as soon as they got there he was totally fine, so we were able to cuddle for a little while before I moved to the post-partum wing (after wolfing down the cold grilled cheese sandwich Ben had ordered from the dining service before they closed!).
All in all it was a crazy, incredible experience. I was relieved to hear later that I wasn't nuts to feel like it wasn’t a typical labor--his compound presentation (hand under chin, elbows out and those stabs with every contraction) made it extra-difficult. I'm so glad, because I was really wondering about all the coping mechanisms that weren't working very well! It was hard to count through contractions that were interrupted by a stab every few seconds, and none of my plans for visualizing waves and so on worked or felt practical even to try. This thing I found most interesting to learn later: I'd most likely have had a c-section if I'd had an epidural, because without being able to rock on my hands and knees and labor in all those weird positions, we wouldn't have been able to wiggle his hand away enough to get him down into the birth canal.
I can’t say enough about the nurses and midwives at Mt. Auburn’s Bain Birthing Center here in Cambridge. Everyone was phenomenal, including the wonderful postpartum staff. And after that exhausting week, we needed a little coddling to get us off to a good start on the real job, heading home with the baby!
Kate Flaim is a freelance journalist and food blogger based in Cambridge, Mass. When she's not cooking or writing, she is gearing up for the arrival of her first child this summer.