The term ‘birthday’ has taken on some new undertones for me.
Last week we celebrated Juniper’s first birthday. She’s one! A fact that steam rolls me in all sorts of ways, but besides the emotional gut punch of watching my baby grow up into a little person, there was the enormity of remembering what happened 1 year ago: Labour.
There is a reason I haven’t detailed Juniper’s birth before. Labour isn’t something simple to experience or articulate or rehash; It’s strange and transformative and BIG. It’s easier to say “It was hard”, “It sucked”, “It was long”, “It was intense”, “It was powerful”, than to pull it apart into lines of words and meaning, BUT, I do think we lose something when we drop the narrative of birth. I want my daughter to know how she came into this world, and I want all girls who might be mothers (and all boys who might be fathers) to have a well of stories to draw from and a wealth of knowledge to support their journey.
Here’s my drop to the well:
At Juniper’s birthday party last Sunday my mom, who was with me for the majority of my labour said, “I can’t help but think about what we were doing exactly one year ago! I think Neil and I are the only ones who really know what happened that day.”
I went somewhere weird during labor.
Somewhere that makes writing Juniper’s birth story like trying to kung fu flight under water: my memory of labor is set in slow motion – surreal and blurry at best. My mind was in full on reptillian mode. The best way I’ve been able to explain it is: animalistic. I can remember the sensations and smells but not really what I saw (partially because my eyes were in general closed) or what I thought. There was an absence of fear (mostly) or past or future. There were just the waves of pain and then deep, unconscious, sleep where I felt like I was floating above myself and viewing it all from a spot on the ceiling. Weird, right? It sounds more like a trippy drug high than labour to me. But that’s what my labour was like, and so, I honor that experience.
Juniper’s Birth Story:
Juniper was due on October 31 but she wasn’t punctual (In true Paraguayan fashion!). On Halloween evening, Neil and I dressed up as the characters from Juno and headed out to a ‘Hollyween’ party – the idea was that I would dance and shake the baby down into some kind of action. Well, dancing with a behemoth baby bell isn’t fun or graceful. I tried for a little while and then spent the remainder of the evening on the couch cradling a bowl of chips and a glass of water. I remember starting to feel a little different here – a heaviness set in and gave me the sense of ‘Oohh! Things might be starting!”. And they were, but oh-so-slowly. It was three nights later when I woke up with contractions. They were soft (only in retrospect can I call them soft!) and irregular and would kind of ‘kick it up’ to the point of needing to let out a long slow breath, just before they would stop. Then 7 or 10 or 20 minutes later there would be another one. I didn’t really sleep.
By the morning, they had stopped completely. Neil went to work, and my mom and I proceeded to try and get the show started again. I ate pineapple, did some yoga, went for a walk and practiced some visualizing. Baby stayed put. Finally, I napped (something I should have been doing all morning!) and when I woke up around 3:00 in the afternoon Neil was home and I was in labour. I went from being like “Oh! I think my contractions are starting again!” to “Oh gawd, these are the real contractions, before must have been practice. (expletive, expletive, expletive)”. I sat on the large, bouncing ball in my living room and did a combination of groaning and puking. I was hungry so I asked for a smoothie and then the smoothie came right back up. Apparently bodies don’t well handle digestion and labour, so my body was prioritizing where it sent its energy.
I wanted to labour at home for as long as possible. The idea was to maximize the time I spent in a familiar setting while also minimizing any unnecessary medical interventions that sometimes accompany long labours in hospitals. [Note: I gave birth in Paraguay at the Bautista hospital in Asuncion. Some of my choices were coloured by that environment and obviously some of the protocol is different from North American hospitals]. Around 5:00pm my Doula (a wonderful woman from Germany named Daniella) arrived at my home and started to help Neil and my mom help me through the contractions. There was a lot of applying pressure to my lower back and a lot of wiping vomit from the corners of my mouth. Yup, pretty picture right there. I also had a group of girlfriends on a chat that had been given candles at my pregnancy blessing – they were lighting them for me and sending words of love and encouragement. Neil read them out loud from my phone to kind of cheer on my efforts but let me tell you, at the time, I did not care in the slightest. I remember he stopped at some point after some incoherent comment from me that had obviously cued him that I was not in the ‘cheer me on and give me confidence’ headspace. This is one of those times where my expectations of labour just didn’t match my reality. I had initially thought those messages would be integral to my birth process but in the moment, they weren’t. I did read them after it was all done and was bowled over by the love and positivity that had been pouring my way for the past 12 hours.
Around 6:00pm we called my doctor (an AMAZING man, if you’re giving birth in Paraguay and want his name, just let me know!) and told him we were on route to the hospital. So much for a lot of labor at home! 3 hours after my contractions started, I was sure I needed to go to the hospital, not because I thought delivery was imminent, but because, if I didn’t go now, I didn’t think I would make it there. Standing, walking and movement of any kind was pure agony. The car ride almost killed me. Every bump was brutal; I had my head hanging out the window like a dog and my body slumped against the door. This again, was a time where my expectations didn’t match reality. I had initially thought that movement would be my friend during labor – walking, bouncing etc. In reality, movement just didn’t work for me. I liked the fetal position and only the fetal position. Full stop. I’ll try to explain why: For me (and many apparently), the contractions felt like waves, like the worst menstrual cramps riding in tsunami form. It was a tightening, low kind of intense pain that built up slowly until it reached this high point. Then, rather than crashing it would dip away from that edge slightly and stop. And when I say stop I mean full on stop, like there is no pain or lingering sensation of any kind. At these moments, when the wave dipped and the pain stopped, I would fall into this super deep, blissful sleep for 1 to 2 minutes. Then the wave would start rolling, and I would moan in an anticipatory “ahh, here we go again…” kind of way. I think that if I was moving, walking or bouncing, I couldn’t ride that wave. I fell off that wave, or it washed over me or something. Plus it made it more difficult to pass out into my blissful sleep when I was mid-stride or bounce.
Once we were at the hospital and I had made it up to the maternity ward, where we were pretty quickly put into our privet room. Neil and Daniella and my mom took turns pressing on my lower back, putting cold washcloths on my face and offering sips of water through a straw. When my doctor came in to check me he was pretty happy with my rate of progress – 4cm in about 4 hours of labour. I did not share his enthusiasm. This was hard, so much harder than I had thought it would be and I wasn’t even half way? WTF. He reassured me that things often pick up at a certain point, this was my first baby etc. and that he would be back in an hour or so to see how things were going. It was about 8:00pm. I think I cried here for a little bit and said some “I don’t want to do this. I don’t think I can do this” mantras but eventually these thoughts mostly fell away. This is the part I really don’t remember – where my memory gets super foggy and pulling out specific thoughts or events is like the underwater kung foo fighting. I know this is when I fell into a regular pattern of “contraction. sleep. contraction. sleep. repeat.”, interspersed by nurse and doctor checks. I stayed in the fetal position the entire time, through the excruciating contractions and the restful catnaps. I do recall listening to my mom and Neil talk about how bizarre my sleeping was. They said that during the contractions my face went a blazing beet red and I sounded like a “wilderbeast” (Neil’s word, not mine), and then suddenly my face would pale and transform into “a sleeping angel baby” (my mom’s words, not mine). The moaning was something else, I don’t think wilderbeast can really cover it. It definitely did not sound like any version of myself. It definitely did not sound human. I remember hearing it outside myself at one moment and thinking “I’m an animal. I am a human animal“. It was an observation without any emotional attachment, just a noted fact. In fact, the entire experience of labour for me was without judgement or opinions. There wasn’t really space for the labour and thoughts so labour just took over.
This continued for 5 – 6 hours but time here was a slippery thing. I thought I would never make it to 10cm and then suddenly, I was almost there. The sleeping helped pass the time in the most wonderful way possible (thank you body!). Around 2:00 in the morning, my doctor told me I had progressed well, I was 9cm and he would be back in half hour – just keep doing what I was doing. I become more conscious and aware at this point. I was starting to transition and my mental clarity had kicked back in. I asked about my water bag and why it hadn’t broken yet, but my doctor kind of shrugged and said they often don’t break until the pushing starts so not to worry.
Hanging at 9cm was hard. There was almost no space between contractions so the napping wasn’t providing the same reprieve as before. Now it was just one long, continuous wave, dipping but not stopping before building again. After a little while in this space, panic started to build – I needed a break, I couldn’t control it, there’s a lot of pressure, I need to go to the bathroom. If you ever want to see some Paraguayan nurses panic tell them you’re going to sit on the toilet at 9cm dilated! “No, no! Your baby will come out into the toilet!”. Suddenly at this point, I started pushing. Correction, I did not push, my body pushed. This was not a controlled, with effort push; instead, my entire body shook and vibrated and shuddered with an intense ferocity. It full on terrified me. And then, my water broke with a very loud, audible ‘Pop!”. Neil, who had been leaning over my backside and putting pressure on my lower back, jumped up out of the way with an “argh!” and I laughed. I didn’t open my eyes, but I gave a deep chuckle and asked, “did I get you?” “Almost!” replied Neil. Daniella, my doula, commented that not many water bags break with so much force that you hear them.
At the end of each contraction, my body pushed with that same uncontrollable shuddering and shaking. I could actually feel the baby moving down…I was pushing her out. My mom was pretty sure my doctor needed to come back and that I needed to go into the delivery room; she was working hard to covey this to the Spanish speaking nurses and get my doctor back in. I remember, not caring. I thought, so what, the baby will come here with no doctor, no big deal. The doctor came back, he checked me, 10cm and the baby’s head had dropped. Into delivery we went.
I learned a lesson here – don’t be a pompous asshole. And also, be open to your experience being different that you anticipate. Two days earlier (pre-labor), when Neil and I had been getting a test done in the maternity ward, we saw a woman being rolled on her bed into the delivery room. I said, “Don’t roll me to the delivery room. I’m going to walk.” Ha! Neil gently reminded me of this as they wheeled me down the hall to the delivery room, “Do you want to walk?” he asked cheekily. I had not uncurled from the fetal position for 6 hours.
On route to the delivery room I said goodbye to my mom and Daniella and Neil and the nurse/doctor team went to suit up, scrub up. I panicked here. They left me in the hallway for about 2 minutes while they did this (later they told me they would have someone already ready so they didn’t have to do this but I had progressed quick at the end). I had a couple big contractions and violent pushes and the only thing I could think was “I’m having my baby and there is NO ONE here!”. I screamed for Neil and he ran out with his hands soapy and clothes half tied. Then he and a couple nurses wheeled me into the delivery room and asked me to hop off the bed and get onto the delivery table. Some weird Paraguayan protocol, I had to deliver on the delivery bed. I just looked that the nurse like she was batty and said “No.” She tried to convince me but I didn’t care, there was no way I was getting off the bed. I wanted to have the baby in the fetal position on my flat bed and there was going to be no moving. Eventually they leveled the two beds up and heaved/dragged me from the one bed to the next. I stayed in the fetal position and helped as little as possible in a sign of protest.
Now everyone and everything was ready and I was…not. My contractions had slowed almost to nothing and the baby was almost crowning but not quite. I was told to push hard with my next contraction, and I did but it was slow progress. Finally the contractions kicked it up a bit again and the baby’s head started to crown. I pushed until I was purple faced. During this stage I felt good. I’m tempted to say really good but I don’t want to make it seem too rose coloured and my memory of this moment could be faulty but pushing felt purposeful and the pain of the head emerging had nothing on the pain of the contractions. My body was smart here too; it slowed down and everything stretched slowly so as the baby’s head came through there wasn’t any tearing. My body had one final contraction and the head came out. Then the shoulders, but baby did a victory punch at this point and her elbow/fist gave me a grade 2 tear. The entire pushing process was only 20 minutes! It took longer for my doctor to stitch me up after than it did for our baby to be pushed into the world.
It was a girl. She cried almost instantly and was put on my chest. Neil and I started talking to her and she stopped crying and just looked at us. It was completely surreal.
I did not experience a rush of love endorphins at this point. I was tired and relieved that it was over and that she was healthy but I was not madly in love. Initially I felt disappointed by this, where were my feel good hormones?!? But they came eventually, and they’ve not really stopped since 3:04 on November 4th, 2015. Every day I love that girl a little more deeply, which is sometimes an altogether terrifying thought. How deep can it go?
We got back to our room, Neil passed out on the couch and Daniella drove my mama home. I couldn’t sleep. I guess I had done too much of it during labour! I stayed up for the rest of the night, alert and awake, cuddling and watching Juniper Madeleine Wolfenden McIntyre sleep in complete awe.
And that is how Juniper came into the world and how Neil and I became parents.