Published on August 3rd, 2021 | by Lara Henneman1
From a Volcano to the OR: A First Birth Story
I realized I was pregnant for the first time on a volcano in Indonesia. What had sounded like a celebratory adventure to cap a successful week-long training in Jakarta had turned into a terrible, sweaty reality in 95-degree heat. The black sand of Krakatoa was a magnifying glass for the sun, like walking in a slowly heating iron skillet. I could scarcely go more than a few steps up the path without stopping to rest. I fell to my knees in the sparse tropical flora, admitting to myself that this feeling probably wasn’t jet lag.
Our guide was an energetic, sun-wizened local called Demon who sniffed me out right away.
He sent my coworkers ahead and sat down with me. Through a wide, beetle-stained smile, he asked me, “you are with child?” “I think so, yes,” I said. He hugged me and said, “Great blessing, the most wonderful thing.” He helped me walk up a bit higher before I gave up and went back down to a hammock at the foot of the trail to wait. I sat with my newfound knowledge, laughing to myself that this small Indonesian man knew I was pregnant before my husband did.
On the rough boat ride back to the harbor, I had the first mother-conscious thought, by which I mean of me speaking internally to the baby, my baby. I hope you like water, this is the sea. I threw up on the boat and blamed it on sea sickness because it felt important not to tell my coworkers at the time, because things would change when the news got out. Probably no more business trips to Asia for a while.
We moved from our tiny basement apartment in the city and built a nursery in a new suburban house. I walked my old dog around the strangely quiet neighborhood on swollen feet shoved into sandals two sizes two big. He started needing diapers about this time, maxi pads tucked into a belly band over his furry crotch. Typically, it strikes me as ridiculous when people compare caring for a pet to caring for children, but aging pets do help to prepare you for the gross tasks of parenting.
I expected our son would come on my due date, like a contract. I was not ready to wait another 10 days. I was swollen with anticipation and hormones, over-examining every twinge. Friends of mine told me, “you just feel weird on the day that labor starts.” But I hadn’t felt normal all pregnancy. In those final weeks I was a huge ship drifting sideways, never able to right myself. I would go look at the empty crib constantly, feeling the baby that was going to live in that room and the times we would have together.
Then one night I woke up, vomited, and felt strangely electric. I sat on the couch alone trying to time my contractions as instructed. They were far apart and then close together and then I forgot the count and threw up. I couldn’t wait to get to the hospital and let the whole process begin. I woke my husband up and said, “this is happening, I think.”
That’s something with a first-timer’s experience with pregnancy and birth. You’re supposed to know how things are going with your pregnancy, that the baby is coming. But it’s opaque, you can’t see the baby inside of your body without the help of experts and machines. You can’t see if they are getting lower, though plenty of people will look at your belly and say they can tell the baby has started to descend. You can’t see or feel if your cervix is dilated, or if your baby is going into distress.
A large, revolving cast of care team characters came in and out of my hospital room. These visits and checks and pricks and prods were punctuated by the beeps, whirs, ticks, and bells of the machines surrounding my bed. There was the doctor who put me on Pitocin after 12 hours of contractions, pronouncing me to be seven centimeters dilated. There was the anesthesiologist who ogled my breasts in my thin stretched-out maternity bra, all I could stand to wear in my animal state and painful heat. I forgave him when the epidural gave me personhood back for one sweet hour.
There a new doctor came in and announced I was only five centimeters and not making sufficient progress. I said, “that can’t be, the other doctor said seven.” Thinking, you can’t take it back. She checked again and confirmed it was five, nowhere near ten. I was devastated. My epidural stopped working abruptly, and the second one they tried didn’t work either. “That happens sometimes,” the anesthesiologist said. “It might be how your nerves are situated,” like it was some arcane issue of municipal zoning.
The question that (so many) people will ask you is, will you try for a natural birth or get an epidural? Maybe they mean, are you a mother goddess or a weak modern girl? It’s not, will your epidural work? Or will you have a medicated birth that you can still feel every second of? Will you still be tied to the bed by the port into your spine, but unable to move for respite? I felt disbelief along with the waves of pain and nausea. The Pitocin made the contractions like the center of an ocean storm that pulls the boats under.
One nurse will stand out forever in her kindness. She rubbed my back, brought me ice chips, and helped me work on my breathing. She used to be a doula, she said. This convinced me that I would have a doula attend any future births. She was dating a guy I remembered from elementary school as a small boy who ate his boogers. I immediately dismissed this thought as uncharitable because this lovely soul was dating him, and according to friends he had “gotten hot.”
My body writhed, and expelled, and bled, and contorted around all the wires and sensors they had placed on me. My husband held my hand, told me stories, told me I could do this over and over again. Then he tried to sleep on the pull-out in the corner while I threw eye daggers and aggressively vomited from my bed.
24 hours in the hospital. Contractions that took my whole body into a black hole of pain. I grabbed my husband’s arm and said, “I can’t do this, I want to talk about a c-section.” He said, “let’s try for 20 more minutes, you’re doing so well.” He is an eternal goddamn optimist, one of the reasons I married him and most frequently why I want to kill him. Then the baby monitor sounded a clanging alarm.
Three nurses came into the room. “Decel!” they barked. “Your baby is going into distress; we have to get him out.” It wasn’t a conversation anymore; it was straight to the OR. The whole ward sprang into action as they took me into the fully prepped theater, draped blue cloth over my abdomen. Did I want to see it? I said, “No, I don’t want to know what I look like on the inside.” The same anesthesiologist who had checked me out was tasked with my spinal morphine tap, a cold block. I was terrified it wouldn’t work, having lost faith in pain management during labor generally.
The doctor said, “I have to get this baby out, I’m going to give you a caesarian section. The anesthesia is working, don’t worry.” “How do you know?” I asked, clutching the table. “Because we’ve already started cutting.” I could feel only a slight tugging. She cut my stomach and uterus open and took the baby out like removing a package from the shelf. It was over in five minutes.
My boy cried; I could hear him. I cried in relief. They showed him to me, but I could barely see, I was shaking so hard from the drugs. They put him on my chest for ten seconds and I gazed at him and kissed his waxy bloody head and said, “take him from me, I’ll drop him.” My body was bucking off the table as my teeth clenched uncontrollably around a block. They brought my husband back into the room and he cut the cord while I tried to stop the shaking of my limbs and soul.
The nurses weighed and washed him, with commentary. “He’s a big boy!” “Ten fingers and toes!” After they were done, my husband stood by my head holding our son in his arms, love in his eyes. The doctor finished sewing up my body, removing the placenta and all evidence my body had just carried a baby boy to term. Sewed it up in a tight six-inch incision, stapled together so I didn’t split back open.
In the recovery room, an all-business nurse said, “let’s get this baby breastfeeding.” She helped position my baby into the football hold, so I didn’t have to get up. And he latched right on. He held on to me and he drank heartily which made me sigh and laugh and cry again. None of it had gone right. It had been so hard, I had every medication and intervention I hadn’t planned, and I couldn’t even do skin-to-skin because I was terrified I’d drop my brand-new baby. Then he latched right on and showed me that I could do it. My body could do this, and he would be there with me to sustain each other. It was beautiful.
He was bigger and more muscular than I expected. His legs were little and scrawny, having only ever kicked in my tummy, but he had little arm muscles and looked strong and healthy. Maybe the benefit of cooking for an extra two weeks before making his entrance. I was filled with relief at his vigor, that birth was done, and that I was not pregnant anymore.
I am writing this story five years after my son’s birth. To remember. To honor what brought him into my life. To acknowledge that birth can take everything from you physically and give you back a new life that is worth more than you ever imagined. I realized my son had come into my life on a volcano in Indonesia. I am still realizing the explosion of potential and dependence and responsibility that a child brings to your life. Krakatoa was one of the most devastating volcanic eruptions in human history. I learned about it from a children’s book. Then as a woman, I tried to walk up it, and couldn’t. But I did bring a child into this life, and then one more.