Published on June 29th, 2021 | by Rachel Parsons3
My labor has no ramp up. The contractions are 90 seconds apart from the moment they begin. This is unusual for a first-time parent. No one believes it: the doula, the midwife, my partner Nick. It’s probably just your stomach, they say. It isn’t. Our birth plan—laboring at home for several hours before transferring to the birthing center—is rendered irrelevant, and the question of my own corporeal knowing is asserted at the outset. This simple fact will leave thick scars on my tissue and psyche, hardening me in their pursuit of protection.
After I finally convince my birth team I am in active labor, Nick and I drive to the hospital. I will not leave there with my body, sanity, or identity intact. This state is not necessarily unusual for a first-time birthing parent, or for a person who experiences birth trauma; but the compounding of the two will be more than my freshly vacated body can handle. But we don’t know this yet. For now, we just know we have to get there.
Nick takes Lake Street, driving under the steel support beams of the L tracks. Trains rumble by overhead, disgruntled fellow travelers in the late afternoon sun. The streets are unfamiliar to me, having only been in Chicago a few months, and I feel lost and disconnected from my body and this city. I focus on breathing. The pain is present, but not enough to keep me from worrying about staining the seat with my amniotic fluid. One hand on the dashboard, one hand on my belly, I hold on.
Twenty minutes later, we arrive at the West Suburban Medical Center. Nick parks the car while I walk myself through the stuffy, yellow-tinged hallway to Labor and Delivery. They buzz me in, lead me to a blank triage room, empty except for a gurney and an equipment cart. They invite me to lay down, strap a fetal monitor to my belly, and promise to return.
I lay on the gurney, alone. A contraction comes quickly. I stare at the unraveling printout from the monitor, learning what pain looks like: inverted parabolas sketched by a feverish needle on ticker tape. I force myself to breathe until the intensity reached its apex, then releases.
A blasé nurse comes in. Can I check your cervix? she asks.I nod consent. She searches inside my vagina with clumsy green-gloved fingers. I wince at the invasion. It takes several minutes before she admits defeat. I can’t find it, she said. Hold on. She pulls out her hand, takes off both gloves and throws them into the garbage by the door. She pumps the hand sanitizer machine twice as she exits the room without looking back.
My midwife finally appears, present physically, though her glazed look tells me she is still elsewhere. Her first words are an apology. Sorry, I am attending two other births. One isn’t going well. I nod and move my mouth into a smile. I’m surprised to see you here. Aren’t you due next week? She sounds accusatory, desperate. I feel bad for adding to her workload, but say nothing as another contraction hits. Once it passes, she’s able to find my cervix and measures it quickly, a small grace. Five centimeters. I pass the first test and am moved to the birthing room. I’ll see you in there, says the midwife, before hustling down the hallway and around the corner, out of sight.
In my room the lights are dim, as I had requested, and Nick is there, finally arrived from the laborious parking excursion. Everything about the room is large: the full-size fridge on my left, the patient bathroom with a large shower chair and bright emergency pull-cord on my right, the lamp on the wide nightstand across the room. The doula is there, filling up the deep porcelain bathtub, a placid smile on her lips, welcoming me in soft, even tones. I waddle over to the queen-size bed where a blue Chux pad has been spread out in anticipation of my messy arrival.
I lay and rest only for a moment: The contractions are squeezing tighter with each quick-fire round. The multiple battery-powered candles Nick lugged from the car stay in my hospital bag, along with the portable speakers for my carefully crafted birthing playlist. We are way past ambience now. Pain takes my breath away as I quickly strip naked. I pace and moan, leaving small droplets of blood behind me, marking my path across the dingy linoleum floor.
“Count,” I bark.
This is my command every time a contraction began. Nick and the doula comply: “Seven … Six … five … four … ” Four is the apex. When they hit “three …two… one …” I envision the downward slope of the parabola, breathing myself back to a brief stasis.
I get into the birthing tub and lay my head on the cool porcelain. It is a welcome contrast to the heat of the water and the squeezing of my guts. When the next contraction hits, I grab Nick’s hand. He is calm as usual. Grateful, I grip him tightly.
The pain becomes crushing. I pull my torso out of the bath, climbing, trying to escape the pressure below. There is more blood; it stains the water pink. I stare at the shiny silver faucet just above the pool. It reflects the dim light from the bedside lamp across the room. I focus in on it, hard. I escape the room by thinking about the person or machine who might have made this lamp. It reminds me there is more to life than what is happening now, this unauthorized seizure of my senses.
This time hitting “four” is less intense. I know from birthing class this means I am leaving the transition stage, where the strongest contractions occur. I report this to my doula who smiles at me sweetly. “Looks like you are going to have a quick birth story, my dear.”
I look at the clock. 10:05 pm. I am going to have this baby before midnight. Then I am going to go to sleep.
The midwife, absent until now, comes in and plops herself into a chair with an exaggerated sigh. She doesn’t make eye contact with me, instead closing her eyes, her face pained, and sucks in a long hard breath.
The contractions move to the top of my uterus, and start pressing down, down, down. Insistent. I have the urge to push. Do I need permission?
Another contraction hits.
I take another glance at the midwife and decide to just follow my body’s instincts. I bear down, hard, at five … six… It feels good, satisfying. Things are moving.
My command is a little less forceful this time. I even think about smiling. I push again, grunting loudly, feeling strong.
I can feel the baby descending: my center of gravity lowering, my lungs inhaling more deeply, a sense of fullness in my hips. My daughter twists around and down, her head tucked in preparation for exit. I am tired but focused. Overwhelmed, but amazed.
When she reaches the bottom of my pelvis, though, things change. I push, bearing down with all of my might, and feel her head colliding with my tailbone. The initial hit is sharp, then lessens as she slips backwards. The contraction sputters out, and I pant loudly, resting briefly before starting anew.
I change positions again and again to clear her a path: hands and knees; over the tub; on the birth stool; squatting; side lying; kneeling upright; supine. Around and around I go. Several times I hear, “I see her head.” But it is always just for a moment before she disappears again from view.
Three hours go by. Then four. The midwife finally snaps out of her sullen state and puts two fingers on my daughter’s head, directing me where to bear down. I push with all my might, but by now there is not much might left.
Five hours. A Pitocin drip is started. The baby’s heart rate goes down. The Pitocin drip is stopped. Something is wrong, I can feel it, but everyone tells me to keep going.
At 3 a.m., my midwife brings the obstetrician in. She checks the baby’s station: +2. Keep going, Rachel.
Six hours. Six and a half. I fall into distress. I know that the average pushing time is 90 minutes. I know that my friend, who pushed on for hours just like this, gave birth to a child with multiple seizures and cerebral palsy. My baby is stuck. Why doesn’t anyone else know this?
I’m so tired, I say. When do I get to stop?
When the baby comes, the doula said.
I can’t, I say.
You can! They reply.
I push and push.
It isn’t the pain. It is the futility of the whole exercise that brings on the despair. She’s not coming, I think.
The midwife looks frustrated. The doula nods off. Nick remains calm.
At 5 am, they finally believe me.
“Do you want help, Rachel?”
The doctor returns and the forceps emerge. Nick’s face goes white. When he talks about the birth now, he describes them as two thin hatchets with long metallic handles. Medieval torture instruments, he tells friends. I don’t remember their shape exactly, and my subsequent Google searches do not corroborate his description. But I do remember my fear at the sight of them.
I’m in stirrups now and the doctor is working between my legs. Topical anesthetic applied on vaginal tissue. Bright light in place, overwhelming my retinas, separating me from everything in the room but the pain, the exhaustion, and the sets of hands working down by my vagina. A sheet goes up, and then even the hands disappear.
“Rachel, I’m still going to need you to push, okay?” The doctor says. She’s calm. “When I count to three, you push. Ready?”
“One, two, three!”
I push hard. The sharp jab to my tailbone is back, only now it grows sharper, louder. The baby is moving. I feel an intense burning as her head emerges. I cry and scream in pain and surrender.
There is a pause. The doctor seems agitated. I learn later that the umbilical cord is wrapped tightly around the baby’s neck. She will enter the world motionless and stunned. My child will recover from this quickly, but right now she is in trouble.
The doctor looks straight into my eyes; when she speaks, her tone is grave. “Rachel, I need you to give me everything you got, ok?” I nod vigorously. “Now. PUSH!”
I push, and bellow a loud, earthly sound. It fills the room; that, and the pain are the only things that exist. I hope I wake the dead, I think, just because I am angry.
This doctor is known for her gentle forceps deliveries, with little or no tearing. This is not one of those births. I rip in half, my entire perineum decimated. I need over 40 stitches to come back together. I feel everything.
I don’t remember the first time I meet my daughter, but there is a video. I’m breathing heavily and greeting her between gasps. Hi, Sweetie, I repeat over and over. A mantra, a disembodied worship.
The baby is on my chest, slippery and quiet. She gags on the bulb syringe used to clean out her mouth. They wipe her with a white towel, and it comes away thickly streaked with my blood.
My arm is wrapped loosely around the outside of my baby’s body. I am motionless, stunned. I can hear the doctor in the background: I need to get to her now. They take my daughter away quickly. Nick too.
There’s a lot of blood, the doctor says. I’m too woozy and vacant to care. The nurse asks me if I want some fentanyl. I nod. They shoot it into my IV and begin the long process of stitching me up.
The baby is back some minutes later, hat on, wrapped in a thick receiving blanket. I see her face now: swollen and squinched, a large scarlet mark next to her left ear where the forceps took hold and yanked. She’s beautiful and strong, crying loudly.
I do not sleep for two days. My entire body aches. I used every muscle to give birth: my stomach, my jaw, my biceps, my calves, my armpits, my groin—all wrecked. When I try to breastfeed, I pull myself up using the bed rails, slithering slowly through the fatigue. Nick steps in to help. My baby won’t latch for seven weeks. I won’t get sanity back for about nine, and I am unable walk without pain for at least eight more. My stitches aren’t too bad as long as I don’t get up too fast, pee, or strain my body in any way. I take Colace like vitamins for a month until I’m convinced I will not split myself wide open again on the toilet.
I visit the midwife practice nine months out and the speculum hits my vaginal walls. A sharp soreness radiates deep into my womb and through every muscle’s memory. Something inside of me freezes. The midwife apologizes and moves the speculum quickly, finishing the exam with a smile. The pain is not that bad, really, compared to the deep tearing of muscle and nerves.
I drive home, turning onto Lake Street, back under the L tracks. NPR is playing on the radio, a reporter calmly describing a knife attack in Paris. Two men have been stabbed repeatedly, flesh ripped and torn for reasons yet unknown. Before the story finishes a train appears above. Its cars overtake me quickly: thunderous clacking of steel on steel, a heavy load on thin wheels, drowning out all other sound. My insides unfreeze and I am transported back into the birth room. My hands grip the steering wheel, shaking violently, and I burst into tears but keep driving. I maneuver my car through the narrow lanes as the train support beams on either side cast long shadows on the pavement. I am not home here in this body, this city, this trauma of spirit and tissue. I will not be at home for several years to come. But I don’t know that yet. For now, I just know I need to drive through.