Published on January 24th, 2022 | by Laura Eliasieh0
Body and Breath: My First Childbirth in Hospital
Readying myself to become a mother, giving birth, and embracing my daughter for the first time enlightened me to the rhythms of nature more than any experience prior. In laboring to release her into the world, I became the most animal I had ever been in my life. It was the most expansive and yet acute transformation—thundering bones, burning muscle met by the exhilaration of her beating heart and hungry hands seeking my breast for comfort and belonging.
Morning sickness dampened the excitement of the first trimester and the nausea lingered through at least 18 weeks if not longer. Around 20 weeks I began to show and consciously prepare for my daughter’s arrival. Prenatal yoga and hypno-relaxation helped center my intentions and clear my anxieties. By the third trimester, she had grown much bigger and heavier. Kasra thought I would enjoy some time in a sensory deprivation tank, so scheduled one for me on a weekend afternoon. I remember it vividly: my body afloat in the warm salted water, mostly submerged, except for my bulbous belly rising from the surface like a mountain from the sea. I wrapped my arms up and around my belly, embracing and speaking directly to my baby with my inner voice. It was the first time I felt we had connected as two beings, rather than one. I had given her a hug and felt her presence. Kasra was very open to alternative therapies and strategies for easing the experience of pregnancy and childbirth, but wanted the reassurance of prenatal care in a hospital setting with a doctor to oversee the medical aspects. I agreed to a hybrid approach and enjoyed the insights gleaned from all those who supported us in the journey.
The first sign of labor happened on Tuesday, December 25th after arriving home from Christmas Day celebrations with family. Hug-like contractions wrapped softly yet with grip around the front of my belly and I felt pain in my lower back. I stayed home the following day to rock on all fours as I had learned from Spinning Babies, doing what I could to help “Baby Belle” (my baby’s nickname in utero) move into a comfortable position. I was concerned about back labor. But the contractions slowly disappeared.
Later that week I went for a chiropractic assessment to address the back pain. A chiropractor recommended by our trusted doula Jessalyn told me I had an inflamed sacroiliac joint. It is common for near full-term babies to exert pressure in that area. He adjusted my neck, spine, and hips to see if he could better align our bodies for birth and I felt some relief, but only for a day or two.
The following Monday, December 31st Kasra and I went to the hospital for a routine prenatal appointment and learned that my cervix was already 50% effaced and 3 centimeters dilated. That was comforting. The Braxton Hicks that I felt on Christmas Day were not false contractions after all. We were in the early or latent stage of labor. Not so bad, I thought. Let your body do its work.
Tuesday, January 1st was a quiet morning. Kasra and I had breakfast on our back deck, reading aloud to one another from thematic issues of Lapham’s Quarterly, one about night and one about family. I then left for a prenatal massage with a woman who had graciously agreed to see me on New Year’s Day. She worked from home on a quiet street at the edge of Bernal Heights. I lay face down on the massage table covered by a warm blanket and felt deeply tranquil. She kneaded her hands along my lower back with strong pressure, spreading my hips and my pelvis, speaking in a low voice about breathing, relaxing, and opening. She noticed I was having light contractions.
Returning home around 12 noon, the contractions continued and strengthened their grip on my belly. Kasra and I decided to cancel the family dinner we had planned that evening, but carried on with making the celebratory New Year’s Day meal. Ghalieh mahi from southern Iran is white fish baked with layers of fried onion, fried fresh herbs, and pomegranate molasses, and it is tradition to eat fish to welcome the New Year. As I chopped the herbs, the contractions became more intense. I paused with each wave, leaning into the counter, easing into a more active labor.
Around 2 PM Kasra began to notify colleagues of your imminent arrival. Some were surprised by the call, assuming that you would go past your 40 week due date on January 9th. But you were ready one week early. My contractions were steady. Kasra suggested I watch a movie while he attended to a few urgent matters at work. He saw two patients in Oakland and then sprinted to his San Francisco office to complete a rank list for residency admissions that was due two days later. I was comfortable at home. When he returned, we enjoyed the ghalieh mahi over a bed of basmati rice. My contractions continued through the evening with irregular intervals. They were mild enough for me to sleep, so I did. We did.
It was 2 AM on Wednesday, January 2nd when the contractions became intensely real with regular 20 minute intervals. I woke from sleep with gripping pain, trying my best to soften and open into the sensations, recalling a soupy mix of conversations with Jessalyn about the power of language and the possibility of transforming pain into something purposeful and powerful. When Kasra let her know about this new pattern by text message, she said I was fortunate for the long rest between contractions and encouraged me to sleep if possible.
Sleeping felt good, but when the contractions jolted me awake I felt uneasy and breathless, unmoored by their strength. I swung my legs over the edge of the bed and called to Kasra who wrapped his body around mine, reminding me to breathe and squeezing my hips as we had learned counterpressure can ease the pain. I tried to recalibrate by sitting on the toilet in darkness after a contraction had passed. Even then, what felt like aftershocks or flutter contractions rippled through my body. I felt electric and shook by the intensity of it all.
At 5 AM we moved from the bedroom to the living room to labor on all fours and almost immediately the intervals shortened from 20 to 10 minutes. At 6 AM Kasra phoned Jessalyn asking her to come. When she arrived about 45 minutes later, I told her I had been cursing breathlessly through the sensations. I wanted to be anchored. I wanted to relax. And when contraction intervals shortened to 5 minutes, I wanted to go to the hospital. “After we make some eggs,” she said. “You will need the energy.” She stayed by my side while Kasra cooked. I ate a few bites, but my focus had shifted to the car and delivery room. I needed to be at the hospital to sink into this process. I found my shoes and socks after one contraction, pulled them on my feet after another, every effort stilted by the power of birth.
En route to the hospital around 7 AM, I sat in the back of the car lengthening and bracing my body. Kasra veered left from Portola Ave, climbed Clayton, and passed a construction crew with their tools running hot, sparks flying into the air. One hand on the door handle, the other on your car seat, and with my eyes closed, I attempted to set my drishti on arriving at Labor and Delivery. Yoga teaches this practice of concentrating your intention. But walking from the car into the building and up the elevator was a fragmented effort. Every 4-5 minutes I stopped for a contraction with Jessalyn at my side. Kasra meanwhile parked the car. And when we finally reached the third floor, we learned my room was not ready. My cortisol must have spiked while sitting in the waiting room. I was seated in a wheelchair bracing for contractions and closing my eyes. I wanted to be alone in a dimly lit private room, not surrounded by grandparents, aunties, uncles, and children under bright fluorescent lights watching the morning news on a large flatscreen TV.
At 8 AM a nurse finally escorted me to my room and asked me to climb onto the bed so she could monitor your heart and do a vaginal exam, standard for all laboring women upon arrival. I thought my cervix was dilated about 8 centimeters, but the resident who performed the exam told me I was just 5. Only 5 centimeters? Was labor only halfway through? Could I bear the pain of dilating five more? Could I maintain my calm? I was struggling to relax, to welcome the contractions, to embrace the power of birth. I just needed a moment to regroup, but the contractions came one after another after another.
It was then that Nurse Carrie arrived, like a spirit guide from the fog, a mama bear with hair of sunlight and eyes of the sea. When I asked for an epidural, she looked deeply into my eyes and then to Kasra and Jessalyn. My intention was to have a natural birth, but in that moment I felt certain I wanted medication for pain. Kasra offered a different way forward. Fentanyl could be administered through an intravenous hep-lock threaded into the vein of my wrist. A single dose would take the edge off and then leave my system so that I could feel my way through pushing and delivery. It would be short-lasting, whereas an epidural would be administered through my spine as a continuous stream of long-lasting numbing medicine. Kasra suggested I try the Fentanyl first. I agreed and it did its job beautifully. The cortisol seeped away. The pain became less acute.
Finally, I settled into a rhythm. I closed my eyes and placed my forearms on the top end of the hospital bed, my hips raised and moving fluidly side to side, back and forth, figure eights, partly learned from prenatal yoga and partly my body’s intuition. The room grew quiet. Doctors retreated. Numbers and metrics dissolved. Kasra dimmed the lights and played calming meditation music from a portable speaker. Jessalyn placed a cool lavender-scented washcloth beneath my nose. Carrie approached me again and began coaching me through each contraction. “Just seconds more, you can do this. Go towards the pain.”
You find yourself getting comfortable. Noticing all of the places that the surface under you meets
the different parts of your body. And as you feel yourself supported in this way, notice where your breath
is. Notice all the places where your breath meets the different parts of your body…we are taking a journey
to this place within you to connect with the power of the Great Mother…Open to this idea in whatever way
feels best to you…return to your breath…there is relaxation all around you…there is a staircase here
before you. This staircase leads you closer to the place within you where you will make a connection with
the power of the Great Mother…And ask the power of the Great Mother, “Would you be willing to guide
me and protect me and those I serve?” (From Isa Gucciardi’s Great Mother Meditation)
Carrie had the energy of a midwife and a great mother. I later learned that she had four children of her own. At the hospital that day, I leaned deeply into the confidence and compassion that she offered. What a gift she was. When my sister arrived around 10 AM, Jessalyn whispered that I was pretty far along with labor, despite that measure of dilation when I arrived. She recalled my grunting in the car. She had felt the momentum building. The waiting room, a spike in cortisol, such events can pause and even regress dilation. But the body reengages when the birthing environment calms again. Kasra later told me how moving it was to see this inner orbit of strong women awaiting our baby’s arrival.
Moving from the hospital bed to a birthing ball, I noticed a bulge from between my legs. I reached down with my hand and felt something soft. Was it her head? Jessalyn dropped below to check. It was the amniotic sac, she said, still intact and emerging like a water balloon. She was descending.
I climbed back onto the hospital bed and asked for a birthing bar, propped my arms and leaned in the opposite direction. The bar was secure, structured, and within moments I felt the urge to push. Water slowly trickled from the amniotic sac as my daughter pushed through the vaginal canal, her head still cushioned by fluid. Kasra was surprised that in that moment right before her birth, he felt no anxiety. Labor was obviously a very intense and demanding process, but he fully trusted me to bring her into this world. He was in awe of my composure. Pushing burned like fire. But I let go of fear and self-doubt to rewild the soul of my being and commune in the power of the Great Mother.
My daughter was born at 10:54 AM on Wednesday, January 2nd. There was so much magic in the moment of her birth. I looked back at her, the umbilical cord still attaching the two of us, and then pushed my body up and over hers so I could recline against the bed and catch my breath. Looking up at Carrie, I said simply, “That was satisfying.” Kasra then picked her up and passed her into my arms. When I held her for the first time, I felt an overwhelming sense of joy. I will be a great mother. I will imbue her with a sense of feminine power and I will always be in her orbit whether on this or the other side of the veil.