Like most mothers on their child’s birthday, I found myself reflecting on when my tiny baby came into this world. But it was especially the day before Eleanor’s birthday that I kept looking at the clock and remembering where we were in our labor at that exact time five years ago.
I wanted a natural childbirth and Ted was, as usual, totally on board. We loved doing things together and this would be the ultimate Team Dempsey endeavor. We went to all our baby doctor (Ted’s words, not mine) appointments together, hired a doula, had a rebozo made by a friend, watched videos on childbirth, and attended the Lamaze classes where we asked more questions than the rest of the attendants combined. Most of mine were regarding food; no matter how many ways they promised me I wouldn’t be hungry during labor, I kept thinking I should just be prepared…at least with a PBJ.
We had it all planned out. We were going to labor at home as long as possible with our doula there to tell us when we shouldn’t wait any longer, and then hopefully I’d be pretty far along in the process by the time we arrived at the hospital.
Part of the reason I wanted to do it naturally was because I like a good challenge. But the more we learned about childbirth, the stronger we felt about it – for many reasons. Epidurals can slow down a labor, so we worried that if our midwife was not available to attend to our labor, we could get stuck with an impatient doctor who would order a c-section. And I definitely wasn’t hankering for a post-surgery recovering while taking care of a newborn.
At our last appointment with the midwife before I went into labor, I told her that I was confident I’d be a week late; after all, I’ve been early for very few things in my life. So I was banking on the extra time to make more freezer meals, complete my thank you cards, and finish the book about breast feeding, oh, and the one about the importance of a sleep schedule. I had a lot left to accomplish.
Our due date was September 11th (Ted told the nurse at our first checkup that he would pay her to change it on her chart; she chuckled but he wasn’t kidding) but a few days before, my water broke. I was right in the middle of revamping our filing system and I remember thinking, no, no, I need to finish consolidating our vanguard files.
We learned in our Lamaze classes if there was meconium in the fluid, as there was in mine, you have to leave for the hospital immediately (you can’t even shower – I called and asked). So I called Ted at work, where he had just sat down at his desk. I was trying to be unalarming when I told him. In a super casual tone I said, “Hey babe, do you have a minute? Okay, um, I think my water broke and the doctor’s office said we should probably head to the hospital when it’s convenient, but wrap up whatever you have going on there.”
He was home in 10 minutes. Note: we live seven minutes from the office – but that’s driving time. He must have given his computer a swift Ctrl-Alt-Del and walked out to be home so quickly. My dad did say Ted walked by his office (they worked for the same company) and said, “It’s go time,” with a calm but uncharacteristically serious face.
Ted didn’t panic, ever, and he was efficient as a German. In a period of 15 minutes, he got the car loaded, changed out of his work clothes, filled up water bottles, packed watermelon and grapes (at my ridiculous request), snapped my triple hook nursing sports bra when I couldn’t because my hands were shaking, calmed me down when I started crying because “this wasn’t the plan,” and off we headed to the hospital.
He dropped me off at the ER, as we were instructed by our midwife, and he met me up in labor and delivery carrying our bags, the cooler, an extra pillow, and of course my yoga ball. We were quickly escorted to our room and this is where everything slowed down.
Because labor hadn’t started on its own before my water broke, I was only 1 cm dilated. Some women can stay at 1 cm for weeks, but because meconium was present, I needed to deliver within the next 24 hours. We wanted to avoid induction, so we harkened back to what we learned in Lamaze to get labor progressing. I bounced on the yoga ball, got in the bathtub (which took a lot for this germaphobe; I feel like a hospital bathtub has to be a breeding ground for MRSA…right?), and I walked laps around the labor and delivery floor in my sneakers and hospital gown.
Luckily the contractions began pretty quickly and it didn’t take long before the pain was notable. We learned when they hit, try to relax into them. So if I was standing, I’d wrap my hands around Ted’s neck and hang. If I was on the yoga ball, Ted was sitting behind me on the bed and holding me up. My dad subbed in for a little bit so Ted could go to the bathroom and get something to eat but other than that, he was there, by my side, for what ended up being 20 hours of what they call active labor.
Now, I like being active. I adore recreation and exercise, and not just because I adore food as well. But active labor is real. Once I got past 5 cm, I got hooked up to the monitors and it was all hands on deck for each contraction. Unmedicated, those babies needed some serious concentration and breathing to get through. So Ted watched the monitor and counted through each contraction, telling me as I was approaching one, when I peaked, and how many more breaths I should count before it’d end. This man was a freaking warrior.
We had learned in Lamaze that the Pitocin used to induce labor can cause double and triple the spiking in contractions making them extra intense, so that was another reason we wanted to avoid induction if possible. But despite not having being induced, many of my contractions had those extra spikes. And holy heavens those spikes were intense. When Ted showed one of the nurses, she thought it was odd (and unfortunate for me).
My whole world would go into a blur as I’d contract. I never felt pain as intense as this and it gripped my entire body. If I lost focus for a second, or let even a fleeting thought of self-doubt come into my mind, I’d submit to the pain and involuntarily call out in anguish.
We learned the importance of a mantra and a focal point, so I visualized the sand dunes at the state park that we spent so many hours looking at while we were on our surfboards, waiting for the next set of waves to roll in. I’d also picture the baby. Our midwife told me just recently that what she remembers most about our labor was the peacefulness in our room. She remembers it being dimly lit and quiet, and could picture us swaying together during the earlier contractions.
We didn’t find out the gender so I didn’t know if it was going to be a Finnegan or an Eleanor, but I’d picture our child and repeat healthy mother, healthy child with each inhalation and exhalation, respectively. This worked quite well, but I had enlisted incredible mental discipline to hold that focus and not give into fear and pain.
Luckily my concept of time had gone out the window early on, so I had no idea how many hours had ticked by. Sometime in the afternoon, our doula arrived. I was having some mega “back labor.” Picture how your lower back feels after an afternoon of weeding, then add some dead lifts with improper form, and throw in a slipped disk for good measure – that’s back labor. So the doula dug her elbow into the muscles of my lower back between contractions, and she and Ted did that off and on for hours. I definitely give her a gold star.
The one contraction Ted wasn’t present for once I got pretty into the heavy stuff was when he stepped away to text my parents an update. Without knowing where I was in the contraction and how long I had left, a torrent of insecurity and downright panic came over me and the physical agony shook my body uncontrollably. After that, I breathlessly told him I needed him for each contraction. It would be several hours more (as in, through the night), yet he remained at my side without so much as a bathroom break until our baby was born.
Our incredibly selfless midwife, who was not on call, had checked on me throughout the day between her patients. When her work ended for the day and she came back to the hospital to check on my status, she determined the baby would be a middle of the night arrival.
I remember thinking, oh there’s no way it’s going to take that long; we’re going to wrap it up by the 10 o’clock news and get a good night’s rest. I was already planning to order pancakes for breaky. Maybe the kitchen staff could even throw in some chocolate chips…
Not only did we exceed my prediction, we exceeded the midwife’s as well. I didn’t get to 10 cm until close to 3 a.m. When the nurse asked me if I was ready to push, I was so exhausted by the 17 hours of labor that I was barely conscious. But there wasn’t a lot of choice so…sure, I could push.
I had heard stories of women pushing once or twice and their baby greeting the outside world with a hearty cry. I had been doing all the prenatal workouts I could get my hands on, so I figured it wouldn’t be long until we met our little one.
Wrong again. I pushed for three hours.
With each contraction, I pushed with all my might and at the end of each push, the baby would go back up to where we started. Ted got behind my right shoulder and would heave me forward to give me leverage to push. My contractions came about once a minute so to do the math, if I pushed for three hours, Ted did this 180ish times. Let’s be conservative and cut that number in half – there’s still no surprise that he ended up getting a neuroma in the ball of his foot from digging in with each heave. Bless him.
Because I was holding my breath with each push, the baby’s oxygen level was dropping so they put an oxygen mask on me for the remainder of the time. Unaware until after the birth, I had pushed so hard and for so many times that I had broken the blood vessels in my face.
Earlier in the labor, a nurse told me that the baby was anterior (facing up rather than down), which can be super tricky when it comes to their journey down the birth canal. Mothers’ and babies’ bodies are built for the baby to be facing down during delivery and when they’re not, they can get stuck or they can retreat back up into the womb after each push rather than hold their progress down the birth canal.
We tried to turn the baby throughout the labor and into the pushing phase using the handy rebozo, but it didn’t work. So the midwife used a variety of hippy measures to “grease the skids” and help the baby progress down the birth canal. That didn’t work either. What worked was my being told that the obstetrician had been notified of my status (which meant he was preparing for a cesarean if I couldn’t push the baby out on my own).
As I said earlier, I wasn’t really in the market for a C-section. If I didn’t want pain killers, I’m obviously not hankering for major surgery. So these were not words I wanted to hear. Obviously, some births require a C-section. They are a hugely important and sometimes life-saving tool in the doctor’s toolkit. But an emergency C-section after 20 hours of labor is not the ideal situation for the mom, baby, or medical team.
Though Ted loved telling the story (in his animated way) that the threat of a C-section was all I needed to hear and I got down to business, but God also threw me a bone and at that moment, he gave me the mother of all contractions when the midwife, doula, and Ted weren’t expecting it. Before they realized what was happening, I felt my whole trunk and body contract with the greatest intensity of the entire labor. I used that and pushed with every fiber of my body. That was the first push from which our tough little baby progressed down the birth canal and maintained it.
I could hear the excitement in our midwife’s voice when she saw the baby remain there and she instructed me not to push in the next contraction. I didn’t realize it at the time but with that mammoth push I had just finished, the baby was halfway born. So the midwife wanted to give my body time to expand and prevent tearing. However, contractions are nature’s way of telling us to push so it’s a fundamentally biological urge that takes over a woman’s body and to resist that is next to impossible – especially when the baby is half-way out of the birth canal.
When the contraction came, I tapped into the last remaining strength and used some deep ujjayi breathing (for all you yogis out there). The room fell silent. I was in a semi-conscious haze and with my eyes closed I could only picture black. No more sand dunes at the beach, no mantra of healthy mom, healthy baby. It felt like everything had been stripped down to survival at its most basic level and I focused on one breath at a time.
Ted told me later that everyone else was barely breathing and their eyes were the size of saucers. The midwife told us at my 6-week checkup that though she has asked other moms to hold a contraction like that, she had never seen someone succeed. I felt honored that God had given me the mental fortitude to be able to do that, and so incredibly lucky to have my husband walk through that experience with me. He told anyone who’d listen about the endurance and resilience I possessed in the birthing of our child but I told them how involved and selfless he was through the journey. I know without a shadow of a doubt that I couldn’t have done it without him.
In the next push, our baby was born and the midwife lifted the bottom up to Ted so he could be the one to give me the news we had waiting nine months to learn. My eyesight was blurred and my eyes were half closed, but I remember him on my right side as he leaned down to my ear and said, “We have a blond-haired, blue eyed baby girl.” I couldn’t believe it. We had our Eleanor.
Her birth was the most incredible experience of our lives and it bonded us on a level beyond anything we had known up to that point. I positively loved being pregnant and though it was indescribably tough, I loved the process of delivering her. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done but I wish I could do it all over again.
That sweet, sweet baby girl possessed such grit and determination to make it through an incredibly arduous birth and we were so proud of her. We knew from those very first moments that she would possess a strength and perseverance that would suit her well throughout her life. And I must say, as a newly minted five-year-old, she has exemplified that hundreds of times over. Whatever she does, wherever she goes, she will do it with a fierce passion and dedication, much like her daddy.
Happy birthday Eleanor. Mommy and daddy are so very proud of you.