Everything about pregnancy surprised me, starting with the fact that it had happened at all. After years of hand wringing about the if’s and when’s and what if’s of parenthood, (on my part, not Mike’s) we’d stopped preventing pregnancy. It must have taken a willful forgetting of 8th grade biology for me to agree to this step because I was shocked (shocked!) when the pregnancy test I took on a whim turned up positive.
I’m not usually an “expect the worst” type of person, but I’d inadvertently adopted a pessimistic mindset about pregnancy. I expected it to be a thing to be endured, not enjoyed. Lo and behold, I liked being pregnant. I liked feeling her move, answering strangers’ questions about her, assembling a new wardrobe, reading up on her development week by week; I liked all of it.
On pain and holy ground
Because I didn’t struggle to get pregnant, and because pregnancy was enjoyable for me, perhaps hubris is partially to blame for my decision to pursue a medication free birth. My growing commitment to foregoing an epidural surprised me, like everything about pregnancy had surprised me. If I’d been on my knees vomiting every day, maybe I wouldn’t have electively signed up for the most painful birth experience possible. But easy circumstances make room for gumption and will power which might evaporate under pressure.
Unmedicated birth appealed to me for the same reasons running half marathons appealed to me: I like achieving hard things, and I believe that we are most aware of God’s presence with us in the midst of pain, that we are sharpened most when brought to the edge of ourselves. I also believe that pain is not to be avoided at all costs; some pain is holy ground, and the pain of childbirth seemed one of those places to me.*
These are convenient beliefs to hold and choices to make when you are somewhere between 0 and .5 cm dilated, and a middle class woman with health insurance giving birth in a suburban hospital. I still hold these beliefs and stand by the choices I made, but I also see their limitations. To think that I could curate this most precious and harrowing of human experiences based on a “birth plan” proved foolishness, as countless women will warn. God is not an idea to keep at arm’s length and tap into at my convenience, so He reminded me.
*(This isn’t to say that women who take advantage of pain relief don’t meet God in labor, or that it’s morally or spiritually better to opt out. And unless we go back to the freaky days of hardcore drugs during labor, the experience is emotionally and physically intense no matter how pain is managed.)
Early labor, July 18th, 6AM
My contractions started at 6am on July 18th, one day before my due date. I’d woken up in the middle of the night sure that my water had broken. It hadn’t, I learned later, but my misunderstanding granted us an experience I’ll never forget. I told Mike my water had broken, and we sat in the dark on our couch and prayed together before going back to bed. I managed to sleep through the excitement, since I’d been advised to ignore early labor and rest as much as possible. I woke to abdominal tightening, and started paying attention to the time between and quality of the pain.
I didn’t know how long I’d have before labor would require my full attention, so I moved quickly to shower, eat breakfast, text family and friends. I blow dried my hair, and made the regrettable choice to leave it down. Hours and hours later, the weight of my sweaty hair on my neck would be unbearable. Tying it back myself would be unthinkable – small movements requiring precision were beyond me just then; I needed stillness on the outside to brace myself for the quaking within – so I’d use one of my precious breaks to ask Mike to pull it back for me. A few slippery, rogue pieces would immediately escape and aggravate me almost more than the pain itself. But I had no earthly idea how the little twinges I felt sitting at my vanity would crescendo.
I called our doula, Danica, as early as seemed reasonable and she came over a couple hours later. She immediately helped calm our nerves by giving me tangible things to do, like change positions, use the bathroom, and drink water. I also stopped timing my contractions (which was inadvertently stressing me out) because I trusted her to tell me when to go to the hospital.
I labored in bed, sometimes with the support of Jack, our golden retriever. Mike and Danica were in and out, and I felt mildly annoyed that they were leaving me alone at all, but also didn’t want to appear high maintenance by requesting constant attention. During one of my alone times, tears started flowing uncontrollably. No particular thought or pain triggered them; they just started coming and wouldn’t stop. When Danica found me crying, she said it was a good sign of progress as a rush of new hormones was hitting. She did some massage to help progress continue. Around 1:00, we headed to the hospital with a bowl of cottage cheese for me to eat on the way.
Active labor, 1PM-8PM
Like most first time moms, I thought I’d made more progress than I had when we got to the hospital. I was about 3cm dilated after six hours of contractions, but the intensity picked up from there. I asked not to be checked regularly, so I wouldn’t be discouraged by a perception of too-slow progress, and because, ouch!
We settled into our room, and I sat in a chair wearing oatmeal colored hospital socks with grippy bottoms and clasped the armrests through contractions. Another wave of tears hit, triggered by the complex dance of hormones and adrenaline enabling me through the emotionally and physically demanding work. We kept the overhead fluorescent lights off so I marked progress by the changing sunlight. The sun lit the entire room when we arrived, but melted into a rich golden pool that gradually receded from the room like the tide.
The pain was strongest in my lower back, so I used heating pads and counter pressure from Mike and Danica to relieve it some. I remembered from the hospital birth class we’d taken that the instructor – a lovely, grandmotherly type – had said, “for those of you who don’t get an epidural, pay attention to these breathing instructions, because breathing is your method for pain relief.” I could almost hear her add, “dummies!” to the end, since she’d mentioned multiple times how much she wished she could have had an epidural when she had babies. Breathing may not be pain relief, exactly, but it gave me something to focus on.
My OB stopped by to tell me that the I’d be in great hands with the on-call doctor, and that she was sorry she couldn’t stay because she had ten people coming to her house for dinner. I was laboring on my side so she knelt down by my bed to talk to me, which was somehow very comforting, her eye contact and familiarity in that moment. I’m still amazed that medical staff participate in births daily. This was work on a Tuesday for them, but a life changing day for Mike and me, and so their tiniest of gestures and words are indelibly marked in my mind.
Danica encouraged me to change positions, since I had been on my side for awhile. I really didn’t want to move, because the following contraction was always more intense, probably because the new position was achieving our intention of progressing labor. They helped me get onto my hands and knees on the bed, balancing my arms on a bar with a pillow, and everything intensified.
Dr. Gregory, the on-call doctor who’d deliver Betsy, came to check on me. She reminded Mike and I of Leslie Knope, both in looks and personality. She cheered me on: “This is looking exactly how it’s supposed to!” I felt equally comforted and horrified that this intense pain was a sign of things going well. Another horrifying sign of progress: blood. Maybe it was a mental coping mechanism to distract me from the pain, but I could not stop worrying about bloodying my knees. It reminded me of how I never enjoyed Slip N’ Slides as a kid because I couldn’t stand the feeling of wet grass sticking to my feet.
I remembered the nurse telling me when I checked in, “We know you don’t want us to ask about your pain, but there are things we can do to take the edge off if you need it.” I kept thinking, “After the next contraction, I’ll tell them I need it.” But the recovery time was so short that by the time I could have asked for anything, the next pain wracked my body.
About five or six contractions passed, and I got through each one thinking about how I would ask for the pain relief when it was over. By the time I finally asked, the nurse said it was too late, since the baby was almost here. What welcome news, that the baby was almost here! But I also questioned their definition of “almost.” I’d held the promise of minor pain relief in my back pocket and now that it was off the table, fear crept in. How much longer could I do this?
I am a fairly reserved, contained person, not especially expressive or prone to outbursts. Before childbirth, I imagined I’d be a stoic laborer, grimacing but not yelling, a picture of quiet determination. Up until this point, any moaning had felt like a tool within my control to help me through the pain. With shaking legs, sweat and tears pouring down my face, I was decidedly no longer in control. From a previously untapped reservoir deep within me erupted a scream so primal and so loud that Dr. Gregory came running in, and asked if I felt like I needed to push, because I’d made the universal sound of transition.
The moment when I felt so out of control was also the moment signifying breakthrough. This was simultaneously the most terrible and awesome moment of labor for me. In Exodus 20, after Moses reads the people the Ten Commandments, they see the thunder and the flashes of lightning and the mountain smoking, and they say, “You speak to us, and we will listen; but do not let God speak to us, lest we die.” This was the type of reverent fear I felt toward my body at this moment. I was overwhelmed with fearful awe, and I did not want to engage with it.
I gave Dr. Gregory the go-ahead to check me: 9cm. 6cm of progress, in about six hours of labor! It had taken eight hours at home to get to just 3cm. I started to believe that she was coming soon, but the fear I couldn’t get there was mounting. Danica had warned me while we were still at home that one of the “signs” she’s looking for that we’re close is a mother saying, “I can’t do this anymore,” but in the moment my desperation clouded any memory of that.
They asked me again if I felt like pushing. The doctor said I was so close to 10cm that if I felt the urge to push, I could. She said that pushing would actually feel like a relief, but I didn’t believe her. My instinct was to hold on and stay put. I didn’t want to move or do anything differently. In my mind, I could hardly endure the pain as it was, and pushing would be even more intense. It reminded me of the dread I felt during the tick-tick-tick upwards on a rollercoaster, strapped in with no choice but to ride it out. This right here, this was manageable, but the unknown over the crest was terrifying.
Danica put a straw to my lips so I could sip honey water, still on my hands and knees. I remember asking if she thought I was ready to push, but I don’t remember her answer. No one would tell me yes, go, and I felt insecure, like I would know if it was time. Finally, a nurse suggested we try some “practice” pushes, which was exactly what I needed to get past the mental hurdle of deciding to try. She showed Mike how to apply pressure to give me something to push against. It didn’t feel better to push, but it felt different.
At some point, they’d told me I needed to keep the monitors on, because Betsy’s heart rate was dipping and they wanted to watch it. One of the nurses insisted that I get on my back, but she tied a big cloth to the bar to give me something to pull for leverage. I felt more panicked on my back, because the pain was even more intense. The gentle encouragement transitioned into insistent imperatives as more nurses entered the room: “Tuck your head, crouch over your belly, hold your breath, and push, push, push. Push for Betsy!”
This stage seemed to require much more coordination, yet I felt as helpless and out of control of my own body as I ever had. I tried to follow their directions, but I felt trapped on my back, in a great deal more pain, and unable to get the leverage I needed to curl up like they said. Every push felt sloppy and ineffective, as I gasped for air too early or arched my back when I should have been rounding it.
The chaos in the room increased as Dr. Gregory entered the fray and another nurse got the baby station ready – the warming tray, scale, and bassinet were all right there in the room. They could see Betsy’s head and the doctor attached a heart rate monitor to it that would give a more accurate reading. She tried to pull her while I pushed, or at least that’s what it felt like, and incidentally broke my water. I don’t really know what she was trying to do, but it was agonizing. She began to talk about using a vacuum, and telling me the risks. “You did not come this far to have surgery!” she said. I later learned that she had left a C-Section she was assisting in when she saw what was happening with Betsy on the monitor.
The unexpected change in plans
The next time she came in (or maybe she’d never left?) she worked with the nurses to coach me through a couple more pushes, and then she looked me in the eye and said, “I’m sorry, her heart rate has been too low for too long. We’re going to the OR.”
During pregnancy I’d woken up in tears after a dream that I’d had a C-section. When we’d toured the hospital and they showed us where the operating rooms were, I’d shuddered and felt queasy. But in the moment? I was overwhelmed with the constant surges of pain, and terrified I couldn’t finish labor. That fear engulfed me, and as they lifted me off the bed and wheeled me down the hall, all I felt was relief that I had a way out. Someone held a mask over my face and I reverted to trying to breathe through the contractions, which hit me like a brick wall.
“Just make it stop,” I thought as the anesthesiologist explained to me that I’d have to be put under general anesthesia because there wasn’t time for the spinal tap. My only complaint about any of the staff at the hospital is him, because he also said, “This is why we like to see a high epidural rate.” So, I’ve labored for 16 hours and I’m about to have emergency surgery, and you’re telling me I made a bad choice? Don’t worry, I won’t be carrying any baggage about that comment while I replay the birth over and over and wonder if what I could have done to make it end differently.
Meanwhile, Mike had gotten into scrubs at a nurse’s instruction, when he learned that he couldn’t go in because I would be under general anesthesia. He signed the consent form for surgery, and headed back to the labor room to wait. The entire transfer process couldn’t have been more than two minutes. They let both Mike and I know that her heart rate had recovered by the time we got to the operating room, but they wasted no time: I was out at 10:34; Betsy was out at 10:35.
Elizabeth (Betsy) Rose Verdicchio joins us
Ten minutes later, they wheeled her in to Mike. I’d hoped our first moments together would be as a family, with her on my chest, but I still cherish these pictures of Mike meeting her for the first time. I wish I had been there, but at the same time, it was a really special moment they got to share. It was Mike who introduced me to Betsy, though I don’t really remember it because I was emerging from the haze of anesthesia. The exhaustion of birth had caught up with Betsy by then, and we both dozed together for the first few minutes.
As I regained alertness, a completely new type of pain hit me from the surgery. Every 15 minutes, a nurse pressed (hard!) around the incision. Between the pain and the dulling effect of the anesthesia, those first moments have a dream-like quality in my memory. I tried to feed her, but she was too sleepy.
I quizzed Allie, the nurse who’d been with me for most of the labor, on everything that had happened. I don’t remember anything that she said now, but I do remember her patience and kindness. She took our first family pictures, answered my every question, and let us Facetime my parents even though phones weren’t technically allowed in the recovery room. I got the impression over my hospital stay that the nurses and doctors felt a lot of compassion for me (except for maybe that pompous anesthesiologist). When he followed up with us the next day, he made the (again, not helpful) comment that putting someone out for a C-section only happens once or twice a year. Lucky me.
I didn’t know that night, but eventually I would learn that her heart rate was dipping because of her position. Every time she made progress during contractions, her shoulder rolled onto her umbilical cord, limiting her oxygen supply. To recover, she’d have to pull back. Additionally, she was OP or “sunny side up,” which makes a baby much more difficult (if not impossible) to deliver vaginally. In our case, Cesarean section was a truly life-saving procedure. I spent about a week agonizing over whether I could have gotten her out if my pushes had been more coordinated, or if I hadn’t been mentally defeated. But Danica assured me that OP babies can take hours and hours of pushing, if they don’t have to go to C-Section, and because of the position of her cord, she couldn’t have survived that.
Around 1AM, after a couple hours of observation and routine tests, a different nurse wheeled us to our room, deemed “the celebrity room” by hospital staff for its spaciousness and luxury window. They even brought in something resembling an actual bed for Mike. Thus began our days as a family of three, Betsy safe and asleep between us in her bassinet.
God in the midst of weakness and broken plans
I had hoped to meet God in my pain. I had hoped to marvel at my mind and body doing what He’d designed them to do. I had hoped my faith would reach new heights as I trusted Him to carry me. Instead, I felt deeply betrayed by and out of control of my body, and weaker in resolve than ever. Fear consumed me at exactly the moments I’d hoped I would call out to the Lord, and instead of trusting Him to see me through, I panicked, desperate for a way out.
Childbirth did not make me feel strong or empowered, like it does for some women. It highlighted my weakness, the limits of my faith, and my relentless attempts to control the uncontrollable. And yet God met me there. It was not the place I’d hoped to go, but it was the place I needed to go: back to square one, with the acknowledgment that His strength is made perfect in weakness, that weakness is not an inconvenience to be overcome but a holy meeting place with the One who is strong.
Processing and recovering from the C-section, plus transitioning into the around-the-clock role of new mom is a story within itself that I hope to write soon!