By: Merrill Durham
What a daunting task – trying to put into words the hardest, most intense, miraculous, life-giving, four days of my life. I will do my best to adequately express all the emotions and details involved in the birth. When I was pregnant, I found reading other birth stories to be so uplifting and encouraging, especially difficult births. It gave me confidence that despite the circumstances of the labor, I will get through it. It also helped me realize that no two births are the same and I must hold my expectations loosely. Most birth stories are not simple, textbook, 12-hour labors, but labor will come to an end and you will hold your beautiful baby.
Monday, November 4th:
It all began on Monday morning, November 4th. I had been feeling a little crampy in my back but nothing noteworthy. That morning I used the bathroom and, lo and behold, I lost my mucous plug. I had my 38 week appointment with my midwife at 11 am and conveniently my mom was already planning on going with me so she could meet my midwife before the birth. Jennifer, my midwife, noticed my uterus contracting and made a mental note of the progress. I felt the cramps but at this point I couldn’t really feel the start or end of a contraction. I had to touch my belly to feel the uterus tightening in order to know I was even having a contraction. She also told me that Genevieve was fully engaged in my pelvis. During the appointment contractions went from 15 minutes to 10 minutes apart. I was officially in early labor. My mom and I chuckled because we’d both known that I would go into labor early. I called my office and told them I was officially going on maternity leave.
I was so glad my mom was with me! We ran to the grocery store to stock up on food and get all the last minute details in place. I let my birth team know that things were starting. I felt like I was floating, my mind was so scattered but I also felt so calm and full of peace. I spent the rest of the afternoon cleaning, eating and resting, knowing that this could last a while. By 4:00 pm contractions were 8-10 minutes apart but easy to work through. My mom left and Michael came home from work. We spent our last few hours alone together. That evening we walked around our neighborhood hoping to get things going.
By 7:30 contractions were more like 7 minutes apart. I wanted to distract myself, so Michael, my mom, my mother-in-law, and I played a round of dominos. By the end of the game I was over it and wanted to focus on the contractions. At 9:30 I iced some birthday cupcakes for when we would celebrate Genevieve’s birthday. And then I was ready for bed. Everyone left and I tried to ‘sleep’. I was really restless and just wanted the heated pad on my back. Contractions were 6 minutes apart. Karlie, my doula and dear friend, showed up at midnight and we all tried to get some sleep. I woke up at 5 am and barely felt contractions. It was so strange because all night I was feeling so much. When contractions pick up and slow back down, it’s called prodromal labor.
Tuesday, November 5th:
Tuesday morning we woke up, ate some breakfast and took a walk in Shelby Park. It was so nice to spend a few hours outside getting some fresh air. Contractions picked back up and were again at 6-8 minutes apart.
My midwife came over around noon to check on me and see how things were going. She asked if I wanted to be checked to know my cervical dilation.
Here’s some backstory: When I was young I experienced sexual abuse. Because of this I have had issues with pelvic exams. It is something that I have worked through in counseling, some physical therapy, and just time. But it is still difficult for me to physically get my pelvic floor muscles to relax. It’s a condition called vaginismus. It definitely crossed my mind that this would play a role in labor but I never really gave it much thought because I didn’t want to believe that my dreams of a natural, vaginal birth could be hindered by trauma I experienced years ago.
Suffice it to say, Jennifer tried to check my dilation but wasn’t really able to because it hurt me too much and the last thing she wanted to do was cause more trauma. Everyone who was at my house left so I could be alone with Michael. I was feeling really down after the failed cervical check and I started crying. After 2 hours of feeling weepy, my mom, sister and a couple of close friends came over to cheer me up. Contractions were still regular but I could work through them by simply breathing. They gave me massages and lifted my spirits. My midwife came back over and felt it would be best if everyone left so I could try and get some more rest. I cried again and we went to bed at 6 pm. In the middle of the night the contractions got really intense. Michael got up and made me some eggs, lit some candles and helped me through the contractions. I knew that this was still early labor and I was just so tired, I wanted to go back to bed. So I worked through contractions the rest of the night, falling into deep sleep in the minutes between them.
Wednesday, November 3rd:
Wednesday morning my mom and Karlie came by the house. They lifted my spirits once again and painted my toenails. I then had a chiropractor appointment at noon to see if my chiropractor could help with the intense hip pain and to help baby get into a better position. For the next 2 hours Karlie, Michael and I walked around the neighborhood, stopping when contractions hit. Our midwife came back and checked my cervix, this time with a little more help and coaching from Karlie and Michael. I was only 4 cm dilated. Jennifer decided to take some blood to make sure it wasn’t an infection causing the contractions because I wasn’t really progressing at all. Jennifer left to run my blood to the lab. Right after she left I had an intense contraction and noticed clear fluid running down my leg; it was around 5 pm that my water broke. Contractions felt like they were picking up so we called our midwife and Michael started setting things up. I was so excited that something was happening! Jennifer showed up at 8 pm with all her supplies (By the way, midwives come with LOTS of supplies. She had 3 trunks full of equipment). By 9 pm the tub was set up and I got in. Mary, the midwife assistant, also showed up at this time. I was in the tub for about 30 minutes but couldn’t really feel the contractions anymore. I could tell that the warm water was slowing labor down, but it really did feel so good! I got out of the tub and at 10 pm Jennifer checked me again. I was still tensing up really bad but it seemed like my cervix had made progress. At that point we believed we were in active labor.
From 10-12 Michael and I worked through contractions like champs. We were pulling out all of our tricks from our childbirth classes. I remember thinking, ‘why am I so alert?’ ‘This isn’t that bad, I mean the contractions are really intense but not impossible to work through’. By 2 am my midwife checked me again and could not feel any cervix, we thought this must mean I was fully dilated. It was so strange because I had no urge to push. For the next hour, Michael and I were in the nursery while the birth team got rest and we were seeing if I could ‘push’. But nothing. Karlie had to leave at 5 am to go back to work in Chattanooga and I started feeling frustrated. We were so close to meeting our little one, we were absolutely exhausted and I knew things were strange.
By morning my midwife knew that something was not right. We decided to get me on the bed and try some assisted pushing. She wanted to feel my cervix while I pushed during a contraction to get an idea of what was going on. With the help of Mary and Michael, I was able to fully relax so Jennifer could do another cervical check. They massaged my legs, used hot compresses and even lavender oil. It was at this point that Jennifer realized what was really going on. In the gentlest voice and with tears in her eyes, she told me that she was finally able to feel the cervix for the first time. Jennifer had been concerned that the reason I was not progressing was because my pelvis was too small. But after that last check she knew I had room to get my baby out. However, I was only 4 cm dilated with a very posterior cervix. Because of my previous trauma my pelvic floor muscles were so tight that she was not able to do an adequate exam the night before; the muscle felt like a bone. She had to put transferring to the hospital on the table because instead of being 10 cm dilated without the urge to push, I was barely in active labor and my water had been broken for over 12 hours. It is my midwife’s and Vanderbilt’s policy not to wait more than 24 hours after the membrane has ruptured due to the risk of infection, especially without any progress. Because I was exhausted, they thought maybe an epidural is what I needed to facilitate the relaxation of the pelvic floor.
I moved to the bed and once there, I didn’t want to move. I was leaning up against Michael and using his hands for stability. Unfortunately, a water birth was off the table. I needed Mary and Michael to actively assist me through each contraction and they couldn’t have done that if I was in the tub. I didn’t expect to be so vocal. I was seriously loud. They were deep, primal groans that came from who knows where. I learned later that I was so loud my neighbors across the street thought there was someone in their house The low groans helped me so much! It’s like I got lost in the noise and the vibrations in my head. It’s what I focused on during each contraction.
As they intensified, I knew I had to throw up. I remember vomiting quite a few times and feeling so much relief. It was hard though because I would finish a contraction then during the break I would be throwing up and then move right back into a contraction. That was tough. Jennifer checked me again and I was 7 cm. More progress! Anytime Mary would leave the room, I would yell out, “Mary, I need you! Another contraction!” She never got a break! Such a rock star.
I started to get the urge to push so I gave it a try during the next few contractions. It felt so amazing to finally be doing something proactive. Jennifer wanted to check me again before I got serious with the pushing to make sure I was fully dilated. I was only 8 cm. She instructed me to not push, to fight the urge because pushing right now could mean damaging the cervix. My goodness this was the hardest part of the entire labor process. I got flat on my back and when a contraction came on I would breathe through it as long as possible until the urge got too strong and then I would vibrate my lips to fight the need to push. It was excruciating. I still remember how I felt looking up at my ceiling thinking I was dying. No joke, I thought I was dying. I looked at both Jennifer and Michael many times saying things like “I can’t do this, I can’t handle any more contractions, I want to die”. But there comes a moment that you realize – there is no way out. I can’t push pause. I think I even said something like can we try for babies next year, I am not ready. It was seriously overwhelming. My dear husband was totally prepared for this. He knew that when I was giving up, that was a good sign. So he really got in my face encouraging me every second. I was in transition. About 30 minutes of fighting this urge, my midwife checked me right when a contraction hit. I didn’t know what she was doing at that moment but I remember thinking she was ripping something. I yelled her name and dropped the F-bomb. She was moving the tiny bit of cervical lip over the baby’s head. I asked her if I could push now and she said yes.
When it’s time to push, it’s like a whole new surge of energy hits. Out of instinct I stood up at the foot of my bed and during the next contraction I pushed with all my might using my midwife for support. It was so relieving! In our childbirth class we were instructed to take 2 breathes and then push for a count of 6. That went out the window. By the time I had pushed for 6 seconds, I was just getting started. I probably pushed for 20 seconds at a time. I was using the power of the contractions with the pushing and it really did feel so much better. My groans got louder and deeper, if that is even possible, and I yelled out, “If anyone is in the living room they can come in!” My mom, sister and our videographer stood at the door as I pushed again squatting on the bed with Mary and Michael supporting each arm. There was a lot of bleeding and my midwife wanted me to lay back on the bed with Michael supporting my body so she could get a better look of what was going on.
I remember feeling my baby move down the birth canal. It was incredible. During the next contraction my midwife said “I see her blonde hair.” Whoa. I couldn’t open my eyes though. I was so focused that I kept my eyes closed the whole time. By the next contraction I could tell she was starting to crown. I felt what is known as the ‘ring of fire.’ It is an intense stretching, burning feeling but honestly, it didn’t even phase me at that point. I was so ready for it all to be over. It could not have been more than 3 contractions that her head was out. Michael started to cry and I could hear the gasps from the onlookers. I opened my eyes for a minute and remember seeing them all at the door. I was so glad my mother-in-law made it at the last moment, too. After 33 minutes of pushing, at 3:57 pm, I birthed Genevieve Lark into this world.
She was immediately put on my chest and I just said over and over again “hey baby, hey baby, hey baby”. Michael was crying and I was just in shock. I was out of breath. I’ve heard people say this and I found it to be true, my baby was both a stranger and someone I have known all along. The familiarity was from the bond we had while she was in my womb. I was so happy that it was over but I didn’t feel total relief because I knew the placenta was next and then potential stitching. Things were still burning down there. After a few minutes of bonding and waiting for the cord to stop pulsing, Michael cut the cord and Genevieve was separated from my body. My placenta was not detaching on its own so I started to breastfeed to try and keep the contractions going. She is a natural latcher and did great! However, it was 40 minutes after birth and my placenta was not moving. I gave Genevieve to Michael and carried her out into the living room to meet the family. He also held her skin to skin to keep her temperature regulated and to encourage the attachment between the two of them. Jennifer had me stand up off the bed and gave me a shot of Pitocin in my thigh. She was worried about me hemorrhaging. Once she gave me the shot, one contraction later I birthed the placenta. I only needed a few minor stitches for one 1st degree tear and with a shot of Novocain, my midwife was able to suture me up right there. Jennifer then weighed and measured Genevieve. She was 6 lbs 13 ounces and 20.5 inches long.
Everyone left the room so Michael, Genevieve, and I could have some time just the 3 of us. Everyone else started to clean-up in the rest of the house. I will always treasure that time. After 15 minutes I was ready to get cleaned up. So with Michael’s help I took a shower and washed my body off. By the time I was done my room had been completely cleaned. The bed was remade with clean, fresh sheets. Michael’s family brought champagne and we sang Happy Birthday and ate the cupcakes I made 3 days earlier. Then it was time to rest just the three of us. And let me tell you, the morning after, waking up in our bed with the sun shining in the window and our baby cuddled up with us, that was pure joy!
-Birth is hard. I don’t care what type of labor and birth experience you have. It is hard. Enduring birth makes you a champion. I am amazed by all women who give birth.
-I would choose a home birth every time. Had I labored in the hospital I would have faced two traumas – the physical challenges from abuse and my fear of hospitals after my surgeries as a child. Not to mention, there is no way I would have had a natural birth in a hospital with such slow progression. I would have had interventions. My home was where I needed to be in order to fully relax and feel safe. Our house feels so sacred and special now.
-Thankfully my daughter was never in danger. If that were the case, I would be the first in the car to go to the hospital. Her heart rate was perfect and she endured that long labor beautifully. All the hiccups along the way were handled perfectly by my midwife. Jennifer and Mary really believed in me and stuck with me for 4 days to help facilitate the birth I really desired.
-I was able to tap into some deep inner strength in order to relax my body. Women have the incredible ability to this. I am definitely stronger than I ever thought possible and I now feel capable of anything! I really feel like the last evidence of the abuse that I experienced was released during this labor. I accomplished something I didn’t think I would ever overcome.
-Having a natural birth was so meaningful for me. I experienced labor the way that so many generations before me had also experienced it. I feel connected with sacred femininity and so amazed that I actually did it! Feeling my daughter move down the birth canal and learning to read every sign of my body was so empowering. I did it! I endured the hardest moments of my life and survived. My body knew what to do and I had to surrender to the process. I still can’t believe I did it. I must also add that you really do forget the intensity after the first few days.
-Education makes all the difference! No, it doesn’t necessarily guarantee an easy labor but it helped us immensely. Michael knew what to do in every stage of labor and he was not freaked out when things got super intense. He knew what to expect, and so did I. Not to mention, the only reason we were able to endure 4 days of labor is because we knew how to handle early labor. I knew that rest, food, and drink were essential. Michael and I knew that there were times to simply rest and times to get labor going. Pacing myself and using the tools I learned in our childbirth class made all the difference.
-My goodness, my husband. I have to end on that note. He went through labor with me. He did not leave my side and was always there with me through each contraction. Yes, I was feeling the pain of labor but he was right there with no sleep, supporting and encouraging me. After Genevieve was born, Michael kept saying how amazed he was with me. He had never seen me so strong and powerful. There was a primal beauty to the whole experience. And those days after birth I was so overwhelmed with my love for him. He really did go through it all with me. The depth and intimacy of our love for each other increased exponentially because of this experience.