For my first birth, I thought people who went natural were crazy or had a hero complex. I did not. I was going for a vaginal birth, but secretly hoped for a C-section and was nearly certain that’s how it would end. I was just too small to deliver a baby vaginally, weighing in at a whopping 95 pounds and all of 4’10” tall. When the last ultrasound estimated my son to be over 9 pounds, I was sure it just wasn’t going to happen.
My due date came and went. I waited and waited until at 41 weeks, I was induced with pitocin. I asked for an epidural early on. I labored unsuccessfully for 20 hours, and eventually stalled out at 8cm and ended up in the OR for a C-section. I felt like my body had failed as expected, but my son was born big and healthy. After I was stitched up, he was given to me in the operating room. Unfortunately, I never had that "moment" that you expect to have. I was so overwhelmed by the effects of medications- shaking, cold, weak, and groggy. All I could think when I held him was "I'm going to drop him" as they wheeled me to recovery. In the recovery room we began successfully breastfeeding immediately, and continued with ease for two and a half years.
When my son was two and a half, I was surprised to learn I was pregnant. I knew that this time I was informed and wanted to have the most natural pregnancy and birth that I could. While I was at peace with my first birth at the time, I had begun to regret all the interventions in my birth, and knew that I wanted a different experience. I had always expected that I would hire a doula, but that was no longer an option for us under our current financial circumstances. I asked my VBAC-friendly OB early on if I was a good candidate for a VBAC, fully expecting a resounding yes. Instead, I was met with considerable hesitation. This surprised me, but I was hoping for a VBAC anyway and was resigned to another C-section if that’s how it developed.
Around 35 weeks, I was inspired to adjust my way of thinking and have my natural VBAC by sheer force of will. Unable to afford childbirth classes, I threw myself into online research, books, and accounts of friends who went natural. One line in Ina May’s Guide to Childbirth that really struck a chord with me was “Your body is not a lemon.” I struggled with feeling like my body was broken because I had not gone into labor on my own and had failed in my trial of labor for my first birth.
In order to conquer that fear, I focused on my breastfeeding success, meditating on my body’s triumph, ease, and instincts. I knew that my body was not a lemon. Despite obstacles and complications, I would likewise succeed in birth if I had the same attitude I had applied to breastfeeding- it is the most natural process on earth and complications should be the exception, not the rule.
I also began preparing my body physically. I began walking every day and eating healthier. This pregnancy I was suffering from SPD (symphysis pubic dysfunction) and pelvic floor dysfunction, so I faithfully went to physical therapy and a chiropractor. I tried to surround myself with nothing but positive thinking, but I trusted my OB and her opinion, so her hesitation for a VBAC made me question my body’s ability. I decided that I needed to stay focused on the goal, and trust her to take care of the unexpected.
At 39 weeks, a friend mentioned that her doula, René Johnson, had an unanticipated opening in her client calendar for the next two weeks, and I felt it was fate that the stars had aligned. I called her the next morning, and we met the next day and hired her. By the time René left, I felt more relaxed and confident.
Again, my due date came and went. At forty weeks and one day, I went in for my checkup. My fluid levels were good and baby was healthy. I was 90% effaced, but still only 1cm as I was the three weeks prior. My OB was not willing to allow me to go past 41 weeks, but was open to an induction. She stripped membranes at the visit to see if it would help me avoid further interventions.
My body seemed to be following the same pattern as the first time and I left the visit feeling deflated and let down. By the time I got home around noon, I was cramping from the stripping and depressed, so I tried to lay down for a nap. I was unable to sleep though because the cramping kept getting worse, and after a while I noticed it seemed rhythmic. During late afternoon the cramps seemed to be consistently coming 2-3 minutes apart, and I realized this was it!
I began packing my bag, cleaning my house, and trying to rest for the remaining afternoon. My husband took me for a walk around the neighborhood because standing and walking were the most comfortable during contractions. After a while I was unable to walk and talk through the contractions, and in discussion with Rene, we decided to head to the hospital with very intense contractions 2 minutes apart and 90 seconds long.
I arrived at the hospital at 11pm fully expecting to be at least 7cm. I was only 3cm. I was very disappointed. Due to the frequency and intensity of the contractions, I was admitted. Very soon after arrival I got in the shower, and the hot water on my back was a huge relief. Around 1:30am, Rene encouraged me to try squatting in the shower. As soon as I did, I felt my body pushing as involuntary as sneezing. My physical therapist had explained the body’s automatic ejection reflex to me, and encouraged me to allow my body to do what it needed to without “purple pushing”. I thought that surely the baby would be coming out very soon if my body decided it was time to push.
At 3am I asked for an exam, and I was only 6cm. I was again disappointed and frustrated, but mostly I was just very tired. I couldn’t imagine going like I had for many more hours. I was ashamed to ask for pain medication, but finally gave in and got a partial dose of narcotics. I was able to sleep in between contractions, but my body was pushing on almost every contraction by that point.
My water broke during an exam around 5am. I continued to move between different positions in the tub and the bed. I was feeling very out of control and hopeless. Reaching full dilation around 7am, the staff encouraged me to begin intentionally pushing with each contraction. I was exhausted mentally and physically, but at least it was a change from the unending hours of labor, and something that I could control in some small way.
I threw all my frustration and disappointment into pushing, and threw my desire to not “purple push” out the window. I knew that I was more likely to tear and have pelvic floor damage, but I was willing to deal with all of that later to get the baby out any sooner. I thought that I was right there, but an hour later nothing had changed. My mind was swirling. I felt every frustration from my prior birth, every worry for the current one, and all my insecurities about my body come up to drown me. I couldn’t understand why it was taking so long and thought that something must be wrong with me or my daughter, but my team encouraged me to keep going. My strength was waning, and my contractions seemed to be getting weaker and further apart. My mental reserves for managing the pain were gone, and I fully believed that if the baby did not come out soon, I would have another cesarean. As I worked this out in my head, I began to panic and wanted the baby out no matter what. I started “purple pushing” with everything I had, but still no baby. I had been adamant in both pregnancies that I did not want an assisted delivery, but in the moment I felt like it was that or a cesarean. I surprised myself and asked my doctor to help me with a vacuum extractor. My doctor applied the vacuum and was successful on the second attempt. At 8:31am, my beautiful daughter, Luna Isabel, was born by natural vbac.
As soon as Luna was born she was placed immediately on my chest. Not getting my son on my chest before he was cleaned was a big regret, and I was thrilled to have my “icky” baby. With some support, she began the “breast crawl” and quickly latched. It was the most amazing moment, to overcome what had been one of the most negative physical experiences of my first birth and to marry it with what had been my most positive physical experience of nursing my son. I felt healed and elated as my daughter and I worked in perfect harmony. This is how it is supposed to be.
I did have a second-degree tear, but it was nothing like I feared. I had no real pain then or later from the tearing. Following the birth, I had big regrets about succumbing to narcotics and an assisted delivery. I felt like I had failed in my intervention-free plan. However, I now realize those were simply tools to get me to the greater goal, a vaginal birth. The narcotics were essential in allowing me to get the rest I needed to forge ahead for many more hours of labor and nearly five hours of pushing, and prevented an epidural. The vacuum is what saved me in my mind from a caesarean or more hours of pushing. I did what I had to under the circumstances, and that is ok. Despite those bumps, the bigger picture was that I gave birth to my daughter naturally, vaginally, and with spontaneous labor. My body did exactly what it was designed to do. My body was not a lemon.
My advice to anyone planning a natural birth, especially a VBAC, is to prepare mentally. The mental game is the real challenge. Surround yourself with nothing but positive thoughts and stories. Have faith in your body and your baby, they know how to handle birth, and remember your body is not a lemon!