The only person in the world who gets me asked if I was traumatized, and I managed a mumble or nod before tears came flowing out at a volume that I didn’t think could be reached at age 35. It was not an ugly cry. Maybe there were a few truncated sobs, but for the most part I was a stoic fountain like Brad Pitt after his conscience-awakening conversation with Priam in Troy.
This happened in the labor delivery room, where my wife and I were watching the window go dark to light again uneasily wondering what was next. The question the previous dawn was whether some form of Plan A could be salvaged; now the hope was to avoid a roundabout form of Plan C.
Because that’s a dramatic way to put it, I should skip ahead and say we ended up with a perfectly healthy mom and baby. In fact, I wrote this sentence one-handed on the pullout chair in the recovery room, using the other hand to keep a 2-day-old’s fat head from rolling off my sternum.
Not pictured to my left was my wife snoring. No sound in the universe was sweeter to me after what she went through. The fat head resting on my heart caused me a kind of heartache I was nowhere near prepared to handle. It tilted out of position while moving through my wife’s pelvis and wouldn’t align properly no matter how many violent contractions she braved.
This baby was set to take on a world with climate change, income inequality, attack of the robots… yet he couldn’t figure out how to tuck his chin first. Quite the auspicious start, buddy. I guess we can rule out a college diving scholarship. Back to the 529. Bor-ing.
The fat clueless head, combined with my wife’s desire to go unmedicated, made for an agonizing struggle toward vaginal birth. Generally the most intense part of labor is transition, when the cervix dilates the last few centimeters while contractions go nuts. It is mercifully the shortest phase, often less than an hour.
But with the fat head tipped to one side and a crooked downward path, her cervix essentially was getting confused and unable to dilate fully to 10 centimeters. My wife was stuck in transitional hell, all pain and no gain.
She did this with no anesthesia. If you want to empathize through logic, think about how powerful an epidural is, the huge needle near the spinal cord and lethal drugs, and try to project what kind of pain would be proportionate to that kind of treatment.
Plus the fat head was facing the wrong way, no surprise in hindsight given its affinity for doing things the hard way. A posterior position puts an ungodly amount of pressure on the lower back.
My wife fought so hard for the birth she wanted, starting at 6.5 centimeters at 7 a.m. and probably hitting transition around mid-afternoon. Watching her labor went from exciting to inspiring to gut-wrenching to scary.
We were taught in childbirth class to view the pain as purposeful and nature’s way of guiding the process. But at a certain point, no words or ideas mattered. The teacher said labor is 80 percent mental, but it looked awfully, awfully physical to me.
I was filled with dread during the time between contractions, feeling the clock tick in my nerves before the next one. She moaned and screamed through them like a porn star on X. Because of the context, the sounds will haunt my nightmares rather than augment erotic dreams.
Around 5:30 p.m., the midwife thought it was time for pushing to begin. The nurses wheeled in a cart that looked integral to whatever happens when newborns pop out. I put Jurassic Park on the TV, a majestic backdrop for the miracle of life. They later changed it to a spa channel when things weren’t going so well, as the shrieking dinosaurs probably didn’t help ease anxiety.
The pushing stage was hard to watch, ample bloody show and cringeworthy pulsing in her nether region without any sign of a baby. I didn’t know what was normal and what might be terribly wrong and just wanted it be over for her.
She pushed and pushed for over an hour, maybe closer to two. Every trembling, futile effort felt like a turn of a screw in my heart. When she muttered a couple of times “I’m so tired”, I wanted to cry.
The midwife finally called it off, knowing we should have had a baby by now. She did a check and said there was still some cervix left in the way. The plan was to take a break to dilate further before trying again.
Without an epidural though, there could be no rest. The contractions kept raging at peak level, length and frequency. My wife already was teetering along the exhaustion threshold. She had eaten half of a Luna bar and slept only a few hours in the hospital the previous night after check-in finished at 2:30 a.m. and featured four vein punctures from multiple nurses struggling to set up the saline lock.
Now she was basically a full labor deep and channeling every last bit of will to withstand the pain racking her body. The midwife set her up on a peanut ball — fun name for a torture device likely borrowed from the Tickler in GoT — and then left for an hour.
I swallowed a nervous breakdown during that time, which should have been our skin-to-skin golden hour but sounded and looked like my wife’s final hour. I held it together by focusing on what continued to be my most functional contribution. Every time a contraction started building, she cued me to apply fierce counter-pressure on her back.
According to my wife afterwards, this was the only way she survived. During earlier labor, the cue to start pressing on her back was “Ger-Bear”. It progressed through the day from pet name to “Gerald” to “It’s happening” to “Now”.
We weathered contraction after contraction together in this excruciating overtime, her physically and me emotionally. The nurses were gone too, and I felt like we were the only two people in the world. I kept wondering where everybody was and actively managed the urge to panic. It turned out to be the second-longest hour of the day.
The midwife returned and directed labor some more, and even she seemed to be tiring. I was shellshocked at this point but aware enough to feel desperate headed into the second pushing session. My wife clearly had nothing more to give, but she borrowed from somewhere and fought through it again for another hour. It was courageous and makes me emotional thinking about it.
The baby just wouldn’t descend. We had stalled at 9 centimeters. I will always remember my wife tearfully saying through her delirium, “But I tried so hard”, a handy memory to have on file whenever I need to cry on command.
Even though the midwife had been wonderfully supportive of the natural birth intentions, she saw the exhaustion and recommended an epidural. This wasn’t even a decision at this point, about 11 p.m. My wife signed the waiver between unrelenting contractions, and for us both, the prospect of relief vastly outweighed the sadness of surrender.
But the longest hour of the day was about to begin. The anesthesiologist on the night shift had just been called to the OR, and the midwife and nurse left. We were on our own again.
My wife was about to lose her mind, so they had set her up with narcotics through the IV before taking off. This reduced the pain some, but not enough. You figure 80 percent of a lot is still a lot.
Worse, whatever they gave her took away lucidity. So she lost her mind anyway and crossed into a weird drugged-up state that still responded to pain. I didn’t get my wife back until the next morning.
When the anesthesiologist showed up past midnight with his deadly dim sum cart, I had to forcibly remind myself this was a routine procedure. My wife, on the other hand, was beside herself after the extra hour of loopy labor and would have bellyflopped on the needle if given the opportunity.
The awkward medicine man acknowledged she was in immense pain and said he would try not to trouble her with a lot of questions. And then he proceeded to ask a lot of questions. My wife was about to flip out between contractions, while I was about to freak out imagining what could happen if she had a contraction while receiving an injection near her spinal cord.
Then it was a circus getting her in the proper position, navigating around the multiple tubes coming out of her arms. The anesthesiologist directed us to prop her up on one side of the bed; I heard correctly but deferred to the nurse who heard incorrectly; we dragged my wife back and forth while she screamed and cursed in pain and exasperation.
After the concoction started flowing into her, my wife was asked to confirm a warm tingling in her feet. She didn’t feel it and still felt the contractions. The anesthesiologist seemed bewildered and asked again multiple times. I lost years off my life.
Ultimately I believe he made an adjustment to the dosage, but my memory is blurry because I was so scared. The drugs my wife so passionately wanted to avoid compassionately kicked in, and she fell asleep.
The plan once more was to wait for a few hours while the contractions hopefully advanced her to a third attempt at pushing. This time she wouldn’t feel them, but they were important if we were to avoid a cesarean section.
I couldn’t count how many times I got up during the night to watch the contractions monitor. The midwife started a Pitocin drip to help strengthen and accelerate them. We had viewed the drug as an enemy all through pregnancy and even at the beginning of labor because it likely would increase the chances of an epidural and cascading interventions.
Now we hoped it would be our hero. It’s funny how picky you can be with anything in life before all the good options are taken away.
Our devoted midwife returned from a nap at home before dawn and debriefed us. The baby hadn’t responded well to Pitocin, so they stopped it. She said the lack of progress after this long was honestly concerning, which was doubly concerning coming from an unfailingly positive and relaxed presence.
She suspected something “funny” with how the baby was coming down and brought in an OB, who agreed and said the word “C-section” for the first time although we had all been thinking it. As a final shot though, she allowed Pitocin to resume because the baby’s vitals were strong.
Everyone left, and my wife and I got yet another hour alone to cope with uncertainty, this time without the interruption of mammoth contractions. She hadn’t been capable of conversing for a while, and the first thing she said to me with the drug and pain fog lifted was the half-joking, half-knowing question of whether I was traumatized.
I had been thinking that very word throughout the previous day and night. How she read my mind, knew me so well, and as usual worried about others over herself… it was too much. All the stress I had been holding in rushed out in tears.
Roughly an hour and a half and another OB exam later, the tears made an encore as I hovered over my wife at the operating table. They had made me wait in the hall during prep for the C-section and said it would only take a few minutes. Twenty minutes of escalating anxiety passed, and my wife reminded them to get me as they appeared to have forgotten.
By the time I joined her, she was so scared and vulnerable on the table I almost couldn’t bear it. My sole purpose in the room was to comfort her, and I took the unique approach of dripping my own tears into her eyes and all over her face.
I told her the tears weren’t out of fear, but a realization. The more you love someone, the more that person’s goals become your own. Before the pregnancy, I had no opinion on epidurals or Pitocin or C-sections. But my wife sought a natural birth, and that became my mission too.
I wanted her to have the experience she imagined and earned. She did all the right things: prenatal yoga, chiropractor sessions, foods, exercises, classes, books, and of course enough gutsy labor to deliver two babies.
Yet within the set of healthy outcomes, this was pretty close to the opposite of the goal. My wife seemingly got the worst of every option. She suffered the pain of unmedicated birth without the joy of delivering.
She took the epidural but still felt a full labor’s worth of maximum pain and then some. She allowed the drugs to enter her system and the baby’s, but never got to push with their help.
With the C-section, she missed out on the traditional wonders of birth that had always fascinated her. Her experience instead was major surgery and a longer recovery time, and she didn’t even get the usual benefit of scheduling.
We might as well have cut the fat head out of there on time rather than let it take us on a ride to 41 and a half weeks. Plan A was spontaneous labor, no Pitocin, no epidural, my wife touching the fat head as it crowned, me helping catch it (obviously one-handed for fluid transition to the Heisman pose), delayed cord clamping, immediate and prolonged skin-to-skin.
The fat head squashed this plan before it could begin, lounging nine days past the due date. That’s when an ultrasound showed low amniotic fluid, alarming enough that the midwife began induction within 30 minutes. She inserted a Foley bulb to help with dilation and told us to check into the hospital by midnight for monitoring.
So we made the best of it. I asked my wife to pop the Dirk jersey for 41 weeks. The legend delivered in 2011, and he would deliver for us in 2019.
We declined Pitocin that first night in the hospital and planned to ask for an extension in the morning when they no doubt would press for it because of the low fluid and slow progress. The bulb worked surprisingly well though, as my wife woke up at 6.5 centimeters and her water broke shortly afterwards. A natural birth, minus the bulb, appeared within reach after all.
Every tier of contractions seemed to me like we had finally made it, but they just kept rising. After the first push, I still thought a natural birth would happen. After the second push, I thought an epidural birth would happen. After that stalled, I thought it would happen with the help of Pitocin. Even after the C-section talk, I still held out hope with Pitocin turned back on.
The whole ordeal had so many false starts, uncertain junctures, elevated and dashed hopes. It felt like fighting and clawing with everything we had to get to the top of a mountain only to repeatedly find out it wasn’t the top. But instead of seeing the next peak, we couldn’t see anything. So it was not only demoralizing to not be done, but terrifying because we had no idea where we were going.
Yes, I found our birth experience traumatizing even as a spectator. I cried twice in the same morning, which hasn’t happened since my balls dropped. And no, I felt no such emotion when the fat head was finally pulled out, just concern for my wife on the operating table and responsibility to take pictures for her.
The obvious thing I say and hear is we have a healthy baby and mother, and it’s all that matters. But I’m not sure I can so easily sweep everything under that tidy headline.
Throughout pregnancy, my wife constantly listened to a podcast of women sharing their birth experiences. I didn’t get how there could be so many variations of the same thing and it could be so emotional to talk about after the fact.
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