(I wrote this April 10, 2018. All day I knew I needed to write Soraya’s birth story. I had written it once before, but I need to do it again. For Leila I held back, not wanting to taint the perfection of the experience with my words. With Soraya I held back, knowing I needed to exorcise the initial anxiety and shame from the experience. Not that it is completely gone. But it is incredibly faint.)
The week of her due date I saw the acupuncturist, twice. I went to the chiropractor and was discouraged when she said she would see me after the baby was born. I felt untethered. These weekly appointments to my triad of practitioners grounded me in the pregnancy. By her due date she already felt late, I had been so inundated with stories of how the second comes sooner. Everyone empathized with my waiting, how each day feels like a year, but I did not feel weary from physical discomfort. At 40 weeks and 3 days I went to a long and sweaty yoga class and was dismayed at my ability to power through the 90 minutes. The week passed by quickly, and I found myself at 41 weeks. Our doula, Kristi, came to our house and assuaged my fears that she would never come. I packed the car with our luggage and had my mom join me at the doctor’s office in both the hope that a dilated cervix would send me to L&D and a fear that poor test results would rush me to the hospital. For the second time I got clearance that my fluids looked good, I got assurance that any induction would require minimal intervention, and the NST was “perfect.” We scheduled the induction for Tuesday night. I did not bemoan my belly, but the anxiety of waiting, of worrying over each movement or pause between was exhausting.
Sex did not get her in, a nurse and a tube did that. How could I trust that I would not need science to help her back out into the world? My grandma lost her first daughter, born too late, a month after she was due. How could I trust that she would not die if she stayed too long? How could I trust my body to get her out on time?
At 41 weeks and 3 days I refilled eyelash extensions and went to the grocery store, again. I went to another yoga class, after avoiding them all week in lieu of rest. I wanted to leave halfway through and felt giddy at my fatigue. Two fellow students buoyed me with stories of births on the eve of inductions. That afternoon my back started to ache. I worried I tweaked it and felt frustrated that after escaping back pain for nine months it had finally descended when I most needed my body. Then I spent the afternoon chatting with some friends. One wondered if I was already in labor as I waddled to the bathroom. I hoped she was right. And then I worried about my current pain being a premonition of back labor. I texted our doula and she suggested some techniques I could try to move the baby into a more optimal position and ease the back pain.
The next morning my mother-in-law took Leila to a friend’s birthday party and Ben skipped church to stay home and help me move through the Miles Circuit and the spinning babies “three sisters.” The movement helped ease my back pain, and I felt more confident for labor.
The day was dreary and rainy and between the weather and fatigue I never made it for another walk. Ben and Leila took me to Target to walk around for a bit and get out of the house. I think I might have started to feel contractions, but I had experienced mild cramping for so long, with so little significance that I did not take note. At 10pm I felt something more distinct. We had just gotten into bed, just like Leila, almost six years later to the day. After three consecutive contractions I downloaded an app and began to time them. After a few more I decided to get up and go to the living room. Before I got up, I texted our doula and birth photographer and wisely heeded Ben’s advice to go ahead and call my mom to have her spend the night to save her from a midnight drive. I started to stream The Goldbergs. I thought it would be a welcome distraction to pass time as my contractions moved from uncomfortable to unbearable, but that happened in the middle of the first show. In the first hour they were already timing in under 7 minutes apart, exactly when they said to head to the hospital. They were strong. I got on my hands and knees and had Ben hold my hips tight to help me get through them. My mom arrived and started to settle in for the night. I got a long, hot shower and shaved my legs.
The waiting and fear compounded, and it felt imperative to go to the hospital right away. I thought I was afraid of a fast delivery, but really I was afraid of losing this baby. In the middle of the night there was no traffic, and we found parking on the first floor. I wanted to run to labor and delivery. Maybe I thought it would be easier. Maybe I just wanted more support. I made Ben wait for another contraction to finish before starting the convoluted walk through Memorial Hermann. Another contraction stopped me in the corridor across from the café. I had him squeeze my hips, while I silently breathed through the pain. When we walked into labor and delivery I wanted to weep, overwhelmed by pain and the prospect of finally being in labor, of finally meeting this baby girl earth side. But I still felt self-conscious and held my tears back and stayed silent through each intense pang. I felt foolish signing in to the hospital, so early into this labor.
They took me back to triage almost immediately. I was 4 centimeters dilated. “You’re going to have a baby today.” I thought it was a presumptuous declaration until I realized we were already in the early hours of Monday morning. They were probably right. I waited through another contraction or two before they came back and wheeled me to my room. I went past Ben signing in for me. It was the first room on the left, the big room our birth photographer told us to keep our fingers crossed for, and it felt cavernous. Too big and lonely. I saw the bassinet on the adjoining room set aside for the baby and just wanted it to be the end of this and the beginning of our lives with her.
I finally remembered to moan through the contractions and felt some relief in finally connecting deeper, lower, where it was happening.
The nurse introduced herself and helped me get dressed in the gown I bought especially for this labor and put me into padded yellow hospital socks and had me sign consent paperwork. I paused as I initialed next to my consent for the cesarean. I wanted to ask if this was necessary, but I wanted to be done with this process, so I signed as quickly as I could. The nurse hooked me up to a machine for monitoring and prepared my IV for the rounds of antibiotics I would need and said something about the anesthesiologist and an epidural. I told her I did not want one. She took a quick, noticeable pause and then moved on, unquestioning. Somewhere in between I asked if Ben would be there soon, and she told me he could come in now if that was okay for him to be present for the remaining questions. I said yes, and though I was relieved to have him in the room I was anxious for Kristi to arrive too. He told me that she was on her way, and he began to set up the room, plugging in my phone and playing the playlist I had prepared six years ago for Leila’s birth. I never updated it. Maybe I was afraid of jinxing myself, of this birth.
I had to lay on the bed for the initial monitoring, and I panicked I would have to stay there. The pain was unbearable as I was forced to endure it in relative stillness. When Kristi arrived she began to ask the nurse what I could do and what they had. She requested the birth ball and peanut and got me approved to get and go to the shower. When I finished my dose and the acceptable amount of monitoring the nurse wrapped my hand with the IV in plastic.
The hours of labor passed in a blur. I stood in the shower, leaning against the wall and swayed my hips and moaned, utterly primal save for the vanity that reminded me to not get my eyelashes wet. When I went to the bathroom the first time my doula encouraged me to stay through a couple contractions. Not even a breath through the first I stood up and declared, “I can’t.” If my previous experience with contractions was a wave that crested and receded to a still pause, these were riptides, pulling me under, and I was fighting for and through each breath. Each one seized my belly. Like being socked in the gut. Intense and unrelenting. Mentally, or physically, or both, I could hardly let go between. I held on to Ben through some. They hugged my belly with the Rebozzo through others. I had to go back for monitoring and antibiotics at some point or two or three. The pain was so severe it made me vomit. Kristi encouraged me that this was better than 10 contractions. Every time I checked the clock it felt like time was racing past me. I remained 4 cm through two more checks, and I remember Kristi telling me the OB wanted to put me on Pitocin if I had not progressed by 8 that morning. I felt relieved to have a game plan. I wanted some relief, and so I kept bringing up an epidural. I thought it would be like Leila, I would just say it and let it go, but the pain continued to feel overwhelming. Kristi asked if I would regret it, and I said I did not know, and so I kept going. I gave my body an ultimatum. I decided that I needed to be 6cm by 6am, or I would get the epidural. I needed an end game. Something was different with this labor. I did not even realize how different they were until it was over, days later, in retrospect.
I got into the shower again. Ben started with me, but he was so exhausted he could barely stand and hold the shower head against my back, so Kristi took over and Ben laid down.
During Leila’s birth our team felt intimate and complete. This morning it felt desperate and small. I wished my mom was there. I got out and Kristi held me as I labored. I wanted to apologize for being too tired to even get back in my gown, for needing her to hold me naked through an agony that I could literally hardly stomach. In a pause she got me into my gown and encouraged me to labor in the bed, so I could rest between contractions. She warned me that the first few contractions would be challenging, and as much as I dreaded the pain I was too exhausted to do anything else. My entire body shook through each contraction, and I stopped talking between. Kristi fed me ice chips and reminded me to breathe deep. I think I started to drift to sleep between contractions. She told me I could not be doing it any better, the words of encouragement that buoyed me through Leila’s labor. I did not believe her. I felt pathetic and weary.
The last moments of laboring are so clear and discombobulated. The nurse checked me, and I had finally progressed to 7cm. A burst of relief rushed through me. The contractions were almost continuous. Kristi, watching the monitor would tell me okay, I could relax, and I would shake my head as the pain continued. I was sure my groans echoed through every corner of the ward. At one moment I shouted out, “It f#$%^*g hurts!” and Kristi calmly said, “I know” and continued coaching me to breath deep. The nurse said she had never seen someone labor like this before and told me I could call her a “b%&*@,” which made me feel ashamed. I wanted to explain I didn’t want to do that, but I followed Kristi’s steady encouragement and bellowed, pushing my breath as deep as it would go into the bottom of my pelvic floor. I tried to convince Kristi I was ready to push. I had started to feel the faintest urge at the apex of each contraction, and she gently told me not yet. She reminded me that we were still waiting on my birth photographer. None of it mattered. I was ready for it to be over. The nurse tried to get another blood pressure reading, but my entire body was convulsing so violently. I remember hearing the top read “213,” and the nurse tried to get another but was having trouble.
And then I felt a rush of warmth between my thighs. I said, “water” and Kristi tried to bring me water, and I shook my head and said, “My water broke.” She looked down and said it was blood. It did not hurt, and I was not phased. The nurse put an oxygen mask on me, and Kristi assured me this was normal. I did not have the space to worry. It helped to have the clean air pumping into my lungs, but I still struggled to breathe deep through each contraction.
Then the OB came into the room. I was so excited and relieved and ready to move forward. She told me that they were going to take me to the OR because I had a possible placental abruption. I did not understand. It took me seconds to process. She wasn’t alone. There was a team of people behind her. I told her to check me, that I thought I could push. She told me no. I asked again. She said no again. She called for a drip of magnesium into my IV to help my blood pressure, and I asked that they take the reading again, sure this mistake was the reason for my verdict. I looked at Kristi, pleading. She asked if Ben and I could have a moment to talk. The OB paused and said we only had 30 minutes. I relinquished and asked for an epidural. They did not understand me, so Kristi translated. The OB said it was an emergency and they needed to take me right away. That I might need general anesthesia. Ben was crying. I let out a single, dry sob. I wanted to cry, to grieve, but I was still laboring. I needed to get my baby out, safe and healthy. That was my focus. In the instantaneous crash of my expectations, I grasped a single fear. I looked at Kristi and said, “What about the recovery?” She looked at me and said, “I know.”
My timeline for that last thirty minutes is all distorted, everything happened so quickly. They were trying to help me out of my gown. It could not have been more than seconds, but it felt so long and tedious and I told them to just cut it. A blond nurse shaved me. I did not know why. I had a moment to puzzle before my thoughts tore onward. I did not realize the incision would be so low. Everyone was gentle and conciliatory. They dressed me in a hospital gown. They wheeled me to the OR, and I prayed for my safety, not for myself but for Leila. For a split second I felt the panic that I would die and leave Leila without a mom. I don’t know why this gripped me. The sudden fear of leaving Leila.
The OR was bright and calm and peaceful. It did not feel like an emergency. In a matter of steps I went from death to safety. They helped me to sit up for the anesthesia. I tucked my chin towards my chest and obediently slouched. They commended me for how I handled it, but I was terrified something would go wrong. Do people ordinarily struggle to stay still? The numbness washed up over me immediately. My legs felt heavy, and I felt disconnected from them as they wiped away the blood. It did not strike me then, but I now think back and wonder if I had stopped bleeding.
I asked when I could hold my baby, and they told me they would have to check her first. I wanted to do everything right, but it was so fast, and I was so unprepared.
They put a net over my hair, trying to tuck all my short strands in, and a pillow under my head. My arms were spread out wide, and I thought of McMurphy’s final scene in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. I do not remember when Ben finally came into the room. I fought the thick drowsiness. I was so tired. I just wanted to sleep. I fought it because I knew I would regret sleeping through her birth. I heard my OB respond to someone, “Yes, she’s active and does yoga.” And the colleague replied, “I can tell.” I assumed they were talking about me as they made the incision, and I felt resentful they were cutting through my abdomen, through all the diligent yoga and walking and physical preparation I had done for this birth. Through the acupuncture. Through the chiropractor. Through the unmedicated contractions.
I felt the pressure they warned me about, but it was not tortuous. They asked if I was comfortable, and I said yes, even though my right shoulder ached. I heard a baby cry. I do not think they made any announcement. They did not hold her up for us to see. I heard the OB comment on my placenta, that it looked like it had started to detach. I strained to hear and understand, but my thoughts kept drifting into a fog.
Eventually the pediatrician came over and introduced himself and told me our baby was healthy. I could not understand him, I was so tired and disoriented, so I just nodded and maybe said thank you. I took our daughter’s health for granted. I trusted she was fine.
I heard Ben talking to Soraya. After awhile I asked if I could see her. He brought her over, and I gave her head a kiss. Nobody took our photo. Should I have asked for him to stay closer?
It took 45 minutes from Soraya’s birth until I could hold her. My arms felt so heavy and cumbersome, and I was desperate to nurse her. I had anticipated this moment. This moment when I would hold our daughter in my arms and cry relief and gratitude and joy. I had anticipated this moment we paid $1500 for someone to capture, this moment of utter peace after years of grief. There was no pause to savor the thrill of finally holding this baby in my arms. Only a quick snap on the iPhone by Ben.
They wheeled us off to recovery. I did not feel regal. I felt confused and disoriented and ashamed. There was a woman standing with a camera when we got to the room. It took me a moment to place her. She looked familiar, but why was she there? It took me a moment to place that it was our birth photographer. Ben called her when I got to 7cm. And then it all happened. Everything went wrong and everything went right. Because we were here together, safe and healthy.
Kristi was there too. She had stayed. She packed our bags and waited for us. A faithful, diligent support to the end.
The nurses finally tried to help Soraya latch. I did not care if it was imperfect or hurt. I just wanted to feed her. I wanted my body to work. I was impatient with the nurses. I was impatient for a latch. It seemed to work on the left, but she would not latch on the right. I moved Soraya into a football hold, but she ended up in a kneeling position. And nursing, so I left her. I laughed but it broke my heart that she was slouched on the side of me like that. I felt so embarrassed I could barely hold her.
At some point I went from recovery to our room. Leila and my mom came in and then Ben’s parents. Family came throughout the day. My dad and sister and grandma, barely making it before her flight left the next day. My brothers and my sisters-in-law. The nurse we had that first day was amazing and cheerful.
I spent the whole day skin to skin, nursing Soraya and letting her sleep on my chest.
The nurse I had that evening was firm and strong and perfect. Soraya would not stop crying, Ben was asleep. I was tethered to the bed. She offered to watch her so I could rest, but I did not want to be parted. Late in the evening she helped unhook the catheter and detach me from the liquid IV of fluids and machine pumping circulation around my calves. It was excruciating. For the first time I felt that I had been cut in half.
When Soraya continued to fuss she gently encouraged us to try a bath. Ben helped bathe Soraya on “the beach,” as our nurse called the warmer. I watched from the bed. It was magical to watch how Soraya immediately relaxed under the warm light.
I think Soraya had just been cold. I was hot and itchy, and the air conditioning in our room only worked when turned on at full capacity. I was finally comfortable, but Soraya must have been freezing in that single swaddle under the blasting air.
The nurse helped me to go to the bathroom again, which was slightly less difficult than the first time. Progress.
The next morning I went on my first walk. Ever diligent to follow a protocol, I timed our walk on my phone as I shuffled down and around the halls. The shock of the previous day was starting to wear, and I was left with sadness and disappointment about the birth. I cried. I wanted to bring Soraya into the world like Leila. Just our little team, in warmth and quiet and peace.
But our baby was unphased. Just like that strong heart beating on that first ultrasound. The one where I was sure I would only hear deafening silence.
The second day we were visited by friends, and it was so nice to have company. Our first friend shared the birth story of her first daughter, another emergency c-section. We commiserated in being starving after laboring only to be told we could only have fluids. Later we were visited by another friend that had shared the heartbreak of infertility with me and adopted the sweetest baby boy. Finally, our Rector and her father came to visit. Her first son’s birth also ended in an emergency surgical birth, and it brought such comfort for me to hear. I was grateful for our story, if only to pass along to someone else. They prayed with us and gave us communion. A trinity of visitors, a perfect community of beauty and love.
That night we watched TV, Ben sat on my left, and I held Soraya, and it washed over me. I felt happy.