My birth story
To decide what kind of birth I wanted, I watched YouTube videos of live births. I watched births where the mothers had an epidural and births where they didn’t, and I thought the more natural births were beautiful. The mother seemed more present, and the first moment with the baby seemed more connective.
So I had a vision of giving birth without an epidural. But because I was pretty uncertain about how much pain I would experience and how I would cope, I planned to do the birth with nitrous, a standard medication option for giving birth. Nitrous is short-acting, so I could have the support I needed for the pain but also feel the process out and try to be present.
I signed up with the San Francisco Birth Center which offered nitrous. And they had an environment and culture seemed beautiful and cozy, encouraging people to be really present with their births.
In reality, my birth did not happen as I’d planned.
First, the pain was worse than I expected.
At first the pain was so slight that I didn’t notice it. I started getting contractions on Tuesday, August 4th in the late morning.
Earlier that morning, I went to the hospital to do some testing with the baby, which is recommended when you reach 41 weeks.
They monitored the baby’s heart rate and they monitored me for contractions. I watched the contraction monitor and noticed the number going up, which I assumed meant that I was having contractions. And when I was paying attention to that number, I did notice that I was having some cramping each time it ticked up.
The nurse told me that I had 3 contractions in 20 minutes, but that it probably wasn’t active labor because I wasn’t feeling pain. Instead, it was probably Braxton Hicks. But later that morning after leaving the hospital, I noticed these contractions were getting stronger. They felt slightly painful, like a mild period cramp or like I had diarrhea.
I took a nap because I hadn’t gotten much sleep the night before. And when I woke up, they were stronger still. Now it felt very clear that I was in the early stages of labor.
We started to time the contractions using an app, and they were coming about every 20 minutes.
I wrote a note to Slack, which my community house uses for our internal chat, and I went downstairs to hang out with people. I had a vision of spending the early parts of my labor with friends.
So I sat on the couch and, little by little, people read the news and came over to hang out with me. My housemates were really excited and supportive. Hanging out felt fairly normal, but with occasional interruptions. We would talk about something mundane, and then in the middle of talking I would take a break and sit with the pain of a contraction. It felt like a very strong period cramp at this point, and I closed my eyes to be with it. It passed through me like a wave.
At some point, every housemate had come down and was sitting with me. I live with 7 people. My housemate Matt was out of town, so he called us on video chat, the laptop sitting on our coffee table.
I asked if someone would be up for serving some tea and my housemates Brayden and Lucy set up tea service. We hung out and sat together and my contractions started to get stronger. I found that sitting up was too intense, so I got on my hands and knees and rocked back and forth. I felt vulnerable to be experiencing something so raw in front of people, but I also felt supported by the presence of the community.
The contractions started to speed up. Over the course of about an hour they went from about every 20 minutes to about every 5 minutes. Then soon it went from every 5 minutes to every 3 minutes. Occasionally, the contractions were happening every minute. The pain was also getting a lot stronger.
I was using the app to track my contractions and at some point it told me I should go to the hospital. I felt pretty freaked out. Isn’t this all happening quite quickly?
This begins the second aspect of the journey that I found very challenging. I felt gaslight. Not from my husband James or housemates, but from others I reached out to.
I texted my mom to tell her what was going on when the contractions were getting stronger, and she advised that I take a nap. I appreciated her support, but I told her that I was in too much pain to take a nap. She insisted that I take a nap.
I left my housemates in the living room and went outside to call my doula. The agreement I thought I had with my doula was that she would come over whenever I needed support with pain. I told her I could really use her support because the pain was feeling hard to manage, could she come over? She told me that I was early in the labor still, and I should take a walk or a hot bath. And she wanted to eat some dinner. Why don’t we check in in an hour and see how things are going?
I felt confused, does she not get that I’m struggling? I told her that I was okay with waiting a little while for her to eat, but I wanted her to come over as soon as she finished dinner.
At this point, I decided to say goodbye to my housemates and head upstairs for some privacy. I took a hot bath and then got out and labored in my room with James. The pain was strong now, and I was feeling desperate for the doula to arrive.
I felt unable to be present with the pain. It was overwhelming. I said “James, I need a bowl” and I started to vomit. I threw up everything that I had eaten that afternoon until I had nothing left to throw up.
The doula arrived and helped me with some massage and coaching. “Exhale through the contraction… good.” And still the pain was overwhelming. Trying to be present with it wasn’t working well. It gripped me.
And the contractions were coming quickly, every couple of minutes. I felt fear, thinking, is this normal? It was coming so quickly. I had a vision that I would stay home for a while in labor with my doula. But should we go to the birth center already?
After about an hour of laboring with the doula at home, I decided that I’d had enough and I needed some more support with the pain. “I want to go to the birth center now. I want nitrous.”
My doula called the birth center and they didn’t answer. “Let’s keep going, and I’ll try calling a bit later.”
Why aren’t they answering? We were calling them on their urgent line. My mind raced, but I couldn’t speak, and another contraction ripped through me.
“Should we try calling them again?” James said. My doula replied with something like, “let’s try laboring a bit more and see how it goes.” She sent them a text, and still no one replied. Another contraction came in hard and took all my attention. I felt impatient and like I couldn’t rely on others. “I want to go now, call again,” I said.
My doula finally talked with the birth center. I didn’t know exactly what they were saying, but it didn’t sound entirely positive. “She wants nitrous, ok, ok… Her contractions are about once every 5 minutes.” No they are not! I thought, and another contraction flooded my brain.
“Ok, we can go to the birth center,” she said after the call. The car ride to the birth center was hard. I had five contractions in the 15 minutes it took to get there. With each one, I was bracing myself. I watched the clock and counted down the minutes before I could try the pain reliever.
We got there and the door was locked and it was dark outside. James called to tell them we had arrived, and I squatted down on the concrete outside the building as another contraction started. The midwife came out and helped me up and walked me inside. “I want nitrous and a warm bath as soon as possible,” I said, but she didn’t acknowledge my statement. At this point, my vision was blurry and I was shaking.
They invited me to go back to the examination room. I sat on the table and threw up into a ziplock bag, shaking. We sat there for 10–15 minutes and still no nitrous. So I asked the midwife, “When can I get nitrous?” She answered with, “We can go back to the room and settle in.”
It didn’t make sense. She wasn’t answering my question. Then they checked my cervix for how dilated it was, and the midwives had some discussions in the hallway that seemed a bit tense. What were people not telling me? (Later on I learned that they were discussing whether or not I should go home because I was not very dilated yet, about 3 cm.)
So I sat there feeling impatient and a bit in the dark. I’m shaking. About 30 minutes after arriving, the midwife leveled with me. “So, let me tell you what’s going on,” she said.
Someone else was laboring at the same time at the birth center, which was a very rare occurrence. And that person was using the nitrous. There was only one set up, so I would not have access to it. They could be done in as soon as two hours, though.
“You’re still early.” She said, “What I recommend is that you do some walking and we’ll see if that speeds things along.” They didn’t want me to use the bath because that could slow down my labor. So all of my tools for managing pain felt like they were gone at this point. And this felt totally different than what I had imagined would be available to me.
I was pissed. This was feeling like bullshit.
“I think I want to go to the hospital and get an epidural,” I told the midwife. I didn’t trust much at this point. I wanted pain relief as soon as possible. And the other person laboring could last for many, many hours more, I guessed.
The midwives encouraged me to think about it differently. Several people talked with me about how I was feeling.
We decided that I would stay for a bit longer and give the warm bath a try. I laid in the tub and the contractions came every minute or two.
My doula sat with me and coached me on things I could try to manage the pain. “Imagine you’re on vacation,” she told me.
I thought about being with James in Tahoe. I had gone on a meditation retreat a few months ago, and James supported me during that. During retreat, we went on walks in the neighborhood. It was beautiful under the big trees. So I imagined myself there, holding James’s hand and walking. “That! Whatever you’re doing, keep doing that,” my doula said, noticing my body relax.
When a contraction started, I would think “Tahoe.” I could mostly stay with the vision, and in those moments I was distracted from the pain. But sometimes the pain would be too strong and it would overtake my vision. In those moments, I felt like I was drowning.
I started to try to stay with the vision between contractions. I was pretending to be in a far away place when the contraction started. And then I would sleep for 30 seconds or a minute, dreaming of Tahoe, until the pain would start to build again.
I felt so tired. My mouth was dry from having thrown up everything. I sipped a little bit of water but threw it up again easily.
And next door to me was a woman who was later in her laboring process. Through the walls, I could hear her moan in low wails. She sounded like she was in so much pain, more than me. “I don’t want that,” I thought sleepily.
After an hour of laboring in the tub, I decided I was done. I said confidently, “I want to go to the hospital.”
I felt sad because I had a vision of giving birth at the birth center. I really wanted that. I didn’t want the Western medical approach to birth. I was going to do something different, something more spiritual.
But I felt that leaving would be an act of care for myself.
James drove me to the hospital. I stood in the lobby and waited for James to figure out where to go, completely unfazed by anyone around me. I was having a contraction and leaning against the wall in pain and it was probably the least fuck-giving moment of my life. The pain was too much for me to care about anyone or anything else but my experience.
We got to the front desk and I asked impatiently, “When can I get an epidural?” “It’ll take 30 minutes for the anesthesiologist to arrive. And then it takes 20 minutes for the epidural to take effect.” It was so clear and refreshing. So precise. Thank god.
I went to the birthing room and got hooked up to an IV. Because it was going to take a while to get the epidural, I opted to get some near-term pain relief. She gave me a shot of fentanyl and I felt relief. The pain went from a 10 to a 7. I felt grateful, but the pain relief was accompanied by a feeling of something artificial. A slight buzzing numbness. I felt sad to lose the total presence I had. And it felt worth it.
Later, when the epidural kicked in, I was shocked at how effective it was. I felt nothingness where my legs had been. Antifreeze.
Experiencing very little pain, I looked around the room. I noticed the people around me and smiled. James said, “You look like yourself again.”
I started to think about other people and model them. I wondered how my doula was doing and if she was okay. And then I felt a loss for that state I’d been in of single-mindedness. How I had had zero social anxiety or concern.
I was five centimeters dilated when I arrived at the hospital. Once the epidural was in full swing and the contractions were barely noticeable, I took a nap. I woke up occasionally and then fell back asleep. After some good naps and six hours or so later, I was eight and a half centimeters dilated and almost ready to push. It felt like cheating, being in labor this way.
But then my labor slowed. Four hours later, I had made no progress. My contractions went from once a minute when I first arrived to once every 15 minutes.
And so we began the cascading intervention dance, which I’d worried might be a consequence of a hospital birth.
The epidural had slowed down my contractions, so they recommended that I do pitocin. The pitocin sped them up again until it was time for me to push. But the baby started to get stressed. I pushed for 3 hours, hard. And at some point, the baby’s heart rate started dropping each time I started to push.
A different doctor came in and talked to me about my options. They worried that the baby’s stress wouldn’t be healthy. So if I didn’t give birth soon, then they recommended we do a vacuum to help suction out the baby.
I asked how risky it was and she talked about the stats. She presented it as very safe, but then shared that there was a “less than 1% chance of brain bleeding.” “You’re saying there’s around a 1 in 100 chance of brain bleeding, that does not seem very small,” I said. “I said less than 1%,” she responded. Alternatively, we could consider a C-section.
I felt really motivated at this point to get the baby out without more interventions. Each time it was time to push, I focused all my energy on not wanting the vacuum. This gave me a second wind and we started to make dramatic progress. Within 10 minutes, the top of the head was sticking out.
James was planning to catch the baby, and the midwife helping with the birth motioned for him to come over. “Now?” he asked. “Now!”
The midwife told me to make a coughing sound. And with that, the baby started to slide out. It was incredible. It was 6:03 p.m., the day after I started labor, and our daughter River was born.
At this point, there was a team of people in the room because she had released meconium and needed to have her lungs checked out.
When she came out, they almost immediately took her away to suction her nose and give her oxygen. She was crying. “Go, love her!” I told James. He went over to the team of pediatricians and held her hand. He was with her while the pediatricians took care of her lungs for a few long and painful minutes. Then she was finally ready to come lay on my chest.
She lay on my chest, and her crying quieted. “It’s okay, baby,” I said. It was unreal. I looked at James and he looked so full of love for her. We were a family.
Additional note about the birth center:
I had a challenging experience at the SF birth center during labor. But this doesn’t capture my overall experience with the birth center.
In particular, their postpartum care has been phenomenal. I hope this brings balance to the story.