When we think of the past, it’s the beautiful things we pick out. We want to believe it was all like that.Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale
As children, we love to hear how we made our miraculous entrance into the world; as mothers, it’s the story of how our lives were forever changed‒ often in humourous and grotesque detail.
Despite the turns life has taken since, we look back on the birth days with sad nostalgia, wishing to live it over. The pain, which in the moment felt life ending, is forgotten. Those hopeless first few weeks of bedraggled confusion‒ the aching breasts, stitches, cramps and bleeding‒ they don’t make it into the narrative. And the further away it recedes, the less we remember the hard parts. When we do speak of them, it isn’t with the emotional weight felt in the moment, It is with triumph and pride. We made it through, despite all of that.
And we were so happy.
Each time we revisit a memory, its meaning is altered‒ saved as a new version. The details change. It becomes a reflection of who you are now. We retell these stories so often to ourselves, to each other, how can we be sure what really happened? How we felt?
Who was I then?
I know when I announced I was pregnant, people didn’t think I could do it, or if I should. Given my past, I can hardly blame them. This in part, contributed to my feelings in that early postpartum period. For two months, whenever I thought about Cordelia’s birth, I felt shame and humiliation; the way I was treated, the questionable decisions I was not a part of, how I had failed. I was angry and resentful. I felt cheated.
But I knew there would come a time, when that day would be romanticized‒ a part of my identity and hers. The emotion behind the events would be gone. It would just be another story.
I wrote this account one month after Cordelia was born. I wanted it to be truthful, without memory’s embellishment. It is for her, and it is for anyone else whose birth did not go according to plan.
Part I: 38 weeks, a “tiny” bump and Shrek’s legs
There aren’t many life experiences you hope will be boring. A trip to Italy? ‘God I hope this is a drag and nothing significant happens!’ ‒ said no one ever.
The same cannot be said of childbirth.
Having your first baby is arguably one of the most important days of your life and as my due date drew closer, I couldn’t help but hope it was as uneventful as possible.
Like every millennial with an Internet connection, I spent hours reading others’ birth stories, and cross-checking labour symptoms. There was a lot to be terrified of.
Still, despite the initial doubts, my body weathered pregnancy remarkably well‒ aside from some hellish edema in the final month. Not even prescription compression stockings were able to remedy the Shrek legs I now lumbered around on.
My ‘nutty professor’ feet as Evan so lovingly dubbed them, were the exact reason I could hardly wait for this baby to vacate the premises. I couldn’t sit longer than five minutes without swelling up and once it started, I was swollen up to my groin within the hour.
The first time my legs turned into tree trunks, I ended up in the emergency room for a blood thinner and ultrasound. As it turned out there were no blood clots, my veins were just too small.
‘Nothing to worry about, just an annoyance you have to deal with.’
Highly sophisticated medical advice here folks.
I’m a tiny person. Standing just 5’2, I’ve hovered between 100 and 115 lbs for most of my life. Evan, on the other hand, is 6’4 so I was crossing fingers the Japanese traits would be stronger than whatever recessive gene had made him so damn tall.
Unwelcome assessments from perfect strangers seemed to say I was having a ‘small baby’ but my doctor (who has a medical degree) assured me she would be on the larger side of average.
‘At least 7 lbs full term,’ were her words.
Looking down at my very full stomach and comparing it to my tiny waist, no longer visible below, I started to have some reservations about the logistics of the whole procedure. I started to worry she would get too big if I went past 40 weeks and my poor legs would explode.
So I walked.
I went for arduous hikes with Evan up and down the ravine in Goderich and I waded in the river. On my lunch hour I waddled two kilometres around the conservation area trail in Wingham.
My belly had been feeling lower for weeks. My heartburn disappeared and I could eat again without feeling immediately full.
Every morning I showed up for work, my coworkers were simultaneously relieved and disappointed. They joked, maybe I would go past my due date.
On Monday May 13, I had my 38 week appointment. My doctor asked me if I would like an internal exam to check my cervix. Not necessary until next week, but the option was available.
I was desperate to know what the hell was happening down there. So yes, yes please, I said.
As it turned out, all that walking had accomplished something. I was half-effaced and a few centimeters dilated.
During my fervent Google-ing after the appointment, I learned this means absolutely nothing and you can go weeks like that. But in the moment, I was over the moon.
My doctor performed a partial sweep and I went home crampy, bleeding a little and certain I would be in labour by the next day. I packed my bags, cleaned the whole house and woke up the next morning … feeling perfectly fine.
Tuesday and Wednesday passed and I grew more miserable. I bounced all day on the yoga ball at my desk and padded the trail holding my belly up. The swelling in my legs stopped going down at night. But all I felt was an occasional gas cramp.
Part II: A good day to be born
Thursday morning dawned sunny and warm. It was one of the first days to actually feel like spring after a long, wet winter. Dozens of fluffy yellow goslings had appeared in the Turnberry Flood Plain outside Wingham. As I drove by them on my way to work, I felt her tiny kicks in response to a song on the radio.
I said out loud, ‘you know today would be a nice day to be born.’
At 4 p.m., I left work and said farewell to everyone for the millionth time. I still had one more day until my maternity leave started, but my desk had been cleaned out for a week.
‘See you tomorrow!’ I said half-heartedly.
On my way home, I stopped at Walmart to pick up a few groceries. I got in the door around 5:15 p.m., half an hour before Evan would arrive. And as if she planned it, I wasn’t home five minutes when I felt the unsettling ooze of my mucus plug.
Before this, I was sure I missed it. I read this can happen. However, after the experience, I have no idea how. It was not a quick event and let’s just say I had to make use of the adult diapers I bought earlier than expected.
I phoned my mom. I texted my MIL and Evan. ‘I 100% just lost my mucus plug! Things are happening!’
A pretty gross text to send or receive, but as they say, when you have a baby all sense of decorum goes out the window.
Still, my best friend Google assured me, even if you’ve lost your mucus plug, it can take weeks for labour to start.
I didn’t want to get my hopes up, so I showered and waited for Evan to come home.
All week, I had been craving pizza but refused to indulge because I read in Labour Horror Stories 101, projectile vomiting was a very common occurrence. So when Evan suggested we order Dominos for dinner, I decided to tempt fate against my better judgment. As it turned out, I was too excited to eat much of anything anyway.
9:30 p.m., I still hadn’t felt any contractions to signal early labour, but started debating whether I should call in sick to work the next day.
Around 10:30 p.m. I got up for the first of my many night time bathroom breaks. Evan was already dead to the world and wearing the two layers of ear protection he had deemed necessary since the apocalyptic snoring had started around my second trimester.
He claimed I sounded like a walrus (but a tiny one).
As I hobbled to the bathroom, I was a little disappointed to still be feeling perfectly fine.
I got back into bed and laid down (on my left side, like a good pregnant lady).
Just like they say it happens, just like in the movies, I felt the telltale burst inside of me and the warm fluid start pouring out. Clamping my legs together to stem the flow and hardly daring to move, I called for Evan over my shoulder. Nothing. I hit him and said his name over and over. Nothing.
He finally stirred, annoyed to be awake.
‘My water broke.’
Pause. Confusion. Wide eyes. Action!
The contractions had already started at that point, so I didn’t want to mess around timing them when we had an hour drive to the hospital. Evan had the car packed and ready to go in 15 minutes, while I struggled to get ready‒ already in pain and shivering from shock.
The drive from Goderich to Listowel was a harrowing one; an hour trek across country in the pitch darkness.
I was extremely thankful it wasn’t January, but it didn’t make the journey any less stressful as we hit a racoon and then nearly a deer. Before we even made it to the halfway point, my contractions were coming rapidly every three minutes and getting more intense. Everything I read suggested we would have more time, but it was 0 to 100 in 60.
When we arrived at the E.R. in Listowel, Evan offered to find me a wheelchair, but in a bout of stubbornness I refused.
I hobbled up to the registration window and presented my health card, doubled over and still leaking amniotic fluid. The attendant hardly looked up as she, disinterested, asked me to verify my phone number, address and next of kin. I was still able to maintain composure and respond politely at this point, despite my intense annoyance at the bureaucratic procedure.
When Evan and I arrived on the maternity ward floor, it was dark and deserted. A week earlier we had come for a tour and the whole place was packed wall to wall. Tonight, it was eerily silent.
Part III: Hell is 8 c.m.
A lot of what happened between midnight and 8 a.m. is a blur to me, so I debated having Evan write this part.
Here is what I do remember. The on-call nurse got me into a bed and hooked up to an IV. I was offered laughing gas and a fentanyl drip which I could administer myself periodically by pushing a button. She gave me water, ginger ale and a barf bag.
The contractions came fast and angry. There was no bouncing on a birth ball, strolling around the hospital hallways, basking in the shower or slow dancing with Evan. I Could. Not. Move.
Every 1-2 minutes it would start again. I would curl up in the fetal position and try not to throw up while everyone told me to breathe. The nurse on shift was very kind and I was grateful for her soothing voice and attention to Evan.
Sometime between 2 and 3 a.m., I became eight centimeters dilated. Up until this point, the intensity and speed of my contractions suggested a baby would be here by morning, but I never got past 8 c.m.
6 a.m. (I think). I was delirious with pain and do not remember much. I know I stopped using the gas and fentanyl because it was making me nauseous. The sun was coming up and my doctor arrived. In my birth plan I stated I would prefer not to have an epidural.
It’s true when they say there is no such thing as a birth plan.
After assessing my situation, my doctor strongly advised I have an epidural and the sooner I agreed, the sooner they could find someone to come in and administer it.
This second part, took a long time. In reality, it was likely only an hour and a half, but for me, it felt like an eternity.
Unfortunately in rural Ontario, there are not always staff available for every situation. If I had stated in my birth plan I definitely wanted an epidural, I would have had to go to a city hospital, but I wanted the intimacy and familiarity of my hometown and family doctor.
When the anesthesiologist finally arrived, it was all I could do to remain still while she put the needle in my back. The pain slowly started to numb.
It was around 7:30-8 a.m. at this point and time to reevaluate. Because I had been having strong contractions for hours and didn’t get more than 8 c.m. dilated, my doctor said it was looking like a natural birth would be less likely. She said there were a few more things they could try, but if it didn’t work, I would need a c-section.
Unfortunately the one surgeon on staff in Listowel who could perform the procedure was on medical leave. She said Evan and I could sleep for a few hours and then we’d be heading to Stratford – a larger medical centre with more resources.
So we rested‒ Evan better than me‒ as I started to feel my contractions again through the epidural. Even after the nurse increased my dosage I could still feel the deep ache in my butt. Three more hours passed and no progress.
Just before lunchtime, they loaded me up into an ambulance for the 40-minute drive to Stratford. I would like to pause for a moment and make a personal plea to the City of Stratford to fix its abhorrent streets. It was without a doubt, the bumpiest, most uncomfortable ride of my life.
Before this point, I had heard nothing but good things about the new maternal child ward in Stratford so I was optimistic and convinced I would be well taken care of.
Upon arrival, four staff gathered around the bed and examined the foreign equipment sent over from Listowel.
‘These wires are different,’ one mused.
My understanding of the situation, which is relatively limited, was the epidural I was hooked up to in the ambulance had to be hooked up in the delivery room and some aspect of the wiring was not compatible.
How the equipment from two hospitals in the same jurisdiction came to be so different is beyond my scope of imagination. But as they sent one of their party to find an expert in the IV tube department, the medication quickly started to wear off and for the first time I started to bawl.
From pain, from frustration, from the fact I was dying of thirst and wasn’t allowed to have more than a few sips of water.
An hour and a half later, they got the machine working again. Perhaps out of pity, they gave me a top up button, I could press every 20-30 minutes if the pain got bad. I used this pretty consistently.
Sometime that afternoon, as Evan snoozed on a couch in the corner and my mom fed me my allotted sips of water, I reached 9 c.m. The doctor had been visiting every hour to check my progress in between performing c-sections. He instructed the nurses to administer oxytocin to get my contractions really going. He thought it might send me over the edge and get the baby out.
Every time he came by, I was hoping he would say we’re taking you to surgery. But no such luck. Baby French was happy as a clam in there and had been so the entire time. No distress, no c-section.
Part IV: Arrival
Five p.m. rolled around and someone stuck their hand in my vagina for the millionth time. Nine and a half, they said. Close but no cigar.
The doctor returned and received the news with his now characteristic nonchalance.
‘Get her to start pushing.’
I overheard this. It wasn’t spoken to me. This whole time no one had asked me what I wanted or how I was feeling. But finally, finally it was time to push. I was confused and I was scared.
The doctor left again and I asked the nurse what was going on. She said, ‘you’re almost there, he thinks if you start pushing, you’ll become fully dilated.’
I started panicking. I wasn’t ready to push. I needed a minute to prepare myself. But there were no minutes. Like a conductor, the nurse stood at the foot of the bed and told me to push into my butt, not to yell, not to breath. Just push. Three times for each contraction.
Over and over we went like that.
Nothing seemed to happen. Then she made her first mistake: ‘it’s perfectly normal for a first time mom to push for 2 hours or more.’
She went on, if I didn’t push hard enough, the baby would just rock back and forth inside me without going forward.
I started to lose it.
It was 6:30 p.m. now. I had been pushing for an hour without much progress. The pain kept getting worse, even through the epidural and I started to panic.
In a misguided attempt to motivate me, after her extremely de-motivating pep talk, the nurse brought out a large mirror and stuck it at my feet so I could get a good view of my traumatized lady bits.
‘This will help. You’ll be able to see your baby.’
I was hopeful for about five minutes, until after another round of grueling pushing, I couldn’t see anything. I’m not exaggerating. I know what crowning looks like and I couldn’t even see hair.
‘There’s your baby!’ she said, pointing inside me.
I had, had enough of her shenanigans and lost my temper. I started to yell.
‘I don’t see anything!’ I shouted. ‘There’s nothing there!’
Then, ‘YOU’RE LYING TO ME!’
I descended into a full blown panic attack sometime around when the doctor made his grand entrance.
I remember him saying, ‘Would you like me to help you with the vacuum,’ in a bored voice, like he was cleaning my floors, not sucking a human out of me.
YES, I screamed, anything. Then, ‘please help me! Please please someone help me,’ over and over and over.
I had descended into a dark place, where I wasn’t breathing, I was refusing to push, I was yelling at anyone who spoke to me and truly believing there was never going to be an end to the pain.
If you’ve ever heard anyone mention ‘the ring of fire,’ it is real, and I was in Mordor for what felt like an eternity.
Things might have gone smoother, if I had been more level-headed and pushing as he used the vacuum. This is where I’ve read about women having an epiphany, where they are suddenly clear headed through the pain and become focused only on what needs to be done to bring their baby into the world. They scream and push and it’s beautiful and empowering.
But instead, I lost all determination. I broke.
I screamed, but it was ‘no, no, no, no, no more. I can’t do it. I can’t do it.’
Suddenly the room was full of people moving very fast and speaking sternly to me – the crazy woman. I did not feel comforted or like any of them were on my side.
‘This baby has to come out one way or another!’ was one line shot at me.
‘Just calm down,’ was another. ‘You’re not breathing.’
Then, like clockwork, after ‘two hours of pushing’ an enormous little being was plopped on my chest. My stomach deflated and I couldn’t believe this creature had been living inside of me just moments before.
Evan cut the umbilical cord, one aspect of our birth plan we managed to keep, and I looked down to see the doctor feverishly sewing.
About a month later, when I finally got the courage to look at myself with a mirror, I would see the two-inch line of scar tissue where he performed an episiotomy and removed my baby with a vacuum and forceps. It took me three months to replenish my iron levels after the amount of blood I lost during delivery.
Cordelia was born at 7:30 p.m., 7 lbs 6 oz., in a ‘natural delivery.’
Since then, I’ve had a lot of people say they just assumed I had a c-section, then ask me why I didn’t.
In hindsight, I’m grateful I achieved a natural birth and didn’t have to undergo major surgery, or deal with the painful recovery it entails. But at the time, I felt like a failure.
I wasn’t strong enough to push my baby out, I gave up on her, on myself. I was selfish. A monster. Who gives up? What would I have done without the assistance of modern medicine? Laid down and died? Probably.
We all want to believe we would be brave in a given situation, rise to the occasion, do what needs to be done. We don’t want to be the person in the movie who loses their nerve when things get tough.
This is the shame I struggled with for months.
Today I have accepted what happened. I no longer feel anger or resentment. I am grateful for my healthy beautiful baby girl, however it was she came to be here with us. I am still afraid to do it again, but this too becomes less the more time elapses.
There is a strong narrative in the female psyche around child birth and the postpartum experience. It dictates how we’re supposed to feel, what is normal and what is acceptable. These narrow stereotypes only serve to isolate the majority of us who experienced or felt something different. We turn inward, afraid to share our story. There is no wrong way to feel, no wrong way to have a baby.
Cordelia is the real hero of this story, she saved me. Though her hands are small, and she doesn’t know it yet, she helped me up from the moment I saw her tiny black and white heartbeat at 9 weeks. She has shown me I am capable of so much more, I am braver than I ever thought.
Everything you dream of, is on the other side of fear. A romantic thing to say, don’t you think?