“Everything, everything, everything.”
This was the mantra of a women’s group I belonged to years ago. In essence, it means how we do one thing is how we do everything.
Nowhere in my life has this been more evident than with the births of my two daughters.
As a woman, few things in this world reveal more about who you are than childbirth.
Stripped bare to your most primal essence, truth is revealed.
Four years ago, preparing for the birth of our first daughter, I was determined to do it “right”. By “right” I meant: at home, naturally, un-medicated, without any interventions. The lighting would be romantic, we’d have a birthing tub and soft music playing in the background. It would be beautifully intimate with just my beloved, our doula and my midwife present. Our cat would watch from the window.
The human body is designed for childbirth.
I knew this and was ready to prove it. I’d watched the documentaries; I’d read the books. I wasn’t about to put myself in a hospital environment where we’d have to fend off interventions and be forced to argue for what should be, to my mind, obvious and natural.
Labor started bright and early at 5am on a Monday morning. By the time our midwife arrived a few hours later, I had already dilated to 5cm. At this rate, we’d have a baby by dinner! We were excited. I even smiled between contractions.
But labor was hard – really f**king hard.
I couldn’t believe the pain. I’d expected it would hurt, but this was intense. I was contracting long and hard with only a couple of minutes rest in between. I stopped smiling.
At my next cervical check that afternoon I was dismayed to learn I’d not progressed at all. How could my body be working this hard and not getting anywhere? It was disappointing, but I tucked in and kept going.
The hours went on and I labored like this throughout the night. It took me over 12 hours to get to 6cm, another 10 hours to get to 7cm. I was losing steam, fast.
To encourage things to keep moving, my midwife had me walking up and down stairs, around the block. It was horrible. I remember seeing neighbors out walking their dogs trying to be discreet and not stare. What a sight we made: me hanging off my husband every couple of steps, moaning in pain and taking deep, guttural breaths. I tried to pretend we were invisible, my privacy shattered.
By mid-afternoon on Tuesday, still at 7cm, I started to falter. We were approaching the 30-hour mark and I wasn’t sure I could go on much longer, let alone have the energy to push the baby out once fully dilated.
After a heartbreaking deliberation and many tears, we decided to transfer to the hospital. I felt like a failure transferring simply because of fatigue, but I was at my limits and desperate for some pain relief and rest. That 20-minute drive to the hospital was the longest 20 minutes of my life, every pebble in the road sending me screaming into another contraction.
What happened next was a slow unraveling of our dream of a natural home-birth.
First, an epidural (I’ll admit: that was the first time I’d smiled since Monday morning) and then some Pitocin to speed up the dilation process. By close to midnight, I’d dilated fully and we were ready to start pushing.
I pushed and I pushed and I pushed. I spiked a fever and had a team of nurses holding ice packs against my back. They added antibiotics to my IV and I watched yet another piece of my vision of a natural birth go out the window.
After two and a half hours and many cries of “I see her head!” followed by “Oh, no, it’s gone back up,” the doctor and my midwife discovered an obstruction that was preventing her head from passing through the birth canal. After a quick conversation about vacuums, we all opted for what seemed at this point the safest route: a C-section.
I was too spent to feel the disappointment of how this baby was coming into the world. My midwife assured me that this was no gratuitous C-section and probably saving the baby and my life. I was grateful for a healthy baby, grateful for medical care. And I was numb on every level from the last 44 hours of massive physical effort only to end in surgery.
I had prepared for this child.
I’d walked my 5 miles daily per my midwife’s instructions. I did my 50 squats a day. I’d eaten the nutrient-dense diet. I’d taken the supplements. I’d practiced the hypno-birthing meditations. I was ready.
Ready, or rigid?
Prepared or so blindly committed to one path that I pushed myself far past my limits into a puddle of sheer exhaustion and inadvertently set in motion a chain of events destined to end in surgery?
You would think I learned my lesson from the childbirth, but remember: everything, everything, everything.
Coming home I resisted rest and wanted to be up caring for the baby as quickly as possible. Ten days after Sia was born, trying to do things my body wasn’t ready to do, I fell, breaking my right foot.
Push – Push – Push – Crash! Do I detect a pattern here?
If I look at how I’d lived my life to that point, this was the exact way I approached everything. Push myself like crazy, well past my breaking point, and then crash into a migraine, or an injury, or a pool of exhausted tears at the end of a long day.
I cried to my coach about desperately wanting balance in my life, but she quietly observed that balance is exactly what I had. My crashes – usually in the form of a migraine that forced me to do nothing but sleep – balanced out the manic drive to push harder and harder. It was extreme, but it was balanced. Was I really seeking balance, or just the superwoman powers to do more, drive harder, and then not feel the impact?
(And yes, the irony does not escape me that my life’s work is encouraging people to adopt better self-care.)
Fast forward to this year: pregnant again, and this time, determined to do it differently. But what did that look like? I didn’t really know how to do anything other than: Push – Push – Push – Crash!
As our baby’s due date approached, I realized that I needed to approach her birth – and everything in my life – in a completely new way.
I needed to change my default way of being.
And so: the birth of baby #2 looked very different.
I prepared, but not in a rigid way. My preparation was less about developing the formula for the perfect birth, and more about building support, trusting my deepest instincts, and asking for help when I needed it.
In some ways there was more pressure for this second birth. The combination of attempting a VBAC (Vaginal Birth After Cesarean) and my advanced maternal age put me into higher risk categories across the board. An induction date was set if I didn’t go into labor naturally by the middle of my 40th week.
Somehow, I was able to relax into the process.
I worked closely with my coach to build trust in my abilities to birth a baby naturally and to believe that this baby was going to come into the world in a way that was perfect for her. I was ready for induction if necessary, and I was also prepared to do what I could to inspire the baby to come on her own. Thus followed lots of spicy meals, sex, walking up and down hills in Mt Tabor (“Mt Labor”) park, acupuncture, and a healthy dose of prayer.
Sure enough, the evening before my induction date, I went into labor naturally. We arrived at the hospital early, and they set me up with remote monitoring (so that I could move around rather than being strapped to a bed) and let us do our thing.
This labor was very different.
It was slow and gradual – both in terms of moving through the stages of labor and the progress of dilation. At 12 hours I had only dilated to 3.5cm, at 24 hours to 5cm. Apparently I don’t do fast labors.
What struck me most about this birth, was the difference in how I labored. In my first labor, I had little time between contractions to rest and gather my energy, and I wanted to do this lying down or in our birthing tub. My main preparation for that birth had been hypno-birthing and all I wanted to do during that labor was to be still and go inward. Since things were proceeding so slowly that’s exactly what my midwife didn’t want me to do. So around the block and up and down the stairs we went.
This time, I listened to those internal instincts despite the slow progress.
And with the continuous monitoring, we were able to actually see the difference in contraction pattern as a result. When I trusted my instincts and labored quietly, on the bed or in the tub, my contractions were sustained, strong and productive, and then they dropped off to nothing for a decent amount of time (sometimes up to 6-7 minutes), allowing me to truly rest. In fact I often fell asleep during these breaks.
When I got up and walked around “to get things moving,” the contractions weren’t as strong or sustained, but they also never really dropped off. It was as though I was having one big irregular contraction without any true relief.
Getting things moving did just that, but it didn’t actually help the labor progress. Only when I went more slowly and allowed my body to do what it wanted how it wanted to do it, did we move forward.
Instead of Push – Push – Push – Crash! it was: Hard work – Deep recovery – Hard Work – Deep recovery. This was doable.
I decided not to be a hero and when the pain became too much, which it did at around the 30 hour mark at 6cms, I opted for an epidural. This time it didn’t feel like defeat: it felt like a tool used appropriately and mindfully. Relief! Hallelujah!!!
Slowly but surely things progressed.
I did stall out for a bit at 6cms and had the only intervention of this labor with the doctor breaking my water. With that little nudge, I dilated in two hours to the full 10cms (an intense couple of hours even with the epidural!)
Now that I was fully dilated, we were ready to push… or wait, not so fast. Once again, I trusted my instincts, as counter-intuitive as they may seem: to take a little break and rest, gathering energy for that final effort.
We were well over 30 hours at this point, and I was met with looks of bewilderment when I said I wasn’t ready to push.
I asked if I could let the baby labor down on her own for a little bit, letting the epidural relieve some of the pain I was still feeling (they had just increased the dose slightly), and rest. To their great credit, the medical team agreed and gave me an hour.
With my doula’s help, I got arranged in a more comfortable position and rested. After that hour, I was truly refreshed and ready to push.
And push I did! With ease, grace, and an inner strength I didn’t even know I possessed.
Unlike the experience with my first daughter, every push was productive, I had real rests in between contractions, and within 40 minutes, there was a gorgeous, healthy baby girl on my chest. I felt like superwoman: giddy, powerful beyond measure, deeply in love, amazed at what I’d accomplished.
I looked up at my husband grinning ear-to-ear and said: “I did it!!”
The difference in these two births was profound.
Rather than doing it “right” by some rigid external standards, this time I was flexible and let the process, as it unfolded, be my guide.
Rather than letting outside experts tell me how to labor, I trusted my deepest instincts and needs, even when they seemed completely illogical by all external standards. And rather than judge these instincts as right or wrong, good or bad, I simply trusted them.
Rather than try to muscle through and push myself beyond my limits, I allowed myself to go at the pace my body naturally set. And although the process was long, it wasn’t traumatic. It was the exact right pace for me and for this baby – slow and steady, with lots of rest along the way.
Rather than fear or judge any medical intervention or pain relief as intrusive, unnatural and thus representing failure on my part, I used these tools when necessary and appropriate, mindfully and with deep gratitude for their effectiveness.
And so, with a new baby in my arms, I have a new vision of how I want to live my life:
With more flexibility, less rigidity; trusting my deepest instincts; and going at the pace that feels right, building in lots of rest and recovery between periods of intense and productive work. Ultimately, living with grace and ease rather than rules and judgment.
Because: everything, everything, everything.
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