Into The Deep: my birth story
My daughter will be three years old next month. Every year since she was born I’ve told myself to write about her birth before I forget the details. Every year I put off telling this story. Not because the birth was traumatic or abnormally difficult—it wasn’t—but because it is daunting for me to describe the act of giving birth using only words. The birth process is so intimate, so primal, so emotional, so involved with all five senses that language can never do it justice. But I will try. While I’ll never forget my daughter’s birth, the act of writing about it will allow me to preserve its details in a way that memory alone will not. I hope that my daughter will one day read my account of her birth and understand how miraculous it felt to bring her into the world. And I’m posting this on the blog because, when I was pregnant and afraid of giving birth, other women’s birth stories gave me great comfort. So here it is.
A while back I wrote about the difficulties of finding a doctor in Brazil who was willing to deliver my baby vaginally, and not simply coerce or force me to schedule a C-section before I reached full term. To quickly summarize: after visiting several doctors, we found a great OBGYN sympathetic to “normal birth” as they call it in Portuguese. We also found an excellent doula who was experienced, calm, and a great advocate for the mothers she served.
Two weeks before my due date (which was around October 3rd), we left the farm and installed ourselves in my family’s apartment in Recife. It is approximately a four-hour drive from the farm into the city, and we wanted to be near our doctor and have access to Recife’s modern maternity wards in case the baby arrived early.
My pregnancy had been an easy one. Each week I downloaded prenatal yoga podcasts and performed guided visualizations and meditations about how to stay calm and focused during birth. Our daughter was a big girl—nearly nine pounds at birth—but I’d been surprisingly mobile and active throughout my pregnancy, hiking the farm and continuing to work. By our second week in Recife, as my due date passed, I began to slow down. My ankles swelled. My feet widened to the point where I couldn’t wear closed shoes. It was hard to wiggle my toes.
Our OBGYN said everything was fine and we should wait a little bit longer. We prepped our hospital bag. Our doula brought us an inflatable kiddie pool to take to the hospital, in case we wanted to try a water birth. Recife’s hospitals did not provide birthing tubs, and our doula said that water could be extremely calming and helpful.
It became hard to sleep. Each night, I felt as if I had a forty-pound medicine ball strapped to my abdomen. My hips ached. When I was still, our daughter moved frantically. The sharp point of her elbow or the round top of her head moved under my belly’s skin, stretching it. Her feet kicked my ribs, as if she planned to launch herself out of me. I wondered who she was, this rambunctious little being inside of me. In our last ultrasound we saw that she had hair—it fanned and fluttered around her head like seaweed on a reef. I’m not sure why, but the fact that she had hair and the fact that I saw it move made me breathless in that dark ultrasound room. It made my daughter real to me in a way she wasn’t before. I knew she was inside me, but I pictured her as being underwater, dormant, waiting to surface and take her first breath.
Days passed. I felt an irrepressible urge to swim. Not in a bathtub, but in a body of water. Somewhere deep. Somewhere where I could dive under. Recife is on the coast but the ocean wasn’t a possibility for swimming because of shark attacks. At local beaches, people only went ankle-deep into the water, if at all. My uncle lived a few blocks away from our apartment, in a building with a pool. One evening, I walked there with my mother. It was hot—October is springtime in Recife—and my body was so heavy, I felt as if I was wading through concrete with each step. I swam for an hour or so, moving slowly back and forth across the pool, then floating on my back. In the water, I felt light as a feather. It was incredible.
At the time, I thought that my primal urge to swim was simply a way to feel comfortable again. Now I wonder if it was more than that. Was it a signal to my daughter that it was time for her come out? Was it a way for me to understand what it would feel like to be myself again, without the weight of another person inside me? Whatever the reason, the swim triggered my daughter’s arrival.
A few hours later, I’d just settled into sleep when I had the sensation of falling, and woke with a start. The bed was wet. My pajamas were soaked. Everywhere there was water. Disoriented, I thought for an instant that it was pool water. Then I wondered if I’d wet myself. It took me a little while to realize that my water had broken. (Despite what the movies show us, this flood of water is, apparently, not so common. Most women don’t even feel their water break.) I woke James, my husband, and then rushed to the bathroom.
This is the point where, I think, the human body proved to me how utterly intelligent and resourceful it is. As soon as I stepped inside the bathroom, my stomach cramped and everything that I’d eaten for dinner—everything I’d eaten for the past few days—came rushing out. I got worried—had I eaten something bad? Did I have food poisoning? Why did I suddenly have the most violent diarrhea I’d ever had in my life? (Hey, this is a birth story so it’s going to get graphic from this point forward. Just saying.) I thought that maybe the baby wasn’t coming after all—maybe I was just sick? (It turns out my body was preparing itself to push, and cleaning itself out thoroughly beforehand.)
We called our OBGYN and doula. Both said everything I was experiencing was normal and that we could wait up to 24 hours. Go back to bed, they told me. So I cleaned myself up and prepared for a long night. Then the contractions began.
We’d gotten a great free phone app called Full Term that recorded all of my contractions. It was much easier, and less stressful, than trying to write them down and time them ourselves. Also, the nice thing is that you can save the record of your contractions and their progression. I still have the contraction log. Mine started at 10:25 PM (about 30 minutes after my water broke) and they were fast and furious: 30-45 seconds long and 5 minutes apart right out of the gate.
What did they feel like? I remember asking this question to all of my friends who’d had babies. All of them had said that the contractions were hard to describe, and this frustrated me to no end. I wanted to KNOW what contractions felt like in order to prepare myself. But there is no preparing yourself. And they are hard to describe. At first, my contractions felt like pressure, and then like intense cramping. Except, instead of your stomach or intestines cramping it is your uterus, which made the cramps felt wider, or broader, somehow. Later, when they got more intense, the contractions felt like my insides were being squeezed like a wet sheet getting wrung out, twisting tighter and tighter until it was rigid. When a contraction ended, the sheet uncoiled.
My contractions were getting longer and the intervals between them shorter. They were now two minutes apart. We called our OBGYN. She said that she’d been making calls of her own, trying to determine which hospital we should go to, but all of the maternity wards at private hospitals in the city were full. She’d found us a single room at the Hospital Real Português. She said we should take it, or else we risked having to go to a public hospital, which wasn’t ideal. Everything I’d read, and everything our doula had told us said it was far better to labor at home, in comfort, and go to the hospital at the last possible minute. I was reluctant to go after only being in labor for 90 minutes, but we couldn’t risk losing a hospital bed. So, at midnight, we got into our pick-up truck and headed for the Real Português.
James and my mother sat in the truck’s front seats. I sat in the extended cab’s back seat. The streets were fairly empty. We cruised quickly along. I recall stopping at a red light near the dark and empty Sport Club soccer stadium when another contraction hit. It was hard for me to breathe. I felt as if I was sinking inside of myself, as if my body was crumpling like an empty can. My hairline was wet with sweat. The light turned green. Our truck accelerated. I remember pressing my forehead to the back window and watching the empty stadium get smaller and smaller as we drove away and thinking, “I’m not sure I can do this.”
At the maternity ward’s emergency entrance, there was one doctor on-call. The lenses of his glasses were so thick his eyes looked too large. I remember sensing that he seemed to think my pain was interesting, as if I was some kind of creature in a lab. (Since nearly 90% of births in Brazil are scheduled C-sections, it is not common in a private hospital for doctors to see a woman in labor.) At this point, everything felt heightened for me. What might have, on a normal day, been only slight dislike for the doctor turned into instinctual revulsion and distrust. I did not want that man touching me. I wanted my doctor. We phoned her again. She was on her way, but the hospital’s doctor would have to check me in order to admit me. We put our doctor on the phone with the on-call doctor, who then quickly examined me to see how far I was dilated.
I don’t remember what the dilation number was because, at this point, a hospital official told us that we would have to write a check for an ungodly amount of money in order to be admitted. They would not deposit the check but would hold it until they could get final approval from our insurance company that we were, in fact, covered and that they would get paid for the hospital room. We found out later that this is illegal, but at the time there was nothing we could do. Another contraction came and I hugged a trash bin and threw up inside of it. James cut the hospital the check and we were allowed onto the elevator and into our room.
I took a shower while we waited for the doula and our doctor to arrive. The hot water felt good on my back, but my contractions were getting more and more intense. I remember leaning my forehead onto the wet tiles and worrying I might faint. I wasn’t sure when our doctor would arrive. I told James to call her again, and to tell her to contact the anesthesiologist.
There was only one anesthesiologist that our OBGYN trusted to administer epidurals, because the procedure was relatively uncommon in Recife. Most births were either scheduled C-sections or emergency C-sections. During our routine check-up the previous week, our OBGYN said it might be hard to get a hold of the anesthesiologist and we should expect him to take at least an hour, if not more, to arrive at the hospital. I’m not sure if our OBGYN ever called him or if he couldn’t make it; either way, by the time he would have arrived I probably couldn’t have had an epidural anyway. My labor was progressing very fast.
Our doula arrived. She took me from the shower and dried me off. Then she applied oil to my back and began massaging. There was something about the massage and the oil’s smell—a mix of eucalyptus and lavender—that was extremely calming to me. The contractions continued, but the pain seemed manageable now. My senses were extremely attuned to sounds, smells, and touch. It was as if my body was on hyper-alert. Our doula’s calm voice, her confident bearing, the massage, and the fragrant oil made a huge difference to me psychologically.
She guided me to a large exercise ball we’d brought from home. I sat on the ball as our doula continued to massage my back. James inflated and filled the kiddie pool. I wasn’t aware at the time that he’d had to use a tiny, manual pump and then rig a strange hose contraption to the showerhead in order to fill the pool with water. This task, I think, was a good one because it gave him a purpose and took his mind off of his wife moaning on an exercise ball.
I’m sure I moaned and grunted and made all kinds of strange noises. I was sweaty and as naked as a jay-bird. But none of that mattered. In the moment, I felt no shame, no need for social graces, no concern for anyone’s comfort or sensibilities but my own. The contractions were different now—accompanied by a deep, unwavering urge to push. I felt pressure and heaviness, as if a bowling ball had been dropped inside me and was on its way out.
Our doctor and her assistant appeared, but I have no recollection of their arrival. Once the kiddie pool was full of warm water, our doula coaxed and cajoled and tried to convince me to get into it. I remember feeling like that was the worst idea ever in the history of mankind. I did not want to move. I’d become absolutely fixated on staying exactly where I was.
Eventually I agreed to move into the pool. The hot water felt great. (Later, after our daughter was born, I noticed that everyone in our room was dripping with sweat, their shirts and doctor’s scrubs soaked through, but I never once noticed the heat. If anything, I wanted it to be hotter.)
In the pool, the bowling ball inside me got heavier, and I pushed harder. This stage felt better than the previous one, with the contractions. In my head, everyone in the room disappeared. Our doula was not a person, but a voice in my ear saying, in Portuguese, “Let your body go. Let your body go,” over and over again, until I thought for a moment that her voice was inside my head. Everything I was left me. I had no thoughts. I had no doubts. I had no name, no identity, no race, no sex, no goals, no cravings, no petty grievances, no to-do lists, no bills to pay or errands to run. I was no one. I was nothing. I was simply an urge to push, and then I was the pushing itself, and then a deep breath, and then an urge again. To have this kind of focused concentration was a gift I won’t soon forget.
I heard the doula say, “Frances, put your hand here, feel your baby’s head.” And she took my hand and placed it between my legs. There, I felt something so odd—hard, yet fragile, like the shell of an egg. My daughter’s scalp. In that instant, my concentration broke. I felt sheer terror. I don’t know why. Maybe I was exhausted. Maybe it was because it all became real to me. Maybe I was afraid of finally meeting my little girl.
The plastic pool was slick under me. My legs shook. My arms burned. I pushed again, with every ounce of energy I had left. I felt an incredible burning sensation, as if my lower half had been lit on fire. Then it went away. I fell back, exhausted. My daughter’s head was out, but her shoulders were not. I was still in the water, so my daughter was submerged. According to our doula, the baby could breathe but our OBGYN was not accustomed to water births and she leapt into action. She moved me forward in the pool, pressed open my legs, grabbed my daughter’s head, and ordered me to push.
I pushed. She pulled. And in this tug-of-war, Emília was born. I held her, both of us wet and wrinkled from being in water for so long. I noticed that her umbilical cord had severed on its own, and she was very pale. The OBGYN took her from my arms, which put me in a panic. Thankfully, our daughter was fine. They wrapped her in a hospital blanket and gave her to me, then to her father, then to her grandmother.
I was physically exhausted but completely awake. Outside, the sun rose. It was 5 AM. From the time my water broke to the time Emília was born only 7 hours had passed. This, I’d later learn, was a pretty fast labor. But while I was laboring, time had no meaning to me. Twenty hours could have passed and I’d have been none the wiser.
I’ll never forget giving birth to my daughter. It was one of the most glorious days of my life. Not only because she came into the world alive and healthy, but also because of how she came into the world. I’d felt so much fear and uncertainty leading up to her birth, but somehow my body took charge and erased any doubts. I couldn’t have done this alone, of course. I had a team of people helping me, and their loving support and knowledge made all the difference.
I’d never advocate a drug-free water birth for every woman, because every birth is different and every woman is different, and my birth experience is no better than any one else’s. But it is mine. And, for me, it was glorious. When I think of the day my daughter was born, I think of finding a place inside of myself where there was no fear, no hesitation, no judgment of myself. It was a place where pain existed but could be overcome. It was a place where my thinking brain disappeared and I could access a deeper, darker, wiser, more intense version of myself. That aspect of my being had always existed, but it was brought to light that day and now it can’t be hidden or erased. This is a great comfort. When I face challenges as a parent, or a writer, or a person, I think back to the day my daughter was born and remember that I pushed a life into this world, and this, by comparison, makes every goal seem attainable.