sliver of courage

A Sliver of Courage

I had never given too much thought to birth. Until my husband and I decided to start a family and I became pregnant. Then birth was all that I could think about. To state it lightly, I was terrified. In my own slightly perfectionist way, I worried that I wouldn’t be “good” at birth. The imagined worst case scenario would be having to surrender myself and the experience to the decisions of hospital medical staff who would only see me as one more patient. Faced with something I needed to know more about, I armed myself with information and began to read voraciously. I learned a lot of facts, but what I enjoyed most were first-hand accounts from women who had sought to give birth naturally. These stories inspired and emboldened me, so I always knew that I wanted to “give back” my own story however it turned out. Reading, I quickly learned what now seems so obvious to me, that birth is basically an autonomic process. It is one that your body takes care of mostly on its own, not un like digestion. I didn’t have to be “good” at birth, I didn’t have to “do” much of anything, I just needed to get out of my body’s way and allow it to do its thing. As I continued to read, it wasn’t long before I began to see the immensity of birth as a noble rite of passage, as something I now looked forward to with more excitement than fear.
 sliver of courage

One fear that continued to haunt my imagination, though, was medical induction. I understood that an induced labour typically involves contractions that are more intense, but more intense than what? I was certain that I could handle the pain involved in a normal labour, but what about “unnatural” pain? As my due date approached, arrived and then slowly faded into the past, I began to grow more anxious about the seeming inevitability of being induced. Half of me was convinced it was intuition. The other half petrified that my own morbid inability to let go of my deepest fear was making this fear a reality.

Either way, the day of my induction arrived, sunny and warm, Sunday, June 6, 2010. I hadn’t slept the entire night, afraid that I wouldn’t get enough sleep and would be less effective at coping with labour. The painful irony was not lost on me. I chastised myself, thinking, “If I can’t use my relaxation techniques successfully now, how will they help me during labour?”

Though my official induction wasn’t scheduled until 8 pm, the doctor asked that we pop by the hospital in the day so she could check the progress of my Cervidil insert. To my surprise, she announced that my cervix was already very favourable, the induction could begin immediately! She left us alone to think about it and I burst into tears. I was up against my wall. I had hoped to negotiate one more day so that labour might start spontaneously. Reluctantly, I decided to go ahead with the induction. I figured that one more day would only buy me more fatigue and anxiety. I quietly forgave myself if my birth did not go the way I hoped. With that, I got up from the examining table… and my water promptly broke!

Before long I am settled into my room and hooked up to the IV. In spite of my dread and apprehension, I’m partly relieved that the wheels are now, finally, in motion. As the contractions begin, I try different coping techniques like sitting on a birthing ball or leaning on my husband. But I find that any muscle used to support or balance myself is a muscle that I can’t relax during a contraction and resistance means more pain. So I get on the bed in a side-lying position. Despite well intentioned warnings that this will slow things down, I stay here for the rest of my labour.

Within a few hours the contractions are really picking up. They sneak up on me quickly and then seize me completely. The pain is centered in my pelvis, but holds my entire body in its grip. In turn, I grip the rails of the bed and breathe into my belly, focused on taking the deepest, slowest breaths possible. At some point I begin to count the number of breaths through a single contraction. There are about seven of these deep, slow breaths for each contraction. Towards the end there are about nine. As boring as it sounds, this counting gets me through the contractions, one at a time, because I know when each one will end. And with the end of each contraction I take two or three even deeper breaths to release the tension that has built up. These cleansing breaths are the most difficult but the most important.

I continue to breathe as the contractions continue to intensify. The nurse checks my dilation for the second time and says I’m at five to six centimeters, “about one centimeter per hour” as she would expect. In my mind, I quickly calculate another four to five hours of trying to stay out of my body’s way until I reach full dilation. I begin to feel daunted and overwhelmed. The ugly, little thought enters my mind, “I don’t think I can do this”. My doula reminds me, “You are doing this.” I am in a dark place with no way out but forward. The thought of an epidural no longer seems so unsavory. But I keep this to myself. I know that once I voice it, there will be no going back. So I rage and plot quietly.

Only a half-hour later, the fetal monitor is no longer picking up the pulse well, so the nurse suggests applying a scalp monitor. When she inserts it she seems puzzled and announces that it I have progressed quite a bit. It seems I am now at about eight centimeters. But all I can hear is the doubt in her voice. In my foggy mind, I am still braced against the four or five hours that lay ahead of me. So I roll to my side again and with the next contraction return to that dark place, sunk down a deep hole, not feeling that I know how to get out or believing that I can. Though I’m surrounded by help and support, I am profoundly alone in a way I can’t put into words. In the weeks after the birth of my son, I will remember this dark place and cry for a minute or so at a time. As I write this story, I can still remember it intellectually, but I don’t remember the emotion anymore. This, for me, was the most painful part of birth.

With the scalp monitor now in place, everyone listens excitedly to the electronic gallop of our son’s unborn heart. As I wait for the next contraction, I continue to silently debate an epidural. When, from out of nowhere, instead of the dreaded, familiar pain an unmistakable urge to push surges through my body. I announce to the room that I need to push. The nurse asks me to wait so that she can make sure I am fully dilated. I reply frantically, “I can’t not push!” while trying my best to do just that. When the contraction subsides she checks me and says I am ready to go. In disbelief, I blurt, “What the hell!?!”

I begin pushing along with the contractions. Once I get the rhythm down and I’m working with my body, it’s as if the clouds of pain have dispersed. With each contraction I feel the force of labour in my veins, streaming in from everywhere and converging upon my belly and buttocks. I am coached to take a deep breath and then hold it and push. As I gulp in each of these deep breaths I feel the familiar pain return, stabbing at me. But, as I begin to push again, the energy stokes inside of me, melting away the pain. It feels so satisfying to push. I groan and growl and push my baby down. All of a sudden there he is, bloody, long and strong, squirming and crying on my stomach. He looks up at me with huge black eyes as if he has something important to tell me. I look down at this brave little stranger on my chest. “Who are you?” I wonder.

I could not believe it was over so quickly. It was neither entirely what I had hoped for, nor what I had feared, and yet also a bit of both. I have heard that some women describe discovering through birth unknown wells of personal strength. I didn’t find exactly that. I felt strangely humbled in a way, because my courage was only greater than my fear by a sliver. But maybe that’s all it ever needs to be.

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