I did not plan on having an epidural.
I planned on an all-natural, unmedicated birth. We’d taken weeks of natural birth classes. We’d learned all sorts of labor positions and how to relax through contractions. We’d hired a doula. I packed a labor bin full of things to use during labor. I had all the essential oils, the labor playlist, the list of Bible verses.
I’d heard for weeks that my body was MADE for this. That women have been giving birth naturally for thousands of years. And what’s more, I believed it. I believed I could do it. I was 100% committed. It’s not that I’d preferred to have a natural birth, but was open to other options. I had tunnel vision. Sure, I said I was "keeping an open mind." Whatever is needed to get him here safely. At least that’s what I told people. But I never internalized that. I never took it to heart. I was going to labor the natural way. I was going to deliver without any medication. I was determined.
But not very much of it mattered, not the bin of labor aids or the index cards of different positions to try or the sheer determination in my mind, because Xavier’s birth went very differently than I expected.
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It was my due date: Friday, September 18th, and I had plans. The Influence Conference was in town, and I was beyond excited to have made it this far without having the baby. Even though the conference started on my due date, I was pretty confident the baby wasn't arriving anytime soon. I wasn't dilated or effaced whatsoever, and I had a strong feeling I was going at least a week past my due date. Call it a gut feeling, or maybe just me trying to convince myself that I'd go late so I wouldn't be disappointed.
I'd gone to the kickoff party for the Influence Conference on Thursday night, and met and hugged so many beautiful women. I was so excited for a weekend of worshipping, laughing, selfie taking and meeting new friends. So what if I was literally 40 weeks pregnant?! I just knew the baby wasn't coming anytime soon. But God and Xavier had other plans.
Around 4:45am on Friday, I woke up with what felt like mild cramps. Immediately I thought, "this could be it!" followed by, "seriously, ON my due date!?" followed by "I am so not ready to do this!" followed by, "dang it, the conference!" I was in and out of bed for a couple of hours, pacing the house and loosely keeping track in my head to see if the "contractions" (I was using quotation marks at this point, not convinced it was the real thing) were regular and if they felt different than all the Braxton-Hicks I'd been having. I'd run into my friend Gretchen the night before at the conference kickoff party, and she asked if I'd been having any contractions (Gretchen just had a baby in May.) I said no, but that I wasn't sure how I'd know if they were real or not! She said that my entire stomach would be rock hard and rigid. So as I lay in bed on Friday morning, I kept my hand on my lower abdomen and every time there was a contraction, my whole stomach would get super hard, almost like it was pulling away from my hand from squeezing so tight. I realized it was exactly what Gretchen had described! That's when I decided this miiiiiight be real and woke up Matt. I lightly tapped him on the shoulder and whispered, "um, Matt? I think I might be in labor?" He rolled over and groggily opened his eyes. "Are you sure?" He asked. I could feel the nervous excitement between us both. Could this really be it?! Thankfully Matt had planned on working from home so he could go with me to my 40 week appointment that was scheduled for later that morning, then drive me to the conference. We both got out of bed and the next couple hours passed in a blur. We gathered the last few things for the hospital bag and Matt loaded some stuff into the car. We still planned on laboring at home for awhile at this point, but wanted to be ready to go just in case. Matt made me breakfast. I called my mom and told her I was pretty sure I was in labor and would keep her posted. I also called our doula, Brandie, and she said that everything I described sounded like the real deal. I remember she said "yayyy, mama!" and meanwhile I was thinking "HOW ON EARTH AM I GOING TO DO THIS." I still couldn't believe it.
I paced around the house, pausing when a wave would hit. I laid on my side on the couch, trying to get comfortable, but it didn't work so I switched to kneeling on the floor over the exercise ball. As I swayed back and forth over the ball, my water broke. That's when it REALLY hit me - there was no going back now. This baby was coming! We called Brandie again and she told us to time my contractions and check back in an hour. For some reason, even though I had downloaded a fancy contraction timer on my phone, all I could think of was to time them by writing down the time they started on a post-it note. So funny! I kept the post-it for the baby book :)
The contractions were two minutes apart and 45-60 seconds long at this point. We timed them for close to an hour then decided it was time to go. With contractions so close together and my water having broken, I wanted to be at the hospital. In Bradley class, we'd learned the 5-1-1 rule: if contractions are less than 5 minutes apart and 1 minute long for 1 hour, it's time to go. Mine definitely fit the bill, so it was go time! I thought I was progressing really quickly and that I'd be a few centimeters dilated by the time we arrived at the hospital. Matt called his mom and told her we'd need her to watch Scout. "She's in labor!" was her response. Yes, indeed.
I called my mom and told her my water had broken and we were heading to the hospital. "Your dad is jumping up and down!" she said. I pressed "send" on the email I had drafted to friends who were going to and pray me through when I told them it was go time. We hugged and kissed Scout the Dog, who had not left my side all morning. "We'll come home with a baby!" we told him. We were coming home with a baby. And out into the pouring rain we went.
The drive to the hospital was so surreal. I played a song from my labor playlist - Gungor's "You Make Beautiful Things." Rain poured down. Matt and I held hands. I breathed through the contractions. I just kept thinking it couldn't really be happening. And on my due date! Who actually gives birth on their due date!?
We parked at the hospital main entrance and walked in - pausing for contractions. On the short walk, my water started to really break. I thought it had "broken" at home and it did a little bit, but it REALLY broke on the walk in. I was so embarrassed and uncomfortable as we walked into the hospital and water was running down my legs. I started crying and Matt was trying to reassure me. I just wanted to go home and get cleaned up. I wanted to press pause on this whole thing, gather my thoughts, regroup. Everything felt too overwhelming.
We took the elevator up to the second floor and buzzed into the OB unit. The nurse at the front desk seemed very taken aback when I told her I was in labor. She asked if we'd called my doctor - the answer was no - or if we'd stopped at the front desk downstairs to register - also no. Matt and I agreed later that we were positive they had told us to come straight here during our hospital tour and not stop at triage or registration, but apparently we got that wrong. Whoops! Desk nurse lady did not seem happy that we'd arrived in a flurry on her doorstep, and I really wanted to scream that there was water gushing down my legs, I was having very strong contractions and could I please sit down?!
They got us into an observation room and I put on the gown. They started an IV and got me on the monitor, and then things stopped going according to my plan. The baby's heart rate dropped significantly after a strong contraction and suddenly there was a flurry of activity. A nurse strapped a green oxygen mask onto my face and started IV fluids. The nurses were rushing around and everything felt frantic. No one was explaining anything to me so thank God for Matt, who knew what was going on and told me as it happened. I started crying so hard. It was all so overwhelming! One minute I'm at home, cuddling my dog and pacing my familiar house, and the next minute I'm hooked up to what feels like a zillion things with an oxygen mask strapped to my face, soaked and laying helpless under harsh fluorescent lights, scared out of my mind. A nurse checked me to be sure my water had actually broken. It came back positive - which I knew it would - then she delivered the bad news: I was "barely" 1 cm dilated and only 50% effaced. The tears fell harder. I was so discouraged - barely 1 cm and it already was this hard?! - and felt so stupid. I thought for sure with the close contractions and water breaking I'd be way further along! Our birth plan said we'd like to go home if we come in at less than 5cm, so Matt asked me if I wanted to go home. The nurse promptly jumped in to say that since my water had broken, they couldn't let me go. I cried harder. The nurse went on to say that I pretty much needed to deliver in 24 hours. I cried even harder. It was exactly as Bradley classes had described. You head to the hospital too soon, they don't let you leave, you're suddenly "on the clock," one intervention leads to another and your natural birth is out the window. All of this was running through my head as I lay there. I just felt so sad, so defeated, so out of control of my own body and like I was staring at a giant mountain I didn't want to climb. I felt too tired and the day had barely started. Matt called Brandie and she headed to the hospital.
We stayed in the observation room for what felt like forever. Xavier's heart rate kept dropping after contractions, so instead of the usual 30 minutes of monitoring before moving me to a regular room, they wanted me on for a whole hour - an hour without any drops. It felt like ten years, just laying there, listening to the machines. Once I had an hour under my belt, they moved us to a room. The rooms are huge and open, with a giant window. Ours faced the highway and field, which I was grateful for. It was nice to see sunlight the whole time!
The next few hours passed in a haze of contractions - which got stronger and stronger - and finally understanding why everyone says labor is such a mental game. Our plan was to walk around, use the tub, shower, birth ball, change positions, etc. But Xave's heart rate just would not stay steady, which eliminated all of those options. For the first hour I had to lay in bed on my left side while they monitored his heart rate. Once I was cleared, I alternated between the birth ball and being on all fours. Xavier was posterior, so the back labor was intense. It was like nothing I'd felt before and nothing could have prepared me for the intensity. Exactly how we learned in Bradley class, it took every ounce of focus and energy to get through each contraction. I kept saying over and over that I just wanted to meet our baby.
The contractions intensified all afternoon and reached the point where they were three minutes long and a minute or two apart. "Typical" contractions usually last only one to one and a half minutes long, so mine were pretty long compared to the norm. These didn't build up and peak either. They just hit me, full force. Like WHAM!, intense pain. I cried with almost every one. Brandie and Matt kept telling me how strong I was, and that I could do it. Matt, my wonderful Matt. It truly was a "husband-coached childbirth" as Bradley Method calls it. He never stopped telling me how proud he was of me, that I was strong, that he loved me. I couldn't have done it without him. He never left my side.
I got checked in the late afternoon and at first I didn't want to know how far along I was, then changed my mind. 4cm and 80%. According to everyone, I was having a very "textbook" progression for a first time mom, but it didn't feel textbook. It felt longer and way harder than I expected, and so much different than I envisioned.
Things got really intense in the early evening. Xavier's heart rate continued to drop. It would plummet to the 60s and would take a long time to recover. A normal heart rate is in the 120s to 160s, so his drops were serious. The nurse rushed in and flipped me onto my left side and put the oxygen mask back on. The contractions were LONG and HARD at that point, and the combination of the pain, feeling claustrophobic from the mask, seeing the stress on everyone's faces as they watched the heart monitor, all collided. I had a total panic attack. I couldn't breathe and kept pulling the mask off my face, only to have it pressed back on. I truly felt in those moments that I might die. I just kept asking if the baby was okay and no one would answer me, everyone would say "you just need to breathe." I knew that a lot of the time these situations are what lead to c-sections, when the baby is "in distress", and it certainly felt like everyone was stressed out. Matt was down at my level, looking me straight in the eyes and holding my hands, and everyone just kept telling me that I needed to breathe. But I could not breathe! I wanted them to read my mind and understand that I couldn't do it, that I was trying to but it wasn't working. My mind and body felt so disconnected. I was so scared. During a really painful contraction, I looked straight at Matt and told him I couldn't do it, and I wanted the epidural. He said later he could see the "sheer terror" in my eyes and knew it was what I needed. So they called the anesthesiologist, and I started to cry. I felt like such a failure! Like I was giving up. We'd taken the classes! We'd hired the doula! Everyone told me my body was made for this! But I knew I couldn't keep going with the intense contractions and the terrible mask, and a still small voice quietly urged me to surrender. Surrender my idea of a perfect birth, surrender my pride, my shame about not doing it all natural, for the sake of our baby boy.
So I did.
The anesthesiologist came and he was wonderful. He was so patient and kind. I had a moment of second-guessing, and the anesthesiologist told me to take all the time I needed. I'd just gotten checked, so I knew I was at 6cm. I was over halfway there! Maybe I could keep going on my own? But Matt reminded me that what my body and the baby needed was for me to relax, and I couldn't relax with the pain and the mask. Matt knelt down in front of me and told me how proud he was of me. He just kept saying it over and over. And I just kept thinking that the end goal was a healthy baby, all I wanted was a healthy baby. So I said go ahead, and they did the epidural. Matt held my hands and prayed out loud the whole time. They told me I'd have to sit still, hunched over the side of the bed, for ten minutes while the epidural was administered. Either it didn't take nearly ten minutes, or that was the fastest ten minutes of my life. I'd been so scared of having a needle in my back, but after the day's events (and pain), it truly was nothing. They only gave me a half dose at first, but I was still feeling intense contractions and having to breath through them, so they upped it and I went totally numb. The nurse kept looking at the contraction monitor and then asking me, "did you feel that one?" And I just kept telling her no. It was so strange to go from feeling every ounce of each contraction to feeling nothing at all, not even pressure. I did have to keep the mask on my face, so it took all of my energy and focus to breathe steadily and not freak out. I never would have guessed that I was claustrophobic before now, but I think I definitely am!
After the epidural took effect, I progressed pretty quickly. Right around 8pm, the doctor said it was time to push. And right then, my friend Tessa walked in! She'd planned on photographing the birth but I was too overwhelmed all day and decided to hold off on having her there until Xavier was actually coming. She timed it perfectly - and I'm so grateful for the photos she captured! I was a little nervous about this part - how on earth was I supposed to push when I couldn't feel a thing?! But it wasn't as hard as I'd thought. I'd push 3 or 4 strong times, then put the mask back on and wait a few minutes to let the baby's heart rate recover. The doctor who delivered was amazing, he was so patient and didn't seem worried that Xavier needed a little time to recover after each push. The whole time I was pushing, everyone was super calm which was really helpful after what felt like such a frantic day. I pushed for around 40 minutes, and at 8:42 pm, Xavier Joseph entered this world. I started bawling so hard. I just couldn't believe it - he was really here! After all this time. It was the greatest, most spiritual and surreal feeling of my whole life.
We got cleaned up, Brandie helped Xavier nurse for the first time and then she headed home. We introduced Xavier to my parents, who'd been waiting in the lobby, and Matt's parents, who came straight from an event. Once the room emptied out and everyone had gone home, Matt and I just kept staring at Baby Xave. It was - and still is - the most incredible blessing to be his parents.
Birth was far harder, scarier and more intense than I ever imagined. For all my perfectly laid plans and poured over birth preferences, Xavier was born exactly how God knew he would be. God knew, the whole time, the way our birth story would go. Sixteen total hours of labor, fourteen hours of it with no medication. And in the scariest moments, He never left me alone.
To be honest, I’ve worked through a lot of shame and regret about Xavier’s birth. I’d read all the research and heard all the facts about babies born without medication - they nursed better, had better APGAR scores, on and on. And somehow it got all twisted up in my mind, and it all came down to my shoulders. It was up to ME to give this baby the absolute best start in this world, and in my eyes, I failed. I’ve wrestled with thoughts like “I should have held on longer, I could have done it” and “I gave up too easily.” I so resonate with something Jen over at Jen Loves Kev wrote in a recent post about her middle daughter's birth: "I felt like emotionally, I was always a few steps behind what was happening. Never really ever being able to ground myself. In the end I was left with a "what the heck just happened" feeling. I never felt that empowered feeling..." As I was reading that I just kept thinking, "yes! Me too." I expected to feel strong, empowered, warrior-like, fully woman during birth. But I didn't. I felt scared, overwhelmed and like everything was a blur. And it’s taken me all of six months to come to the conclusion that those feelings do not add up to me being a failure. To decide for myself that I am not less than, that my story is not sub-par. Xavier’s birth was not a story of power and superwoman strength, at least not for me. It is a story of unmet expectations, deep disappointment, and ultimate surrender to a very good God.
And really it boils down to this: Xavier’s ultimate safekeeping is not up to me. Of course I’m going to do everything I can to keep him safe and healthy and whole. But God is the ultimate provider, the ultimate protector. God knew Xavier’s birth story long before I did, and in the end it all came down to me surrendering and entrusting my precious son to his loving and capable hands, before he even entered this world.
And I can finally sit here today, holding a wiggly, giggly, chubby six-month old in my lap and say: it was beautiful. My story is perfect. My story is exactly what it was supposed to be.
And yours is too, sweet mama. Whether your birth story is everything you dreamed or nothing like you hoped: you are a warrior. You are strong. Your baby is in this world because of YOU. Whether your labor was 56 hours without medication or you were wheeled into a surgery room, your story is perfect.
And I know this to be true: birth is birth. Natural or with every intervention under the sun. At home in your living room or by c-section in an OR. Birth is birth, and it is beautiful, and it's a miracle. Every single time.
^^photo by Brandie Stoneking