The men reading this are thinking, “Doesn’t that imply there’s a beautiful side though?”
I’m kidding, of course. I’m sure plenty of men appreciate the miracle of childbirth, and even see the beauty in it. But regardless, this post isn’t really for the men anyway. It’s for the mothers.
As first-time expecting moms, we generally have an idea of what is coming, right? We certainly know that pain will be involved, and that our bodies will probably change after all is said and done. But really, we go into that labor and delivery ward completely and totally naive to what is about to go down, and perhaps there’s a reason for that.
I gave birth to my first child at 6:30pm on a Monday night. I labored for 22 hours, and pushed for over two. I held off on getting an epidural until I reached a point of pure insanity (i.e., I hit 8cm), and then I begged for one. I don’t know why I held off on the epidural, honestly. I didn’t have anything against getting one, and I’m not really scared of needles. I think I just wanted to see how I did on my own and make the decision in the moment. That moment came on like a freight train and then it seemed as though the medicine came on more like a tug boat.
Expect the unexpected. This is something that should be repeated to pregnant mothers over and over throughout pregnancy and childbirth (and beyond too). My epidural experience did not go the way I expected it to go. My husband is a neurosurgeon, and was a resident at the time. He had performed probably about 100 spinal taps by that point in his residency, and I was comforted having him with me for this procedure. He stood in front of me as the needle went in, and then I heard the anesthesiologist tell him, “I did a wet tap.” I didn’t know what that meant, but I could tell by the expression on Justin’s face that a wet tap was not what was expected (and probably not good). He later explained to me that the needle went too far—past my epidural space and into my spine, causing spinal fluid to leak out. He said the medicine would still work, but I might have a side effect later from the wet tap called a spinal headache. I didn’t worry about that too much and just focused on continuing to get through my labor.
Pushing for two hours was about as terrible and exhausting as you might imagine. I had already labored for 20 hours by that time, and I wasn’t sure if I would have the strength to do what needed to be done. And the most frustrating part? At about 30 minutes in, my doctor started telling me, “You’re doing great, I think she will come with one more push.” Needless to say, that was NOT correct and only made me feel more desperate and frustrated as the time ticked away and I kept pushing (side note: that doctor was truly amazing in every way and I absolutely loved him…he just drove me a little nuts during those two hours). I remember the look on my husband’s face so clearly each time he said that—it was like a “no way is that true, sorry, I feel really bad for you” kind of look.
So, my daughter was chilling in the birth canal for two hours because her head was incredibly giant. As it turns out, that makes childbirth way harder. After three babies and lots of polling of friends (totally scientific), I have determined that the head is what you need to worry about, ladies. Your baby is expected to weigh 11lbs? No problem—just tell me how that head is measuring.
Once my doctor resigned himself to the reality that, no, she is not coming after that push, this push, or any freaking push, he told me he needed to perform an episiotomy. I had no idea what that was at the time, and felt too exhausted, frustrated and desperate to care. I just wanted her out. He said that he was going to make a “small cut” to allow her to pass more easily, and further explained that without it, he felt I would tear very significantly. So, I got an episiotomy—something totally unexpected.
Cameron came shortly thereafter, and was delivered by her own daddy. When my doctor knew she was actually about to come, he asked Justin if he wanted to step in and deliver her himself. To this day, it gives me chills to think about that. The first hands to ever hold our baby girl were her father’s…I think that is so special. He had only delivered a couple babies and witnessed a handful of other deliveries prior to that. He was nervous, but in the end, he was grateful for the experience. And Cameron loves hearing about how her dad delivered her…we leave out the details of my role in her arrival for now! So my husband delivered our first child—definitely unexpected!
I went into that room thinking that the worst of it was going to be the labor/delivery, and would only get better from there. I thought that once she was out, I would hold my baby and feel nothing but pure love and happiness. It didn’t go that way. I only held her for a brief moment before she was whisked away to be checked, cleaned, weighed, etc. That moment is such a blur—I just remember feeling disbelief that she was here and in my arms, and then I remember seeing her tiny baby butt up in the air as they carried her away like Rafiki held Simba.
I next had to deliver the placenta and then have my episiotomy sewn up (cringe). I don’t know how long it actually took, but it felt like an eternity because I couldn’t hold my daughter until those two things were done. First of all, even though I knew there was a placenta in there and that it needed to come out, I still felt surprised when my doctor reminded me of it! Wait, there’s more to deliver? Bummer.
The stitching of the episiotomy was a special kind of torture. I will spare you the details, but I will say it was then that exactly what an episiotomy is became completely clear to me. I was filled with dread for what recovery was going to be like after it.
Once those procedures were completed, my daughter was placed in my arms. This is the part that is the most unexpected, by miles: the instant overwhelming feeling of completely pure love. It is indescribable and something you cannot prepare yourself for, no matter how many times you hear other parents describe it. I have tears in my eyes now as I write these words and reflect on that moment when I first truly held Cameron in my arms. Everything around me faded to the background and, for a moment, I was not thinking about the pain I was in whatsoever.
Then a nurse walked over and reminded me that Cameron was probably hungry and it was time for me to breastfeed her <record scratch sound goes here>. I suddenly snapped back to reality and my thoughts were, “Right now? I just finished giving birth after 22 hours of labor, then had my nether regions sewn up, and now I have to figure out how to breastfeed? Is this going to hurt too? I’m starving—I’ve only consumed ice chips in the past 24 hours, can’t I eat something really quickly? She seems totally content. Are you all just going to be standing here watching as I do this? How do I do this?” It was overwhelming, but it was a great first lesson in motherhood—putting your needs behind the needs of your child.
Breastfeeding for the first time went fairly well. It wasn’t something that came completely naturally to me (aside from the milk, that was au natural), but eventually Cameron and I found our groove. What I remember most about that first breastfeeding experience was having a hard time looking down at Cameron. It physically hurt. I mentioned it to my husband, and his face changed. I instantly remembered what he told me earlier, after that wet tap. “You may end up with something called a spinal headache.” Oh no. Is that what this is?
About an hour later, it was crystal-clear that I was experiencing a spinal headache. The pain I felt is indescribable. It was unbearable and rendered me completely incapacitated. I could barely move—every move I made was excruciating. My neck was completely stiff, my head throbbed, I felt so dizzy, and my vision was blurring. I asked my doctor what could be done to relieve the pain, and I was told that it would likely resolve on its own. He said that if it did not subside after 24 hours, I would be given a blood patch procedure (where a small amount of my blood is injected into the spine, restoring normal spinal fluid pressure). The thought of possibly having to endure this for 24 hours was devastating. Needless to say, I did not expect to deal with a spinal headache after the birth of my first child.
I also had absolutely no idea that I was about to make up for the period-free nine months I just enjoyed during my pregnancy. I almost feel silly admitting that, but I can’t be alone in my ignorance here. Anybody else? Anybody? I knew and expected that childbirth itself would be messy and a little gross, but why did I have no idea that part would continue for weeks afterwards too? A six-week period? Seriously? Why not round out the physical misery and throw in sleep deprivation too? Oh wait…
At about 10pm that night, an older nurse walked into my hospital room accompanied by an absolutely beautiful younger nurse who was being trained. They were there to teach me how to use the bathroom now that I had pushed a human being through that same general area. Isn’t that a fun little fact, that things like peeing have to now be re-learned? Mark it down on my list of “things I did not expect regarding childbirth”.
Just standing up and walking over to the bathroom was a whole thing. Not only was I still in the thick of my spinal headache, but I was also in so much pain from the episiotomy. Both nurses helped me to get out of bed as my husband worriedly watched on. I shuffled over to the bathroom, and the older nurse flipped on the light. She looked at me in the mirror and said, “Whoa, are you OK?”
“Yes…?” I replied.
“You look very pale, are you sure you’re ok?”
“I’m sure,” I said, avoiding looking up at my reflection as I stood side by side with Miss America, the younger nurse.
“No, look at yourself, you look very pale. Are you going to faint?”
I looked at myself and then said, “No, this is just what I look like.”
I heard my husband start cracking up from the other room and then called out, “It’s pretty bad when you’re considered medically pale!” Ahhh, I needed that laugh (but of course that physically hurt too)!
My spinal headache never went away on its own—I ended up having to get the blood patch (which did provide instant relief, thankfully). Those first 24 hours with Cameron were, in truth, pretty miserable. I felt robbed of the experience I had been hoping for and expecting with her. I definitely expected it would be hard, but I never thought it would be that hard.
There were even more surprises that came, including a baby tongue tie and a nutcase roommate, but I think I have made my point about how vastly different my experience was from my expectation. And so, it made me think—would I have wanted to know some of those surprises ahead of time if I could have? Would it have made the experience any better? Perhaps a few things would have been helpful to know in advance (such as the postpartum never-ending period, so I could buy stock in “Always” before my delivery), but really, what is the difference? What would have been different if I went in armed with information? It probably would have just made me more anxious and fearful, but not changed most of the outcomes.
I had two more children after Cameron was born, and although I was wiser and more experienced, both of those pregnancies and deliveries came with surprises too. I am, by nature, a planner and (I admit) a bit of a control freak. I decided to skip an epidural for my second child to avoid the risk of another wet tap, and I definitely can’t say that natural childbirth was any less painful than the spinal headache! I tried to control that situation and learned quickly that I just couldn’t. I essentially traded one type of pain for another. Do you ever sit in traffic, and watch as the cars in the lane next to you seem to move faster than your lane, so you switch to that lane and realize it’s no better?
We go into childbirth with a vague idea of what will be difficult about it, and a fairytale mentality of what will be wonderful about it. The best way to prepare for it is not the childbirth classes, not asking all of your friends what to expect, and not reading books or even blogs; the best way is to go in trusting your doctors, your nurses and most importantly, yourself. Trusting that your body was designed to do this very thing and that you will do it. And you will be just fine when it is all said and done.
So, expect the unexpected mamas, from here on out.