Welcome River Walden
It was my due date, Friday, November 30, and I was sitting at my dining room table with the owner of Sacred Sounds Yoga when I felt a very intense sensation in my lower abdomen. Not knowing if I was about to lose my lunch or if this was something else, I willed my face to not give away the uncomfortable sensations down below. The rest of the lunch passed uneventfully so I didn’t give the fleeting sensation much more than a quizzical thought.
I was actively trying to induce labor (naturally), however, and had received acupressure body work the night before and was off to an acupuncturist that afternoon for a session.
I was trying to induce labor for two reasons. The first and most important one being that I love my doctor, Dr. Nabizadeh, but she only delivers on Tuesdays and one weekend a month. Well, the first weekend of December was her weekend, giving me the biggest window of opportunity to birth with her at my side. Secondly, Sunday, December 2 is Aaron Rodger’s birthday (Green Bay Packers quarterback) and being the crazy cheeseheads we are, we thought it would be a good omen if our little man shared his special day. I kind of wish this was a joke as I realize how ridiculous it sounds, but it’s the legit truth.
As Friday continued, I experienced more cramping sensations and started to bleed slightly. I called my doula, Gili Levitin with In Her Body, who said it sounded like things were progressing, so from here on out we were going to keep in very close contact. And she was right - by Friday evening, I was moaning through the contractions as they came.
Given that it was my first time, however, I still wasn’t sure if this was labor or false labor on Saturday morning. Did pressing on a few key points in my body really work to induce labor?
(Yes, yes it did.)
As the day went on, it became quite clear that I really was in labor and Gili came over early Saturday afternoon along with Zak Suhar, to photograph the entire process.
By the time Gili arrived, John (my husband) had created the most perfect birthing atmosphere with a curated playlist, positive affirmations printed and hung up in the living room, snacks and coconut water set out for me and our birth team.
Having a doula proved to be ESSENTIAL for me. Gili had all sorts of tools to make me more comfortable - essential oils to rub on my belly, incense, movement techniques, massage, preparing a bath and pouring water down my back during contractions. She would try various methods out to see what worked for me and guide and empower John to help me as well.
My contractions were getting more intense as Saturday afternoon turned to night, but were not following a regular pattern. They were close together and pretty intense, but not lasting as long as they “should.”
And then, somewhere around 9pm I threw up… five times… which is usually a sign of being very advanced and in transition. (Transition is the step in the labor process that happens after active labor and before pushing.) Knowing this, I thought, “Oh my gosh, we were about to have the baby!” We labored a bit longer at home, but then thought it was best to go to the birthing center.
We arrived at the birthing center around midnight on Saturday night / Sunday morning and had to be admitted through triage. We confirmed that the Birthing Center was open and accepting patients and Dr. Nabizadeh was in the hospital. THIS IS IT!
Or so I thought…
Turns out it wasn’t it. I was only dilated 2-3 centimeters after being in labor for over 24 hours. My thoughts at this point were went something like this: “Why is having a natural birth important to me?” … “Just cut me open and get him out.”
This is why it is so important to have a birth team that knows your wishes before you are in labor who can remind you if need be. I didn’t express these thoughts out loud, so they never had to remind me, but had I needed a booster, Gili and John would have been there to remind me why I had set out on this path in the first place.
The look on my face when I heard 2-3 centimeters must have been one of extreme disappointment, and yes some level of fear, at how much longer this would go on. It wasn’t the “pain” that I couldn’t take. I was just so tired from not getting any sleep on Friday and having just thrown up all my fluids and being unable to eat or put anything else substantial in my system.
Gili looked me in the eye and said very calmly, “Ok, we will go back home then.”
But it wasn’t that simple. Every time I had a contraction the baby’s heart rate would drop quite substantially. His baseline heart rate was already on the low end so when it dipped, it was dipping far too low for a doctor to be able to discharge us without us having to sign a piece of paper saying we going home against doctor’s orders (AKA, we are shit parents before he is even on the outside).
Luckily, Gili had lots of experience at this hospital and knew how to read the machines and understood what was happening. Whenever I had a contraction, I would move, so the machine would lose the baby’s heart rate. Yes, the heart rate was dropping, which is normal during a contraction, but it wasn’t dropping as low as the machines were reading. Gili and my doctor have a long-standing working relationship so after being there for about two hours trying to get good readings, Dr. Nabizadeh told Gili to get her 20-minutes of good readings and she would discharge us without us having to sign aforementioned shitty parent paperwork.
The only way to get a good reading was if I literally didn’t move during a contraction. For the sake of comparison, that’s kind of like asking someone to not move while someone wrings out your insides. Movement is helpful. I am a mover. Stillness is not my strong suit. I somehow managed and we got 20-minutes of good readings.
And thank goodness, because while I was having all of those negative thoughts in the triage room, a doctor had come in and told me that they could not admit me to the Birthing Center at 2-3 centimeters, but they could admit me to Labor & Delivery right away and get me an epidural. The intense stink eye I gave her was felt by all in the room. No one had said anything about an epidural.
Maybe she was a mind-reader and knew my innermost thoughts, but I definitely wasn’t ready to ACTUALLY get cut open or have any type of intervention. I was only thinking negatively because I was disappointed and exhausted. As soon as she said that, it strengthened my resolve to go home and have this baby naturally. And, had I been admitted to Labor & Delivery at 2-3 centimeters, the rest of River’s birth story would not have happened the way it did. And, this story is just about to get good.
So we are back at home and it’s Sunday. I was so tired and exhausted that Sunday mostly consisted of me having a contraction and my body being unable to do much of anything else besides pass out or go into a restful space until the next one. I have no idea how long I laid on the couch riding each contraction and slipping into sleep in between. There could have been bombs going off all around me or thousands of rainbows in the sky and I wouldn’t have associated any sort of feeling with them. I only had the capacity to notice my surroundings, but couldn’t attach any emotion to them. Labor asks you to be completely present with what is without layering your usual individual preferences onto your experience.
Apparently, some time around 4:30pm, I said it was time to go to the hospital (I don’t remember saying this, but am told I knew when it was time to go!) We took our second Lyft there moaning and groaning the whole ride. This time when we checked in I was 8-cenitmeters with my bag of water bulging. Wa hoo! They tried to admit us to Labor & Delivery saying we didn’t have enough time to check into the Birthing Center, but John would have none of that, and with his determination off to the birthing center we went to meet our doctor… who was on call that weekend… our top reason for inducing labor…
Turns out Dr. Nabizadeh got sick and went home early. We were going to have a midwife who we had never met before. It seems we can plan, but life, birth and parenting keep reminding us that we are not in control.
So off we went to meet Rachel, the midwife, who turned out to be the. most. awesome. ever. Because sometimes the universe has a better plan than you do!
The next two hours were mostly spent laboring in the jacuzzi, except for a brief trip to the bathroom, which is where I felt the first urge to push. Not wanting to have the baby in the toilet I got back in the tub and Rachel encouraged me to practice bearing down with each contraction.
I practiced during two contractions and on the third one, I flipped onto my hands and knees and felt his head suddenly drop, like an elevator plummeting a few floors, into what felt like my rear end but science tells me is the vaginal canal. I looked up at Rachel and told her he was coming, she replied with “Great, I love when people tell me what’s happening.”
Then she asked me the most empowering question that I wish every mother got to hear: “How would you like to have your baby?”
This was my first go of it, so while I didn’t intellectually know, I instinctually knew and immediately replied: “Standing.”
Rachel was on board and devised a tug of war system where I was pulling on one end of a towel and John and Gili were pulling the other end. When a contraction came, I would pull on the towel, bend my knees slightly (demi-plié in dance / chair pose in yoga) and push. After the first push, I was able to reach down and feel his head full of hair! After the second push, I could look down and see half of his head. On the third push, she told me to keep going and I asked if she was sure because it really felt like I was pushing too hard and fast, but she said yes she was sure, so I did and with the fourth push, out he came! After an epic 48-hour labor, a mere seven minutes of pushing was all it took.
River Walden Suhar was passed to me through my legs and I enveloped him in my arms and I haven’t really let him go to date, except to let John cut the cord and since then snuggle and hold him nonstop. John is an incredibly supportive husband and now such an actively involved father who shares an unbreakable bond with River. I am passionately thankful we both have 3-months of leave from our jobs and are tackling this together. (Aside: paternity and maternity leave should be a right for every family.)
So there you have it, the entire story. But, I’d like to add just one final note. For those I have told this story to in person, the most common question has been about managing the pain of labor for so long. My response is that yes, it’s “painful” but I think we only describe it that way because our language lacks a better word to describe the sensation. (I’m curious if other languages use a different word to describe the sensations of labor? Any bilingual friends out there have an answer to this?) At the moments I wanted to quit, it wasn’t pain, but exhaustion that had me feeling defeated. I would more accurately describe the feeling of contractions as very intense discomfort.
A sensation that I’m used to and have trained my body and mind for my entire life. There have been many moments on stage where I was sure I was going to throw up and had to keep dancing, and times when every muscle in my body was shaking and all I wanted to do was come out of a position but I had to hold it 64-more counts, and many occasions when I chose to stay in a yoga pose for a few more breaths beyond what was comfortable.
As a dancer and yogi, I am quite used to being in very intense and uncomfortable positions with my body, mind and spirit. The similarity between these moments on stage I mentioned, holding yoga poses and contractions, is that they all do come to end and when they do you get relief. And in that respite, you rest and so that you can keep going or do it again, whatever the moment demands. Labor is a great teacher of the commonly taught yoga maxim: all things are temporary.
Every time I step on stage and need a pep talk or teach a class when I am feeling like I have zero energy to give, I tell myself “you can do anything for X amount of time.”
Now, my mantra will be: YOU CAN DO ANYTHING FOR 48-HOURS! :-)
Thanks so much for reading. I’m grateful that circumstances were such that I was able to have all natural birth. All births are gifts that should be cerebrated and a healthy mom and baby are the most important outcome.
The birth experience however should not be discounted for mom and baby, and I do think it is important to share positive birth stories to change our current culture surrounding birth in the West. Birth is a natural event that sometimes requires medical attention. In our culture it is the other way around and treated as a medical event that in rare circumstances happens naturally in a hospital setting where women are treated as patients, not competent birthers in charge of their bodies. Please share this story with anyone who you think may benefit from hearing a positive natural birth story.
Infinite thanks to Gili Levitin of Inher Body (Instagram, Facebook, Website) for her unparalleled support and guidance, my husband John for doing so much research on birth and being the most prepared partner in the history of birthing, and Zak Suhar for documenting the ENTIRE journey.