Over the last eleven weeks, in the midst of one round of finals, a new set of classes, a hundreds-of-miles-move (with wife and dog and cat and baby all in one car together), and your daily dose of grad school homework, I’ve put off writing my daughter’s birth story. Some of the reason for this is procrastination, but a bigger reason is that I believed that the experience would defy description until some of the memory had faded and I could apply words to it justly. My father says that women often forget the gory details of birth as an evolutionary mechanism–if they remembered, he says, they’d never in a million years want to have another one. I’ve done my part to help prepare for child number two by forgetting a little bit of the birth story, but I think I’ve remembered enough to give an account that Kristine can be proud of and Maia will someday be excited to read. I hope that it’s accessible enough for each of you to enjoy reading it, too. Skip ahead where necessary; the headings I’ve added should help you find the parts that you’ll find most interesting. For the truncated version, head straight down to “Delivery,” but know as you go that a start-to-finish read isn’t reserved only for grandma(s).
Kristine and I were really stressed about whether I’d make it home in time for Maia’s birth-day. Her due date was December 5th, right in the middle of my last week of classes at Stanford. Back in August, we had decided that it would be better for the family if Kristine worked up until the 5th so that she could maintain ties with her job and take advantage of the paid maternity leave that she’s earned over the last ten years. I would attend classes for as long as possible and then fly back to Portland in time for the delivery (fingers crossed!). She’d do her best to hold it in.
While this made financial sense, it was agonizing for the two of us, especially in the last couple of weeks before Maia was born. We comforted ourselves by repeating that the first child is typically a couple of weeks late, keeping our phones nearby, and finding support in friends and family. I have no idea how Kristine was able to manage a household, two pets, and a full-time job in the last three months of her pregnancy. Grad school is cake compared to that kind of undertaking.
In November, I bought a plane ticket that would drop me back in Portland on December 1, and asked my professors if I could leave school a week early. They were all tremendously supportive, asking what else they could do to help me through the process. Finals were postponed, deadlines extended, extra materials distributed. I crossed as many t’s and dotted as many i’s as a could before heading for the airport on the 1st. When my plane took off on time, I knew that I’d get to be with Kristine to welcome our daughter to the world.
The Big Day: Contractions Begin
Kristine woke me up at about 6:30 on the morning of December 4th with a cell phone in her hand and a big smile on her face.
“I’ve started having contractions,” she said.
“How far apart?” I was still waking up.
She held out a piece of paper and a pencil, along with the running stopwatch on her phone. Contractions were coming about seven minutes apart and lasting thirty to forty-five seconds.
“Since 4:00am. I didn’t want to wake you up. I just thought I should let you know. Go back to sleep.”
I gave her a quick tutorial on the “lap” function on the iPhone’s stopwatch and closed my eyes and went back to sleep. When I would wake up again in a couple of hours and make coffee, she would exclaim “I love the ‘Lap’!” and show me the schedule of contractions since we had last spoke.
I had a little breakfast and roused myself appropriately. Kristine was dressed for comfort in PJ’s and a tee, bouncing up and down on an exercise ball in the living room, occasionally pausing to offer a deep moan whenever a contraction came through. Arwen, our pup, could sense that something was wrong. She sat at attention, her ears perked, staring at Kristine, who moved back and forth on the ball with her eyes closed, rubbing her belly and feeling the weight of the Bean beneath her.
With nothing to do but wait, I tried to write one of my final papers.
I wrote nothing.
Every few minutes, I’d get up from my computer and go check on Kristine. I would bring her water, adjust the volume on the movie she was watching (The Royal Tenenbaums), rub her shoulders, ask her questions, and then wander back to the kitchen table and think about maybe trying to write some of my paper.
We’d look again at the clock and talk about whether and when it was time to go to the hospital, with no clue exactly what to do. I packed a bag with no idea how long I’d be gone and no idea what I’d need. Movies? Books? A helmet? Muck boots? Slippers? How many pairs of socks would be necessary? Packing for a Frisbee tournament follows a prescription; a birth? No clue. (Two days later, in the hospital, I’d call a friend and ask him to bring me a pair of underwear, jeans, and socks to the hospital. I underestimated.)
At about ten, contractions were getting closer together but not alarmingly so. I called the hospital and they asked questions about the contractions. I had the answers, I told them. Here on the iPhone, I said. We’ve been keeping splits of the contractions and the time between and so forth, I offered. I was ready to contribute. The advise nurse said we were doing great, that we needn’t come to the hospital yet. Kristine could get in the bath if it would help with her discomfort. She should try to move around as much as possible. We should be ready when Kristine could no longer speak or talk through contractions. “When it’s time to come in,” she said, “you’ll know.”
Two hours later, in and out of the bath and watching Crazy Stupid Love, Kristine showed me the splits on her contractions (three minutes apart! forty-five seconds long!) and we got into the car to make for the hospital. Five minutes passed in the car. And then seven. And then eight. No contraction. I turned around. I turned back towards the hospital. I asked her what we should do. Could we go to the hospital if she wasn’t ready? At about nine minutes, she had a contraction but it was mild, light. I made an executive decision, and turned us back towards home.
The nurse was wrong. I didn’t know when it was time to come in.
We only spent another forty-five minutes at home before Kristine grew increasingly uncomfortable with longer and louder “ooooohhhh’s” echoing in our apartment, and I decided we’d go and stick to it this time. Again we got in the car and she didn’t have a contraction for close to seven minutes, but when she did it was a bad one and so we continued on, down the freeway, past the point of no return, arriving at the hospital at about 1:30pm.
There But Not Admitted: Birth Center Limbo
On the day of your child’s birth, you don’t just get to go to the hospital, declare that you’re in labor, and claim your room. They need to examine you first. You see, there is an accepted definition of “active labor”: you need to be 4cm dilated and 80% effaced, and in miserable fucking pain. Kristine was only experiencing two of these criteria when we arrived, and could not yet be admitted. At just 2cm dilated, she was told that she could elect to go home or hang out at the hospital for a little while longer to see whether the baby would start to move downward in earnest.
For the next hour and a half, Kristine and I occupied a tiny room off the main hallway of the birth center. She used one of the hospital birthing balls to keep herself moving, and I stood by her side, supporting her weight and rubbing her back and shoulders. Early on, we did a couple of trips around the hallways, moving at a snail’s pace–she in her gown and me in my civvies. I’d hold onto Kristine and tell futile jokes and remark at the humor of our situation. She’d ignore me but for a few half-hearted chuckles. When a contraction started to come on, she’d move to the wall, grab onto the railings installed there (oh, that’s what they’re for!) and grimace and moan through the pain.
Contractions are a strange thing, from the male perspective. On the outside, there is no visible sign of pain. I got no warning whenever Kristine was about to have one, though she picked up the habit of whispering “contraction!” in a soft but high pitch as she faded into a minute of pain. After the contraction passes, it’s gone. There’s no residual pain except for the memory of what had just happened and the baby slowly adding pressure to the cervix. Kristine could talk with me, and laugh, and theorize about how she was feeling (we did this a lot). But when the contraction came, she became essentially impenetrable as she worked herself through the pain.
At 3, the nurse returned to announce that Kristine was somewhere between 2 and 3 cm dilated–closer to 3–but that she wasn’t ready to be admitted yet. “Would you like to go home?” she asked. Kristine shot me a look and I knew that we were going to stick around. Over the next hour, as we waited, Kristine’s contractions got more and more painful and her ability to move diminished considerably. Just as the nurse arrived to check her dilation at 4pm, Kristine vomited pretty violently in the sink. When the nurse came in and we told her she had puked, she said, “Oh that’s great!” Apparently, this is a sign that things are going well…
At 4pm, she was about 4cm dilated and they decided that she could be officially admitted. This meant we’d be going to a bigger room–the one we had seen on our hospital tour–to “begin the labor process.”
Changings of the Guard
In our first three hours at the hospital, we dealt with about four different nurses. Since Kristine hadn’t been admitted, we were basically assigned whoever was available to help us. I took on the responsibility of translating previous progress to new nurses, making sure that they didn’t wear us down by covering all of the information that we’d already heard. A nurse that we liked told us that she’d walk us to our birthing room, but that she’d be leaving for the day after she handed us off to the next staff member, who was an absolute nightmare of a person.
The woman was unfriendly, confrontational, and sarcastic. In excruciating pain, Kristine had to go over all the relevant details of her birth plan–which we had already given the front desk–with this stranger who was unwilling to accept what we had already decided. “Are you sure you don’t want pain medication?” “So, are we going to go ahead and give you the epidural? No epidural? Wow, good luck with that.” She fought us on the Hepatitis vaccine, which we had already decided not to get on this day, and recommended other unwanted interventions after the baby would be born. For fifteen minutes, I thought we were in the nightmare scenario, and began to mentally prepare myself to tell this woman that she’d need to find someone else to come into the room because she was upsetting Kristine.
And then Sarah walked in. And she owned the room right away. She gave Kristine firm and direct attention, but didn’t ask her any challenging questions. She spoke with me about our birth plan and asked how things were going so far. Her voice was low and confident, but soft and soothing. She quickly got the rundown from the other woman (even in this part she was terrible), and then told her that she could go. And for the next two hours it was Kristine, Sarah, and me.
Three weeks before the due date, I flew home for our baby shower and a tour of the hospital and birthing center. Along with six or seven other couples (including one dude who spent the entire time playing around on his phone–not a good sign that you’ve elected an attentive and present partner), we were taken through each stage of the labor process and invited to ask questions about amenities and services that would be available to us on the day the baby would arrive. Julio was our tour guide: a Latino midwife in his mid-fifties who had slicked back hair, wore a black leather jacket, and spoke with a thick accent. We liked him instantly. Julio told us all about the room, the television with free cable, the DVD player, temperature controls and light switches, phones to call for food, curtains for privacy, additional bedding… literally everything you could need to make the birthing experience as pleasant as possible. Hey, this labor thing sounds terrific! It really seems like something to look forward to!
Once we entered the room, Kristine laid on her side for two hours, experiencing more and more intense contractions, drifting further and further away from reality. I found that the most useful thing I could do was press my fist into Kristine’s lower back, repeat any instructions from Sarah, and model calm, slow breaths when Kristine was in a contraction. I didn’t know if I was helping or not, but I felt like I had a job to do and I was going to do it.
There was one really scary moment in in the first hour of labor where I got pretty freaked out. Kristine had lost a lot of fluids through vomiting, and hadn’t been able to eat or drink for most of the day. She was sweating through the hard work of labor, and growing paler and paler by the minute. When she complained of dizziness, we decided that she would need an IV to replenish her fluids or she would be in serious trouble.
I stood by Kristine’s side and held her hand as Sarah tried again and again to get the IV to stick in her arm. The first time she tried to put it in, it came straight out, and Kristine started to bleed. A contraction came, and Kristine screamed “oooooouuuuuuuuuuuuuuuccchhhhh,” and I asked her whether it was the needle or the contraction and she whispered “contraction,” as Sarah tried again to put the needle in her vein.
Again it wouldn’t take.
Kristine had another long, painful contraction. They were more closely spaced now and there was no way to put them on pause just so we could get the damn IV in, and why the hell can’t we get the damn IV in?!
Sarah tried again to get the IV in the same arm, and the needle finally stayed put, but the liquid wouldn’t flow. Another contraction came. Sarah pushed on the plunger with her thumb as hard as she could, trying to get the fluids to move into Kristine’s veins, but it wouldn’t happen. Kristine had another contraction.
Sarah gave up on the left arm and moved to the right side. Kristine was extremely pale now, her eyes were nearly closed but you could see the whites underneath the bottom of her eyelids. After another failed attempt–and another contraction–she got up and called a specialist from another wing in the hospital to come and put the needle in.
Over these twenty minutes, Kristine was experiencing stronger and stronger contractions and losing fluids with each passing minute. I stood by her side on the verge of tears, silently wondering what the hell was going on and why this basic medical procedure wasn’t working. What would we need to do? How could we make this right? What happens if the IV doesn’t go in? Labor can’t be stopped once it’s started. There’s no halftime to refuel and replenish. It begins, and immediately the pace accelerates. The stress builds, the pain increases, momentum gathers, and your wife moves behind a sort of veil where you can’t lift her up or support her or help her. Without the IV, she was fading away fast–we needed to get her back.
The specialist arrived and essentially hammered the needle into Kristine’s vein and then forced the fluid to start running through the line and into Kristine’s body. The specialist talked to Sarah about one thing or another, but I was just happy to hear in the midst of a tumbling mess of jargon that the fluid was flowing. Kristine felt better almost immediately, and I could see the strength building in her face and her limbs again. It turns out that Kristine has “very stubborn veins” (much like the rest of her), and also that contractions are so painful that getting stuck with a needle five times is like being tickled with a feather by comparison. Lessons learned.
(I want to note that through the entire labor process, Kristine turned to profanity only two or three times, and only on the contractions that immediately preceded the delivery of the baby. Her most frequent noises were long and loud moans, but more than a handful of times she just let out an extended “ouch,” almost as though she were afraid of upsetting the delicate sensibilities of the nurses in the room. They assured us that they had heard worse–that she should just let it out. But Kristine remained–through it all–polite in pain.)
The big push seemed to come upon us rather suddenly. We had been living contraction-to-contraction for close to three hours when they decided to take another look at Kristine’s progress. Veterans to the labor process will know what they saw when they looked: Bloody show (“good!”). 10cm dilated (“you go girl!”). 100% effaced (“alright!”). This baby was ready to start coming on out (“ready?”).
Not quite ready, it turns out. First, Kristine had to pee.
Kristine had not moved for three hours. She spent the entire labor process on her left side, facing one wall in the room, breathing deeply through contractions but generally treating the entire situation as a challenge to remain as still as she possibly could. I was completely shocked when she said, “I have to pee,” and started to get up out of bed.
Three of us (Sarah’s relief arrived right at 7pm, ready to take over. Like I said, lots of nurses.) lifted Kristine to the floor and escorted her the ten feet across the room to the bathroom, where she experienced what she would later say was the most horrible contraction of the entire process. Despite our best efforts to get her in and out of the bathroom in the minute and a half between contractions, she felt one come on just as she started to stand up.
“Sit down!” our new nurse told her, helping her back to her seat. Kristine sat and had a contraction right there on the pot. I have never seen someone in such agony.
Our new nurse’s name was Anne, and she was as wonderful as Sarah despite being her complete opposite. Where Sarah was a calming, soothing, minimalist, Anne was a spectacular cheerleader. On the downward slope of her fifth decade and a grandmother in her own right, Anne never needed to know Kristine’s name, insisting on calling her “girlfriend” right through delivery. The delivery room was her room as long as she was running the show, and she sure as hell wasn’t shy about telling me to do a thing or two. She had a southern sass to her that livened up the room and got the energy flowing in the right direction just as it was time to start to push. Kristine liked her immediately.
The forty-five minutes of pushing was an incredible rush. The three hours of labor to this point had dragged on and on, but the pushing was over almost as soon as it began. More people entered the room. Our midwife arrived. Her name? Happy. A nice reminder that we’re in Portland. Happy was sweet and calm, but she definitely knew her way around things. We were glad to have her as a part of the team. Sarah had some paperwork to do, but she said she’d stick around after her shift to help get little Maia into the world. With Happy, Anne, and Sarah alongside us, I felt really, really good about the vibe in the room. So did Kristine.
For the first few pushes, Kristine was on her back. She lifted her legs towards her shoulders and held on to the backs of her knees like an overturned turtle. Pulling her chin to her chest, she began to push along with the contractions. When her pitch got high, we told her to keep it low: Make it sound like Nina Simone, not Mariah Carey. Get down to Barry White territory if you can.
Between contractions, she’d sink back into the hospital bed and relax for the next push. By now, we were able to get her to drink some apple juice through a straw. On the table beside me, our phones were blowing up with texts from her parents and mine. I’d steal a few seconds to send a couple of texts to friends and family, but was right back by her side when it was time to go again. (Note: Texting “what’s going on?!” to a husband in the delivery room is not a good strategy. I replied with “Shit is bananas.”)
After fifteen minutes of pushing on her back, the nurses asked Kristine if she wanted to try pushing in a squat position. She was dazed: “Sure…”
And now I saw how I would be able to make myself useful. Anne brought out a contraption that looked like a giant croquet wicket. She attached the legs to the foot of the bed so that the horizontal bar stood about three and a half feet above the sheets. When Kristine told us that a contraction was coming on, Anne and I would grab her underneath her shoulders and lift her forward to the bar, where she would hang in theasquat position and push while gravity pulled.
The Switch Flips
Throughout the whole labor and delivery process, I was anxious and uncertain. Kristine, normally so communicative, was so completely shutdown behind the pain that she couldn’t pull herself out long enough to connect with me. Since we had arrived at the hospital, she had vomited more than once, had turned from rosy olive to a pale seaweed, and had withdrawn into the sinking sheets of the hospital bedding. Internally, I questioned whether it was the right idea for her to do this “naturally,” wondered whether she had the strength to get all the way through the birth without needing some serious intervention. I knew it wasn’t my place to speak for her, that we’d talked this through and I’d keep my mouth shut and help her through the next contraction and then the one after that, but inside I had my doubts…
But then I saw her get up on that bar. I saw her squat, and push, and scream, and I swear I have never seen anything more powerful and more inspiring and more incredible in my life. My wife, completely naked, with her huge belly hanging beneath the squat bar, legs out and knees bent, pushing with every bit of strength she had. With each contraction, she’d get back up on the bar and push for another minute. In each minute, she howled, and grunted, and growled. Her muscles grew tense, her face was tight, she was deeply focused. I have never seen, and will never see again, anything as impressive as what she was doing in these moments. She erased my doubts. She showed me something new–something I hadn’t yet seen from her in all our time together. No one else. No one else could have done what she was doing. What she did. I have never seen anything like it. I fell even more deeply in love with her.
You’re damn right I believe in the power of women.
The contractions kept coming, and eventually we abandoned the squat technique for the more traditional delivery method. Kristine held her knees again and pushed with every contraction. All told, she must have experienced 20 to 25 contractions in those 45 minutes, pushing with every one. At about 7:40, Happy told us that she could see the head, and she asked Kristine if she wanted a mirror to watch the delivery.
“NO!” The only time Kristine yelled at anyone during labor.
I stayed behind the scenes as well, so to speak. When Kristine couldn’t hold her knee back, I’d hold it for her. I mopped her brow and helped her to breathe. I reinforced the low pitches. I internalized my laughter at the noises she was making–not mocking laughter, but joy and excitement at what she was doing, at what I was witnessing. It was hard to contain myself. Maia would come soon! With only a few pushes left to go, Kristine hit a brick wall.
“I can’t do it,” she began to sob. “It hurts so much, I can’t do it.”
“Yes you can, girlfriend! You’re almost there! One more push!!”
Kristine told me the next day that in this moment she had remembered reading birth stories, and had remembered–in particular–that women hit a wall just about two pushes before the baby comes. She felt like she had hit a wall, but deep in her mind she knew that it meant she was almost there. Her penultimate push was a sight to see. She shook the walls with the force of that push, channeling all the strength she could muster into her body and sending down to her pelvis, bringing that baby out. I peeked down and saw a sliver of a head coming from beneath her. This time, there was only one more push.
When Kristine pushed that last time and I looked down, I was shocked first at how big the head was. The piece of the head I could see when she was just starting to crown led me to believe that it was only about a quarter of the size that it actually was. When our daughter came forth into the world, she came fast and hard… and big. At 7:52pm, on Kristine’s final push, Maia came all the way out–over twenty-one inches from head to toe–and Happy snatched up all 9 pounds, 2 ounces, and put her right on Kristine’s chest.
We were a mama and a papa.
I am a big cryer. I knew that I’d lose it when I met my daughter for the first time, because I’ve shed big tears for much less and just about every new dad sheds a tear or two when he meets his first child. But when she came out, I let forth an indescribable heaving mess of sobbing laughter, an emotion I couldn’t recreate in a hundred years. I kissed Kristine and looked into Maia’s eyes, wide open and inquisitive and a little bit scared. She’d been through an ordeal, but here she was and she was already curious about the world.
People talk about how you feel when you meet your first child. That you’ll love her instantly. That you’ll feel an instant connection with her. That your life changes and you can literally feel it change in that moment. That you cry and laugh because you never thought you could love someone so much.
Just after Maia was born, I felt an instant connection to her, just like they say. I did love her instantly, and I could feel something different in my world. But nobody told me how my feelings about my wife would change–that I would have a new feeling of respect and admiration for her. I would stand by her side and watch her struggle through this ordeal, through excruciating pain, to bring our child into the world.
On her birth-day, I felt a strange and powerful new love for Maia. But with Kristine, I am surprised to say that I found a stronger and more complete love than we had had just one day before. I was heaving and sobbing and laughing because of what Kristine had just accomplished–because of what she had proved to herself and what she had shown me–and because of what that accomplishment brought to both of us.
Our baby girl.