Have you ever wondered what might possess a woman to voluntarily sign-up for the most painful experience of her life? To choose extreme, hell on earth discomfort when its opposite (or a relative cousin of its opposite) is a socially, medically, and financially-viable option?
If you have, you’re in the right place. In the second installment of my two-part series on the most frightening things I’ve ever done in my life (and what I learned in the aftermath), I’ll delve into my unexpected, voluntary experience giving birth without any meds.
Choosing the path of least resistance
I have a few friends who have always been militant about wanting to give birth without an epidural. They would talk about it matter of factly as if it were no big thing. I remember thinking to myself. WTF? What’s wrong with you girl? I just couldn’t understand the logic.
So when my time came to decide between meds or no meds for my first son’s birth I was like “hook me up with the drugs!” I’m no masochist. I hate pain. I’m a totally wuss. I don’t like roller coasters. I’ve never broken a bone. I never even ever had a cavity. What do I know about suffering?
How could I possibly predict how my body would handle that degree of discomfort if I’ve never experienced anything more painful than having my wisdom teeth removed under general anesthesia?
On the big day something totally unpredictable happened, though.
This being France, the Gods of irony decided that it would be hilarious to throw a huge LABOR strike in my neighborhood on the day that I went into LABOR!! That’s right. When we went to call for a cab to take me to the hospital (which to make matters even worse was located on the other side of town) we were told that we’d have to wait two hours because all traffic was at a standstill.
We had no other solution than to wait the two hours at the house and try out the breathing techniques and different poses that my husband and I learned together during the pre-labor lessons (preparation à la naissance) that were subsidized by the government. In an effort to keep the spirits high and not panic, we tried to have fun with it like two kids play-acting an adult scenario:“OK, now get into that crouching frog position while you grab onto my arms like a tree.”
It was totally surreal and goofy and in the moment I wasn’t as terrified about it as I thought I’d be.
After two hours of squatting and shifting around shenanigans the taxi finally arrived. We headed downstairs, and made our way slowly across town through the side streets, passing picketers, sirens and the general bruhaha of the protest. When we finally got to the maternité, they wired me up and said that I was already 5 cm dilated and can get my epidural! Wooohaaaa!! Yes.
Too Much Of A Good Thing
After the epidural I became so sedate and listless that I felt completely disconnected from my body. I couldn’t feel anything from my waist down. The first dose had been too intense. They actually threw one of those shiny survival blankets over me at some point because my body was shivering uncontrollably. Even so, I was super scared for the effects to wear off right as things got really intense. So when I started to feel the contractions again I panicked and asked for another dose.
When it came time to push I literally couldn’t feel anything. It was a totally abstract experience complicated even further by the fact that as I entered into a sort of birthing bubble, I couldn’t understand a single word of French anymore.
My doctors instructions to breath in, hold, breath out, push, were all jumbled up and I had no friggen idea what any of it meant.
Luckily my husband was there to translate the instructions and help me relax and focus and after twenty minutes of abstract pushing and some alarms beeping and forceps coming out I had my beautiful baby in my arms. Quickly, the craziness of the birth was eclipsed by the craziness of parenting and that birthing adventure was a done deal.
Sensory Gymnastics And My Magical Midwife
I didn’t really think much about all of the details of the delivery and how I would have done things differently for five years until baby #2 was close to arrival.
Two months before my due date I was suddenly in a panic because I had no pre-natal courses lined up and I felt a bit rusty and nervous about the impending event. I had done the traditional course cycle for #1, and given how that worked out I was very eager to see what skills I could pick up to make it a smoother experience. When I stumbled across a sage femmespecialized in something called “gymnastique sensorielle perinatal” (pre-natal sensory gymnastics) my curiosity was piqued!! Images of Esther Williams doing cartwheels and summersaults into a MGM-olympic sized pool came to mind.
What hooked me right away was my first call with the midwife, Johanna, who offered the courses. She asked about the details of my first delivery and when I said that I was looking for a way to “have more control” during the birth, she laughed and said gently, “If there is one moment that we can’t control it’s the moment you bring a life into the world. But what we can do is learn techniques that will help you manage the stress and pain that any situation may produce.” While I had no idea what she had in mind, I like the message and was ready to dive in.
What a Tightrope Walker Taught Me About Giving Birth
Do you know Philippe Petit? The French tight-rope walker who crossed the Twin Towers on a tight rope stretched between the two towers, 1,350 feet above the ground? He apparently trained for 6 years to prepare his mind and his body to be able to adapt to the extreme conditions of the insane walk, which included:
— the gaping, unforgiving void under his feet
— the waffling movements of the tightrope
— the thick gusts of wind against his body
— the stress of having a fleet of police officers waiting to arrest him if he didn’t plummet to his death first.
In my own way I was on a quest to access a similar zone of confidence and strength even with thick gusts of fear and pain trying to knock me off my game.
Over the course of the next two months my main mission with Johanna was to create a physical and mental anchor that I could harness no matter what crazy occurred during delivery.
Growing Roots Out of My Feet and Branches Out of My Hands
How did she train me? It was the exact opposite of a rigorous, sweat-filled boot camp. The challenge was to moor my body while barely moving it. I had to glide my knees from one side of my body to the next while balancing on a bouncy ball, trying to stay steady and upright while slowing the motion down to a imperceptible crawl.
To stay balanced during these super slight moves she had me visualize my legs growing roots out of my feet and branches spurting out of my hands.
The key would be to accompany the contractions using these super slight movements, grounding the pain out of my body like a lighting rod plundering a bolt down into the ground during an electrical storm.
What you don’t want: having that pain writhing around your body with no exit door.
Even though I was totally behind the philosophy and loved the practice, I still wasn’t convinced that I could really do it. While Johanna believed in me 100%, she didn’t pressure me at all. In fact she was surprisingly cool about my ambivalence and said that even with an epidural I would still be able to use the techniques.
It was when my husband joined the conversation and hinted that he thought I could do it was I comfortable and confident to at least give it a try. Knowing that he saw that potential in me, that he believed I could do it, was a huge source of motivation and a turning point in my decision to give this crazy thing ago. We even volunteered to be guinea pigs during a sensory gymnastics midwife training session.
How To Train A Control Freak To Embrace The Unexpected?
One of the reasons I felt I could do this thing was that Johanna (and everyone else) predicted that the birth would go super fast since it was my second delivery. Before I knew it the baby would be there, I was told. My concern would be to get to the clinic super fast so that the baby wouldn’t show up en route.
Once again, we learned that expectations and reality are two opposing forces when it comes to babies.
The delivery was not fast at all. I arrived at am on Wednesday and was told that the baby would come that day. But after 12 hours of contractions with no change in dilation, my doctor suggested we induce. I had been doing my exercises throughout the day, managing the pain relatively well, but my body wasn’t advancing.
Every few hours a midwife would show up and check on me and declare that I was still at 4cm. It was beyond frustrating. I didn’t want to induce because I knew then that the pain would skyrocket off the charts, and that was truly terrifying. I was able to manage the slow and steady increase in intensity like the sun lightening up the morning sky. But an induction would have been a lightning bolt through my system. No thank you.
There was also no medical reason to induce. It’s just that my doctor was ending his shift and wasn’t on call the following day so it was now with him, or another day without him. I decided to continue on without induction, and entered into a second sleepless night of contractions. Luckily I discovered the bath on the top floor of the clinic, where my husband was allowed set up some Chet Baker and candlelight.
There was something moody and Woody Allen-esque about the whole thing. Me in a giant bath delirious with fatigue, listing to Chet Baker and marveling at the surreal beauty of the Paris rooftops while catching a break in between contractions, pressing my hands and feet against the edges of the bath to ground the pain.
But the boy still wasn’t ready to make an appearance! Come 8am the following day I was still at 4cm and my doctor decided to send me home to wait there for things to progress.
The pain reached a whole new level back home. It felt like my insides were like a piece of raw beef beaten tendered by Sylvester Stallone in Rocky. All I wanted was a chance to sleep but the contractions kept me awake. Finally at 3am things started to intensify, the contractions were coming more quickly, and I was determined that the end was near. The pain at this point was off the charts, and I just couldn’t deal anymore. I woke my husband up and told him we had to get back to the clinic to end the torture.
Once there, I was place on a bed to check vitals. It took 45 minutes to take the readings and the entire time I had to stay in an upright position: no bouncy ball, no bath, no crouching or anchoring my feet on the ground to help with the pain. I had to find a way to relieve the pain while being tethered and somehow found relief by pressing my hands into my knees and my feet into the bed.
Just Do What You Can’t
When the midwife came back I was convinced I was just about ready to push, but no, I was still around 5–6cm!! That was it. No more for me. I asked the midwife how long until my doctor could get there: one hour. And how long until the anesthesiologist could get there to give me an epidural: one hour.
I didn’t know what to do! Enough is enough.
My husband reminded me of the bath and how much good that did me the previous night. I just couldn’t fathom ant more of this and said, “I don’t think I can do it, it’s just too much. I don’t know what to do.” He just responded “But Zeva, you are doing it.”
How many times do we limit ourselves because we fear following through with something really hard? We just can’t imagine ourselves being that person who succeeds. It’s the impression of our limitations rather than the reality of our capabilities that dominates our decisions.
My husband’s words cut right threw my doubts, I was doing this. I was that women that I never imagined I could be. Why would I turn back now? I was so damn close.
So I jumped back into that bath and things starting accelerating at a much faster rate, the contractions were coming every minute now. As soon as I caught my breath another tsunami of pain would start up again. I pressed against the sides of the bath with all of my strength as my husband massaged my lower back to relieve the pain. It was totally insane.
Johanna had warned me that at around 9cm women who are on the cusp of giving birth panic and want meds. It’s something to do with the baby’s head passing over some super sensitive area on its journey out and it triggers your brain to say “enough!” That happened to me again. And when it did I begged my husband to make it stop and get Jose’s (the male midwife’s) help.
As soon as José saw me on all fours he was like, ok, come out, you’re ready. I had several more contractions on the walk down to the delivery room. It was a bit comical. Once there, José had me climb up on the table, he examined me a said with a huge smile. “You’re at 10cm, next time you have a contraction, push”. Holy shit, I couldn’t believe it. I pushed twice and my husband said, “I can see his head, Zeva.” One more push and our little baby was out, no drama, no lights, no forceps, no beeps, no tension, no fogginess in the brain. Everything was so calm, so simple.
As my heart expanded, so did my sense of accomplishment and pride. By accepting, and training myself, to embrace the unexpected and the inevitable lose of control, I was able to experience something so profound.
I don’t always feel invincible, believe me, but often when I’m up against a challenge, be it professional, personal, physical, I ground myself in the strength of my past and grow roots out of my legs as I stretch my head up into the sky.
Whatever it is that you want, doing it is infinitely simpler than the pain and stress of self-doubt.