Exactly 1 week ago, on the 28th of September, my husband and I welcomed our 2nd child: Anouk. It was an unmedicated, natural birth, and one of the most unique experiences I’ve ever had. Here’s our story.
But first! What was my first birth like?
Before I start, I want to offer a summary of our first delivery.
At 39 weeks and 3 days, I shed my mucus plug. From that moment, I’d sprung a slow leak in my amniotic sac, and as medical protocol would have it, was immediately on a time limit to deliver our firstborn: Lucas. (This is because a leak comes with higher risks of infections for the baby, and also a higher risk of the baby ingesting his/her own fecal matter while still in utero.)
I was admitted to the hospital at 7am on 22 December, and we began monitoring my situation. I was contracting but very lightly, and was only 1cm dilated. The deal was if by 4pm I hadn’t progressed, we would induce with a Pitocin drip. 4pm came and went with no progress, and so I was prepped for induction. I was brought to my private birthing suite, hooked up to the drip, and we spent the rest of the afternoon and evening preparing to receive our little one. At midnight, we hit 5cm dilation, and I asked for the epidural because things were moving so slowly and I wanted to conserve energy. I thought by numbing the pain, I’d be able to save strength. The drugs went in and I was able to rest a little – but not much because I discovered my body had several funny reactions to the anesthesia that made it difficult to get comfortable. At 4am, I was 8cm dilated and exhausted, but we were finally starting to prep to push. Whilst pushing, we discovered that Lucas had turned and was sunny side up, with his umbilical cord wrapped around his shoulders. Every time he’d crown, the less than ideal position, combined with the pull from the cord, would suck him right back in. 2 nurses and 1 resident had to bear down on my stomach and ribs to help urge him out with every push. Things were so slow moving, my doctor warned me at about 6am that if we didn’t get him out soon, we would need to go in for an emergency C-section. Spurred on by the fact that there was no way I was going to go in for a major operation after all that work and waiting, and helped along by Bethel’s You Make Me Brave playing in the background, I gave one final push and he was out at 6:23am, 23 December 2015. The next 24 hours included a hemorrhage scare (in which I passed a massive blood clot the size of a 2nd placenta, and had to be given a narcotic to allow me a few hours’ rest), and some tough (excruciatingly painful) early hours of healing, and adjusting to the swelling from a 2nd degree tear. That said, recovery in the week thereafter was smooth and swift.
What made me decide to go 100% natural this time?
Honestly, a natural delivery had always been what I aspired to, but I chose the epidural with Lucas out of fear of not just pain, but also exhaustion. I chose it with the understanding that the dose would be “adjusted” so I could feel “just enough” to get a sensation of pushing. We delivered Lucas in the Philippines, at a great hospital, with a very good anesthesiologist who was able to manage that for me. When I birthed Lucas, while there was no pain from the contractions, I did at least feel a bearing down sensation when pushing so I knew I was using the right muscles.
For this second birth, the underlying urge to try for natural only grew stronger every time I reflected back on my last epidural and thought about how, while I couldn’t feel the pain, I also had irritating reactions to the anesthesia: 1) I couldn’t regulate my body temperature, so I was shivering all evening, expending plenty of energy; 2) I itched all over all night, making it difficult to sleep.
The clincher really came towards the end of my pregnancy, when I started asking my doctor and other moms about delivering here in Indonesia, and about natural birth. The more answers I got, the less attractive the epidural began to sound. For starters, the anesthesiologists in Indonesia apparently only administer the full dose for epidurals. There is no modified option – everything is just numb. Also, a lot of the “pros” I knew about theoretically but hadn’t considered last time were starting to take on new meaning the second time around. It is often said that an unmedicated birth offers advantages such as: lower risk of intervention (forceps or vacuum delivery), lower risk of tearing (promising better recovery time), quicker progression in the cervix (leading ultimately to a faster labor), and better control of muscles and urge to push (oft associated with faster delivery). With my first, these all seemed like low prices to pay for having energy to push by avoiding the pain ahead of time. But coming into my 2nd, knowing how my body reacted to the anesthesia, understanding what a 2nd degree tear feels like, and having experienced a long labor and the effect it had on my uterus (I repeat: excruciatingly painful blood clot the size of a 2nd placenta because my uterus was too exhausted from the slow, long labor to contract on its own)…an unmedicated birth no longer seemed like just an aspiration: it seemed like the best option this time.
That’s why, after dinner on 27 September, I found myself watching hypnobirthing videos on YouTube, practicing breathing techniques, and doing simple exercises to get my pelvis aligned and make sure baby was in a good position. And that’s how 12 hours later, I’d successfully delivered our daughter sans medicines.
So how did labor and delivery go down?
At 11pm on 27 September, my water broke. It wasn’t like in the movies where this liquid just gushes out of you, it was more like a trickle with occasional waves. I waited an hour at home to see if it was legitimately a leak, then at 12 midnight, we took our hospital bags, and our toddler son, and headed out. At that point I was contracting, but only slightly. A part of me was worried it was going to be like Lucas’ labor all over again – with a leak, and an ultimatum, and 0 progress; but I forced these thoughts from my mind and kept myself mobile and positive, trying to encourage labor to progress.
The hospital admitted me immediately, and our nanny (who lives out) came to meet us there and take Lucas back home with her for the night. My husband, Jay, stayed behind and together we attempted to rest between tracking contractions.
At 1:30am, they checked my cervix and I was 2cm dilated. The next 6 hours were a fog of praise music, and Animal Planet on the telly while trying to sleep. Contractions were coming every 5 minutes or so and were manageable. At 6:30am, the pain began to escalate in intensity and frequency so at 7, a nurse came to check again. 4cm. Admittedly, I felt defeated. How could we be moving so slow? But at that point, I’d committed to trying to go “natural”. I’d made an agreement with myself that I’d make a decision at 6cm.
Incidentally, immediately thereafter, my contractions seemed to break an invisible barrier and started coming every 2 minutes so strongly that I suddenly felt blinded by them. Jay stayed close to me, holding my hand whenever the pain would come, and rubbing my lower back in figure 8’s in between. A nurse came in at 7:30 to check me again and I’d hit 6cm. The pain was creeping into unbearable territory, though, and remembering how it took 2hours to get from 6cm to 8cm with Lucas, I felt weak and defeated. Feeling myself cave, I asked them if they could call in the anesthesiologist. They said yes, and 5 minutes later a nurse and Jay helped me off my bed in the observation room and started walking with me to the delivery room. Though it was only a few paces away, that minute-long walk there racked me with 3 contractions in succession that were so intense I actually doubled over, screaming, and sobbing. I kept asking (aloud, embarrassingly), why is this so much more painful than it was with Lucas? And the minutes seemed to drag on endlessly. I also remember whining, “no” a lot at no one in particular.
By the time I’d hoisted myself onto the delivery bed, the pain was so intense I couldn’t open my eyes. When I did, I spotted briefly to my left the anesthesiologist with his gloves on, mask on, syringe in hand. They were prepping my back for the needle when I felt it: a sudden, incredible urge to push. But my doctor wasn’t even there yet! I started yelling out that I needed to push. The nurses and residents tried to calm me, telling me not to (???), telling me to “just breathe” (???), to “relax” (????????). But I wasn’t having it. My brain was trying to remember those breathing exercises (4 counts as you breathe in, 7 as you breathe out), but my body just needed to push. A nurse checked my cervix then and declared “oh you’re 10cm! Do you still want the epidural?” I remember saying “what? Is that even possible?” But before I could say anything else, the urge came again in a massive wave. I guess God wanted me to stick to my guns, and commit to my original choice. The impulse to push was so strong, I had 0 control over it myself. My body was doing what it wanted and had to do – whether I liked it or not, and I just had to trust it. The nurses helped me turn onto my back in a sort of crunch position, and together we hoisted my knees up close to my face. A doctor I’d never met before ran in, still in her civilian clothes, scrubs and mask in the process of being pulled on simultaneously. She introduced herself to me, implored me not to scream, and said “I’m here to help.” 1 push. She crowned. I could feel myself being pulled in every direction – a sort of burning sensation like the deep heat of a difficult Bikram yoga pose reverberated through my body. Count to ten. They said. But at 7, I was pushing again. And then she was out. The nurses quickly suctioned mucus out of her face as I looked down between my legs, bewildered and incredulous at everything that had just transpired. I looked to Jay to my right, who was tearing up, and looked down again at the baby in front of me. “Wait that’s it? Is she okay?” Jay was rubbing my hand with his thumb, “She’s fine. She’s doing great. You did good.” The nurses were stroking mucus away from her face. She was a little bit pink, a little bit purple, every bit perfect. She whimpered and whined, a bit of a cry here and there. My blood was pounding in my ears and head, and adrenalin was pumping through my veins in double time.
I could feel the umbilical cord between us, tugging, a reminder of the past 9 months and everything that lay before me now too – literally, and figuratively. I was no longer in pain. The contractions were replaced by waves of happy hormones, and almost a sickly sweet light headedness that this was all even real. They had me lie back, and they put her on my chest for immediate skin to skin and latching. Jay cut the umbilical cord, and my doctor arrived just about then to deliver the placenta and afterbirth.
Everything felt incredible. We were allowed to stay there latching and skin-to-skinning for a couple more hours before we were taken to our suite where we stayed another 48 hours. I was in such good shape that we could have been discharged earlier – having suffered not a tear (a small cut that didn’t count as a first degree tear, and that ended up receiving 1 stitch to speed up recovery), and being almost immediately mobile. However, the hospital stay came in a package (1 night in the delivery room, and 2 nights in the suites), and given we have no live in help on a regular basis, the extra attention from nurses round the clock was a good way for us to try to catch up on sleep before going out into the wild largely alone.
Would we do it again?
Now, having experienced induction, epidurals, and 100% natural deliveries, if we were ever to have a 3rd child, I would opt for the unmedicated route God-willing. Hands down. While the pain in the moment seems all-encompassing, it really is “over before you know it,” in many cases, and the beauty of being able to feel that connected and in tune with both your own body and your baby is priceless. If we go into this a 3rd time, I will definitely prepare better for it as well, perhaps take some hypnobirthing classes, and as well elect to deliver either in the Philippines or Europe, where we would have access to hospitals with water birthing suites (this is not yet a thing in Indonesia, and so is not an option at the hospitals here). In all an incredible experience – it was the most painful and challenging thing I’ve potentially done to date, but also in a way the “easiest”, most natural thing too. I am so grateful to God, my doctor, and my husband, for making that smooth a delivery even remotely possible. And now, to enjoy the recovery and journey that lies ahead as we’ve gone from a family of 3, to 4, and look forward to many more adventures to come!