by Ann Waterman
It’s hard to believe a year has passed since Peter’s birth — but here we are, one year later, with a cheerful, charming little boy who has added so much to our family. We celebrated this weekend with a simple mash-cake-in-face ritual (actually, thanks to baby-led weaning, he got most of it in his mouth) and lots of hugs and kisses. I’m sure this will come back to haunt me, but we didn’t even bother getting him a gift, as the only things he’s interested in these days are his brother’s toys, bits of paper or food he forages from the floor, and anything he finds in the recycling bin.
I’ve had a lot of highs in life, but none were quite like the high of Peter’s birth by VBAC — vaginal birth after C-section. Not only was it a major physical accomplishment for me — I’d been told that I’d never be able to fit a baby through these narrow hips of mine — but it was an emotional triumph as well. I was able to finally put to rest a lot of the nagging doubt and frustration surrounding my first delivery. Of course, no matter how your baby arrives, you’re thrilled to finally hold your child in your arms, but a positive birth experience can really do a lot for your own emotional well-being and confidence.
It wasn’t until I completed my first half marathon that I even considered doing a VBAC with my next pregnancy. I know it may sound strange, but athletics have always been a big part of my life and involve pushing your body and mind to limits you didn’t think were possible — just like labor and delivery. I never thought I could finish a race that long, but after a summer of training, I crossed the finish line and felt great doing it. I got pregnant with my second child about two months later, and after reading Pushed by Jennifer Block and watching The Business of Being Born — Ricki Lake’s documentary about the birth experiences of American women — I resolved to give a VBAC a try. If I could complete a half marathon, I could give birth to a baby vaginally.
Fast-forward nine months, and I’ll admit my resolve was a bit shaken when I found myself still pregnant nine days past my due date. In the back of my mind, I felt like this pregnancy was headed in the same direction as my last one — overdue, baby getting bigger by the day, and talk about induction, which ended in an unwanted C-section. In spite of my best attempts to persuade baby to come out on his own — including walking, spicy food, acupuncture, and every baby-inducing trick under the sun — he still seemed to prefer the room service provided by my womb.
My practice had been generous in allowing me to go over the 40-week limit most doctors adhere to for VBACs, but nine days past due was their limit. I was disappointed, but shifted gears and moved to Plan B — induction with the hope of a VBAC.
I was scheduled to arrive at the hospital at 6:30 am. I’m never late for doctor’s appointments, but an unexpectedly cuddly eldest son kept me at home a bit longer than planned; I needed this time with him and figured the doctors could wait. When I arrived at 7:15 am, my doula, Tara, was already there. I was feeling apprehensive and weepy, but her cheery demeanor quickly made me forget what was ahead.
After donning my hospital gown, the nurse began prepping me. She asked if I had a birth plan. Absolutely! I rummaged through my things, but couldn’t find it. Luckily our birth plan was short enough that I could easily recall the most important requests — offering support instead of pain relief, guided pushing, and as much freedom of movement as possible.
It didn’t matter that I was late, as the doctor didn’t arrive until 9 am. He briefed me on the risks of a VBAC, explaining that another C-section was a possibility if things weren’t headed in the right direction. Then he wished me the best of luck and told me he hoped I’d be successful. If I didn’t know him better, I might have been discouraged by his talk, but I understood he was simply managing my expectations.
The nurse then started my pitocin drip. It was set very low to see how my body would respond. Eager to be doing everything I could toward a successful delivery, I asked Tara if I should be moving around. As I hadn’t gotten much sleep the night before, she recommended I just lie and rest if I could. I needed to save my energy for later, she pointed out — and, in hindsight, this was excellent advice.
I rested quietly for about two hours. At some point, I noticed that I needed to pause for a minute during a contraction to concentrate on relaxing. Things were moving forward, and Tara suggested I try some new positions. I started off in the rocking chair and then, when that lost its charm, moved to the birthing ball.
Fueled by a constant supply of Jolly Ranchers administered by my husband, I worked my way through contractions. I reached the point that I didn’t want anyone to speak during the contractions, but between them, I wanted to be entertained, both to pass the time and to keep me distracted. James and Tara read headlines off their phones; we talked about the news and laughed at the celebrity gossip. The mood was generally light, punctuated by stints of complete silence during the contractions.
A while later, the nurse came in to check me, and I was at 4 cm. I hoped I’d be further along, so I was a bit disappointed, but Tara was excited. She reminded me that labor is not linear, and I could progress very quickly in a short time. The baby was doing well, and I was managing contractions well. This was just the kind of encouragement I needed to lift my spirits and carry on with renewed strength.
The pain was starting to become unbearable now, and I was unable to focus on anything but getting through the contractions and preparing for the next ones. Tara suggested sitting on the edge of the bed and leaning into her during a contraction. You’d think James would be better suited to this, but he was too tall. Tara, on the other hand, at 5’2”, was the perfect height. James was then free to apply counter-pressure to my lower back during the contraction, and then he held a pillow for me to lean back on to rest in between contractions.
Falling into that pillow was heaven for me — but the relief was short-lived, as contractions were coming faster and faster. I began to feel like another one would start as soon as my head touched the pillow. This went on for what seemed like an eternity, as I desperately hoped that I was making some real progress.
The nurse came to check me when I mentioned I felt like pushing, and she told me I was at 9 cm. I was elated, and I started to think I just might get through this without drugs. But when the nurse called the doctor in, he reported I was at 8 cm with a lip. He warned me not to push, as I could tear my cervix or cause it to swell. My morale plummeted.
The pain continued to get worse — I was screaming through the contractions now — and I felt like I was starting to lose control. I wanted something — anything — to change so I could feel some tangible progress. The doctor suggested breaking my water. I agreed, and instantly the pain grew unbearable.
I knew I had to make a decision about pain relief, and I was torn. I had wanted to avoid an epidural because I was concerned about messing with a process that was going very smoothly — except for the excruciatingly painful, pitocin-induced contractions. The baby’s heart rate was fine, and I wasn’t that far away from 10 cm. That said, I had a lip, and I feared making it worse by involuntarily pushing. Tara and James told me they thought I could do it, but they also reassured me that they were supportive of any decision I made. I decided to get the epidural.
The epidural brought relief and rest. I’m glad I waited as long as I did to get it, but it was just the break I needed. I dozed for a couple of hours, and when I awoke, I was 10 cm and almost crowning. It was time to push.
My nurse asked if I wanted a mirror to see what was going on. She said many women find the idea repulsive, but she personally found it to be a great help. I hadn’t previously thought about that, but it seemed like a good idea; as it turned out, it was encouraging to be able to see my progress.
It took a while to get the hang of pushing, particularly since I couldn’t feel anything because of the epidural, but once I got it, things moved along nicely. I was excited; the finish line was near. This really was going to happen! I was going to get my VBAC.
The doctor came in. He guided my last pushes, and Peter Urban entered the world at 10:39 pm, weighing in at a whopping 9lb, 8oz. He was five ounces bigger than my first child, and everyone was surprised that I was able to pull off a VBAC in spite of his size — including his large head.
I cried tears of joy and relief. I had done it. All of the emotional pain from my last birth melted away. Now I could rest and enjoy my new son.
My birth didn’t go exactly as planned, but considering the cards I had been dealt, I was happy with the decisions I made and the results. It may not have been a natural labor, but it was a natural birth, which was what I set out to do. It was the most exhilarating experience of my life — and I’ve got that half marathon to thank for it. Both were a lot of work, and both were completely worth it, but a baby is a way better prize than any chintzy medal.
Images: Ann Waterman