Many mothers told me the same thing prior to labor and delivery. “You won’t remember the pain,” they said. “Once you see that baby, it’ll all go away.”
They were right, to a point. When they allowed Carter to rest on my abdomen the entire universe stopped. There was no residual pain. It didn’t occur to me to take a moment and be thankful that labor was over. There was nothing except the sound of our baby crying, and Kevin repeating, “oh my.”
For several days, sleep felt like a waste of time. I preferred to stare at our baby instead, marveling at the tiniest sounds and smallest movements, gently stroking his forehead.
Four or five days later — when the exhaustion and aches caught up with me — I was compelled to amend my views about the pain of childbirth.
Pain does not disappear. Rather, after birth, the pain simply doesn’t matter. In fact, it became an intrinsic part of the most meaningful event in my life, perhaps even a blueprint for future parenting. What I learned giving birth will help guide my efforts at nurturing our family life. Relax. Laugh. Share. Ask for help when you need it. Keep an open mind. Rest. Don’t give up.
Lesson One: Relax.
Saturday morning, 8:14am:
Nursing Note: “admitted to labor and delivery. Water broke last night at home at 9:00pm.”
Kevin and I were relaxing, planning an evening of Louis Theroux’s weird weekends and Digorno pizza with red peppers. By 7:45, overwhelmed by exhaustion, we opted to watch the late rerun of Louis Theroux and nap instead. I had a hard time getting comfortable, and despite being desperately tired, I couldn’t fall asleep. In a half daze, I started to pet the beagle, his head resting on my thigh. After sensing a dampness on the bed, under his snout, I realized he had drooled on my leg once again. Disgusting.
It hit me slowly. No dog could drool that much. In a state of disbelief, I nudged Kevin. I worked at keeping my voice level while I told him the dog drool was actually amniotic fluid. We phoned our family and the doctor on call, who told us to stay home as long as we could and plan on showing up at the hospital the next morning at 8:00 am.
By the time I completed my phone calls, Kevin disappeared. From time to time I caught glimpses of him mumbling about web sites and car seats and racing through the room.
In time, the stakeout for Carter began in earnest. Aunt Meg arrived from Chicago, making record time. Kevin calmed down somewhat and started timing the contractions. We watched Bowfinger and Saturday Night Live Best of Gilda Radner, although I was the only one awake for the great vegetable soup “Child handler” skit.
I started reading a Buffy the Vampire Slayer novel and was determined to finish it before we left for the hospital. However, by morning, I could no longer read during contractions and subsequently had a hard time following the plot. I warned Kevin not to expect eye contact during contractions because I needed to concentrate.
At close to 8:00am I became vaguely aware that Kevin and Meg were lurking over me as I attempted to finish the Buffy novel. Meg’s car was running in the driveway as I turned the last page. We took off for the hospital, a mixture of nervousness and satisfaction.
Lesson Two, Laugh.
We arrived at the hospital carrying a large suitcase, diaper bag, pillows, a briefcase and three rubber ducks. The woman at the information desk rightly assumed we were headed to labor and delivery and whisked me into a wheelchair just as another contraction started. Mom (Nanna Clendening) arrived shortly after we did, settling into a nearby chair to knit a blanket for Carter.
We eagerly awaited Dr. Wood’s arrival so she could tell us how far along labor had progressed. I imagined a very impressed doctor commending us on staying home until her deadline of 8:00am and commenting that the baby should arrive any minute.
Saturday morning 9:52.
Nursing Note: “Dr. Wood here, 2 cm dilated, -2 station, 80% effaced.”
Dr. Wood cheerfully shared the results of her examination. 2 centimeters dilated and 80% effaced. I did not see reason for cheer. I worked all night long and only progressed by 2 centimeters? Kevin tried to tell me the doctor’s evaluation is just what he expected and called it good progress. When Mom came back in the room and asked when the Doctor said the baby might come, I responded: “Never.”
Kevin and I spent the rest of the morning breathing together. To avoid breaking his fingers, I took to squeezing the rubber ducks we brought along. We used a variety of distracting techniques including long showers and Jim Carrey movies. The pain lost some of its focus as I laughed at Meg explaining some of the jokes in “Ace Ventura: Pet Detective” to my mom.
We saved my all time favorite comedy, “Fletch,” for more severe pain, later in the game. Since I pretty much have it memorized, I can watch it without paying any attention.
Lesson Three: Share.
Despite increasing snow, my dad managed to arrive Saturday afternoon from Florida, cutting short his annual tennis trip. Although dealing with divorced parents during family events is never easy, it was important to me to be able to share this momentous occasion with as many family members as could attend. The final scene in the movie “Parenthood” had been playing in my mind throughout pregnancy
Saturday Afternoon 4:18.
Nursing Note: “5 cm dilated, -2 Station, 90%. Doing great.”
Dr. Wood’s second visit produces a little more optimism, . . . for everyone else. Kevin reminded me that our class taught us the first five centimeters can take much longer than the last five. Still, the contractions were becoming mind-numbingly painful. A magazine article had compared contractions to menstrual cramps. It would have been more accurate had they stated, “labor pain is to menstrual cramps as a freight train is to a Yugo.”
Kevin steadfastly encouraged me to continue following the breathing patterns we learned in our childbirth class. When I finally gave into his urges to look at him during contractions, I made an important discovery. Looking into Kevin’s eyes, allowing him to share the pain helped me feel connected and strong.
Lesson Three: Ask for help when you need it.
Nurse Laurie came in to talk pain control. Laurie agreed that an epidural wouldn’t be necessary at that point, because, as she put it, I was “so in control.” I questioned her assessment of my self-regulation, (I was already crying during contractions) but I wanted to stay as alert and involved as possible. Epidurals brought to mind visions of beached whales.
We decided to try another long shower first and then send for the doctor. My thinking was that by injection time, I would be closer to 6 cm, which fit with our goal of waiting until 6 or 7 centimeters to start any pain control. In the shower, Kevin provided some distraction with his list of middle name prospects. We took turns cutting our least favorite names. I lasted five minutes longer than my goal of 4:45, but by the time Kevin helped me back to the bed I was desperate for help.
Saturday Evening 5:04.
Nursing Note: “Nubain given to help with pain. Nap time.”
Nurse Laurie gave me a shot that felt similar to shooting up hydrochloric acid, but with much better results. While the contractions still hurt and I needed Kevin to help with the breathing, I was much more relaxed about them. Together we breathed through the next hour and a half. We pulled out the big guns for distraction: “Fletch.”
By 6:30 the medicine had worn off and the contractions felt worse than I imagined they could. I begged Kevin to “make it stop.” We kept breathing.
We headed back to the shower, but I didn’t last long because it was getting too hard to remain standing, and the shower was too small for curling up in the fetal position. We eagerly awaited another update from the doctor, hopefully one that telling me we’re in the home stretch, providing incentive to endure a little longer.
Nurse Laurie got ready to head home as her 12-hour shift ended. I felt absurdly guilty for letting her down by not having the baby while she was present. She introduced us to her replacement, Nurse Deanna, and maintained that if we couldn’t deliver with her, Deanna was the next best nurse. Laurie speculated that Carter would arrive around 9:30 that evening, and promised to stop by first thing Sunday morning to see the baby.
Saturday Evening 7:16.
Nursing Note: ” Dr. Wood here. 5 cm, 100%, -2 station. Hang in there. Talwin given for pain.”
Laurie left before hearing the great news – Nothing had happened over the past three hours. Alright, so we had moved from 90% to 100% effaced, but who cares? We were still stuck at the 5 cm, -2 station pit stop, and from the feel of it, we were going to be here for ever. Nurse Deanna gave me another shot along with the warning, echoed from childbirth class, that the second shot won’t work as well as the first.
Lesson Four: Keep an open mind.
Our family does not talk about pain. Sometimes, if someone is really feeling crappy, we might intone, “she seems to be under the weather.” Nowhere would you hear, “this hurts like hell.” Even if it does.
Despite having moved into a new realm of sensation, I was not interested in breaking any family traditions. My mom and sister are marathon runners. We delight in looking at my sister’s mangled toes after running 26.2 miles. My Dad has been known to play tennis for hours upon hours, whether feeling up to it or not. I did not want to be the first family member to cave.
As it became more and more difficult to downplay the discomfort, I became more self-conscious, apologizing for every groan and tear. When the nurse had some trouble finding a good vein, I apologized, explaining that normally I have “great veins.” I didn’t want to make enough noise for people to hear outside of the room. Meg and Kevin started a mantra of “don’t apologize, quit saying you’re sorry,” but I couldn’t.
On the other hand, my mom had called Friday prior to the Breaking of the Water, to tell me that no matter how I got through labor and delivery, the goal was to have a baby. She encouraged me to do “whatever feels like the right thing to do.”
I thought I knew going in that the right thing to do was pretty much whatever avoided an epidural, a cesarean, artificial labor (such as pitocin to bring on more contractions) and forceps. Now I was being forced to reconsider. We had been laboring for 24 hours now, and as far as I could see, we might be laboring for another week.
Nurse Deanna told me she had an epidural during her last delivery and did not feel like a beached whale. She swore that the doctor on call knew how to give a “great epidural” that would leave me feeling in control of the pain and able to help with the delivery. Tearfully, guiltily, I agreed.
Once I agreed, he couldn’t get there fast enough.
Lesson Five: Rest.
Saturday Evening 10:00.
Nursing Note: ” Dr. Billy Campbell here to do the Epidural. Finally some relief! Mommy and Daddy and Aunt Megan can get some rest!”
Nurse Deanna was right. Soon after Dr. Campbell delivered me from pain, I was able to rest. Kevin sat next to me, staring at me and the fetal monitor.
I repeatedly asked Kevin if he was going to nap, and he told me he was afraid we wouldn’t be able to wake him if he allowed himself to give into sleep. Having tried to wake him before when he had “hit the wall,” I was grateful for his wisdom and stamina.
Saturday Evening 11:21.
Nursing Note: ” Dr. Wood here. Not much change in cervix. Keep your chin up!”
At this point, the epidural was a protection for all in the room. While I couldn’t feel the physical pain anymore, I was acutely aware of the frustration brought on by Dr. Wood’s pronouncement that not a lot had changed.
When the doctor suggested Pitocin to help the contractions get more regular, I said yes without hesitation. I wanted to get the show on the road, and the epidural definitely lessened my fears of stronger contractions.
Sunday Morning 12:30.
Nursing Note: ” Pitocin began to help the contractions get in a pattern.”
Sunday Morning 1:00.
Nursing Note: ” 9 cm, 100%, -1 station! Wow, almost there!”
Now things were rolling, but I was still able to rest.
Lesson Six: Don’t Give up.
Sunday Morning 2:00.
Nursing Note: ” 10cm!!! Time to begin pushing! Daddy and Megan are dancing!”
Childbirth class explained that the pushing stage is a relief after all the labor. Finally you get to do something productive, and it doesn’t last much longer than a couple hours at the outside. My book lists the average times as 30 minutes to 1.5 hours. Sometimes, it warned, it can last as long as three hours in the first pregnancy.
Excited and exhausted, Kevin, Megan and I got ready for the home stretch. Nurse Deanna took her place and started to coach me through the pushing. With each contraction I took a deep breath and gave all my energy to expelling Carter. Four pushes and then a rest.
Sunday Morning 4:32.
Nursing Note: ” Dr. Wood here. Still making progress. Hang in there.”
The hang in there is part of the note because, again, Dr. Wood’s visit didn’t indicate a heck of a lot of progress. All my energy spent, and Carter was still comfy inside my womb. At some point, Dr. Wood began to talk about forceps or vacuum extraction. I pushed harder.
Sunday Morning 5:10.
Nursing Note: ” Now you’re really moving that little boy! GREAT JOB.”
Important discovery: Kevin’s face was the best indicator of how effective my pushes were. If it was a good push, and Carter’s head moved, Kevin’s face lit up. For a bad push he tried to keep his chin up and said, “keep pushing.” I pictured myself at mile 22 of the Chicago Marathon and tried to keep going.
Sunday Morning, 6:15.
Nursing Note: ” Keep going Amy!”
After several “keep pushing” cheers from Kevin I flashed back to last year, at the Indianapolis Mini-Marathon. While cheering for Meg I yelled, “Keep running, guys!” One rather unpleasant fellow turned to me and said, “you keep running.” I switched my cheer to “great job! You can do it!” While I didn’t tell Kevin ” you keep pushing,” I did mutter, “I am pushing.”
Although I found out later that Meg kept her back to the action during the last part of delivery, her voice was a constant source of encouragement. A stream of “you can do it, Amy, you’re doing great,” was integrated with her breaths. I thought of my sister running the marathon even after her legs cramped up and determined to keep giving more.
I started adding a fifth push to the pattern. Kevin’s face was almost always excited now, and he jumped up and down a little with each push.
Sunday Morning 6:53.
Nursing Note: ” Delivery of a beautiful baby boy! Happy birthday, Carter!”
Time stopped. Painful contractions? Who cares? Episiotomy? Water under the bridge.
Kevin was jumping up and down and repeating, “oh my.” At that moment I was unaware of anything in the world other than Kevin and the bluish creature resting on my stomach, wailing like a lost sheep. It wasn’t that the pain went away, it was that it was worth every bit of it. Even if it had lasted a week.
I have an inkling that parenthood has challenges awaiting us much greater than childbirth. In fact, there will probably be moments when I would endure labor all over again if only to spare Carter the pain of difficult life lessons.
From the nine months and 34 hours it took to introduce Carter to the world I have learned some basic parenting lessons. Parenting is not a solo act. It will take the love, communication and support of family. Carter, Kevin and I will need to practice relaxing, laughing and resting in order to survive it all. In order to learn all the lessons awaiting us, an open mind will be essential.
Above all, we will endeavor to remember that there will be trying times ahead, but giving up would sacrifice the beautiful moments when time stops and all we see is love.