About halfway through my miserable pregnancy David and I were lying in bed, and he made up this song:
You are not a kittay
You are a babay
It became our mantra for the remaining months: coming soon, coming soon, coming soon.
Penelope did not come soon. She came late.
I did everything I could think of to send myself into labor. I walked and walked and walked. I bounced on the birth ball, and climbed stairs, and yes, had sex. I ate spicy food, I made those cookies that the internet swears will start labor, I wished and wished and begged.
But on January 17th, at 41 weeks and three days pregnant, an ultrasound showed that my amniotic fluid levels were too low to allow us to wait any longer, and my midwife kindly but firmly told me that I needed to check into the hospital that evening to be induced with pitocin.
David and I went home for the afternoon and crawled into bed and I mourned. For hours, I mourned. I mourned the natural labor I wouldn’t get to have. I mourned for the end of my days as a non-parent. Tears leaked out of my eyes and my body shook. David cradled me in his arms and whispered reassurances, validated my grief, reminded me of my strength.
I was terrified of being induced. I’d heard nothing but horror stories about pitocin, and was convinced I was headed for an emergency c-section at the worst, and tons of needles and IVs at best. For someone with a medical phobia, even that best case scenario was a looming nightmare.
David read aloud to me from Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. We watched some tv and ordered in a feast from our favorite Indian restaurant. I cried.
At 6:30 we packed up all our things and walked out the door, knowing that the next time we walked through it we would have baby with us.
Checking in at the hospital took only moments, and we were shown to the small room where we would be staying for the night. I changed into a large and shapeless hospital gown and laid down on the bed while the night nurse hooked me up to machines that would monitor my contractions and the baby’s heartbeat through the night. Soon, the midwife on duty–a kind, blonde woman, younger than I expected–appeared and checked my cervix. I was only 1.5 cm dilated and 50% effaced. She gave me a suppository of cervidil, which would speed up the ripening, and told me I would be starting an IV drip of pitocin in the morning.
“Will I be able to leave the bed?” I asked. Being confined to the bed for labor was one of my biggest fears.
“Oh, yes,” she said reassuringly. “The IV will be on a rolling pole. You’ll be able to move.”
I nodded as big fat tears leaked out of my eyes and collected under my chin. David squeezed my hand.
I was given sleeping pills and a shot of morphine to get me through the night.
“A lot of women are uncomfortable after the cervidil,” said the midwife. “And we want you to get as much rest as you can before you go into labor tomorrow.”
The morphine, I’ll admit, was wonderful. I felt aware of my entire body, and was completely relaxed. Like when I wake up some weekend morning, with sun leaking through the slats of the blinds, and no matter which way I shift or roll whatever position I land in is the most comfortable position imaginable. I loosened my grip on a small part of my worry, and drifted off into a deep sleep while watching David lying, cramped, on the pull out chair beside my bed.
At three o’clock in the morning I woke up entirely, alert and in pain.
I had heard contractions described before. In our birth class the instructor said it was a pain that would start in your back and wrap around to the front, growing in intensity as it went. I’ve heard women compare their contractions to amplified period cramps. Like so many things in pregnancy, describing contractions–and labor in general–to someone who has never experienced them is fruitless. Contractions did not feel like anything I’d been told to anticipate, and as a result I wasn’t sure I was having them.
I laid in my hospital bed for an hour, waiting for each rolling wave of pain and wondering whether or not I was in labor. I watched David sleep. I took out my phone and started timing the pains on my contraction timer app. The were lasting roughly a minute, and were coming three minutes apart. At four o’clock I woke David and made him pad across the room to the machine print outs and tell me whether or not the monitors were registering what I increasingly suspected were contractions. They were. David took over timing them on my phone.
At some point we called the night nurse in to confirm that really, yes, I was having contractions. She looked at the print outs out of obligation and said, yup, those were contractions all right. She asked if I wanted breakfast delivered at six. I said sure, and then the nurse vanished. David and I were both a little astonished. I think we expected something more from her. Confirmation that I was in labor? A plan of action? Something? By this point I was lying on my side, moaning my way through each contraction. Long, low moans that didn’t accomplish much of anything except to keep me from crying.
The next few hours were a blur. I assume they were much of the same. Me, moaning. David, perched beside me, keeping watch and timing contractions as they came and went. At eight in the morning breakfast still had not arrived, and the nurse had not returned. David went out into the hall in search of some answers. My breakfast, which had been sitting under a warmer forgotten for a few hours, arrived shortly after he returned, and the day nurse, Deb, came in. She apologized for not checking in on us sooner, but the night nurse had told her I was sleeping and didn’t want to be disturbed. In the middle of her apology I had a contraction. She watched me go through it, and then said excitedly, “You’re in labor!”
She removed the cervidil, and checked out my progress. I was 5 cm dilated and 100% effaced. “We’ve got to get you to a delivery room right away,” she said.
I looked up at her and choked out, “Does this mean I don’t have to have the pitocin?”
I’m pretty sure she laughed. “No, honey,” she said. “You’re in labor.”
“Eat some breakfast and I’ll get a room ready for you.”
The scrambled eggs were cold and rubbery, and I did not want to eat them, but David insisted. After just a few bites I knew I was going to be violently sick. Until that point in my life, I had never spray-puked. But, oh, I spray-puked that day. My range was impressive, covering not only the floor and the wall beside me, but a large portion of David’s lower body as well. I sat there, in horror, looking at the mess. And my one and only thought was: we have to clean it up. We have to clean it up and pretend it never happened. We have to clean it up before Deb comes back, because I’ve read that if you vomit they put you on an IV for fluids and I can’t, can’t, can’t have an IV and survive.
Labor is not a rational time.
Of course, before I could execute this brilliant plan, Deb returned. I must have apologized a hundred times, but she had seen far worse before and said so. We began to pack up some of our things to make the move to the delivery room, and Deb asked about our birth plans.
“I’m very flexible,” I said. “I really want to try to deliver without medication or intervention, but I’m open to other options if the need arises.”
Deb’s face lit up. “If you want to do this without medication,” she said. “I am the best nurse you could have.”
And she was.
I don’t remember how we got to the delivery room. David tells me we just walked down the hall, but I have no memory of it. Much of my labor from this point is hazy.
I know that when we first got to the room I headed for the bed, but Deb stopped me. “If you want to have this baby without pain medication, you cannot get in this bed. If you get in this bed it is all over, and you won’t get out again.”
I didn’t get in the bed.
David and I slow danced. I sat in the rocking chair. I bounced on the birthing ball. I stood up, bent in half, and swayed.
In our birth class we learned about all sorts of coping techniques for labor. Aromatherapy, massage and accupressure, visualizations. Comforting music, comforting objects. We had a suitcase full of things. Lemon essential oil and tennis balls and books and my two stuffed animals from childhood. We had an ipad, an ipod, and a bluetooth speaker.
We used none of it.
I asked David to tell me the story of our first date. And when he finished that, I asked him to tell me another story, and another, and another. He talked me through my entire ten hour labor, and I don’t remember a word he said. I clutched his hand like a lifeline, squeezing the blood out of his palm with each new wave of pain, closed my eyes, and curled deep inside myself and stayed there.
I felt removed from my body. I kept my eyes closed the entire time, only fluttering them briefly open as David and Deb coaxed me from one position to another as the hours went by. Through a dim, watery fog I could hear David’s voice, and that anchored me and made me feel safe as I drifted.
I met my attending midwife, Karen. I vomited a second time, but managed to request and receive a bucket before it was too late.
The pain grew worse, and David stopped telling me stories and started talking me through each breath. It was hard to breathe. It was hard to remember to breathe, and then once I’d been reminded it was difficult to actually execute it. Each breath was a ragged struggle, and when I started shaking they put me in the bathtub.
The bathtub was wonderful. It was warm, and the water helped relieve me of some of the gravity that had been pulling me down for so many long months. David poured cupfuls of warm water over my body with each contraction, as I clenched the handicap rail with both hands until my knuckles went white and my fingers went numb. I’m told that between these contractions, I fell asleep.
When the water cooled, and there was barely any respite between contractions they got me out of the tub and into the bed. When the midwife checked my cervix we were all surprised and disappointed to learn that I was only at 8 cm; we expected more. I wanted to cry, except that I was too tired. I labored in the bed for I don’t know how long, hooked up to monitors again to time my contractions and keep tabs on the baby’s heartbeat.
“Do I have to wear this stupid gown?” I asked, half sobbing. No, no, of course not. They rushed to help me out of it, and just like that I was naked in front of a room full of people.
They made me try a variety of positions: on my hands and knees, on my side. I desperately wanted to be on my back, which I knew was not the most natural position for delivery, and which Karen and Deb clearly did not approve of. But eventually they relented, and I was so much more comfortable. When I was 9 cm, Karen asked my permission to break my water, and I gave it.
“Meconium,” she said. And Deb called the NICU nurses to come in.
“If the baby doesn’t cry right away,” Karen said, “They’ll take her and clear her lungs. If she cries then we’ll hand her right over to you. Everything will be fine.”
I crushed David’s hands.
After what seemed like forever, they finally let me push. Pushing was the easiest part of labor. It was long and arduous, but I was buoyed by the fact that the pain at last felt productive, that my daughter was, finally, coming soon.
But with each contraction I pushed two to three times. She moved forward a little, and then slid back. Her heart beat slowed, and they had to call in an OB. Now besides naked me, David, Deb, Karen, and the NICU nurses, Dr. Fall was in the room. She appeared above my head and started talking at me. I didn’t register a word she said, except for “possible emergency c-section” if the baby’s heartbeat didn’t recover. David told me later that the midwife and my nurse shot daggers at her with their eyes, and I don’t blame them. If I hadn’t been so far inside of myself as to be almost absent at that point, I would have murdered her. They reached inside me and attached a monitor to the baby’s head, which would give a better read on her heartbeat than the external monitor I was wearing.
I pushed, and pushed, and pushed. David kept a damp cloth on my head. Time went on forever, though I’m told I only pushed for a little less than an hour. They said they could see her head, and had me reach down to feel it. I knew, then, that the next push would be the last one. Not because she was almost here, but because I knew I couldn’t push any more. I pushed for the last time.
And at 1:27 PM she was born. I watched her slide out of me. She didn’t cry, and they whisked her over to the NICU nurses to clear her lungs, although they kept her in the room. It was probably only 20 seconds between when she was born and when they handed her to me, but it felt like eternity. I was gushing tears, big gulpy crying. “Is she ok?” I sobbed, on the verge of hysteria. “Is she ok, is she ok?”
She cried out, and the nurses brought her to me, grinning. “She is perfect,” they said.
And oh, she was.
They placed her on my chest and I wrapped my arms around her. The nurses went to work, covering us both with blankets, placing a hat on the baby’s head. I cried and cried and pulled David down to me and kissed him. We stared back and forth in wonder between each other and our baby.
I touched my daughter’s face.
“Hi, baby.” I whispered. “Hi baby. Hello, sweet thing.”
“What’s her name?” Deb asked. David looked at me.
Early on, I had pushed for the name Penelope. It was one of my favorites and I lobbied for it hard. David got on board, and we started referring to the baby as Penelope Mae. But with only a few weeks to go I got cold feet. There wasn’t another name I preferred, but I felt the impossible weight of choosing a name for another human being. It felt like an immense responsibility and I wasn’t sure I was equal to it. I stopped using the name Penelope and reverted back to just “baby,” much to David’s dismay.
I looked down at my daughter, at her pink skin, and bright copper hair, and knew that we’d chosen the perfect name.
“Penelope,” I said. “Penelope Mae.”
Penelope Mae Van Sant
Born January 18, 2014 at 1:27 PM
7 lbs, 18.9 inches.