Childbirth was so much more than I thought it would be. More involved, more emotional, more exhausting, and yes, more painful. More beautiful, too. I feel more connected to Jon, having watched him become not just my husband but my son’s father. Jack’s birth was also intensely spiritual for me, and here’s the thrust: I came to the end of myself and all my good intentions and relied on a strength not my own to get through.
My water broke at 3am on my due date, November 12th. We’d planned to labor at home as long as possible, with the assistance of our doula, Kathryn, who would help us know when to go in to the hospital. Think of Kathryn as our birth coach. Prior to Jack’s arrival, she gave us private childbirth classes to educate us on all things birth & breastfeeding, and ultimately, helped us determine what was most important to us in our birth. During birth, she was on hand to offer emotional support & advice, and advocate for us to the hospital staff. She’s also responsible for the incredible birth photos below! That’s a really limited summary of what Kathryn does, so I encourage you to read more about MotherBaby Doula Services. All was going according to plan by early afternoon: contractions were present but not too intense, we were relaxed at home, and watching West Wing. I was comfortable and at peace.
At 2, though, I noticed something green in addition to the fluid I was leaking, which we thought may be some meconium – baby poop. Labor & Delivery (L&D) triage was concerned by this and asked me to come in, so we met Kathryn at the Hospital at 3:30pm, 12.5 hours after my water had broken. Despite having arrived at the hospital much earlier than I preferred, I was still at peace. During contractions, I used a melting visualization, which was very effective at helping me relax.
L&D took the presence of meconium very seriously, but the monitors showed that Jack was doing beautifully. In fact, at no point in labor did Jack ever appear to be in distress, for which we are grateful. After being admitted, my first cervical check reflected that I was still very much in early labor: 2cm dilated and 50% effaced. We began walking the halls of the unit, but my sense was that we were in for a long night. I joked that if we went all night, at least my beloved OB, Dr. Sherren, would be on call the next morning. At 6pm, we suggested Kathryn go home to rest and we would check back in around midnight.
By 11:30pm, my contractions had picked up in intensity, I was 3-4cm dilated, and Jon called Kathryn back. I was taking each contraction in a seated position: on the birth ball, the toilet, or the rocking chair. Exhaustion was setting in (I’d been awake 20 hours), and I climbed onto the bed to rest between contractions.
Once in bed, I allowed myself to take inventory of my own emotions. Labor was proving so much more intense than I was expecting. Instead of relaxing into each contraction, I was climbing away from it; my melting visualization was no longer working. I found myself longing for my parents, feeling small and overwhelmed, and my frustration and tiredness manifested in tears. I began to question my ability to do this.
Sensing my feelings of early defeat, Jon started talking me through each contraction. He led me in repeating the phrase “I was made to do this”–low and slow. Each surge lasted about 3 repetitions, and I couldn’t get through the whole sentence every time; sometimes I cried out or said “ow” instead.
I moved to the tub around 1am, with Jon and Kathryn kneeling next to me, Jon talking me through each contraction. I lasted 30 minutes in the tub before asking to discuss pain relief options: position changes, narcotics, and an epidural.
Rock bottom came when I whimpered, “I think I want the epidural.” You see, in childbirth class, we’d determined that we preferred a birth with limited interventions. I wanted a natural birth sans pain medication. I wasn’t just humbled to find myself begging for an epidural, I was positively demoralized. I felt like a massive disappointment to myself, my birth team, and to all the women I knew who’d given birth naturally and had encouraged me to do it, too. Though I have more grace for myself now, in the moment, choosing an epidural felt like failure.
Jon, Kathryn, and our incredible nurse Shilah didn’t know about the negative self-talk in my head; they were simply consistent in their support. A check at 2am showed that I was still just 4cm, but deemed active labor. Knowing I had 6cm to go, I confirmed the epidural decision for the purpose of getting some rest before pushing.
The epidural was placed by 3am (2-3am felt like the longest hour of my life), and once I started feeling relief around 3:30, I was overtaken by fatigue, and fell asleep quickly. At 5am, Shilah woke me: my contractions had spaced out–4-9 minutes apart–and could they start Pitocin to get things moving? I didn’t need to consult the sleeping Jon or Kathryn to know I did not want this kind of intervention. I asked Shilah if we could give it one more hour and then do a cervical check before starting Pitocin; she agreed. I whispered a desperate prayer before succumbing to sleep again: “God, you’ve got to make these contractions do something. Please make them more intense to move labor along.”
With no doubt that God answers the prayers of a laboring woman, the 6am cervical check revealed I was at 9cm and 100% effaced! At 7:30am, the shift changed and the new nurse, Kathleen, turned down my epidural. This was an incredible gift, because as the medication wore off, I began to feel the pressure of Jack moving down, which told me when to push. Even so, Kathryn tells me at one point, I looked at her and said, “This hurts!” (It was a lot of pressure.)
Dr. Sherren walked into the room at 8:15am. I had to hold back tears of sheer relief. My mom and I had been praying that Dr. Sherren would be able to deliver Jack, even though she was only on call 2 days in all of November. It felt like God was handing me this gift as encouragement to finish the last portion of the race. The laboring music we’d brought was mostly hymns, which also gave me great comfort and encouragement for the end (Dr. Sherren and Kathleen loved it, too!).
I measured at 10cm, and Jack’s head had descended significantly. At 8:30am, I began pushing. We talked about changing positions so that I wouldn’t have to push on my back, but I only made it onto my side before I decided I wasn’t moving any more! I pushed for 2 hours, with Kathleen, Jon, and Kathryn holding my legs and encouraging me. Dr. Sherren was in and out during those 2 hours. So was I–I was still so tired that I fell asleep between contractions!
At 10:30am, Kathleen crouched down next to the bed and gave it to me straight, for which I will always love her: “You can keep pushing like you have been, and we’ll have a baby some time today. Or you can get serious, and we’ll have a baby very soon.” She wasn’t mean or rude, and it was exactly the motivation I needed. They also brought in a mirror, which in theory had freaked me out, but in practice, encouraged me to push harder! I remember looking at the clock at 10:48am, thinking to myself “Okay, Mags, you can have him out by 11.” It only took one more contraction; Jack was born at 10:50am.
There was a small cavernous moment between when Jack was born and when they laid him on my chest. I had been emptied. For 9 months, I had not been alone in my own body, and in that split-second, I felt the trauma of one becoming two.
Of course, that sadness was quickly swept away as they laid Jack on my chest and I put my hand on his warm, wet little body. He was perfect. And the tears flowed, for both Jon and me. They flowed from gratitude, from relief, from shock, from realizing that our whole world just shifted. Just like that, we were a family of three.
Dr. Sherren asked the name of this little boy and my love, my “ever-fixed mark / that looks on tempests and is never shaken,” his eyes shining, announced proudly: “Jonathan McCrary Keller, Jr.”
Praise God, from Whom all blessings flow;
Praise Him, all creatures here below;
Praise Him above, ye heavenly host;
Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.