The Arduous Case of the Backwards Baby (The birth story of Olive James, Part 1)

Note: I never intended to write Olive's birth story in numerous installments, but a few things have come to my attention in the last two weeks. One, trying to write one great big coherent spell-checked post is impossible with a newborn. Can't be done. Two, my labor was really, really long. And three, I actually want to remember every moment, for my own sake, so I'm including in these posts a level of detail I'd normally never inflict on you. 


Finally, after nine long months (do not let them tell you it goes by fast, it doesn't, it didn't) the end of September arrived, bringing with it a litany of disaster across the country; fires on the left and flooding on the right, sunken cities, swallowed islands, (more) gun violence, political disgrace after political disgrace after political disgrace. The mountains of Western North Carolina where I live remained peaceful and dry, not so much as a power outage to disrupt the sweltering autumn days- and still I managed to feel terribly sorry for myself.   

As it turns out, my capacity for self-pity at nine months pregnant toes the line between pathetic and impressive. To my credit, I was overdue with a pregnancy that at 32 weeks had become inexplicably painful and nearly debilitating. At that point I'd had to take medical leave from my job and put a hold on my photography business, which to my astonishment had been doing quite well since spring. Now, days past my due date, I felt bored and depressed, worn out from the non-stop pain, miserable from the waiting. 

At 41 weeks exactly, I went in to the birth center for a non-stress test. Reading the graph as it inched out of the machine, the midwife, Lisa, raised her eyebrows. "You're having consistent contractions every few minutes, did you know that?" I shrugged. I'd been experiencing Braxton Hicks for weeks, and for the past few nights had experienced a cramping back pain which always disappeared by morning. Nothing ever came of those sensations, and today did not feel any different. Still, Lisa was optimistic. "We might have a baby tonight!" She announced cheerfully, unhooking the monitors.  But I knew better. 

All that day, a Friday, the contractions continued. They were benign and painless until evening when, as I lay elaborately pillow-propped on the couch watching Better Call Saul, I felt the tightening travel to my lower back and take on a sharper edge. As the hours past, things became so lively and active that, in my naivety, I urged Dave to go to sleep. "I might be waking you up pretty soon!" I sang. 

When I sank into bed that night, every rhythmic pain made me feel hopeful. 

Then came Saturday. Saturday I woke up and the cramping in my back did not melt away with the morning. Delighted that things seemed to finally be moving in the right direction, I waited patiently for the sensations to reach around into my abdomen and evolve into intense period cramps, as I'd been promised in books and birth class.

Instead, the pain intensified, becoming a knife splitting my sacrum in two. The contractions were coming every five minutes, and as the morning progressed, I realized with a sudden jolt of despair that the pain was never going to shift to the front: I was in the midst of full on back labor. This sorry situation meant the baby was posterior, the back of her head grinding against my tailbone, a sub-optimal position that causes long and excruciatingly painful labors. 

Armed with this new understanding, I hit the deck. I remained on my hands and knees for hours, determined to remain as inverted as possible until this baby corkscrewed into a better position. The prospect of an unmedicated labor with a posterior baby did not thrill me. Regular labor could be shitty enough- I had no interest in the double-down, super deluxe variety. 

The day progressed, as days do, the sun wheeling from one end of the sky to the other. Shut in the house with my eyes closed, rocking back and forth on the floor, I never noticed the outside world. I spent the long hours plodding through the Miles Circuit- a series of positions and exercises meant to help babies spin into an ideal position. I did that stupid miles circuit forever, with no results. Every few minutes I'd feel the pressure closing in from both hips, shoot up my back for thirty or forty seconds, reach a white hot crescendo, and then disappear. If I were to sketch out the trajectory of the sensations, they would look nothing like the "peaceful yet powerful" "ocean waves" we'd been taught to "surf". No such lovely imagery came to mind. 

Instead, geometric patterns of color flashed behind my closed eyes at the peak of each quick but brutal contraction. I pictured a carnival game, the type where the player raises a hammer and slams it down hard, sending a beam of neon lights shooting up a pole, higher and higher in  accordance with the strength of the blow. An explosion of pain, a burst of light growing brighter and brighter, then gone.  

By the time evening fell on Saturday, I felt utterly bewildered. Would these contractions ever come faster or last longer? Were they progressing things along at all? How long could this go on for? The last question was the most pressing. The pain was not yet unbearable, but certainly nothing I could sleep through. When - if - this ever evolved into active labor, how could I face it if I was already this exhausted? Surely my uterus would give up, or explode. 

We wound up at the birth center that night, not to give birth but to solicit (beg) help from Melissa, the midwife on call. With one hand on my belly, she quickly confirmed that the baby was entirely posterior. Inside the quiet, mostly dark room with the double bed and the soothing sketches of trees on the wall,  she led us through a series of exercises that were above and beyond the Miles Circuit- at one point I was actually, truly standing on my head. For over an hour, I grimaced and tried to breathe while both Melissa and Dave used all four hands to prop me up in different positions. Afterwards, we could feel a little more of the baby's back against my belly instead of the usual knot of knees and feet. We'd managed to convince her to rotate about a quarter turn. 

Melissa released us back into the night with a prescription for pain medicine to help me sleep. Surely I would wake up in active labor, and I'd need the rest. Back home, I followed her meticulous advice and drew a bath, drank a double dose of magnesium, and rocked back and forth in the tub, shaking from head to toe. (Adrenaline, apparently. Who knew?) As soon as David walked in the bathroom door with the orange bottles of rattling pills, I lunged for him. 

Roxy and Olive

Roxy and Olive

Roxy, my birth doula, came over as soon as I was ready for bed, already slightly stoned from the (glorious) pills I took. Try as I did to hold off on calling her until active labor, I'd broken down and begged Dave to invite her over to tuck me in. (One tends to....revert a bit in labor.) Even in the most mundane of circumstances, Roxy looks just the slightest bit like a shimmering mirage. She is very beautiful. When she swept into my room that night, I reached for her hand and nestled towards her in bed, feeling instantly more safe and relaxed. She smoothed my hair and cooed, and then I did a strange thing. I had not spoken a complete sentence in hours, but now I spoke. I told her a whole story.

I told Roxy how I'd been lost in the mountains overnight when I was fifteen, in the dead of winter. I explained how cold we were, how close to death, and how at one point I had to resort to crawling up the snowy trail on my hands and knees. 

"It's just like right now. I had no choice but to crawl that night- crawl or die. And now this is the same. I have to get through this. I have no choice. I'm just crawling."

Cringe worthy is how I can describe that melodrama, but at that moment, in that far away place my mind had floated off to, the comparison not only made sense, it also brought me comfort. I even lifted my arms up and moved them in a swimming motion in front of me during each contraction, the way a bear might crawl if it were lopsided or inebriated. I would repeat that heady motion many times throughout the next few days of labor. 

That's right. Days.