This is What Happened at 9 Centimeters (The birth story of Olive James, part 2)

Read part one here.


Then came Sunday.

More of the same. The entire day. At first I labored by myself, in as much of an upside-down position as I could manage, while Dave slept in. I wanted to be alone. The bone-against-bone pain of back labor was such that nothing brought relief or even a measure of distraction- not movement, heat, water, or any of the massage techniques we'd learned in class. The only trick in the bag I had was my own mind, which I tried to wrench into a soothing state by playing classical christmas music and picturing the most comforting image I knew- my land in Vermont, covered in a white blanket of sparkling snow. Here's how that actually went down in my chaotic, un-trained, never got the hang of meditation brain-

Think about christmas think about christmas think about christmas oh shit here comes another- fuck fuckfuckfuckfuck. Ow. Fuck. 

Everything about labor had heightened, now that we were on day two. The contractions lasted longer- forty seconds, then fifty, now a minute. They came more frequently, and the knife that stabbed into my lower back was now white hot with invisible, licking flames. These contractions were so powerful that they sent blood seeping down my thighs- gory evidence that things were indeed progressing. 

Just before noon, the baby flipped into the correct position. With one hand I pressed along my belly I felt only the smooth surface of her back, instead of the knot of bony elbows and knees. The next three contractions wrapped around my front, just like the books had described. Able to stand straight up for the first time in days, I ran into the kitchen to tell Dave. Suddenly, the unmedicated labor that stretched ahead of me felt entirely possible.

By the time I made it to the kitchen, however, she'd flipped back. Once again, my sacrum bulged where her forehead bore into me from the inside. 

The day continued as we plodded through the spinning babies series and the miles circuit, Dave shimmying a sheet against my stomach as I crouched on my hands and knees. Evening fell, again, and I felt myself sliding into a state of bewildered despair. When my old friend Stephanie called me from Arkansas, I picked up the phone and burst immediately into tears before I could even say hello. My own hard sobs made me realize that I'd reached the limit of what I could handle without professional help. I hung up and told Dave to summon Roxy. 

Roxy found me in the nursery, lit orange by the glow of a salt lamp and listening to the Boston Camarada sing Oh Holy Night from an iphone speaker. I looked up and managed to say, "I'm an Athiest- I just really love Christmas." And then I started to cry again. 

Contractions were coming faster, three to four minutes apart, and so intense I could only offer a high pitched whimper during the peak. Even the vibration of my own vocal chords seemed to make the pain more intense. Roxy rubbed my back and held my hands but I could only stare through her. At 7:30 she whispered, "Let's go to the birth center now. Even if we have to come back, let's just go in and have a change of pace." 

Roxy knew exactly what she was doing, and she also knew we wouldn't be returning home until I had a baby. Dave threw our bags into the car and spoke with Lisa, the midwife on call. "She wants to know which room you'd like her to prepare," he said, pressing the phone against his shoulder. 

I heard his question and I wanted to answer. I wanted the blue room that randomly had a framed picture of my friend Melody on the wall, a lovely image from when she was giving birth to her little daughter Phoebe. But, rendered completely silent by the contractions, I could only stare through him, rock my head from side to side and wave my arms in front of me like a swimming bear, or frankenstein moving in deep space. He put the phone back to his mouth, "Any room will do." 

We began the fifteen minute drive to the birth center, rolling beneath the train tracks and over the French Broad river. I'd assumed the car ride would be a most unwelcome experience, everyone says that getting to the hospital is the worst part. However, I found myself in a completely new head space. We were off! This was happening! I was desperately glad to leave the last two days behind us, leave our small, dark house which was by now a tangled nest of pillows, blankets on the floor, water glasses on every surface, uneaten bowl of soup congealing on the counter tops. Soon we'd be at the clean, spacious birth center, with its infinity shower and beds made up with cool sheets, under the the maternal, folksy care of the midwife.  

Buoyed by this new state of mind, I found my voice for a moment.  "This pain," I said to Dave, startling him with my normal pitch and volume, "It feels like there is a meat hook on either side of my back, and the hooks are attached to monster trucks, and the trucks are driving in separate directions, pulling me apart." 

Dave glanced at me in the rear view mirror, and I felt the car accelerate as we flew past Penny Cup Coffee and a row of colorful art galleries, finally turning right into the parking lot of the dark, quiet birth center. 

My god, I was finally going to have this baby.

Thought I. 

And I very nearly did.


What I remember most about my night at the birth center was how very quiet it was. The midwife, Lisa, floated into the room every half an hour to check heart tones, saying only the very minimum of words. If anyone spoke between my contractions, I didn't hear them. I had collected quite a little team by that point- Dave, Roxy, a red haired nurse named Bethany, and Jessie, our trainee doula. By then the tail end of a hurricane had landed on Asheville, and with the windows wide open we could hear a drenching rain fall and feel gusts of warm winds sweep through the room. I was very quiet myself, finding only the power to whimper at the height of each pain. 

I also remember that I wriggled out of my clothes within five minutes and never bothered to think about them again. ("Please remind me to pack lots of swim tops-" I'd told Dave a few days before labor started. "I'm much more modest then you might think." Ha.) 

Lisa checked me when I first arrived and found me to be between 4 and 5. After that we all knew I was really on my way, and I spent the first few hours drifting between the shower and the bed. The hot running water brought - nothing. It didn't touch the pain. When the birth tub was filled I climbed gratefully inside, expecting to feel as if I'd climbed into a tub of liquid morphine. And maybe- maybe the slightest tiniest hint of relief- but then again, maybe not. 

Around midnight, I began to feel trapped. During every pain I looked wildly around the room, knowing that nothing inside those walls could take it away, but searching for it anyway. Roxy and Jessie offered me a homeopathic remedy for the panic, peppermint oil for the nausea, and two loving, steady faces to focus on when I thought my head was going to blow off. But eventually, it was not enough. I clambered onto the bed, called out for Lisa, and told her I needed to go to the hospital and get an epidural. 

A knowing look passed between the women. "Alright, sure, you may do that." Said Lisa. "Do you mind if I check you before we go?"

"Go ahead," I said, flopping back on the pillows, feeling myself melt with relief at the very thought of an epidural.  

"There's a reason you feel this way," she said. "You're at an eight. With a bulging bag of water."

I sat up. "Transition? Is this transition?"

"That's right," she assured me. 

"Thank God," I said, shuffled to the ground, and climbed back into the tub. I'd followed the timeless script of laboring women- when we give up and ask for pain relief, we're usually experiencing transition, the toughest part of dilation that comes right before pushing. Since getting to the birth center, I'd progressed quickly and smoothly. Soon I would be pushing this backwards baby right out of me, they'd towel her off, place her on my chest, we'd all cry, snap some pictures, order some food, and go home. 

Thought I. 

But first I had to progress those two final centimeters and then wait to feel the urge to push. I was determined. Roxy and I went into the bathroom. Naked on the toilet sat I, backwards. I fluttered my fingers towards the door, told Dave to stay out. "He doesn't need to see this," I explained, and Roxy nodded and smiled, as if Dave hadn't already seen everything already. 

Between 8 and 9 centimeters there was more blood and more....stuff. Who knows what. An enormous sense of fatigue took ahold of me, and I just wanted to stop. I wanted to hit the pause button and fall asleep. Dave and the doulas were taking turns napping on the bed, and I desperately, desperately desired to pull back the covers and climb in. I felt very sad knowing that I couldn't. I started to feel trapped again. Second by second I watched the hours glide by as I crouched in the birth pool, waiting to feel the urge to push.

But the feeling didn't come. It never came. Eventually the contractions began to space out a little bit, and everyone told me I was "Laboring Down"- meaning my body was getting a little break between reaching ten centimeters and pushing.  

But a small, steady voice inside my head said, "No, you're not." 

Jessie pushed my hair back across my forehead. "This time is a gift," she whispered. 

To which the voice answered, "No it's not."

I picked up my head from the edge of the tub, listening. 

"Your baby is not going to come out." 

This was no divine voice from above. It was purely my intuition, speaking very clearly from the deepest region of my animal brain. Telling me what I'd pretty much known for the past two days. "This labor is wrong. This pain is wrong. Your baby is not going to come out this way."

It had been three hours since Lisa had checked me. Three hours of gut wrenching contractions, of leaking blood and mucus, of head-splitting pain. With every surge, Roxy held my hands and told me to take it lower, to leave my rational brain behind and find footing in my primal senses, to deepen my voice and plant my feet. Instead, I could only cry out higher and higher, rising up on my tip toes, trying to escape by climbing up and out of the pain. 

It was perfectly obvious to me that if I had to relax and soften my body and brain in order to reach complete dilation, it was never going to happen. Again, I lifted my head from the tub, looked calmly around the room and announced, "I need to go to the hospital now. She is not going to come out this way."

Once again, I allowed Lisa to check me. "Nine and change." 

Not many people would insist on leaving the birth center and beginning the grueling transport to the hospital when they are less than one centimeter away from completion. But I knew, with absolute and utmost confidence, that I needed to go. Three hours is a long time for a body to get between 8 and 9, but certainly not unheard of. My labor hadn't stalled, contractions were still strong (I'll say!) and steady. I was so close. But I knew she wasn't coming. 

If I hadn't been completely, 100% confident that I needed to go, I would never have made it through the next hour. Putting on clothes, then shoes, gripping the wall with one contraction after another as my birth team gathered our belongings and Lisa called the hospital to begin the transfer, staggering out to the car- that was a grueling time. The contractions became double peaked around this point, meaning two waves of pain slammed into my body before a break. I crawled into the car on all fours, hugging the empty car seat as Dave white-knuckled it down empty, rain-slick streets and into the labyrinth of the hospital parking garage, the doulas and Lisa in tow. 

Leaving Dave to gather our bags, I staggered across the parking lot towards the white and red glow of the hospital. Something had switched inside my head, and I was entirely focused on my one goal,  my one purpose in the entire universe: find pain relief. Find it now. Do whatever it takes. My exhausted and addled brain gave zero thoughts to actually having a baby. My intuitive voice, having gotten me where I needed to be, was silent. I was now a zombie, an addict, a hunter. To the woman at the front desk, the orderly who led me to my room, the person with the clipboard full of papers to sign, I bore my eyes into their and whispered, "Help me." 

The nurse, the lab tech, another orderly, whoever it was poking my arm with a needle over and over to get a bolus of fluids started: "Help me. Help me. Help me."

And then, after it was clear that despite my begging, I'd still have to wait the normal amount of time to get an epidural (I needed to absorb the whole bag of fluid first, for one thing, and sign all the papers, and wait to be assigned a nurse, and wait for the anesthesiologist to arrive) I started to whisper, "God has to help me." (At this point, I didn't bother informing those around me that I was actually an atheist.)

I just needed the pain to go away. And then I could go home and put this whole thing behind me.