If I look like a hot mess in this photo it is because I was. It was a challenging road for me and Miss Selah, but we made it.
I've always wanted to be a mother. I'm cut from the same cloth as my mom, I suppose. She told me that growing up, when thinking of what she wanted to be, Mom was all she came up with. She said she wasn't ever encouraged or told she could do anything else, but also said that being a mother was truly what she wanted most in life. She made sure I was taught I could accomplish anything in the world, and yet I shared her sentiment--I always coveted the title of Mother the absolute most.
As I watched my sister and friends get married and start to have children, I yearned for this chapter in my own life to begin. "Someday it'll be your turn, Ang", my mom would say, and I would daydream about what that would be like.
I never would have imagined it would take almost 3 years of trying after getting married before I would find out I was pregnant with my Selah. But it finally happened, and we were over the moon. I still remember like yesterday, the day in the doctor's office when we heard her heartbeat, and realized our dream might actually be coming true.
I can't say for sure why I decided after getting pregnant that I was going to try for an unmedicated birth. This had never been my plan, but suddenly I found myself researching like crazy. Looking back, I think it mainly it had to do with my desire to maintain control. I didn't want to be confined to a hospital bed, or risk the dreaded "cascade of interventions" that could potentially lead to an unnecessary caesarean. I read The Thinking Woman's Guide to a Better Birth, and Hypnobirthing: The Mongan Method, among other things, and it all seemed to make sense. I understand why it wouldn't be for everyone, but it definitely resonated with me.
While researching my options, I came across the evidence for doulas. Of course liked what I read about the improved outcomes for the mother and baby. The idea of extra support also appealed to me because though I had always expected my mom to be by my side when I had my babies, cancer had other plans. She had passed about 3 years prior, and would have to watch her first granddaughter's birth from Heaven. In her absence, I figured a professional trained in labor support would be my best bet. I wanted someone who had seen lots of births, would not question my choices, or expect politeness from me while in the thick of it. In addition, I wasn't so sure how my nervous husband would hold up during the birth, so having someone there to help normalize everything and make sure he was doing okay seemed like a great idea as well.
Despite my research, we all know "the best laid plans" don't always work out as imagined. Starting at about 34 weeks, things started to fall off my birth plan. To start, I was diagnosed with preeclampsia, a complication characterized by high blood pressure and signs of damage to another organ system, often the kidneys. Left untreated, preeclampsia can lead to serious — even fatal — complications for both the mother and baby. The only cure is delivery. At 35 weeks, we had a scare during which we spent 4 hours at the hospital and were told we may need to be induced immediately. After monitoring, the doctor determined that I would be allowed to go home, with the goal of getting to 37 weeks.
During those two weeks of waiting, they stepped up monitoring significantly to make sure our baby was okay. I was going for frequent nonstress tests, which per Mayo Health are recommended when it's believed that the fetus is at increased risk of death. I also had ultrasounds what seemed like every other day, and had to go on early maternity leave to avoid any additional stress. I tried my best to relax, but after our baby "failed" an ultrasound due to insufficient movement, I couldn't stop obsessing over how much she moved or didn't move. I was told if she failed the next one we'd need to deliver immediately. I kept wondering if our dream of becoming parents was just too good to be true. I cried, prayed, and wished for just one thing: for Selah to be born, so that I could see with my own eyes that she was okay. All of this made it easier to accept that my original birth plan would require some modifications. And there were a few...
My induction date was set, though I'd hoped for a spontaneous vaginal delivery after laboring at home as long as possible. Our carefully chosen family doctor, selected mainly for her midwifery model of care, but also so that we could plan on her (or her partner) being at the birth, said she may not make it after all. She had bronchitis, and her partner was going to be out of town, too. She would let us know who would be there. My chosen doula would not be in the country now that I was going early, but we could have a backup- she could come meet us a few days before the induction. The induction date was pushed back by a day at the last minute, for unknown reasons... I tried my best to let go of it all, and trust that all would be okay.
I wasn't sorry at all that I'd done my research and made a plan, even if things had taken a turn. I knew what I wanted in an ideal scenario, and also knew that sometimes plans change dependent upon circumstances. I still felt in control to some degree, and prepared to evaluate each and every decision presented. Luckily, our doctor recovered from her illness in time, and our backup doula was such a great fit that I still wonder if it was all meant to be.
As is often the case, our induction took a while. I started with a foley bulb from noon- 5:00 pm, at which point I agreed to the Pitocin I had been trying to avoid at all costs. The foley induction hadn't been successful in bringing on sufficient contractions, and at this point, I was ready to get the show on the road. I declined the recommendation to break my water, and focused on trying to labor peacefully in the tub. I listened to childbirth hypnosis recordings, and tried to block out the frequent vital checks and other routine hospital goings on around me. For a long time, I labored beautifully, but at a certain point, my strategy of relaxing my body and mindfully breathing through contractions seemed to fail me. I just didn't want to do it anymore. My doula thought I was in transition, so I got out of the tub to be checked, and was told it was almost time to push- I was about 9.5 centimeters dilated. After moving to hands and knees for a couple contractions I was fully dilated. I decided to go for it without meds after all, but as I pushed, my blood pressure spiked dangerously. I was then told I had to either have magnesium sulfate, which I knew carried a high risk of undesirable side effects, or an epidural.
I got the epidural, and was told to try and rest for a while. The epidural didn't seem all that effective, and I breathed through each contraction to get through the next two hours of "laboring down." I then pushed for an hour, felt the "ring of fire", and knew she was almost here. The rest is a blur. She was delivered, and swiftly moved to the other side of the room where a warmer and NICU staff were waiting. She didn't cry. The world stood still. I asked if she was okay, but no one was saying much. Then... I heard the most beautiful sound in the entire world- my newborn baby girl's cry.
A little more than 24 hours after I walked in those hospital doors, I had a daughter. She was brought to me, and finally I could see with my own eyes she was okay. I thought we were out of the woods. Turns out she was, but I wasn't quite yet. I had a retained placenta requiring several excruciating attempts at manual removal, postpartum hemorrhage, an additional dose of Pitocin to try and aid in uterine contraction, and when that failed, Cytotec- a drug I had read was associated with increased risk of maternal death. I was scared.
My baby was given to her father, and I started to feel more and more faint. My focus drifted from my beautiful baby girl, to my cold, shaking body and my increasingly fuzzy brain. I told the nurse I was getting faint, and she looked concerned. They monitored me closely, and over time, eventually determined I would not need the blood transfusion that they had prepped me for. Slowly, thankfully, I started to feel better, and my beautiful baby was returned to me.
I'll likely always feel a little sad about the fear that eclipsed our joy in those last weeks of pregnancy, and especially in the first hours of Selah's life, but I'm grateful that I was still able to have a vaginal birth, during which I felt heard, respected and supported. I'm not sure there was much I could have done to avoid the complications in this pregnancy and birth, but what I do know is that having a doula to guide and support me through it all made such a huge difference and ignited in me a passion for helping other families to navigate their own way into parenthood, however things unfold.
"There is a secret in our culture, and it’s not that birth is painful. It’s that women are strong."
-Laura Stavoe Harm
Written by Angie Traska of Align Doula Services, providing intuitive, attentive doula support that aligns with you. Looking for doula support or lactation counseling in the Madison area? Contact me here.