When my husband and I found out I was pregnant with our first child, I was sure I wanted a completely natural, unmedicated birth. That's how my mom had her five babies, and if she did it, so could I! I also knew from playing sports that even when you push your body so hard it hurts, you do recover. I was optimistic that giving birth was going to be fine.
But things don't always go as planned, and I ended up having three wildly different birth experiences with each of my three daughters. In the end, all were positive because they were what my babies and I needed at the time. Here are my stories.
The Emergency C-section
The natural labor and delivery ward at my hospital was exactly what I wanted: calm, cute (the birthing rooms had four-poster beds and hardwood floors!), and totally drug-free. So when my water broke, my husband and I checked in there. But contractions were not what I had expected, and I had back labor, which was absolutely excruciating. It was like being tortured with an ice pick from the inside out, and nothing could relieve the pain. After about eight hours of labor, my midwife noticed my baby's heartbeat was slowing and then stopping during my contractions, signaling that she was in distress. I was immediately rushed to the operating room for an emergency C-section.
Being numbed for surgery offered such sweet relief from the pain that I didn't care I wasn't having the natural birth I had planned. The procedure went well, and my baby, Marina*, was born healthy. But recovery wasn't as easy. When the anesthesia from the operation wore off, I felt a searing pain around my incision. I couldn't stand up for the next two days; the area around the cut felt like it was covered in burning boils. I later learned I had an allergic reaction to the suture tape, and my abdomen was covered in burns, which spread even after I left the hospital. My first few weeks post-birth were spent in bed, while my skin healed.
The VBAC with Epidural
When I was pregnant with my second child, three years later, I knew I wanted to avoid the long recovery of a C-section, and luckily my ob-gyn supported my decision to try for a VBAC. Reluctant to experience those intense labor pains again, I included an epidural in my birth plan—which was fortunate, because my first contractions this time around signaled back labor (again). By the time my husband and I reached the hospital, I couldn't sit normally and had to kneel backwards in the wheelchair while the nurse escorted me to the room.
But as soon as I got into the room and received the epidural, I felt great. The nurse assured me they handled VBACs all the time, so I was able to relax and watch World Cup soccer with my husband. Later, when the nurse checked on me, she lightened the epidural dose because she could tell I was getting close. Not long after, I felt like my body—not me—was bearing down, and it felt really good. I hit the call button, and the nurse came back. The pushes kept coming and getting harder, and while I could feel pressure, there was no pain. Then the on-call doctor came in and guided me in pushing through a couple more contractions, and my second daughter, Ellen*, was born. I thought, "Are you kidding me? That's all?"
Unbeknownst to me, the doctor gave me an episiotomy, which healed well and never bothered me. What happened next, however, was a big deal. Rather than wait for me to deliver the placenta on my own, the on-call doctor yanked it out. Because the epidural had completely worn off by then, I felt everything. Though the experience left me feeling violated, I was fortunate that my recovery went well. I was on cloud nine the first few days after I had Ellen—I guess those euphoria hormones that are released after a vaginal birth are real!
The Home Birth
Two years later, in my third pregnancy, I decided to try a home birth. Thanks to my easy VBAC—my doctor called it "textbook"—I knew I was low-risk and probably didn't need much medical assistance to give birth. Still, I didn't go into having a home birth lightly and was mindful of the safety issues. We chose a midwife who partnered with an EMT/nurse during home births and was equipped with a Doppler to monitor the baby's heartbeat and an oxygen tank, should the baby or I need it. My ob-gyn agreed to be on speed-dial in case we needed him to meet us at the hospital, which was just five minutes away from our home.
Almost two weeks after my due date, I finally went into labor at around 5 a.m., with very mild contractions coming about every 20 minutes. I stood on our deck and had coffee and watched the sunrise. Blissfully, there was no back labor pain!
The midwife team came to the house, and the kids went with caregivers. I went to a darkened room and did a hypnobirthing technique a friend taught me to help with labor pains. The midwife checked on the baby's heart rate during contractions, but otherwise, I was left alone.
I moved to the bathtub as I entered transition because the contractions were so intense. While I was lying there, my body suddenly started pushing on its own, as it did when I gave birth to Ellen. Surrounded by my husband and midwife, I pushed a handful of times and our third daughter, Grace*, was born. My husband laid her on my chest, and Ellen woke up from her nap just in time to see her sister arrive. After drying off, I went to my bedroom and nursed Grace, who was still attached to me via the umbilical cord. Marina came home soon afterward and cut the cord, as planned.
Before leaving that night, the midwife brought us takeout and instructed my husband to check me for fever. My mom took the two older girls for the night, and my husband and I slept from 10 p.m. until 8 a.m. Grace slept, too, and was on the day-night schedule right away. We spent the next couple of days caring for her and watching movies, while her sisters spent the night at their grandparents' house and visited during the day. Having a home birth was really magical.
What I Learned
Doing childbirth "my way" the third time was empowering and taught me to trust my instincts. It turned out to be a real turning point in my life: Two weeks after I had Grace, I was asked to interview for a teaching job at a local high school. A year earlier I would have refused, thinking there was no way I could handle the workload. But after giving birth at home, I knew I could do anything. I took the job, and it was the best year ever.
*Names have been changed for privacy.