There’s a file on my desktop called “Labor and Birth Preferences.” I’d used the word “preference” instead of “plan” because I knew that our baby would dictate the direction of the experience, and having a set plan could possibly just set us up for failure or disappointment. In the end, we really could have taken the printed copy of our preferences, folded it up into a paper airplane, and sailed it right out of the hospital window. Mr. Oden John Witherspoon Howe’s entrance into this world followed suit with the rest of our journey to parenthood… tricky and in an unexpected manner!
Three weeks ago, we met with my OB for our usual weekly check-up, three days before my due date. I’d somehow pulled myself out of bed where I’d been seriously ill with a respiratory infection for the past 10 days. In the days leading up to our due date, my world revolved around a trip to the ER to rule out the flu and strep, breathing treatments, cough medicine with codeine, cough drops, an asthma inhaler, and as much Tylenol as I was allowed. I’d coughed so hard that I’d injured the ribs in my left side, on which we alternated an ice pack and a heat compress. We attempted to wrap them with an Ace bandage to minimize the movement (and excruciating pain when I coughed), no easy feat at 40 weeks pregnant. Thankfully, John stepped right into the role of nurse and took care of me because I couldn’t do a thing. I’d gone from debating which methods we’d try in order to kick start labor naturally to praying intently that baby would pleasepleaseplease just keep cooking until I healed. Pushing out a baby with zero energy, no lung capacity, and broken ribs sounded like a nightmare.
At our appointment, we learned that I’d hardly progressed regarding dilation since my last visit (dilation is a sign that baby is making its way on out and a good indicator that real labor is imminent). Regardless, the doctor thought I’d go into labor within the week. I told her that I was in no rush to push a baby out, and she’d seen my illness progress over the past week or two. I casually pointed out that my feet had swelled significantly two days prior, and we noted that I’d gained seven pounds– SEVEN- in the last week. This was odd, since my weight gain had plateaued recently; I’d been gaining less than a pound between visits. With a vague look of concern, the doctor took my blood pressure with her machine a couple of times, then manually, casually mentioning after the first check that it was too high and that she might send us down to Labor and Delivery. In my head, I wondered what on Earth the L&D personnel would be able to do about my high blood pressure.
Apparently, what they could do was get my baby out. I had pregnancy-induced hypertension, which could lead to a dangerous situation called preeclampsia. At any time after 32 weeks pregnant with this diagnosis, my doctor would usually put me on bed rest and medication. But since I was basically at my due date, it meant checking in to the hospital to be induced. The doctor said she’d call Labor and Delivery and let them know we were coming. John and I blinked in disbelief at each other and then at the doctor… you mean, we couldn’t even go home before it was Baby Time? We were completely unprepared for this scenario. We had a nice little list of things to keep us busy while I labored at home. John would pack his hospital bag. I would bake a batch of cookies for the nurses. We’d take Cholula for a walk around the neighborhood (we’d read walking was helpful in labor). I’d take a nice, long shower (complete with plenty of razor time), dry my hair, and begin the birthing process feeling refreshed and looking decent. We’d have time to arrange care for Cholula and clean up the house a bit before my parents arrived from Colorado (necessary, since our house was full of germs from my extended illness). Scratch those ideas! Luckily, we got the go-ahead to run home to pick up our hospital bags (also known as “finish packing while freaking out”). We called my parents, who were on call to head to Park City from Durango. We called our doula. We called our dog sitter. And we paused to snap a few last shots of my big old belly, which would be sans baby in a matter of hours. Don’t let my smile fool you: I was squelching a panic attack. This was it.
We knew enough about having a baby to be flexible regarding our expectations. We’d worked with our doula, Amy, and had high hopes of a drug-free birth. Regardless, our actual “birth plan” was to trust my body, see what it could do, and be ok with whatever direction we needed to go in order to keep baby (and Mama) healthy.We’d worked on breathing techniques, various labor positions, and other comfort measures to work through labor. John had taken plenty of notes during our meetings and reviewed information in a book called, “The Birth Partner.” We had a “safe word” (Zamboni) in case I reached my pain threshold, which basically meant I’M NOT KIDDING GET ME DRUGS NOW. However, induction was the one scenario we hadn’t considered. We were basically starting the party before Baby Howe was remotely ready to crash it.
One would usually be induced early in the morning so the mom would have a full night of sleep behind her and some energy before labor. Our experience started at 4pm when we checked in. We started a drug called Cytotec (a “cervix ripener”) that we hoped would kick-start my body to go into labor on its own so wouldn’t need to move on to other stimulating drugs like Pitocin, knowing it could likely lead to the “cascade of interventions” we were trying to avoid. The Cytotec worked, but slowly. It also meant no sleep and working throughout the night as my body did its thing. We tapped into some of the comfort techniques and went for walks. I’ll never forget wandering around the darkened, vacant hospital halls with John in my socks, pausing to put a hand on the wall and move through the ever-more-painful contractions.
Twelve hours, three doses of Cytotec, and many painful contractions later, I was still only a few centimeters dilated. I was super tired and my rib pain was becoming an issue during contractions, so we opted for a painkiller called Fentonel to hopefully mute the rib pain in the short-term and continue laboring. In the scenarios we’d prepped for, I’d still be laboring at home at this point (joyfully baking cookies, right?!) but was thoroughly exhausted already from an all-nighter… and things hadn’t even gotten going yet. I was in an interesting position where I couldn’t have any more Cytotec and my contractions, though strengthening, were not far enough apart/consistent enough to start Pitocin yet, so we labored on. I was able to eat something from the delicious (no, seriously) hospital cafe for strength and my labor tool of preference was the birthing ball.
Early Wednesday morning, my doctor came in to break my water (one of the more traumatizing and uncomfortable moments of my entire birth) and an hour later started the Pitocin. Both of those things really get labor going (and pain increases significantly). I kept catching the nurse sneakily increasing the Pitocin amount higher and higher when I wasn’t looking, which coincided with my pain level. John was exhausted, too, and over the course of a few hours, had tried every pain management technique in his notes. He called Amy and she arrived to assist me through contractions. John actually left to take a walk when she stepped in, needing to clear his head and take a break from seeing me in so much pain. Amy talked me through each contraction and calmed me between them. I was glued to the birthing ball and refused to move when John suggested other labor positions (the way we’d practiced) to switch things up or relieve my pain. I was in something of a primal state and couldn’t look my loved ones in the eyes as I focused on breathing in deeply and uttering a low-pitched ohhh-ohhh-ohhh sound to get through each contraction (that we lovingly refer to now as “The Angry Santa”).
Within a couple of hours, we’d more than tripled the Pitocin amount so I’d continue to dilate and my contractions were pushing my pain threshold. In between contractions, my weak and sleep-deprived body was literally so exhausted that I’d rest my head on Amy’s hand and fall asleep for the 1-2 minutes while she rocked me. I started talking about being worried that I wouldn’t have strength to push the baby out. We’d learned in our birth classes that sometimes an epidural is what a mama needs to reserve energy to avoid a C-section and retain strength for pushing. John left to take another quick breath of fresh air and while he was gone, I’d knew I’d reached my breaking point if I wanted to have any energy left to eventually attempt a vaginal delivery. Pushing aside my own feelings of disappointment and focusing on the relief I’d feel shortly, I told Amy it was time to call the anesthesiologist. We texted John “ZAMBONI” and he said later that he’d also been having his own Zamboni moment then. The intensity of the situation is nothing that can be described until you’re there.
The anesthesiologist administered the epidural (which was not as quick a process as I needed it to be) and I attempted to get a laugh from John by saying, “Work, drugs!” (Bonus points if you recognize that quote.) We’d been forcing my body through labor for almost 20 hours. Along with the relief from pain, I finally was able to relax enough to get my first hour and a half of sleep in well over a day and my body painlessly progressed through a couple more centimeters of dilation. Throughout labor, the doctor and nurses were monitoring baby’s movement and reactivity levels. They constantly had me moving to one side or another and using other techniques to get baby moving in a healthy way, but around this time, their techniques weren’t working as well. They attached an electrode to baby’s head to better track his movements. Two hours after I received the epidural, I’d stalled at almost 7 centimeters dilation and baby’s heart rate had flattened out and movements were minimal- their tricks to make him active weren’t working. The worry here is fetal acidosis, which means the baby isn’t receiving proper blood flow from the placenta and is forced to find reserves elsewhere. My hypertension was also likely contributing to the placenta not getting enough blood. At 2:45PM, our doctor gently informed us that we were headed to the operating room to get baby out via C-section for his own safety. With all of the interventions and procedures throughout the experience, we’d asked the doctor and nurses about the benefits and risks of each before moving forward. This, however, was not a discussion point.
A C-section was the one thing I’d wanted to avoid at all costs, but John reminded me that our end goal was a healthy baby and healthy mama and that this path was not a choice. For being such a terrifying idea to me, the process happened remarkably quickly and efficiently. The super-nice anesthesiologist upped my epidural medication for extra numbness (thank you, Dr. Feelgood.). I was wheeled to the OR alone while John and Amy put on their safety scrubs. I focused on the sparkling light above me while the medical team prepped me for surgery, positioned my arms straight out from my sides, and set up the curtain below my chin. A friend who had welcomed twins via emergency C-section earlier in the year had graphically explained his experience to us, so I knew full well what was going to happen below that curtain- in detail! John and Amy came in to be with me, and because I could feel that I was about to freak out, I asked John to distract me by telling me all about the trips we were going to take with our baby this summer. He told me stories about camping excursions with our new baby and described our ideal first flight with an infant while Amy wiped the occasional overwhelmed tear from my eyes before they dripped backward into my ears. John asked me if I wanted to double down on the baby’s gender. We’d both been thinking “boy” for months, but for some reason, at the last second, I felt like it could be a girl. I don’t like to lose and will never live that down, because I was wrong. Suddenly, a nurse called for John and I heard a ferocious, forceful little scream- our baby’s voice. I looked at John’s face as he exclaimed, “It’s a boy! Oh, my God, it’s a boy!” and then his face crumpled and he promptly started to bawl. It was 3:12pm on March 2. Oden John Witherspoon Howe. It took 39 long months of working hard to create a family followed by 23+ hours of labor, and our son was finally here. Even through my delirious, sleep-deprived, drugged-out state, the significance of those first cries of life was not lost on me.
I listened to our son’s strong voice and felt a huge relief that he was out safely and this part of the ordeal was over. It was surreal to be behind a curtain and not aware of what was going on around me. I closed my eyes and listened intently for my baby. The next things I heard were variations on the phrase, “He’s huge!” “He weighs how much? 9 pounds 9 ounces! Are you serious? What a big boy! He really is BIG!” Our nurse, Robyn, brought him to me. He nibbled on my cheek and stopped crying when he heard my voice. The violent shaking I was experiencing (due to shock, anxiety/fear, and the medication) calmed when they laid him on my chest. With the help of the nurse, we not only enjoyed skin-to-skin time, but he was breastfeeding right there on the operating table, before the doctor had even sewn me back up- a first for everyone in the room.
After some time, they took Oden away to do a few necessary things before returning him to me and wheeling us back to our recovery room. I vaguely remember a few people in the hallway stopping to watch us go by, smiling and making excited faces that said, “Wow! That baby just came out of you, didn’t he?!” The next few days are a bit of a blur. Trying to feed a newborn, manage pain from major surgery and those pesky busted ribs, grip with the insane hormone overload, and absorb the enormous change that had just occurred in our lives was quite overwhelming. John camped out on the fold-out couch and we lost track of whether it was day or night. We had fabulous nurses who were remarkably attentive and kind and who clearly fell in love with our Big O. My parents arrived from Colorado and swooned over their grandson, visiting us often but also holding down the fort at home and giving Cholula love. The nurse who had been on duty during Oden’s birth, Robyn, spent a significant amount of time working with us on breastfeeding. I enjoyed my first cup of strong black coffee in 9 months as well as small glasses of wine (I couldn’t really have much, paired with the medication I was on!). The night nurses would take Oden in between feedings around 2-3am to let us sleep for a few hours. Mostly, we watched Baby TV and sent photos and texts to everyone we’d ever met to share the big news. He’d arrived. We were parents. Is this real?
Before we knew it, the strange la-la land of the post-birth hospital stay was ending and we were putting our little jumping bean into his car seat to take him home. We let Cholula get acquainted with the smells of the little hat they’d put on Oden’s head when he was born before introducing our two babies to each other. She instinctively seemed to understand that our pack had just grown by one and immediately took on the role of baby protector. We dove headfirst into adjusting to life with a newborn baby, a scenario we’d planned and dreamed and prayed for that had now become REAL LIFE. Those first days were simultaneously complete madness and simply magical. We’ve relied heavily on the help of Grandma and are completely at the mercy of this sweet carbon-copy of John.
Three weeks in, new parenthood has proven to be utterly humbling, quite challenging, completely rewarding and a huge privilege. In addition to sleep deprivation and a schedule that revolves around Oden, we’ve muddled through emotional breastfeeding challenges, dealing with the sore ribs from before the birth, and managing the aftermath of serious abdominal surgery (did you see my feet?!). I’m shocked at the amount of doubt and guilt each little decision brings for me and wonder if that’s normal. Nothing about the path to pregnancy was easy for us, and our birth experience was literally the opposite of what we had hoped for. That said, none of it was within our control and reinforces the fact that parenthood is all about being flexible, even from the very beginning. Things will work out the way they should. It’s not the first time I’ve had to remind myself of that fact. It truly doesn’t matter one iota what we had to do to create him or to bring him into this world…He’s here. We are more than smitten with our little Oden.
Let the adventure begin!
One year ago: Lemon Basil Sorbet (and Cocktail!)