When I was pregnant with my first son, I believed three things about childbirth:
One, it was going to hurt. A lot.
Two, it was scary and dangerous.
Three, it was going to ruin my body.
I had collected these beliefs from a childhood full of movies and TV shows, which portray childbirth in standard Hollywood fashion: the sweaty woman is laying on her back, feet in stirrups, nurses flurrying about, everyone yelling “PUSH into her purple, grimacing face. She grips her husband’s hand and shouts angrily “YOU DID THIS TO ME!” The audience laughs and cringes, and little girls everywhere start to dread the future. As misguided and misogynistic as it may be, Hollywood was my earliest source of birth education. It was probably yours, too.
Even more frightening were the real birth stories I grew up listening to at family gatherings: my grandmother nearly dying in childbirth, my aunt’s tragic stillbirth; my mother being put under general anesthesia without consent or justification, minutes before the delivery of my little brother. She woke up confused and nauseated, without a baby in her belly or her arms, terrified he had died or been stolen. She had no memory of bringing him into the world.
I listened to these conversations among my female relatives with both fascination and terror. Each story left me wishing I hadn’t been born a girl. I shared my fears once with my maternal grandmother, who had birthed nine children without medication. In her day, she informed me, most laboring women were drugged with Twilight Sleep and strapped down to the hospital bed. My complaining prompted a lecture.
“Oh well you know, Laura, birth isn’t so terrible,” she chided. “Just imagine if you had been a pioneer out on the plains, like my great-grandmother… your great-great-grandmother. She had 13 children! Delivered two of them in the back of a wagon. No help at all! If she could do it, you can do it.”
I wanted to believe my grandma, but I was stubbornly pessimistic. Throughout my childhood, I was scolded frequently with stories of my ancestors and their trials, so I knew well that these women were hardy, tough, and resourceful; they churned butter and sewed sheets and walked across continents. They stung their eyes and hands with lye while boiling soap, and strapped their babies to their backs as they worked from sun up to sun down. I was a total wimp in comparison.
Up to that point in my life, I only heard one positive birth story. My mother loved to tell the tale of my younger sister’s birth, which she described as almost entirely painless. It was the early 1980’s. No one delivered without medication. My parents enrolled in a Lamaze class to prepare for a natural birth, a revolutionary act at the time. According to my father, her only complaint during their whole labor was a quiet sigh of “ooooh that really hurts” as the baby’s head was crowning. My sister and I always looked at each other and giggled at that part of the story, mostly because it seemed ridiculous. I’m not quite sure we believed him.
My second positive impression of birth came from my favorite college roommate, Marissa. My newlywed husband and I were on a date with Marissa, her husband Jared, and their two cats. These cats seemed to know something was happening, meowing insistently at their owner’s round belly. She was clearly in the early hours of labor. I’ll never forget the image of Marissa that night; so calm, sitting cross-legged on the floor, playing cards, joking, eating chips. Intermittently she called out “ok, here comes another one!” She closed her eyes and breathed, while Jared timed each contraction and patted her shoulder.
As the pace and intensity of her labor increased, we looked at each other with wide eyes: Is this really it? I paced the living room anxiously, trying to convince my friend to leave for the hospital. Her contractions were getting noticeably stronger, but Marissa just shrugged her shoulders.
“Ehhh, I’m fine,” she reassured me. “No reason to go in yet.”
I was in awe. This was no Hollywood birth. Her baby was born at our town’s local hospital several hours later that night, with no medication and no fuss. She was the first of my peers to even attempt a natural birth. Marissa’s calm, nonchalant laboring planted the tiniest seed of hope in my mind: Maybe birth doesn’t have to be so bad?
One month later, I got pregnant. When I saw the two pink lines magically appear on the dollar-store test, I did what any rational person would do. I peed on every pregnancy test I had. Every single one showed two dark, wonderful terrifying pink lines and I was so happy… for about six seconds. Then the panic set in. This baby was going to have to come out of my body, one way or another.
My priorities for my first birth were simple:
One, I wanted my baby to be safe and healthy
Two, I didn’t want to feel pain
Three, I didn’t want anything bad to happen to my body
And if we’re being honest, Four, I didn’t want to poop in front of everyone
Anyone who knows me well, knows that I have a phenomenally low tolerance for pain. Regardless of my grandma’s insistence that I could tough it out, I wasn’t interested in suffering during labor. I researched a variety of pain-relief options, discouraged by the side-effects and risks. I started to read about the joys of natural birth, but quickly dismissed the idea. I could imagine the critical comments I’d be bombarded with, “just wait, you’ll be screaming for drugs,” “don’t be a hero, just get the epidural,” and my favorite, “you know, there’s no gold medal for natural birth.”
I know, Sheryl, I never expected a medal. I just don’t want a needle in my spine if I can avoid it.
I wished for a better pain relief option, a higher pain tolerance, or both. And we hadn’t even begun to address the pooping fear.
At one particular prenatal appointment, my eyes landed on a fluorescent green flier for a childbirth education class, announcing boldly: Painless Natural Birth with HypnoBirthing! I picked up the flyer and eyed it with a smirk. All I knew of hypnosis was Hollywood’s portrayal of it: swinging pocket watches, heavy eyes, strange obedient behavior. Wasn’t hypnosis some kind of mind-control technique? Will I be mentally out of it? What if it doesn’t work?
Curious and maybe a little amused, I called the phone number on the flyer. Questions were asked, concerns were addressed, fears were dispelled, and I enrolled. I wasn’t sure what I had gotten myself into, but I knew one thing for sure. My husband would hate it. Despite our mutual skepticism, he and I attended each session dutifully, listened to our hypnosis cassette tapes daily, and took turns reading the textbook with yellow highlighters in hand.
I became quite efficient at going into hypnosis while listening to my recordings at home, in bed, curled up with my blanket and pillow. But there was a problem. While I did learn how to relax deeply (at home, in bed, with my blanket and pillow), I did not learn how to relax while a baby was coming out of my body. These happen to be two very different skills.
My due date came and went, and I was still pregnant. I’d been gestating for over forty weeks, which felt like forty years, and every single night I went to bed disappointed. Every morning I went hunting for new stretch marks, rubbing cocoa butter into the itchy purple skin pulled taut over my abdomen. It was a losing battle. Miserable and a little desperate, I pleaded with my baby to come out. Family and friends called to ask if I’d had the baby yet. People stared at me like I might explode amniotic fluid at any moment.
My belly grew more impressive as the days crawled by. At my last prenatal appointment, the midwives noted that my uterus was measuring a couple of centimeters above average, suggesting that our baby might be on the large side. The word macrosomia was tossed about, which prompted more google searches and panic attacks than I care to admit. In the course of my research, I discovered that macrosomia is just a scary way of saying “a newborn over 9 lbs.”
The midwives sent me in for a non-stress test, and I found some comfort in the beautiful ultrasound of my son. I could see our baby boy curled up peacefully, twitching and hiccupping, his tiny heart beating with determination.
After the non-stress test, a medical induction was scheduled against my wishes, simply because my uterus was two centimeters rounder than the average. There was no other medical justification. I was instructed to arrive at the hospital by 6:30 AM, but I didn’t show up, and my delinquency prompted a scolding phone call from the hospital. I gripped the phone and said,
“My baby is fine. I’m not ready today, and we are not coming in, sorry!” To this day, I’m still proud of that moment.
The big day arrives!
Several days later, my birthing time finally began on its own. I paced around my home, breathing heavily, lumbering from the toilet to the couch, from the couch to the floor, and back to the toilet again. Contractions rolled through me with such power that they stopped me in my tracks. I couldn’t do a thing but breathe. The breathing turned into moaning. Our cat started to meow in solidarity. I saw it in my husband’s eyes before I believed it myself; it was time.
We gathered our hospital bags and ambled to the car. My husband threw open the passenger door and held my elbow as I heaved myself awkwardly inside. I managed to strain the seat belt over my laboring uterus, crank the seat back, and close my eyes in relaxation. When we first arrived at the hospital, a nurse examined my cervix and congratulated it for being dilated to a nice, soft six. I was very proud of my cervix for progressing so quickly.
Once we were admitted into the birthing suite, I tried to lie there with my eyes closed, to be quiet and calm like we had practiced in class, but my uterus wasn’t having it. My body became this strange, powerful animal that wanted to sway back and forth. Primal sounds bellowed and groaned out of me. I needed to cling onto my mate, to be near the ground. The floor felt solid and safe under my hands.
I didn’t know it then, but most birthing folks are more relaxed and comfortable when they can move, change position, and vocalize in labor, without inhibition. I was suppressing these instincts. When a contraction began, I could feel my whole body tensing up to fight it, and after hours of this struggle, I was too exhausted to continue.
With a feeling that I had failed at hypnobirthing, I asked for an epidural.
It frustrates me to remember this now, but at the time I felt like I needed to apologize for choosing an epidural.
I apologized to my husband, to my mom, and even to the nurses in my labor suite. I wish someone had looked in my eyes after I got my epidural and said, “No apologies, mama. You are amazing! You’re a birth warrior, and you are doing this. You are in charge of your body and your choices, and you’re still going to rock this birth.”
The epidural didn’t work as I hoped. No one had ever warned me that epidurals don’t always “take” properly, and I could still feel every contraction. Even more upsetting was the fact that I couldn’t move my legs. For me, the feeling of being trapped in bed was worse than pain. My support team vanished, and my labor progress stalled for hours. My husband retreated to the couch to sleep, the nurses left the room, and I felt abandoned, helpless, and powerless.
So, I made a choice. I let the epidural wear off completely, and my contractions became stronger than ever before. However, now I was in control. My body wanted me to move, so I did. Rocking back and forth was such a comfort. Moaning felt so good that I focused on the sound of my voice growing strong and loud. I was fierce.
It felt so good to move! I put my arms around my husband’s neck and we rocked, together, back and forth, over and over and over. I vocalized rhythmically unnnhhh… unnnhhh… unnnhhh… my voice low and open. We worked together through each birthing wave, until our gorgeous 10 lb. 2 oz. boy was placed in my arms (so warm and squishy!) I collapsed back on the bed in utter exhaustion. Conflicting emotions of pride, disappointment, relief, and pure joy washed over me.
Looking back on my first birth now, I realize that it was pretty amazing. I was a petite 25-year-old who gave birth to a 10 lb baby after 14 hours of active labor and 45 minutes of pushing. I did great! But at the time, I felt disappointed in myself, defeated and even disillusioned. If I had been better prepared and more educated about my birth options, I could have walked away from that birth feeling victorious and proud of my journey.
My second son was born two and a half years after my first, and after surviving his complicated and excruciating entrance into the world, my third pregnancy was beset with anxiety. I wanted to re-visit the idea of hypnosis for birth, but I wasn’t interested in using the method from my first birth. With the belief that if I wanted something done right I had to do it myself, I hatched the crazy idea to create my own relaxation recordings. I was buzzing with motivation.
My first husband, a music producer, composed relaxation music and recorded hypnosis scripts in his own voice for me to practice with. We watched as many positive birth videos as we could find. I exercised daily, practiced yoga breathing, and learned to go into a state of deep relaxation, while remaining active. I even completed a Childbirth Hypnosis practitioner training at the beginning of my second trimester.
At my 20 week ultrasound, I clearly remember the look on my doctor’s face when he measured our baby’s head and abdominal circumference. He stopped talking and made a concerned face.
“Ms. Curtis, are you absolutely sure of your dates? You know the correct date of your last menstrual period?” he asked.
“Yes, I’m sure,” I said nervously.
He hesitated, “well…judging by at the size of your baby at this stage, I think we could be looking at a birth weight of 12 or 13 lbs. You should schedule a cesarean section.”
I returned home and cried into my pillow. The next morning I awoke tear-stained and forlorn, but somehow I had the good sense to find my copy of Ina May’s Guide to Childbirth. I read this quote again and again, as though she were speaking directly to me.
The problem is that doctors today often assume that something mysterious and unidentified has gone wrong with labor or that the woman’s body is somehow inadequate, what I call the “woman’s body is a lemon” assumption. For a variety of reasons, a lot of women have also come to believe that nature made a serious mistake with their bodies. This belief has become so strong in many that they give in to pharmaceutical or surgical treatments when patience and recognition of the normality and harmlessness of the situation would make for better health for them and their babies and less surgery and technological intervention in birth. Most women need encouragement and companionship more than they need drugs.
Remember this, for it is as true and true gets: Your body is not a lemon. You are not a machine. The Creator is not a careless mechanic. Human female bodies have the same potential to give birth well as aardvarks, lions, elephants, moose, and water buffalo. Even if it has not been your habit throughout your life so far, I recommend that you learn to think positively about your body.
— Ina May Gaskin
On a snowy day in December, a week before my due date, I sat on the couch watching Friends and eating bites of yogurt in between contractions. I thought they were braxton-hicks; those practice tightenings that pregnant people have in the later stages of pregnancy. I dropped my shoulders, relaxed my muscles, and breathed deeply in… and out… just as I’d been practicing for weeks and weeks.
There was no pain, but I was beginning to feel pelvic pressure. To state it bluntly: I felt constipated. Sitting on the toilet wasn’t working, even though I could feel that something was, well, on deck, and needed to come out. My uterus was still tightening, but the contractions were so mild I didn’t pay them any mind, or even consider timing them.
It definitely did not occur to me that this was labor. Having endured two unmedicated births, I was confident that I knew how labor was supposed to feel. My midwives had even instructed me thus: I was told not to come to the hospital until my contractions were, “so painful I couldn’t handle them anymore.” Well, reader, I never got to that point.
The constipated feeling was getting stronger, but nothing was happening, so I did what I always do when I don’t know what else to do: I took a hot bath. The moment I stepped in to my beloved tub, all of the tension and pressure melted away. Deep, steamy water felt incredible on my huge pregnant belly, and watching the snow fall outside, I dozed off.
My next memory is awakening with a jolt. It was happening. I was going to poop in my tub. My sanctuary! My safe place! There was no way I could let that happen. I tried to flop myself over the side of the tub but I couldn’t maneuver whilst also squeezing my legs together. I yelled across the house for my husband, who hurried down the hall to our bathroom, rushed inside, and saw my face stricken with dread. I could hardly talk, but I managed to blurt out,
“Honey I’m gonna poop in the tub! GET ME OUT!”
He really tried to lift me out of the deep water but I was slippery and cumbersome. He gave up and huffed,
“Baby just go. Just do it. I’ll fish it out.”
And that horrible suggestion was the motivation I needed to heave myself out of the tub and onto dry land. My body went into full mammal mode, completely taking over. It wasn’t a bowel movement. It was a baby. I squatted down on the floor and trusted what my body told me to do. I didn’t really have a choice at this point. My husband called our midwife and she encouraged us to head to the hospital immediately. We were in total denial that the baby was actually coming and thought I could still make it in time. As I walked from my bathroom to the car, I dropped down to my hands and knees with each pushing urge and just let my body take over.
I had a huge pushing urge on the garage stairs and my water broke. My husband looked back and I heard him say to the midwife on the phone “I can see the baby’s head…” she told him to call 911. This was my first moment of panic, when I realized that my baby wasn’t going to be born in a nice, safe, warm hospital room full of nurses to help me, as I had envisioned. When I panicked, I felt pain for the first and only time during this birth. My muscles seized up, and I yelled “I’m so SCARED!!” My husband reassured me gently “Honey it’s ok, you can do this, you’ve got this…” I was breathing hard and shaking and felt my relaxation slipping away. My husband somehow got me into the back of our mini-van, where I immediately got on my hands and knees. I closed my eyes and breathed slowly… and deeply… just as I had practiced for so many months. In my mind, I created a bubble of peace around me and told my baby he was safe to come out. My body relaxed, the pain disappeared again, and I found my power! In two huge waves, I birthed my little boy easily into the world. I had no tearing and very little discomfort, even immediately after the birth. The paramedics arrived as I was pushing and were incredibly calm and supportive.
As with his two brothers before him, my gorgeous baby boy weighed around 10 lbs. and was perfectly healthy. Despite the incredible circumstances, everything went very smoothly, and it was my easiest, fastest labor yet. Within two hours, I was up walking around, in a haze of endorphins. That night, as I held my new sweet little son and we looked into each other’s eyes, I thanked him for the beautiful experience we had just shared. I will never forget it. My third birth was easy, comfortable and nearly painless. I was able to remain calm, even when my birth took an unexpected turn. Asher’s birth inspired me to begin teaching the world about the power of birth. I wanted to help others believe in themselves, to embrace this part of their lives instead of running from it, and to take pride in their journeys.