The Story of Lou
Updated: Nov 14, 2020
It feels natural that my first ever blog post should highlight one of the most significant events of my life (the other being the day I married my best friend, but I'll get to that as well). This story is, of course, very personal and brimming with detail (so you know!) My due date was November 13th. Or it was November 18th. My ultrasound suggested one date and period tracking (gestational age) revealed another. So you choose one, and my midwife chose the 13th. The 12th was a full moon and I felt strongly (the woo-woo part of me felt strongly) that that could be the day our baby would come more fully into our lives. I don't like to say "entered the world" because after he arrived, it felt like he had always been a part of me.
On Saturday the 16th, I began having stronger Braxton Hicks contractions. They came and went, fleeting and irregular. I redundantly asked my mother-friends, "is this what a real contraction feels like?" What I didn't know then is that you can't possibly know until you know. The knowing in your body kind of knowing. Sunday I developed more regular contractions and the distance between them seemed to be narrowing. We were sure we'd be having a baby that day. Sunday night was restless. I tossed and turned, awakening on occasion to a strong squeezing sensation in my midsection that wrapped around to my back. Surely these were real contractions. On Monday morning, I was tired and still pregnant. All day long my contractions waxed and waned, teasing me and beckoning me to surrender to the process. They increased in intensity, growing closer together, then yielded briefly, offering reprieve. Still, we were sure we'd be having a baby that day. I spent the majority of Monday alternating between cozying up to my giant inflatable yoga ball and my husband, Andrew. I rocked and swayed and breathed and anchored.
By 4 pm, I was thoroughly confused. I had been texting with my midwife most of the day. While she offered gentle guidance, she left the reigns in my quaking hands. One of two midwives went off service and the other came on; I spoke to the new one on the phone. I explained my contractions and how they oscillated between three minutes apart and then briefly widened. We decided that if by 8 pm things hadn't shifted much, I would go to the hospital for assessment. 7:30 pm rolled around and it was a toss-up: I was either going to turn into a raisin in the bath or go have a baby.
Shortly before departing for the hospital, I enjoyed a final candlelit bath. I ate a Jimmy Johns sandwich and pickle (yes, in the bath...which probably goes under the "things not to do while in labor" category). Andrew and I then filmed our first message to our little love. I visualized the birth and everything I hoped for: sans medication. Aromatherapy and dim lighting. In the water. A healthy baby.
We grabbed our bags (and more bags, and pillows, and carefully prepared labor snacks, and more bags) and suddenly we were backing out of the driveway, presumably leaving our house as two for the final time. We pulled into the circle drive in front of the hospital, and Andrew grabbed a wheelchair for me. My contractions were nearly stacking, offering little space to reset, and I wasn't confident I could make the walk. He wheeled me to L&D where we were the only ones present aside from the nursing staff. Our check-in was cool and nonchalant. I felt like there should be greater urgency, that perhaps some of the small talk could wait and the redundant questions placed on hold. But alas, that's not how things work and I am not the center of the world. A nurse greeted me and walked me to a small holding room, about 10' x 10' if I'm being generous. I laid on the stretcher bed and then immediately shifted. I couldn't lay down. It felt too passive, too static, leaving me powerless. I moved and writhed and likely resembled an amateur belly dancer the way I rolled my hips and shook with emotion. I smiled through quiet tears that rolled out of tired eyes and onto my sweatshirt.
My midwife arrived and I could finally exhale. She sensed my discomfort and cut right to it. I had not undergone any cervical checks during my pregnancy - it wasn't indicated and I wasn't interested. This was my first. She placed a hand and fingers in places that lacked anywhere near enough space for hands and fingers. It caused me to grimace and brace myself against the bed. How long could this possibly take? It seemed to span minutes, though I'm sure it did not. She stood up, then sat down in a chair next to me. Oh no, this couldn't be a good sign. People sit down at eye level to deliver difficult news. "Do you want me to explain where you are, or would you prefer to just know the numbers?" I wanted the numbers, thanks. No sugar. Then, the words that would crush me: "you're two centimeters dilated." But how could that be? Did she need to check again, I wondered? It was inconceivable to me that I had endured waves of strong contractions for that long. I was prepared to hear, "you'll be ready to push soon." Andrew placed a warm and knowing hand on my back. I was given the choice between returning home to see how things played out and to start a (dreaded) Pitocin drip. Returning home felt like a non-option. I was exhausted and worried that at that rate of dilation, it would be Friday before I reached ten centimeters. Pitocin (synthetic oxytocin), however, also felt out-of-the-question. I had strong convictions about wanting an unmedicated birth. I had also convinced myself that I wasn't married to our plan - that I was open to however labor might evolve. But I was quickly discovering that this was a delusion and a falsehood. I. Was. Married. To. Our. Plan.
I conceded to the Pitocin drip on the condition that I wouldn't have to get an epidural. All at once our plan for a water birth was out of the question. It felt like a concession that I was still able to labor in the tub. There was a change of shift and my new nurse placed an IV in a juicy vein in my left forearm. They grabbed some labs (my platelets had been low during pregnancy) and ordered the drip. Andrew gathered our things and I shuffled to the elevator, bracing myself against the railing on the wall. I entered what would be my birthing room and met my new nurse on the Labor & Delivery unit. She was warm and patient. She was the kind of nurse you'd hope for during labor, exuding the vibe that I'm here to support you when you need me but I know when to give you your space. My midwife had arranged flame-free candles and string lights, and the soft ambiance felt like a warm hug. The nurse flushed my IV and then came the metallic taste in my mouth that many of my former patients grimaced at. She attached me to the Pitocin drip, and so it began to stream in. She helped me step into a pastel pink and blue cotton tube-top, sliding it up along my hips and pulling it around my belly. She tucked two wireless fetal monitors between the fabric and my skin. Continuous fetal monitoring is required when a Pitocin drip is in use because Pitocin is intended to increase the strength of contractions which can put a squeeze on the vasculature in and around the baby. Andrew held me as I slid into the bath. It was 11:30 pm.
For the next five hours, I would alternate between the tub, the toilet, and the bed area. My labor snacks - thoughtfully prepared to sustain me during the process - sat untouched in the fridge. The thought of food was off-putting. If you know me, you know this is very unusual. Somewhere around 1 or 2 a.m., my midwife suggested that I try eating something. I started on a popsicle but abandoned it. I couldn't get beyond one bite of an energy ball. So I sipped on something red -- juice? Gatorade? I couldn't care -- intermittently throughout the early hours of the morning. Labor is, of course, unlike any other experience. What I noticed in particular is that during labor, I had no choice but to be in the very moment I was in and to be fully with my breath. Take a deep breath in, exhale. One breath carried me to the next. And a string of breaths sustained me through each contraction. Andrew repeatedly and gently reminded me to relax the back of my throat and to lower the frequency of the sounds that were coming from me. Rather than dictating, he made the sounds himself so I could simply emulate. He learned to do this in our birthing class, and it was precisely what I needed.
Come 5 a.m., my midwife declared that it was time for another check. Could it be done in the tub, I asked? Amid stronger contractions, it was a mental and physical feat to remain still in order to yield a reasonably accurate measurement. She appeared despondent. "Five centimeters, six max." It was time for dose of reality. In nearly six hours on Pitocin, I had dilated a mere three or four centimeters in addition to the original two. I was growing more weary (this was my third nearly sleepless night) and felt uncertain about how much longer I could endure strong contractions as my energy drained. My midwife suggested that the benefits of an epidural would be twofold: one, I could get enough relief to take a short nap; and two, they could dial up the rate of the Pitocin drip to bring me closer to full dilation. I'll brush over the internal deliberation that ensued, but I ultimately decided to move forward with the epidural. Without it, my midwife was worried about my ability to push when the time came, and the only thing I feared more than an epidural was a cesarean section (two hands in the air for all of the mothers who delivered by cesarean section. A cesarean birth is a birth just as a vaginal birth is). I'm just speaking to my experience. I was admittedly scared about the possibility of a c-section.
Around 6 a.m, Andrew and my nurse helped me to the edge of the bed and began setting up for placement of the epidural. In walked an anesthesia fellow and attending physician and my husband greeted the fellow by name. As it turned out, they had previously worked together in the ICU at UW Hospital. Somehow this offered a grain of relief. The epidural placement was difficult not because of the large needle or the stinging lidocaine, but because it was utterly unthinkable to sit still for that long. I squeezed Andrew's and the nurse's hands until surely they were a shade of white. The anesthesiologist dripped in a little test bolus dose to ensure proper placement. It was definitely in the right place. My nurse placed an indwelling catheter (errrrrg, but it's a safety requirement in the presence of an epidural) and said goodbye. I was crushed that it was the end of her shift; I had hoped she'd see me through to the end! I fell asleep and woke in a daze about an hour later. My first realization was that I had actually slept. The second was that my bladder was going to burst. In the interest of skipping some unnecessary deets, I'll just say that it was discovered my catheter was in el lugar equivocado. My day nurse and a really sweet student nurse replaced it. Somewhere around a liter drained into the pouch. My bladder still felt like it was going to burst. I soon learned that, for me, this was my body driving me to push.
The midwife performed what would be the final (yesssss) cervical check, and she clocked me somewhere between 9.5 and 10 centimeters. To my surprise, I had what seemed like full sensation in my body despite the epidural's presence. I was able to squat on the bed and contort my body in ways necessary to help baby travel south. Some women describe the process of pushing as a relief. I can't go that far, but it was certainly a welcome opportunity to channel my energy, my breath and my yearning to meet our baby. Andrew was the most spectacular birth partner and supporter. He encouraged me, held my hand & rubbed my back, and at times offered a needed silence. My midwife told me several times that I was making impressive progress. Until you can see or feel a baby beginning to emerge, those words of affirmation are difficult to accept as true. I remember a moment when I became curious about how long I had been pushing, so I asked. I imagined it had been at least an hour. "Two hours and ten minutes," she proclaimed. I began to fatigue. I can't remember another time in my life when I was able to tap into my deepest well of energy and purpose the way I did during labor. In those moments which all bled into one another, I felt the fullness of my power as a woman.
"Do you want to feel your baby's head?" My midwife guided my hand and I felt - for the first time - the warmth of my baby's doughy scalp. She held a mirror for me and I saw dark hair matted to his head. I began to experience what had accurately been described to me as the ring of fire. A heavy burning and stretching sensation coming from the south. It was an interesting experience to feel such immense discomfort and to then do more of what was causing it. To really lean in. I asked my midwife for a warm washcloth and some counter-pressure. With it, I felt immeasurable relief. I pushed for another thirty minutes before a head fully emerged. One final push and a warm, wet little body appeared. With a little assistance from the midwife, Andrew guided our baby's body into a new world, one that was now forever changed.
In that very moment, I noticed that The Stable Song by Gregory Alan Isakov was playing in the background (this is my favorite musician and the song I walked down the aisle to on the day of our wedding). Apparently Andrew announced, "it's a boy!" but it didn't even register in that moment. He laid our warm baby against my belly and chest. I was utterly entranced. Andrew gazed down at our boy to find a hand full of meconium (baby's first poop, in its very own league of stickiness). This probably wouldn't be the last time baby boy would poop on his dad. My parents joined us in the birthing room moments after baby was born. To witness my mom and dad lay eyes on him for the first time was a spiritual experience. My mom looked at me through awe-filled eyes as I gazed down at my baby. Two mothers now. I saw a softness in my father's eyes that is reserved for rare and special moments.
Our beautiful boy wrapped his long, slender fingers around my finger and blinked softly. He slowly made his way to the breast, found a latch with a dash of assistance and began to nurse. It was a remarkable sight and the most magnificent experience. How absolutely incredible that a baby - just born - innately knows how to attain needed sustenance, performing an act which, to that point, was unbeknown to him. We learned in our birthing class that a baby, during what was coined the "magical hour," will follow a series of well-studied and instinctive stages to make his way to the breast, all within around an hour. It was magical, indeed, to watch our baby make the journey. He was motivated; it probably took him 15 minutes. He slept intermittently for the next couple of hours, starting on my chest and ending on his dad's. I dozed a bit, but didn't sleep deeply due to frequent fundal checks. Around 2 p.m., the nurses took Louis for footprints and measurements. Andrew asked me what I thought about a name. "What do you think?" I replied. "He's Louis, isn't he?" "Yeah," I smiled. And so it was. Louis Jack O'Donnell. (We had been calling him Lou for many months after our Italy trip offered the nickname Luigi when he was in utero. Jack is Andrew's late grandfather's name). Andrew cradled Louis's brand new body, his round, rosy cheek pressed against a warm, sturdy chest. In that moment, on our first day as Mom and Dad, we felt the enormity of the deep privilege and responsibility it is to be a parent.
The nurse who had been with me during the birth helped me out of bed and into the shower. She assisted me to undress and held my hand as I sat against a stack of towels on the shower chair. She pulled the elastic out and my hair rested against my weary shoulders. You know the feeling, when you let your hair down after many hours of being up and it feels like your scalp perceptibly relaxes? She started the water, adjusting the temperature just how I liked. The whole process felt incredibly intimate. I wondered what it felt like for my nurse, who so routinely shares such personal, life-changing moments with new mothers and fathers. My legs trembled, fatigued from a long labor. I felt the water envelop me and I closed my eyes. Still me, but also now we.