When Birth Doesn't Go How You'd Planned


I wonder if every person who has given birth would change something about their birthing experience, if they could. Do we all have some regrets, some "what ifs", some wishes that weren't fulfilled when it comes to our birthing journey? For me, I have some questions and regrets about my first full-term birth experience. Since becoming a doula and learning more about birth, and especially about the immediate postpartum time, I can see how certain choices and decisions affected my experience, not to mention that of my newborn son who was whisked off to the NICU when he was 8 minutes old. Here's that story.

When I was unexpectedly pregnant in 2013, I first started to explore how I would approach being pregnant and giving birth. I gravitated towards books like, 'Birthing from Within' and 'Ina May's Guide to Childbirth', which are still on my favourites list (and in my lending library for clients!). I realized that I wanted to go about this new adventure with the same kind of philosophy I had for most of my adult life up to that point: let it be. Whatever will be, will be. Life will happen, good things and not-so-good, and it's best to let it happen without resistance, and to believe that it is all unfolding as it should.

It turned out that what I had to do for that pregnancy was to let it go, as I miscarried that baby after 11 weeks. (You can read that story here.) Then, about one year after first getting pregnant, it happened again. This time I had a bit more of an idea of what was important to me for this pregnancy, and I picked up my learning where I had left off the previous autumn. I quickly found a group of midwives who had space in their clinic. My husband and I went to a meet-the-doulas event and chose a doula. We took a childbirth education class over a weekend. We planned to have our baby at home, so we got a birth pool. I wanted to do this thing in the way that it has been done it for thousands of years: with the support and encouragement of loved ones, the care of those experienced in supporting birth, and the realization of my own inner strength.

The first weeks were emotional for me, as I was worried that we might lose this baby, too. But he grew, and I grew around him. We named him Emmett, after much debate. Back then my husband was in a rock band, who practiced twice a week in our living room. Emmett and I would dance as I did the dishes or worked on a craft. I told him how cool his Daddy is, and how much we love each other.


Emmett was 'due' on June 12, 2014. His great grandfather's birthday was June 15, 1914, so we thought it would be pretty cool to have him share a birthday 100 years apart. We did all of the things you can do to try to get labour started, but he just wasn't ready. So we kept waiting.

Sometime in the night on June 17 I woke up. Something was happening. I laid there quietly for a bit, and then I felt it again. I smiled.

After a while I rolled over to face Eric, and instantly his eyes shot open. "Is it happening?!'. I nodded. He grinned. We stayed in bed, snuggling. I realized I liked his hands on my lower back when the waves came, so he did that. We were excited. Our baby was coming!

Daytime came, and the waves kept coming every so often. Now, some people will call this 'prelabour' or 'prodromal labour', or, the worst misnomer of all, 'false labour'. Having experienced two days of these contractions that are not quite powerful or frequent enough to make a difference to the cervix, but also not mild or infrequent enough to allow one to rest or function normally, I dislike all of those terms. They minimize the fact that I was dealing with contractions, even if they weren't necessarily making much change to my cervix. So, all of you prodromal labour survivors out there: I see you. You did that. You rock.

Anyway, at some point my doula came over, hooked me up with her TENS unit (med-free pain relief!), and helped my husband set up the birth pool. I kept rocking those waves and hoping my baby would come sometime that night. (Don't hold your breath. He didn't). My mom came by a few times, and she was naturally tuned in to what I needed. I remember being especially grateful for her hands giving counter-pressure on my lower back, while my husband squeezed my hips. Folks, that's how to get through a couple days of 'prelabour'. Have your team there to rub, squeeze, massage, hug, and support you. They will also keep you fed and hydrated. That's huge.

Eventually everyone left me and Eric alone again to sleep, as it didn't seem like things were going to pick up that night. So we went to bed, and slept for seven to eleven minutes at a time, waking up to breathe and squeeze through a wave, then back to sleep...

The next day my doula returned, and we did the Miles circuit. For anyone unfamiliar: it's a bunch of pelvis-opening exercises like going up the stairs sideways and walking along a curb with one foot on the road. It's supposed to help a labour move into active mode. All it did for me was increase the pain I was experiencing from pubis symphasis dysfunction. (There's another shitty term related to pregnancy. My body is not dysfunctional! It's just full of another person's body, and things are stretched to the max!) So, we spent another day rocking and rolling through this not-quite labour. Now it was getting onto evening on Thursday the 19th.

I'd been in touch with the midwives since the morning of the 17th. I remember when I called to tell them what was happening, the senior midwife on the phone said, "Oh, so it could still be a couple of days". I was stunned. But, here we were a couple of days later, and it finally seemed like things were getting more steady, more intense, more like active labour. So we called again, and Jennie made her way over.

When she got there, she just observed how things were going for a while. Then she asked if I wanted her to do an exam to see what my cervix was up to, and I said yes. So I laid on the couch, and she checked things out. I am glad that I don't actually remember the experience of having these exams done. I know they are hella-uncomfortable. Thank you, brain, for sparing me those memories. Anyway, I think I was at about 4-5cm dilated. So that was good news! Then, as soon as Jenny removed her hand, my water broke all over the couch.

And it was not clear.

Amniotic fluid is supposed to be clear. If it's greeny-browny swampish, it's not a good sign. It means that the baby has already done its first poop. This is not ideal, because now the poop is mixed in with the fluid the baby is living in, the fluid that gets into their nose, mouth, and sometimes lungs when they are born. So, Jenny calmly explained what she saw, and told me that she recommended that we transfer to the hospital. She made it very clear that it was my choice whether we stay or go, but in her view it was a good idea to go. I agreed, and we started packing up to go.

Now, I had put Surrey Memorial Hospital down as my choice in case of transfer. However, Jennie suggested we go to Peace Arch hospital. She knew that I was planning to have an unmedicated birth, with as little intervention as possible, and she said that Peace Arch hospital was the ideal place to support that. So, again, I agreed.

I remember the drive to White Rock. I was in the back seat of my husband's old Toyota Camry, leaning on my pillow against the window, looking up at the night sky. My mom and Eric were chatting in the front seat. I was feeling at peace, grateful to be left to myself to adjust to this new path my birth journey was on, breathing through the sensations on my own, telling my baby we would be okay. I hate hospitals, but I wanted my baby to be safe.


We settled into the room, which would have provided a lovely ocean view had it been daytime, and got back into our rhythm of hip squeezes, back rubs, etc. We continued through the night, supported by quiet nurses, with Jennie always there watching and encouraging and keeping a trained eye on what was happening with my baby and I.


Finally, around 7:00AM, it was time to push. My best friend was in the waiting room down the hall, and he heard my earthly roaring from out there. I was a powerful pusher, and Emmett was born at 7:37. He was placed on my suddenly soft and empty belly, and we all celebrated that it was finally over, after 56ish hours. He cried, and turned pink, and seemed to be doing well.


(Tracy Armstrong Photography)


Until suddenly he wasn't doing well. Jennie said, "It looks like he's having some trouble breathing. We're going to help him out", and he was gone. My husband followed them to another room down the hall, where they were helping Emmett to clear his lungs and get him the oxygen he needed.


And I was alone.


My mom, best friend, and doula had left after the initial celebration, all exhausted after a long night. I laid there in shock. Where was my baby? I had worked so hard, for so long, and now I had nothing to show for it.


Jennie came back after a few minutes, and I said those words to her. She tried to keep her professional composure, but I know she was choked up with empathy for me. She said, "Would you like a tour of your placenta?". And then showed me the organ that had grown with my baby, nourishing him with the nutrients and oxygen he needed for all those months. I stared and nodded and thought only of my baby.


Finally I asked if I could go see him, and I was wheel-chaired down the hall. They were having a hard time keeping an IV in his little arm, because he was feisty and strong, and they were having trouble figuring out how to use the machines that would provide him with warmth and oxygen. (Peace Arch does not have a NICU, so they weren't quite prepared to help Emmett).


Why didn't I demand to keep him with me? I could have kept him warm, and helped him to regulate his breathing with my comfort. Why couldn't they give him oxygen while he laid on my chest, which is where he'd feel most safe and at home? Why hadn't I chosen to go to Surrey Memorial, where there is a NICU? Why hadn't I stayed home to give birth, and only transferred if necessary afterward (which we ended up doing anyways from Peace Arch)? If he was so strong and vigorous, did he really need the extra help? Why didn't I ask more questions? Why didn't I demand to know what medications he was given, what he was being fed? Why didn't I start expressing or pumping my colostrum right away, to give him what he needed? Why didn't I demand to hold him as soon as I finally got to join him in the NICU, instead of waiting until they suggested it the next day?


I don't have answers to any of these Why's. I can't know what would have happened if I'd made different choices. What I know is that I trusted the people who were looking out for Emmett's best interest, and I don't regret that. He ended up getting the sticky meconium out of his lungs with their help, and I am grateful for that. He was healthy overall, and that is a blessing. I was able to breastfeed even though we had a delayed start, and that is a gift. I know that Eric was so present and supportive through the entire experience, which solidified our love on a brand new level. Also, we were both supported by so many friends and family, who brought food and gifts and hugs. I had the supported, unmedicated, intervention-free birth I wanted, and it showed me how powerful I am.


I know more now than I knew in 2014 about birth and the importance of those precious first hours with your baby. But I did the best I knew to do at the time, for my baby and for myself, and I am at peace with how it all went. I forgive myself for not knowing more, and for not demanding different. I am grateful to everyone who helped us in the hospitals, and especially to Jennie for gently guiding us through it all.


I believe that we are given the experiences we need in order to learn and grow, and this was life's way of helping me grow into motherhood. It wasn't the experience I'd imagined or hoped for, but it has taught me a lot about advocating for my kids, for myself, and for the people I support in pregnancy and birth. And I am grateful.

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