All about how our daughter Penelope came into the world right on time

Guest post by Elle
Photo taken of our family shortly after Penelope's birth by our birth story photographer, Emily Goodstein.

About halfway through my pregnancy, I became committed to unmedicated childbirth by vaginal delivery. It’s something that I researched a lot and felt passionately about by the time I finally made the decision. Reflecting on it from the other side, I am insanely happy with this decision. My husband Josh and I put in a lot of work beforehand, but every second of preparation paid off, and I don’t even have the words to describe how empowered I feel after having experienced such an amazing birth.

During my 39-week prenatal appointment, my midwife Karen King did an exam and determined that I was three to four centimeters dilated. We were very excited to hear this news, but we didn’t really share it with anyone at the time because we didn’t want any added pressure. On Monday morning, January 3rd around 2:30 or 3am, I woke up with a very strong contraction. It was very different from any Braxton-Hicks contractions, which I’d been having for a few weeks and had felt to me just like menstrual cramps. This was markedly different, so I suspected that I was in labor.

I stayed in bed for about four or five contractions, doing some of the relaxation exercises that I had learned and practiced. The contractions were stronger than I had anticipated at the beginning. I had expected them to start out lighter and increase in intensity, but mine ended up being pretty consistent in intensity throughout most of my labor. At about 4am, Josh started stirring, and I whispered “Are you awake?” He said that he was, and I told him that I was in labor. We got up and made some breakfast. We were both excited but focused, and he started timing the contractions on my phone. At around 5:00, we called our doula, and then we called our midwife around 6:00.

Our doula, Michele Peterson, and our birth story photographer Emily Goodstein came over early-to-mid morning. My contractions did not follow any pattern that I had learned about. I had expected them to increase in duration and get closer together in a predictable pattern, but mine seemed to be pretty random. They were anywhere from two minutes to 10 minutes apart and lasted 20-90 seconds. It did seem that when there was a longer break, the next contraction would last longer, and when they were close together, they tended to be shorter. This made it hard to determine how far along I was and when to go to the hospital.

Karen anticipated that I would progress quickly based on the exam from the previous week, so she called frequently encouraging me to come in. Part of our plan had been to labor at home as long as possible so that we could relax and use the techniques we’d learned without all of the potential restrictions of the hospital. I happened to have a prenatal appointment scheduled for 11:30am on Monday anyway (is this baby going to be type A, or what?!) , so we agreed that I would just come in to her office, which is at the hospital, at that time unless my water were to break sooner. Then, if I was not very dilated, I’d be able to go home, but if I was getting close, she could admit me.

While laboring at home, I was surprised by the labor positions that seemed to work better for me. I had anticipated that positions involving lying down would work best for me, but that was not the case at all. I was most uncomfortable in any kind of horizontal position. I did best leaning over the birth ball or standing up in “slow dancing” position. The main strategies I used were relaxation, visualization (of what was happening in my body), and affirmations.

We arrived at Karen’s office at 11:30, and I was eight cm dilated (!!), which meant that I needed to be admitted to the hospital right away.

As we walked into Karen’s office, I posed for a picture in front of the VA Hospital Center sign giving a thumbs up. Michele told me later that when she saw me pose for that picture, she thought for sure I was still in early labor. We arrived at Karen’s office at 11:30, and I was eight cm dilated (!!), which meant that I needed to be admitted to the hospital right away. We were all surprised that I was so far along. Karen encouraged me to consider letting her break my water, as she thought that was all I needed to progress the rest of the way. I was not willing to go there are this point, as I thought I was making good progress and didn’t see any reason to intervene. She said that she’d check back in at 3pm and that I should reconsider at that point.

Once I was admitted, it was more of the same in the delivery room. We worked very hard during contractions to stay focused and use what we had learned, but in between contractions I was not in any pain and was able to relax. The hospital required 20 minutes per hour of external fetal monitoring, which was tough for me. I had to stay very still during the monitoring, which made it more difficult to manage the pain.

Hospital policy does not allow patients to eat while in labor, which is standard practice. We brought lots of snacks, and I snuck them when the nurse left the room. I don’t think I could have made it through pushing if I hadn’t done that. At one point, I had the last bite of a pb&j in my mouth and the nurse walked in. I was hooked up to the monitor, which displayed my heartbeat. I stopped chewing, trying to hide the fact that I was eating, and we were all trying really hard not to laugh. My heart rate shot way up, and the nurse was like, “Hmm, I wonder why your heart rate is so high.” Totally busted.

Around 3:30, Karen came back. I was 9cm, and we decided to let her break my water. She said at that point there was really no risk or downside to breaking my water, and it would probably bring on pushing quickly. She didn’t know how long it would take to progress the last cm, and she didn’t want me to be too exhausted by the time I was ready to push. She broke my water, which did not hurt at all (everyone says it does). Contractions started to pick up speed and intensity, and I got ready to start pushing.

At one point during this time, I realized that I was so close to meeting my baby and I became overwhelmed and started crying. Everyone thought I was losing it and got ready to talk me down until they realized that they were happy tears. I ended up pushing for about 40 minutes. The beginning of pushing was the hardest time for me. I think because it’s hard to really prepare for this part. Reading and hearing about it is nothing like actually experiencing it. Everything became a blur, and it was hard to remember what to do. I had the most amazing nurse, Krista. She coached me through the pushing — I just focused on her voice and tried to do exactly what she told me to do. Once I started really concentrating on her voice, the pushing went pretty quickly.

Our baby came out in a compound presentation, meaning that her little hand came out at the same time as her head. “Hello, world!” I reached down and caught her myself, and Josh and I both looked and said “It’s a girl!” The placenta came out quickly, and I just had a small (first degree) tear. Krista said that with a compound presentation, there is typically much more severe tearing. I think all those kegels must have paid off!

Comments on All about how our daughter Penelope came into the world right on time

  1. Great post 🙂 I am determined to have an unmedicated labour as well… this is very positive for me to read.
    Thanks for sharing your experience!

  2. Aw, she was born saying “hi!”

    Beautiful story. I too, had an “unmedicated” birth (quotes because I had an IV with antibiotics). Ten months later, the (manageable) pain has long faded from memory, but the sense of accomplishment remains. I wish all women had the chance to be educated on the power of their bodies, and their innate ability to push a life into this world.

    • I agree that it’s important to educate and empower women. It’s also important to remember that despite our best intentions and innate abilities, we don’t have total control over the birth process. The unexpected can always happen.
      One of the things I appreciate about this birth story is that the author really just talked about her (amazing!) experience. She didn’t try to say it would or should be anyone else’s experience.

  3. While I’m happy for the moms whose births flow with such relative ease, if you’re pregnant with your first baby, know that this story is not so typical. Even with the most sincere wishes to be unmedicated, shit can happen. And it’s ok.
    Sorry Elle, I am glad you had the birth you wanted, I just want to give a shout out to any new moms that may read this and feel left out. There exists a very real pressure for us to be “perfect” moms from the get-go.

      • With all due respect, those are also “choice” stories; I think that Comfrey may have been referring to events out of our control. I chose an unmedicated vaginal birth; I got a long labour that ended in a necessary C-section. I have a lot of issues with it that have no place in this comments section, but choice isn’t the only factor, and so often we are made to feel it is.

        That said, I don’t think that the people who talk about empowering women to make these choices are trying to make those of us who chose and failed feel guilty or wrong or weak.

  4. Thank you so much for using “unmedicated” instead of “natural.” The phrase “natural birth” never bothered me until I became pregnant, but now I can’t stand it. All birth is natural!

    • I am so with you. I used to use the term “natural birth” all the time. Now, after my own very hospitalized and heavily medicated birthing experience, that term drives me crazy. Actually a lot of birthing and new mamma terms drive me nuts – “normal newborn” instead of “full term baby” as just another example. I am so glade this site(s) made a conscious effort to move away from that type of terminology.

      sorry for the comment hack.

      p.s. this is a beautiful story.

      p.s.s. I totally dig how Offbeat Mama runs the span of birthing experiences.

  5. I’m very happy for the author of this piece, I really am. I’ve just never, ever, amongst all my friends and their 20 odd birth stories heard of anything quite so perfect happening. I WANT this birth, I’m just trying to keep myself open to whatever might happen so I don’t make myself feel bad afterwards.

    • I’m curious about what you think is “perfect” about this birth. The author mentions atypical contraction patterns, compound presentation, a tear… It certainly sounds like the author was very happy with how everything went, which I guess could be the main requirement for a “perfect” birth. 🙂

      • The main requirement? Surely it’s the only requirement?

        I gave birth to my second son at home with the help of two midwives, my husband (at the time), my mother, my sister and my 3yo nephew dozing in the corner of the room. I was then rushed to hospital for an emergency op to stop me bleeding to death from a retained placenta but I still say, of the three children I have, that was a perfect birth.

        Perfect is personally subjective and this particularly applies to major life changing events like births and marriages, hence the OBE 🙂

  6. This made me so cry-y in a happy way! What a gorgeous story of family.

    I have a “birth plan” kind of: to get the baby here the best possible way for all involved, putting the child first. I’d love an unmedicated birth but if the baby doesn’t flip (right Ariel?) or won’t fit at the last moment, cut me open. That’s how I was born and I’m offbeat aka just fine!

  7. Awww, my preggo hormones got me all weepy over this!
    What a beautiful story of a special family able to live out something so amazing. I love how she was so passionate about an un-medicated birth and was focused and calm enough to make it her reality.

    OBM I heart you.

  8. I tried my best to deliver without medication but found it to be too difficult. I was in labor for almost a full day and had to push for 2 full hours (as it turned out the cord was around my daughter’s shoulder – any longer and I think they would have forced a c-section) and I don’t think I would have made it without a little bit of relief. I’m just happy to have had a vaginal birth. Anyway, what struck me about the story is that MY daughter Penelope was born Jan 6 last year! CRAZY coincidence!

  9. I was in back labor for 42 hours, was turned away from the hospital the first time even though I was in full active labor, ended up getting an analgesic, a touch of pitocin and finally an epidural, and was flat on my back for the pushing on my midwife’s orders, after never imagining that I wouldn’t be letting gravity help me out.

    And it was the most perfect birth I can imagine. Perfect is in the eye of the beholder 🙂

  10. yay! awesome birth story.

    we didn’t bring any snacks but my hubby shared all of the food he got from the cafeteria. i think it’s insane that lots of hospitals have policies against food for laboring women! i think i was forbidden to eat because of a pitocin drip, but during my first labor (different hospital) all i had was a heplock and they also did not let me eat.

    • Yes, why is this a thing? Do they think people are just going to throw it all back up or something? Wouldn’t it generally be good for you to have some energy for all the crazy stuff at the end? 🙂

      • I think it has something to do with the extremely extremely likely scenario that one has to go under full anasthesia for a surgical birth. This is extremely extremely rare — and arguably it is as a result extreme to expect every single laboring woman not to eat — but I think that is the reason, or so a L&D nurse once told me.

    • Yeah, they told me I couldn’t eat and I was like OH YEAH THAT MAKES TOTAL SENSE SOUNDS GOOD. And then the nurses left the room and I was like nom nom nom nom nom. I don’t mind laboring for 26 hours, but Imma eat some damn snacks while I do it, for sure.

  11. Ariel, thanks I know, I’m a regular reader. I still feel inspired to post what I did just as a love-nudge to other ladies who may wish this could have been their story. I’ll step aside now.

  12. Such a beautiful birth story! My first was very hard on me and left my hubby traumatized! When I was preggo with ds2 I researched for methods that didn’t require interventions and found hypnobirthing, the best thing! I studied it daily for 2months b4 giving birth and I had a very positive experience. My waters didn’t break until bub was pushed out, I think if u kept ur waters intact it may have been less painful in the pushing stage. Nevertheless, u did well and it paid off.

  13. I know I am a little late to the party with this comment but this is something I felt was important to share as it is a viewpoint unrepresented here.

    My feeling is that getting caught up in the labels hides what is really going on – that people, subconsciously or not, feel that natural (or medically unassisted vaginal birth) is ‘better’ than something like a c-section.

    Otherwise, why bristle at calling birth without medical intervention “natural”?

    Our birth concentration is not about the procedure of how I give birth but the focus of the participants. No matter how awesome birthing staff is, it needs to be understood that I am the one giving birth and that I am going to be making decisions about what happens to me and our baby.

    I am not emotionally attached to the outcome either way other than I want minimal, and only necessary, medical intervention for me and our little one. We want a healthy baby and do not want to be treated as appendages while the birth staff does all the ‘real’ work.

    I did read the ‘myth of a natural childbirth’ article about how the use of “natural” is perceived to be divisive but my point is that it is only divisive because we have specific emotional attachments to what the ‘right’ or ‘best’ way to give birth is. Futzing with the language doesn’t really address this.

Join the Conversation