Breaking plans: an "Unnatural Birth" story

September 16 2010 | Guest post by Erika Foulk
Mama and babe. Photo by Jennifer Flanagan of Image Market Photography.
My husband is older than me with an 18 year old daughter of his own. When we discussed having baby, he was a little freaked about flipping the hourglass. That said, he took a leap of faith and decided to go for it with one promise from me — if he helped give me the amazing gift of mommyhood, we would have ONE and only one.

I think that knowing that this was the only time I'd ever be pregnant, feel my baby kick, go through the birthing process, etc. helped me appreciate every little thing that much more. Knowing this would be my only birth, I became obsessed with reading the birthing process. I wanted to know what others had gone through and what they wished they had done differently. I decided that I wanted a natural birth, and found an amazing hospital in my area with a team of midwives that specializes in natural births, but makes other options available.

Fast forward to 2 days past my due date. I wasn't just pregnant, I was super-pregnant. I had chipmunk cheeks, cankles, giganto feet, the whole deal. I was ready to get this labor thing on! Sadly, as my due date came and went, I started feeling LESS like labor was approaching. That night I watched TV, rolled into bed, and fell asleep. I awoke at 1AM to the realization that my pants were wet. I jumped up and waddled to the bathroom thinking, "surely I didn't wet myself…? Could it really be…?"

After hovering over the toilet for 5 minutes while liquid continued to trickle out, I alerted my hubby. It was finally happening! Today we would meet our baby girl. I eagerly called my midwife, and her advice was to put on a pad and see if I could go back to bed, because I would need my rest. Well, a pad really was NOT going to cut it, because the fluid just kept on coming. So I fashioned myself a diaper out of a towel (think Sumo wrestler), and sat on the edge of the bed smiling. Today I would meet my baby!

Then the contractions began: 3-5 minutes apart, although the pain was tolerable at first. My husband and I chose to labor as long as possible at home, so we set about doing laundry, cleaning the house, and chatting excitedly about what was to come. The pain went from bad to worse. When I could no longer talk through contractions (at about 5AM), we decided we would both feel better if we headed to the hospital.

As soon as we got to the room, I got checked (almost completely effaced but only dilated to a 1. Boo), then hopped in the water therapy tub. It was like heaven. I labored on all fours in the tub and moaned my way through each wave of pain and pressure that coursed through my back and lower abdomen. Every hour I had to hop back on the bed for some monitoring. I hated this time because laboring on the bed was intensely painful without any means of moving through the contractions.

After another 5 hours, they checked me again — dilated to a 3. This was not good. I began walking the halls with my husband, pausing during contractions to lean forward against the railing and roll my hips like I was hula hooping. This was the only thing that seemed to help. I was in a meditative state and kept telling myself, "your body was meant to do this."

At my next monitoring session (about noon), I was told that the baby's heart rate was dipping pretty drastically every time my contractions peaked, and I would need to stay in the bed so they could keep an eye on baby. Stay in the bed? But I hate the bed! The bed inhibits me! But this was no longer about me — it was about baby.

This was NOT the birth experience I had in mind — crying, scrunched up in an uncomfortable position with an IV in my arm and an oxygen mask on while my family looked on in horror.

So I lay in the bed, enduring each contraction without the ability to move. I began vomiting when my contractions peaked and was told if I kept vomiting I would have to get an IV of fluid. I threw up again. They gave me the IV. Then baby's heart rate dropped low enough to alert the nurses. Things got blurry. I was told to turn on my side and ball my legs up to my chest. I was given oxygen. I began to cry.

This was NOT the birth experience I had in mind — crying, scrunched up in an uncomfortable position with an IV in my arm and an oxygen mask on while my family looked on in horror. I asked about pain management options. My midwife encouraged me to weigh the decision before jumping in, since my birth plan dictated I wanted a natural birth. I opted to check my progress first and then decide. After 12 hours of labor, I was dilated to a 5 — only halfway there. Epidural PLEASE.

I was afraid I would be disappointed in myself or that I would disappoint others by this decision. But you know what? After my epidural, I was more present. They removed my oxygen mask. I stopped vomitting and crying. My husband actually said, "welcome back". Apparently, I had not spoken for hours.

While I could still feel the pressure of the contractions, my epidural gave me the opportunity to spend those last quiet moments alone with my family and husband before bringing my one and only child into the world. We dimmed the lights, cleared the room, and turned up the music — Ray LaMontagne's "Let It Be Me." As the song played, my husband and I looked into each other's eyes and cried. We knew our lives were about to change in the most amazing way.

Welcome to the world!

Looking back, I'm glad my birth went exactly as it did. I got to experience the intensity of natural labor, and then have the soft, intimate moments the epidural afforded before the pushing started. I couldn't have planned it better myself.

  1. I lOVE this. Before my first someone said to me "you know, I just really wanted to be present for the birth of my child, and pain does not breed clarity." Good for you if you want an unmedicated birth, but it doesn't always create a better experience.

    And can we please switch from "natural/unnatural" terminology to "medicated/unmedicated" on OBM? So much less baggage, and frankly more accurate.

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    • I agree with you! And I also like the idea of switching to medicated/unmedicated–"natural" and "unnatural" are definitely loaded phrases. I forsee a weekend project for myself.

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      • I'm the guilty party here! I actually used the word "unnatural" as kind of a play on the whole natural vs. unnatural verbage because during my pregnamcy I talked a lot about having a "natural" birth. I agree that medicated/unmedicated is probably a better substitute. Let's face it–bringing a baby into the world IS natural, no matter what medical interventions are used or not used.

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        • Totally agree with the medicated/not medicated idea. When I had my first, a neighbor came over and lamented about how I "didn't get to have the baby naturally." I remember how stinging, vague and mostly inaccurate that phrasing was. Natural is absolutely one of those words that has begun to lose its meaning. Reminds me of those LOCAL banners in Wal-Marts.

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          • This reminds me of a joke I once heard: Only in LA can you have fake boobs, lip implants and botox and have a "natural" birth.

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    • Not only do women describe natural as non-medicated but also to describe having vaginal birth as a whole (no pun intended…). I didn't have a natural, non-medicated nor vaginal birth in my case. I had a c-section.

  2. Thank you for sharing your story. (We seem to have a bit in common: older partners (mine is 13 years my senior), desire to have only one child, plan for natural birth sans interventions.) I think you touched upon one of the greatest concerns for new parents: how do you take the completely unexpected twists and turns of labor and birth in stride, accepting it as what was meant to happen for you even if you had a beautiful, tidy plan in place? And when all is said and done, to what extent is motherhood really defined by the birth experience? I recently found the following blog post that I feel beautifully and frankly addresses this very issue: http://www.sweetsalty.com/sweetsalty/category/birth
    Best wishes to you and your family!

    • Wow, that was a great blog!
      It's funny, about the birth plan. Everyone will tell you not to get too attached to it, that you never know what will happen. I think most of us think that we accept that, yet secretly are sure that everything will go according to our plan.

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      • Um, I'm sad that my comment got edited without any mention to me. My point was that we might find ourselves judging others and later have to eat our words. I wasn't putting any judgment on anyone. Like I said, I had a medicated birth myself.
        This kind of makes me want to not post here anymore.

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          • You guys, if you don't like our comment policy, you don't have to comment. I totally respect that our guidelines won't work for everyone.

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          • I'm not trying to pick a fight, but it seems like to me that if your comment is going to be read as offensive, which often turns the conversation into a pissing contest, than it might be best for it to be deleted. You can always try phrasing your comment differently. I don't think anyone's point on this website is to pick a fight. I think one of the ways that this is avoided is by monitoring comments.

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  3. Congratulations on your new baby!
    I had planned an unmedicated water birth in a birth center and ended up in the hospital with an epidural too. Kind of doesn't matter that much once you have the baby in front of you.
    With all the stories I've heard and read, I've been noticing a correlation with labors that start in the middle of the night being more difficult overall. I wonder if moms would end up less exhausted (and hence progressing slowly and ending up with interventions) if we could find a way to help them get a night's sleep first.
    On the other hand, it's not like mamas are getting long blissful nights of sleep that late in pregnancy anyway. Hrm.

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  4. This sound a lot like my birth experience. I had a natural birth planned as well, but changed my mind near the end. I'm glad I got to experience the drama of a natural labor, but I got the epidural at 7cm and after that I was just able to sit back and enjoy the birth of my daughter without screaming and crying.

  5. I am 7 mo preggo right now and your post was awesome! I was talking with my doula the other day and she mentioned that there is definitely a time and place for epidurals in many birth stories. She pretty much described the exact scenario of your birth story as the best possible application of an epidural. Hearing it again definitely makes me feel more comfortable with being open to more options than just "all-natural" or "completely drugged". There is a vast range of choices that can be made at any point and every well-considered choice is equally valid. Thank you for sharing your story and congratulations on your beautiful daughter! (and now I'm weepy at work… bleh hormones!)

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  6. Everleigh is such a pretty name! Love it.

    I had the opposite plan; I thought I'd take the meds when the time came, but my daughter was born very suddenly at 35 weeks. There was no time for drugs so I had an accidental unmedicated delivery!

    With my second baby, I thought I could do another 'natural' childbirth, but instead I opted for the epidural. The funny thing is, that delivery hurt more than the unmedicated one! Both births were equally great, though.

  7. Congratulations on your little one 🙂 .

    However, I need to remind myself to not read "birth stories" while eating a donut and drinking coffee. :-X Maybe OBM could put a "warning, graphic detail" badge for these posts (or, I could just be smart and think ahead before reading)…..

      • Ooook, if you really want to know what specifically I thought was graphic….:
        "After hovering over the toilet for 5 minutes while liquid continued to trickle out…"
        Also, the vomiting part.

        I was hoping I wouldn't have to say which parts specifically, since now it sounds like I'm making fun of her experience, which I'm NOT AT ALL. (After all, I read OBM!). It's just that those parts of the story made me be like Ooook, I won't be eating this jelly donut anymore. (True). Hence, something like "Warning – graphic content in this post!" (or Whatever) might be helpful, or not.

        If you don't like the word "graphic," you could say….."detailed personal descriptions of one's bodily openings," or something….but "graphic" might be a more polite word. "Sensitive info?" I dunno.

        If I'm the only one who thought this then hey, props to everyone else who has stronger stomachs.

        Anyway – didn't mean to start a whole tangent – onward.

        • I disagree (I think it's an interesting tangent to go off on, hope you don't mind me adding my 2 cents)

          I have an aversion to anything that requires a 'warning shot' for its readers; in a post about someone's birth experience, I would anticipate that there may or may not be graphic descriptions. I have a medical background so I'm not likely to be eeked out by anything, but I think the responsibility of knowing what we can/can't handle while eating or whatever lies with us as readers and not the author.

          In another birthing community, people posting their birth stories have to 'warn' others in the title of the post that the story contains description of the mother being in pain, because apparently, equating pain with childbirth is a negative thing(!)

          I really like Offbeat Mama for the fact that it treats its readers as intelligent adults without having to prefix anything for our own protection.

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        • I think it's safe to assume if something is a BIRTH STORY, it's potentially going to include detailed descriptions of bodily functions. I'm not comfortable disclaiming something as "graphic," because the description is highly subjective.

          The only posts I'm willing to disclaim are ones that might be potentially triggering for readers who've undergone trauma — for example, dealing with the death of an infant.

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        • JB, when I read what you had written, I totally laughed about the doughnut/coffee not seeming as appetizing afterwards. I wasn't the least bit offended but I did wonder what a birth story sans "graphic" details would be like :)Sorry about the liquid part, but I was super suprised when my water broke that unlike the movies where there's one big gush and it's done, mine was a slow-medium trickle that basically lasted 3 or 4 hours. It was graphic while it was happening and I guess graphic in the re-telling. I just wish someone had told me what it might be like! Sorry for ruining your breakfast lady 🙂

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          • I was in the hospital when my water broke. The nurse came in at about midnight, and I told her, "I either peed my pants or my water broke." She laughed. It was embarrassing and funny, but not at all what I had thought it would be like.

          • I'm going to make sure I read this the next time I'm eating a jelly donut so maybe I won't finish the damned thing 🙂 Really beautiful story and helpful to have as a reference point – thank you for sharing!

        • I disagree with putting a "graphic" warning.

          I remember talking to a doctor friend in a social context and he mentioned a thing in passing about labours he's been a part of. I pushed and questioned further until it came out that women poop while in labour. SURPRISE!! I had NO idea that happened at all! I thought it was gross. I couldn't ever believe one day pooping in front of A WHOLE ROOM FULL of doctors, nurses and family! While not pregnant, I hope one day to be. And all this hoping and waiting for this WONDERFUL experience will be RUINED by POOP!!

          My point is this: my only experience with labour is from the movies. I really appreciate this community and blog talking openly about what they've gone through so that I build REALISTIC expectations and am not taken off guard, or think myself a FREAK if I poop while in labour. If there's a "graphic" warning, it feels like we're relegating some birth stories to the "sorry, that's too far in grossness and weirdness and you're a total freak" category. While those women whose waters break in a gush, or who manage not to vomit (or poop) are those culturally approved as acceptable birth stories.

          I don't mean to offend you at all, but am just relating my learning experiences and how offbeatmama has helped in that. I kinda expect in all "birth stories" that they'll be SOMETHING gross, simply because I've never been exposed to it before. But really, the overwhelming happiness I feel for each mother and child is totally worth it, and their pain is a testament to me, that one day, my pain and my 'gross' experience will be worth it and normal. 🙂

          Also, total support on medicated/unmedicated terminology.
          Natural/unnatural had me rather confused for a while. Was my exit from my Mum's womb not natural because she used painkillers?

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    • yikes, I don't think we should be encouraging the details of birth to be described as "graphic" — birth is neither graphic nor gross, and labeling it as such encourages women to think of their bodies as obscene, and of the birthing process as one of expulsion (like pooping or blowing your nose). Your body is beautiful and powerful, not graphic or gross, and we shouldn't enforce the belief that our bodies and their functions need to be hidden or shameful. Personally I feel this runs perpendicular to the overall positive attitude of OBM (and the pro-birth community in general).

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    • I usually find at least one thing in each birth story that grosses me out, but if you have a weak stomach and dont want to be grossed out I suggest avoiding the birth stories altogether!

      That being said I agree with Kathryn above that I have learnt *so* much about what labour is really like from OBM. If I went by the books I read or by the movies I would be going into the experience with a very limited sanitised version and would probably be very scared and confused when my experience didnt match up.

      Thanks OBM, you're doing a great job!

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    • I agree I didn't find anything graphic about this post. However if your pregnant with a sensitive stomach some people might.
      A thing to remember that it's a birth story. Unless someone had an epidural early on and everything ran perfectly, then the story is most likely going to include all sorts of bodily functions, pain, and downright "icky-ness." Birth isn't clean, easy, or painless, but every story of it is amazing.

  8. Good for you on recognizing what you needed during your labor. I too wanted to go "natural" but from the start that plan was thrown out the window. When I hit 64 hours since my water broke, contractions that had me hopping around like my ass was on fire and only was at 4cm dialated, I happily looked at my nurse and said gimme the epidural. I was exhausted with barely any sleep and no food for hours.

    After that I was able to relax, sleep and be fully 100% aware when it was time to push. I remember it all and I don't think I would have without that epidural. It's hard to give up the "idea" for the reality sometimes, but sounds like it worked for you.

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  9. Congratulations!

    I had the exact opposite experience – I did plan on having an epidural, but my labor progressed too quickly and there was no time!

    I think it's so important to stress that being present and in the moment of the experience is what's important. We cannot limit ourselves to birth plans and guilt trips if those are not done accordingly.

    Bravo mama!

  10. This is a great story. I really think you have to be adaptable with your birth plan. The best piece of advice that I got from my antenatal teacher was to NOT make a birth "plan". Instead make a list of how you would like things to be. The problem with "plans" is that they can go wrong quickly and when they do it's easy to feel bad about it, almost like you'd failed somehow because you didn't follow the plan.

    I too wanted a natural birth and I was determined to have my son at home but things changed and I ended up in hospital. I was lucky in a way though as I was induced which meant my labour was relatively short and I got through it with only a bit of gas and air!

    • A friend of mine was told by her doula to make a 'decision tree' with each of the branches being a different outcome e.g. drug-free, c-section, assisted with ventouse etc and thinking about what would be her wishes and concerns for each so they could address those accordingly

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  11. Great birth story! I think it's a good idea to think of "birth plans" more like the Pirate Code; more "guidelines" than hard and fast rules. 😉

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  12. Thank you for sharing this. I read so many stories where women write about having medicated births with shame, sadness or guilt, and it's so wonderful to read a birth story where plans changed and the outcome left you feeling like you had a fantastic birth.

    I'm a doula, and in the birth community there are a LOT of complicated opinions and emotions surrounding medicated/unmedicated births. What I want for every laboring woman is exactly this: the ability to make informed decisions about the process. The key here is that for you, in those circumstances, an epidural was the right decision. And it is AWESOME — that it worked, that it was uncomplicated, and that it allowed you to more fully experience your daughter's birth.

    Congratulations on your healthy baby! Just soak her in. 🙂

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  13. This post of most of the comments have evoked a sense of relief in me. We're looking to get pregnant soon and so much offbeat (community in general, not this site) birth sites are SO JUDGMENTAL. Like it's totally okay with questioning a person just because they don't feel like natural-only is the best or only educated choice. This site gives me warm, fuzzy feelings.

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  14. Thanks for your story. As an anesthesiologist I like hearing birth stories where an epidural made a positive and needed contribution to the experience. Sometimes when I place epidurals or do c-sections I feel so bad for the mamas because they are feeling so bad for themselves–like they are big failures because for whatever reason their birth wasn't going according to plan. Sometimes epidurals are the crucial piece that allows a mama to have a vaginal birth. And sometimes babies refuse to, or cannot safely, come out the door and need to come out a window instead. Thanks for helping to spread the word about some of the benefits of epidurals.

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    • Thank you for doing the job you do. I had a medicated birth and planned on it the whole time. My anesthesiologist was PERFECT, I was nervous about the epidural and he explained everything to me before and during.

  15. Glad to hear the story of a mama who did what felt right and won't be losing sleep over it. I had an epidural with my first baby and hadn't expected the subsequent backlash over it; it was like no one thought to tell me that there were two types of women in the world, those who had an epidural and those who went through labor without pain relief. It was this exclusive club, or maybe a better analogy would be a gang where you had to get the shit beat out of you to get in 🙂

    Having done one medicated and one not medicated, I can't honestly say that I would absolutely have an unmedicated birth if we had another child. I understand the health benefits and would hold out as long as I could, but I barely made it through a 2.5 hour labor without medication. And by BARELY, I mean I was begging for medication after it was too late.

    I am fascinated by the idea of pain having some breakthrough, self-expanding quality. Part of me wants to say that it does, but then I start to think that perhaps I have a unconscious need to believe that it does, in the way that people so often reinforce their experiences and decisions as the "best" ones. It's like I need to believe that I had every amazing reason to get the top of my head blown off by the pain I was in!

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    • "I am fascinated by the idea of pain having some breakthrough, self-expanding quality. Part of me wants to say that it does, but then I start to think that perhaps I have a unconscious need to believe that it does, in the way that people so often reinforce their experiences and decisions as the "best" ones."
      Very interesting comment. I've never really thought of it quite like that before.

  16. I love the name Everleigh, in fact it was on my list but got vetoed :o( we're going with Eden instead. Thank you for sharing your story, I'm glad that you're absolutely happy with how everything turned out, it reminds me to keep an open mind when I go into labor.

    Congrats to you!

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  17. Thank you for this story, it came at a wonderful time for me. As my due date approaches, I know I have to accept the fact that my all-natural birth center birth may go perfectly…but it may not…and that is OK!!!!

    I'm kind of a control freak, and the fact that there may be nothing I can do to control the outcome of my "birth plan" scares me.

    This is just another great story confirming that as long as moms and babies are healthy, it doesn't matter if your plans get tweaked in the middle…or even completely fall apart.

    Thanks Erika and Offbeat Mama! 🙂

  18. I really enjoyed this post, thank you for writing it. I am 12 weeks pregnant and absoutley amazed at how strongly people advocate certain choices, and not just the people who say natural is best!

    Idealy I would like to have an unmedicated birth, but I am very open to an epi if I feel that I need it at the time. Funnily enough I've actually had more women telling me quite forcefully "take the drugs", than telling me to go drug free. When I've replied that I "would prefer to go drug free if possible, but will see what happens", those that have had epidurals seem to be offended as if I have judged them. Generally this is followed by a haughty "you'll see" attitude and that the idea of being able to handle the pain without medication is stupid in itself and that I shouldnt even try.

    It definitely seems to be one of those sensitive mothering topics that you will be judged on regardless of which side of the fence you're on and even if you dont pass judgement yourself.

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    • Jesscar,

      I know exactly what you mean and also got the "you'll see…" comments whenever I shared my hope for an unmedicated birth. In the end, I remember thinking that labor was in some ways easier than I had thought, in other ways more difficult. Definately different. But you know what? I COULD have stuck it out and not had the epidural (and so can you!). It's just that when the time came, I was better able to weigh the pros and cons in my situation, and decided that the epidural was actually a good choice for me in that moment. In hindsight, I'm glad I made that choice.
      I encourage you to make your "decision tree" like one reader recommended, and if that includes all natural all the way no matter what, then you CAN do it! If that tree has branches that may lead down a path to certain interventions if X, Y, or Z happen, explore those. You'll know what's right for you in the end.
      Just know that no matter what interventions are used or not used, your labor and birth will be mentally, emotionally, and physically intense, challenging, and beautiful.

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