I’ve always been fascinated with birth, especially as a women’s studies major. Even more so after watching The Business of Being Born in my early 20s, I hoped for a low-intervention birth, believing that birth was an inherently natural process. I was fearful of what’s called “the cascade of interventions”—the idea that one intervention begets another. I had always imagined a birth in a birth center, attended by a midwife. Once my husband Kent and I found out we were pregnant, I quickly learned that he was hesitant about an out-of-hospital birth. We researched a few options in our area and made our first appointment with Dr. Ribaudo, an OB who came highly recommended by friends with a range of birth experiences. I bought the book Natural Hospital Birth and hired an amazing doula, Emily Landry (and signed up for 16 hours of birth classes with her!) with the hope of an unmedicated labor in a mainstream setting.
Midway through our pregnancy, an ultrasound revealed that we had a minor complication, a marginal umbilical cord placement. This meant that we needed to keep a closer eye on our little one to insure that she was receiving proper nutrients from my placenta. It was then that I was glad that we had made the decision to choose an OB, though all that was required was a few additional ultrasounds to check on her growth. Overall, we were thankful for an overwhelmingly healthy pregnancy.
In the months leading up to our due date, we completed our birth classes faithfully. We bought a birth ball, made a soothing labor playlist, and drafted a plan to labor at home as long as possible. By 38 weeks, my body showed no signs of early labor and I assumed that like many first time moms, we might wait until 40 or even 41 weeks before we met our little gal.
The weekend before our baby was born was fairly uneventful, and we had no reason to suspect that she was coming any time soon. I worked my tail off to finish my pre-maternity leave projects by 38 weeks, but I had been working on one final invitation project (coincidentally, my largest production project ever). That Friday night and Saturday morning, I was struck with an incredible wave of energy that allowed me to power through several 12-13 hour days. I worked away in our kitchen, calligraphing, assembling, and waddling around with my 9-month pregnant belly. On Saturday afternoon, I officially finished stuffing all 250 envelopes and boxed them up to hand off to the engaged couple’s planner. I felt major relief that the FINAL pre-baby project was complete. I emailed the couple and wedding planner to schedule a hand-off and we celebrated that evening by going out to see the movie Crazy Rich Asians. We spent Sunday deep cleaning the house and watching Great British Bake Off, our favorite Netflix show of the summer. Throughout the weekend, we remarked to each other that it could be as many as two more weeks before the baby arrived.
On Monday, August 20, Kent went off to work and I woke up to find that my water may have leaked a tiny bit. I knew for sure that it wasn’t a real break, but I knew from my birth class that it was possible to leak a small amount of fluid. I shrugged it off and set out for my 39 week appointment with the OB at 1:30. The 39 week appointment was the first time I had planned to allow Dr. Ribaudo to check if my cervix had dilated, even though we had discussed that it may not mean anything concrete. I learned that I was only a half centimeter dilated, which confirmed my thinking that labor wasn’t coming anytime soon. Dr. Ribaudo asked if anything else had been going on, and I hesitated before I questioned if my water had leaked just slightly, as I didn't want to sound silly or paranoid. However, she didn’t treat my question as silly and checked to see if my water had broken; it appeared that it hadn’t. However, she went a step further and used her mini-ultrasound device to check my belly for signs of fluid. She had done these mini-ultrasound checks many times before, and usually she’d note her findings right away and the check would be complete in less than a minute. This time, however, she was quiet and took much more time, seemingly looking for something, and I knew immediately that something wasn’t quite right. Finally, after a long silence, she said, “I’m not seeing an impressive level of fluid…” and after another long pause she said, “I can only see one 3 centimeter pocket. There should be much more.” She remained super calm, but with a degree of urgency, she left the room to see if I could get a formal ultrasound. The anxiety set in.
I was so relieved to learn that our favorite ultrasound tech, Mindy, was working that day and could squeeze me in. I knew I was in good hands with her because she had previously worked in a high-risk practice. I told her what was going on and she mentioned that she wasn’t finding much amniotic fluid either. However, I was relieved to see a little heart beating on the screen. Mindy wrapped up the ultrasound and told me that she would chat with the doctor about next steps, which would include either coming back in a day or two for another check or immediate induction. As she left the room, I got emotional for the first time and was so worried about our little one. I shared the news with Kent via text and waited in the ultrasound room for what seemed like an eternity. Mindy finally returned and escorted me back to Dr. Ribaudo’s exam room. After a minute or two, Dr. Ribaudo came in and explained with compassion that because there was so little amniotic fluid left, it would be best to induce as soon as possible. Because I had assumed that we still had a week or two before delivery, I was caught off guard. Dr. Ribaudo knew we were hoping for a low-intervention birth, so she was kind to acknowledge that though induction wasn’t my ideal, it was the best option to keep the baby safe. She further surprised me by telling me that the hospital would call to schedule our arrival time, which could be as early as 4:00 that afternoon. I started to panic—that was only 2.5 hours away! Though our bags were packed and our house was clean, I still had several things I needed to wrap up before hospital time (like the hand-off of that huge invitation project!). I left the office and called Kent as I drove down the winding levels of the medical center parking garage, crying for the first time as I told him that it was time for him to come home from work because we were heading to the hospital—today! I also shared the news with our doula Emily and called my sister. Once home, I went straight into “go” mode. I sent off final emails, set up my auto-responder, contacted friends and family—all while waiting to receive the call from the hospital with our arrival time.
Kent made it home about 30 minutes later, and he too leapt into action. While it may seem silly that we were so surprised that we would be going into labor that night, it was so sudden, and it was different than we imagined. We would not be waiting for spontaneous signs of labor and progressing through them over a long period of time as many first time parents do. I was a ball of conflicting emotions—I was worried about our baby but so excited to meet her. I was also disappointed that a low-intervention birth was now pretty unlikely.
Finally, we got a call from the hospital that our check-in time would be 9:00 that evening. We were so relieved that we would have several hours to tie up loose ends. One of those loose ends included a quick and hilarious trip to my office to hand off the massive box of completed invitations. I had calmly reported to the wedding planner that we needed to meet ASAP because I was going into labor tonight, and luckily, she was able to meet right away. We took a final baby bump picture in front of the door of my office, got a car wash upon Kent’s insistence, loaded up our bags, and headed to our “last meal” at Pei-Wei (totally empty on a Monday night at 8). We ordered a feast of lettuce wraps and rice bowls and finished our meal just minutes before it was time to head to the hospital.
We arrived at the hospital, signed some paperwork at reception and nervously waddled to the delivery room, where we met up with our doula Emily. I changed into my gown and was hooked up to an IV that took a few nurses to get in—ouch! I received two monitors for my belly, and the nurse checked my cervix (another OUCH, it was much more uncomfortable than when Dr. Ribaudo had done this earlier that day in the office). At this point, the nurse administered the first of two doses of a cervical ripening agent, which would be the first step of induction to help my body prepare for a Pitocin drip. At this point, I was so thankful that Emily was there to calmly and directly explain everything that was going on. We chatted and decided that it would be best for her to go home and get some rest overnight before they started Pitocin in the morning. As the night went on, I started having mild contractions as I tried unsuccessfully to sleep. At some point, the nurse came in to administer the second dose of the cervical ripening agent and check me again (even more of an ouch this time). By this time, I was becoming less comfortable. Kent snoozed beside me on a reclining chair as the nurse came in every few hours to address tangled cords and beeping monitors. At 5:00am, the nurse arrived to start the Pitocin drip and returned to her desk to monitor us from afar. Within minutes, she noticed that the baby wasn’t responding well to the Pitocin and rushed back to our room to stop the flow of the drug. At this point, I texted Emily and said it was time to head back (we were both expecting Pitocin to start later in the morning). I was so relieved to see her. The Pitocin drip started up again at the very lowest possible dose, and I started to feel contractions more strongly as we watched peaks and valleys on the monitor, trying to make sense of what was going on.
The sun rose on Tuesday morning, and around 7am, shift change occurred. Our second L&D nurse, who I call Rebecca the angel, arrived to replace the night nurse. She whipped around the room like Mary Poppins and made adjustments to the equipment and whiteboard, and we were all relieved for a change of pace and a new day. The Pitocin drip was still on the lowest possible dose, and Rebecca helped us change positions to regulate the baby’s heart. I began having even stronger, back-to-back contractions and it was around this time that I started trying every position possible to gain comfort. In my “ideal” birth plan, I hoped for intermittent monitoring so that I could detach from cords for short periods of time, allowing freedom to move about. Instead, I was able to detach the monitors only for a quick minute use the restroom. Any time I moved, I had to battle with my IV stand and drag along a tangled web of cords.
Shortly after the morning shift change, Dr. Ribaudo came in to check my cervix, which was even more painful at this point because of the contractions. She reported that I was only 2 centimeters dilated and I started to cry, discouraged by pain and lack of progress. My contractions were strong and close together and the hours were passing, but my progress seemed so minor. To help move things along, Dr. Ribaudo broke my water, which was such a weird sensation, and frankly, a huge mess. This was puzzling to me because I was under the impression that I had no fluid left. Despite the frustration, we all found glimmers of humor. I remember being upset that the only pair of tread-bottom socks I had packed (a Christmas gift from Kent!) were ruined. At this point, between the cords, the fluid, and the delirium, we all laughed as Emily chucked my treasured gingerbread socks in the garbage.
The morning passed by in what feels like a blur, and Emily and Kent helped me maneuver into the few positions that I could get into while still attached to my monitors—standing up beside the bed and leaning over, and squatting against the top of the bed. It took support from both of them to make each move and keep my cords from tangling. The hours went by like this, going back and forth between having painful contractions with no talking, just a lot of exasperated moaning and deep breathing—and breaks of relief in between to chat and laugh. It was such a strange experience to switch back and forth between the two states. As I labored, I enjoyed the full array of “clear” hospital snacks—including Jello, broth, and popsicles. I was so hungry that every snack felt like the best thing I had ever eaten.
More hours of contractions and breaks went by, and we laughed the hardest when I was visited by a confused elderly nun who had mixed up my name with another patient who needed to receive a Catholic blessing. A few hours later, an elderly priest also came in the room only to find me with my backside exposed, leaning over the bed having an intense contraction. We laughed as he too asked for “Jenny” and was surprised to learn that his roster was off. “That must be why Sister Ann was so confused!” he said as we laughed at the silliness of it all.
At some point, Dr. Ribaudo returned and decided that it would be best to add an internal catheter to the mix. I was having extremely strong contractions super close apart, but it was hard to tell if the contractions were actually doing anything to dilate my cervix. I shrugged and laughed about having yet another cord—this one even weirder than the rest, but alas, we moved forward!
Some time around 2pm or so, I was dilated to a 4, the contractions intensified and I began to really lose focus. Kent was so supportive and Emily was amazing at talking me through breaths, always telling me when the worst of the contraction was over. Up until this point (15 or 16 hours in), I had gone without an epidural, though I had signed the consent form when I arrived, just in case. It’s hard to describe what I was feeling in that moment. I want to take a moment to point out that some women are cautious to use the term “pain” when talking about birth contractions. However, I can only honor my personal experience and say that the sensation I felt was not discomfort, it was pain. It was deeply painful me; I have no other word for it. It’s also important to note that many women experience stronger, more painful contractions on the drug Pitocin. (This is one of the reasons I had hoped to go into labor spontaneously, so that I could experience a birth with a more natural contraction pattern.) The pain of the contractions was so extreme that all I wanted to do was roll onto my side, cover my eyes with my hands and black out until it was over. I felt stuck with my inability to move around and find a less intense position. All I could think about was how much it hurt and how many more hours of this I would have to endure. Without knowing how long I would labor, I felt like it wasn’t going to end; I nearly forgot that I would eventually meet my baby. At some point, Emily took her first well-deserved break to get a snack across the street, and it was at this time that I told Kent that I wanted to get the epidural. I wasn’t really in the head space to analyze pros and cons. All I could think about was how much pain I was in and how relieved I would feel if it was lessened even just slightly. I told Kent that I could hold out for one or two more contractions until Emily returned so I could discuss the epidural with her, but after one or two more, Emily wasn’t back and I told Kent that he needed to get the nurse and ask for the epidural now. I could tell Kent was conflicted because he knew how badly I wanted to have an unmedicated birth, but he quickly paged the nurse. The medical staff leapt into action and within a minute or so, Kent had stepped out (as a safety policy), and I was sitting upright at the edge of the bed, leaning on Rebecca the angel nurse as the anesthesiologist administered the epidural. The epidural itself wasn’t bad, but I had two contractions during the procedure, and all I could do was grit my teeth, lean on Rebecca, and try to sit still. Once the epidural was in, they also added a urinary catheter—yet another intervention made necessary by the epidural.
I don’t know how much time passed, but within what felt like minutes, I felt complete and total relief and Kent and Emily were back in the room. My legs were totally numb, and though I could feel slight pressure at each contraction, I laid back on my hospital bed and completely checked out into a dream-like state. I have never felt such relief. I fell into a half-sleep mode and after a while of resting and continuing to contract, I woke up a bit and started laughing and cracking jokes as the team continued to monitor the baby. From my perspective, the environment of the room had completely shifted from heaviness to peace and light. At some point, Rebecca added an oxygen mask for the baby, so I officially looked like a science experiment and I asked Kent to take a picture so that I could remember the moment.
Time was very fuzzy this entire day, but sometime around 5, not knowing how much I had progressed, I started to worry that I wouldn’t have the baby before shift change at 7pm. I had grown attached to Rebecca and didn’t want to deliver without her. I also had no idea if Dr. Ribaudo would attend my birth so late in the day, but when Rebecca came back to check me (completely without discomfort at this point), she reported that I was fully dilated to 10 centimeters, the baby was as low as can be, and I was ready to push. This means that I had progressed from a 4 to a 10 in a very short time, the theory being that the epidural allowed my body to relax and complete the work. She added the happy news that Dr. Ribaudo would be on her way shortly. I was completely shocked that I had made so much progress in so little time, and all of a sudden I remembered that pushing meant that I would soon meet our baby. I started to cry tears of joy (more like weep) and I told everyone in the room that we were about to meet our daughter! I don’t remember every detail of this time, but there was a flurry of activity. Staff wheeled in delivery equipment, the nursery nurses joined us, and Rebecca led me through a few “practice pushes” while we waited the few minutes for Dr. Ribaudo to arrive. I was so relieved that Rebecca was still on shift, and she gave me so much encouragement on my pushing as Emily helped hold my numbest leg back and Kent sat to the right of me, leaning in and telling me how proud he was and that I was doing a good job.
It’s here where I really lose track of time because all I can remember was utter joy. Dr. Ribaudo joined us, and it was time to push. Apparently my pushing was super effective because everyone kept remarking that they were amazed by how well I was doing and that it would only be a few more pushes until the baby’s head was out. It turns out that before the epidural, the entire time that I was laboring without my cervix dilating, the baby’s head was getting lower and lower (which is why it was so intense!). When it was time to push, a lot of the hard part had already been done. I remember feeling so determined and proud, and in the absence of agonizing discomfort, I was laser-focused. After 20 minutes or so, someone yelled out that we would meet our daughter at the next push. I gave one last push my entire strength, and all of a sudden I opened my eyes and looked up, and the baby was balled up in Dr. Ribaudo’s arms, her head facing towards me, a flash of the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. They placed her on my chest, and I was completely overcome. As she cried out on my chest and we started skin to skin, the buzz of activity around me fell back in the distance and all I could do was yell out, thanking God over and over again. I was weeping tears of joy. It was the most beautiful and peaceful experience of my life, and I was fully present for it. I couldn’t believe how much I loved her. I glanced over at Kent and he looked so happy, and Emily assured us that the the baby’s crying (wailing!) was normal and good. At some point, Dr. Ribaudo told me that I would be delivering my placenta and needed to push one more time, and then explained that I had a small tear that required stitches. A nursery nurse yelled out in surprise when the baby pooped all over my shoulder and we all laughed. All of that commotion faded into the background as I focused only on our girl. We shared her name with everyone in the room (as it had previously been a secret), Evangeline Lake, and the golden hour officially began, with Kent and I enjoying time with the baby on my chest while we texted our anxiously waiting families that she was here.
I had envisioned a birth like the ones I had absorbed in countless birth story blogs and podcasts. I envisioned Kent coaching me through contractions as I bounced on a birthing ball in our living room. I envisioned relaxing in our glorious Jacuzzi tub, my favorite feature of the first home we bought together this spring. I envisioned a chaotic ride to the hospital, begging Kent to drive faster. I envisioned shuffling down the halls in my comfy socks, working through contractions in the hospital room, moving about with freedom. By the end of my labor, I was attached to more cords that I knew were even possible for a normal hospital birth. Between two catheters, two monitors, a massive IV stand, numb legs, an oxygen mask, the inability to move, and the perceived “failure” to make it through labor without pain medication, I felt prouder and more whole than I ever have in my life. The interventions I feared throughout pregnancy ended up keeping us safe and eventually, provided the relief that allowed me to be present for the birth of my daughter. I’m so thankful for the experience we had, that it required me to lay down my expectations, and in the truest sense, surrender to reality. Epidural or not, ideal labor or otherwise, cords or no cords, the outcome of our birth matters most. A healthy baby, a daughter. Life brought forth. The birth of a family—a mother and a father and a new child of God who has been uniquely purposed for life on earth. We are endlessly thankful for skilled care providers and our precious daughter, who has in one month already lived up to her name, Evangeline, which means “good news.” The good news of her arrival allowed me to put aside the less-than-enjoyable aspects of her birth, and in that sense, her little being embodies redemption. We love her so very much, and that’s the best and most important headline of the day.
We are so thankful to Monica Burgess for photographing us in our home in the early days of Evangeline’s life.