There’s a reason we love inspirational birth stories. Left alone, a birthing person is an elemental force of nature. Powerful, instinctual, and awe-inspiring: mother and baby working together in love to transition from one world to another in a way neither of them could do alone. Reading these stories helps us connect to the deeper strength inside us all, and much more to life than netflix and takeout and more bad news popping up on our screens. It makes us feel connected to our spirits, and reminds us that love truly conquers all.
I was lucky enough to have these stories and this experience with my first two births, which both took place at home. My midwife was wise enough to follow the tried-and-true labor partner advice: don’t just do something, sit there. Throughout both of my first two labors, I ate, moved, breathed, expressed love for my husband and caregivers, got in and out of the water, and freely gave birth to two beautiful baby boys.
But that was in Nashville, where certified nurse midwives may attend home births. We moved to Pittsburgh, where they can only practice in hospitals and tightly-controlled birthing centers, three years ago. I naively believed that a birth center birth could be a similar experience, like a home birth without the mess.
Before you read any farther, I want to throw up a trigger warning here: if you’re pregnant right now or are trying to get pregnant, I’d recommend you stop reading here and just make sure that if a natural birth is important to you, get a midwife who will get to know you as a person and not as a case number to be managed. When you’re preparing for birth, it’s important to read those inspirational birth stories and stay away from stories like this one. I’m writing this so 1. I can process being put through the baby-factory model of care myself, and 2. To inform anyone wanting to avoid a hospital birth of what can happen, even if you’re very prepared.
Traumatic birth is, I’m learning hour by hour, a complex experience. On the one hand, I’m here on the other side feeling used, defeated, deceived, and dehumanized. On the other, we have a beautiful, healthy baby boy who makes me happy beyond words. But the standard response–at least you’re both healthy now!–which puts the emphasis on physical health only and dismisses the gross negligence on behalf of the caregivers, isn’t comforting and should never be said to anyone again. I certainly don’t want to hear it, so if that’s your inclination, I’d ask you to stop reading here as well.
If you’re interested in having a better birth for yourself, you baby, and your partner, or if you’re interested in how common misunderstandings can affect birth policies, or how the medical system takes the most natural process in the world and inserts itself to feel useful in even in the most healthy and uncomplicated pregnancies, read on.
Hypnobabies comes with a whole new birth vocabulary designed to make birth a positive experience: think “transformation” instead of “transition.” For this story, however, I’ll be using traditional terms because I want to be understood by as many readers as possible.
Wilder’s birth story starts with Hypnobabies, the program that teaches self-hypnosis in order to manage pain. It may have a cutesy name, but this program is no joke–it requires daily practice on behalf of both the mother and mother and partner together, plus listening to two different tracks every day starting, usually, in the third trimester. I had done it with my second birth, but I felt like I could have been more prepared, so this time, I hit it hard, starting the practice in the second trimester and faithfully sticking with it right until the end. It was literally hundreds of hours of work, but I looked at it as training for a marathon–I’d train hard so I could “race” easy. I was determined to get so good at relaxing my face, hands, and body during contractions (“pressure waves” in hypnobabies terms) that, to everyone else, it would look like I was just sleeping until the baby was born.
And when my due date came and went with only a few bouts of false labor (“practice labor” in hypno-speak) ) I wasn’t worried. Due dates are only guesses, after all, and it would give me a few more days to practice being relaxed and calm as possible.
A good midwife won’t mind if you go over your due date. But others do. Two days after mine, someone from the midwife center, whom I’d never met or spoken with, called and said I should come in for an induction. I was hesitant, but, as I reasoned with Ryan, if we choose the least invasive methods, it would work if my body was ready and wouldn’t if it wasn’t, so why not?
We arrived at the Midwife Center around 9 on Thursday morning, and did two membrane sweeps and four rounds of breast pumping and walking, but contractions did not ease into a consistent pattern like we’d hoped. We talked about doing more invasive methods, like castor oil and rupturing the bag of waters, but ultimately decided to go home, rest, and try again in the morning.
On Friday morning, I had a great feeling about the day. My senses were heightened, and now at 40 weeks and 5 days, I was ready to have this baby. The midwife did another membrane sweep, we pumped, did yoga, walked more, and finally, I drank a castor oil concoction. Castor oil, I learned from my first birth, makes labor rougher but definitely gets the job done. It works by stimulating your bowels and causes uterine contractions, so if your body is ready and your cervix is dilated, as mine was, it’s nearly guaranteed to start labor. It’ll also give you an acute but nasty case of diarrhea and vomiting. I drank it at around 2 in the afternoon, knowing we’d probably have a long night ahead of us.
“This will work,” I told Ryan.
And here’s the thing: it did. Of course it did.
But I didn’t have a baby that day.
We went home Friday night, but with confidence that I’d be back shortly. And sure enough, by early evening, uncomfortable contractions arrived in a consistent pattern. We went back to the midwife center and settled in. When the midwife checked my cervix, she told me I was dilated to 4 centimeters.
I found a couple of ways to manage the contractions: sitting on the birth ball and falling forward on a stack of pillows during a contraction was one, and lying on my side and resting between contractions was another. Unfortunately, due to the castor oil, I also had to get up and go to the bathroom a lot. As it got later, the contractions got more intense, but continued to stay within the 3-5 minute range. A nurse offered benadryl so I could rest more easily between contractions, and I took it, and though I was fully awake for the contractions themselves, in the moments between, I was resting deeply. The nurse came in once more to tell me she was going to leave me alone until I needed her, and I was very grateful for that. I could wait this out. The best part was that I knew when I had urges to moan and cry out, I resisted, opting to breathe and keep my jaw loose instead.
At around 3:45, the midwife finally came in and announced she thought I’d be more comfortable resting at home. Besides, there was another couple coming in who needed the room, and they’d have to justify on paper why I was here if I wasn’t going to just have this baby already. My contractions were still coming 3-5 minutes apart, and although I wanted to be pushing a baby out just as much as she wanted me to, I couldn’t force this process to go any faster.
I was too busy managing the contractions and the other effects of the castor oil to argue with her; Ryan really had been sleeping and didn’t quite know what was happening when they kicked us out.
Driving home just before four in the morning, still with painful contractions, I began to cry and really worry. The midwife didn’t do another cervical check when I left, so I didn’t know what progress my body had made; I was sure I’d have a baby in my own bathtub just as my boys were waking up.
I cried and worried and worried and cried all the way home, but just after we walked in the door, something amazing happened: the contractions stopped. Everything just stopped.
Later, I learned about the concept of Pasmo, from Ina May Gaskin. It’s a Spanish word for the reversal of labor due to a woman’s mental state; levels of catecholamines (or CAs) naturally, gradually increase and decrease in a naturally-progressing labor, but when a woman feels fearful and unsafe (like I did!) CA levels will become very high and labor will stall or stop, and the cervix can actually close again. I’m not a professional, but I know my body very well, and I’m sure this is what happened to me.
Armed now with this knowledge, I sent a message to the midwife center the next day and specifically asked to be put in a “non-premiere” room; a back-up birth room that nobody would want if my labor went slower than expected. I reasoned that I’d feel better, safer, and more secure this way.
The non-stress test
By Tuesday, I had passed the treacherous (to the medical system) 41-week mark. Though pregnancies aren’t technically “overdue” until 42 weeks, no birthing professional likes to see a pregnancy last this long, and immediately after I arrived for the baby’s scheduled non-stress test, I got the feeling they were looking for a reason to send me to the hospital. I told the nurse (who I remembered but who didn’t remember me) about my labor on Friday night, but she told me it was probably just prodromal labor, since I didn’t appear to be in pain. I told her that when a hypnomom is laboring, it looked like she was sleeping. She told me that they were well aware of what a hypnobabies labor looked like, and she could just tell when a woman was in labor and when they weren’t.
The non-stress test was perfectly normal throughout the twenty required minutes, but by some fluke, (or maybe not) I was left hooked up to the monitors for two additional minutes, and there was a small dip (called a variable) in the baby’s heart rate. It was completely within the range of normal, but as I said, by this time, I had proven myself a difficult client, and the midwives now had the reason they needed to send me to the hospital.
I was told I needed to go to Magee Women’s Hospital right away for another non-stress test, but that I should be prepared to stay. After all, even if everything looked normal, the midwife explained, they don’t like to see pregnancies go over 41 weeks, and they might want to induce me.
The midwife asked if I had any questions.
“No,” I said. “But–if you pray, will you pray for us?”
“Sure,” she said over her shoulder, already walking away.
At the hospital, we were told two things, over and over:
- Your baby’s heart rate looks completely normal, and he seems to be very happy.
- We must get this baby out as soon as possible in order to save his life.
When I arrived, I was led into a triage room. “Put on this gown and pee in this cup,” the nurse instructed.
I looked at the boxy striped hospital gown. Hell no.
“Do you mind if I just lift my shirt?”
“Well,” she said, obviously not used to this, “If you get admitted, you’ll already have your gown on, so go ahead and put it on.”
“No thank you,” I said. “I’ll just lift my shirt.”
I didn’t particularly want to continue on with the bad rap that landed me here, but I also refused to feel and act like an inmate while embarking on one of the most powerful human experiences available. She took the gown away.
Ryan arrived a few minutes later. The non-stress test proved normal there, too, with one brief dip that was, again, in the range of normal. The doctor was a kind woman who called the Midwife Center back and told them about the normal range results and asked if they could take me back, but the midwives refused. I called them, too, just to ask one more time. They refused.
Right away, the doctor recommended induction, and if I didn’t want to do that, I would have to sign an AMA to be released, and “they would worry” about the baby, simply because the pregnancy was over 41 weeks gestation. The feelings of empowerment I’d gotten from not wearing their gown started to slip away.
Another doctor came in. “Come on back,” she said. “We’ll give you cytotec, and then start you on pitocin.”
Again, what I know about birth is from literature geared toward women already invested in natural birth, but I was well aware that Cytotec is the medicine used to ripen the cervix, but that’s not what it was created for. When it goes wrong–which it does, more often than it should–it can lead to uterine rupture and maternal death. Pitocin is the synthetic version of oxytocin, the hormone that causes contractions, but it makes them unnaturally strong, close, and much harder to manage than contractions spurred by naturally-occurring oxytocin. Plus, being on pitocin would mean that I’d be hooked up to continual fetal monitoring the entire time and wouldn’t be able to move.
I asked if they could break my water instead, but the baby’s head was too high for that and would risk cord prolapse. I asked if I could have some time to help move the baby’s head down on my own. I don’t think that would have agreed to that, but since I’d already asked for the one room with a tub and a shower and it was being cleaned, they told me I could try.
Ryan and I looked up Spinning Babies exercises to bring the baby’s head down. I spend the next two hours rolling my hips around on a ball, and guess what?
Labor and Delivery
The nurses led me into the labor and delivery room, a space filled with machines that beeped, hummed, buzzed, and shrieked, along with red signs that said things like “FEELING DIZZY? CALL A NURSE” and “EMERGENCY CALL BUTTON HERE.”
“Welcome to the room where your baby will be born!” the nurse said happily. It seemed odd to me, since I still wasn’t having any contractions. This wasn’t what I wanted at all.
They hooked up the monitors. “Your baby’s heart rate looks great!” said the nurse. “That’s a happy baby in there!”
The hospital midwife came to break my water with an amniohook (one of the few low-tech tools that looks like a crochet hook) around 10pm. Since I’d only gotten about four hours of sleep the night before, I asked if there was any way we could wait a few hours so I could get some rest. She said no–41 weeks and 2 days was long enough, and they had to get the baby out as soon as possible to save the baby’s life.
I was already getting weary from fighting. I felt like I needed to save my strength for labor. She broke my water, and a warm gush flowed onto the towels between me and the bed.
“I’ll be back in four hours, and if contractions haven’t started by then, we’ll discuss pitocin,” said the hospital midwife.
I wanted to use those four hours to sleep, but instead, nurses came in every ten or fifteen minutes to prod me, poke me, fiddle with my IV, or turn off a machine that had suddenly started to screech. A resident came in at 2 a.m.
“I’m Doctor Woodward,” she said. “It’s time to start pitocin.”
“Hi,” I said, losing steam fast from the lack of sleep, “Can we wait two more hours?”
She was quiet for a moment, and stared at me from her position standing, with her chin lifted, over my bed. “Fine. But if contractions don’t start soon, we WILL have to deliver, either vaginally or by c-section.”
That was the first time an unnecessary c-section was threatened, but it wouldn’t be the last.
I had the idea to get into the tub, since my last two births were water births–maybe my body needed a hint of hydrotherapy. I lugged the heavy IV pole into the bathroom and got into the warm water. There were signs all around warning me to call the nurse and not risk falling. I wanted to scream at those signs. I’m not sick! I’m not hurt! My baby is healthy and there’s nothing wrong with us!
Ryan had been napping on the sofa next to my bed, but he woke up and I asked him to guard the door. During the next few hours, I tried to sleep, listening to my hypnosis tracks, while hearing snippets of the fights between Ryan and the hospital staff, Ryan advocating that while the baby’s heart rate looked good, to hold off on pitocin.
And then the sun came up.
The fights were short-lived. I couldn’t avoid it any longer, and by that time, my spirit had begun to break. There are only so many hours without sleep that someone can take before doing something as herculean as giving birth to a baby.
They started pitocin and put fetal monitors on my tummy. I joked to Ryan that the hospital should change its name to Magee Fetal Monitor’s Hospital, since the entire staff seemed completely obsessed with them and disinterested, at best, in the women attached to them. When I was on them, almost no one looked at me–all anyone looked at were the screens to tell them what they already knew–that the baby’s heart rate and mine looked perfect.
Meanwhile, contractions began in earnest.
They were very strong now, because of the pitocin and because my water had now been ruptured, so there was no cushion between the baby’s skull and my cervix. Now, I was restrained on both sides–a pulse ox and a blood pressure cuff on one arm and an IV on the other. I clutched onto my hypnobabies techniques for dear life.
At one point, I decided to get out of bed and sitting on a ball and falling forward onto the stack of pillows on the bed for contractions, just like at the birth center. But the monitors, though wireless, were difficult to manage, and soon enough, a nurse came in to adjust them.
As she was busy tightening the straps around my belly, I felt another contraction coming on. “One moment,” I said.
“I’ve almost got it.”
“Please don’t touch me.”
She didn’t stop. “Almost, just a second and I’ll get it.”
I fell forward on the pillows, but the contraction overwhelmed me. When I sat back up, she was visibly annoyed.
“Try not to knock off the monitor the next time you do that,” she said. “Try to keep it off the pillow.”
She stared at the screens for a while, and then left. If she would have looked at me at that moment, she might have seen the moment my spirit broke.
I had now been awake for over 40 hours, and my strength–emotional, mental, and physical–was gone. It was like having trained for a marathon, and then getting to race day only to find the course is underwater and there’d be spectators throwing bricks at you the whole time.
I asked for an epidural.
Even the anesthesiologist questioned me: my pain level didn’t look that bad at all, he said. Didn’t I at least want to try to do this naturally? I told him to “hold on” for a few contractions and breathed through them, hypnobabies style, looking like I was asleep. I truly did not care what he thought.
Ryan supported me, but he cried as well. “They’re taking something from you that they had no right to touch,” he said. I agreed, but at that point, that strong, precious piece of my soul was already lost.
The needle was inserted, and my body went numb shortly thereafter. And then it was as if a filter shifted in the room; the energy changed from combative and confused to smooth and efficient. Finally, the staff seemed free to do their jobs and treat me like the object they had seen me as the entire time. I was no longer a laboring mother, I was a standard problem they were used to solving. A locked box from which to extract a valuable.
Now there was nothing to do but wait.
Two hours later, I felt some pressure on my pelvic floor. I told Ryan, Ryan told the nurse, the nurse told the doctor, and the doctor told me it was time to push. In a natural labor, your body decides when it’s time and does the entire thing for you; in an overly-medicated one, apparently the message needs to go through four people.
I couldn’t feel anything below my ribs, and even though this was my third baby, I was clueless on what to do for this part.
“Push!” the doctor shouted.
“Push!” She kept saying. “Push! Push! Push!”
It was as if she was telling me to clap with my neck, or flip my fingernails around. I simply didn’t know what to do beyond what I was already doing.
“Megan!” She shouted. “Push, or emergency c-section! Now!”
“Okay,” said the nurse, “Bring your legs up, curl your spine, and hold your breath to push.”
The concrete advice helped. And then, with fifteen people in the room, crowded around my exposed birth canal and shouting at me under the bright lights–the exact opposite of how I’d wanted my baby to enter the world–Wilder Downs Lynch was born.
“My baby,” I said, and held him tight on my chest. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry.”
He cried, and a nurse rubbed off his vernix roughly–something else I’d explicitly told her I didn’t want. I delivered the placenta, and the doctor took it and examined it in a bowl. Her demeanor had changed: she now stood over my bed holding my placenta and smiling like the hero in the story that was supposed to be ours.
Everyone cleared out and we were finally left alone; just Ryan, Wilder, and me. Birth in our family has always been a sacred experience, and though this one had been horrible in almost every way, this moment was the one that finally felt close to what we were used to. Babies, when they’re this new, feel like divine visitors, and we basked in the awe of the miracle of his wise eyes, his tiny fingers, his silky hair.
Another nurse cleaned the blood from my legs and wheeled me to the mother-baby ward while Ryan walked behind us with Wilder in a crib.
“Congratulations,” nurses kept saying to me as we passed, in a tone that suggested they said the same thing to ten other mothers that day.
“Thank you,” I mumbled, but didn’t feel like I deserved any congratulations. I’d have rather they said something like, “At least it’s over now,” or “best of luck redeeming yourself to your child in the future.” When I caught sight of myself in a window, I noticed I was sitting in an unusual posture for me: hunched and low.
I was going to miss my old self. I liked her.
The Mother-Baby Ward
Here was the one miracle we found in the hospital: they reiterated, again and again, that no matter what, we could not go home before Wilder was 24 hours old. But if we were going to be inmates, at least we were together. Ryan and I were finally able to sleep for several hours, this time, when the sun rose, we didn’t have to fight with doctors trying to intervene in a healthy, natural process. We just talked, rested, breastfed (at least I did–Wilder got the hang of it right away, thank God) and enjoyed this little person we’d spent nine months talking to through my skin.
“I hope this has been a good experience for you, even though it’s not what you wanted,” a nurse said at one point.
“It hasn’t been,” I replied bluntly.
“Oh? Well, at least you’re both healthy.”
“I don’t feel healthy.” I reached out and took Wilder’s hand, savoring his tiny fingers gripping my index finger. “But I’m glad our vitals look good.”
My mom had come up from Kentucky to watch our two older boys, 5 and 3. They had worked with our neighbors to decorate the outside of our house with signs, streamers, and balloons. The entire neighborhood came out onto the street and clapped to welcome us back home. This community love will forever be an important part of Wilder’s birth story: if I failed him, at least he’d be supported by many others outside of me.
Finnegan and Clark had waited nine months for this moment, and they were more excited than I’d ever seen them before. Clark was delighted at how soft his baby brother’s head was, and kept guiding my hand there to feel his hair for myself. Finnegan was thrilled to hold his brother for the first time, but cried when we told him Wilder couldn’t yet get into the bathtub with him.
When the boys went to bed, I told my mom about the birth story, sparing no details about how I felt. I cried and shook and told her it felt like I’d forfeited an important piece of myself.
“Well, at least you’re both healthy. Now it’s time to move on. Gosh, I’m so tired.” She rubbed her eyes and leaned her head back. “And I have heartburn.”
Wilder Downs Lynch
Truly, I am no less awestruck by my son. He is a perfect, sweet-scented, beautiful-in-every-sense miracle and he makes our hearts explode with love. Even though the joy doesn’t erase the emotional pain of his birth, it doesn’t mean it’s not real joy–Wilder is a bright light in the darkness.
I’m not sure what’s next. I realize that this is a strange birth story in that it’s about a struggle that I succumbed to, a fight that I tried my best to win and still lost. And I cannot accept the “at least you’re both healthy” consolation prize, because we were both healthy going in–if anything, I am sicker now than I ever have been. And I also have a bright little miracle in my life. Those are separate things.
It could have been much worse. We acknowledge that this is actually just some people’s entire birth plan–go in, get induced, have a baby, go home. His birth was still vaginal, and I’m used to hearing Covid-related horror stories via my pregnancy app of women and babies being separated due to a positive test result, or a partner not being allowed in the room. But my first two births are experience where I found myself and stepped into my own power. I was struggling to find my purpose (though I wasn’t really aware of it) just before my first was born. Within a few hours of giving birth, it hit me: I could finish writing a novel, as I’d wanted to for years. I could do anything I wanted. I’ve now completed six and have had three published, and I don’t think I could have done that if I hadn’t witnessed the power of my own strength through birth.
Now, sleeping is harder than usual, even with a newborn, because my brain keeps reliving parts of this experience without my permission. Showers, too. It seems whenever I’m alone, I am homesick for who I used to be. But what else is there to do but move forward? What else is there to do but get to know these two new people in my life–myself and my baby? What do you do with a soul-crushing experience that ends with something as heavenly as kissing a newborn’s fuzzy, sweet-smelling head?