My water broke in a gushing flood. I understood then what women meant when they said it felt like peeing. I looked down, expecting to see water pooling on the tile floor. What I saw instead was blood.
That moment woke me, brought me back to physical reality. I thought about what the blood could mean. I wondered briefly if I was dying.
I got caught up in the details, then. I called the hospital, while my sister ran for towels and a dress we could fit over my head. My grief was swallowed up in movement and the placement of trash bags on the passenger seat.
We drove to the hospital, through traffic that was unusual for eight o’clock at night. I clutched a makeshift diaper of towels, feeling the loss of more fluid with every turn.My sister pulled up to the curb, in haunting parallel to our appointment that morning. Someone on the sidewalk brought a wheelchair and asked if he could pray for me. He held my hands. My mind hovered over us. It still wasn’t real.
Early & Active Labor
Upstairs, I met my nurse for the evening, a sweet and well-organized woman who asked for my birth plan. She discussed the protocol the hospital uses for stillbirth deliveries — my choice of pain medication, unlimited food and liquid, and a personal nurse on every shift.
The doctor followed. He confirmed I was in labor. He had wanted to perform an amniocentesis, but I had lost so much fluid they weren’t able to position the needle. The nurse took more blood and put a saline lock above my wrist, but did not yet connect any fluids. When I told her I wanted to labor naturally as long as possible, she brought me a birthing ball and mentioned that the shower was available in my restroom.
Beth* had returned with my original doula, and together they set up soothing music and an aromatherapy diffuser. When I was originally planning for birth, I had requested “massage”-type music — the wordless, instrumental filler that facilitates relaxation. I had also requested specific scents. It felt both weird and also comforting that these things were still going according to plan.
For the first few hours, I rocked on the birthing ball, starting to feel the contractions in my belly and lower back. They weren’t painful at first, just present. I breathed into them the way I was taught. My sister and my doulas took turns talking, idle chatter to fill the void. If I could shut off the screaming part of my brain, I could almost pretend it was ordinary.
Although I was in natural labor, I wasn’t progressing quickly, and by midnight, I had only dilated 2 1/2 cm. I knew because my water had broken, there were increased risks of infection; long labors can be dangerous in these cases. After discussion, I accepted assistance via IV Pitocin.
Afterwards, my contractions became stronger, and also more irregular. I clung to my Bradley training, first breathing, and then moaning through them. My doulas took turns rubbing my back and my feet, and continued talking to me. I was physically present, but mentally gone, my consciousness living mostly in my physical body.
When I entered Transition, I started to feel the vibrations of the contractions in the bones of my pelvis. They were still irregular, coming in intervals of 2-5 minutes. I also felt nauseated. I think under different circumstances I would have continued to work through the pain, but in the early hours of the morning, I decided it was too much. I asked for the epidural.
The anesthesiologist worked calmly but quickly, allowing me to moan through each contraction before she continued. Afterwards, she tested the efficacy, and seemed satisfied that the pain was beginning to dull. I had requested a lower dose than usual, but the relief was very welcome. I slept for about an hour.
With the lower dose, I appreciated being able to feel each contraction, but without the intense sensations I felt at the start of Transition. We passed the morning in conversation, my doulas playing music and rubbing my feet, and my sister telling stories from our childhoods. By 11am, I was fully dilated and ready to push.
The doctor on duty talked me through pushing for a few contractions, with little progress. Despite the sleep that morning, I was feeling a little loopy and also feverish. The doctor left and I asked if the midwife was available. She wasn’t scheduled until 2pm, but I think she may have come in early for me.
I pushed for four hours. We tried multiple positions and techniques, but the greatest progress came when I realized what it meant to push. That was also when I was most tired. At one point, I tried to roll onto my side to relieve the pressure on my back and hips, but the movement ignited a fire in my old pubic bone injury. I believe that was the only time I screamed.
Towards the end, the nausea returned. I asked for Sprite, sipped out of a straw between contractions. I also experienced intense hot flashes, struggling to hold my upper body still enough to keep the multiple ice packs in place. I felt like I was burning from within.
With each contraction, I put my legs into the air, knees bent. If I faltered, hands were there, holding me steady, wiping my brow. I never felt like I was alone.
When I thought I was spent, the midwife told me to keep going. I could feel my son’s head in my pelvis, an unbearable ache. I pushed a fifth time through that contraction and heard her say his head was free. I pushed again, contractionless, and his body followed.
I lay back, exhausted. She had warned me, but I ached to hear him cry. It was the loudest silence I’d ever heard.
She took him away to be cleaned with soft blankets, careful not to tear his tender skin, then she returned to me. Something was wrong.
I came back to myself and heard the midwife asking for the anesthesiologist. She said I needed drugs — a lot — and now. I didn’t understand the whirlwind around me. I still don’t know what caused her to worry, but the anesthesiologist did not arrive in time. The midwife reached inside of me and pulled, releasing the last of my placenta and removing it. It wasn’t an easy process, and I begged her repeatedly to stop. In many ways, it was worse than the birth.
Afterwards, she apologized. I wonder now if I was hemorrhaging? I wonder now if she saved my life? We never talked about it again. I still don’t know.
She pushed on my belly to expel more fluid and added antibiotics to my saline drip. I think I slept briefly.
After the Birth
The midwife returned to my side. I opened my eyes and saw my son. He was wrapped in a white knit blanket with a matching cap. I unwrapped the bundle, exploring his newborn skin. He was so recently dead. He looked like he was sleeping. It was the first moment I knew that “he” was a he.
The photographer had come in after the birth, had set up unobtrusively for photos. She captured these first moments, my explorations and his perfect nose. She captured everything.
After the first photos, the nurses dressed him in his first real clothes. The two newborn outfits I had brought were both too small for him, but they cut a slit up the back of a onesie and put it on him anyway.
I spent the next 24 hours with my son. I think that before his death, I would have thought this strange. I don’t think it’s at all possible to understand the importance of those first moments until you have lived them. He was beautiful. He was perfect. Even in death, he was still my everything.
I sat with my son, holding and singing to him, telling him stories. He still looked so much like a living child, fast asleep.
Before I left the hospital, I asked if I could leave him in his clothes. I couldn’t stand the thought of leaving him naked. It wasn’t standard, but they let me do it. The nurses and staff were truly amazing.When it was time to leave, I placed him back in the bassinet, kissed his forehead, and told him if he was still present, that he could go. I promised him I would be okay. I don’t know if I will ever be okay.
* Names have been changed to protect privacy.