On the warm spring evening of Monday, May 24th, Alex and I were hanging out at home. My belly was getting enormous (and tight as a drum), so we took a few random snapshots, just for fun. Toby’s due date was more than a week away, so we didn’t expect to go into labor anytime soon (let alone in a matter of hours!).
After the show, we were just hanging out in the living room, when I started getting cramps very low down, like menstrual cramps. At that point in my pregnancy, everything was pretty creaky and uncomfy, so I just figured, “Ahh, more aches and pains, nothing new here.” As Alex and I chatted, I moaned softly and told him about the cramps, but I was convinced that it was false labor, since my belly wasn’t tightening, like my birthing books had said it would. Luckily, Alex wisely ignored me and started timing my contractions. They were five minutes apart.
Over the next couple hours, the cramps kept getting stronger, and I went to lie down in the bedroom. I was pretty uncomfortable at this point, and I admitted that there was a small chance I was in labor, but I still doubted it. (What was I thinking? In hindsight, it was so obvious!) A little after midnight, Alex suggested we call the doctor. The doctor said that we might be in early labor, and if the cramps sped up and became stronger, we should come into the hospital. Shortly afterwards, the contractions became three minutes apart…it was game time!
Now that we knew it was (mostly likely) actual labor, Alex and I were out-of-our-minds excited. I couldn’t believe it was really happening and that we would meet our baby soon. Alex grabbed our hospital suitcase, and we headed downstairs to catch a cab. We laughed at how obvious the scene must have looked to passersby: It was 2 in the morning, and a harried guy holding one small suitcase was flagging a cab, while his enormously pregnant wife clutched her belly beside him. What else would we possibly be doing?
(This photo cracks me up.) A cab stopped to pick us up, and I clutched the windowsill and tried to keep my moans to a minimum, so as not to freak out the driver. After a twenty-minute cab ride uptown, we arrived at Weill Cornell Medical Center. We were taken to a triage room, where the doctors decide if you should be admitted. They checked my dilation, and it was only 2 centimeters! You have to be dilated 10 centimeters to deliver a baby, so I had hoped that we’d be further along, but was thrilled to get the official word that we were in labor. Luckily, my contractions were so strong and close together that they admitted us. (The admitting doctor at first contemplated sending us for a walk around the block! Yeah, right!)
We moved into our labor room around 3:30am. The room was big and beautiful, and it felt very peaceful and hushed in the middle of the night. We couldn’t believe we were in the place where we would meet our little baby! It all felt very exciting and surreal. Our nurse, Erika, was really sweet and calming and explained that she’d keep an eye on us, and we could buzz her on a little remote control anytime we needed her.
For the next few hours, my contractions grew stronger and stronger. I tried different labor techniques, including walking around the room with Alex’s support, sitting on the bed, lying on my side, splashing water on my face, and picturing my “happy place” (my grandparents’ seaside village in England). Alex offered to massage my lower back (we’d even brought a tennis ball to help), but I was surprised to find that I didn’t want to be touched at all. We’d also brought calming music, but I wanted complete silence.
Another surprise: I’d expected to feel self-conscious about moaning. Weeks earlier, I had even asked Alex if he would “co-moan” with me (which I’d read about in a book) so that I’d feel less shy. (Since then we’ve laughed about it; it sounded a little ridiculous.) But during labor, I didn’t even remember that. I was just so focused on each contraction that I couldn’t think about anything else. I tried to visualize my body opening up to let the baby move down and found it really helpful.
A third surprise was that I expected labor to feel really long. When I heard that labor can last hours or even days, I figured that it might feel endless. But in the moment, I was so incredibly focused that time passed really quickly. I’d look at the clock, and it would be 4:30am and then I’d glance back up just a few moments later, and it would be 5:30am. The hands of the clock were spinning! It felt almost like a cartoon.
As I labored, Alex brought me glasses of water and told me he loved me, which was so nice to hear and kept me feeling relaxed. I loved having him there. I don’t know how so many women of past generations could labor without their husbands in the room. (Alex’s mom told us that her husband wasn’t even allowed in!) Last fall, when we first found out that we were expecting, Alex half-joked, “I might be a hand-out-cigars-in-the-waiting-room kind of guy,” since he was nervous about being there during labor, but during my pregnancy and delivery, he was totally incredible. He’s naturally very mellow (a true Californian), so he brought such a calm energy to the labor room and made me feel safe and supported.
As the labor progressed, three things helped me more than anything else: Alex fed me ice chips, which were hugely refreshing. He put cold damp paper towels on my forehead and wiped my face during each contraction, which felt wonderful and helped distract me from the intense pressure. Most of all, I responded enormously to his positive encouragement. He’d say things like, “You’re doing a great job; you’re so amazing; I’m so proud of you; our sweet baby boy is coming into the world because of you.” (Those words still make me tear up!) Every time he’d say something buoying, I’d feel a huge new wave of energy. I was amazed at how well positive encouragement helped, and I was so grateful to him.
A few hours later, around 7am, the doctor checked me again. After four hours of contractions, I had dilated only ONE centimeter! And I still had seven more to go. I was a little bummed. The doctor estimated that I’d probably labor all day and deliver sometime later that evening.
Alex and I discussed my getting an epidural and decided it would be a good idea. I got an epidural at 7:30am (which felt like a rush of ice water down my back), and the pain went away almost immediately. I could still feel a bit of pressure during the contractions and felt in control of my body and labor, but there was no pain at all. The following hour was blissful! Alex even took a nap next to me in a chair. He encouraged me to get some sleep, too, but I was too excited and just lay there thinking about Toby.
About an hour later, however, my lower back began to intensely ache. The nurse explained that I was having back labor, which was caused by the baby descending and pressing against my lower back. The doctors explained that although the epidural eases regular contractions, there’s not much they can do for back labor.
As the labor intensified, I slipped into a focused zone. I was essentially feeling the contractions in my lower back. I couldn’t talk other than moaning during contractions. I felt shaky and a little nauseous. (Looking back, I now know I was in transition from active labor to the pushing phase–typically the most difficult part of labor.)
Suddenly, around 11am, I felt a strong urge to go to the bathroom. I buzzed the nurse, and when she arrived, I explained, in all seriousness, “I have to go to the bathroom right away. Would you mind unhooking me from the heart-rate monitor and helping me walk over?” (Looking back, I realize how crazy that must have sounded! I just didn’t think I was far along.)
The nurse explained that it would actually be impossible for me to go to the bathroom, since the baby was blocking everything; she said the sensation was caused by the baby moving down into my pelvis.
“It’s a good sign,” she said. “It means you’re moving closer to delivering the baby.”
“No,” I insisted, “I have to push now. Like really, really have to push. Like, I have this crazy huge urge to push and I just have to do it. Would you mind getting the doctor right away?”
I could tell that the nurse didn’t really believe me, but after some convincing, she called the doctor. When the doctor arrived, she also doubted that I could have dilated so quickly. (After all, they were expecting me to labor all day, and it was only noon.) But when she checked me, her eyes popped.
“Oh, Joanna, you’re fully dilated!” she said. “It’s go time!”
She pulled on a mask and scrub cap and called in her team of nurses and resident doctors. (The doctor who delivered us was a-maz-ing; she was tall and athletic and had the can-do spirit of someone who would climb Everest.)
“Dad, grab a leg!” she told Alex. (Before going into labor, I had demurely planned to ask Alex to stay up by my head, but at that moment, I didn’t care at all.)
The next part was like out of the movies, where you have your legs up and you’re huffing and puffing to push out the baby. It was so, so exciting and intense. I got nervous about the increasing pain, but the doctor said, “When you feel like you need to push, I’ll count to ten, and you push as hard as you can for those ten seconds.”
It was tough and I got a little freaked out by the pain. I would push really hard for about six seconds and then back off. At one point, I even found myself secretly thinking, ‘I don’t really have to deliver this baby; I’ll just stay like this from now on, no big deal.’ But the doctor and nurses and Alex were all cheering for me to push and giving me tons of encouragement. I was pushing and pushing, and at one point, I cried out, “I can’t do it!” The doctor’s awesome response? “Joanna, you CAN do it…you ARE doing it.” Finally, after pushing for about twenty minutes, I thought, ‘OK, Joanna, let’s get this job done.’ So I told myself that instead of being scared of the pain, I would just focus on the doctor’s voice counting to ten, and that’s all I would think about for those ten seconds. So, for the next push, I put the pain out of my mind, and did an enormous push while I focused on her count each of those ten seconds. And, lo and behold, the baby’s head popped out! Everyone gave a hearty cheer, and Alex was just staring wide-eyed. The doctor told me to reach down and feel the baby’s head, which was totally surreal and amazing and gave me another boost of energy.
The doctor instructed me to push when I felt the urge, and I kept pushing as hard as I could, but the next few times, the baby only budged a little bit. Then our doctor said, “You’re so close, Joanna; this baby could be out with the next push.” And I thought to myself, ‘Ok, then, if he can be out, he will be out!’
What happened next was really strange: I heard myself ROAR. I didn’t know I was going to. But I just took a huge breath, squeezed my eyes closed, and put every bit of strength I had into pushing with all my might–and roared like an animal!
And then, whoosh! The baby slithered out like a slippery fish. It was such a funny, unexpected, amazing, thrilling feeling.
So it was at 12:40pm that the doctor placed teeny Toby into my arms. He was purplish-red and wet and crying, and my heart felt like it was going to burst. He felt soft and smooth, and I was weeping and laughing. It was so magical to be cuddling our sweet sweet baby in my arms after nine months. I would have a million babies just for that moment.
After the doctors had left the room, Alex came close to me, and I cuddled Toby in my arms and gave him his first feed. He latched right on to the breast, and it was so cozy and intimate. I felt such overwhelming waves of love, and everything felt perfect and wonderful. The way our bodies work is so amazing; your body grows a baby (a baby!), delivers it and then feeds it with milk. I also have such great newfound respect for all mothers for bringing their babies into the world, and for babies for doing such a great job being alive.
Remembering that day still makes me weepy. Thank you so much for reading our story and being so lovely throughout our pregnancy, as well. It has been such a joy to share everything with you. This week I’ll share a few photos from the rest of our hospital stay, and Alex would love to share his side of the birth story, as well. xoxoxoxoxoxo