Content warning: contains themes of traumatic childbirth and having a baby after infertility
Read part 1 of my birth story to get all the details that lead up to my delivery and how I learned the art of adapting here.
And if you really want to start at square one, you can read all about my pregnancy and my perinatal anxiety here.
As I got set up in the hospital room, my mind was busy trying to reconcile that I was having this baby now. So much changed in three wild days. I was equal parts anxious and defeated. It was a weird feeling to be so amped up and so dulled at the same time.
I called my dad and got a short pep talk. I talked to my grandma and texted my closest friends. It's nice to know people are thinking of you and rooting you on from afar. I guess that's one big part of this story, too: surrendering your worries for others to hold while you live through the hard.
I looked up at the hospital whiteboard and saw that Dr. Garrett was the doctor on shift. She's who politely talked me into staying for monitoring and compassionately checked in on me during my stay, and I was so happy to have her familiar face and presence nearby! Despite our good rapport, I knew it was going to be humbling to see her after I was in complete denial that I needed to get admitted to the hospital three days before. Because she was totally right in the call she made. (I'm smiling from ear to ear right now at how much I'm eating crow at the moment thinking about it. It's okay. Because she's the best.)
The nurse who helped me start laboring was great, explaining everything nice and slowly. The steady pace was imperative for me. My mind was trying desperately to catch up to acceptance while my body was going full-steam ahead into delivering my baby. Going slow and steady allowed me to achieve that acceptance.
Remember: I didn't end up "researching" anything about labor and delivery. So once again, here I was in a situation that I had no idea how to navigate. I just had to trust in my care team. That's a big lesson I learned: admitting to myself that I was in a situation that no matter what I tried, I didn't have the resources or knowledge within me to predict the next steps.
The first couple of hours went really smoothly. My older sister came to hang out with my husband and I for a while, which was a nice reprieve from the heaviness of the whole situation. We had some really funny moments, which helped keep my mind off of things.
Something fun to do after you have your baby is this: if there are any funny moments you remember from your time in the hospital, write them down! If your birth ends up kind of crazy or fuzzy or traumatic even, it's nice to have some of those lighter moments to look back on.
As for my experience, my sister and I reminisced on the time that she was in labor and snapped at me because I was talking too much about Justin Bieber (it was 2014, okay?!). We also talked about basketball teams with the nurse and laughed hysterically when she said that her favorite team was the 69ers...she meant the Philadelphia 76ers. LOL.
Feeling Thankful for...Contractions?!
Dr. Garrett visited, I got meds through an IV, and we started with a foley balloon. Wow - not comfortable, but doable. Eventually I started to feel light contractions.
Let me be clear: there is nothing fun about contractions.
They do not feel good.
I do not enjoy them.
However, in hindsight, there was a small part of me that was actually enjoying labor. I look back on the memories of contractions fondly. Laboring for our first baby was an experience I wasn't sure I'd get to have as we navigated infertility. I was joining the club of getting to say that I know what contractions feel like. That realization had its own weird way of helping me accept the current situation for what it was.
Side note: I 100% was texting clients while I was having active and painful contractions. They had to know maternity leave was starting; I'm committed to them, what can I say?!
Contractions got so bad at one point that I got sick all over myself. I couldn't bend over to use the bag because the foley balloon was limiting my mobility, so I had actual vomit on my gown, on my face, and in my hair. (So gross, but I think it's more common than we realize!) This happened at the height of a contraction. It was the first point during labor that I went into a state of shock.
I couldn't believe the pain I was in. I felt disgusting and had an unbelievable urgency to be cleaned up, but I was frozen like a statue. This is the "freeze" response when your body is facing a traumatic moment: you're extremely alert but completely immobile at the same time. That was me and it was really hard to reel back from for a while. This was ultimate helplessness - getting sick all over yourself repeatedly - and not being able to do a thing about it. I just had to trust the people around me and let them do the job. Let them do the work. And let them take care of me. Fully surrendering.
What saved me was the nurse saying I could get the epidural. What really saved me was that the anesthesiologist was in my room within 5 minutes, around midnight. I was nervous for the epidural but it was another moment of surrendering. Luckily, we hit smooth sailing from there.
For the next four hours I never felt any contractions. I shifted a lot on the peanut ball and (unsuccessfully) tried to get some sleep. There was lots of staring at the monitors and simply thinking, somber processing. I still had about 90% of my normal leg function so that was a pleasant surprise. Feeling like I could be a little more independent and help myself was welcome!
At about 4 AM Dr. Garrett came to check my dilation. I was 5 cm dilated so we decided to break my water. We all kind of had a moment of excitement because she told me that things could progress pretty quickly from there. I wasn’t ready, but I was at the same time.
For the next 30 minutes, the nurse noticed that the baby's heart rate was dropping. We shifted the sensors over and over and over again. We then tried an internal monitor to see if that would help us read her heart rate better. After that wasn't helping, Dr. Garrett decided to do a manual check again to see if she could find the cause of the dropping heart rate.
And that's where everything completely shifted.
This check was particularly uncomfortable. Dr. Garrett was really getting "all up in there", and as she was feeling around, she felt the umbilical cord near the cervical opening. Bingo, she found the answer.
She explained to me that when my water broke, there was such a rush of fluid that it caused the umbilical cord to slip down over the baby's head. This is called a cord prolapse (which she thankfully didn't identify that term for me as it was happening). The baby's head was pressing against the umbilical cord, cutting off her oxygen. Dr. Garrett told us that she was going to try a couple things to fix it but and if that didn’t work that, we would have to go to the OR.
Somehow I still wasn't in panic mode. I was trying to be so positive throughout the whole process that I just continued hoping for the best. About a minute later she told the nurse, "Go wake up Dr. Gray", who was the attending physician that night. It was this exact moment that both my husband and I knew that we were going in for an emergency C-section.
Dr. Garrett put on her same calm and compassionate demeanor that had been so helpful to me in all of our past interactions. She said, "I know this isn’t what you wanted but this is the safest option for you and baby, to get her out now."
Nurses flooded into the room and everything felt intense. Then Dr. Garrett got my attention and said so lightheartedly, "we’re going to get real close and comfortable on this bed together!" For a second I didn’t know what she meant. But as she climbed onto the end of the bed, I realized there was only one way to make sure my baby was going to have a safe and healthy arrival.
Dr. Garrett had her hand and arm completely inside me holding my baby's head away from the umbilical cord so that she could survive this complication. And that's where Dr. Garrett was going to stay until the birth. She was literally holding my baby to safety, as long as she needed to.
And guess what? Dr. Garrett at this point was SEVEN MONTHS PREGNANT. Almost as pregnant as I was. We were two very pregnant women on that bed together. We laughed about it later!
So there I was, completely spread eagle, not covered up - being rushed, and I mean rushed - down the hospital hallway into the OR. It was actual insanity getting into the OR. It's a huge white room with maybe 30 people in there already.
This is the best way I can describe that chaos: imagine that there are 5 NASCAR pit crews but they're all dressed in scrubs. Every single person has a job to do and they are moving QUICK. Every single person. I could tell this was an extremely well-oiled machine despite how much of a shit-show I felt internally.
My mantra at this point: They're the experts, I'll do as I'm told.
Because I had a lot of my leg function still, I was able to mostly hoist myself onto the operating table. Half my attention was on Dr. Garrett explaining the process to me and the other half was on everything getting prepped around me - the drape, my scrub cap, my oxygen mask, etc. She, of course, was still holding my baby's head away from the cord up into my cervix.
My husband suddenly appeared by my side in his scrubs and scrub cap, which was obviously a welcome presence. He was next to my left and the anesthesiologist who did my epidural was to my right. I started feeling the numbing medication in my legs and it was slowly making its way to my abdomen.
We were running out of time and I had to make a huge decision in a matter of less than a minute. The anesthesiologist explained that they were going to press the scalpel to the incision spot to see if my numbing agent set in yet. I was told to let her know if it was still sharp.
Here's how that went:
Me: "It's sharp, I can feel it."
Her: "Okay, we'll wait a few more seconds...(~10 seconds go by)...Can you feel that?"
Me: "Still sharp."
Her: "Okay, we'll try one more time. If it's still sharp it's going to be up to you - we can go ahead and have them start or we can sedate you and you'll wake up when it's over....Can you feel that?"
Me: "I can still feel it."
Her: "Do you want us to go ahead and start or do you want to go to sleep?"
This was not an easy decision. There was a long pause as I weighed my options. The thought of feeling a scalpel cutting into my abdomen was one of the most painful things I could imagine. But the only thing worse, in my opinion, was my husband meeting my daughter for the first time without me.
Me: "Just do it."
Her: "Just do it?"
Me: "Just do it."
Her, calling to the team at the end of the bed: "She says just do it!"
And they say, "Alright, just do it!"
I'd already surrendered to so much, what's one more thing?
Within mere seconds, the medicine started working just in time when that scalpel hit my skin. Relief washed over me.
I have a hard time describing what a c-section feels like, at least an emergent one. It was semi-uncomfortable for them to cut through the first couple layers. However, when they were pulling my stomach muscles apart I was writhing in discomfort. It's a super aggressive pulling, as if your entire torso is full of taut rubber bands being pulled apart. Like someone is moving an immovable and heavy block around your abdomen with nowhere to go.
We hadn't even decided on the baby's middle name yet, but it was at this moment that my husband, stubborn in his ways but usually flexible enough to give me what I want, says, "her middle name can be Kate." My first choice. Victory was mine, even if I was squirming with discomfort.
Then the surgeons started to say things like "we're almost there!" and "we can see her!" The light at the end of the tunnel was so close.
And finally, there she was! Anniston Kate, born at 5:12am at 5 pounds, 4 ounces.
Her first cries made the whole room laugh. The surgeon said it was one of the cutest laughs he'd ever heard. They held her up near the see-through curtain so we could take a quick look at her. We were just kind of whimpering and I remember saying "aww" a lot.
It wasn't that big moment I'd imagined, where I'd get to hold her in my arms while crying tears of joy. I felt a sort of disconnectedness from her, partly from the shock of the last 30 minutes and partly because I wasn't going to feel totally fulfilled until I was able to hold her myself.
We wanted pictures of her but neither of us had our phones (I'm telling you, we had no time to waste!). While she was getting evaluated the anesthesiologist was so kind to let my husband use her phone to take pictures. After he snapped a few, he came back over to me and showed me the pictures, and kept saying, "she's so pretty." *heart = melted*
Dr. Garrett came up to my side at one point and was talking to me about how good I did. She was so sweet but I was so thirsty that I started to feel sick. She helped me through my retching and then disappeared into the hustle and bustle.
That's how my birth story ends, and how the next story of starting our family begins.
The Art of Surrendering
The definition of surrendering is "to cease resistance to something that is beyond your control."
Fighting and preparing for the unknown keeps you in a loop of fear and expectations. Childbirth brings a lot of fear and expectations, so of course we try to prepare as much as we can and to gain control. But, what would happen if you allowed yourself to surrender?
When I found myself in this situation, with no time to plan or prepare, I radically accepted what was happening in the present moment. I surrendered all parts of me to my circumstances, which allowed me to cease the fight and just be.
I truly, with my whole heart, believe that my surrendering to the childbirth process is how I avoided any lasting post-traumatic stress or anxiety.
So when I had to surrender - mentally, physically, and emotionally - here's what I did:
I accepted the circumstances of the present moment. I allowed the process to unfold without resistance. I grounded myself by recognizing my surroundings, the support system I had with me, and focused on feeling safe and cared for.
I intentionally chose to trust my body. I fully accepted the fact that my body knew what it needed to do. It almost felt like a whole other support system I hadn't tapped into yet. I knew my body was on my "team", just as much as my husband and the hospital staff.
I let my surrender facilitate my labor progression. When I surrendered and relaxed into the birthing process, I knew it would help my body progress labor more easily.
I accepted the situation with a both/and approach. I was flip-flopping between "I'm so scared" versus "it'll be okay." Before I surrendered I was trying to decide which one I believed in the most. If I fought the stress, anxiety, and fear I would have been fully engaging in it. I eventually accepted both to be true. "I can be both scared and hopeful that everything will be okay."
I used physical relaxation techniques intentionally - even when I wasn't in pain. I focused on my body's sensations and regulating my breathing. This helped me devote my resources to my physical body and the process of childbirth instead of using it to fight all my inner thoughts. I was continuously regulating my nervous system and bringing it to baseline. I also think it saved my energy reserves, which I eventually used during the chaos of the c-section. Also, staying relaxed also increases your pain tolerance - the more you know!
My Reflection on Surrendering
Surrendering doesn't have to mean you fly by the seat of your pants. It's not being passive or giving up. It's about accepting and embracing the process without control or judgment. Educate yourself on your options, have some birth preferences based on your needs, and work closely with a trusted healthcare provider. Then, allow yourself to be open to what comes next.
At the time, I didn't realize how much surrendering was helping my future self. I felt more present with my daughter once she was born. It would have been so easy for the chaotic birth experience to overshadow my time with her those first few days. Yes, I thought about it, but I wasn't totally consumed. I credit that to surrendering to the unknown. Dropping my expectations and not replacing them with anything.
And through it all, I'm satisfied and at peace with my birth. We all want a perfect birth story (is there such a thing?!) but when it didn't go that way, surrendering empowered me. I was able to manage myself well during the birth as well as postpartum, escaping the common effects of PTSD after births just like the one I had.
Our birth story is just that. Ours.
Every funny moment,
every scary moment,
all the sad thoughts,
all the met and unmet expectations,
every twist and turn,
every accomplishment and victory,
every moment of joy and elation holding my baby.
All of it creates a story that we can look back on with pride and lessons learned about surrendering. Trusting the flow of your life. Laying down your defenses. And allowing yourself to just be.
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Greta Strickland, MS
Licensed Professional Counselor Greta has managed her own private practice in Blue Springs, MO since 2015 providing therapy to women who struggle with anxiety, perfectionism, and all of life's beautiful but complex stressors. When she's not working, you can find Greta watching Big Brother with her husband, singing made up songs to her daughter, and sneaking "people food" to their golden retriever.