Yesterday, Essley Morgan turned four months old. This means that it has taken me four whole months to finally sit down and write out our birth story. At first, I wasn't sure that I wanted to share it, because it was so intense and wonderful and scary and also, in many ways, private. Then I decided that yes, it was all of these things, but it was also beautiful, and I love reading other people's birth stories, and ultimately, I wanted to tell our tale as well. I knew that it was going to have to wait until Robbie had some time off from tour to help with the baby though, because it wasn't going to be one of those posts that I crank out in an hour. So finally, here it is. I also want to add that hundreds of thousands of women give birth everyday, and no matter how emotional (or dramatic) I may be in talking about my experience, the reality is that the reason my story is so special to me is that it's mine. Each one of these women has their own story too - and each one is equally important. I appreciate you wanting to take the time to read ours.
A couple of weeks before my due date, I went in for my routine weekly OB appointment and my blood pressure was dangerously high. Out of nowhere. My ankles, feet, and hands had become swollen almost overnight, and I was feeling a little dizzy. I was immediately sent to the hospital for monitoring. My doctor was worried that I might have Preeclampsia, a serious pregnancy complication that can be fatal (for mom, baby, or both) if left untreated. I was also told that I should probably contact my husband (who was in Mexico for work) and tell him to get on the soonest flight back, as there was a good chance that I would be induced that night. I was terrified and completely thrown off. I'd been labeled a "high risk" pregnancy because I was over 34, but I'd made it to almost full term without any issues. The worst part was the fact that Robbie was in another country, and there was the possiblity of our baby being born without him there. Thankfully, he and his tour manager worked some serious magic, and he was able to be on an airplane within a few hours of my call to him. Even more thankfully, after a whole slew of blood panels and urine samples and other tests, it turned out that it was not Preeclampsia. I was diagnosed with Gestational Hypertention and ordered to strict bed rest. (Side note: Being told that you must adhere to bed rest a week and a half before Christmas when you are a business owner in the midst of your busiest time of year - and are also about to host your entire family for the holiday - may not be the best news when you're trying to improve stress and blood pressure levels!) The doctor on duty at the hospital also recommended that that we schedule induction for that Sunday. Despite all of the other craziness of that day, I think this may have upset me the most of all. I didn't feel ready. I'd only have just hit the 38 week mark on Sunday, and I really wanted to make it to at least 39. For the safety of Essley (and myself) though, I hesitantly agree to make the appointment.
A few days later, I ended up back in the hospital after another check-up (my blood pressure levels weren't getting better), and had all of the same tests repeated. My regular OB, who I love, was on duty this time, and I voiced my concerns about inducing that Sunday. He didn't think we needed to induce so soon and allowed me to cancel the appointment. He did, however, reiterate the need for me to take bed rest seriously, and made an appointment to see him again on Monday. He also prescribed me an at-home blood pressure cuff so I could monitor my BP at home.
The following Monday (two days before Christmas), I went to my OB's office for my appointment. Things hadn't worsened, but they hadn't improved either, and he said that I really shouldn't wait more than a few more days. So that was that. I was officially scheduled to be induced that Thursday, the day after Christmas, at 38 weeks and 5 days. Essley was coming early.
I'll be honest. I was incredibly disappointed. I so badly wanted to feel labor naturally. I wanted the excitement of not knowing when the contractions would begin. I wanted to let Essley come when she was ready, not be forced out of me via medication that would be inserted in my cervix and pumped into my veins. I sent out wishes to the universe, asking for things to start on their own before Thursday. I bounced on my pilates ball. I ate a ridiculous amount of dates. Anything I could do to make this happen on its own, I tried. Unfortunately, it didn't. And at 7 PM on December 26th, Robbie and I checked into the hospital.
After going over my now revised birth plan (which fortunately for us we'd written with the attitude that nothing may go as planned at all!) with the nurses, getting changed into a hospital gown and into bed and hooked up to all of the machines, the process of inducing labor began. A nurse inserted the Cervidil, and I was told that mild cramping would begin within an hour or two. I was only dilated a little over 1 cm, but the hope was that I'd only need this to get full blown labor started, therefore making the need for Pitocin the next morning unnecessary. Robbie and I were both so excited and nervous, but we knew that staying relaxed was crucial. We watched a movie on his iPad, then attempted to get some sleep. Within about 20 minutes of shutting my eyes, the contractions started. They began slowly, but soon felt like intense menstrual cramps that were painful enough to keep me wide awake. I knew that I needed sleep in order to build up strength for labor and pushing, but it just wasn't happening. The nurses were also coming in every half hour to check my blood pressure, which wasn't improving. I was offered a pain pill and some Ambien, but I turned them down. I figured that if I was going to have to have my labor chemically induced, I was going to be as natural as possible with the rest of it. I tried my best to relax, meditate, and do the calming exercises that I'd practiced in birthing class. I also crossed my fingers the entire night in hopes that I'd be more dilated when the nurse came in to remove the Cervidil wick.
Very early the next morning, the wick was removed. I was told that I was still only dilated 1 cm. I couldn't believe it! I felt a little defeated, like I'd spent the night awake in an uncomfortable hospital bed, in pain, for nothing, when I could have been at home in my own bed, preparing my mind and body for labor. Robbie hadn't slept either. We agreed that all we could do was try to stay positive, and vowed to do our best to appreciate the experience, regardless of the challenges. I was really hungry, and because labor hadn't progressed, I was allowed to eat a very light breakfast. I was so grateful for this! After I finished eating, the Pitocin was inserted into my IV. I knew that Pitocin was no joke, and that the truly powerful contractions would likely begin soon, so I asked if I could get up and walk the halls while things were still manageable. I also knew that movement could help get things going. I was given the okay, despite my blood pressure, after some mild begging. Getting to move about and stretch was like heaven for my sore, pregnant body.
Soon my sister and mom arrived, just as the contractions started to intensify. We were told that they expected me to give birth by late afternoon or early evening, so Robbie's mom and dad, who were in town for the birth, came to the hospital as well. Being surrounded by loved ones during labor is equal parts wonderful and overwhelming. There were all of these people in my room, who love us and were doing their best to help. There was also a constant flow of nurses coming to check my blood pressure and vitals, change my IVs, inject more Pitocin, etc. My head was in a perpetual state of wanting everyone to stay with me and really needing some breathing room. And in between the consistent poking and prodding were rushes of progressively painful contractions. I have been 'blessed' with pretty agonizing menstrual cramps since my very first period, so I was sure I could handle labor contractions. In reality though, nothing can prepare you for that level of pain - a pain that encompasses every inch of your body, takes your breath away, and leaves you fragile and powerless. I was grateful for the breaks in between them, but the gradually increasing waves of extreme cramping were like nothing else.
Throughout the course of my labor, my only relief was the birthing ball and a contraption that my sister Morgan had made by placing three tennis balls in a sock. Whenever a new wave of contractions started, she was there, rubbing it up and down my back. I need to pause and talk about Morgan for a minute, by the way. My little sister was my MVP through this experience. Seriously. Although she isn't sure she wants children herself, she is obsessed with the concept of childbirth and would probably be an OB if she wasn't a teacher. She was so informed and educated about the entire process - even more than I was - and acted as my doula throughout the labor (and after I gave birth as well). I honestly don't know how I would have done it without her.
Robbie was amazing too. He rubbed my feet, over and over again. He brought me vegetable broth on command (when you feel famished but are not allowed to consume anything but liquids, a styrofoam cup full of microwaved water and powdered vegetables might just be the most delectable thing you'll ever taste). He held me and comforted me for hours upon hours. He told me that I amazed him, and that he was in awe at my strength, and that I was giving him the greatest gift.
Truthfully, everyone, including the nurses, was encouraging and supportive. For that, I'll always be grateful.
Afternoon arrived and I was only slightly more dilated, so my OB had to come in to break my water. This was slightly thrilling for me, because I'd heard from friends who had their water broken that it really sped up the process. I was crippled with exhaustion and the contractions were to the point where involuntary crying episodes started to accompany them, but I was still determined to do this without an epidural or pain medication. Having your water broken is the craziest sensation. It was bizarre, like a warm water balloon breaking inside you. It did help though, and the contractions really began to increase in duration and frequency.
By evening, I was delirious. My body felt lifeless and my brain was clouded. I do have one very clear memory of this time though. I was bouncing on the birthing ball, and I sneezed, and a huge gush of my remaining water came bursting out all over the ball and the floor in front of everyone in the room. It was such an awkward moment that I fell into a fit of nervous laughter and couldn't stop. It was actually really nice to be able to laugh like that for a few minutes - it was a great distraction, and a reminder that things could still be lighthearted despite how serious they felt at the time.
Soon after my moment of comedic relief, reality really set in. And I started to panic. I was in an indescribable place now - a foggy, sleep-deprived, emotionally draining abyss of confusion and misery and doubt. Suddenly it hit me that there was no escape, and I felt paralyzed by fear. This had been going on far longer than any of my friends' labors. It was completely different than I'd anticipated. It was so much longer, and so much more difficult, and there was no end in sight. The pain was more unbearable with each passing moment, and I couldn't get out of it. It was only going to get harder, while I got weaker, and unlike anything else, there was no stopping it or even taking a break. I remember saying out loud, "I can't do this anymore. I want to go home. Please. I can't do this." My family tried to comfort me, but I couldn't see beyond the panic. Eventually, my husband gently held onto my shoulders and looked me sharply in the eye, and promised me that it would be over, and at the end would be our baby girl. Eye on the prize, Melissa. Eye on the prize. I had no choice. I had to persevere.
Now it was nighttime again. Night number two of labor, and still no baby. Robbie's dad had left and it was just our moms and my sister there with us. As determined as I was, part of me still felt hopeless. I was only dilated to 2 cm now, and the pain was excruciating. I felt so beat up, and all of the excitement and bliss of birthing my little girl had been replaced with uncertainty. I'd been working so hard and I just wasn't progressing. I starting overhearing the phrase "emergency C-section" from the nurses. And although I was okay with that if it was the only way (I had to get this baby out!), it brought about a whole new set of fears. Then, in the midst of yet another moment of feeling like I couldn't go on, a nurse named Carolyn came on duty, and I'm pretty sure she was my guardian angel. I'd seen a good dozen nurses by this point, but this one in particular was so kind and gentle and patient. Carolyn told me that Essley and I would be okay, no matter how we had to get her out. She held my hand through my contractions and told me what an impressive job I was doing, and that she was so proud of me, and that I was so strong. She made me feel safe, but also reminded me that I was a tough, independent, bad ass woman who was rocking this freaking labor. It was exactly what I needed.
At 11 PM, after 25 hours of labor, I started to violently shake. Then I vomited everywhere. My angel nurse had been very supportive about me not getting the epidural, but at this point, she gently suggested that maybe I consider it. Apparently, my body was dangerously close to going into shock, and there were instances where epidurals had helped womens' cervixes relax enough to dilate fairly quickly. I initially refused, but then a contraction so intense that it caused me to let out the one and only scream of my labor changed my mind. Also, if getting the epidural might prevent the emergency C-section (that I later learned had already been scheduled for 6 the following morning, just in case), then it was worth giving it a chance. 26 hours after labor began, I got the epidural. And it was, without a doubt, the biggest physical relief I've ever felt in my life.
Getting the epidural that I so resisted ended up being the best decision I could have possibly made. I finally felt like I could sleep (after being awake for nearly 40 hours), so we sent the moms and my sister home for the night. It had also helped me dilate - I was now at a 3 (7 cm to go!). Robbie and I both drifted in and out. They still had to monitor my blood pressure every 30 minutes, and although they were infinitely less intense, I could still feel the contractions. I told Essley that mommy was really, really ready to meet her. Then, a little before 2:30 AM, the nurse checked my cervix, and I was a 6! What? I couldn't believe it - the epidural had actually worked in relaxing me enough to really dilate! Robbie got up and got dressed. I remember asking him, in a haze, why he was getting up for the day. I was legitimately confused. After all, it had taken almost 29 hours to go from a 1 to a 6, and I assumed we still had a long way to go. I was wrong. Less than half an hour later, I was at a 9. Robbie called our moms and my sister, the nurses called the doctor, and we prepared to welcome Essley into the world.
At 3 AM, I was at a 10, and it was time to push. I could only have two people in the room, so my sister stood at my left side and Robbie at my right, while our moms waited outside in the hall. I'm not going to lie. Pushing out this babe wasn't glamorous. I puked. I pooped. I shook so hard I almost fell off the bed. But after nearly 30 hours of labor, I can sincerely say that pushing was a piece of cake. I also gave it everything I had you guys. I mean, there was no complaining at this point, and no being a wimp. I was a machine. Essley's heart rate did start to drop which caused a brief scare, but they popped an oxygen mask on my face, and I kept at it. Her little head, covered with hair, began to appear. What a strange feeling that is - seeing for the first time that your baby is real. No ultrasound can prepare you for that first glimpse of the little human who lived inside of you for almost ten months. It's pretty surreal.
Funny side story: My husband, who is the calmest, most laid back person I've ever met, and who so successfully convinced me during labor that we had nothing to worry about, started to pass out right as the baby crowned. Some serious sleep deprivation combined with the reality of this setting in combined with a fear that something could go wrong - after watching so many of our friends' babies end up in the NICU over the past year - and he started to go down. Thankfully a little grape juice saved the day and he was back in action after a couple of minutes.
I only had to push for 40 minutes, which after the endless, grueling course of labor felt like absolutely nothing. And at the end of those 40 minutes, a sudden burst of energy appeared out of thin air like a shot of adrenaline, and I gave the push to end all pushes - which was followed immediately by a sweet, high-pitched cry. Our baby girl was here. SHE WAS HERE! Essley Morgan Williams was born at 3:42 AM on December 28th, 2013. She was 8 pounds 1 ounce, and 21 inches long. She was covered in stuff and swollen and purple and had a cone-shaped head and was all sorts of funny looking, but somehow, to this new mom, she was the epitome of pure beauty. This was love.
I don't remember many details after this. I do remember them placing her on my chest, and helping me to get her to nurse. I remember her tiny, wet hand clenching my finger. I remember my sister and husband both crying, although I don't think I did. I was too busy staring at my little girl, unable to look away. I'm not going to sugarcoat things - I was terrified. For months, I had pictured this moment, certain that I'd be thinking "this is the most perfect, miraculous thing ever and all is right with the world." Truthfully, it was more like "holy shit, I have to keep this little creature alive and I have no idea what I'm doing." But I also felt like suddenly everything made sense. It was almost like there had been a void of which I was never completely conscious, and now that void was gone, and things were complete.
Within an hour, we were moved into the recovery room. Sometime after this, the tears started for me. I never really wept, but I do remember tears just streaming down my cheeks, because I was so incredibly relieved that Essley was finally here, and she was healthy (aside from a little jaundice that was easily corrected), and I was healthy, and the most physically agonizing experience of my life was over. Now the real adventure could begin.
When you're expecting your first child, you're told by pretty much everyone that you're never going to sleep again, that your life will completely change, that you'll spend ridiculous amounts of money, that you'll have to sacrifice so much... You're also told that you're about to experience a love like nothing else - something that is so powerful, it seems impossible. Well, it's all true, to a degree. I'm always tired now. Everything really has changed. Babies aren't cheap. My needs no longer come first. But all of those things are overshadowed by the pure, almost indescribable love you feel for your child. It is a love so potent and mighty that you feel completely overcome and the rest of the world disappears. My labor and birthing experience wasn't one of fairytales. It was really, really hard. It was the hardest thing I've ever done in my entire life. But I'd do it again in a second for this kind of love. In a second.
Essley, you are my universe. Thank you so much for making my life infinitely more awesome. Every contraction, every scare, every ounce of pain was beyond worth it, because in the end, there was you. My greatest love.
And that's that. The day Essley was born was the best day of my life, and it keeps getting better. Thank you for letting me share our story with you. If any of you have birth stories you've posted, please leave a link in the comments. I'd love to read them.