This is the birth story of Collective member Jess Helle-Morrissey as told by her mom. Things to watch for that are less common in today’s birthing environment: A mom who was allowed to go into labor on her own at 43 weeks, routine restriction of food and drink, a long first-time labor that was not augmented with pitocin, inability to get out of bed after waters were broken, the use of pudendal and paracervical blocks as anesthetics, routine episiotomy, routine separation of mom and baby, and inability of partner to stay overnight with mom and baby. How might things have been different if a doula had been present?
The due date for my lovely daughter Jess was January 25th, 1978. It was February 13th when some very strong and rhythmical contractions finally began. They were around five minutes apart most the day. I had had a lot of Braxton Hicks contractions throughout the pregnancy and these were quite strong, lasting much longer, so I was pretty sure this was the real deal. Since the contractions started at 6:00 in the morning, I did not eat anything, as we were instructed to do back then. We went to the hospital at around 5:00 p.m. to see how dilated I was, only to be told I was neither dilated nor was I in labor.
We headed straight for a restaurant and had dinner – crab legs! I was famished and tired. I had spent a lot of energy just counting contractions all day. (Actually Jess’s dad counted and timed the contractions all day.) Midway through dinner I experienced my first labor pain, quite notably different from the previous 12 hours! I also noticed I was having some bleeding, much to my concern. We called the hospital and they said not to be too worried about the bleeding, unless it got heavy.
By around 1:00 a.m. the contractions were painful and 5 minutes apart. We went to Methodist Hospital, where I was told I was having back labor and was only at about 3 centimeters dilated. Neither the Lamaze breathing techniques or the tennis balls pressed into my back during contractions were working and it felt as though someone was sticking a knife in my back with each contraction. Jess’s dad was sure the only reason I was not managing the contractions very well was because I had heard a woman who was in the final stages of labor, “screaming,” as we had arrived. I didn’t remember hearing any screams however. The back labor was just really difficult and I was so tired. They eventually broke my water of which there was very little. After the water was broken, I was not permitted to get out of bed.
There was very little continuity with the staff who visited me. It was as though they were rotating, which they actually did with the shift changes. There was one intern who cheerfully told me at about 7:00 a.m. that I had a long way to go! (I wanted to throw my ice chips at her.) We had read books, and taken a class. Things were definitely not going as we had thought they would/should. Jess’s dad was very disappointed and stopped writing in the journal he was encouraged to keep from the class we attended. At some point I was given something to “relax” me, which had no effect. We had intended to have a natural birth. It made me feel as though I had somehow failed because I accepted medication. By around 11:00 a.m. on the 14th they told us I was too exhausted and should consider a pudendal block to numb me. It would be effective for around 45 minutes, allowing me to relax. Having the block was fairly traumatic in itself. I had a contraction while they were sticking a needle into my cervix and I was sternly instructed to “hold still”. (Easy for them to say!)
It worked and I fell asleep. After sleeping for just a short time, Jess turned from posterior to anterior and I relaxed enough to go from 5 to 10 cm. I don’t think I pushed very long and was also given something to numb the cervix – a paracervical block – and an episiotomy. Twelve hours of “false” labor and more than eighteen hours of back labor, our beautiful little girl finally arrived at 1:10pm on February 14, 1978 – Valentine’s Day. She cried and sucked right away and was given a 10 apgar score. (Side note: I nursed Jess until she was 14 months old).
When she came out, the doctor nonchalantly commented that she was a “dirty baby” (because meconium was present) and after she nursed, she was taken right to the nursery as was their routine.
Because of the presence of meconium, our pediatrician was being very cautious. He came in and wanted to know “how the baby sucked” and wondered if I had noticed that her cry was “a little different from the other babies”. This was at 10:00 at night. I called my husband at home (there was only one birthing suite where you could all stay together in those days), and told him what was going on. I was frantic. I finally found a nurse who was quite upset with the doctor for being so blunt. She told me, “There is nothing wrong with your baby. If there was something wrong with her, we would not be able to bring her to you.” She recommended I get a consult from another pediatrician in the morning. This involved me calling both doctors at 10:30 at night. The next morning the consulting physician assured us that Jess was perfectly healthy. When we asked him if he would be our pediatrician, he said he could not. Our doctor was a little put off that we had gotten a consult, and never apologized for his bluntness. We did stay with him however, and he was a good doctor!
I cannot begin to imagine how my first birthing experience would have been affected by the presence of a doula. There were so many unknowns, and no matter how well prepared I thought I was, I would have so benefitted by the steady presence of a doula. To be able to talk to her at any time and to have someone to support and help you advocate for yourself even when you were so exhausted would have been invaluable. So much anxiety could have been alleviated both during labor and after.
My daughter and son-in-law have twin boys who were born a bit prematurely. They ended up having two wonderful doulas present at the labor and births and have many times said how they couldn’t have had the birth experience they had without them. Once the boys came home, they had a postpartum doula who visited them a couple days a week for several weeks. She was a lifesaver! Her calming influence was so important. My daughter is now involved in the rewarding work of being a doula. She loves her work and is totally dedicated to supporting moms and partners through their journey of becoming parents. Could there be anything better?
Editor’s Note: Thanks, mom!